We live in a world in which everything moves. Yet the first thing I invariably notice when I look out over a roomful of sitting meditators is how still almost everyone is, holding themselves as though the goal of the practice is to become like a stone garden statue of the Buddha. Granted, the practice is relatively still. But as a value applied to the practice of meditation, stillness refers only to a quality of mind, not to a rigidly stiff body. If you are truly able to relax in your sitting posture, subtle movements can be felt throughout the entire body in response to each breath you take. When you allow these natural motions to occur, your mind becomes calmer and bodily sensations come more alive. But if you brace yourself against them and become frozen in your posture, your mind gets stirred and your body loses touch with its feeling presence.
The Satipatthana Sutta describes a progression of mileposts in one’s evolving sensitivity to the action of breath. Starting out from a place that watches the breath just at the front of the body, we’re gradually guided to become more sensitive to all breath’s nuances and are eventually led to the suggestion to “breathe through the whole body.” To better understand how to breathe with the conscious participation of the whole body, nothing is more helpful than to recognize that, in a deeply relaxed body, the force of breath can cause the entire body to remain in a state of subtle, constant, fluid motion.
The Mechanics of Breath
The action of breath is primarily initiated through the repetitive contraction and relaxation of the diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle that separates your chest cavity from your abdomen and functions as a pump that draws oxygen-rich air into your body on the inhalation and expels the waste products of respiration on every exhalation. The rhythmic movement of the diaphragm generates a propulsive force similar to the force that causes waves to move through a body of water. But what we tend to do is resist the force of the breath by introducing tension into the musculature and effectively freezing the body at its joints.
Tension in the body always causes some degree of stillness at the nearest skeletal joint, and areas of frozen stillness always resist the force of breath that wants to pass through that part of the body. Simply put, when you tense your body, you become still; when you relax your body, everything can start to move again in response to the natural flow of the breath.
While stillness—and resistance to the force of the breath—can exist anywhere in the body, it’s particularly evident in the head and neck. But when we hold our head completely still in meditation, we draw tension into the upper back, neck, and cranium, and this pattern of tension keeps fueling the silent parade of thoughts that pass through the mind. So when we stiffen our neck to the extent that our head becomes unmoving, we inadvertently support the very process of semi-conscious thought that the practice wants to help us slow down, perhaps even dissolve.
Breath wants to liberate itself, to free itself from its encasing in the body’s frozen stillness. The whole of the body wants to keep moving—not even a single little part left out, everything in motion, just like the universe.
EXERCISE: Breathing the Spine
The joints between the vertebrae of the spine are not very different from joints anywhere else in the body: they exist solely for the purpose of movement. As you sit in meditation in an upright and relaxed body, start feeling how every vertebra can move ever so slightly, shifting its angle and distance from its immediate neighbors in response to each and every breath.
As you breathe in, feel how the entire spine lengthens along its curves. As you breathe out, feel how the entire spine settles back down.
As the force of breath keeps passing through the entire length of the spine, the head can be felt to bob up and down and back and forth, ever so slightly, just like a fishing bobber floating on the surface of a lake over which a breeze is blowing. When the body moves naturally like this, the mind starts slowing down. Exposed to the constant, gentle motions of the body, the inner monologue doesn’t have as stable a stage on which to stand and broadcast its views.
Still places in the spine, indeed anywhere in the body, often function as repositories for unfelt sensations and energies that may have an emotional tone or semi-conscious storyline attached to them. By allowing movement to return back into these areas in the spine, these sensations and energies can be gradually released back into feeling awareness. However, you can’t force movement to occur in these places like a dancer performing a choreographed motion. These still places need first to be felt into exactly as they are. Then, as you begin to relax through these places, the breath can start naturally nudging up against the frozen vertebrae, and movement can start returning.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.