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Each moment, we are doing something vital for our existence – we are breathing.
Even when we are unaware, the act of breathing sustains us – connecting us to the environment and enabling a complex interaction of chemicals that enables life.
In Zen teachings, breath becomes something even greater than a means of existence. For wise masters, each breath is also a way of becoming aware and enlightened to the miracle of being alive in every moment:
“Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I am aware of my body. When your mind is with your body, you are well established in the here and the now. You are fully alive. You can be in touch with the wonders of life that are available in yourself and around you.”
Zen teachings often contain elemental qualities missing in other parts of our lives. For Zen students wind, water, fire and earth are not mystical ideals, but rather essential components of our natural existence – especially wind (or air), believed to embody the movement of thought and emotion:
“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.” – Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh
The significance of air and breath has been observed since the earliest days of Zen tradition, when “Zen stories” were passed verbally from each generation to the next:
The old master was meditating by the riverbank when a young student interrupted him. “Master, I wish to become your student,” said the man.
“Why?” asked the master.
The student thought for a moment. “Because I desire enlightenment.”
The old master leapt to his feet and grabbed the student’s robe. In a flash, the master plunged the student’s head into the river, waiting a full minute before throwing him, kicking and gasping, onto the riverbank.
“Now, tell me, what did you desire most when you were underwater?” he asked.
“Air!” gasped the student.
“Very well.” said the master. “Come back and see me when you want enlightenment as bad as you wanted air.”
Breath is inseparable from the physical experience. With it, we are freed to explore the depths of life and the inner world. Without it, we cannot even begin to fathom the miracle of being alive and present in every moment.