Ango Week 3: Grounding in the Breath

A weekly message from teachers Sarah Dōjin Emerson and Charlie Korin Pokorny in support of the 2022 Fall Practice Period.

Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. So you focus on your mind, on your in-breath, and you release everything else, and you become free. There is regret concerning the past, sorrow concerning the past. There is fear and uncertainty concerning the future. All of that you just release in just one or two seconds because you are focusing all your mind into your in-breath. So breathing in mindfully sets you free. You have freedom. And if you are to make a decision, it’s better that you have enough freedom to make it. You are not under the influence of anger or fear, and your decision is much better than if you are not free. So just breathing in makes you free…. So the exercise is so simple, but the effect can be great.

-The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh

In the first two weeks we have offered practices around creating space first in our homes, and then in our schedules and daily lives. Over the next few weeks we want to explore practices that help us ground and create space in our body (with “body” being shorthand for: body/heart/mind/ nervous system/soul/whole being).

This week we will focus on grounding in mindfulness of breath because it is such a profound teaching that is shared across many schools of Buddhism.

Generally speaking, mindfulness of the breath is both a calming technique (although this is not true for all people in all moments, see below for more on this), and a deep teaching and practice-engagement with impermanence and non-duality (see Suzuki’ roshi’s writing on breathing below). This practice is also a cultivation of choice-full attention, of working with the mind to be deliberate about what it pays attention to and where it’s going, so that, like the practice of not-hurrying, it supports us to slow down enough to be deliberate in how we respond in any given moment, in what comes next. Ultimately, it’s a training that supports us to work with our karmic-conditioning, and make enough room around habit patterns to not be caught by the deep grooves of habit energy, giving us the space required to be responsive versus reactive.

In the book Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, Thich Nhat Hanh shares an example of an intensely stressful situation he was in, where many people in intense need were depending on him, and how grounding in the breath and body allowed him to open to possibilities that were not present when he was caught in overwhelm and fear ( see “Zen in a Storm”, page 53,  Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet).

To support your exploration of attention to breath for those who are new to it, or to support a return for those who have worked with it before, here are a few possibilities.

Practices/ resources:

– Video of Thich Nhat Hahn “The First 8 Exercises of Mindful Breathing” It’s about a 24 minute video, and if you only have a little bit of time, try watching even just the first 5 minutes.

– If/when moving through your day, you notice a moment of clenching, dis-ease, worry and flurry, overwhelm, etc.—see if you can apply Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching about mindful attention to the in-breath, maybe three breaths, maybe just one; and notice how that impacts your experience in your body/being

– Read Suzuki Roshi’s teaching on the practice of breathing here

– Read or listen to some or all of Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet—super helpful book for all human beings working with suffering and not turning away

If mindfulness of breathing is challenging or agitating:

Sometimes, for many reasons, paying attention to the body or breath can be agitating and not supportive for calming the mind or directing our awareness. If you find that mindful attention to breath isn’t working for you in any given moment, for whatever reason, please cultivate compassion for yourself and try something else. You can apply the same awareness practices to feeling points of contact with the floor or chair, listening to sounds, or noticing colors, or you can go for a walk/ change your environment if time allows. The idea is to create spaciousness in yourself, so if you find contraction instead, please take good care.

Consider the words of Sister True Dedication, who co-authors Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet with Thich Nhat Hanh:

I began to train myself to apply this practice [of mindful breathing] in difficult situations—those acute moments in my daily life when something went wrong, or I got hurt, or I was faced with a dilemma that seemed impossible to solve. I learned to step away and take a few immersive breaths, fully aware of the whole experience of each breath. This practice started to give me a safe foundation to be with painful feelings, and gave me space to respond in better ways rather than worse ones. Sometimes it’s harder to do it than at other times. I tell myself that if I’m finding it really hard to stop and breathe, if I just can’t step back and stop, it’s because my ancestors found it difficult, and my society finds it difficult, and my habits find it difficult. I inter-am with all of these conditions.  In which case, I tell myself, ‘Stopping must be the action of heroes!’ And that gives me extra determination to keep trying. When I manage in these moments to stop and breathe, each time it feels like a victory, a turning point, a new departure.


Previous messages from teachers Sarah Dōjin Emerson and Charlie Korin Pokorny:

Ango Week 1: Making Space for the Nourishment of Practice

Ango Week 2: The Practice of Not-Hurrying