Ajahn Chah said everything is teachings us, and it never ceases to amaze me how often we can learn something significant in the least likely of situations. For me my most recent experience of this was standing precariously on a yoga brick on one leg trying to hold a tree pose. The suttas in the Pali canon don’t make any reference to any systematic form of physical practice like yoga, or qi gong, but mindfulness of movement of the body is a well established part of development, so perhaps finding a learning point on a yoga brick isn’t too far out of the normal realm of Buddhist approaches after all.
The mind and the body are intertwined and interdependent on each other, and it is understandable that so many meditation practitioners find an embodied practice essential to complement their mental development. For some the benefit of working with the body is that it reveals aspects of the teachings to them sooner, and then they start to recognise the same elements in the mental realm. Others don’t use physical practice to learn from directly, but utilise physical work as a useful antidote to getting stuck in the head, which can happen to people who think a lot either for their work or by their temperament.
If you have been reading my blog over this last year you would know that I previously fell into neither camp and didn’t feel the need for any physical element in my practice, but that this year I have changed my tune and I have been developing my own types of embodied practices this year. I have come at this from the opposite direction to many, in that I developed my mind first and then started applying what I had learnt to the body. Recently I became interested in seeing how taking what I had learnt already from my meditation practice and my physical practice would manifest in a formal practice like yoga.
This isn’t the first time I have tried yoga, I gave it a go about five years ago but my short hamstrings made even the simplest of classes extremely hard work, so I decided to put it on the back burner until perhaps there was a time that I felt that I could make a bit more progress in it. Thanks to my operation last year I started a daily regime of physio and stretching which helped me to loosen off those hamstrings a bit, which at least gave me some confidence that they would respond to repeated efforts to make them a bit more flexible. With my newly loosened hamstrings I found I was able to survive a yoga class to much the same extent as everyone else, which as far as I was concerned had levelled the playing field. I was so stiff previously that I couldn’t even hold some of the most basic poses, now at least I was able to be a common or garden beginner.
I’ve already found some really interesting moments in yoga, such as when I feel like I am at the limit of a pose and then suddenly there is just a little bit more. Sometimes the body feels like a puppet that twists and turns without putting up a fight, and at those times the discomfort is not important because the mind is unconcerned by it. That is especially interesting for me to witness because I have had such a strong anxiety response throughout my life to discomfort; normally anything that might feel uncomfortable would spark off resistance to even trying it, and anything that was uncomfortable would be ran away from at the first opportunity. But now in some of these yoga poses I find myself going into them without hesitation, and staying calm in the face of any quibbles that come up about discomfort, so I can see that my previous work on the mind is making an impact.
But one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had was when I was learning how to develop some standing poses. To improve the tree posture, which requires standing on one leg, I was to do it with that one leg not on the floor but on a yoga brick. My balance wasn’t good and I immediately started swaying and wobbling in every direction, it felt incredibly difficult and my body didn’t seem able to correct itself. I was wobbling in every direction like a jelly.
But I quickly realised that the problem was that my reaction to being out of balance was fear. I remember watching a documentary some years ago about the construction of skyscrapers in America in the 1930s, where they mentioned that whenever they hired a new man to work up high on the steel frame of the building (without any scaffolding or harnesses) that none of the experienced men wanted to be anywhere near him. This wasn’t because they were superstitious, it was because if the new man, being unaccustomed to working at great heights, panicked when he felt his balance was unsteady he would instinctively reach out to grab whatever was close by, and if that was another man then both of them were going to fall.
Clearly a yoga brick isn’t as precarious as the frame of the Empire State Building, but it seemed to be that same primal fear response. I could see that as soon as I felt unstable my mind was sparking off a fear response and jumping in to try to correct every single wobble. I realised that what I needed to do was to just allow the feeling of fear and not respond to it, because the fear was making me try to follow and correct every single wobble, which was impossible because they happened too quickly for the mind to keep up with. I needed to not follow the wobbles, I needed to let them happen and not pay attention to the feelings of fear that came up.
So I took my attention away from the body shifting around and just let the movement happen. What I found was that as soon as I did the body found its balance and was able to counteract each movement fluidly. When I let my mind get involved it wanted to be in a state where the body didn’t move at all so it was resisting every movement, but when I took the mind out of the equation the body was able to balance itself by responding quickly to each movement. By allowing the movement, the body found its own stability. But also the mind was very stable too; when I left the body to sway and wobble the mind was able to stay perfectly still.
In an instant it suddenly explained to me why I have never been any good at anything that required a sense of balance – I followed each and every little wobble and that anxious, fearful reaction meant that my mind kept interfering and trying to correct them all. I can’t tell you how many times I have been ice skating throughout my childhood but somehow I never ever got any better at it. Now I can understand what the problem was, its just a shame that all of the ice rinks are closed right now because otherwise I might be putting my theory to test!
There was something illuminating about the physical experience of allowing the body to move to find its own stability because the mind became quite separate to that process. It reminded me of the way it feels to stand in a cold shower but to not react to the feeling of cold, there is a real feeling of calm when you get it just right, like your attention drops into exactly the right place.
A while after this I decided to take advantage of a rare snow fall in my part of rural Englandshire, and find out why Wim Hof puts so much store in standing barefoot in the snow. I somewhat foolhardily assumed that it couldn’t be that bad, and that presumably it would just be a bit cold to begin with but then it would warm up or something, but this wasn’t the case. It was painful! Really, really painful. My feet were stinging immediately, and a searing sensation shot up my hamstings. Fortunately the leg pain was only momentary, but my running commentary to how my feet felt went something along the lines of “ow, ow, it hurts, ow, ow, this is painful, ow, ow, ow” continuously for a few minutes.
I persevered hoping that at some point a feeling of relief would kick in when the stinging stopped, or the feeling of cold abated, but neither of those things happened. Instead what happened was I realised that I was wobbling, but this time not physically but mentally. In just the same way that it had when I was standing on the yoga brick, my mind was reacting to every sensation and trying to correct them – which in the case of standing in snow is by ‘making them go away’. I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to counteract this wobble but I steadied my mind and tried to just let the stinging sensation be there. My attention dropped into just the right place again, and the previous few minutes of struggling and squealing were replaced with a sense of calm. The snow was still bitterly cold, and my feet were still stinging mightily, but I found I was able to relax and just be there in the experience.
The mindset that is activated by standing on a yoga brick and not following the wobble is the same one that we use every time we don’t interfere with our experience but simply allow it to be the way it is, when we stay calm and meet the moment without resistance. But these kinds of insight aren’t only for enduring boot camp conditions or for preparing for a Book of Record attempt, following the mind down a rabbit hole isn’t really that different to following the wobble: a thought comes up and we react to it, we try to make it go away or we try to figure it out, we spark off a chain of thoughts that can develop into papañca and it take us over completely. But I’ve found that because I have a strong visceral memory of what it feels like to stay still in the face of movement, it is much easier to see that the mind is moving in the same way regardless of whether it is responding to a physical sensation or a mental one.
I talked about earworms last week, and they are an example of following the wobble – the little spark of a song pops up in our memory and if our mind moves towards it, it starts playing on an endless loop. Also learning to not react once a song has become stuck in our head takes a lot of patience, but like trying to balance on a yoga brick, by allowing the movement to correct itself and not allowing the mind to jump in and interfere with it, the earworm won’t make itself at home.
The Buddha, unsurprisingly, didn’t talk about ‘wobbles’ or yoga bricks, but I feel that there is something in these experiences that is conveyed by the message in the Sala Sutta (SN36.6), where he tells us that our experience can feel like being shot by one dart and then by a second depending on how we react to that first feeling of pain or discomfort:
“Bhikkhus, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling, he sorrows, grieves, and laments; he weeps beating his breast and becomes distraught. He feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one. Suppose they were to strike a man with a dart, and then they would strike him immediately afterwards with a second dart, so that the man would feel a feeling caused by two darts. So too, when the uninstructed worldling is being contacted by a painful feeling … he feels two feelings—a bodily one and a mental one.”https://suttacentral.net/sn36.6/en/bodhi trans. by Bhikkhu Bodhi
The first dart can’t be avoided, we can’t stop whatever feeling comes up for us in any moment, but we have a choice about how we then react to it. Sorrow, grief, lamentation, weeping beating our breast and becoming distraught are what happen when we follow the wobbles, we create a second discomfort in ourselves by trying to wriggle away from the first. Wobbling about on a yoga brick is the first dart, my mind reacting fearfully and trying to correct it is the second; stinging feet standing in the snow are the first dart, my mind wanting to make the stinging stop is the second. When we can keep our mind steady and not follow that wobble, we can spare ourselves the drama of becoming distraught, and we can keep the discomfort as only coming from one source; and actually, like the earworms from last week, once we find a way to allow things to be just as they are our calmness creates the conditions that allow the first dart to not even be such a big problem any more.