A powerful samurai warrior was walking through the parkland at the edge of the city when he met a monk walking in the opposite direction.
The monk was clad in robes holding a bowl for begging. The warrior was clad in the finest decorated armour representative of his exalted rank in the Emperor’s court.
The monk bowed his head as he passed and the warrior called out “Monk what do you know of heaven and hell?”
The monk replied “Why is a useless, cantankerous, ugly old warrior of no repute, like yourself interested in heaven and hell?”
The samurai whipped out his sword and was about to swipe off the monk’s head as the monk shouted out – “There you are, inside of you now, that’s hell!’
The samurai abruptly stopped and slid his sword back in his sheath.
“Ah”, the monk said “Now, inside is heaven”
The samurai sighed a breath of relief and bowed to the monk who calmly walked on, paying attention to every breath as he went about his daily life.
And, our life is dependent on breath.
There is a tale from the Upanishads, some of the holy texts from the Vedic world, where the various body parts and functions are arguing over who is most important, each one saying why they were the most important.
Breath is sitting back quietly, unobserved, no one paying any attention as the garrulous body parts get louder and louder. Then breath pipes up and says “Okay, I’m tired of all this now, I’m leaving”.
The rest of the body functions stopped short and called out “No, no don’t go, sorry we ignored you when you’re the most important of all”.
Feel the breath, this breath, and now this one. Take the opportunity the breath constantly gives for greater awareness of all of your body, your emotions and your life.
Is this universe a friendly place or not?
This is the question that Einstein is reputed to have asked, according to Einstein the most important question a person can ask.
Of course we want the universe to be benevolent. It is way too scary to ‘be alone in a world so cold’ in the words of Prince, but is it really benevolent?
Most religious believers have reconciled their meaning-making with a vision of the benevolence of the universe and whatever is beyond.
Whilst for some this will be spiritual bypassing, this does also accord with many peoples experience of NDE’s and psychedelic experiences.
And, some people experience the universe as a traumatic place, a hell realm. Ask those being bombed in Yemen or Gaza, or those unfortunate young women being sex-trafficked around the globe, or those dying of Covid in India, or the Uighyurs in China, the Rohingya in Myanmar, or George Floyd choking under Derek Chauvins knee (all this kind of thing still happening as you read this). If the universe is friendly, they might reply differently.
Is the universe malevolent? Squeezing all stars and all of life into the destruction of black holes, or is it benevolent spawning abundance and beauty, or both, or neither, maybe simply uninvolved with our personalities and personal dynamics of need and behaviour? Just as we might be uninterested in the life of an ant that is crushed under our heels.
The western world has grown out of two thousand years of religious narrative and behaviours all focused around benevolence and malevolence as opposing forces in a war of light and dark, a tale that probably began in ancient Persia with the Zoroastrians and one that has led to the creation of almost endless war amongst those who have seen themselves as righteous and representatives of the divine, and those who they say are the sinners, the representatives of the dark forces of malevolence.
This toxic othering and the concept of sin and what sin leads to has informed almost every branch of the web of human engagement we call civilization.
Sin was breaking the rules that had been written in particular books and said to be delivered directly from the big male Godform. Not only that, but if you broke the rules it meant eternal torment, damnation and torture in the fires of hell.
Interestingly, people still believe this kind of narrative.
The Old English word ‘syn’ which means ‘to be found guilty’ and the Latin ‘sons’ which means the same are supposed to be the root of the vision of sin as guilty, and we are born guilty in this world-view.
We have grown our culture, which has colonised the world and projected shame, guilt and wrongdoing at almost every other culture on the planet, based on this principle, and yet apparently it was all just a bad translation.
Now that’s a sin! And a tragedy.
That’s right, the original Hebrew word that got translated into ‘Sin’ as guilty, didn’t actually mean that. The original Hebrew word was ‘Chait’. What did this mean?
It meant not hitting the mark. Like in archery, it is missing the target. Getting nowhere near the bullseye. Chait meant unskilful.
Take a breath.
Guilt and shame can be resolved with breathwork, by coming back into close intimacy with the life-force.
When you shoot an arrow from a bow (unless it is a super powered modern bow) you will need to tune into your breathing. My longbow has to be fired in the space between the inhale and exhale, without a hold. That is skilful archery.
Sin is simply missing the mark, not being as exemplary, excellent, on form or as awesome as we could be. It is not putting the sword back in the sheath when we realise we are off point, being unskilful.
Breathwork helps us become our optimal possibility, it helps develop skilfulness.
Interestingly, in the world that conscious breathwork has its deepest roots, there is also no sin, per se, there is only skilful and unskilful behaviour.
The intention of any traditional breath practitioner would be to cultivate greater and greater levels of skilfulness as they developed their practice.
Skilfulness means not harming the developmental progress of any being. Unskillfulness harms this development.
As we go deeper into conscious breathwork, whatever is unskilful in us is revealed, we then have moments of choice. If we are aiming for and learning to be skilful then what do you choose in this moment? In this breath, in the space between breaths, what do we choose?
On this inhale, what do you choose? On this exhale, what do you choose?
In between breaths is space.
If we dive into this space we can find both peace, relaxation and also fear and terror. We can begin to release the anxiety around the universe being an unfriendly place and learn to relax into a greater sense of benevolence. We can gently and gradually transform fear and terror into peace, beauty and ease.
Since the breath unites us all, we can also at exactly the same time, seek to make the universe here, this planet, a benevolent place for all beings.
We can clarify our choices and take the actions that, step-by-step, breath-by-breath, individual-by-individual, transform our planetary home and help make the lives of those who are suffering and in torment, much, much better. This is skilfulness in action.
Looking at the state of our political systems we have a very long way to go.
So be it. Step-by-step, breath-by-breath.
Beyond religion and its dogmatic certainty of right and wrong, we come into the fragility of uncertainty and the powerful pan-specific, biophiliac humanism that breath takes us into.
The great teacher of this is simply breath and an appropriate vision of how things are and how they could be, life and breath brought into skilful action – what Buddhists call right-vision.
Let’s take a breath, a conscious breath.