First Practice: The Healing Breath
- By Chuan Zhi
- Feb 02
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Everyone who enters Zen's Gateless Gate, has a story to tell. Mine begins one summer evening when I received a call from a friend who had recently moved to another state. "I found a Buddhist Priest who teaches Zen." He told me. "Last night she gave me a pranayama exercise called the Healing Breath." I was immediately interested. I had a hobby, of sorts, of collecting meditation exercises. I was master of none but proud of my collection, nonetheless.
The practice of pranayama can be described as voluntary control of inbreathing, outbreathing, and holding the breath. This is done chiefly for the setting up of a new condition of breathing intended to become habitual after sufficient voluntary practice. In this connection it is found that the transition from effort to habit is accompanied by a feeling in the mind (which we may call a mood), growing and becoming definite in the course of the process, whereby later on at any time when one finds that the breathing has reverted to a bad or undesired habit one may remember the feel of the mood, and with an almost imperceptible act of will, re-establish the new habit."
Everyone who enters Zen's Gateless Gate, has a story to tell. Mine begins one summer evening when I received a call from a friend who had recently moved to another state. "I found a Buddhist Priest who teaches Zen." He told me. "Last night she gave me a pranayama exercise called the Healing Breath." I was immediately interested. I had a hobby, of sorts, of collecting meditation exercises. I was master of none but proud of my collection, nonetheless. "Tell me!" I said with eager enthusiasm. We talked for a while and later that evening I tried it out. The next day I was still exasperated from my futile efforts. I called my friend back and complained "This is a tough exercise!" "It's not meant to be easy," he said, adding, "You just have to do it." I had previously tried many types of breathing exercises but none had been as alluring as the Healing Breath. Its sheer simplicity and unexpected difficulty made me think there must be something to it. It wasn't until several years later that I picked the Healing Breath out of my treasure chest of pranayama exercises, as the one I would devote effort to. It took those intervening years to develop the Right Attitude that would be necessary to make the exercise work.
The Healing Breath is all we need to enter Zen. Anyone who can breathe can do it: for it requires no special knowledge of sutras or philosophy and it needs no special environment like a meditation hall, monastery or temple: all it requires is the Right Attitude. It may help to clarify why we do it and describe essential prerequisite conditions that must be established before attempting it.
Learning begins at the beginning. Just as a math teacher would never attempt to teach calculus to a student who had not learned the rudimentary principles of algebra, a Zen Master would not consider introducing advanced meditations to a student who had not first learned to control the breath. When people announce that they have spent years practicing a variety of meditation exercises without success, I remember my own experiences and tell them to do as I did: return to the beginning and perfect the Healing Breath. Until full command of the breath is accomplished there is little chance of success with other meditation disciplines and we, unwittingly, remain mired in samsara, frustrated in our efforts and disillusioned with our path.
The slippery ego is inevitably the biggest obstacle. When it kicks in, we flip-flop like a fish on dry land. "Why must I do it?" "Why can't I do some other practice instead?" "I don't have the time to do it!" "Can I change the ratio from 1:4:2 to 1:4:3?" "I don't have the energy!" "I've got to take the laundry to the dry cleaners!" We wiggle and squirm when we are presented with something we don't want to do -- our faith in the practice gets undermined by the subversive ego at every turn. Why does a practice as simple as rhythmical breathing draw so much resistance and how can it be overcome? Having the Right Attitude requires unquestioning faith in and dedication to the practice with the intent to succeed. If we don't know where we're going, don't we ask directions? And if we are told to go right and then go to the second stop light make a left, don't we do it unconditionally? This is all that "Right Attitude" means: follow directions willingly, without resistance, with the faith that doing so will lead us to the destination we're seeking.
When we find ourselves fighting the practice, making excuses not to do it or wanting to alter the ratios or otherwise do it our own way, we must recognize that we are procrastinating - inventing divisive ways to avoid doing the necessary work. Right Attitude means not giving into our desires, but attacking the practice as if our life depends on it. I often tell people to imagine someone pointing a gun at their temple - the energy and devotion to the practice that this imagery can induce is what's needed to succeed. There is a story of a warlord who, while visiting his old Zen Master, hears a novice complaining about not being able to concentrate. "May I solve this problem for you Master?" the warlord asks. "Yes, please do!" the master happily chimes. The warlord fetches a cup and fills it to the brim with water. He hands the cup to the novice and commands: "Walk around the perimeter of this courtyard carrying this cup of water. While you do, six of my best archers will be poised ready to shoot you dead if you spill as much as one drop." The novice quickly learns how to concentrate.
When we do any Chan practice passively, waiting for something to mysteriously happen to us, we waste our time and succeed only in becoming frustrated. Then, after a short time, we give up. Allowing ourselves to indulge in laziness, we forever circle the mountain. No meditation or pranayama practice can succeed unless we commit 100 percent to it with heart, mind, and body.
Occasionally there may be a physical obstacle such as an underlying medical condition effecting the respiratory or cardiopulmonary systems. In this case, a doctor should be consulted before attempting the exercise. If the devotee smokes or otherwise injures the breathing apparatus with drugs, there may be problems associated with gasping or wheezing when starting the Healing Breath for the first time. If there are addictions to smoking (or other drugs), or cravings of any kind, they are naturally diffused and are eventually eliminated if the Healing Breath is done properly and regularly.
Effects from the Healing Breath
The Healing Breath works on three levels: the psychological, the physiological, and the spiritual. In the beginning, these three are interconnected like braids of a rope, each dependent on the others for strength, each becoming stronger as the others gain strength. As the Healing Breath practice grows and matures, this rope becomes more like a mono-filament fishing line. When the psychological/physiological/spiritual "components" have been merged into one we enter the blissful rapture of meditation.
Psychology depends on the existence of an ego - an arbitrary, self-conceived, self-created, autonomous force of will. When this creation gets agitated we get depressed, angry, fearful and anxious. The process of vanquishing the ego can itself stimulate this agitation by assaulting it with the possibility of extinction - something the ego revolts against fiercely. Initiating a Healing Breath regimen can cause temporary moodiness and anxiety for this reason. When it does, we must understand the cause-effect relationship and let the ill-effects pass as easily as they arise; our act of will is the only power the ego can not resist. When we succumb to the ego's desire for a "safe" existence, we relinquish command over our lives and fall deeper into the confines of the ego's illusory, samsaric, domain. But with a strong will, we pass through these unsavory episodes of psychological unsteadiness, gaining strength each time. With continued practice, we become immune to any lasting bouts psychological stresses, for a new willful power arises that can identify and extinguish any unwanted mood with negligible effort.
As we all know in this modern age, the mind-body is a tightly interconnected system - change one part of the system and every other part is influenced -- so it's no surprise that regular practice of the Healing Breath brings beneficial changes to every part of the mind-body. As the mind is quieted by the slow breathing exercise, the brain becomes better able to regulate serotonin (c.f. Bujatti, M. and Reiderer, P., Journal of Neural Transmission 39: 257-267, 1976) and other chemicals responsible for regulating our biochemistry: we sleep better, our overall mood improves, and we become calmer and less agitated. In addition, muscles relax, the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems become stronger and healthier, physical endurance and stamina increase, digestion improves, and mental capacity for concentration and memory are enhanced. It takes only a few days of dedicated practice to begin to realize all of these effects.
We are all spiritual beings by nature, so, in reality, there is nothing spiritual to be gained from practicing the Healing Breath. That is, there is nothing to gain that we don't already have. What we do have to do is gain the awareness of our spiritual nature. With religious devotion to the Healing Breath exercise we can gain that insight; an event we call satori - a gestalt, a sudden realization of our pure, unfettered, non-dualistic nature as human beings. When it happens, we suddenly see the ego as an arbitrary illusion and see, with clarity, what's left: our True Nature, our Buddha Nature. Like a hologram, the whole is contained in each part, but until the mind is calmed and the body is at ease, we see with a mind that darts off in every direction, creating distinctions of form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought. We see only the parts and not the whole.
For those people who are new to Zen, the Healing Breath is an excellent place to begin a practice. And for those who have spent many years studying Zen or practicing a variety of exercises without significant progress, the Healing Breath is an excellent place to return to. Even adepts use the Healing Breath to begin their practice, for they know that it will quickly bring the mind-body into balance and prepare the way for entering deep states of mediation.
The Healing Breath is performed in three parts in a carefully regulated pattern, or ratio, in a "1:4:2" sequence: an inhale(1-count), a hold(4-counts), and an exhale(2-counts). This means that the breath is held for four times the amount of time taken to perform the inhale, and the exhale is completed in twice the time taken to inhale. When we first start the practice, we may begin with a ratio series of 4:16:8, where each count is approximately one second. Then, as the breath becomes stronger and more durable, we may move to a ratio series of 6:24:12, and then to 8:32:16, etc. As we work with the Healing Breath, we gradually extend the number of counts for longer and longer durations, maintaining the same ratio and one-second count interval. An audible clock can be used to "click-off" the time in one-second intervals, or, if the heartbeat can be felt or heard, it can be used instead. When doing the practice, stopping to admire the results is not an option: continuous focused concentration on the count is essential. With the Right Effort and the Right Attitude, in a short amount of time - days or weeks -- we will begin to notice subtle changes in mood and physical energy, and our demeanor will become calmer and quieter. This is the power of one of the simplest pranayama exercises, an exercise that sets the stage for all subsequent Chan practices.