Archive for November, 2009

Life As An Energy System

It’s instructive to view our life as an energy system. We take energy from the air we breathe and energy from the food we eat. The Chinese call this energy chi and the yogis prana. The Taoists believe we are born with an original energy or a primal energy which we get from our parents and which is sustained and nurtured in the womb through the umbilicus. If we can continue to nurture this original breath through our life we stay healthy, but if it diminishes we get ill, and once it is gone we die.

Breath energy and food energy we get from the environment. The digestive system, from which we extract energy from food is an involuntary system, in that is we do not control its function. All we can control is what we put in our mouths- what we decide to eat. If we choose well, we enhance our bodies. If we eat crap food we allow it to degenerate. Hence the importance of nutrition, eating organic and fresh food and so on.

But with the respiratory system, although it also operates involuntarily, we can exert voluntary control over how we breathe. So we have more say in how we are able to extract energy from the air and also have more control over where to direct the energy.  This takes some practice as it is something that needs to be learned. Except for babies who have had an excessive birth trauma,  most babies breathe down into the belly, and their respiratory system is fully open. But bad parenting, accidents, emotional upsets, bullying and so on – basically life- have the effect of distorting the natural belly breath, and by the time we are adults it is estimated that only 20% of us are belly breathers. The vast majority – 80%- are shallow chest breathers. What this means is that they are taking in less air than they could and should, and therefore the energy intake that they are extracting from the air is insufficient to maintain good health.

When we have an open breath, we are able to feel the air in three distinct areas of the body. We can feel it go into the belly, then the chest and finally below the collar bone and the lower neck.  All of the lungs, from top to bottom, get an air intake. This means that we are getting sufficient energy from the air to power the work of the body.

In Chinese medicine there is a meridian called The Triple Warmer or Triple Burner . This is an energy or chi circuit, and it is related to the respiratory system, in that it indicates three places where the chi from breathing can be felt. The three areas of the the  Triple Warmer are called Tan Tiens, and they are the upper tan tien, the middle tan tien and the lower tan tien. The lower tan tien is the area below the navel, the middle tan tien is at the level of the chest and the upper tan tien is the top of the head. I believe that if you are able to have a full open breath it is possible to feel the chi in these three areas.

If life is an energy system then we all need to become our own energy engineers and consultants to ensure we nurture and sustain our original breath for a long healthy life.

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November 21, 2009 at 12:01 pm Leave a comment

New Year’s Resolution – January 2004- From My Journal

This year (2003) I decided to live with no worries, no concerns, and I have basically done it, so why can’t I live next year the same way- no worries, no anxieties, and even add to that more smiles, more pleasure. I want to have the freedom to work creatively on whatever comes up. Whatever comes to me that I respond to I must accept- no choice- and just get on and do the best  I can with whatever I have, and not feel at all inhibited, not hold myself back, but go on with courage, be open, expose myself, be free- live! This is no dress rehearsal.

We should give thanks to the passing year for its blessings and look to the next one with optimism. I just need to acknowledge that in my 60th year on this earth I have no illnesses, take no medicines, all my organs work as they should, I have bodily strength, a good mind, loving relationships- all these are blessings, son, regard them as such and give thanks that your life is so full of beauty and love. Today is the start of a new year bright with promise. Whatever happens- accept and smile. Life is just too strange to understand or worry about. Lighten up, kid, keep reminding yourself of that.

November 20, 2009 at 5:30 pm Leave a comment

The Holy Man – Naked and Unarmed

There is a famous story about a saddhu, an Indian holy man, who wandered the country without possessions. When he was hungry people fed him; when he was tired he lay down to sleep. He was as naked as the day he was born.

One day the Saddhu made a terrible error by wandering into the tent of a Muslim Chieftain. Two of the women screamed and the Chieftain picked up his sword and slashed at the Saddhu, cutting off his arm. The Saddhu, bleeding heavily, calmly turned and walked away.

The Chieftain, shocked at what he had done, picked up the arm and took it outside to find the Saddhu. When he caught up to him the Saddhu stuck his arm back into place and turned away. But the Chieftain said, “Before you go, please give me some words of wisdom.”

The Saddhu said,

If you do not do what you want to do,
You may get to do what you like.

When the Chieftain heard these words, he left his home and followed the Saddhu as a disciple.

What did he mean by this saying? Is there an important difference between doing what we want to do (our desires) and what we like (what is good for us)? And if this difference is significant, then how can we make sure we know how to tell this difference?

As the Tao te Ching says,

Desiring,
See only the surface.
Desireless,
See the essence

To get to the bottom of things, to really experience the profound, we need to gain control of our desires. Without this, by blindly following our desires, we only scratch the surface of life. This is not an easy lesson to learn; in fact, it’s one of the most difficult.

November 19, 2009 at 11:02 pm Leave a comment

From My Journal – June 2007

When the sun shines, and the air is warm, I close up my office and head out to my local cemetery to do Tai Chi Chuan. There’s a battered green bench where I can rest my things, and in the grass behind I do some warm-ups and then a tai chi form (or two).

“Isn’t that a bit morbid?” is the comment I’ve had more than once, when people hear about this predilection of mine. But I fail to see what’s morbid about it. The trees surrounding me while I do this graceful flowing dance are old and broad, the nearby bushes green and leafy, and the grass underfoot is lovely and soft (except for the odd twig which pricks my sole). There are birds singing, butterflies floating by in summer, and apart from the lone dog walker there is no one to disturb my peace. The dead beneath their paving stones don’t bother me, and what could be better than sharing their tranquillity.

What does ‘morbid’ mean anyway? The dictionary says morbid is either ‘having an unusual interest in death or an unpleasant event; gruesome; and relating to or characterized by disease; pathologic.’ The word Morbid comes from the latin morbidus –sickly, which comes from morbus – illness. Now I’m interested in morbus- illness – because I want to avoid it. But I’m not at all interested in the gruesome and I don’t have an unusual interest in death. The reason why we think that cemeteries are morbid is because we have a fearful and irrational attitude towards death. Our fear of death is our primal fear, from which all other fears stem, and most of us are in varying states of denial about it. It’s my belief that one of the reasons why we get ill when we don’t have to is because this emotional fear lodges deeply in the body, which lowers our resistance to illness. If we had a better and healthier attitude to death, we would have a healthier, better and longer life. To deny or ignore ageing and death means that we won’t be prepared to deal with them when they come, and we won’t be able to put into effect timely measures to prevent the worst effects of ageing.

The way to get beyond the duality of life is to seek a unity that transcends these dualities. This means to experience the feeling of oneness that all spiritual beings (and that means all of us) would like to attain. Why would we like to attain it? Because it satisfies our inmost longing for a feeling of purpose and meaning to our lives. Without it all we sense is the world of appearances, which seems increasingly meaningless the older we get. To spend our lives chasing pleasure, money and status cannot sustain us into maturity. Eventually we want to make more sense of our time on earth, and feel that there is more to life than just materialistic selfish pursuits. We want to know the answers to the big questions: Why are we here? What is the purpose of life? We may never be able to answer these questions, but just to ask and reflect on them expands our view of life and initiates spiritual growth.

November 18, 2009 at 3:11 pm Leave a comment

Meditation – The Stress Buster

When we are under stress it often seems impossible to get out from under it. Stress, anxiety and fear are often so overwhelming that we find ourselves at a loss to overthrow the trauma we face. In a stress response, our bodies are tense and jangled because of the rush of fight or flight hormones coursing through the body, which upset the nervous system. Our mind gets exhausted trying desperately to cope with the tangled and obsessive thoughts that swirl swiftly and endlessly around our brain, It’s no wonder that people in stressful situations try to temporarily obliterate themselves through drink or drugs, hoping to induce a state of oblivion. Anything to stop that mental tumble dryer that seems to leave us no peace of mind. Unfortunately, once that drug induced high has worn off, the situation is still there, but now the body and mind are more tired, with even less energy to cope. A dreadful downward spiral takes place.

Is it possible to find a non-medicinal way of transforming the stressed body and mind so that we can return to a state of relaxation? One way which has been effective for thousands of years in the East, and which has made significant inroads in the past 50 years in the West, is meditation. What is meditation and how can it help?

Meditation is a means of gaining control over the mind by quietening it and slowing it down. Since the mind and body are a unity, any change to the mind will have a corresponding change in the body. Meditation can lead to a relaxation response, the diametrical opposite to the stress response. Just as stress speeds up the nervous system, breath and heart beat, and consequently revs up the mind, so each change brought about through meditation leads to a slowing and calming of the body/mind: slowing the breath and heart beat, calming the nervous system, and relaxing the mind. It has been shown that meditators have a slower heart beat and less hypertension than the general population.

How can people in stress use meditation? Meditation is not solely a breathing technique, its aim is greater than that, but breathing is an essential component of meditation. The breath is the link between the body and the mind. When the breath is harmonious, the mind is calm. When the breath is agitated, the mind is upset. We can use this link, since breathing is the one physiological function that is both involuntary and voluntary. That is, we normally breathe unconsciously and automatically, but we can also consciously control the breath, It is this conscious control, used in meditation, that anyone can use as a tool for stress reduction. At its simplest, a person suffering stress can consciously use their breath to calm the body and mind, thereby inducing the relaxation response. Once this slowing down begins, a positive feedback takes place, leading to a general slowing of body and mind, and allowing a more normal functioning to take place. It does not take long to induce this state and there is no complicated technique in achieving it.

People often associate meditation with yogis sitting in the lotus posture, chanting ‘OM’, but meditation can be undertaken while walking, lying down or sitting. The aim of any cross-legged posture is to keep the back straight, but it is not difficult to keep the back upright while sitting in a kitchen or desk chair. Try it: Sit at the front of your chair, feet flat on the ground (about 12 inches apart), and keep your back straight. Now relax your arms and jaw, close your eyes and mouth, and begin to breathe normally through the nose. Do this for a number of breaths and try to ‘look inside’ to feel the breath entering and exiting your body through your nose. If thoughts arise, which they will, try not to respond to them, but just let them come and go. As you get into the rhythm of the incoming and outgoing breath, feel your body begin to relax. Your nervous system and heart will begin to slow down and your mind become calmer. The longer you sit the calmer you will get, but your mind will continue to bombard you with thoughts. Continue to allow them to just pass through. If you do not respond to them, then your mind and body will sooner or later find a state of peace.

Besides reducing stress, this technique gives the sufferer a tool which they can use at any time. It is quick to use and easy to do. Initial success in reducing stress can give the person the confidence that they have in themselves the ability to gain control over their situation. This sense of confidence and personal ability, once learned, is empowering: it is an extension of personal power. In that relaxed state, space can be created in the mind for new insights and perspectives which can lead to a new way of confronting and solving problems, including those that created the stress.

November 15, 2009 at 7:21 am Leave a comment

Meditation Opens The Heart

There is a famous story in the Taoist Book of Chuang Tzu of Confucius’ advice to his disciple Yen Hui. Yen Hui planned to go to the Prince of Wei to try to reform this ruler’s wild and wicked ways by using Confucius’ teaching. After Confucius shoots down all of Yen Hui’s intended strategies, he offers him some advice,

You must fast. I’ll tell you why. Is it easy to work from pre-conceived ideas? Heaven frowns on those who think it is easy.”

Yen replies that his family is poor and he hasn’t eaten meat in ages, but Confucius explains that the fasting he is talking about is not fasting of the body but fasting of the mind. Yen asks him to explain what fasting of the mind is,

Your will must be one. Do not listen with your ears but with your mind. Do not listen with your mind but with your chi. Ears can only hear, mind can only think, but chi is energy, receptive to all things. Tao abides in emptiness. Emptiness is the fasting of the mind.”

He goes on to say,

It is in emptiness that light is born. There is happiness in stillness. Lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering. If you are open to everything you see and hear, and allow this to act through you, even gods and spirits will come to you, not to speak of men. This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings.. “

Yen Hui was going to Wei to apply the ‘pre-conceived ideas’ that he had learned from Confucius. But Confucius wanted to teach him how he could find new and spontaneous ideas, applicable in the moment, to use with the Prince. We see in this the dichotomy between pre-conceived ideas and spontaneous ones, the difference between reaction and response. In reacting to events we use our conditioned mind, the pre-conceived ideas that experience and learning have taught us. But this isn’t fresh enough. We need to respond not only from experience, but also to be alive to emptiness, to the spirit of the event unfolding in front of us. This is why Confucius tells Yen that he must use his chi to listen to what is happening, and not just his eyes and ears.

This story is similar to the Zen story of the Professor who comes to visit a monk to discuss Zen. The monk offers him tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor is shocked and asks him what he is doing, and the monk replies that the cup is just like the Professor’s mind, overflowing with pre-conceived ideas and knowledge. The fasting of the mind is to empty it of old and stale ideas so that it can respond with fresh insights to what is happening in the moment.

We can assume that the Confucius story is about sitting meditation, since Confucius says that ‘lack of stillness is called sitting while wandering.’ When we enter into a deep meditative state we enter stillness, but if our mind fails to settle then although we are formally sitting in meditation our mind is actually wandering all over the place and it’s not really meditation, it’s agitation.

The Fasting of the Mind is a Taoist meditation practise also called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? In the old Chinese medical texts the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’. When we sit in meditation we forget our body and mind, we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty?

I have recently attended some Transformational Breathing workshops. Transformational Breathing uses a technique of sustained circular breathing through the mouth to attempt to open up your respiratory tract to the largest possible extent. In doing this it has to break through any blockages or obstructions that are stopping you from having a full open breath. These blockages are both physical and emotional. When I was going through this process, the facilitator asked me to try to open my heart.

After the session, I thought about opening my heart. I wasn’t sure that my heart wasn’t open, although I don’t consider myself the most compassionate person. I certainly don’t wear my heart on my sleeve, so I suppose that this kind of emotional reserve does mean that my heart is not really open. So what would be the process of opening the heart, and how do I go about it. Obviously it’s possible through breathing control to direct chi into the heart area, as well as to force breath into it to try to expand the heart and loosen or free it. But that’s purely on a physical level. What is it on a mental or emotional level?

I decided to ask the Chinese oracle the I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. I got the answer Hexagram 35: Advance, which I consider a positive answer, but there were no moving lines. Here is the commentary on the 5th and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open. If one knows how to empty and open the heart, one can thus seek from others, and so be able to fill the belly. . Once one has filled the belly, fortune, misfortune and stopping at sufficiency are all in the palm of one’s hand. One can thereby be free from worry about loss or gain, and go straight ahead without doubt, going ahead in advancing the fire and working, with good results beneficial in every way. This is the illumination of becoming empty to bring fulfillment.

The 6th yang line says,

The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind.

The Tao te Ching says something similar (Ch 3),

Thus the rule of the sage

empties the mind

but fills the belly

So to empty the heart/mind is to lose regret, make oneself open to others, cease having anxiety about loss and gain, as well as losing rational discrimination and intellectual knowledge. Instead we fill the belly with breath, lose self doubt, gain will power and strength, which enables us to live out our destiny.

I thought about the line,

Regret comes from the heart/mind not being open.

Where does regret come from? Obviously it is made up of frustrated desires, the things you wanted to accomplish but could not, or the things or people that you desired but could not hold on to. It is in a sense the past tense of desire. We know that desire is always a problem. Eastern religions ask us to reduce our desires in order to find contentment and tranquillity. But desire is always present, firstly because we have a desire to live, and this means that the desire for food and drink are basic desires necessary for survival. But even if we reduce or sublimate our desires we remain in the grip of desire. Any spiritual desire – to be one with the Tao, or to be enlightened, is still a desire.

We always think of desires as in the present tense, of the desires that we either have or are trying to control and reduce. When we think of desires it is usually the obvious ones, which the Taoists call the Three Poisons: greed, anger, and stupidity; And you can add to that list a couple of others: hatred and lust. But to see the reduction of desire as something negative, as a renunciation of the self, misses the mark The Tao te Ching says (Ch 1),

Empty of desire, perceive mystery.

Filled with desire, perceive manifestations.

This means  that if we can reduce desire we are able to perceive the subtle, whereas if we stay obsessed with desires we can only see the surface of things. We remain in the world of form and cannot break through to the world of emptiness and of essence. A life made up of endless desires is too shallow and can never get deep.

But it is not just desires in the present moment that cause problems for me. It is also the shell or husk of old desires, those regrets that are clogging up my heart from years of mismanaged desire.

If my heart is not open enough, then it must be full of desires both old and new, and to open my heart means that I have to empty it. When you desire something or someone, you either feel fulfilled or unfulfilled. Either you accomplish that desire or fail to achieve it. The failure to achieve a desire leads to feelings of loss, lack, bitterness and regret. Even if we manage to accomplish our desires and have a feeling of joy these feelings do not last. Life is transient and impermanent. We lose even the things we have gained, so that loss is also part of success. All desires, whether fulfilled or unfulfilled, lead to feelings of attachment and dependency, to a sense that we can only feel whole when we can bring outside or external things into our being.

So the heart is full of the corpses of desire. We harbour past feelings of hurt and betrayal, as well as the seeds of new desires that we want to pursue. In such a state our heart overflows like the tea cup that the Zen master poured. If we can empty the heart of these old feelings and reduce our present desires, then we make room in the heart. Through this fasting of the heart we create an emptiness that will allow other and better feelings, like compassion and love, to take up residence. This is what Confucius meant when he said,

This is the transformation of ten thousand things, the secret of the wise kings.

So I need to transform my hsin, my heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, meditation, sitting and forgetting. What I need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that my heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless I houseclean my heart, what Yeats called that ‘foul rag and bone shop’ I face the danger of being dragged down by my past, and this means that I will not able to move forward. I may remain a victim of self-doubt and not be able to utilise my chi in a positive. What I need to achieve is what Confucius tells Yen Hui,

Your will must be one.

The Chinese philosopher Mencius said (2a2),

When will is unified, it moves the breath.

When the breath is unified, it moves the will.

And Chuang Tzu tells us,

There is no weapon deadlier than the will.

So my aim in emptying my heart is to unify my will and breath, so that breath and mind act as one, and my spirit can become liberated. This is the job of overcoming myself by overcoming the heart/mind.

November 14, 2009 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

A Spiritual Almanack – November

November – Darkness

Hexagram 29- Kan

water

over

water

 

In times of danger and darkness, people should cling to one another.

Although this time of year is one of increasing darkness, an expansion of yin, we don’t have to give in to that darkness or sink into fear and despair. There is always the possibility of finding the light within. In life we have two choices: we can choose the path of love or take the path of suffering. Because life is complicated, sometimes the path of love leads to suffering and the path of suffering conversely can lead to love. But when we find the light or choose to move towards it we move towards love and embrace whatever life brings us.

Our existence depends on the light of the sun. It gives us energy, warms us, and gives life to the plants which feed us. But light is important for us not just for physical sustenance but as a spiritual need. Light has always been identified as the source of life, consciousness and the spirit, just as darkness has been identified with ignorance and death.

The Prasna Upanishad says,

The rising sun is the symbol of life; it rises to bring light to our eyes.

The sun is life, the moon is matter. The sun gives light and life to all who live, and is the life-energy of the universe.

Therefore, the wise see the Lord of Love in the sun rising in all its golden radiance to give warmth, light and love to all.

All of us, no matter what colour we are, or language we speak, share the same response to the light. As the yogis and rishis of ancient India understood, we are all part of one united Self and we share this Self – what I experience you too experience, what I feel you feel. This is the foundation of the first law of ethics, the Golden Rule found in so many cultures:

Act towards others as you would like them to act towards you.

When we realise this unity we are able to act together, to collectively raise our faces to the light, which shines not just as a symbol of life but as a symbol of our freedom. We can then stand and stare in wonder and amazement at the beauty of that light, the light that represents insight, truth and understanding, warmth and compassion. It is only our ego driven attachments that obscure this light.

To act together means to find solidarity and community with others, and this is why the I Ching says,

In times of danger and darkness, people should cling to one another.

We are living in dangerous times, and our leaders are foolishly breeding even more fear among us, but at such a time it’s important to realise that whatever dangers we face we do not face them alone, but are all in this life together. Then we are able to understand that united we can be strong and conquer our fears, while divided as individuals we merely cower at home.

The sun is constantly shining, even though clouds sometimes obscure it and the turning of the earth puts it beyond our sight. But even at night the moon reminds us of the sun’s presence. When something that we know exists is absent, we feel its presence even more. These lines were found scribbled on a ghetto wall in 1945:

I believe in the sun though it is late in rising.

I believe in love though it is absent.

I believe in God though he is silent.

What we seek is harmony, the perfect balancing of dark and light, positive and negative, spiritual and material, optimism and caution, consciousness and the unconscious, that will allow us to synchronise our lives with the laws of nature. When we think and act in harmony, then life has an integrity, a wholeness that permeates, surrounds and arranges all of our relationships, giving us an incredible lightness of being that enables us to float up from the darkness of fear and despair into the sparkling radiance of the light. We can become like Chuang Tzu’s Taoist immortals,

Their spirits mount up on the light,

their bodies freed from limitations.

This we call being bright and ethereal.

They complete their destiny,

and leave no single potential unfulfilled.

They enjoy heaven and earth,

and life’s conflicts dissolve.

All things return to their original nature,

merging with the mysterious darkness.

The Svetasvatara Upanishad tells us that our yoga practise is a means of discovering the inner light of our original nature, the light of wisdom and grace,

Choose a clean quiet and cool place for meditation and the practise of yoga, where the sounds of dancing water and the beauty of the place foster thought and contemplation. In deep meditation you may see forms like snow or smoke, you may feel a strong wind blowing, or a wave of heat, or you may see more and more light within. These are signs that you are on the spiritual path to reach the Eternal Spirit of Brahman.

When the yogi has full power over his body, he can increase the spiritual fire within, giving better health, a light body, and freedom from craving.  When a gold mirror is covered with dust, it shines again when it has been cleaned.  When you have been cleansed with the truth of the Spirit your life is fulfilled and you are beyond suffering. Then you become a lamp by which you find the truth of the spirit and see the pure Everlasting Spirit, freeing you from all bondage.

This is the Spirit whose light illumines all creation, the creator of all from the beginning. He was, he is and always shall be; he is in all and sees all. Let us adore the Lord of Life who is ever present in fire, water, plants and trees.

The writers of the Upanishads created this prayer, which epitomises our spiritual quest,

Lead us from the unreal to the real

Lead us from the darkness to the light

Lead us from the fear of death to knowledge of immortality

November 9, 2009 at 3:27 pm Leave a comment

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