Archive for January, 2010

Meditation Opens The Heart

There is a famous story in the 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 proposals, and tells him that the Prince will probably kill him for his intervention, 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 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 well known story of the Professor who comes to visit a Master to discuss Zen. The monk offers tea and when he starts to pour he continues until the cup overflows. The Professor 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 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 called Zuowang- sitting and forgetting. We sit and forget, but what is it that we are forgetting? Shi Jing, in an article from Issue Number 1 of the 2006 Dragon’s Mouth, says about Zuowang,

A meditation retreat is not about acquiring and filling, but is a process of releasing and emptying. What we forget is the thing we hold most dearly: self, with all its opinions, beliefs and ideals. We can be so caught up in the concept of self that we only see the world as a place to fulfill personal ambition and desire.

To forget the self means to forget the mind and body, since our ideas of self come from our awareness of having a body and of being conscious. So when we sit in meditation we forget our self, our body and our mind  – we empty out, but what is it that we are trying to empty? And what is this emptiness for?

In the West, the influence of Descartes has led us for 300 years to separate the body from the mind. The body was seen as low, crude and inert and the mind as the higher repository of thoughts and emotions. This dualistic view was never part of Eastern thought, so the Chinese view has always been to see the human organism as a unity, with body and mind working together. This is reflected in the old Chinese medical texts where the heart – hsin- was the seat of both thoughts and feelings, emotions and sensations, so that it was really the ‘heart-mind’, an inseparable compound of the body and the mind. The heart is the link between the body and the mind, and is the only organ with two meridians relating to it- the heart meridian and the heart protector.

In their books, Claude Larre and Elisabeth Rochat de la Vallee write about this view of the heart/mind. They say that Chinese classical literature sees the heart as the mind, the intelligence and the spirit. There are two aspects to the heart. It has a double meridian and a double presentation. It is both a void or place of quietness which allows the spirits to dwell within, as well as the activity which allows the spirits to circulate everywhere throughout the body via the blood and chi. It is the latter aspect which reflects the heart as the governor or master of the body. So the spirits reside in the heart and it is the heart’s function to send the spirits flowing and spreading out to the other organs of the body.

I recently attended a few Transformational Breathing (TM) 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 the process of opening the heart, and how to 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 I Ching, ‘Will I be able to open my heart?’. Throwing the stalks I got the answer hexagram 35: Advance, but with no moving lines. The commentary of the 5th    and 6th lines, in the Taoist I Ching reads,

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 sixth yang line says,

The work of overcoming oneself is to conquer the heart/mind. If one does not empty the heart/mind but relies on adament strength alone, strength must overcome strength – there is bound to be danger before getting good results and becoming blameless.

The Taoist I Ching is quoting the Tao Te Ching (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? To me regret 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 primary 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.

Lao Tzu says 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.

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, do not remain for all time. 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, our heart.

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 cup the Zen monk 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.

We need to transform our hsin, our heart-mind, and the way to do this is through Zuowang, sitting and forgetting. What we need to forget are old slights, pains, hurts and betrayals, so that the heart empties out of old attachments and can become a storehouse for new feelings. Unless we houseclean our heart, we are being dragged down by our past, and are not able to move forward in a unified way. We are victims of self-doubt and self-esteem, and can’t utilise our energy in a powerful way. This is what Confucius means when he says,

“Your will must be one.”

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.

In The Heart Claude Larre and Elizabeth Rochat de la Vallée talk about the role of the spirits,

We exist in a way that develops. We have a future. As long as we are living, we are living for something, we are living for tomorrow, and for the years to come. However long, life is not without prospect. Is there any power to take care of this ‘becoming’ (our future, our development). Yes, there are leaders within us, and we call them spirits.

The role or function of the spirits is not to give us some spiritual high or a wonderful transcendant experience but to utterly infuse our waking and sleeping being, so they are able to give us specific guidance for every moment and activity in daily life. This is what Confucius was advising Yen Hui, not to rely on his learning and knowledge but to rely on his spirits. And the reason we sit in meditation, the reason we sit and forget, is that we want to empty the heart of all the old and outworn ideas and emotions that we have stored there, in what WB Yeats called  “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. Once we have emptied it out we have created a home for the spirits to take up residence. This is the same idea as in ancient Greek religion. They created a beautiful temple, made an altar, devised rituals and sacrifices in the hope that the God would come down and make it his worldly home, to protect and guide their life. For the Chinese the hsin, the heart-mind, is a kind of fleshy temple. Keep it empty of desires, void of regrets and the spirits will have a suitable resting place.

So the advice Confucius gave to Yen Hui was: sit in meditation until you find stillness, and remain in stillness until you find happiness or joy; continue sitting until you find emptiness, and at some point light will emerge from emptiness, the light of awareness. At this point you will have transformed yourself, and you will be a sage, able to advise the Prince of Wei without having your head chopped off. This is ‘the secret of the wise kings’.

Copyright 2010 Mark Forstater

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January 23, 2010 at 8:43 am 4 comments

Tao Te Ching: Passages on wealth

Chapter 1

Empty of desire, perceive mystery
Filled with desire, perceive manifestations

Ch 2

The sage lives but does not own

Ch 3
Don’t treasure rare objects, and no one will steal.
Don’t display what people desire
And their hearts will not be disturbed

The sage rules

By emptying hearts and filling bellies
By weakening ambitions and strengthening bones

Ch 7

The sage steps back,
But is always in front.
Stays outside,
But is always within

No self interest?
Self is fulfilled.

Ch 8

Live in a good place
Keep your mind deep.
Treat others well.
Stand by your word.
Make fair rules.
Do the right thing.
Work when it’s time.
Only do not contend,
And you will not go wrong.

Ch 9

When gold and jade fill the hall,
They cannot be guarded.
Riches and pride
Bequeath error.
Withdrawing when work is done: Heaven’s Tao

Ch 11

Having leads to profit,
Not having leads to use.

Ch 12

Exotic goods ensnare human lives.
Therefore the sage takes care of the belly not the eye,
Chooses one, rejects the other.

Ch 15

Those who sustain Tao
Do not wish to be full.

Ch 23

In following Tao:
Thise on the way become the way,
Those who gain become the gain,
Those who lose become the loss.

All within Tao:
The wayfarer, welcome upon the way,
Those who gain, welcome within gain,
Those who lose, welcome within loss.

Ch 29

Trying to control the world?
I see you won’t succeed.
The world is a spiritual vessel
And cannot be controlled.
Those who control, fail.
Those who grasp, lose.

Ch 32

Know when to stop: avoid danger.

Ch 33

Knowing others is intelligent
Knowing yourself is enlightened
Conquering others takes force
Conquering yourself is true strength
Knowing what is enough is wealth

Ch 42

Humans hate:

To be alone, poor and hungry.
Yet Kings and Princes use these words as titles.

We gain by losing
Lose by gaining.

Ch 44

Name or body: which is closer?
Body or possessions: which means more?
Gain or loss: which one hurts?

Extreme love exacts a great price
Many possessions entail heavy loss.

Know what is enough-
Abuse nothing.
Know when to stop –
Harm nothing.

This is how to last a long time.

Ch 46

There is no greatrer calamity
Than not knowing what is enough.
There is no greater fault
Than desire for success.

Therefore, Knowing that enough is enogh
Is always enough.

Ch 53

The government is divided,
Fields are overgrown,
Granaries are empty,
But the nobles’clothes are gorgeous,
Their belts show off swords,
And they are glutted with food and drink.
Personal wealth is excessive.

This is clled thieves’ endowment,
But is not Tao.

Ch 67.

I  possess Three Treasures
to maintain and uphold

first is compassion
second is frugality
third is not presuming to be first under heaven

compassion leads to courage
frugality allows generosity
not presuming to be first
creates a lasting instrument

if I renounced compassion for valour
austerity for extravagance
reluctance for supremacy

I would die

Ch 77

Heaven’s Tao
Is a stretched bow,
Pulling down the top,
Pulling up the bottom.
If it’s too much, cut.
If it’s not enough,
Add on to it:
Heaven’s Tao.

The Human route
Is not like this,
Depriving the poor,
Offering to the rich.
Who has a surplus
And still offers it to the world?
Only those with Tao.

Ch 81

The sage is not acquisitive-
Has enough
By doing for others,
Has even more
By giving to others.

January 8, 2010 at 10:52 pm 1 comment

A SPIRITUAL ALMANAC: JANUARY – SILENCE

Iam the secret of silence and the wisdom of the wise. Bhagavad Gita , Ch.10

Hexagram 24:    RETURN (FU)

Earth

over

Thunder

Short days; long nights;

The earth is silent;

Rest in the darkness.

At this time of year yang energy is renewing itself; it is fragile and needs rest, nurturing and protection. This is a time to examine yourself, refine yourself, cultivate your virtue and master your mind, waiting for the right time to act in the days to come.

Lao Tzu said,

Attain utter emptiness;

Maintain the deepest stillness,

While all creatures rise and fall,

I silently watch their return.

*******

Silence is sacred; silence is our refuge; silence is our peace. Modern life is an assault of sound, a blast of brute noise designed to grab our attention and hold it entranced by sound so that we can be sold things we don’t need. TV commercials, muzak in lifts, the constant background din of cars, trains and planes all distract us away from our inner peace.

Remember that the core of yoga is silence. When you can find that silent space within and stay in it, then you are in tune with yourself and the world: safe, secure and at home within your own skin. In this state you have no need to worry about the quality of your asana positions, or to wonder how someone else is getting along, or to fret about your work or other activities. You merely are. Existence itself is knowledge and bliss wrapped up in one, and you are that – you are one with all.

The earth, too, is silent in January, the generative power sunk deep within the ground. No birds sing, no insects buzz, and life sleeps in hibernation.

In Taoist alchemy this dead of winter represents the utmost quiescence, when real knowledge can emerge from primal emptiness. The alchemists call this the Living Midnight or Lead meets Winter, since winter followed by spring is like midnight followed by dawn, when the culmination of the cold dark yin is followed by the rising of the hot light yang energy. Slowly the yang energy emerges from its long winter sleep resting in the ground, and the potential for new life begins again.

It is a turning point in the year’s cycle. When things proceed to the extreme of the deepest darkness, they naturally alternate to the opposite: the dimmest light returns. This is a law of Nature. The time of darkness passes. The winter solstice brings back the banished light. And just as light returns, so we too must also return to our inner light. In the depths of our being we must seek the self, the one, our essence or origin- that ascending force of life.

*******

Prime Minister Pei Hsiu brought his written interpretation of Chan Buddhism for his master Huang Po to read. Huang Po accepted the text but laid it aside without opening it, and remained silent. The Prime Minister waited patiently for the words of his master, but Huang Po stayed silent. His silence lasted for a very long time. It filled the space between the two men and began to permeate the entire hall. When the silence seemed loud enough to burst, Huang Po leaned towards the Prime Minister and said, “Understand?”

Consider the meaning of this silence against the words rumbling on this page.

*********

When practicing asanas, or doing Tai Chi Chuan, we enter this meditative state of silence and in that quietness we are able to find our true selves, the inner essence, the kernel of who we really are.

The Person who in movement finds rest, and who understands that movement grows from stillness and rest, sees the light, and finds peace in all his actions.  Bhagavad Gita, Ch. 4.

In Chinese the word for mind is hsin, which means the mind/heart. It can literally mean kernel or essence. Mind in a state of quiescence is similar to Christian innocence, the primal mind of humanity before the fruit of knowledge was eaten. To find this mind is to see your original face before you were born.

One secret of a successful life is to find a way to extend this silence into the other parts of life, into the busyness of life away from the yoga mat , where the stresses and conflicts of mundane existence can easily drag us away from our inner peace. Finding inner peace and maintaining inner peace are two separate practices.

*********

Silence is a place of great power. When we find those fleeting moments of silence our meditation can then undo our bodies from the inside, in subtle ways that the asanas cannot reach. The silent state of meditation is a healing state, providing a balance and harmony to all of our existence.

Periods of silence within a relationship indicate trust, love and peace – those moments when we have no need to talk, and are just able to accept the other person as they are – without criticism, judgement or withdrawal.

*******

In silent meditation, we put to rest our worries and cares, but meditation is not the ultimate answer. It is only a raft to get us to the distant shore:

The Master Huai-Jang asked Ma-Tsu, “Why do you sit all day in meditation?” Ma-Tsu answered, “I want to become a Buddha.” Hearing this, the Master picked up a brick and started rubbing it on a stone. “What are you doing?” asked Ma-Tsu. “I am polishing this brick to make a mirror.” “How can you make a mirror by rubbing a brick?” Ma-Tsu asked. “How can you become a Buddha by sitting in meditation?”

In the end we must return to the activity of life, to the crossroads and the marketplace, and share with others the insights and power we have discovered in meditation:

Barechested, barefooted he comes into the marketplace.

Muddy and dust-covered, how broadly he grins!

Without recourse to mystic powers,

Withered trees he swiftly brings to bloom.

*******

In the end silence brings us closer to our true nature and to God. It is in that silence that we can be present in the moment.

When we observe our breath we can find silence and stillness at that lovely pause at the end of the in-breath and before the breath turns at the end of the out-breath. These pauses, if we let them, can be our entry into the eternal.

January 8, 2010 at 5:01 pm 3 comments

Views of Wealth – Epicurus

After meeting Saul Djanogly, I decided to start a long-term (ie slow) research project into ancient ideas of wealth. I started by looking at Epicurus, the Greek philosopher from the 4th century B.C. Here are a few of his thoughts:

She who is not satisfied with little, is satisfied with nothing.

Self-sufficiency is the greatest of all wealth. And the greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom.

Nothing is sufficient for the person to whom the sufficient is too little.

A life of freedom cannot acquire many possessions, since to accomplish this requires satisfying the crowd or the powerful; but a life of freedom possesses everything in unfailing supply. If somehow such a life does happen to acquire many possessions, it will also know how to distribute these  to win others’  good will.

Great abundance is heaped up as a result of brutalising labour, but a miserable life is the result.

A person is made unhappy either by fear or by endless and vain desire . The person who curbs these can attain for herself the blessed gift of reason.

Many people, fearing poverty, are driven, through their fear, to adopt practices that will bring on greater fear.

The possession of the greatest riches does not resolve the anxiety of the soul or give birth to remarkable joy – nor does the greatest fame, nor all other things arising from unlimited desires.

Many people who acquire wealth do not find relief from dissatisfaction but an exchange of their present dissatisfaction for an even greater one.

Happiness and blessedness do not belong to abundance of riches or high status or power, but to freedom from pain and gentleness of feeling and a state of mind that sets limits that are in accordance with nature.

It is better for you to be free of fear and lying on a bed of straw than to own a couch of gold and an overflowing table and yet have no peace of mind.

The thankless greed of the soul makes the creature forever hungry for refinements in its mode of living.

January 7, 2010 at 10:52 pm Leave a comment


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Reflections on an age of anxiety.

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