Sunday, March 27, 2016

Flutters and flights of mindfulness

A few days ago, I felt inspired to take down a book that has been sitting unopened on my bookshelf for many years, although I read it from cover to cover when I first received it as a gift (thanks, Tess and Will). I opened it at random, and fell upon a passage about the yogic concept of kriyas, defined by the author as “powerful spontaneous releases of physical energy” associated with rapture:

Through concentration or other techniques of practice one often experiences a buildup of great energy in the body. When this energy moves, it produces feelings of pleasure, and when it encounters areas of tightness or holding, it builds up and then releases as vibration and movement. (p123)

The book was Jack Kornfield’s A Path with Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life, and the chapter was entitled, “The spiritual roller coaster: Kundalini and other side effects.”

Over the past year, I have become much more familiar with kriyas, thanks to the teachers at Kundalini House in North Fitzroy. They use the term kriya to refer to the series of exercises practiced in a kundalini yoga class, with each series promised to promote specific, often extraordinary benefits. When I turned up for my first class, I had completely forgotten ever encountering this exotic word. But perhaps Kornfield’s discussion of kriyas sowed a seed that, tended by a lovely and inspiring yoga teacher called Onkartej, has now shot up suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly into the practice of holding my breath and pumping my stomach (many times) while listening to a Punjabi chant that translates roughly as “Wow! dark-light!” usually at ungodly (or as many spiritual traditions would have it, particularly godly) hours of the morning. As part of a communal yoga “challenge,” I have committed to practicing this kriya each day for the rather Biblical period of forty days. We’ll see if any dramatic releases have taken place by the time I emerge from this meditative Punjabi desert…

Thar Desert, Punjab-Haryana-Kathiawab region, India

(While searching for images of the Punjabi desert, google kept asking if I would prefer to look at Punjabi desserts, but I resisted this temptation.)

Kornfield points to two basic attitudes toward the unusual states that can be provoked by such practices. Some schools see them as states of transcendence essential for true spiritual awakening or transformation. Consequently, they encourage students to do what it takes to induce altered states of consciousness: Kornfield mentions techniques involving repetition, intensity, pain, powerful breathing, narrowly focused concentration, koans, sleep deprivation, visioning. To this list, I would add the use of entheogens such as ayahuasca.

Other schools promote an immanent rather than transcendent approach to awakening. In Kornfield’s words, they “do not set out to climb the mountain of transcendence, but set out instead to bring the spirit of the mountaintop alive here and now in each moment of life.” (p120) They teach that the divine is already present in each moment, only our distracted and grasping mind keeps us from recognising this. To open to this reality, it is necessary to resist the potentially addictive attraction of extraordinary experiences, instead recognizing that altered perceptions and visions are illusions, impermanent phenomena. In the words of Ajahn Chah, founder of the forest tradition in Thai Buddhism, they are “just something else to let go of.” This approach is associated with meditative practices of “bare awareness” or “just sitting,” which encourage a profound opening to what is happening in the present moment.

Ajahn Chah
Kornfield takes a conciliatory middle way between these positions, suggesting that transcendent and immanent paths are both expressions of the Great Way, each able to lead to liberation. Transcendent states can be profoundly healing and transformative, while an immanent approach can infuse our whole life with a sense of the sacred. Alternatively, either approach can become mired in complacency, hubris and self-deception if we become overly attached to the effects of these practices and blind ourselves to further possibilities of transformation.

These reflections reminded me of a conversation I had recently with a friend about the value of mindfulness as it is taught in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course developed by Zen roshi Jon Kabat-Zinn. Tim was somewhat skeptical about whether this immanent, integrative approach to meditation and awareness could lead to authentic mindfulness. He argued that in the Buddhist tradition, particularly as it is explained in a book he’d been reading by Alan Wallace, an American expert on Tibetan Buddhism, mindfulness properly refers to states of mind cultivated by meditative practices designed to produce highly focused and sustained concentration – in Kornfield’s language, transcendent states. As a consequence, Tim felt it might be a mistake to identify the more readily accessible forms of attention and openness to experience cultivated in the MBSR course with the Buddhist concept and experience of mindfulness.

As the time, I responded by speaking about what Bhikkhu Sujato has called the “two wings of mindfulness,” that is samadhi, a state of absorption or one-pointed concentration, and vipassana, or insight, based on a broader sense of awareness, directed to observing the processes of the mind. My idea was that mindfulness as it is taught in contemporary psychological settings might be more closely aligned with investigative vipassana than with deeply concentrated samadhi. However, Tim accurately pointed out that both these meditative “wings” involve intensive practice and highly cultivated states of consciousness. In that sense, they are both transcendent approaches to spiritual practice, and belong to the same bird, as Bhikkhu Sujato’s metaphor implies.

Eurasian Eagle Owl (scientific name: bubo bubo)

Similarly, MBSR involves both practices designed to calm and focus the mind, and practices designed to enhance awareness (as well as acceptance and appreciation) of what is present to consciousness in a given moment: in this sense, it also displays the “two wings” of mindfulness. The difference is that rather than requiring seclusion and intensive meditative practice to invoke the marvelous, soaring flight of this bird, the emphasis is on encouraging it to swoop rapidly but repeatedly in and out of ordinary moments, like a swallow before the rain, transforming the experience of worldly life without withdrawing from it.

While the swallow of secular mindfulness may seem a small and distant relative of the great eagle owl of samadhi and vipassana, the beauty and skill of the swallow’s flight should not be underestimated. I suspect that to swoop so close to the surface of worldly life without crashing into it may involve a form of mindfulness just as demanding and powerful as that involved in soaring or hovering motionless, far above. After all, to maintain mindfulness amid the pressures and distractions of worldly life can be more difficult than attaining deeper states of concentration under retreat conditions specifically designed to support them. Even on retreat, or in monasteries, interactions with others, and ordinary tasks like preparing meals, can prove more clearly testing of mindfulness than long periods spent undisturbed in meditation.

But this contrast may be misleading: if the mindfulness attained in deep meditation is not illusory, it can be expected to increase mindfulness in worldly interactions; conversely, the cultivation of robust mindfulness in everyday life makes deeper states of concentration more accessible. Perhaps mindfulness is a shape-shifter, appearing now as a swallow, now as an eagle owl, now as a laughing kookaburra kriya, now as a dove carrying the promise of new life… but regardless of form, always the same in its capacity to arouse pleasure and wonder.