Taking in full deep breaths is something many of us don’t do. Much of the time our breathing is rapid and shallow, filled with anxiety like our lives. I spent 66 years drawing shallow breaths and living on the periphery without being aware of it. On those occasions when I did notice and tried to breathe deeply, I found sucking in a full breath almost impossible. The way we breathe reflects the way we live. Many of us are so busy and distracted we fail to notice either. Which is why the practice of (what Zen Buddhism calls) “sitting meditation” is so important.
The time is 3:55 a.m. as I sit quietly on my meditation cushion on the porch breathing. Slowly, deeply taking in each breath. Noticing how the morning air feels cool as it enters my nostrils and moves down my throat into my lungs. My diaphragm expands with each inhalation and contracts with each exhalation. This kind of breathing isn’t forced or stilted but natural and deep. I hear the electronic beep of a trash truck as it moves in reverse on a distant street. A train rumbles along the railroad track a quarter-mile from my home. I’m surprised at how busy the world is at this early hour. And I’m grateful to have reached a time in life when I can sit quietly and breathe deeply and let the world pass without getting caught up in its activity.
Many in our western culture don’t recognize the value of meditation. We view meditation with suspicion. We think people who meditate are weird. “Why meditate,” we ask, “when there are so many things more fun?” My answer is: I’m not into fun; I’m into depth. When I come to the end of my life I don’t want to look back and see years measured in how much fun I had, how many friends I made, or how many assets I accumulated. I want to look back on a life lived deeply and meaningfully. And that is why I sit on this cushion and attend to my breath at four o’clock in the morning.
Bhante Gunaratana makes the case for meditation in his book Mindfulness in Plain English: We meditate “because we are human…and find ourselves heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness that will not go away.” Gunaratana says “we can suppress [the dissatisfaction] from our awareness for a time; we can distract ourselves for hours on end, but [the dissatisfaction] always comes back….Meanwhile, way down under it all, we know there has to be a better way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully.”
Here on this meditation cushion I find what Gunaratana wrote about–“a better way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully.” Here on this cushion with the cool morning air caressing my skin and filling my lungs I repent of the busy life, misguided efforts, and wasted years. I wouldn’t return to those years even if I could. And I vow to live the remaining years so that there will be no more regrets–so that when the final breath moves through my nostrils, down my throat, and into my lungs, I will feel no hesitation at passing quietly and gently into the presence of God.
Jim Belcher is a retired Clergy from the Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. Jim has practiced contemplative prayer and zazen for 30 years.