Following the Breath

teisho 559 (1997)

Life can only be lived now.  And when life is lived now, it is real.  When we allow ourselves to get distracted by the past, by imagination, by the future, we no longer live.  It is as though the vital waters of existence are dissipated in a desert.  We live a half life.

Nisargadatta met a teacher when he was about thirty-five, and the teacher said to him, “You are one with everything. You are the source of all.”  And Nisargadattta said, “I believed him.”    You have heard this said many times,  put in all kinds of ways, that you are the source of all. You are one with everything. The trouble is that you do not believe it.  You believe that you are something amongst other somethings in the world. You have been deluded by the way things are set up in life;  deluded by what everybody takes for granted.  You give no attention to yourself; your mind is with things, people and ideas, never with your self.   When we say a person is full of themselves we mean that all the person thinks about are ideas of himself and his relation to the world.  And an idea of oneself is not oneself. Bring yourself into focus, become aware of your own presence.  When you follow the breath you are letting go of all the things your attention is bound up in.  All the things to which you are giving the word ‘I’: ‘I am tired.’   ‘I am angry.’  ‘I am bored.’ ‘I am hearing something outside. ”I am feeling pain.’  The “I” may not be said explicitly, but it is always present.  This I is the main obstruction that prevents us from knowing the self.  When you are asked to bring yourself into focus it means to be totally one with an in-breath, totally one with an out-breath.

When we hear it said that we must give attention to oneself, we try to find the self, we try to grasp the self. It is this very endeavor which leads to the creation of I.  For this reason we work with koans.  With a koan, one invokes that which is fundamental. Invokes means to call up, to arouse.  When you follow the breath you are invoking that which is most fundamental.  We call it ‘self’ or ‘buddha nature’ because language insists that we have an object in a sentence.  But there is no self in terms of a substance, a form, a thing. What is important when you are following the breath is that you are just one with the breath.  You must let go of any idea of a goal, any object or result as a consequence of following the breath.  If you are identified with what will happen, what can happen, you are no longer following the breath.  You are now back in the realm of ideas.  We believe that by using ideas we can grasp what is essential.

Nisargadata says, “Study the prison you have built around yourself by inadvertence. By knowing what you are not, come to know yourself.”  Let us look at this in terms of following the breath:  all kinds of random ideas come about when you follow the breath, thought follows thought.  And each one of them, in its way, is trying to give something which one can grasp, one can hold on to, one can make something of.  All of this we believe at some level is what we are.  When we come back to the breath, we are able to let go of that to some extent.  When we do this, although it is not a conscious thought, the realisation comes that if I can let go of it, even if only for a fraction of a moment, then it isn’t me. Later on, as one persists,  the realisation comes that if I can know it, it is not me.   But this possibility will not arise if you are not giving yourself wholeheartedly to following the breath.  When you are following the breath, that should be all that you are doing.  Just let the breath come in, just let the breath go out.  As you do this, so you become more aware, not in a conceptual way, of what you are not.

It is not that the self is missing and you have to find some technique to reinstate it. All that one sees around oneself is modifications of the self.  It is the self that is real. And having used the word ‘self’ we must now undo the damage by using Hakuin’s words: true self is no self. In the Prajna Paramita it says that form is emptiness. All the forms you see around, as walls, people, as the floor, all of these are modifications of that which is fundamental.  But we give no attention to that which is fundamental.  When it is said that all is emptiness, it means that nothing has an existence apart from its being known. The whole of truth that can be known is in an in-breath, in an out-breath.

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