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Real Happiness Challenge Week 1: The breath is everything

The word for today is balance. 

In my mind, I'm picturing a surfer -- actually a surfer's feet on the board, a surfer's body, swaying, adjusting to find that balance to stay on the board, to ride the wave. The surfer does that by feel, not consciously thinking, now I have to move my weight to my left foot to counterbalance the rising water on that side, and by practice. By the time that thought could arise and the body could respond, the balance would be gone and the surfer would be a swimmer. But practice -- failing to do it and falling in, over-compensating and falling the other way -- it becomes instinctive.

In meditation, we practice finding that mental balance. We find the focus -- the breath -- and rest attention there. But sometimes we grab onto it and tighten around it, squeezing it and creating tension. Sometimes we're too relaxed and lose track of the breath, wandering off into thoughts about other things or just spacing out. 

We practice finding the balance with the breath. But we bring our balance into the world.

To me, tightening my attention on the breath, grasping onto it, is the same feeling I get when I grab onto an idea of how the world should be. I can't see other options, I can't wait for this thing to arrive, I don't understand why everyone doesn't agree with me. It's a small, closed space of shallow, tight breaths.

When I loosen up, I see there's more space. My chest expands, my belly relaxes. There is air, there is room, there is no need to look ahead to the next breath -- just this one is enough. Just this one is wonderful. But staying with this one breath is important. 

Sharon Salzberg writes:

When your attention is diffuse, it’s like a broad, weak beam of light that doesn’t reveal much. Concentration brings the weak beam down to a single, sharply focused, supremely bright, exponentially more illuminating point.

How can the breath be illuminating? It's just the breath; it happens whether we think about it or not. If it's not a problem, why should we notice it?

I recently heard Kate Bornstein talk about gender and aging and her Zen practice, which is to contemplate the koan, The way you do one thing is the way you do everything. 

Maybe the way we approach the breath is the way we approach everything: Grasping or ignoring, chasing or controlling it, critiquing it and our powers of observing it. Maybe if we can find ease and balance with the breath, we can find that with other things in our lives. If we can stay with one breath, we can stay with one thought or one conversation instead of anticipating the next one. We can greet its arising, appreciate its fullness, and release it without regret.

It's just breath. And it's everything.


IDP is participating in lineage mentor Sharon Salzberg's REAL HAPPINESS Meditation Challenge.  This 28-day practice follows the the program outlined in Sharon’s New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness for the entire month of February. We encourage everyone to join us; since 2011, thousands have participated in this challenge which will help you develop your meditation with support from the entire community.​

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