From time without beginning…

Can you remember the moment at which you became conscious? The day, the month, the year? I am speaking of being not merely sentient, but fully self-conscious, capable (in potential at least) of contemplating the fact of your own existence.

I can remember how it suddenly came upon me, when I was around ten years old; how it stunned me, the realization that I am not only aware but self-aware; that mine is a unique perspective; that my sense-of-self might be other than what it is; that it might not be at all! The thought was breathtaking. I was preoccupied with it for a long time, or so unreliable memory informs me.

In retrospect the fact of my coming-to-consciousness has certain curious implications, of which the most obvious is also the most startling, namely, that we are not always conscious. For I think it seems to us, much of the time, that I am conscious now, that I was conscious a moment ago (and yesterday), that I will be conscious an hour from now, and that I will continue to be conscious right up to the moment of death–or, as one might conceive of it, even beyond death. But, as we shall see,  there are many reasons to doubt that consciousness is continuous and much evidence that awareness, whatever it is, cannot possibly be what our way of talking about it suggests that we believe it to be.

The status of consciousness; the means by which we can explore, modify, and regulate it “internally”; the evidence of the senses, of the biological sciences, and of philosophy; all these–together with a record of our ongoing attempts to apply and understand the various contemplative disciplines–will be the stuff of this series.

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We cannot say with certainty where this story begins. The core teachings of the Buddha provide a valuable clue. Of the main families of Buddhistic teachings–Theravada, Mahayana, and Mantrayana–each has its own way of expressing the Buddha’s vision: that every phenomenon arises out of a flux of causes and conditions and returns thereto. Change and interdependence are paramount in this way of looking at the sensory world. All things depend upon other things for their existence and non-existence, and nothing is altogether separable from its milieu. Objects are properly viewed as events, and persons as processes. The unceasing alteration of the sensory realm has no discernible beginning. Consciousness, mind, and the idea of self emerge from the vast, starry depths of time and space. The universe blinks, looks around, and discovers itself.

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The discipline of maintaining a healthy and comfortable posture can be extended to the activities of standing, walking, and lying down.

Set aside a day, or part of a day, to spend in focusing attention and the other metal faculties upon the sensations and physiological processes of the body.

Take special care to monitor the qualities of spinal alignment, muscular tension, and breathing at frequent intervals.

As always, when distracted from your primary task by persistent thoughts or the demands of everyday life, gently return your attention to the sensations associated with structure, balance, relaxation, etc., as soon as you have noticed that the mind is wandering.

It can be instructive to keep a journal of such exercises as this so that in future you can assess their contribution to your overall understanding of contemplative practice.

On Posture (4)

Before we move on from this topic, let me add a few more thoughts by way of summing up.

The nervous system is the body’s primary mechanism for optimizing movement, and “mind” is a catch-all term for those of the brain’s multifarious communicative activities that we can know or infer. Once the decision to sit and immobilize the body has been made, the amount of sensory input falls off gradually. Merely by sitting still, signals from the environment and signals from within the organism itself are greatly reduced, and the volume of conscious perceptions continue to decrease by stages as the ability to remain focused on somatic processes improves. The bulk of what is experienced during quiet sitting comprises ambient noise, bodily sensations, and a range of unsolicited thoughts.

As the forgoing sketch of its components suggests, the regulation of posture, although fairly straightforward in method, is complex and rather subtle. It is fruitful and interesting because in order simply to sit up straight and relax we are required, first, to become aware of processes that are normally habitual and therefore unconscious and, second, to gain an extraordinary measure of sensitivity to and control over the disposition of the body in space.

That undertaking entails the gathering and processing of various kinds of sensory information from multiple sources and projecting them upon a conceptual-sensory map of the body. The range of data so processed includes inputs from the skin, from a great many muscle groups, and even from the viscera: pressure, tension, bodily orientation, and clusters of what psychologists call interocepts, signals that keep us informed of the status of the systems that regulate our physiological processes. In the early stages of practice we are sensitive to ordinary tactile sensation and the grosser proprioceptive phenomena. By degrees we become able to discern the slightest changes in heartbeat, rate of breathing, and bodily structure.

The development of posture is fundamental to the practice of seated meditation because by attending to the sensations and physiological activities of the body the trainee can come to see that one’s sense of bodily identity is constructed, variable, and transient. Liberating insights of this kind can arise without any special instruction in techniques of contemplation.

With the regular practice of quiet sitting, the trainee can experience deep relaxation, a foretaste of freedom through the calming of thought, increased ability to notice and accept change, and –best of all—escape from the tyranny of urges, cravings, and moods.

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On Posture (3)

To train oneself to sit relatively still for a period of more than a few minutes is an extraordinary accomplishment. Most people have never tried to do it. Our normal practice, when we sit or stand for an extended period—when we are waiting for a bus, say—is to change position frequently. We will shift our weight from one foot or one buttock to the other, turn our heads, reposition our arms, cross and uncross our legs.

Experienced yogis also adjust their bodily posture, but do it at longer intervals and in ways so subtle that the movements are difficult to detect even when you are looking for them. That is as it should be. Until you are dead the body is never perfectly still, and the optimum position of the body for today’s conditions is a work-in-progress. For that reason it is necessary for the beginner to monitor and adjust the various elements of posture with some frequency until the work of fine-tuning becomes habitual and automatic.

Just to sit still, moment after moment, will require a certain effort and vigilance until the process of sitting quietly with attention to posture is fully assimilated. For one who is unaccustomed to it, to hold a given position for more than a very brief period will induce muscular fatigue. Bodily discomfort leads to the urge to move. Processes in the motor cortex and supplementary motor area of the brain prepare the nervous system to activate certain muscle groups. That anticipatory process is called a premotor or readiness potential. In time, out of many such subtle acts of planning an additional layer of muscular tension will arise. If that tension is not dispelled by repeated acts of relaxation, a feedback loop of discomfort and tension will force the trainee to break posture.

Learning to relax without moving is one of the primary skills to be acquired by the novice meditator. The least painful way to develop it is to attend with equal care to all the elements of posture. In brief, good posture is characterized by the following attributes, which can be recalled by means of an acronym. In optimum posture the body is

Relaxed: although special attention should be paid to the muscles of the torso, those of the scalp and face should not be neglected. Merely to notice the tension is often sufficient to dispel it. A head-to-toe scan can be performed periodically.

Upright: Extend the spine as though pulled upward by a cord attached to the crown of the head, or push upward against an imaginary weight resting on the crown; then relax. Strain on the lower back can be alleviated by placing a cushion beneath the buttocks only.

Balanced: The torso should lean neither forward nor back, neither to the left nor the right.

Stable: The ideal base for sitting is a triangle consisting of the two knees (or feet) and the buttocks. This can be achieved in a number of ways (see illustration).

Some teacher and schools include four more items in their checklist, as follows:

Breath is soft, regular, and natural. If it feels constrained or rough, it can be regulated by consciously relaxing the muscles of the chest and abdomen and/or by sitting up straighter.

Eyes: the gaze can be lowered to the floor or directed to the middle distance and unfocused. (For certain exercises the eyes are closed.)

Tongue: the foremost part of the tongue is laid gently against the palate just behind the front teeth.

Hands: The hands may be placed in one of several recommended positions, called mudra, and laid in the lap or on the thighs.

Various seated meditation postures

For the first few weeks or months of regular seated practice, it is recommended that the trainee cycle through these lists often. The order given here is for ease of memorization. You will settle on the order that works best for you. The task of becoming proficient in sitting is by itself more than enough to keep a beginner busy for a long time. Moreover it is, in and of itself, a complete method of cultivating mindfulness and comprehensive awareness that is not always recognized as such. It could be described as an alternative approach to contemplating the body (kayanupassana). Students of Soto Zen know it as the gateway to the practice of shikan-taza, “merely to sit.”

The details of posture will be described fully in a document to be made available as a PDF.

(To be continued.)

On Posture (2)

The benefits of learning to sit with good posture are well known to meditators. They include greater ease of sitting, reduced discomfort and fatigue, improved oxygenation of the blood due to the habit of abdominal breathing, and enhanced ability to relax.

The very process of learning to pay attention to posture gets me “out of my head” by requiring me to attend to the phenomena that comprise the perception of body, thereby reducing my engagement with various kinds of unproductive and obsessional thinking.

Yet, even after we have made an inventory of the virtues of seated contemplation, it is less than perfectly clear why cross-legged sitting has become the prime symbol of spiritual work and the focal point of so much practice. That fact is all the more puzzling because we are told that it is possible to acquire calm and insight in any posture. Chan, a tradition that puts sitting at the very center of Buddhist practice, also declares that one cannot become enlightened by doing it!

Anyone who has succeeded in sitting still for half an hour or more will have an inkling of why sitting has come to be seen as the bodily posture for spiritual work par excellence. Millions of years of evolution have fitted the human body for the tasks of exploiting opportunities to procreate, to obtain food, and to avoid being eaten—in short, for more or less continuous activity in the service of genetic continuity. To sit still while stalking wild game is one thing; the mental faculties will be fully occupied with attending to signs of approaching prey and predators. To sit still for motives related to neither survival nor recreation is an anomaly. While everything in our physiological makeup cries out for us to keep moving, a few members of every generation choose to sit and watch the world go by.

This bizarre if harmless deviation from the norm has given rise to cultural institutions that have endured for thousands of years, producing a grand and glorious edifice of contemplative theory and practice. The Buddhist path is one of several that stem from an ascetical tradition for which the quest for knowledge is rooted in the overcoming of just those urges and genetically-driven agendas that, for most of us, determine the course of our lives. Sex, comfort, and food versus prolonged and vigilant immobility!

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Although it has become a platitude of modern spirituality to say that a life of contemplation is compatible with a life of action, it is clear that many of our ancient spiritual forbears did not think so. It is because they appreciated the magnitude of the biological forces arrayed against them that the act of sitting still came to represent the ideal of yogic self-mastery. That commitment to bodily and mental stillness is the main reason why Buddhas, Jinas, and Rshis are nearly always depicted as taking the posture known as the lotus.

(To be continued)

On Posture

[What follows are my replies to a set of questions asked by a student of satipatthāna.]

How important is it to adopt a particular bodily posture when sitting in meditation? Why?
Is there an optimum position? What is it?

Before we examine the salient features of seated posture and their special benefits, it may be helpful to make a few general observations.

Good posture is not so much an ideal as a practical attainment. It is the way of sitting that best facilitates bodily ease and the development of an awareness that is characterized by calm, clarity, and alertness. Although the optimum position of the body will not be exactly the same for any two yogis, certain attributes of one’s best posture (to be enumerated in a future post) will be the same for others.

Close, sustained attention to posture is especially helpful in the early stages of contemplative practice. In some traditions it is considered essential. Near the start of every discourse on the establishment of mindfulness (satipatthāna), the Buddha describes how trainees, “having sat down with legs folded crosswise, holding the body erect and setting mindfulness to the fore,” direct their attention to the cycle of breathing in and out, or the sensations arising throughout the body, or some other aspect(s) of bodily activity. The cultivation of mindful attention begins with immersion in the body.

There are several reasons for that emphasis. The Buddha gives pride of place to mindfulness of the body because bodily sensations and processes are relatively stable and always available as objects of attention, unlike emotions and discursive thoughts, which tend to dissolve under scrutiny or else seduce the beginner away from the task. The cycle of breathing in and out, although variable, is constant and involuntary. That stability and accessibility make it easier for the trainee to manage attention and the cooperating mental faculties, whether the primary aim of the exercise is calming or insight.nerve-sytem

In his instructions on contemplation of the body (kāyānupassanā) the Buddha makes it clear that the skill of self-observation, once acquired, should be extended to every bodily posture and activity at all hours of the day. For beginners, formal sitting at regular intervals is the primary means of cultivating mindfulness and clear comprehension (sati-sampajañña); in later stages of development it will serve as a continuing support for their wider application. The short-term goal of seated practice is to increase one’s capacity for sustained attention to and observation of the various kinds of bodily sensation—tactile, kinesthetic, proprioceptive, etc.—as such, a capacity that will eventually yield the perception of their salient characteristics of discomfort, impermanence, and contingency. Mindfulness, then, is to be “set up” irrespective of posture.

However, it should not be supposed that the process of cultivating mindfulness and alert, comprehensive awareness is something that happens apart from the body. The recent work of cognitive and evolutionary psychologists supports the view that the higher cognitive functions are an outgrowth of bodily dispositions and activity. The evolution of ever more complex nervous systems in hominins allowed the human organism to move through its environment with ever greater safety and efficiency.

It is helpful to think of the mental faculties, such as attention, association, and pattern-recognition, as special activities of the body. The faculties that we normally refer to as mental are the ways in which the organism communicates with the world around it and among its many parts. In this context, sentience is the joint product of the body and the world through which it moves. Because mind is integral to what the body is doing, it is inevitable that the mind be affected when we voluntarily hold the body still for a prolonged period.

(To Be Continued)

One of Many Possible Starting Points

In working out how the spiritual technology of the ancients can be integrated with contemporary cultures and ways of living, it is instructive to compare our epoch, the turn of the 21st century, with the period during which the Buddha lived in India. It was an era of great ferment in politics, religion, and social life. Republican forms of government were giving way to feudalism; time-honored barriers between classes and tribes were becoming permeable; new conceptions of the spiritual life were taking shape.

The crucible for many of the most important intellectual developments of the period was the milieu of the śramanā (literally, “seekers”), a dropout subculture on the fringes of Indian society. Within that informal community there was no practice too austere, no idea too extreme that it could not be tested. A common body of psychophysical exercises were taken up by Buddhists, Jains, adherents of the nascent neo-Brahmanic synthesis (“Hinduism”), and a great many ascetics whose names and opinions are no longer known to us. All of the (then) new religions of the subcontinent incorporated one or another form of “meditation” and shared much else besides. It is no accident, for instance, that the Buddha taught an eightfold path that overlaps significantly with the eight limbs of classical yoga.

emaciated_buddha_zc89Indeed, there is very little of Buddhism that is either original or unique. What gives the Buddha’s teachings their special power and longevity is the way in which standard features of the spiritual life have been organized around the central vision of dependent origination (paticca-samuppāda), expounded by means of causal analysis, and orientated to the realization of freedom from discomfort. That accomplishment was, we now know, brilliant and revolutionary.

When we are tempted to engage in controversy over whether the practice of “meditation” can be abstracted from the matrix of elements that comprise the Buddha-Dharma, let us recall that Siddhatha Gotama learned to meditate from his teachers, who were not Buddhists. He was an analyzer, and he was a synthesizer as well, as must we be, who live in a time of great diversity and tumult.