Monday, May 6, 2013

American Yoga's Meditation Challenge

In about a month, I will begin teaching a weekly meditation class at one of our local yoga centers. The director of the center, one of my old yoga teachers, was excited to add me to the schedule, and said that it was about time that they had a class specifically devoted to meditation and study of the teachings. As such, I found this post rather telling of the state of much of North American yoga, particularly around the issue of meditation practice.

The author of the article, J. Brown, has written a lot of thought provoking stuff about yoga standards, consumerism, and other issues in modern practice. I usually find his articles well written and full of great points. This current piece seems pretty muddled to me. A mixture of disdain and respect for meditation, and also confusion.

Early in the piece, Brown correctly posits that the few minutes of tacked on meditation at the end of yoga asana classes doesn't really do the practice justice. From there, he goes on to offer the following:

When we are told that meditation will alleviate everything from emotional imbalance to Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and will bring about everything from increased fertility to a knowledge of our true selves and maybe even enlightenment, its kind of hard to not be seeking for those things when we are sitting uncomfortably waiting for the allotted time to be done. And if we are seeking for something, whatever it may be, then we ensure its absence.

Listening to Deepak Chopra give a guided visualization about our inter-connectedness to nature and universal consciousness is a beautiful thing that likely has a positive affect for many. But this is not meditation. Nor is observing breath, chanting mantras, performing physical postures or sitting still. These sorts of techniques are intended to be a vehicle for concentrating the mind and easing the body, whereby some conditions are encouraged that tend towards an experience of meditation. But these techniques are not meditation in and of themselves.

Setting aside Deepak Chopra (and please, let's set him aside), I tend to agree with Brown that the way meditation practice is often presented in yoga settings - and even in some Buddhist settings - is something of a cure all. People get lots of gaining ideas about meditation as it is. Seriously, a dozen years of Zen practice and reminders from teachers and fellow students haven't eliminated all sense of "getting something" from my mind. There are still plenty of times when the only thing that gets me to sit still for a little bit is the thought that it might "help me." Or "liberate me." So, clearly it can be a problem when you have teachers repeatedly telling you that your meditation practice is almost guaranteed to lower your blood pressure, make your relationships better, and maybe even liberate you from all suffering.

At the same time, Brown's concerns only represent one side of the "gaining mind" stuff. The other side is this. Gaining mind thoughts can, and often do, propel people to keep going. To stay with it, even when things get difficult. They can be delusions as skillful means. Which doesn't mean that one should keep wanting something from practice forever, but I tend to think that you have to burn through a certain amount of this gaining mind before you're able to let such thoughts go and come to practice - whatever practice it is - without a need to get anything or go anywhere.

Brown's definition of meditation throughout the piece is kind of muddy. Is it about uncovering the truth? Liberation? Mindfulness? Stress reduction? Something else? One thing I notice a lot these days is how often mindfulness is treated as the totality and end all of meditation practices. When it's really just one small segment of a myriad of practices found throughout both Buddhist teachings and yogic teachings.

Anyway, Brown goes on:

If the student is striving in practice, inadvertently or not, then this will most certainly find its way into any seated repose. And attempting to meditate as an activity, rather than understanding it to be the natural result of mindful practice, imposes a sense of lacking when there is none.

Meditation is a description of what happens as a consequence of healthy choices, not a prescription for bringing them about. When we have an intimate relationship with our actual lives, it simply occurs. Stop meditating. Learn to take pleasure in a regular practice that soothes the system and the rest is coming.

This really isn't a new idea. I remember reading something similar in at least one of B.K.S. Iyengar's books. It stems from the idea that asana practice, the postures that the majority of Americans think is "Yoga," are what anyone should do and master first before moving on to the more subtle yogic practices, including pranayama and meditation. Iyengar, Jois, and other mid-late 20th century teachers that raised the popularity of modern yoga practice in America responded to the highly stressed, and poorly focused students they encountered by focusing on progression through stages, beginning with the postures. And for many, that beginning has been the end point as well. In large part, I'd argue, because asana practice is treated as "complete" in and of itself. And it easily sells, whereas the more subtle practices aren't as "sexy."

As I wrote in my essay from the volume 21st Century Yoga: Politics, Culture, and Practice, there's an almost opposite cutting off of the body present amongst many convert American Buddhist practitioners. Even though nearly every majority ancestral teacher, from the Buddha to Dogen on down talks at length about body awareness, posture, and the breath, it's still pretty easy to find Buddhist students lost in intellectualism and thoughts, sometimes to the point of injuring themselves while doing seated meditation. Whereas the body seems to matter too much to the average yoga student, the body doesn't matter enough for the average convert Buddhist.

One thing I have learned from all these years of Zen practice is that meditation doesn't really "just come." There needs to be some effort put in. Sometimes, very little, and sometimes a lot. And sometimes, practice does seem effortless. But I don't really agree with Brown's notion that doing asana will naturally lead to meditation. I've met yoga teachers with one, even two decades of asana practice who have barely touched - in any intentional manner - the other limbs of yoga practice. It's all about the postures. Or mostly about the postures. Some think meditation is too hard. Others dismiss it as "pretentious, "religious," or any number of other absurd judgments.

What you might find surprising is that I actually think that Iyengar and the others weren't necessarily wrong in focusing primarily on the postures with beginning students. In fact, I tend to think that the average Buddhist student in America could benefit from learning and practicing small sequences of postures, and that deliberate physical movements of any form would probably be better than struggling like mad to sit still in zazen with a highly agitated and confused mind. Zen students do "work practice" in the middle of retreats, for example, which in my view is a nod to the myriad of ways that monastics throughout history have had regular labor incorporated into their days by necessity.

Moving beyond the level of survival and needing to secure the basics creates all sorts of opportunities to make artificial divisions, and loose a sense of wholeness. Lately, I've been thinking that it makes a lot of sense that meditation practice is so popular amongst Americans, even if it proves to be difficult for the vast majority of us. Sitting around is a habit. Not moving much is a habit. We aren't too good at stillness, and our minds are a mess, but hell if we aren't skilled in sitting down.

What do you think?


Robyn said...

I just read J's article before seeing your post, and had a similar reaction. It struck me that, perhaps, he doesn't have a meditation practice and maybe is justifying it....for himself as well as others?

My experience is that many very accomplished yoga teachers have been convinced that meditation is not possible for most people - largely because of what you said about Western practitioners' minds and how we were viewed by Jois, Iyengar and Desikachar. When I tell them about how anyone who walks in the door of the zendo receivers beginning instruction and then is left to themselves (for the most part), they act like it is a very reckless act.

Maybe it is!

I tend to agree with you that a good balance of attention to physical posture (including preparation asana and pranayama) along with zazen seem to work well. I mean, I guess they work well for me...

The Buddha was a yogi! I am certain that he knew and possibly practiced pranayama and asana....when did it all fall away? China? Japan? I do think something was lost for both practices when that occurred.

Nathan said...

Yes! Totally. The Buddha was a yogi, and there are Buddhist posture practices as well. It's definitely not absent, just not upheld and largely forgotten.

"When I tell them about how anyone who walks in the door of the zendo receivers beginning instruction and then is left to themselves (for the most part), they act like it is a very reckless act.

Maybe it is!"

This has been my experience as well. I think there's a lot of putting meditation on a pedestal going on. As if it's this special practice that only a few, advanced people can access. Obviously, both of us have seen that this isn't true.

I can't figure out what J. is really aiming at, or what his own experience is even. He's usually a pretty clear-thinking writer. You could be right that he's attempting to justify a lack of a personal meditation practice. Another thing I thought of is that maybe he's running into a lot of students that are feeling conflicted about meditation, or who he thinks "aren't ready" for meditation, and this piece was aimed at them.

Robyn said...

Interestingly, I had an apology in my inbox this morning from J (sent to his email list - not just me!). I think he must have received some heat from other places about his words....

Nathan said...

The comments on the original piece were definitely pretty heated.