Coming Home to the Body
The practice of meditation is a journey of return to who we really are, says Zen teacher Norman Fischer. We come home to the body—so vulnerable, ever-changing, magnificent—because it is “the soil in which understanding grows.” It is the vehicle of enlightenment.
Note that the basis of the Buddha’s forbearance, and the basis of ours as well, is the body. When things get tough in our meditation practice, we hold on with the body, paying close attention to the body in sitting, walking, breathing, and so on. Staying with the body brings calm, and gives us a concrete, definite way to be with our experience without running away.
In the Abhidharma, the Buddhist psychological teachings, the body is called “the soil in which understanding grows.” This is of course true: the body calms and grounds the mind and heart, and a stable mind and heart produce wisdom and happiness. And yet (another paradox!) the trustworthy body is also, like the heart, radically vulnerable. In fact, this is its very nature. The Abhidharma’s definition of the body is “that which can be molested.” In other words, the nature of the body—and of everything that is material, physical—is that it can be broken, squashed, scraped, scratched, burned, and worn away. Thoughts and feelings may be pleasant or unpleasant, but they cannot be broken, squashed, burned, or worn away. How is it that this fundamentally breakable body is the basis of truth, enlightenment, redemption?
When I look in the mirror I see a familiar image I call myself. Once the image of an infant, then a child, then an adolescent, it now reflects a grown adult. Is it accurate to think of this series of images as one evolving person? Or, since science tells me that not a single cell that existed in my body at infancy exists in it now, is it more accurate to see this present image as someone new?
The human body is not an object in the world. It is a magnificent process, a ceaseless flow, a journey in itself. Without my intending or thinking about it, my heart beats, my lungs expand and contract, blood surges through many thousands of miles of capillaries, arteries, and veins, nourishing muscles and organs. When the sense organs receive stimulation, a world springs into view as chemical and electrical reactions in the brain and nervous system give rise to thoughts, emotions, intentions, experiences. Without making any complicated or belabored effort, I can naturally desire, move, act in this world.
I eat a meal but I don’t digest—the body does this on its own, whether I want it to or not, taking meat and bread, eggs, fish, and carrots, and transforming them into energy and waste, into meaning, purpose, dilemmas, love. They’re transformed into life, the ongoing flow of life that expresses itself through the body I call “me,” as if I owned it, as if I knew what it was, as if I were in charge of it, and could direct it according to my will. What is my will exactly? In what part of my body does it reside?
I can tell my body to walk or sit or stand or jump, and it will. But I cannot order my body not to age or not to bleed if my finger is cut. If I become ill I can tell my body to get well, but I do not know if it will obey. My body will fight the illness whether I tell it to or not, and most of the time my body will eliminate the illness, restoring itself to health, because no matter how sick my body becomes, there is always more right with it than wrong. The body is a vehicle for life’s flow; it is ruled by life, determined by life, much more than it is ruled and determined by me.
I did not design or engineer this body, nor did I choose it, ordering it from a selection of floor models. Somehow the body appeared without the application of volition on my part, and then later on, little by little, “I” began to inhabit the body, although I am not sure I can say that “I” am something other than the body. I can’t imagine what “I” would be without the body, yet I can think of myself as other than the body, as thought, as feeling, as a vague sense of subjectivity I take quite for granted, though I can neither define nor completely confirm its existence. All my desire, intention, will, effort, emotion, and intelligence are very small and crude, compared to the body’s skills—the mystery, power, and subtlety of the body’s ongoing flow.
The body does not persist endlessly on its course. When the flow of life, having passed through the body for just the right amount of time, moves on, the body becomes inanimate, a mere physical presence, uncanny still, but in a different way. Like all physical objects, the inanimate body dissolves gradually into the elements that make it up. What will I be when that happens? But even after the body dissolves into air, water, fire, earth, and light, life will still flow on. My thinking, my desire, my language, my sense of vulnerability, my conditioning sees the breakup of the body as my tragic problem. But the body does not have this problem. For all I know, the body might see its final dissolution as an exciting journey of return, a liberation, a homecoming, a release, a frolic through time, space, and beyond.
The living body breathes. This is one of its most salient features. Air enters through nostrils or mouth, fills the lungs, enriches the blood that flows through the heart and from the heart throughout the body, renewing life. Then, easily and naturally—without any decision or intention on my part—spent air goes out through mouth or nostrils, carrying with it what the body no longer needs, releasing the body’s past, its used-up moments, out into the world from which they came. Moment after moment the body does this: renewing life, letting go of life, with each breath in and out. Breathing is another version of the journey of return.
A sudden breath is the first thing that happens when the tiny mammalian body leaves its watery home inside its mother and enters the harsh, cold light of the outer, wider world. The first breath in, rush of cold air—what a shock! How unexpected, how unwelcome. The first breath must feel sharp, aggressive, like the world forcing us to participate whether we want to or not, causing us to gasp, as we will continue to gasp for the rest of our lives in the face of life’s relentless aggression. We cry out, though none of us remembers this. And at the end of a life, when the final moment comes, the moment when the body returns home to earth, its elements seeking their original places of repose (“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”), the lungs let go and there is one last breath out. And there is peace, rest, rejoining.
Human life in the world always begins with an inhalation and always ends with an exhalation. And between those two decisive breaths there is always breathing going on. We say “we breathe,” but it would be better to say “we are breathed.” Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, year after year, decade after decade, there is no end, no pause, to breathing. If, out of disgust for life, or out of sheer weariness, we wanted to stop breathing, we could not. All our willpower, all our despair, fear, or loathing, would not be sufficient to carry out the intention “from now on I will not breathe.”
There is only so much air on the planet, and we must share it with all other breathing creatures. Now, and since the beginning of breathing, we have all been breathing the same air, taking it into our bodies, transforming it and being transformed by it, using it to move through time, moment by moment, to be what we are. This is intimacy: we take into our bodies the very air that others have breathed. Molecules of air that Buddha breathed, that Jesus breathed, that Plato, Hitler, Napoleon, Einstein, Shakespeare, the pope, the heavyweight champion of the world breathed; air breathed by men, women, and children, by heroes and murderers, by animals, plants, and insects, throughout time on earth—some of these same molecules have been inside of us.
In the Bible’s great story of creation, God creates the mountains, the sky, the sea, and all that dwells within them by pronouncing words. But the human being is created when God breathes a breath into him. One of the Hebrew words for soul, nefesh (and also the Greek word, pneuma, and the Latin word, spiritus), means breath. Soul, spirit is breath.
For some years before his enlightenment night, Buddha tried all sorts of extreme practices. He meditated on bliss, peace, and happiness. When this did not produce the lasting change he sought, he meditated on spaciousness, consciousness, nothingness, and on a state called neither-perception-nor-nonperception. When none of these profound trances helped, he tried ascetic practices. He stood on one foot in a lake with water up to his neck for days at a time. He tried cow practice and dog practice—not speaking or bathing, and eating, sleeping, behaving, and vocalizing as if he were a cow or a dog. Next he tried hardly eating at all, till gradually he got down to one sesame seed a day. When none of these worked, he gave them up, too.
On the point of despair, the Buddha suddenly remembered a simple natural meditation that he’d fallen into when he was a child sitting under an apple tree at a festival, just quietly breathing, just being aware. So he decided to trust the feeling of his childhood and to return to this simple practice, which, as he sat under the enlightenment tree, finally won him through to awakening. Zen meditation is just this simple, childish practice. Just sitting, just breathing, being with whatever arises, but then letting go and coming back to just sitting and breathing, trusting that being alive in the body, the breath, the mind, and the heart is enough. Being content not to know, but simply to be present with life as it appears.
Meditation is not what we think it is: it is not peacefulness or bliss or even a technique for insight or enlightenment. In its widest sense, meditation is an open and creative way of returning home to ourselves, a way in which the mystery that we actually are can have its full expression. Meditation is not limited to a particular technique or posture; any open-ended spiritual or creative exercise can be a form of meditation.
Formal sitting meditation practice, as done in Zen or other schools of Buddhism (and in other traditions, too), is a powerful way to foster this open, creative engagement with ourselves. In formal sitting we practice the journey of return in a literal way, returning awareness to the breath, to the body, to the present moment, whenever it strays away. Most simply understood, formal sitting meditation is the effort to return to the concrete feeling of being alive, a feeling that is always with us, but that we almost never notice, so preoccupied are we with our problems and issues.
Meditation in general, and formal sitting meditation in particular, is radically simple. There’s almost nothing to it. Letting go, coming back—that’s all. The only difference between meditation and nonmeditation is that when we meditate we are not grasping anything or trying to do anything; instead, we are releasing ourselves to our lives, with trust that our lives are all we need. A monk once asked Zen Master Zhaozho what meditation is. “It’s nonmeditation,” he answered. “How can meditation be nonmeditation?” the monk asked. “It’s alive!” was Zhaozho’s response.
Here is a simple formal meditation practice I often teach. Like all meditation techniques it is provisional, which is to say it is not crucial that you do it precisely or correctly or that you take it too seriously. The point of it is to help you in your effort to return to the present, which can sometimes be difficult without something concrete to focus on.
First, sit down in a quiet spot. Whether you sit on a chair or a cushion, sit up straight, with your spine extended, your upper body open. Fold your hands in your lap, put them on your knees, or use the Zen hand position of left palm on top of right, with the palms gently curved, making an oval, thumb tips just barely touching. Cast your eyes downward (you can close them if you like, but watch out not to get too dreamy or sleepy) and begin by sweeping your awareness lightly through the body: forehead, eyes, cheeks, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, and so on. The point is to arrive in the body, to be aware of the body as sensation and process, to ground yourself in the body as basis so that thought and emotion don’t fly too far afield.
Once you are actually sitting there, all of you, mind and body in one place, begin to turn your attention to the breath. Breathe in and out gently through the nose, paying attention to the breath in the abdomen area. Begin with counting the breath, saying the numbers silently, one to ten, with each exhale. If you lose count, go back to one and begin again, as much as possible without blame or dismay. Once you can count fairly well, or get bored with counting, next just follow the breath in the belly, feeling it there, in, out, in, out, and so on (you can say these words, or, better, just be with the sensation, or, still better, be the sensation).
If this begins to make you sleepy, or if you would just like to move on, see the whole breath more brightly and fully: become aware of the beginning, middle, and end of the inhalation; the beginning middle and end of the exhalation; the odd and almost imperceptible places where inhalation ends and exhalation begins; or exhalation ends and inhalation (after a nonbreathing gap) begins. Every breath is a whole life: see if you can feel that life and live it fully, from one end of it to the other.
If you can, and would like to, move on, then make the breath vivid and alive, brighter and brighter, as if you were turning up a rheostat to make the light in your room gradually brighter. Now you don’t need to count, follow, or see the whole breath—just make it alive, breath after breath, until it is full of interest and passion. If you can get that far, then you will be able to let go of the breath altogether and just sit with an open awareness, open to sounds, thoughts, feelings, the whole universe that swirls around you and inside you.
To summarize the process: establish awareness of the body; count; follow; discriminate the whole breath; make it alive; jump off. These are the steps, but it is not necessary to do them all, or to do them in this order. Be flexible with your practice and figure out for yourself what is most natural, what will work to give you a grounding strong enough to bring you back to the present moment of your being alive right here where you are. Also, remember to stay engaged with the feeling of the body the whole time, which you will find that you can do, even while you are paying attention to the breath. After twenty to thirty (or more!) minutes of meditation, if you have time, you may find it worthwhile to spend another fifteen minutes doing some spiritual reading, or some prayer, chanting, or other exercise or form of worship.
Repetition is the soul of spiritual practice. In any tradition I know of, there are daily practices like this one and a sense of faithfulness to a daily routine. This takes some gentle self-discipline, encouraged by some support from others within whatever spiritual community you can find to belong to. Doing the same thing over and over again may seem dull, but the more you immerse yourself in spiritual practice, diving into it day after day like jumping into the bracing ocean with its sunlit wavetips, the more wonderful it becomes.
Life’s like that, too. We might seek novelty, but even where there seems to be novelty, what’s really going on underneath the surface is pattern repetition. Whether we are in Hawaii on vacation, sick in the hospital, or absorbed in our workweek, there is always going to sleep, waking up, eating, going to the toilet, walking, standing, sitting, reclining, seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling, feeling, thinking. Every day goes this way. The sun rises, the sun sets. Life comes, goes, and comes back again. You could see this as boring. Or you could realize that life’s archetypal repetition is a form of the journey of return, the deep joy of moment-by-moment renewal, with each breath and heartbeat. The daily routine of spiritual practices brings this reality home to us. Gertrude Stein, the great genius of repetition, once said, “The question of repetition is very important. It is important because there is no such thing as repetition.” Each moment in the ever-repeated pattern is, by virtue of the repetition, always new; whatever comes back around again in the great cycle of things is always fresh.
Spiritual practice in all its manifestations is the practice of coming home. The journey of return is profound, but it is also vague and dark. It is, to a great extent, hidden from us. And yet we know about it. The world’s religious and imaginative literature gives us many hints and pointers, and we ourselves have inklings and flashes of it at the center of our experience and sometimes at the edges. So we know it is real and we know how much it matters. The journey of return involves not only our so-called “spiritual lives” but the whole of our lives, our work, relationships, creative expression, dreams, sickness, wellness, and dying. Meditation practice is at the center of the journey of return, fueling and inspiring us.
Excerpted from Sailing Home by Norman Fischer. Copyright © 2008 by Norman Fischer. Reprinted by permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Zoketsu Norman Fischer is a Soto Zen roshi in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi. He is an author, poet, and founder of the Everyday Zen Foundation. This essay is excerpted from his new book, Sailing Home: Using Homer's Odyssey to Navigate Life's Perils and Pitfalls, published in June by Free Press.