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Breathe! You Are Alive - revised edition
By Thich Nhat Hanh
The first subject of full awareness following the breath in daily life--eliminating forgetfulness and unnecessary thinking exercises (1-2)
"Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out."
1. "Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath."
2. "Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath."
Most readers of this book do not live in forests, under trees, or in monasteries. In our daily lives, we drive cars, wait for buses, work in offices and factories, talk on the telephone, clean our houses, cook meals, wash clothes, and so on. Therefore, it is important that we learn to practice Full Awareness of Breathing during our daily lives. Usually, when we perform these tasks, our thoughts wander, and our joy, sorrow, anger, and unease follow close behind. Although we are alive, we are not able to bring our minds into the present moment, and we live in forgetfulness.
We can begin to enter the present moment by becoming aware of our breath. Breathing in and breathing out, we know we are breathing in and out, and we can smile to affirm that we are in control of ourselves. Through Awareness of Breathing, we can be awake in, and to, the present moment. Being attentive, we already establish "stopping" and concentrating the mind. Full Awareness of our Breathing helps our mind stop wandering in confused, never-ending thoughts.
Most of our daily activities can be accomplished while following our breath according to the exercises in the sutra. When our work demands special attentiveness to avoid confusion or an accident, we can unite Full Awareness of Breathing with the task itself. For example, when we are carrying a pot of boiling water or doing electrical repairs, we can be aware of every movement of our hands, and we can nourish this awareness by means of our breath: "Breathing in, I am aware my hands are carrying a pot of boiling water." "Breathing out, I am aware that my right hand is holding an electrical wire." "Breathing in, I am aware that I am passing another car." "Breathing out, I know that the situation is under control." We can practice like this.
It is not enough to combine Awareness of Breathing only with tasks that require so much attention. We must also combine Full Awareness of our Breathing with every movement of our body: "Breathing in, I am sitting down." "Breathing out, I am wiping the table." "Breathing in, I smile to myself." "Breathing out, I light the stove." Stopping the random progression of thoughts and no longer living in forgetfulness are giant steps forward in our meditation practice. We can realize this by following our breath and combining it with awareness of each daily activity.
There are people who have no peace or joy because they cannot stop their unnecessary thinking. They are forced to take sedatives to fall asleep, but even in their dreams, they continue to feel fears, anxieties, and unease. Thinking too much can give us headaches, and our spiritual power will diminish. By following our breath and combining conscious breathing with our daily activities, we can cut across the stream of disturbing thoughts and light the lamp of awakening. Full Awareness of an out-breath and an in-breath is something wonderful that anyone can practice. Whether or not we live in a monastery or a meditation center, we can practice in this way. Combining Full Awareness of Breathing with full awareness of the movements of our body during daily activities--walking, standing, lying, sitting, working--is a basic practice to cultivate concentration and live in an awakened state. During the first few minutes of sitting meditation, you can use this method to harmonize your breathing, and if it seems necessary, you can continue following your breath with Full Awareness throughout the entire period.
"Breathing in a long breath, I know I am breathing in a long breath. Breathing out a long breath, I know I am breathing out a long breath." (Breathing out, I know my out-breath is a long breath.)
"Breathing in a short breath, I know I am breathing in a short breath. Breathing out a short breath, I know I am breathing out a short breath."
Our breath is usually short at first, but as we practice, our breath slows down and deepens. To practice these two exercises is to know whether our breath is short or long. We do not purposefully make our breath long. We do not say, "I will breathe in a long breath." Strictly speaking, we should say, "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in a long (or a short) breath." We simply recognize when we are breathing in and when we are breathing out. We can abbreviate "Breathing in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out," to "In, Out." We say these two words silently as we breathe in and out to help our concentration.
In the version of the Anapananusmrti Sutra from the Chinese canon that is in
Appendix Two, the first of the sixteen breathing exercises is, "Breathing
in, I know I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know I am breathing out."
The second is, "Breathing in a long breath or a short breath, I know whether
it is a long breath or a short breath. Breathing out a long breath or a short
breath, I know whether it is a long breath or a short breath." This version
is more in accord with the instructions given here, that we should just recognize
the length of our breath. As we continue to follow our breathing, we recognize
its quality, "I know I am breathing in, and I know it is a short breath."
If it is short, let it be short. It is not important to make it long. This is
called "mere recognition." It is the same when we have a painful feeling.
The first thing to do is to recognize it. If your breathing is fast, recognize
that it is fast. If it is slow, recognize that it is slow. If it is uneven,
recognize that it is uneven. If it is even, recognize that it is even. When
we begin, our breathing may be uneven, but after a few minutes of practice,
it will become even and it will bring us peace and joy. We do not force our
breathing to be deep or slow. It is our continued practice that makes our breathing
become deep or slow, quite naturally. When we recognize a deep, slow breath,
we can say, "Deep," as we breathe in, and "Slow," as we
breathe out. With the first two exercises, the nourishment of the joy of meditation
is already present, and once we have it, we can begin to share it with our family
and friends. We do not have to wait until we are a Dharma teacher.
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