When it comes to the practice of meditation, or as many refer to it by its more informal name as “sitting”, it has not been rare that I’ve heard people report their experience with it as one that is fraught with boredom, sleepiness, and a general lack of stimulation. This was also the case for me the first 3-4 years of my sitting practice, before I was introduced to the universe of the respiratory system, and its magnificent influence on the mind. The methodology of Yoga is all predicated on the exact procession of the breath. Postures, movement, diet, rest, physiological and mental hygiene, and ethical precepts are rendered lifeless at best, if not altogether dysfunctional, without the conscious cooperation of the breath. Once I discovered that breathing practices were the missing link in my sitting times, my meditation experience was transduced from one that resembled a chore, to something that I actually looked forward to, and even craved.
I’ve posted about different breathing (pranayama) techniques in the past, but in this post I wanted to share about a more subtle aspect of breathing that seems to go far less noticed. This is classically considered to be one of the last stages of pranayama practice, that is said to impart wisdom and bring forth awakening about the true nature of the Self. It is beyond this post to get into what was exactly meant by the Self, but suffice it to say that its discovery is the proverbial end-goal of practice that has been outlined in the traditions of Yoga and Buddhism. The state of breathlessness that naturally occurs during the transition between the Inhale and Exhale is called “kevala kumbhaka.” Or more specifically, it is the transition itself. Referenced in several of the most classical texts, it is also described in the Yoga Sutras (2:51) as follows:
“The fourth type of pranayama transcends the external and internal pranayamas, and appears effortless and non-deliberate”
The most potent and relatable quality of this ability, is its intimate proximity to everyone that possesses a breath. It is not only reserved for the life-long committed disciples that have paid decades of dues in their training. It is not the active breath retention that was described in my posts on “Sama Vrtti” pranayama. It is the passive, natural, and unintentional pause that transpires during absolutely every breath that all humans, have ever or will ever take, if only for even the slightest shred of a moment. It is traditionally taught to be observed during the restful and automatic breathing states that take place between the sets of pranayama techniques, when students are instructed to simply monitor the natural flow of respiration. Although this sounds relatively easy on the surface, it requires nothing less than absolutely clear and meticulous attention. Due to the fact that this naturally occurring interlude between the in/out-breath is of such short duration, it is either easy to miss, or dismiss, and one’s power of concentration makes all the difference. As an aside, it’s an interesting contemplation on why we’re so tempted to dismiss experiences on grounds of brevity in the first place. As I’ve gained a little more familiarity with this part of the practice, it has become unequivocally one of the most consistently satisfying and meaningful parts of my life. The short bursts of tranquility glimpsed in this part of practice has helped me refine my own understanding of peace and serenity, in a way that has utterly reframed my appreciation for the simplicity of what it takes to be satisfied. By no means am I making any great claims as to the weight of my psychological or spiritual development with the previous statement, as I am more so testifying to the efficacy and power of the technique itself.
It is fascinating to just consider the physiological depth/sgnificance of this practice, without making any allusions, or taking any unwarranted leaps, to the potentially spiritual significance of this experience. We are humbled to keep in mind that the magnitude of biological complexity that comprises the entire body, and which we so often take for granted, makes up the entirety of our life. From our dreams and passions, to the most common and mundane instances of our experience, our body is making it possible. This possibility is itself dependent upon the environmental necessities of oxygen, food, and water, to say nothing of the laws of physics and organic chemistry, without which the universe itself would disintegrate. To see how the continuous flux of our moment to moment experience is being produced by the constant interaction of our biology and our environment, reveals a mystery of such depth, that one need not look to mystical answers to be in sheer awe of the profundity of what it means to be alive. Our Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) governs the rate and depth of our breath, and adjusts when and how much to inhale/exhale based on the demands of the body. This means that our physiological needs precede our in/out-breath. When the body needs oxygen, the ANS reacts by prompting the inhale, and when it needs to remove CO2, it reacts with the exhale. Just based on this alone, it could be hypothesized that the pauses between in/exhale, correspond to a state of the body when, if even for just an instant, the balance between oxygen and CO2 is in complete harmony, and there is no lack or abundance that the respiratory system is reacting to. So, if inhales and exhales are simply just reactions to a need, what can be concluded about the state where these reactions are absent? Is it reasonable to assume that this can be a state where there is no need, and therefore, no lack? While we all know that there is a state of mental contentment, it is interesting to consider whether this can be an instance of physiological contentment. This line of reasoning intersects with a central tenet of Yoga which stipulates, that the majority of human suffering essentially stems from the existence of cravings. It is taught that because we are consumed by the common cravings for food, sex, or reputation, in their infinite guises, we are distracted away from enjoying a mindful relationship to each present moment, and therefore suffer. Moreover, the Sympathetic branch (SNS) of the ANS governs the inhale, and the Parasympathetic branch (PNS) governs the exhale. If the SNS is what also supports the dynamic activities of daily life, from waking up in the morning, to confronting a threat via the classical fight-or-flight response, and the PNS supports the restful and regenerative activities of everything from sleeping to digestion, what can we infer about the nature of the state that lies in between these two functions? Or when neither branch dominant?
The only issue with this proposition, is that there is no specific research that has been conducted to verify whether there is anything significantly different during these intermissions of the breath. But, as with so much other valid knowledge and information that human beings have amassed, the power to deduce a truth by inferring from established points and axioms, is itself a legitimate part of the scientific process. This is what gives scientific reproducibility its merit. It is only by testing and confirming a set of conditions, that we can predict they will be reproduced in the future. The knowledge that the laws of physics will be consistent enough for human beings to fly in airplanes and expect a successful trip, is only guaranteed by assuming these conditions from previous tests and flights remain stable, since it is impossible to test these laws every time a plane prepares for takeoff. Now, even though Im using scientific descriptions in the physiology of breathing, I’m hypothesizing about something more direct, experiential, and subjective. Not technically physiological, as much as phenomenal. The fact that we do not experience CO2 directly, but we experience it indirectly by its effects on the body, does not minimize the chemical properties of this gas, nor the subjective experience of breathing. Since at the scale of direct experience we do not have direct access to the neural circuitry of the ANS, anymore than we have direct access to the mechanisms of kidney function, the technical descriptions of its function will only take us so far. They are useful to help formulate the outline of the inquiry, but without the personal relationship to this practice, and without being able to subjectively sense these phenomena within the body, the outline is all we will be left with. It’s important to point out here that this is not the only area of life where science is not able, at least yet, to draw a clear picture of the underlying mechanisms of certain direct experiences. The most precious sentiments that everyone prizes like, love, gratitude, forbearance, etc..are just a few of the experiences that cannot be conveyed through a purely objective and scientific framework, yet they are experiences that stand at the foundation of our lives, and are beyond doubt. When someone feels love for their child, scientific confirmations or measures of this feeling are essentially irrelevant, being that love is a subjective state, and not a chemical calculation. The factual information that a mother is flooded by oxytocin during the bonding with her child, does almost nothing for her felt experience that is compelling the nurturing of the child. Therefore, it would be instructive to grant credence to the possibility that there is an experience worthy of investigation in this regard, even in the absence of empirical data. What reason would anyone have to presume that human beings have mapped and presented every potential conscious experience? Additionally, there is an extensive recorded history that has promoted the exercise of these practices and the achievability of the resulting states.
The modern human is one that is tilted toward the bias of objective and scientific validations but, the logical step we have to be careful to not violate, is in upholding the old aphorism that, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The fact that modern technology is not able, as of yet, to elucidate wherefrom and how someone is able to retrieve their childhood memories in an instant, does not obviate the reality that memory exists.
The application of this technique gives anyone a direct opportunity to discover something substantial, and perhaps unexpected, about the character of their mind. The weight of this implication can be made clear by drawing upon the previous example of love. The discovery and growth of love for someone, carries with it an imperative of action and quality of life, that anyone would find living without, as hardly worth it. Since it is afterall, the mind through which we conduct, and by which we experience, our lives, the improvement of experience we stand to inherit by discovering what was previously unknown about it, can render significance that is on par with that of love.
Meditation, unlike so many other endeavors we’re caught up in, stands in almost total contrast to the complexity of all our other obligations. Most of our day to day affairs command an outwardly directed focus, where we give attention to objects that are separable from ourselves. Cooking food, attending to relationship demands, going to school or work, are just a few, among the innumerable multitude, of the universal interactions, where the character of the mind is not the center of attention. In fact, one would be hard-pressed to think of any activity other than meditation, where the mind takes center stage as the object of focus, yet it is the guarantor of every bit of our conscious experience. Without it, how would food be prepared, and how would there even be anyone that is perceiving hunger? This conspicuous conclusion can be enough to elevate the importance of mental health and function to a forefront priority. In my own case, I had no idea to what degree my mind was cluttered and inefficient, before the lessons of meditation began to pronounce themselves. I felt like I had finally discovered what was really the source of the seemingly endless miseries, that had hitherto been punctuating my life. Once I prioritized this practice, and had a hands-on approach to the quality with which my mind labored, I have been continuously exposed to the unnecessary burdens that were previously invisible to me. It is figuratively and literally the breath of fresh air that I didn’t even know I was missing, until I had found it.