Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Earth Breath

Yesterday morning I came across this lovely passage in Claire Cummings’ book, "Uncertain Peril, Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds":

“As the earth wobbles on its axis, the oceans ebb and flow and the seasons change. Early climate studies revealed that this causes an annual cycling of carbon dioxide from summer to winter. In the spring, as plants and other photosynthetic organisms grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Then in the fall and winter, as they die and decay and are eaten by other organisms, they release it. As Fred Pearce ["With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change"] so eloquently put it, ‘The earth, in effect, breathes in and out once a year.’” (Cummings, 126)

What Cummings and Pearce refer to is the notion that Gaia, the name many use to personify our planet, actually breathes—on a slower scale than we do, to be sure, but breathes nonetheless.

The notion struck me both for its beauty, and for its resonance with some recent personal thoughts and experiences re: breathing. To begin with, Buddhism, like many other eastern spiritual traditions, focuses a great deal of energy and attention on the breath. The Buddha no doubt derived this from the Indian concept of “prana,” which refers to the breath, and breathing, as the pillar upon which all else depends. It is due to this centrality of prana that yoga practitioners often do specific breathing exercises, and work to harmonize and control breath during their maneuvers. Just one random website on prana yoga describes it thus: “Prana is simply life force energy. All living things and the Universe itself consist of this energy. Breath is our own amazing and yet tangible experience of prana…” ( Our word “spirit,” similarly, stems from “spirare,” meaning ‘to breathe.’

In Zen, especially at the beginning, sitting or zazen practice has to do not with specific breathing practices, but simply with counting one’s breath—counting breaths to ten, and then repeating this counting to ten throughout the meditation period. Practitioners gradually move to other forms of concentration, for example, simply observing the breath in great detail as it proceeds in and out of the body, and exactly what happens when it does. And though most move on to still other practices, observing thought formation or bodily sensations and so on, breath watching often remains at least a part of the practice.

Having been through several of these practices, recently it occurred to me to return in zazen to simply breathing. Simply breathing. And it was from here that earth or Gaia or prana came into play. For at some point as I observed how I was breathing, and how it still seemed to be something like, ‘I am breathing, this body is pulling oxygen in from outside me and pushing carbon dioxide out to somewhere else,’ a changed perception, momentary but very real, occurred. It suddenly felt as if it were not “I” who was drawing in air from the outside, but as if the exchange were simply transpiring of itself, more, as if outside and inside were “not two” as the saying goes. As if there were not just an individual self seizing a few quarts of oxygen from the air outside, but something very much larger pulsing in a rhythm with others. As if a kind of universal rhythm were in play. And that that rhythm, which included all else in its pulsations, was breathing me. And I it.

Hence the power of the above image of the earth, each year breathing in, and breathing out. As if we are all, along with the earth, part of this breathing in, and breathing out. And we are. Each being that breathes has a different rate and rhythm. Plants breathe differently from animals who breathe differently from fish or fowl. But in a certain sense, all breathing is one breathing. The earth breathes. Plants breathe. Dogs and toads breathe. Humans breathe. Together. As a Zen master once said (referring only to humans),

“We are all members of the same nose-hole society.”

All of which means it is well not to ignore either our in-breaths or our out-breaths. And what we have been discovering increasingly is that we humans, especially, have indeed been ignoring not only the fact, but the consequences of both our in-breaths and our out-breaths. What is it that we are breathing in? What is it that we are breathing out? Are we foolishly, determinedly ignorant of our out-breathing—the wastes, the carnage, the indigestible detritus that increasingly forms part of our legacy? And just as ignorant of what we are breathing in, as if having to wrestle it from someone or something, like insatiable children?

The answer is fairly obvious. We have forgotten, or chosen to ignore what breathing is. We have insisted on confining it to our lungs, our personal area of responsibility and concern, our little quart or two of breath. It is a kind of willful blindness, a blindness to what we are, which all begins with the simplest, most elemental, most inclusive of our acts: breathing.

Lawrence DiStasi

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