Saturday, May 2, 2015

Can be Do Better Than "Mindfulness"?

'Mindfulness' as a word, a concept, has evolved in modern western society.  It's current use feels foreign to me as a Zen student.  The word 'mindfulness' has been associated with Zen practice since it first became popular in the US in the 60's.  I'm not sure it was an appropriate word to use then.  But the definition of 'mindfulness' has evolved and todays usage is clearly not a good description of Zen practice.  It's time to take a close look at the word.

This blog entry is inspired by a good article in the New York Times Magazine by Virginia Heffernan entitled "Mind the Gap" April 19, 2015.  It is well worth reading, but I'll summarize parts and go a bit further.

According to Ms. Heffernan,  in 1881, the term Mindfulness was coined by a British magistrate in what is now Sri Lanka.  He had learned Pali, the language of early Buddhism, in order to adjudicate disputes among Buddhists.  The word "sati" is the first of seven factors leading to enlightenment.  In 1881 the magistrate translated the term as "mindfulness" and initially it had the connotation of Victorian prudence as in "mind you manners".

The word laid dormant until dusted off by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Zen student in the '70s.  Ms. Heffernan writes that Kabat-Zinn used it to promote Zen practice without the religious baggage of Buddhism.  He wanted to secularize the word: "The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally".

From there, 'mindfulness' spread to all corners of the self help movement.  It is truly ubiquitous. And it has spread even further to the sciences where studies suggest mindfulness based cognitive therapy seems to help with a wide range of ailments.  Time magazine called mindfulness a revolution in January of last year.
    In the words' continuing evolution it is finding application in troubling ways.  'Mindfulness' is now helping the 1 percent to become more focused, effective and content with their goal of accumulating more wealth.  It's also being taught to the rest of us in hopes we will be more effective at our jobs as opposed to being distracted by thoughts of poor wages and working conditions.

It is time for Zen students to reconsider their attachment to the term.  Does it's new mutant meaning still express the heart of meditation?  In previous posts I've discussed my skepticism that Zen is mindfulness.  In this post I want to go all the way back to the roots of the term and ask "Can a better understanding of Sati illuminate what we do on the cushion?"

Ms Heffernan writes that the translation of Sati as "mindfulness" was "indeed rough".  And from what wikipedia says she's quite right.  The term sati is literally 'memory' and that a number of Buddhist scholars have started trying to establish "retention" as the preferred alternative.  My take from Wikipedia is that sati is the "memory of the present".
    I think this is absolutely fascinating.  For me, memory is the mind recreating a past event and presenting it to my current perception.  Memory is some kind of hallucination of past experiences.   How can one then have a memory of the present?  I have no idea, but it does bend my ideas of the time being a linear progression.

 In thinking about memory, we have to admit it is a mental creation, and that the creation is independent of ascending somatic inputs.  I could lose an arm, but that would not change my memories of swimming.
    But my memories do not appear to me as "mental" phenomena.  They are not intellectual constructs.  I do not really have a memory of a quadratic equation, but I do have a memory of learning it.  Sitting on a hard wooden chair, to small for my prematurely lengthen frame, the sun streaming in the high windows, the smell of the dust from the teachers chalk board floating in the air, the "duck and cover" posters on the walls, the emotional satisfaction of having grasped something elegant and pleasing.
      Memories are experienced with the whole self, with all the senses engaged.  Although they are mental phenomena they are experienced viscerally and emotionally, they involve the whole self.
     Do you remember your grandmother making cookies? A clear memory involves the sights and sounds as well as smells, and the emotional milieu.

   So what is it to have a memory of the present?  It is to be fully embodied in the present.  And this is exactly what all the ascending somatic inputs (feelings) as well as the brain generated inputs (emotions) are asking from us.  Our brains are being zapped constantly via ascending spinal pathways and through the twelve cranial nerves.  They are constantly yelling at us: "Remember this!!"

  We don't need to 'do' anything to have a memory of the present.  Really, 'doing' anything just drives the memory further away.  To have a memory of the present is the default state of the mind.

Most certainly we do NOT have to be 'mindful'.  Seeing ourselves as separate from our mind and then trying to pull our mind around to obtain some desirable mental state is horribly wrong in so many ways.

All we need to do is simply stop, moment after moment.  Non-judgmentally stop everything all the time. Just stop and one can not help but to have rich fully embodied memory of the present.

How does this look in activity?  F.M. Alexander wrote on the very clearly and precisely.  He talked about the inhibition of end-gaining where 'end-gaining' is caring more about the end than the process of gaining that end.  It was a wonderful, clear headed explanation of not only how to do 'Just Sitting' but also how to bring ones Zen practice into everyday life.

'Mindfulness' was useful: it helped bring Zen to the masses.  But our adoption was based in a faulty understanding of the heart of Zen practice, and the word has mutated into a cultural neoplasm.

It is time to move on.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Zen is not Mindfulness

Mindfulness meditation is very popular, and seems to be helpful with quite a few problems including anxiety, pain and PTSD.  And until recently I believed that Zen was the ultimate expression of mindful mediation.  But it is not.  Zen is not mindfulness.

And this is not a trivial point.  To says that zazen is a form of mindfulness meditation is an error with roots in a deeper confusion.   This basic misunderstanding causes slow progress in Zen practice, pain while sitting, trouble bringing our practice into everyday life and confusion regarding the importance of sitting upright and our inability to do so.   We turn to yoga to try to treat the symptom of this misunderstanding without recognizing the error.  Yoga is not the practice that will help with zen.  Yoga is a distraction from the core problem.     

This fundamental misunderstanding is the notion that it is useful to separate 'the body' and 'the mind'.    But I am getting ahead of myself.

It seems like such a radical thing to say: "Zen is not mindfulness".  Being "mindful" - that is concentrating the focus of attention on some object - is commonly said to be at the center of Zen meditation.  Zen is mindfulness meditation, no?

No, it is not.  And both google and the most eminent teachers would agree.  

If you read the definition of zen and zazen in Wikipedia you find no mention of "mindfulness".  In fact, zazen is defined as quite the opposite: an "approach where the mind has no object at all"  

And if you listen to the wonderful description of zen mediation by the recently deceased abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, Abbot Myogen here, you will hear him describe zazen as "sitting",  "just to sit" and "You're stopping the busyness of your life."  "Ideally, we would give no further instructions."

This becomes more clear if one deconstructs mindfulness meditation:

First one sits down with the intention to be mindful of some object.  Perhaps the breathing, a candle, a stick of burning incense or perhaps some idea like loving kindness.  After a bit, one becomes distracted: the attention drifts in a habitual way.  This is the "busyness of your life".  At some point we discover we are distracted: we wake up to the fact we are no longer focused on our object.  The next step is to stop the distraction.  Having done this we refocus the attention on the object and the process repeats its self:

Intention -> focused attention -> distraction -> waking up -> stopping -> focusing -> distraction  etc.

To simplify, I would argue that the waking up and the stopping are the same thing.  That is, as soon as we are aware of our distraction we have stopped it.  The distraction is now in the past, and at least for an instant we now feel present.  So now we have:

Intention -> focused attention -> distraction -> stopping -> focusing -> distraction  etc.

But the Abbot does not mention any "focusing".  Not a word.  I am sure he is not holding something important back.  The Abbot is suggesting:

Sitting -> busyness -> stopping, sitting -> busyness -> stopping ...

 "sit down and see what happens". 

So there is no "mindfulness".  

But then Abbot Myogen hastens to add something of great importance.  Something he calls 'an upright posture'.  He does not explain why it is important.  But in this movie - in which explains the history of Buddhism, Zen and monastic life in just a few minutes - I am sure "an upright posture" is of central importance.

I love this description of mindfulness because it captures the unity zazen.  He give equal weight to both sides of one indivisible coin.  This practice can only be broken into the "physical" and "mental" for theorizing but in actual sitting they are the same thing.  It is not useful to try to break them in two.  

That the 'body' and the 'mind' are useful distinctions was a error RenĂ© Descart gave us.  It is not a distinction that is supported by neurology. The gross anatomist may be able to claim some distinction, but in every other way there is no useful distinction.  Even modern theories of pain have abandoning the distinction.  The brain is built upon and about the body.  The connection is intimate in every sense: physically, emotionally, electrically, chemically.  That the 'mind' and 'body' are different is consistent only with our cultural beliefs, but has no basis in reality.

This is fundamental premise in FM Alexanders writings.  In the very first pages of his writing he states that it is not useful to separate the so called physical from the so called mental.  As a very short proof he challenges his readers to find one thing that is purely 'mental' or purely 'physical'.  In all his book he is meticulous to avoid the distinction. In stead he refers to the 'self'. 

I am not advocating a holistic approach.  Those who speak about the unity of the 'body' and the 'mind' are in-fact perpetuating the error.  They assume that it is possible to break the two apart and then make much ado about putting them back together.  If something can not be separated, why talk about bringing it together?

And yet the notion that zen is mindfulness practice is unchallenged.  The experience of zazen as a mindfulness practice becomes a tedious repetitive act with no end.  It is like trying to herd a bunch of cats.  And of course painful because the self is contracted in an attempt to be concentrated.  Thus, to think of zazen as mindfulness will insure the progress is slow and painful.  Something that infects Zen meditation and causes retardation of progress and pain should rightly be considered an illness.  

Intuitively we know that zen is not just something we do with our 'mind' but also something to do with the rest of us - it is also a 'body' practice.  In zen there is vast amount written about how to practice with 'the mind': how to handle distractions, confusion, depression, agitation etc.  But what about the other side of the coin?  What does zen teaching have to say about how to sit upright?  We all agree that sitting upright is important, and most will agree that if we don't do that well we will soon be in pain.  Abott Myogen says it's important to have an upright posture, but where is there any advice on how to do that?  

There is no Zen teaching about how to sit upright!  Zen teaching only polishes one side of the coin.  

Having uncritically adopted the erroneous assumption that 'body' and 'mind' are separate, and then teach only about the mind it has created a very unbalanced atmosphere.  There is a great vacuums in American Zen practice.  The Asian cultures may have had such a physical teaching.  However, we have abandoned that approach as it strikes us as far too strict and harsh.  It simply does not fit a culture that welcomes those who are frail or more sensitive.  The only remnant of what appears to be a "macho" practice is the occasional admonishment during meditation: "Don't move!" 

And try to clean up the mess Zen teachers now recommend doing yoga, tai chi, or any number of activities.   But none of these activities teach one how to sit upright.  Yoga, tai chi and all the rest do not share the foundational teaching of Zen: stopping the busyness of your life.   Any Zen teaching on sitting upright must be based on this stopping.   

And this is where the Alexander Technique is helpful.  F.M Alexander suggested that any stimulus to act should be met with 'inhibition' or 'stopping'.  This is not a periferal teaching in the AT.  The Alexander Technique only teaches two tools, and the first and most important is the use of tool he called 'inhibition'.  I maintain 'inhibition' is exactly the same as the 'stopping' the Abbot used to define Zen meditation.  'Inhibition' equals 'stopping the busyness of your life'.   

For those who continue to think that Zen is mindfulness meditation, consider that the approach almost always leads to back pain.  And that the Alexander Technique is the only intervention scientifically shown to help, in the long term, with chronic back pain.  

The Alexander Technique is the medication for the mindfulness illness.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

PTSD, meditation and the Alexander Technique

There has not been a recent description of the AT for the medical community. I have spent quite a bit of time recently trying to provide this on my sister blog ATANDPAIN. This posting discusses mediation and the AT. It gives, what I believe, is a useful perspective, but does not add much to this blog.

I'm reprinting it here because I see patients suffering from PTSD every day. Medicine has limited tools to help these people. The theory of the BSN provides strong theoretical evidence that the AT is effective at helping those with anxiety and PTSD. I hope that one day soon this educational technique can be used to help the many sufferers of PTSD and anxiety.

For those readers who are not medical providers or suffering from PTSD, this entry might still be of interest as it dissects meditation and contrasts it to the AT.

This essay was inspired by a talk given by Steven Dobscha, MD from Portland Oregon, an expert on PTSD. He spoke recently on the connection between pain and PTSD. He suggested that mindfulness meditation seems to hold the most promise for treating PTSD. This essay is about the intersections of pain, the AT, meditation, the Body Self Neuromatrix and PTSD.

I will try to present in this essay why the AT might be effective in alleviating PTSD. This is very important. If there is no clear theoretical reason suggesting that the AT is effective in PTSD, then only a small pilot study is indicated. It makes sense to be prudent in these days of limited funding. However, if there is a firm theoretical basis explaining why the AT would be effective in the prevention and alleviation of PTSD then more serious, definitive research is indicated.

Pain, PTSD, meditation and the AT all intersect at the startle reflex.

The startle reflex is among the most deeply entrenched and ancient reflexes. Wikipedia refers to it a brainstem reflectory reaction. It does not involve higher brain participation. And yet, the reflex can seem to be influenced. A heightened startle reflex is part of the very definition of PTSD. So significant past trauma has the potential to interfere with the startle reflex. On the opposite side of the spectrum is the meditator. There was an intriguing study that showed that a meditator with 40 yrs experience can alter the startle reflex.

Perhaps if we examine meditation we can gain some insight on how it influences the startle reflex.

In the study above, the meditator was an expert in two forms of meditation: "open presence" and "focused" meditation. Open presence is when the meditator tries to prevent the mind from getting stuck on anything. The goal is not to dwell on any concerns or thought, not get wrapped up in emotions, not to get too curious about sights or smells to the exclusion of other sensory input. In open presence the meditator does not exclude or neglect anything in the realm of awareness. In distinction, focused mediation brings the mind back to an object and, over time, it becomes more and more fixed on it. Of course, one can choose any number of things to bring the mind to: a question or thought, the sensation of breathing, a candle flame, etc. All of which might have different effects on the meditator.

One might think that these meditators are special people with superhuman abilities. Maybe after 40 year of experience they are (I doubt it), but I'm sure they didn't start out like that. We all start out the same: with plenty of doubts, fears, obsessive preoccupations, nagging pains: a huge variety of distractions from either an "open presence" or a "focused" meditation.

In the "focused meditation" what do you do when you've been distracted? It is a three step process.

1. The first is to wake up and realize that, for example, you just spent the last 10 minutes thinking about chocolate chip cookies instead of your object.

2. The next step is to stop the distraction.

3. The third step is redirect the mind to the object.

Those who practice the "open presence" do without the third step, and just rely on the first and second step.

There are countless ancient and modern lectures, books and teachings to navigate these three steps. The huge variety of teachings exist to support and encourage any person in any situation. But all the teaching support the notion that these two forms of meditation are “mind only”. There is no role for the body. Here is the process in a nutshell: The mind wanders off. The mind realizes that the mind has wandered off. The mind stops focusing on the distraction. And, in the “focused meditation” the mind drags itself back to the object.

For the beginner, a long period of time will go by without any 'stopping'. But as time goes on ones skills improve. A good meditator will recognize and stop distractions hundreds of times in an hour. The mind will not wander very far, nor be away for very long. One begins to be extremely good about stopping and shepherding the mind.

How might meditation effect the startle reflex? It would seem reasonable to divide the reflex into two parts. The first is the immediate reflective response to the jarring stimulus. Again, this is by definition reflexive and does not have any higher cortical participation. I believe that is is similar to the reflexes studied by Rudolf Magnus, and would expect this reflex to work quite well in the deceribrate model.

The second part is not the reflex per say, but the fallout. It's the longer term response. It a combination of the lingering response from the reflex plus our cortical participation.

What kind of time frame are we talking about?

According to the scholarly review paper reviewing the startle eye movement "The psychological significance of human startle eye-blink modification: a review by Diane L. Filion, Michael E. Dawson, and Anne M. Schell:

"Based on these observations, we have proposed that within this paradigm startle inhibition at

the 60 ms lead interval represents automatic, pre-attentive processes, whereas startle inhibition at 120 ms represents a combination of automatic and controlled attentional processes."

So the startle reflex is quick, about 60ms. What I am calling the startle response begins to come into play at roughly 120 ms.

As I have said in previous entries, I am a big fan of the body-self neuromatrix theory. If the reader is not familiar with this one might read my blog post on this theory, but it is a much better idea to read this paper by Melzack. One of the many fascinating aspects of this theory is that it illuminates not just the creation of pain, but of PTSD, and anxiety: any loss of homeostasis. I have stated in the past that I believe the utility of the body-self neuromatrix would be enhanced by conceiving of the process not as simply linear, but as cyclical: the outputs from the BSN quickly become inputs in the next cycle of the BSN.

So, how fast is one cycle of the BSN? It would seem somewhere in the range of 0.12 seconds or about 8 cycles/second.

Using the theory of the BSN how is the startle response is influenced? First there is the loud, unexpected sound. There is a reflective brainstem response called the startle reflex which can be seen in the startle eye movement and changes to the head-neck-back relationship. This loud sound also sends a dramatic input to the BSN via the phasic sensory-discriminative pathway. A loss of homeostasis occurs and various outputs are produced. On the next pass of the BSN, there is the input of sensation via the tonic and phasic somatic inputs. These are muscular changes that are the characteristic pattern of fear. In addition, there is influence of the activation of the sympathetic nervous system. There is input to the BSN from the brain: both tonic inputs (such as underlying PTSD) and phasic brain inputs (such as the pre-conditioning provided by researchers). The thoughts and beliefs, the somatic inputs and the changes in the endocrine milieu are potent irritants to the BSN and lower the threshold for loss of homeostasis when presented with a sudden noxious stimulus.

Stimulating the startle reflex is then a sounding blast into the BSN. Geologist sometime set off underground explosions and then observe the reflective seismic repercussion. Thus they can find gas and oil deposits. Just so, the response to a loud sound can be a measure of the stability of the BSN. A robust startle response would suggest instability of the BSN and a predisposition towards PTSD, anxiety, and chronic pain. This explains, in part, the findings of this study of Emotion, attention, and the startle reflex which finds that the "startle response (an aversive reflex) is enhanced during a fear state and is diminished in a pleasant emotional context."

The expected startle reflex will be seen in any neurologically intact person. A healthy subject will have a minimal startle response. That is, they will quickly realize that there is no real danger. The tonic and phasic inputs from the brain will be reassuring on all subsequent cycles of the BSN. In addition, the tonic inputs from the body will be reassuring. The phasic inputs - the contraction characteristic of the startle reflex - will still be irritating to the BSN. The overall response then is basically healthy: it is mostly appropriate to the non threatening environment.

In someone suffering from underlying anxiety, fear or PTSD the startle response triggered in a benign environment will be inappropriate to the surroundings: abnormal and unhealthy. This secondary response is heightened by obsession, perseveration, distraction; and muscular tension, trigger points, deformity, etc. The response is driven more by habit than by conscious reasoning. It is undesirable if we hope to respond appropriately to our environment.

Just the opposite is seen in the meditator. As I have said above, meditators are very, very good at 'stopping'. The meditators are experts in stopping the inappropriate, undesired responses to stimuli - both external stimuli such as loud sounds, and internal stimuli from the sympathetic nervous system. The meditators underlying tonic state of their body/mind might be so non responsive that it would be very difficult for scientist to see after 60ms. Should there be some spill over and the BSN becomes unstable in the next few passes, the meditators phasic abilities to "stop" distractions quickly will interfere with continued habit based responses.

Finally, we can take a look at how the AT student operates during a startle provocation. Like the meditator the AT student is also an expert in 'stopping'.

FM Alexander had no experience in meditation and was unfamiliar with it’s jargon. But his language does capture the essence of contemporary mindfulness meditation. He speaks about stopping the tendency to focus on the endpoint of our efforts. He called focusing on achieving our goal as “end-gaining”. Honestly, although the words he chooses might be a bit refreshing, this first tool does not add anything substantive to mindfulness meditation. Realizing that we are well ahead of ourselves and stopping that distraction is nothing new, but it is vitally important. Alexander called this first tool “inhibition” and the AT technical term is "inhibition of end-gaining" where end-gaining - the grasping after some goal - is more important than the means by which one achieves the goal. This is similar to the meditator who is experienced at stopping the response to a stimulus that threatens to distracts from their object of meditation. The AT student is an expert at stopping the distraction from how one responds to stimuli to achieve an end. For example, if the phone rings during meditation, the meditator will be distracted, realized they are distracted, say no to the distraction and return to the object. The AT student will hear the ring and inhibit the initial impulse to reach across the desk to answer it. Both meditation and the AT are similar up to this point. In modern pop psychological terms, both meditation and the AT radically anchor one's attention in the present.

But there is more. This "inhibition" is only one of the two tools that the AT teaches. This second tool is employed in the "space" created by stopping. With meditation, one realizes that there is distraction, then stops it. The meditator then passively waits until there is another distraction. The AT makes use of this space between stopping and another distraction. It is in this space that the second AT tool is used.

The second tool is unique to the AT. Once we have applied the first tool we can apply the second tool. This tool is to muster energy, or intention, to direct the use of the body in such a way as to oppose the characteristic pattern seen in the startle reflex. As opposed to the first tool, this “direction” tool his highly nuanced and extremely experiential, hence the need for lessons with a skilled teacher.

The use of 'direction' will change the tonic somatic inputs to the BSN. It's a rather bold statement, but the science suggests this is true. This is a nice summary of some of the research that has measured the tone in AT experts and with those with back pain. This improved tonic somatic input leads to greater resilience of the BSN.

So in addition to the influence of meditation on the BSN, the AT provides an improved tonic somatic influence that provides a highly stabilizing influence to the BSN.

Before moving on, there is one more important distinction between the AT and mediation. Meditation is done on a cushion in a quiet room by people who spend quite a bit away from an otherwise productive activities. Apart from time spent in lessons, the AT is practiced while in every day activities.

So the Alexander Technique starts with the same tools used in "open focused" meditation, but then it adds a unique perspective that has a great deal to offer. It should be far more effective than meditation in alleviating PTSD and anxiety. It is ‘body-based mindfulness’ or ‘meditation in activity’.

So we can see how both meditation and the AT will effect the late expression of the startle response. But so what? What has this got to do with PTSD or anxiety or pain? PTSD is at heart an abnormal, irrational, response to stimuli. PTSD is a habit. Both the AT and meditation help to replace unconscious, habitual, irrational, pathologic responses to stimuli with conscious reasoned responses. Both the meditator and the AT student are highly trained at quickly interrupting the response. In addition, the AT student is experienced in directing the use of the self ways from the characteristic pattern seen in the startle reflex and thus with improvement in the tonic state of the body/mind will further stabilize the BSN.

The AT is effective for chronic pain. There is strong scientific evidence for this. If we subscribe to the theory of the BSN, we can also conclude that the AT is also helpful for PTSD and anxiety as well. I have described here the theoretical basis why the AT is effective in chronic pain, and why the AT should be highly effective in PTSD and anxiety as well. With this theoretical understanding we can suggest the AT to patients and justify spending significant resources on testing the hypothesis.

Friday, July 5, 2013

On being a victim.

I have spent, all totaled, three or four years at Tassajara Zen Monastery   The location of the monastery is roughly east of Big Sur in a strikingly remote mountain valley.  Residents spend the winter following a traditional Zen schedule, and in the summer it is open to guests.  Until two years ago, I had never been there as a guest.  Now I get a monthly update about the summer programs, reminding me that it is a wonderful place to visit.  I started to read their most recent beautifully written email, but I could not get past the third sentence.  It want like this:

"Perhaps the greatest treasure you find when you visit Tassajara is the luxury of time.  Time to reconnect with your joy and your fundamental goodness.  On our retreats the movement loosens your body ..."

Of note, is that Tassarara has several retreats focusing on Yoga, and they have a beautiful new building perfect for such retreats.

I do not doubt for a moment that these retreats lossen the body.  And if Tassajara was simply a for-profit retreat center, I would have no problem with this at all.  But as Buddhists, we have some commitment towards orienting ourselves to the truth, and toward taking responsibility 

Imagine a poor fellow, who every day comes home after work to find one of his curtains terribly wrinkled.  It happens every day.  He spends about an hour with the fabric every evening: shaking it out, pressing it, stretching it, ironing it.  Finally, when he's done, it quite nice.  The next day he tosses it in the corner and goes to work.  It may sound that there is no improvement being made, in fact there is.  He is betting better at the shaking and pressing and each day its a little bit smoother and wrinkle free than the previous day.  And when he gets home and picks it up off the floor it's a bit less winkled than the day before.  He's thinking about going on a retreat, with his curtain fabric, to do some intensive pressing and stretching.

Should a Buddhist feel responsible for suggesting this fellow hang his curtain on a curtain rod?  I'm not a Buddhist teacher, so I can't say.  My personal opinion is that we are all responsible for everything.

What is the truth here?  The truth is that we are supporting a notion of victimhood: supporting the poor modern men and women, forced to deal with stress of their jobs and family, their uncomfortable chairs and their defective bodies, all the time being dragged down by the unrelenting force of gravity.  It is an obvious conclusion that they will have a body that will need to be loosened.

This is victimhood.  To offer yoga classes only supports this notion of victimhood and perpetuates ignorance.  Instead of addressing the root cause of this tension we allow the cycle of suffering to continue.  By focusing on yoga, we ignore an opportunity to learn how to live a life free from the habit of creating tension.

How to we recommit to our intention to alleviate suffering?  It is well known that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Lessons in the Alexander Technique have been shown to be dramatically effective in helping with chronic pain - in only 12 to 24 lessons!  Unlike yoga, the Alexander Technique is completely safe.  It teaches how play in gravity, how to go 'up' even in poor chairs, how to respond in a more thoughtful way to difficult family and work situations.  It shows us how to take responsibility for our lives and drop off all hints of victimhood.

AmSAT article

Directions Article:

At the Oregon Center for the Alexander Technique, my teacher training program begins each day with simple self directed activities.  Among the activities recommended by our director, Rebecca Robbins MAmSAT, is sitting in a chair while being “in process”.  This is to say we inhibit end-gaining and review our directions.  The activity is to make a mark on a piece of paper when we are distracted from “inhibition” and “direction”.  After ten minutes we are better able to participate fully in class.  In addition, over time, we can see if we are improving.
A teacher trainee might want to practice their craft in a quiet, simplified setting to hone the basics of bringing reason to bear.  If the skills can be developed in a conducive atmosphere, then they will be more available in distracting, stressful environments.
In an effort to further simplify our morning activity, I eliminated paper and pen, and let go of the judgement regarding if I am “in process” or not.  The activity now is just to sit and inhibit any end-gaining beyond sitting and “directing”.  Now, everything that is not just bare sitting and “directing” is “end-gaining”.   Although this happens in one unified self, it can be conceptualized as the mind being active in inhibiting any end-gaining, and the body being actively directed away from shortening and narrowing.  In practice however, it feels to me like the same activity.
I find this quite challenging.  The impulse to end-gain - to take action to make improvements or to avoid discomfort - are usually quite strong.  
Is there a way to sit that would be more supportive?  How is it best to arrange the body to support such a very simple “just sitting”?   Clearly, collapsing in an easy chair is not the best way for a beginner to proceed.
The question of how to arrange one’s body to best support this simple “just sitting” was thoroughly investigated by Indian yogis thousands of years ago.  They suggest that the yogic pose called the “full lotus” is the most conducive arrangement to support this continuous “inhibition”.
This simple sitting in the full lotus has been practiced for over 2000 years by Zen practitioners.  This practice of “just sitting” in the full lotus is the core practice of Zen practitioners and the ne plus ultra of Buddhist meditation.  In Japanese Zen, this practice is called Shikantaza.  According to Wikipedia, shikantaza literally means, "nothing but (shikan) precisely (da) sitting (za)."

This article is an attempt to introduce Zen practice to the AT community, with hopes that it inspires a dialogue.

Buddhism began in India, and migrated to China where Buddhism was refined into Zen practice. From there it spread throughout Asia.  Most of the Zen practiced in the US is here by way of Japan.
As Zen traveled to each country, the teachings took on different flavors to meet the needs of the new culture.  It also dropped the practices that were not helpful in promoting the core teachings.  Many aspects of Japanese Zen found fertile ground in the US during the 60’s counter culture movement - some did not.
One of the hallmarks of Japanese Zen is the close-knit monastic practice.  They were trained with detailed guidelines on how to use themselves in nearly all activities.  American zen calls this set of teaching “the forms”.  This is a non verbal form of teaching Zen.  
To the casual western observer, however, the Japanese practice of “the forms” appeared to be a harsh and cruel discipline.  In an age characterized by free expression, experimentation and feminism, this traditional physical Zen practice was never warmly embraced in the US.  Because Westerners never fully adopted this aspect of practice, western Zen has become much more inclusive and welcoming to those with more delicate bodies and minds.
But this abandoning of the physical culture of Japanese Zen has come with a price.  Although there is still a great emphasis on being upright while sitting, contemporary Zen teaching is surprisingly mute on how to actually become upright.  There is no longer a deep, robust, coherent verbal or non-verbal teaching on how to practice Zen physically.

The one remnant of the strict physical Eastern Zen practice that has been retained is some expectation that the Zen practitioner remain physically still during a period of sitting.  During this 30 to 60 minute sitting, any defect in use is highlighted with pain.  Any poor use in the Zen student leads to a non neutral posture that is highlighted with pain if one does not move about.  This occurs with Zen students in the same way as orchestral musicians.  The big difference is that the full lotus pose, if done well, is completely neutral and upright, and can be effortlessly maintained indefinitely.
There is no doubt in my mind that the training in the AT would be highly effective at helping Zen student who sit in pain.  The etiology of their pain is the same as musicians and it is well known that the AT is very helpful in enabling musicians to play with less pain.

For those AT teachers who conceptualize the teaching and benefits in physical terms there is no reason to go further.  In this narrow formulation, Zen students have pain in their bodies because of poor use of their bodies and the AT teacher can show them how apply the tools and concepts of the AT to help them use their bodies better and sit with less stress and pain.   The AT can be marketed to Zen students as a way to incrementally help with aches and pain, balance and coordination.  It is easy to grasp and explain.
But to limit the AT to this simple conceptualization forgoes an opportunity.  If we expanding this concept, we can explore the incredibly rich interaction between the most profound distillation of Eastern wisdom and one of the most useful discoveries of Western civilization: bringing consciousness to bear.

To begin to explore the rich interaction between the AT and Zen, lets go to the heart of the matter and compare the AT ‘self’ and the Zen ‘self’.  
In the Alexandrian ‘self’  we are not using ourselves in a way to meet the demands of modern life.  Driven by subconscious habits and errors in perception we develop a host of physical and psychic problems and lead us to fall short of our potential.   These problems prevent ease of action and interfere with appropriate responses to stimuli.  To relieve this sorry state Alexander suggests inhibiting end-gaining, and applying the directions that are taught by a teacher.
The Zen self is explained in the fundamental teaching of Buddha called the Four Noble Truths.  The first is that our lives feel like we are riding in a cart whose wheels were built with the axel not in the center.  No matter were we go in the cart, it will never feel quite right.  The reason we have this problem is that we are primarily concerned with our cravings and aversions.  We can translate this as more concerned with end-gaining than the means where-by.  Buddha went on to suggest remedies - much like a physician offers prescriptions.  One of his suggestions was meditation, and this is the bedrock of Zen practice as I wrote above.
Although the backbone of Zen meditation is being physically upright, western Zen teaching is largely mute regarding how exactly to sit upright.  Zen student have little else besides their unreliable sensory appreciation to guide them.   By offering ‘direction’ to Zen student the AT teacher is doing more than just offering a way to sit in less pain.  The AT teacher is actually teaching the Zen student how to do Zen practice.  To teach the fencer or violinist the AT does not actually teach them how to do their activities - it only prepares the field for their training and creativity to germinate and grow.  But ‘direction’ describes how to actually physically perform the vital activity of Zen practice.  Of course, there are other aspects to Zen sitting such as concentration, equanimity, compassion, etc. but the teaching that the AT teacher provides goes to the very heart of the core activity.

Although the Alexandrian self is poorly suited for modern life, it is not because of some fundamental flaw.  Modern men and women are not broken or deficient.  Rather, we cover up and obscure the good use of the self.  For example, Magnus found that our basic reflexes are enduring and quite independent of our thinking brain.  But we certainly can learn habits that interfere with appropriate use.   Working with our beliefs and habits to stop the interference and allow consciousness to return to activities is the heart of Alexanders work.  To says that we are not fundamentally flawed is not to say that hard work is not needed or that change over time does not occur.   However, the goal is to stop the interference with the inherent appropriate function of the self as opposed to adding new skills.
Zen Buddhist thinking is remarkably similar.  Another of the core teaching of Buddhism is that all beings are fundamentally enlightened.  That is, our core self is already enlightened.  It is our aversions and cravings that have covered up this true self.  Once these are set aside our original enlightened state is apparent.
Both the AT and Zen are “good news” teaching in that everyone can improve because our inherent self is fully capable of living well.
Both Zen teaching and the AT teachings throw about the expression “non-doing” but this phrase can be misleading.  There is a life time of hard work involved with both practices.  But the work is decidedly different in nature than all other pursuits.  The AT and Zen ask us to give up our habits, not acquire new skills.  It offers us the opportunity to enjoy our default state rather than run after some cure or avoid some defect.
The Zen student should be expected to take to the notion of inhibition quickly and should be a rewarding student for the AT teacher.

I suggested initially that Zen offers the AT practitioner a chance to practice inhibition and direction with minimal distractions along with like minded people.  Zen practice offers AT students something else as well.
Alexander suggested that we constantly utilize the practice of inhibition.  This remodels ones sense of the self.  Alexander writes that he found that the self can not be fragmented into mental and physical.   Alexander went on to suggest that the AT would influence institutions and nation states.   But inhibition is a very powerful tool that goes beyond what Alexander wrote.
Zen student find that by continuing to use the tool of inhibition one’s concept of self continues to be remodeled.  Zen authors write about how the limited self continues to erode, and expands beyond the border of ones skin.  It can expand to include other people.  Indeed, continued use of inhibition can even erode the deeply held assumption that the self exists independently.
Here we can see one of the differences in the AT and Zen.  Alexander and his technique are resolutely secular and plainly practical.  Zen, with it’s radically expanded concept of the self, seems to go well beyond the secular.
Although arguably not secular or practical, inhibition taken to this extreme has the power to add new depths of ease and happiness well beyond what which the AT promises.

One final point - and I believe this to be most important: the AT describes how the Zen student is to bring practice into everyday life.
One conceptualization that might occur to beginning students is that the Zen student, after spending time on the meditation cushion has a focused mind.  Zen meditation builds concentration and equanimity.   Zen students become accustomed to a keen, expanded, tranquil mind.  When the Zen student leaves the meditation hall and encounters a stressful, difficult situation they notice the variance between their now agitated state of mind and the quality of their mind they had when they were sitting.  Once this variance is realized they are prompted to use their tools to bring their attention back to the present moment and thus to respond in a favorable fashion.
This same conceptualization can be applied to the AT.  After a lesson or a lie down, one becomes accustomed to a felt sense of length and width, and a lack of undue muscular tension.  Once the AT student leaves the lesson, invariably they will receive a stimulus from a situation deemed stressful and will pull down and contract.  That sensation of contraction will be noted in distinction to the felt sense one had after a lesson.  The AT student will then employ their tools to return to process and respond to stimuli with consciousness.
The tool the Zen student uses while interacting with the world is labled “mindfulness”.  Unfortunately, we do not have a word for the the activity the AT student uses.  Rebecca Ferguson uses the term “physically based mindfulness”.   Although this seems like a bit of an oxymoron, I have no better suggestion.
Clearly these practices - the Zen “mind based” practice and the AT “body based” practice are complementary and can be used concurrently.  Ultimately, they are two ways to approach the same activity.  And the more advanced student, instead of going in and out to process, will practice them continuously.
They are not, however, equivalent.  The tools practiced by AT student are far more effective at anchoring the student.  The reasoning behind this is too involved to discuss here, but I hope to present the argument in a subsequent article.   By understanding the principals and applying the two tools provided by the AT, the Zen student will be far more able to express their fundamental understanding and wishes in everyday life.
And this of critical importance.
Western Buddhist did not invent the concept of bringing their practice into social, environmental and political spheres, but they did give it the name “socially engaged Buddhism”.  I suspect that it was not emphasized by the first generation Japanese Zen teachers because of the shame they may have felt related to the Buddhist participation in the Japanese WWII efforts.  In any event, socially engaged Buddhism is a growing force within the contemporary western Zen community.  American Zen practitioners generally feel the strong urge to work towards social, environmental and political justice.
Zen student have a unique approach to social change.  It is based on the Zen emphasis on immediacy.  Although it does not negate the need for thoughtful planning, the emphasis remains on what the Zen student is doing RIGHT NOW!  Rather than being attached to bringing about some utopian society in the distant future, the socially engaged Zen student focuses on acting in the present moment.  The Zen student strives to bring the whole of ones heart felt intent to bear on every situation, moment after moment.  This is challenging in the most favorable of environments, but in endeavoring to help the neediest, Zen student can find themselves in extremely stressful environments.  Zen students will need the best tools to enable them to bring their their fundamental intention to bear, and not fall back on their self-centered habits.  To learn the importance of the primary control, to loosen the grip of their overexcited fear response and to learn the skill of direction is absolutely essential to success.  They are sure to be very grateful.

In writing this I have tried to explain that the AT teacher can do much more for the Zen student than to help them sit in less pain.  I have suggested that the AT describes how to physically do their central meditation practice.  In addition, I have introduced how the AT will help the Zen student bring their understanding and heartfelt intention to the most stressful situations.  Finally, I have suggested some ideas on how Zen practice can assist the AT student who is interested in exploring inhibition.

It is my hope to encourage AT teacher to reach out to Zen students.  I  am sure you will find them to be among your most appreciative students.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Appropriate responses and healing the world

I suppose everyone wants something different out of their Zen practice.  Perhaps some want to gain enlightenment so that all their problems will go away and then they'll be totally and permanently happy.  Or maybe some people want to get enlightened because it would be just as cool as getting a Tesla.  Or maybe they want to be enlightened to get the nice colored robes and prestige.  Others might want to save all sentient beings.  Some want to be a healing influence in the world.  Recently I've been thinking that I would be happy if I did not make the situations I find myself in even worse.
    I would like a more reliably appropriate response to stimuli to act.  It's pretty obvious to someone who studies the AT that this can mean grace and ease in movement, to always move in such a way as not to harm oneself.  Appropriate responses can be to move efficiently and safely.  This way of moving is easy and really fun.
     What is not so obvious is that responses to stimuli also include responces in emotionally charged situations.  I'm mostly challenged in interpersonal interactions, but I suppose it should include moral and ethical quandaries as well.  In any event, responding inappropriately can hurt everyone involved and leads to acquiring regrets.  I'm not sure what the Buddhist teaching on regrets is, but I'll bet some Buddhist teachers primarily recommend prevention.

For some of us, appropriate responses are difficult.  For one thing, we have limited information about the world.  Our interpretation of our senses are not very reliable.  We can know so little about the world, and other people are quite mysterious.   And then there are all our neuroses created in our upbringing.  

My question is where is the balance between inhibition and spontaneity   Where is the balance between stopping the habitual, self serving, unconscious response and trusting our instincts, being in the moment and avoiding our habits of repression?

I have been brought up to be mind centric.  I grew up in an IBM culture and all my childhood pencils had THINK printed in them.  In my youth I tried to channel Spock, but this never worked very well. 

In those of us with strong tendencies to respond in inappropriate ways there has to be some hesitation.  We have to work to create some space between stimuli and response   We really have to learn to hesitate before screaming at a driver who just cut us off.  Otherwise we are a slave to our habits - a beast in a human body who has no chance at making the world a better place. 

But practiced alone, inhibition can lead to repression.  I'm not sure how much help my years in a Zen monastery were.  I could mostly avoid difficult interpersonal situations, and when I did find myself challenged my practice seemed to reinforce my self repression.  My practice on the cushion was to try to ignore everything other than counting my breaths.  Working closely with a teacher would have been helpful, but I avoided this and managed to fall through the cracks.  That I had quite a bit of stomach, back and neck pain is not surprising.    I had no idea who I was and was afraid to be honest with myself let alone share myself with other people.  Please forgive me for writing personal thoughts, but I'm trying to establish my credentials as someone with room for improvement when it comes to responding appropriately in a difficult situation.

Monastic Zen practice, with its emphasis on downcast eyes, ritualized interactions, uniformity and silence has a tendency to be self repressive.  When combined with a 'mind based' practice of mindfulness it can become way too introspective   That there is no body based teaching in Zen practice also does not help.  It's our body that brings us back into the world, back to interacting with others.  Doing without a body based practice is like learning to walk with one leg.  If one works at it long enough and one will learn to get by OK with one leg - it may not even feel like a deficit at some point.

It think this lack of physical teaching is being noticed.  Yoga is being combined with Zen much more commonly than it was 10 years ago.  But yoga is not what is missing.  Yoga is not practiced constantly and will not help when one finds oneself in quickly evolving emotional situations.  It takes quite a bit of time and effort and can be dangerous.  It does not directly address the question of how to be upright.  It does not address habits.  It does not share the fundamental underpinnings of Zen practice.  It takes quite a bit of time from other more important activities.

The AT, and not yoga, is the other leg that Zen practice needs in the US.  

To understand how the AT can help with appropriate responses it is absolutely essential to adhere to the tenant of mind/body unity.   To really understand this principle deeply is very improtant.  I proved it to myself in the middle of a seven day Zen sitting a few years ago.  Durring a break, I lied down, with my head propped up about an inch and with my feet on the floor, knees and hips bent.  And I set out to leave myself alone - to not do anything but keep my eyes open.  Inevitably, my mind wandered off on some trail of thoughts.  At the same moment that I woke up to the fact that I had wandered off I simultaneously became aware of a growing tension in a particular area of my body - my shoulder.   As the residue of this distraction evaporated in the light of my attention, my shoulder also relaxed.  And the process then repeated itself.  Since then, I have never found any significant mental perseveration that was not accompanied by physical tension.  Mostly, now when things are not going well for me, I notice the disquietude as neither physical or mental, but as a unified sensation - an unpleasant sensation thought my body/mind, throughout my self.

When I started out as a student of the AT, I was taught that I should practice the inhibition of end-gaining and directions prior to getting out of a chair.  But as time went on, I realized that these tools are to be practiced constantly.  When these tools are used increasingly consistently, it has effects on both the tonic and phasic state of the body/mind.  

We all have characteristic ways of using our bodies that involve shortening and narrowing and begin with the misuse patterns one sees in the startle reflex.  Inhibition and direction results in raising the intention to expanding the body in an opposite way from the characteristic ways of shortening and narrowing.  When practiced continuously there is less tension, restriction and contraction in the tonic state of the body/mind.  There is more openness, more engagement with the environment.   There is less fear.  The startle response is blunted.   Homeostasis is not challenged.  

I believe that continual inhibition and direction will erode our tendencies to react in habitual ways that lead to regrets.  As these habits erode we become less self centered and can see reality more objectively.  As our neuroses erode with our more upright use.  Our reactions to stimili are no longer distorted by poor use.  We can then begin to trust our spontaneous first reactions and feel a bit less need for inhibition.  

Perhaps I am being too critical of yoga.  It will lead to greater flexibility of the hips - if one avoids injury- and one should be able to sit in the full lotus a bit faster than one would otherwise. If that is what people want out of their Zen practice well very good.  

But if one wants to be a healing influence in the world, one should cancel the Tuesday and Thursday yoga classes for a few months, and instead study the AT.  Then one can learn how to be upright not only on the cushion but in ones interactions with others.  Then one can become a healing influence in the world.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Towards a Physical Practice of Zen

This is an article I wrote for Buddhadharma.
The editors rejected it without comment.

Towards a Physical Practice of Zen


Zen is a simple direct teaching that points to the end of suffering.  The instruction changes it’s appearance according to the needs of the student and the characteristics of the culture.  The readers of Buddhadharma have enjoyed articles on the changing role of women in Buddhism, Zen and western psychology, and social activism in Buddhist sanghas.  Zen practice has also become more welcoming and supportive to those who are less physically robust or more tender emotionally.  Work is being done to include those from less privileged social groups and young people.  We have remote traditional monasteries and informal community based practice places to meet everyones needs.  We have spread Buddhist teaching to everyone with an internet connection.

In the process of making Zen more accessible, however, we have also lost something.   And, although there are many new spotlights illuminating the many doors of entry into Zen practice, there is still a doorway with no light overhead.  We do not have a robust teaching regarding how to practice Zen physically.

 There is no lack of material regarding how to practice with our emotions, fears, desires and aversion.   Wonderful articles have appeared on how to practice with mental illness, eating disorders, etc. in our individual and group practice.  Much has been written about how to refine our intentions.  But how do we practice with our bodies?  How do we physically sit zazen?  We hear about the importance of being upright, but how do we get there?  What does it mean to sit upright?  Can we do this without hurting ourselves?

Physical Practice

The Zen practice westerners inherited had a strongly physical dimension.  Meditation halls were cold or hot with little effort to make them more comfortable.  Clothing did not emphasize comfort or acknowledge seasonal changes.  There are lots of stories about hitting and slapping.  The "Forms" dictated nearly all activities.   The physicality of practice was central.

  But our modern Western practice has changed this quite a bit.  We have largely disregarded the strenuous physical aspects of Eastern Zen practice.  The kiosku is now mainly a ceremonial object, schedules are less strenuous, broad allowances are made in our wardrobe and sitting postures.  Westerners see the physicality of Asian Zen as rather extreme.  It is inappropriate if we want to make meditation halls welcoming to those who are physically or emotionally frail .

This leaves a gap in our Zen practice.  Now that we have abandoned the physicality of Asian Zen practice there is something missing.

Arguably, many of the ceremonial forms are still carefully studied and practiced.  But for the layperson these are studied only peripherally or observed from a distance.     The Forms as practiced by lay people in the community often devolved to being used only to distinguish “us” and “them”, or to judge “good strong” practice from “poor weak” practice.  At best the current practice of The Forms can connect us to our ancestors, create a beautiful supportive practice place and help us express ourselves to each other and to our teacher.   But we should ask much more from a robust physical practice of Zen.  

The question of using our physicality to further our zen practice has implications beyond simply advancing our personal spiritual practice.  In broader terms, these are dark and dangerous times.  Humanity is threatened by environmental, social and political storms.  For many of us, Zen practice is the bedrock of our efforts to heal the world.  Instructions on how to use our bodies during zazen are not enough.  These instructions on how to practice Zen physically must also support us in our social engagements.

 If we are going to make Zen practice fully robust we must have more to say about the physical aspects of Zen practice.

Features of a Physical Zen Practice

What would physical practice look like?  What should we ask of it?
-First, it should help us to become upright on a cushion, a chair or lying down.  The teaching on a physical practice should guide us to arrange our body in an upright, expansive posture - neither relaxed nor tense.
-Second, it should help with pain.  Too many zen students sit in pain.  Admittedly,  the concept of pain is complicated.  However, compassion dictates that zazen instruction, and continuing teaching in how to practice physically, should point a way that does not hurt unnecessarily.  Ideally, a physical practice should help us to find an easy and enjoyable way to sit.
-Third, we should ask a physical teaching of Zen to be in line with basic Zen teachings:  It should not be intellectual or based in concepts.  It should be “non-doing”.  It should not be caught in duality or non duality.  It should be characterized by immediacy as opposed to gradual improvement over time to obtain a future goal.
-Forth, it should help us in our social activism
-Fifth, it should breathe more life into The Forms.

I’m writing this in part to suggest that the Alexander Technique describes how to practice Zen physically.

The Alexander Technique

The Alexander Technique was developed by F.M. Alexander 100 years ago.  It is an educational technique taught to students during individual lessons which are 30 to 60 minutes in length.  It is an interconnected set of principles combined with two concrete skills to help students improve the use of themselves.  The AT helps students meet the challenges of each moment by relying on conscious control of the use of themselves instead of reacting out of our habits.

Zen Teaching
The first of the two concrete skills that the AT teaches is "the inhibition of end-gaining".  “End-gaining” is being more interested in gaining some end rather than being concerned with the means whereby one gets there.   Some simply refer to “the inhibition of end gaining” as "stopping".  Although these terms "inhibition" and "stopping" sound negative, it is actually a positive activity because it disengages students from our striving and this gives us a chance to appreciate our present situation.  This does not mean that the AT student does not have preferences.  It is not the preferences but the craving or aversion that distracts us from the “means whereby”.  Caring deeply for a desired outcome while not allowing it to distract us from the “means whereby” is one the great challenges for the student of both Zen and the AT.
Most people have some difficulty grasping this concept of stopping, but a Zen student will be familiar with it.  Shikantaza is "just sitting".  Anything else that is going on while sitting is regarded as extra or end-gaining.  Shikantaza involves inhibiting this end-gaining, moment after moment.  Inhibition of end-gaining also describes how to practice in everyday activities: instead of being focused on getting the lunch soup done on time, Zen students inhibit the end-gaining.  This creates the opportunity to just chop the carrot.
It may seem that the AT concept of inhibition hold nothing new for the Zen student.  But actually it hints at something quite profound.  It suggests that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the present condition.  Nothing save for our obsession with our likes and dislikes.  Alexander recommended continually setting them aside.  Dogen suggests that once this is done and not a hair's breadth deviation exists, one will see that the way is originally pure and undefiled.  Both AT and Zen suggest that there is nothing that needs to be done or changed.  But they are not "not doing" - shikantaza and continual inhibition seem to be quite challenging.  In contrast with “doing” and “not doing” AT and Zen are explicitly "non-doing".  We generally believe that peace and happiness can only be found by procrustean or sisyphean efforts but Zen and the AT suggest otherwise.  They are “good news” practices.
The "inhibition of end-gaining" also suggests that the focus of the AT is on the present moment, and not on the progressive improvement over time.  There is an emphasis on the immediacy of practicing in the present moment in both the AT and Zen.
It is curious that the term inhibition is never used when describing shikantaza.  Perhaps teachers feel that that the term is stained with notions of puritanical restrictions and psychological repression.  But saying "no" to end-gaining and clinging to desires and aversions is a basic starting place in both the AT and Zen practice.  For the AT student it opens up the opportunity to appreciate the moment as it actually is and to choose to respond in a more considered, conscious way.
Finally, the idea of the duality of body and mind underlies nearly all western thought.  Some students of the AT, impressed with the physical benefit, speak about the AT as physical practice.  But FM Alexander was quite clear that this is not a useful distinction.  He devotes the opening of his most popular book “The Use of the Self” to stating that nothing is purely physical or mental.  He was meticulous in his writing to avoid duality and instead refer to the “self” as a unity of body, mind and activity.  He was also clear that reaction to either mental or physical stimuli have both mental and physical components.  

Becoming Upright

As opposed to all other meditation practices Zen students invariably strive to be upright.  But students struggle to find this posture.  Observe meditators during sitting:  nearly all will be leaning over, twisted, pulled down or contracted in some areas of their bodies.   A Zen teaching on how to sit physically must help answer “How do we go about arranging our bodies to sit upright?”
Neuroscience suggest that we were been born with various reflexes that are encoded in conservative areas of our brain.  Human beings would not do well if we could easily interfere with these reflexes.  But we can obscure them by developing habits.
How did we come to obscure them?  Perhaps at school we were forced to sit in an unnatural fashion until it began to feel normal.  Perhaps we consciously copied the posture of a childhood hero.  Perhaps we grew to believe we were unworthy of being upright.    The physical aspect of sitting is thus going against the current of these habits.
One of Alexanders discoveries is that we don’t have to unearth the cause of our habit and deal with them directly.  Alexander, ever practical, was much more interested in applying tools to free ourselves from habit directly.
It is possible to illustrate this with a simple example.  As part of the physical examination of the nervous system, a physician will tap the patellar tendon with a rubber mallet.  This briefly stretches the quadriceps muscle in the leg.  The stretch receptors in the muscle send a message to the central nervous system which responds by reflexly contracting the same muscle.  Most people know it as “knee jerk reflex”.  But some patients, who recall having the test before, worry a bit and tense up.  This stiffening of the quadriceps can obscure the test.  Experienced clinicians will ask the patient to perform some unrelated trivial task to distract the patient.  Once distracted the clinician taps the knee and elicits the unencumbered reflex.  One way of looking at the AT is that it provide student with the tools to consciously stop interfering with natural inbred reflexes.
Another illustration is to compare humans with other species.  Insects, for example, are 100% reflexive in their response to stimuli.  They have no neuroplasticity and can not be trained.  Household pets and primates have quite a bit of ability to change.  But humans have the greatest ability to re-pattern reflexive behaviour and quickly learn new tasks.  No doubt this is the key to our survival as a species as we dispersed into diverse environments.  This neuroplasticity served us well within slowly changing environments.  But modern life provides us with rapidly changing environmental requirements.  We adapt new patterns of response to stimuli unconsciously and we have limited tools to undo these changes.  Alexander felt that humanities next evolutionary step is to develop the skills to undo dysfunctional patterns of response.  We can then consciously acquire new provisional habits that can be re-examined and changed as we wish.
This may sound like a lot of work, but once the tools are grasped and applied, it is not difficult.   A common sayings in the AT is “If one stops doing the wrong thing, the right thing will do itself.”  Again, the AT does not teach us to do anything well, not even to sit well.  Students learn how to stop interfering with inherent abilities to do any task, including zazen, well.

The AT has two tools that are taught to help students correct their habits.  The first is ‘inhibition’.  The second is ‘direction’.
Alexander was a professional reciter.  At the peak of his career he began to lose his voice.  His doctors suggested rest which helped initially.  However, once he resumed stage performances the problem returned.  He reasoned that the problem must lie in what he was doing while performing.  He set up mirrors and observed himself.  He found that, with the first impulse to speak, he pulled his head back and down.  Yet he was not otherwise aware that he did this and could not simply will himself to stop.   After much experimentation, he found that he was only able to stop this harmful activity when he set aside the impulse to speak (“inhibition”) and sent himself clear directions to allow the head to go forward and up.  This ‘direction’ is not ‘doing’.  It is not adding to muscle tension.  It is a focused intention.  It is the conscious direction of energy to prevent an old habit.  Ultimately, his technique involved directing to all areas of the body but the primary importance remained with the relationship of the head/neck/back.
Learning ‘direction’ is the new skill that the AT offers to Zen students.  One of the pitfalls in practicing the AT is relying on sensations.
I’d like to focus a bit more on an insight that Alexander had when watching himself with mirrors.  Again, he noted that he was not aware of his tendency to pull his head back and down, and could not stop himself from doing it once he began to speak.  He generalized this in the statement that we all suffer from “unreliable sensory appreciation”.
I can think of many instances where I noted my interpretation of my senses while sitting to be far from reality.  Yet I persisted on adjusting my posture during sitting based on how I felt.  As a small example, I recall many years ago that I was having a rather sluggish period of zazen in the midst of a seven day sitting.  I figured that if I slumped forward when I was drowsy then if I picked my chest up I would be more awake.  Well it worked!  The next period I did the same thing, and then forgot all about it.  Many years later, a perceptive teacher mentioned to me a lack of resonance during my chanting.  I realized that I did not have much sensation in my chest.  The area felt dead, wooden, stuck.  I was very much surprised to find that I had been holding my chest up for many years without knowledge of doing so.  At this point I finally and fully realized that I could not rely on my senses to find an upright and expansive posture.  I was devastated because I did not have any guidance other than my senses.
Perhaps if I had paid more attention to the “Heart Sutra” I would not have been so surprised.  This sutra is a central teaching in Zen, and a brief english version is chanted daily.  It is a simple and blunt denunciation of the reality of everything.  It pulls the rug out of all our conceptual frameworks.  It destroys belief systems.
As a Zen student I tend to look at teachings not as something to be believed but as tools to use in practice.  As a concept, “unreliable sensory appreciation” is a bit odd: after all, what else do I have but my senses to guide me?  But as a tool, the idea that my senses do not provide me with a reliable basis upon which to act is very helpful.   As a tool, “unreliable sensory appreciation” reminds me to set aside my beliefs about what my senses are telling me and instead rely upon ‘inhibition’ and ‘direction’ in the response to stimuli.  AT teachers suggest using these tools persistently and energetically.  But, again, energetically does not mean making a physical effort.  It is a conscious, thought based intention directed towards a body area, and a clear spatial direction.  It’s practice does not involve mental imagery or beliefs and can be done continually.

Inevitably, a robust physical practice of Zen, will eventually investigate if all our emotions, ideas and beliefs have a physical component.   One might find that there is no useful distinction between emotional, mental or physical response to the stimuli that life provides.   In his writing, FM was quite clear that there is no useful separation between the mind and the body.  He even provocatively suggested that our beliefs are nothing more than bits of physical tension.   The Heart Sutra supports the mindful attention to the changing nature of all things by undercutting beliefs and making it easier to set them aside.  The AT supports us to set aside our habits of body/mind and provides an opportunity to improve the use of ourselves.  These are parallel practices within one unified self.

Pain and Suffering

A framework for a physical practice of Zen should also open a discussion on the role of pain in sitting.  Given that much of our time on the cushion is spent surrounded by pain it seems curious that the Zen bookshelf in my local bookstore has little material to help sit comfortably.  Isn’t the focus of Buddhism the relief of suffering?
Some might claim there is value in sitting in pain.  Admittedly, observing pain can broaden our compassion, provide lessons on impermanence, and can highlight the role that attachment to aversion plays in the creation of suffering.  But observing any phenomena can teach us about impermanence.  And we do not need to have pain in sitting to see the consequences of attachment to aversion.
It seems an a priori conclusion that we should try to minimize pain on our cushion.  We’ve heated and cooled our zendo, allowed everyone to wear warm socks, left the kiysoku to collect dust and provided a big closet containing all manners of sitting cushions.  Likewise, zazen instructions should contain instructions about how to sit without pain.  Since even experienced student have pain while sitting, teaching how to practice physically needs to be ongoing.
That said, the perception of pain is not simple.  It is worth a diversion to define ‘pain’ and comment on it’s origin.  Medical scientists used to believe pain was generated simply by damage or inflammation in the peripheral tissue, and the sensation went to a pain receptor in the brain where it was directly experienced.  But no such receptor has been found: pain processing is widely distributed in the brain.  There is also a huge variation in response to peripheral stimulation.  In response to this, pain theorists suggest the brain and spinal cord moderate the transmission of pain up the spinal cord.  But theories have a way of highlighting their margins where unexplained phenomena lurk.  In this case, researchers noted pain in the non existent limbs of amputees, and even in those who were born without the limb.
There is a very interesting theory called the body-self neuromatrix that has been developed to explain this phantom pain.   This theory supposes we have a neuromatrix in our brain that actually creates the sensation of pain.   Very briefly, the theory suggest that we are born with a very complex matrix, or scaffolding, called a neuromatrix that is widely distributed in our brain.  The matrix was genetically determined but can be modified during our life.    The matrix allows inputs not only from our peripheral sensory nerves but from many other sources including our belief structure, our history, our culture, the tonic (slowly changing) state of our body and mind, the present (phasic) state of our body and mind and our endocrine milieu (our hormone balance).  The matrix includes all these myriad inputs and then processes them through multiple, parallel pathways that interact multiple times.
Where the input and processing is very complex, the role of the matrix is fairly simple.  The body-self neuromatrix decides if homeostasis is lost.  Homeostasis is a very basic theory that suggests that living beings seek to maintain a narrow operating range.   If the body-self neuromatrix decides that we have lost homeostasis it will trigger a variety of changes aimed at re-establishing homeostasis.  These include changes to our behavior and thought processes, our endocrine system, and our pain perception.  This output from the body-self neuromatrix is enormously complex and deserves a much fuller discussion, but I would like to highlight four aspects.

1. One of the outputs from the body-self neuromatrix goes to a part of the brain called the sentient neural hub.  This an area where the stream of output from the body-self neuromatrix is converted into a continually changing stream of awareness.  The means that our experience of ourselves is actually far removed from our actual sensory apparatus.   It would suggest that we look for some other guidance when responding to stimuli.
2.  Chronic pain is very bad for both the body and mind.  For example, pain is associated with several endocrine disorders, and the remodeling of our personality is deep and disastrous.
3. Pain does not exist in isolation.  When homeostasis is lost the body self neuromatrix generates a host of outputs including the sensation of pain, endocrine changes, a shortened contracted physique, wild tormented thoughts, and emotional grief.  Pain is only one aspect of this state of suffering and never exists independently.
4.  The inputs into body-self neuromatrix are not only from the peripheral sensory apparatus, but include the inputs from many parts of our mind and body.  But just as a high tonic (slowly changing) state of the mind (such as post traumatic stress disorder) predisposes us to chronic pain, these same inputs from the body/mind can moderate the effects of the sensory input on the body self neuromatrix.  The more reassuring inputs into the body self neuromatrix the greater sensory input can be tolerated before before the body self neuromatrix decides that homeostasis is lost.

We can now begin to understand how the AT can help with pain during sitting.  The AT improves the use of the self through learning the tenets of the technique and applying the tools of direction and inhibition.  
      These will change our physical use in two ways.  First, we will physically use our bodies during sitting with greater ease and efficiency.  In common terms, the posture improves and there is less stress.  In terms of the body self neuromatrix, the AT student will have improved visceral and phasic (quicker changing) somatic inputs.   In AT terms, these improvements are referred to as improvements in our ‘manner of use’.   The second way the AT helps with pain during sitting is by changing the underlying tone of the body/mind.  Tone is an alert activated state of the musculature; a state of readiness that can be measured with surface myelography.  There have been interesting studies done by TW Cacciatore in Oregon and the UK that have demonstrated improved, coordinated tone of those who study the AT.
So changing the ‘manner of use’ improves posture and ease in functioning and thus decreases the phasic musculoskeletal sensory input.  The AT also improves the phasic and tonic inputs from the mind.
          Of course, experienced meditators have a higher capacity to endure phasic inputs from the body (e.g. can sit longer with sore knees) without triggering the body self neuromatrix into loss of homeostasis.  But it can take years and many hours of sitting.  A scientific study suggests that the Alexander Technique can be helpful in as little as 6 lessons.  
Here I am referring to a study published in the prestigious, peer reviewed, British Medical Journal in May 2008.  This was a large, randomized, prospective study of the highest quality studying chronic back pain.  The primary outcome, days in pain, decreased in the group who had 24 AT lessons by 84%.  And this outcome was measured a full year after the interventions.   Although more studies need to be done, the size, quality and very significant outcome suggests that AT is highly effective in providing long term relief from common back pain.  In addition, 6 lessons plus a prescription for exercise provided nearly all the benefit of 24 lessons.
Looking at our “manner of use” as a cause of back pain is unusual.  It is more common to attribute back pain to an imbalance or weakness, a discoordination, or bound up facia that is preventing people from using a better posture.  We can call these concrete limitations our “conditions of use”.  From this perspective we might assume that yoga, pilates, bodywork, etc.  are required to address back pain.  If it was true that some underlying defect is the cause of back pain, then the AT - which  is only concerned with the “manner of use” - would not be helpful.  However, this BMJ study suggests pain is a result of the “manner of use” and not, in fact, the “conditions of use”.
It is unclear if the underlying mechanism causing pain while sitting is the same as that  which causes back pain in the larger population.  However, it is notable that in studies of the AT there has never been an adverse event associated with the AT.

Social Engagement
          In these dark times, where the very existence of humanity is being challenged by political, social, economic and environmental problems, a physical Zen practice must improve our abilities to bring our fundamental intention to every moment of our work off the cushion.
Some might argue that one will not be effective in healing the world unless one has achieved and fully incorporated deep insights into the nature of the self.  Perhaps so, but many of us feel the ills of the world are so pressing that we must act now.  No reader of this Journal needs to be reminded of the importance of meditation practice, but we must also be able to marshal all available tools when we are off the cushion to avoid being distracted from our vows.
The emphasis of Zen is on what is going on now.  A socially engaged Zen student is passionately interested in healing the world from within this present moment.   A physical practice of Zen needs to help us bring our fundamental intention to every act, every day, whether we are escorting civilians to safety in a war zone or changing the diaper of a crying child.
 Common thinking is that everyday life is inherently fear inducing and that we need various practices to help us manage these stressful situations.  But the AT is radically different in two ways.  First, Alexander did not find modern life to be inherently stressful.  He believed that the problem is that we respond to life with an undue fear response.  Secondly, AT teachers are not very interested in why we respond with fear.    Yes, Zen shows us how to pluck out the roots of our fear, and psychotherapy helps to resolve our neuroses.  But the AT is fundamentally practical and always focused on the present moment.  The AT suggests that much of our fear is simply habit - it is simply an ill considered response to the stimuli of everyday life.  
 In physical terms, fear is manifested as a predictable physical response which starts in the head/neck relationship (the “primary control’) and then is relayed throughout the entire body.  This can be seen in slow motion photos of the startle response.  The AT gives the student tools to inhibit this reaction and direct all the body parts in a way that opposes the physical manifestation of fear.   In more mental terms, the AT gives us the tools to use conscious reasoning in response to stimuli as opposed to unconscious unreasoned habit of becoming fearful.
During a lesson, the instructor touches the student lightly in ways to suggest a more expansive and upright way of sitting, standing, lying down or moving.  At the end of a lesson, the student typically feels a peculiar blend of lightness, ease, expansiveness and freedom.  After the lesson, inevitably, some difficulty occurs and the student will have an uncomfortable sensation which is the manifestation of fear.  The variance between their “bodyfeel” after a lesson and the emerging old habit will alert the student to practice the tools of inhibition and direction.   With practice, the student learns to continually use the tools of inhibition and direction to prevent the first manifestation of fear.  This has the feel of being continually anchored in the present.  
  In contrast, the mindfulness meditator will become accustomed to an expansive, open, relaxed mind.  When one leaves the hall some stimuli will prompt a stress or fear response.  The practitioner will experience a change in “mind-feel” and this will prompt an effort to return to mindfulness.
When the stakes are low, such as working quietly in a supportive group, mindfulness practices are sufficient to allow ones heartfelt intentions to be expressed.  However, in difficult or terrifying situations, mindfulness is a rather impotent tool.  But the bodys response to fear is more gross, more substantial.  Preventing or intervening in the physical manifestation of fear with the tools that the AT provides, can augment the practice of mindfulness to help us express our fundamental intention (compassion, equanimity) as opposed to selfish, fearful or habitual responses.  

In conclusion, there is a new opportunity that has been created as Zen has emerged in Western society.  There are new opportunities for Zen students to sit more comfortably, new avenues to understanding practice, and new tools that can help us be more effective in our social engagement.  I am hoping that these preliminary thoughts will begin a discussion on how to practice Zen physically.