In its most common usage, the word intimacy hardly suggests a spiritual context. Enter the word in your browser, and you are likely to turn up references to the bedroom, the boudoir, and Britney Spears’ line of designer lingerie. Yet the root of intimate, from which intimacy derives, is the Latin intimus, which means “inmost.” And a desire for true intimacy–for connection with one’s inmost nature–is fundamental to many spiritual traditions, Zen Buddhism included. “Intimacy,” writes the Zen teacher Jakusho Kwong, “is at the heart of all of Zen.”
In formal Zen practice, the cultivation of intimacy begins with mindfulness of breathing. Toward that end, basic instructions for Zen meditation direct the practitioner to count breaths, “follow the breath,” or employ meditative verses in conjunction with the respiratory cycle. “Breathing in, I know I am breathing in,” reads one such verse, “Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.” These methods are useful, especially for beginners. They focus attention and calm the body-mind.
Whether they foster intimacy is another matter. To begin with, “the breath” is an abstract concept, and like other abstract concepts, it promotes the illusory notion that what it signifies is a solid thing–or, more exactly, a string of solid things: a series of discrete, countable breaths, rather than the continuous, fluctuating process it actually is. No less important, formulations for observing the breath can easily become the primary focus of concentration. Preoccupied with numbers or words, we may find ourselves intently counting those numbers or listening to the words, as if they and not our breathing were the objects of attention. Hard at work, we may inadvertently distance ourselves from our immediate experience.
Should that occur, the practitioner has other options. In my own practice I have found it helpful to concentrate on the sensations of breathing, wherever they might be felt. Breathing is an autonomic, complex, and mysterious activity. By adopting an attitude of humility, and by resolving merely to feel our breathing rather than measure or label it, we can allow the process to continue just as it is. By relinquishing any effort to lengthen or otherwise manipulate our respiration, we permit ourselves to enter its mystery, as intimately as possible.
And as with breathing, so with the body. Teachers of meditation sometimes advise their students to do a “body scan” before settling into a period of sitting. Beginning with the lower body and proceeding upward, or, conversely, scanning from the top down, the practitioner directs awareness to general regions or specific parts of the body: “Aware of my shoulders, I breathe in. / Bringing kind attention to my shoulders, I breathe out.” The effect is to relax tense muscles, quiet the nerves, and ease the body as a whole.
Body scans can reveal hidden tensions and imbalances. They can prepare us for extended sittings. But like conscious breathing, systematic scans can sometimes interfere with our direct experience. At a retreat some twenty years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh urged us to listen to our bodies and recognize whatever might be “calling” us, bringing mindfulness to that place. Over the years, I have found that simple stratagem effective. More intuitive than methodical, it promotes a closeness with one’s physical being. By listening receptively rather than asserting control, we permit reclusive knots to disclose and release themselves. And we also become aware, in real time, of the moment-by-moment changes occurring within us.
Those changes are mental and emotional as well as physical. And, just as we can become intimate with our physical being, we can also become intimate with the flux of our thoughts, feelings, and states of mind, even as they are occurring. Pausing periodically throughout the day to monitor that flux, we can readily perceive the changeability of our mental states. We may notice that we are feeling anxious and angry in the early morning–and equable an hour later. Through the disciplined practices of sitting and walking meditation, we heighten and refine that broad recognition, becoming ever more aware of the subtlest tonal changes.
In so doing, we may also become aware of the energy behind those changes: what the Zen teacher Shohaku Okumura has called “the universal life force.” When we open our awareness to the impermanence of all conditioned things, as manifest in our breathing, our bodies, and our inner lives, we open ourselves to that “universal life force,” allowing it, in Okumura’s phrase, “to practice through us for the benefit of all beings.” Although it defies description, that force can be felt in the wind and sun and rain as well as in ourselves. It can heard in the din of traffic. Opening ourselves to its presence, we cultivate intimacy with life itself.
Jakusho Kwong, No Beginning, No End: The Intimate Heart of Zen (Shambhala, 2003), 111.
Shohaku Okumura, Living by Vow (Shambhala, 2010), 70.