Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Discipline of Being Disciplined

"It's easy to rule while it's peaceful, it's easy to plan before it arrives, it's easy to break while it's fragile, it's easy to disperse while it's small, act before it exists, govern before it rebels,
A giant tree grows from the tiniest shoot, a great tower rises from a basket of dirt, a thousand mile journey begins at your feet" - Daoist Sage LaoZi (~6th Century BC), DaoDeJing (Red Pine translation, 1996), 64.1-64.3.
"...if you make your best effort just to continue your practice with your whole mind and body, without gaining ideas, then whatever you do will be true practice. Just to continue should be your purpose. When you do something, just to do it should be your purpose." - Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p43.
"By sustained effort, earnestness, discipline, and self-control let the wise man make for himself an island, which no flood overwhelms." - The Buddha, Dharmapada Sutra (Narada Translation, 1959), Verse 25.
"When a snake becomes a dragon, it doesn’t change its scales. And when a mortal becomes a sage, he doesn’t change his face. He knows his mind through internal wisdom and takes care of his body through external discipline." - The First Zen Patriarch Bodhidharma (early 5th century AD), Wake-up Sermon (Red Pine translation, 1987).
"The only discipline involved was regular and frequent practice." Professor Mark Williams, Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p103.
"Without a daily embodiment in practice, lofty ideals tend to succumb to self-interest." - Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994), p218.

In China, if one mentions that one practices taiji or meditation, one will often be met by the reaction, "Every day?." There is an apparent understanding in China - the birthplace of Zen - that without daily discipline, the pursuit of a difficult goal is relatively worthless.

The Oxford Dictionary Online defines the word 'discipline' as follows:
" noun
    1 [mass noun] the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience...
        2 a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education

        train (someone) to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience
      All of the above definitions are apparently intimately linked in the way that studying a discipline in itself requires great discipline.

      When it comes to the discipline of living, we can easily feel what is right and wrong - so we have knowledge, and yet, like a smoker who admits they need to quit but lights up another cigarette, we can do what is wrong for us all the same. In this sense, discipline is a matter of habit - what we actually do on a regular basis. We can see ourselves as the 'work of art' our habits create day in, day out - the product we witness right here, right now, after all these years, months, days, and hours of repeating the same behaviours.

      Often, it appears that we take our ability to detect what is healthy and unhealthy as a representation of our actual existence - we pronounce our lives as masterpieces of intelligent reflection, but in reality we have often had no practice - no discipline aimed at mastery - to allow such a life to actually manifest. This provides the conditions for a lot of unhappiness to emerge, and as people discover this dislocation between their ideals and their actions, they look to external agents promising to help them put things right, even though there is no clear evidence that such a thing will happen. When these promises do not deliver, such a person descends further into depression, as American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p49:
      "Every unhappy person I’ve ever seen has been caught in a belief system that holds out some promise, a promise that has not been kept."
      Scientific studies have been showing that mindfulness practice - as a discipline - allows people to begin digging themselves out of such self-defeating belief systems by simply becoming aware of the underlying patterns, and allowing the body to reflexively rebalance itself. Joko Beck continues:
      "Persons who have practiced well for some time are different only in the fact that they recognize this mechanism that generates unhappiness and are learning to maintain awareness of it — which is very different from trying to change it or fix it. In itself, the process is as simple as it can be; yet we human beings find it extremely difficult. We have absolutely no interest in maintaining our awareness. We want to be thinking about something else, anything else. And so our lives give us endless discouragement, the perfect gift. When people hear this, they want to get up and leave."
      This behaviour is understandable, of course, because we are only human, and mindfulness is famously the most difficult thing in the world to practice. Theravada Buddhist monk Ven. Henepola Gunaratana outlines this in his book Mindfulness in Plain English (2011) thus, p1:
      "MEDITATION IS NOT EASY. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination, and discipline."
      And the author of Mindfulness for Dummies (2010) also highlights this fact, with additional mention of the need to be able to trust in the process, p284:
      "Mindfulness is simple but not easy. The simple bit is that mindfulness is about being aware and paying attention. The not-so-easy bit is having the discipline to practise regularly and the ability to trust in the process, no matter how wild your mind appears to be."
      Mindfulness teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn states in Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994) that  discipline is required due to our habitual tendency to do things on autopilot, p8:
      "While it may be simple to practice mindfulness, it is not necessarily easy. Mindfulness requires effort and discipline for the simple reason that the forces that work against our being mindful, namely, our habitual unawareness and automaticity, are exceedingly tenacious. They are so strong and so much out of our consciousness that an inner commitment and a certain kind of work are necessary just to keep up our attempts to capture our moments in awareness and sustain mindfulness."
      In addition to this, our relationship to the word 'discipline' does not tend to get us off to a good start when trying to practice mindfulness daily. Joko Beck writes in Everyday Zen (1997), however, that for those who have tasted the fruits of such discipline, it is something which intrinsically motivates one to the point that negative associations easily fall away, p140:
      "Discipline has a connotation for some of us of forcing ourselves to do something. But discipline is simply bringing all the light we can summon to bear on our practice, so that we can see a little bit more. Discipline can be formal, as in the zendo, or informal, as in our daily life. Disciplined students are those who in their everyday activities constantly try to find means of waking themselves up."
      This practice has been kept alive by such students and their teachers for thousands of years. Scholar and translator Red Pine explains the traditional Buddhist angle on discipline in The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain (1983) as a journey from one shore to another, p40:
      "Buddhists liken spiritual discipline to a raft one uses for crossing the Sea of Suffering."
      Buddhist teachers often write of aspirations to practice mindfulness daily as being the necessary discipline to make one's spiritual journey effective in one's life. For example, Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his book Fidelity (2011), p87:
      "When your aspiration is to fill yourself with great mindfulness and love, that aspiration is called bodhicitta, beginner’s mind, the mind of love. It is the desire to help relieve the suffering of others and help others to become awakened. We should live in such a way that this aspiration becomes more solid every day. If our aspiration erodes and weakens, we will not succeed on our path of practice. We need to practice mindfulness daily in order to fulfill our aspiration. We need to patiently pursue our aspiration, but we don’t lose the present moment — we enjoy the present moment and we use it to realize our deepest desire."
      This aspiration to practice daily is also often referred to as a 'path' one walks through life. The discipline of remaining on the path of mindfulness and not wandering off becomes the 'way' or method one embeds within one's life as a habit. Kabat-Zinn points out, in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), that such a view has traditionally not been particularly strong in the West, p440:
      "In our culture we are not so familiar with the notion of ways or paths. It is a concept that comes from China, the notion of a universal law of being, called the Tao, or simply "the way." The Tao is the world unfolding according to its own laws. Nothing is done or forced, everything just comes about. To live in accord with the Tao is to understand non-doing and non-striving. Your life is already doing itself. The challenge is whether you can see in this way and live in accordance with the way things are, to come into harmony with all things and all moments. This is the path of insight, of wisdom, and of healing. It is the path of acceptance and peace. It is the path of the mind-body looking deeply into itself and knowing itself. It is the art of conscious living, of knowing your inner resources and your outer resources and knowing also that, fundamentally, there is neither inner nor outer."
      This 'Way' of living is referred to by the Daoist Sage LaoZi (~6th Century BC) in his book  DaoDeJing (Red Pine translation, 1996), as follows, 41.1-41.2:
      "When a great person hears of the Way he follows it with devotion, when an average person hears of the Way he doesn't know if it's real or not.
      when a small person hears of the Way he laughs out loud, if he didn't laugh it wouldn't be the Way"
      This social situation adds to the difficulty of embedding such discipline in one's life - the pressures society places on individuals can dampen spirits before a spark is even attempted to be struck. Some people do arrive at the challenge of lifelong mindfulness meditation with deep motivation, however, and we can use their reports and tips to help us forward - beyond the preconceptions we scare ourselves with, as Ven. Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, p80:
      ""Discipline" is a difficult word for most of us. It conjures up images of somebody standing over you with a stick, telling you that you're wrong. But self-discipline is different. It's the skill of seeing through the hollow shouting of your own impulses and piercing their secret. They have no power over you. It's all a show, a deception. Your urges scream and bluster at you; they cajole; they coax; they threaten; but they really carry no stick at all. You give in out of habit. You give in because you never really bother to look beyond the threat. It is all empty back there. There is only one way to learn this lesson, though. The words on this page won't do it. But look within and watch the stuff coming up; restlessness, anxiety, impatience, pain; just watch it come up and don't get involved. Much to your surprise, it will simply go away. It rises, it passes away. As simple as that. There is another word for self-discipline. It is patience."
      This patience and the acceptance it requires is the path and goal all wrapped into one - there is nowhere to go and nothing to do; there is just being. Such constant mindful rooting in the present moment is what keeps a person sane, as the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Chögyam Trungpa writes in The Path is The Goal (2010), p5:
      "Meditation is a way of realizing the fundamental truth, the basic truth, that we can discover ourselves, we can work on ourselves. The goal is the path and the path is the goal. There is no other way of attaining basic sanity than the practice of meditation. Absolutely none."
      In this sense, with the path and goal being one, one must transcend notions of living a disciplined life over time - of some sort of travelling, and move out of time in general, and into the moment - every moment in which one finds oneself. Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki speaks of this in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), p39:
      "Zen is not some fancy, special art of living. Our teaching is just to live, always in reality, in its exact sense. To make our effort, moment after moment, is our way. In an exact sense, the only thing we actually can study in our life is that on which we are working in each moment."
      Kabat-Zinn echoes Suzuki in Full Catastrophe Living, p11:
      "This "work" involves above all the regular, disciplined practice of moment-to-moment awareness or mindfulness, the complete "owning" of each moment of your experience, good, bad, or ugly."
      And in Wherever You Go, There You Are, he highlights the essential need for integrating this practice into one's life through intentional discipline, p34:
      " stay at it for even five minutes requires intentionality. To make it part of your life requires some discipline. So when people say they can't meditate, what they really mean is that they won't make time for it, or that when they try, they don't like what happens. It isn't what they are looking for or hoping for. It doesn't fulfill their expectations."
      This open-minded integration of the practice needes to be a life-long change - if it is only dabbled in, the same as a smoker only intending to give up smoking for a week, one will be back to the old unhealthy habits to the same degree as before. Ven. Gunaratana highlights the misconception people often have about mindfulness being a short-term practice in Mindfulness in Plain English, p22:

      Sorry, meditation is not a quick cure-all. You will start seeing changes right away, but really profound effects are years down the line. That is just the way the universe is constructed. Nothing worthwhile is achieved overnight. Meditation is tough in some respects, requiring a long discipline and a sometimes painful process of practice. At each sitting you gain some results, but they are often very subtle. They occur deep within the mind, and only manifest much later. And if you are sitting there constantly looking for huge, instantaneous changes, you will miss the subtle shifts altogether. You will get discouraged, give up, and swear that no such changes could ever occur. Patience is the key. Patience. If you learn nothing else from meditation, you will learn patience. Patience is essential for any profound change."
      And most of the patient practice needs to be done within one's regular, daily life - not on meditation retreats, as Joko Beck emphasises in Everyday Zen, p197:
      "I don’t care how many enlightenment experiences you cling to. There’s nothing but daily life. This table is the dharma. Yesterday it was dusty; today, it’s been dusted. We’re coming to the end of sesshin. But don’t fool yourself: the hard sesshin begins as you reenter your normal schedule."
      The practice is not a long hard battle against one's ego, however, as Kabat-Zinn writes in the foreword to Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p.x:
      "...because it is a practice rather than merely a good idea, its cultivation is a process, one that of necessity unfolds and deepens over time. It is most beneficial if you take it on as a strong commitment to yourself, one that requires a degree of stick-to-it-ness and discipline, while at the same time, being playful and bringing to each moment, as best you can, a certain ease and lightness of touch – a gesture of kindness and self-compassion really. This lightness of touch, coupled with a steadfast and wholehearted engagement, is really a signature of mindfulness training and practice in all its various forms."
      By identifying this self-caring dimension to the discipline, one can tap into a natural, instinctive subconscious intention to cleanse and maintain one's body and mind - along the lines of taking a daily shower or brushing one's teeth. In this way one can include formal mindfulness meditation in with other daily self-care habits which tend to take place at the same time every day, as the author of Mindfulness for Dummies writes, p262:
      "Practise at the same time and place every day. This way the mindfulness discipline becomes a routine like brushing your teeth and you don’t have to think about it."
      Without this focus on daily repetition, one will feel like the process is an enormous battle, as Shunryu Suzuki says in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, p56:
      "If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult..."
      Social psychologist Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, who taught a very popular positive psychology course at Harvard, writes in his book Happier: Learn the Secrets of Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment (2007), that one should actively ritualise mindfulness meditation in one's life, p29:
      "Make meditation a ritual. Set aside between ten minutes and an hour each day for meditation—in the morning when you wake up, during your lunch hour, or sometime in the afternoon."
      He states that such ritualisation is most often a necessary factor in successfully installing new habits, p10:
      "People are sometimes resistant to the idea of introducing rituals because they believe that ritualistic behavior may detract from spontaneity or creativity—especially when it comes to interpersonal rituals such as a regular date with one’s spouse, or artistic rituals such as painting. However, if we do not ritualize activities — whether working out in the gym, spending time with our family, or reading for pleasure — we often don’t get to them, and rather than being spontaneous, we become reactive (to others’ demands on our time and energy)."
      While installing such habits, however, the propaganda of old unhealthy appetites will continue to appear, and that needs to be worked with, as Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, p43:
      "Once you make the commitment to yourself to practice in this way, the self-discipline comes in carrying it out. Committing yourself to goals that are in your own self-interest is easy. But keeping to the path you have chosen when you run into obstacles and may not see "results" right away is the real measure of your commitment. This is where conscious intentionality comes in, the intention to practice whether you feel like it or not on a particular day, whether it is convenient or not, with the determination of an athlete. Regular practice is not as hard as you might think once you make up your mind to do it and pick an appropriate time. Most people are inwardly disciplined already to a certain extent. Getting dinner on the table every night requires discipline. Getting up in the morning and going to work requires discipline. And taking time for yourself certainly does too"
      Thich Nhat Hanh relates how one of his teachers began orienting his mind towards mindfulness practice as soon as he woke up in the morning by harnessing his altruistic dimension, in The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), p6:
      "When he woke up in the morning, his first thought was, "Just awakened, I hope that every person will attain great awareness and see in complete clarity.""
      Kabat-Zinn also finds the morning an ideal time for mindfulness practice to begin, writing in Wherever You Go, There You Are, p180:
      "I find early morning a wondrous time for formal meditation. No one else is up. The world's rush hasn't launched itself yet. I get out of bed and usually devote about an hour to being, without doing anything. After twenty-eight years, it hasn't lost its allure. On occasion it is difficult to wake up and either my mind or my body resists. But part of the value is in doing it anyway, even if I don't feel like it. One of the principal virtues of a daily discipline is an acquired transparency toward the appeals of transitory mood states. A commitment to getting up early to meditate becomes independent of wanting or not wanting to do so on any particular morning. The practice calls us to a higher standard — that of remembering the importance of wakefulness and the ease with which we can slip into a pattern of automatic living which lacks awareness and sensitivity. Just waking up early to practice non-doing is itself a tempering process. It generates enough heat to rearrange our atoms, gives us a new and stronger crystal lattice of mind and body, a lattice that keeps us honest and reminds us that there is far more to life than getting things done. Discipline provides a constancy which is independent of what kind of a day you had yesterday and what kind of a day you anticipate today. "
      This getting out of bed to face one's life head-on is famously a lot more easily said than done, though of course. It requires deep intentionality, as he goes on to say:
      "To overcome... totally predictable opposition from other corners of the mind, you need to decide the night before that you are going to wake up, no matter what your thinking comes up with. This is the flavor of true intentionality and inner discipline. You do it simply because you committed to yourself to do it, and you do it at the appointed time, whether part of the mind feels like it or not."
      Shunryu Suzuki also speaks on the difficulty and merits of getting up to meditate first thing in the morning in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, thus p36:
      "When the alarm rings early in the morning, and you get up, I think you do not feel so good. It is not easy to go and sit, and even after you arrive at the zendo and begin zazen you have to encourage yourself to sit well. These are just waves of your mind. In pure zazen there should not be any waves in your mind. While you are sitting these waves will become smaller and smaller, and your effort will change into some subtle feeling."
      He discusses this process in more depth as a dialogue with a student in Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness (1999), p80:
      "Student: When I am fully awake I have, maybe, a little control
      over my desires, but in the morning—
      Suzuki Roshi: In the morning you have trouble. I know that.
      So that is why I say, “Get up!” [Knocks on the table.]
      Student: How do you do that?
      Suzuki Roshi: Just do it. Or else someone will come and hit
      you! [Makes a sort of humorous growl.]
      Student: I did just get up a couple of times—I jumped out of
      bed. But it was such a big thing!
      Suzuki Roshi:Yes. A big thing. So if you can get up pretty well,
      I think your practice is almost okay. That is a very good chance
      to practice our way. Just get up. Okay? That is the most important
      Practicing in a community such as a Buddhist Sangha can help a lot when trying to practice formal mindfulness meditation more regularly, as Ven. Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, p76:
      "The discipline of regular practice is essential, and most people find it easier to sit regularly if they are bolstered by a commitment to a group sitting schedule."
      Kabat-Zinn agrees on this point in Full Catastrophe Living, p42:
      "This feeling of being engaged in a common pursuit makes it a lot easier for everyone to keep up the discipline of the daily practice."
      Of course disciplines will break down from time to time - allowing us to gain a different perspective on what we have been practicing, and whether it had been worth the effort of making the changes that were necessary to continue the practice. Most often one inevitably returns to the practice at some point with renewed enthusiasm, as described in Mindfulness for Dummies, p280-281:
      "Coming and going to and from meditation is part of the natural process, but in the end you come to realise that without a daily discipline, your life is a bit of a rollercoaster. The meditation makes the ride that little bit smoother."
      In this way life has it's own method of making us face up to the truth and disciplining ourselves whether we like it or not. As Joko Beck states in Nothing Special, Living Zen, necessary events themselves kick us into submission if we try to go against the grain and not take responsibility for our own existence, p96:
      "No matter what the discipline — art, music, physics, philosophy — we can pervert it and use it to avoid practice. But if we don’t do it, life gives us kick after kick after kick, until we learn what we need to learn. No one can do this practice for us; we have to do it by ourselves. The only test of whether we are doing it is our lives."
      And, p49:
      "We want to hold onto our belief systems; but if we do, we suffer. In a sense, everything works perfectly. I never care whether anyone leaves practice or enters practice, it doesn’t make any difference; inevitably, the process goes on. It’s true that some people in their entire lifetime never seem to learn anything about this process. We all know some people like this. Still, the process goes on, even when they ignore it. Practice lessens our ability to ignore it; after a certain amount of practice, even if we say, “Well, I’m not going to do this practice, it’s too hard,” we can’t avoid it. After a while we just practice. Once the awareness is awakened, we can’t stuff it back in the box."
      Kabat-Zinn reflects this sentiment in Full Catastrophe Living, p61:
      "...once you see the critical need to nourish your being, once you see the need to calm your heart and your mind and to find an inner balance with which to face the storms of life, your commitment to make that time a priority and the requisite discipline to make it a reality develop naturally. Making time to meditate becomes easier. After all, if you discover for yourself that it really does nourish what is deepest in you, you will certainly find a way."
      Even as a raw habit, a formal mindfulness practice discipline can be installed within a month, as Ben Shahar states in Happier, p10:
      "New rituals may be difficult to initiate; but over time, usually within as little as thirty days, performing these rituals will become as natural as brushing your teeth" 
      In Wherever You Go, There You Are, Kabat-Zinn relates that this natural occurrence of mindfulness becomes the new way of being, p181:
      "After a while, the discipline becomes a part of you. It's simply the new way you choose to live. It is not a "should," it doesn't involve forcing yourself. Your values and your actions have simply shifted."
      Eventually, when lapses occur in practice, not having the discipline of formal mindfulness meditation in one's life just feels wrong - akin to not washing one's body or brushing one's teeth, as the author of Mindfulness for Dummies states, p44-45:
      "Cast your mind back to when you first learnt to brush your teeth. It was probably a real chore. Yes, it’s good for your teeth, but you weren’t interested – you wanted to play a game or watch TV, not waste your time brushing your teeth. But now, if you don’t brush your teeth for any reason, it just doesn’t feel right. As you regularly practise meditation, you eventually find the same. You become nourished by the practice itself, and what may at times have felt difficult to do, now feels strange not to do. This is the sign that you’ve created a wonderful, positive way to uplift your health and wellbeing. Of course, at times you feel reluctant to practise, such as when you’re reluctant to brush your teeth if you’re really tired, but on the whole, you’re now a keen meditator. Your informal practice, which involves being mindfully aware of your day-to-day activities, will happen almost naturally if you regularly practise meditation for a set amount of time every day."
      And from this point onwards, the journey towards the tranquility of 24/7 mindfulness really begins, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p42:
      "Ultimately... we are asking even more than daily practice... for it is only by making the meditation a "way of being" that its power can be put to practical use."

      Monday, 21 October 2013

      Daily Mail News: How Goldie's meditation therapy could help you beat chronic pain

      On 19th October 2013, Danny Penman (co-author of Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011)) wrote an article promoting his new book, published in the Daily Mail online in the Health section, titled: How Goldie's meditation therapy could help you beat chronic pain: The first in a three part series about the healing power of your own mind.

      The article included instructions for doing the 'body scan' mindfulness exercise.

      Here are some key quotes:

      "...the latest medical advances show that accepting and exploring sensations of pain and illness can bring more powerful relief than the most commonly prescribed painkillers.

      This approach constitutes a new treatment based on the ancient practice of 'mindfulness' meditation, which clinical trials show can reduce chronic pain by 57 per cent. Accomplished meditators can reduce their pain by more than 90 per cent.
      Now do the 'body scan'

      The Body Scan involves focusing on all the different parts of the body ...
      I used mindfulness after a paragliding accident seven years ago, when I fell 30ft on to a rocky hillside and the lower half of my leg was driven several inches through my knee and into my thigh. Through three major operations and two years of physiotherapy, I found it to be an extremely powerful painkiller and I'm convinced it also accelerated my healing.

      Over the next three weeks I'll lead you through meditations from my new book. The programme was developed by my  co-author Vidyamala Burch, a mindfulness expert who runs a UK training centre and became a convert after two serious spinal injuries.

      The exercises are based on solid science as well as our own experience and have helped tens of thousands of people worldwide. Try it today - above, we reveal a simple mindfulness exercise that you can do at home to ease chronic pain.

      Mindfulness For Health, by Vidyamala Burch and Danny Penman..."

      Sunday, 20 October 2013

      The Breath as an Anchor

      "If you look up the word "spirit" in the dictionary, you will find that it comes from the Latin, spirare, meaning "to breathe." The inbreath is inspiration; the outbreath expiration. From these come all the associations of spirit with the breath of life, vital energy, consciousness, the soul, often framed as divine gifts bestowed upon us, and therefore an aspect of the holy, the numinous, the ineffable." - Mindfulness meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p263.

      Working with one's breath is not something new to human societies - since ancient times people have harnessed the breathing reflex through concentration and effort in order to achieve better results in various cultural pursuits. Mindfulness meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn speaks of this in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), p52:
      "All professionals who make special use of their breathing as part of their work, such as opera singers, wind-instrument players, dancers, actors, and martial artists, know the value of breathing from the belly and "centering" their awareness in this region. They know from firsthand experience that they will have more breath and better control if the breath comes from the belly."
      Beyond such practices, however, it seems we do not really consciously bring attention to our breathing, even though it is so fundamental to our existence. As Kabat-Zinn states in Coming To Our Senses (2006), p75:
      "Breathing is fundamental to life. It is just happening. As a rule, we don't pay much attention to it unless we are choking or drowning, or have allergies or a bad cold."
      Within traditional Zen monasteries, however, any physical work is often integrated with the breathing process. Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh gives an example of this in Peace is Every Step (1991), with reference to his use of a scythe, p36:
      "During the past few years I have avoided tiring myself and losing my breath. I must take care of my body, treat it with respect as a musician does his instrument. I apply nonviolence to my body, for it is not merely a tool to accomplish something. It itself is the end. I treat my scythe in the same way. As I use it while following my breathing, I feel that my scythe and I breathe together in rhythm. It is true for many other tools as well. One day an elderly man was visiting my neighbor, and he offered to show me how to use the scythe. He was much more adept than I, but for the most part he used the same position and movements. What surprised me was that he too coordinated his movements with his breathing. Since then, whenever I see anyone cutting his grass with a scythe, I know he is practicing awareness."
      In this way, a Zen practitioner's mind may become more integrated with the present moment - temporally and physically; allowing him to find a peaceful refuge from busy thoughts concerning matters outside of the here and now.

      Following the breath in this simple manner can feel boring, however. To counter this, mindfulness practice encourages the perspective that the experience of boredom is a product of habitual "negative propaganda" originating from one's fearful mind - a legacy of our evolution which required us always to be on guard against enemies and predators. One's judging mind scans all that flows into one's consciousness, including it's own subjective reactive judging, and uses it's own existence as evidence of an external reality where 'good' and 'bad' things objectively exist - like a circular argument going around and around; e.g. "I am judging things negatively, so therefore there must be something negative". This is always a factual mistake, and yet it is the habitual 'default mode' for the vast majority of people on this planet. As Professor Mark Williams of Oxford University Mindfulness Centre writes in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p137-138:
      "We think that the situation itself aroused our feelings and emotions when, in fact, it was our interpretation of the scene that did this. It’s as if the world were a silent film on which we write our own commentary. But the commentary, with its explanations of what is going on, happens so fast that we take it to be part of the film. It can become progressively more difficult to separate the ‘real’ facts of a situation from its interpretation. And once such a propaganda stream has begun, it can be more and more difficult to argue against it. All future events will be interpreted to support the status quo; competing information is ignored and supporting facts wholeheartedly embraced. The mind’s running commentary on the world is like a rumour. It might be true, it might only be partially true – or it might be completely wrong. Unfortunately, the mind often finds it very difficult to detect the difference between fact and fiction once it has begun to construct a mental model of the world. For these reasons, rumours can be incredibly powerful and derail not just the minds of individuals but of whole societies."
      Mindfulness methodology frames such negative thoughts/propaganda as suggestions offered up to us - e.g. "What if you fail?". The decision can remain with us as to whether we want to let such thoughts affect our actual performance, however.

      Bringing this perspective to when one is following the breath, and the inevitable negative responses one encountesr in one's mind/body, we can begin to allow the negativity to dwindle by a simple motivation to move in the direction of becoming more integrated with the natural processes which have always nurtured and supported us; tapping into an instinctive, innate positivity/self-compassion that has always been present in our biological makeup - identifiable in various reflexive behaviours throughout the human body. Ronald D. Siegel, Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, illustrates this shift in focus in his book The Mindfulness Solution (2010), p319:
      "While “I” won’t last very long, the larger universe will. If I can begin to see myself as part of this vast web of matter and energy, participating in the circle of life, I will suffer much less as everything continues to change. ...I will also naturally feel an impulse to care for this wider world, much as my right hand wouldn’t hesitate to bandage my left."
      This natural impulse to care for ourselves and life in general originates from within our very fabric; our DNA. One such natural self-caring impulse is to continue breathing at all costs. We can think negatively about who or what we are all we like - proposing that we would be better off dead, or that we are a waste of oxygen and resources, and yet our breath will continue supporting us; bringing in new fresh resources into our bodies. This happens reflexively every minute of the day, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p47:
      "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. If this process is interrupted for more than a few minutes, the brain becomes starved for oxygen and undergoes irreversible damage."
      And, p229:
      "When your whole organism, your body and your mind together, is in a relatively healthy state, it takes care of itself without too much attention. For one thing almost all of our self-regulatory functions are under the control of the brain and the nervous system and are ordinarily occurring without our conscious awareness. And we would hardly want to control them consciously for any length of time, even if it were possible. It would leave us no time for anything else. The beauty of the body is that ordinarily our biology takes care of itself."
      Mindfulness practice teaches us that we can trust and 'let go' into this reflexive self-caring and self-healing dimension of the breath, and allow our innate intelligence to take care of everything - effortlessly. Professor Mark Williams describes this in Mindfulness, as follows, p80:
      "The breath breathes itself. If it was up to us to remember to breathe, we’d have forgotten long ago. So tuning into the breath can be an important antidote to the natural tendency towards believing that we have to be in control. Attending to the breath reminds us that at the core of our being, something is happening that depends very little on who we are or what we want to achieve."
      And, p81:
      "The breath opens up a different possibility, that of allowing life to live itself for a while, to see what wisdom emerges when you don’t rush in to ‘put things right’."
      Creating the conditions for this wisdom to manifest requires us to actively anchor our mind in one place so that it does not habitually fly off and remain in the past, future, or judgement. Kabat-Zinn describes the process in Coming to Our Senses as follows, p75-76:
      "...resting in an awareness of breathing ...requires first that we feel the breath and afford it a place in the field of awareness, which is always changing in terms of what the mind or the body or the world offers up to divert and distract our attention. We might be able to feel the breath, but in the next moment, it is forgotten in favour of something else. The aiming is here, but there is no sustaining. So we have to aim over and over again. Coming back, coming back, coming back to the breath over and over again. Every time noticing, noticing, noticing, noticing what is carrying our attention away. The sustaining comes with the intention to allow sustaining. It requires considerable attentiveness to keep the focus on the breath sensations when our attention is so labile, so easily pulled elsewhere."
      Any attempt to try and do the job of the breath - to actively control the diaphragmatic muscle, breathing rate, etc., becomes a distraction from the breath itself, and one's attention wanders into comparing past experiences, judging one's performance, etc. One needs to actively get out of one's way, so to speak, so that one's reflexive breathing and reflexive awareness can meet without interruption - this is the core practice of mindfulness. As the third Chinese Zen Patriarch Sēngcàn (5th Century AD) famously wrote in his treatise Faith in Mind (translated by D.T.Suzuki):
      "毫釐有差  A tenth of an inch's difference,
      天地懸隔  And heaven and earth are set apart:
      欲得現前  If you want to see it manifest,
      莫存順逆  Take no thought either for or against it."
      Such a separation in mind and body can have very intense physical repercussions, even, like the psychological process which leads to hyperventilation - something Kabat-Zinn refers to in Full Catastrophe Living, p49:
      "People who experience episodes of hyperventilation can think they are having a heart attack and are going to die. Actually the worst that can happen is that they will black out, which is dangerous enough. But passing out is the body's way of breaking the vicious cycle, which begins when you feel unable to breathe, which leads to panic, which leads to a stronger feeling of being unable to breathe. When you pass out, your breathing returns to normal on its own. If you are unable to get your breathing under control, your body will do it for you, if necessary by short-circuiting your consciousness for a while."
      American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck speaks of the necessity to let go of the breath in Everyday Zen (1997) thus, p162:
      " following the breath, it is best not to try to control it (control is dualistic, me controlling something separate from myself), but just to experience the breath as it is: if it is tight, experience tightness; if it is rapid, experience that; if it is high in the chest, experience that. When the experiencing is steady, the breath will gradually become slow, long, and deep. If attachment to thoughts has markedly diminished, the body and breath will eventually relax and the breath will smooth out."
      Japanese Soto Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki illustrates the same idea in Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1995), but in a different way thus, p29:
      "The air comes in and goes out like someone passing through a swinging door. If you think, "I breathe," the " I " is extra. There is no you to say " I . " What we call " I " is just a swinging door which moves when we inhale and when we exhale. It just moves; that is all. When your mind is pure and calm enough to follow this movement, there is nothing: no " I , " no world, no mind nor body; just a swinging door. So when we practice zazen [seated mindfulness meditation], all that exists is the movement of the breathing, but we are aware of this movement. You should not be absent-minded. But to be aware of the movement does not mean to be aware of your small self, but rather of your universal nature, or Buddha nature. This kind of awareness is very important, because we are usually so one-sided."
       Joko Beck adds in Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p249:
      "...what we want is to let the breath be the boss, so that the breath is breathing us."
      As this process goes on, one continues to notice any thoughts arising and does not engage them - instead one merely continues to be aware of the breath and allows thoughts to move on in their own time, to the point whereby the spaces between thoughts can widen enough to allow through true peace and tranquility - trusting one's awareness to reflexively notice what is important, as Mark Williams points out in Mindfulness, p11:
      "Mindfulness meditation teaches you to recognise memories and damaging thoughts as they arise. It reminds you that they are memories. They are like propaganda, they are not real . They are not you. You can learn to observe negative thoughts as they arise, let them stay a while and then simply watch them evaporate before your eyes. And when this occurs, an extraordinary thing can happen: a profound sense of happiness and peace fills the void. Mindfulness meditation does this by harnessing an alternative way in which our minds can relate to the world. Most of us know only the analytical side of the mind; the process of thinking, judging, planning and trawling through past memories while searching for solutions. But the mind is also aware. We do not just think about things, we are also aware that we are thinking. And we don’t need language to stand as an intermediary between us and the world; we can also experience it directly through our senses."
      This very physical approach - beyond concepts and rooted in pure feeling, can allow one to experience everything as a kind of raw energy which, Thich Nhat Hanh writes in Anger - Wisdom for Cooling the Flames (2001), is akin to the compassionate energy present when holding a suffering baby in one's arms in order to comfort it, p68:
      "Mindfulness means to be present, to be aware of what is going on. This energy is very crucial for the practice. The energy of mindfulness is like a big brother, big sister, or a mother, holding the younger one in her arms, taking good care of the suffering baby, which is our anger, despair, or jealousy."
      This instictive caring component is in complete harmony with the reflexive breathing, and the fact that the breath is always present - to anchor and bring the mind back to a more balanced place - means that at every moment our bodies contain deep self-compassion whether we are aware of it or not, and therefore we always have a potential release from the idea of suffering built into us if we wish to witness it, as Kabat-Zinn states in Full Catastrophe Living, p49:
      "It is always here to be attended to, no matter what we are doing or feeling or experiencing, no matter where we are. Tuning in to it brings us right into the here and now. It immediately anchors our awareness in the body, in a fundamental, rhythmic, flowing life process."
      And, p56:
      "Giving the mind one thing to keep track of, namely the breath, to replace the whole range of things that it usually finds to preoccupy itself enhances our powers of concentration. Staying with the breath during meditation, no matter what, ultimately leads to deep experiences of calmness and awareness. It is as if the breath contains, folded into itself, a power that we can come to simply by following it as if it were a path. This power is uncovered when we systematically bring awareness to the breath and sustain it for extended periods. With it comes a growing sense of the breath as a dependable ally."
      Within Zen Buddhism, this potential calmness is considered to be always present - like a bottle of refreshing water secretly hidden in one's bag, beyond the realms of rigid, conceptual perception, and it is our conscious choice to either go beyond what we know to be able to drink from the bottle or not. A text attributed to the first Zen Patriarch, translated in The Bodhidharma Anthology: The earliest records of zen, (Jeffrey L. Broughton, 1999), states the following illustrating such a stance, p14:
      "Things have always been in a state of quiescence and there has never existed a perceiving subject."
      Thich Nhat Hanh also speaks on this topic in Understanding Our Mind (2001), with reference to our existence being like a dynamic wave in essentially tranquil water, p392:
      "We say that we “attain” the ultimate dimension, but we do not attain anything. The wave does not need to attain the state of being water—the wave is water. We live in the historical dimension, in the world of existence and nonexistence, continuation and cessation, coming and going—and, at the same time, we are in touch with nirvana. Nirvana is our true nature. Just as a wave has always been water, we have always been in nirvana."
      And in a similar sense, the waves of our breathing have always been rooted in an unconditionally compassionate and nourishing essence whether we have been aware of that fact or not. Amplifying this dimension through placing sustained attention on our unconditionally compassionate breathing can create the conditions for a more peaceful experience to arrive.

      Wednesday, 9 October 2013

      YiQuan Chinese Yoga Body Structure Changes

      "The Way of Heaven is like stringing a bow, pulling down the high, lifting up the low, shortening the long, lengthening the short.
      the Way of Heaven takes from the long and supplements the short, unlike the Way of Man taking from the short and giving to the long .
      who can find the long and give it to the world, only those who find the Way.
      thus the sage does not presume on what he does or claim what he achieves thus he chooses to hide his skill.
      Nothing in the world is weaker than water, but against the hard and the strong nothing excels it, for nothing can change it.
      the soft overcomes the hard, the weak overcomes the strong, this is something everyone knows but no one is able to practice." - Daoist Sage LaoZi (~6th Century BC), DaoDeJing (Red Pine translation, 1996), 77.1-78.2.

      The following picture shows the progress of the author's training in YiQuan SanTi posture over the course of 1 year:

      Most progress, beyond the initial increase in uprightness of the back, has been made (so far) in the transition of the hips to a more forward-facing direction, and the rear knee becoming positioned more over the toes of the rear foot. These details are necessary features of a more correct YiQuan SanTi posture.

      The above progress has been made with an emphasis on daily practice (standing once a day for more than 1 hour), and after four 9 day intensive retreats at TaoLin YiQuan Academy - doing standing posture twice a day for more than 1 hour each time, and practicing various moving exercises which encourage further opening of the joints (a total 6 hours of training each retreat day). There were a few full-day visits to the academy in-between the retreats also, probably totalling to another 9 days.

      More progress needs to be made, however; to tuck the hips under more in order to straighten the back, for the rear knee to move more above the rear foot, and for the hips to become more front-facing.

      Saturday, 5 October 2013

      YiQuan One Leg Standing Posture

      Two of the Four Buddhist Guardian Kings of the Cardinal Directions at a temple in Shanghai. Photo taken during the author's travels around China in 2006.
      Progressing on from the SanTi martial posture, I have begun training one-legged standing, currently during a 9 day retreat at TaoLin YiQuan Academy in the countryside north of Beijing.

      This posture - when done correctly with correct guidance - puts some serious strain on the hip tendons and can become quite painful at times, but afterwards one recovers very quickly and there are no detrimental side effects.

      The opening hips and the raised leg are very similar in appearance to many Mahayana Buddhist statues depicting various characters from the pantheon of Bodhisattvas and guardians. In this sense, this posture feels much more like yoga than the previous ones.
      Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara Kashmir; 8th century.
      The coach said this training is good for developing a good stamp-kick, and I have no doubt it will make sitting in meditation on the floor easier.