In the vipassana meditation tradition we are taught to focus on the breath. Why? Aren’t there more interesting things to focus on? Certainly there can be. Take listening, for example.
Yesterday in class we sat outside in the cool morning air and did a listening meditation, as if it were a symphony. There were many distinct sounds: sawing, hammering, traffic noises, bird calls and more. Each was like musical instrument playing its part. It was a magnificent symphony.
A listening meditation is lovely when there is rain. It’s also good for in a public space, like at the gate waiting for a flight at the airport. I remember in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq war, sitting with other meditators organized by the Buddhist Peace Fellowship as all the peace marchers assembled at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco. What a listening meditation that was! The sound of voices over a microphone rallying the troops, the conversations of nearby marchers getting together, the rustling and footsteps that passed by around us. When the march began we rose to take our part, feeling focused and united in purpose. We were the peace we wanted to see in the world.
Even sitting inside in a quiet room there will be sounds to listen to: the heater, the refrigerator, someone clearing their throat or coughing, some rustling perhaps, a cell phone going off (oops!), and allowing the sounds to be a symphony rather than an annoyance is skillful.
In my poetry classroom at College of Marin, we have a wall of glass facing a busy street near a fire station. Last week during the four-day annual poetry intensive, I found myself coming into relationship with that sound and here’s a poem I wrote.
What if the siren
echoing down the street
the classroom window
is the red blur of God,
the tender wail of wanting
all beings to be well?
So listening can be a very powerful meditation when sound is the most dominant sensation you notice. And that’s the key word, ‘dominant’. We pay attention to all the senses as we begin our practice, and we might ask ‘What is the dominant sensation in this moment?’
Sometimes the most dominant sensation might be a pain in the body. If we spend time with that sensation we can notice a ‘symphony’ of more subtle sensations. We see that what we have been labeling ‘pain’ is not one solid experience but an ever-changing arising and falling away of a whole series of sensations, each one tolerable and even kind of interesting. This is not to make light of pain. I deal with chronic pain a lot in my life and at times it can feel overwhelming. But it has helped to recognize that much of the agony has to do with how I get lost in thoughts about the pain rather than really paying attention to the micro-sensations that compose it, how they arise and fall away, get stronger and softer, appear and disappear.
But generally, for most of us most of the time, as things settle down at the beginning of our practice, aches and pains are not dominant. If they are present, we sense that there are also other sensations going on in the field of our experience that are pleasant or neutral. We don’t replace one with the other, but we just notice the full range of sensation within our field of experience.
And then, if things are relatively quiet and other sensations are reasonably mild, as we pay attention, we begin to notice, even if we haven’t been directed to, that the breath is the most dominant experience. And, not only is it dominant, it is ever present. It is the most reliable sensation we have. As long as we are alive, we have breath to focus on. The rhythm, pace and depth may change but the breath carries on. Dependable. And potentially very interesting. A perfect focus. Vipassana: Awareness of the breath.
Many people come to vipassana practice from other traditions, and I encourage them to experiment with focusing on the breath, but to also feel free to use whatever skillful means they have in their meditation ‘toolbox’ to bring themselves fully into the present moment.
I came to vipassana meditation over twenty years ago after many years of other forms. I found focusing on the breath a challenge in part because my mother died of emphysema and her last years were a painful struggle for breath, so focusing on my breath brought up my grief. It took me nine years to have the aha! moment when I realized that MY lungs were healthy. MY breath was fine.
But even though it became easier, it still didn’t always feel compelling, and sometimes it felt dull, even boring. But I stayed with it because I know that ‘boring’ is just a label I was putting on it, that in fact it was a rich experience when I really paid attention. And now, all these many years later, I am having a new relationship with the breath, one that recognizes that as long as I am alive my breath is my constant companion, my most intimate, reliable and supportive friend.
And so I have been writing odes and love poems to my breath! Here are some examples.
My Heretofore Unnamed Friend
All these years
it never crossed my mind,
until now, to befriend my
Oh, what oversight!
So now, with gratitude
and deep appreciation,
I name this breath
my dearest friend.
The breath is like a lifesaver
floating on the swells
of thought and emotion.
I rest there, gently rising and falling.
When I find myself swallowed up
and sucked down into the depths,
surfacing into that circle of breath
is both relief and rejoicing.
No Name Breath
each unnamed note
of earth’s symphony…
bird song, car door, heart beat.
infusion of light
dissolving cherished reference points
that heretofore defined me.
this, this and only this
the ever present.
Rescue at the Well
In a moment of dread
the unwelcome upheaval:
catch in the throat
I make my way to the middle
and stand by the well
where steady pumps
the influx the outflow
I attend the constant motion
of my most reliable friend
and in this abiding
monstrous mutiny melts.
All poems by Stephanie Noble copyright 2016
So I encourage you to investigate your own practice with whatever is the most dominant sensation at the time. And befriend the breath! If you are religious, recognize all the spiritual words (even the word ‘spiritual’) assocatiated with breath. If you are more scientifically inclined, then the focus on the physical process that keeps your body alive and connected to all life is a wonderful place to ground your practice. Explore and enjoy!
Oh, this was so powerful for me, as I, too, have a mother battling emphysema. I recently made the connection between my bouts of “anxiety/panic” breathing with my empathy around and connection to her illness. Thanks, Stef, for sharing this difficult experience with us. I also really love your poetry. Namaste.
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Thank you! I am sorry to hear your mother has emphysema. My brother is also dealing with it and there is such sadness in seeing the patterns repeat, and seeing his abilities diminish. But I also take heart in the teachings of the Buddha, that illness, aging and dying are messengers that have the power to awaken us. And then a little voice in me says ‘All very nice I’m sure, but it really sucks!’ Yup. That too. Thanks again, Molly.