Today there is a tremendous amount of writing about mindfulness, or Sati. The article that I have linked to is far and away the best that I have ever read on the subject. For our purposes today, the ‘take-home’ message from this brilliant article is that mindfulness is an activity, and not a thought process. Now, if you are like most of us reading this, you will interact with the world through a model of the world, rather than through reality, but this will not be your experience: you will believe that your model is reality. One of my teachers told me the reason why we buffer reality in this way is that the direct experience of reality is simply too intense for most people. For most of us, the model we use to interact with the world via is the world of language and symbols. As the great Korzybski once famously said, “The map is not the territory”. No model of reality can be Reality (Anthony Wilden’s excellent distinction between ‘small r’ and ‘big R’ reality). I want to go further with this another time, but for today, will say just this: the assertion that Reality exists independently of us and the same for everyone (though many ways of talking about it, and representing it), is just that: an assertion. It is an article of faith.
I want to gloss over 10,000 extremely interesting things to get to the point of today’s post. Stretching is an activity, like mindfulness. By definition, stretching/moving can only happen in the present. Again, people can hear this and simply not get the profundity in the assertion. If you bring full awareness to the activity of stretching you cannot be thinking. Thinking occurs in the immediate past or future or long distant past distant future only, never in the present. Of course, if you are like most people, your thoughts are your reality. One of the deep purposes of meditation in all its forms is to show you that this simply is not accurate. Because we are so used to interacting with the world via a model of it, some people have never had the experience I’m talking about. The whole point of using the body as the basis of meditation is simply that the body exists in the unending present. Hence, when we become aware of the breath or sensations inside the body, we are present. There are no thoughts there, only sensations.
If one brings mindfulness to the activity of stretching then there is only the complex suite of sensations in the moment. As well, when the organism feels threatened (which is always the case in a really strong stretch like side splits or front splits), your reflexive habits may manifest. For example, one of our teachers in the advanced class speaks to his training partner quite aggressively (but completely unconsciously) when he’s in a strong stretch. If you are mindful of the activity, mindfulness will notice this tone and this tension and a moment of insight will occur. Mindfulness is nothing more than being openly aware (pre-thought aware; extremely rare for we western folk) of what’s happening in the present and seeing the thought forms and experiencing the sensations all at the same time but not being connected to them. When I say “not being connected to them” I am describing non-attachment or Vairagya. This is not detachment!
So now to the deep reason for the book title, Stretching Mindfully. Simply, the body is the primary instrument of insight. The standard opening instruction in all meditation retreats is, “Bring your attention to the breath.” As soon as you do this, there is only sensations—until the awareness is captured by a thought and taken away from the present. Being aware of this capturing process is mindfulness. The sensations of stretching are, for most people, even stronger than the sensations of breathing. My experience of working with many people on meditation retreats is that connecting the meditator to the body via stretching and movement brings the person into the present and keeps them in the present extremely effectively. As well, gaining a closer contact and understanding of the physical structure you live in will enhance the sensations of breathing, digestion, and existing very, very effectively. Enhancement of the sensations of being alive is another way of helping us stay in the present.
About five years ago, Patrick Kearney came to me in the Monkey Gym to talk to me about the possibility of adding bodywork modules to his meditation retreats. Patrick is a Pali scholar and a wandering dharma teacher, who loves from dana exclusively. We have now co-presented three week-to-10-days long meditation retreats over the last three years, at the magnificent Govinda Valley Retreat Centre. The many wonderful experiences on these retreats, coupled with what happens on our Stretch Therapist and Stretch Teacher workshops, tells me that we are onto something here. Simply concentrating on working on the body, coupled with sitting practice, lying practice, and walking practice, and bringing awareness to all of these activities fosters profound change. Our last workshop together was entitled, The four postures of meditation. Traditionally, these are standing, sitting, reclining and walking. These are the four postures of daily life. As our goal is to bring awareness to all aspects of our experience of living, on these retreats we practice mindfulness in each of these postures.
Now, on all meditation retreats the degree of mindfulness that is brought to all the different activities that one engages in varies tremendously. Patrick and I were talking one day about how people serve themselves food and how they sit down and how they eat. It was clear that the degree of mindfulness in these other daily activities (compared to when the retreatants were sitting or stretching) was very different. Accordingly, following the lying meditation session (done before each lunch time) I asked Patrick to give a short talk on mindfulness while eating to the group. The difference in the experience of eating together was profound. And a number of retreatants commented (after silence was lifted at the end of the retreat) on how being mindful of the entire process of eating affected them. Mindfulness is an activity and in time may become a habit—and the more often we engage in it, the more often it becomes our ordinary way of being in the world.