Master Dogen gives virtually no instructions about the breath, apart from telling us that we should breathe through our nose not our mouth and that we should let our long breaths be long and our short breaths be short. In other words we shouldn’t try to control our breath.
This brevity gives us freedom to consider, from our actual experience of practice, how the breath should be.
It seems to me that breath and posture are two halves of a whole. If we’re sitting properly, if our pelvis is in the right position, our weight physically is dropping down through our sit bones and energetically is dropping down through our perineum, specifically that part of the perineum which corresponds to the base chakra in the Indian perspective.
If our pelvis is in that position, then there’s a stretch that’s going on, not just at the back of our neck, but a stretch all the way between our base and the top of our head. So it’s as if the spine energetically is like a kind of very alive tree whose roots go into the earth, whose dynamic expression flows right up our body, right up to the top of our head and beyond.
Now we know anatomically that isn’t accurate, but we’re not interested in the pictured body—the body of knowledge. What we’re interested in is the body of experience.
The same thing applies to the breath in this analogy.
The breath is like the leaves of that tree which spread throughout the body.
So again, although we have a knowledge of where our lungs are and the knowledge that our breath comes in through our nose or our mouth, that isn’t what we’re primarily interested in.
We’re interested in the body of practice.
In that body of practice, if our pelvis is in the correct position, if our weight is dropping down in the way in which I’ve described on an in-breath, there’s a slight push down at the base chakra.
It’s not that our air is coming in through our nostrils and flowing down. Within the body of experience, it’s as if the breath is flooding upwards right up to the top of our head from the base chakra. That’s a relatively speedy movement, like a wave coming in.
As far as the outbreath is concerned, it’s like a wave going out, slightly slower. The wave going out corresponds with a kind of dropping down through the body.
That’s where I think erroneous instructions arise. Because there’s this natural dropping down you think, well I can give this a helping hand. I can consciously press down in my diaphragm area. I can consciously press out with the muscles in my lower belly. I can just give it a hand—but that isn’t so.
The breath has to stay natural.
We do not fully express our practice by exaggerating aspects of natural movement with our will. That simply makes it a technical movement.
We do it by gradually becoming aware of a greater subtlety and integration in our whole body. If we think that breathing in is consciously breathing in through our nose, that’s not actually a natural breath at all. It’s a willed breath, because it’s coming from this knowledge of the breathing structure. Within that body of knowledge, there’s breath coming in through the nose, travelling down into my lungs.
Whilst it appears to be a natural breath, it’s an idea. If you pay careful attention you’ll notice that if you try to breathe that way particularly in the zazen posture, you’re actually restricting your breath.
Breathing to be natural must be natural not within some thought of what the breath should naturally be like
but natural within the posture.