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Empty Vessel Interview on Breathing

This interview on breathing with Dennis Lewis was first published in the Fall 2000 issue of The Empty Vessel, A Journal of Contemporary Taoism. It appeared along with an interview with David Hykes in relation to a five-day retreat (January 28-February 2, 2001) at Breitenbush Hot Springs entitled Harmonic Awareness: Listening, Breath, Sound, and Sensation.

Some of the approaches discussed in this interview, especially the seven categories of ways of working with the breath, are explored deeply in his new book, Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, due out from Shambhala in May 2004.

Empty Vessel: What can you tell us about the work that you do?

Dennis Lewis: My work, including natural breathing, qigong, tai chi, and meditation, is oriented toward helping people discover a sense of their own real wholeness. It is based on the fact that most of us lose ourselves constantly in one or another side of ourselves--in our thoughts, emotions, sensations, and so on. As a result, we live fragmented, dishonest, and disharmonious lives. And while we might agree intellectually that this is true, many of us are not convinced enough to actually undertake the demanding work of self-awareness and self-transformation, a work that begins with learning how to sense and observe ourselves sincerely, to listen impartially to ourselves in action. Since our breathing both reflects and conditions the various sides of ourselves, a vital part of this process involves work with breath.

What about the work that you are doing with David Hykes?

The title of workshops we are doing together is Harmonic Awareness: Listening, Breath, Sound and Sensation. I think the title itself evokes a very deep idea. Harmonic awareness has to do with being in touch with all the different dimensions and harmonies of ourselves, with all of the different densities and levels of the energies of the human organism.  This involves not only our physical energies but also our emotional, mental and spiritual energies. Now there is one thing that relates and embraces all of those aspects of ourselves, and that is the breath. The breath helps these different sides of ourselves to communicate with and be in resonance with one another. Those who try to escape their bodies and go directly to the spirit will have little resonance and harmony in their lives, and their physical, emotional, mental, and even spiritual health will suffer. The underlying idea is that real health, real wholeness, is only possible when the different sides of myself are resonating in harmony. So from that perspective, the breath is crucial, because if my breath is narrow and constricted, if my breath is stuck in only one part of myself, then this harmonic resonance will not be possible.

Unfortunately, most of us take our breathing for granted. The great Taoist sage Chuang Tzu says that most of us breathe from our throats, and that real human beings breathe from their heels. One might ask here: are we real human beings? Are we exploring what it means to be truly human? If our breathing takes place mainly in the throat or the upper chest, where it does for most of us, then we can do all the qigong, yoga, and other spiritual exercises we desire but we will never experience a real sense of human wholeness.

A lot of your work is with emotional clearing, cleansing or balancing using breath work, which is something that a lot of people probably don't connect together.

That's true. Basically, the first step is to be present to the state that I am actually in. The foundation of my work with breathing has to do with learning how to follow the breath without any interference whatsoever. Why do we need to follow the breath without interference? Well, as Chuang Tzu says, "All things that have consciousness depend upon breath. But if they do not get their fill of breath, it is not the fault of Heaven. Heaven opens up the passages and supplies them day and night without stop. But man on the contrary blocks up the holes." (Chuang Tzu, Basic Writings, Burton Watson [New York, Columbia University Press, 1964], p. 74) Much of what we do in our lives, and even in our work with breathing, simply "blocks up" our inner breathing spaces. In learning to follow our breath, we not only begin to observe and sense the narrow self-image that ruins so much in our lives, but we also discover a deeper power of awareness that relates to our real human potentiality.

What is it in us that can follow our breath?

In the description of the work that David and I are doing together we describe our workshop as a journey of awareness into the evolutionary wavefront where our own inner and outer energies meet in the unknown. So, clearly, what we're talking about here is the unknown. We can call it the witness, God, the Absolute, higher mind, or whatever we want, but, in general, we do not experience it. We're looking to get in touch with the whole of ourselves, which is mostly unknown. But my emotions, especially my so-called negative emotions, very often narrow my awareness to a very tiny side of myself. For example, anxiety, anger, and fear put me into a very hypervigilant, fight-or-flight type of state, a state that undermines both my health and my sense of wholeness. I need to observe this process in action. When I learn to follow the breath, I become convinced of what my state really is. By seeing how shallow and constricted and suffocating it is, I begin, at the same time, to become aware of my habitual emotions that are that also shallow, constricted and suffocating. A shallow breath very often goes with specific emotional states that we don't see because we've taken them so much for granted.

We live in a culture in which everything is continually speeding up. This puts an ever-increasing load on our brain and nervous system. This means that our nervous systems are constantly on alert. Now the nervous system, which is extremely flexible and adaptable, eventually learns to adapt to this faster way of living and the enormous strain it puts on our perception. It adapts to this higher level of stress as though it were a normal thing. But the problem is that while this higher level of stress occurs and our nervous system adapts to it, the health of the body is being undermined and the immune system is being undermined. We need to become convinced of this fact.

When you say convinced, would aware be a better term?

Awareness, of course, is the key. The reason I use the word "convinced," however, is that a lot of people mentally know this but they're not actually convinced that it is happening to them. They think they are above it or beyond it. But the problem is that our nervous system adapts in such a way that it appears to us that we are living a normal life when in fact we're living a stressed-out life and don't know it because it feels normal. But as I begin to follow my breath and observe my self-image, and see how narrow and constricted they are, I begin to become convinced that something is not right, and that I really do need to work on myself in a new, more sincere way.

Once you have become convinced, can you then use the breath to clear or balance these states?

Well, first of all, the process of being convinced is a lifelong one, because our tendency is to confuse knowing with understanding. But yes, you can begin to work with the breath in such a way that it brings a new sense of internal balance. You don't need work with the breath all the time, day in and day out. Even if it were possible, that would just add to your tension. But if you spend 20 or 30 minutes a day sensing and observing your breath, your tensions, and your emotions, you will begin to become ever more increasingly convinced that something is not quite right, that all of these tensions and constrictions and negative emotions disharmonize the flow of energy and keep you from living as a whole being in harmony with yourself. So you continue the work of self-observation, you continue the work of following the breath toward the unconscious aspects of yourself, to make them more conscious.

As you continue this work, you begin to discover that, from a physical standpoint, the breath can be understood as taking place in various spaces of your body, which can be called "breathing spaces." Let's, for the moment, assume the body has three major breathing spaces, although it has more. The first breathing space is from above the navel on down to the feet. The second breathing space is from just above the navel to the top of the diaphragm. The third breathing space is from the top of the diaphragm up to the head. Now in many of us, one or more of these spaces are constricted or clogged up. So not only is there no complete resonance possible in that space, but by clogging up that space, as Chuang Tzu would say, I'm restricting the movement of energy in that particular area through the energy channels to my vital organs, including my brain.

Is one or another of these breathing spaces more likely to become clogged?

Most of us have problems in all the spaces, but the lower breathing space, whose center is in the area of the lower tan tien, as well as the lower part of the middle space, is often the most constricted. There are many reasons for this, including the goal of maintaining a hard, flat belly, but one of the most obvious is that this is where we often experience and store our negative emotions, especially those that we have a difficult time digesting. With natural, authentic breathing the belly wants to expand on inhalation and retract on exhalation. Among many other things, this movement of the belly helps promote diaphragmatic breathing and a healthy immune system. But if my belly is locked up in tension, the movement doesn't take place. This makes my breathing inefficient and robs me of my vitality.

So what can I do if I'm in that situation?

There are many approaches to opening up the breathing spaces of the body. Yoga, qigong, tai chi, dance, body work, and so on can all help. We must remember, however, that we're dealing here with both physical and energetic habits and patterns. Opening up these areas physically and energetically is just the beginning. It is also important to become aware, to sense and observe, the roots of these disharmonies, what's maintaining them in the first place. If I am habitually angry, for example, and that anger is affecting the whole area around my liver, I will most likely have a lot of tensions and blockages in my liver area, of which I may be totally unaware. But if I begin to breathe into that area, if I learn how to allow my breath into that area, these emotions will begin to become more visible to me, and instead of either suppressing them or expressing them in inappropriate, unhealthy ways, I will begin to discover that they can be transformed. But there is still much more to explore. Where is my anger coming from, for instance? What restrictions and constrictions in my perceptions and self-image are producing this anger? What is keeping me from the experience of my own wholeness? Lao Tzu says, if people "can forsake their narrow sense of self and live wholly, then what can they call trouble?".

If people do qigong and tai chi from a narrow self-image, the practices are unlikely to have much transformative power. I often hear people talking in a fuzzy, vain way about their energies, their chi, forgetting that what is really at stake is not just some feeling of energy someplace in the body, but rather a true opening into the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual dimensions of ourselves—a real sense of wholeness. But by learning to follow movements and energies of our breath and by working with the various breathing spaces of the body, we can begin to support this opening, this movement toward wholeness and integrity.

How do you work with breath? What do you teach people who come to you?

Many people today have a narrow understanding of what work with breathing is all about. They think first of breath holding, breath counting, alternate nostril breathing, and so on. But this kind of work, what is usually called pranayama, is only one tiny aspect of breathwork. So perhaps the first step is to understand what is actually possible. I have come up with a categorization of breathing work which I think not only helps to clarify certain things which are often confused both in our thinking and practice, but also makes it possible for people to work with their own breathing in a safe, effective way. I teach various practices within each of these seven categories. By the way, except for category number one, there is no particular priority in the way I have ordered these approaches.

The first category is what I would call conscious breathing, learning how to follow your breath, which we have already talked about. This is the foundation of all the other approaches.

The second category is focused breathing. Focused breathing is especially useful when you realize that you have a problem in a particular area or a particular organ. The essence of focused breathing is directing the movement and energy of your breath there into that particular area. You do not use force or willpower to accomplish this, but rather simply your attention and intention.

It's important to understand that when I say breath what I'm really talking about is the movement and energy of breathing. Breath is movement. Life is movement. Breath is life. While the oxygen from the breath always goes into the lungs, the energetic movement of the breath can go anyplace in the body and needs eventually to encompass the whole body.

The third category is what is called controlled breathing. Controlled breathing is classically what is known as pranayama, and often involves breath holding, breath counting, alternate nostril breathing, fast breathing, and so on in order to facilitate some chemical, emotional, or spiritual change. There are many beneficial practices in pranayama or controlled breathing, but people who don't breathe in a natural, harmonious way and do a lot of pranayama can hurt themselves, sometimes very badly. If they don't hurt themselves physically or emotionally they can also mess up their energies. So for beginners I only recommend controlled breathing for very special kinds of issues, such as excessive tension or high blood pressure problem. Most controlled breathing exercises are therapeutic in nature and don't really transform the breathing for the long haul.

What's wrong with breath holding?

One of the reasons I don't teach breath-holding practices is that most of us already hold our breath a lot . For many of us, the diaphragm does not move fully and harmoniously. Because of the excessive tension in one or another part of our bodies, and because of lack of coordination among our various breathing structures, the diaphragm often does not move in a coherent and even way. The diaphragm was made to go though its full range of motion in a very free and even way. If, under the influence of stress, you're holding your breath a lot, or restricting the movement of your diaphragm in any way, the end result is more tension and more stress. Practicing breath holding is only going to exacerbate this situation.

The fourth and fifth categories, movement-supported breathing and posture-supported breathing are closely related, and are extremely safe yet powerful ways of working with our breath. Qigong and yoga are good examples. Our movements and postures can be very stimulating to our breath. Each movement we make or posture we take shapes our breathing in a very specific way. Raising our arms, bending over, twisting, reaching out, well-aligned standing, and so on, will call forth different breathing patterns in different people, depending on type and conditioning. Intentionally undertaking a wider range of movements and postures in our lives than we are accustomed to can help increase the range and power of our breath. This is why stretching frequently and in many different ways is so important. When we were children, for example, we kept our breathing relatively open through the many varied postures and movements we took when playing, running, swimming, jumping, and so on. Today, however, most of us live lives that put few healthy demands on our bodies and breathing.

Category number six is touch-supported breathing. Most of us don't realize that the skin is the largest organ system of the body, constituting about 16 to 18 percent of our total body weight and providing more than one-half million sensory fibers to the spinal cord. Many of us have incomplete or faulty awareness of our skin. And this faulty awareness, which is influenced by underlying tensions in our muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia, impedes the overall functioning of our organism, including our breathing. So I use and teach various kinds of touch to awaken and influence the sensory fibers in the skin, as well as in the areas just beneath the skin. This energetic awakening of our skin and the underlying tissues and bones can have a powerful influence on our breath. The kinds of touch we might use include gentle touch, rubbing, skin pulling, tapping, and pressure.

The seventh category is sound-supported breathing. Here I use specific vowel sounds, in conjunction with special postures, movements, and so on, to help open up specific breathing spaces in the body. When we were kids, most of us sang, hummed, and shouted, and made all sorts of spontaneous sounds. As we grew older, many of us learned to be "seen and not heard" and gradually our spontaneous sounds were replaced by abstract language. And, because of comments from family, friends, teachers, and so on, many of us even stopped singing altogether, believing that we should only sing if we have a "good voice." But making sounds is one of the most powerful ways of strengthening the diaphragm. By sounds, I mean sustained tones of some kind; I don't mean talking. When you make sustained sounds you start to connect with your internal organs and energies, as well as with your limbic system and emotions. In this way, emotions and frustrations that close us off in some way can begin to be touched and released. To understand the great power of sound-supported breathing, it's important to realize that healthy breathing starts with exhalation. Making sustained sounds conditions the diaphragm to move upward through its entire range of motion in an even and harmonious way, and this in turn stimulates a free, spontaneous inhalation.

What we're exploring here is our own natural, unconditioned breath. This can occur when our exhalation is full and our inhalation comes as a natural reflex, without any kind of struggle or willfulness. The secret is in the exhalation, not in the inhalation. If you learn how to exhale in the right way, which sustained sounds, chanting, humming and so on can help you discover, then the inhalation will come in a freer, more-natural way, appropriate to the needs of the moment. Of course, there are many other benefits from this kind of work. Certain notes, tones, and rhythms can actually be used for healing. They can reach and cut through different energy patterns in us. Lao Tzu said, "The best knots are tied without rope." This is certainly true energetically, because we have many mostly invisible energetic knots in ourselves that are difficult to untie. We don't always know where they are, but through chant, song and sound, we can learn how to untie or cut through these knots and help open up a new, more global sense of spaciousness in ourselves.

How would you sum up your work with breath?

My work with breath is not just about better health; it's also about the development of consciousness and being. People in today's stressed-out world often say, "I just don't have enough space in my life. I need more space." My approach to the breath involves opening up the experiential spaces of the body/mind. This work really begins with the intention to be able to exhale fully, which requires that we learn how to release and let go of everything that is truly unnecessary in our lives. We're not just talking about a physical act here; we're also talking about a psychological and spiritual one as well. Can I let go, moment by moment, of my narrow self-image, all the things, both big and small, that I get attached to and identify with, so that I can begin to take in new, more-honest and complete impressions and perceptions of myself and others? Can I begin to live from my wholeness? This is what it is all about. Our breathing can play a vital role in this process.

Learn about Free Your Breath, Free Your Life, the important new book by Dennis Lewis (Shambhala Publications)

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