Change your body, change your mind, change your life
The subtitle of this article - change your body, change your mind, change your life - is the motto of my Zen sangha, Zenways. And while it's perhaps tempting to write this off as a tweetable marketing catch-phrase, there's a deep truth to it that I'd like to explore in this week's article. Zen practice really can touch every aspect of who we are and what we do - if we're willing to let it, and if we know how.
Levels of engagement, and Daizan's sports analogy
From time to time I teach mindfulness courses for beginners, and it's always interesting to see to what extent people are willing to engage with the material. I do my best to advertise up front the expectations of the course - a daily 30-minute meditation practice and various additional exercises - but often when people actually start the course, they find it's difficult to fit the practice into their day, or they simply aren't willing to give up their free time at all.
My teacher Daizan has a sporting analogy for one's level of engagement with meditation practice and the benefits that ensue. Some people use mindfulness as a kind of topical ointment when they're feeling stressed - do some practice when they're having trouble sleeping, perhaps, and then drop it again once they're back to normal. That's the equivalent of playing football every once in a while, when the mood takes you: it's enjoyable while you're doing it, but you don't really start to accrue any particular long-term fitness or skill from playing that way.
The next level up is the equivalent of playing regularly for an amateur team. Maybe you're in a local league, you attend training sessions, and you start to get quite a bit better at football. You're also developing a higher level of baseline fitness, which will have other benefits beyond simply playing the game. In a mindfulness context, at this point you've established a regular meditation practice which keeps going through good times and bad, and as a result you're starting to develop some side benefits, such as a generally higher level of focus in daily life, lower blood pressure, and greater resilience to stress rather than simply temporary relief from the symptoms of stress.
Then we have the professionals - people who have devoted a significant chunk of their lives. These are the salaried football players whose lives revolve around the game - training, fitness and performance have become part of who they are. In the meditation world, you're looking at people who may practice for several hours a day and attend multiple silent retreats throughout the year. For people at this level, the benefits go well beyond simple stress relief or even resilience - the deeper insights of the path will inevitably open up over time. From personal experience, I can say that there are quite a few people with this level of commitment out there, and it's always a pleasure and a privilege to meet someone with a deep practice like this.
At the top end are the world champions - those with unusual talent or skill. In the football world these are the celebrated players whose every movement is scrutinised by the sporting press. (I'm not going to expose my woeful sports knowledge by attempting to name some of them.) Thankfully the meditation world doesn't get that kind of attention, but nevertheless the most extraordinary practitioners develop a certain kind of renown. Some practitioners seem to reach a point where they can continue to sit in meditation without eating, drinking, sleeping or indeed moving at all for days or even weeks, for example. Whether these kinds of skills are really useful for someone with a family and a day job is really beside the point - the point is simply that there are incredible depths to this seemingly simple practice, and most of us are merely scratching the surface.
So let's take another look at that Zenways motto: change your body, change your mind, change your life. How can we do that?
Changing your body
When you see a phrase like 'change your body' in a spiritual context, you might immediately think of something like Yoga or Tai Chi. These are great practices in their own right, but they can also become powerful vehicles for Zen practice if we approach them in the right way.
At the heart of Zen practice is the notion of presence. In any moment of our lives, we can be fully present, entirely distracted, or somewhere in between, split between the present-moment situation and some other activity of our minds. Zen training is about becoming more and more present in an ever-wider range of situations, arguing that time spent distracted is time wasted, and that our lives are lived most fully when we show up for each and every moment of them. (If that sounds like hyperbole, check it out for yourself! Get your meditation practice good enough that you can see where your mind is going and what happens in your experience when you're focused versus when you're distracted, and then track it across many different situations.)
So a physical activity such as Yoga or Tai Chi not only has health benefits in terms of strengthening our bodies and making them more fluid and flexible, but we can also use the practice to train this quality of presence. As we go through a sequence of asanas or a form, are we present, or are we simply going through the motions? Are we focused on the physical sensations of the body and the subtle intentions of the mind, or are we thinking about something else whilst absent-mindedly copying the shapes the people around us are making with their bodies? And, actually, we quickly find that our physical practice goes better when our mind is on what we're doing, so both our Zen practice and our physical practice can benefit each other.
But Zen also has its own physical cultivation practices. Japanese culture places great emphasis on the development of the hara - essentially, the guts. I've previously written about Zen master Hakuin's energy practices, which are one way to train the hara (particularly the ah-un breathing, which is briefly mentioned in the article; there's also a guided audio version of the practice on my Audio page).
If you keep up a practice like ah-un breathing over a period of several weeks, you'll start to get a concrete physical feeling associated with the hara - as if your upper body is relaxing and your centre of mass has moved down into the abdomen. In the martial arts world, the hara is sometimes described as the 'stone ball', because when it's well developed it really can feel like your hara becomes a heavy ball.
Interestingly, in order to maintain a sense of connection with this 'stone ball' sensation, it's necessary for the upper body to stay relatively relaxed. This has a corresponding effect on the nervous system - physical tension is associated with the sympathetic ('fight or flight') branch while relaxation is associated with the parasympathetic ('rest and digest'). So by training the hara and maintaining an awareness of it in our daily activities, we actually train our bodies to be more physically soft and relaxed throughout the day, meaning that we don't get so stressed and have an easier time dealing with whatever comes up.
Changing your mind
The second part of the motto is the more obvious part - meditation involves doing something with your mind, so of course you're changing your mind. Simple, right?
Even here there are some subtleties, though. Psychologists like to talk about 'states' and 'traits': a state is a temporary experience, such as the condition of feeling briefly happy when you receive some good news, whereas a trait is a characteristic pattern of thinking, feeling or behaving that tends to remain pretty stable across time, such as being generally optimistic about the future.
Meditation can produce changes in both states and traits. Of the two, the state changes are usually easier to observe and show up more rapidly - for example, you might find that after just two or three meditation sessions you start to notice that you tend to feel a bit calmer afterwards, i.e. the meditation practice is changing your state toward one which is less agitated. But all states are temporary, and so if you get nice and peaceful in your meditation practice and then go straight back into a stressful environment, the calm state will probably wear off pretty quickly.
As I mentioned above in the section on 'professional meditators', our practice can take us beyond state changes. A dedicated practice over a period of years can retrain the mind's default states, shifting our traits - for example, a long-term jhana practice will lead to the practitioner experiencing more positive states naturally, irrespective of circumstances, while a committed practice of the Brahmaviharas tends to lead to practitioners becoming kinder and more compassionate by default. Insight practice can also lead to shifts in the way we see the world, fundamentally changing our relationship with our experience, and at the deepest levels even cutting the roots of suffering itself. These types of insights are most likely to open up in retreat conditions for people with a deep, committed practice, but can come up for anyone at any moment - there's a saying in meditation circles that insight is always an accident, but through deepening your practice you can make yourself accident-prone.
Changing your life
I once asked Stephen Batchelor how I could better integrate my Zen practice into my life, and he said that the question was already a mistake. It was better, he said, to ask how I could come to see my life as my practice. I've been chewing on that one ever since.
It seems to me that Stephen's essential point is that to distinguish between 'practice' and 'life' sets up a split between some period of time in our day when we 'do Zen', and the rest of the time, when we don't. Zen becomes a 'technique' or a 'training', like doing sit-ups in the morning, which confers certain benefits in the background but is largely forgotten outside formal practice times.
But if we come back for a moment to the basic principle of presence that I introduced above when talking about doing physical practices such as Yoga or Tai Chi, there's really no reason why the attitude of becoming ever-more present to whatever we're doing should be limited to physical exercise or meditation. Actually, is there any part of our lives that wouldn't go better if we paid more attention to it? Scientific research says no - people report higher levels of well-being when they're more focused on whatever they're doing, even when it's an unpleasant activity.
We can see this attitude reflected in Zen teachers through the ages. My teacher's teacher, Shinzan Roshi, constantly spoke of 'nari kiru' - becoming completely one with whatever activity one was engaged in, all day, every day. He said that this was the true and only way to live the Zen life. We also have the following classic Zen story, taken from a collection compiled in the 19th century:
Zen students are with their masters at least two years before they presume to teach others. Nan-in was visited by Tenno, who, having passed his apprenticeship, had become a teacher. The day happened to be rainy, so Tenno wore wooden clogs and carried an umbrella. After greeting him Nan-in remarked: 'I suppose you left your wooden clogs in the vestibule. I want to know if your umbrella is on the right or left side of the clogs.'
Tenno, confused, had no instant answer. He realized that he was unable to carry his Zen every minute. He became Nan-in's pupil, and he studied six more years to accomplish his every-minute Zen.
But maybe this all sounds like a lot of work - far too much for modern-day people, with all our responsibilities and things to do. Well, it turns out that people have been too busy for a long time! Back in the 12th century, a Chinese teacher named Dahui Zonggao worked with senior Chinese officials of the Song dynasty at a time when northern China had been invaded by the Jurchen people. Chaos, destruction and continual fear of imminent death were the order of the day. Zen has always thrived in times of hardship, as people turn to the practice to help them navigate the difficult conditions of their lives, and so Dahui found himself working with many highly committed students who nevertheless had their hands very full indeed.
His basic approach was to give them a simple core practice (in Dahui's case, he recommended koan study, but whatever practice you prefer will do fine), and the following instructions. When working, or engaged in any other kind of activity, you should be 100% focused on your work. Simply do what is in front of you as completely as you can, not splitting your attention in multiple directions. (Nari kiru.) Then, when you find yourself with a moment of respite - perhaps while waiting for a meeting to begin, or travelling from one place to another - bring up the practice and reconnect with it, grounding ourselves physically and mentally rather than simply allowing the mind to wander. In this way, Zen practice threads through your entire life - sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but never totally absent, never making that hard distinction between 'Zen' and 'life' that limits the potential of your practice.
Ultimately, Zen is a way of life. We do the practice not to achieve some kind of exalted state or spiritual trophy, but rather to live a Zen life - to be present, grounded, focused and engaged in each moment of our lives, no matter what our personal conditions might be.
May you discover your own Zen life.
Matt has been practising meditation for over ten years and hopes to share these powerful techniques for the benefit of all.