Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Breathe

I had a very interesting insight today. This is about one of the spiritual teachings I have been trying to understand lately: to live in the present.

At first sight, it seems rather trivial and obvious, and I was even slightly complacent and dismissive of the idea, because it sounded banal and not at all profound. After all, we can only do something in the present, not in the past or in the future. But on analyzing it further, I felt that both the ideas here are not trivial: "to live" and "present".

To live covers the sum total of our voluntary and involuntary experience that includes not just our actions, but thoughts, feelings and perhaps even consciousness.
The present might just be an infintesimal span of time, but it is all we have right now.

Most of us go wrong right here, where our actions are in the present, but our thoughts and feelings are firmly attached to either the past or the future.

This leads me to a related concept that I have been trying to understand: witnessing your thoughts without dwelling in them or getting attached to them. A simple test to see if you are getting attached to a thought is to see if your mind spends enough time on it to spin a story around it. I found it intriguing that apparently for many of us, a majority of our thoughts everyday are actual very repetitive. The same thoughts and patterns fixated about our fears, dreams, goals, anxieties, confusions rehashed and revisited endlessly. Its almost as if they were firmly anchored to our psyche, and while they might drift in and out of sight briefly , they dont go away very long but keep returning to us in waves. And every time they return, they continue to drain our mind's focus and energy away from more constructive uses that need attention in the present moment.

As Pascal said, all of human misery derives from man's inability to sit alone and quiet in a room. This is essentially because we have such little control on our thoughts. And in many cases, it is our thoughts that actually overcome and control us, to the extent that we have to remind ourselves that we are not our thoughts. We are more than that.

So, how do we calm the mind and release it from the clutches of this constant bombardment of thoughts?

Just breathe.

The "prana" or lifeforce that we inhale and exhale every moment is a fantastic self-healing medicine. All life is sustained by breath, so to live is to breathe. Of course, we cannot breathe in the past or the future, but only in the present. So, when we want to control our thoughts and bring our focus to the present, we can hardly do better than by paying attention to our breathing.

When we breathe, we inhale a lungful of air from the expanse outside, absorb some oxygen in to our body, and exhale rest of the air (carbon dioxide) out of our body. There is a great analogy here with time. In tandem with every inhale, a brief quantum of time from the expanse of the future becomes our present, and with each exhale it goes out in to the past. Just like the body only needs the oxygen, we must only be in the present. It is ironic we breathe so effortlessly, that it takes an effort to notice this effortlessness.

Our breath does not attach itself to the air that goes in and comes out - it cannot. If we try to close our nostrils and hold on to the air inside, it can only be for so long before we suffocate, and let go in one burst. Importantly, as we breathe, we can learn to observe the future unfolding into the present which in a moment becomes part of the past.

Likewise with our thoughts. Thoughts enter our mind from the vast expanse of imagination, and our awareness absorbs the positive thoughts and rejects negative thoughts out of our mind. But we dearly hold on to these negative thoughts, until we suffocate in our minds, and sadly, we keep doing this over and over again. If we were to combine the analogies, what we end up doing, in fact, is something like inhaling the same exhaled carbon dioxide that repeatedly causes the mind terrible anguish, without even allowing the freshness of the future in.

We have all we need to fight this disease. Just breathe. And now, in this way,with every breath in every moment, we can begin to watch the thought come in and go away, without getting attached to it.

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