Friday, July 31, 2009

Heady Zen; No Body

While perusing blogs this morning, I came across the following comments from Brad Warner at Hardcore Zen:

"In spite of all the foregoing cautionary material, I still believe zazen can be a very good thing for survivors of traumatic experiences. Maybe even the best thing. It can put you directly in contact with the source of the trauma itself. By slowly and carefully removing the psychological barriers you’ve erected to protect yourself from these memories you can finally become aware that the memories themselves are just thoughts in your head. No matter what the content of your thoughts are, they are all just thoughts. This is easy to say but very difficult to truly understand because we’ve been taught since birth to believe in our own thoughts."

Now, I agree with Brad that zazen can be a "good thing" for trauma survivors, but there is something in his comments that needs to be addressed. Specifically, where is the body?

I have noticed that some male Buddhist teachers and students don't talk all that much about the body. In fact, some seem to ignore it all together. Buddhism is reduced to working with thoughts, being rid of thoughts, moving beyond thoughts. But what about the body? How can anyone address trauma without also focusing on the real impact such trauma has on the body?

When you speak of rape survivors, abuse survivors, survivors of war - the body is just as important a point of focus as the mind. Maybe even more so in some cases. Saying that memories of violence lodged inside of someone are "just thoughts" is horribly dismissive, and creates a barrier to healing and awakening for those who believe such ideas. I'm not interested in slamming Brad here, because Brad's words are fairly common in parts of the Buddhist world, both in convert communities and traditional Asian communities. And although I'm reluctant to make gender generalizations, and for the most part believe the way gender plays out is as along a continuum, in the case of addressing the body and dharma, I've seen more women teachers and students doing so than men.

Some of this disparity may be due to cultural conditioning. Men being taught that how they think is more important that what they look like. Although at least in the U.S., there is an awful lot of emphasis on the superficial, physical looks of everyone, so it's maybe a bit more complicated than that.

When I reflect on some of the older teachings I can recall concerning the body, what I remember is the body in the negative. The body as a source of affliction, of transient pleasure, of causes of suffering.(Forgive my lack of specific citations; I'm going to work from impressions today.) These impressions make me wonder if there has been a bit of dualism playing out throughout the history of Buddhism. And maybe some of us are continuing this today by emphasizing the mind over all else.

Here are some lines from Dogen's Fukanzazengi:

"At the site of your regular sitting, spread out thick matting and place a cushion above it. Sit either in the full-lotus or half-lotus position. In the full-lotus position, you first place your right foot on your left thigh and your left foot on your right thigh. In the half-lotus, you simply press your left foot against your right thigh. You should have your robes and belt loosely bound and arranged in order. Then place your right hand on your left leg and your left palm (facing upwards) on your right palm, thumb-tips touching. Thus sit upright in correct bodily posture, neither inclining to the left nor to the right, neither leaning forward nor backward. Be sure your ears are on a plane with your shoulders and your nose in line with your navel. Place your tongue against the front roof of your mouth, with teeth and lips both shut. Your eyes should always remain open, and you should breathe gently through your nose.

Once you have adjusted your posture, take a deep breath, inhale and exhale, rock your body right and left and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Think not-thinking. How do you think not-thinking? Non-thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen."

Notice how much emphasis Dogen places on the body, where to place limbs, what to do with the body in zazen. Body posture, body movement or non-movement is part of the path to enlightenment. See, some men get it :)

Going back to trauma, in my own experience, returning to those places in the body where physical pain is lodged again and again - that is the path toward freedom. In fact, even after my thinking has cleared, and distorted patterns have broken up, there has still been physical manifestations of things that happened long ago. I can sit in zazen and breath into those places. I can do yoga poses to help shift the energy blockages, and strengthen my body in a healthy way. Or I can get a massage, or take herbal medicines, among other things, to address the physical issues. But the main point I'm trying to get at is that we have to stop splitting the body from the mind. And I'm especially speaking to all the men out there who were taught, either directly or indirectly, that the body is secondary, or a source only of pleasure and pain, or just a troublesome place in need of control by the mind.

This splitting is killing us, and it's creating a lot of bad dharma teaching!

And we all should continue to dig into the history of Buddhist teachings with a critical eye to places where the body is overly de-emphasized, or treated in a way that places it far below the mind in terms of value or importance. I'm grateful to some of the feminist Buddhist scholars out there, such as Rita Gross and Jan Willis, who have dug into some of these issues in recent years. And to men like Jon Kabit-Zinn, who do focus on the body as an integral part of practice.

Maybe you know of others, or simply disagree with me. I'd enjoy hearing what others think about all this.

BTW: The dog in the photo is barking at you! Do you know why? Be wary of easy answers.


Robyn said...

Good points. It is why I have come to view yoga practice and zazen practice as the perfect combination. They are two things at once separate and yet the same. Practicing only yoga doesn't quite make it. Doing only zazen can feel, just as you say, like I left my body behind. But together they work like a left hand and a right hand - different but the same - complimenting each other.

Also, I think that the physical movement in yoga can be the most effective way of acknowledging the physical traumas of past abuses. Sometimes sitting still is too intense, while working the past out of our muscles, our bodies, in a real, physical way can be profoundly cleansing on all levels.

We are lucky to live in a time when we have access to all this knowledge.

NellaLou said...

Hi Nathan.

That is a really great observation. It is one reason why I add chanting practice and prostrations (Tibetan style) to my practice. The chanting brings voice to the experience and "brings the inside out" as I experience it and the prostrations are sort of a total involvement of mind and body. I still sit in the same way as I always did but the other things unify the experience.

And as for critiquing Brad-I have other issues with his prescriptions for trauma survivors which I put on his blog. Suffice it to say he is not that well versed in trauma counseling and all that is involved.

I know in Jon Kabat-Zinn's program some form of yoga is included with the mindfulness meditation and other modalities on the psychological front are employed as well. It is a therapy not a religious practice and those are getting increasingly mixed up these days.

Both however do need to address the material and non-material "realities".

Nathan said...

Hi NellaLou,

I just scoured through the mess that is the comments section to Brad's blog. Anyway, I totally agree with you that it's dangerous for someone to suggest zazen as a "cure all," even if it is only hinted at as being one. I reacted as you did to Brad's comments by wondering what kind of training and experience he has dealing with trauma issues. It seems to have come out of nowhere, unless I have missed something.

Oh, and I very much love chanting practice. Every night before bed I chant the formless atonement verses, and sometimes add the precepts and Shitou's Song of the Grassroof Hermitage (a personal favorite). And at my zen center, chanting is a central piece as well.

Hi Robyn,

Yes, yoga and zazen together. This is my practice as well. If you don't know Cyndi Lee's work, you should check her out. One of her books is Yoga Body, Buddha Mind.


ZenDotStudio said...

Great post and comments. One of the reasons I gave up sitting with the Zen group I sat with for 4 years was that the practice totally ignored the body. As you said the mind was addressed with depth but somehow the body left out. It is true that body work can be added but being a simple sort, I still feel it would be nice to find a tradition that addresses the mind/body.

It is my experience that there are lots of "things" locked in the body that can not be accessed through the mind. Reggie Ray's practice seems to speak to the body and that interests me.

So your post really struck a chord with me. Seems like it spoke to a few women here too! And I find that interesting. Not to promote separation or anything! And I will make a broad and sweeping generalization (which tend to get you in trouble) but I have found a lot of the "guy" Buddhist blogs I have checked out to be pretty "heady".

Leaf Dharma said...

Warner's way off in suggesting Zazen is a cure all. I've been to some Vipassana sits where the people there should be doing serious psychotherapy and not intensive meditation. I've been reading Brad's blog for the past few months and he seems to be going off the deep end. I just added a link to his site under Crazy Asshole Zen.

Nathan said...

Hi Carole,

Yes, I would have to agree that there are a lot of "heady" male buddhist blogs out there. I enjoy some of that, and write like that sometimes as well. But like you, it just seems incomplete to leave our bodies out. This is probably why I'm a zen yogi - or whatever term may fit.

Hi Leaf,

I do wonder if the fame has gotten to Brad. I agree his posts in recent months, especially the bit about "needing celebrity" awhile back, seem off.

Kyle said...

Hey Nathan - Good post! I agree about a lot of male bloggers taking more about the mind space rather than the body.

Kris said...

Recently I told a group of zen friends that my practice is to "take off my pointy head, and set it to the side" so that I might more completely experience life. I think Buddhist study attracts very bright intellects, some being so caught up in the mind that waking up is forever elusive, because of a preference to continue the mind's machinations. And that's ok. We are each part of a larger fabric. Those who "live in their heads" benefit us all with their analyisis.

In the west it seems that psychotherapy has taken over Buddhist practice. I'd like to see some wide awake questioning around this. For me, this psycho-practice is a mucky, sticky, broken record, playing the same narcissistic tunes over and over again and keeping us stuck in our heads. Of course there is a place for psychotherapy in our life, and many people are helped by therapy. But I also think it can sicken whole communities of Buddhist practitioners if it "takes over" or seeps into the dharma teaching. I think therapy belongs in the professional therapist's office, not in the zen community. I wish I could be more articulate about my "sense" of this. Maybe some of you have some thoughts...

Nathan said...

Hey Kris,

A very valid, important point about psychotherapy and zen communities. I've struggled with this one myself, feeling that sometimes it seems so pervasive, and yes like listening to a broken record when people aren't skillful or aware enough to see they are seeking therapy within a spiritual context. It's not helped, either, by the overuse of terms like ego, which I think is a psychological take on a "self" that is more than just psychological. From what I've seen at Clouds over the years, some people arrive with a self-help mindset, clearly conditioned by our pop psychology obsessed culture, and see zen as another opportunity to deal with old traumas and grievances.

Now, I do think that a bit of psychology, as a way to enhance certain teachings, or illuminate something within a teaching, isn't a problem.

And I do think our spiritual practices can help unlock old crap, but in a different way than psychotherapy does.

And yet, how to address it when someone slides into therapy land? Or when the teachings being presented are soaked in psychological terms?

I totally agree we all need to be examining this more, and reflect on the impact being made on our practice.

Oh, and intellect - I say, no problem. You can be intellectual, and still be in your body, fully aware of it, as well.

andrew said...

check out Reginald Ray's book Touching Enlightenment for an interesting take on how the body has been left out of the Western interpretation on Buddhism. A salient quote, comparing the body to the forest of the Buddha's time:
"The body is now, I believe, our forest, our jungle, the “outlandish” expanse in which we are invited to let go of everything we think, allow ourselves to be stripped down to our most irreducible person, to die in every experiential sense possible and see what, if anything, remains."