“Now, take this huge tree here, son. If someone were to hack it at the bottom, its living sap would flow. Likewise, if someone were to hack it in the middle, its living sap would flow; and if someone were to hack it at the top, its living sap would flow. Pervaded by the living essence…, this tree stands here ceaselessly drinking water and flourishing… The finest essence here – that constitutes the self of this whole world; that is the truth; that is the self. And that’s how you are….” (Chandogya-Upanishad 6.11.1-3, c. 500 BCE).
Today, we reflect on how to “breathe through the heels”.
Perhaps my favorite tree passage is from “The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine”, dated approximately 2000 BCE. It is the earliest known reference to the Chinese practice of “standing like a tree”, “standing still without changing”, a form of chi kung practice. The meridians, or internal energy pathways of the body identified by traditional Chinese medicine, are here compared to the branches and limbs of a tree which is the means by which humans connect – and are connected by – the heavens and the earth. The vital essence, or chi, is said to flow through the body as sap flows through a tree. The passage reads:
“I have heard that in ancient times there were the so-called Spiritual Beings:
They stood between Heaven and Earth, connecting the Universe;
They understood and were able to control both Yin and Yang, the two fundamental principles of nature;
They inhaled the vital essence of life;
They remained unmoving in their spirit;
Their muscles and flesh were as one –
This is the Tao, the Way you are looking for.”
One of the key themes of my research in the oldest Sanskrit text of the Indian subcontinent is “rasa”, or “sapfulness”. It names the vibrant and vital “juiciness”, the essence of life itself, which is the whole of which we are a part. You taste it when you encounter “juicy” people, ones who know how to feel the heartbeat of the earth, the pulsing of the heavens, and somehow move in rhythm in that space in between. This ability to feel the pulse of the earth beneath the feet, and move in the flow with it, is called – in the writings of the Taoist master Chuang Tzu – the ability “to breathe through the heels”.
The true human, the authentic human, breathes through the heels.
Says Chuang Tzu:
“….How do we know that what we call the Heavenly (in us) is not the Human? and that what we call the Human is not the Heavenly? There must be the True (hu)man (the “authentic” human), and then there is the True knowledge. What is meant by 'the True (Hu)Man?'
The True (humans).. of old did not reject (the views of) the few; they did not seek to accomplish (their ends) like heroes (before others); they did not lay plans to attain those ends. Being such, though they might make mistakes, they had no occasion for repentance; though they might succeed, they had no self-complacency. Being such, they could ascend the loftiest heights without fear; they could pass through water without being made wet by it; they could go into fire without being burnt; so it was that by their knowledge they ascended to and reached the Tao.
The True (humans) of old did not dream when they slept, had no anxiety when they awoke, and did not care that their food should be pleasant. Their breathing came deep and silently. The breathing of the true (humans) comes (even) from (their) heels, while (humans) generally breathe (only) from their throats. When (humans) are defeated in argument, their words come from their gullets. Where lusts and desires are deep, the springs of the Heavenly are shallow.
The True (authentic humans) of old knew nothing of the love of life or of the hatred of death. Entrance into life occasioned them no joy; the exit from it awakened no resistance. Composedly they went and came. They did not forget what their beginning had been, and they did not inquire into what their end would be. They accepted (their life) and rejoiced in it; they forgot (all fear of death), and returned (to their state before life). Thus there was in them what is called the want of any mind to resist the Tao…. Such were they who are called the True (authentic humans).” (from “The Writings of Chuang Tzu, Book 6: “The Great and Most Honoured Master”, translation by Stephen R. McIntyre)
The truly human breathe through their heels.
If you can where you are, take off your socks and put your feet on the ground. If you can be outside, put your feet on the ground outside. If you can be outside beside trees, stand outside beside the trees. If you are driving, or in a bathtub, or otherwise cannot put your feet on the ground, it doesn't really matter, because you know what it feels like to feel your feet on the ground.
Feel your feet on the ground. Bring your attention to the feeling of your feet on the earth. Feel that connection with the earth.
Can you breathe from the place of that feeling? Can you feel the strength, the vigor, the vital sap of the earth come up into you?
These days, I am teaching a class about the body. Part of what I am inviting the students to consider is to ask: what is the difference between your body and the earth? The carbon in your body, the carbon in the earth: what is the difference? The water in your body, the water in the earth: what is the difference? The body and the earth: how could we ever have imagined there might be a difference?
The body and the earth are one.
Can you feel the earth breathe? Can you feel the pulse and the rhythm of that breath, that heartbeat, like the flow of the sap, like the pulse and the rhythm of the tide? Can you feel the strength of the earth come up through you as you breathe through your heels?
The strength of the earth and the strength inside of you: what is the difference? You are stronger than your fear. Feel the connection between the feet and the earth, and breathe.
Feel that connection and no matter where you are - with the business client, in the job interview, in the difficult conversation at the difficult meeting – pause and feel the strength of the Earth pulled up through your feet, through your heels. Wherever you are, observe that you can no more be pushed around than the tree that digs deep with its heels and drinks from deep inside the earth.
What is the difference between the body and the earth? Oh, this is the great and glorious thing of the human experience!
For, can you breathe through the heels and then observe: what is the difference between your breath and the sky? What is the difference between your breath and the wind? The breath inside of you, the space outside of you: what is the difference?
That is the human experience. Like the tree, we stand with the earth. We reach up into space, and we breathe through our heels the life that connects the two the way the sap flows up through a tree.
We know the practical, the concrete, the physical, the embodied. We know the vision, the potential, the dream, the possibility, the perspective of the eagle’s view high around us, and we stand in that space in-between, joining heaven and earth, and breathing it together, making our dreams, and our visions, and our possibilities possible.
Space, breath - embodied - makes dreams come true.
Breathe with the heels.
Can you feel that current that flows through your whole being from Earth to Heaven? Inhale and exhale. Can you breathe with that current, feeling the rhythm and the pulse of that vital sap, that essence of existence?
That you are.
Copyright © 2019, Adela Sandness