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Lions Roar : July 2008
SHAMBHALA SUN JULY 2008 68 Or, since science tells me that not a single cell that existed in my body at infancy exists in it now, is it more accurate to see this present image as someone new? The human body is not an object in the world. It is a mag- nificent process, a ceaseless flow, a journey in itself. Without my intending or thinking about it, my heart beats, my lungs expand and contract, blood surges through many thousands of miles of capillaries, arteries, and veins, nourishing mus- cles and organs. When the sense organs receive stimulation, a world springs into view as chemical and electrical reactions in the brain and nervous system give rise to thoughts, emo- tions, intentions, experiences. Without making any compli- cated or belabored effort, I can naturally desire, move, act in this world. I eat a meal but I don’t digest—the body does this on its own, whether I want it to or not, taking meat and bread, eggs, fish, and carrots, and transforming them into energy and waste, into meaning, purpose, dilemmas, love. They’re transformed into life, the ongoing flow of life that expresses itself through the body I call “me,” as if I owned it, as if I knew what it was, as if I were in charge of it, and could direct it according to my will. What is my will exactly? In what part of my body does it reside? I can tell my body to walk or sit or stand or jump, and it will. But I cannot order my body not to age or not to bleed if my finger is cut. If I become ill I can tell my body to get well, but I do not know if it will obey. My body will fight the ill- ness whether I tell it to or not, and most of the time my body will eliminate the illness, restoring itself to health, because no matter how sick my body becomes, there is always more right with it than wrong. The body is a vehicle for life’s flow; it is ruled by life, determined by life, much more than it is ruled and determined by me. I did not design or engineer this body, nor did I choose it, ordering it from a selection of floor models. Somehow the body appeared without the application of volition on my part, and then later on, little by little, “I” began to inhabit the body, although I am not sure I can say that “I” am something other than the body. I can’t imagine what “I” would be without the body, yet I can think of myself as other than the body, as thought, as feeling, as a vague sense of subjectivity I take quite for granted, though I can neither define nor complete- ly confirm its existence. All my desire, intention, will, effort, emotion, and intelligence are very small and crude, com- pared to the body’s skills—the mystery, power, and subtlety of the body’s ongoing flow. The body does not persist endlessly on its course. When the flow of life, having passed through the body for just the right amount of time, moves on, the body becomes inanimate, a mere physical presence, uncanny still, but in a different way. Like all physical objects, the inanimate body dissolves gradu- ally into the elements that make it up. What will I be when that happens? But even after the body dissolves into air, water, fire, earth, and light, life will still flow on. My thinking, my desire, my language, my sense of vulnerability, my condi- tioning sees the breakup of the body as my tragic problem. But the body does not have this problem. For all I know, the body might see its final dissolution as an exciting jour- ney of return, a liberation, a homecoming, a release, a frolic through time, space, and beyond. The living body breathes. This is one of its most salient features. Air enters through nostrils or mouth, fills the lungs, enriches the blood that flows through the heart and from the heart throughout the body, renewing life. Then, easily and naturally—without any decision or intention on my part— spent air goes out through mouth or nostrils, carrying with it what the body no longer needs, releasing the body’s past, its used-up moments, out into the world from which they came. Moment after moment the body does this: renewing life, letting go of life, with each breath in and out. Breathing is another version of the journey of return. A sudden breath is the first thing that happens when the tiny mammalian body leaves its watery home inside its mother and enters the harsh, cold light of the outer, wider world. The first breath in, rush of cold air—what a shock! How unexpected, how unwelcome. The first breath must feel sharp, aggressive, like the world forcing us to participate whether we want to or not, causing us to gasp, as we will continue to gasp for the rest of our lives in the face of life’s relentless aggression. We cry out, though none of us remem- bers this. And at the end of a life, when the final moment comes, the moment when the body returns home to earth, its elements seeking their original places of repose (“Dust to dust, ashes to ashes”), the lungs let go and there is one last breath out. And there is peace, rest, rejoining. Human life in the world always begins with an inhalation and always ends with an exhalation. And between those two decisive breaths there is always breathing going on. We say “we breathe,” but it would be better to say “we are breathed.” Twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, year after year, decade after decade, there is no end, no pause, to breathing. If, out of disgust for life, or out of sheer Just sitting, we trust that being alive in the body, the breath, the mind, JULY 66-71.indd 68 JULY 66-71.indd 68 4/25/08 12:19:24 PM 4/25/08 12:19:24 PM