Mindfulness is much in vogue it seems but I have long had doubts about the term. With its focus on mind the temptation for westerners, I fear, is that we will become even more ‘lost in thought’ as Thich Nhat Hahn describes us. In teaching zazen to beginners, I have found many who say that they want to learn to empty the mind, but who also say how hard they find this. I know what they mean; trying to empty my mind is like trying to empty the ocean with a teaspoon. So how do we deal with ‘skull cinema’, as Ken Jones describes the mental chatter we all experience when we try and sit?
My preference is to focus on the body. This of course is what we all attempt when we anchor our zazen in our breath or posture. But recently I have discovered a great little book which goes more deeply and thoroughly into this somatic approach: Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient – The Physical Foundations of Mindfulness by Will Johnson published by Shambala in 2000 describes really well and simply how to achieve ‘embodied mindfulness’ (I prefer my term – bodyfulness!).
To take just one aspect of Johnson’s approach, let us consider alignment. This of course starts with posture and achieving a position of the spine which is balanced front to back and left to right to reduce our unwinable fight against gravity. But Johnson goes further and describes alignment of the senses, particularly the triad of vision, sound and physical sensation. This is what I am currently exploring in my zazen and I am really enjoying this and finding it beneficial.
With vision Johnson suggests an unfocussed opening of peripheral vision, not just seeing what is in front of us but opening up to the whole visual field. With sound he suggests exploring the sounds from within the body as well as outside. And with sensations, he suggests a body scan approach allowing awareness of all the subtle messages that are always there when we open to them. He points out too that touch is not just on the surface of the skin, the internal skin or fascia is a three dimensional matrix enveloping every organ and structure of the body. The key with all three parts of the triad is that our perception must be non judgmental: whatever we see, hear or feel is not good or bad, it just is, and it is ever changing.
Johnson suggests that the ideal balance is an equilateral triangle, with all three aspects of the sensory triad always present in equal awareness, and from this pure awareness arises allowing the involuntary thoughts of skull cinema to fall away. It’s not easy of course and it does require sustained effort. Sitting last night in a city zendo with a noisy crowd outside, for example, was certainly a challenge in terms of non-judgment of sounds, and physical pain is always difficult! In practice I am finding the balance between different parts of the sensory triad is constantly changing: often I can hold two fields, sound and sensation say, or vision and sound, holding three is harder. But the effort is worthwhile, I do feel more naturally present and less in my head, and I would definitely recommend Johnson’s book which is still available online and from booksellers.
Andy Tanzan Scott