Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Breathe Into It

“Breathe into it,” the yoga instructor said, her arms and legs braided like an unbaked pretzel. On rows of rubber mats students strained into the pose with varying degrees of success. The sinuous sounds of Deuter washed over the room like gentle waves of warm green tea.

Breathe into it, I thought, what the hell does that mean? But instead of arguing, I tried it. At the deepest point of my stretch I felt a sharp knot of tightness that told me I had reached my limit. I could go no further. Then I breathed into the tension. I inhaled as if my breath was going directly into and through the tightness. Something mysterious happened. It loosened. With the next exhalation my pose deepened all on its own, beyond where I thought I could go. What I had failed to accomplish with effort was realized effortlessly.

Like anyone else, I was accustomed to the old idea that if I was ever going to accomplish or achieve anything it would be through persistent and strenuous effort. Only a bold and willful decision followed by vigorous and assertive action could move a mountain. If I didn’t do anything, nothing would get done.

Of course intention, will-power and effort all play a part. But until we allow the larger forces already at work (or is it play) to align with and buoy our efforts, no amount of straining is going to move even a molehill.

When we cut our finger the healing begins immediately and without our consent or intention. There are systems in place of which we are only observers. What if we allowed ourselves to slip gently into the realization that we are partners with larger energies around us? The ancient Indians called this energy prana, the life force within us and all living things. Prana is the Sanskrit word for “breath”.

In the second creation story of Genesis, (yes, there are two), God made Adam “from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.” Like scores of other creation stories, Genesis tells us that human beings are a mysterious combination of inanimate matter and the breath of life, an indefinable force rooted in a vast intelligence far beyond human control let alone comprehension.

Speech and song are made of breath. It is through the power of speech that God called the universe into being when he said, “Let there be light.” The Navajo don’t consider a newborn baby fully human until it has taken its first breath, or better still, made its first sound. And if you’ve ever heard Eve Selis sing, let alone stood on stage with her and looked into the eyes of an audience caught in the grip of her powerful voice, you would know – it is through the power of breath that the beauty of life is made manifest.

Now consider all the difficulties and challenges we face. Many of us are caught in overwhelming financial crises. There are daunting health challenges. Some of our relationships seem damaged beyond repair. Or maybe there are dreams unfulfilled, crushing burdens, towering tasks and impossible obstacles. Perhaps it’s something as simple as a general, vague sense of incompletion, dissatisfaction and sadness. We can’t seem to fix all the things that are broken no matter how hard we try. Despite all our good intentions and best efforts we fall short. It might be time to try another way.

There is an old Chinese parable about a rice farmer who was so eager for his crop to grow that every morning he tugged on each tiny shoot. In the end, he uprooted every plant. He didn’t harvest one single grain of rice that year.

“The world is ruled by letting things take their course,” says Laozi in the Daodejing. “It cannot be ruled by interfering. In the universe the difficult things are done as if they are easy. In the universe great acts are made up of small deeds. The sage does not attempt anything very big, and thus achieves greatness.” Letting things take their natural course and come to fruition in their own time is not only effective, it also creates lasting serenity and joy. If we really understood this perennial principle a deep and vibrant humility would well up in us and heal so much of our dissatisfaction and stiff-necked restlessness. We would become lithe and fluid like water. We would accomplish everything without doing anything. Paradoxically, our softness would become our strength. “A tree that is unbending,” says Laozi, “is easily broken.”

The only thing in the way of this new consciousness of allowance is our old pattern of thinking, the one that says life is nothing but struggle and strife. When Jesus counseled his students to be like the lilies of the field he was clearly teaching this same principle. Whether you subscribe to a personified God or prefer your Source less defined and localized, there is a common thread running through all these teachings. This has little to do with theism or atheism. Leave that debate in the college cafeteria. Our mental machinations and busy bee schemes often do little but interfere with the inherently generative course of nature. Something is always trying to grow through us. Are we interfering or allowing? Are we anxious and constricted or breathing easy?

No matter the difficulty, when all our best intentions and efforts seem ineffective, maybe it’s simply time to surrender. Bring yourself into alignment with the inherent intelligence of the universe. The next time you bump up against a problem, lean forward, let go and breathe into it.