Archives for category: Body and Mind

This book was recommended by a Buddhist friend who heard about my troubles with anger. She told me that whilst no one book could “cure” anger completely, this was the step which helped her fully step away from the destructive energy of anger; and whilst she still feels angry at times, the lessons in this book have allowed her to deal with her anger in a much healthier and more productive way.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a Buddhist monk who I’ve previously only encountered in a few short lecture transcripts, and through a large number of very wise and profound quotations – he’s obviously a very quotable guy. I read up on his life, from his early success in academia, through the traumatic events of the Vietnam war during which he returned to his native Vietnam to promote peace with his fellow monks, and his many years of lecturing and writing since then espousing the wisdom of the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Similarly to Jedi, he stresses that the body and mind are not separate entities; therefore anger is physical as well as mental. He suggests we avoid anger even in our food, so not eating factory-farmed eggs but instead opting for free-range, “happy” eggs. He means this in a literal sense, but also as a metaphor for what we consume sensually – through our eyes and ears as well. We should not spend time with anger through choice, as entertainment. We consume mindfully, we contribute only to mindful produce (be it food, films, books or whatever), and therefore support only the positive. He also discusses how we eat, suggesting we eat slowly and appreciate every mouthful. We take our time with it, and so need less to sustain us.

His approach to anger does not seek to eradicate it; he describes it as an integral part of our selves like an upset organ. He says “When you have a stomach-ache, you don’t say, ‘I don’t want you stomach, go away.’ ”, and describes trying to rid ourselves of anger as the same idea. He suggests we can still maintain a loving and positive outlook, even in the depths of anger, and calls on us to “take care of our anger” in a very literal sense, even describing it as like a crying baby within ourselves which we must comfort and soothe rather than simply shut away or discard altogether. We must “put down” whatever else we are doing, and soothe the baby back to contentment. He also makes the analogy to a house on fire – if your house has been set ablaze, do you run after the arsonist, or do you try and put the fire out? Clearly putting the fire out is the most important thing in the moment. Similarly, when angry we should not pursue the person we feel is to blame. Instead we can work on ourselves, and “transform from a sea of fire into a refreshing lake”, helping all those around us.

His techniques for soothing the baby and putting out the flames include mindful breathing (like rocking and soothing that crying baby – as soon as we do it our anger will feel better for the attention), mindful walking, sitting and eating (similarly allowing mindfulness and, crucially, a little time to cultivate and improve the situation inside us), embracing our anger (allowing it to blossom and “open up” into a flower of compassion, rather than as the tight-knotted bud it arrives as), examining our perceptions and examining the true nature of our “antagonist” (working with the other person to truly understand the situation, and any misapprehensions we may have which led us to anger). He suggests we literally look at ourselves in a mirror and see how ugly our anger makes us; he also suggests that the elements we see as “garbage” within ourselves can be used like compost to grow things we find beautiful, given their proper cultivation through mindfulness.

He also suggests that we follow some steps to resume communication with our loved one when we’ve become angry. First we must be mindful for some time, until we have calmed down. From there he suggests we begin by telling them we love them, then “Darling, I am angry, and I suffer”, next telling them (and show them) that “I am doing my very best”, and finally asking them “please help me.” These phrases come from love; they express only facts about ourselves, and shows our sincerity in hoping to move forward together. Another technique we can use is making an “appointment” with the person we’re angry with, allowing time to consider the issue mindfully and come together in the spirit of overcoming it.

We must become experts in our anger, so that we can quickly and instinctively identify the cause of the problem by holding it in the gaze of mindfulness. It is only through mindfulness that we avoid the trap of repeating anger which we inherit from others – we often hold double standards, where we feel hurt by something but fall into the habit of doing it to others. If we are mindful we see both the hurtful actions of others and our own hurtful actions as one and the same. We can express this to the other, tell them that we are trying to put into practice these teachings. Tell the other person that we are hurting very deeply, rather than simply exploding in their faces. This is true strength, and, I feel, the way of the living Force. We accept what is, rather than imposing some abstraction born in anger.

Nhat Hahn describes the role of a listener in diffusing anger; he says that one must be able to listen fully, with only the intent to allow the other person to express their thoughts and feelings without judgement or interruption, mindfully and fully consciously. He repeatedly describes this as a “deep teaching” and shows that it allows us to become Bodhisattvas, “great beings” for those who are suffering the torment of anger. By having this insight and insight into our own anger, we become capable of helping those around us who we would otherwise have argued with.

He discusses the hurt child within us all, who needs us to become a big brother or big sister, to listen mindfully, and to wrap our arms around them in true understanding of what they felt, what they are feeling still. This is a powerful insight. By keeping this poor wounded child in mind, we help them and, therefore, ourselves. We can be healers both outside and within, and this makes sense as in reality we recognise the two things are one and the same.

Nhat Hahn believes that punishment is always a double-edged sword, and that we always end up suffering ourselves when we seek to punish. He describes the cycle of escalation this creates, from international wars right down to petty arguments and anger. The moments of happiness we share with others become our “peace treaty”, and our agreement that we will weather the storm of anger with mindfulness and a spirit of compassion.

I found the insights in this book very profound. Whilst my therapy showed me the need to accept thoughts and elements of myself I find troubling, seeing this reflected through the lens of this great teacher’s Buddhist thought has given me an extra sense of how important it is to work with rather than simply against the anger within me. I agree with him that anger is part of us which we shouldn’t try to shun, but had never considered it like a child crying, a house on fire or an upset stomach before. These ideas allow a really fantastic perspective on the issue.

The practical suggestions Nhat Hahn gave in the book were fantastic and can be applied instantly, assuming one maintains the composure to do so. I think a big problem in the “angry moment” is not knowing what’s likely to help. Should I explain my position more, or is that just fanning the flames? Should I shut up, or is that just sulking? Should I leave the room for some quiet time, or is that just abandoning the situation? I suppose the answers to these are pretty obvious in the cool calm light of day, but in the heat of the moment they’re not always so clear. The angry person doesn’t know they’re doing something wrong, until after it’s been done. I think taking the time to develop these techniques within our minds can enable us to move forward in a more positive, healthy way.

One of the best suggestions he makes is that of time. In order to deal with our anger, we must give ourselves and our anger time. This is a very good point which I have often neglected. I do things in “the heat of the moment” – but in reality, the moment has no heat but that which we give it. If I am angry, I can take time to deal with that before returning when I’m calmer. This is not an avoidance strategy; it’s simply acknowledging the momentary nature of intense, volatile and destructive anger. My life has been full of these “hot moments”, but it needn’t be any more.

I liked the holistic approach Nhat Hahn took in the book, suggesting we rebuild our approach from the ground up including the food we choose to eat. This resonated deeply with me as a Jedi because I believe we are all one entity, all one substance, and that our choices in one part of our lives reflects and resonates throughout the rest of our lives, and indeed throughout the universe. By choosing “happy food”, we are withdrawing our support for “unhappy food”. Whilst I already make many choices in this manner, I haven’t extended this thinking outwards to the entertainment I enjoy, or other aspects of my life. By becoming mindful in each decision we make, we cultivate a universe in which there is more kindness, more contentment and less frustration and anger.

I relate strongly to his comments on the cycle of anger, and feel that I am repeating some of the same missteps my father made in raising me, which I swore I would never do. It’s incredibly important to me that my son understands he has a loving father who cares very deeply about him, but in repeating some of the angry actions of my father I make that less likely. This is perhaps the best motivator for change I have.

Nhat Hahn also expresses some powerful Jedi sentiments in passages about our non-duality (the single nature of mind and body) and also the inter-connectedness of all things. He shows that using these insights we can defuse and potentially avoid the frustration and anger we experience so frequently. I felt this section of the book would mean more to those who were just starting on their path, but he echoes much of Alan Watts’ thinking in that we are one nature, and that every part is just a part of the universal whole:

“Doing violence to others is doing violence to yourself. […] once you have penetrated the reality of non-duality, you will smile at both the flower and garbage in you, you will embrace both.”

Body Heat During Different Emotions

Meditate Right Now

I thought I’d write a brief entry on some of the lesser-reported benefits of meditation. We often read it protects us from anxiety and depression, it increases our net amount of happiness, and it gives us more control over our thoughts (or at least a greater capacity to deal with them), but I find some other benefits I rarely if ever hear mentioned in connection with meditation.

First up, one of the best things about meditation is that it shows you that everything other than your body is unnecessary for some things in life. No fancy dojo? No problem. No classy zafu? No sweat. No enlightened sage to guide you through a mystical internal journey? Never mind. No clothes? Well, we can’t have it all. No arms, or legs? No eyes, ears, nose, tongue… no big deal, when it comes to meditation. You can literally meditate with nothing more than your bare consciousness, unlike almost any other human activity. This is tremendously humbling! It shows us that there is no need for superficial things, and no requirement for high-end sound systems and the latest games consoles to find contentment. It waits within us all, irrespective of our outer circumstances.

The next unpublished benefit of meditation is that it teaches you how unimportant small pockets of time are. “These damn traffic lights, I’ve been waiting for 5 minutes now!” we mutter under our breaths. The meditator knows that five minutes can feel like an eternity, but is in fact just five minutes. Or ten, twenty, thirty. We take this small moment out of our pre-existing day and what do we lose? What irreversible problem does this “lost” half hour create? The meditator knows that a short part of their day is of no significance, and this teaches patience. Patience at the light, or with the elderly relative who repeats themselves, or with the child who needs one more trip to the loo before you head out. You can afford ten minutes – the world won’t end.

Another unremarked benefit of meditation is the increased awareness of the nature of distractions. When we meditate, the world around us doesn’t stop. I have two small kids and life can be hectic in every room of my house at times, so I meditated in the bathroom the other day. What happened? The cat began meowing and clawing at the door, begging to be let in to go lap water from the sink. Did I think “Damn cat! Little bugger won’t give me a minute’s sodding peace?”… well, yes I did, briefly. I let the thought go, like leaves in the wind. It drifted off, I reached out a hand to let the cat come in, and my meditation continued undisturbed by the grateful lapping right beside my right ear. The truth is distractions will always happen, but they needn’t truly “distract” us, if we hold true to our purpose. The meditator carries this wisdom into other parts of their life, acknowledging their urges and their habits but not necessarily submitting to them.

The final unpublicised benefit of meditation I’ll mention involves the end of the meditation sitting. I have a little timer on my phone, which rings a beautiful long-chiming bell when my personal allotted time is up. The bell rings, and I know it’s time to return to reality. I suspect every person who has meditated can relate to that notion of “bringing yourself back to the room”; the feeling that you must “return” to external reality, even though you’ve spent the last few moments completely at one with it. For me this tells a very important fact: we “put on” reality, like a coat. When we meditate, we gradually shed it, but at the end of the session we can’t simply open our eyes, spring up and carry on as if nothing happened. We must, in a very real sense, resume our engagement with the external world. This is tremendously important! It reveals the true nature of our interaction, our transactions with the external world. We add it, as we would add a coat and scarf, to our innate and fundamental experience of reality. This highlights the undeniable conceptual nature of our interaction with external reality; indeed, our distinction between internal and external worlds.

I hope this has been an enlightening entry. I don’t think there are any surprises here for those who meditate, and nor do I expect these points have in all of human history never been written down before – they just seem to be marked down as “less important” than the perceived health benefits of the regular practice of meditation. But there is more to meditation than just mastery over your feelings. As Shunryu Suzuki memorably said, “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything.”

A Simple Illustrated Guide to Meditation

Whatever our spiritual and mental nature, we are constrained in what we can do in the world by the physical laws of the universe. Our personal ability to move around and influence objects and people on a physical level are limited by the condition of our physical body; potentially, the condition of our physical body also limits the amount of time we have before returning to the Force, as looking after ourselves can shorten or lengthen our lives.

As Jedi it’s important for us to be in as good a physical condition as it’s possible to be. If we want to find harmony in our minds we must not be hung up on issues around our physical nature. What we eat and our physical capacity can affect our moods, attention span and memory. This can have a huge impact on our capacity to focus, our ability to gather and retain knowledge, and our capacity to use what we learn wisely – primarily down to our emotions, and our capacity to master them. Meditation is one of the key aspects of Jedi life; without a certain level of physical ability, meditation becomes all but impossible. Additionally if we are to serve others we must be in a position to help them, and that isn’t always a mental or emotional thing; we need to be able to help with our bodies as well.

I’ve been lucky physically, as whilst I’ve never been especially athletic I’ve also always been relatively slim and muscular without really trying. However as I get older, my waistline and physical ability are both getting a little out of shape. It’s something I need to spend more time on and I intend to take this forward as part of my approach to being a Jedi. In terms of physical recreation, over the last few years I’ve taken up archery and attended a trial session of Shinkendo, which I really enjoyed but never followed up on. Archery has rather fallen by the wayside after several years, I loved it but my “shooting buddy” moved away and there’s little chance of finding another locally as it’s a niche sport here in the UK, plus it was a Summer-only sport here. I may look into Shinkendo again as it’s much more aerobic exercise, plus has more philosophy and mindfulness to its practice, plus it’s year-round and doesn’t require my attending with a partner, unlike my local archery range.

Thinking of whether the mind is more important than the body, there are arguments either way. One could say that the body is “just the flesh” and has no intention, no desire to do good, no ability to act in itself. Most people exist on a functioning level in the world, where fewer seem to engage on a mental or emotional level in a way which really works; from this position we could say that more work is ordinarily required on the mental side of things. That said, because so much of the mental depends on our physical state, from our happiness with our body image to our capacity to sit for prolonged times in focused meditation, one could argue the physical is the basis for all our training, and without a strong physical base we can never be fully mentally capable.

As with everything in the Jedi worldview, the ideal position is one of balance: a balance between mental and physical training; a balanced diet; a balance between giving no attention to our bodies as “corpses to pilot around” and identifying wholly with our body to the point of obsession over our physical state. We don’t need to be physical demigods to be good Jedi, but equally we shouldn’t be junk food swilling couch potatoes. One of the key aspects of the Jedi lifestyle is to live “in the world” and serve not just on a conceptual, philosophical level, but also in a real, practical and hands-on way. As such, we must be able to rely on our physical bodies, and our bodies in turn must be able to rely on us.

Better still, we must recognise that body is mind and mind is body. The limit of our body is only a conceptual phenomenon we create to divide ourselves off from the rest of reality, so is a mental construct. But it is on a physical level that we begin, from the newborn baby living on a purely physical level onwards throughout our lives, needing food, exercise and proper breathing in order to live wholly in the world in order to engage with reality on a mental level. Both are equally important, even if our motivation to maintain the physical is largely our desire for mental growth.

Getting Right WIth The Tao – Ron Hogan

TAO (THE WAY)

If you can talk about it,
it ain’t Tao.
If it has a name,
it’s just another thing.

Tao doesn’t have a name.
Names are for ordinary things.

Stop wanting stuff. It keeps you from seeing what’s real.
When you want stuff, all you see are things.

These two statements have the same meaning.
Figure them out, and you’ve got it made.

This is my personal favourite translation of Lao Tzu’s beautiful, mysterious and profoundly wise Tao Te Ching. Ron Hogan was working in a book shop after university when he picked up the ubiquitous Stephen Mitchell translation of the Tao Te Ching. He found it accessible, but not always transparent, and an idea was born:

I grabbed a couple other translations and started looking at the different ways they expressed the same sentiments–or, as I quickly discovered, how much poetic license Mitchell and other translators were willing to take with the original text. I don’t think this necessarily matters all that much; many current English- language versions are by people who don’t know Chinese well, if at all, and I can’t read or speak it myself. To that extent, then, we’re *all* (unless we’re fluent in Chinese, that is) at the mercy of, at best, a secondhand understanding of what Lao Tzu said.

Once I thought I had a rough idea what was behind the words, though, I went about rephrasing the chapters in my own voice. My guiding principle was to take out as much of the “poetry” as possible, to make the text sound like dialogue, so the reader could imagine someone telling him or her what Tao’s all about. You can’t take the “poetry” out completely, because the TTC is always going to have those lines about Tao being an “eternal mystery” and whatnot.

But the beauty of the book isn’t in its language, at least not for me–it’s in the practical advice Lao Tzu offers us about how to live a productive, meaningful life on a day to day basis. What I wanted to do was to make that advice as clear to a modern American reader as it would have been to the guard who first asked Lao Tzu to write it down.

I find his take on the ancient wisdom amazingly refreshing. Gone are the conundrums of the original which, while beautiful, mean the initiate to Taoist thought must overcome a real mountain before they get the gist of the core teachings of the religion.

The truth isn’t flashy.
Flashy words aren’t true.

I thanked Ron personally for his work in producing this, and he told me he was “always glad to hear that it has helped someone”. In that spirit, please spend some time reading his marvellous translation, and if you’re as much a fan of it as I am, please consider buying a copy of your own.

Amazon UK / US

The Jedi Workout