Wednesday, April 30, 2014

New World Mindfulness: From the Founding Fathers, Emerson, and Thoreau to Your Personal Practice

Book Review: New World Mindfulness: From the Founding Fathers, Emerson, and Thoreau to Your Personal Practice by Donald McCown and Marc S. Micozzi, M.D.
Ph D. (Healing Arts Press 2012)

This book impressed me. It contains a history of the influence of Eastern thought in America and a history of the development of mindfulness practice here from the American Transcendentalists to psychologist William James to the Eastern mysticism wave of the 60’s to the applications of mindfulness practice in mental health and stress reduction strategies. It also contains some useful instructions for exploring mindfulness either as a traditional quest for enlightenment or in terms of integral health. Emerson, Thoreau, James, Alan Watts, and Jon Kabat-Zinn are the “heroes” of this book. It chronicles an American tradition (of sorts) of mindfulness practice. The transcendentalists were, of course, influenced by their study of Eastern traditions but they also reveled in the mindful experience of nature and sought to understand their own experiences in a deeply contemplative way.

In the nineteenth century the Transcendentalists with their journal, Dial, featured translations of Hindu, Buddhist, Confucian, and Sufi texts. Various utopian communities of the time were also influenced by Eastern thought. Emerson and Thoreau contemplated nature and tied their real life experiences to some of the tenets of Eastern thought. The authors speak of a “perennial American pragmatism” that imbues these contemplatives. William James was strongly influenced by Emerson, who he knew in childhood as he was a friend of his father, Henry James. James is known as the “father of psychology” and indeed psychologists and psychoanalysts made up much of the students of Eastern mysticism from the late nineteenth century onward. In the late nineteenth century Buddhism aroused interest as Sir Edwin Arnold, Madame Blavatsky, Colonel Henry Olcott and the Theosophical society, Theravadin monk Anagarika Dharmapala, and Zen Master Soyen Shaku appeared as conveyors and enthusiasts of the traditions. The Parliament of World Religions in 1893 was all the buzz. Shaku’s student and translator, D.T. Suzuki would later become a chief interpreter of Zen for the West. The authors note that the appeal of Buddhism at the time was belief–oriented rather than practice-oriented, as a way to replace the unsatisfactoriness some felt about Christianity – so they tended to just replace one for the other in the same style. Along with this there were also old (nineteenth century) and newer ethnic immigrant Buddhists in America.

After WWII there was D.T. Suzuki and the Japanese psychotherapist Shoma Morita, whose Morita therapy stressed turning toward symptoms rater than attacking them. This was/is highly affective for anxiety disorders. Suzuki influenced Trappist monk Thomas Merton, psychoanalyst Eric Fromm, and composer John Cage. Merton’s monastery in Kentucky collaborates with nearby Zen monasteries to this day. He also influenced Alan Watts who wrote many books on Zen and other forms of spiritual practice. Other illustrious contemporaries had things to say about mindfulness. J. Krishnamurti called it “choiceless awareness” while G.I. Gurdjieff called it “constant self-remembering.” Elsa Gindler, afflicted with TB, devised and taught a practice known as Sensory Awareness. Her student Charlotte Selver taught alongside Watts and other Zen teachers such as Sunryu Suzuki. Watts wrote some good books explaining the elegant simplicity of Zen practice. He influenced the Beat poets of the 50’s and 60’s such as Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouak, and Allan Ginsburg, thus inaugurating a “Zen boom.” The Beat poets loosened Zen up and made it hip and so a younger audience came to it in a more independent self-styled manner. Such an approach would intensify in the psychedelic revolution of the 60’s. Zen Centers sprung up in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Rochester, New York. Various Hindu teachers, Tibetan lamas such as Chogyam Trungpa and Tarthang Tulku started centers and gathered students as well. Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield studied in the Theravadin tradition and began the less traditional, more secular, Insight Meditation school. Phillip Kapleau’s successor at Rochester Zen Center, Toni Packer, sought to strip most or all of the cultural influences out of her mindfulness approach. By the 1970’s Eastern spiritual traditions gained a foothold in American culture.

The authors note that several Eastern practices such as Hatha Yoga and mindfulness meditation have become quite secularized. Hospitals and schools now feature such classes. They also note that since 1980 the evidence has mounted for the mental health benefits of mindulness meditation and there have been many studies done. In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist at Massachusetts Medical Center, developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which has proved successful for experiencers of chronic pain, anxiety, panic attacks, and PTSD. The authors describe the typical MBSR regimen in the 8-week course. The four basic mindfulness practices taught are: body scan, sitting meditation, hatha yoga, and walking meditation. These are interspersed with lectures on mindfulness, stress physiology, interpersonal communication, as well as group dialogues. Other therapies have spun off from MBSR such as Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) directed toward depression and mental health. The authors present the results of various studies to show the efficacy of mindfulness as medicine.

As Emerson and Thoreau’s contemplations of their natural surroundings demonstrate, any situation can be an opportunity for mindfulness. Mindfulness is not simply noticing what is happening around you but also within you and the integration of it all which the authors refer to as the complex of body-mind-world.

In the Buddhist tradition there are the “three marks of existence,” which apply to everything in our ordinary experience. These are impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and non-self. Buddha taught the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. These refer to what we should put our attention on in order to become mindful of reality. These are: mindfulness of the body, of feelings, of mind, and of mental objects. Mindulness of breathing is said to activate all four foundations of mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn gives the following definitions of mindfulness geared toward contemporary practice:

“Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

“Mindfulness meditation is a consciousness discipline revolving around a particular way of paying attention in one’s life. It can be most simply described as the intentional cultivation of nonjudgmental moment-to-moment awareness.”

The three key elements are intentionality, present-centeredness, and absence of judgment. This is also called “bare attention.”  From Zinn come the Three Axioms of Mindfulness: intention, attention, and attitude, engaged simultaneously. Scientific studies of meditation have delineated mechanisms such as 1) de-automatization of “psychological structures that organize, limit, select and interpret perceptual stimuli; 2) increased field independence (defined by an increased ability to notice hidden things); and 3) dehabituation to stimuli – which meditators may refer to as constant refreshing of the present.

A distinction is made between awareness (the continuous flow of data from the senses) and attention. Emerson noted that awareness “will not be dissected, or unraveled,” yet will be “gladly loved and enjoyed.”

Teachers at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School came up with a scheme called the Triangle of Awareness. The three dimensions of this triangle are given as body sensation, thought, and emotion. These are often what appear during meditation and so we notice them through our practice. Emerson notes: “Every moment is new; the past is always swallowed up and forgotten; the coming only is sacred; Nothing is secure but life, transition, the enterprising spirit.” William James, in his theory of human emotions, sees emotions as arising from body sensations.

The authors discuss mindfulness of body through orientation. Both gravity and the breath can be ways to orient. The breath defines in and out, up and down. Gravity also defines up and down. Gravity helps us feel ourselves in space through proprioception. Mindfulness of breathing helps us orient from the inside of the body through interoception. There is a whole chapter about gravity and three chapters about the breath.

I enjoyed the chapter and contemplation on gravity. “Gravity” refers to the pull of the earth upon us – this is the gravitation we feel - rather than “gravitation” which refers to the effects of any mass on any other mass. Gravity is our constant companion. It affects our physiology and evolution in various ways. We must work with gravity to balance our  bodies all the time. We can sense gravity in our meditations. Although the authors don’t mention it – we can also sense atmospheric pressure. Sensing gravity is part of our “sense” of balance. Balancing has to do with adjusting in different directions – up, down, right, left, forward, backward. Body metaphors, some embedded in our language, are explored. Words like “grounded”, “centered”, and metaphorical “up” and “down” are examples. Also examined are physiological and psychological aspects of gravity, mostly in terms of the study of sensation and perception. Our sense of balance is thought to be influenced by three systems (equilibrial triad): the vestibular system (a sort of gravity and motion regulating system operated out of the inner ear through movements of gel in sacs and subsequent  adjustments- space (x,y,z- roll, pitch, and yaw), the visual system, and the somatosensory system. With the visual system, we orient ourselves perpendicular to the (perceived) horizon. Some people are more or less reliant on the visual system than others. The somatosensory system includes proprioception, kinesthesia (knowledge of the body’s position in space and of its movement, respectively), touch (knowledge of contact, temperature, and pain), and interoception (knowledge of sensation inside the body). The body may have various “gravi-ceptors” within, such as the kidneys. In any case, we seem to have an inner sense of gravity to which we constantly adapt. Gravity helps define the vertical and the position of our body parts, such as limbs, in space. The vestibular-ocular reflex makes its possible to read a book on a train as it adjusts the eyeballs in their sockets as the head moves. As I read most of this book while walking on a treadmill and an elliptical I can appreciate that! Even babies respond to gravity. One way is through the tonic labyrinthine reflex where as a child is head-up horizontal, the limbs can be free to move. If the head is down the baby will assume a fetal position (as do astronauts in zero-gravity). The reflex leads to the development of muscle tone to move our head, neck, back, arms, legs, and shoulders. This process is induced by the effect of gravity on our otolith organs. Such analysis shows that gravity helps to define us and our very abilities as humans. We creatures of earth are quite intimately connected and inseparable from earth. She holds us and defines the mechanisms and limits of our bodily movements. 

The authors explore breath through a few paradoxical oppositions: inside/outside, intentional/automatic, and revealing/regulating.  We breathe in. We breathe out. There is the breath within and the air/wind that surrounds us. Thoreau died of TB as many others in the Romantic age did. It was a wasting disease where breathing was troubled. Utilizing gravity to aid breathing both relieved symptoms and encouraged mindfulness. The ancient Vedic sages contemplated wind and breath as Vayu and recounted hymns of both as medicine. In traditional holistic medicine (Greek, Indian, Chinese) – Air/Wind/Breath is a key to health and sickness. Metaphorically, the “winds of change” associate air with change into new circumstances. Prana, lung, chi, pneuma, and many other terms loosely translated as life-force, are the inner winds, which if properly harnessed, can influence physical, mental, and spiritual health. Another metaphor they use is Passing Time/Present Moment – referring to the motion of wind and breath as the everchanging present. One can simply acknowledge the present moment and observe it quite quickly if one becomes accustomed to doing that. We also use time to define space – as in how long it takes to get somewhere. The breath is a cycle and can be timed as such in various ways.

The breath can be both automatic and intentional in varying proportions. In mindfulness meditation we intentionally focus on the breath but also rest and allow it to be automatic as much as possible. The diaphragm may be similar to eyelids in the ability to be both intentional and automatic. Breathing also maintains an exchange of gases – oxygen in, CO2 out. Oxygen is what we use but buildup of CO2 signals us to breathe. Other metaphors tying into Automatic/Intentional the authors give are Universal/Unique and Willing/Willful – or yes/no. Each of us is both universal and unique and in terms of life we shift constantly back and forth from willing to willful. William James asks, “Will I or won’t I have it so?” Another metaphor couplet they give is Continuity/Disruption where it is noted that breathing is continuous but it is regularly disrupted first by the need to shift from in to out and back but also by changes in rate of breathing due to reactions to thoughts, emotions, and sensual data.

There is an interesting section on the study of the “sigh” and its likely function as a resetting mechanism. We tend to sigh when we are frustrated or trying to hold onto deep concentration but we also have sighs of relief. In MBSR there is the purposeful sigh. I have also encountered this in yoga classes. Similarly, the yawn is examined. The authors think that it is a signal for transition – such as from waking to sleep and vice versa. Contagious yawning has been documented and even attuning with others through yawning together. Others think that the yawn signals the yawner to come into embodied self-awareness, so it may be a sort of readying mechanism.

The last main paradox-pair given is Revealing/Regulating which includes Thought/Action, Threat/Safety, and Intervention/Observation. Our breathing can reveal our state of mind – through its depth, speed, and rhythm. Rules of thumb are that exercise causes us to breathe deeper and thinking causes us to breathe faster. That thinking causes us to breathe differently is one of many ways the mind affects the body. We breathe differently when under stress or threat than we do when safe. “Fight or flight” responses rally the sympathetic nervous system branch of the autonomic nervous system while the parasympathetic branch is dominant in times of safety. The James-Lange theory of the emotions is a bit counter-intuitive. For example, it notes that instead of crying because we are sad, we become sad because we cry. They say the physiological response happens first then the emotion is really felt and intensifies. Emotions are adaptive physiological responses. We feel fear and so we keep ourselves out of danger. The utilization of breath is probably the most practical and readily available means we have to regulate our emotions. We can take deep breaths to ease our stress. We can use sighs. It is a cheap method of biofeedback. We can also step back and simply observe which may ultimately be even more powerful than intervening, which is just the first step.

The next section is about Space, or Disposition – in terms of our immediate experience. Again, the authors utilize paradox-pairs. The first is Freedom/Constraint. They note that infants exhibit myclonic twitching – muscle twitches during relaxation and sleep. This twitching helps to integrate bodily awareness. Our bodily awareness is also integrated with the space around us. We tend to feel free with more bodily awareness and constrained with less – unless we are afflicted with pain. The authors note the notion of Alan Fogel, psychologist and body worker, that we have both conceptual self-awareness  and embodied self-awareness. Embodied self-awareness can be quite useful for body-mind integration. The body has tensegrity, an idea defined by R. Buckminster Fuller, based on a balance between tension and compression, that strengthens and stabilizes an overall form. Our muscles and other soft and connective tissues such as ligaments, joint capsules, and tendons make up the tensional component while the bones provide the compressional component. 

The next paradox-pair is Power/Presence. Here the authors get into holistic medicine models of how the body is animated. Both the present moment and bodily vitality are always available. William James even noted that we often think with the body – we utilize bodily awareness in our thought process. He suggested sensing what happens in our body when we are thinking.
The last of the paradox-pairs is Optimum/Maximum. Our optimum is something we need to discover through experiment and inquiry rather than simply maximizing processes. This is perhaps best found as interplay between formal practice and informal practice. When we find “flow” we tend to become efficient with our internal energy usage so optimization is less wasteful. It should not be forgotten that goals of mindfulness practice are ideas like sanity, noticing what needs to be done, psychological health, increasing our ability to respond compassionately, and avoiding unhealthy behaviors. Optimization and efficiency in the body-mind can help.

It is noted that the practice of mindfulness reminds us that we do indeed have choices. By observing closely we can be less influenced by rote and habit and choose. They mention William James’ essay “The Gospel of Relaxation” where he suggests that we “unclamp” our intellectual book-learning and let our lives be enhanced through the relaxation of mindfulness. They also note that Alan Watts became very interested in Taoism in his later years as he saw it as being (at least potentially) a more natural, less forced, approach to mindfulness. In both Taioism and Buddhism there are listed the four main postures of man, The Four Dignities: walking, standing, sitting, lying down. Each can be used as a posture for cultivating mindfulness. Lying down is more conducive to relaxation and sitting is perhaps more conducive to concentration and clarity.

An example of a reclining practice might be the body scan where attention is brought progressively to different parts of the body. This is a traditional Theravada practice and is also quite common as a closing practice in hatha yoga classes. One might do reclining practices as one falls asleep and upon waking. There are several possibilities in the Eastern traditions as well as ones that can be devised. Dream yoga practices involve waking several times through the night, doing some practice, and drifting back to sleep, There is also utilization of the reclining posture of Buddha (typically on the right side) although the authors do not mention this.  

Metaphorically we sit down to sort things out. Formal sitting meditation is probably the most commonly taught form of meditation. The method is simply to focus on an object, usually the breath, to notice thoughts and emotions without interacting with them, but instead, returning to the technique. With practice it becomes possible to sit very still for longer and longer periods. One can become relaxed and alert enough to observe what appears in deeper ways and different things may appear with different levels of relaxation and alertness.

For standing the authors note the metaphors “taking a stand” and “standing up for what’s right” and suggest that standing is a courageous posture. It is also a wakeful posture. I think that standing meditation is underrated and underused. Standing takes a little more work than sitting or reclining. We balance on the balls of the feet and negotiate gravity and stabilization a little more. We feel our feet. Standing with eyes closed usually requires a bit more balance as some of us use our visual system to help with balance. Hatha yoga offers many standing poses and standing balancing poses that can be challenging as well as meditative for short periods. One might take a posture on one foot like a dakini or wrathful deity. The martial arts can also offer various standing poses for mindful relaxation. Tai Chi and especially Chi Gung as slow-moving standing meditations are particularly useful to explore.

Walking meditation is fairly common in the Buddhist traditions but I think some just see it as a sort of intermission between sitting sessions. With mindful intent it can be more than that. In the 17th and 18th centuries, advocates of solitary walking included Rousseau, Wordsworth, Emerson, and Thoreau. Walking was Thoreau’s favorite practice. The authors note that walking may involve trips and slips. Trips may be caused by not enough movement while slips may be caused by too much movement. Trips often cause us to fall forward and slips to fall backward.

Within this book are given many and various practice suggestions and experiments to help one explore mindfulness practice. The authors also give some personal accounts and interesting accounts and anecdotes of others. It was a bit slow here and there but otherwise quite informative and a very useful read.

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