Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Way of the Birds

There can be great freedom in just being stiff. And there can be great stiffness in trying to be free.

To paraphrase the words of a great and compassionate old Buddha, Marjory Barlow, "The pursuit of individual freedom is the most serious thing in the world, but you mustn't take it seriously."

I remember sitting on the number 90 bus as, one afternoon in autumn of 1977, it rolled down the hill of Wake Green Rd in Hall Green, Birmingham. I had just finished my last school exam and was filled with an enormous sense of liberation. I resolved not to lose this sense of liberation. For the next five years my life was often too free -- there was too much allowing, not enough self-restraint. Karate-do found me, but I still allowed my deluded self to descend into drunken brawls and mindless acts of vandalism. Love found me, but I still allowed myself to stray onto the dismal path of one-night stands.

Then when I met Gudo Nishijima in 1982 I became convinced that the supreme enlightenment of Gautama Buddha was a genuine historical truth, not only a legend, and so I determined to pursue that truth, following Gudo's teaching. To what extent my own reaction was responsible, and to what extent the misguided instruction of Gudo was responsible, I do not know. Rather than apportion blame, it is probably truer to see it as a mutual effort: we were a mirror for each other's rigidity. Anyway, the way I sat in Zazen was very stiff. In my effort to "keep the spine straight vertically" I stiffened my joints to a degree which, from an Alexander viewpoint, was not good for my health. I was so stiff that I could hardly breathe without deliberately using my abdominal muscles to do so. And yet, the funny thing is that in this rigidity, in this extreme form of self-restraint, there was also a certain freedom. To the extent that I knew no other way of sitting, I was not inclined to worry too much about how I sat. I just got on with sitting stiffly. However much it restricted the process of natural breathing, I still enjoyed it.

From 1994 when I dived into Alexander work, I realized that there was indeed another way of sitting. A totally different way of sitting. A way of sitting guided not by instinct but by conscious direction. So I brought myself and my family back to England in order that I could enter Alexander teacher training. I wanted my sitting no longer to be stiff but to be free as possible. The funny thing that I see more and more clearly, however, in myself and in many other Alexander trainees and teachers who are going around trying to be free, is that there can be a tremendous amount of subtle stiffening in this trying to be free.

It is as if some higher power, with a lively sense of humour, has given us an inherent tendency to wish to pursue liberation, and is looking down and laughing at our efforts to do so. We can never be truly free through trying to be free. Because tree freedom includes freedom from trying. But we can never be free by sitting stiffly upright either.

So here I sit, making friends with the stiffness that I create in my joints, knowing that a freer way of being exists, but also knowing that if I try to reach out and grab it, it will elude me.

I will end this post by cutting and pasting a comment left by Ordinary Bloke on my blog of February 17th.

During zazen this morning what did I hear? A car starting up in the street outside, the rumble of some heavy machinery in the distance, the central heating boiler in the kitchen, an early morning train on the railway, the old guy next door coughing, his grandchildren running up and down the stairs laughing, and, oh yes, a bird singing in the garden. After morning zazen I usually find myself getting on with doing stuff. Gardening, cooking, cleaning, shopping, diy, whatever, but strangely this morning I found myself reading the WILD NOTEBOOK column in the Times, a column I generally never even look at. In the last paragraph Simon Barnes writes "In stillness, the natural world can come to you. Move towards a bird, and it goes: stay where you are and it comes to you. Sometimes.”

41 Comments:

Blogger MikeDoe said...

" We can never be truly free through trying to be free. Because tree freedom includes freedom from trying"

When you stop 'trying' it begins. I've no idea how though.

You could try sitting in a different position for Zazen, not because it is more right or wrong but merely because it is different and you are not used to it. It might help to let go of any quest you have for the 'perfect' Zazen position.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Even when we say "I've no idea," usually we do in fact have some unconscious idea that is still sabotaging our freedom.

Truly having no idea might be true freedom.

What might that be like?

I have no idea.

(Except that I know myself well enough by now to suspect that I probably do).

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger cowgoesmu said...

dear mike
I read your blog regularly but rarely comment as I have usually nothing to say.
Recently you have talked about birds a lot which has touched me deeply somehow, some sort of joyful recognition of something. Now you mention the hill of Wake Green Road which I "roll" or walk down nearly every day.
Something seems to be pointing to something, or maybe not, however I will think of you next time I am walking down the hill. Best wishes.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you cowgoesmu, it is good to know that you are still there, silently bearing witness.

I have been spending a lot of time at the computer, writing this blog, hoping that it might be part of something pointing at something. Your comment is very encouraging.

Just before writing this I was looking at a pair of robins in the apple tree in our back garden.

Our house here near Aylesbury is nothing special -- it an ex-council house on old council estate. Just like Wake Green Road is nothing special. But it is just in such ordinary circumstances, isn't it?, that a pair of robins, or sunlight filtering through the leaves, can somehow touch us deeply. Hall Green was a great place to grow up. Whenever I go back there to visit my parents, I always feel that the suburbs of Brum, with their big back gardens, are as good a place as anywhere to sit in Zazen.

Having spent many years translating Master Dogen's teaching, I am unimpressed when non-Japanese use spurious Japanese terms like "sesshin," "mondo," "koan study," "kyosaku," et cetera, et cetera. But I really appreciate your words.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Fancy all you brummy buddhists. I'm one too!

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Wonderful!

The only words that spring to mind are:

Brummies here, Brummies there,
Brummies every-gassho-where,
La la la la, la la la, la la.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Not only am I brummie buddhist, but I'm a birdwatching brummie buddhist! Edgbaston resevoir is the place to be! Ducks, geese, coots and crested greebs (and a nice view of the rotunda in the distance!)

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, sonni.

But on reflection I have to confess that I have just been blatantly culpable of failing to transcend the herd instinct.

This is how my life is, constantly revealing me to be a great big fraud, preaching one thing and practising another!

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Mike show me a man who isn't a fraud in some respect and I'll show you the biggest fraud of them all.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, sonni. It might seem obvious to you already, but it took a lot of Alexander work for me to be able to see that. As my Alexander teacher said to me a while back, "As long as you know you are a fraud, then you cannot be a complete fraud." I take heart from that.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Well Mike I wouldn't pretend to know anything about AT but I find some of your ideas interesting. I'm also not clear on what you mean by 'allowing' but it seems related to non doing. Perhaps its also related to 'willingness'which I personally find helpful,I don't know.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Gareth said...

Curious Mike, I was also impressed by the Japanese words, and the Zen culture - and then the Sanskrit and the Indio Tibetan Culture...

Eventually all that dropped away.

I am beginning to look for honesty now, mainly in myself. instead of reaching out to something other.

I still have a passion for other culture, Japanese theatre especially. But it is the honesty there that impresses me most - the presence of the performers, and the training they do which concentrates on openness and acceptance.

I wasn't going to comment, just coming out of the woodwork as someone not far from Birmingham. Also check out: http://www.thinkbuddha.com

Another Brummie.

Best Wishes

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, sonni.

The principle of allowing is expressed in the original post:

"In stillness, the natural world can come to you. Move towards a bird, and it goes: stay where you are and it comes to you. Sometimes.”

You might want the bird to come to you, but there's not a damn thing you can do to make the bird come to you. So you allow it to come, if it wants.

Allowing the spine to lengthen in Zazen is the same. Anything you do to make the spine lengthen causes a muscular contraction, which causes stiffening, holding, et cetera. So if you want lengthening without stiffening, or stillness without fixity, the secret is to
allow the spine to lengthen, if it wants.

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Gareth.

It seems this post has flushed out a great audience of Brummies, who have been watching silently like a massive flock of birdwatchers.

You are all very welcome. But any non-Brummies out there, you are equally welcome too!

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

I think allowing is similar to 'willingness' by which I mean simply sitting and being willing to experience whatever is happening without trying to escape or manipulate the experience in any way. So if tension exists be willing to be intimate with tension if relaxation comes be intimate with that. Is this the same as 'allowing'?

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Bread also works quite well to bring in the ducks!

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Been pondering....To intend to allow seems paradoxical. If we say we should allow not do then the next question becomes 'how do we allow?' which brings us right back to doing.Perhaps the answer is found in approaching it from the other end. By assuming that you are already allowing unless you notice that you are not. I dont know. what do you think?

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Ah, no way out! So all the allowing, letting go, opening, being willing, relaxing, releasing, and so on, any conscious intention, don't work!?

Now, what do we do? Can the real practice begin? Or are we lost? Or both?

Thursday, February 23, 2006  
Blogger Pierre Turlur said...

Dear Zero,

Both.

Love.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...

Simply 'give up'. When you give up doing, not-doing, allowing. When you honestly give up, then, maybe then....

I was once in a full-contact sparring session with a guy who was much better than me. After serveral minutes of give and take I was exhausted but I still had a few minutes left (5 minute rounds). I had no energy left to fight back. I had barely enough energy to stand. I had almost no energy to block. I was just willing to let whatever happens, happen. So, he did the honourable thing and kept punching me in the face for the remaining minute 'encouraging' me to fight back.

At the end of the session we shook hands. We were each training the other.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Thanks Pierre,

that confirms a long held suspicion. Does that mean that there's no hope at all?

Hope you are, and will be, well in spite of everything ahead of you.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger E.D. said...

Zero ...I have read your comments on the previous post with interest. There is a very good book on this very subject, which the authour describes as 'spiritual bipassing' where meditation practitioners attempt to 'transcend' their psychological problems rather than working through them. If you are interested its called 'towards a psychology of awakening' by John Welwood.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, sonni. As a manifestation of the true intention to allow, and also of true willingness, I like the words "Thy will be done."

From work with a very experienced and skillful Alexander teacher, I can report that when I think I am allowing, she generally let's me know that I am not truly allowing. When I become exasperated and think "To hell with it. I know nothing," that is when she sometimes says, "Yes, that's it. Now you are out of the way."

It seems to me that we cannot know what it is truly to allow. But we can know, we can be quite definite about, what true allowing is not. Arranging oneself, albeit ever so subtly, in "the right posture" is not true allowing. Any kind of clever strategy like using bread is not true allowing.

Many people say "Thy will be done." But who really means it? Not many, I think. I say it: Thy will be done. But do I mean it? Very rarely, if at all.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger sonni said...

Thanks Mike.I think true and deep'willingness' also includes the willingness to feel our own unwillingness, if that makes sense. Its very compassionate. Dont know if that also applies to allowing?

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, e.d. and welcome.

The title of the book you mentioned, 'towards a psychology of awakening,' puts me off the book.

Awakening, as I understand it, is a function of the whole self. Master Dogen described it as "getting the body out."

According to Master Dogen's teaching, as I understand it, when we notice we have some pyschological problem, we need not seek to "work through it," but should simply stop whatever we are doing to cause it and to keep it. In other words, we should just wake up to what we are doing, to what WE are doing. "WE" means our self, not our psyche.

Anyway, never mind about the book: what is your own first hand experience of the problem zero raised?

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, mikedoe. It is good to know that you have had some face-to-face contact with a truly compassionate teacher.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank sonni. In the end, I don't know what allowing is. I only know what it isn't.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger E.D. said...

Hi Mike. Lots of direct experience of being neurotic, getting in my own way, being anxious, depressed and a drunk. meditation has been of great benefit to me , but western psychology shouldn't be just thrown out.It has great value. The books premise is that the two approaches can be used together in a balanced way with each side covering the 'blind spots' of the other.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger MikeDoe said...

mike:
I wonder if from reading all of this stuff whether you have in you a deep desire to control everything - your body, the world, this blog. Almost to the point maybe where everyone and everything must comply.

Might it be that in Zazen this an innate fear of allowing anything to be outside of your control manifests and it is this fear that constrains you - hence micro-managing body posture.

It seems from your AT work and your comments here that you can do it if you really want to but somehow, given any opportunity you almost always draw back.

The world is rarely how I want it to be. I had to change, the world could not.

As for me, well it seems to be that I am planning to attend a Sangha weekly. I am doing Zazen frequently (because I want to) and I am in the process of 'adopting' two teachers who can each teach different aspects - one theory, the other practical.

I've read the book (It's on my shelf at home). It is interesting but wont help you much.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger E.D. said...

I think to "see the problem and just stop it" Is totaly true. However any addict will tell you: "I see the problem, I want to stop, I REALLY want to stop, but I cant stop" Well I have stoped. But it took both therapy and meditation to do it.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger E.D. said...

I think a lot of people come to Buddhism because they are really screwed up and are looking for a solution to their suffering. Buddhism can help with existential suffering, but any good Buddhist teacher should be able to recognise psychologically damaged people and send them to therapy, rather than just teaching them to 'transcend' their problems. Any way thats my view.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger E.D. said...

Anywayz.. knowing my own addictive tendencies, and knowing I could easily get addicted to this blog, I think I shall stop now,before I end up checking my computer screen every five seconds ..... I think John Doe/Mike Doe may be addicted too. He tried to stop but he soon relapsed!(just kiddin ya ;o)

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, e.d. You and zero have raised a very vital question.

I didn't mean to suggest that western psychology should be thrown out, or to deny its value, just as I don't mean to suggest that western physiology should be thrown out, or to deny the value of knowledge about the autonomic nervous system. As Marjory Barlow says, everything in the Universe has its place.

Let me try to explain where I am coming from, with regard to intellectual study and knowledge. I was always top of the class at primary school and passed an exam to go to King Edward's School, Edgbaston. All the brummies out there will know that this was generally regarded in the 1970s as the school for snobs in the Birmingham region. The ethos at King Edwards was one of supreme intellectual snobbery. Coming from a working class background, I didn't like to be seen as a snob, and in fact was one of a group of friends who called ourselves "the normals." We tried to prove our normality by swearing, cultivating false Birmingham accents, drinking, smoking, wearing outlandishly baggy trousers, et cetera, et cetera. But in fact we were all just part of the intellectual snobbery of KES, and have since all gone on to get professional jobs as teachers, accountants, surveyors, investment bankers, civil servants, et cetera.

Soon after I met Gudo when I was 22 he started to criticize me for what he saw as my intellectual pride. Although I though that his criticism must be true, I found it very hurtful. More hurtful actually than I am able to express here, but that is maybe for another post. It is only now that I realize Gudo was just criticizing himself. He, a brainy graduate of the Law Department of Tokyo University, was using me as a mirror.

Only now, 25 years later, as my understanding of Alexander's discoveries deepens, do I begin to get intellectual knowledge into a truer perspective. Only now do I begin to see the necessity neither to attach to it nor to detach from it. There is nothing wrong with studying psychology and physiology, but if we attach to that kind of knowledge, if we think and teach others that that kind of knowledge is necessary in order to understand Alexander's discoveries, or indeed to understand Zazen, then that, in my view now, is very seriously wrong. That is what I was trying to say in the post about How Not to Insult the Dharma.

You were a drunk. You stopped drinking. When you decided to stop, you stopped. No amount of meditation or therapy could make the decision for you. The real thing was your decision, not the so-called meditation, or the therapy.

You write: "any good Buddhist teacher should be able to recognise psychologically damaged people and send them to therapy, rather than just teaching them to 'transcend' their problems."

How about Gautama Buddha? How about Nagarjuna? How about Dogen? Weren't they good Buddhist teachers?

If you wish to stop the discussion here, e.d., I can't force you to carry on. But thanks again for raising such a vitally important point.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Thank you, e.d., for book recommendation and for a good summary of what I was trying to say. As much as I appreciate Velwood’s book, I still think, like Mike, that psychology has little to do with the topic at hand.

“Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you” said C. G. Jung, which to me means that what we today call psychological problems actually have their root in perennial problems, in the human condition. Terrible and terrifying things are part of all our lives no matter how “normal”, and we all try to find ways out, shortcuts to heaven instead of staying with the smelly and scary stuff. It doesn’t work. And a good zen teacher should know that and discourage shortcutting (Joko Beck is one such teacher). If for no other reason than the fact that the pursuit of it mostly produces even more imbalanced people (often with a very “enlightened” façade).

On the other hand, I agree with you, e.d., that psychology or rather therapy/counseling for many people would be a good complement to zen practice. And that good teachers should understand the possibility, and indeed the overlap between Buddhist practice and psychotherapy. Reason being that, just like e.d. points out, many people who start zen practice are in need of or would benefit from it. What Gautama, Nagarjuna, and Dogen has to do with it, I don’t understand. Should we stop blogging because they never did it?

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Just a comment about the words

"see the problem and just stop it"

What does the seeing and the stopping mean? Does it mean seeing that drinking is not good for me and stopping, as a rational decision? Or does it mean something else? What does it mean to "see" a psychological problem? And what does it mean to stop? Willful decision? Or is it a seeing and stopping that "involves the whole self"? If so, what does that mean in the context of psychological problems?

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero. Again, I feel that the point you are raising is a vital one.

Gautama, Nagarjuna, and Dogen all used words, knowing that those words were inadequate to convey the truth that they wished to convey. So blogging is in line with the ancient traditions.

But none of the three, as far as I know, ever said that Zazen, the dropping off of body and mind, might be well complemented by something addressed specifically at the psyche, at the mind.

I don't think that you have any intention to insult the Dharma, dear zero, but that is what you are doing in this commment, just as surely as Joko Beck is insulting the Dharma if she thinks that the kesa, the robe of liberation, is superfluous in the modern age.

Sitting in the full lotus posture wrapped in a kesa sewn by my friend Pierre Turlur, I am free.

I am free to have psychotherapy if I wish. If some so-called Zen master such as James Cohen who has never met me, recommends, on the basis of my internet communications, that I should seek help from a mental health professional, the charlatan's advice neither makes me more inclined to talk to a psychotherapist nor less inclined. As it happens, I have a student who is a psychotherapist, and I am very interested in his work. We have done some work together on what he calls "symbolic modelling," and I found it very revealing.

But I have never recommended psychotherapy to anybody, and I doubt I ever will. The principle I subscribe to is unity of the body-mind. And I am confident that Gautama, Nagarjuna, and Dogen were also like that.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Mike,

Thank you. No insult intended in any direction. Apologies. Let’s sort this out. You say

Gautama, Nagarjuna, and Dogen all used words, knowing that those words were inadequate to convey the truth that they wished to convey. So blogging is in line with the ancient traditions.

But none of the three, as far as I know, ever said that Zazen, the dropping off of body and mind, might be well complemented by something addressed specifically at the psyche, at the mind.

and I have difficulties understanding the logic. If Gautama, Nagarjuna, and Dogen used words knowing that those words were inadequate to convey the truth, why couldn’t a psychotherapist do the same? And in my experience, psychotherapy (with a good practitioner of both therapy and meditation) doesn’t necessarily need to use some concept of psyche or mind as a basis for the work. And the good therapists also emphasize unity of body and mind.

So I don’t see a definite divide between therapy and Buddhist practice. I’d even say that there’s an overlap. But I may have been fortunate to have a good therapist and Buddhist practitioner, whereas I know that trainee therapists get stuffed with lots of theoretical crap.

In conclusion, I don’t know if this is a disagreement or a misunderstanding. In any case, I have the deepest respect for your views and would be pleased to continue the discussion.

Thank you again.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero.

You make a good case, but it strikes me that if the good therapists emphasize unity of body and mind, they should maybe call themselves psycho-phsyical re-educators instead of psycho-therapists.

Not having any real experience of psycho-therapy to speak of, perhaps I am wrong to express any view (fixed prejudice?) about it.

But the standard in Master Dogen's teaching, as I understand it, is the samadhi of accepting and using THE SELF.

That's why the teaching of FM Alexander called me to dive into it, but I was never attracted in the same way to psycho-therapy, nor to any form of Western body work.

Master Dogen's teaching of true awakening, as I understood it from translating Shobogenzo, has to do with liberating the WHOLE SELF from unconsciousness. That kind of learning is not done by sitting in a chair or lying on a couch and conversing. It is done through re-education of the WHOLE SELF, in action. It requires devotion of one's WHOLE SELF to the practice of a way--a way like the way of karate, the way of Alexander, or the way of Buddha.

Having said that, I have to confess that I have my doubts about how fully I have devoted my own life to the way of Buddha. Yes, I shave my head, wear the kesa, and enjoy plentiful sitting in Zazen. But when I compare my daily life to that of Gudo, for example, I sometimes wonder if I am fit to call myself a monk. That man's devotion to his Buddhist work was something else.

The teaching of Freud, Jung et cetera, is not, as I understand it, a way in this sense.

Friday, February 24, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Mike,

Thank you. It seems that we’re at aiming at the same point but based on different experiences.

AT is more than bodywork, psychotherapy is more than mindwork or “conversing”, and both engage the whole self – if practiced properly. And if we are not devoting our whole selves in practicing our way, then what are we doing?

Saturday, February 25, 2006  
Blogger Mike Cross said...

Thank you, zero.

Good question. I think that most of the time I am lying to myself. I pay lip service to the principle of accepting and using the whole of myself, but (as I have seen with renewed clarity in discussions on the next post) my deepest wish is to be the guy who knows, Mike Cross the Supreme Buddha. This desire to get my dirty paws on ultimate knowledge, this desire for finality, this desire to Be Right, produces in me a kind of arrest, akin to a cardiac arrest, through the whole self. It prevents me from forgetting myself. It prevents body and mind from dropping off.

One or two Alexander teachers (nothing called AT) have helped me to see the above, by their teaching (certainly not by bodywork).

I don't know psychotherapy but I remain skeptical about whether it truly, as you say, engages the whole self. Anything that goes by the name psychotherapy, as far as I am concerned, is guilty till proven innocent!

Saturday, February 25, 2006  
Blogger zero said...

Mike,

thank you. I guess that settles the psychotherapy discussion. I'll post a response to your other very good point as a comment to today's post.

Sunday, February 26, 2006  

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