Self Perfection or Just Tryin’ to Cope

You have to consider that when I advise someone to try managing or coping with their stress with meditation my point of view is rather biased. I’m like a person who is totally into model railroading advising you about their beloved hobby.  I know there is something great and wonderful about my trains but I’m not sure how to talk about it with just the right mix of detail and simplicity that will keep your eyes from glazing over or my chest from filling with pride like a poisonous blow fish. Often its better to answer specific question when a topic is very broad so if you have any questions please ask in the comment section.

Receiving shiatsu often can get you to a “feeling place” akin to still meditation (whether seated or standing) and one of the things I like to try to do is to get my clients to replicate those “feeling tones” and states, from our work together, on their own.  If you already have experience with the goals and methods of meditation my particular emphasis then is on indicating ways in which you can shift the context and take greater advantage of your experience.  Remember, most (religious) traditions of meditiation look down on meditating with mundane goals like coping with the world banking crisis or anxiety born from getting mobbed on social media.  ‘If you’re not striving for enlightenment then we ain’t got nothin’ for ya.’ Its a delicate process to get people with this bias (me circa 1998) to see the more general usefulness of the skills they have acquired in yoga, with zen meditation or through prayer.

If you are someone that is on the other end of the spectrum then my job is to give you enough background and technique to allow you to apply them to the themes you have decided to focus on in our relationship as shiatsu  giver and receiver.  Month long teachings on the 37 practices of a bodhisattva just are not appropriate and in fact often extremely small snippets of advice and instructions can go a very long way for newcomers.

In addition I like my advice to stay kinesthetic in nature because, well, I’m a bodyworker, but also as Tom Meyers points out, (around the 25.12 mark) here in the West, we have an overwhelming amount of visual and auditory imput but increasingly small amounts of “felt” information for our brains. Its not just Gen X’ers bent over the latest and greatest S or i-phone series; shoulder- and buttock fascia slowly laminating into a hot mess who have seemed to have forgotten they live in a body. Even those of us who prefer sticks and stones as playthings, bemoan our loss of function as we age, rather than fight to preserve it; rather than go deeper into the body and the life of the body. Our personal goals become increasingly abstract, leaving little space for a cointinued striving for self-perfection through the vehicle of the body.  I think this is partly due a lack of appreciation for the aging body and our culture’s facination with the kind of beauty only the young posesss.  But what about the beauty of the aged? All that glitters truly is not gold.

Its important for you to take yourself seriously, to know within the continuum of your heart-mind that you can make improvements, that you can get to the bottom of your problem and that you can reach the end of the tunnel and bask in the light. I’m not encouraging you to harbor illusions. Have you examined yourself? Weigh your situation carefully and relax into that reality. Input from shiatsu therapy is like getting a second opinion on that physical, kinesthetic reality that you must then, in a consistent and responsible way, open to in your chosen methods of stress reduction and self knowledge. Don’t back down. Don’t succumb to your habit energy. I have confidence in you.

How can I Start to Meditate?

Meditation is a word loaded with so many connotations that you almost have to define it every time you discuss it (which I won’t do here to any great extent, that’s what Google is for.) Meditation can be considered contemplation, thought, musing, prayerful consideration and so on, but how does that help you to manage stress?

My first “serious” experience with meditation was at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. There I learned in Maezumi Roshi’s basic courses of how to sit still and be quiet. After about ten years I was exposed to some of the Gelugpa methods of contemplation and placement. Later I trained a bit of Insight Meditation and Dzogchen to round things off. Yet when I began qi gong I found that the idea of “meditation” that I had developed from the Buddhist schools was different still than of that held by my taji teacher. Whether you’re dropping off body and mind, becoming intimate with virtuous objects or trying to dwell in the space between perception and thought, meditation has the reputation for being difficult.

Meditation looks easy on the outside. Rewata Dhamma like to tell the story of a boy who wandered by his Vihara and said, “That meditation stuff is an easy way to live, much, easier than going to work in the fields everyday like I do.” Bhante said, “Do you really think so? I’ll pay you exactly what you usually earn for a day in the fields each day if you come and sit with me and you can see if what you say is really true.” The little boy lasted only a half a day before returning to the fields. People with some experience in Insight Meditation retreat might say, “if he had stayed just a bit longer it would have become easier.” That’s probably true, but the boy never found out because he lacked determination. You’ll need some determination as well if you want to overcome illness and manage stress. But it doesn’t have to be as strick and difficult as 10 days on a Goenka retreat.

With perhaps the exception of some forms of qi gong and MBSR, physical relaxation and the management of stress are, in the religious and philosophical systems of Taoist, Hindu- and Buddhism, generally afterthoughts or fringe benefits. If you’re coming to a meditation practice to manage stress you may get easily side tracked by protocol, ritual and unfortunately politics if you take the traditional route of learning meditation at a zen center as I did (there are of course other benefits). By staying focused on the body however, you might be able to skip the elaborate packaging and wander off with the jewel of freedom and ease. Paying enough attention to the body’s needs is a way to ease this process.

Shiatsu is a kind of assisted meditation. It utilizes the easiest of the four meditation postures (sitting, standing, walking and lying), while a helper (me) assists you in dispersing held energy, trigger points, limited joint range of movement and other body based concerns. You then free your mind to focus on the mental object of your choosing. In the other three common meditation postures you need to spend a great deal of time managing and opening up the body (on your own) so that you can use your mind in comfort. Shiatsu is a good what to assist you in this and many of my clients don’t know that they either already are meditating or could be during their sessions.

Once you have gotten some of these benefits from shiatsu (or yoga asanas, calisthenics or other forms of bodywork) you can use your understanding to separate out the external triggers for your stress from the continuum of your body and mind. You see the value of the awake sympathetic nervous system as well as understand how to turn on the calming parasympathetic. Once you understand the differences in your own body you are well on your way.

Meditation and Stress Management

Last time I talked about why you just might want to ‘manage’ your stress and unconvincing as that article may have been, my primary point was that shiatsu is only one piece of the puzzle. Regardless of what brings you to shiatsu, whether it is a family crisis that doesn’t allow you to sleep, a running injury or just the ‘need’ for deep relaxation, you will need a strategy that penetrates your life more completely than even the rare luxury of weekly visits to a body-worker could ever bring.

I would also indeed like a life that allows me both financially and logistically to have shiatsu at least once a week but until that time (and even after) what can I do to keep everything on point and humming smoothly? What are you going to do to augment the occasional deep tissue work, Rolfing or Tibetan point holding?

I mentioned that traditionally shiatsu or tuina is part of a continuum of natural approaches to fighting illness that begins with meditation, moves to nutrition, and continues with movement therapy, before arriving at bodywork. When bodywork is not adequate then herbs (oral medicines), acupuncture and surgery follow. Some argue that nutrition is more accessible than meditation and perhaps should be at the top of the list and there are merits to that argument but my response is that the mind is at the root, managing and controlling all approaches to nutrition as well as movement therapy (like dao yin or yoga) so its logical to start there.

Unfortunately when described as I have above, the whole process seems like a prioritized list, a kind of triage. “I shouldn’t look at my nutrition until I’ve exhausted the possibilities of meditation” for example but that’s not what I’m getting at. What I’m saying is that don’t forget the whole, even when a single theme or health issue is begging for your complete attention. It would seem to be simple common sense but it is not natural. What is more natural is for the mind is to give more emphasis to negative stimulus, for the impressions of negative experiences to have greater weight in our consciousness and for us to pay more attention to things that we perceive as a threat than to things that are positive or that bring “hapines.” A conscious and continued effort to balance these aspects of the mind (which incidentally have specific advantages for our survival) with meditation helps us to gain greater perspective and help us to manage our stress and oversee the complete spectrum of our health. ‘Am I getting enough sleep? Why not? How might that effect x, y, or z? Did I drink just a bit too much absinthe etc?’

So gaining meditative stability could be considered a first step in achieving optimum health, perhaps more for its downstream effects than directly, but in the worlds of qi gong, and internal martial arts, intimate familiarity with and control of the mind has direct, palpable effects on energy, health, power and ‘enlightenment.’ But that’s a fish that’s too big to fry in this blog. Happy New Year and stay on point. Peace.