It's not often I scramble for a pen when I hear someone speak. When I'm listening, I like to let the person's words wash over me. I like to get lost in the scrunch of facial features, of animated hand movements, of soft or rushed tones of voice. Buddhist teachers tell us that if we hear something we like, it's resonating with what we already know. No need to form attachment to words--we already know it all.
But I've been haunted by this quote by poet W.S. Merwin since I heard it two weeks ago. "Little breath, breathe me gently," he writes, "for I am a river I am trying to cross."
Ah. So much here. I think we all know what it's like to experience anxiety and fear. What happens when we perceive something as being fearful? The breath takes over, enlarging itself to spur the body to action. We panic. But with attention, even in stressful situations, we can encourage the breath to remain gentle.
I also like the author's implication that we are not forcing ourselves to breathe. Even as we bring our attention to it in yoga or meditation, it's ultimately an unconscious action. It's a natural part of our existence. Knock ourselves out with a hammer, booze, or drugs, and the breath will soldier on. It holds us. It's our rock--it will always be with us, until it's not, and until we are not. It's like something is breathing us. (Maybe that's why noticing it can be so centering.)
I think we struggle to cross our own rivers all the time. We have a tide of tendencies, of habits, compulsions, and obstacles that arise constantly. They can seem overwhelming, and it's so easy to lose sight of that little breath. But to remember that we are being breathed, well, that would sure go a long way to fuel our little boat.