Posts Tagged ‘emotional stability’

If you own a home in Western New York, you may be familiar with ice dams. These pesky obstructions occur when heat escapes from a warm attic, melts the snow on the roof, and sends water trickling down to the cold eaves. There it freezes into mounds of ice, blocking the further flow of melting snow. Unless your roof is protected by an asphalt polymer membrane, the trapped water may find its way under the shingles and into the ceiling below.

Ice dams can cause no end of trouble. And so can their counterparts in the inner life, if we allow them to form and grow. In his article “The Mind’s True Nature,” the Tibetan poet and meditation master Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explains:

Water is soft and fluid, ice hard and sharp, so we cannot say that they are identical; but neither can we say that they are different, because ice is only solidified water, and water is only melted ice.

The same applies to our perception of the world around us. To be attached to the reality of phenomena, to be tormented by attraction and repulsion, by pleasure and pain, gain and loss, fame and obscurity, praise and blame, creates a solidity in the mind. What we have to do, therefore, is to melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within.*

In this vivid analogy Dilgo Khyentse is describing dualistic thought: the process by which we habitually divide undifferentiated reality into concepts of this or that—into good and bad, beautiful and ugly, self and other, and so on. While necessary for survival, such concepts can all too easily freeze into rigid categories, to which we become attached, occluding our vision and blocking the stream of life.

But how do we “melt the ice of concepts into the living water of freedom within”? Franz Kafka, author of “The Metamorphosis” and other modern parables, once described a book as an “axe to the frozen sea within us.” And Zen koans, which sometimes resemble Kafka’s parables, can also serve that function. Contemplating a koan such as “Who hears the sound?” or “All things enter the One. But what does the One enter?” we are compelled to abandon conceptual thought, making room for direct, intuitive perception.

But there is also a gentler and more gradual method. It consists of sitting still and watching our sensations, thoughts, and mental states arise, take form, and eventually dissolve. Bringing relaxed attention to that inner stream, we may detect the counterpart of ice dams in our psyches: fixed ideas, inflexible beliefs, impermeable states of mind. That’s just the way I am, we may be tempted to say. But should we continue to shine the lamp of mindfulness on those aggregates of thought and feeling, recognizing their impermanent and insubstantial nature, we may sense the beginning of a thaw. We may touch the ground of being—the common source of ice and water. And over time, we may taste the living water within.


* Shambhala Sun (January, 2009), 78-79

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One afternoon, as I stood in a room in a Seattle hotel, I felt the building sway and the floor move beneath my feet. “What’s going on?” I said aloud, before I realized what had happened.

The hotel had swayed because it was meant to. Like other skyscrapers, it was designed to sway by as much as a foot in a high wind. If that seems like a lot, we have only to consider the skyscraper presently under construction in Dubai. At its current height of 2,250 feet, the Burj Dubai is already the world’s tallest man-made structure. Its pilings extend more than 150 feet into the ground. But when completed, its Sky Tower will sway as much as ten feet in the wind. A symbol of wealth and power, the Burj Dubai also exemplifies stability joined to resilience.

Although the human body is not a skyscraper, the posture of Zen meditation has much in common with the structure of tall buildings. Both require solidity below and flexibility above.

When we sit down to meditate, we first create a solid foundation. We sit on the first third of the cushion, letting our knees rest on the mat below. Crossing our legs in one of the “lotus” positions, we take care to elevate the pelvis above the knees. By so doing, we establish a triangular base of support, our two knees and our sitting bones becoming the three points of the triangle.

Having established that immovable base, we bend forward, then come up slowly, allowing the back to straighten itself. We push the crown of the head upward, stretching the spine. Rocking from side to side, we decrease this movement until the spine is vertical and aligned with the earth’s gravitational force. Then we exhale, deeply and completely, as we relax into the posture of meditation. Although the upper body is motionless and upright, it is also flexible and light..

For Westerners, especially those accustomed to slouching in an armchair or sitting rigidly at a computer, this posture may initially feel uncomfortable. But with practice, it can become the most natural way of sitting, as well as the one most beneficial to the body and mind.

At the physical level, the posture of meditation promotes the free flow of air into and out of the lungs. More broadly, it permits the free flow of energy throughout the body. As the weight of the body settles into its center of gravity—the hara, or lower abdomen—our muscles relax, and our tensions lessen. Rather than resist the directional energies of gravitation, the body enjoys their support.

In tandem with the calming of the body, the posture of meditation also calms the mind. In Zen meditation, we sometimes count our exhalations or follow the movement of the breath into and out of our lungs. But even without these aids to concentration, the posture of meditation fosters clarity of mind. When the body is grounded, upright, and relaxed, the mind more easily sheds its fantasies and fears, its worries and incessant chatter.

Beyond these tangible benefits, the posture of meditation also engenders a more open attitude toward the world. In ordinary life, we often brace ourselves, physically and emotionally, against the “other,” whether the other is threatening us or not. We defend what we call our “selves”. By adopting the posture of meditation we cultivate a suppler and more receptive attitude toward the realities of our lives, however pleasant or unpleasant they may be. Like tall but resilient buildings, we sway in the wind.


Since this column was written, the Burj Dubai has been renamed the Burj Khalifa. For my understanding of stability and resilience I am indebted to Will Johnson’s The Posture of Meditation (Shambhala, 1996).

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