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Posts Tagged ‘tai chi’

For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality.

Mindfulness of the Body

Popular notions of meditation sometimes depict the practice as essentially cerebral. By various means, it’s assumed, the practitioner induces a kind of trance, leaving the cares of the world and the woes of the body behind.

Classical Buddhist meditation is quite the opposite. It grounds the practitioner in present realities, among them one’s breathing, posture, mental state, and physical condition. And, rather than prompt us to think, in general terms, about our bodies, the practice cultivates real-time awareness (a.k.a., “mindfulness”) of the positions, movements, and parts of our bodies, just as they are. The aim is not to objectify those physical realities but to bring a kind, contemplative attention to each of them, one by one. By so doing, we relieve existing tensions, and we also gain insight into the causal connections between our physical habits—our shallow breathing, for example—and the unwholesome states of mind those habits can engender.

To practice mindfulness of the body, we assume a comfortable, upright posture on a cushion or chair. Beginning with the crown of the head, we bring mindfulness first to our eyes, then to our shoulders, spines, lungs, and so on, as if they were stops on a journey. To facilitate this process, Thich Nhat Hanh recommends a sequence of meditative verses, each employing the formula, “Breathing in, I’m aware of my ­­­(eyes, shoulders, etc.) / Breathing out, I bring kind attention to my ____.” Silently reciting these verses, the practitioner cultivates mindfulness of breathing simultaneously with bodily awareness.

Shikantaza

Approached with commitment, the practice described above can be transformative. In the space of twenty minutes, it can take us from a state of anxiety to one of stability and calm. Unfortunately, this outcome may be short-lived. Of more lasting benefit, in my experience, is the Zen practice known as shikantaza. Usually translated as “just sitting,” this practice is at once simple and difficult, straightforward and easily misunderstood.

Practicing shikantaza, we set aside all methods and resolve merely to remain aware of whatever is occurring, within and without. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and states of mind may come along, we acknowledge them, witness their presence, and allow them to disappear. Keeping our senses open, we also note whatever is occurring in our immediate surroundings. And throughout our sitting, we cultivate awareness of the impermanence of all conditioned things, the universal life-force within us, and the vast, interdependent web of life of which we are a part.

To undertake this practice requires two things of the practitioner. The first is a state of continuous mindfulness, clarity, and equanimity. If we have yet to develop those qualities, we are all too likely to be practicing “just sitting around,” or, as the late Eido Shimano Roshi once dubbed it, “shikan-waste-of-time.”

The second prerequisite is an attitude of wholeheartedness. Ideally, when practicing shikantaza, our minds are concentrated and relaxed. And undergirding that relaxed concentration is the intention to be fully present and to include everything in our conscious awareness. By adopting this attitude, as best we can, we develop the capacity to recognize and accept whatever may be unfolding and to let things go as they go.

In Conclusion

What I have outlined here is an unorthodox hybrid, but I can attest to its efficacy. If you are inclined to experiment, other pairings suggest themselves, such as Tai Chi and meditative reflection, or yoga and contemplative prayer. May your practice, whatever it may be, sustain you in this difficult time.

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Photo: the author practicing shikantaza.

 

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Single Whip, Guang Ping Yang Tai Chi

If you have ever played a competitive sport, you have probably been exhorted to give 100 percent. Or, as the sports cliché would have it, “110 percent.” And the attitude embodied in that exhortation extends well beyond the arena of athletics. Whether the field of activity be business or law, selling cars or playing tennis, giving 100 percent of one’s effort and energy is widely regarded as a virtue, if not a moral imperative.

In the present American workplace, those fortunate enough to be employed might have little choice but to give 110—or 150—percent, day in and day out, to their jobs and sponsoring institutions. But for the conduct of everyday life, a wiser guideline may be found in the ancient Chinese practice of Tai Chi. At once a martial art and a contemplative discipline, Tai Chi is rooted in the Taoist tradition. And a cardinal principle of Tai Chi states that the practitioner should not exceed 70 percent of his or her physical capacity. As Bruce Frantzis, a contemporary Tai Chi master, explains, “[s]triving for 100 percent inherently produces tension and stress because as soon as you strain or go beyond your capacity, your body has a natural tendency to experience fear and to begin, even without you[r] being aware of it, to tense or shut down in response.”* By staying within the limit of 70 percent, you “can use your full effort and energy, but not to the point of strain.”** (more…)

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If you have lived in a northern climate for any length of time, the chances are good that you have slipped and fallen on an icy sidewalk. Or that you will, no matter how careful you are.

Such was the case a few weeks back, as I was walking down the sidewalk in Alfred, New York, wearing shoes more suitable to spring than winter. Coming upon a puddle in the middle of the sidewalk, I stepped onto a mound of ice to avoid the water. Down I went, face forward, landing on my knee.

Thanks, I suspect, to my daily practice of T’ai Chi, I was back on my feet a moment later, suffering no worse injury than a scraped knee. But as the day wore on, and as I felt the lasting effects of my fall, I considered what to call it. Was it a mishap—something, as they used to say in Ireland, that could happen to a bishop? Or was it an avoidable mistake? Although those two small words share a common prefix, their meanings differ widely, as do their implications. (more…)

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