Your Mind Becomes Your Physiology

 

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As Goenkaji says, whatever arises in the mind arises simultaneously on the body as a sensation. There is no separation between thoughts, emotions and body sensations.  However we are conditioned in western society to experience the mind and body as separate. We go to a psychologist for our minds and a doctor for our body.  People in the west often live from their heads and can be dissociated from their body.  This can have far reaching implications for health, it’s easier for disease to get a foothold if we do not inhabit our body.

It’s interesting as an acupuncturist to witness how the mind becomes our physiology. Our mind actually becomes our body and we can know our Sankaras or reaction patterns by looking at the physical symptoms we have or even by how the body appears. Every moment our mind is producing a certain biochemistry which produces our physiology and over time it becomes our physical structure.  It’s not enough for me to put acupuncture needles in to make the symptoms go away if through a behavior pattern the symptoms are constantly being reinforced.  It’s a very disempowering place for a patient to be when they think that whatever is happening is random and out of their control and they are looking for an expert outside of them to fix them. It’s much more empowering when they can see their own mind/body relationship and see how they maybe contributing.  The beauty of vipassana is that it helps us change our underlying behavior patterns to affect real lasting change.

There are 5 general constitutional types.

The water constitutional type has the theme of reacting to life through the lens of fear. Fear can show up in different ways such frozenness, anxiety, intensity, urgency, over ambition, never-ending go-go-go, extreme risk taking, orthodoxy, or isolation. Fear is a contraction or excess of the life force rooted in aversion. The habit of fear erodes on the kidneys and the adrenals as the nervous system is always on and in vigilance mode, it hastens the aging process, can lead to burnout and exhaustion, it can cause hyper or hypo thyroidism,  hinders the body from resting and rejuvenating, it can lead to teeth or bone issues, also lower back pain and knee pain.   

The wood constitutional type has a theme of reacting to life through the lens of anger. Anger rises quickly and can cause tension and constraint in the body.  It can show up as being judgmental,  being at loggerheads with obstacles and not finding creative ways around them, brash action, anger can tend to see things in terms of black and white/ good and bad.  Pathological anger can cause headaches, skin rashes, hypertension, irritable bowel, ulcers, heart attacks, strokes and pain anywhere in the body.  An inflamed mind can also lead to an inflamed  body.

The fire constitution has a theme of reacting to life through the lens of joy. Joy becomes pathological when there’s excess like too much excitement and manic behavior which can lead to heart issues such as palpitations, tachycardia and heart attacks. It can also lead to insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, agitation and being out of sorts.

The earth constitution type sees life through the lens of over thinking, worry and pensiveness. Worry can show up as having lots of thoughts about things but never taking effective action on them, analysis paralysis,  over thinking can show up as  intellectualization or constantly grazing on ideas which don’t bear fruit or thinking which over complicates situations.  This can have a real effect on our digestive system leading to things like nausea, fatigue, weight gain, bloating, difficult digestion, phlegm and mucous issues, diarrhea or constipation, also too headaches. 

The metal constitution see’s life through the lens of sadness and grief. Grief can show up as heaviness, tiredness, apathy and depression.  Grief over time weakens the lungs and can impair immunity, can lead to asthma, bronchitis, coughing, mucous issues in the lungs and sinuses and allergies.

These are just some examples in brief about how certain habits of mind can show up physically and how the mind and body is in constant interaction.  Our body is constantly communicating with us and we have a lot of things to alert us when things are getting out of balance.  When things are off in the body we can reflect and ask ourselves what is going on in our minds. Goenkaji calls these our private secretaries. 

At the same time it is the nature of the body to break down and deteriorate and we might have conditions that we just inherited karmically. We are lucky though to have the Dhamma to work with suffering that arises whether from recent or long-standing conditions. 

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From Christian Mysticism to Vipassana

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I grew up in a family oriented to Christian Mysticism. My grandparents from both sides were very focused in that way, though they followed different teachers.  My mom’s mom was very influenced by Joel Goldsmith who became well known in the 50s60s and formed a group called the Infinite Way, this teaching rubbed off on me the most. Its focused on experiencing the teachings of Jesus through silence and contemplation.  Joel and the teachers that succeeded him would give talks, hold seminars and record them.  These recordings would be listened to and contemplated in silence.  My mom was also really influenced and I often heard the tapes and went with her to some seminars.

There was a lot of depth conveyed in the tone and words of the teachers, their experience of the kingdom of heaven within sounded a lot like what the Buddha might call the first Jhana where the 5 hindrances fall away giving way to luminosity and rapture.  Their experience of the New Testament would be related to metaphorically conveying a language describing spiritual depth and experience, not understood from literal interpretation. The goal was to realize the Christ mind within yourself and see yourself and the world through the Christ mind.

Though I was comforted listening to the talks, I didnt know how to experience what the teachers were talking about.  Theyd just say just stop thinking, go into the silence and see you on the other side.  The outer physical world was seen as an illusion including the body, sickness, lack, poverty, war, death and so forth.  They were products of the deluded mortal minds creation, split off from God. The thing to do was to train your mind to see past these illusions of the world and see as they truly are as Christ would see them.  It was a very different orientation to suffering than Buddhas teaching. Suffering was more to be looked past rather than to be entered into and be used as a catalyst for liberation. Also some people seemed mental about it, theyd try to talk the talk but it seemed like they were trying to talk themselves into it rather than talk from experience. It seemed disjointed from experience. I was fascinated yet I didnt know how to get inside and experience what the teachers were talking about.

When I found vipassana it was like a golden key to unlocking the inner world. The talks from the Christian tradition started to make more sense experientially.  When I started to develop samadhi, it came to mind, oh this must be what was meant by Christ mind, a Christ mind is a pure mind free from the defilements and this is what that feels like.  And when starting vipassana and feeling energy in the bodythe flow of energy was what was meant by Holy Spirit.  The presence of God could be translated as subtle pleasant sensations or the feeling of peace. But there had been little room for the experience of unpleasant sensations or unpleasant experiences in the Christian tradition, theyd say you need to change your way of thinking and align your mind with Christ mind.  There wasnt the concept of the deep-seated habit pattern of the mind to react to pleasant and unpleasant sensations with craving and aversion and the need to observe them with equanimity. It seemed like it was easy to get stuck in the head and removed from the body. There wasnt the concept of impermanence, you were either operating from the mortal mind or the Christ mind.

Coming from vipassana I can now look back and appreciate what was being taught and recognize some parallels. I feel so grateful now to have a tool with vipassana to develop experiential wisdom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Effects of Music and Dance on Meditation

I went to a 5 Rhythms dance about 2 weeks after sitting a 10 day course.  The 5 rhythms is a free form dance style developed by Gabriel Roth which takes dancers through 5 distinct rhythms of flowing, staccato, chaos, lyrical and stillness. These rhythms mirror the rhythms of nature and the seasons. It’s about a 2 hour dance and is likened to a meditation in motion, there is no rigid form to adhere to rather you let your body dance according to how it wants to move.  I first got introduced by some meditator friends I was serving with at the Massachusetts Center many years ago. Since, I’ve found a dance close to where I live now.

I have enjoyed these dances, they can be deep and profound in their own right. I’ve approached it from the place of being aware and equanimous as I move and allow whatever sensations, thoughts, and feelings to come and go without getting caught in them.  Our bodies need movement and this is a way to move get out of the head and synch the mind with the body. It’s also a nice way to be in community with others. Here in the US many people sit all day at work and then if you practice vipassana you also sit for 2 hours a day, some body centered movement is a good balance I think.  Also for someone who has never taken a 10 day course it can be a way inwards.

Dance and music are very stimulating to the mind and is a gross sensory input especially coming from a 10 day course, I usually wait awhile after a course before I’m ready for a dance.  It’s obvious why the 7th precept of abstaining from sensual entertainment is there for serious meditation because music and dance greatly stimulate the mind and dissipate the subtly of one pointed Samadhi needed for penetrating wisdom. But once I acclimate back to the world and am more active it’s not as big of a jump.

There’s music to fit every mood and emotion. We resonate with music which connects with our emotions. If we want to know what the conscious or unconscious mind has been generating or moods we are inclined towards music will tell us right away.  A challenge with music can be the lure to get completely into emotions without equanimity and get lost and swept away. Let’s say someone is angry and they are drawn to angry music and the music makes them angrier or can make that tendency to react with anger stronger.  The difference as a meditator is that we have learned to observe the sensations underlying emotions with equanimity and maintain wisdom about them.  Music can also be very inspiring and uplifting, it can foster our feelings of metta, generosity and good will towards others, it can help give context and meaning to our personal experiences, articulate what we may have found hard to articulate, connect us to experience we had found hard to connect to before or to something greater than ourselves.  At the same time there’s the wisdom that whatever is arising is impersonal changing phenomenon which does not belong to us but rather are conditions of mind arising and passing away.

When I meditate in the evening after a dance I feel a buzzy flow of energy in the body, there may or may not be emotions that accompany that.  The mind isn’t fixated on particular thoughts as much, thought impressions are moving more quickly, one pointedness samadhi is less. It can make meditation less subtle, less still and peaceful.  More absorption into the sensual realm and less into the sublime. It is a trade off temporally but it’s also anicca. On the other hand the body is benefited- strength, dexterity and coordination is enhanced.  The sitting posture is benefited. The body and mind feel in better communication and there can be a freeing of mental and emotional material and a clearing of the mind.

When we are back in our daily lives in the world we strive to find balance and integration with our meditation practice. For me dance has been one balancing support in this process.

 

Wings of Desire-a Great Dhamma Movie

Wings of Desire

There’s a great Dhamma movie called Wings of Desire that I highly recommend, it came out in 1987.   After finishing Peace Corps Sri Lanka in 1996 and sitting and serving  in India and Nepal, I came back to Sri Lanka to settle at a meditation center near Kandy.  I followed a daily schedule that included a lot of meditation. I befriended an Israeli meditator and we took a break to travel to Colombo. While there he took me to a German Cultural Center and said you got to see this movie because it had a lot of profound Dhamma meaning.  So I sat in a booth with some headphones to watch a German movie with English subtitles, the first movie I’d seen in quite awhile.

It’s filmed in Black and White, set in Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall.  There was something about that setting symbolic of human oppression.  The black and white background portrayed the dreamlke world as seen by angels and the somber mood of people trying to get by.  Damiel (Bruno Ganz) and Cassiel (Otto Sander)  are angels who watch over the city of Berlin, they travel through the city, listening to peoples thoughts and dreams, watching their actions and comforting those in distress. They make their presence known in subtle ways and usually only small children and other angels can see them.  They spend their days serenely observing, unable to physically interact  but through presence, help to comfort and lift up suffering people. While observing a beautiful female trapeze artist, Damiel falls in love and chooses to give up his immortality to become human and go through all the things humans go through to be with her. Once he switches over to being human, the film turns to color. It’s a masterpiece of poetry, cinematography and music. Here’s a couple links from two beautiful opening scenes, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7BpY6I9ZR3A, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivnMDs2krX0.  There was a sequel to it in 1993 called  So Close So Far Away.

I think it especially struck a deep vein because I strongly related to the angels.  I’d been removed from the 10,000 things of the world and deep in meditation. The meditative concentration and equanimity felt like experiencing all the stuff in my mind and witnessing the world through the eyes of an angel, through a lens of detachment and compassion.  Before vipassana angels seemed far away.  Here I was living removed from having to get up to go to work, pay bills, wasn’t married, didn’t have many external needs, worries or responsibilities, my life in the US felt faded. When I’d go to Kandy or Colombo, it really felt like descending into the rougher daily grind of human existence and witnessing that suffering from the outside.  At the same time I was probing deep into my own humanity and facing the existential suffering that I brought into this life, the concentration and equanimity was kind of like having an angel there all the time to witness it. I was also nearing a cross roads of deciding on whether to continue or return home to the US. There was some fear with coming back of losing that connection and getting caught up in the grind.  I could relate with the angel deciding whether to stay or go.

The movie had a lot of symbolic meaning and shed light on the suffering people go can through and the experience of isolation and separateness that can sometimes come with the human experience. Also from a Dhamma perspective I was thinking is that guy out of his mind to get back into potential endless Samsara? Does he know what he’s getting into?  Likewise I was thinking am I out of my mind to consider going back?  I think of the Sutra about if you could collect all the tears one has shed over endless Samsara it would fill the 4 oceans, and likewise with all the blood shed. After I returned to the US I realized that coming out of Samsara rests more within myself and how I relate to my mind, it’s less on where I live.  Wherever I go I carry the same mind with me to either liberate or to increase bondage.  The choice is always mine, the angels never go away,  it’s only the mind that connects or disconnects from heaven.

 

 

Time with a Western Forest Monk in Sri Lanka

 

 

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With Bhikkhu Vappa 1996

 

I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in a rural village near Tissamaharama in southeast Sri Lanka between 1994 and 1996. I feel fortunate to have been sent to a Buddhist country as that was my first coming into contact with Dhamma. From the first time I saw a Buddhist monk, I felt great fascination, resonance, and veneration.

With six months to go in my time there, some of my villager friends were talking about a western forest monk, the “sudhu hamduru”,  who lived about 5 miles away close to the ocean.  I told them I’d like to visit and asked if someone could communicate that to him.  I soon heard back that it was ok and within a day or so I got on my bike and rode down the pot holed village roads to his dwelling.  He lived in an area near Bundala, which is a National Park and wild life refuge.  To get there I rode through several adjoining villages, as usual people along the way would smile, wave and call out, “hello sudhu mahateya” ( a respectful name for a white man). Then, the houses became sparser and the arid desert forest more pronounced, a local villager led me the rest of the way. We got to a bend in the road where there was a trail and we walked our bikes through the trees, brush, and cactuses to his small hut. His hut was a one room dwelling called a kuti.  It was built out of brick, mortar, and plaster with a tin roof over it. There was a covered walking area outside his front door where he could do walking meditation and hang his robes to dry.

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His name was Bhikkhu Vappa and he was a young man about my age, 25 at the time. He was from the Netherlands and I believe he’d been a monk for a few years. Traditionally a monk stays close to his teacher for the first 5 years and then if given permission can go out his own. He’d recently moved out to this dwelling to live in seclusion and went through the local village of Bundala every morning to collect his food for the day. I remember him saying that a well known western monk living there in the 1950-60’s had committed suicide, apparently the monk claimed to be a sotapanna and suffered from severe gastric pain, here’s a wiki article on that monks life, (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanavira_Thera),  the monk living there after Nanavira had died from a poisonous snake bite. After this, a Danish hermit monk named Nanadipa had lived there and to this day still practices out in the wilds of Sri Lanka. Here’s an article about him (http://bhanterahula.blogspot.com/2010/10/meetings-with-remarkable-monk.html ) Bhikkhu Vappa seemed ok with the history and his being there. He was very bright and learned and was very immersed in sutta study and pali translation. He also meditated and said that he had some powerful experiences on meditation retreats which led him to take robes.   He was very enthusiastic that I start meditating and encouraged me to read a book called “Mindfulness in Plain English” by Bante Gunaratana. We practiced anapana together and he was very encouraging that I go to Burma to ordain with Pa Auk Sayadaw after finishing Peace Corps as the conditions for supporting meditation was much better there he said.  After Peace Corps is when I came across vipassana as taught by Goenka and spent the next few years sitting and serving courses.  I also stayed at meditation centers and monasteries in Sri Lanka and then to Burma to become a monk for a short time.

At this point in Peace Corps, I had a lot of down time with projects completed, so I went out to visit him quite often. I was lonely from going weeks without the company of westerners and was very drawn to learn from him. We had long engaging conversations. One day he took me out to scout elephants in the forest outside of his kuti as they were migrating through the area. He said that you needed to be careful because sometimes they would stand still and you wouldn’t know that they were there and they could get scared and go wild. Nanadipa, the prior inhabitant of the kuti had been knocked down by an elephant at another location, you can read that story in the above link.  Bhikkhu Vappa was like a master animal tracker and would look, listen and pay close attention to the surroundings.  We came across a family of elephants and watched quietly from behind some trees. The ocean was about a 1/4th of a mile down a trail, and we’d walk out onto a pristine untouched beach where you did not see any people or human dwellings for as far as you could see.

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Another time, he took me to a temple within Yala National Park called Sithulpawwa which was built in the 2nd century BC. There is an ancient stupa there from the Buddha’s time.  It was located in an area where there were enormous rock formations which formed caves where monks had meditated for over two thousand years. It is rumored that arahants had meditated there in ancient times and it had been a serious monastery for meditators.  It was way off the beaten path, not known to tourists at the time.  Only Sri Lankan pilgrims came to visit the temple, I never saw anyone who wandered up to the caves. Bhikkhu Vappa said that the temple monk wouldn’t let wandering lay people stay in the caves but it was ok because I was accompanied by a monk. We stayed for a few days in a spacious cave which overlooked the jungle with the ocean in the distance. The walls of the cave had inscriptions of the ancient Brahmi script and had chisel marks everywhere. The caves had been chiseled and crafted to make them habitable.  Some of the other caves had pictures from the Buddha’s time. It was very placid and quiet.  There was a serene sense of timelessness as if it was 2000 years ago. At night you could hear the animal sounds of the jungle and a distant remote light house flashed out in the Indian Ocean. Sleeping on the rocky ground gave a new meaning to the 8th precept of not sleeping on high cozy beds. We had a lot of life and Dhamma discussions, it was such a unique time having been immersed in Sri Lankan rural life for almost 2 years, far away from life in the US, my mind was wide open to take in new things.  I would go with him to the temple for the mid-day alms meals and bathe in an ancient man made bath which still had the ancient irrigation system flowing fresh water through it.  There were gray monkeys with black faces throughout the rocks and in the trees.  After staying there we hiked almost 18km through the jungle to Kataragama where I met some fellow Peace Corps Volunteers.  We encountered an elephant along the trail which we had to go around, we also saw leopard footprints and weathered many ticks. Looking back it was quite an adventure.

Sithulpawwa view

 

In the final weeks, he invited me to go to Kandy with him to visit Bhikkhu Bodhi who is an American monk and was the editor and president of the Buddhist Publication Society. He is well known for translating the Majjhima Nikaya and Samyutta Nikaya texts amongst other great scholarly work.  Bhikkhu Bodhi had given a talk to my Peace Corps class during training and later on, I would serve him for 3 months at Bodhi Monastery in New Jersey after he moved back to the states. Bhikkhu Vappa also took me to visit a couple of other long time western monks, one in Kandy and the other in Bandarawela before I finished Peace Corps.  I remember needing to learn the proper etiquette for being with a monk in public.

I later found out that Bhikkhu Vappa changed his name to Bhikkhu Nyanatusita and took over Bhikkhu Bodhi’s responsibility as editor of the Buddhist Publication Society.  He’s still presently serving in this role. If I go back to visit Sri Lanka I hope to visit him again.

I am very grateful to Bhikkhu Vappa (Nyanatusita), as he was my first substantial connection with the Dhamma. He encouraged and supported me in taking my first steps on the path. I feel very fortunate to have crossed paths with him and to have had these very impressionable experiences and in depth discussions on life and the Dhamma. These experiences greatly impacted me and give my Dhamma practice a much greater context.

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Entrepreneurship as a Meditator

I practice acupuncture and while there are a few paid positions here and there, most practitioners run their own practices. I have run my practice for the past 9 years and have earned my living while supporting my two daughters. Part of this requires me to bring in new patients, retain current patients and stay in contact with all patients. There is an entrepreneurial aspect to the business with putting myself out there and promoting myself. I haven’t had to do it for awhile because my business had been coasting and auto regulating, however, I’m finding myself needing to put some energy into that again. As all self-employed people know, business ebbs and flows.

Developing the qualities of an entrepreneur has been a work in progress, I didn’t enter my acupuncture career in 2008 especially inclined that way, in fact, friends might have described me as more introspective and monk like. Before acupuncture school, I’d spent 4 years meditating in South Asia. Given this, I’ve needed to work to develop those qualities.

The process of meditation uncovers all the inclinations of the mind. There are natural strengths which come to the surface to support one almost effortlessly. Then there are areas where someone finds they aren’t as practiced at and need to develop. Meditation by itself does not magically make someone an entrepreneur if they don’t already have those qualities developed in them. Conversely, there are many charismatic people in the world who are natural born entrepreneurs, who will never meditate a day in their life. The meditation part only brings wisdom to whatever conditioning we are working with, to come out of the minds unconscious habit of reacting to pleasant and unpleasant sensations with craving and aversion to purify the mind.

When starting my acupuncture practice, I found myself seeking out people who were good at entrepreneurship for advice and skill development. Then I would need to do things which would take me out of my comfort zone like give talks and put myself out there. It’s challenging to do things which bring up discomforts such as anxiety and fear. There was no discourse in the 10-day discourses which specifically touched on this subject. It was a process of integrating what I learned from the coaches instruction together with my experiential practice of vipassana. I think that’s such the case with integrating vipassana to life, there’s often not a discourse that specifically explains how to apply your practice to certain life experiences. Assistant teachers can be of great help to bridge that gap, especially those who’ve had experience with integrating similar things, but I found the greatest learning came experientially from within myself.

It was challenging to go from a humble meditator who valued quiet to someone who needed to put themselves out there, to direct and instruct people, to promote and be more vocal. My experience as a devoted meditator had been so antithetical to being an entrepreneur. The last thing I was developing while meditating in a cell was that of an entrepreneur. These have been two different worlds which have needed to be brought together for the sake of success for my business and my own development.  This makes going back to meditate on my next course in the cell all the more deep and rich.

Yoga as a Support for Sitting

I’ve practiced yoga for many years and have found it to be very complimentary to vipassana. I’m lucky to have a studio just 2 minutes away and have been pretty consistent this last year and a half. Goenkaji had talked about yoga as being very beneficial for the physical body and even more beneficial if you can do it with the awareness of sensations and equanimity. I’ve experienced benefits which have included greater strength, flexibility, balance, release of tension and also greater sensitivity and awareness of sensation. This has aided my sitting practice and has factored into deepening meditation on courses.

The origin of the physical asana practice from what I understand was to strengthen the body and help open the channels in support of sitting meditation. Although we tend to only hear about the asana practice, it’s actually only one of 8 limbs of yoga. The other limbs relate to ethical practices, developing virtues, and concentration; 1) The Yama’s- Moral Discipline (Sila) 2) Niyama’s- Positive disciplines which build character 3) Asana’s – The Physical poses 4) Pranayama- Breathing exercises 5) Pratyahara- Sense withdrawal 6) Dharana- Focused concentration 7) Dhyana- Meditative absorption 8) Samadhi- Liberation.

Most of these limbs are within what we practice in Dhamma. I focus on natural breathing instead of pranayama and also in yoga the emphasis seems on developing concentration than on developing wisdom into the impermanent nature of mind and matter. I do yoga with the focus on breath and sensations. The limbs of yoga developed in a class are the physical postures with a positive theme presented usually about developing virtue and character. There’s also the withdrawal of the senses and the development of concentration which is a support for wisdom.

We are very blessed to have come in contact with Dhamma and in order to get the most out of practice​ it’s important that we maintain the health and longevity of our body. Yoga is one support for that. Just as we take care of our car with servicing, it’s important that we take care of our body. Also in western culture, ​there is such an emphasis on being busy and in our heads all the time. Yoga is an aid to connecting to the body and sensations. Actually, yoga means to yoke the mind with the body which is something that we in western culture are especially in need of support with.