Friday, May 1, 2015

The Universal Human Experience of Stillness

I'm still in the thick of editing That Which We Already Know. I had stopped posting sequential contributions to that work for the sake of immersing myself in its entirety before wrapping up the final chapter. Well, I've gotten to that point. Consider what follows to stand on its own, or consider it to almost bring Chapter Nine to a close. Either way, I hope you enjoy it!

By the time we reach adulthood it’s all but second nature for us to think of the body and mind as two separate and distinct entities. Even those who are very much in tune with their bodies might nevertheless think of them more as beasts of burden to be trained by the mind, or tools to be skillfully used by it. Leave it to the children and the Zen masters – and a few others, of course – to understand the seamless integration, the inextricable oneness of body and mind.

Why is this such an important point, anyway? Three reasons come to mind. First of all, it helps us understand how we fit into the world. More precisely, it helps us understand that we don’t fit into the world at all. We arise in it. We arise from it. We are a blossoming forth from the ground of being – whether you believe this ground to have been created by God, to indeed be God, or to consist of the “stuff” that comprises the entirety of the universe. Thus, we belong, and we can trust in this belonging as the most fundamental reality of “our” life. We might choose to believe more than this, but to believe other than this is simply not in keeping with the fundamental nature of reality. A second reason that understanding the seamless integration of body and mind is so important is that it helps us to root our spiritual practice in the rich soil of that which is rather than in the barrenness of ideas and conceptualization. In this way, our practice becomes more than just an intellectual endeavor; it becomes an outgrowth of reality itself – arising with the body, which arises from the ground of being. Finally, an accurate understanding of the nature of mind and body allows us to fully realize what it means to “become enlightened with the body.” I’ll expound on each of these points in turn.

We arise in this world. We arise from this world. We are not some self-existent entity deposited here from somewhere else. Sure, it might be tempting to think otherwise given the separateness that we so often feel, or the completeness with which we become conditioned to identify with whatever thoughts happen to be going on inside of our heads. But thoughts are merely one aspect of consciousness, and consciousness is dependent upon the structure of the brain, the body in which the brain resides, and the fact that the body is always in contact with the “outside” world – at least to some extent. This final qualifying statement is specifically intended to set the stage for, ironically enough, a thought experiment that I think will prove to be illustrative of the point that I’m making. [1]

Reflect, if you will, on what it’s like in one of those sensory deprivation tanks sometimes used in the study of brain functioning. You’re floating motionless in a temperature-controlled bath of saltwater. You’re shielded from light and sound. Even your tactile sensations are “muffled” by the special suit and gloves that you’re wearing. Without distractions, or the constraint of the senses, it would seem that the mind would be free to roam wherever it might choose – untethered, as it were, from the world “out there.” Perhaps you can “see” what a five-dimensional universe is like, even though you’ve never known anything other than these four dimensions of space and time. Perhaps you can “experience” what it’s like to travel faster than the speed of light, even though your travels up to this point have occurred at a pace so very much slower than that.

On the contrary, even in a sensory deprivation tank the mind is not free to roam wherever it might wish. While it might not be tethered to what is “out there” by any chains of sensory stimulation, it is nonetheless tethered by its recollections of the world “out there.” It has arisen from the reality that is “out there.” Whatever imaginings, visions, ponderings, and musings the mind might be capable of producing are based on memories of what’s been experienced “out there.” We might say, then, that the activity of the mind is entirely derivative. Regardless of its creative potential, the mind cannot conjure something out of nothing. If you have doubts, give it a try. I think you’ll come to agree that even an imaginary being such as the infamous flying spaghetti monster is still rooted in that which is “real” – the reality of flight, the reality of a certain variety of pasta, and the reality of dangerous animals and people that we then “mash” together and invest with whatever malevolent motives and capabilities we might happen to have experienced. But even the most creative mind cannot know what it’s like in five dimensions. It has no frame of reference other than the scant four from which it has arisen. [2] It might be able to imagine what it would be like by reasoning through the relationship of four dimensions to three, and three to two; but it can’t really know. Likewise, the mind can’t know what it’s like to exceed the speed of light because it arises within a universe where physical law dictates that nothing may travel faster than 300,000 km/s.

Despite the mind’s inability to escape the reality of the brain, the body, and the world in which the body dwells, you might nevertheless find your experience in a sensory deprivation tank to be relaxing. You might even enjoy a boost in creativity as your brain seeks to maintain its usual level of electrochemical activity by reimagining what you’ve experienced, or by drawing connections between things such as you’ve never made before. At some point, however, your stay will have gone on too long. Like an astronaut whose life-support system is becoming depleted, your visit will begin to become unpleasant. You may begin to hallucinate. Your brain might be prompted to create elaborate visions on the basis of a single random biochemical flicker within the optic nerve. But even your hallucinations will be constrained by the fact of their consisting of strange mashups of things that are “out there.” Take care, though, for if you should ever begin to doubt the existence of the world “out there” you’ll certainly be teetering on the brink of madness. Indeed, a mind disconnected from the real world is a mind in the throes of psychosis.

An anechoic chamber - not a sensory deprivation tank

The second point that I made up above is that our understanding of the seamless integration of body and mind helps ground our spiritual practice in everyday experience. Regardless of where we might think we came from, or where we might think we’re going to, we are always here in this present moment – continuously arising from and along with all other phenomena. It seems compelling, then, regardless of our spiritual orientation, that we strive to bring the insights of our practice to bear on the circumstances of this present moment – replete with all that we arise with. [3] In other words, no matter what our metaphysical beliefs might be, no matter what we might believe about the existence or nature of God, no matter what we might believe about souls or the afterlife, the reality of our arising from a shared ground of existence compels us to bring the highest values of our spirituality to bear in our everyday lives for the sake of everyone and everything.

This now brings us back to what it means to become enlightened with the body. Perhaps we should begin this discussion with a few words on what it means to be enlightened. Of course, there are many ideas floating around about the nature of enlightenment, but when I use the term I am simply referring to our waking up and seeing things precisely as they are – without our overlaying what we see with any presumed, desired, or conditioned interpretation. Waking up is a matter of letting go of the various and sundry ideas that we’ve come to hold dear over the course of our fall – ideas that get in the way of our seeing things precisely as they are. But what does the body have to do with the ideas that we hold dear? What does the body have to do with us seeing things as they are? More to the point, how do we become enlightened with the body, anyway?

Becoming enlightened with the body might make more sense if we simply remember that which we already know. For instance, when I was a young child visiting those beloved frog ponds out in the Nursery, I became well aware that my presence changed everything. Upon my arrival, everything that could scurry or fly away from my abrupt intrusion did so, and everything that could duck deeper into the shadowed waters or hide amongst the weed stems did so. Upon my becoming still, however, I was able to see things as they really were. Upon my becoming still, the mosquito larvae would begin to squiggle back up to the sun-warmed surface of the pond, and the water striders would begin to trace their angular patterns across it once again. Upon my becoming still, the frogs would reappear and begin to sing as so few people are ever allowed to witness. Upon my becoming still, the dragonflies and birds and whatever else happened to reside in the vicinity returned from their wary vigils on the outskirts such that their nature became known. I learned then that it wasn’t merely my presence that made the difference; it was the nature of my presence that made the difference. As a noisy intruder, I was banished from the kingdom. As one filled with the will to do and control I was forbidden to witness things as they are. When I was still, however, all things began to manifest their true nature for me to see.

Amongst Zen adepts, the enlightened mind is sometimes compared to a perfect mirror that reflects the entire world without adding to or subtracting from it – without distorting it in any way whatsoever. In order to be so, the mind must be still. But stilling the mind is difficult when one who does not yet understand the inseparable nature of body and mind. It may seem to require the learning of some mental technique in order that we might turn off our mental activity as one turns off a television or something. On the contrary, the most direct route to stilling the mind is via stilling the body. Think of a bowl of water. When the bowl is jostled about, the surface of the water remains disturbed. When the bowl is left to become still, however, the surface of the water becomes like a mirror – reflecting the world around it.

After abiding in stillness for a time our mind naturally begins to grow calm. With our hands either folded in our lap or resting on our thighs relatively little tactile stimulation remains to be processed. Our proprioceptive and kinesthetic senses, likewise, are given a break from the usually complex work of keeping track of the ever-changing position of our body in space and time. Furthermore, if our eyes are closed, or almost closed, then our very robust visual processing capacity is left with very little to do. As such, abiding in stillness is a little like floating in a sensory deprivation tank, although not quite so extreme. Both experiences involve a withdrawal from sensory stimulation, only differing in degree; and both experiences undoubtedly affect the activity of the conscious mind.

But just as being in a sensory deprivation tank can be disorienting to the point of prompting hallucinations, so the stillness of meditation or contemplation can occasionally bring forth false apparitions and sensations. The brain, unused to the scarcity of stimulation, tends to maintain its usual level of activity by “reaching out” and finding new things on which to focus, or by finding things that don’t really exist at all – like when we strain to see something in the fading twilight and end up imagining all sorts of things that aren’t really there. [4] With time, however, the brain grows accustomed to the stillness of meditation or contemplation, and the potential for such imagined experiences subsides. Likewise, the brain’s conditioned need to fill the newfound mental spaciousness with thought after thought after thought begins to subside, and the mind then begins to experience ever deeper levels of stillness. It becomes more mirror-like, neither adding to nor subtracting from the experience of that which is. In a manner of speaking, we can say that the various aspects of our karma – those created patterns that lead us to behave in certain ways and interpret the world “around us” in certain ways – have ceased to hold sway over us. Our reactivity to various stimuli subsides. The usual passions of our conditioned existence become stilled. In this light, recall the excerpt from the Xinxin Ming that I presented earlier:

The nature of reality is unobscured
as long as one refrains from making judgments.
Begin to make distinctions, however,
and heaven becomes cleaved from earth.

Our created patterns of seeing and interpreting are what prompt us to make distinctions. Our conditioned ways of thinking and feeling lead us to judge things as being right or wrong, good or bad, ugly or beautiful. Unfortunately, though, by the time our judgment becomes apparent true seeing has already ceased. For periods of time, though, while we’re in meditation or contemplation, our karma can be held in abeyance. For a time, our mind can become so still that it sees things only as they are. For a time, heaven and earth are seen again as one. For a time, the kingdom of God is at hand. For a time, we experience the suchness that was so much more common in our childhood years. Ah, but time passes and our experience of suchness, grace, and oneness fades. Our karma reawakens and takes hold of us again. We arise from stillness and proceed to live out our ordinary existence once more – replete with our various and sundry judgments and distinctions. Hopefully, though, whatever judgments and distinctions that might be forthcoming will be made from a position of increased wisdom and compassion for our having experienced stillness as we have.

This “Zen way” of thinking about the experience of stillness requires little in the way of conceptualization, metaphysical or other, in order for us to align the practice of meditation with our fallen state. Depending upon interpretation, other traditions conceptualize the experience of stillness in slightly or even very different ways – all the while valuing it nonetheless. For instance, you’ve probably heard the Sanskrit word nirvana tossed around in reference to some heavenly state of blissful transcendence that only the most dedicated of Hindu yogis might enjoy. Indeed, figurative definitions for the word are likely to include such concepts as emancipation from this earthly existence, and liberation from the worldly passions that keep us trapped in a cycle of death and rebirth. Literal definitions, on the other hand, bring to mind images of a fire having been extinguished, or firewood having been used up. It will surely come as no surprise that the fire being extinguished is, in a figurative sense, the very karma that brings our being into existence. I also trust that it comes as no surprise that the way to extinguish this fire is for one to become calm, quiet, and immovable. Thus, a practice that a Zen adept might describe as allowing him or her to wake up and see clearly in the here and now might be described by a Hindu yogi as providing the means to bring an end to his or her cycle of death and rebirth for the sake of eternal union with the divine.[5]

The Christian tradition has a rich history, as well, with regards to the experience of stillness. The Christian contemplative might begin with a scriptural reading and then gradually transition into a period of reflection and discursive prayer before finally settling into silent contemplation. This eventual experience of stillness, or contemplation, is referred to by some as coming to rest in the presence of God. Unfortunately, contemplative prayer would later come to be regarded as a potentially dangerous endeavor by some within the Christian Church. The possibility that the sensory-deprived contemplative might experience one of those aforementioned hallucinatory apparitions came to be viewed by some as opening oneself up to potentially satanic influences. It’s quite interesting, then, that the Japanese term for such meditative experiences, makyo, translates loosely as the “devil’s realm.”

I’ve become convinced over the course of my adult life that where there is meaningful religious practice there is stillness, and where there is stillness there is the potential for transformational human experience. But it is really not all that mysterious. Quite literally it is in our DNA. It’s child’s play! It’s that which we already know.

[1] Albert Einstein performed such gedankenexperiments during the formulation of his theory of relativity.
[2] The interested reader may wish to consider Immanuel Kant’s concept of a priori knowledge.
[3] In Buddhism this idea of all things arising along with all other things is referred to as dependent origination.
[4] The Japanese term makyo encompasses such apparitions, some of which have tempted practitioners to believe that they have acquired some special capability. 
[5] I juxtapose Zen Buddhism and Hinduism for rhetorical effect. Other forms of Buddhism orient the practice of meditation within a metaphysical framework that is not altogether different from that of Hinduism. 

Image References

Stillness…, by Abelcovarrubias via:
Photo of an anechoic chamber taken at the Kyushu Institute of Design's anechoic chamber by Alexis Glass via:
Original Rustic Garden Gate on Riverside at Eynsford by Richard Croft via:

Copyright 2015 by Mark Frank

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