It is said that after taking leave of his palace, Buddha spent many years on the road, following numerous practices, both as individual and as member of various groups. Disappointed with his efforts to awaken from his suffering, he simply sat beneath a tree and vowed to remain there until he attained enlightenment. But how? Then he remembered one day as a child, bored at a palace festival, he sat down under a tree and found paying curious attention to his own breathing more involving than what went on around him.
He never repeated the experience, but he never forgot it. Frustrated by his fruitless search, out of curiosity, he repeated that long ago childhood experiment. And the act of attending to his own breathing, surprisingly, as he continued sitting for several days, became the means to Nirvana. . .And so he recommended it to others and its practice was the foundation of all his teaching.
Yes, learning, or rather unlearning, how we breathe is perhaps the most important treatment we can provide for ourselves, whether physically ill or not. Why? Obviously, all mammals are born breathing. And how? The diaphragm is a muscle beneath our lungs and when it expands our lungs expand, as well. The air pressure in our lungs is therefore lower than the air outside. To equalize the pressure air enters our nostril or mouth, without any effort or work on our part.
When the diaphragm then contracts, our lungs become smaller, the air pressure increases in the smaller volume, and we exhale to equalize the pressure. Diaphragmatic breathing is the breathing we are all born with because physically it is the most efficient. It requires little effort and provides more oxygen. All benefit, no cost.
Perhaps such effortlessness required to simply be is the sound of one hand clapping or the face of our mother before we are born? Buddha sat and Buddha breathed. Less of learning, more of unlearning. We never see great singers pulling their bellies in and raising their shoulders to draw in more air. They all use their diaphragmatic muscles, some in very sophisticated ways, as Pavarotti spoke of what he learned from the great soprano, Joan Sutherland to maximize the volume of air with which to sing and to minimize the energy required to do so.
When most of us were children, however, the way we breathe changed. Perhaps we were exposed to atmospheres of anger or fear and we pulled our breath in. Macho and sexy postures emphasize thin or flat waists. We gradually learn to stand “At-tension,” stomach in, chest out. We take smaller, higher breaths–the breathing of anxiety. We say we breathe through our mouths or noses, rather than in the “hara,” the Japanese word for the point a hair’s width below the navel.
When we breathe diaphragmatically , on the other hand, we are more easily calm, peaceful, relaxed. Is it possible when Jesus says to turn the other cheek he speaks less of being hit on the other side of the head, but of a movement of consciousness built on a foundation of right breathing, from threat based reaction to slower, more conscious choice?
For diaphragmatic breathing is the breathing of meditation and mindfulness. And certainly there is little doubt that the word respiration shares roots with the word for spirit, the divine breath that gave life to Adam. In fact, some commentators suggest that the correct translation from Aramaic of the words Holy Spirit are holy breath.
Diaphragmatic breathing is of enormous help to me and others with chronic illness. By paying attention to the calming breath it is possible to not only endure, but lessen discomfort, pain, and worry. It draws attention from monkey mind running around in our skulls downward to slow and sure stepping elephant mind. And I remember the moment when many years ago, similarly beneath a tree, when mindful breathing gave me a gift, not Buddha’s for sure, but my own, small and precious, and it is with me still.