Archive for September, 2009

From my Journal – April 13 2002

The most effective and impressive of the ancient philosophies is Daoism. It is the art of nourishing life and nature. This is the highest value of philosophy- that it can renew health to mind and body, extend longevity. Like Yoga and Buddhism, it has a long history but is still relevant to today’s life. Yoga and Daoism in particular have an important physical aspect- of working with energy and the body which enables it to transform people, not just body but mind too. Daoism works from outside in and inside out, using meditation, visualisation, massage, tao yin, tai chi, chi gong etc. From physical to the spiritual, from spiritual to physical, the whole person is effected and transformation can take place if you are open or it can make you open to it.

The ancient book Nei Yeh (Inner Training) says,

Cultivate your mind, make your thoughts tranquil

And the way can thereby be attained.

So I feel I am starting to attain the Tao and compared to that,  work and effort seem meaningless. I can’t push myself. Am I waiting for something? Inner training also says,

Good fortune will naturally return to you,

And that way will naturally come to you

So you can rely on and take counsel from it.

Bank on the Tao! Rely on the Tao and take counsel from it. Follow your instincts and your spontaneous impulses and desires. Where does this take you? Wherever it takes you. How will you know? Wait for a sign.

September 23, 2009 at 3:55 pm Leave a comment

Taoist Meditation Retreat

I just returned from a 3 day meditation retreat with the British Taoist Association. Last July I went on a similar 5 day retreat. When I arrived at the venue, Hourne Farm in East Sussex, I opened the notebook that I had used in July and found a note that I had written then. It was from a talk by Shi Jing the Taoist Priest who leads the retreats. The note said,

When our chi (life energy) goes out, when it leaves us, what does this do to our jing (our vitality)? Our vitality gets drained. People lose their energy and vitality. Then life becomes a struggle. Recovery from illness is slow, and the lack of vitality changes how we see the world. We start to se the negative and not the positive. And this drains our vitality even more. A dreadful downward cycle ensues, which can lead to depression and illness.

The effect of negative thinking is that our vitality drains away, leading to a lowering of spirits, a tendency to depression, and with that comes despair, hopelessness and an inability to act. We freeze in fear and anxiety.

This short note struck home to me when I read it, since the past two weeks have been quite difficult for me. I have separated from my wife (after 20 years together), and moved from my house (and kids) into a small flat-share. At the same time, two legal cases that I have been pursuing to try to get money owed to me  have started up, and these provide tensions and problems of their own. The confluence of all these events, a veritable perfect storm of troubles, had me feeling very low indeed. My spirits were not positive and I felt a downward cycle starting in myself.

So the words I read at the very beginning of the retreat provided me with a focus for the self-cultivation that I planned for the weekend. I realised that I had to change my negative view of the events that were happening to me into positive ones if I was going to survive these next few months in a good and healthy way. 

Consequently I decided that I had to look for the positive in the events in order to stop the negative thoughts from taking over my mind. The events themselves are neither positive or negative or good or bad. It’s the way we look at them that determines whether we consider them bad or good. On the face of it, a marriage break-up is not good, but it may be that the ultimate result of being on my own again may become more positive than negative. Perhaps in the future I will look back at the break-up and realise that I needed it to happen to move on in my life.

The meditation retreat helped me to do this, since one of the things we do in Taoist meditation is to look at the thoughts that arise as ’empty’, as insubstantial, and so we do not engage with them or go along with them, but instead allow them to just pass by, like clouds in the sky.

Doing this in meditation allows you to take this same view in daily life, so that if a negative thought arises, like the one I had on returning home- “You are returning to an empty flat”  – then the best solution is to just let that thought pass by and not let it light up the emotion that is its source- loneliness and self-pity. Normally the thought would conjure up the negative emotion, or it may be that the emotion has brought up the thought, which then revolves back into the emotion in a never ending tumble of negative emotions and thoughts. I didn’t need to bring up a positive thought to counter the negative one- like  “At least in your flat you have time and  space to yourself “, I only needed to ignore the negative one, and not allow it to unearth the emotion that would upset me.

This was my lesson from the retreat, and I am hopeful that I can continue to put it  into effect.

September 22, 2009 at 11:08 am Leave a comment

A Spiritual Almanac – September

Hexagram 45  Cui: Gathering

Lake  over Earth

Fruit falls from the trees in Autumn, leading to the image of gathering. The fullness of the earth’s bounty, the richness of nature, gives us a feeling of abundance, of sufficiency, that there exists more than enough for all living creatures. Life overflows, a cornucopia of creativity and wealth.

Commentary on the symbol:

Lake over Earth.

An image of gathering together.

In correspondence with this,

The superior person repairs his weapons

To guard against unexpected happenings.

When we eat the fruits and grains of the earth we take in the goodness and natural medicines they contain. In this way we gather the medicines in our body that lead to health and well-being. By eating well we immunise ourselves against physical illness, strengthening our energy. But how do we immunise ourselves against spiritual illness, the malaise of our times?

When we gather together and meditate, there is a heightened atmosphere in the space, an electrical charge that is sometimes missing when we meditate alone. This communal atmosphere created by our spirits tuning together is the sense of presence, of something greater than ourselves that is at the same time part of us. The sense of this presence can give us a feeling of security and tranquillity.  In Judaism the word for presence is shekina, and it is one of the words for God. When we meditate together we are calling this presence to us, opening ourselves to an essence beyond our small and temporary lives. When we chant together we create an energy field around us that we can also feel within ourselves bringing us closer to our inner spirit.

The promise that God made to the Jewish people, and therefore to all people, is that even if we turn away from the divine, the divine will never turn away from us. Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible has God saying to Moses:

When you need me I will be there.

So if we ever need spiritual help from the presence it is always there, just waiting for us to turn to it. The word Religion comes from religio meaning binding together, and yoga means union. Union and binding together are both forms of gathering. Religion gathers people together, while yoga unites and integrates all the fragmented parts of ourselves, the parts that modern life has separated. But when we manage to discover and live the feeling that mind, body, spirit and soul are one whole living organism, then we feel the joy of being. We recover our true selves, and understand that all selves are really one self. With this knowledge we lose the feeling of being a stranger in a strange universe and instead feel at home in the universe that has created us.

When we practise the yoga asanas and breathe with awareness, we can gather energy from the earth beneath us.  With each exhalation we surrender to the universe, with each inhalation every cell of our bodies is renewed and restored.

Just as we gather medicines together to heal the body, so we gather with others to heal the body politic. When we are able to bring multitudes of people together, then the power of presence is very strong, strong enough to create new communities, new tribes, new nations. When people come and assemble together, as in the demonstrations against the Iraqi invasion, there is a tremendous feeling of solidarity, of togetherness. We realise how insecure and fearful we are when we live lives of selfish isolation, and how powerful is our connection to other people. The Taoist I Ching says,

When people gather in their spirit and energy, cultivate essence and life, and restore the original natural reality, that is coming back to our roots.

When we come back to our roots we are strong and solid, and we have trust in our ability to cope with all of life. That trust can be radiated outwards to other people, and can be used in all of life’s situations.  In difficult times, people are happy to work together with one heart and one mind, as long as they can find faith or trust. Faith, trust and confidence are all one thing: the knowledge that the universe has order and can sustain justice, and that we, as microcosms of the universe, also have an inherent order and a desire for justice. When people gather in accord with others, and seek justice for everyone, as those marchers did, then the time is truly joyful.

Images of gathering together, of massing things together, mean that we work purposefully together towards some end. This is why the Commentary says,

The superior person repairs his weapons

To guard against unexpected happenings.

To repair our weapons is to put our house in order, to bring ourselves to a peak of fitness that is mental and spiritual as well as physical. When we feel good in ourselves we feel good towards the world, and when we heal ourselves we help to heal the world. Inner healing and peace are the only way we can find peace in the world. There is no way to peace – peace is the way.

September 16, 2009 at 4:40 pm 2 comments

Unfrequently Asked Questions

There are a number of questions that we try not to ask. Why? Because we can’t answer them very easily, if at all. When we are young and questioning everything we tend to ask more searching questions, but as we mature and fit into the life that society sets out for us, we learn not to ask . When we get older and realise that our time is starting to run out, we once again take up some of these questions:

Who am I? (an old perennial)

What am I?  (a variation)

Why am I alive?  (The existential question)

What is my purpose in life?  (this is a toughie)

Is there a meaning to my life?  (and how do I find it?)

How should I live my life?  (Socrates’ favourite question)

Maybe you have some of your own favourites? Let me know.

September 16, 2009 at 11:24 am Leave a comment

A 5 Minute Meditation When Waking Stressed

I was recently quoted in the London Evening Standard regarding a short meditation for busy people. The paper ran a page on things that distracted and stressed multi-taskers can do to gain mental clarity in their busy day. The bit I wrote for the paper was heavily edited, so I thought I should have another go at it.

The idea was to propose a meditation for people who were so busy that they didn’t have any time whatsoever to meditate. What I suggested was the following:

Stressed and busy people often wake up with their heart racing and their belly all a-flutter. It is the adrenaline coursing through their body that shocks them into wakefulness. It’s not a good idea to get out of bed in this state of anxiety, so I suggest a 5 minute meditation technique that can be done in bed to calm the mind and body before getting up.

If you wake like this, lie back in bed, gently stretch your arms and legs out a little from the body (in corpse pose (Sivasana), keep your eyes open (to avoid going back to sleep) and just breathe gently and evenly through the nose. Try to take deep even breaths that go into the belly rather than the upper chest. Stare up at the ceiling and try not to be distracted by thoughts. If thought arise (which they will) just let them pass, do not attend to them or give them any mental energy. If you can do this for 2-3 minutes you should start to calm your nervous system, slow down your heart beat and stop the butterflies in your belly. If you have the time, take long enough in this breathing meditation for all those relaxations- heart, belly, nervous system – to take place.

At this point, being more relaxed, you can now direct your thoughts to the tasks ahead of you. Deal with each task one by one. Decide which task is most important to do, which is least important, which can be deferred, which ones can be combined, which can be delegated to others. Spend a couple of minutes working out an order and schedule that makes sense to you.

You are now ready to get out of bed and face the day. It might be a good idea to write down your tasks so you don’t need to clutter your mind with them. But in any case you should have a clear idea of what you need to do, and a calm mind and body with which to do them. The more often you do this meditation, the easier it gets to do, and your mind and body soon get habituated to this new regime. That is, your mind and your body memory both begin to recognise this type of deep breathing as the trigger to a relaxed state and so your system moves into that state more easily and quickly.

This is the real secret of breathing meditation. We always assume that meditation is something we do in a specific meditation pose, usually a cross-legged Lotus posture. There is no doubt that this posture, allied to a peaceful space and sufficient free time, will give the best results for meditation. But real meditators take the tranquil mind and relaxed body that they get from sitting meditation out of the meditation room. They try to keep that tranquil mind while they are brushing their teeth, eating, taking the tube, walking, working on a computer, talking with others and so on.

This is also something you can do. If during the day you get upset, angry or stressed, just sit down, stop what you are doing, close your eyes and just begin breathing as you did in bed. A few deep and even breaths reminds your body and mind that you want to enter a relaxed state –  and you will.

September 8, 2009 at 10:31 am Leave a comment

Two Problems In Meditation (an article I have written)

People who want to meditate are confronted with two major problems: one is their mind and the other is their body.

The mind problem is the incessant flow of thoughts that immediately starts up as soon as you begin to meditate. The meditator, who has sat down to achieve a peaceful and restful state of mind, becomes frustrated by the never-ending flow of thoughts that penetrate her consciousness. These thoughts she considers as ‘distractions’ that stop the peaceful state from arising.

The body problem has to do with the difficulty of finding a comfortable and easy sitting position that can be maintained for the duration of the session. Many meditation books suggest sitting in the full Lotus posture (cross-legged with feet resting on the opposite thigh) or the half Lotus posture (cross-legged with one foot on the opposite thigh). These postures are excellent because they keep the back upright and give a solid base to the body. But unless you are very young or exceedingly supple it is very difficult to even get into a lotus posture much less stay in it without aches and pains in various parts of the body. The lower back, hips, pelvis and the knees all are under great pressure from these postures and often the legs fall asleep while we hold ourselves cross-legged. If you can stay with the pain, the body will eventually give in and take the position, but in my experience this can take a long time, and can be both agonising and too disturbing for meditation while it is happening.

These two problems together cause many people to give up meditation before they have even experienced its great rewards. So what can be done?  One solution for the body is to use a meditation stool as a support, so that you can keep a straight back without having to cross your legs. The other way is to begin by lying on your back in the yoga posture Sivasana (corpse pose), which keeps your back straight and presents no body problems. This is the posture that I recommend for beginners in my audio The Age Of Anxiety.

So with the body sorted, how do you deal with the mind? It’s only when we begin to meditate that we realise how crazy our everyday mind is. It has been called the ‘monkey mind’ because it never stops responding to sensations, commenting on them, dragging up memories and images, flinging out snatches of songs, and all in a jumble that slides and rambles through our consciousness. To experience the monkey mind, try this experiment. Sit or lie in a meditation posture, close your eyes, and begin to breathe evenly and gently. On each outbreath count silently ‘one’ and continue counting each outbreath as ‘two’, ‘three, and so on up to ‘ten’. When you reach ten, go back to silently counting one again and so on.

How far did you get before the monkey mind distracted you away from the counting? You may have completed the first ten, but did you manage to get through the second series? Like the body, the mind too will eventually give in, and slow down these thoughts, as long as you don’t respond to them. I liken the mind to a train station, with many trains of thought leaving at all times. If you respond and get on one of the trains then you are off on a journey that will take you far away from your meditation, but if you can stay in the station and let the trains go their own way, then eventually the trains will slow down and even stop for a time. At that point, you have gained some control over your monkey mind, and you are truly meditating.

September 3, 2009 at 8:59 am Leave a comment

R Buckminster Fuller’s Experiment in Living

R. Buckminster Fuller was an free-thinking imagineer who helped to popularise the Geodesic Dome. A defining moment in his life was when illness killed his young daughter. At this time he had a revelation, and became determined to make his life “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.”

Fuller decided to live his life as an ‘experiment’. That is, to take each day, and each moment in that day, as a singular and unique event, in which he would be able to respond spontaneously and freshly to everything that happened to him. He decided to record for himself and posterity all of these events, and his response to them, and he left behind a huge archive of his life and times.

He used as a metaphor for the potential power of a single individual the ‘trim tab.’   He said,

“Something hit me very hard once, thinking about what one little man could do. Think of the Queen Mary — the whole ship goes by and then comes the rudder. And there’s a tiny thing at the edge of the rudder called a trim tab.

It’s a miniature rudder. Just moving the little trim tab builds a low pressure that pulls the rudder around. Takes almost no effort at all. So I said that the little individual can be a trim tab. Society thinks it’s going right by you, that it’s left you altogether. But if you’re doing dynamic things mentally, the fact is that you can just put your foot out like that and the whole big ship of state is going to go.

So I said, call me Trim Tab.”

At a time when the individual seems insignificant in the face of huge global states and corporations, when the history flows seems like an enormous mass that cannot be altered by a single person acting on their own, it’s good to be reminded that one person can make a difference.

Each one of us exists as our own universe, a constellation of consciousness in which our thoughts and feelings make up the world that we inhabit. If we could take the same attitude as Bucky Fuller, and live each moment that we are given as a fresh, newly created and completely open opportunity to which we can respond spontaneously and creatively, then our lives can become intensely alive, and we can awake from the dead habit of conditioned existence. We may not think that we can  change the world and benefit humanity, but we can change and better our own universe and  in doing so can indirectly benefit humanity.

September 2, 2009 at 9:16 am Leave a comment

The Blog That Fell From The Sky

Reflections on an age of anxiety.