Situated between two stupas on Borobudur’s eighth tier, I sat, attempting the lotus position. I struggled mightily because my legs—gangly as they may be—are not very pliable. The morning sun, dull, hung to my left as I surveyed the mountains west of Yogyakarta. On the stone floor lay Thich Nhat Hanh’s How to Relax, a candid yet dense memoir on the Buddhist monk’s teachings and meditations. I had just finished reading a passage titled “The Breath is a Bridge”:
Our breath is like a bridge connecting body and mind. In our daily lives, our bodies may be in one place and our minds somewhere else, in the past, or in the future. . .When you begin to breathe in and out mindfully, your mind will come back to your body. You will be able to realize the oneness of body and mind and become fully present and fully alive in the here and the now.
I was trying to put into practice shamatha, a single-pointed meditation hinged upon mindfulness of breathing. Buddhism had been the F.O.I. (focus of inquiry) that week, the excursion to Borobudur being the grand finale. And so, on a basic level, my attempt at meditation was par for the course as far as “experiential learning” went.
The idea of breath as a bridge, however, struck a deeper chord with me. Frequently, I have found there to be a schism between my place of mind and body. I feel my body here in Indonesia. I ache from my 5:30 A.M. runs with my host brother Amar. Inhaling motorbike fumes and trash-fire smoke, I know I have left Nashville. I sweat profusely and constantly under Yogyakarta’s sun. Mosquito bites, spicy food, and headaches are all physical reminders of my displacement.
And yet, my mind has often flitted deftly between different realities. The obvious distraction is homesickness, and I have indeed been dealing in loneliness. But as Mr. Hanh wisely points out, place of mind is not restricted to the present. I have reminisced on the life I left behind. My childhood. My high school tenure. The time I spent this past summer in Europe with my friends. And to the opposite effect, I’ve future tripped. I’ve wondered and worried about my time to come on Princeton University’s campus. I’ve pondered what life States-side will be like upon my return. I think about the on-campus experiences my friends are having.
I will be the first to say, however, that I am not lost in my thoughts. Sure, I’m a deep thinker, but my mind is no vagrant wanderer. Thus far in Indonesia, I’ve become more mindful of my mind’s tendency to drift. So, perched atop Borobudur, I inhaled and exhaled the Buddhist monks words, “Breathing in, I dwell in the present moment. Breathing out, I feel it is a wonderful moment.” It was simple act, and yet it has since been the template by which I’ve moved through daily life. It’s a practice that’s been all too critical as I have engaged my homestay family and worked at my NGO assignment. In order to build these relationships, both presence of body and mind are needed. Here’s to mindful breathing!