Archive for March, 2012

a counterpoint to the culture of emergency

March 16, 2012

“Blue Buddha–Microcosmic Orbit” by Ren Adams

At my workplace, it feels like there’s a simmering state of crisis most of the time, punctuated by full blown “emergencies.”  It all seems unnecessary, since I’m not working at as a fireman, air traffic controller, or trauma surgeon.   But never mind the rationale…the culture of emergency is firmly in place.  Everyone is always extremely busy, rushing around, meeting deadline after deadline, Microsoft Outlook calendars overflowing, barely keeping up…and I’m right there with them, doing my best to keep pace.  Of course the internet is supposed to make us more efficient and productive, and probably does….but at a cost.  Things that used to take a long time can now be done in an instant.  But, ironically, this does not give us extra time, but rather seems to clutter up our time more than ever.  The faster you can do things, the faster the demand piles up.  If you focus on getting one thing done, it feels like you’re neglecting 10 other pressing items that need attention.  If you’re not paying attention to your email for an hour or two, at any time of the day or night, there will be a hefty pile of work emails when you get back.   I find myself trying to stay on top of them, to avoid being up to my neck in them.  We’re conditioned to remain alert, virtually around the clock, for incoming messages and pieces of electronic news.  Then, in our time off, we get sucked into the fun and addictive aspects of the internet.  Of course, I love it, just like everyone else.  The action on our smart phones, whether work or play, often seems more compelling than the world of people and things that are physically near to us.  News spreads immediately on the web–the good, the bad, any new scandal, gossip, violence, disaster, or even rumors or possibilities of those.  There’s a feeling that if we don’t keep up, we might be left out of the action online, left behind by the virtual party.  The demand for continual electronic connectedness, vigilance, and rapid responsiveness has become the new normal, the expectation we have of each other.  Everything seems urgent.  The adrenaline flows and flows.  And, bounced around on these waves of adrenaline, it becomes harder to do anything that takes prolonged concentration and reflection, or to have awareness of ourselves or those that are really near to us.  And, while spending more and more of our time paying attention to a screen, and less and less time paying attention to each other or what’s around us, we gradually, insidiously become more alienated from each other and the natural world, and drift away from relationships and experiences that can buffer our stress, perhaps without even realizing it….or remembering any other way of being.

There is some backlash against this, a search for a counterpoint to the continuous adrenaline rush of modern life.  The popularity of Yoga and other mindfulness practices shows that many people seek some sort of respite from the speed and stress, seek to regain a sense inner quiet and calm, an inner space to breathe.  Given my interest in Taoism and Taijiquan, I was excited to read Jan Diepersloot’s beautiful discussion of these issues in his book Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1.  He describes an antidote to the stress of modern life, one based on principles of the internal martial arts.

Diepersloot accurately points out, as have neuroscientists like Robert Sapolsky, that chronic stress has many adverse effects on our bodies and brains.  Diepersloot refers to our neurophysiological systems that deal with stress and fight or flight (the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system) as the “neurophysiology of emergency.” On the other hand, he refers to systems that mediate a relaxed, low stress state (parasympathetic nervous system) as the “neurophysiology of harmony.”  He writes,

“The dilemma of post-industrial civilization is the widespread (psychological) internalization and the (social) institutionalization of the neurophysiology of emergency.  We have literally incorporated the fight-flight syndrome in our bodies and minds, perpetuating our adrenaline addiction… Unbalanced because deprived of sufficient parasympathetic stimulation…we are sorely lacking in the necessary tools to deal with the endemic social stress we have embodied in our systems.  The quest of the next century, indeed the quest of the next millennium, will be to learn how to cultivate our own individual neurophysiology of harmony.”

— Jan Diepersloot, Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1, 1995,Introduction, p. xvi.

Diepersloot goes on to argue that this internalization of the neurophysiology of emergency has become so pervasive and so “normal” that we don’t even recognize it anymore, or understand that there is another way of being. He also argues, quite compellingly I think, that this chronic state of stress and anxiety, compromises our ability to perceive and empathize with each other (see my earlier post listening).  Therefore, although the adrenaline can be exciting, it doesn’t enhance our freedom or true pleasure, because its pleasure is entrapping and addictive, and impairs our ability to see other options for ourselves, other ways of being, and impairs our ability to connect with others.

The meditative traditions in the Chinese internal martial arts are a counterpoint to this culture of emergency, Diepersloot argues.  The internal martial arts don’t require one to withdraw from the modern world, nor do they provide only occasional and temporary respites from the stress of life.  Rather, if ones studies them consistently and diligently, they train the practitioner to deal with external stresses while simultaneously holding on to an internal calm and harmonious state, engaging with whatever occurs in the external world without substantially engaging one’s own “neurophysiology of emergency”.  Part of what distinguishes training in the internal martial arts (e.g. Taijiquan), from other types of meditative mindfulness practices (e.g. Yoga) is that the former trains you not only to achieve inner calm by yourself in stillness, but also to maintain this inner calm while in action and even while engaged in inherently stressful interactions (confrontation, sparring) between two people.  As this is practiced repeatedly, over time, and becomes a part of you, it can be generalized to the stresses of everyday life, enabling you to maintain a sense of inner stillness while engaged in outward activity.

“The accomplishment of the training in the meditative and martial arts is precisely the ability to transcend and suppress the functioning of the sympathetic, pituitary-adrenal system and continue to operate with calm equanimity in the face of extreme danger, including, ultimately, the encounter with death itself.”

— Jan Diepersloot, Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1, 1995, Introduction, p. xv.

This quote sums up one of the main reasons that I find Taijiquan and the internal martial arts endlessly fascinating.  How can someone face extreme or chronic stress, taking active and effective steps to deal with it, while maintaining an inner sense of calm equanimity?  Although I can think of fictional movie or novel heroes who can do this easily, it seems really hard to me to actually do this in reality.  But it certainly seems like something worth aspiring to, worth learning, and practicing, and training deeply.  So, at their root, the internal martial arts are not just about learning to fight (which few of us will really have to do, hopefully), but about a way of finding the stillness in the often chaotic action of life.

Grandmaster Chen Xiaowang in Standing Meditation

The ways of cultivating our neurophysiology of harmony that Diepersloot proposes include a form of standing meditation (zhan zhuang) derived from the Chinese internal martial arts to cultivate internal stillness, as well as exercises in Taiji movements and push-hands practice with a partner.  He uses the term “wuji-taiji method of awareness” to encompass this set of practices.  First you cultivate a sense of your own stillness and awareness…then you learn to maintain this stillness while moving…and then you learn to maintain this inner calm and stillness, yet awareness, while in interaction with others. As Diepersloot writes,

“First you practice stillness in order to discover the structure of your Being.  Then you learn how to Move this Being, and third, this Being learns how to Interact with Other Beings…the wuji-taiji method of awareness slowly instills in its practitioners a new way of being with and in themselves, a way of inner peace and security predisposing them to deal with equanimity and empathy in their social relations… By transcending the psychophysiology of emergency it teaches us how to use the power acquired through our practice to interact with/in the world in a responsible and wise manner.”

— Jan Diepersloot, Warriors of Stillness:  Meditative Traditions in the Chinese Martial Arts, Volume 1, 1995,Introduction, p. xviii-xxi.

A similar interest in maintaining equanimity even during activity is found in Zen practitioners who focus not only on sitting meditation (zazen) but also on meditation during activity.  For example, the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki writes the following:

“Calmness of mind does not mean you should stop your activity.  Real calmness should be found in activity itself.  We say, ‘It is easy to have calmness in inactivity, it is hard to have calmness in activity, but calmness in activity is true calmness.'”

–Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, 2010, Weatherhill, p. 46.

What this approach reflects is the idea that it is impossible to remove all external sources of stress that can negatively affect us and our ability to relate to each other.  But an area over which we have much more influence is our own reactions and responses to the stresses of the outside world.  By cultivating our own neurophysiology of harmony, we can modify our own responses to the external sources of stress, and then can deal with them more efficiently, with less damage to ourselves and our relationships.  The Mahayana Buddhist sage, Shantideva, set out this principle in a beautiful metaphor, hundreds of years ago:

“Where is there enough leather to cover the entire world?  But when I put on my leather shoes, that is to cover the entire world.  Just so, I cannot control external things, but I can control my own mind.  What need is there to control anything else?”

–Shantideva, How to Lead an Awakened Life, Chapter 5, verse 13

This may seem like a very inward-looking view—the view of working primarily on yourself, rather than trying to change world.  But, ironically, if more people became committed to working on themselves and cultivating their own neurophysiology of harmony,  that would go a long way towards changing the world.

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