Tuesday, 30 April 2013

YiQuan SanTi Posture

The SanTi posture in YiQuan is practiced after one has learnt and practised the 6 basic health postures, and forms the basic body framework for martial applications.


When training-in the SanTi posture there are so many muscle groups involved in positioning the hips properly that it can be very difficult to relax into the correct alignments for prolonged periods of time. This situation is made easier if one tunes into the sensations of the whole-body subconscious postural muscle network. It is this network of muscles which 'effortlessly' keeps one's head upright when one is awake, instead of one having to actively hold the head up all the time, or even leaving one's head dangling from the neck like when one falls asleep sitting in a chair. The head is kept upright 'as if by magic' when we go about our activities, but in fact this maintained raised head is our subconscious 'intention' - in traditional Chinese culture this is called our 'Yi'. The Yi is most easily felt in the hands at first, and then the sensation can be detected between the arms, and then the other limbs of the body.

In just 6 months significant progress can be made in YiQuan - practicing the basic health postures once a day every day for 70 minutes each time can produce the following changes:

The author in SanTi 'guard' posture during 9 day residential retreats at TaoLin YiQuan Academy, Beijing.

The SanTi posture is further improved and explored through various moving exercises which engage the whole-body muscle network.

The author practicing a ShiLi exercise at TaoLin YiQuan Academy while stood in SanTi posture. April 2013.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Insight Calligraphy Method Update

As time has gone on attending the weekly Chinese Insight Calligraphy classes with Paul Wang, the mindful art of traditional Chinese calligraphy has become more tangible - especially how it links in with other traditional Chinese arts.

The brushes used are designed carefully so that they emulate the springy 'intention' of bamboo - something considered a property inherent within all living organisms - a key property of the 'spirit' of life itself. Some of the best brushes are made from weasel and goat hair in order to achieve this ideal, and the brush, coupled with the sensitivity to this natural, lively, springy intention within the master writer's heart, lays down an organic trace of wholesome spirit. This requires a whole-body awareness, since the writing arm is never fully resting on anything, and needs the body to be relaxed and stable in order for it to move freely, fluidly, and accurately.

Paul Wang indicated the depth of mindfulness required in the following way during one class, along with the relevant Chinese characters:

All of the above will influence, and be visible/apparent within each character one writes. If the fluidity of writing is hindered by judgemental thoughts, such as negative ideas causing one to tense up and lose momentum, or positive ideas causing one to become excited and lose stability, then one easily loses the life-affirming essence that one is attempting to convey.

Paul provided me with the following sentence, in the old cursive style, as a practice character 'set', since it requires one to write a great variety of strokes:

Each stroke has 'solid' and 'empty' parts to it, where the brush expresses the springy, lively 'intention'.

The following characters are the author's Chinese name, with the solid points emphasised with black dots. The solid and empty are not the same every time one writes the same character - they can shift depending on the context at the point of writing. These solid points are just made clear for this particular rendering of these characters:

And finally, here is a practice sheet from a class with Paul. The beginner's traditional grid practice paper is dispensed with after one gets a feel for the general structure of characters, so that one can be more  expressive and natural when practicing:

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Mindfulness and Traditional Western Philosophy Part 1: The Ancient Greek Pre-Socratics

"The Hellenistic regimes in Afghanistan and the Indo-Greek states east of the Hindu Kush Mountains had... been familiar with South Asian traditions, especially Buddhism. Indeed, the Greek king Menander [165-130 BC] was hailed in Buddhist tradition as a great patron of Buddhism." - Xinru Liu, The Silk Road in World History (Oxford University Press, 2010), p44. 
From left to right, a Kushan devotee, the Bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, and a Buddhist monk. 2nd-3rd century CE, Gandhara. All carved in ancient Indo-Greek style.

Here are key quotes from ten philosophers of the Ancient Greek Pre-Socratic period of Traditional Western Philosophy; the most ancient rational thinkers, with accompanying mindfulness philosophy quotes. Of course their philosophies were broader than these quotes, but these are the ideas most famously associated with the thinkers and which are considered to have been at the core of their own individual angle on existence:

“Water constitutes the principle of all things.”- Thales of Miletus (624-545 BC).
  • "To picture the Tao in the world imagine rivers and the sea." - Daoist Sage LaoZi, DaoDeJing, 32.5.
  • "Even though waves arise, the essence of your mind is pure; it is just like clear water with a few waves. Actually water always has waves. Waves are the practice of the water.. To speak of waves apart from water or water apart from waves is a delusion. Water and waves are one." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p35.
  • "...drop below the surface agitations of the mind into relaxation, calmness, and stability. The agitation is still at the surface just as the waves are on the surface of the water. But we are out of the wind and protected from their buffeting action and their tension-producing effects when we shift our attention to the breath for a moment or two." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p52-53. 

"What is infinite is something other than the elements, and from it the elements arise." - Anaximander of Miletus (610-545 BC).
  • "The teachings of Interdependent Co-Arising (pratitya-samutpada), when developed to their highest level, become the teaching of infinite layers of causes and conditions." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (2001), p314.
  • "...true self - call it the infinite energy potential - knows no separation. True self forms into different shapes but essentially it remains one self, one energy potential." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p98.
  • "Wholeness experienced first hand cannot be tyrannical, for it is infinite in its diversity and finds itself mirrored and embedded in each particular, like the Hindu goddess Indra's net, a symbol of the universe, which has jewels at all the vertices, each one capturing the reflections of the entire net and so containing the whole." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p230.

Just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass the whole world. - Anaximenes of Miletus (580-500 BC).
  • "Our body is not limited to what is inside the boundary of our skin. It is much more immense. It includes even the layer of air around our Earth; for if the atmosphere were to disappear for even an instant, our life would end." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (2010), p104.
  • "Without air, we cannot breathe. Each one of us is in the midst of myriads of worlds. We are in the center of the world always, moment after moment. So we are completely dependent and independent. If you have this kind of experience, this kind of existence, you have absolute independence; you will not be bothered by anything. So when you practice zazen, your mind should be concentrated on your breathing. This kind of activity is the fundamental activity of the universal being." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p31.
  • "It can feel as if there is nothing but breath flowing freely across all the boundaries of the body. ... we let ourselves dwell in silence and stillness, in an awareness that may have by this point gone beyond the body altogether." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p77.

The sun is new every day. - Heraclitus of Ephesus (540-480 BC).
  • "When one perceives with wisdom that all conditioned things are impermanent, then one turns away from suffering." - The Buddha, Dhammapada, Verse 277. 
  • "When we look deeply enough we can see that all material and psychological phenomena are evolving and changing in every moment. Then we see the substance of reality, and our insight into impermanence and nonself will prevent us from being caught in illusion. The fifth century B.C.E. Greek philosopher Heraclitus reached a similar conclusion when he observed that the water of the river he had swum in five minutes earlier was not the same water he was standing in five minutes later. “We can never step into the same river twice,” he said. Heraclitus’ observation was an insight into impermanence and nonself, although he did not use those terms." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (2001), p252.
  • "...on the average, every seven years all the atoms in our body have come and gone, replaced by others from outside of us. This in itself is interesting to think about. What am I if little of the substance of my body is the same in any decade of my life? One way this exchange of matter and energy happens is through breathing. With each breath, we exchange carbon dioxide molecules from inside our bodies for oxygen molecules from the surrounding air. Waste disposal with each outbreath, renewal with each inbreath." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p47

"How could what is perish? How could it have come to be? For if it came into being, it is not; nor is it if ever it is going to be. Thus coming into being is extinguished, and destruction unknown. " - Parmenides of Elea (515-430 BC).
  •  "...do not hang onto ‘beginning, middle, and end’. By not being hindered by ‘arising and disappearing’, you can make arisings and disappearings arise and disappear. They arise within Unbounded Space and they disappear within Unbounded Space; they arise within that which is out of focus and they disappear within that which is out of focus; they arise within flowering and they disappear within flowering, and so on..." - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253),  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p557.
  • "Most people view themselves as waves and forget that they are also water. They are used to living in birth-and-death, and they forget about no-birth-and-no-death. A wave also lives the life of water, and we also live the life of no-birth-no-death. We only need to know that we are living the life of no-birth-no-death. All is in the word "know." To know is to realize. Realization is mindfulness. All the work of meditation is aimed at awakening us in order to know one and only one thing: birth and death can never touch us in any way whatsoever." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (1988), p133. 
  • "Seeing with eyes of wholeness means recognizing that nothing occurs in isolation, that problems need to be seen within the context of whole systems. Seeing in this way, we can perceive the intrinsic web of interconnectedness underlying our experience and merge with it. Seeing in this way is healing. It helps us to acknowledge the ways in which we are extraordinary and miraculous, without losing sight of the ways in which we are simultaneously nothing special, just part of a larger whole unfolding, waves on the sea, rising up and falling back in brief moments we call life spans." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p166-167.
  • "Your ears already hear, your eyes already see, your body already feels. It is only when we turn them into concepts that we de facto sever them from the body of our being, which by its very nature is undivided, already whole, already complete, already sentient, already awake." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Coming To Our Senses (2006), p66.

All things were together; then came Mind and set them in order. - Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500-428).
  • "Meditators who realize the interpenetration and interbeing of things also undergo a change in themselves. Former concepts of "one's self" and "objects" dissolve and they see themselves in everything and all things in themselves. This transformation is the primary goal of meditation. [...] The notion of inter-origination (paratantra) is very close to living reality. It annihilates dualistic concepts, one/many, inside/outside, time/space, mind/matter, and so forth, which the mind uses to confine, divide, and shape reality." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (1988), p88.
  • "One whole being is not an accumulation of everything. It is impossible to divide one whole existence into parts. It is always here and always working. This is enlightenment. So there actually is no particular practice. In the sutra it says, "There are no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue, no body or mind. . . ." This "no mind" is Zen mind, which includes everything." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p114-115.
  • "Nothing is separate and isolated. There is no absolute, end-of-the-line, the-buck-stops-here root cause. If someone hits you with a stick, you don't get angry at the stick or at the arm that swung it; you get angry at the person attached to the arm. But if you look a little deeper, you can't find a satisfactory root cause or place for your anger even in the person, who literally doesn't know what he is doing and is therefore out of his mind at that moment." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p48.
  • "The practice of yoga is the practice of yoking together or unifying body and mind, which really means penetrating into the experience of them not being separate in the first place. You can also think of it as experiencing the unity or connectedness between the individual and the universe as a whole" - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p101.

"The force that unites the elements to become all things is Love, ...Love brings together dissimilar elements into a unity, to become a composite thing. ...Strife, on the other hand, is the force responsible for the dissolution of the one back into its many, the four elements of which it was composed." - Empedocles of Agrigentum (495-435 BC).
  • "...this mind isn’t somewhere outside the material body of four elements. Without this mind we can’t move. The body has no awareness. Like a plant or stone, the body has no nature. So how does it move? It’s the mind that moves." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Bloodstream Sermon.
  • "Observe the colors and textures of your food. Contemplate where this food comes from and how it was grown or made. [...] Can you see the natural elements, the sunlight and the rain, in your vegetables and fruits and grains?" - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p408.
  • "The energy that feeds this ongoing connectedness, of course, is love." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p224.

"The hypothesis of the many, if examined sufficiently in detail, leads to even more ridiculous results than the hypothesis of the One." - Zeno of Elea (495-435 BC).
  • "...the separation of one and many is a measurement made by perception. As long as we are prisoners of that separation, we are prisoners of the arithmetical paradox. We can only be free when we see the interbeing and interpenetration of everything. Reality is neither one nor many." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Sun My Heart (1988), p104.
  • "You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p106.
  • "...ultimately meditation...has no goal other than for you to be yourself. The irony is that you already are. This sounds paradoxical and a little crazy. Yet this paradox and craziness may be pointing you toward a new way of seeing yourself, one in which you are trying less and being more." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p37.

"Man is the measure of all things" - Protagoras of Abdera (490-420 BC).
  • "Rightness or wrongness is not objective. It is subjective. Relatively speaking, there are right views and there are wrong views. But if we look more deeply, we see that all views are wrong views. No view can ever be the truth. It is just from one point; that is why it is called a "point of view." If we go to another point, we will see things differently and realize that our first view was not entirely right. Buddhism is not a collection of views. It is a practice to help us eliminate wrong views. The quality of our views can always be improved. From the viewpoint of ultimate reality, Right View is the absence of all views." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Buddha's Teaching (2008), p56.
  • "When we say something, our subjective intention or situation is always involved. So there is no perfect word; some distortion is always present in a statement. [...] Through the study of Buddhism, you will understand your human nature, your intellectual faculty, and the truth present in your human activity. And you can take this human nature of yours into consideration when you seek to understand reality." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p87.
  • "According to David Bohm, a theoretical physicist whose work involves exploring wholeness as a fundamental property of nature, the words medicine and meditation come from the Latin mederi, which means "to cure." Mederi itself derives from an earlier Indo-European root meaning "to measure." [...] ...the concept of "measure" has another, more Platonic meaning. This is the notion that all things have, in Bohm's words, their own "right inward measure" that makes them what they are, that gives them their properties. "Medicine," seen in this light, is basically the means by which right inward measure is restored when it is disturbed by disease or illness or injury. "Meditation," by the same token, is the process of perceiving directly the right inward measure of one's own being through careful, non-judgmental self-observation. Right inward measure in this context is another way of saying wholeness." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p163.

"In truth there are only atoms and the void." - Democritus of Abdera (460-360 BC).
  • "At a deeper level we are just atoms and atomic particles moving at enormous speed." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p163.
  • "You are not your body. Your body is made up of hundreds of millions of cells. Cells are dying and re-forming all the time. The cells are made up of atoms that are indistinguishable and are exchanging with all the atoms around you as you breathe, eat and excrete." - Mindfulness for Dummies (2010), p30.
  • "Someone once calculated that, on the average, every seven years all the atoms in our body have come and gone, replaced by others from outside of us. This in itself is interesting to think about. What am I if little of the substance of my body is the same in any decade of my life?" - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p47

One of the first representations of the Buddha, 1st-2nd century CE, Gandhara: Standing Buddha (Tokyo National Museum). Carved in the Greco-Buddhist style.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Daily Mail News: Living in the moment will improve your memory, working life and relationships, researchers say

The right-wing tabloid UK newspaper The Daily Mail online posted an article on 27th March 2013 in its Science section titled: Living in the moment will improve your memory, working life and relationships, researchers say.

The article lacked any cynicism, which was a surprise, and kept a generally grounded tone throughout.

Here are some key quotes:
"Just two weeks of mindfulness training on how to 'live in the moment' can significantly improve reading comprehension, memory capacity and the ability to focus.

Many psychologists define mindfulness as a state of non-distraction characterised by full engagement with our current task or situation.
‘What surprised me the most was actually the clarity of the results,’ said Michael Mrazek, graduate student researcher in psychology and the lead and corresponding author of the paper, Mindfulness Training Improves Working Memory Capacity and GRE Performance While Reducing Mind Wandering.

‘Even with a rigorous design and effective training program, it wouldn't be unusual to find mixed results. But we found reduced mind-wandering in every way we measured it.’

Their findings were recently published online in the empirical psychology journal Psychological Science.
‘This is the most complete and rigorous demonstration that mindfulness can reduce mind-wandering, one of the clearest demonstrations that mindfulness can improve working memory and reading, and the first study to tie all this together to show that mind-wandering mediates the improvements in performance,’ said Mrazek.

He added that the research establishes with greater certainty that some cognitive abilities often seen as immutable, such as working memory capacity, can be improved through mindfulness training.

The research team are extending their work by investigating whether similar results can be achieved with younger populations, or with web-based mindfulness interventions.
The University of Oxford’s Centre for Suicide Research found that mindfulness meditation can cut the recurrence of depression by 50 per cent, and neuroimaging scans have shown significant positive change in brain activity of long-term meditators."

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Bangkok Post News: A brush with enlightenment

The Bangkok Post News Online published an article on 8th April 2013 about Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh putting on an exhibition of his calligraphy at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre titled: A brush with enlightenment.

Here are some of the key quotes and some pictures from his visit:
"World-renowned Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh mixed tea with Chinese ink, picked up the brush and demonstrated his art of meditation through calligraphy.

Effortlessly, the 87-year-old master executed slow, steady strokes. His body was still, yet his hand flowed naturally, a conduit of his insights.

This is it. Peace is possible. Breathe and smile.

Short and simple, profound and powerful, phrases such as these have become Thich Nhat Hanh's signature statements that encompass core Buddhist teachings and remind practitioners of mindful practice.
"Writing calligraphy is a practice of meditation," said the poet, writer and peace activist who is famous for his teachings on applied Buddhism in everyday life. "The way I do calligraphy, I do it in a certain way that can generate the energy of mindfulness, concentration, insight and compassion during the time of practice."

Held for the first time in Thailand, the exhibition "Calligraphic Meditation: The Mindful Art of Thich Nhat Hanh" presents the largest collection of the Zen master's calligraphy to date.

"When I begin to draw a circle, I will breathe in during the time I do the first half of the circle. When I do the second half of the circle, I breathe out," said the master.

"During the time I draw the circle, I realise too that this hand of mine contains the hands of my father, mother and ancestors. So my father, mother, ancestors and teachers are doing the circle with me. And since we are doing the circle together, there is no self, no separate self. So drawing a circle, you can get an insight of anatta or no-self."

 ...the Zen master began his calligraphic expression in 1994 simply as a tool to nourish his students in the art of mindful living.

Among his most popular calligraphic pieces are Breathe, you are alive, This is it, Be beautiful, be yourself, and I have arrived, I am home.
Every piece of calligraphy serves as a topic of meditation, said Thich Nhat Hanh. Take for instance Be beautiful, be yourself. The master elaborated: "In order to be beautiful, you have to be yourself, you don't need to be someone else. Be yourself like a lotus, she is beautiful by herself, she does not have to transform herself into a rose or another flower. There is a seed of joy, love, happiness in you. If you allow these seeds to manifest, you are a beautiful flower in a garden of humanity."
Regarding the calligraphy Let go and be happy, he explained: "Let go of your craving, anger; and even let go of your idea of happiness. Everyone of us has an idea of how to be happy. We need to have this or that in order to be happy. You may not know that that idea of happiness may be the very obstacle to your happiness. If we have the courage to let go, happiness will come right away."
Master Thich Nhat Hanh advised viewers to observe noble silence and mindful awareness when visiting the exhibition.
"Breathe in mindfully and bring your mind to your body. When you are truly there, you can allow the calligraphy to penetrate into your heart," he said."

Guardian News: Zen and the art of keeping the NHS bill under control

The Guardian News Online published an article on 7 April 2013 in the Life & style>Health & wellbeing section titled: Zen and the art of keeping the NHS bill under control.

The blurb read as follows:
"Jon Kabat-Zinn is widely credited as the man who brought Zen Buddhism to the masses. Now he's bringing it to Downing Street"

Here are some of the key quotes:
 "As a scientist, Kabat-Zinn knew he needed evidence; anecdotes and testimony were not going to be enough to persuade the American health establishment. "I wrote up the chronic pain results first because they were astonishing." Since then, a steady stream of academic papers, books and, more recently, randomised control trials, have helped pave the way for hundreds of MBSR programmes in hospitals and medical centres across the US.

Kabat-Zinn's work has spawned a cluster of different applications of mindfulness training, including for addiction, the elderly and parenting. In the past couple of decades, Kabat-Zinn has collaborated with psychologists in the UK who have adapted his work for Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has won recognition from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), as a treatment for depression.

All of which explains why our interview is happening in Westminster, where Kabat-Zinn has a string of meetings with senior politicians before he heads to Downing Street for a session with policy advisers. There are good reasons for the policymakers to be listening closely, as Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have a compelling proposition: mindfulness has unlimited applicability to almost every healthcare issue we now face – and it's cheap.
The UK has huge challenges in healthcare, with an explosion in mental illness and an ageing population, he points out, adding that mindfulness is relevant to the debate about how to instil compassion and attentive care in healthcare workers to avoid a repeat of the Mid Staffordshire scandal. Mindfulness training inspires compassion, he argues. Just the act of being in the moment and paying attention to that moment allows the innate compassion within us all to emerge.

"It's all about training what you pay attention to," he says, admitting that this goes against the grain of a culture that trains us to privilege thinking and which offers endless opportunities for constant distraction from the present moment. "It's common sense. It's not about cures, it's about over time developing a different relationship with one's experiences, whether that's anxiety, pain, stress or depression. We know that changes the shape of the brain, it affects the behaviour of cells."
He now believes that mindfulness is on a steep adoption curve. Given the benefits of mental clarity, insight and creativity that practitioners claim, the interest from corporations is wellestablished, particularly in Silicon Valley, where Kabat-Zinn is a regular speaker. Even the US military has adopted a version of mindfulness for training soldiers.
None of these applications faze Kabat-Zinn, although they are far from the ethos of his own work. Even if mindfulness is used by the banker or the soldier to improve their professional skills, he says, it will also nurture the innate compassion of their humanity.
"It is what makes us human, what distinguishes us from other animals. We can be aware of being aware.""

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Human Evolutionary Psychology & Internal Tension Dynamics

"Human nature is frequently thought to be concerned with the ‘red in tooth and claw’ aspects of behaviour such as sex, violence and food. ...there is good reason to think that our moral sensibility might be part of our biological endowment too as it plays a crucial role in enabling us to co-exist by making reciprocal altruism possible. It seems that morality is part and parcel of human nature rather than being something that merely enables us to rise above it." - Lance Workman and Will Reader, Evolutionary Psychology - An Introduction (2004, Cambridge University Press), p169.

 One method of looking into our human nature is to consider our biological makeup. A popular understanding of what we are as living organisms, is one which frames our bodies as 'vehicles' for self-interested DNA. Richard Dawkins, now emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, and put this idea across very vividly. Evolutionary Psychology - An Introduction (2004, Cambridge University Press) briefly explains Dawkins' thesis in the following way, p53:
"...The Selfish Gene (1976)...  made an original contribution to evolutionary theory. Whereas previous works had suggested that we should be focusing on genes if we want to explain behaviour and physical traits, Dawkins explicitly proposed that the unit of selection is the gene itself. In order to explain his thesis he introduced a number of new terms into the debate, in particular the replicator and the vehicle. Replicators are any entities which are able to make copies of themselves and vehicles are the entities which, on a geological time scale, briefly carry the replicators. In the context of life on earth we can think of replicators as genes and vehicles as organisms, including ourselves."
As we are all aware, instincts for aggression, fleeing, and sexual behaviour are built into our being - no doubt to aid the survival and replication of our DNA - even in the most unfortunate of situations. Evolutionary Psychology says of this, p299:
"Not responding to a life-threatening situation might have had dire consequences for our ancestors. [...] If there is one core emotion that has clear survival implications it must be fear. People who have no fear do not make for good ancestors. [...] Panic and agoraphobia, for example, may be seen as adaptations which prepare the body, both physiologically and psychologically, for attack. Blood circulation is re-routed to the muscles, and the mind becomes highly focused on finding escape routes. A number of evolutionists have argued that ‘negative’ emotions such as fear and anger generally serve to narrow the focus of attention and increase vigilance (see Fredrickson, 1998). Anyone who has ever felt either intense fear or complete rage will be aware that, once we are attending to the object of such negative emotions, we are not easily distracted from them. [...] Whereas fear is manifested by the urge to retreat, anger is clearly related to the urge to attack and injure. In either case the tendency to take action is quite specific."
However, in amongst all this 'animalistic' behaviour, what often seems to be unassumed is that we may be also primed for moral behaviour. Evolutionary Psychology has the following to say, p165:
"...human nature evolved to facilitate the propagation of the genes and that, in most cases, is best served by aiding the survival and reproduction of the individual that serves as a vehicle for these genes, or their close relatives. This being the case it seems, on the face of it, to be somewhat paradoxical to suggest that natural selection might have endowed us with a moral sense. What possible advantage could it have for the individual and his or her genes to behave in a moral way towards non-kin? Surely such a behaviour could only be understood by invoking group selection: that the behaviours are of benefit to the species as a whole. In fact there is no paradox, it seems that a moral sense has some clear advantages to the individual... [...] Crucial to this view is that something is only immoral to the extent that a human being suffers (or might potentially suffer) as the consequence of some deliberate action by another."
The idea of an instictive moral sense revolves around the cooperative advantages humans can tap into when operating as groups engaging in what evolutionary biologists call 'reciprocal altruism'. Here is Evolutionary Psychology on this, p195:
"Robert Trivers called beneficial acts that are later repaid by the beneficiary ‘reciprocal altruism’. [...] ...the evolution of reciprocal altruism in an animal society relies on a number of prerequisites:
  • The cost of the altruistic act to the recipient should be lower than the benefit to the actor.
  • Animals should be capable of recognising each other in order both to reciprocate and to detect cheats (non-reciprocators).
  • Animals should have a reasonably long life span in order that they may repeatedly encounter specific individuals and thereby allow for incidents of reciprocation to occur.
 [...] Most animal behaviourists today would agree that reciprocal altruism does exist in the animal kingdom. However ...  outside of Homo sapiens it is quite a rare occurrence. [...] Trivers (1985) considers that reciprocal altruism is likely to have played an important role in hominid evolution. He bases this conclusion on a number of arguments. First, all existent societies fulfil the three prerequisites laid out above, second, humans throughout the world have been observed to give aid to friends in a reciprocated manner and third, the emotional system that we have developed underlies such acts"
A case study of an existing ethnic group operating in a way considered incredibly ancient gives an example of how such an ancient survival strategy, very possibly operating during times when our modern human DNA was being more heavily affected, would have involved social sensitivities and clear moral codes, in Evolutionary Psychology, p199:
"Along with the Inuit (Eskimo) and the Aboriginals of Australia, the !Kung San [of Africa] are one of few hunter-gatherer societies that has retained a lifestyle that was common to all peoples prior to the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. [...] !Kung men vary quite considerably in their hunting prowess, but all meat killed is shared. The band will frequently produce four or five two-man teams which hunt simultaneously, but only one of these needs to be successful in a big game hunt to provide meat for the entire band. When a pair of hunters kills, say a wildebeest, each hunter will divide his share among his relatives who, in turn, share with their next of kin. Given that band members are all either blood relatives or related through marriage, in this way everybody receives some meat. This habit of sharing is considered to be of great social significance. A lapse of such generosity is considered a grave social sin and individuals who fail to comply lose status and prestige. Even acting in a boastful way about kills is considered a social taboo."
In order for such behaviour to have existed tens of thousands of years ago, it seems plausible to expect there to be some genetic leaning towards morality as stated in Evolutionary Psychology, p166:
"Morality might... be a system that protects the individual’s sense of fairness, hierarchy and purity and enables us to thrive within our groups and engage in reciprocal altruism. This research is still very much in its early stages, but if it is correct it shows how morality is rather more than a rational cognitive process and is intimately related to emotional responses to particular transgressions."
However, how could instincts for morality, promiscuity, and aggression all have existed within the human genome at once? It seems this would be a recipe for disaster, and yet Evolutionary Psychology has the following to say, p169:
"If morals are so useful (and we must assume that they are) why didn’t natural selection just wire in strong moral sentiments? [...] ...perhaps the optimal moral strategy is contingent upon the particular historical, cultural and social context in which the individual finds him or herself. ...when the optimal strategy is contingent, hard wiring makes little sense. If, for instance, you are born with a very strong moral sentiment, you might find yourself outcompeted by conspecifics who are prepared to cheat, steal and lie. On the other hand, if you were to be born with few moral sentiments, you might be ostracised by a community of high-moralists. In the same way that it might pay to adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach to reproductive strategy, the same might apply to morality."
And so it seems we are left in our present situation of having to use skill in order to 'manage' our evolutionary psychology - by understanding the mechanisms underlying the triggering of our more immoral insticts, so that we may remain civilised. This is where sensitivity to physical and mental tensions comes in.

It is worth noting that there are natural tensions within the human body - our cells and tendons have a turgidity or springiness which are essential to our health. In yoga, Tai Chi, and various other martial arts, this natural tension is felt and channelled in various ways in order to achieve holistic movement and awareness.

Unhealthy tension - that which stretches our tolerance to the point of stress - if not actively released, can cause physical impairments, psychological imbalances, and can even trigger instincts for violence and abandonment. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, in his book The Mindful Way Through Depression (2007), points to this antagonistic tensive role between mind and body thus, 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."

Such feedback cycles are the triggers for more immoral behaviours since tension in the body can cause tension in the mind, and this tension in the mind can further cause tension in the body - an example is when one feels intimidated by another person, and then a negative self-judgement is made about one's fearful reaction, causing one to tense up even more, and if the person remains present then the tension builds to the point that the fight or flight response may kick in, increasing the risk of the individual acting aggressively or irresponsibly.

The key to interrupting such build-up of tension has been to skillfully dissolve the building tension by habitually amplifying the moral instinct over the immoral one. Practicing charity, as is found within many religions, is one way of amplifying the moral instinct. Such charity cannot help when immoral instincts do inevitably begin to become fired up, however. In addition to this, the religious emphasis on fearing a God's judgement, or an unfavourable rebirth, presents fear as a healthy part of one's life even though it can easily trigger insticts for violence and neglect.

One way of over-riding the immoral instincts is by first noticing the onset of tension, and then harnessing the relaxing qualities of the breath to allow the mind and body to soften when the tension feedback cycle has been noticed to be intensifying. This practice has historically generated some very impressive results - for example, as outlined in the Shambhala Sun online article; The Lama in the Lab: Neuroscience and Meditation, outlining scientific obervations made when testing the startle reflex of a Tibetan Buddhist meditation expert called Lama Oser:
"A classic study in the 1940’s showed that it's impossible to prevent the startle reflex, despite the most intense, purposeful efforts to suppress the muscle spasms. No one Ekman and Robert Levenson had ever tested could do it. Earlier researchers found that even police marksmen, who fire guns routinely, are unable to keep themselves from startling. But Oser did. Ekman explains, "When Oser tries to suppress the startle, it almost disappears. We've never found anyone who can do that. Nor have any other researchers.” Oser practiced two types of meditation while having the startle tested: one-pointed concentration and the open state. As Oser experienced it, the biggest effect was from the open state: "When I went into the open state, the explosive sound seemed to me softer, as if I was distanced from the sensations, hearing the sound from afar." Ekman reported that although Oser's physiology showed some slight changes, not a muscle of his face moved, which Oser related to his mind not being shaken by the bang."
It seems Lama Oser's moral instinct had been amplified in accompaniment with the practice of noticing and allowing tension to dissolve, to the extent that he habitually regarded tensing up (and possibly panicking) in reaction to sudden loud sounds as without any value. Approaching other situations which can trigger our potentially immoral instincts with the same mindful practice promises us similar results. The key is to accept the presence of the immoral instincts because if one reacts to them with fear then one is potentially indulging the fight or flight response and drawing violent or irresponsible behaviours associated with anger and desire ever closer.

Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book, Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), that we can approach the psychological and physical tension of anger mindfully as if it were a baby that needs the soothing compassionate embrace of a mother, p27-28:
"Anger is like a howling baby, suffering and crying. The baby needs his mother to embrace him. You are the mother for your baby, your anger. The moment you begin to practice breathing mindfully in and out, you have the energy of a mother, to cradle and embrace the baby. Just embracing your anger, just breathing in and breathing out, that is good enough. The baby will feel relief right away."
And, p32:
"You have to be like a mother listening for the cries of her baby. If a mother is working in the kitchen and hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she is doing, and goes to comfort her baby. She may be making a very good soup; the soup is important, but it’s much less important than the suffering of her baby. She has to put down the soup, and go the baby’s room. Her appearance in the room is like sunshine because the mother is full of warmth, concern, and tenderness. The first thing she does is pick up the baby and embrace him tenderly. When the mother embraces her baby, her energy penetrates him and soothes him. This is exactly what you have to learn to do when anger begins to surface. You have to abandon everything that you are doing, because your most important task is to go back to yourself and take care of your baby, your anger. Nothing is more urgent than taking good care of your baby."
And lastly, p166:
"When anger comes up in us, we should begin to practice mindful breathing right away: “Breathing in, I know that anger is in me. Breathing out, I am taking good care of my anger.”We behave exactly like a mother: “Breathing in, I know that my child is crying. Breathing out, I will take good care of my child.”This is the practice of compassion."
This compassionate comforting of our inner angst-ridden nervous system is supported by American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck in her book Everyday Zen (1997), when she speaks of practicing being 'OK' with whatever comes up in our awareness, like a caring mother saying "It's OK" to her fearful child, p117:
"When something’s OK with us we accept everything we are with it; we accept our protest, our struggle, our confusion, the fact that we’re not getting anywhere according to our view of things. And we are willing for all those things to continue: the struggle, the pain, the confusion. In a way that is the training of sesshin [prolonged 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.” That increases."
In this way, by accepting our more immoral instincts as part of our DNA's survival and replication mechanism, we can avoid the feedback cycles of tension that trigger the reflexive fight or flight system, and remain in control. Without the awareness of tension build-up and the utilising of the slowing breath to dissolve that tension, however, there is little hope of maintaining civilised behaviour when intense situations arise.