Meditation 101.2 Breath is Life

If you can pull yourself away from the demands of work for just awhile each day and focus all that attention on the most basic part of your life–breath–you may find a different way of being, even in the midst of the most complicated situations. That’s what I tell myself, maybe not literally, but implicitly in my trip upstairs to my serenity room with my laptop under my arm, and as I click on the guided meditation about breath. . . .

My serenity room, as I like to call it, has its own history, and breathing in the air of that history is part of the paying attention and part of the serenity, both. When we first moved here in 1996, that room was Casey’s bedroom, he being the youngest, it being the smallest of the three rooms on our upper landing. As the older brothers began moving out, he took the back room and I turned the middle room into my office. There I wrote and did school work for many years. My mom’s and uncle’s letters, part of the family project, are stored in my mom’s old dresser. After Casey died, it’s the room where I went to close off the world and lose myself in Brahms Requiem, churning out poetry and crying my heart out. Then last summer I went on the retreat to Creative Expressions in Yellow Springs with my cousin and fell in love with the little apartment designed for simplicity and clarity. I moved my computer downstairs, thus emptying the room of some of the furniture and clearing a space, I imagined, for serenity. That’s where I sit, breathing in that history, and when I open my eyes at the end of the session, I see this poster on the wall in front of me:

"If you become a bird and fly away from me," said his mother, "I will be the tree you come home to."

“If you become a bird and fly away from me,” said his mother, “I will be the tree you come home to.”

One of the ways that we are taught to feel the breath, at least in the guided meditation cd by Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Steinberg, is to note when the “in” begins, when it stops, when the “out” begins, when it stops. Sometimes there’s a pause between the out and in, and it’s there that you can settle your attention on the body. I feel this moment or two of not breathing as a place of suspension, a place where you can glimpse the hugeness of the mind, all it can be. It’s like standing on a very high hill where the land stretches out. Even with your eyes closed you feel the space as something endless and you are small and at the same time an essential part of it.

The mind won’t stay put, however, and the return from wherever it takes us back to the breath is the essence of meditation practice, always returning, gently, patiently, without judgment. One of the thoughts my mind takes me to, when I’m feeling the air fill my lungs, when Salzberg says, “One of my teachers once told me to imagine every breath as your first breath and your last breath,” is Casey’s last breath. I try not to linger there, but somehow he’s there with me, though his last breath was not in his old bedroom, but on a county road twenty minutes away. The doctor who wrote the autopsy spoke of the shape of his lungs in a way that makes them sound like a beautiful cathedral.

I put this into one of the Casey poems, which made its way into my essay, “The Weight of a Human Heart,” and I offer it here:
Theirs is a numbers story: how the lungs weighed 440 grams, and the palpable bullet lodged 9 inches left of midline and 53 inches from the left heel, having blazed its path from the right shoulder, a downhill slope, 30-35 degree deviations. A story of contrasts. How devastating lacerations of lungs and thoracic aorta can leave untouched the adrenal glands’ smooth yellow outer cortical rims overlying zones of deeper brown cortical and gray medullary substances. How a body’s internal landscape tells of liquid harmony, where mucosa falls like drapery in longitudinal folds and walls are smooth and glistening. You couldn’t find a more perfect container for his 330-gram heart, even when yours has tipped the scale, even when the landscape has darkened and the waves rise and fall in silence and the story you tell begins and ends once upon a time.

If life is sacred–or precious, dear–or both, giving breath a few minutes of undivided attention–or a few seconds until the mind skitters away, so then a few more seconds, and on and on–might be the best way to say thank you.

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