When was the last time you observed the process of aging? How often do you stop and consider the possibility of becoming ill or disabled? How much do you reflect on your eventual death, whether today or in several years? Do you have a habit of noticing yourself changing day by day, for better or worse, and that as you change there is an eventual and natural growth apart from the things and people you love?
As we are consumed by our daily routines, it is all too easy to live heedless of the fact that the little bubbles in which we live will inevitably burst. Or on the other extreme, some of us construct our bubble entirely out of the fear of aging, illness, death, loss, and the consequences of action or inaction. We obsess over what kind of diet is the healthiest, overwork to save money, and refuse to take any risks. The Buddha said that being dissociated from our looming aging, illness, and death is like being intoxicated. Because of our changing nature, we suffer losing things that are pleasant and endearing insofar as we have desire and passion for them. This intoxication and this passion cause us to “conduct ourselves in a bad way in body, speech, and mind,” which is why in the upajjatthana sutta (which is number 5.57 in the anguttara nikaya) the Buddha recommends we reflect on the fact that we are the owners and heirs of our actions in the light of aging, illness, death, and loss.
For a master of graphic analogies, the Buddha keeps the warning about conducting oneself in a bad way fairly dull. But you can sharpen it up with your own analogies by reflecting on your life. Imagine you or a loved one dies today. What will you regret having said or not said to them? Consider your pending old age. What habits do you maintain that will make your senior years more uncomfortable and problematic? Reflect on your likely future illness. What skill, or achievement, or experience do you keep delaying while your body is still able? Or conversely, what skill, achievement, or experience do you currently cling to for an identity or purpose? How many days go by without appreciating however much health you have and all the opportunities it brings? How many moments are spent begrudging trifling inconveniences oblivious to the possibility of the body taking a turn for the worse any day, making the inconveniences more severe?
To sober us up, the Buddha recommended reflecting on five specific facts often. He stated these five facts as:
I am subject to aging, have not gone beyond aging.
I am subject to illness, have not gone beyond illness.
I am subject to death, have not gone beyond death.
I will grow different, separate from all that is dear and appealing to me.
'I am the owner of my actions, heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.
I tend to be a bit dense and can still keep an alluring buzz going as long as I continue to perceive these facts as pertaining mostly to the future. To bring them into the present moment, I’ve found it helpful to practice them as:
Everyday, I am aging. I cannot escape aging.
Everyday, there is dis-ease. I cannot escape disease.
Everyday, I am closer to dying. I cannot escape death.
Everyday, I and all that I love are changing. I cannot escape loss.
Everyday, my actions are ripening. I am tasting the fruit of what I have done.
For several years, I’ve kept a practice of reflecting on these five facts at the beginning and ending of each day. At the beginning, I’ll look at my goals and schedule for the day, and then settle my body and allow the implications of each of the above facts to fully sink in with several mindful breaths. At the end of the day, I remember back to what I actually did and repeat the meditation. The fifth fact is particularly salient as I acknowledge that the good or bad feeling that I have in that moment is the fruit of my actions. This provides a kind of concrete feedback and supports gradual behavior change. When deciding what is important to do is too abstract a task, a good feeling at the end of the day assures me that I was on the right track. A bad feeling points out that I lost focus on what truly mattered and suggests that I might want to be more heedful tomorrow.
Besides helping you decide what you want to do, these reflections can help you keep your peace when you can’t do what you want to do, or when you think you can’t do what you want to do. Several weeks ago, I injured myself training in Jiujitsu. (I know this is already a second post about martial arts. I have another one planned soon, so I hope you enjoy them. If not, don’t worry. The third will be the last for a while.) The exact diagnosis of the injury is still unobtained. The x-rays were inconclusive, as x-rays on ribs often are. But, whether there was a fracture, bruise, or tear, I could not accomplish the bending and twisting necessary for getting myself in and out of bed, much less doing Jiujitsu, without extreme pain. The reflections the Buddha taught have been a refuge during these weeks of resting and healing.
The pain was not the problem. Though I’ve been in some degree of discomfort in every waking moment since hearing my ribs crunch underneath someone else’s falling body, my mind has created no resistance to it. I have the Buddha’s teaching on the second arrow to thank for that in which he explains the drawbacks of resisting, grieving, lamenting, and sorrowing over feeling pain and seeking escape in sensual pleasures. Typical people do this because they know of no other escape. Meditators who know how to cultivate a sense of inner well-being and pervade the body with the pleasure of concentration, however, have a better, more reliable, and more satisfying escape from physical pain. This is a potentially life changing teaching in the Discourse on the Second Arrow, and it’s not the only revolutionary teaching in that text. Perhaps even more life changing is the implication that resisting, grieving, lamenting, and sorrowing are attitudes that we choose to initiate and then sustain through unskillful thoughts, speech, and actions. We could, instead, choose not to do that.
So I had pain taken care of. It was still pain, still unpleasant, but it didn’t cause my heart much suffering. Rather, whatever resisting, grieving, lamenting, or sorrowing that was going on was going on at the thought of not doing Jiujitsu, the thought of the loss of not just a source of wholesome fun but the loss of an identity as someone who does Jiujitsu, the loss of the hope of achieving something great and earning prestige and recognition. The Buddha would diagnose the cause of this suffering as bhavatanha or craving for becoming, becoming being assuming an identity within a world related to that identity. Perhaps this injury was a blessing in disguise as it has shown me what I’m still clinging to that is causing myself unnecessary stress and suffering.
The five reflections are designed to help you let go of everything that isn’t important to your peace and well-being. Luckily, I am healing and I’ve already returned to the mat and started doing some light Jiujitsu training. But there will be a day when I am too old, or too sick, or too dead to do Jiujitsu. Or, perhaps there will be another pandemic causing the Jiujitsu academy to shut down or go out of business. What will matter then? This is why the Buddha has us consider our actions carefully. Given that the quality of your life is determined by the quality of your actions, what is important to do in the light of aging, illness, death, and loss?
There is the danger here of succumbing to a nihilistic or pessimistic attitude. “If aging, illness, death, and loss are inevitable, then nothing matters including our actions.” This is precisely the wrong view espoused by his contemporaries that the Buddha criticized, and it depends on having no knowledge or experience of an inner well-being that is not conditioned by external circumstances. The pleasure of concentration is the door that opens to that knowledge and experience, and, like Jiujitsu, it is a skill that needs to be practiced and developed. As I healed and contemplated a future that would certainly exclude Jiujitsu one day, the question for me became, “Is Jiujitsu important enough to keep doing? Should I give it up in order to devote more time and energy to developing meditative concentration and inner well-being since these are the things that will truly matter when aging, illness, death, and loss come?”
I should acknowledge that this is indeed what the Buddha did. Well, he didn’t give up Jiujitsu specifically, but he did give up everything apart from securing adequate food, clothing, shelter, and medicine, cultivating his mind in meditation, and teaching the path to others. The mendicant lifestyle he led was designed by those principles. Pondered only briefly, it is easy to imagine such a life as aimlessly wandering through the forest, serenely visiting towns for alms, and meditating in bliss alone in the forest. This is, afterall, what the Buddha was at first tempted to do immediately after attaining enlightenment. But, he had a change of heart. Rejecting the suggestion of Mara to pass his days in comfortable seclusion, the Buddha vowed to not pass away from the world until he had firmly established the dhamma in a community of mendicants and householders. In his 80th year illness began to overcome his body, and it was this vow that empowered him to persist for the final few months until he was certain his goal of leaving behind a path others could follow was realized.
The mahaparinibbana sutta depicts the Buddha in his last days as a man on a mission. Even as he gradually deteriorates, asks to be brought water when he is thirsty, and lays down when he is weary, he intently moves from village to village focused on teaching a singular message - bearing the pain mindfully and clearly comprehending. In every place he stops he exhorts his listeners to develop virtue, concentration, and discernment. One striking theme that keeps appearing in the account of the Buddha’s final journey from Vesali to Kusinara is his constant thought and sympathy for the feelings of other people. For Cunda, who served the Buddha his final meal, the Buddha ensured that he would have no feelings of regret or shame by instructing the bhikkhus to tell him it was an honor to do so, equal with serving the meal that preceded awakening. For Ananda, who falls into despair at the Buddha’s imminent death, the Buddha consoles him with the teaching on impermanence, praises his admirable qualities, and encourages him to make the effort to attain final liberation.
Grace is not a word that appears in any of the Buddha’s many lists of skillful qualities, and yet in the last three months he decided to live, we see it shining from him. What makes such grace possible? True, the Buddha emanated a profound serenity, but if he were only living at ease, in touch with the bliss of release, I don’t think I would see it as grace. Rather, his grace was the quality with which he met adversity, and adversity can only come when life tests your resolve. If there is no resolve, there is no adversity and thus no grace.
On the path to freedom from suffering, though, it’s not that any old kind of resolve will do. This is why the second factor of the Noble Eightfold Path is Right Resolve, defined as resolving upon renunciation of living for the sake of sensual pleasures, non ill-will, and harmlessness. This means that we dedicate our lives to realizing principles that transcend our baser drives for instant gratification, holding even momentary grudges, or using violence to get what we want. Goals in life are helpful in that they can focus the energy of Right Resolve. Naturally some goals will be better suited to Right Resolve than others (founding a nonprofit to end poverty, for example) and others will be antithetical to it (exterminating an entire race of people, for example), but success or failure in achieving the goal is not the point. The point is to actualize Right Resolve in a path of action and meet the adversity that arises with grace. Aging, sickness, death, and separation will be challenges. When physical and mental discomfort come, there will be a temptation to escape in cheap sources of dopamine. If some external obstacle arises it will be tempting to succumb to feelings of aversion and kill, steal, or lie to destroy the obstacle. Grace is the resisting of these temptations and the path to not turn adversity into suffering. In this reality defined by aging, illness, death, and loss, this is what is important to do.
As mentioned above, you don’t have to wait for the future to be challenged by adversity. You are already in a state of aging, illness, death, and loss. Our bodies and minds are mortal, limited, and fragile - even the Buddha’s. This means that we cannot wait for things to be perfect to start doing what is important. It also means that we can’t expect to do what is important perfectly. Whether your goal for focusing Right Resolve is founding a nonprofit, raising a family, or earning your next rank in Jiujitsu there is no good reason to not get started and not do as much as you can, no less and no more. In my own case, this insight helped me let go of remorse and self-pity over my injury. I realized I was holding myself back with the thought, “If I can’t train 100% I might as well not train at all.” Accepting that I cannot expect to do it perfectly, I can be content with training only at 10%, keeping in mind that it is about the cultivation of character and grace more than it is about changing the color of my belt.
Two years ago, while studying and practicing for a course I was designing, I ran into some difficulty defining mindfulness.I couldn’t easily reconcile what I was learning and experiencing with how mindfulness is typically presented in modern mainstream contexts. For example, if you ask anyone today who practices mindfulness what it is, they will probably say something like a non-judgmental or non-reactive awareness in the present moment. Different providers have different wordings, but they will all share those themes to a large degree. While these interpretations may foster a pleasant carefree attitude, they don’t offer any guidance on how we can learn from mistakes in the past. Actually, if taken to the extreme, some popular notions of mindfulness would deny that there is even such a thing as a mistake. Likewise, limiting awareness strictly to the present moment prevents any planning for the future, and a completely non-judgemental disposition grants no ground for establishing ethics or morality.
As contrary to common sense as these ideals might seem, they are what passes for wisdom in many practices and modalities with the word mindfulness in them, and they are the ideals I practiced with for a long time assuming this is what the Buddha taught. While I was able to achieve some flow states now and then, enjoy many more simple pleasures in the present moment, and occasionally reduce some anxiety about that future, I found that these experiences came and went. I was always returned to the normal state of affairs in which deeply entrenched habits were determining most of my behaviors and fueling a cycle of frustration.
It wasn’t until I started studying the scriptures in the pali canon, which are the oldest record of the Buddha’s teachings we have, that I began looking at mindfulness practice in a different way and the teachings made sense in a way that I could apply them to my life and experience real, albeit gradual, transformation. Most influential were the scriptures called the satipatthana sutta and the anapanasati sutta, which mean the discourse on the four establishments of mindfulness and the discourse on the full awareness of breathing, respectively. These are the suttas in which the Buddha gives the most detailed explanation and definition of mindfulness meditation.
The word we translate as mindfulness, sati, is derived from the pali sarati, which means to remember. The suttas say one who is mindful is able to remember what was done and said even long ago (SN 48.10). The function of mindfulness on the path of liberation was to generate an attentive presence so that what was being done and said in the present moment could be remembered later on. This especially applied to when the Buddha or the Buddha’s disciples were giving teachings. Keep in mind that the Buddha taught 2,600 years ago and nothing of his teachings were written down for a century or more after the Buddha’s death. All practitioners of his time could do was listen to a teaching being given and remember it as well as possible.
Mindfulness did more than retain the content of a teaching, though. It was also a reminder to apply that teaching to the practice in the right way and at the right time. This is what distinguishes generic mindfulness from Right Mindfulness. Rather than merely remembering, Right Mindfulness is concerned with what is remembered. The satipatthana sutta and anapanasati sutta are where the Buddha speaks about the right things to remember, and they also make clear that for mindfulness to be Right Mindfulness it needs to be supported by two other qualities.
The first is samapajana, which can be translated as alertness or clear knowing. It is described as careful attention to your physical and mental actions and their results. If you are alert to your actions in the present moment, and Right Mindfulness is present, you will have a good idea if what you are doing is helpful on the path of practice or not. Of course, simply knowing whether you are on the path or not, is not enough to carry you forward on it. To do that you need the second quality that goes with mindfulness, atapi, which means ardency or diligence. When mindfulness and alertness tell you that you wandered off the path, you need to bring yourself back to it. And when you are on the path, you still need to make the effort to take the next step. Diligence relies on the ability to discern skillful actions in body and mind from unskillful ones and the effort to cultivate the former while abating the latter.
Taken all together, it is apparent that Right Mindfulness is not exclusively focused on the present moment, since it relies on things we’ve learned from the past. There is also the question of why we would practice mindfulness in the first place - because we want to stop making suffering now and for all time. So, it has a concern for the future as well. Neither is it completely non-judgmental since it requires us to discern dualities such as right and wrong and skillful and unskillful. Once you have that discernment, Right Mindfulness can’t be passive or choiceless either because following the path distills down to making the right choices.
After learning these things, I began to wonder why so much of what is taught about mindfulness today is contrary or incomplete compared to its original formulation. I can speculate about three reasons, historical, pedagogical, and cultural, and each of these would make interesting articles on their own. Buddhism is a modern word. But there is a realization of awakening and set of practices that cultivate it that can be traced back to a historical person known as the Buddha. This person lived and taught in the northern region of what is now known as the Indian subcontinent. From there, the ideas and practices spread to the Middle East, East Asia, and eventually Europe and the Americas. As they did, they were adapted and changed by the individuals and cultures that met them. Sometimes these changes were political. Sometimes they were a natural result of mixing with pre-established views and spiritualities. And sometimes they were changed because of the incorrect understanding of the people taking them on.
You really can’t blame people for having an incomplete or incorrect understanding. I’m sure my understanding is still incomplete and incorrect in more than a few ways. That’s because the source scriptures are very difficult to understand. For one, they were written down in a language no longer in common usage. Translating and interpreting descriptions of the subtle and intangible inner workings of the mind is more of an art than a science. At the same time, the dharma is like the ocean - very deep and very wide. As influential as the satipatthana and anapanasati were to me, you cannot read just those two suttas and understand their meaning. They have to be placed in the context given by the whole breadth of the canon.
Just as it has been throughout history, the teaching of the Buddha is being changed by the culture of today. Just because it has been happening throughout history, however, doesn’t mean that it is good. The mindfulness of today has been conditioned by the cultural assumptions and values of today. It assumes materialism, de-emphasizes renunciation, and apart from a preoccupation with self-compassion it forgets about ethics and morality. In my experience, the best you can get with that kind of foundation is another stress reducing, performance enhancing self help technique. But, perhaps that’s all that people want from their mindfulness. The mindfulness the Buddha taught, however, was a path built on generosity, ethical conduct, and mental development leading to the complete ending of suffering.
To be clear, I am not advocating for fundamentalism. Though the pali canon is the best source we have for the Buddha’s teachings, it is not original. It was orally transmitted for centuries until it was written down, and even after it was written down it shows signs of reworkings and interpolations as most historical scriptures do. They should be read critically. Neither am I advocating secularism. In my opinion, secular Buddhism demands that the teachings conform to its materialistic and morally neutral world view. Thus it ignores teachings about karma, rebirth, and different planes of existence, which can’t be easily reconciled with its views. This is a problem because the Buddha defined awakening in these terms. If you ignore them, you have to redefine awakening. If you redefine awakening, then you have to reform practices that lead to the awakening you just made up. And if you do that, then why relate what you are doing to the project of the Buddha’s path at all?
What I am advocating for is to take all the teachings of the pali canon seriously, to give them the benefit of the doubt, to look deeper than their literal translations, to understand them in context, to put them into practice, and to judge them by their results. I believe this is a middle path between the two approaches to Buddhism I’ve encountered in my years of study and practice: one being a quasi mysticism filled with paradoxes, and the other being a shallow self-help bandaid. To be honest, both these approaches led me to contrive beliefs and attitudes that I couldn’t maintain. At best, I achieved a veneer of peace.
To walk this path, we need a better working definition for mindfulness. The one I came up with in the course I offered was “keeping the dharma in mind.” I believe that for mindfulness practice to bear all its fruits, we need to keep the element of dharma in it. At first, this may feel like an unsatisfying definition since in defining one term, I’ve introduced another term that needs a definition. The term “dharma” means a few different things in the suttas. The Buddha uses it in the expression drishta dharma sukha viharin. Thich Nhat Hanh translates this as “dwelling happily in the present moment.” Another translation could be “a pleasant abiding here and now.” Dharma is also used to refer to the teachings of the Buddha as in the term buddhadharma. And, it is used as an expression for the way things are, or truth, or law.
I leave Dharma untranslated in my definition so that it can refer to all these things: the present moment, the teachings of the Buddha, and the way things are. This bases mindfulness practice in Right View, which is the first factor of the Noble Eightfold Path. Briefly, Right View is the correct understanding of the Buddha’s teachings and how they operate within the patterns of cause and effect in reality. To practice Right Mindfulness, we bear these things in mind in the present moment.
It is often said that as long as you are mindful everything is Dharma. One some level this is true, because Right Mindfulness is keeping the Dharma in mind. But this sets up a circular definition. What is mindfulness? Keeping the dharma in mind. What is dharma? Being mindful. It doesn’t give us any clue as to what things to keep in mind as we go about cultivating skillful actions and ending unskillful ones. Neither does it give any hint as to what to regard as skillful and unskillful. The other complication is that if mindfulness is keeping the dharma in mind, and everything is dharma, then mindfulness would be keeping everything in mind. Impossible.
Since one meaning of dharma is the way things are, there is some justification for the view “everything is dharma”. Everything, afterall, has its place in the way things are. Everything is everything. The way things are is the way things are. For the purpose of practice however, it is not a pragmatic view to hold. This is why the Buddha distinguished between ways of practice that are in accordance with the dharma and ways of practice that are not.
To be in accordance with the dharma, practice needs to be focused on not-self regarding form, feelings, perceptions, mental formation, and consciousness leading to comprehension of them and release from them (SN 22.42). If you don’t know what to make of those terms, or what release from them means, that demonstrates why understanding the Buddha’s teachings is important. But don’t worry. There will be more posts about that. The Buddha also specified that for a practice to be in accordance with the dharma it needs to be practiced for the sake of dispassion (SN 12.67), and that one with a sense of the dhamma knows the dialogues, narratives of mixed prose and verse, explanations, verses, spontaneous exclamations, quotations, birth stories, amazing events, and question & answer sessions. These are the headings under which the Buddha’s discourses were collated and now make up the pali canon. Of course, merely being able to recite these things would be insufficient which is why the Buddha stipulates that one should have a sense of their meaning as well (AN 7.64).
There is a clever analogy in SN 20.7 that describes how practitioners lose a sense of the dharma and its meaning.
There once was a time when the Dasarahas had a large drum called 'Summoner.' Whenever Summoner was split, the Dasarahas inserted another peg in it, until the time came when Summoner's original wooden body had disappeared and only a conglomeration of pegs remained.
"In the same way, in the course of the future there will be monks who won't listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. They won't lend ear, won't set their hearts on knowing them, won't regard these teachings as worth grasping or mastering. But they will listen when discourses that are literary works — the works of poets, elegant in sound, elegant in rhetoric, the work of outsiders, words of disciples — are recited. They will lend ear and set their hearts on knowing them. They will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.
"In this way the disappearance of the discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — will come about. Thus you should train yourselves: 'We will listen when discourses that are words of the Tathagata — deep, deep in their meaning, transcendent, connected with emptiness — are being recited. We will lend ear, will set our hearts on knowing them, will regard these teachings as worth grasping & mastering.' That's how you should train yourselves.
As the true dharma recedes, a counterfeit dharma arises, but discerning disciples are able to recognize a “fake contemplative” and thus maintain their conviction. We can take heart that the suttas don’t discriminate fake contemplatives from true ones on the basis of doctrinal compliance. Rather, what makes a disciple discerning is the contemplation:
Are there in this venerable one any such qualities based on greed, aversion, or delusion that, with his mind overcome by these qualities, he might say, "I know," while not knowing, or say, "I see," while not seeing; or that he might urge another to act in a way that was for his/her long-term harm & pain?' As he observes him, he comes to know, 'There are in this venerable one no such qualities based on greed, aversion, or delusion... His bodily behavior & verbal behavior are those of one not greedy, aversive, or delusional. And the Dhamma he teaches is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, tranquil, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. This Dhamma can't easily be taught by a person who's greedy, or aversive, or delusional (MN 95).
Besides what is taught, there is also the matter of how it is taught. AN. 5.159 says that the dharma should be taught step by step, in sequence with cause and effect, out of compassion, not for material reward, and without harming the teacher or the disciple. A teacher may give a teaching that is doctrinally true, but if it is not appropriate to the disciple’s stage on the path it is not true dharma. Thus true dharma is not a matter of dogma and orthodoxy, but ethics and pragmatism.
The soreness in my neck reminds me of how easily it can be crushed like an empty soda can. Painfully aware of the precariousness of life, there is a sober gratitude floating on the surface of this moment despite the throbbing sensations juxtaposed with stiff joints protesting every movement. What a wonder it is to be embodied, to have a consciousness stationed in this fluxing field of energy. If not for the memory retained by this vibrating nervous system, I’d think I had survived a car crash when I woke up this morning. Survive I did, but not a car crash. Rather, I consider myself the lucky survivor of an hour and a half on the mat practicing the techniques of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu - thanks to the kindness and restraint of my training partners.
Last night I tried my hand at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to complement my Aikido training. My senseis at the Aikido dojo are both blue belts in BJJ and began sharing with me how much the art has deepened both their understanding of Aikido and their mindfulness practice. Since I also practice mindfulness and have shown some talent for Aikido, they encouraged me to try out BJJ. Images of shirtless men with shoulders that left no room for their ears contorting each other’s limbs into positions nature never intended came to mind. But, I trusted my senseis. And the truth was that I had reached a point in my Aikido where I was curious about testing my ability to relax and extend awareness even under pressure, against a challenger that really is trying to submit me - something traditional aikido training doesn’t incorporate. So, I bought the gi and enrolled in the academy. Reflecting on last night’s performance I believe that I was a level above a complete beginner, but it is also made clear to me that I still have a lot to learn about relaxing and extending awareness.
That’s not the only insight that came to me as I lay awake in bed last night, the body pulsating with flashes of flexing biceps against carotid arteries amidst tangles of blue canvas. But before I get to that, I should address the question of why a Buddhist practitioner, especially in the Plum Village tradition, would train in a martial art, especially one built around choking opponents to submission or unconsciousness and hyperextending their limbs to the point of breaking. Since finding its way to China and then Japan, Buddhism and martial arts have kept easy company with each other. But it would also be easy to make the case that they are antithetical to each other; non-violence is a core value of Buddhism while martial arts seek to master and channel violence.
Putting aside the ethical questions for just a moment, one thing to notice is that martial arts and meditation are both paths that cultivate a heightened body awareness. The Buddha taught several techniques for immersing mindfulness in the body by learning how to sense the inner body, the body in the body or the body itself, as he calls it. Martial arts differ in their emphasis on developing this sensitivity, but the ones that focus on chi (in Chinese) or ki (in Japanese) lead to the same experience of the body as a field of energy distinct from the buzzing of sensations and functioning of anatomy that arise and dissipate in that field. Once sensitive to it, it can be cultivated so as to regulate both body and mind. Some martial arts like Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and perhaps Aikido, have grown to emphasize this practice so much that they could be said to have let their martial functionality fall by the wayside.
I believe that what some asian martial arts have called chi, the Buddha called pana, meaning breath. Though, he didn’t mean breath only as the air going in and out of your lungs, but the energy that can be felt throughout the body. If you sit and close your eyes and keep your attention from wandering to other external stimuli, then feel into some part of your body that is motionless and neither pleasant nor unpleasant, maybe the back of your hands or the back of your head, still you can feel some presence there - there is a something there.
That something is pana. Pana is a kind of kayasankhara - bodily fabrication, that is. It means that pana shapes and forms the way that we experience the body moment to moment. It gives it its shape, regulates its level of arousal, and provides a sense of its position in space among many other things. Science based in materialism would call it the nervous system. These bodily fabrications are intricately connected to emotions and mind states since they are the cues that signal safety and danger. Thus the Buddha taught breath meditation as a way of mastering bodily, verbal, and mental fabrication and attaining ultimate resilience.
Martial arts that develop one’s chi can be practiced like meditation. Meditation, however, is only one of three aspects of the path that lead to ultimate resilience. The other two are generosity and ethical conduct. Martial arts and meditation are not ethically neutral. This leaves open a question: Even though martial arts may be effective in using the body to develop mindfulness, is it Right Mindfulness? I’ll reflect on that question in a video about the first precept to refrain from killing on my YouTube channel. I suggest you watch it for the full understanding but, at the risk of spoiling it here I’ll share that I conclude that it can be. The Buddha’s teachings on karma show that the rightness or wrongness of mindfulness and behavior are determined by the intention behind them. How is it that I bear no ill-will toward the person who gave me this sore neck? I know that he had no bad intentions.
Speaking of my sore neck, the insight that came to me last night as I practiced calming bodily fabrication for hours was about how trauma happens. I might have expected the BJJ training to be more intense than the Aikido training I was used to, but I did not anticipate the impact that intensity would have on my body. This is apparently a common experience for new BJJ players. After the training was done and we were gathering our things, my sensei came to ask how I liked my first taste of Jiu Jitsu and then asked how long I thought it would take me to go to sleep that night. I was totally wiped out so I responded, “Probably as soon as I feed the cats and shower.” As I’ve alluded to already, what happened was exactly the opposite.
I just couldn’t get my body and mind to settle down. My heart rate was elevated, the breath was heavy, and I kept finding large muscle groups in tension. In tandem with this physical dysregulation, images of myself engaged in Jiu Jitsu sparring kept scrolling through my mind. Luckily my mindfulness training had already prepared me for moments like this, and I knew how to not add any stress to the stress I was already going through. Rather than worrying about not getting enough sleep, I told myself, “Well, if it's gonna be a sleepless night, it's gonna be a sleepless night. At least I can still meditate.” Instead of suddenly finding myself absorbed in the middle of a mental image, I tried to be mindful as it arose. Eventually it dawned on me, “I just put the body through a lot of stress. The mind is trying to integrate it.”
The problem is that kayasankhara is an experience of the body apart from sights, sounds, smells, tastes, tactile sensations, and the memories and other mental phenomena the mind fabricates out of them. These are the building blocks that construct our sense of reality. So without mindfulness, the body is not very good at distinguishing what is happening inside from what is happening outside. As I reflected on this it suddenly made sense why I could feel so stimulated, yet exhausted, while the mind kept replaying the same scenarios over and over.
After a stressful experience, it needs to get committed to explicit and implicit memory. Explicit memory is the responsibility of the executive function of the mind. It makes narratives and meaning out of experience. Implicit memory is created by the emotional part of the mind and it encodes each experience with a perception of safety or danger. The two work together to scan present stimuli for signs of danger and trigger the appropriate emotional response, either hyper- or hypo arousal or, if everything is ok, tolerance. This is called integration.
The process of integration can go haywire in a few ways. If an experience happens in early childhood or if it is so stressful that executive functioning has shut down, implicit memories don’t get paired with explicit ones. When this happens, our emotional minds can trigger perceptions of danger or threat without any story or narrative to give it meaning. We will be confused about why we are anxious, fearful, manic, depressed, or lethargic and unable to rationalize ourselves back to a state of tolerance. Another way is that the process of integration itself can create a feedback loop that gets kayasankhara stuck in a chronic state of hyper or hypo arousal. This can happen because kayasankhara doesn’t know the difference between physical and mental stimuli. As the mind ruminates on a stressful experience to encode and commit it to memory, the nervous system gets aroused just as if it were happening all over again. The arousal in the body triggers more mental rumination which amplifies the arousal again. As a result, the experience never gets fully processed or integrated because it keeps reigniting. When a stressful experience fails to integrate, we call it trauma.
When this happens, it is time to practice viveka, which means seclusion. Now, I was alone in bed in a cabin in the woods at night. How could I get more secluded? Viveka doesn’t just mean seclusion from other people. In the Buddha’s usage it most often refers to seclusion from the five hindrances of sensual desire, ill will, restlessness/remorse, sloth/lethargy, and doubt. These are various ways hyper and hypo arousal can manifest. On the hyper side, people in a manic episode may be overcome by sensual desire and go on a shopping or eating binge. People in rage may burst out and commit violence against themselves or others. People in anxiety may abandon their commitments and seek to regulate themselves with familiar habits. On the hypo side, remorse can paralyze one in feelings of worthlessness and despair. And, doubt keeps one frozen in indecision. The Budda called these energies of body and mind hindrances because they obstruct access to concentration, which is a state of calm, lucidity, and ease. Modern psychology might call them trauma responses. Both modalities would recognize that, whether as momentary or chronic tendencies, they lead to self sabotage.
The Buddha taught that when we are secluded from the five hindrances, we can experience piti and sukha which are pleasant and refreshing energies that pervade the body, and the anapanasati sutta shows that this can be done by first feeling the energy in the body and then intentionally and actively calming it. This severs the link between mental rumination and kayasankhara. The practice is simple and concrete, but it does take mindfulness, alertness, and diligence - mindfulness to remember the link between rumination and kayasankhara is fueling a stress feedback loop, alertness to recognize when the body is tensing around thoughts and mental images, and diligence to disengage from the thoughts and relax the body as many times as it takes. Keeping the breath in mind can aid mindfulness. Losing track of the breath is a signal that something is arising we need to be alert to, and the breath offers a concrete marker for diligence to keep returning to.
So how do we get secluded from the five hindrances? Once I recognized there was a feedback loop in which my rumination on Jiu Jitsu created stress in the body, and this stress in the body triggered more rumination on Jiu Jitsu, I made the resolve to let go of any thought of Jiu Jitsu that arose as quickly as I could and relax any tension I found in the body. I set my mind on my breath as a reminder of where my attention was supposed to be. As soon as I noticed myself visualizing a technique or remembering a moment from the earlier training I let go of that thought and scanned the body for tension. The tension was usually apparent as soon as I disengaged from the visualization but could go unnoticed for as long as I was absorbed in it. Most often, I found the tension in my arm, leg, and core muscles - the groups that were used the most in the training. I could also find it in my face, which grimaced under the strain of physical exertion earlier.
This tension is an aspect of kayasankhara and, like the breath, responds to mental formations including intention and will. This is how I used the feedback loop advantageously to relax flexing muscles, release tension in the body, and calm kayasankhara. This naturally calmed the mind. After a while, however, I noticed the calming wasn’t complete. Though the mental images arose with more mindfulness and clarity, there was also more of a tendency to indulge them. Likewise, kayasankhara was less erratic and anxious, but there was a sense of excitement and anticipation in it. I had perhaps managed to seclude myself from restlessness, but there was still some other hindrance laying hidden and blocking concentration and the refreshment of ease.
What was fueling this continued rumination? In Buddhism, the primary fuel source for all stress and suffering is clinging. Actually, the single pali word upadana means both fuel and clinging. The first noble truth states that suffering is synonymous with clinging to the body, to feelings, to perceptions, to mental formation, and to consciousness.Once these fabrications are grasped we form and cling to sensuality, to views about the world, to habits and practices, and to views about the self. This is just the surface level of clinging. Since all these things are impermanent and contrived, all that we really cling to is suffering itself.
It can be difficult to admit that we cling to suffering because clinging can feel delightful. This is what is expressed by the second noble truth:
And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of stress: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion & delight, relishing now here & now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
This truth was expressed in the quality of the rumination once it had become less fretful. There was a tendency to linger on moments when I had done well, or fantasize about moments in which I had done even better. I realized there was a part of me that didn’t want to let this go. There was some fear around losing the idea of myself as triumphant, dominant, praiseworthy. In this subtle, simple, and normal moment all the forms of clinging that fuel suffering were present: clinging to this particular kind of energized bodily formation, clinging to delightful feelings connected to perceiving myself as victor, clinging to the mental images that formed these perceptions, clinging to the excited quality in the mind, and clinging to the awareness that indulged all these things. And out of clinging to these things I formed and clung to this sensual - albeit imagined experience - a view of the world in which winning in Jiu Jitsu is praiseworthy and inherently valuable, the habit and practice of mentally rehearsing Jiu Jitsu techniques over and over, and a view of myself as talented and successful.
Again, these are the types of things we tend to delight in, but they are only delightful on the surface. The coarseness of the energy that conditions kayasankhara, and the harshness of a view of self in competition and struggle against the world are obviously stressful compared to the refreshment and ease that come when the five hindrances are abated - when the nervous system is brought back from a state of hyper or hypo arousal and dwells at ease in the present moment. When I could see through the delight of clinging to the suffering and stress I was causing myself, I let go. I felt my body become light and relaxed, and my mind became clear. At 4:30am, my alarm clock went off. I would usually get up to go work out, but I knew this was a tender time and it would be unwise to agitate kayasankhara. Instead, I went to my meditation cushion and sat continuing to enjoy peace and ease in my body.
Martial arts, if practiced with meditation, offer the opportunity to look into the roots of trauma and cultivate resilience by learning how to relax and extend awareness under pressure. Once we transcend the fight, flight, or freeze response, we come face to face with the ego behind it all. We directly experience the stress and suffering of clenching and constricting in body and mind around such a contrived fabrication. And then the thought might just come to mind, “Why am I doing this? What am I really getting out of it?” As the thoughts of Jiu Jitsu came and went and I relaxed my body, I dissociated Jiu Jitsu from feelings of stress, and I also dissociated my identity from thoughts of Jiu Jitsu. Now, Jiu Jitsu can be another path of practicing relaxation and extending awareness with joy and ease.