Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Deciding Not to Decide

Since my brother and I both decided some years ago to train as teachers of the FM Alexander Technique, our mother also decided to look into Alexander work and found she liked it a lot. Thanks to regular lessons with a local teacher in Birmigham, she learned to sit and move in ways that caused her to suffer less with back pain. One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard, applicable equally to Alexander work and Zen practice, I heard from this teacher in Birmingham, via my mother -- a good example of what goes around comes around. The advice was this: "Decide not to decide."

The context was that my mother was worrying about some big decision -- whether or not to move house or some such -- and anxiety about making the right decision was evidently hampering the process of "coming to quiet," which is integral to good Alexander work.

"Decide not to decide."

It really is good advice. When you have got some big decision to make, let go of the desire to arrive at a decision, and the whole body-mind instantly calms down.

"Decide not to decide."
It resonates with Yakusan's famous description of what he was thinking, quoted by Dogen as an instruction for sitting-dhyāna.
"Think the state of not thinking."
"Think into the zone of not thinking."

"Decide not to decide."

On further investigation, however, what one generally finds is that the decision to let go of the desire to arrive at a decision was not deep enough, was not real enough.

It's like the idea of just letting go of thoughts, just letting thoughts pass, like clouds wandering by.

Every half-arsed dabbler in meditation knows that puny principle. But the Buddha's truth of cessation requires more of us than that.

On further investigation, even after I have seen the wisdom of "deciding not to decide," thoughts relating to the outcome I am supposed to have stopped worrying about, continue to arise one after the other.

Recognizing this, what is necessary is to say "NO" and really mean "NO" to the desire to arrive at a decision. In other words, as usual, it is necessary really to say "NO" to the idea of gaining an end -- the end in this instance being "the right decision."

This business of not just letting go of, but really giving up, a desire to gain an end, is at the centre of the Buddha's 3rd noble truth. FM Alexander, borrowing a word from the then nascent discipline of neuro-physiology, called it "inhibition."

The inhibition, it has been observed, over and over again, always needs to be further back than one supposed.

When something goes wrong, FM Alexander said, it is always down to a failure of inhibition.

Too bloody true. Quad Erat Demonstrandum.

Even if, as a result of calm consideration, you have let go of desires,/ You must, as if shining light into darkness, abolish them by means of their opposite. //15.4//

What lies behind them sleeps on, like a fire covered with ashes;/ You are to extinguish it, my friend, by the means of mental development, as if using water to put out a fire. //15.6//

For from that source they re-emerge, like shoots from a seed. / In its absence they would be no more -- like shoots in the absence of a seed. //15.6//

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Snakes & Ladders

You know the feeling: a sense that things are going well, a sense of going in the right direction, when one false move . . . . and it is back to square one -- at which place the best thing one can possibly hope to find is the bottom rung of a ladder.

That is what happened to Nanda in Canto 12 when, for the first time, he found real confidence in the Buddha's teaching. He really believed in better. He found confidence in a better way than the ascetic end-gaining of the Brahmanical tradition and a better way than the Buddhist end-gaining of the Buddhist striver. Back in Cantos 4 and 5 what Nanda evinced was never real confidence in the Buddha's teaching, but only the sort of unexamined reverence that one sees on the adoring faces of superstitious Tibetans when the poor old Dalai Lama is in their presence. That kind of unexamined religious reverence, as I see it, is not any kind of ladder: it is a snake.

In a game of snakes and ladders, going up or going down is purely a matter of luck, not of judgement. But in the reality of snakes and ladders, intuition and awareness come into it, for better or for worse.

Alexander work, as I see it, is very much a ladder, beginning, like the Buddha's teaching, with inhibition of end-gaining. Working with developmental movements towards better integration of vestibular reflexes is so primitive it might be compared to preparation for stepping onto the first rung of a ladder, getting a better footing on the ground before even thinking of climbing up. And in listening work, the metaphor of a ladder has been used explicitly, by Alfred Tomatis no less, who referred to the Biblical example of Jacob's Ladder.

The voices I like to hear, talking of ladders, and snakes, are independent voices. Theravada Buddhism is not for me, but Ānandajoti Bhikkhu is not your average Theravada Bhikkhu. He is a genuine indie. Again, certain aspects of Tibetan Buddhism I am deeply skeptical about, not least the readiness to accept the Buddha's teaching around samsāra as if it were a literal affirmation of the ancient Hindu conception of rebirth. But the Tibetan monk Matthieu Ricard (M) is evidently another Indie and I recommend to anybody the record of the dialogue between him and his father Jean-Francois Revel (JF) published in English as "The Monk and the Philosopher."

Here is an excerpt:

J.F. -- (discussing the war in Bosnia) A total and bloody anarchy supervened, with Croats killing Muslims, Muslims killing Croats, and Serbs killing everyone. For several years no one managed to get the different factions to stick to any peace agreement at all. What we were witnessing, in fact, was the self-destruction of all the communities involved.

M. -- In place of an analysis of the political and geographical causes, I find it more useful to put it in terms of the mental processes that lead to such an eruption of hatred.

J.F: -- Absolutely. What I'm also trying to say is that the political and geographical causes don't explain anything. If that's what it had all been about, a rational solution could have been found.

M. -- All the causes of war in the world, whether territorial claims, the sharing of irrigation water, or whatever else it might be, come down to a feeling of oneself being wronged, which then gives rise to hostility. That's a negative thought, a divergence from the natural state, and is therefore a source of suffering. The obvious conclusion is that before such thoughts completely invade and take over the mind, we need to gain some mastery over them. A fire is easiest to put out at the very moment the first flames appear, not once the whole forest is ablaze. It's all too easy to get a very long way from the basic goodness within us.

J.F. -- But how do you explain the fact that we stray away from it so much more often than staying faithful to it?

M. -- When you're following a mountain path, it doesn't take much to put a foot wrong and tumble down the slope. The fundamental goal of a spiritual discipline is to maintain perfect watchfulness all the time. Attention and awareness are basic qualities that the spiritual life helps to develop.

J.F -- Yes. But if to eradicate evil from the world we have to wait for six thousand million individuals to reach that spiritual path, it could be a long wait!

M. -- As an oriental proverb says, "With patience, the orchard becomes jam." That it might take a long time doesn't alter the fact that there's no other solution. Even if violence doesn't stop arising overall, the only way to remedy it is the transformation of individuals.


Monday, February 6, 2012

Mindfulness (4): Nothing to Be Proud of

When I first started Alexander work in earnest, as a student-teacher of the FM Alexander Technique, from 1995 onwards, one of the things that struck me was that there was this virtuous circle of stopping and awareness, that had been waiting all the time to be discovered.

"Stopping," in Alexander terms means, in other words "inhibition," i.e. stopping those "wrong inner patterns" which constitute "the doing that has to be stopped."

For 13 years I had been striving hard to keep my spine straight vertically in Zazen, but when, under the hands of skilled Alexander teachers, I started to stop indulging in the resulting gross pattern of misuse, it was as if I had opened a floodgate of awareness. And the more awareness there was, the more I saw there was to stop, to inhibit, to see as a fault and say No to.

This virtuous circle of stopping and becoming aware has not necessarily got anything to do with Buddhism, any more than, say, the 2nd law of thermodynamics, or in short impermanence, has got anything to do with Buddhism.

But in the Saundarananda of Aśvaghoṣa, as I read it, the Buddha points Nanda in the direction of discovering this virtuous circle for himself, just as the Buddha and Ānanda join forces to make Nanda acutely aware of the truth of impermanence.

There was something arrogant about Zazen as I practised it while I was in Japan, and there is something inevitably humbling about getting inside the virtuous circle of stopping and becoming aware. It is humbling to become aware of what is doing wrong, and frequently humbling -- sometimes humiliating -- to be confronted with the difficulty of stopping it. Such difficulty has caused meeker and more virtuous individuals than me to say, "I wish I had never even bloody heard of FM Alexander!"

Even though, in ancient Pali suttas, the Buddha discusses cultivating or developing mindfulness, truly, mindfulness or awareness is not something that the practitioner generates. It is rather there already, as if waiting for us to stop doing the wrong thing, so that it can assert itself.

Thus, as described at the beginning of Canto 15 and the beginning of Canto 17, when a practitioner stops pulling himself down (or in other words allows the whole body to tend straight upwards), he or she is naturally attended by mindfulness.

Again, as described in Nanda's progress through the four dhyānas in Canto 17, Nanda in the first instance, sitting in solitude, has distanced himself from end-gaining desires and tainted things, and thus he feels joy. But in this joy, he sees a fault, which is the presence of disturbing ideas and thoughts, and so he stops those interferences and finds an even deeper joy. But in this joy also, he sees a fault, and so he stops indulging in joy, whereby he experiences a supreme state of ease. But even enjoyment of this ease involves a subtle form of interference, which Nanda sees as a fault. Stopping this interference, he becomes fully aware, fully mindful.

This, however, was by no means the end of Nanda's journey. Before the Buddha could affirm him as truly having realized the worthy state of an arhat, it still remained for Nanda to cut the upper fetters.