Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Traditional Chinese Ink Wash Landscape Painting (Shuǐmò 水墨)

"As beginning meditators, we may want to leave the city and go off to the countryside to help close those windows that trouble our spirit. There we can become one with the quiet forest, and rediscover and restore ourselves, without being swept away by the chaos of the “outside world.” The fresh and silent woods help us remain in awareness, and when our awareness is well-rooted and we can maintain it without faltering, we may wish to return to the city and remain there, less troubled. But sometimes we cannot leave the city, and we have to find the refreshing and peaceful elements that can heal us right in the midst of our busy lives. We may wish to visit a good friend who can comfort us, or go for a walk in a park and enjoy the trees and the cool breeze. Whether we are in the city, the countryside, or the wilderness, we need to sustain ourselves by choosing our surroundings carefully and nourishing our awareness in each moment." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step (2010), p15.
"The wise find pleasure in water; the virtuous find pleasure in hills. The wise are active; the virtuous are tranquil. The wise are joyful; the virtuous are long-lived." - Confucius (6th-5th Century BC), Analects, Chapter XXI.
"...taking a walk in the woods is not equivalent to watching a nature film if one is interested in accruing the greatest psychological benefit for either oneself or another. Nevertheless, not everyone has this opportunity. Shut-ins, people with busy lives, and others living in certain urban areas may not have the luxury of having an arboretum nearby." - Why Is Nature Beneficial? - The Role of Connectedness to Nature, Environment and Behavior (Sep 2009), Vol 41: 5, p607-643.
"...participants who were exposed to nature images experienced an increase in subjective vitality..." - Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature, Journal of Environmental Psychology 30 (2010), p163.
"..a Chinese landscape painting represents what the artist "sees" when he or she tours around a place or many places. The painting is a composition of what is stored in the artist's head. There are usually many focuses in such a painting."  - Li DongXu, Chinese Landscape Painting for Beginners (2009), p19.

Excursion in Spring by Zhan Ziqian (late 6th Century) - the first traditional Chinese landscape painting.

During the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), deeply effective mindfulness practices became spread outside of religious and philosophical institutions. Educated court officials dreamt of becoming recluses in the mountains so that they could be more in harmony with nature, and in their free time they would paint landscape imagery in order to approach their dream to lessen their intense relationship with the societies in which they lived.

Out of this setting, traditional Chinese landscape painting culture apparently developed - using a focus on a combination of mountains and water as the core motif. Renowned Chinese landscape painter Li DongXu defines the tradition in his book Chinese Landscape Painting for Beginners (2009) as follows, p17:
"Traditional Chinese landscape painting has been described as "Shan Shui Hua", literally meaning, "mountain water painting" - a name suggesting that the major motifs of the genre are mountains and water. [...] Chinese people viewed a mountain as the symbol of longevity and water as the symbol of wealth...[...] Chinese art historians agree that the earliest extant landscape painting is Excursion in Spring by Zhan Ziqian (active in late 6th century). The painting has been praised for its realistic presentation of "mountains and waters far and near in a foot-long picture that suggests a thousand-mile sight".
Humans, buildings, animals, and other additional features are included as small, more minor details which nevertheless provide a theme for the images, as Li writes, p98:
"...in traditional Chinese "mountain-and-water" paintings, buildings and human figures usually serve as minor motifs strewn among mountains or by waters. But in a sense, such minor matters usually give highlight to a painting's theme. So they are still important."
In addition to this, there are some basic differences in how a traditional Chinese landscape painter goes about depicting the landscape in the Ink Wash tradition. Scenery can often be a montage of various sights witnessed during a journey, and the rendering attempts to present the internal as well as the external experience; unifying the mental and the physical. Li writes of these features as follows, p9-10:
"A Chinese landscape does not display what the artist sees when standing at a fixed position. Instead, it usually displays, as it were, what the artist sees along the way he has travelled. [...] ..a Western landscape usually presents one field of vision while a Chinese view presents many visions simultaneously. The Chinese artist looks with his mind's eye! ... The Western landscape is "physically" realistic while the Chinese landscape is less true to the images projected on to our lens but more faithful to our mental experiences. That is why ancient Chinese people compared viewing landscape paintings at home to a "journey while lying in bed"."

A traditional Chinese 'Mountain and Water' Ink Wash painting by the author's teacher; Jasmine Zhang, Beijing.

Seeing natural features as having personalities of sorts and being loaded with dynamic intention is key to painting such landscapes. Li mentions this with regards to rendering mountains and rivers, p140:
"To paint a mountain is like depicting a human being. Just as humans in their various forms have different personalities, mountains and rivers not only look different, but also have their own "souls" or dispositions. Chinese artists endeavour to manifest the spirit of everything through depicted forms. They believe that a good artwork must display formal and spiritual likeness at the same time."
A couple of weeks ago I began private classes in Chinese Ink Wash Landscape painting for 2 hours a week with Jasmine Zhang - the wife of my Chinese Insight Calligraphy teacher, Paul Wang.

Traditional Chinese painter and teacher Jasmine Zhang, Beijing.
Jasmine has a daily Buddhist mindfulness practice and goes on meditation retreats every year. Her classes begin with a short seated meditation and then some calligraphy practice to tune into the brush and ink. There is a long-standing relationship between traditional Chinese calligraphy and Ink Wash painting, as Li states in Chinese Landscape Painting for Beginners (2009), p14:
"Chinese painters apply "calligraphic" brushwork in their creation of paintings. They prefer sure-handed, forceful and energetic strokes."

Practicing calligraphy Chinese painting class with Jasmine Zhang - the author's calligraphy is on the left.
Techniques for depicting the natural features of a landscape using black ink and calligraphy brushes have been refined for over a thousand years, and one begins learning by copying established masters. This is the  standard practice for all traditional Chinese arts. Once one has a feel for the established tradition, then one reflects upon nature and combines the skill and natural feelings to produce the work of art. As Li writes, p16:
"..in basic training one learns depiction skills by copying ancient works and in creation one draws inspiration from nature. Without copying former works, one's painting will lack the characteristics of Chinese painting. Without inspiration from nature, one cannot make innovation. [...] To infuse something new into one's art the artist must draw on life."
Paul Wang illustrated this traditional notion in my last Chinese calligraphy class by writing out the often spoken associated verbal maxim:

It can also be translated as follows, after Li, p15:
"An ancient Chinese maxim goes that one "learns from nature meanwhile following his mind"... The first half stresses observation of life and the latter half emphasises the mental treatment of what one sees."
Here are the paintings I produced during my last Ink Wash painting class:

And here is the final product:

These classes are becoming one of the highlights of my week - maybe because Beijing is so dry and lacks many waterways, immersing myself in these landscapes as I paint seems to give my spirit more vitality.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Mindfulness and Traditional Western Philosophy Part 2: The Ancient Greek Socratics

The following quotes are from Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 1999 Edition):
"Pyrrho appears to have lived from around 365-360 BC until around 275-270 BC... . We have several reports of philosophers from whom he learned, the most significant (and the most reliable) of which concern his association with Anaxarchus of Abdera. Alongside Anaxarchus (and several other philosophers) he accompanied Alexander the Great on his expedition to India. We are told that in the course of this expedition he encountered some “naked wise men” (gumnosophistai); Diogenes Laertius (9.61) claims that his philosophy developed as a result of this meeting, but it is not clear what basis, if any, he has for this assertion. In any case, after his return to Greece Pyrrho did espouse a philosophy that attracted numerous followers..."

"...as noted at the outset, Pyrrho was associated with Anaxarchus and was reported to have encountered some unnamed Indian thinkers. The little that we know of Anaxarchus seems to suggest that his philosophy had a good deal in common with Pyrrho's. Diogenes Laertius (9.60) ascribes to him an attitude of apatheia and eukolia, ‘freedom from emotion’ and ‘contentedness’; apatheia is used in some sources to describe Pyrrho's attitude as well, and the combination of the two terms seems to describe something close to the state cultivated by Pyrrho. We also hear from Sextus Empiricus that Anaxarchus “likened existing things to stage-painting and took them to be similar to the things which strike us while asleep or insane” (M 7.88). This has often been taken as an early expression of a form of epistemological scepticism. But it may also be taken as an ontological comment on the insubstantiality of the world around us; it is things (as opposed to our impressions of things) that are assimilated to stage-sets and the contents of dreams and fantasies."

"We do not know the identity of the “naked wise men” whom Pyrrho met in India, or what they thought. There are reports of other meetings between Indian and Greek thinkers during Alexander's expedition, and these tend to emphasize the Indians' extraordinary impassivity and insensitivity to pain and hardship. It is not unlikely that Pyrrho, too, was impressed by traits of this kind. Though precedents for his ideal of ataraxia exist in earlier Greek philosophy as well, his reported ability to withstand surgery without flinching is exceptional in the Greek context (and quite distinct from anything in later Pyrrhonism); if we believe this story, it is tempting to explain it by way of some form of training from the Indians. Some scholars have sought to establish more detailed links between the thought of the Aristocles passage and various currents in ancient Indian philosophy. But it is not clear how far these similarities really go..."
Looking at potential overlaps between mindfulness philosophy and practice and ancient Greek philosophy seems entirely appropriate considering the interchanges ancient Indian and Greek philosophers had within the 200 years after Gautama Buddha's death.

Part 1 of this series looked at the relationship between mindfulness teachings and some of the main themes in the philosophies of some of the most prominent ancient Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, and this post will look at some of the Socratic philosophers of the Ancient Greek period.

"...all I know is that I know nothing." - Socrates (469-399 BC).
  • "The emperor said, “Who is facing me?” Bodhidharma said, “I don’t know.”" - Zen's Chinese Heritage - The masters and their teachings (2000), p15.
  • "Many centuries ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates used to walk through the streets and marketplaces of Athens, teaching his students. He would say to them, “You must understand yourself! You must understand yourself! You must understand yourself.” Then one day a student said, “Sir, you always say we must understand ourselves. But do you understand your self?” “No, I don’t know myself,” Socrates replied. “But I understand this ‘don’t know.’ ” This is very interesting teaching. Buddhist practice points at the same experience...[...] One night, Siddhartha left the palace. He left his family, his beautiful wife, and his infant child, cut off all his hair, and became a monk. Then he went to the mountains. For six years he practiced very, very hard. “What am I? Don’t know . . .” He courageously kept this question with one-pointed determination. Then one morning, while sitting in meditation under the Bodhi tree, he saw the morning star in the eastern sky. At that moment—BOOM!—Siddhartha and this star completely became one." - Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn (1927-2004), The Compass of Zen (2012), p13-14.
  • "We will think, "Now it is raining, but we don't know what will happen in the next moment. By the time we go out it may be a beautiful day, or a stormy day. Since we don't know, let's appreciate the sound of the rain now." This kind of attitude is the right attitude. If you understand yourself as a temporal embodiment of the truth, you will have no difficulty whatsoever. You will appreciate your surroundings, and you will appreciate yourself as a wonderful part of Buddha's great activity, even in the midst of difficulties. This is our way of life." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p112-113.
  • "Contemplating "What is my Way?" is an excellent element to inject into our meditation practice. We don't have to come up with answers, nor think that there has to be one particular answer. Better not to think at all. Instead, only persist in asking the question, letting any answers that formulate just come of themselves and go of themselves. As with everything else in the meditation practice, we just watch, listen, note, let be, let go, and keep generating the question, "What is my Way?", "What is my path?", "Who am I?". The intention here is to remain open to not knowing, perhaps allowing yourself to come to the point of admitting, "I don't know," and then experimenting with relaxing a bit into this not knowing instead of condemning yourself for it. After all, in this moment, it may be an accurate statement of how things are for you. Inquiry of this kind itself leads to openings, to new understandings and visions and actions. Inquiry takes on a life of its own after a while. It permeates the pores of your being and breathes new vitality, vibrancy, and grace into the bland, the humdrum, the routine. Inquiry will wind up "doing you" rather than you doing it. This is a good way to find the path that lies closest to your heart." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p132.

"What learning is most necessary? How to get rid of having anything to unlearn." - Antisthenes (445-365 BC).
  • "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." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p13-14.
  • "Our human perceptual habits are remarkably stupid in some ways. We tune out 99% of all the sensory stimuli we actually receive, and we solidify the remainder into discrete mental objects. Then we react to those mental objects in programmed habitual ways. [...] That which has been learned can be unlearned. The first step is to realize what you are doing, as you are doing it, and stand back and quietly watch." - Mindfulness in Plain English (2002), p23-24.
  • "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?" - Zen Flesh, Zen Bones (1998), p19.
  • "To cultivate the healing power of mindfulness requires much more than mechanically following a recipe or a set of instructions. No real process of learning is like that. It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p31.

"...essence of true existence - whether essence of equality, beauty, or anything else ... having the same simple, self-existent and unchanging forms, and not admitting of variation at all ...  must be always the same..."
- Plato (428-347 BC).
  • "Its names vary but not its essence. Buddhas vary too, but none leaves his own mind. The mind’s capacity is limitless, and its manifestations are inexhaustible. Seeing forms with your eyes, hearing sounds with your ears, smelling odors with your nose, tasting flavors with your tongue, every movement or state is your entire mind. At every moment, where language can’t go, that’s your mind." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Bloodstream Sermon.
  • "Even though the ways we feel are different, they are not really different, in essence they are the same. This is the true understanding transmitted from Buddha to us." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p121.
  • "If we do not see the essence of something, our seeing still has leaks." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (2001), p95.
  • "...it is important to emphasize that paying attention does not mean "thinking about." It means directly perceiving what you are attending to. Your thoughts will only be a part of your experience. They may or may not be an important part. Awareness means seeing the whole, perceiving the entire content and context of each moment. We can never grasp this entirely through thinking. But we can perceive it in its essence if we get beyond our thinking, to direct seeing, direct hearing, direct feeling." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p438.

"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom." - Aristotle (382-322 BC).
  • "Who knows others is perceptive, who knows himself is wise..." - Daoist Sage LaoZi, DaoDeJing, 33.1.
  • "Dogen said, "To learn something is to know yourself; to study Buddhism is to study yourself"." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p120.
  • "The Zen Master Thuong Chieu wrote, "If the practitioner knows his own mind clearly he will obtain results with little effort. But if he does not know anything about his own mind, all of his effort will be wasted." If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p37-38.
  • "Nisargadatta: By being with yourself... by watching yourself in your daily life with alert interest, with the intention to understand rather than to judge, in full acceptance of whatever may emerge, because it is there, you encourage the deep to come to the surface and enrich your life and consciousness with its captive energies. This is the great work of awareness; it removes obstacles and releases energies by understanding the nature of life and mind. Intelligence is the door to freedom and alert attention is the mother of intelligence." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p10.

“By suspending judgement, one can attain a quiet and peaceful mind." - Pyrrho (360-270 BC).
  • "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" - The Third Chinese Zen Patriarch Sēngcàn (5th Century AD), Faith in Mind (translated by D.T.Suzuki), 1st paragraph.
  • "Without stopping to reflect on our selfish judgment we say “He is good” or “He is bad.” But someone who is bad to me is not necessarily always bad. To someone else, he may be a good person. Reflecting in this way we can see things-as-it-is. This is buddha mind." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p30.
  • "We simply observe every occurrence in our body and mind with our mindfulness, and greet whatever arises without praise, reprimand, or judgment. This is called “mere recognition.” Mere recognition does not take sides. The object of recognition is not our enemy. It is none other than ourselves." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, Understanding Our Mind (2001), p357.
  • "From the time we get up in the morning to the time we go to sleep, we are doing something; we are pushing our boulder all day long. It’s our judgment about what we’re doing that is the cause of our unhappiness." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p21.
  • "This habit of categorizing and judging our experience locks us into mechanical reactions that we are not even aware of and that often have no objective basis at all. These judgments tend to dominate our minds, making it difficult for us ever to find any peace within ourselves. It's as if the mind were a yo-yo, going up and down on the string of our own judging thoughts all day long.[...] If we are to find a more effective way of handling the stress in our lives, the first thing we will need to do is to be aware of these automatic judgments so that we can see through our own prejudices and fears and liberate ourselves from their tyranny." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p33-34.

"The art of living well and the art of dying well are one." - Epicurus (341-270 BC).
  • "...the reason why we need not fear life and death is that even before we have abandoned this life, we are already encountering death in the present. And even before we have abandoned death, we are already encountering life in the present. [...] Life is not one sort of thing, and death is not another, second sort of thing. Never does death stand against life: never does life stand against death." - Japanese 'Soto Zen' Founder Master Eihei Dōgen (1200-1253),  Shobogenzo (Translated by Hubert Nearman, 2007), p499.
  • "We see that life and death are but two faces of Life and that without both, Life is not possible, just as two sides of a coin are needed for the coin to exist. Only now is it possible to rise above birth and death, and to know how to live and how to die. The Sutra says that the Bodhisattvas who have seen into the reality of interdependence have broken through all narrow views, and have been able to enter birth and death as a person takes a ride in a small boat without being submerged or drowned by the waves of birth and death." - Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p51.
  • "When you do not realize that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realize this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p94.
  • "The funny thing about stopping is that as soon as you do it, here you are. Things get simpler. In some ways, it's as if you died and the world continued on. If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate. Their residue would somehow get worked out without you. No one else can take over your unique agenda. It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died. [...] Maybe you don't need to read something just now, or run one more errand. By taking a few moments to "die on purpose" to the rush of time while you are still living, you free yourself to have time for the present. By "dying" now in this way, you actually become more alive now." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p12.

"A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, and against nature." - Zeno of Citium (334-262 BC).
  • "There are good and bad tastes, good and bad feelings, agreeable and disagreeable ideas. It is our attachment to them that creates suffering. When you hear something good you will enjoy it. When you hear something bad you will be annoyed or disturbed. But if you understand reality completely you will not be bothered by things." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Syzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p75.
  • "...you may suddenly experience extreme anger, or some very strong desire-mind or bad feeling that appears out of a memory. “I don’t like this meditation. I want to eat some food now.” But you are sitting, and you cannot eat for another half hour, so you suffer. The minutes pass by like hours and days! That is suffering. Maybe you remember someone you don’t like, and you fight with them in your mind. [...] Many people attach to their animal-minds of desire and hatred. If you keep this mind, this mind controls you." - Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn (1927-2004), The Compass of Zen (2012), p181.
  • "If we want a life that’s peaceful and productive, what do we need? We need the ability (which we learn slowly and unwillingly) to be the experience of our life as it is. Most of the time I don’t want to do that, and I suspect that you don’t either." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen (1997), p118.
  • "A non-judging orientation certainly does not mean that you cease knowing how to act or behave responsibly in society, or that anything anybody does is okay. It simply means that we can act with much greater clarity in our own lives, and be more balanced, more effective, and more ethical in our activities... [...] When we are able to recognize and name the seeds of greediness or craving, however subtle, in the mind's constant wanting and pursuing of the things or results that we like, and the seeds of aversion or hatred in our rejecting or maneuvering to avoid the things we don't like, that stops us for a moment and reminds us that such forces really are at work in our own minds to one extent or another almost all the time. It's no exaggeration to say that they have a chronic, viral-like toxicity that prevents us from seeing things as they actually are and mobilizing our true potential." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p57.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Essence of the Mindful Arts

What is the inherent dynamic nature of a plant? We can say something like: "upwards growth towards the sunshine, drawing in and channelling water into it's cells, and replicating its DNA in various ways". All of these properties of a plant are seamlessly interwoven into a whole which is greater than the sum of it's parts - a true nature or single essence of a plant.

What is the inherent dynamic nature of a human, then? It seems the difficult answer to this question lies at the root of all philosophical and religious schools. Because the human mind is so powerful and creative there have been so many different conclusions and theories. The very existence of a variety of conceptions of the true nature of humans points to something in itself - that there is no apparent truth in such conceptual answers, since concepts are mere maps of a territory. As we can see on Google Maps - we can look at a territory from 'street view', or satellite, or major roads - none of them are ultimately wrong, but none of them are truly an accurate representation of the territory they are referring to. Similarly for our concepts mapping reality; these complex inventions created by the mind - impositions on reality - can cover up simple truths.

In the same way killing and dissecting a frog to understand it's living state undermines such a study, the act of using criteria, machines, or exercises to analyse humans from outside will be cutting up and 'tainting' the humanity under study in various ways to the point key information may easily be lost. Scientists have now been discovering, however, that they can look into their own humanity without the need for surgery or even criteria - that when they focus upon their internal world, even when limiting their thoughts, aspects of their nature which are normally hidden come to the fore as the mind settles.

When philosophers and scientists have turned to study their own living humanity, they have often again found that their own analytical activity has got in the way - that their minds could not settle enough. Therefore one common conception of human nature has been that humans are 'investigators'. However this seems to be akin to looking in a mirror to undertstand oneself and coming up with the answer "I am a mirror-user". If we can go beyond the reflective process enough, then we can see something within ourselves deeper than the surface of a mirror. This is a huge feat in itself, since we are so used to actively doing something and attaching conceptual purpose to it. The active process of doing anything often covers up the 'raw' state of existence with conceptual manipulation.

In order to focus the mind more effectively, so that it does not habitually drift off into imagining things so much, a single point of focus can be utilised in order to turn the energy of the mind into a kind of laser which burns through potential distractions. This focused energy can help to bring about a state of awareness beyond thoughts - beyond impositions placed upon reality, and the practitioner will obtain an experience of human nature beyond mental constructs. Classically and in modern times, this mindful practice has revealed a basic underlying nature which is calm and at ease - with breathing and heart rate relaxed, deep, and tranquil - the body's functions continuing automatically and instinctively like a plant quietly reaching towards the sun.

Once a mindfulness practitioner has become acquainted enough with this underlying true nature, they can use it's existence as a reference point in their life when they need to make adjustments to their behaviour - when unhealthy habits surface. These unhealthy habits are not the essence of the true nature of the human concerned - they are a product of human true nature meeting unfavourable circumstances. Humans are not the only organisms to meet unfavourable circumstances, of course, and it seems we can learn a lot from plants and animals - nature in general, to better understand our own particular nature.

If a plant grows from a seed sprouting in an unfavourable location, the plant will act according to its true nature to the extent that it may grow a long straggling stem and pale leaves as it attempts to find sunshine. We can still see the plant's true nature in it's malnourished state - we may say that the plant is unhealthy due to it's environment or birthplace. We can see it's noble intentions to reach for the sunlight in it's over-stretched elongated form and so we feel sad for the plant's unfortunate beginnings in life. The plant's deeper internal state - it's true nature - can never be unhealthy - it has always been following it's genetic programming. The same can be said of human beings - we all start out with noble intentions - the tales of princes and princesses inspire us, and then, depending on our environment, we either find a way to meet those ideals, or we fail and become pale and over-stretched. This does not mean that we are ever inherently unhealthy - it just means we have met unfortunate circumstances.

The natural attention of a human, and the tendons we use to manifest our intentions are intimately linked etymologically through the Latin word tendere - "to stretch or extend", and the word tendon comes from the same idea. So we can say the human body tends to follow it's intention by paying attention to the stretching it's tendons. When one considers the practice of mindful yoga, one can see that yoga is this very process of following, and immersing oneself in the body's natural intension/tendons/attending.

In Chinese, this intention - the potential dynamic nature of something - is called yì: . It is a combination of the Chinese characters and ; sound/tone/pitch/pronunciation + heart/mind respectively. This is very similar to the character for mindfulness; , which is constructed from a speaking mouth above a heart.

The mindful arts all appear to try to be in harmony with the calm, tranquil 'yi' - our healthy, soft inner tension, or intention, which allows our dynamic true nature to manifest in the physical world. This true nature or intention can be felt in the muscles maintaining our calm breathing, our upright yet flexible spine as we sit in meditation, or even as a whole-body postural muscle sensation as we stand in the various standing yoga postures of the martial yoga system of YiQuan. Even though gravity and other forces and energies attempt to pull us down or apart, our dynamic inner tensions hold us together as a unified whole.

This inherent dynamic true nature - a peaceful, dignified dimension to our being, forms the backdrop or 'anchor' to all activities when practicing mindfulness - whether in formal seated meditation or otherwise. Certain activities and arts can be, and have been, calibrated so that the backdrop of true nature can be amplified and made more tangible while those activities are carried out, and the expression of one's true nature becomes all the more apparent in the products of these various mindful arts.

Friday, 10 May 2013

The Seven Pillars of Mindfulness Practice

"...consciously cultivating certain attitudes can be very helpful in getting the most out of the process of meditation. Your intentions set the stage for what is possible. They remind you from moment to moment of why you are practicing in the first place. Keeping particular attitudes in mind is actually part of the training itself, a way of directing and channeling your energies so that they can be most effectively brought to bear in the work of growing and healing." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p32.
There are key attitudes necessary for mindfulness practice. These attitudes inter-relate to one another, and balance the practice as one continues. Here are these attitudes presented as 'The Seven Pillars of Mindfulness' as found in Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn's book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), beginning on p33. Single 'summary' sentences; picked up from various sources and teachers, have been attached to flesh-out each attitude:

Non-Judging: Clinging and aversion increases our tension; our discomfort.

Patience: You can't pull on a plant to make it grow.

Beginner's mind: Don't paint the clear sky blue.

Trust: One's body will detoxify all by itself as it always has done - if one allows it to.

Non-striving: You can't still the mind with thoughts.

Acceptance: Mindfulness means that there's no conflict.

Letting go: Attaching ourselves to things puts us on a leash and ties us down.

Friday, 3 May 2013

New Scientist: Meditation boosts genes that promote good health

The New Scientist science magazine published an article online in it's Health section on 2nd May 2013 titled: Meditation boosts genes that promote good health.

Here are some interesting quotes:
"After eight weeks of performing the technique daily, the volunteers gene profile was analysed again. Clusters of important beneficial genes had become more active and harmful ones less so.
The boosted genes had three main beneficial effects: improving the efficiency of mitochondria, the powerhouse of cells; boosting insulin production, which improves control of blood sugar; and preventing the depletion of telomeres, caps on chromosomes that help to keep DNA stable and so prevent cells wearing out and ageing.
Clusters of genes that became less active were those governed by a master gene called NF-kappaB, which triggers chronic inflammation leading to diseases including high blood pressure, heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease and some cancers.

Within minutes

By taking blood immediately after before and after performing the technique on a single day, researchers also showed that the gene changes happened within minutes.

For comparison, the researchers also took samples from 26 volunteers who had practised relaxation techniques for at least three years. They had beneficial gene profiles even before performing their routines in the lab, suggesting that the techniques had resulted in long term changes to their genes.
"We found that the more you do it, the more profound the genomic expression changes," says Benson. He and his colleagues are now investigating how gene profiles are altered and whether these techniques could ease symptoms in people with high blood pressure, inflammatory bowel disease and multiple myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer."