Breathe

I stood on the coast of Hualien at night, the beach illuminated by the the yellow sodium lamps behind us, looking out onto the ocean. The ground before me sloped about 30 degrees downward some two meters to where the dark night waters of the Pacific disturbed the marble rocks that were like oddly-shaped chicken eggs, making a soft rumbling sound as they rubbed against each other. Occasionally a large wave would come and the water would rise, foaming as it pushed the air out from between the rocks, and reach the small ridge that marked the highest extent of the waves, where we were standing, causing one of my companions who had stood on the ocean-ward side of the ridge to leap back, surprised at the swiftness of the rise of the foamy dark waters, to avoid getting wet shoes. As the wave retreated, it disturbed the rocks, and as the rocks rolled against one another, they rumbled softly at length. The sound was so beautiful that another of my companions brought out his phone and made a go at recording it. “How is it?” We asked. “I can’t capture it – the microphone isn’t big enough. He said.” It reminded me of the beach at Kumano, except that the rocks at Kumano were fist-sized, and rumbled with a deeper sound.

My other companions had retreated three steps back toward the shore below the ridge. I took my sandals off, and stepped on to the smooth, clean, marble rocks, stepped to the top of the ridge and knelt in seiza. Two bows. Two claps. Head slightly lowered, and chanted the Amatsu Norito, a Shinto prayer for protection and purification. As I chant, I am listening to the rhythm of the waves and the rumbling on the rocks, and matching my breathing. I feel as I am looking out onto cool shimmering darkness of the Pacific that we are breathing together. Two bows, two claps, and I stood up, turned, and realized that my travel companions had stopped talking, and were looking at me. The man who had tried to record the sound of the ocean breathing asked. “What was that?”

“A Shinto prayer. It’s a sort of ritual in Japanese Shintoism that you can do when you think that something is great.”

“So what if you see a hot girl?” He asked, and we all laughed.

I stood on a trail cut into the cliff wall at Taroko Gorge and looked out along the canyon that the river had carved. It was quiet. The only sound until then had been the crunching of the sandy gravel underneath my feet. I was wearing thin-soled shoes that had the big toe separate from the other four, which protected my feet from sharp rocks but allowed me to feel details of the terrain beneath me. I stood, feet shoulder-width apart, feeling the ground on which I stood, hips, spine, and head finely balanced, listening to the barely audible sound of wind as it flowed through the fine hair of grass and flowers on the cliff. I felt, for the first time, my vision becoming a hemisphere. I could see, all at once, without moving my head or eyes, the silvery reflection of the sky on the winding river below, from which rose the steep V of the canyon walls, to steep to support trees, but able to support some grasses and small shrubs. This was the wall-like portion on which the trail I had been following stood. Above this, the V opened out less steeply, and trees could grow. The difference in steepness also marked by the step in color from pale marble to green. Above this, the mountains at the top of these cliffs were shrouded in white cloud. Seeing all of this at once, standing balanced, with relaxed shoulders and perfect posture, fingers spread, hearing the gentle breath of the wind through the grasses where I stood, and feeling the wind on my skin, breathing softly and deeply, and hearing my breath mix with the wind, I felt I was drinking deeply from a well as deep as the valley on which I gazed.

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