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Resting in the Breath

The Jewish prayer “El Malei Rahamim (God who is filled with compassion),” recited at funerals, burials, and memorial services, asks that the soul of the departed find peace under the wings of Shekhinah, the Divine Presence that inhabits this created world. It is a moving poetic image, expressing the mourners’ hope that the person who has died will now achieve a new level of tranquility. Last week, I think I had a taste of what that tranquility might be like.

I was on a seven-day mindfulness meditation retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, taught by Sharon Salzberg, Christina Feldman, and Mark Coleman.

The practice of mindfulness meditation is simple but not so easy to do. You sit, focusing your attention on your breath, to live in this moment. Most of us are able to maintain that focus for just one or two or three breaths before we begin thinking about something else. This is unavoidable; that’s the way the mind works. The meditator is not failing when she becomes distracted. The practice is that when you realize you have been off on a daydream, you notice what has arisen in your mind, and you simply return your attention to your breath and the present moment (until your mind wanders again, you notice, and you return to the breath…). Sitting meditation alternates with walking meditation, when you focus on your steps instead of your breath.

In part, this is a concentration practice. The more I am able to notice what arises in my mind as it occurs, the better I am able to respond wisely and compassionately, rather than getting angry or upset, for example. As I meditate and notice what thoughts arise (over and over again), I become intimately aware of my patterns of thought, or the stories I tell, so that I can better distinguish at any moment, “What is true in this moment?”

I find that an important added benefit of sitting mindfully for an extended period of time is that as my mind clears and settles, thoughts arise that are deeply buried and would not arise in the busyness of everyday life. A pond, for example, is opaque when it is churning; when it grows still, you can see through it to its bottom. As my mind settles, deeply buried stuff surfaces that I may have been avoiding.

With good reason! Last week, for example, I discovered, quite volcanically, how anxious I am feeling about an upcoming encounter with someone who always seems to express anger at me in new and creative ways. I was pacing on a screened-in porch at the retreat center, observing my heel touch the floorboard, when I was suddenly reliving old injuries and imagining painful future scenarios. I was terrified and angry. I had not until that moment given a thought (I would have said) to seeing this person again, but clearly, I was deeply apprehensive about it—a repressed feeling that emerged when it was not obscured by moment-to-moment preoccupations.

Here is where a touch of heaven enters. Contrary to what many people assume (as I did before I began to practice mindfulness sixteen years ago), I’m not seeking to empty the mind as I meditate. Rather, I’m seeking to steady the mind so that I can notice and embrace the thoughts that arise. Guided by the retreat teachers, I remembered first to return to what was true at that moment. Nobody was attacking me. I was experiencing a narrative that my mind had constructed. Second, I was reminded to rest in my breath, noticing my thoughts and feelings as they arose and departed, without feeling the need to identify with them. I am not angry. Rather, angry thoughts have arisen. Wait a while. Don’t panic! They will give way to other feelings soon enough! Rest in the breath and observe them.

Third, instead of desperately trying to flee or otherwise obliterate these painful feelings, I was reminded to welcome them without judgment. We have no control over the feelings that arise. I had not invited them! We only control our response to what arises. I looked directly at the pain and fear and anger, and I held the hurtful experiences of the past with compassion. I’m so sorry that I’m still in so much pain. I’m so sorry that the other person is still in so much pain. May we hold our pain and suffering with greater ease. And as I “befriended” the pain, it did begin to ease.

There followed an afternoon of walking meditation in the fields under a January New England sun that finally reappeared, silently chanting “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts, the fullness of the world is Your glory” (Isaiah 6). I noticed the tingle of the sunlight on my cheeks and the pleasure of sinking my running shoes into the spongy grass. I noticed the decreasing fear that continued to grip my chest, my grief over those whom I mourn, my rage about an item reported recently in The Daily Kos, and the breath in which I rested as all these thoughts arose—all part of the plenitude of the universe that constitutes the glory of God.

And I imagined that this might be a foretaste of the world-to-come. Perhaps resting in the breath while openheartedly embracing all things with love and compassion, pleasant and unpleasant, is part of what it means to rest under the wings of the Shekhinah. Perhaps, that is the divine perspective itself.



Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.

This content was originally published on the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/resting-in-the-breath.

Type: Essay