Meeting #9: Teaching Meditation

from physical comportment to psycho-spiritual balance and insight

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2022

1) Does one keeps their eyes open while meditating and how to teach this

  • Jon W: I always teach eyes half closed, but this is difficult for beginner students unaccustomed to it. I do it avoid the tendency to wander off in thought or visual fantasy with eyes completely closed, yet still provide a sense of inner space and reflection. With eyes half open, one also maintains a sense of being in the present physical space which provides a further rooting to mindfulness. To help students struggling with this technique, I put a burning incense stick in the middle of the floor which they can gaze at as their sight line comes off their nose. Students may also put any random object on the floor, like a set of keys, to do the same.
  • Elaine: In our Shambala tradition, we teach to keep you eyes open and gaze 3-6 feet in front of you, because Trungpa Rinpoche wanted to integrate awareness with the phenomenal world. We acquire a lot through our eyes and there is a lot of grasping. So if you have a lot of thoughts, you pull the gaze in closer. Basic meditation is gazing outward but not looking at anything in particular. At some poin,t the gaze can be raised out to the horizon. Anything can be a focal point for meditation, but the breath is the key focal point. Rev. Okano: If you are trained with the eyes closed, you are in an internal world and disconnected from the sense of the eyes. If you train with the eyes open, it is much easier to train with the state of awareness in an integrated way. Does doing one or the other change the state of awareness? Elaine: Yes it does. There are different kinds of meditation in Tibetan Buddhism that require the eyes to be shut, such as working with the body’s energy channels, seed syllables, and so forth.
  • Jinji: This issue is important for me personally and the people that I work with. For the first 13 years of my practice in the Thich Nhat Hanh lineage, I meditated with my eyes closed. Thich Nhat Hanh did not speak so much about liberation. He wanted westerners to learn to simply settle down. More recently, since I have entered the Shamabala tradition, I have noticed the difference of keeping my eyes open. It seems like a simple idea that awakening is practiced with the eyes open. I also like the explanation provided by Trungpa Rinpoche on being tight yet loose at the same time. In fact, I do wonder what was I doing all those years with my eyes closed. I could be very loose going on inner journeys that I enjoyed. But in the last two and half years with my eyes open, I have come to focus more on posture. I also experiment with the length of the gaze, diffuse gaze, peripheral vision, etc. and how it all affects the meditation considerably. Visual fixation is easier to notice with the eyes open, and I often notice to myself,  “Oh, I am looking at something now” as well as noting what is the difference between seeing and looking. In psychotherapy, there is a lot of somatic observation of the body, since many clients are dissociated from their bodies. I will teach clients to notice the jaw and lips and then how the esophagus and shoulders open during meditation.
  • Gustav: In my Soto Zen training, I have found that at the beginning, it can be helpful to keep the eyes closed for a few minutes to help the body and mind relax before reopening the eyes. Keeping the eyes open is about not escaping, and I have used the open gaze to escape things coming up internally.
  • Rev. Fujio: In traditional Zen, the eyes are kept half open. This is to keep the mind in the present moment, like a ship with an anchor down; even during a storm the ship will not be swept away. The pattern on the floor can also be used as a focal point. Zazen is usually done in a dark room. After some years of practice, we may allow the practitioner to close their eyes sometimes. Further, it is much easier with the eyes half open to develop a good body posture with open and straight shoulders.
  • Ven. Zinai: Posture and keeping the eyes open are also key in my tradition. There is a way of sitting with a sense of entirely relaxed muscles. The organs sit in place over the bones and the head above the shoulders so that everything else releases. Elaine: Yes, we want the head to be resting over the shoulders. We also want the shoulders to be fully relaxed. Let the arms hang and then place the hands where they need to be.

2) The issue of posture

  • Jon W.: The Taoist based tradition of Qi Gong emphasizes a very straight spine to allow the vital energy to move up the spine and then down the front. I never paid much attention to posture in my first years meditating and it was not so emphasized in Theravada practice. But from both Zen and Qi Gong, I have come to be very aware of posture and have found it a very important part of teaching others. Like Rev. Fujio mentioned, good posture helps to ground the mind as one struggles to develop mindfulness and insight.
  • Gustav: In Soto Zen, there is a strong focus on posture from the start. In the Christian church, we seem to start with words, but in Zen with start with the body which I quite like. Using the string metaphor to straighten the spine is helpful but this and tucking in the chin can also create a lot of tension. I also need to relax into the upright posture.
  • Rev. Komura: I have found that Rosh Joan Halifax’s phrase “strong back and soft front” is a good reminder for me. If I keep my eyes closed, I find I still have challenges with emotions and thoughts.
  • Rev. Okano: Will Johnson is the founder and director of the Institute for Embodiment Training, which combines Western somatic psychotherapy with Eastern meditation practices, and he has taught extensively about posture in his The Posture of Meditation: and Breathing Through the Whole Body. Joan Halifax said that she has used his understanding, but her metaphor of “strong back and soft front works” well. I also recommend: Eugene T. Gendlin, Focusing: How to Gain Direct Access to Your Body’s Knowledge. David I. Rome, Your Body Knows The Answer.
  • Jinji: In terms of this metaphor, if we are too soft, then we crumble; a downregulated system is hunched and sunken. If we are too strong, we are closed and very rigid; an upregulated nervous system is very erect. This is a very effective and accessible way of communicating to non-Buddhists and it is part of my practice with clients. The spine is naturally curved and is protective, but it is also crunching our organs, making us less alive. If we can learn to be not too upright, then we find there is naturally the soft front and strong back. If we allow the natural curve, we can be bidirectional. Then we can settle into the support beneath us while moving upright into openness. I find there can be a tendency for clients to pivot too far. I tell them it’s more about modulating our awareness for the right context; with friends and with meditation, there are different postures. Two good references are Sitting: The Physical Art of Meditation by Erika Berland and Sensorimotor Psychotherapy: Interventions for Trauma and Attachment by Pat Ogden and Janina Fisher.

3) The attitude towards meditation

  • Jon: When I teach, I also speak about the attitude of posture, sometimes referring to Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching of Vajra Pride, wellbeing, and the perfect emotional balance of the Buddha sitting in meditation. A soft front means an openness to the world, while a strong back is the resilience to be in the world at the same time. This connects to the way Dogen taught zazen as not a means to gain enlightenment but a way to manifest it right now. I tell students that in our meditation space, it is safe to sit beautifully straight and open, manifesting your own buddha nature and not trying to become like an idealized version of someone else’s enlightenment, even the Buddha’s.
  • Elaine: In the Tibetan tradition, there are 7 points of posture. Many are not connected with the body at all. There is also a body scan that can be done lying down. When the organs are suspended lying down, it is extremely restful. I have found even gentle yoga was helpful for my undergrad students.
  • Gustav: I have a friend who is a physiotherapist and defines meditation as a vulnerable position because you are sitting quite defenseless. Jon: Yes, you open yourself up to many layers of suffering by practicing the 1st Noble Truth and composting or allowing the suffering to ferment into the 2nd , 3rd and 4th Truths. Jinji: It takes strength to be vulnerable. Through this work, we feel more open and capable of sharing. Roshi Halifax calls this empathic distress
  • Ven. Zinai: What if we don’t take the object of mind as content but take the relationship between the mind and its experience as primary instead? What kinds of relationships are built up between the mind and its objects of awareness? In this way, we learn to have a choice of how to relate. We can’t change the object, but we can adjust the relationship to it. This is related to the practice of Focusing. Suffering is just a phenomenon that we pay attention to, so the question may develop, how do we pay attention? Through this process, we learn how to change.

4) Focusing vs. Vipassana

  • Rev. Okano: Focusing is a somatic type of meditation to look into the deep emotions. For those that still have serious hangups but are deep practitioners, there needs to be a new technique. Mindfulness in itself does not cover this, so Focusing is an interesting development.
  • Ven. Zinai: Eugene Gendlin has a system that asks, “What is the real factor or sign that indicates that the client has been helped?” He found that only those that could speak about somatic effects were really helped. Unless the client did not come back to their body, they weren’t sufficiently “helped”. The memory of events are stored in our bodies, somewhat like the “store consciousness” alayavijnana 唯識 layer in Buddhist teachings. He developed a new model that is beyond verbal processes. The counselor does not develop the process, rather the client does. If the therapist invents the verbal sytem, it can violate the client’s unique situation. This preverbal recognition is more fundamental than the verbal state. When we use language, we are already repressing something. The somatic location (head, heart, gut) can also provide important understanding. Open Focusing is more related to meditation, since the inventor, Led Fehmi, as it resembles Zen or the key factor of practicing sati (mindfulness) by keeping open awareness to any information from six-doors of consciousness. (See Les FehmiSusan Shor Fehmi‘s The Open-Focus Life: Practices to Develop Attention and Awareness for Optimal Well-Being). Fehmi just used a new method to gather the wandering mind to bring the awareness to the space between emptiness. Open Focusing is a very helpful technique, which I use everytime I meditate. It begins with balancing and then shifts to the breath. By paying attention to emptiness, I don’t attach to anything and then I shift to the breath. I let myself rest in space without grasping any object, shifting attention then to the present task. This is a kind of mindfulness through a neurologist’s approach. There is no need to use language, just go directly to the somatic process. Rev. Okano: Focusing is a therapeutic method but can be used individually on one’s self in the way Ven. Zinai does. Is there anything close to Focusing in the vipassana tradition? Ven. Zinai: Yes, one pays attention to the location of the sensation, then goes inside to feel the color, message, and words that arise. Then one can ask, “What does that mean to me?” In vipassana, the key is to see the arising and perishing of the phenomenon.
  • Jon: Vipassana is understood, interpreted, and presented in a variety of ways in the Theravada tradition. One way is through observing the arising of the five aggregates (khandas): being rooted in one’s posture and physicality (rupa), one observes the arising of a specific sense consciousness (vinnana), then its visceral feeling (vedana) as positive, negative, neutral, followed by a variety of perceptions (sanya) like hot, sharp, nauseuous, itchy etc. and then finally the development of cognitive thought (sankhara) with opinions and fully formed emotions. One not only learns to recognizes patterns of thought but also pre-verbal areas of experience where traumatic patterns of response may be ingrained.
  • Ven. Zinai: Yes, this is the same content, but for me vipassana deals with the content in a different way. In vipassana, we just pay attention to the sensation. We don’t ask which story is related to this sensation. In Buddhist vipassana, the story is not taken into account. The purpose is to see the aggregates (khandas). The Importance of Vedana and Sampajanna is a book that is helpful in discussing the difference between the contemplation of feeling (vedana) and Focusing in terms of whether one will trace the memory evoked from the sensation or not. It would be nice if we can explore this point more.
  • Jon: I suppose the story is found in the investigation of the 2nd Noble Truth which continually pushes us to look more deeply. One tends to find oneself bumping up againt blame, either of oneself or others. But Buddhism steers us away from blame based on not-self, emptiness, and the total interconnection of phenomena; who is there to blame? So one keeps pushing deeper and deeper until states of wisdom and compassion arise naturally, instead of thinking you’re going to figure things out and get a definitive answer from the cognitive mind. Again, from Trungpa Rinpoche, there is this emphasis that by creating greater space, solutions will appear.
  • Rev. Okano : Trungpa said there is no goal; it’s just a process; the path is the goal. Ven. Zinai’s approach seems to be using Focusing and vipassana in a complementary way. Buddhism teaches about going beyond everything, but for ordinary people, we are usually just stuck in what we are in. In this way, Buddhist meditation seems to often be not about dealing with the traumas that we have here and now. I think the whole point of this group is to build bridges between this space between the more transcendental or spiritual dimension of Buddhism and the more phenomenal ones of neurobiology and psychotherapy.
  • Jon: I agree and this is why I think Buddhism is so much more than meditation, which so many westerners have reduced it to. Ethics (sila) and wisdom (prajna) are considered just as essential in what is known as the Three Trainings. You have practices like the 4 brahmaviharas and the 6 or 10 paramitas that are ethical but take aspects of wisdom and are also integrated into meditation practice.
  • Rev. Okano: Prajna is also a prerequisite for meditation as well; discipline or sila is also a good way to develop a solid meditation practice. I think those traditions that are too focused on having an “awakening experience” lose site of other important aspects.
  • Jinji: That’s what Trungpa called Spiritual Materialism. So what does it mean for mind and body to be synchronized? Most of us are out of synch most of the time. When we synchronize mind and body, we cannot bypass. This synching up I think will take the rest of my life.
  • Rev. Okano: We think too much, so we are not in touch with our body and surroundings. The mind has become too strong. In meditation, dealing with the mind is the initial activity that needs to be done, taming the mind and not interfering. We deal with this, taking away the energy of thinking and directing attention towards the body or the sensations or breathing
  • Rev. Fujio: We have two minds: one that thinks and one that is the heart-mind 心 bodhi-citta. The tasks is to synchronize the body and breathing automatically, first by adjusting body posture, then breathing deeply, and then adjusting the mind. Natural, metabolic breathing is related to the brain stem. Deep, conscious breathing over 20 seconds per inhalation or exhalation creates alpha waves and stimulates the cerebral cortex. In this way, training in “moving zen” (do-zen) and and “sitting zen” (za-zen) trains the mind deeply to be less reactive. In the first 10 minutes, we take 10 second breaths, and then extend to 20 second breaths over the next 10 minutes. After 20 minutes, we may move into one minute breaths, with very light inhalation and exhalation.
  • Zinai: If Focusing is taken into attention, we can build new mental habits and come back to deal with our daily life.
  • Jinji: There is a key difference between just calming ourselves and a practice where you train the mind so you don’t need to just turn away from disturbing content. We don’t want to bypass and breathing helps with this. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche said, “Before it even arises, we can prevent a thought from disturbing our mindfulness”.
  • Rev. Fujio: In my Tai Chi practice, I have experienced an evolution from first moving my hands with the mind to then moving hands with the waist, then eventually moving his hands with just the breath, which developed after more than 10 years of practice.

5) How do we evaluate?

  • Gustav: We can start with what it is NOT about. In counseling, it’s not about helping people to feel better (this is also true in meditation). To reject that has been really important for me. Making a murderer feel better through meditation would be spiritual bypassing, but relating directly to ethics (sila) will also not always work.
  • Jinji: I tell people that sometimes “the bad news is the good news”. Negative experience is the important information to work with.
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