Spiritual Living for the 21st Century

Andrew Marshall February 2012

The second in a series of eleven articles for 2012 For more information, visit www.joyousness.org.uk

Meditation, in one form or another, is one of the most fundamental tools at our disposal for refining our consciousness and our perceptions. It involves training the mind to focus in a particular way and, because of that, when we sit to meditate our concern will normally be on what is going on within the mind. Some practise meditation for calmness and relaxation; for others, a more spiritual or philosophical intention may be present. It matters not which, because all approaches are connected; they all lead to greater awareness of oneself and of one's relationship to the universe and all that is. But meditation involves more than the mind. The body has an important role to play, too, and the purpose of this article is to underline the significance of the body's effect on the meditation process and how we can lend a helping hand.

thing but as a combination of our thoughts, feelings, our beliefs, habits of reaction, memory and perception, all of which arise within consciousness. It is rather like the software and operating system of a computer, while the body, brain and nervous system are our hardware. But what of the brain and nervous system? We know that we use the brain in order to think and that it is possible to influence our experiences by tampering with the brain and its chemistry. The nervous system feeds into and reports to the brain by impulses of electricity. If the mind were the brain, then in deep, dreamless sleep the brain would have no job to do, but we know that it still carries out functions, regulating the body. A little deeper thinking may lead us to the inevitable conclusion that the brain cannot do what it does without some type of inner intelligence and most certainly not without the vitality that we call life. It is more than a lump of grey tissue with blood and electricity running through it. From our own experience, we know that how our mind operates depends on the condition of the brain and nervous system. Further than that, we can say that there is a direct correlation between certain conditions of the body and the efficacy of the mind. If we are tired, for example, our thinking is often adversely affected and certain illnesses can have a detrimental effect on our mind, too. We still think because the mind refuses to be still but the quality of our thoughts may be less than fully coherent. Moreover, when we are feeling out of sorts, we can be more concerned for our own welfare or condition than the welfare of others. That is entirely natural because the body will be steering us towards recovery. Unless we have a certain degree of vitality, therefore, mental processes are limited and meditation, which is a refined mental process, becomes difficult. As anyone who has experienced it will know, a heavy

WHAT IS THE MIND? Asking this question can result in quite a medley of answers. Most people would say that the mind is what they think with, some say it is the same thing as the brain, others say it is themselves. Certainly there is a tendency to associate the mind with the head, because the brain is in effect the control centre for the body. Interestingly, Chinese philosophers associated the mind with the heart and if we observe someone pointing to themselves, more often than not they point towards the heart or chest. Then again, if we say that the mind is not the brain but our thinking faculty, does that imply that it ceases to be when there are no thoughts and that it doesn't reside anywhere? Perhaps it is easier to think of the mind not as one


evening meal and a late night are not conducive to a good meditation the following morning! THE IMPORTANCE OF VITALITY Vitality is so much more than a feeling of being well - it is a matter of being fully alive. If we are not enthusiastic about life, we are missing out on vitality and the key to the Vfactor is an abundance of energy that is in a state of balance. Different traditions and cultures have varying names for this energy and in the West we often draw on the Chinese expression "chi" (sometimes written "qi") or from India the Sanskrit term "prana". We might prefer to call it "essence" or "lifeforce". The name isn't important; what is, is whether we have enough of it and can keep it in balance. As well as blood vessels, our bodies are permeated with channels through which fine quality energy - chi - flows. Of course, blood carries energy; the nutrients and oxygen necessary to keep the body alive; additionally, the meridians, vessels and millions of minute pathways carry chi throughout the whole body. If a main blood vessel becomes blocked, the consequences can be extremely serious, whereas a blocked capillary will usually be less so. In terms of the circulation of chi, there are main pathways or meridians and vessels, which are said to affect the functioning of our vital organs, and minor ones which carry the chi through all the tissues. Chi is also said to be present in fluids and air; in fact, there is nowhere in the universe where chi is absent. Energy is everywhere; but to increase and maintain our vitality – and with it our mental clarity – the chi needs to circulate freely and not be allowed to stagnate. When the flow is sluggish, we can feel dull or off-colour, even if we are otherwise in good health. From the point of view of meditation, our experience will correspond to the state of the body's energy. In simple meditation practice,

normally aimed at relaxing body and mind and ridding ourselves of tension and stress, the important thing is to settle our mind and body. More advanced meditations can only have success if the first stage of calmness has been established. In some practices it is necessary to raise the energy so that clearer and broader mental states, leading to deeper understanding, can be known. But the energy cannot be raised if it is not settled in the first place. WORKING WITH ENERGY - CHI KUNG To maintain or increase vitality, quality food, water and air and some form of exercise are essential. All physical exercise stimulates energy in one way or another. The type of exercise that is most beneficial will not only stimulate the flow of chi but will also ensure that balance is maintained. There has to be variety – sufficient range of movements to encourage the supply of chi to all parts of the body. Pounding on a treadmill at the local leisure centre will certainly work the legs and the cardiovascular system but in terms of supplying energy to every part of the body, it is limited. Our vitality can be affected when there are difficulties with our chi circulation. There are three main classes of problem – (1) an excess of chi in part of the body, (2) localised depletion of chi and (3) overall insufficiency. Excess arises due either to overstimulation or to the flow of chi away from a part of the body being blocked or congested. Localised depletion can occur because of lack of stimulation, or due to blockage or injury in part of the body. Overall insufficiency arises from a lack of fresh air, exercise, proper food, rest and sleep. It can also arise from excesses of living – literally wearing ourselves out. Chi kung (sometimes written "qigong") is a Chinese term meaning to work with chi. As such, it could be applied to virtually any exercise, physical or mental, that is designed


to increase vitality. Usually, however, the term is used to describe one or more of the many types of exercise from China that aim to build up and balance chi so that physical, emotional and mental health is improved. Some chi kung involves slow movement, some standing in a stationary posture, and others require faster movement or stretching. Almost all require co-ordination of the breath in one way or another. There are famous sets of exercises such as Wu Qin Xi (five animal frolics) and Ba Duan Jin (eight brocades) but there are many, many more. T'ai chi ch'uan, the most well-known of the soft or internal martial arts, is designed to promote health and well-being through the circulation of chi and is often classified as a form of chi kung. A major difference from many Western aerobic forms of exercise is the requirement in chi kung to bring full awareness into every stance, movement and posture because it is said that awareness or mind leads the chi. If the mind is scattered, so is our energy. If we are on a treadmill or exercise bike with dance music in our ears or surrounded by television screens, it is extremely difficult to have full awareness on the body, let alone the energy that is flowing through it. Another major difference is that chi kung is as much concerned with increasing vitality in the bones, marrow and internal organs as it is with the muscles, sinews and cardiovascular system. Whatever our preferred form of exercise, whether it is structured or as simple as going for a walk, having awareness on the body and its movements will help to increase vitality. Mindfulness will also assist in keeping our activity balanced.

imbalance in life. If we want our body to serve us well in meditation, it is important not only to avoid overdoing or under-doing things; we also need to pay attention to redressing imbalances which, whilst not threatening to our health in any way, can nevertheless adversely affect our mental clarity. Most people are familiar with the concepts of yin and yang, which come from the Chinese tradition of medicine, healthcare and martial arts and the deep philosophy which underlies them. The duality of yin and yang arises when there is the slightest deviation from perfect balance. Perfect balance is impossible in the physical world because all forms depend for their appearance on the play of opposing forces. Yin and yang do not actually exist; they are simply expressions used to describe one state of affairs in comparison to another. Something is said to be more yin when there is a tendency, for example, to withdrawal, inactivity, coldness and so on. When energy is outgoing or stimulated, the prevailing condition may be described as more yang. So if we are sitting at our desk working, the body may be said to be more yin because there is little physical activity; conversely, the mind may be said to be more yang because it is busy. At some point, the imbalance created by working at the desk will need to be redressed by a combination of physical activity and mental relaxation. The principle is so simple – balance; unfortunately, that simplicity is often hard to bring about because once a tendency to imbalance is allowed to continue, it can become difficult to reverse. In looking after the body as a vehicle for following our evolutionary path, we have to pay close attention to not letting anything in life become too yin or too yang. From another ancient tradition comes another model for understanding balance. Ayurveda, which is practised widely in India but is said to pre-date that country, is a body

A QUESTION OF BALANCE One of the wisest pieces of advice ever given, and probably one of the most quoted, is "practise moderation in all things". If we don't say, have or do too much or too little, we have less chance of creating a serious


of knowledge about life and health and was said to have been cognized or intuited by rishis – people whose consciousness was so refined through meditation that they could access Veda or pure knowledge. Rather than yin and yang, Ayurveda describes three Dosha

conditions or humours called doshas: vata, pitta and kapha (sometimes translated as wind, bile and phlegm).


Cold, light, quick moving, dry. Air element strong. Hot, oily, sharp. Fire plus water. Heavy, unctuous, slow, moist, cold. Earth and water strong

Pitta Kapha

Bile Phlegm

All three doshas are always present but their balance varies according to the nature or quality of what is present. With regard to our health, we can say that the main things that affect our own balance of doshas or humours within our natural or predominant constitution are: o Diet o Seasons o Activity o Age (where we are in the life cycle) o Different periods in the diurnal cycle
Vata or Wind The most important from a health point of view for anyone over the age of 35. From this age or thereabouts, its balance tends to become stronger. It is the most volatile or unstable, increases dryness and aging and vata imbalance is the cause of many serious diseases. Light sleep and agitated mind are common signs of vata imbalance. Pitta or Bile This tends to be the next important, depending on constitution. Many people in the north of the northern hemisphere have higher pitta (perhaps nature’s way of helping indigenous people with the colder climate?) but this is by no means universal. Tension can be a sign of excess pitta, particularly where this marked by intensity of thought. Pitta types in the main have sharp intellects and need to “lighten up” and enjoy themselves. Kapha or Kapha types tend to be solid, dependable, calm reliable – Phlegm “phlegmatic”. Imbalance can result in dullness or inertia and over-production of mucus, phlegm; also loss of appetite, nausea. Right balance of vata = lightness & agility

Right balance of pitta = sharp intellect & good digestion

Right balance of kapha = strength & calmness


Everyone’s physical constitution has a preponderance of one or more doshas and our food, lifestyle and phase of life affect the balance of them. Interestingly, Ayurveda also refers to the doshas as being imperfections or impurities arising from a disturbed state of balance; yet in our physical world, all three are always present. For the purpose of caring for the body to enhance meditation, as well as for our overall health, we should try to maintain the correct balance between the doshas. As well as a balanced and appropriate diet, going to bed at a reasonable time (retiring after 11 p.m. is said to disturb the body's balance and can also aggravate the mind, for example), moderating our exercise as we age, and being conscious of the daily and seasonal cycles which affect the energy of the environment are all factors which can improve our meditation experience. [More information on these cycles is contained in chapter 8 of The Great Little Book of Happiness1.] POSTURE The posture in meditation can significantly alter the experience. If the spine is erect, we are more likely to remain alert because the flow of energy up what is sometimes called the central channel is enhanced. But if the mind is very tense, we have to be careful not to add to the tension that will also inevitably be present in the body. The majority of Westerners are more comfortable in a chair than attempting to sit cross-legged on the floor or on a cushion in a half or full-lotus posture. So if we are going to use a chair, an upright one is better than a squashy armchair but our sitting position should be poised rather than stiff and bolt upright. Hands are best resting in the lap or on the thighs; if they are spread out on the arms of the chair, the body's energy will not settle as quickly. The placing of the tip of the tongue on the palate

behind the upper front teeth is often recommended as an aid in easing the flow of energy round energy pathways, particularly the "heavenly cycle" of the governing and central meridians. There are other pieces of advice about posture but it is probably enough for most of us to remember to sit in a position that is comfortable and in which we can remain alert. A DRAMATIC CHANGE OF LIFESTYLE? Do we need to undergo a significant transformation of how we live? We shouldn't have to because, if we meditate regularly already, we will have developed some sensitivity to the needs of the body. However, there is much most of us can do to enhance our level of vitality and therefore the clarity of the responses of the brain and nervous system. It is not a matter of taking on time consuming practices - a few minutes of chi kung, t'ai chi or other balanced exercise each day can work wonders. If we are looking to take our meditation practice a little further, we may need to undertake some special exercises to strengthen the nervous system, but again these should not take up enormous amounts of time. There is no need to over-indulge because if we do, we can become intense and too concerned with our own welfare. Then we will no longer be on the path to happiness and our meditations will be of small benefit. Andrew Marshall February 2012
© Andrew Marshall 2012

For more information, visit www.joyousness.org.uk

2008 Radiant Sun Books ISBN 9780955936401


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