One of the great paradoxes is summarized in the Buddhist saying that, on the one hand, to be born as a human being is a great and rare event, and that one should use this precious happening wisely, and on the other hand, there is nothing special about anything, or, as Morihei Ueshiba, founder of Aikido would say, we spend our whole life working diligently on the Path only to discover that there is No Path.
This paradox has it counterpart in our breath. On the one hand we inhale, and our whole body is animated, waiting, as it were, for the unique gift of air to nourish our being, to refresh every vitality. And then, on the other hand, we exhale, we dispose of what is now spent and useless, without a thought. There are other parallels: for example, we eagerly eat food prepared for many hours and presented in fine conviviality and fanfare, and then we digest and expel its remnant without much thought. But breath captures our attention because breath is celebrated and keenly appreciated by every physical art such as yoga and every meditation tradition, East and West.
Inhalation represents beginning, hope, expectation. The child in the womb is silent, reposed, and does not need breath because it does not (yet) partake of frail human necessities, blissfully unaware that it is growing, developing, and undergoing an irreversible trajectory. When the child is born, the shock of reality evokes a sharp cry. An old Arabic tradition says that a baby cries on birth because it sees the devil, lurking nearby. Or it sees death itself lurking in the shadows. Perhaps the baby cries because it must be born, because it is now thrown inexorably into existence, that existence so celebrated as unique by others but greeted by a cry of sorrow by the innocent.
Inhalation signals the beginning. What we take in, as breath or as experience, all that is environment, pain, pleasure, thought or words, all these events come to represent beginnings. Each inhalation is a sunrise, the beginning of a new episode, a commonality with what already exists. The body is a microcosm, each organ awaiting inhalation, awaiting its renewal, just as every creature on the earth awaits the sunrise to begin anew, to begin again. And the sun finds some youthful and new, others waning and dying, but all must acknowledge the newness that the sunrise represents, just as each organ sees each inhalation as a sign that life goes on, however youthful and healthy are the organs, or how weakened and failing they may be.
Exhalation, on the other hand, represents this terminus to all, like sunset and the coming of night, of silence, quiescence, diminishing, dissolution. Perhaps you have stood by the bedside of a dying person. In today’s modern circumstances, pain management makes the transition quiet and unobtrusive, but in the past, the dying person, unconscious in mind but not in organs or lungs, did not die quietly. Each breath was a loud and scraping, a gasping effort, the inhalation struggling to suck in air, the exhalation labored and spent. And then the pause, the horribly long pause between the last exhalation and another inhalation that will signify life, that trembling flame of a candle, that sadness of the whole body and organs remembering the obverse of this dying, remembering when that body emerged from the still, oceanic womb, into a new world, and its earliest struggle to conform to breathing after so long dormant. And upon dying, the reverse, the long path traversed only to end in No Path, only to end ignominiously, in a wretched noisy dying that only frightens those who watch or listen or remember a birth long ago and wonder.
In meditation, there is nothing but this inhalation and exhalation. We have cut through the intermediate, which is to say life. Thoughts, sounds, drifting dregs of a consciousness between sunrise and sunset, float up and float about like stale air to be expelled, or better, to be ignored until passing. Among thoughts there is no inhalation or exhalation — only living beings do this, unless the whole planet, the whole universe, breathes in and out. In meditation, we are bidden concentrate on breathing, perhaps counting or following the breath, until there is nothing else, no thoughts, no feelings, no awareness of anything else, even the coolness of the room, the degree of light, the hum of an appliance. Sometimes a bird’s cry startles, so without awareness of environment is the meditative state. Only inhalation and exhalation, as if to maintain the reality that we are a composite of body and mind. The breathing is autonomous and frees us to realize not thoughts and feelings but to reveal to us our nothingness, our absolute identity with everything else, everything else that exists. Inhale, exhale — we traverse the whole path from birth to death in that in-breath and out-breath.
The masters say that at a certain point we will find that sitting is what we like to do best, that we will look forward to it with an unexpected eagerness. Perhaps that is because we refresh our minds before another day or we relax a while from the stress of what lies ahead or what was behind us during the day. Or, perhaps it is because we get to know our breath, and therefore our selves, if we are willing to do so. If we have no thoughts, no distractions, and do not chase the clouds with our mind’s eye but sit quietly, then breath teaches us. Breath teaches us beginnings and ends, the cycle of life, the fullness of being and the mystery of coming to be and passing away.