Monday, 29 October 2012

Enjoying Practice: An Autumn Flute Journey

"Moonlit Night
as I wander aimlessly under a frozen moon
a flute pours its beauty from a nearby tower .
Then morning breezes begin to rise and gust —
the river already a carpet of scattered white blossoms."
- Kum Hsiu (832-912 ), A Drifting Boat: An Anthology of Chinese Zen Poetry (1994), p77.
"At first you will have various problems, and it is necessary for you to make some effort to continue our practice.[...] When you do something, just to do it should be your purpose". - Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p43.

http://arts.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/upload/upfiles/2010-06/22/flutes_and_drums_at_duskdcbc0d6d3eb094822361.jpg
Spring Moonlight on the Flowers by the River (春江花月夜) - one of the most famous Chinese traditional music works (here rendered as a painting).
When practicing various disciplines, it seems we can often put a lot of pressure on ourselves to reach lofty ideals. We can easily think that these ideal behaviours or results are the only kind of acceptable achievements - the only positive outcomes of our practices. This kind of perfectionism often becomes a disease which kills off enthusiasm for practice. As Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p57:
"If an artist becomes too idealistic, he will commit suicide, because between his ideal and his actual ability there is a great gap. Because there is no bridge long enough to go across the gap, he will begin to despair. That is the usual spiritual way.".
Regarding mindful practices, directly after the above quote, Suzuki goes on to say:
"But our spiritual way is not so idealistic. In some sense we should be idealistic; at least we should be interested in making bread [or whatever thing one is creating] which tastes and looks good! Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread. There is no secret in our way. Just to practice zazen [seated meditation] and put ourselves into the oven is our way."
If one can drop the ideals and remain mindful while peacefully enjoying the pleasant features of whatever one is practicing, then one's skill and expression will apparently grow naturally by itself. Just beholding the beautiful instruments of practice and interacting with them can be a simple joy, and that joy can apparently open one up to growth and 'gain' without one having any kind of 'gaining idea'.

A mindful calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
My TaiJi teacher in the UK once told me that one must practice what one enjoys within a certain discipline in order to keep some form of enthusiasm and skill alive - even if what one is practicing will not bring one effectively closer to an ideal. This is so that in the event of richer resources arriving one can make the most of them. If one does not enjoy one's practices, even though one logically knows they are healthy and necessary for a happier life, then one will drop them soon enough.

The writing accompanying the following picture roughly translates to: "Enjoy Life, Live in a Tea Pot", and is from the San Yan Er Pai collection of Chinese Folklore:

 http://a.ooi1.com/usa/n10761.jpg

The man in the painting loved tea so much he decided to live in a teapot, and the story suggests to others that they should also do what they enjoy in life, no matter the ideal. At least this man in a teapot will be happy and receptive to any new potentially positive development in his life, and have emotional resources to dedicate to the 'breaking of the eggshell of his understanding' at that time.

Recently I have been practicing playing a xiao bamboo flute melody which is part of a piece which has been translated as 'Rain Goddess Law Song'. I really like this short melody and I often pick up my flute just to play it. The tune sounds like a little story in itself and my relaxed enjoyment of it encourages me to lessen the  effort I put into blowing, so that I can appreciate the 'journey' it takes me on. This situation pushed me to hone more skill to produce the sounds, and my ability has improved since posting my last flute videos. Here is a video of myself playing the tune:


I don't see myself anywhere near the ideal of a flute player, and yet I have faith in the process of enjoying the small pleasures the practice of flute playing brings me. If I had not focussed on this small tune so much, and sought to enjoy it's particular melody, I may have not realised that I was adding so much extra effort to my playing than was necessary.


http://journeyingtothegoddess.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/p_change1.jpg?w=300&h=360
Sao Ch’ing Niang Niang (掃晴娘娘) the Chinese Goddess of Weather

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Dao of Chinese Insight Calligraphy

"The fundamental philosophical principle of yin and yang is reflected in every aspect of Chinese calligraphy. [...] The study of Chinese calligraphy is not only a study of Chinese writing. In many ways, it is also a study of Chinese philosophy and the Chinese worldview. Aesthetic principles and standards are rooted in cultural and philosophical tenets, and Confucianism and Daoism form the basis of Chinese culture. Of the two Daoism has the stronger influence on art. It is no exaggeration to say that Daoism, from its place at the core of Chinese culture, is the spirit of Chinese art. Many characteristics of Chinese calligraphy reflect Daoist principles." - Wendan Li, Chinese Writing & Calligraphy (University of Hawai‘i Press. 2009), p175
"You can buy the ink, the rice paper, the brush, but if you don't cultivate the art of calligraphy, you can't do calligraphy." - Vietenamese Zen teacher and mindful calligrapher, Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Power (2007), p81
"The Zen way of calligraphy is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment." - Richard Baker Roshi, Introduction, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p14.
A Zen Calligraphy piece by Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki painted using a plant from outside. It reads: "Beginner's Mind".
When practising writing Insight Calligraphy, there are so many things for the beginner to consider and bring together as one flowing whole. As when learning to coordinate one's body in order to ride a bicycle, the intended outcome can seem like an impossible endeavour - that one is attempting to achieve some supernatural feat that one's teacher cannot explain. However, with persistence those moments of balance do come, and one feels the flow of the process more and more.

This is something which appears to be at the core of Chinese artistic disciplines, and it comes from ancient philosophies which encourage practitioners to go beyond concepts and instead seek harmony with nature. The author of the book Chinese Writing and Calligraphy, Wendan Li, points to this when he says (p180):

"Without the Daoist principle of diversity in harmony, there would be no Chinese calligraphy. Chinese calligraphy is often likened to Chinese Zen in that it does not lend itself very well to words and can only be experienced and perceived through the senses."
As with seated mindfulness meditation, Insight calligraphy has an apparent subtle yogic physical dimension to it. My calligraphy teacher here in Beijing, Paul Wang, said to me last week: "One must use one's whole body to write. If there is tension anywhere, then the expression will be limited, and so a whole-body focus needs to be maintained". Wendan Li supports this by saying (p184-5):
"Writing involves almost every part of the body, from the fingers and shoulders to the back muscles and the muscles involved in breathing. Similar to Taiji, calligraphy is based on a typical Chinese philosophy that emphasizes moderation and detachment. Through slow, moderate movements, the energy... passes through the writer’s back, shoulders, arms, wrists, palms, and fingers, onward to the brush tip and, finally, is projected onto the paper.[..]...the initiation of writing is usually accompanied by a decrease in heart rate and lowered blood pressure. When a high degree of concentration is reached, the heart rate significantly decelerates and blood pressure drops significantly. These responses are similar to those created by meditation with one major difference: Meditation seeks tranquillity in a state of rest, whereas calligraphy seeks tranquillity in motion. [...] Prolonged practice of calligraphy can play a significant role in keeping one fit and improving one’s health. This explains the well-known fact that, in traditional China, most calligraphers lived to an age well beyond the average life span."
During my private class with Paul Wang yesterday, we discussed the role of the Daoist Classics; the DaoDeJing and JuangZi in writing Insight Calligraphy. In the DaoDeJing, LaoZi writes (Chapter 25):
"Imagine a nebulous thing here before Heaven and Earth, silent and elusive it stands alone, not wavering it travels everywhere unharmed, it could be the mother of us all,
not knowing its name, I call it the Tao, forced to name it, I name it Great,
great means ever-flowing, ever-flowing means far-reaching, far-reaching means returning,
the Tao is great, Heaven is great, Earth is great, the king is also great, the realm contains four greats, of these the king is one,
Man imitates Earth, Earth imitates Heaven, Heaven imitates the Tao, the Tao imitates itself."
Writing Insight Calligraphy is the Dao (or Tao in the old Wade-Giles Chinese romanization) expressing itself. To see this positively, we allow for an expression of our inherently positive being to manifest itself through skill, thus giving rise to a positive piece of art.

A mindful calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.
In the case of Insight Calligraphy, this artistic expression is in the form of characters written with black ink on paper. The apparent similarity between some Chinese cursive calligraphy strokes and the Daoist TaiJi (YinYang) symbol is not coincidental. As Wendan Li points out, there has always been a link between Daoism and calligraphy (p178):
"The way of calligraphy and the way of nature, although differ in scope, share similar principles. Calligraphy best illustrates Daoist philosophy when the brush embodies, expresses, and magnifies the power of the Dao. Thus, an adequate understanding of the concept of yin and yang and its manifestations in calligraphy, and how various techniques are implemented to create contrast and unity in writing, is essential to your grasp of the core of the art."
In China, art is often seen as an expression of the human heart - a positive creation that brings happiness to the lives of others. It is also worth noting here that the Chinese considered heart and mind to be one thingXīn (心).

The Chinese character for heart/mind carved into the wall of a Buddhist temple on KongTongShan, China, and into the rock at the Buddhist temple complex of PuTuoShan, China. The author visited both of these locations in 2006.
The beauty of this innate positive heart/mind is considered to be reflected in the natural world around us, and the calligrapher's practice is to render that beauty visible in a symbolic format. Li states (p179):
"The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is essentially the beauty of plastic movement, like the coordinated movements of a skillfully composed dance: impulse, momentum, momentary poise, and the interplay of active forces combine to form a balanced whole. The effect of rhythmic vitality rests on the writer’s artistic mind as well as training in basic techniques and composition skills [...] Generally speaking, Running and Cursive styles have stronger rhythm than the more traditional scripts. This is why many artists favor these two styles. When a piece is created with the vital forces of life and rhythm, the result is fresh in spirit and pleasing to the eye."

An Insight Calligraphy piece by the author's teacher Paul Wang. It reads: "Kong You Bu Er"  (Form is not other than Emptiness).
The inherently positive human heart/mind is something the Chinese have generally considered true since ancient times. In Junior schools all over the country, Chinese children are once again learning to recite the Three Character Classic (三字經) - a philosophical teaching attributed to the disciples of KongZi (Confucius). For many children, as was the case over the past two thousand years, this is the first book learnt upon beginning formal education. The book begins:
" 人之初 (rén zhī chū) People at birth
性本善 (xìng běn shàn) Are naturally good (kind-hearted).
性相近 (xìng xiāng jìn) Their natures are similar,
習相遠 (xí xiāng yuǎn) (But) their habits make them different (from each other)."
The practice of honing skill in order to render works of art is considered, by the Daoists, a Sagely path in itself. In order to truly and repetitively render the positive mind's perception, one must manifest a seamless connection between heart and hand. This is apparently the highest level of skill - no matter the practice, whether painting, dancing, sculpting, doing KungFu, or even cutting meat from an animal. In the JuangZi, LaoZi's Daoist disciples relate the skill of a Butcher who practices Daoism thus (Chapter 3):
"whenever I come to a complicated place, I size up the difficulties, tell myself to watch out and be careful, keep my eyes on what I'm doing, work very slowly [...] At every touch of his hand, every heave of his shoulder, every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee - zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Ching-shou music. "Ah, this is marvelous!" said Lord Wen-hui. "Imagine skill reaching such heights!". Cook Ting laid down his knife and replied, "What I care about is the Way, which goes beyond skill. [...] I go at it by spirit and don't look with my eyes. Perception and understanding have come to a stop and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, ... and follow things as they are"

JuangZi - A student of Daoist Master LaoZi.
Bringing all this together - the desire to calmly express a positive heart/mind, and the pursuit of higher skill - the epitome of which is an appreciation of the Dao, or True Nature, it can be seen that Insight Calligraphy is a traditional and well-established kind of mindful practice. Even authors, such as Wendan Li, who do not primarily present and encourage calligraphy as a meditation practice, highlights the positive psychological benefits in the same way a mindfulness teacher would (p184):
 "During writing, the writer refrains from talking and concentrates on the task at hand. By so doing, he or she is able to project the characters in his or her mind accurately onto the paper through precise muscle and brush control. At the same time, the writing process also exerts a stabilizing influence on the writer’s mind, resulting in an even more transcendent sense of peace and clarity of thought. Thus calligraphy is commonly recognized as an effective way to remove anxiety and discover calmness and emotional grace." 
A calligraphy piece by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh featuring a photograph of him.
As I practice Insight Calligraphy I can feel an unfolding - judgements, attachments, and intense emotions arising - all to be accepted and let go of in exactly the same way as during seated meditation. Here is a video of myself writing the character for 'Dao':
 
 

Getting the feeling for the character itself takes a long time, never mind the brush skill and mindful focus. This is the character I wrote in the above video placed next to the calligraphy teacher Paul Wang's (mine is on the left). There are plenty of places I made 'mistakes':


I think mine lacks the confident dynamism and general structural integrity that Pauls has, not to mention some of the more detailed technical aspects of the strokes. Paul says that in order to capture the essence of the character as one looks at it, one must 'listen' to it before copying. He says it is the same kind of listening as the famous zen koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping" - it brings one to a state of awareness that is beyond conceptual understanding - a 'don't know' mind that is receptive to wholeness; to the Dao.

Another mindful calligraphy piece by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Mindful Sitting: Joy in Nature

"Nature is our mother. Because we live cut off from her, we get sick. Some of us live in boxes called apartments, very high above the ground. Around us are only cement, metal, and hard things like that. Our fingers do not have a chance to touch the soil; we don’t grow lettuce anymore. Because we are so distant from our Mother Earth, we become sick. That is why we need to go out from time to time and be in nature. It is very important. We and our children should be in touch again with Mother Earth. In many cities, we cannot see trees—the color green is entirely absent from our view." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (1992), p106.
"Bird-song drowns me in feeling.
Back to my shack of straw to sleep.
Cherry-branches burn with crimson flower,
Willow-boughs delicately trail.
Morning sun flares between blue peaks,
Bright clouds soak in green ponds.
Who guessed I’'d leave that dusty world,
Climbing the south slope of Cold Mountain?" - Zen Hermit Hanshan (9th Century AD), Words From Cold Mountain: Twenty-Seven Poems by Han-Shan (Translated by A. S. Kline, 2006).
"Nature never deceives us; it is we who deceive ourselves." -  Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Don't go outside your house to see the flowers.
My friend, don't bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse of beauty
inside the body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens." - Indian Mystic Poet and Spiritualist Kabir (1440–1518)
"Many roads lead to the Path, but basically there are only two: reason and practice. To enter by reason means to realize the essence through instruction and to believe that all living things share the same true nature." - Bodhidharma (5th/6th century CE), Outline of Practice, The Zen Teachings of Bodhidharma.
"Be soft in your practice. Think of the method as a fine silvery stream, not a raging waterfall. Follow the stream, have faith in its course. It will go its own way, meandering here, trickling there. It will find the grooves, the cracks, the crevices. Just follow it. Never let it out of your sight. It will take you." - Zen (Chan) Master Sheng-yen, Zen Poem.
"As we sit down next to a stream, we can listen to its laughter and watch its sparkling waters, noticing the pebbles glistening and the fresh green plants nearby, and we may be overcome with happiness. We are one with the stream's freshness, purity, and clarity." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (1988), p39


Like certain physical sensations during yoga, the psychological 'unfurling' which occurs during mindful sitting meditation can be pretty painful at times. This appears to be as necessary and unavoidable as the loss of a youthful physique, declining health as we age, or the passing away of loved ones. However, it does not seem necessary that one should primarily see the practice as 'facing pain'. As with yoga, there is an incredibly enjoyable potential to mindful sitting, and it seems available right from the start.

When I was a child I lived in the Welsh Mountains in an isolated old farmhouse - the fields, streams, and small forests were my playgrounds. I used to think it was an unfortunate situation compared to what I imagined city or even village life must have been like, but now, having lived in cities, I feel like I was one of the luckiest people on the planet.

This is the Welsh countryside where the author grow up until his teens.
My sister and I used to play at a special little place along a stream in a wooded area. We called it 'Paradise'. There was a tiny cliff over which the stream fell foamily into a mini plunge pool, at the bottom of a bucket-sized alcove enclosed protectively by mossy banks - it was like a kind of 'bonsai waterfall'.

Upon returning to that area of Wales a few years ago, I went back to the stream, and found, to my disappointment, that my childhood paradise had since disappeared. These days I feel I experience it in various forms in other places; at times, it seems, even within my own natural makeup. This is not any kind of deep insight - it is exactly what science tells us, and yet it is a perspective that is not often reinforced in our busy, technologically enhanced and office-enclosed lives.

The author and his partner, returning to the Welsh mountains in 2008.
The joy we feel when standing on a beach looking out to the ocean, appreciating a landscape from a mountaintop, or sitting beside a forest stream is a different kind of pleasure than that which, for example, we normally experience while intoxicated at a disco.

The former pleasure, rooted in a calm and grounding appreciation of nature, seems to affirm something deep within us - conjures up a sense of wholesomeness and humility. The latter kind of pleasure; excitment, as mentioned in the quote by Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki in my post about Mindfulness and Boredom, can easily make our minds "rough and ragged".

The author on an empty beach in Sri Lanka at sunset.
The powerful yet soothing ebb and flow of the tide on sand, the juxtaposition of vast empty space and the undulating peaks and troughs of hills and valleys, the musical chatter of a fern-lined stream - they all bring with them fresh air, an excuse to get some exercise, and an environment possibly free of tragic human disturbance. And yet maybe there are deeper, more subtle processes at play when we immerse ourselves in these classic natural environments.

A photo taken by the author during a journey down the river at Dragon & Tiger Mountain, SouthEast China. This is one of the places where Daoism allegedly began.
Richard Ryan, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, conducted psychology experiments to study exposure to 'nature' relative to peoples' sense of well-being. He reports via this sciencedaily.com article referencing the Journal of Environmental Psychology: 'Spending time in nature makes people feel more alive, study shows' (2010):
"being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels. Interestingly, in the last study, the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. In other words, conclude the authors, being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature. The paper builds on earlier research by Ryan, Netta Weinstein, a psychologist at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and others showing that people are more caring and generous when exposed to nature. "We have a natural connection with living things," says Ryan. "Nature is something within which we flourish, so having it be more a part of our lives is critical, especially when we live and work in built environments."
This seems almost instinctive to many of us - but probably not to a huge number of people who live in cities and may have never had the opportunity to feel the beneficial effects of being immersed in natural environments for very long. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book The Sun, My Heart (1988), says, p38-39:
"Prince Siddhartha retired to the forest to sit beside a stream for many years before returning to the world of people. Today we live in noisy and polluted societies, filled with injustice, but we can take refuge in a public park or along a river bank for a moment."

Since our organic human bodies are as 'natural' as plants and rivers, it seems exploring our own 'nature' should improve our sense of well-being. When we sit down to do mindfulness meditation, we are doing just this - immersing ourselves in something very organic and natural, as long as we are happy to consider it as such.

The first organism was apparently made automatically; as a natural product of our planet's terrestrial atmosphere and rocky surface. The mountains and seas, and the clouds and gases layered on top, apparently interacted through straight-forward chemical reactions to produce what we now label as our consciousness.


MBSR Mindfulness founder Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn draws attention to how we are connected to Earthly nature when he writes of seated mindfulness meditation in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p126-7:
"We are sitting in stillness, just being what we are, just as a mountain "sits there," unmoved by the changing of day into night and the changes of the weather and of the seasons. The mountain is always grounded, rooted in the earth. always still. always beautiful. It is beautiful just being what it is, seen or unseen, snow-covered or green, rained on or wrapped in clouds."
And of the sky, Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p86:
"We should always live in the dark empty sky. The sky is always the sky. Even though clouds and lightning come, the sky is not disturbed. Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it."

The author near the top of HuaShan Mountain, China, at Sunrise. This mountain range has historically been famous for Zen hermits. There is a martial arts contest podium built into the side of the mountain.
The natural environments which incubated and moulded life on Earth left traces of their physicality within our bodies. For example, as midwiferytoday.com, "the heart and science of birth", says:
"Salt, sodium chloride or common rock salt is dissolved in the same proportion to water in the Earth's oceans as it is in our blood, amniotic fluid and tears."
One of our most ancient aquatic ancestors is apparently the sea sponge. It's basic multicellular structure acts like one giant cell - sucking in fluids from it's environment and excreting what it doesn't want. We are just more complicated versions of this mysterious creature. Here is a video showing sponges pumping fluids through their bodies:



It is very soothing to watch a sponge living in it's own peaceful way, and amazing to consider that as a chemical process, our own organic forms are seamlessly connected. Here is an animated gif showing the evolution from sponge to man:



In the same way we can become engrossed and emotionally anchored in perceiving a sponge filtering the dyed water around it, ocean waves lapping on the sea shore, or clouds slowly drifting across the sky, it seems we can become similarly engrossed in our own breathing - taking in the fluid air from around us, and extracting what we need. This means we always have 'true nature' to immerse ourselves in wherever we go.

Even when we are in the starkest of 'concrete jungles' or deserts, if we can do seated mindfulness meditation there is always a natural and wholesome paradise to take refuge in - a kind of zen garden within which to sit peacefully. We do not need to change our experience of our natural existence to appreciate it as a sponge, garden, mountain, or stream - it has it's own unique, amazing 'natural nature' - to be enjoyed as we sit mindfully. As Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p122:
"You should just sit in the complete calmness of your mind and not rely on anything. Just keep your body straight without leaning over or against something. To keep your body straight means not to rely on anything. In this way, physically and mentally, you will obtain complete calmness. But to rely on something or to try to do something in zazen [mindful sitting] is dualistic and not complete calmness."

 http://interior-design-decor.com/decor/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/zen-garden-plants-vs-zombies.jpg

 The ideas presented in this post are nothing new of course; humans make comparisons between people and non-living natural phenomena all the time: "He's a mountain of a man", "Don't be a drip", "She is a tree of knowledge", "He is an oasis of calm", etc. With such a strong modern focus on offices, indulging in our houses, and controlling our environments, however, we can begin to become detached from nature - all the while not even noticing it is right under, and vibrantly within the very existence of our noses. We are never far away from it - we are it.

Unfortunately, as good and reasonable as all this sounds, it does not mean much if we do not regularly sit in mindfulness. Shunryu Suzuki points this out in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, when comparing witnessing our true nature to seeing the moon, p121:
"...when we see the clear moon without anything covering it, we do not feel that roundness the same way we do when we see it through something else. When you are doing zazen [seated meditation], you are within the complete calmness of your mind; you do not feel anything. You just sit. But the calmness of your sitting will encourage you in your everyday life. So actually you will find the value of Zen in your everyday life, rather than while you sit. But this does not mean you should neglect zazen. Even though you do not feel anything when you sit, if you do not have this zazen experience, you cannot find anything; you just find weeds, or trees, or clouds in your daily life; you do not see the moon."
In order to find the true nature within us, we need to integrate ourselves with the natural processes we rely on, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Sun My Heart (1988), p99:
"Meditate on the sun in every cell of your body. Meditate to see the sun in plants, in each nourishing morsel of the vegetables you eat. Gradually you will see "the body of ultimate reality" (Dharmakaya) and recognize your own "true nature.""

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Mindfulness and Boredom

"A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men." - British Philosopher Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness (London,1932), p65.
"Boredom is the root of all evil - the despairing refusal to be oneself." - Soren Kierkegaard.
"...boredom is time’s invasion of your world system. It puts your life into perspective, and the net result is precisely insight and humility. The former gives rise to the latter, not a bene. The more you learn about your own format, the humbler and more sympathetic you become to your fellow-beings, to this dust that swirls in the sun’s ray or that already lies motionless on your table top." - Joseph Brodsky, ‘In Praise of Boredom’, in On Grief and Reason (New York,1995).
"Boredom has to be accepted as an unavoidable fact, as life’s own gravity." - Professor Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), p154.
 "To endure is the first thing that a child ought to learn, and that which he will have the most need to know." - Jean-Jacques Rousseau
"Our unexciting way of practice may appear to be very negative. This is not so. It is a wise and effective way to work on ourselves. It is just very plain. I find this point very difficult for people, especially young people, to understand." - Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p58.
"Mindfulness meditation can feel exciting and illuminating at times, but it can also feel downright boring, especially in the early stages, until we learn how to work with mind states and feeling states such as boredom." - Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p229.



When I began meditating mindfully, I started to see what habits had been nurtured in me - an addiction to exciting stimuli, and appetites which numbed my awareness. When I began to lower my consumption of exciting and numbing stimuli, boredom began to rear it's ugly head more often than ever before. Dealing with boredom became (and still is) a big feature of my mindfulness practice, and so the following is an investigation of the existence and effects of boredom in society, and how mindfulness meditation teachers engage with it.

Lars Svendsen,  professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, Norway, says in his book, 'A Philosophy of Boredom', p142:
"it goes against every fibre in your being not to try and shrug yourself free of boredom."
and, p23:
"we cannot face tackling time that is ‘empty’."

 http://historytech.files.wordpress.com/2009/08/boredom2.jpg

Professor Svendsen uses characters presented in the novel 'William Lovell' to illustrate the state of extreme boredom quite nicely:
"William demands that the world satisfy him and be interesting, but he can find nothing of interest, and his daily complaint is that he is bored to death; the world as such is a vast prison. He conceives the world and its inhabitantsas lacking all originality or capacity to fascinate him. From time to time he reaches a temporary state of euphoria or ‘lustful intoxication’, but this always rapidly passes away. Man as such no longer ‘interests’ William, and every single face ‘bores him’." p65
 And so what comes out of such a state? As Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn says in his book, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p64:
"If the mind says, "This is boring," then before you know it, the body is up and looking around for the next thing to do to keep the mind happy. [...] If the body feels the slightest discomfort, it will shift to be more comfortable or it will call on the mind to find something else for it to do, and again, you will be standing up literally before you know it."
He also mentions how children react to boredom in unhealthy ways, p417:
"Many children are addicted to TV and don't know· what to do with themselves when it is off. It is such an easy escape from boredom that they are not challenged to find other ways of dealing with time, such as through imaginative play, drawing, painting, and reading."
 http://www.sessions.edu/notes-on-design/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/scottadams.jpg

Immersing oneself in the huge ocean of media on the internet also doesn't seem to solve our problems. Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh writes,  in his book The Sun, My Heart (1988), p39:
"Contemporary music, literature, and entertainment do little to help with healing; to the contrary much of it compounds the bitterness, desperation, and weariness we all feel."
So what are the standard, more healthy approaches for tackling boredom? Svendsen, when discussing methods of neutralising boredom writes, p141:
"In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance Robert Pirsig simply recommended sleep as a means of combating boredom. Obviously, this must work, but the effect is unfortunately only temporary, and hardly relevant for anything except situative boredom. ... one cannot just sleep all the time."
This forces us to consider what the effect on society is, as individual people, driven by such suffering as outlined above, interact and send ripples out across the world. Without any way of accepting their pain as part of a necessary process of letting go of unhealthy appetites, it seems people cause more suffering for others as they run away from their own suffering. An American sociologist called Robert Nisbet, in the  chapter titled 'Boredom' in his book Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge, MA, and London,1982), writes, p.28:
"Boredom may become Western man’s greatest source of unhappiness. Catastrophe alone would appear to be the surest and, in today’s world, the most likely of liberations from boredom."

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A French author and WW1 soldier, Georges Bernanos, in his work The Diary of a Country Priest, writes:
" ...if the human race disappears, it will be out of ennui and boredom. Mankind will gradually be consumed ... Look at these world wars, for example, which apparently bear witness to a violent vitality in man but which actually prove its growing lethargy. It will end with vast numbers being led to the slaughter at certain times."
Professor Svendsen reflects upon this violent reaction to boredom in A Philosophy of Boredom, when he writes, p39-40:
"Boredom leads to most things appearing to be a tempting alternative, and it might seem as if what we really need is a fresh war or a major catastrophe. [...] Boredom gives a sort of pallid foretaste of death, and one could imagine that violent actual death would be preferable, that one would prefer the world to end with a bang rather than with a miserable little whimper."
It seems that the mind, feeling trapped in cyclical - turbulent - episodes of excitement, sedation, and boredom, desperately seeks a way out through a possible premature death at the hands of others - a kind of suicide by proxy perhaps. If life is intense suffering already, then death is not as daunting a prospect as it should be. Bertrand Russell emphasises this dimension in The Conquest of Happiness when he writes, p68:
"Among those who are rich enough to choose their way of life, the particular brand of unendurable boredom from which they suffer is due, paradoxical as this may seem, to their fear of boredom. In flying from the fructifying kind of boredom, they fall a prey to the other far worse kind."

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Such a position is a far cry from what life - living, sentient beings - is apparently all about, however - the instinct to preserve and nuture life is present within all of us, and it longs to be satisfied, even though, of course, it must inevitably come to an end. It appears it was this dimension to human life that caused Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, to leave his comforts and his palace life and go in search of liberation from cyclical suffering. As the Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh relates in his book, Old Path, White Clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha, p109:
"The king stood up and grabbed his son’s hand. “Siddhartha, you know how much I need you. You are the one on whom I have placed all my hopes. Please, don’t abandon me.”
“I will never abandon you. I am only asking you to let me go away for a time. When I have found the Way, I will return.”
A look of pain crossed King Suddhodana’s face. He said no more and retired to his quarters.[...] in the early evening, Udayin, one of Siddhartha’s friends, came to visit [...] Udayin had organized a party and had hired one of the finest dancing troupes in the capital to perform. Festive torches brightened the palace. ... Udayin had been summoned by the king and given the task to do everything he could think of to entice Siddhartha to remain in the palace. The evening’s party was the first of Udayin’s plans."
The party did not manage to entice Siddhartha to remain in the palace, however - his searching mind overpowered his appetites for entertainment, and he went off to seek liberation from the suffering associated with birth and death.

As part of his training under various teachers, Siddhartha Gautama constantly questioned the reality within and around him - watching his mind and body in the here-and-now. It seems it was this process which eventually gave him his deep insight. Following in Gautama's footsteps, Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p64:
 "If you are genuinely committed to being more peaceful and relaxed, you might wonder why it is that your mind is so quick to be bored with being with itself and why your body is so restless and uncomfortable. You might wonder what is behind your impulses to fill each moment with something; what is behind your need to be entertained whenever you have an "empty" moment, to jump up and get going, to get back to doing and being busy? What drives the body and mind to reject being still?"
There are apparently no clear answers as to why we feel bored at times, but I find that making contact with boredom - as an experience - is almost like a kind of exposure therapy - and it deepens my mindfulness practice. Professor Svendsen says in A Philosophy of Boredom, p132:
"Boredom does not lead us to any profound, encompassing understanding of ‘the meaning of Being’, but it can tell us something about how we actually lead our lives."
Kabat-Zinn, in The Mindful Way Through Depression, writes of boredom arising during meditation, p83:
"We might wind up telling ourselves that nothing useful or interesting seems to be happening; the mind is just wandering uncontrollably, even as we persist in bringing it back over and over again to a sense of the breath moving in the body, or whatever our primary focus of attention may be. "How boring," the mind says to itself."
 If boredom is something we fear and react to; something which causes us to jump up and busy ourselves, then it seems natural that if we can be 'OK' with boredom, then it will not cause us to react and give birth to  unhealthy behaviours. Soto Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in the chapter titled 'It's OK', in her book Everyday Zen (1997) says of seated mindfulness meditation:
"As we sit through it an understanding slowly increases: “Yes, I’m going through this and I don’t like it—wish I could run out—and somehow, it’s OK.”"
Regarding the therapeutic dimension connected to facing one's fears, in the book 'Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Dummies' (2010), the authors write, p126-7:
"Supported by numerous clinical trials, and used daily all over the world, the principle of facing your fears until your anxiety reduces is one of the cornerstones of CBT. The process of deliberately confronting your fear and staying within the feared situation until your anxiety subsides is known as exposure or desensitisation. The process of getting used to something, like cold water in a swimming pool, is called habituation. The principle is to wait until your anxiety reduces by at least half before ending your session of exposure – usually between twenty minutes and one hour, but sometimes more.
... if you deliberately confront your fears, your anxiety becomes less severe and reduces more quickly with each exposure. The more exposures you experience, the better. When you first confront your fears, aim to repeat your exposures at least daily."
It seems this is exactly the process which occurs when one sits down in mindful meditation. There is this idea that facing boredom will somehow kill us, and it may indeed kill a part of us - some unnecessary and unhealthy appetite for entertainment on demand, but the idea that boredom can somehow destroy us outright like dynamite is apparently very wrong. Even Professor Svendson intimates the value of facing boredom head-on, p141-2:
" ...to experience boredom is to experience a piece of reality. Rather than immediately happen on an antidote to boredom, there could be some point in lingering and maybe finding some kind of meaning in boredom itself. It is not possible to completely deselect boredom or some other mood, but one can choose to recognize it or to repress it.[...] ...without the ability to tolerate a certain degree of boredom one will live a miserable life, because life will be lived as a continuous flight from boredom. So all children ought to be brought up to be able to be bored. To activate a child at all times is to neglect an important part of child-rearing. [...] Boredom contains a potential. In boredom an emptying takes place, and an emptiness can be a receptiveness, although it does not have to be it. Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts. It can open ways up for a new configuration of things, and therefore also for a new meaning, by virtue of the fact that it has already deprived things of meaning. Boredom, because of its negativity, contains the possibility of a positive turn-around. ...boredom gives you a perspective on your own existence, where you realize your own insignificance in the greater context."
Unfortunately Svendsen doesn't go any deeper than this, although there is an interesting link between what he relates in his analysis of William Lovett and a MBSR mindfulness introduction technique createded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn. Svendsen writes, p65:
"William, though, is not the only person who is bored – practically all the characters are. One of William’s friends, Karl Wilmont, writes that ‘This boredom has already brought more unhappiness into the world than all the passions put together. The soul shrivels up like a dried plum.’"
What would be to happen if Karl Wilmont decided to sit down in relaxed awareness and investigate his shrivelled, dried plum of a soul right there 'in the moment' with all his attention? Kabat-Zinn seems to have the answer in Full Catastrophe Living, as he relates the mindful exploration of a raisin, p27-28:
"we bring our attention to seeing the raisin, observing it carefully as if we had never seen one before. We feel its texture between our fingers and notice its colors and surfaces. We are also aware of any thoughts we might be having about raisins or food in general. We note any thoughts and feelings of liking or disliking raisins if they come up while we are looking at it. [...] The response to this exercise is invariably positive, even among the people who don't like raisins."
But what of situations more intimidating than raisin-eating? - What of soul-shrivelling boredom?

 

In another of his books on mindfulness practice, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), Kabat-Zinn says the following of boredom, in the section titled 'Non-Judging', p55-56:
"When you dwell in stillness, the judging mind can come through like a foghorn. I don't like the pain in my knee .... This is boring. ... I like this feeling of stillness; I had a good meditation yesterday, but today I'm having a bad meditation. ... It's not working for me. I'm no good at this. I'm no good, period. This type of thinking dominates the mind and weighs it down. It's like carrying around a suitcase full of rocks on your head. It feels good to put it down. Imagine how it might feel to suspend all your judging and instead to let each moment be just as it is, without attempting to evaluate it as "good" or "bad." This would be a true stillness, a true liberation."
So the method to facing boredom successfully is to drop the judgement. In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn says of this process, p34:
"At a certain point you may find your mind saying something like, "This is boring," or "This isn't working," or "I can't do this." These are judgments. When they come up in your mind, it is very important to recognize them as judgmental thinking and remind yourself that the practice involves suspending judgment and just watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts, without pursuing them or acting on them in any way."
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Suspending judgement allows one to accept whatever necessary situation is occuring, and allows it to pass by in it's own time. Kabat-Zinn further illustrates the practice as follows, p64:
"we just observe the impulse to get up [out of boredom] or the thoughts [about boredom] that come into the mind. And instead of jumping up and doing whatever the mind decides is next on the agenda, we gently but firmly bring our attention back to the belly and to the breathing and just continue to watch the breath, moment by moment. We may ponder why the mind is like this for a moment or two, but basically we are practicing accepting each moment as it is without reacting to how it is. So we keep sitting, following our breathing."
 

And so a more unexciting, yet calmer and stable, way of life unfolds from this practice - traditionally boring necessary situations are no longer met with adversity and 'suffered', and the presence of boredom in one's mindfulness meditation can be seen as a gift - to practice being more 'OK' with empty time - to weed one's psychic garden and bury the weeds as fertiliser for the more noble plants to grow stronger.

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As one's practice deepens, however, even getting excited about mindfulness needs to be met with caution. As Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p57-58:
"Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine. If you become too busy and too excited, your mind becomes rough and ragged. This is not good. If possible, try to be always calm and joyful and keep yourself from excitement. [...] Zen is not something to get excited about. Some people start to practice Zen just out of curiosity, and they only make themselves busier. [...] When young people get excited about Zen they often give up schooling and go to some mountain or forest in order to sit. That kind of interest is not true interest."
There is plenty of joy to be had outside of excitement.

The author enjoying a mountain waterfall in South China.