Over the last few weeks, I was part of an organizing team that ran a series of events in Toronto with Plum Village monks and nuns, who are all students of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. During the first week of events, there was a night of music, meditation, and poetry (essentially a mindful concert), a day of mindfulness, and a public talk – all three events were hosted at the University of Toronto. Over the weekend there was a meditation retreat with 250 people. I photographed everything, did some lighting and audio assistance, and helped with various aspects of the planning and implementation.
As I reflect on this experience today, I am re-remembering the power of flowing with a community. Mindfulness and meditation are helpful when I practice them on my own, and there is something about dropping into a community of practitioners that is powerful. It supports me to develop ease within myself and reconnect to the community within myself (more on that below).
It’s a bit like going to a group yoga or fitness class. Somehow, it’s more motivating to exercise (and in the case of a mindfulness retreat, come home to myself) surrounded by a group of people doing the same thing.
I can learn to flow with other people, and this supports me in my practice of learning to flow with the different parts of myself as they arise.
One teaching from the meditation retreat that I wanted to reflect on as I continue this journey of learning to arrive home within myself is the Plum Village saying, “go as a river.”
Go As A River
Go as a river is one of the four Plum Village (PV) Dharma seals, which are characteristics of the PV school of meditation and Applied Mindfulness.
The first seal is a classic, and it is used quite frequently in Applied Mindfulness meditation practice. It is, “I have arrived, I am home” – the inspiration for the title of this blog and what we’ve been exploring for the last six months.
As a seal, it is expressed in the past tense, indicating that it is possible to already arrive home in the present moment wherever you are. We don’t need anything more than what we already have. I’ve used it in the present tense for the title of this blog as a humble recognition that I am in a constant learning process.
The second seal of Applied Mindfulness is, “Go as a river.” I feel very much the same about this teaching as I do the 1st seal – I am in a learning process with it and I know that as I write this post, I continue with that learning.
So, when we think about the teaching to “go as a river,” we can think about 2 rivers that we are flowing within daily. One is the river of our friends, family, communities, and our society – our “outer river.” The other is the river of our self, or the “inner” river, that is made up of a few different aspects of “me.”
It’s a bit arbitrary which river I start with because they both have a strong influence on each other and are not completely separate.
The community around me affects me, and I know at the same time that my inner self has an impact on my community through my thoughts, speech, and actions.
In the spirit of “the way out is in,” I’ll start with my “inner” river and in another post will talk about my “outer” river.
The river within: body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness
We can think of five aspects of our self that make up our “inner” river, which we can also refer to as our inner community. These five aspects are body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.
Each of these aspects can be objects of our mindful attention for us to reflect on, and look into, to understand ourselves better. They are always flowing and changing, much like a river. They also flow together in one river, each as drops of water, and are not separate from each other.
The flowing of impermanence
First off, let’s take a look at how these aspects of ourselves are constantly changing.
Take for example the physical body – our cells are constantly turning over, and as we grow and age, it is easy to see the changes that happen. The same is true of the other four aspects.
My feelings are in a constant state of flux. My perceptions and my beliefs change as I learn and gain life experience. My mental formations, or the thoughts/emotions that arise due to the conditions around and within me, are constantly changing as me and my environment changes.
My consciousness, or the state of my mind, is also continually changing. Sometimes I notice that my mind is busy and restless, and other times I can observe that it is more still and at ease. For those in a climate that has a dark/snowy winter, just think about the differences in collective consciousness (e.g. the vibe in a room) during the depths of a cold winter versus the warmth of spring arriving.
One thing I find myself often fascinated by is my mind’s ability to think that these five aspects are sometimes “permanent.” It’s not that I consciously think they are, but when I’m in a state of anxiety, stress, or overwhelm, I rarely remember that it is impermanent and will recede.
Thinking that a certain state, especially one of distress, may not go away (e.g. that a wave of emotion will stay at its extreme point) is a way that I amplify those feelings and worsen them.
I can even cause distress if I think that a happy and joyful state is permanent! If I have an idea that “I’ll always be this happy,” then when, inevitably, I experience some distress, I suffer because of that loss of happiness.
This can also happen with my mindfulness practice. I go through periods where I think it’s going really well – I have a good routine and I can have the thought that “it’s working.” Other times I struggle. In both of those states, if I remember their impermanence, I can flow with the changes that arise with more ease.
I can touch freedom when I remember that everything is constantly changing.
The interconnection of body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness
So, I can learn to see that my “inner” waves are impermanent in an attempt to flow with them (i.e. go as a river), and I can learn to see that each of these aspects of myself are interconnected. They are not separate.
Feeling stressed about physical pain in my body illustrates this point. With pain, a signal is transmitted from the periphery of the body up to the brain, which is interpreted as dangerous and therefore painful. Fear, anxiety, and stress naturally arise as part of our built-in response to the experience of pain. So, we see that body and mind are not separate.
The brain also sends signals down to the body to amplify or diminish sensations of pain. I won’t get deep into the neuroscience here, but please don't hesitate to dive into ascending and descending pain neuropathways if you’re interested.
Take, for example, walking in a forest and feeling a stick scrape against my leg. It’s unlikely this will elicit a strong pain response because I have walked through the woods so often, and felt so many similar sensations before, without consequence. My brain doesn’t weigh that kind of sensation as dangerous.
But, one day, if what felt like a small scrape turns out to be a venomous snake bite, I will have a very different response in my mind and body the next time I feel a “scape” in the woods (thanks for this example Lorimer Moseley). Rather than the sensation of a scrape coming and going quickly, the sensation of a scrape might be magnified in intensity and last much longer because of this past experience.
So, I can see that how my body reacts to stimuli is deeply intertwined with my mind. It is possible to perceive a sensation as inconsequential, and it is also possible to perceive that the same sensation as life-threatening.
Through this, I see that my body’s reaction to a present moment experience is deeply intertwined with memory and past experiences.
The beautiful thing about bringing mindful attention to my present moment experience is that I can see this connection. I can observe myself with compassion to understand the roots of my emotional patterns, my thinking process, my perceptions of myself and others, and even how my body experiences the sensation of pain.
When I observe the roots of my experience with kindness, compassion, and understanding, the experience naturally begins to soften.
I can offer inner care and begin to be freed from some of my anxieties, stress, fear, and worry.
Allowing the waves to come and go
I also work on allowing the waves (of feelings in the body, perceptions, and the state of my mind) to simply unfold in their own time, rather than trying to resist them (in the case of an unpleasant wave) or crave for more (in the case of a pleasant wave).
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I have had a habit of trying to avoid unpleasant emotions, in part because I can become overwhelmed by them. It can feel like I’m being “hit” by the wave. When I attempt to ignore these waves (my inner challenges), they usually build up and spill out in some way.
With this perception that I’m being “hit,” I can also attempt to push back against it or redirect it towards someone/somewhere else. When my habits drive me to do this, I can have thoughts, speech, or bodily action that I regret later. Maybe I speak or act in a way that I wish I hadn't – in a way that is not in line with my deepest values. This whole process isn’t typically a conscious one.
This begs the question,
What if, instead of avoiding, resisting, or redirecting the wave, I could ride it?
I’ve heard this example from Jon Kabat-Zinn with his quote, “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
Learning to ride the waves of emotion
One top of mind example is not making space for my partner’s strong emotions. Sometimes, I can habitually avoid her emotions in the way that I speak and listen, much in the way I can do with my inner world.
As I learn to ride the waves of my emotions, it becomes easier to be with her as she rides hers. If I interact with my inner world as if the negative feelings are hitting me like waves and overwhelming me, I am strengthening that neuropathway within myself (that habit energy), and it simply manifests again with her.
It’s actually sometimes a clue for me that I am doing this internally when I see that I’m doing this interpersonally.
In moments when I have allowed waves to build up within myself, I can be quick to react/push away hers because I already feel “full.” This has a negative impact on both of us.
I was speaking with a monk a few days ago, and he was talking about the amount of practical work (e.g. caring for the grounds, cooking for guests, etc.) they do as monastics in Plum Village. He said that some monks try to resist the amount of work, but that ends up being more effort than simply just flowing with the community’s work.
My feelings and my partner’s feelings can be like that.
It often requires more energy to try to resist our unpleasant feelings than to simply allow them to come and feel them in their fullness. This is what inevitably allows them to recede. Sometimes my habit energies are stronger than me, and I walk down the path of resistance anyway, and when that happens, I simply try to notice that with compassion and understanding.
If I simply allow the unpleasant waves to come, they recede faster and with more ease.
Dear reader, I invite you to reflect on whether this might be a habit you can resonate with? We could easily swap out the example of a partner, with the example of a colleague, friend, family member, or child.
I can also reflect on pleasant “waves.” I have noticed that if I simply allow them to come, enjoy them while they are here, and then allow them to recede, I am more able to be present for them.
If, for example, the entire time I’m eating chocolate cake, I am hoping for more and more chocolate cake, I miss the cake that I am eating at that moment. Even if I did get more and more chocolate cake, I’d probably feel sick at the end of it… So maybe there is something beautiful and necessary about the impermanence of the piece of cake. Just enjoy it as it happens.
Another example is trying to capture a happy moment with a photograph to make it “permanent.” This is a big one for me as a photographer – it is a constant practice to flow between capturing a moment and just being with it and enjoying it as it happens.
When I reflect on all of these five aspects of my river within – my body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness – I can clearly see that all of them have states that flow up and down, that come and go.
I try to remember that, when I experience a wave within, it has the nature to go up and to go down – this supports me to see each moment with more clarity and to live life fully.
So, how do I allow the waves to come and go? How do I learn to ride them rather than resist them or be hit by them?
Sometimes my habit energy is stronger than I am, and I will just go on resisting them, that’s ok. Other times, I can learn to shift my perception of the wave, allowing me to ride it.
Let’s return to the example of a venomous snake bite – if I can understand what is actually a venomous snake bite and what is simply the scrape of a stick, I can take the appropriate action. If I have just been scraped by a stick, but my body has a full chemical reaction as if I’ve been bitten by a snake, I need to first become aware of my body’s reaction, then I can care for that reaction while knowing that I am not in danger.
It’s the combination of care and accurate perception that is key here, and those two things can only manifest with mindful awareness. I need to be aware that I’ve had a reaction, and I also need to be aware that I cannot just flip a switch and turn off the reaction – it takes time for chemicals to shift in my body, and it takes time for my mind to settle.
When appropriate, I can shift my perception, and then offer myself care by riding the wave of the feelings that have arisen.
My experience with chronic low back pain
When I look at my experience with chronic low back pain, I can see the impact of mindfulness on it.
For most of my 20s, I lived with chronic low back pain. I was frequently worried about it. I had a deep semi-conscious belief that it was permanent and that something was really wrong in my body. Not only that, but I tried to ignore these thoughts and feelings in an attempt to not experience them.
As I came to realize this was something I needed to care for, I explored yoga, physiotherapy, and mindfulness practice. These all helped immensely and built a foundation for me to ride the waves that came. Yoga, physiotherapy, and mindfulness practice felt a bit like the surfboard that I needed.
With years of mindfulness practice, I learned to befriend and see more clearly what I was really feeling in my body and thinking in my mind. My perceptions shifted. I saw that, because of my habits of resisting painful experiences, I was not seeing clearly.
It was like I was trying to look through a dense fog to see myself. Sometimes I didn’t even know that waves of feeling were rising until they peaked.
Through my experience of going to physiotherapy school and working in a chronic pain clinic afterwards, I continued to transform my perceptions of my pain experience. I learned that nothing was “falling apart” in my body, and that my back is, in fact, strong and resilient anatomically.
I learned to interpret and perceive my bodily sensations differently, and this allowed some of the fog to recede. I could see my body, feelings, and mind with more clarity. I learned to simply say hello to the sensations in my body and know that my interpretation of them was linked to more than just that experience of sensation. I learned that my experience of the sensation was linked to what I thought the experience meant – and that what I thought it meant was not so accurate.
I learned to say hello to the part of me that was deeply worried about my pain. I listened to that part of me, as I would listen to a young crying child, and this allowed me to be calmed.
This helped me to see when my pain was just a simple stick in the woods, rather than a venomous snake.
I noticed that my experience of pain changed dramatically when my mindset around it changed. This was my turning point.
A small disclaimer – I, of course, know, as a trained physiotherapist, that there are many types of low back pain that benefit from all kinds of medical and non-medical interventions. It is also true that for any kind of bodily pain, it’s possible to amplify the experience of that pain through our perceptions of it.
The body and mind are not as disconnected as we might think and if we learn to “go with” the waves of our inner “river,” we might just learn to flow through life with a bit more ease.
Links and References
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