Friday, July 31, 2009

Meditation and exercise - an Eastern Perspective

In Traditional Chinese Medicinen (TCM) Pain is an indication of Chi Stagnation.

Chi normally circulates within the body through lines called Meridians. (this concept is not accepted by Western Medicine - but this is not the point).

If a Meridian is blocked or interrupted (by a cut, an hematoma, a bent limb), the flow of Chi through it is interrupted. One speaks of "Chi Stagnation". The result is a poor irrigation of tissues and organs. Tis, in the short term results in local pain, and in the long term, if not addressed, internal organs might be damaged, and their functions hampered.

For TCM Blood nourishes the body, moistens body tissues and ensures that they do not dry out. Blood and Chi are interdependent and perform many of the same functions.
If Blood or Chi are blocked or stagnant in one area of the body, they will circulate through a different path, creating an imbalance between arteries for the Blood, and between meridians for Chi.

But Blood also contains Shen (Japanese Shin, Kokoro), or spirit, which balances the psyche.

If Blood or Chi are blocked, Shen cannot freely circulate inside and becomes restless. There can be no quieting of the mind.

Long periods of immobility tend to block the path of Blood and Chi. This is evidenced by the pain felt by the practitioner. In the long term, specially for beginners, this may make Shen restless, unbalance the Mind and disturb Meditation.

Which is why we practice Kinhin - walking meditation - between sitting periods.

Proper meditation practice should incorporate exercises promoting Blood and Chi circulation, while at the same time harmonizing the Shen.

Conversely, proper martial art practice should incorporate Spiritual discipline to avoid mindless emphasis on Physical accomplishment - but this is an other story...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Meditation and exercise - a Western Medicine perspective

In a monastery, monks spend long periods of time in meditation or prayer. This is very similar to what we do during Sesshin. As far as the body is concerned, there is no difference between Meditation or Prayer, keep still and quiet...

But monks, Buddhists or Christians, work physically and vigorously, gardening, cleaning, building... This helps loosen their joints and stretch tendons and muscles.

During Sesshin, people who usually have sedentary jobs with little physical activity, sit (shikantaza) for long periods. Their joints freeze and lock up.

Too much quiet and stillness results in stiffness and physical pain. This aggravates the mind which becomes restless. However, too much action has the same effect (until exhaustion occurs – but this is an other story which we will cover later about Kendo.)

Here again, the opposites meet. What is important is to find a middle way.

The practice of meditation should incorporate proper exercises to help alleviate the stiffness and pain due to immobility. Because the mind better operates in a slightly energized body, these exercises should not be violent or mobilize huge muscle masses but rather concentrate on stretching joints and tendons.

Tai Chi with its slow and ample moves is an excellent solution.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Pain and Meditation

About 6 years ago I visited a Buddhist temple in the vicinity of Fort Walton Beach. The monks were from Thailand. They were very friendly and showed us around the temple. Then the Abbot invited to sit with them and ask questions about Buddhism.
I remember asking him the proper way to meditate. As he described the Lotus or Semi lotus position, I explained to him that my left knee and hip being damaged, I could not even think of the Lotus, and the 1/2 lotus would be extremely painful to me.
His answer was to not pay attention to the pain which would eventually go away.

I listened for a while after that, because he was interesting and friendly. But I left disappointed, knowing that I was not going to even try it.

If you start sitting at 13 or 16 as or Thich Nhat Hanh did, chances are that you can easily go past the pain of the Lotus position, because your joints and even bones are more flexible than they will be 20 years down the road. You never experienced the type of pain that occurs in a 50 years old knee damaged by 2 motorcycles and one martial art incidents.

If pain becomes so intense that it clutters the mind, sitting is useless, you are loosing your time.

Lately, I realized that I was able to sit in the Burmese position. I was surprised, as I never thought my knees would agree to this. It could be that after 2 years of sitting in Seiza my hips and knees became slightly more flexible. When I sit, there is a slight discomfort that disappears after 4 to 5 minutes. So in essence, I forget the pain. 3 years ago, I could not have done this. It is the result of 2 years of (almost) painless sitting in Seiza position.

It is just like in Tai Chi : the notion of "No Pain, No Gain" does not apply. If you hurt, your body is telling you something is wrong.

Pay attention to pain. A little pain will probably subside after a few minutes of sitting in any position. If it does not, then change positipon.

If you try at all cost to forget the pain, you won't be able to focus, and may hurt your joints beyond any possible repair. You are losing your time and damaging your body. And it is the only one you have to practice with.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Thrills of Tameshigiri

Great time practicing Tameshigiri yesterday. Ron, Cody, Levi, even Frank back from his ship came to slice these mats (and eat the food...)

Beach mats are the easiest and cheapest target we can find around here. we had rolled them by pairs and soaked them in water for 36 hours. Next time I will stuff them with a little dowel or bamboo in order to stabilize them.
Diagonal KESA GIRI or KIRIAGE cuts are much easier to perform than DO cut. During these, they really have a tendency to bend, because of their lack of tranversal rigidity.
Real tatami mats would be nice - ... They can be found at Nihonzahi or Bamboos... Anyone who knows how to build a Bamboo cutting stand...

For Safety purposes, I had delimited the cutting area by laying a piece of wood 15 feet in front of the target. Only the person cutting was supposed to pass this line to cut, all the others were supposed to stay behind the line.
The sun being bright and hot, we quickly all gathered to the right of the cutting stand, in the shade of a Pecan tree.

Everything went well, for his first tameshigiri practice Levi did remarkably well. Then while cutting down in Kesa Giri one of us lost control and grasp of his sword, which ended up laying in the grass 3 or 4 feet behind him.
Fortunately it did not fly toward us, but toward and behind the line, where we should have been protected against such occurence...

That person has been previously involved in several tameshigiri practices, and is always concerned by safety mattters in all activities. This incident was not the result of being unprepaired or inexperienced, but of a sudden and unexpected lack of strength in his hands, due to a medical condition.
We were quite lucky as his is a heavy practical XL katana that could have happily flown through any one of us sentient being...

Morals of the story: Considering that :
  1. No matter how good one is, he or she might let go of the sword (or a piece of it)
  2. The direction the sword (or part of it) will take is not necessarily the expected one.
  3. Swords are sharper and harder than any body parts.

DEFINE A HUGE CUTTING AREA materialized by an actual line - wood, fence, rope on the ground... placed at least 20 feet behind the target. In this area between the line and the target, only the person cutting and the person in charge of tending the target are allowed. That person will get back behind the line before the cutting person gets back to cutting.


Saturday, July 11, 2009

Meditation around the Labyrinth

10 people met at the Nativity Church this morning to practice sitting and walking Meditation.

I gave a short presentation and asked everyone what experience they had. As it usually turns out, most of us had previous experience in some sort of meditation, either part of a group or system, or had tried to practiced by themselves.

Solo practice is difficult, even if you found the right set of instructions and are very dedicated, one day, you will end up wondering :

What the hell am I doing here ? Am I doing this right ? Why am I doing that ?

Just as it is easier to learn Tai Chi when practicing with a group, it is easier to meditate in company.

Today we sat twice 10 minutes, walked the Labyrinth, then sat 10 more minutes. We had a 4 wooden benches, chairs, and 2 Zafus. Some of us tried the 3 devices. Benches seem to be the preferred one.

Somewhere in this Blog, I posted the blueprints of a very easy to build bench.

Keep practicing. Like everything else, regularity is the most important quality if you want to improve. Better sit 5 minutes daily than a full hour once a week !

Come sit with us on Monday nights !

Good luck !

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Zen & Tai Chi & Iaido

Back from Atlanta where I participated in the July Sesshin at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. I attended from Thursday Noon till Sunday Noon.

Sitting 8 to 9 hours a day is an interesting experience to say the least. I had never sat for such an extended period of time. Of course, we did not sit 8 hours in a row. Sitting periods last between 25 and 50 minutes, separated by 5 to 10 minutes of Kinhin - Walking meditation to release joints and muscle tension.

I had the privilege to teach a Tai Chi class to a group of Zen studentwho needed and enjoyed it (More about this later), and also gave a demonstration of Iai Jutsu, an interesting illustration of the Samadhi of Action.

The subject of this Seeshin being the Buddhist precepts, it occurred to me that at a basic level, these are equivalent to the numerous rules we need to learn to respect in order to draw our sword. Very hard at the beginning, then, once you master them, you can forget them...