Eugen Herrigel on breathing and meditation

Logo of the Subtext programming language, featuring an Ensō (円相)

Logo of the Subtext programming language, featuring an Ensō (円相)
Image credit: Subtext

The demand that the door of the senses be closed is not met by turning energetically away from the sensible world, but rather by a readiness to yield without resistance. In order that this actionless activity may be accomplished instinctively, the soul needs an inner hold, and it wins it by concentrating on breathing. This is performed consciously and with a conscientiousness that borders on the pedantic. The breathing in, like the breathing out, is practiced again and again by itself with the utmost care. One does not have to wait long for results. The more one concentrates on breathing, the more the external stimuli fade into the background. They sink away in a kind of muffled roar which one only hears with half an ear at first, and in the end one finds it no more disturbing than the distant roar of the sea, which, once one has grown accustomed to it, is no longer perceived. In due course one even grows immune to large stimuli, and at the same time detachment from them grows easier and quicker. Care has only to be taken that the body is relaxed whether standing, sitting, or lying, and if one then concentrates on breathing one soon feels oneself shut in by impermeable layers of silence. One only knows and feels that one breathes. And, to detach oneself from this feeling and knowing, no fresh decision is required, for the breathing slows down of its own accord, becomes more and more economical in the use of breath, and finally, slipping by degress into a blurred monotone, escapes one’s attention altogether.

This exquisite state of immersion in oneself is not, unfortunately, of long duration. It is liable to be disturbed from the inside. As though sprung from nowhere, moods, feelings, desires, worries and even thoughts incontinently rise up, in a meaningless jumble, and the more farfetched and preposterous they are, and the less they have to do with that on which one has fixed one’s consciousness, the more tenaciously they hang on. It is as though they wanted to avenge themselves on consciousness for having, through concentration, touched upon realms it would otherwise never reach. The only successful way of rendering this disturbance inoperative is to keep on breathing, quietly and unconcernedly, to enter into friendly relations with whatever appears on the scene, to accustom oneself to it, to look at it equably and at last grow weary of looking. In this way one gradually gets into a state which resembles the melting drowsiness on the verge of sleep.

To slip into it finally is the danger that has to be avoided. It is met by a peculiar leap of concentration, comparable perhaps to the jolt which a man who has stayed up all night gives himself when he knows that his life depends on all his senses being alert; and if this leap has been successful but a single time it can be repeated with certainty. With its help the soul is brought to the point where it vibrates of itself in itself – a serene pulsation which can be heightened into the feeling, otherwise experienced only in rare dreams, of extraordinary lightness, and the rapturous certainty of being able to summon up energies in any direction, to intensify or release tensions graded to a nicety.

This state, in which nothing definite is thought, planned, striven for, desired or expected, which aims in no particular direction and yet knows itself capable alike of the possible and the impossible, so unswerving is its power – this state, which is at bottom purposeless and egoless, was called by the Master [Awa Kenzô] truly “spiritual.” It is in fact charged with spiritual awareness and is therefore also called “right presence of mind.” This means that the mind or spirit is present everywhere, because it is nowhere attached to any particular place. And it can remain present because, even when related to this or that object, it does not cling to it by reflection and thus lose its original mobility. Like water filling a pond, which is always ready to flow off again, it can work its inexhaustible power because it is free, and be open to everything because it is empty. This state is essentially a primordial state, and its symbol, the empty circle, is not empty of meaning for him who stands within it.
Eugen Herrigel in Zen in the Art of Archery, translated by R.F.C. Hull, (Vintage Spiritual Classics Edition, February 1999), p. 35-8. First published as Zen in der Kunst des Bogenschießens, (Konstanz Weller, 1948). First English translation in (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953), p. 52.

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"The demand that the door of the senses be closed"
Eugen Herrigel Posted on behalf of Eugen Herrigel on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010 under Quotations.

One comment so far

  1. Great one. Thanks Greg.

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