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Thread: On Controlling the Breath

  1. #1

    On Controlling the Breath

    Hi all,

    I've a friend from another message board who's asked me to put this question to my teacher and sangha.

    I've got a question. When you're sitting and watching your breathing, are you controlling it as you're watching it or not? I'm starting to get the suspicion from what I've been reading that you're supposed to be letting the autonomic system do its thing while you're sitting, but I can't seem to be conscious of my breathing without deliberately controlling it.
    I tried to suggest to him that he should allow the breathing to occur naturally and let the mind rest, but he seemed to want further opinions. Any suggestions?


    PS: My own practice has finally rebooted and I'm sitting daily again! Good to see old friends!

  2. #2

    Re: On Controlling the Breath

    Quote Originally Posted by Justin

    I tried to suggest to him that he should allow the breathing to occur naturally and let the mind rest, but he seemed to want further opinions. Any suggestions?
    Hi Justin,

    Generally, in Soto Zen, we teach counting the breaths, or observing the breath, merely as a way to settle the mind for beginners. (After a few weeks or months, the training wheels come off, and we begin open, spacious sitting centered on everything and nothing at all.) On the other hand, different teachers, even within the Soto school, will teach somewhat different perspectives on this, and observing the breath can even be a lifetime practice for some!

    However, generally, we do not do anything with the breath, except to allow it to find its own, natural , easy rhythm. Master Dogen (the founder of the Soto lineage in Japan) did not really say very much about breathing. In fact, I often think that he could have said more (breathing is so important in the martial arts, for example). But, Dogen did not really seem to say much more than "know that long breaths are long, short breaths are short ... and that they are neither long nor short'. And breathe from the tanden [the physical center of gravity located in the abdomen three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel], ... in other words, breathe deeply ... but know that they come and go no where.

    About breathing during zazen, Dogen Zenji said in The collection of Dogen Zenji's formal speeches and poems (Eihei-koroku), vol. 5: ...

    In the Small Vehicles [of which Dogen disapproved}, there are two elementary ways (of beginner's practice): one is to count the breaths, and the other is to contemplate the impurity (of the body). In other words, a practitioner of Small Vehicles regulates his breathing by counting the breaths. The practice of the Buddha-ancestors, however, is completely different from the way of Small Vehicles. An ancestral teacher has said, “It is better to have the mind of a wily fox than to follow the way of Small Vehicle self-control.” Two of the Small Vehicle schools (studied) in Japan today are the precept school (Shibunritsu) and the school based on Abhidharma-kosa (Kusha).

    There is also the Mahayana way of regulating breathing. That is, knowing that a long breath is long and that a short one is short. The breath reaches the tanden and leaves from there. Although the exhalation and inhalation are different, they both pass through the tanden. When you breathe abdominally, it is easy to become aware of the transiency (of life), and to harmonize the mind.

    My late teacher Tendo said, “The inhaled breath reaches the tanden; however, it is not that this breath comes from somewhere. For that reason, it is neither short nor long. The exhaled breath leaves from the tanden; however, it is not possible to say where this breath goes. For that reason, it is neither long nor short”. My teacher explained it in that way, and if someone were to ask me how to harmonize one's breathing, I would reply in this way: although it is not Mahayana, it is different from the Small Vehicle; though it is not of the Small Vehicles it is different from Mahayana. And if questioned further regarding what it is ultimately, I would respond that inhaling or exhaling are neither long nor short. ... zazen.html
    It is, after all, goalless "just sitting".

    We usually just let the breath settle into a natural rhythm. I find that 2 or 3 breaths per minute is a sign of a very balanced Zazen. Let it come and go so naturally that you forget you are breathing.

    I will be giving a "sit-a-long" talk on this within a day or so, as part of our "Zazen for Beginners" series: ... l-b-1.html

    Gassho, Jundo

  3. #3

    Re: On Controlling the Breath

    Hey Justin,

    This has been an issue for me in the past and I usually found myself breathing harder than I would be otherwise. Counting breaths came and went for awhile at first and now all I really do is tell myself for just a fleeting moment..."slow"...and then let it go. Usually I'll notice it later and in nearly every instance I am breathing more slowly and I let that thought go too. I never force it and that was my "problem" for awhile...not just letting it happen (or not happen). In most things, I find that my body knows better than I what it needs to be doing and my brain quite literally thinks too much.

    Not sure if that helps (or if telling myself to slow down the breaths is what Jundo would even suggest), but it has helped me many times.


  4. #4

    Re: On Controlling the Breath

    Hi Justin,

    Nice to see you again.

    I've also found it helpful to breathe 'horizontally', letting the stomach expand and contract, as opposed to 'vertically', breathing upwards into the chest. The reasoning for this is that if you do the latter, it can destabilize your posture, since with each breath you're continually making slight movements with your torso & shoulders. It's not something that I focus on however, it comes naturally.


  5. #5

    Re: On Controlling the Breath

    Sorry to say it but, if you're not breathing with your stomach moving rather than your chest you aren't breathing properly whether doing zazen or not, shallow chest breathing is poor breathing, something to avoid and a bad habit.

    The abdominal breathing guide here might be useful

    Also not doing zazen after a heavy meal will make relaxed 'non-thinking' breathing easier.

    In gassho, Kev

  6. #6

    Re: On Controlling the Breath

    Thank you all very much for your replies!

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