Wednesday, 27 March 2013

BPS News: Mindfulness in Schools is Discussed on Today

The British Psychological Society website posted a news item on 27th March 2013 titled: Mindfulness in Schools is Discussed on Today.

The article highlighted a discussion on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme with Professor Willem Kuyken from the University of Exeter regarding the use of mindfulness in schools in the UK:
"Mindfulness, said Professor Kuyken, is a form of mental training that teaches children to be aware of their feelings. He told John Humphrys that he is about to present the findings of a study that shows both boys and girls report improved well-being and lower levels of stress after undergoing nine-week mindfulness programme as part of the school curriculum.

Also appearing was Mary Speakman, head teacher at Altrincham Girls Grammar School, who said that mindfulness techniques had proved popular with her students and they would soon be used in other schools that formed part of the same group."
Here is the discussion:

video

TIME Article: Can ‘Mindfulness’ Help You Focus?

On March 27th 2013, TIME magazine online posted an article by titled: Can ‘Mindfulness’ Help You Focus?, in the IDEAS>Health & Science>Psychology section.

Here are some key quotes:
"If there’s any time when we should be paying close attention to what we’re doing, it’s when we’re under pressure to perform — whether taking a test like the SAT or on a deadline at work. But too often, our minds wander even in these crucial moments — distracted by a ticking clock or consumed with worries about how well we’re doing or how much time we have left.

Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wondered if instruction in mindfulness — the capacity to focus on the here and now — could help. In a forthcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, he and his co-authors describe an experiment in which 48 undergraduates were randomly assigned to either a mindfulness class or a nutrition class.
[...]
Schooler notes that findings of his study are in line with other research showing that mindfulness training leads to reduced activation of the “default network,” a collection of regions in the brain that tend to become more active when our minds are at rest than when we’re focused on a mentally challenging task.
[...]
It may be the case, Schooler theorizes, that mindfulness training reduces mind wandering by “dampening” the activation of the default network, preventing our thoughts from straying.
[...]
“The present demonstration that mindfulness training improves cognitive function and minimizes mind wandering suggests that enhanced attentional focus may be key to unlocking skills that were, until recently, viewed as immutable.” Something to think about — or, actually, not think about — the next time you’re under pressure."

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Gardening Metaphors in Mindfulness Practice

"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).
"Peace is every step.
The shining red sun is my heart.
Each flower smiles with me.
How green, how fresh all that grows.
How cool the wind blows.
Peace is every step.
It turns the endless path to joy." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (2005), p9.
"There is a certain view which likens Buddha Nature to the seeds of plants and trees. When the rain of the Dharma pours down and moistens the seeds, they sprout and send forth shoots, then branch out and produce leaves, flowers, and fruit, with the fruit, in turn, becoming pregnant with seeds. [...] ...you should investigate thoroughly through your training that each and every seed, along with each and every flower and fruit, is the product of an honest and sincere heart." - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen,  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p247.
"Gardening is ...a wonderful way of connecting with nature and experiencing ‘flow’; absorbing yourself in tasks such as weeding and planting and enjoying the fruits of your labours as you see tiny shoots grow into beautiful plants and flowers." - Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p263.

http://www.livingdesignhome.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/garden-4.jpg

When our life gets too complicated to manage healthily, we can seek simplicity, but in our modern age such simplicity can be very difficult to find. Sometimes we hark back to older times when technology and social rules were not so complicated - when humans lived more intimately with the forces of nature. In this sense, we seem to have some instictive understanding of how a human can live in harmony with nature - some symbiotic potential.

One strong vision of human harmony with nature has been that of Adam and Eve living in the garden of Eden. As the American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), p156:
"The Garden of Eden is a life of unbroken simplicity. We all chance upon it now and then."
However, most of the time we feel very far away from this kind of simplistic harmony, as Joko Beck states in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p210:
"...our lives are very unnatural. We feel ourselves to be separated from the world, and that removes us from the Garden of Eden."
In Everyday Zen she attributes this separation to our misunderstanding and thus misuse of thoughts, p164:
"Having the gift of thinking, we misuse it and go astray. We expel ourselves from the Garden of Eden. We think not in terms of work that needs to be done for life, but in terms of how we can serve our separate self."
The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), encourages one to view one's life as if one were living in a huge garden within which one constantly sows seeds. Thoughts, as actions, can be considered seeds sown, and these seeds become conditions for our future experiences, as in his Teaching on the Two Enterings and the Four Practices he says:
"As mortals, we’re ruled by conditions, not by ourselves. All the suffering and joy we experience depend on conditions. If we should be blessed by some great reward, such as fame or fortune, it’s the fruit of a seed planted by us in the past."
As a result of this situation, Bodhidharma encourages people to understand the nature of the mind's activity, and compares our minds to the root of a tree, in his Breakthrough Sermon:
"The mind is the root from which all things grow if you can understand the mind, everything else is included. It’s like the root of a tree. All a tree’s fruit and flowers, branches and leaves depend on its root. If you nourish its root, a tree multiplies. If you cut its root, it dies. Those who understand the mind reach enlightenment with minimal effort."
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh deepens this metaphor in his book Peace is Every Step (2005), by describing how we, like a tree, plant seeds, but we are prone to planting both good and bad seeds, p60:
"There are many kinds of seeds in us, both good and bad. Some were planted during our lifetime, and some were transmitted by our parents, our ancestors, and our society. In a tiny grain of corn, there is the knowledge, transmitted by previous generations, of how to sprout and how to make leaves, flowers, and ears of corn. Our body and our mind also have knowledge that has been transmitted by previous generations. Our ancestors and our parents have given us seeds of joy, peace, and happiness, as well as seeds of sorrow, anger, and so on.
He says that everything we need to healthily deal with our situation is already present within us as innate intelligence - built into the natural fabric which makes up our bodies, in The Sun My Heart (1988), p52:
"When we look at plants, we also see miracles of knowing. The apple tree knows how to make roots, branches, leaves, flowers, and fruit. You say that the apple tree, having no intelligence, has no other choice. But your ribs, your glands, your backbone, have you created them with your intelligence?"
By accessing this innate intelligence and allowing it to breathe, we can successfully tend to the gardens of our lives.

The cultivation of plants and the cultivation of mindfulness practices have been paralleled metaphorically and literally for more than 2000 years, so there is a wealth of references from various teachers to draw from. As with any practice which needs to stand the test of time, however, one must begin by aiming for an ideal. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) suggests the following practice when living in the garden of life, p107:
"Imagine a flower blooming under each step you take. Allow each step to refresh your body and mind. Realise that life can only be lived in the present moment."
Remaining in the present moment is an incredibly difficult task, however, as the mind habitually flies off into judgemental thinking, or the past or future, thus causing one to plant weeds and neglect one's garden in general. Such habits need to be replaced through conscious effort to bring the mind back to the present moment every time it wanders.

This disciplining of the mind in itself sows healthy seeds, and so one's metaphorical garden begins to look and feel more beautiful the more one practices. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step, p60:
"Every time we practice mindful living, we plant healthy seeds and strengthen the healthy seeds already in us. Healthy seeds function similarly to antibodies. When a virus enters our bloodstream, our body reacts and antibodies come and surround it, take care of it, and transform it. This is true with our psychological seeds as well. If we plant wholesome, healing, refreshing seeds, they will take care of the negative seeds, even without our asking them. To succeed, we need to cultivate a good reserve of refreshing seeds."
He adds to this in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), explaining that mindfulness is the key to growing beautiful flowers, p55:
"We have to learn how to water the wholesome seeds that are in us so they will bloom into the flowers.... The instrument for watering wholesome seeds is mindful living — mindful breathing, mindful walking, living each moment of our day in mindfulness."
Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki taught in his book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995) that the negative seeds - growing into weeds - are pulled out and fed to the positive seeds - the flowers - and that this means one can accept the presence of weeds from within one's mindfulness practice, p36:
"We say, "Pulling out the weeds we give nourishment to the plant." We pull the weeds and bury them near the plant to give it nourishment. So even though you have some difficulty in your practice, even though you have some waves while you are sitting, those waves themselves will help you. So you should not be bothered by your mind. You should rather be grateful for the weeds, because eventually they will enrich your practice. If you have some experience of how the weeds in your mind change into mental nourishment, your practice will make remarkable progress. You will feel the progress. You will feel how they change into self-nourishment."
Thich Nhat Hanh reflects this accepting stance in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by using the idea of stinking garbage/compost as the equivalent of the pulled up weeds, p64:
"A good gardener knows the way to grow flowers from compost. Right Mindfulness accepts everything without judging or reacting. It is inclusive and loving. The practice is to find ways to sustain appropriate attention throughout the day."
This is more explicitly explained in his book Understanding Our Mind (2001), p402:
"A gardener does not chase after flowers and try to run away from garbage. She accepts both, and she takes good care of both. She is not attached to either nor does she reject either, because she sees that the nature of both is interbeing. She has made peace with the flower and the garbage."
And in Peace is Every Step (1991), p58:
"When we have a compost bin filled with organic material which is decomposing and smelly, we know that we can transform the waste into beautiful flowers. At first, we may see the compost and the flowers as opposite, but when we look deeply, we see that the flowers already exist in the compost, and the compost already exists in the flowers. It only takes a couple of weeks for a flower to decompose. When a good organic gardener looks into her compost, she can see that, and she does not feel sad or disgusted. Instead, she values the rotting material and does not discriminate against it. It takes only a few months for compost to give birth to flowers. [...] We need not be afraid of it or reject it."
So this watering of our garden through accepting, mindful noticing is all that is necessary. As the author of Meditation for Dummies (2006) states, once we have done that, we can leave the rest to nature, p146:
"...you just have to do your part and get out of the way! If you get carried away and overwater or disturb the ground prematurely, you only interfere with the process. In the same way, you need to exert just the right amount of consistent effort in your meditation — don’t overwater or keep scratching the ground searching for signs of progress, but don’t go away for a week and leave your plot unattended, either. Do what you need to do without fixating on the results, and your garden will blossom quite naturally, all by itself."
Thich Nhat Hanh supports this approach in Understanding Our Mind as follows, p127:
"As gardeners, we turn the soil, sow seeds, water them, pull weeds, and add fertilizer. But we cannot do the work of the earth. Only the earth can hold the seeds and bring forth the fruits of our labor. What is most important is to have faith that the earth will germinate the seeds that have been sown."
He refers to this faith in the potential of the earth to bear fruit again in The Sun My Heart, p90:
"When an apple tree produces flowers, we don't see apples yet, and so we might say, "There are flowers but no apples on this tree." We say this because we do not see the latent presence of the apples in the flowers. Time will gradually reveal the apples."
And he emphasises that the fruits of efforts are not the product of the gardener, but of the earth itself, p161:
"A garden cannot cultivate itself. A gardener is needed. When the gardener has plowed, hoed, tilled, sown the seeds, and watered the earth, the earth offers flowers and fruits to support the life of the gardener. The gardener knows that it is not he that brings forth the fruits, but the earth itself. His job is simply to take care of the earth."
The author of Mindfulness for Dummies advises us to be patient when waiting for the fruits of practice, p174:
"Be patient about your progress. You can’t see a plant growing if you watch it, even though it’s actually growing all the time. Every time you practise meditation you’re growing more mindful, though it may seem very difficult to see from day to day. Trust in the process and enjoy watering your seed of mindfulness."
And so, as the process continues, insights will inevitably come, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p185:
"Mindfulness is the plow, the hoe, and the irrigation source that waters insight. We are the gardener — plowing, sowing, and watering our beneficial seeds."
And in The Sun My Heart, p121:
"As you continue practicing, the flower of insight will blossom in you, along with the flowers of compassion, tolerance, happiness, and letting go."
Joko Beck describes the emergence of such gains while practicing within the garden as follows, in Nothing Special - Living Zen, p.vii:
"In the garden of everyday experience, we uncover unexpected treasures. Ingenuous, living from what we are, we move from a self-centered toward a reality-centered life—and open to wonder."
And in addition to gaining new healthy plants in the garden of one's life, one's skill and experience in this metaphorical gardening increases over time, which brings a newfound trust in nature. Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, writes of this in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004):
" ...as with any other practice, it deepens and grows with constant attending, like plants in a lovingly tended garden."
Thich Nhat Hanh writes of this deepening in the context of the Mahayana Buddhist bodhisattva practitioner seeking Buddhahood, in Understanding Our Mind, p402:
"A bodhisattva handles enlightenment and afflictions in the same way a skillful gardener handles flowers and garbage—without discrimination. She knows how to do the work of transformation, and so she is no longer afraid. This is the attitude of a Buddha."
Aspirations can eventually arise in this way - beyond simplifying one's life, and towards helping others - recognising a seed of Buddhahood within all humans, and seeking to water that seed, and not other unhealthy seeds, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p52:
"The seed of Buddhahood, the capacity to wake up and understand things as they are, is also present in each of us. When we join our palms and bow to another person, we acknowledge the seed of Buddhahood in him or her. [...] If you plant corn, corn will grow. If you plant wheat, wheat will grow. If you act in a wholesome way, you will be happy. If you act in an unwholesome way, you water the seeds of craving, anger, and violence in yourself. Right View is to recognize which seeds are wholesome and to encourage those seeds to be watered. This is called "selective touching.""
Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, referred to this deeper practice and the flowering that follows in his book Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p75:
"When great compassion is deep within you, and your wish to spiritually aid sentient beings everywhere is well seasoned... . Then your training and practice will flower..."
Thich Nhat Hanh says this flower will open, granting one deep insights into reality, if one also considers one's mindfulness as sunshine, in The Sun My Heart, p32:
"When the sun shines continuously on a lotus flower, it opens widely, revealing its seedheart. In the same way, through the activity of looking, reality gently reveals itself."
He elaborates further in Peace Is Every Step, p60:
"Our mindfulness will take care of everything, as the sunshine takes care of the vegetation. The sunshine does not seem to do much, it just shines on the vegetation, but it transforms everything. Poppies close up every time it gets dark, but when the sun shines on them for one or two hours, they open. The sun penetrates into the flowers, and at some point, the flowers cannot resist, they just have to open up. In the same way, mindfulness, if practiced continuously, will provide a kind of transformation within the flower... and it will open and show us its own nature."
As usual with mindfulness teachings, they can be easy to understand technically, but it is the putting into practice which makes them useful. Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of this necessity in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching, p42:
"If you want to garden, you have to bend down and touch the soil. Gardening is a practice, not an idea."
Mindfulness for Dummies highlights the need for regular practice also, p48:
"A plant needs regular watering to grow – a lack of care and attention results in it perishing." 
And, p50:
"Think of these key attitudes like strawberry seeds. If you’re hoping to taste the delicious strawberries, you need to plant the seeds and water them regularly. In the same way, you need to water your attitudes regularly, by giving them your mindful attention. Then you can enjoy the fruit of your efforts in the form of a sweet, delicious strawberry."
Eventually the process can become automatic, as Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being (2008), p10:
"If we take steps without anxiety, in peace and joy, then we cause a flower to bloom on the earth with every step."
In the last words of Dr. Kabat-Zinn's introduction to his 15th Anniversary Edition of Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p.XXXIII:
"May your mindfulness practice grow and flower and nourish your life and work from moment to moment and from day to day."

Friday, 22 March 2013

New York Times News: In Mindfulness, a Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds

On March 22nd 2013, The New York Times published an article in the Business>Your Money section titled: In Mindfulness, a Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds.

Here are some of the more interesting quotes:
"Elementary school students practice it. Doctors practice it — and their patients. Prisoners practice it. There’s mindful eating that promises a healthier way of eating. And scans show mindfulness may change the way our brains function and help us improve attention, reduce stress hormones and even bounce back faster from negative information.
[...]
“Intentionally paying attention to the present nonjudgmentally” is the way that Janice Marturano explains it. Ms. Marturano is a former deputy general counsel and vice president for public responsibility at General Mills, and helped start its Mindful Leadership Forum in 2004. She left a few years ago to start the nonprofit Institute for Mindful Leadership.
What it’s not, she said, is only about reducing stress. Or about emptying our minds of all thoughts. Or about religion. 
[...]
“The way it’s presented in the media, people begin to believe it’s a magic pill,” said Christy Matta, author of the book “The Stress Response” (2012, New Harbinger Publications). “I’ll clear my mind and I’ll be peaceful and stress-free. If that’s what people think, they’ll be disappointed.”
Rather, she said, “it takes time and sustained practice to experience the benefits.”
And, she said, if you go into it with the idea of reducing stress, you’re working against the very thing you’re trying to attain, because you’re aiming toward a goal.
Mindfulness, “is about being present,” she said. “You have to do it just to do it. You can’t strive for things.” 

While being aware of your feelings may be nice when drinking a lovely cup of tea or relaxing in a garden, Ms. Matta said, part of mindfulness is also uncomfortable feelings — not trying to change or judge them, but being aware of them. And that may not feel so pleasant. 
[...]
...Linda Lantieri, director of the nonprofit group the Inner Resilience Program.
She and others have found that practicing mindfulness can increase attention and focus, and help children respond to stress in a calmer manner, but it also “needs to be part of learning concrete emotional and social skills,” she said. 
[...]
There are some good books that offer guidance. Ms. Matta mentioned her own, of course, and “Full Catastrophe Living,” (Delacorte Press, 1990) by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Professor Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is considered one of the foremost experts on the subject.  

But everyone I spoke to said that you need to take a course and perhaps go on a retreat to fully experience and gain value from mindfulness. I realize that the people I talked to tended to teach courses, so maybe they’re a little biased. But it also makes sense to me.
Ms. Marturano, who delivered a presentation on mindfulness at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, compared it to exercise. You can watch a video of how to play tennis or read a book and perhaps even learn to play at a basic level that way. But to get better, you need a teacher. 
[...]
...I can see why other people are drawn to it, given that we’re living in a such a fractured, information-overloaded world. We’re looking so far ahead to the next thing, we miss what’s going on in the present.
Mindfulness may not be the answer to every ill. But it may be the answer to some. And I’ll settle for that."

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Thoughts vs Reality

"The constant agitation of our thinking minds, which we encounter so vividly in the meditation practice, is actually fed and compounded by our diet of television, radio, newspapers, and movies. We are constantly shoveling into our minds more things to react to; to think, worry, and obsess about; and to remember, as if our own daily lives did not produce enough." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p 415-416.
"Mind is [unconscious] like trees or stones. It is as if there were someone who painted dragons and tigers with his own hand, and yet, upon looking at them, became frightened. Deluded people are also like this. The brush of thought and consciousnesses paints Razor Mountains and Sword Forests, and yet it is thought and the consciousnesses that fear them. [...] Some, by discriminations of their own mind, draw tigers, wolves, lions, poisonous dragons, evil spirits, the generals of the five paths of rebirth, King Yama, the ox-headed guards of hell, and the Hell of the Sound of Cold. These things are discriminated by their own minds, but they are then controlled by these things, and so they undergo various sufferings. Realize that whatever mind discriminates is merely forms. [...] Forms are not forms. They are constructed in the manner of an illusion by your own mind. If you merely realize that they are not real, then you will attain liberation.”" - Bodhidharma, Text no. 5: Record I, The Bodhidharma Anthology: The earliest records of zen, (Jeffrey L. Broughton, 1999), p20-21
"Imagine a child sleeping next to its parents and dreaming it is being beaten or is painfully sick. The parents cannot help the child no matter how much it suffers, for no one can enter the dreaming mind of another, if the child could awaken itself, it could be freed of this suffering automatically." - Bassui's SermonThe Three Pillars of Zen (1970), Philip Kapleau, p161.
Becoming aware of the way thoughts manifest and affect one's body and perceptions seems to be a key property of maintaining a daily mindfulness meditation discipline. This post will present some teachers' quotes and comments on the topic with the help of the following graphic:

Thoughts which can often engage one during meditation.

1. Unable to accept the necessary pains of life - old age, sickness, and death, to name but a few. This means that one is often hit by the 'second arrow' which amplifies pain. This situation is explained clearly in Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p50:
"By fighting the pain, you still feel the pain, but on top of that, you feel the emotional hurt and struggle with the pain itself. Buddha called this the ‘second arrow’. If a warrior is injured by an arrow and unleashes a series of thoughts like ‘why did this happen to me’ or ‘what if I can never walk again’, that’s a ‘second arrow’. You may inflict this on yourself each time you feel some form of pain or even just a bit of discomfort, rather than accepting what has happened and taking the next step."
2. The habitual reaction to solving a difficult problem is to think, and yet the body solves many problems without needing to think. The problem of filtering toxins from our blood is constantly solved and orchestrated by our liver without the need for thought. The body can also filter toxins from the mind if it is trusted to do so in the same manner as one trusts one's liver. The founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, speaks of the excellent and difficult job the body does in controlling the liver without our conscious control in the following clip from his talk at Spaulding Auditorium, Dartmouth College (April 7, 2011), titled The Healing Power of Mindfulness:

video


3. Positive judgements creating clinging and attachment - a 'toxic' resistance to impermanence. When the positive situation changes, negative judgements appear. Dropping all judgement allows one to accept situations for what they are without clinging. The Faith in Mind (Xìnxīn míng; 信心銘) - a poem attributed to the Third Chinese Zen Patriarch Sēngcàn 僧璨 (5th Century AD) presents this teaching as follows (translated by D.T.Suzuki):
"The Perfect Way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preferences;
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise"
4. Negative judgements creating aversion - tension builds and the 'toxic' adrenaline response can easily become triggered causing one to act irrationally. Trying to avoid something considered negative keeps that negative thing close, as one constantly breathes life into it every time one negates it. Hypnotist Derren Brown refers to this fact in this video clip from his popular TV series:



In this review of Dr. Andrew Weil’s Mind-Body Tool Kit, the power of one's own thoughts on one's body is illustrated as follows:
"You close your eyes and imagine a lemon. You imagine every aspect of this lemon, the color, smell, feel of it as you cut into it. Then imagine bringing a slice of it to your mouth and sinking your teeth into it. ... chances are, simply imagining that you are eating the lemon will make you start to salivate. [...] this exercise shows us how our thoughts affect our bodies. If you can make your mouth water simply by thinking about eating a lemon, imagine what is going on in your body when you’re thinking you’d like to drive right over the car in front of you”
Text No.3: First Letter of the anthology attributed to the first Patriarch of Zen, Bodhidharma, contains the following statement regarding the practice of "Thusness" - accepting what is for what it is; without judgement, in The Bodhidharma Anthology: The earliest records of zen, (Jeffrey L. Broughton, 1999), p12-14:
"I had been cultivating false thought for such a long time that my feelings led me to continue to see characteristics. I came to the point where I wanted to probe the difficulties inherent in these illusionary transformations. In the end I clearly apprehended the Dharma Nature and engaged in a coarse practice of Thusness. For the first time I realized that within the square inch of my own mind there is nothing that does not exist. The bright pearl comprehends clearly and darkly penetrates the deep tendency of things. From the Buddhas above to the wriggling insects below there is nothing that is not another name for false thought. They are the calculations of thought. And so I have given written expression to my dark musings. Moreover, I will reveal the Verses on Devices for Entering the Path [Ju-tao fang-pien chi], to be used as an admonition to those who have the conditions for the same type of awakening. If you have time, unroll and read it:

Through cross-legged sitting dhyana, in the end you will necessarily see the Original Nature.
Inevitably you will fuse and purify mind.
If for a split second [thought] arises, [you will be in the conditioned realm of] arising and extinguishing.
In the midst [of birth and death], to remember thoughts is [like a Buddhist aspirant] engaging in an improper means of livelihood.
You may search for Dharma and surmise various things, but your karma will not be changed.
Given revolving and increasing defilement, mind finds it difficult to reach the ultimate.
The wise one, upon suddenly hearing the eight characters, awakens to principle.
He realizes for the first time that his six years of ascetic activity were in vain.
All over the world, everywhere, are the people of the Evil One
Who clamor in vain and engage in meaningless arguments.
Making false explanations, they teach sentient beings.
Talking about remedies, they cure not one disease.
Things have always been in a state of quiescence and there has never existed a perceiving subject.
How could there be good and evil, false and correct?
Even arising is no-arising; even extinguishing is no-extinguishing.
Moving is no-moving; concentration is no-concentration."
These days, with the amount of media constantly demanding one's attention, it can be very easy to absorb a version of reality that is filtered by overarching political agendas or just plain fiction. This skewed reality can bubble up during meditation as if it is one's own shocking creation. As Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p 415-416:
"Keep your radio on for a while on any day and it is likely that you will hear graphic details of rape and murder. We consume this diet daily. You can't help but wonder what kind of effects it has on us, individually and collectively, to have such graphic and up-to-the-minute knowledge of all these disturbing problems but with virtually no power to influence them. One likely effect is that we might gradually become insensitive to what happens to other people. The fate of others may become just another part of the sea of background violence within which we live. Unless it is particularly gruesome, we may not even notice it at all.
But it does go inside us, just as all the advertisements we are exposed to are taken in. You notice this when you meditate. You begin to Sf:e that your mind is full of all sorts of things that have crept into it from the news or from advertisements. In fact, advertising people are paid very high salaries to figure out effective ways of getting their message inside your head so that you will be more likely to want and choose what they are selling.
Television and movies also figure as a large part of our standard diet nowadays, even more so with the advent of cable TV and VCRs. In the average American household, the television is on for seven hours per day according to some studies, and many children watch four to seven hours per day, more time than they spend doing anything else in their lives except sleeping. They are exposed to staggering amounts of information, images, and sounds, much of it frenetic, violent, cruel, and anxiety-producing, and all of it artificial two-dimensional, not related to actual experiences in their lives other than TV watching itself.
Children are also exposed to images of extreme violence and sadism in popular horror movies. Grotesque and graphic simulations of reality involving killing, raping, maiming and dismemberment have become extremely popular among the young. These vivid simulations have now become part of the diet of young minds, minds that have few defenses against this kind of reality distortion. These images have enormous power to disturb and distort the development of a balanced mind, particularly if there is nothing of equal strength in the child's life to counterbalance them. For many children, real life pales in comparison to the excitement of the movies, and it becomes harder and harder, even for the moviemakers, to maintain their viewers' interest unless they make the images more graphic and more violent with each new release."
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh echoes this sentiment when he writes, in The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p32-33:
"When we drive through a city, our eyes see so many billboards, and these images enter our consciousness. When we pick up a magazine, the articles and advertisements are food for our consciousness. Advertisements that stimulate our craving for possessions, sex, and food can be toxic. If after reading the newspaper, hearing the news, or being in a conversation, we feel anxious or worn out, we know we have been in contact with toxins."
As we work with our inner tensions, we can manage our sensory diet so that we feed our practice rather than our unhealthy habits. This will break the cycle of negative thoughts and uncomfortable reactions, and thoughts will no longer be of concern.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Utility in Emptiness

"If you can empty the mind, be unhurried and loose, and completely lose the world, then you are one who trusts to things and follows the times." - Bodhidharma, Record I: the Method for Quieting MindThe Bodhidharma Anthology: The earliest records of zen, (Jeffrey L. Broughton, 1999), p30.
"Thirty spokes converge on a hub, but it's the emptiness that makes a wheel work, pots are fashioned from clay, but it's the hollow that make a pot work, windows and doors are carved for a house, but it's the spaces that make a house work, existence makes something useful, but nonexistence makes it work." - Daoist Sage LaoZi (~5th Century BC), DaoDeJing.
"You should not lose your self‑sufficient state of mind. This does not mean a closed mind, but actually an empty mind and a ready mind. If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p21
"Empty this boat, monk! Empty it will travel quickly.  Having cut off passion and hatred, you will approach the Nirvana." - The Buddha, Dhammapada, Verse 369. 
"Midnight. No waves,
no wind, the empty boat
is flooded with moonlight."
- Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dogen, in Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's book  Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p232.



In his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, states the following, p263:
"Nowadays it is fashionable to use the word burnout to describe a... state of near or total psychological exhaustion with an accompanying loss of drive and enthusiasm for the details of your life. What used to give you pleasure no longer does. The person experiencing burnout feels alienated from work, family, and friends; nothing seems meaningful anymore."
This burnout can easily occur in our modern busy lives, as we take on more than we can healthily handle - often filling our time with distractions so that we do not have to notice or think about the problems we are creating for ourselves. As Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p258:
"Instead of facing up to your problems, you can run around like crazy doing good things until your life is overflowing with commitments and obligations and you can't possibly make time for yourself."
This overflow of commitments means that we leave little, if any, space for new healthier activities, and we are less available to any new important matters.

When we reach burnout, we are like a boat that has filled with water - we become useless to ourselves and everyone around us. Even though we may have noble intentions as we sit in our metaphorical boats of our lives, we can be so frantically busy trying to put everything in order - bail out the water filling up the vessel - that we can cause the boat to rock all over the place and take in more water than can be bailed - until it eventually sinks.



Not only do we burn out, we also tend to beat ourselves up for burning out. In these situations; just like at any time when we fail - we can tell ourselves over and over again how useless we are. In The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), Kabat-Zinn says the following of this self-abuse, p24:
"Imagine what effect it would have on you if someone stood behind you all day telling you how useless you were when you were trying desperately to cope with a difficult experience. Now imagine how much worse it would be if the criticism and harsh judgment came from inside your own mind. No wonder it seems so real - after all, who knows us better than ourselves ? These thoughts can trap us, turning a small sadness into a tangled web of brooding preoccupation."
In order to deal with the over-subscription which leads to burnout, and the uselessness one can feel when one fails to meet one's responsibilities, mindfulness teachers have referred to the pursuit of 'emptying oneself' and witnessing the 'emptiness of one's existence' in order that one need not run away from the truth of our human condition, or react emotionally to negative thoughts.


One of the most famous classic zen stories regarding emptying the mind is portrayed in the book Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1998) by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki, and goes as follows, p19:
"Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor's cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. "It is overfull. No more will go in!". "Like this cup," Nan-in said, "you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"
If we do not open and empty our minds we have very little space to take on new knowledge - especially when that knowledge is not something which can be passed on through words - knowledge which, like how to balance on one leg, requires direct experience beyond conceptual manipulation.

In order to open ourselves to experiencing a new perspective beyond conceptual description or manipulation, Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki says in his book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), that we need to maintain the attitude of a  beginner - to never settle on some conceptual grasp of what is true - to be empty of the dualistic thoughts of right and wrong, p13-14:
"The mind of the beginner is empty, free of the habits of the expert, ready to accept, to doubt, and open to all the possibilities. It is the kind of mind which can see things as they are, which step by step and in a flash can realize the original nature of everything."

 

This emptiness of the beginner's mind allows one to be available to the experience of something new and helpful - something beyond the habitual labels one has imposed on one's experience; labels which have very possibly trapped one in the past. Suzuki says, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, that emptying the mind in this way brings a new freedom and a power to concentrate more deeply, p112:
"before you put something in your room, it is necessary for you to take out something. If you do not, your room will become crowded with old, useless junk. We say, "Step by step I stop the sound of the murmuring brook." When you walk along the brook you will hear the water running. The sound is continuous, but you must be able to stop it if you want to stop it. This is freedom; this is renunciation. One after another you will have various thoughts in your mind, but if you want to stop your thinking you can. So when you are able to stop the sound of the murmuring brook, you will appreciate the feeling of your work. But as long as you have some fixed idea or are caught by some habitual way of doing things, you cannot appreciate things in their true sense. [...] Without this freedom you cannot be concentrated on what you do. You may think you are concentrated on something, but before you obtain this freedom, you will have some uneasiness in what you are doing. Because you are bound by some idea..., your activity is in dichotomy or duality. As long as you are caught by duality you cannot attain absolute freedom, and you cannot concentrate."
Suzuki later states that the best way to experience an empty mind is through seated meditation (zazen), p128-129:
"...to have a firm conviction in the original emptiness of your mind is the most important thing in your practice. In Buddhist scriptures we sometimes use vast analogies in an attempt to describe empty mind. [...] But it is when you sit in zazen that you will have the most pure, genuine experience of the empty state of mind. Actually, emptiness of mind is not even a state of mind, but the original essence of mind which Buddha and the Sixth Patriarch experienced. "Essence of mind," "original mind," "original face," "Buddha nature," "emptiness"—all these words mean the absolute calmness of our mind. "

 

When the thoughts clutter the mind during seated meditation, however, this is normal. On this, Suzuki is quoted as saying, in Crooked Cucumber: The Life and Zen Teaching of Shunryu Suzuki (1999), that it is important not to engage the thoughts - in the sense of just allowing them to pass through one's dwelling space without interaction, p317:
"In [meditation] leave your front door and back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don't serve them tea."
In time, the mind clears and becomes empty of its own accord. Kabat-Zinn supports this need for acceptance and detachment in his book Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), when he writes, p110:
"...when we practice sitting meditation, first and foremost it means sitting in such a way that your body affirms, radiates, broadcasts an attitude of presence, that you are committed to acknowledging and accepting whatever comes up in any moment. This orientation is one of non-attachment and unwavering stability, like a clear mirror, only reflecting, itself empty, receptive, open. This attitude is contained in the posture, in the very way you choose to sit. The posture embodies the attitude."
Taking this approach from seated meditation to all activities in life, we can empty ourselves sufficiently that we feel a deep freedom and relaxation - like we are on vacation. In Full Catastrophe Living, Kabat-Zinn talks of an encounter between Ghandi and a journalist which seems to illustrate this situation nicely, p361:
"Mahatma Gandhi was once asked by a journalist, "You have been working at least fifteen hours a day, every day for almost fifty years. Don't you think it's about time you took a vacation?" To which Gandhi replied, "I am always on vacation." Of course, the word vacation means "empty, vacant." When we practice being completely in the present, life in its fullness is totally accessible to us at all times, precisely because we are out of time. Time becomes empty and so do we. Then we, too, can always be on vacation."

 

Suzuki presents this practice in more formal terms when he says, in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, 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."
When we become empty, we may directly witness something more profound about our existence in the world - that we have no discrete identity; no true boundary between ourselves and the universe. As Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh states in his book The Sun My Heart (1988), p89:
"To be empty is not to be nonexistent. It is to be devoid of a permanent identity."
He elaborated further on this topic during a Dharma Talk at the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, on August 17, 2010, with reference to the existence of a chrysanthemum flower:
"When we look into this beautiful chrysanthemum, we get the impression that this flower is full of the cosmos. Everything in the cosmos is there in the flower, including the cloud, the sunshine, the soil, minerals, time, and space, everything. It looks like the whole cosmos has come together to manifest the flower. The one contains the all.
There is only one thing that is not there: that is a separate entity, a separate existence. The flower is full of the cosmos, of everything else, but the flower is empty of a separate self. No separate self, that is the first meaning of emptiness. You cannot be by yourself. You have to inter-be with the cosmos. And we are all in you. If you look deeply into yourself, you see all of us in you. That is the beginning of the contemplation of interbeing, focusing on the teaching of emptiness."
 

American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, in her book Everyday Zen (1997), describes the experience of this inter-being as follows, p126:
"If we practice hard enough... we learn that not only is the observer empty, but that which is observed is also empty. At this point the observer (or witness) collapses. This is the final stage of practice; we don’t need to worry about it. Why does the observer finally collapse? When nothing sees nothing, what do we have? Just the wonder of life. There is no one who is separated from anything."
Although these words are easy and beautiful to comprehend, just thinking about it will not bring much change. As Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, discipline and lots of meditation practice is necessary, p150:
"...meditation practice itself, this kind of learning requires a lifelong commitment to continual inquiry and a willingness to modify your perspective as you acquire new knowledge and arrive at new levels of  understanding and insight."
One of the key tools Kabat-Zinn uses to achieve a state of emptiness during seated meditation is the body scan, as he writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p77:
"By the time we have completed the body scan, it can feel as if the entire body has dropped away or has become transparent, as if its substance were in some way erased. It can feel as if there is nothing but breath flowing freely across all the boundaries of the body. As we complete the body scan, we let ourselves dwell in silence and stillness, in an awareness that may have by this point gone beyond the body altogether."

The more this mode of existence appears, the more one can disengage from any negative thought patterns, and one can become more available to new challenges. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), says the following of this process, p234:
"The thought, ‘It’s all my fault; I’m completely useless,’ is just thought, not facts. When you begin to touch this inner wholeness... You become more optimistic in both the present moment and the future. From your more detached, free and lighthearted stance, your perception of your predicament shifts, and you allow more space for your body to heal as best it can..."
However, as is usual with zen practice, we must not seek conceptual goals such as being more empty or useful, lest we fill ourselves up with rigid, inflexible notions, and close our minds off once again. The practice, once begun, is just continued for it's own sake. Shunryu Suzuki mentions this in the book Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p165:
"When you do something with a purpose based on some evaluation of what is useful or useless, good or bad, more or less valuable, your understanding is not perfect. If you do things that need to be done regardless of whether the results are good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, that is real practice. If you do things not because of Buddha, or truth, or yourself, or others, but for the things themselves, that is the true way."
The Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Huìnéng, spoke the following of pursuing emptiness, in The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch (John R. McRae, 2000), p28-29:
"Good friends, don’t listen to me explain emptiness and then become attached to emptiness. The most important thing is not to become attached to emptiness. If you empty your minds and sit in quietude, this is to become attached to the emptiness of blankness."


This dropping of aspirations towards achieving emptiness and utility within practice means one can become truly free and flexible - "chief of all tools", as the Daoist Sage LaoZi (~5th Century BC) said in the DaoDeJing:
"The world calls me great, great but useless, because I am great I am useless, if I were of use I would have stayed small, but I possess three treasures, I treasure and uphold, first is compassion, second is austerity, third is reluctance to excel. because I am compassionate, I can be valiant, because I am austere, I can be extravagant, because I am reluctant to excel, I can be chief of all tools".

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Guardian News: Could beditation be the answer to exam nerves?

Guardian News online published an article in it's Education>GCSEs section titled: Could beditation be the answer to exam nerves? on 4 March 2013, by a teacher at South Hampstead high school, London.

Here are the quotes I found interesting:

"A "7/11" is not the latest in teenage kicks, but a breathing exercise characteristic of a movement that is undergoing a surge in popularity in schools, known as "mindfulness". The 7/11 is a relaxation breathing exercise. Matching the counting to the breath, you breathe in for a count of seven, and out for a count of 11. It works for teachers, too.

Another technique much in evidence under mindfulness is called "beditation" – again, not something to panic a teenager's parents, but simply the practice of meditation while lying down.
About 3,000 students in Britain have been taught mindfulness techniques, and numbers are growing. This month there will be the first international conference on mindfulness in schools, in London, where teachers and experts will gather and Prof Willem Kuyken, who heads a mindfulness research unit at Exeter University, will present some new results.

The "7/11" and "beditation" techniques are being taught in schools through a programme called ".b" (Stop, Breathe and Be) designed by two teachers, Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen, who together formed the Mindfulness in Schools Project in 2007. "We were both finding great benefits from mindfulness ourselves," says Cullen, "and had started introducing simple mindfulness practices to classes in the schools where we taught. The response from students was striking and inspired us to create a programme that they would find fun, accessible and of genuine use in their lives." The course is now being taught in 12 countries.
[...]
At Bethnal Green academy, teacher Dominic Morris introduced mindfulness into his school after he read up on the subject and felt the techniques could have helped him though his own difficult teenage years. "My mind was all over the place and I was often worrying and playing things over and over," he says.
The principal at Bethnal Green academy, Mark Keary, was keen to support Morris in establishing mindfulness in the school, especially when he learned it could lead to improved concentration during lessons. The school, recently judged "outstanding" by Ofsted, serves a deprived area. "Mindfulness is a discipline that can help us tap into our students' potential," says Keary.
[...]
I also took the MBSR course and then did a four-day residential course at Bangor University to train to teach the .b course in school. Jenny Stephen, my headteacher, supports the idea and the .b course is currently being taught to all year 7 and year 10 students. "Young people live in a fast-paced and confusing world," says Stephen. "The expectations that parents and society place on students are so high. To be able to step back and appreciate yourself for who you are, and be able to stop the plates spinning is a gift. Mental wellbeing is at the route of being able to achieve anything."

Ally, a student at my school, explains why she attends mindfulness club at lunchtime. "It's just 15 minutes of quiet under a table," she says. "I don't necessarily find solutions to problems or anything, but I do come to terms with what's happening around me."

Ally says she has even been known to go through a 15-minute guided meditation with her friends before going off to a party. I dunno, teenagers these days …"

Mindfulness: The Essence of Yoga (Part 2) - Releasing Tension

"Tension is part and parcel of what we call the mind. Tension does not exist by itself, but is reflexively integrated into the total organism. The patterns in our muscles vary from moment to moment, constituting in part the modus operandi of our thinking and engage [other] muscles variously all over our body, just as do our grossly visible movements." - Edmund Jacobson (1888-1983), creator of the Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique, ProgressiveRelaxation.org.
"When the domain of being is actively cultivated during slow and gentle stretching and strengthening exercises, such as yoga or physical therapy, what people think of traditionally as "exercise" is transformed into meditation." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p97.
In Part 1, teachings on the opening up of one's body and mind relative to East Asian yoga were presented. This post will now look into how noticing and working with physical tension lies at the core of mindfulness meditation and yoga.

It seems classical Indian yoga, and specifically Hatha yoga, has been broadly accepted in the West as an effective method for enhancing one's physical health and stress-management capabilities. This is probably due to the huge levels of stress Westerners are experiencing in their modern 'developed' societies.

The human genome did not evolve into its present state under the pressures of busy shops, traffic, and sophisticated social interaction. Therefore, we need to use acquired skills to manoeuvre certain things, like large vehicles, for example, safely though our complexly constructed communities. In the same way, we also need to use new skills to manoeuvre our nervous systems through our newer, more complex social environments.

The big luxuries we have been enjoying since we first began developing ingenious technology come with big drawbacks - the luxuries amplify the magnitude of the problems which still remain. Being able to manage our positive and negative experiences in life with increasing competence means that inevitable unpleasant events such as the death of loved ones and our own inevitable old age, sickness, and passing away becomes suffered that much more intensely. We have a lower tolerance for loss than did our ancestors, and anxiously cling to our positive experiences; often seeing any necessary loss - whether of the novelty of some new car, house, or hobby, or a romantic partner or mobile phone - as an obstacle standing in the way of our enjoyment.

Depending on how one views the world, such obstacles can be considered worthy challenges to overcome, and yet when one feels overwhelmed by multiple or seemingly impassable obstacles, it is easy to become anxious and frustrated with one's failed attempts at moving forward into a happier place. As the author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) states, this anxiety and frustration manifests physically as tension within the body, p19-20:
"The body and mind are almost one entity. If your mind is tense with anxious thoughts, your body automatically tenses as well. They go together, hand in hand. Why does your body become tense when you experience high levels of stress? The reason is mechanical and wired in the human body. When you experience stress, a chain reaction starts in your body, and your whole being prepares to fight or flee the situation."
This ancient wiring of the human body - formed in very different social and technological environments from what we experience today - is further emphasised by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, in his book The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), p25:
"In general, when we encounter something negative, the body tends to tense up. Our evolutionary history has bequeathed us a body that will prepare for action when it perceives a threat in the environment, such as a tiger, that we need to avoid or escape from. [...] When a negative thought or image arises in the mind, there will be a sense of contraction, tightening, or bracing in the body somewhere. It may be a frown, a stomach churning, a pallor in the skin, or a tension in the lower back - all part of a preparation to freeze, fight, or run."
He also writes of this in Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p251:
"People go through the same physiological reaction that animals do. When we feel threatened, the fight-or-flight reaction occurs almost instantly. The result is a state of physiological and psychological hyperarousal, characterized by a great deal of muscle tension and strong emotions, which may vary from terror, fright, or anxiety to rage and anger. The fight-or-flight reaction involves a very rapid cascade of nervous-system firings and release of stress hormones, the most well known of which is epinephrine (adrenaline), which are unleashed in response to an immediate acute threat."
These days, however, such a reaction is unnecessary - we have, in most cases, found simple ways to control or even eradicate the threats our nervous systems evolved to deal with, and so by not physically running or fighting, which would normally have released the tension, we are often just left with the residual tension caught up in our bodies. If not 'earthed' somehow, this tension can lead to all kinds of problems - within the body, for example; from muscular stiffness to immune system weakness. Kabat-Zinn writes of this in Coming To Our Senses (2006), p120-121:
"A simple example would be not paying attention to, say, neck pain that might first appear as sensations of stiffness or muscle tightness. [...] Ignored, it might gradually become more frequent and severe, turning into a chronic complaint, a symptom perhaps of something deeper going on. [...] ...if we are very busy we might write it off to tension or stress, and continue to ignore it. Over weeks, months, even years, if not attended to, such a condition will either go away on its own, or tend to worsen, especially in response to stress, and it might make us more prone to injury...[...] Things can get disregulated to the point where our neck no longer functions normally, and the pain and discomfort and physical limitations in range of motion and posture worsen. This in turn can predispose us to inflammation in response to irritation or injury; a further disordering of things..."
Also, as Kabat-Zinn states in The Mindful Way Through Depression, unresolved tension in the body can in turn create anxious thoughts, which follow on to create further tension, p26-27:
"When we're unhappy, the effect of that mood on our body can bias the way we evaluate and interpret things around us without our being even the slightest bit aware that this is happening. [...] It's not just that patterns of negative thinking can affect our moods and our bodies. Feedback loops in the other direction, from the body to the mind, also play a critical role in the persistent return and deepening of unhappiness and dissatisfaction ."
It is not difficult to see how such a situation can spiral into severe consequences. We need, therefore, to firstly become more aware of the tension arising and residing in our body at any time, and secondly allow for it to dissipate successfully.

Becoming more aware of the explicit links between our minds and the internal processes within our bodies can be easy; all one has to do is vividly imagine eating a piece of lemon and feel one's mouth begin to water, or imagine an intensely upsetting experience, thus causing one's body to tense up. In both cases there is an alteration of the body's internal state as a result of a 'mere' thought or two.

In the case of physical tension constantly arising throughout the day due to various sources of stress, however, we may not be aware of it simply because the stress does not disappear for long enough for us to realise that we are tensing up so much.

As soon as the alarm goes off in the morning, anxious thoughts can flood the mind, or may be still present due to stressful dreams, and we can begin our day tensed up right from the start. As Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, p312:
"...as you wake up in the morning and are getting out of bed. One anxious thought can make you tense before your feet touch the floor, although you may be completely unaware of the thought."
In this way our lives can be so busy that anxious thoughts come one after another as we go through the day - creating more and more tension. Kabat-Zinn writes that this is a kind of 'autopilot' mode that most of us operate within, in Full Catastrophe Living, p.xxvii:
"We are apt to get so caught up in the urgency of everything we have to do, and so caught up in our heads and in what we think is important, that it is easy to fall into a state of chronic tension and anxiety that continually drives our lives on automatic pilot"
And so, possibly as an another autopilot response - this time to the stress, we try to deal with the anxiety and tension as best we can, but with a limited amount of information regarding how tense we actually feel. Kabat-Zinn states in Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p.xii:
"We look for someplace else to stand, where we hope things will be better, happier, more the way we want them to be, or the way they used to be. Most of the time we are only partially aware of this inner tension, if we are aware of it at all."
So the measures we take whilst on autopilot are often ineffective, as our efforts to control our circumstances create additional tensions in our lives. Kabat-Zinn highlights in Full Catastrophe Living how this drains our energy reserves and prevents us from healing and growing, p38:
"...in the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact. When we do that, we are basically trying to force situations to be the way we would like them to be, which only makes for more tension. This actually prevents positive change from occurring. We may be so busy denying and forcing and struggling that we have little energy left for healing and growing, and what little we have may be dissipated by our lack of awareness and intentionality."
Beyond the standard dramas and drugs used to release tension, people often seek sleep as a method of release after a difficult day, and yet, as Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh states in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), sleep does not actually provide total release from the grip of stress, p33:
"Even a night of sleep doesn't provide total rest. Twisting and turning, the facial muscles tense, all the while dreaming - hardly rest! Nor is lying down rest when you still feel restless and twist and turn."
So instead of sleeping off our stress, we would be better off actively seeking a wakeful state of being which is as free from unhealthy tension as possible.

As far back as one hundred years ago, effective methods for dealing with unhealthy tension were practically unknown in the West, very possibly for the simple reason that the Western perspective on the relationship between mind and body was wrong due to the influential ideas of the emminent thinker and scientist René Descartes (1596-1650). In the book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (1994), Dr. Antonio Demasio, Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, describes the reason for the West's dislocation of body and mind as follows, p249:
"This is Descartes’ error: the abyssal separation between body and mind, between the sizable, dimensioned, mechanically operated, infinitely divisible body stuff, on the one hand, and the unsizable, undimensioned, un-pushpullable, nondivisible mind stuff; the suggestion that reasoning, and moral judgment, and the suffering that comes from physical pain or emotional upheaval might exist separately from the body. Specifically: the separation of the most refined operations of mind from the structure and operation of a biological organism."
It was not until 1924 that the American physician in internal medicine, psychiatry, and physiology, Edmund Jacobson, wrote The Technic of Progressive Relaxation which taught the following, which was intended for patients with tension disorders (from ProgressiveRelaxation.org):
"1. Lying in a quiet place, bend the hand back at the wrist and study the sensation arising from the act (the sensation in the forearm). This first item of instruction is not relaxation but observation, the all-important ability to monitor tension, the basic element of action and behavior.
2. Discontinue that activity, and observe the changes in sensation. Practice relaxing, under the direction of awareness.

This maneuver is repeated twice more, allowing several minutes between each contraction. The reminder of the recommended hour of practice is spent lying quietly, essentially doing nothing. This doing of nothing is also a highly technical matter, including maintaining a light concentration, a slight focus of awareness on the proprioceptive senses, mainly on the muscle being studied in that session.

In successive periods, a similar approach is taken to the various muscle groups. Jacobson organized his training by geographic anatomy: limbs, the trunk, the neck, and the head. It was based on the gross movements of each major part. Every third practice session is to be a "zero period" dedicated to relaxation only, with no contraction being performed. After completing the body survey lying down, the whole process is repeated sitting up"
This "re-bodying", as Kabat-Zinn likes to say, allowed Jacobson's patients to notice when tension was arising, or was already present. Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living that watching our body, as events come and go, can teach us a lot, p162:
"...what we see in the workings of our body teaches us many lessons that apply in other domains of our lives. What's more, our bodies usually require some healing. We all carry around at least some physical and psychological tension and armor. Our body has a lot to teach us about stress and pain, illness and health."
Even greater results can be gained from simultaneously watching the relationship between thoughts and physical tension in a detached way, as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck writes in her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p26:
"We have to notice how the mind produces these swarms of self-centered thoughts, thus creating tension in the body. The process of stepping back is not complicated"
Kabat-Zinn supports this approach in Full Catastrophe Living, p266:
"You can actually allow yourself to feel threatened or fearful or angry or hurt and to feel the tension in your body in these moments. Being conscious in the present, you can easily recognize these agitations for what they are, namely thoughts and feelings and sensations."
So in the same way that an Indian classical yoga practitioner seeks to detect tension in the body as they work within a posture, anyone can practice detecting tension within their being in whatever situation they find themselves. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies describes the optimum posture for continually watching for unhealthy tension within one's being - a traditional Indian yoga posture - as follows, p97:
"Imagine that your head is a helium-filled balloon. Allow your head to lift naturally and gently and straighten your spine without straining. You want to achieve an upright back without tension. Picture the vertebrae as stacked coins. Tuck in your chin slightly."
As we sit in our meditation posture, we become more aware of what is happening within us, as Charlotte Joko Beck states in Everyday Zen (1997), p100:
"We can be aware of irritability, annoyance, impatience. And such thoughts we can label. We can patiently do that, we can experience the tension the thoughts generate."
This step backwards - away from the thoughts we so habitually identify with, can be an enlightening experience in itself, since taking refuge in the tangible solidity of our body gives our being a new origin. Joko Beck writes of this experience in Everyday Zen as follows, p121:
"It may take us aback to realize that nothing outside of ourselves is attacking us. We are only assaulted by our thoughts, our needs, our attachments, all born from our identification with our false thinking which in turn creates a closed-in, separate, miserable life."
Many of the thoughts we may be "assaulted" by are negative ones causing us to try and manipulate the situation, and yet positive; 'clingey' thoughts can cause us to attempt to control proceedings also. Therefore, both negative and positive thoughts - judgemental thoughts - create additional tension and work against us. In Nothing Special, Joko Beck speaks of the effect of judgemental thoughts relative to internal tension, and the harmful dimension that goes with it, p104:
"We need to see our actual thoughts, to be aware of what is actually true for us. If we do this, we will notice that whenever we judge, our body tightens up. Behind the judgment is a self-centered thought that produces tension in our body. Over time, that tension is harmful to us, and indirectly harmful to others. Not only is the tension harmful; the judgments we express about others (and ourselves) are harmful, too."
Once we detect the tension building, then we can remaind ourselves to relax the body in order to dissolve the tension, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p26:
" ...this involves zeroing in on your body with a focused mind, experiencing the sensations coming from within the muscles themselves, and sending them messages to let the tension dissolve and release. This is something that can be done at the time the tension is accumulating if you are mindful enough to sense it. There is no need to wait until it has built to the point that your body feels like a two-by-four. If you let it go that long, the tension will have become so ingrained that you will have probably forgotten what it felt like to be relaxed, and you may have little hope of ever feeling relaxed again."
The process of purposefully and continuously scanning one's body for tension in a non-judgemental manner has been taught by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn as an integral part of his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme for more than 30 years. He calls it the 'body scan', and says the following about it in Full Catastrophe Living, p77-78:
"The idea in scanning your body is to actually feel each region you focus on and linger there with your mind right on it or in it. You breathe in to and out from each region a few times and then let go of it in your mind's eye as your attention moves on to the next region. As you let go of the sensations you find in each region and of any of the thoughts and inner images you may have found associated with it, the muscles in that region literally let go too, lengthening and releasing much of the tension they have accumulated. It helps if you can feel or imagine that the tension in your body and the feelings of fatigue associated with it are flowing out on each outbreath and that, on each inbreath, you are breathing in energy, vitality, and relaxation."
The use of the breath as a relaxant is a key feature of the bodyscan, and of mindfulness meditation in general. The author of Mindfulness for Dummies illustrates the process of identifying the tension, and then allowing the breath to release the tension on it's own, p20:
"...if you’re tense, mindfulness means becoming aware of that tension. Which part of your body feels tense?... What’s your reaction to the tension, your thoughts? Mindfulness is about bringing curiosity to your experience. Then you can begin breathing into the tense part of your body, bringing kindness and acknowledging your experience – again, not trying to change or get rid of the tension."
As well as encouraging one to relax, breathing from deep within the body acts like a kind of radar which can detect changes in tension, as the movement of one's diaphragm massages one's internal organs; allowing the nervous system to detect any restrictions. Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p269:
"The breath reconnects you with calmness and awareness when you lose touch momentarily. It brings you to an awareness of your body in that moment, including any increase in muscle tension. It can also remind you to check your thoughts and feelings. Perhaps you will see how reactive they are. Perhaps you will question their accuracy."
As we practice in this way, our minds and bodies automatically purify themselves - just our scanning and noticing can be enough for tension to disappear all by itself. Kabat-Zinn further illustrates this process during the body scan in Full Catastrope Living, p88:
"...the body scan can be thought of as an active purification of the body. The moving zone of your attention harvests tension and pain as it passes through various regions and carries them to the top of your head, where, with the aid of your breathing, you allow them to discharge out of your body, leaving it purified. Each time you scan your body in this way, you can think of it or visualize it as a purification or detoxification process, a process that is promoting healing by restoring a feeling of wholeness and integrity to your body. ...we let any purification that might occur take care of itself. We just persevere in the practice."
After this, Kabat-Zinn goes on to explain that the more detached and accepting one can be of whatever arisises during the bodyscan, the more effective the healing process can be. He states that mindfulness is beyond pure relaxation, but is about allowing the body to be free to do what it wants, p89:
"When practicing the body scan, the key point is to maintain awareness in every moment, a detached witnessing of your breath and your body, region by region, as you scan from your feet to the top of your head. The quality of your attention and your willingness just to feel what is there and be with it no matter what is much more important than imagining the tension leaving your body or the inbreath revitalizing your body. If you just work at getting rid of tension, you may or may not succeed, but you are not practicing mindfulness. But if you are practicing being present in each moment and at the same time you are allowing your breathing and your attention to purify the body within this context of awareness and with a willingness to accept whatever-happens, then you are truly practicing mindfulness and tapping its power to heal. ...the best way to get results from the meditation is not to try to get anything from it but just to do it for its own sake"
Kabat-Zinn is a highly experienced practitioner of Hatha yoga, and teaches yoga as another integral part of his MBSR course. The similarity between the bodyscan and yoga methodology can be seen when one reads Kabat-Zinn's instructions for yoga practice in Full Catastrophe Living, p103:
"While in each posture, be aware of the sensations that you are experiencing in various parts of your body, and if you like, direct your breath in to and out from the region of greatest intensity in a particular stretch or posture. The idea is to relax into each posture as best you can and breathe with what you are feeling."
And on p105:
"The other rule is to dwell in each posture long enough to let go into it. The idea is to relax into each one. If you find yourself struggling and fighting with it, remind yourself to let go into your breathing. In the beginning you may find that you are unconsciously bracing yourself in many areas while you are in a particular position. After a while your body will realize this in some way, and you will find yourself relaxing and sinking farther into it"
In this way it can be seen that exactly the same core principles apply for seated mindfulness meditation as do for yoga and the bodyscan; something explicitly referred to by Kabat-Zinn in Full Catastrophe Living, p341-342:
"In the body scan, the sitting meditation, and the yoga, we work at recognizing and accepting any feelings of tension we find in our body and any agitated thoughts and feelings that occur as we dwell in the domain of being. The meditation instructions emphasize that we don't have to do anything about bodily sensations or anxious feelings except to become aware of them and desist from judging them and condemning ourselves. In this way, practicing moment-to-moment awareness amounts to a systematic way of teaching your body and mind to develop calmness within or beneath anxious feelings."
 In The Mindful Way Through Depression, Kabat-Zinn again frames the need to be detached from the proceedings, p199:
"With each out-breath, any sense of tightness, bracing, or resistance may release or soften naturally. Where this occurs, the tension and sense of holding on often dissolve with the outbreath, although by no means are we trying to make this happen. If it happens, that's fine, but it's equally fine if it does not. The simple act of bringing awareness to the sense of aversion and resistance is enough, without becoming fixated on achieving relaxation. We may find it helpful to remind ourselves of the general intention to allow and accept our experience by saying in our minds Softening, opening, embracing."
He also emphasises the importance in Full Catastrophe Living to allow for thoughts to come and go unhindered relative to releasing tension, p69:
"...it is important to emphasize that thinking is not bad nor is it even undesirable during meditation. What matters is whether you are aware of your thoughts and feelings during meditation and how you handle them. Trying to suppress them will only result in greater tension and frustration and more problems, not in calmness and peace."
Joko Beck, in Everyday Zen, talks of taking this step back as follows, p50:
"If we truly step back and observe... we will be capable in time of seeing our thoughts as thoughts (unreal) and not as the truth. [...] I am left with the direct experience of the physical reaction in my body, the residue, so to speak. When I directly experience this residue (as tension, contraction), since there is no duality in direct experience, I will slowly enter the dimension (samadhi) which knows what to do, what action to take."
And so, as this practice continues over time, a solid trust in the process develops, as stated in Mindfulness for Dummies, p54-55:
"You may not trust in the process to begin with, but with patience and dedicated, regular practice, you may begin to trust it. The more you trust in its power to heal and restore you, the more you relax into it, and allow meditation to happen to you, in a sense, rather than trying to do meditation. Meditation is an act of non-doing, or being, which arises out of the security of trust."
By trusting our body and connecting with it in this way, Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living that we learn how to intentionally regulate our tension, p230:
"When we work systematically to bring our undivided attention to the body, as we do when we practice the body scan or the sitting or the yoga, we are literally increasing our connectedness with it. We know our body better as a result. We trust it more, we read its signals more accurately, and we know how good it can feel to be completely at one with our body in a state of deep relaxation. We also learn to regulate its level of tension intentionally, in ways that are not possible without awareness."
And so our increased awareness brings balance into our lives, as Kabat-Zinn states in The Mindful Way Through Depression, p150:
"When we are able to sense in the body that we are tensing up or bracing ourselves in anticipation of something threatening, that is an indicator that the brain is switching into avoidance mode. In response, our mindfulness brings in approach qualities such as curiosity, compassion, and goodwill, and balances out the brain's tendency to switch into its avoidance pattern with a pattern associated with "welcoming. ""
None of this can happen, however, if we do not continue with the basic practice on a regular basis - the bodyscan, the yoga, the seated mindfulness meditation. Joko Beck sums up the practice in a nutshell very nicely when she writes the following in Everyday Zen, p182;
"I keep returning to the direct experience in my body of the truth of this matter. I just sit with the tension and contraction, breathing through it."