On retreat at Spirit Rock in the dark of an autumn morning, I woke to the ring of the bell being dinged again and again as it was carried through the dormitory hall. The sound waves traveled through my door and into my ears. Time to get up!
Nooo! The air under my blanket was so warm and cozy and the air in the room was cool. A light breeze drifted in from the window. Brrr. I rolled over, snuggled down to return to dreaming. But then, I remembered why I was there, and so I rose.
On the walk to the meditation hall, the cool air on my face woke me up. The moisture in the air gave the moon a soft halo in the dark sky. The last sonorous gong of the large bell outside the hall rung through the silence as I opened the door. Inside the entry hall, there were the muffled sounds of retreatants removing outerwear and placing our jackets on hooks and shoes in cubbies. No voices. A silent retreat. Inside the meditation hall, I found my spot, settled down onto the zabuton, adjusted the little bench under my seat, and wrapped my waiting shawl around me. Ahh, a cozy cocoon. I settled in. The teacher rang the bell bowl. My attention followed the sound waves as they traveled through the air, growing softer and softer until there was silence, and my attention turned to the rising and falling of my breath.
Air! The fourth in our series on the Elements. It is less substantial than the earth, water, and fire elements, as it is mostly invisible. The air surrounding us is seen only when it interacts with other elements, like the earth element when it blows leaves or a kite in a dance across the sky, fills sails to propel a boat across the water, or gives birds and airplanes lift. We also see air when it holds the water element as clouds, when the fire element turns it into smoke, or when water and fire elements combine with air to create colorful sunrises and sunsets.
So we mostly only see the effects of air, not air itself. But it is vital for some other human senses. Because of the air, we can hear clearly as it is so efficient at carrying sound waves that vibrate inside our ears. And because of air, we can smell, as odors waft on air currents, giving us a wide range of pleasant and unpleasant experiences. The air element oxygen fuels fire but air also carries the smell of smoke to alert us to its presence. For some other animals that sense of smell is more refined and even more important for survival. So, invisible as air may be, the senses of smell and hearing both depend on it!
Not that it’s a competition between the elements. Each one is vital to life. But clearly, air is the element we would miss immediately if it were gone. We might last a number of days without water, a number of weeks without food, but the length of time we can live without air is measured in minutes. Painful struggling minutes.
Air is the element we most often identify with meditation. The breath. This is not just a tradition, it is practical. As long as we are alive the breath is present. As long as we have no health concerns about the lungs that might trigger thoughts and emotions, we simply follow its natural movement in and out, noticing all the subtle changes the breath makes all the time.
This is different from the Hindu pranayama practices with special ways to breathe for specific benefits. Because yoga is so widely taught, the idea that there is a right kind of breath is pervasive in our culture, even for those who have never been trained in it. People may, for example, judge themselves as ‘a shallow breather’. Labeling ourselves creates more knots in our various veils of identity, blocking us from being fully present to experience life as it is. Not helpful!
But in this tradition (Vipassana), the breath is just the breath. The naturally occurring variations of the patterns of the breath offer us a reliable place to rest our attention, and because the breath changes all the time, we are reminded of the impermanent nature of all life, including this body.
Following the breath with full attention, we also might wonder at what point is the air coming inside the nose and lungs ‘me’, and at what point does it become ‘other’? That gentle inquiry leads to the recognition that the boundaries we perceive as solid are in fact quite permeable, and to the understanding of the intrinsic interconnection of all life systems.
Simply following the breath can activate profound awakening. But any expectation of awakening hampers the possibility of experiencing it. So, let go of hope! Desire! Planning! Goal-setting! These are not the tools that will serve you here. Instead, set a simple intention to be present and compassionate with yourself. With wise effort, cultivate a relaxed but alert concentration practice, noting the breath in all its variations. Witness how the breath breathes you.
With that lead-in, I offer you this guided meditation and exploration of the Air Element.
I hope you took a few minutes for yourself to experience the guided meditation. Students in class found it transformative. In fact, each of the elements we have been exploring has offered fresh perspectives and a deeper understanding of who we are and how we can be in skillful relationship with life in all its manifestations.
As I mentioned at the start of this Elements series, this is part of a traditional Buddhist practice, usually taught on retreat, all the elements together. I have been offering one each week, and it continues to be a rich experience.
If you are interested in reading more about the breath, I recommend the book Breath by Breath, the Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg, Shambala Classics.
And finally, as I have done with each of the elements, I offer two of my poems on the Air Element.
roam the world
lets me be
here and now.
each note of
the warmth of
– Stephanie Noble