11 May 2010 NPR presents an intriguing story of walking Japanese Zen monks. These monks aren’t going for a stroll. One monk completes the “Sennichi Kaihogyo, 1,000 days of walking meditation and prayer over a seven-year period around Mount Hiei. He walked 26 miles a day for periods of either 100 or 200 consecutive days.” That’s the equivalent of a trip around the earth. Japanese Zen is notorious for such feats, but the Sennichi Kaihogyo is a walk in the park compared with the “test” that occurs 700 days into the process. Here, he “prays nonstop for nine days, without eating, drinking, sleeping or even lying down. It’s a near-death experience, the monk says.” Such a test burns away all traces of story and resistance and provides the practitioner with an unencumbered look at existence. This is a existential experience of purity and one must be willing to relinquish everything to have it. The article notes, “Finally, his old self dies, at least figuratively, and he is reborn to help and lead all beings to enlightenment.” These extreme experience cuts away at the illusion of separation, helping the monk to pursue his Bodhisattva path — working for the betterment of all sentient beings. Such experiences are the equivalent of Buddhist Olympics and not the sort of thing that we might contemplate or practice on a daily basis. They are certainly not necessary for us to have a taste of that interconnectedness with everything and everyone around us. Certainly, the Buddha spent a lot of time walking around northern India with his retinue of followers and walking meditation is an important practice for mindfulness. So, we can embody this spirit each time we walk in a deliberate manner. As lay practitioners we may not have the time to spend 1000 days walking the equivalent of a marathon, but as Tich Nhat Hanh reminds us, peace can be in every step.
Mindfulness can bring our brains into an integrated state of harmony, balancing chaos on the one hand and rigidity on the other. This scientific wisdom is brought to us by neuroscientist, Dan Siegel, author of several important books, including the Developing Mind, The Mindful Brain, Mindsight, and his latest, The Mindful Therapist. The middle prefrontal cortex (a portion of the newest part of the brain evolution-wise, located behind your forehead) is critical to the following nine functions: 1. Bodily regulation. This is accomplished by regulating arousal and relaxation through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system (think of the gas pedal and a brake in a car); 2. Attunement and being connected to others, or being “in tune.” Attunement sows the seeds of compassion; 3.Emotional balance refers to how we engage with experiences. It balances apathy on the one hand and feeling overwhelmed on the other. Like bodily regulation its a Goldliocks phenomenon, not too much and not too little. This is the optimal place where we find neural integration; 4. Response flexibility that refers to the pause that can develop between a stimulus and response. It really refers to the impulsive reactions that often occur in response to a stimulus. This pause comes from awareness and can help us to less impulsive and less destructive with what we say and do; 5. Downregulation of fear. This important feature is our ability to modulate the signals from the emotional brain that can often overwhelm us. This is accomplished through the development of inhibitory nerve fibers that go from the middle prefrontal cortex to structures like the amygdala in the emotional brain (limbic system); 6. Insight refers to what Siegel calls mental time travel or what we can call imagination. Mindfulness helps us to refine this capacity in the service living skillfully rather than being subjected the unregulated aspects of worry, regret, and self-criticism; 7. Empathy, or what Siegel calls “mindsight,” refers to our ability to take the perspective of the other; 8. Morality is also a function of the middle prefontal cortex and includes not just our ability to be moral in public settings but also in private; and finally 9. Intuition is the capacity to access the wisdom of the body by monitoring our bodily sensations. For example, a structure called the insula has map of the interior body and studies have found the insula gets thicker with meditation practice. Brain scientists such as Siegel and mindfulness researchers came up with this same list of functions independently. And it’s not just brain researchers, this list has been striven for in many spiritual traditions since ancient times. When we recognize the plasticity of the brain (that is, its capacity to change in response to experience) we can understand why we respond in certain situations the way that we do. Our previous conditioning will have us react in sometimes harmful ways. But it is the fault of conditioning. However, at the same time it is our responsibility (and potential) to change these conditionings through mindfulness and meditation.The middle prefrontal cortex develops optimally in an interpersonally attuned environment during infancy. Mindfulness provides the possibility of self-attunement to affect these same brain areas. So sit down and change your brain!
For more information visit: http://drdansiegel.com/
Is the title of the Wall Street Journal article reviewing the book, The Great Oom by Robert Love (Viking) that chronicles the early history of yoga in the United States. Today there are 20 million practitioners of yoga, but at the turn of the century it was virtually unheard of in the United States until the flamboyant and enterprising Pierre Bernard met an Indian guru and started teaching and promoting the practices. Unlike its mainstream acceptance today, yoga was first viewed with suspicion, as Love describes, “Yoga was labeled a criminal fraud and an abomination against the purity of American women.” We’ve come a long way over the past 100 years. My hometown of Burlington Vermont sports a dizzying and wonderful array of Yoga Studies, and your town probably does as well. If not standalone studios then your local gym or YMCA will be offering classes. You can practice yoga that is gentle and contemplative or as athletic as any workout you’ve ever had, perhaps in a studio that is 100 degrees.
Long before the “Yoga Industrial Complex” evolved to include the vast array of teaching studios, conferences, books, magazines, clothing, and celebrity followers, I was practicing yoga. I started in Boston in 1983 and took classes with Master Bo-In Lee and studied in the Siddha Yoga tradition (where I later went to India to further my studies). Yoga is a daily part of my life and how I start my day. I engage with yoga for flexibility and to connect mind with body and all of that with the present moment. Yoga is mindfulness in motion and I teach a slowed down version of mindful yoga in my workshops. Yoga asanas support my sitting meditation practice and thousands of years ago this was the principle application of yoga — preparing the body for meditation. Of course, the Buddha was a yogi, and all of us who walk the mindful path are yogis too. “Om”
Burlington Area Yoga Opportunities:
Vermont Center for Yoga & Therapy
Bow Down Yoga
Evolution Physical Therapy and Yoga
Bikram Yoga Burlington
Living Yoga Studio
Burlington Yoga Conference
Copper Crane Yoga
Tiger Woods, the man, the image, and the scandal, demonstrate the three poisons the Buddha cautioned us about: Greed, delusion, and hatred. Woods returned from a 5 month competitive golf hiatus to the Masters and placed in a tie for 4th. Not bad considering, right? You wouldn’t know it from his post-round interview. No acknowledgement of that accomplishment on deriding himself for not having played better. His response seemed to defy gravity — the way we expect objects to behave — when we drop them they fall to the ground. This man will not fall to the ground, will not be humbled, will not come to ground in humility (think humus). This seems to be a continuation of pride, a form of delusion. Once about 1/2 billion dollars into his earning career he talked about needing to earn more money to secure the financial future for his family. Really? Woods apparently started to believe in his image, the image that earned him $100 million dollars a year in endorsement revenue. This image had a reality of its own and operated by its own set of rules. Greed or desire is plain enough to see in his sexual seeking with the backdrop of ever mounting endorsement revenue. Delusion or ignorance is plain enough to see in his misapprehension of the consequences of his actions and his belief that TW was a real entity and not a process engaged in an inter-connected world with others, with everyone: his family, his friends, his sponsors, the PGA Tour and the golfing public and everyone else interested in prurient scandal (I think that pretty much covers everyone). Hatred or aversion is plain enough to see in his contempt for being a normal human being. He created his own set of rules and designed his life to support these rules. Even in his public apology this contempt was evident. He chose to make his plea in the midst of the tournament sponsored by his former endorser, Accenture. Many players and the press considered his timing inappropriate and calculated as a message to Accenture. He then exerted control over who was in attendance and no questions were allowed. He needs to become a human being but he has yet to do so. A recent Golf Magazine article captures the tragic irony that appears to be Tiger Woods, “Here he was apologizing for playing by his own rules while playing by his own rules; then telling us, in painstakingly enunciated words, that his words don’t really matter.” Woods has re-avowed his Buddhist roots and he have to start with looking at these three poisons and how they still rule his life. I was struck by the condescending, petulant, and solipsistic response to placing 4th at the Masters. Where was the, “Wow, it was great to be out here” … “I feel so thankful to have had the opportunity to play this great event, to receive the support of the fans” … “Well I didn’t win as I set out to do, but I made a good showing.” After all, the world was watching and we’re not idiots.