Back from another session this evening with the Boundless Way Zen group, and—two weeks after my last blog entry—I am still thinking about breathing and meditation. This week I want to reflect a little bit on the relationship between the practice of conscious breathing and meditation and the more general practices of spirituality and religion.
One of the first pieces of advice you will get about conscious breathing, when you join a meditation group or do some research on your own, is not to worry about the fact that your mind will wander. Focusing on each breath—consciously following the air into your lungs, and then back out again—is designed to help you empty your mind of thought during meditation. That's the design; in reality, as every practitioner knows, your mind wanders.
“Minds think thoughts,” one of the leaders said at the practice session two weeks ago. “That's their job.”
So when you are sitting down and quietly attempting to focus your mind on your breathing, in an effort to empty it of all other thoughts, the first thing you should notice—and it will be reinforced at every future session—is how miserably you are failing. Threads of whatever you were thinking or doing just before you sat down will still be floating around in your head; you'll start to wonder what's for lunch or dinner; if you're in a group session, you'll hear the stomach growling of the person next to you and wonder if they're doing better at this than you are.
All of this might make meditation seem like an impossible task to a beginner. And it might lead to a meditation session in which you simply become more and more frustrated with yourself for your inability to concentrate. Before long, you'll find that you are primarily thinking about what a waste of time meditation has turned out to be.
Experienced meditators, and practitioners of conscious breathing, know all of this. So they encourage new practitioners not to worry about a wandering mind. When your mind wanders away, they will say, just watch it go, and then gently try to call it back to your breathing. This might happen a thousand times over the course of a meditation session. Meditation begins; mind wanders; mind comes back to breathing; mind wanders; mind comes back to breathing . . .
In the end, what you eventually come to realize is that you're almost never—perhaps never at all—going to wind up with sixty or thirty or even ten minutes of complete emptiness of mind, of utter concentration on your breath. You will find you get better and better at it, and that every second spent on your breath pushes away a little bit of anxiety and fear and worry; but you will also find that you'll never stop failing to achieve what you have set out to do.
And, in that respect, meditation and breathing seem to me to offer a good model for how to think about practicing spirituality and religion.
Living spiritually, and faithfully adhering to all of the practices and beliefs of a religious tradition, is hard work. I don't know about everyone else, but I can assure you I'm always failing. I'm never as good of a person as I would like to be; I always find some doctrine or other to disagree with; I'm always finding a good excuse to skip this service or that obligation. For all of those reasons, religion has been as much of a source of frustration in my life as it has been one of comfort and peace.
But I'm starting to believe that maybe I could learn something about religion from what the Zen Buddhists have taught me about breathing—that instead of berating myself for my failings, I need to accept them as inevitable, let them go, and gently call myself back to practice.
Human beings don't live perfect spiritual lives; we are selfish and bodily bound—that's our nature. But instead of using our failure to live up to some spiritual or religious ideal as an excuse to chuck the whole enterprise, we should be assured of the value of even those few moments when we manage to elevate ourselves to something better—that one time when you felt something stir in you during a religious service; or when you acted out of generous love for another; or when you felt suddenly and inexplicably blessed and grateful for something you previously took for granted.
And after such moments of spiritual wholeness or goodness, when we fail again—as we are bound to do—we could do worse than following the example of experienced practitioners of meditation.