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Monday, August 7, 2017

Of Mindfulness and Embodiment

 I discovered Mindfulness Meditation when I saw a documentary on PBS in the early 90's called Healing and the Mind. There was a segment about the work of John Kabat-Zinn and his founding of Mindfulness -Based Stress Reduction, and The Center For Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. I was intrigued when I saw how he employed mindfulness meditation to help his patients cope with stress, illness, and pain at  his Stress Reduction Clinic. I bought his book, Full Catastrophe Lving:How to Cope With Stress, Pain and Illness Using Mindfulness Meditation,  and threw myself into Mindfulness Meditation. To be honest, the moment to moment awareness that is required for mindfulness meditation was literally crazy making for me. The more mindful I became, the more focused I became on my thoughts...the random patterns, the random constant chatter of my brain, the awareness of literal mind stuff , drove me way up into my head. I quickly abandoned it. I remember when I was first trying mindfulness I recommended the book to a friend. She reported back to me that she tried practicing mindfulness in the subway on her way to work, and missed her stop, making her late for work, and increasing her already high stress levels. She threw the book away, I put mine on my bookshelf where it gathered dust.

Fast forward about 15 years and mindfulness is back.  A friend recommended an online mindfulness course. I decided to give it another go, as I was hearing about mindfulness everywhere, and thanks to government grants, mindfulness was starting to be taught in schools. I tried again...instant insanity. I stopped.

If we take a look back at the origins of mindfulness, we find that it comes from Buddhist teachings on meditation and mindfulness, and that Kabat Zinn studied meditation with  the famous Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. He developed his Mindfulness Meditation based on Buddhist meditation and Hatha Yoga.

I've  become curious about the teachings of Buddhism because of two tragic deaths that have recently come to my attention. One is the street drug overdose of a famous Buddhist and yoga teacher, Michael Stone. Michael struggled with bipolar disorder, and like many, embraced Buddhism and yoga as a way to cope with his struggle with mental illness. He was a wonderful and well loved teacher, and his death was a shock to his community.

Michael Stone's passing was impactful to me simply because when I heard about it  I had just started reading a book about a three year silent meditation retreat gone wrong. The book A Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story Of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment, is the story of the first American Buddhist to receive the title of Geshe, and his controversial and "untradtitional" life as a Tibetan Buddhist Monk in America. The second of his ambitious three year silent meditation retreats in the Arizona desert ended in violence and death of one of the participants. Both of these tragedies were interesting to me, simply because Buddhist meditation, at it's core, is about liberation and freedom from suffering. It's exactly what Kabat-Zinn is attempting to do in his Mindfulness Meditation work. But I struggle with this...focusing on suffering, trying to be free from suffering, in my mind, enhances suffering. I can't argue with thousands of years of knowledge and tradition, of which I know very little, but I do wonder....are the various forms of Buddhist meditation, is the western grandchild of Buddhist Meditation, Mindfulness, really all that it's cracked up to be? In my own experience, no.

But that is only my own experience. One of my clients found his own 10-day silent Insight Meditation Retreat ( a form of Buddhist meditation) to be a very helpful addition to his Energy-Flow Coaching work. To him, it solidified and validated the work we were doing in Energy Flow Coaching. He ultimately made a full recovery from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

 Recently I discovered an article in Yoga Journal about Body Sensing Meditation. It immediately resonated with me, because it's what I teach in my yoga classes, and it's what I encourage my clients to practice. In Yoga and in life, being aware of bodily sensations, becoming embodied, helps us to tune into the infinite wisdom and guidance of the body. This guidance informs us, and helps us to change our minds, and to change our behaviors. "Spiritual growth accelerates when one attains a conscious state not controlled by habitual thoughts or patterns" So embodiment, tuning into and acting on the wisdom of the body, is a catalyst for spiritual growth, and perhaps a way to attain that elusive state of "Enlightenment". Perhaps the road to freedom and liberation from suffering is through the body. Maybe if we learn to embrace pain, fatigue, illness, anxiety and depression as the deep, personal and spiritual teachers that they are, if we learn their language and their lessons, then we can discover freedom from suffering. As the author states in the Yoga Journal Article, Bodysensing, " Focusing on the sensations of the body, can help to calm the nervous system, promote deep relaxation, and enhance feelings of groundedness and well-being", and bring us to a deeper relationship and understanding of self.






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