The Duality of Breath

When you breath, do you prefer the inhale or the exhale?  Does one feel better than the other?  Have you ever thought about this before?  Stop for just a moment.  Do this little exercise before reading ahead.  Take a few breaths and pay close attention.  What do you prefer, breathing in or breathing out?  I’m stating the obvious to say that you must take one inhale for each exhale.  But flow with me for a minute.  If you find your preference is the inhale, have you ever tried to breath in twice before you exhale?  Or the other way around if you prefer the exhale?  Try this right now.

Did it work?  Were you able to take multiple inhales before exhaling or the other way around?  You can certainly try, but the lungs have a limited capacity.  You can breathe in, pause, then breath in again and you can repeat until your lungs are full, but then you must breath out.  As your lungs become empty, you must eventually fill them back up. 

Unconscious, natural breath happens on its own.  Conscious, focused breathing can be manipulated and controlled by your mind.  Unconsciously, the process happens with perfect balance.  But as soon as we bring our focused attention to the breath, we attempt to control it through effort.  The breath is such an interesting duality for life.

My analytical brain is very intrigued by the concept of duality.  Light and dark, good and evil, black and white, right and wrong, love and fear, altruism and selfishness, life and death, giving and receiving, ones and zeros, the list goes on.  Are there any dualities that you think about?  My thinking brain seems to enjoy these mind puzzles.  Yet dualities only exist when we think about them consciously. 

Just like the breath, if I bring awareness to the duality of right and wrong, I can focus intensely on it by doing what I think is right and avoiding what I think is wrong.  In fact, I’ve spent much of my life doing just that with mixed results.  Yet consciously, right and wrong are just concepts of the human mind.  When I stop thinking about them and I go back to allowing the unconscious to lead, the duality vanishes and balance takes place. One inhale, one exhale, perfect harmony.

Over the course of my adult life I’ve dabbled with meditation.  Only in the past year have I been able to successfully turn it into a daily practice.  In fact, it was almost exactly one year ago that I committed to daily meditation inspired by reading Michael Singer’s The Surrender Experiment followed by Phillip Kapleau’s The Three Pillars of Zen.  The how-tos outlined in these two books helped me to get started and to remain focused.  Now with a full year of daily meditation behind me I’ve learned some things.  

Meditation teachers instruct beginners to start by concentrating on the breath.  Breathe in, breathe out. Slowly, deeply, consciously.  As you breathe, you allow thoughts to come and go.  Thoughts arise, you notice them and then quickly let them go.  To keep the mind from wandering too much it is often recommended that you count your breaths.  Count each breath until you reach 10 and then start back at one.

I have a very active mind and I still consider myself to be a beginner.  Counting breath to 10 is not as easy as it sounds!  Especially if you are breathing slowly, deeply and counting the combined inhale and exhale as one.  More often than not, thoughts race through my mind and I lose track of my count!

Early on I was very hard on myself. “Dude, you should be able to count to 10 without losing count!” I would tell myself.  I found I was judging my own ability to meditate!  Doesn’t that kind of defeat the purpose?  Those judgments became thoughts that got in the way of the counting.  By focusing on the breath, I’ve since learned to allow space for the thoughts to be and eventually they fade away on their own.  It turns out that our breath is an incredible spiritual teacher.  Especially when we recognize the perfect balance that natural, unconscious breathing demonstrates.

One duality I often think about is that of giving versus receiving.  This morning during my meditation it occurred to me that with each breath, we receive and with each exhale, we give.  On the inhale we take in oxygen that nourishes our bloodstream feeding all the cells of our bodies.  When we use up the oxygen it is converted to carbon dioxide, which is carried to our lungs and delivered back to the atmosphere.  That carbon dioxide feeds the plant world that receives it from us.  Plants then give back fresh oxygen and the cycle continues give.  This process happens whether or not we bring conscious awareness to it.

As human beings we often have difficulty asking for and receiving help.  I certainly suffer from this affliction.  Some of us give, give, give, but are not willing to allow ourselves to receive.  Isn’t this like trying to exhale without first taking a nourishing inhale?  An interesting duality for sure!  Can’t we learn to recognize that we must inhale (receive) each time we exhale (give)?

Perfect balance and harmony happen naturally, unconsciously.  We receive and we give harmoniously without ever thinking about it.  The ratio is one to one.  The dualities of inhale and exhale, giving and receiving, exist only in our minds.  Our awakened, conscious minds are capable of recognizing the illusions, letting go of them and allowing the oneness of the universe to be.  What other dualities are we creating in our minds that might be better served by the unconscious?  Are there perceived dualities that we’ve created in our minds that influence politics, racism or other social issues? 

What if we just focus on our breath?  What if we just spend a little more time concentrating on the inhale by receiving what we need, then allowing equal amounts of exhale by giving to make sure that others have what they need.  One inhale and one exhale yields balance and harmony, if we just allow the unconscious to lead the way.

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