Watching the breath we are aware of the most primal cycle of life. Breathing is the most basic rhythm of our life. With every breath we bring vital oxygen into our blood and body. Following the breath we follow this cycle of life, which also has a spiritual dimension. The breath is the bridge between the outer physical world and the inner world of the soul. With each and every in-breath we connect back to the soul, which then flows into our body and into life on the out-breath. Which is why, if one is deeply aware, at the end of each in-breath—in the space between the in-breath and the out-breath—there is a moment of bliss. This is when we reconnect with the plane of the soul, a dimension of bliss and pure being. This moment, which is outside of time, is most easily experienced in meditation, but it is present in the cycle of each and every breath.
The Naqshbandi Sufis teach that awareness of breath is the foundation of inner work. To quote Baha ad-Din Naqshband: “The more that one is able to be conscious of one’s breathing, the stronger is one’s inner life.” And one should also be conscious of the moments between the breath—particularly between the in-breath and the out-breath—before life once again flows from the inner plane of the soul, the plane of pure being, into the outer-world, the place of ten thousand things. Being aware of this moment we are present between stories, between the patterns of existence. We are alive in a very different way.
At this moment in our collective destiny we are between stories—between the dying world of our global culture of exploitation and consumerism, and a new story waiting to be born. And in this space our attention is drawn both to the dying story, together with the ecological devastation it is creating, and the possibility of a new story. How will the future unfold? How can we help the transition to a living future, a balanced, sustainable way of life for the more than human world to which we belong? There is much work to be done in the dying world, limiting carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity for example. And in models of transition, seeds for the future, for example regenerative agriculture or possibilities for degrowth. But there is also a need to hold the space between stories, between breaths, this place outside of time, this place of pure being.
The outer world of “ten thousand things,” is the multiplicity and diversity of things all around us, constantly demanding our attention. In the Tao Te Ching they are born from the Tao, “The Tao generates the One, the One generates the Two, the Two generate the Three, the Three generate the ten thousand things.” And yet this multitude of daily distractions that cloud our minds and clutter our lives also disconnects us from our primary awareness of life, of the Tao, of the breath. And in our world today I often think that the ten thousand things have become ten million things, life’s distractions have increased exponentially (particularly with the advent of social media and online shopping) and we are more and more easily lost, disconnected.
Around us is a world caught in this dream of the collective, of the ten thousand or millions of things, from the basic demands of life, of feeding one’s family and paying the bills, to all the distractions that cover us. Here are also fears of the future, even the future of young people facing eco-anxiety, crying out for their future being stolen. Here we can see the monster of materialism and greed, as in the words of Greta Thunberg: “Now we probably don’t even have a future any more. Because that future was sold so that a small number of people could make unimaginable amounts of money.” In a world of racial and social injustice, financial inequality, growing climate crisis and ecological devastation, there are so many fears. How will our children and grandchildren grow up and grow old in such a world?
Caught in these thoughts, these feelings, these patterns of behavior, we are more and more separated from the Source, from the soul, from the basic rhythm of life. We live in a culture that has lost its way. And there is a vital need not only to birth a new story—a new way of being with each other and the Earth and Her myriad inhabitants, one that nourishes the soul as well as the body—but also to be able to hold this space between stories, between breaths. To become aware of this place of pure being outside of the rhythms of time, and yet also deeply connected to the flow of life, to the Tao, to what is sacred.
It is here, in this unformed space, that the real seeds of the future are held, from where the dreams of the soul of the world can be born. Not the demonic dreams of a technological future, a world of Artificial Intelligence, or even the green dreams of ways of transitioning to sustainability. But dreams free from the patterns of the past, born from the songlines of the soul and world soul. Here in the intense vulnerability of the unknown, the unformed, the future is not yet written, but has possibilities beyond even the images of our imagination. Here, in the space between worlds, in the place of pure being, is where the unformed, undefinable nature of the Tao expresses itself, its empty vessel brings forth new life.
Returning to silence, embracing stillness, we can be present in this liminal space. Watching the breath we can be present between the in-breath and the out-breath. Being part of the movement of the breath, the flow of life, we can be both at its source and amidst its many manifestations. That is why, amidst all the many demands of today’s world, it is of such value to be able to return to stillness, to be a space where the future can be born, free of the restrictions of the past, not caught in any of the hierarchies or dynamics of power that define so much of our present existence, our civilization and its toxic patterns of behavior. Nor seduced by fantasies of the future. The future will arrive unannounced, part of the miracle of life recreating itself.
We have forgotten that life is not determined by our images of progress, or by the machines we have created. It is a mystery arising out of the unborn. And we are a part of this mystery, just as our soul is a part of the world soul. We have isolated ourself from this mystery for too long, just as we have alienated ourselves from the ground under our feet. But in each in-breath we return to the Source, just as with each out-breath life flows into manifestation. We are the wind in the trees and the rain falling. We are not separate from life. And with each breath we return to this core, this essence, this primal mystery.
Around us the world rushes forward, caught in its self-destructive death spiral. We can glimpse how easily its structures may crack, whether in the hijab protests sweeping Iran, with their slogan “woman, life, freedom,” or in the anti-lockdown covid protests that errupted in China, with students shouting “freedom will prevail,” holding up pieces of blank white paper in mute protest. Authoritarian leaders, mostly old men, will try to hold onto their stories of power and oppression, but life has its own elemental power, and the coming decades will see these structures and their hierarchies fall apart.
For those not caught in famine or war, not fearful for their children, or on the front lines of protests, this is an opportunity to return to our roots, and to quote Lao Tzu, “returning to one’s roots is known as stillness.” Here, between the worlds, where there is neither action or lack of action, life is infused with its sacred nature, unpolluted. Without our presence in this space a central ingredient of life’s regeneration will be missing. The Earth will continue, this is its sixth mass extinction of species. But since our arrival here, human consciousness has had a unique part to play in this dance of creation, this unfolding of life’s wonder and mystery. Most have forgotten this wisdom, expressed in the Original Instructions given to our ancestors, but the spark of the human soul and the world soul can evolve together, our journey together with the Earth be part of a global transformation.
Outside of time, in the space between stories, the threads of this shared destiny are being woven. Here there is neither past nor future, but an unfolding present, a mystery being continuously revealed. Sometimes, walking in the darkness of pre-dawn hours, when the rising light is just a suggestion over the hills, I feel part of this mystery, this unnamable wonder.
This has been the Stories for a Living Future podcast with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. Thank you for listening. Next week we will release the trailer for Series Two: From the Edge of the World, and the following week the first episode of this new series, Watching at the Edge of the World. For more information, or to subscribe to this podcast, please visit workingwithoneness.org.