The breath is important in a meditation practice for many reasons.

The first is that it is the perfect mindfullness reminder. Your breath only happens in the present moment. You can not breathe in the future or past. Focussing on your breath means focussing on the now.

It is one of the few body processes that is both automatic *and* controlled by your mind.
You can think about when you want to breath: When and how much you want to inhale. When and how much you want to exhale. (To a degree.)
But if you do not think about it, your body will still breathe. The perfect amount of air will be inhaled to oxygenate your blood without you giving it any attention. Your body takes care of this whether you think about it or not, every single minute that you are alive, waking or sleeping, Running or passed out.
That makes the breath one of a few body processes that cross the line between automatic and conscious.
Focussing on your breath allows you to observe and sit in that space of just being. Who was breathing that breath? Those deep breaths with exaggerated pauses were controlled by my conscious mind…but when I allowed myself to be still and just let the breaths happened? Those happened outside of my doing. As much controlled by my conscious mind as I control the waves crashing on the shore or the evaporation off a lake.
We don’t have control over our liver or spleen or bile duct. And we don’t have nerve sensations to tune us into what they are doing.
We have control over those functions in the way a gardener has control over a tomato plant. A gardener does not have to engineer anything to make a seed sprout. A gardener does not have to work out the logistics of photosynthesis. A gardner simply needs to provide the basic raw materials (water, soil, exposure to sun) and the nature of the plant organism does the rest.
In the same way we simply provide food, water and sleep to our body and let the nature of our organism do the rest. A tomato will thrive in optimal conditions, but it will grow in almost anything. Your body, too, will thrive with healthy food. But will survive on almost anything. Have you ever eaten Taco Bell at 3 am? The filtration process of your body is amazing, and requires zero conscious effort by you.
Another reason why the breath is so significant in meditation is because it helps us to expand the boundary of what we are.
It is easy to think of yourself as the solid matter being contained within the boundary of your skin. What is “you” is within your skin. What isn’t you is outside of your skin.
But that idea gets tricky when you start to look out how much the body is in flux. Cells are constantly dying and being created. Food is forever going in and being excreted out.
Alan Watts said that we are less a physical thing and more of a pattern — like a whirlpool. You can go to a spot in a river every day and look at the same whirlpool. It may look and behave similarly, but the contents of it is changing constantly. The whirlpool is actually a pattern of water that flows constantly *through* it. So too are we.
And the breath is the the most active demonstration of our whirlpool. In every minute of every hour that our body is alive, we are pulling in lungs-worth of air inside of our body – processing it – and then pushing a different lung’s worth of gas out.
As we focus on our breath, we can focus on that process. Is the breath part of “us” only when it is inside of us? Or does that constant ebb and flow act more like an umbilical cord? Connecting us, intimately, to the environment around us?
And our dependence on the environment is supremely intimate. You could easily live without your hand. Without your legs. Without your eyes. But you cannot live more than a few minutes without the air-filled space around you.
Every part of your body is dependent on every other part. Your brain cannot exist without its relationship with your heart & lungs. And none of it can exist without the relationship to the air around you.
Just because it exists outside of your physical body doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical part of who you are.

Just because it exists outside of your physical body doesn’t mean it isn’t a critical part of who you are.

As we focus on breath in meditation we can start to question the mental construct of “us” being the solid matter of our physical body. The boundaries of where we start and stop – of who we are – starts to soften.
Our conscious awareness is merely a vantage point to observe the Universe.
It is a vantage point from within an individual body, but that body is not separate from everything around it.
The implications of this awareness are massive. MASSIVE.
Because if your existence is intimately connected to the air around you, then it doesn’t stop there. You are connected to everything else that breathes…and so much more.

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