Saturday, 28 September 2013

Skill in Mindfulness

"Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And common people like you and me,
Are builders for eternity?

Each is given a bag of tools:
A shapeless mass and a book of rules.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a stepping stone."  -
R Lee Sharpe,
A Bag Of Tools.
"...ultimately the winds of life and of the mind will blow, do what we may. Meditation is about knowing something about this and how to work with it. The spirit of mindfulness practice was nicely captured in a poster of a seventyish yogi, Swami Satchitananda, in full white beard and flowing robes atop a surfboard riding the waves off a Hawaiian beach. The caption read: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf." - Mindfulness meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are (2004), p31-32.
"A yogi is like a surfer who knows how to balance on his board. He welcomes even a big rolling wave because he knows how to enjoy it without getting caught in it."- Swami Satchitananda.
"One of the marks of skillful practice is to be present without participating in harmful actions." - American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck, Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995), p105.

Humans have been endowed with innate survival skills embedded within our DNA through evolution. Some of these survival skills can work against us in our modern, civilised societies, however. As Professor Mark Williams of Oxford Universty Mindfulness Centre states in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), p9:
"...if you feel threatened, the mind instantly digs up memories of when you felt endangered in the past, so that you can spot similarities and find a way of escaping. It happens in an instant, before you’re even aware of it. It’s a basic survival skill honed by millions of years of evolution. It’s incredibly powerful and almost impossible to stop. The same is true with unhappiness, anxiety and stress. It is normal to feel a little unhappy from time to time, but sometimes a few sad thoughts can end up triggering a cascade of unhappy memories, negative emotions and harsh judgments."
Asian traditions have often used animal-based representations of the destructive human ego, such as  'monkey mind', and the idea of a wild bull has also been used extensively. The Chinese Chán (Zen) master Kuòān Shīyuǎn (廓庵師遠) of the 12th century, drew a series of 10 pictures illustrating the interactions between a young man and a bull. The young man goes from searching for the bull to catching and struggling with it, to riding it, and then returning to society.

Remaining skilfully balanced above, and in control of, the 'wild' instincts of animals has become a symbolic practice representing the heights of human achievement in some social domains - like bull-riding and bull vaulting in the Americas and in Spain. To remain safe and healthy we similarly need to hone skills which can counter our own 'wild' instinctive reactions left over from our biological evolution.

A useful way of viewing our 'wild' nature manifesting in our being, is considering it as chaotic waves of water threatening to engulf us, as mindfulness meditation teacher Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn states in his book Full Catastrophe Living (2005), pp342-343:
"As you practice, focusing on whatever you are paying primary attention to in your meditation practice, you are likely to come to see your thoughts and feelings as discrete, short-lived events, as individual waves on the ocean. These waves rise up in the ocean of your awareness for a moment and then fall back. [...] Thoughts with a high emotional charge have a way of recurring again and again. When they come up, they grab hold of your attention like a powerful magnet, carrying your mind away from your breathing or from awareness of your body."
In this context, the skill of mindfulness can be considered like the skill of a surfer remaining balanced and 'free' beyond the turbulence - remaining in accepting awareness and not flying off into reactive thought. In the book One Taste of Truth - Zen Tea (2012), the author illustrates a similar principle related in an old Japanese story from the feudal era, using the metaphor of a gourd floating down a stream, p65:
"In his letter to the sword master Yagyu Munenori, the zen priest Takuan remarked that the mind should move like a gourd thrown into a moving stream, bobbing here, flowing there, never stopping along the way. If pushed down in one place, the gourd will freely pop up in another and continue on."
This skill of avoiding becoming overwhelmed by the dynamic nature of impermanence lies at the core of mindfulness, as Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Catastrophe Living, p247:
"The ultimate effect on our health of the total psychological stress we experience depends in large measure on how we come to perceive change itself, in all its various forms, and how skillful we are in adapting to continual change while maintaining our own inner balance and sense of coherence. This in turn depends on the meaning we attribute to events, on our beliefs about life and ourselves, and particularly on how much awareness we can bring to our usually mindless and automatic reactions when our "buttons" are pushed."
American Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck supports this statement in her book Nothing Special - Living Zen (1995) when she writes, p106:
"As we become clearer with our own practice, we tend to find more skillful means to deal with whatever comes up."
She is realistic about the amount of work it takes to reach this level of skill, however, p141:
"The longer we practice, the more quickly we move through this process each time it arises. The work is slow and discouraging at first, but as our understanding and skill increase, it moves faster, and we come to see that there is no problem. We may develop ill health, we may lose what little money we have; yet there is no problem."
The skill begins with learning how to manage one's attention, as Professor Mark Williams of Oxford Universty Mindfulness Centre states in Mindfulness: A practical guide to peace in a frantic world (2011), by distracting one's primary attention from becoming automatically sucked into negative thought patterns, p72:
"...the first step in learning to deal with life more skilfully... involves training yourself to notice when your autopilot is taking over, so that you can then make a choice about what you want your mind to be focusing upon. You need to learn to close down some of the ‘programs’ that have been left running in the background of your mind. The first stage of regaining your innate mindfulness involves returning to basics. You need to relearn how to focus your awareness on one thing at a time."
He states that focusing on the body's internal state is the most effective anchor for mindfulness practice, p170:
"It’s more skilful to work with the body because the mind can become too goal-orientated when directly facing a difficulty. It will want to help by suppressing negativity or by trying desperately to analyse and solve whatever is troubling you. Working with the mind in this context is just too difficult. Focusing on the body, by contrast, puts a tiny sliver of space between you and the problem, so that you don’t immediately become entangled within it. In a sense, you are using the body to turn towards negativity rather than using the analysing mind. You are processing the same raw material, but it is held within a different mode of mind, letting the deepest, wisest part of the mind–body do its own work."
Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates how this body skill is trained by including a section of the ancient Buddhist Satipatthana Sutta in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness (1987), describing in great detail the kind of attention needed, p112-113:
"Just as a skillful turner or turner's apprentice, making a long turn, knows "I am making a long turn," or making a short turn, knows, "I am making a short turn," just so the monk, breathing in a long breath, knows "I am breathing in a long breath"; breathing out a long breath, knows "I am breathing out a long breath"; breathing in a short breath, knows "I am breathing in a short breath"; breathing out a short breath, knows "I am breathing out a short breath." "Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe in," thus he trains himself. "Experiencing the whole (breath-) body, I shall breathe out," thus he trains himself. "Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe in," thus he trains himself. "Calming the activity of the (breath-) body, I shall breathe out," thus he trains himself. Thus he lives contemplating the body in the body internally, or he lives contemplating the body in the body, internally and externally."
One's body can automatically integrate the skill of riding a bicycle or balancing on a surfboard into it's subconscious structure, and in the same way it can also integrate the sense of balancing above one's reactive potential. In this way the skill of mindfulness becomes innate and 'second nature' the more one practices.

Unfortunately such skill involving balance, like surfing or cycling, can never be simply passed on from one individual to another through words in the way some other activities can be - the territory of balance needs to be explored physically and individually over time by every person, as Charlotte Joko Beck writes in Nothing Special - Living Zen, p181:
"Fundamentally, practice is different from improving a skill such as tennis or golf; much of such learning can be described in words. But we can’t explain our zazen practice in words."

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