I would like to share a guest post with you today from Jeff Campbell. Jeff is a mystic who coordinates contemplative retreats, weekly meditative groups, and online explorations of spiritual exercises. He has written The Book of Breath Prayers and The Book of Apophatic Meditation, and is currently working on a guide for building a spiritual practice through deconstruction. He writes and curates content at The Faith-ing Project, a website devoted to building spiritual practices from across a wide variety of traditions and orientations.
His reflection below delves into a fascinating topic. The question of who we are and what we actually control has boggled philosophers for millennia and modern science has only deepened the mystery with their discoveries. What is consciousness? Where do I end and where does the rest of the world begin?
For me personally, these kinds of questions lead to humility as I learn more and more that I hardly even understand myself let alone the rest of creation or God. From the humility that comes with these philosophical truths we can work to shed another layer of the false self and continue to inch closer to the divine. I hope you enjoy!
I had the good fortune to grow up near Disneyland. Out of this crazy pandemonium of rides, lines, and concessions, there is one attraction in particular that sticks out in my mind.
From the outside, there was nothing particularly impressive about it. It was not a high profile ride, it wasn’t inspired by a movie, it wasn’t a roller coaster, it wasn’t built on cutting edge technology, even in the late 70’s.
This ride, whose name I could not even tell you, consisted of fake cars on a track. I remember being 8 or 9 and looking with such sober intensity at the small steering wheel on the left hand side. I was quite surprised when I was allowed to sit there. I knew that I was only about half way to driving age. I did my best to be worthy of this great responsibility, steering our little car.
You might not be surprised to learn that the steering wheel was a prop. The belief that I was in charge was a delusion. That car was going to go where it needed to go. My actions were not relevant to what actually happened.
Nonetheless, at the end of the ride, I would have told you that I had been in charge.
There is a part of us, call it the ego, call it the small self. It believes that it is in charge of lots of things. The domain I am thinking about today is the breath. It might be easy to agree in the abstract that the ego has lots of delusions of grandeur. But if you are anything like me, the suggestion that we do not control our breath might seem worth pushing back at.
There are good reasons to suppose that we are in charge of the breath. For example, when it seems like I am thinking “Slow your breath down.” it seems like I slow my breath down. That is no small thing. This alone makes it appear an open-and-shut case. Who is in charge of my breath? I am.
But one thing worth noticing about this phenomenon is that we couldn’t actually explain how it happens. If a disembodied spirit said, “O.K., but how did you slow your breath down?” it would be impossible to explain what we actually did. The most we could say is that we thought and it happened.
Equally significantly, if the disembodied spirit questioned further, it might ask us what happens when we stop thinking about our breathing. If the breath was a thing that we did, if the breath was the charge of the ego, we might expect that when we stop thinking about it, then we stopped breathing. But of course, this is not what happens.
There is a growing body of research in psychology which supports the premise that our ego is applying it’s narrative after the fact. Our body is doing the things it does on its own.
For all these reasons, it seems like the most we can say is that there are two things that occur together: when we slow our breathing down, we think “slow your breath down.” But does the thought cause the body to change? Regardless of whether it does or does not, the ego, the small self, forever eager to take credit for the many things which are beyond it, would surely claim credit for it.
The ego is so much like my 8 year old self. It takes itself so seriously. It is so sure that it has this important job to do. But if I had stopped steering? The car would still turn where it needed to turn. And when we do not tell the body to breathe, it continues to breathe.
The mystic path confronts us with the reality that the boundaries between ourselves, God, and the rest of the universe are much more permeable than they first appear. It is possible that these boundaries exist only in our minds.
Perhaps it is not that I am choosing to breathe. Maybe the universe is breathing me.
This realization changes nothing for me. It also changes everything.
It redefines much-loved spiritual practices which often lean on the breath as a sort-of anchor. Entering into these exercises with the realization that the universe is breathing me brings a whole new level of experience to them.
It opens me up to exploring practices which previously seemed less urgent. So many practices begin by asking the practitioner to simply notice her breath. Knowing that my breath was never mine helps me to approach these practices.
But most of all, every single moment I get to experience the idea that I am not an isolated and tiny creation that is separate from the rest of the universe. The most basic biological process is one which reminds me that my boundaries are permeable and temporary. I am so intimately connected to something great, and it breathes in me.
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