Interior And Exterior Landscapes

Chinese paintings are frequently landscapes, with the human being’s place in it telling a story. Very often nature overshadows people and structures. Mountains, trees, sky and water dominate; people, animals and manmade structures are smaller in scale however the story is impossible to ignore. The visual vignette tells a story of the human experience in that environment, speaking of things often rendered in Western paintings by detailed human expression of what is going on inside: Excellence, equanimity, effort, loneliness, endurance, sorrow, joy and more.

In the West, the images are quite different. Our emotional and mental states often are the largest part of the painting, but our conduct is not solely driven by those interior sensory experiences. Although we tend to over-emphasize our feelings it is as impossible to separate our conduct from the exterior world as it is to separate the image from the canvas and still have a work of meaning. Adjusting our conduct is assigning new meaning to the human’s place in the larger picture as it is also adjusting the observer’s interpretation of that interior sensory experience.

How do we do that?

The Secret Of The Golden Flower’s* early admonition that we should get a firm foothold on daily life within society prior to learning meditation makes for a difficult bootstrapping event. Oh yeah…we’ll get right on that one!

The 12-Steps idea that we should have a spiritual experience prior to changing conduct presents the same dilemma but in reverse: The same way Zen is popularized as requiring an adjustment to conduct prior to higher forms of awareness so much in the same way 12-step has a reputation of insisting on attaining higher forms of consciousness prior to adjusting conduct.

Something to consider: These are both cognitive analogies, suggestions and ideas. Nothing more. They are ways of thinking. They are not experiential but descriptive. We can take painting lessons forever but if we never pick up a brush and engage the body mind and world in a unified way we will not get very far.

The answer is in the middle. A simultaneous observation of conduct and motives along with noticing internal sensory experiences on a cognitive and corporeal level makes that canvas broader, larger, including a field of vision as if an observer might be looking on. And indeed, what is it that we would like to be doing if not to be able to see ourselves more objectively as if from afar?

The limbic system and the amygdala when no longer in the loop of fright or flight allows other centers of the brain to operate in a more optimal way. It is a conductive meditation.

Dark and light reflect each other, up and down define each other, weightless and heavy share the scale and give each other value. In the same way the interior and exterior experience are part of something greater and that is of the observer, the unified undifferentiated whole.

Both 12 step and Qigong are meaningful intent-full forms of self-observation. They are events and not things. Recovering The Way Qigong knits together the body’s experiential reactions and adjustments to the self-observation so central to the process of change. At the same time, it feeds the chronically anxious monkey mind and wild intention horse a solid diet of beneficial neuropeptides to adjust a strained autonomic nervous system.

So we are in the midst of an experience that is pretty central to the core of our existence and it is the process of intent-full self-observation which changes us. What we wind up with is a new canvas that is more like the paint-by-numbers we did as children. As we connect the dots we begin to see patterns and relationships as if for the first time but they are at once apprehended as truths. And as Qigong is the oldest form of Chines Medicine, the improvement in mind is usually mirrored by great improvements in physical health.

 

Sparkie's Passing Part 1

Sparkie, the white twin brother to black Bingo, drowned in a icy pond chasing ducks December 2017. His passing has crystalized some notions of how Qigong self-observbation practices can work with  the step based Recovery process to  help with working through grief. 

Sparkie, the white twin brother to black Bingo, drowned in a icy pond chasing ducks December 2017. His passing has crystalized some notions of how Qigong self-observbation practices can work with  the step based Recovery process to  help with working through grief. 

Grief As A Path to Self-Awareness

As we search for meaning in loss, some of the most fruitful revelations can come from an intentional opening the heart while distilling the true from the false about our own sensations. Although grieving is a painful process, it can be a valuable learning experience if we engage in a thoughtful slow self-examination as to its qualities.

The very rich, full, pulsing waves of the experience which we call grief - acute grief – is one of the primary movers of the humans. It can be like a jagged knife, tearing our heart and the very fabric of our being or it can be used as a tool to open the heart, revealing layers of intelligence and sensitivity that might lay dormant or un discoverable.

It opens us to the fundamental importance: We are small temporary specks – dust of the breath of God. The finite alone-ness of grief is informative. It can teach us to value the small and inconspicuous lives we live. At first blush, there is fear and denial and push back. We fight this with incredulity and denial.

Juxtaposed to this, when we are happy and we feel transcendent – joined to others by an invisible tapestry that flows and ebbs, we revel at the mystery and majesty of being in God’s light. But this feeling does not increase our sense of wholeness, it confirms it. It is by willingly savoring the fruits of grief that we broaden ourselves and become complete human beings.

When I speak of the fruits of grief it is important to define what grief is and what grief is not. For simplicity, I am defining acute grief as a universal emotional mental and physical response to losing a living being we were intimately attached to. We can easily shut down, capitulating to the wracking pain. We may feel a sense of the chest contracting and folding into itself. It tightens around the heart and lungs as a fist contracting onto itself, pressuring our cardiopulmonary system.  Our heart and lungs respond defensively with huge sobs so that air may enter. The hands grab at nothing in particular, we lose our appetite, our sexual drive and maybe our sense of time. The days seem like months in the beginning of grief and a sense of unreality is pervasive.

Few processes in life are more powerful. Isn’t there something it can teach us? Friends who are close support us but most will be unmoved or talk about themselves. This seems to compound the sensation of alone-ness. But are we experiencing things accurately?

When we get sick there may be such a thing as a primary infection and secondary infections.  A medication may alleviate certain symptoms but might have untoward side-effects. Similarly, there may be aspects of what we call grief that are primary and secondary attributes. If I am willing to dive into the fundamental richness of the experience for the purpose pf noticing solely the primary separation can I savor its richness? It would be a shame to let this process pass without gaining something.

Is there not a realization that all is temporary? That we too will pass? We can go one of two ways: we can let the weight crush us, giving in to the hypnotic call of pain or we can reach out to what is eternal in nature and express it in terms loud enough that we ourselves can hear.

Grief is not brutality. Brutality is for victims and although it is tempting to be swooned by its intoxicating Siren song we can choose to sail by as Ulysses did, by tethering ourselves to the mast of self-reflection. Grief may also show its hem as martyrdom, another out-cropping and temptation. We might get a form of enjoyment out of by showing ourselves and others the sacrifices we are making. We all have a psychic palace that houses many guests of which the victim and martyr are two of the noisiest guests. Similarly, we may be visited by others: the orphan, the slave, the thief and the hero. But heroes always die so martyrs beware. All of these guests and more – the banker, the king or queen, court jester, the magician, the mortal and the god have their place in the palace of life. There are a few times when all of their ministrations come up short. Notwithstanding our own death, acute profound grief is one of them.

The Tao Te Ching tells us that Kings and Emperors refer to themselves as orphans and paupers because of two reasons: 1) high and low share a process of one becoming the other and 2) Out of a respect for that eternal process.

There is a fundamental kernel of grief, when all the trappings of life and secondary experiences are stripped away that reveals itself. Part of that fundamental awareness is an undeniable inter-connectedness exists, that preceded us and will still be here after our passing. We only grieve that which we were connected to in the first place.

Another aspect that bears examination: during acute bereavement, it is very easy to make a sweeping generalization from the specific circumstance; because I feel alone and grieve this situation I am in fact completely alone and separate for the rest of time. This is very easy to do and is as addictive a process as smoking, eating or drinking. But not only is it inaccurate, it is proof itself of its own opposite – that there is an underlying interconnectedness which is unpronounceable and commanding otherwise the billions of other humans would have no reason to react similarly to loss. The existence of something we cannot touch is proved by the demonstrable effects of its disappearance. Just ask anyone who has had a bitcoin stolen.

So, at the heart of it (and why do we always use that word?) the information carried between the heart and the brain is the seat of consciousness. It is not in the heart, nor is it in the brain, but it exists as a processual flow between the two. The Chinese call this flow the Xin and modern psychoneurobiology is well on its way to mapping the chemical markers that sapient slow self-examination yields peptides and processes that instill order.

If I can momentarily strip away through self-examination in a quieted state the psychic physical and emotional palace guests to visit the very essence of grief, opening my heart, the guests will indeed see that there is a wise host who is capable impressing them into its favor.  This is a form in turn of inter-connectedness – an interconnectedness of our own selves aligned with our own selves. We reduce the feeling of internal alienation and calm ourselves greatly. We can then be of service to others and repair the connection to the world at large. The nature of sharing grief is a demonstration of interconnectedness and its joy is like the little circle of light in the dark portion of the Yin Yang symbol.

 

©Daniel Weicher Dec 2017

 

 

Sacrifice And Neuropeptides: A Possibility


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Candace Pert, MD, PHD is maybe the most famous neuro-science researcher in the world. She spearheaded some of the now widely accepted science pointing to a direct link between the psychic phenomena of emotional thought and how it is expressed in the body. In the last twenty years her research inspired a slow deep long benevolent tsunami in the fields of Western, Oriental and Complimentary medicines, mind/body practices, meditation, philosophy, spirituality and recovery.

The Holy Grail Found

In the simplest of terms what was discovered was that the brain generates molecules called neuropeptides at the same time as it generates emotional thought. These compounds are like tiny controllers, tiny packs of information that instruct the cells of our body how they should feel, concordant with the mental state. They are physiological instructors, telling the body the basics on how to react.

It is important to note that we are not talking about neuropathic action of the Autonomic Nervous System.  It has been well known for some time that its Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches provide rather instantaneous physiological changes in the body via the Adrenals and the Vagus Nerve.  And while these are deeply involved, they are the basic on off switches which activate the fright/flight and/or Relaxation Response.

For while these chemicals are needed for life support, their fundamental origin is not in the brain but in the body. What we are talking about today is something outside the conventional neural pathways that provides information to the cells of our bodies about the quality of emotional information and are generated by the brain itself as a cofactor of emotional display. They are instructors of the quality  of sensation and are instructors of feeling: Sad, happy, melancholy, angry, etc.

They are  in-structors and in as much, they can also be emotional de-structors. A case in point:

If the brain expresses anger, whether or not the anger was mistaken, appropriate, inappropriate, drug or alcohol induced, seemingly random or even dreamed, the body’s reaction is the same:  On the first level the Sympathetic goes into action We engage in defensive behavior, heart rate increases and we experience the all too familiar adrenaline rush which can be as addictive as it is distasteful.  None of this is new. Anyone who has done even a small amount of self reflection can grasp that. 

What the newer paradigms offer, however, is the idea that the body is not just the dumb mute expresser of the brains emotions, condemned to execute but is a co partner in creation. The anger does manifest firstly in the body by vehicle of the near instantaneous  transmission of the cranial nerves on the heartbeat and respiration, yes,  but there is also a short lag time in which our anger can either abate or cook up to a seething rage. Familiar?

While there is an instantaneous reflexive reaction upon stimulus that is somewhat similar to the knee/kick reaction the doctor tests our leg reflexes with, there is a longer-lasting, slower-onset part of emotion that follows up this first burst of neurological instinctive activity.   The neuropeptides that turn the cells of our body on to experience the flavor, the savor, the bodily emotion of anger above and beyond the reflex takes time to reach and develop. Why? Because these peptides are actually delivered via the bloodstream which is much slower than the nervous system.  The limbic center of the brain, our emotional control center, lies somewhere in-between the ancient ‘lizard brain’ as it is affectionately sometimes called in recovery circles, and the cerebral cortex, our higher independent thought centers.

The peptides are poured into the bloodstream and take time to reach their destinations. During this time, we are in no-(wo)mans’s land, waiting to follow through on the thought. Amazing. Anyone who has experienced anger, which is all of us, at times must recognize this. There is a lag time where we say to ourselves however fleetingly “yes or no”.  The brain only starts to generate these peptides upon the reflex. The emotional centers of the brain then pitch in and manufacture the predominance of the mayhem making molecules which cook the body, which in turn then sends back its own signals by generating its own neurotransmitters whch are sent back to the brain and realized as an angry body. Mission Acomplished.

Except for a few things: 1) WE WERE MISTAKEN  oofah...and 2) Even if we were right, we most likely are liable to harbor a resentment and 3) We are now in a loop where the Adrenaline Drug can be much more appealing than having to apologize to someone who had the temerity to upset us even if we were wrong. Isn’t being human fun?

This is simply amazing. In my own case, after a short subjective analysis of all of my strongest angry responses, I was very often quite wrong in my assumptions of intentional wrongdoing. What would I have given to not have reacted to some of the most egregious mistakes?  What would I have given to not retain a resentment for a day, a month, a year, a decade? Does some of this sound at all familiar?

There are several things at play here that I would like to talk about but I need to  disclose that I am not a professional scientist, researcher, nor am not an MD. I am a teacher of Qigong, Taoist Internal Alchemy, different aspect of Oriental Medicine,  as well as a conventional businessman entrepreneur of 40 years and in recovery for nearly 18 years.

The Value Of Saintliness

William James’ epoch inspiring book, The Variety Of Religious Experience, dating back to the earliest days of the 20th century took a rational scientific look at what he called the ‘Religious Experience’ and tried to analyze what the notion of cleaving to unseen powers for help and salvation could do for a human that nothing else could. There were several chapters of note and many of them inspired people like Bill Wilson and Alan Watts to name a few. Many call him the father of New Age thinking.  Some of the chapter headings were “Religion and Neurology”,  “The Reality Of The Unseen”, “The Sick Soul”, Convergence, “Mysticism” “Saintliness” and “The Value Of Saintliness”.

I am recollecting the Value Of Saintliness and remembering that some of his descriptions of saintly behavior were frankly, quite odd. He used extreme examples on purpose to illustrate his point, saying that the stronger case is made in exaggerated cases.  There were cases of extreme self denial, acts of courage in the face of disease, war, denial and more. All the while, these people seemed not only to not mind their lot, they seemed to enjoy it. As the saying goes, wassup with that?

Is it possible that their brains generated neuropeptides of calm, of comfort, of equanimity in the face of situations most of us would flee from? Is it possible that they enjoyed humility? Is it possible they thrived on self-denial?

Now, I am not suggesting that any of us take up a life as a 14th century saint. Some of them were very backward, socially inept, most were uneducated and many probably mentally ill. Today many of them might be institutionalized or worse. This is not a value judgment Religiosity. It is an observation. Did their brains generate molecular compounds assuring their bodies that they were safe, cared for, secure and loved while engaging in sacrifice?

Has it ever happened that we wanted to act out, wanted to get angry, held our tongue, held our reactions, and then later saw we were wrong all along and never lost it? How does that make us feel? Have we ever wanted to act out even if we were right and did not exact our due?

The Chinese Book Of Changes, The I Ching uses the phrase several times ‘Being On A Horse Not Advancing’. This does not mean hubris as in our usual  "High Horse" image but quite the contrary.  This means being in a position of power, of being right, of having the potential to act, being able to trample and win, but refraining from doing so.

People in recovery, people who volunteer in prisons, who are hospice volunteers, who give of themselves relive on a daily basis part of the most frightening times of their lives. On the outside, others might say that this person is so brave, is so good, is so humble that they donate their time bodies and minds in the service of others.

The Dali Lama is quoted as saying he chooses to be optimistic because it feels better.

I would suggest that people in Recovery from any illness, physical or mental, people who charitably give beyond normal means, people who listen to others give of themselves because it releases neuropeptides like oxytocin. It makes them feel better.

If I can learn to wait after being ‘insulted’, if I can turn the other cheek as I feel the anger and know that I will in a short time generate positive neuropeptides to help I will truly understand that Sacrifice is revealed when the pain has stopped.

©Daniel Weicher 2017

Researchers in the Netherlands provide first-time evidence for a neurobiological cause of intergroup conflict. They show that oxytocin, a neuropeptide produced in the brain that functions as hormone and neurotransmitter, leads humans to self-sacrifice to benefit their own group and to show aggression against threatening out-groups. This finding qualifies the wide-spread belief that oxytocin promotes general trust and benevolence.

 

 

VISIBLE IN AN ECLIPSE: OUR DARK ESSENCE

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How can I quiet myself enough to have my essential nature come through? I think one of the issues people have is there is some confusion has to how to even begin.

What is my essential nature? We may ask. An answer comes tugging at our sleeve, hem, shirt before long. It might be something like:

“I think I have some mute intuitive ideas but how can I be sure they are accurate? I seem to know what is not working and somehow somewhere there must be an observer watching to make this value judgment”. Cool! Such a simple thought might be dismissed as daydreaming, impractical or irrelevant. The still quiet voice points the way and we tell it to get out of way. Perfectly normal. Perfectly normal

Seemingly we have an observer there. And without any hoopla we can assume that there is also an observed. Can I be both? Welcome to the world of meditation!

Taoism examines patterns of nature for clues. The old system has sound logic: So goes the macro and so goes the micro. In looking for the authentic hidden in plain sight we need look no further than an eclipse.

In a solar eclipse the moon cast a shadow on the face of the Earth. For a short time only a small amount of light reveals the edges of a dark rocky moon, which most times is not what we see. What we normally see is the sun’s reflected light but we believe it is the moon. We believe the moon is bright, but it is not. It is hidden but there. Solid and real but hidden in brightness.

So, with us, what can we do?

Taoism talks of two aspects of mind: A shining bright mind of base awareness and a thinking mind of specific thought. The Shining Mind is like the light of the Sun in space: It is clear, invisible and undetectable. It is not available to us until it is paired with Earth, or the Mundane Specific, thinking, noticing Mind.

The Moon is like our essential natures. Our bodies, our emotions, our base natures are all there, but normally we only see their reflected images and not their dark essences.

I do not use the word dark in a negative or sinister sense; quite the contrary. I use it as a description of ‘hidden'; that which is revealed as in a buried treasure. Indeed, the TAIJI, better-known as the Yin-Yang symbol has been referred to as a treasure map. Although Yin and Yang seem to be the only essences in the map, they only have relevance from the standpoint of an Observer.

So, in meditation, who is the observer? It is the thinking Mind noticing both the shining mind and essential natures, but the paradox is that the only thing we have to see our essential dark natures with is the Mundane Mind itself.

Through practices like Qigong; intentional breathing, progressive relaxation, internal scanning, recovery, prayer, therapy and similar processes that get out of the fight or flight conditioning, we place the Mundane Mind in just the right place - just enough to permit it to view our own dark essence.

So, we use the mind and body to reveal essence. We use the very things that are the source of our difficulties to remove the difficulties. “there is nothing so wonderful as turning the disease into medicine” says The Secret Of The Golden Flower. This paradox is one of the constants in the world. From antibiotics to homeopathy to recovery to having a conversion of soul in the deepest of despair it is a process that can bring a type of change to the human heart and mind that noithing else can.

Thanksgiving Then And Now

There's a famous painting by Norman Rockwell depicting a family around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. All of the faces are aglow and the entire room is lit as if from above. The Kind Patriarch of the family thankfully stands readying the carving utensils as the strong silent matriarch brings the perfect turkey to the table.  The rest of the family is polished and well mannered.  Everybody is smiling, happy and relaxed. The Iconic Thanksgiving Holiday. 

I hated that picture. Who's family was that? It certainly wasn't mine! As a child it seemed to me that Holiday Life was filled with tension, expectations and arguments.  Even if it started out okay one sullen look or word would turn the entire day into an emotional rollercoaster. Now, I may be exaggerating a bit here, but the essence is probably understood by many.

One thing I understood perfectly well (or so I thought) was victimhood. Woe is me.  It's all your fault. As I grew, I expected holidays to be stressful. I expected life to be stressful. It became that way. I helped create and perpetuate my own reality. I became the stressor towards myself and towards others. 

In the land of plenty with much to be thankful for I could easily flip to angry and malcontent.

I was aware that I was supposed to express gratitude. This made me even angrier and more confused. ‘Be grateful,’, like ‘be spontaneous’ is a double bind. Through my own personality, my life experiences, addictions, ignorance and laziness I perpetuated these qualities and turned them into hallmarks of my own daily actions. 

How is one supposed to express gratitude perpetually feeling like a victim? Maybe on some level there is a perverse sense of satisfaction in remaining a victim in that it absolves us from work But that is a topic for another time. What I am concentrating on here is the fact that I did feel that way. 

Going through life feeling like I am shortchanged, going through life feeling like I am a victim, going through life feeling like I am owed, going through life resentful does not allow for gratitude.  I think I have found some of the answer. Gratitude is found in sharing on a daily basis and not in expecting on a daily basis. What I receive in life is important but what is of maximum value is what I get to share. As I look back on my recent years it is very different than it used to be. The members of my different fellowships, my students, teachers, mentors, clients and the people at the institutions where I volunteer all have made an indelible mark upon my life. 

I am truly wealthy and I am truly blessed. Now when I set my table and share I truly understand the light from above in that picture. I understand the smiles and I understand the camaraderie. In this season of Thanksgiving, remember that the road to illumination begins in darkness and the road to forgiveness begins with anger.

The Secret of the Golden Flower tips its hat to Confucianism, remonstrating us to become right with society all the while becoming right with the Universal One.

I cannot stress this enough. As said, if we do not correct, the noise of the silence will be overwhelming. Qigong will not return the horse we stole nor will it apologize to those we have hurt.

 

Stopping and Going

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I was sitting by the edge of my backyard pond sipping my morning coffee. It was Sunday and I had felt an urge to sit there quietly in a relaxed semi meditative state. I driven nearly a thousand miles that week and found the need to sit still for a while. My two dogs came along and after short time they found comfortable spots; one in the shade and ne in the sun. I myself was a Sundogthat morning turning my chair into the sunlight overlooking the pond and the woods.

After a few minutes the smoothness and quiet of the water began to overtake my senses. My attention was drawn to the large carp, small bluegills and the turtle under the glasslike surface of the water, which was gently rippled now and again by a gentle breeze. A dragonfly perched on a barren dried raspberry bush sunned itself, motionless, until it flew off only to return to the same spot over and over. The carp and bass all but undetectably would either maintain their position or rotate with the slightest seemingly unconscious motion of adjustment.

I felt my own tension starting to slip away only to return again like the dragonfly. I noticed how the breeze slightly obscured my vision into the water’s depth only to subside once again. I thought that this is how it is with life and so too, how it is with meditation.

The Chinese trigram for “Joy” in the Book Of Changes, The I Ching, is Lake.

As I sat, I decided to let my thinking mind go and live in the sensations of the moment. My breath slowed. I tried to follow the fish, the dragonfly and turtle and just to be in joyous harmony of the moment. My body relaxed. I could feel my temples, neck, arms, fingers and feet unfurl, enjoying the moment of the trees and water, the fish and the woods both side-by-side and reflected in each other in the water.

A gentle breeze rippled the surface of the water, only to subside to make it seem then even more beautiful, more clear and more smooth with each return. So it is with the relationship between talk and silence, thought and meditation.

The joy of Lake, the joy of stillness, the joy of seeing the nature of things is not inherent in joy. It is not inherent in stillness. It is not inherent in meditation. It does not reside in the release of tension, although this is the path we take. It resides in and its relationship to its opposite, that of Activity.

The Chinese trigram for “Activity” in the Book Of Changes, The I Ching, is “Wind”

Wind is activity, wind is work, and wind is penetration. Through effort we can develop clarity and with clarity we can further focus our effort.

Employing Effort and Stillness at the appropriate times is the cultivation of what the Ancients called “The Way”. The Tao Te Ching admonishes us that “high winds do not last all morning”.  If Heaven and Earth cannot sustain “Wind” what makes us think that we can? The wind will still - with or without our acquiescence. The cultivated practice of stopping at the right time brings joy while effort without knowing when to stop courts disaster. A proficient sculpture chips away a bit of a time and stops to look. Joy resides  in the meaningful interplay between stopping and going. The I Ching calls this insight or “Faithfulness To The Center”