The Foundation of Good Meditation and Mindfulness Practice
Exercises in Mindfulness
How do we create the mind body connection? This week we have some exercises to help experience why ‘the form’ is so important in Zen training.
In his lifetime, the Buddha gave a number of formulations that were to be used directly for meditation practice.
The first was The Noble Eightfold Path - Right Views, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Awareness & Right Meditation. The term ‘Right’’ is a translation of the Pali word samma, which means ‘peerless’, ‘unsurpassable’ and ‘supreme’. The notion is that we all can see, speak, intend and make an effort but to attain Nirvana each stage must be ‘right’. When this condition is met, then arhatship is attained. There is something there that is almost measurable for the practitioner to ponder in his or her practice.
Other formulations, particularly those associated with meditation practice, provide categories for the flow of conscious elements (dharmas). These formulations allow a systematic approach and give focus to a practice. The Four Foundations of Mindful Awareness is one such formula whilst the Five Skandas are another.
These last two formulae begin with rupa, a Sanskrit word that translates as form. This form is not just the physical object in itself. Neither is it the atomic structure, nor the physics behind its existence. In this case, the word form/rupa refers to the tangible form - how it looks, sounds, feels, smells, tastes and even how it affects us to some extent. Thus, form refers to our experiential encounter with the physical world. Of course, this makes sense in a spiritual practice which centres knowledge on how things are known in consciousness, rather than in a more abstract or intellectual way.
In the new mindfulness movement that arose out of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programmes created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the first exercises for experiencing the depth that mindfulness of form can give is to eat a raisin with full attention. The idea is to slow the process down a bit so that there is sufficient time for each sensory impact to arise fully in consciousness. Not only that but also to be able to reflect upon how this deeper encounter with rupa impacts on body consciousness. It’s possible that this may be based on a time-honoured Theravadin practice of slow walking meditation. This was beautifully highlighted in The Long Search, a documentary series from the 1970s that featured a Thai forest monk practicing this slow, wholehearted walking for a number of minutes on film. I defy anyone to watch the clip and not experience a deepening silent quality arising in their own heart!
As mentioned above, the Four Foundations and the Five Skandas start with mindfulness of rupa. Almost certainly this is not a coincidence. Experience tells us that establishing this deep awareness in the body provides a stable foundation for developing awareness of the mental functions without being so easily carried away by them.
There is one further point to be made about practicing with rupa. As mentioned above, ‘form’ also includes the tangible effect in consciousness. Thus ‘form’ also applies to the physical form of our body more usually known as deportment.
Sometimes, a new meditator may ask why it is that we sit on a cushion in a certain way with knees on the floor and back straight. Why can we not meditate lying down? The reason is to do with deportment and how the body reacts to different postures. It turns out that for longer sittings these traditional formal postures actually make it possible to sit still for longer. As Sokei-an pointed out in one of his sermons, although there are formal, semi-formal and informal postures, even the informal still has a kind of form. Exploration of forms is an exciting way to develop the habit of ‘being in the body’ rather than being carried along by the thought streams which inevitably end up being centred more around ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Being released from these, the heart is naturally more at rest and there is a peace that arises with it too. This peace puts us in a better place to be of use not only to ourselves but to others as well.
So, to begin you might like to try to see how sitting with good deportment in a chair affects the quality of consciousness. This does not mean that I am to sit very formally whilst watching TV or with friends but just to keep both feet on the floor and with the back more straight rather than stooping, curved like an archer’s bow or collapsed off to one side.
Next, perhaps try eating a meal a little more slowly and in quiet, without distractions. We might find that the experience naturally extends to other things and we are inwardly prompted to clear up after ourselves rather than leaving a mess for others to clear up for us. All these things are connected and can be conducive to further good practice.
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