“Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation, so if you exhale smoothly, without trying to exhale, you are entering into the complete perfect calmness of your mind… Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale…we feel free to express ourselves because we are ready to fade into emptiness. When we are trying to be active and special and to accomplish something, we cannot express ourselves. Small self will be expressed, but big self will not appear from the emptiness. From the emptiness only great self appears.” – Shunryu Suzuki
Zen asks: Who are you? This is the great meditation, and we meditate to discover the answer to this question. In meditation, we sit quietly in complete relaxation while vibrantly alert. We sit with our posture reflecting the paradox that is our totality meeting the moment, looking into the interface of the Universe with this experience we have come to know as “me.” We are instructed to bring awareness to our breathing, to hold awareness on breathing as best we are able, and to watch and learn. And, oh, there is so much to be learned. One insight to be learned is that “Calmness of mind is beyond the end of your exhalation.”
While this may sound absurd, it is not. As with everything in Zen, don’t believe it upon being told. You must experience it for yourself. If you follow the instructions for Zen meditation (zazen) you will discover, as your awareness becomes subtler and subtler, profoundly different states of mind come with inhalation and exhalation. With exhalation, comes relaxation, a natural release of the tensions that hold together your sense of personal self (ego). “Fade into emptiness as you exhale.” This puzzlement points to the release of ego-self into non-conceptual awareness that Buddhism means by emptiness.
With birth comes our first inhalation and the long, long process of creating our ego-self through experience and social/psychological learning. With death, comes our last exhalation and the release of this ego-self. At the beginning and at the end, and at every moment between, is the one unchanging constant of our existence: awareness. Awareness experiences this rhythm and all the rhythms of our life. “Fade into emptiness as you exhale.” Master Suzuki taught this pointer towards the realization of our essential self as of extreme importance.
With the next inhalation comes a returning into form, only now, having touched emptiness, having touched, in a sense, our ego’s death, comes the realization that we have form, yet are more than form. We have a body and a mind. We have life circumstances and relationships, yet we are more than all these. All these occur within the witnessing awareness that sits watching the rhythm of our breath and the rhythms of our life. The realization begins to dawn: I am the awareness within which all experience occurs.
We believe we have good times and bad times, and we do. Yet we are more than our good times and bad times. If we weren’t, our bad times would destroy us, but they don’t (unless we make up and live in a story that we are destroyed). Our “great self” is larger than all the bad times. It is bigger than all the good times too. Our great self does not exist in times at all. Our great self, our unshakeable awareness, exists only in the present moment that is also eternity. But no, we don’t live this way.
We live on the inhalation grasping at everything, rushing to get to the next moment. Pay attention and notice – when we want or expect something, we inhale sharply. The exhalation is overlooked. And this is no way to live. This is not life at all. We can’t only inhale. Life is here, and we are always trying to get to there! To inhale is good, but as Master Suzuki said, “In each inhalation and each exhalation there are countless instants of time. Your intention is to live each instant…Inhaling without effort you naturally come back to yourself with some color or form. Exhaling, you gradually fade into emptiness.. The important point is your exhalation. Instead of trying to feel yourself as you inhale, fade into emptiness as you exhale.”
Breathing every moment, aware that you are breathing every moment, without regard to the difference between life and death, you touch the eternal. Master Suzuki tells us, “When you practice this in your last moment, you will have nothing to be afraid of. You are actually aiming at emptiness. You become one with everything after you completely exhale with this feeling. If you are still alive, naturally you will inhale again…”
Discovering yourself “still alive,” the world sparkles, life exhilarates in all its brilliant ordinariness. Body and mind are within the moment that is life. The space of the moment, the space of your awareness, is alive, and you realize you are in the space of the moment. This is enlightenment. This is the answer to the great meditation.
A great realm of peace and wisdom has opened. Then you live your life in all its ordinariness, yet there is never again boredom, never again restlessness, never again useless anger or fear. Exhaling into emptiness is to discover the fullness of every moment of life. Inhaling again, we discover the adventure of every breeze, of every flower, of every squirrel and bird, and of every person we encounter
Inhale deeply. This is life. Exhale fully. This is death. They are one and the same in the Great Self. Spiritual teachings emphasize you must die into life to be fully alive. Each breath, a new moment. Born again! This is Zen.