Sunday, October 30, 2011

Meditation and pain

'You're going to be in pain' is the general idea of the first noble truth, usually translated grimly as 'Life is suffering'.  The other noble truths conspire to tell you what's causing the pain (being thirsty) and that there's a way out of it.  I suppose that the orthodox prescription is to adopt the ethical practices of the eightfold path, thus reducing your thirst for things and so your annoyance when you don't get them (or your disappointment when you do).  But is there any evidence that meditation itself can reduce pain?  Isn't the idea that the mind can influence the body a load of hippy shit?  And even if I think that meditation is helping my headaches, couldn't I just be wrong?

In the early days of my headaches, I tried a number of different therapies, some conventional and some less so.  I tried to get an idea through the popular press about what therapies had scientific support and what did not.  I went to various chiropractors, who would give my neck sharp twists, as if they were trying to finish me off around the wrong corner of a Steven Seagal film.  I found out that though there's a cultural bias in the research, there's a relatively good amount of evidence suggesting that acupuncture can help with one or two conditions (mainly idiopathic headaches and nausea), but it didn't work for me.  I went to an osteopath who - I could swear - could make my right arm weaker or stronger by adjusting my neck (and no, I've never been able to figure out how that worked). 

Compared to the uncertain evidence supporting many alternative therapies, studies suggesting that meditation helps reduce pain are rather numerous (though some are vitiated by a lack of proper controls).  In the 1980s Jon Kabat-Zinn conducted a series of experiments at the University of Massachusetts Medical School involving subjects in chronic pain who were invited to take part in a ten-week course in mindfulness meditation.  There was a statistically significant decrease in reported lower levels of present pain, negative body image, and pain-related depression among the patients who completed the course, and no significant improvement on any of these dimensions by members of a control group, who were given more conventional treatments such as nerve blocks, physical therapy, and antidepressants. 

More recently, a research group at the Université de Montréal compared pain tolerance in 13 Zen practitioners (with over one thousand hours of meditation each) to that of 13 non-meditators (with no or little experience of meditation).  The researchers placed heating plates on the subjects' calves, and warmed them up to between 43 and 53 degrees Celsius.  The meditators tolerated greater levels of pain in both meditative and on-meditative states.  More recently still, scientists at Wake Forest University subjected 15 people to the same level of heat before and after a course consisting of only 80 minutes of meditation, and found that the individuals reported significantly less discomfort after the training (and that the reported reduction in sensation was accompanied by differences in brain activity).

But meditation happens in the mind, while pain affects the body, so how does that work?  There are two common misconceptions here: one is about how pain works and one is about the relationship betweend mind and body.  As its happens, both misconceptions could be attributed to Descartes, although both ideas have an insidious plausibility that makes it likely that people have often come to them independently.

The first unhelpful notion is that pain is a signal that travels along a nerve from a stimulus (the tack you stepped on) to the brain (which registers the sensation); pain represents an accurate signal of damage to tissues.  Fortunately and unfortunately, things are actually more complicated than that.  In fact, there's no reliable link between how much you're hurt and how much pain you're in, as suggested on the one hand by soldiers who get their arms blown off and don't feel any pain until they're out of the combat area (lots of damage, no pain), and on the other hand by sufferers of chronic pain (lots of pain, not always much continuing damage).  The neurologists Ronald Melzack and Patrick Wall drew attention to cases like these and explained them with their gate-control theory of pain, in which downward inhibitory signals from the brain (saying 'I can't take in that pain signal now because I have to protect my comrades in battle') and constantly-reinforced signals (saying 'your head must still hurt because the experience of that car-accident was so traumatic') have as much to do with what you feel as what is happening to your body.

The second unhelpful Cartesian idea is dualism, that mind and body are two separate substances.  The theory has of course been extensively debunked over the last four hundred years for a number of reasons, chief among them the philosopher's inability to give any satisfactory account of how the two separate stuffs could possibly interact with one another.  And yet the assumption that the mind can be conceived of as existing separately from its physical substrate underlies many of the thought-experiments that seem still to be in vogue (as in Hofstadter and Dennett's collection, The Mind's I).  Against this backdrop, the more of an uncompromising monist you are (believing either that everything is completely mental, like Berkeley, or that everything is entirely physical, like Hobbes), the more likely you are to comprehend how meditation has an effect on physical pain.  Meditation can reduce pain because it impacts the brain, and the idea that the neurological control-centre might have an effect on the peripheral nervous system should not be considered an outrageous one.

Sometimes I wonder whether the benefits I'm deriving from meditation are just all in my mind.  That is partly why I like to look up scientific studies, to reassure myself that all the time I'm investing in meditation isn't being wasted.  But in my better moments I realize that this is a peculiarly ridiculous kind of doubt.  The benefits of meditation are, of course, all in my mind - it's just that my mind includes my body (or, if you want, they're all in my body, which is also where the mind is).  And in any case, can I really be wrong about my own state of pain?  Pain is a subjective state, and if the relief I'm perceiving is merely subjective, that's fine with me.  In the end, whatever regions of my brain are lighting up when I meditate, and whatever neurons are firing or being generated, all that really matters for me is that sitting down on my own, without any desire to get well or change things, makes being or not being in pain not really matter so much at all.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Some light on me

Since I'm writing under a pseudonym, maybe it's a good idea if I tell you a little about myself and how I reached this wonderful end point of being a bewildered beginner at Zen.  Well, I was born in Calgary but never really lived there.  I lived in England but I'm not really from there.  I study ancient Greece from hypermodern California.  And I know a thing or two about Augustine and Aquinas but couldn't really tell a Dogen from a Hakuin at this stage.  Despite that, there are two main things that have apparently made me well-suited for a Buddhist practice: being a Christian and being in pain.

What kind of Christian was I?  Several.  My first great teacher was my mother, who seems to know nothing about Christian doctrine and cares even less.  My earliest memories of organised religion are of stuffy churches in army barracks that we went to as a family every Sunday as an obligation.  But once I remember we were swimming in the lake outside our family cottage, the sun was laying down a line of light on the water like a blurry path, and my mother was telling me that this was what was wonderful about Christianity, that it wasn't about any particular God but just enjoying being in that light.  Even then the comment struck me as pretty obviously false, but I sensed that behind or beside it was something interesting.

When I moved to England I went to a traditional Anglican boarding school where we were made to go to Chapel three times a week, sometimes four.  There was also an optional candlelit mass on Friday nights that I would go to.  I remember sitting in a pew at one of these and looking up at the light falling on the stone arches opposite me.  At some point the Reverend asked us in Theology what being a Christian was all about.  We suggested love, kindness, going to church, but all those answers were wrong; apparently the core of the faith was to believe that Jesus redeemed our sins by dying on the cross.  I decided that I either didn't understand that or did and didn't believe it, so I must not be a Christian.  It didn't make me sad, because I was sixteen, but later I'd miss that moment in chapel.

Near the end of my first year of university I started feeling pain in my face.  The doctor told me I needed to relax, so I went to Italy for the summer, drank lots of red wine, and started meditating after reading an article about it on the internet.  I did it in secret and pretended I was doing something different if someone caught me in the act, like wanking.  After a while my facial pain got better and I felt like something interesting was just behind or underneath the light falling on the wall in my room.  Then I got hit on the head playing rugby, and have had a headache ever since.  I stopped meditating because it scared me to think of what might be happening to my concussed brain.  I tried exercising three times a day, not drinking tea, drinking a bottle of wine every night, switching girlfriends.

And somehow I was still meditating, not every day or every other day, but occasionally.  I joined a group the term I did my final exams at Oxford and didn't like it much, but felt lighter walking home hugging my cushion.  I went to a temple in London and didn't like that much either, but remember once noticing the way the light was falling on a tree outside and kind of enjoying it.  When I moved to California, I found myself studying what I loved with a group of close friends in a land of eternal sunshine, but for some reason I was still suffering.  I tried taking more pain medication, using anaesthetic patches on my neck, getting a tooth removed.  And somehow I kept meditating, off on and on, and then suddenly on and on, every day, with a new technique another grad student taught me.

I still use that concentration practice, but there was something about it that pushed me more towards discipline than freedom.  I spent a year being unhappy but calm and wondering if I was simply calm but unhappy.  When I walked into Wind in Grass I found a bunch of nutcases in party hats who seemed neither calm nor happy but keen on wondering.  I didn't take to some of the traditional koans - I couldn't care less about whether the dog had buddhanature, whatever that was.  I didn't like the liturgy, especially when we chanted about people like Guanyin - who was he?  But every so often I'd find myself sitting there, wondering at the pain and the play of light, and I'd be in the lake with my mother, the chapel in England, and also no other place but here, after all this time the only real place to be.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Ordinary writing

Whenever I join a new meditation group, the first thing on my mind is resistance.  I didn't like the way the group in Oxford shackled my mind to counting individual breaths, instead of letting it roam off in search of the place it started from (as had been my private practice).  I didn't like the way my first teacher at Stanford invited us to visualize a ball of light at the centre of the body - what about the breath?  The doubts I had about the various styles of meditation extended to the guiding philosophies of these different communities.  The temple in London was too ornate and decorated, too distracted by liturgy and ceremony.  The neuroscientist who led my second group at Stanford sometimes seemed a shade too secular for my tastes.  Where was the religion?

For several weeks after my first visit to Wind in Grass, I didn't like it (and not because of continuing death threats, which I did like).  There was an older man who preached to us in a black bib adorned with what looked like a wooden curtain-ring.  Was he a priest?  The tall confident businessman kept talking during meditation, and rather than offering guided relaxation he usually provided an anecdote about a student's barely comprehensible question and a master's spectacularly unhelpful answer.  ('Does a dog have buddha-nature?' 'No' - though in the other version of that one the master answered, 'Yes').  And when the older man spoke to us, he would sometimes inform us  that we were all - including yours truly, who'd walked in the door three weeks previously and who was secretely still visualising balls of light - buddhas.

This post is for the people who ask me what Zen is.  Since they are asking me, the answer they'll get isn't going to be learned, or even well-informed (after carefully avoiding studying it, I have so far succeeded in preserving a virtually unsullied ignorance).  But it's an answer of sorts, and here it is.  What I've found most distinctive about the approach of the Americans in party hats (that is, the Zen buddhas) are two things.  The first are koans, riddles or anecdotes or poems or prayers that originated as scraps of conversations involving the old Chinese or Japanese masters that somebody somewhere found helpful (or unhelpful) and wrote down.  The second is the emphasis of direct perception, the constant reminders that we may be on a path, but we're also already at our destination and just need to realize that by looking up.

Nobody really told me what to do with the koans the first few times I went to Wind in Grass, though I've since discovered there are two rules: (i) there is no wrong way of working with a koan, apart from thinking that you're doing it wrong; and (ii) there is no right way of working with koans.  The first few koans I heard went into one ear and burned up in a ball of light.  My first ever reaction to a koan was to laugh, which it turns out is the most respectful way of taking them.  The one that made me laugh was the one about the student who goes to the master complaining of being anxious, unhappy, the lot.  She tells him to spend the next year greeting everything that happens to him with the thought, 'Thank you very much; I have no regrets whatsoever'.  He tries it and it fails miserably.  He goes back to the teacher and tells her.  She says, 'Thank you very much; I have no regrets whatsoever.'

There are lots of koans that get us to the second thing I've found characteristic of this approach, the affirmation that we're already here.  In one, a student asks a master, 'What is right speech?' and he replies, 'Your question'.  In another, the student asks what the way is (which seems like a good question); the answer is 'ordinary mind'.  The student wants more guidance; 'How do you turn towards it?' he presses.  And the response comes, 'If you turn towards it, you turn away from it.'  (Thanks.)  Sometimes the koan seems to be hinting that even when you're searching for something, you might already have found something in the searching.  One student told his master about the brilliant, beautiful light that was on the margins of his conception, but that receded from his grasp whenever he reached for it.  'Forget about the light,' said the master; 'tell me about the reaching'. 

When Chris told our group that we were all buddhas, he was working along these lines.  But I admit that at the time I was scandalized.  The arrogance!  I suppose that somewhere inside I had been thinking of Siddhartha Gautama as unapproachably virtuous, almost divine, like Jesus (even though I stopped believing Jesus was divine when I was 15, and was attracted to Gautama because he wasn't like Jesus).  But of course all 'buddha' means is 'awake'.  There's a story that they asked Gautama if he was a god and he said, 'No, I'm human'; and then they asked, 'So what makes you different', and he said, 'I'm awake.'  That's all.  And it makes you wonder what makes your sleep so sound, and why you're apparently so convinced you're always dreaming.

Sometimes I worry whether this approach isn't slightly too empowering: if we're perfect already, and only have to wake up and realize it, why bother being honest or kind, or with any of the ethical precepts in the Eightfold Path?  The response I've heard is that once we come to realize that nothing needs to be added to this moment (yes, this one), there won't be any desire to cheat or take.  I'm still working with that answer, letting it be a koan.  In the meantime, I think of the lines from the Japanese master Hakuin Ekaku that we sometimes speak together, that 'this very place is paradise/ this very body the buddha'.  It's like what my Baptist grandmother used to say in New Brunswick, that whatever we did, God still loved us.  And it's like the words I read in a book that some freak gave me one day on Oxford Street, by a Hindu guru: 'There will come a time when you realize that all you want or need is Krishna, and Krishna is already here'.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Beginning Post

About a year ago, I walked into a community centre in San Francisco and made the acquaintance of some nice young people wearing party hats who threatened to kill me.  I'd just moved to the city from the South Bay, had been practising meditation for about seven years, and wanted to find a group in my neighbourhood - Potrero Hill - that I could sit with.  Luckily, I didn't have to look very long or very hard, since I soon saw flyers for a Zen group that called itself the Wind in Grass Sangha.  I jotted down the details, even though I'd never been attracted to Zen among sects of Buddhism.

Actually, I'd never been that attracted to any of the sects of Buddhism, thinking of myself primarily as an agnostic with a Christian background who liked meditation.  But if I'd been forced to choose one school it would have been a strain of what I considered the no-nonsense orthodox tradition (Theravada), rather than one of various florid offshots of the Mahayana tree that took root later on.  I looked up the website of the group advertised on the flyer and was put off by all the activities they seemed to be engaging in: group discussions (not what I was looking for), Zen games (pretentious-sounding), and koan practice (which looked like a distraction from the concentration meditation I was used to).

Nonetheless, the group did meet almost unbelievably close to my new room - a less than five minute walk up to the crest of the hill, from where you could see the whole city lying spread out and sparkling before you, and down again to Carolina Street.  It actually took me a few weeks to find the place, but when I did, I felt immediately at home, possibly just because the people there were near my own age, clearly not Buddhists from birth, and obviously the kind of people who had other things going on in their lives.  That night we sat outside on the balcony, with the Bay Bridge standing behind us in the distance like some mechanical caterpillar petrified in the act of clambering across the bay.

A tall confident man in a business suit was telling us a story about a student who wanted to reach enlightenment.  He went to a teacher who told him to meditate for a year and come back then if he hadn't reached enlightenment.  After a year of disappointed application, the student came back to the master to report his failure.  The master told him to try again for a month and see what happened.  Surely enough, the student returned again, dejected, and fared no better after another week of practice and then a single day.  Finally, the master said, 'Meditate for the next hour, and if you don't reach enlightenment, I'll kill you with this knife'.  Lo and behold, the young man had an awakening.

It just so happened that the night I walked in was the group's one-year anniversary, and that's why everyobdy was wearing paper party hats.  Since nobody had reached enlightenment after a year (or maybe since they all had, and just wanted to have some fun), our practice that night was to meditate with a a stalk of burning incense in our hands, imagining that our lives would end when the incense burned out.  I wasn't sure if I knew how to wake up completely in such a short span of time, so I concentrated on the glowing tip of the incense as it moved down towards my fingers.  In the discussion, a clean-cut man with German accent said that he'd given up meditating before the end, and had surrendered to enjoying the moment, just being on the balcony above the bridge and the bay.

I got away without anybody killing me, but then, I hadn't reached enlightenment either - at least, I didn't think so.  I'd also decided that the people in this group were unserious, crazy, and possibly dangerous.  Some part of me had also apparently decided that I'd be going back the following week, and that's exactly what I did - and I've been back virtually every week since then, with a break while I was away in Europe over the summer, until now, when we're again nearing a group anniverary.  The people in that group have become my community, and some of my most trusted friends in the city.  And Zen has become the path I took and have walked down for a year - a route I know little about, from a country whose language I don't understand, but which seems to lead somewhere interesting.

I'm starting this blog for a range of inter-related reasons.  One is that it's a central idea in Zen - stressed by Shunryu Suzuki - that there is much to learn from the mind of a beginner, even for a master, and I hope that the thoughts and impressions of a tyro in the practice will be interesting to others.  Another is that it's often difficult to explain to my friends and family exactly what I'm up to when I go to Zen, and this will provide an account of my activiites and reflections for those who want one.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I want this blog to help make our group the best that it can be, transparent to outsiders and comfortable with  internal criticism.

Over the past year, Wind in Grass and Pacific Zen (the institute of which we're a chapter) have given me an inspiring glimpse of the value of a religious community.  But too many communities of this sort have been corrupted by the failure of members to speak frankly to each other and to outsiders about the sort of problems that occur naturally in any human group.  I feel immensely lucky to be among a group of people who are as committed to open-minded experimentation as they are to valuing the religious traditions they have taken as their own.  And I think that the best way I can help out is by putting into public space a frank record of my ideas and experiences as someone approaching an ancient practice with a beginner's mind.