Moving mindfulness: making the transition from sitting meditation to engaged, moment to moment wakefulness
The effort of living versus the peacefulness of meditation - a false dichotomy
Many practitioners of mindfulness will recognise a feeling that while their lives are definitely enriched in a profound way, there is sometimes still a feeling that actually living life - paying the bills, feeding the children, going to work, dealing with situations - is demanding but sitting in meditation, on the other hand, is a refuge.
Meditation is not a happy trip
This is not the case for all meditators. Meditation is not supposed to be a technique for getting high or managing to “attain” anything. In fact, trying to “attain” is evidence of the very problematic thinking that the practitioner may be able to transcend with practice.
The reality is that the same peace that is available to us when we are in “zazen” sitting meditation is just a mindset switch away from us while we are in the thick of it. Sounds great, doesn't’ it? But it doesn’t seem very feasible when you’re behind on a deadline and your laptop is running painfully slow. Nope. You’re too good at your practice for that kind of trivia to affect you? Let’s imagine you’ve just lost your job or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer.
The point is that nothing you can do in meditation is ever going to stop any of the negative stuff from happening. It is ironic really that when we look at one of the great stories of a religion that is strongly associated with meditation - Buddhism - we see the young Siddhartha Gautama being sheltered from suffering by his parents. Every kind of misfortune is hidden from him. One day he decides to sneak out of his living quarters and he is taken around the town by a chaperone where he sees poverty, sickness and death. Meditation will not stop poverty, sickness or death - for you or anyone else.
Likewise, in Christianity, salvation and the spiritual path are not going to save anybody from poverty, sickness and death. Jesus himself suffered greatly before, it is believed, he was then crucified, and he is the the father, the son and the holy spirit for Christians.
Positive actions in a negative environment
The point then is that it is naive to think that meditation practice or faith in Jesus is going to somehow ensure that nothing unfortunate happens to you or around you. That said, meditation practice and faith in Jesus may help you become more effective in dealing with life (as a psychological mechanism). By controlling our own behaviours, our emotional response and our mindset we are controlling several behaviours that give rise to outcomes. Just because you do have the right attitude, think the right thoughts and take the right actions does not mean you still won’t get a kick in the face. As Stallone’s Rocky character said, “It’s not how hard you can hit. It’s how hard you can be hit and keep moving forward.”
What I have tried to achieve in this post so far is to deliver a realistic expectation of what mindfulness practice or any kind of spiritual or psychological improvement practice should be about. It is not about achieving every goal you ever wished for or obtaining every “thing” your heart desires. If that is still how you think you will find contentment or happiness you are reading the wrong post. It that is still how you think you will find contentment, somebody lied to you and you need to cleanse that kind of thinking from your mind because it will only lead to frustration and unhappiness.
What can I expect from mindfulness then?
There are a tonne of social media memes that point to the real truth but it doesn’t seem to sink in for most of mankind. You may be able to have some influence on the outside world but the vast majority of what’s going on around you is out of your control. The sooner you deal with that, the quicker you can make a difference where it counts - yourself. Guess who is in full control of your self?
When people meditate for the first time, one of the first things they notice is the sheer volume of visual, auditory and sensory thoughts and feelings they are hit with. Of course meditation practice teaches them how to still the pond but these mental entities will still arise by themselves. So we are not in full control of our inner world either. The thing that needs to change is the self.
What is this thing called self?
The truth of self is “no-self”. Self is an illusion. At best, self is the overall deduction of who we are based on all memories and experiences up to the present moment, and our state of mind is the result of a complex moment to moment calculation based on the “self” variable, the desires and expectations of that “self”, its perception of what’s happening “to it” and how that perception compares with the desires and expectations that “it” has. That was a tricky sentence to write. It may be a tricky one to read so feel free to read it again.
How can that possibly be a self. Our memories are not set in stone. Sometimes they are not encoded properly. The editing can be terrible both in terms of what bits of perceived reality we choose not to remember and which bits we take with us. Memories often corrupt with time. As for experience itself, it is only ever in this moment, so we are relying on memories, which are faulty, for our grasp of previous experiences.
So if our “self” is an overall deduction of who we are, based on all memories and experiences up to the present moment, that is a pretty shaky identity to have. It gets even more complex because the state of mind as based on a comparison calculation that weighs up our perception of reality against our expectations, hopes and desires (ever changing variables) will, in itself, alter our “definition” of who we are. That’s right, “self” is not only defined by an extremely dodgy grasp of a past that no longer exists, it is also affected by ever changing variables relating to the future.
This “self” that we cling to is in a constant state of flux. It can actually be destroyed at any moment and millions of people find the self being shattered several times during a lifetime, only to be altered, fixed or rebuilt.
What is “no-self”?
So if everything that we think of as “self” can be proven to have no real substance, what is this thing called “no-self”? The simplest way to put this would be to describe it as pure awareness. Meditation trains us to recognise truth from untruth. It is a deconstruction tool. Bit by bit, through meditation, we realise what we are not; that we are not what is going on outside, either yesterday, today or tomorrow; we realise that we are not whatever kind of internal dialogue is going on, that we are not whatever emotion is springing up within us; that we are not this physical body.
What we are left with is an increasingly strong awareness of our being, right here, right now. Our true being is not based on what happened in the past. Our true being is not fixed. It is completely open and beyond definition. It is vast, cosmic in fact. The reality is that our entire universe, our entire existence is within that being. The thing that most people think of as “self” acts as a filter. Some “selves” are more workable than others and will help the host to have a better life but all of them are faulty, all of them are untrue and all of them cause unhappiness because they all want to live forever (not going to happen), all want pleasurable experiences constantly and have a low tolerance for things not going their way. All “selves” are doomed to failure.
No-mind (another way of saying “no-self” is a state of constant acceptance of reality. Not to accept reality is delusion. What’s more, is that no-mind is indestructible and eternal because it either exists or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, there is no perception of non-existence, and it will never anticipate non-existence because it is constantly present, and constantly accepting of the present.
When we meditate in zazen, we are tasting no-mind. We are tasting the eternal.
Why is it so difficult to carry our meditational state into everyday life?
The problem for many, as outlined at the start of this article, is not finding wisdom or, at the very least, valuable and rich experience in meditation. The difficulty arises when we stand up and start engaging with life. People don’t behave in ways that reflect our values, the universe can appear to be conspiring against us, one step forward can be followed with three steps back, and emotions can be overwhelming.
We have to understand what meditation is and what the real purpose of practice is in order to understand how to make that transition: maintaining the state of mind that we experience in meditation while we are trying to reason with the unreasonable.
The “self” is still in charge
Put simply, the problem is “self” and ego at its heart. The “self” gives the host permission to sit in zazen because there is a pay off; sitting in zazen can be pleasant, can give much needed rest, can help improve our cognitive functions, enable us to perform better because of enhanced concentration, strengthened resilience, an increased openness and creative spirit etc etc. I ask you: what self wouldn’t want those things?
When you look at it that way, the “self”, and all the trouble that goes with it, is still in charge. You sit in meditation and then when you get up and go, the “self” takes the reins again. You have to remember that the true purpose of meditation is to finally and definitively transcend the “self”. “Self” has its uses but cannot be the boss. Meditation is a pleasure but also a threat to the “self”.
Making the transition: moving meditation
Several years ago, after decades of meditating combined with martial arts training, I came to a realisation.
As a young man in the 80s I had particularly excelled in creative performance with martial arts weapons and especially nunchaku. I looked around me and nobody appeared to be doing what I was doing and if they were they reached a ceiling very early in their practice. I very quickly identified the problem even then, as a teenager. While I was “listening” to the nature of whatever it was I was handling and learning how to move in harmony with that nature, everybody else seemed to be trying to inflict their will on the prop, to “make the prop do something”.
The strange thing is that many martial artists have a great love and appreciation of eastern philosophies such as taoism and the concept of yin yang but, back then, when it came to their practice there appeared to be zero understanding of what the teachings. It seemed to me, and still does, that when I was learning my craft and practising the nunchaku, I was engaging in a form of spontaneous moving meditation; my consciousness was expanding to embrace the surroundings and the nunchaku and I were, as the taoists would put it (I think) “in the tao” with the nunchaku. There was no me, no nunchaku, and no surroundings - just an event happening that embodied all of us in perfect harmony.
But how to get others to taste this? That was the challenge. Then I discovered Japanese sword training - Iaido.
Moving while meditating: walking meditation
In the zen tradition, they practice something call walking meditation where, after a period of sitting meditation, practitioners would then stand and walk very slowly being mindful, moment to moment, of each step. The aim was to feel the whole experience as a continuum - not actually steps - of movement of the body with a still mind.
In Tai Chi, we see a similar idea. The body is neither moving from here or to there. It is almost a non-doing. Rather, there is a continuum of movement and consciousness is always right here and our body is always positioned right here and right now.
The best way to describe this in a way that is really tangible would be to ask you to imagine that you encountered a door with a handle on both sides. Do you push or do you pull? It is human nature to assume one or the other and then when we reach the door, if it was to be pushed yet we pull (or vice versa), we will usually use too much force. Has that happened to you? You have gone to push the door and ended up almost walking into it OR you went to pull it and almost yanked your arm out of the socket? That is because your movement had “intention” - going from somewhere to somewhere else. Imagine if the moment you went to pull the door (that should be pushed) you immediately sensed that the force was wrong. Food for thought.
Iaido or push hands - moving meditation with a prop
Learning forms with another object like a katana (sword) or a bokken (wooden sword) allows for two things: practising the concept of a continuum of consciousness in harmony with movement on the one hand, with sensitivity and harmony with the movement and nature of another object.
Unlike some props such as nunchaku or 6ft wooden staff (bo), the way the sword will move is predictable. Don’t get me wrong, any practitioner of iaido would tell you that you can spend your life practising to achieve the perfect cut without any interference from tension, mind or imbalance BUT I am not talking about becoming the perfect swordsman here. What I am talking about is learning to move in harmony with the sword. It is a splendid development from walking meditation to moving meditation in harmony with something else. There is the chance to expand your consciousness so that you melt into the experience and become “one with the sword”.
Alternatively in Goju Ryu, Wing Chun and other forms of Kung Fu, there are various types of “push hands” practice where people face each other with one or both hands in contact with the each other. They have to apply pressure through contact but not too much pressure that it is easy for the other person to cause an imbalance. Too little pressure and the other person can push us over. Too much force and we can be wrong footed. This practice teaches us to feel and respond to the forces of our environment. Moving meditation with an extra factor.
Spontaneous moving meditation
To recap then, we have looked at the nature of mind, the overall purpose of meditation, the battle between “self” and the truth of no-mind, and the difficulties faced in carrying through the meditational mindset to our everyday lives.
We have noted that we can learn how to move while meditating, using baby steps at first such as walking meditation, advancing to more complex movement such as Tai Chi, and then interactive moving meditation with a static prop such as a Japanese sword or another mindful prop such as as another person.
The life around us is much less predictable. Anything can and does happen.
The final step then in the process of practice is to learn how to meditate while interacting with the wild and unpredictable. I teach my students to practice simple exercises with nunchaku (“nunchuks” or double baton joined by a chain, made famous by Bruce Lee), or bo (6ft wooden staff). The aim of these exercises is to feel the natural forces of the prop. Once you set them in motion how do they act? Some props carry much more momentum and once they are set in motion you can work with them to achieve results or work against them and get tired. Others are volatile and light, quickly becoming unpredictable and out of control once they are set in motion.
Learn to play
What I am trying to teach my students and what I want to put across as the take-away for this article, is that to meditate in everyday life is much like the spontaneous meditation practice I just outlined. It is a kind of play. You cannot push against the resistance that life offers. Resistance against resistance just means more resistance. We must learn when to yield and when to assert and when to be still.
This is only possible when we truly let go and feel what life is telling us. Feel the dynamics of all the forces around us, including our own deepest self (as opposed to conditioned thought).
When our true being (not “self”) is in harmony, “in the tao”, with our world, that is when we are on the right path. However that path unfolds, there lies spiritual and mental tranquillity. That is why life is an art.