The Buddha’s teachings on mindfulness invite us to be mindful of the body in the body, feelings in the feelings, breath in the breath. This means becoming aware of actions and thoughts from within themselves, within ourselves. In just this way we are engaged with the world, aware that we are never apart from it. There is nothing outside oneself, or as an old Zen saying goes, “There is nowhere in the world to spit.”
Explore this in meditation. Sit comfortably in an upright posture. Close your eyes and rest your hands lightly in your lap or on your knees. Breathe in deeply. Let the air fill your body, moving down from chest, expanding your lungs, until the breath reaches your hara or abdomen, a few inches below the navel. Now breathe out slowly and steadily through your mouth, following the contraction of your belly and the air as it moves through your mouth and back out into the wide world. Again, breathe in deeply, then slowly breathe out. This kind of breathing brings a refreshing change.
You can try this whenever you have even a moment to meditate, settling your mind and body from the start. It is a simple way to bring mind and body together, to ground your thoughts and feelings in breath. If your out-breath is uneven, just begin again, without any judgment. Soon you will be able to feel some control over your thoughts, and over the muscles that control your breath.
Feel the air as it flows in and out of your body. Each breath brings life. When the motion of breath stops, life stops. And yet the air reaches everywhere, completely connected like a single seamless fabric spread across the world. The air we breathe this very moment is the same air that a woman sitting next to you is breathing. It is the same air breathed by a homeless boy on the Arizona border, wondering where he can safely sleep or get a meal tonight. It is the air that a mother and daughter are breathing as they wait for a doctor in a hospital emergency room, without health insurance or any way to pay for care.
Far away, on a Greek island in the Mediterranean, a Syrian refugee family camps in a detention center, not knowing when or if they will find a new home. The air they breathe smells of sea and fog. The same air sustains a Rohingya exile, fleeing with his family from the hateful ethnic violence of Myanmar’s military. All these people value their lives, their children, their breath just as we do.
Thousands of miles from here, the vast rain forests of Brazil serve as lungs for the world, taking in carbon dioxide, exhaling the oxygen all beings need for life. Amazon Basin forests are disappearing at the rate of 150 acres per minute. Since the year 2000, 80,000 square miles — an area of forest the size of Nebraska —has fallen to fires and bulldozers, contributing to a massive release of CO2 and global warming. The trees of Amazonia are our good friends. They are dying.
I once read that each breath we take contains atoms breathed by Christ or Buddha, by Caesar or Hitler or Donald Trump. Maybe this is apocryphal science, but the thought is compelling. The energy we transmute through our body into action is forever conserved. The physical molecules of breath and body are conserved. Form is endlessly changing. Nothing is lost.
In Peace is Every Step Thích Nhât Hanh writes:
Mindfulness must be engaged. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing? We must be aware of the real problems of the world. Then, with mindfulness, we will know what to do and what not to do to be of help…
Mindfulness must be engaged because it is engaged. We can enjoy our breathing because countless beings are breathing and being with us. We suffer because countless beings suffer and we are not apart from them. Mindfulness is being aware of the reality of interdependence. Awareness comes with responsibility — the ability to respond. No distinction of inside and outside. In this moment of silence just let us enjoy our breathing.
—Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley, California, April 2017