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.

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