Monday, 6 August 2012

Seated Mindfulness Meditation

"For some, turning attention inward can be distressing, because it may tune us into emotions that are not comfortable. However, constantly distracting ourselves through attention turned outwards will not remove those underlying emotions. By learning to engage with them through our dedicated interoceptive awareness, we may experience the first signs of healing." - Decoding the Body Watcher

I first became interested in meditation by reading some zen philosophy at university, and upon looking into where it came from I wanted to have a go.

I received my first formal instruction in Buddhist seated meditation from a Tibetan Longchen Foundation group practicing in Clifton, Bristol in 2001. It was a casual interest at that time and I had no motivation to practice meditation regularly. Still searching for a more 'zen' experience, I later visited Bristol Zen Dojo in 2002 which was a lot more to my liking.

I practiced meditation very sporadically for a few years, but then began to intensify my practice when I met my current partner in 2004, who also expressed a keen interest in meditation and related arts. Seeking the origin of the eastern philosophies which were brightening up our lives, we decided to travel to China to explore the various places and arts that are most famously integrated with zen practices.

Returning to the UK in 2007, we stepped up our seated meditation by attending Bristol Zen Dojo regularly. I went on my first 4 day meditation retreat (sesshin) during this time, which opened my eyes to how a human community can be more integrated when everyone is practicing taking responsibility for their habits and actively caring for one another.

In 2008 we left for China once more, returning to Europe briefly in Feb 2010, and at that time took the chance to spend a week at Vietnamese zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh's Plum Village in France at the end of the Winter retreat. This is a photo of me sitting outside the meditation hall in the Upper Hamlet:

 Sitting with Bristol Zen Dojo in the Japanese Soto Zen tradition after Shikantaza teacher Kodo Sawaki's student Taisen Deshimaru and his European disciples, I found all the seated postures excrutiatingly painful - full lotus was always impossible for me, half lotus seemed intent on dislocating my knee and giving me deep vein thrombosis, the burmese position gave me dead legs, and even seiza position hurt my ankles.

A teacher mentioned during a group meditation session that one should not be enduring unnecessary physical pain, and upon seeing a long-time member of the group sitting on a 'normal' western chair in the zendo, I decided to meditate on a normal chair or bench also. This decision brought more rewards from my sitting, and having visited the largest stone-carved Buddha statue in the world at LeShan, in China, I have conviction that the posture is just fine. Here is a photo I took of the LeShan Buddha during my visit in 2006:

 Apparently the carving of this statue was overseen by a zen monk called HaiTong.

I now physically emulate this statue when sitting mindfully. Since my initial encounters with Buddhist meditation in 2001, I have been consistently reading and discussing a lot of the mainstream modern literature and interpretations, as well as the ancient teachings, and in doing so I came across John Kabat-Zinn's work - Full Catastrophe Living, and Wherever you go, There you are.

JKZ's fresh and extremely simple take on zen practice when presented as MBSR - secularising it and researching it scientifically, interested me deeply, and in recent years the scientific papers and positive results which have followed the explosion in MBSR practice uptake throughout Europe and America has convinced me that JKZ's mindfulness is the new, concentrated and powerful form of zen in the world. Here is a video of JKZ talking about the connection between MBSR and Buddhism:

For years my practice was dotted with periods of procrastination and conflicting interests, but as time has gone on, and the responsibilities and pressures of middle age have approached, I have found myself 'forced' into daily discipline. I now practice seated mindfulness at least once a day every day - always first thing in the morning - sitting for 45 minutes each time. This seated practice is the root of all my mindful activity, and  I feel the results of the practice wherever I find myself and it seems there is no looking back now.

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