As the story goes, once upon a time, a spiritual seeker in search of enlightenment learned of a wise teacher who lived in a remote village far, far away. Hidden behind a tall rock wall at the end of a precipitous trail, high on a mountain peak, the wise teacher lived a monastic life of solitary contemplation. Only occasionally - in the rarest of circumstances - would the wise teacher grant an audience to seekers of spiritual enlightenment.
Undaunted, our spiritual seeker refused to relinquish the dream of finding answers to life’s greatest questions. So, following months of earnest persuasion, the seeker at last set out on an arduous journey.
Until one day after weeks of travel, the seeker finally sat at the feet of the great and wise teacher. With opportunity granted for only one question, the seeker voiced this well-thought-out plea: “Great Wise One if you will tell me the secret to a happy life, I will follow your teaching and dedicate my life to the service of good.”
At first the teacher said not a word. The sacred room fell into silence. Effort required for pondering such a question furrowed the brow of the wise teacher. The minutes ticked away. With growing dread, the seeker feared this question was too vast, there was no answer and his whole spiritual quest had been in vain. Just then a broad grin spread across the teacher’s face. With twinkling eyes looking directly into the soul of the seeker, the Wise One said, “Yes my child. I am happy to tell you. The answer is this: Just breathe.”
It’s that simple. Awareness of the humble human breath defines the path of most every healing spiritual practice. Focused breathing allows us to know what we feel, what we need; what we want. Let’s look at it. Try this. Seat yourself comfortably in a safe place free from distraction. Or lie on your back, close your eyes, and imagine your body gently melting into the floor beneath you. Without forcing the process, mindfully notice the breath coming in and flowing out. Focus on how your body moves with each breath. Is your breath shallow or deep? If your mind wants to chatter and take you down some alternative route, kindly and gently laugh at its antics as you would a restless child, and then simply go back to the breath.
Once you are centered and breathing easily, ask your mind to recall a pleasant memory. Bring the circumstance clearly into focus and notice how your breath reacts. Now recall a painful experience. Focus on the feelings that surround the event. What happens to your breath as you remember something painful? Do you feel the difference?
Most of us suck in a lively gulp of air when we are happy. Conversely, when we feel fear, we gasp, hold our breath and contract. In the same way a tree ring holds the record of every cycle the tree has encountered, each unpleasant moment we have ever experienced is repressed within the fiber of our cells by this simple act of shallow breathing.
With all our daily stress, not to mention trauma, human beings have become a breath-holding species. Too many of us look to outside sources for answers to our most pressing circumstances. We have lost sight of who we are and where we are going. But we are in luck. The Wise Teacher resides within each individual heart. We find the pathway within through deep, focused breathing. Breathing deeply oxygenates and fills our cells and organs with transformative energy. At the same time, focused breathing enlivens our brain chemistry with a naturally created endorphin high. As soon as we open up, our entire mind, body and spirit is flooded with healing potential. It’s hard to imagine a more therapeutic drug than the simple, oxygen-rich breath.
For more than twenty years I’ve facilitated Heartwork Workshops constructed around the teaching of Stanislov Grof (The Holographic Mind, The Stormy Search for the Self) and Jacquelyn Small (Transformers, Embodying Spirit). This work isn’t goal-oriented. Multi-tasking isn’t required. Ancient in practice, deep breathing initiates a simple meditative trance which delivers magical results.
While sitting meditation opens to higher mind, and walking meditation enhances a sense of empowerment, lying meditation - such as this - opens the heart. For earnest seekers, the combined effect of evocative music and initial deep purposeful breathing creates a journeying experience similar to shamanic mystical travels. Once in a meditative journeying state, we naturally find our heart, and connect with our Wise Teacher SELF. Here we view our life and our world — the good, the bad and the ugly — through the forgiving prism of love and compassion...rather than through the clouded lens of judgment and hate.
All healing paths have merit. Heartwork is one among many. Whichever path we choose as we commit to wholeness, the world is healed one person at a time. And this begins...with you...and me.
Sandy Foster Morrison