Friday, June 20, 2014

Beginner's Mind? I Don't Think So...

I’ve long felt contrary around the famous quote from Suzuki Roshi, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities but in the expert’s mind there are few.” It sounds snappy, it’s a great sound-bite and on the surface it seems to be make sense and be true, but it’s facile, simplistic and most of the time untrue, and when it is true, only superficially so. Most of the time, beginners don’t know or understand enough about the topic at hand to actually have much in their mind in terms of possibilities. Just imagine someone with no understanding of particle physics: what could they possibly imagine as a possibility if they know nothing? But experts who do know and understand can imagine things a beginner cannot even begin to comprehend. Or imagine a beginner approaching her first lesson in saxophone. She will be lucky if she gets any sound at all, and if she does it may sound more like a wet fart than anything. She’d be at a loss to imagine the possibilities (Circular breathing? Voicing? Extended harmonics? Listen to a performance of Colin Stetson to see the possibilities a virtuoso/expert can bring forth).  And in those cases where it’s true that a beginner may hold many possibilities, we then have to ask how many of them are actually possible? How many of them are efficient and workable?

Researchers have studied expertise and found some interesting things. One is that it takes about ten years of practice to reach expert-level proficiency in any field or activity. It takes so long because one needs to develop the ability to anticipate problems, which it turns out, is not the result of simply having knowledge of a given field, but of structured knowledge. An example comes from the rarefied world of international tennis competition. The best ones don’t merely react to what their opponents are serving, but are capable of anticipating where the ball will go before the opponent even hits it! This is an acquired intuitive skill, made possible because the brain has seen enough similar situations, that it can extract patterns and thus predict where the ball is most likely to go from the anticipated angle of impact on the opponent’s racket.

Even more telling, Cindy Hmelo-Silver and Merav Green Pfeffer have investigated the difference between superficial and structural knowledge in the case of people’s understanding of aquaria. Children, “naïve” adults (such as myself, having no real interest in the subject), and two types of experts: biologists with a specialzation in ecology and aquaria hobbyists were compared. As one would expect, children and naïve adults evidenced a very simplistic understanding of the workings of an aquarium, and – tellingly, in light of Suzuki Roshi’s famous quote – often resorted to one type of causal explanation and failed to appreciate the intricacies of the system. Experts were greatly appreciative of the systemic functioning of an aquarium and could describe multiple causal pathways affecting the enclosed ecosystem.

Further, what’s really interesting is that the researchers found that the two types of experts differed quite dramatically in the kind of knowledge of aquaria they had built. Biologists explained the functioning of the aquaria as microcosms of natural ecosystems at an abstract-theoretical level. Hobbyists understood their aquaria around the practical issues of filtering systems, feeding systems, and anything that played an active role in keeping the aquarium functioning well and the fish healthy. Thus, along with evidence that there is a profound difference between naïve and expert knowledge, there is evidence that there is more than one way to be an expert! These differences among experts have less to do with any intrinsic properties of the system (though they do play some role) than the particular kinds of interest that different individuals have in that system.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Contemplating Impermanence

This is the first time I've posted the same post to both of my blogs. It just seems appropriate....

There are many passages where “the buddha” encourages the contemplation of the inexorable reality of change: impermanence. One such practice is the contemplation on the decomposition of a corpse while reflecting on the fact that this too will be the fate of your body. Another is called “the five remembrances.” The first three, briefly, are that you, I, and all beings are of the nature to age, experience illness, and die and that there is no way to avoid these realities. The fourth reminds us that everything we treasure and all whom we love are of the nature to change and there is no way to avoid being separated from them. And the fifth states that we are the heirs of our actions and there is no way to avoid the consequences of our actions.

One practice that the Tibetan tradition offers, "the four reminders," also called "the four reversals" as in the four thoughts that turn the mind, are often presented in such a way that the world-denying and escapist metaphysical tenets of some Tibetan Buddhisms become clear. As Andrew Holecek writes in his article on the four reminders in the Winter, 2013 Tricycle: “These contemplations develop revulsion to conditioned appearances, point out the their utter futility, and cause awareness to prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects. They turn the mind away from substitute gratifications and direct it toward authentic gratification – which can only be found within.”

Among other things, this notion that awareness might “prefer itself rather than outwardly appearing objects” posits awareness as yet another subtle atman despite the rejection of atman by “the buddha.” Awareness arises in relation to some phenomena; positing an awareness independent of all causes and conditions is no different than positing a soul/self/atman! I find it striking that so many contemporary buddhists have such a difficult time seeing this! Also, common to some forms of Tibetan Buddhism is an idealism that can become a form of solipsism that seems to be rearing it’s ugly face here in the disparagement of “outwardly appearing objects.” Research on happiness seems to suggest that happiness comes from both within and without and that learning the proper balanced ratio is what is necessary; not to discount one or the other.

That this life only has value in terms of the “afterlife” is made overtly clear when he adds: “Don’t worry so much about social security. Finance your karmic security instead. Invest in your future lives now. Investing so much in this life is like checking into a hotel for a few days and redecorating the room; what’s the point?” This emphasis on “reincarnation” which is only seen in Tibetan Buddhism (yes other forms of buddhism teach rebirth, not the same thing and equally wrong when taken as the rebirth of some atomistic entity, one even as nebulous as a specific ‘stream of consciousness’) is another aspect of this life-denying tendency and is very selfish. Taken literally, this statement equating life to time spent in a hotel, and thus there being no point in redecorating it, could lead one to wonder why we should bother to confront structural forms of oppression, catastrophic climate change, or systemic economic inequities; if this life is no more than a hotel, what’s the point? 

Holecek quotes B. Alan Wallace: “In light of death, our mundane desires are seen for what they are. If our desires are for wealth, luxury, good food, praise, reputation, affection, and acceptance by other people, and so forth are worth nothing in the face of death, then that is precisely their ultimate value.”

Now, I practice the five remembrances regularly, and emphasize to my students that we should never forget impermanence. The “gatha of encouragement,” which begins our daily practice, reminds us: “Great is the matter of birth and death. Impermanence permeates us. Be awake each moment. Do not squander your life.” But as a naturalist, this isn’t a practice designed to create revulsion for this life, it isn’t a mere “investment in future lives” (other than the metaphorical “lives” we live throughout this one life that we know exists and the equally important lives of those who will come after, as our actions now will definitely impact them) but it’s a practice to awaken us from our complacency; indeed it can be seen as a fierce compassionate shattering of the placid denial we too easily fall prey to, taking this life for granted. And no mistake, that can be a brutal awakening!

To me, though I agree desire for "wealth, luxury and praise" hold little value and may derail our attention from what is of real value, it’s sad that Wallace feels affection and the human need for relationship is “ultimately worthless,” literally “worth nothing” just because we all die! It is the fact that we will die, that we will be separated from all we love that makes my time with my loved ones so very precious; so precious that I don’t want to take one moment with them for granted. Ideally. And through this contemplation, who "loved ones" are becomes vast and ever more inclusive. And that’s why constant contemplation and remembrance of impermanence is important and can be so thoroughly a “turning of the mind,” because the default seems to lull me – us – into a kind of somnolent, zombie-like walking through life. Beyond this, I think it’s intellectually and morally dishonest because I somewhat doubt Wallace, and those who teach this life-denying perspective actually live with the full implications of what they are saying.

So yes, contemplate the fact of impermanence in order to live life fully, intimately, to come to see its absolute value in its ephemeral nature. Practice in order to avoid living this precious human life grasping at impermanent objects or experiences, and not ignoring them either, but savoring the good, and working to change what you can that is harmful to yourself and other real living beings who are also precious because also mortal. Don’t waste this life as if it were some dress rehearsal for future lives or some transcendent state of being. Immerse yourself in the world because you really are of it!

Here’s something I've written about the five remembrances if you’re interested…

Ignorance, or avidya, is a root cause of suffering, according to Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra (II.5). But the ignorance Patanjali refers to is less a lack of knowledge than an almost willful ignoring of reality. Today we call it denial. For instance, we may intellectually know that all things change, yet we desperately deny this truth; a denial that leads to anxiety, fear, and confusion.
At a past lecture, I led a group of interfaith seminarians in the contemplation of the five remembrances, "the buddha's" teaching on impermanence, aging, health, change, and death. Afterward, one of the students asked, "Isn't this just negative thinking?" On the contrary, I would argue that the five remembrances is what "the buddha" offers to awaken you from denial, to cultivate an appreciation for living, and to teach you about nonattachment and equanimity.
If you think of it this way, the meditation is not a bleak, depressing list of things you'll lose, but a reminder of the existential situation of the human. When you accept impermanence as more than merely a philosophical concept, you can see the truth of it as it manifests itself in your mind, your body, your environment, and your relationships, and you no longer take anything for granted.
Once you accept the reality of impermanence, you begin to realize that grasping and clinging are suffering, as well as the causes of suffering, and with that realization you can relax and celebrate life. The problem is not that things change, but that you try to live as if they don't.
To work with the five remembrances below, it helps to memorize and repeat them daily. Say them slowly and let the words seep in, without immediately analyzing or interpreting them or your experience; that can and should come later. Just notice your reactions. Let them rest until they shift and pass away—as all things do, being impermanent. Stay with your breath and observe the sensations under all your thinking. You may experience dread at the thought of any or all of these realities.  You may experience huge relief as the energy you've spent denying and hiding from the truth is liberated to move freely through your body. Who knows what you'll experience until you try it?
Some remembrances are easier to accept than others. For me, it was easier to consider that I'm aging and will die, than it was that I have the potential for ill health. I have a strong constitution and am rarely ill; I had believed that if my practice were "good" enough, I wouldn't get sick. So, on those rare days when I was ill, I often reproached myself for being sick and was a pretty cranky person to be around. But with the help of the second remembrance, I've grown more accepting of illness and can now feel a profound sense of ease even while ill so that I don’t needlessly suffer my illness. What this has shown me is that there is indeed a difference between disease and dis-ease.
Another way of practicing the five remembrances in relationship is through  hugging meditation. When your partner or children leave for work or school, hug each other for three full breaths, and remind yourself of the fourth remembrance: "All that is dear to me and everyone I love are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them." If you're having a disagreement with someone, remind yourself, before getting swept away by heated emotions, of the fifth remembrance: "I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions." None of this means you should be passive or reluctant to advocate your views. Instead the meditation helps you respond more skillfully with awareness rather than simply from conditioned reactivity.
You can also get used to the concept of impermanence by listing things that have changed in your life over the past month or two. Perhaps a difficult posture has become easier, or an easy posture has become challenging. Perhaps a problem with a family member has resolved or grown more complicated. You'll be hard-pressed to find something that hasn't changed! As I post this today, I look back over the month and review my mom’s illness and death; a teaching engagement that took me to Los Angeles; and a political fight to influence Arizona’s governor to veto an immoral, discriminatory bill that the state legislature had passed!
Again, facing the truth of impermanence shouldn't depress you; it should free you to be fully present. It should help you realize that the peace and ease you seek are available in the midst of changing circumstances. When you really see that all things change, your grasping and clinging fade under the bright light of awareness, like the stains in a white cloth bleached by the sun.

If nonattachment sounds cold and unappealing, you may be mistaking it for indifference. It's the experience of attachment, based on the denial of ceaseless change, that is lifeless. Life without change is a contradiction in terms. When you're attached to something, you want it to stay the same forever. This attempt to "freeze-dry" elements of your life squeezes the vitality out of life. The practice of nonattachment allows you to enjoy life wholeheartedly in its very passing.

Through your attachments you create mental manacles that bind you to the limited view that life is your life, your body, your lover, your family, your possessions. As your insight into impermanence deepens you start to see the truth of "not-self." When you can extend beyond the limits you've created you see that your life is not really "yours" but ultimately simply one manifestation of life.

As “the buddha” tells us: "When one perceives impermanence, the perception of not-self is established. With the perception of not-self, the conceit of 'I' is eliminated, and this is nirvana here and now."

The Five Remembrances

I am of the nature to age. There is no way to escape aging.

I am of the nature to experience illness. There is no way to escape illness.

I am of the nature to die. There is no way to escape death.

All that is dear to me, and everyone I love, are of the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them.

I am the heir of my actions. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Fourth Foundation

Fourth Foundation
The Fourth Foundation, "mindfulness of the dharmas," provides the context of bringing mindfulness to specific mental qualities, and analyzing experience into categories that constitute core aspects of the Buddha’s dharma (or teaching). These classifications are not in themselves the objects of meditation, but are frameworks or points of reference to be applied during contemplation to whatever experiences arise while practicing.
The dharmas listed in the Satipaṭṭhâna Sutta are the five hindrances, five aggregates, six sense-spheres, seven factors of awakening and the four noble truths. While one can contemplate these dharmas while practicing asanas, I find that for most practitioners, it’s too easy to fall into abstraction or intellectualization unless they already have a mature mindfulness practice.
More accessible is following the teaching of the Ânâpânasati Sutta where contemplation of the dharmas takes the form of bringing mindfulness to the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Contemplation of impermanence is a dharma gate opening to the understanding of the interdependent, conditioned, and selfless nature of all that exists.
Asana practice offers a great window into impermanence. From day to day, the body feels and moves differently each time we come to practice. We know things change, yet we put so much effort and energy into trying to live life as if that were not so! This is avidyâ, “not-seeing” as a kind of denial. But ignoring or denying the truth of impermanence perpetuates suffering and misery, and opening to the reality of change liberates that energy.
We practice looking into the impermanent nature of all the earlier objects of meditation, starting with the breath. No two breaths are the same. Even within one inhalation, there is constant movement and change. There is no “thing” that is actually the breath that can be grasped and held onto. Every sensation we experience, no matter whether pleasant, unpleasant or neutral is impermanent, as is every emotion, thought, or perception. Changeless life is a sterile concept, yet without mindfulness so many of us live as if such a life were possible!
In Genjo Koan, Zen Master Dogen writes, “If you examine myriad things with a confused bodymind, you might suppose that your mind and nature are permanent. When you practice intimately and return to where you are, it will be clear that nothing at all has unchanging self.” If “self” is understood as an entity that is autonomous, independent, and persistent over time, then insight into impermanence leads inevitably to the clear view that all things lack such an unchanging self. Even the consciousness of self that we take such pains to protect and bolster is not an autonomous, independent, persistent thing or entity; it is a process that is in constant flux, conditioned by everything else that is in constant change. This insight into “nonself’ (anatta) is what is meant by the term “emptiness” (shûnyatâ). Emptiness means that we, and all phenomena, are empty of an atomistic, independent, autonomous, separately existing, enduring self.
Because we are empty of any such self, we are intimately entwined with everything else. Even this language doesn't capture it because it sounds like I may still be talking of entities interdependently exiting with others, but there are no "entities." This is the Buddha’s unique contribution to the yoga tradition: "dependent co-origination." 
The Buddha said that when we enter through the door of impermanence, we touch nirvana, here and now. Nirvanâ, meaning “extinction,” is the extinction of our mistaken notions and ideas about reality that leads to reifying identities. The grasping and aversion, our greed, anger and delusion that arise from such reification are extinguished. Also extinguished is our attachment and bondage to concepts such as birth and death, existent and non-existent, increasing and decreasing, pure and impure.
A taste of this can happen in the time it takes to work with one asana. Maintaining Warrior Two, unpleasant sensations may arise in our shoulders.  These sensations lead to aversion, and grasping after relief. We identify with the unpleasant sensations and think, “My shoulders are killing me.” Thoughts arise about the teacher having us hold the posture “too long,” never seeing that “too long” is a relative concept. Clinging to that belief creates a sense of self; the more we cling the more the sense of self grows constricting.
Shifting our attention to the impermanent nature of experience, we see that there is no-thing personal about any of it. There is just sensation and the sensation is ever-changing. It is all a dependent co-originated process, and through practice we see that the same is true for all feelings, mental formations and consciousness.
With this insight comes nirodha (containment). This is the third noble truth of the Buddha, often used as a synonym for nirvanâ and also Patanjali’s definition of yoga. Practicing asana, we may notice many opportunities to contain our reactivity. We may experience a pleasant sensation and the arising of a mental formation. With mindfulness, we see attachment, and based upon an awareness of impermanence, and the containment of our reactivity the attachment fades away. We then may see a more skillful way to respond to the situation. This is a small, but potentially profound taste of liberation.
Finally comes letting go. But there is also the insight that it is not you that lets go. Throughout practice, there was still that final vestige of self-consciousness that could take credit for the insight into impermanence, and cessation. The final thing to let go is the idea of a separately enduring self. The irony is that this is a letting go of what was never there!
           Letting go means to see through all that keeps us (falsely) separated from reality as it is. The supposed boundary between “self” and “other” is seen as not real. Enlightenment and liberation comes not in turning away from our human condition, but within it, and as its fulfillment. 
            “To practice the Buddha way is to investigate the self. To investigate the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be intimate with the myriad things. When intimate with the myriad things, your bodymind as well as the bodyminds of others drop away. No trace of realization remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.”
Dogen Zengi, Genjo Koan

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Third Foundation

The Dhammapada’s opening lines point to the importance of mind in creating the lived experience of our world:
Our life is shaped by our mind;
all actions are led by mind; created by mind.
Duhkha follows an unskillful thought
as the wheels of a cart follows the oxen that draw it.
Suhkha follows a skillful thought
as surely as one’s shadow.
The Buddha taught that actions are preceded by volitions that can create wholesome or unwholesome consequences. This is the teaching of karma; there are consequences to our actions. The Zen ceremony of atonement (at-onement) reminds us that we are ultimately the authors of our “fate.” When we are at one with our actions, we can never think of ourselves as victims. Rather than blaming external conditions for duhkha, we realize that the ultimate cause of duhkha is found in the mind – the same place liberation is found.
In turning attention to the activity of the mind, all psychological phenomena, the contents and activities of mind are included: emotions, perceptions, conceptualization, imagination, and discrimination – the citta-samskara or “mental formations.” Citta or mind is the totality of these ever-changing psychological phenomena, not a thing, or unchanging subject.
With mindfulness of the mental formations, the Buddha directs us to “know” when a mental formation is present and when it is not present. Mindfulness itself is a mental formation, so we can be aware when mindfulness is present, as well as when it is not. When not mindful of mental formations, we believe and identify with them. As soon as we recognize a mental formation as a mental formation, it loses much – or all – of its power over us. When mindfulness is there, the mental formation has already been transformed. No longer is there only anger, now there is also mindfulness of the anger. The situation is changed as soon as we are mindful of it, no longer lost in forgetfulness, no longer identified as anger.
While practicing asana, mindfulness of the mental formations provides a wonderful opportunity to observe and recognize our mental patternings and how they condition our habitual tendencies. The body is not completely symmetrical. You may find one side in a posture easier than the other side. Noticing how quickly the mind categorizes experience into “good” and “bad” can free us from believing these potentially limiting notions. As an old Zen saying puts it, “with one thought, heaven and hell are created.”
Pain or discomfort often arises during asana practice. Much discomfort is really just a reaction to novelty, and much pain is the pain of change. Such pain can provide an opportunity to grow in mindfulness. Truly injurious or excessive pain should never be ignored, but the truth is, most of the pain that one experiences in asana practice is merely discomfort and not injurious. With discomfort, it is fruitful to drop out of your aversive reactivity and bring a gently embracing quality of mindfulness to the discomfort. When we do this, we see for ourselves that there really is a difference between pain and suffering – the misery and mental anguish that we add to the experience because of our aversion. This is an important insight with real benefit to life off the mat.
We practice with the discomfort and pain that arises in asana practice so that we can remain free from suffering throughout our life. Yes, if we feel discomfort in our shoulders while doing Warrior Two all we need do to relieve the pain is lower our arms. But if we always do this, what will we do with the pain that we cannot avoid through such a simple strategy? What if you are injured in an accident? Or you lose your lover? How will you face your own sickness, old age and death? Whether emotional or physical, embodiment means pain is inevitable. Working with mindfulness of the mind means that when the inevitable losses of life occur, you can just feel the pain and not add suffering as well.
The Buddha encourages us to notice the mind when liberation or “letting go” is present. But first, we need to have clarity about what a grasping mind feels like. Yoga is not an ideology, philosophy or moral code about the “goodness” of letting go and the “badness” of attachment. Letting go is what happens when the suffering of holding on is felt and recognized.
The most obvious attachment is to material objects and sensory pleasures, including possessions, sensual, and sexual sensations. Attachment to particular “feel good” experiences like the potentially seductive enjoyment of stretching and moving the body, or the excitement of accomplishment, are some examples, as is the “yoga buzz” many practitioners seek in their practice. There’s nothing wrong in enjoying physical pleasure, but if we are dominated by our attachment to pleasure, we will suffer when it dissipates.
Another type of attachment is to opinions, beliefs, views, and theories. While practicing asana, we may find ourselves attached to ideas about what we “should” be able to do, what we “should” be feeling, and the correct form of the asana. We may find ourselves caught in a belief about what we cannot do or what we will “never be able to do.” Again, ideas and opinions are not the issue; it’s the degree of our attachment to them that creates suffering. If we are attached to strong ideas about what we need in order to be happy and free, the attachment to those very ideas becomes an obstacle to happiness and freedom. We place ourselves in bondage to our ideas and concepts, missing the possibility for happiness and freedom here and now.
There can be attachment to practice itself! The Buddha strongly warned against getting attached to ritual and traditional practices – secular or religious. It is possible to become so attached to a particular form of practice that you remain in your comfort zone, never testing your edges. The form becomes a trap rather than a tool for liberation. To appreciate and be firm in one’s commitment to a particular practice is one thing, but if we become overly attached and obsessive with the form, we can all too easily lose the liberating spirit of the practice.
The most challenging attachment includes everything that we can identify as “I,” “me,” or “mine.” Even becoming attached to our identity as a yogi can become a source of duhkha if we develop a holier-than-thou attitude, causing us to see ourselves as separate and superior to others.
Mindfulness shows how one creates a sense of self through reactivity, belief patterns, and dramatizing story lines. It happens in the instant a student marks out “her” spot in the practice room with her mat. The more attached we are to our stories of self, the more tension and suffering we create, but it’s not until we really see this for ourselves that any opening can occur.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: The Second Foundation

Second Foundation
Practicing “Feelings within the Feelings,” we deepen our intimacy with experience by bringing mindfulness to feelings – again, not as a disassociated observer, but from within the feelings themselves. Feelings here are not emotions but the  “feeling tone” or “felt sense” of experience.

To see for yourself what is meant here, take a moment to close your eyes and just sit, with your hands resting on your lap, palms down. Settle yourself into the experience, noting how it feels to sit here – physically and energetically. You may note such feelings as “heavy,” “grounded,” “stable,” or “dull.” Then, maintaining your attention, turn your palms upward and note if there’s a change in the feeling tone. You may find yourself feeling “light,” “open,” “receptive” or “vulnerable,” among other possible feelings.

Such feelings are not emotions. Feelings are a primal experience that the Buddha points out most generally precedes any reaction or emotion, though emotions can also produce feelings in the body. The importance of bringing mindfulness to feelings or sensations cannot be over-estimated. It is at the junction between feeling and reactivity that mindfulness provides the possibility of freely choosing how to respond to any given situation.

Feelings are categorized as being pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and of a physiological or psychological nature. If you bite into a ripe, juicy lemon the sensations that arise are physiological; if you simply imagine doing so, the sensations that arise are of a psychological nature. It is interesting to consider how the body reacts to imagining biting into the lemon similarly to actually doing so. In all Yogic teaching, thoughts are considered as, or even more important, then physical action.

The Buddha noted that feelings condition our whole world. We spend huge amounts of energy trying to create and prolong pleasant feelings while pushing away and trying to avoid unpleasant feelings, and we become confused, bored or simply “checked out” when experiencing neutral feelings. This grasping, aversion and ignorance, called the “three poisons,” are the roots of duhkha, poisoning the experience of life. If mindfulness is not present, feelings quickly give rise to moods, emotions, perceptions, ideas and whole stories and identities that cause duhkha for us and for those with whom we interact.

Hatha-yoga practice can either help us grow in awareness and insight, or create duhkha, depending on whether mindfulness is present or not. For example, when practicing an asana you enjoy, experiencing the pleasure of a sensuous stretch, or the psychological pleasure of the “successful” performance of a challenging posture, if you are not mindful, you will get caught in craving and clinging, seeking to prolong or repeat the feeling as soon as it wanes (as it most assuredly will, all phenomena being impermanent). While it is indeed a pleasure to accomplish a challenging posture, without mindfulness, as the Gherandha-Samhita warns, asana practice becomes an obstacle to liberation because the ego-gratification is clung to, and identification with ego and the body becomes more rigid and solid. We get caught in pride and our identity as someone who can do “advanced postures.” When conditions change (through illness, injury or age) and we can no longer do what we used to do, we can become discouraged and even suffer despair.

Practicing difficult postures, we may experience unpleasant feelings. Mindfulness shows us how quickly the mind seeks to push the unpleasant away, to eliminate it. Such aversion creates tension that is often more painful than the original sensation. The Buddha referred to this added anguish as “the second arrow.” The first arrow is the experience of discomfort or pain; the second arrow is the tension, anguish and unease of our aversion.

Bringing awareness to neutral feelings cultivates greater clarity about our experience. In fact, most of our experience is neutral, neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Because this is so, we spend much of our time seeking intensity of feeling, or falling into boredom. Through greater awareness of the neutral aspect of experience, we remain present to experience and cultivate greater ease, enjoying the calm of neutrality.

Zen’s understanding of “pure practice” is to not add anything extra to the experience other than mindful attention. If we bring mindfulness to our feelings, we can experience “pure joy” or “pure pleasure,” untainted by clinging or grasping. But in order to be able to experience pure pleasure, we must be willing to experience “pure pain” or “pure discomfort,” free of aversion and resistance.

The most pain avoidant people have the least joy in their lives. In trying to armor ourselves against pain, we numb ourselves to all experience. In opening ourselves to felt experience, we allow ourselves to live life fully, not caught in patterned habits of reactivity. Rather than conditionally reacting to experience, we can choose to respond creatively. The doorway to this freedom is in bringing mindfulness to our feelings before they condition our reactivity.

Along with practicing mindfulness of feelings while practicing asana or in any of the classic "postures" mentioned by the buddha (sitting, standing, lying down and walking) we can take moments periodically throughout the day to stop and scan our body: what are we feeling as we wait in line at the bank? What feelings are present when we are just sitting down to lunch? There is literally nothing we do that we cannot take a moment for this quick body scan.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: The First Foundation

First Foundation
Mindfulness of “the body within the body” is the First Foundation of Mindfulness. This phrasing reminds us that we are not distant observers of the body, with awareness located in our heads observing our body as an object, but rather awareness permeates the whole body, like a sponge saturated with water.
The Buddha’s first instruction is to bring mindfulness to breathing. We’re encouraged to simply know an in-breath as an in-breath, an out-breath as an out-breath, free of all manipulation. We become intimately familiar with the experience of breathing, noticing the various and varying qualities such as deep or shallow, fast or slow, rough or smooth, even or uneven, long or short. As mindfulness is a friendly, non-judgmental, fully accepting kind of attention, we are already cultivating a transcendence of the pairs of opposites.
Take some time to establish a meditation practice with this simple exercise:
Sitting comfortably, eyes slightly open or closed, jaw relaxed with some space between upper and lower teeth, and the tongue relaxed, it's tip just lightly touching above the front teeth. 
Take a few deep breaths, noticing where you experience the movement of the breath. Many people feel it as the rising and falling of the belly or chest; others feel it at the nostril and upper lip as the breath moves in and out. Once you note where you feel the breath's movement, just rest your attention there free from strain -- as a butterfly rests on a flower -- and let the breath be natural.
Every time you notice that the mind has wandered away from the breath, just bring it back. That's all there is to it. If you'd like, you can use the technique of "noting" where you mentally "whisper" to yourself: "Rising; Falling" if that's what you're feeling or "In; Out" if that's your experience.
Then, expanding our awareness to include the whole body including its posture, and movement, we deepen our sense of embodiment. The body and breath do not get lost in the future or the past, so if attention is fully absorbed in the body, there is a fully integrated sense of presence. The body and breath keep us anchored to now. Only when we become entangled and identified with thinking can we feel distant from life.
 When practicing postures, we stay fully present through mindfulness of the breath. When noticing the mind leaning away from our experience of an asana, we can remember to come back to the breath. In this way, the breath becomes the sutra – the thread – upon which we weave our practice. We see for ourselves how the posture and movement of the body “conditions” the breath. The qualities of the breath are conditioned by whether we are in a forward bend, a backbend or a twist. While maintaining a posture, we will see a change in the breath. We can also see how the breath conditions the body, affecting both movement and posture. All this points to a core teaching of the Buddha: as all phenomena are conditioned, there is no real autonomous “thing” to speak of! We say “breath” or “posture” as if these were things separate from the flow of experience, but through this practice we see they are processes caused and conditioned, selfless and constantly changing.
Bringing attention to the parts of the body, we become cognizant of any reactivity to the various parts; which parts do we like; which parts do we dislike? We may feel revulsion contemplating our earwax, bowels or lymph and prefer to contemplate our hair or our eyes. Yet those eyes free from their sockets might provoke revulsion and fear; that hair clogged in our shower drain may seem disgusting. All reactivity is conditioned.
An exercise based upon the parts of the body has the practitioner systematically bringing attention to various parts of the body, giving equal attention to each part and noticing if there is any reactivity that arises as one does this exercise:
Hair on the head; Eyes; Nose; Ears; lips; teeth; arms; hands; torso; genitalia; legs; feet; brains; heart; lungs; liver; kidneys; bladder; skeleton; circulatory system; lymphatic system; muscles; fatty tissue; blood; mucus; urine; feces etc.
Another exercise on the First Foundation is the Contemplation on the Five Great Elements (earth, water, fire, air and space):
We bring attention to the solidity of the body; its composition of various elements such as carbon – the very same carbon that gives us coal and diamonds. The liquid element, manifesting as blood, interstitial fluid, and other bodily fluids, is not separate from the water flowing in our rivers and streams. Our bodies generate heat, and we subsist upon the solar energy captured in the vegetables and flesh of animals we consume. The air we breathe sustains our life, and all experience arises and passes away in space. 
Through contemplating the elements of the body the yogi begins to understand that life is not isolated in her own body; that there is no “self” separate from the the elements. The First Mindfulness Training[i] of ahimsa or non-harming reminds us to protect the lives of people, animals, plants and minerals. As our bodies and our life cannot exist without these minerals, we begin to see that the distinction between organic and inorganic is ultimately conceptual – there is no real separation. In protecting the elements from degradation we protect ourselves. Before you “throw away” your garbage, ask yourself, “Where is away?”
The final practice of the First Foundation is contemplating the decomposition of the body, the existential truth that this body is of the nature to die. Looking deeply into the impermanent nature of the body, we are motivated not to take life for granted, not to lose our life in distraction and dispersion. For those ready for this practice, the effect of this meditation is liberating, understandable in light of all the effort we make, the tension and strain we create, in attempting to deny the only thing we know for certain – that we will die!

[i] For A Future To Be Possible by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press: Berkeley, CA, 1993) p. 3

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Mindfulness Yoga: Hatha-Yoga and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Part One

For the vast majority of practitioners and non-practitioners alike, Yoga has become reduced to, and synonymous with, the postures and movements of hatha-yoga. Yet for most of its history, meditation has been an essential aspect of "authentic" yoga practice. Much of the “work” of meditation involves how we experience the body; particularly our reactivity to experience. And when practicing postures, we learn to deal with the mind’s commentary, its leaning toward the future or the past, grasping after the pleasant and pushing away the unpleasant -- exactly what we do in meditation!

The word yoga comes from the root yuj, meaning to “yoke or to harness,” and has come to signify both spiritual endeavor, especially the disciplining of the mind and the senses, and the state of integration. As such, yoga is the generic name for the various Indian philosophies and practices Georg Feurstein calls “the psychospiritual technology specific to the great civilization of India,”[i] the purpose of which is to liberate the practitioner from the existential human situation of duhkha, variously translated as suffering, stress, and dissatisfaction. Given this context, Buddhism is a bona fide child of the Yoga Tradition completely yogic in purpose, intent and methodology. The four noble truths and eightfold path offer a complete and coherent model of yogic theory and practice. Like all authentic yoga, it is moksha-shastra, a liberation teaching designed to free us from duhkha.
     Hatha-yoga refers to the relatively recent form of yogic practice utilizing the familiar postures (asanas) as well as breathing practices (pranayama). This form of yoga practice has its roots in the tantric movement that influenced both Hindu and Buddhist traditions. While the asanas of hatha-yoga are what most westerners are familiar with as "yoga," such postures were developed rather late in the history of the yoga tradition. In fact, the contemporary practices of yoga-asana pretty much date back to little over 100 years!

       Many Buddhist meditators have been drawn to hatha-yoga for the ease and strength it can bring to the body, while many hatha-yogis have turned to Buddhist meditation for the deepening of awareness, insight and equanimity it can cultivate. While this ‘complementary’ approach has much to offer, a deeper, more integrated, comprehensive approach is possible

In an early discourse, the Buddha is asked if it is possible, by traveling, to know, see, or to reach the end of the world, where one does not suffer. He responds that it is not possible to reach such a place of peace by traveling, “However, I say that without having reached the end of the world there is no making an end to suffering. It is, friend, in just this fathom-high body endowed with perception and mind that I make known the world, its arising and cessation, and the way leading to the cessation of the world.”[ii]  The Buddha could not have more clearly stated that it is with the exploration of our bodily experience, where we so often find discomfort, pain, and suffering, that we can also find peace and liberation.

The proper and natural posture of the body in sitting meditation is called asana, defined by the second-century Indian sage Patanjali in the Yoga-Sutra, the foundational text of classical yoga, as that posture which is both “stable and easeful,”[iii] accompanied by “the relaxation of effort and the revealing of the body and the infinite universe as indivisible.”[iv] When this state is attained, “one is no longer disturbed by the play of opposites.”[v] Whenever this state of embodied integration manifests -- whether one is sitting, walking, cutting carrots or changing diapers -- there is yoga.

While the Buddha taught a variety of practices, perhaps it’s his emphasis on mindfulness that has had the greatest impact. The Pali word ‘sati’ (Sanskrit. smriti), most often translated as mindfulness, is related to the word for remembering. To ‘re-member’ is to ‘re-collect,’ to bring together all the seemingly disparate aspects of our experience into an integrated whole. In this way, remembering is synonymous with the definition of Yoga. Whenever we see our mind wandering from the intimate, immediate, spontaneous and obvious experience at hand, we remember to come back -- to just this, right here, right now, using the breath as the yoke.

In both the Anapanasati-Sutta (Awareness of Breathing), and the Satipatthana Sutta (The Foundation of Mindfulness), the Buddha instructs in observing the breath, gradually extending our awareness to include the whole body. He says the practitioner should be aware of the movements and positions of the body, while standing, walking, sitting, or lying down, while bending over, or stretching one’s limbs and notes that nothing is excluded from mindfulness, including such activities as eating, drinking, dressing, urinating, and defecating. No aspect of our lived experience lies outside of practice. This is not practice as preparation, but practice as vocation.

The applicability of this teaching for practicing hatha-yoga should be obvious. When we combine awareness of breathing with asana practice, we can observe how movement and posture affects the breath and how the breath affects the body. We become aware of habitual patterns of reactivity. For instance, do you hold your breath when reaching out with your arms into a deep stretch? Do you unnecessarily tense muscles not involved with the movement you are making? Do you compare one side of the body with the other? When engaged in repetitive movements, does your mind wander? In maintaining a posture, can you see the constant changing phenomena, or do you concretize the experience, reifying the changing phenomena into a static entity that you then either grasp after or resist, depending on whether you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

Following the four foundations of mindfulness, the practice of postures becomes much more than merely preparatory to meditation. With the four foundations, asana practice becomes a fully integrated mindfulness practice, in essence no different than sitting or walking meditation. Asana practice need not be conceptualized as a complement or preliminary to sitting. It’s simply another way to practice mindfulness. This is the practice of mindfulness yoga. The priority here is the cultivation of mindfulness with asana as the vehicle for such cultivation. The practice of mindfulness, the Buddha assures us, “gives rise to understanding and liberation of the mind.”

The four foundations of mindfulness include body, feelings, mind and dharmas. Each foundation includes a variety of objects, meditations, and contemplations. When practicing asana, we can choose to devote our practice to any one of these, or work through them sequentially.

[i] The Yoga Tradition: It’s History, Literature, Philosophy and Practice by Georg Feuerstein (Hohm Press: Prescott, AZ, 1998) p. 7
[ii] The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya by Bhikkhu Bodhi (Wisdom Publications: Somerville, MA, 2000) p. 157 - 158
[iii] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary by Georg Feuerstein (Inner Traditions: Rochester, NY, 1989) Book 2; Sutra 46
[iv] The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation with Commentary by Chip Hartranft (Shambhala: Boston, MA, 2003) Book 2; Sutra 47
[v] ibid., Book 2; Sutra 48