We’re born on the in-breath, and we die on the out-breath. We’ve got a certain number of breaths in-between. As we observe the breath and the body, we see how our physical being is not solid or fixed. It is alive and changing in every moment.
If all goes well, the body that first forms in the womb will grow, be born, keep growing, possibly reproduce, sicken, age and eventually die. The body does this all on its own. We don’t have to intentionally grow our fingernails when we are in the womb any more than we can intentionally will ourselves to attain sexual maturity or stop our organs from wearing out.
At birth, our entire circulatory system makes a dramatic shift; we can now breathe oxygen from the air instead of receiving it through our mother, passed from her lungs to her blood and to us through the umbilical cord. In the first few years, our body changes very rapidly; we learn to use our hands, to sit, crawl, stand and walk. During childhood, we learn to talk, think, imagine, reason, speculate and explore. Puberty and its manifestation in sexual body sensations, urges and activity involves another dramatic shift. Body changes and the resulting behavior may lead to reproduction, and for a woman to pregnancy, birth and lactation. The inborn aging process continues to manifest as the reproductive aspects of the body either slow down or cease altogether. The body/mind wears out, may get sick and eventually dies; in fact, sickness and death can happen anywhere in the cycle.
Each passage of the body involves gain and/or loss. As we know from the Second Noble Truth of the Buddha, the more we are attached to the preceding phase, the more we suffer. Our challenge is to let go and be with things as they are. We can see this so clearly in children as they learn to let go of the old and move into the new. There can be attachment and eventual letting go of the breast or bottle, and there can be the curiosity and gain of becoming a big brother or sister, and at puberty a mix of excitement and stress as the body develops breasts, begins to menstruate or grows facial hair and a deepening voice.
As the body—ready or not—catapults us into sexuality and all the mysteries and confusions that can accompany the powerfully pleasurable body sensations, there can be new attachments. Enormous suffering can result if the size, shape and color of every body part don’t match what we desire. With the phase of reproduction, there can be attachment to the special state of pregnancy and its loss through giving birth. As we get older, there can be grief over the loss of our once energetic young body, with its excellent balance, joints that don’t ache, and parts that don’t have to be replaced.
The passages of life continue, inextricably propelled by the changes in the body, until we die. Will we experience them with attachment and contraction or with expansion, acceptance and letting go?
“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”—T. S. Eliot