May 19, 2014

An Outline of Practice

UPDATE! Based on people’s comments and my own further ruminations, I somewhat revised and substantially extended the article described and linked to in this post. You can find the revised version here.

Have you ever noticed that sometimes mindfulness practitioners seem sort of stiff or zombie-like in life? I went through a long period of that. What cured me was my encounter with Zen. Zen puts a big emphasis on acting, speaking, and thinking from a place of dynamic spontaneity. Zen spontaneity might be thought of as the motor analog of what I call flow).

Recently I’ve been thinking that perhaps practice should involve explicitly training of one’s motor circuits as well as training of one’s sensory circuits. In Buddhism, action (Sanskrit karma) is traditionally analyzed into three categories: body (kāya) action, speech (vāk) action, and thought (citta) action. I find it interesting that thought can be viewed as both a sensory experience (vijñāna) and a volition action (karma). When you think about it, it makes sense. On one hand, we see mental images and hear mental talk (sensory perceptions). On the other hand we visualize situations and mentally discuss them (intentional actions). Although we tend to think of the word “motor” as relating to the control of muscles, we should perhaps generalize that adjective to include the aspects of thought that are under voluntary control. I suspect that when neuroscience is finally able to map human thought circuitry, it will contain both sensory elements and motor elements.

Big picture wise, we could analyze psycho-spiritual practice in terms of two binary contrasts:

Sensory Training vs Motor Training
Improving Content vs Unblocking Contour

Putting all these notions together, we can construct a truly comprehensive outline of practice.

By “The Flower” I mean the flower of humanity, the full human flourishing that comes about when one’s substance conforms to the flow of nature and one's behavior conforms to the cannons of humanity.

(Click on the graphic below to see a larger version of this information nicely summarized visually.)

I. Sensory Side: Mindfulness
    A.   Formal Practice
·   Attention: All attention is on the technique.
·   Duration: Practice period lasts at least 10 minutes.
1.    In Stillness
·   Vanilla version
·   Default situation: Sitting
·   Other common situations:
a.    Standing
b.    Lying down
c.     Holding a yoga posture
·   Accelerated versions
·   Same as vanilla version but in addition systematically expose yourself to a wide range of triggers or work to extend the duration of your sessions.
2.    In Motion
·   Vanilla version
·   Default situation: walking
·   Other common situations:
a.     Chanting
b.     Eating
c.     Exercise
d.     Simple chores
·   Accelerated versions
·   For a given technique, create a challengesequence. The goal is to eventually be able to “go deep” with that technique even while doing a complex activity.
    B.   Life Practice
1.    Micro Practice
·   Attention: All attention on technique.
·   Duration: Under 10 minutes, i.e., you give yourself “microhits” during the day; 30 seconds here, 3 minutes there (emphasis must be quality over quantity; if need be use spoken labels to assure this).
2.    Background Practice
·   Attention: Not necessarily much attention on the technique (it’s sort of running on its own in the background).
·   Duration: Any length of time (even most of the day).

II. Motor Side: Spontaneity
   A. In Stillness: Sitting in Don’t Know mind leads to ability to “think without thinking”, i.e., wisdom thoughts well up spontaneously once you have worked through the drive to think. (This is part, but not all, of what’s called kōan practice.)
    B.    In Motion:
1.    Body spontaneity: In Zen three words beginning with S foster this.
·   Samu – Zen work: Totally give yourself to the pure doing of the task. (The flow of expansion and contraction animate your limbs.)
·   Sahō – Ritualism: Once you master the elaborate forms, you can fall into the ritual—literally! No need to think; action just happens the way a raindrop just falls.
·   Sanzen – Interviews with the Roshi during which he/she demonstrates/transmits effortless doing.
2.   Speech spontaneity: Throw caution to the wind, start flapping your tongue and moving your lips with faith that coherent speech will self organize sooner or later.

III. Further Notes
   A.   Notice that any of the three approaches (formal practice, micropractice, background practice) can be  implemented in either of 2 basic situations (in stillness or in motion).
    B.   Here’s a general suggestion for developing the spontaneity dimension of practice:
A period of practice (one sit, a whole retreat), may leave you perceptually and/or conceptually disoriented. Instead of trying to reorient/reground yourself, do two things:
·   Have equanimity with the disorientation.
·   Start functioning despite it, i.e., act and speak from the state of Don't Know. You may be a little awkward at first but that passes.
    C.   The above breakdown of practice yields 12 distinguishable practice situations. Paraphrasing Bill of Big Book fame: Seldom have we seen someone fail who has implemented all 12 of these.

Check out the full print-friendly PDF of this article here.

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  1. excellent stuff as always Shizen.
    There's something very satisfying about the way you organise and articulate concepts. Love it.
    Will be interesting to see on how you refine this - I've long thought that the "motor side" of this system has been lacking. The summary chart reminds me of one you did in that document "slinging the lingo" where you broke down the sensory side into about 64 divisions or something... before it became much neater and more concise in 'the grid' (when you switch from touch-sight-etc to feelout-seeout-etc).
    Perhaps this chart could also be molded into something like 'the grid'?

  2. It's a nice analysis and I thank you for it. It will help me in my path, I'm sure.

    A couple of comments:
    1. I would have liked the numbers (1-12) of the off-page connectors on the PDF diagram to appear in the text (I'm pretty sure they match up with I.A.1 etc).
    2. Your binary splits give me the same sensation as "the five hindrances" and "the eightfold path" - am I sure there are no other possibilities? For example concentration is probably a sensory circuit activity - but doesn't seem to be improving content or unblocking contour.
    3. Unblocking contour is not a common term - I think I understand - but a definition would have been helpful.

    Many thanks!

    1. Hi JohnD,

      Thanks for your excellent comments. I’ve implemented suggestion #3 in the revised version:

      In comment #2, you wrote:

      “Your binary splits give me the same sensation as "the five hindrances" and "the eightfold path" - am I sure there are no other possibilities?”

      Actually, I’m sure there are other possibilities. If someone comes up with a taxonomy that’s different but equally pragmatic, then that could be used in parallel with or in lieu of mine. On the other hand, if someone comes up with a taxonomy that’s stunningly superior to mine and everyone else’s, then that will be a happy day indeed—a powerful step in the direction of a true science of enlightenment.

      As you probably know, I don’t only use binary contrasts (See versus Hear versus Feel for example is an apparently irreducible ternary contrast). My general guiding principle in making distinctions is to get as close as I can to “a valence free partition of logical possibilities with an optimal response strategy for each contingency.”

      All the best,

      We, content at last / If our temporal reversion nourish
      (Not too far from the yew-tree) / The life of significant soil.
      -TS Eliot

  3. My infant daughter cured me of all of my tendencies towards to stiffness and embodied notions of rigidity as necessary for enlightenment. When I found myself uncomfortable as I blew raspberries on her belly I understood just how profoundly meditative silliness had worked its way into my ever increasingly emotionally bereft bones.

    The cure? An ongoing an persistent program of daily raspberries and tickle fights until the last vestige of spiritual reserve was eradicated.

    I have called this process elsewhere a "cure for Buddhism in its entirety" but I probably shouldn't say that here. Somehow I think you will understand, though.

  4. Recently I've been wondering if some degree of "zombism" is creeping into my outward behaviors as more and more tranquility seeps into my perceptions of stuff. One thing I've started experimenting with to counteract this, along the lines of what you've termed "unblocking contour," is to try the do nothing technique in motion. (Walking, cycling in a safe place.) I have a vague hypothesis as to why this might work, although I'm finding it difficult to verbalize...and haven't tried this enough to have any noticeable results. But I was wondering if you have any thoughts about how the do nothing technique may or may not fit into training motor circuits into freer spontaneity. And whether doing nothing in motion is even possible. Thanks!


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