The mudra of Zen, or the position of the hands in the posture of Zen meditation, is unique: the hands are placed in the lap with the palms upward, the fingers of one hand resting on the fingers of the other, and the tips of the thumbs just touching. The significance of the mudra of Zen in the practice of Zen meditation, like the significance of the lotus posture, could be said to be a fundamental mystery of the school.
The key to the posture of Zen, and to the position of the hands in particular, is the method of concentration in the practice of seated meditation. Gautama the Buddha described the method with the words, “turning thought to the relinquishment of self, one cleaves to concentration, one cleaves to singularity of mind”. Zen master Yuanwu described the same method in altogether different words: “be as one who has ‘died the noble death’; when the breath ceases, you return to life.”
In the early part of the twentieth century, an osteopath named Sutherland tied bandages around his head to prevent the bones of his skull from moving, and discovered that he had caused his breath to cease. He concluded that the movement of the bones of the skull, and the movement of the fluid in the sack that surrounds the brain under the bones, was somehow necessary to the movement of breath. Toward the close of the twentieth century, the osteopath Raymond Richard was able to state that in clinical observations, the outward rotation of the temporal bones of the skull (the bones at the ears) encouraged inhalation, while the inward rotation of the same bones encouraged exhalation. Sutherland’s bandages apparently prevented his temporal bones from rotating outward, and cut off his breath.
Sutherland immobilized the bones of his skull, and with them the fluid sack attached to the underside of the bones; John Upledger tried to immobilize the same fluid sack with a pair of sutures, but unlike Sutherland, Upledger wasn’t successful. All Upledger had to do was hold the sack still for a few minutes, but no matter what he did, the sack continued to move forward and backward with a force that he found impossible to restrain. Upledger could watch a set of monitors as he followed the movement of the sack, and he could see that the sack moved with a steady rhythm that didn’t seem to be related to the beat of the heart, or the movement of breath; he later discovered that the flexion and extension of the sack was a function of changes in the volume of fluid contained in the sack, and that the changes in fluid volume were controlled by nerves along a joint at the top of the skull.
Yuanwu made the remarkable statement: “you should know that at the headtops of all buddhas and enlightened ones is a marvelous means for ‘altering the bones’ and changing one’s very being.” Yuanwu recognized that something at the crown of the skull could change the flexibility of the body, and he realized how unlikely such a thing would seem to those not already familiar with the experience.
The fluid that surrounds the brain and the spinal cord extends in the same sack through the spinal column to the sacrum, and because pressure in a closed fluid system changes throughout the system simultaneously, the changes in fluid volume that cause a rotation of the temporal bones simultaneously cause a flexion and extension of the spine and sacrum. Upledger discovered that he could sense the flexion and extension of bones along the centerline of the body, or sense the inward and outward rotation of bones along the periphery of the body, anywhere he laid his hands. He learned to use his hands to discover the places where the bones did not move with the changes in fluid volume, and to follow and encourage the flexion and extension of the bones in the places that did move to free places that did not.
Free movement of the bones that surround the spinal fluid sack is of particular concern at the places where the sack attaches to the bones; the sack attaches inside the skull, inside the forward portion of the upper part of the neck, inside the forward portion of the sacrum, and at the tailbone. The changes in spinal fluid volume inside the skull flex and extend the rear of the skull, the base of the skull, and a butterfly-shaped bone inside the front of the skull (the sphenoid); in the upper neck, the changes cause the spinal fluid sack to widen and narrow like a camera-lens shutter around the nerves of the spinal cord; and at the sacrum, the changes in volume pivot the sacrum on the wings of the pelvis, forward and back. The tailbone moves with the sacrum, although the angle of the tailbone and consequently the stretch exerted by the tailbone on the spinal fluid sack is affected by the ligaments and muscles of the pelvis.
The changes in spinal fluid volume cause flexion and extension of the spine as a whole, yet the changes also generate movement from side to side in the chest and around the spine in the neck, as the movement of the spine is translated into the different structural modalities of each section of the spine. Because of the way the vertebrae in the different sections of the spine interlock with one another, the lower spine moves primarily forward and backward; the chest vertebrae move primarily side to side; and the neck vertebrae combine both of the motions of the lower vertebrae with a turning motion around the centerline of the spine. The changes in spinal fluid volume cause some movement in all three sections of the spine, and the three kinds of movement are carried by the force of gravity down the spine to the sacrum and the pelvis.
Moshe Feldenkrais observed that people often hold their breath slightly when they get up out of a chair, and he saw the restriction of the movement of breath as a failure to realize proper support of the lower spine in standing. Feldenkrais taught three simple movements to help realize support for the lower spine while seated on a chair: first, he said, lean the upper body forward and backward; second, tip the upper body from side to side; and third, with the torso, neck and head held in a straight line, circle the top of the head around the base of the tailbone. The movements Feldenkrais described carry the three motions of the spine into the sacrum and the pelvis, and awaken the response of the muscles of the pelvis and legs to each of the motions. Feldenkrais advised his students to practice the three exercises he outlined until the movement of breath was completely natural in the action of standing.
Feldenkrais realized that the stoppage of breath was connected to shearing stress on the bottom-most vertebrae of the spine. The weight of the upper body exerts a force on the fourth and fifth vertebrae that presses them forward out of their natural curve toward the sacrum. A graceful movement in standing requires that awareness in the vicinity of the lower spine translate automatically into a generation of support for the integrity of the spine, and Feldenkrais realized that the generation of support was somehow facilitated when the responses of the lower body to the motions of the spine were first brought into consciousness.
To “die the noble death” in a manner that cuts off the breath is to cease to act out of concern for the self, until the cessation of activity touches on the involuntary support for the motion of the spine and the breath is cut off. To come back to life in such a circumstance is to discover that support for the movement of breath is already set in motion whenever consciousness takes place, by virtue of what is in awareness.
Upledger was able to sense the flexion and extension of the spine anywhere he laid his hands, and not only flexion and extension but all three movements of the spine can be felt whenever consciousness takes place. The sense of location in awareness as consciousness takes place is informed by the three motions of the spine, and at the same time the sense of location leads the balance of the body, and through the balance initiates a stretch in the ligaments of opposed muscles that support the spine. The stretch of the ligaments of opposed muscles triggers a phenomena called “reciprocal innervation”, where the opposed muscles contract in alternation without conscious intervention. Because there are ligaments of opposed muscles that criss-cross the entire structure of the body, reciprocal innervation can ensue whenever consciousness takes place, as the balance of the body responds to the sense of location in awareness.
Upledger experienced the phenomena of reciprocal innervation personally, as he lay on the surface of a dense solution of salt water in an isolation chamber. When he felt his relaxation was complete, he noticed a slight motion from side to side in his pelvis and legs. From his medical training, he knew that the motion he felt was caused by reciprocal innervation: when the pelvis and legs moved to the left, ligaments on the right side of the torso were stretched, and nerve impulses generated by the ligaments caused muscles on the right to contract; the contraction on the right reversed the direction of movement and relieved the ligaments on the right, yet when the lower body crossed to the right the ligaments on the left began to stretch, until nerve impulses from the ligaments on the left caused the muscles on the left to contract. Upledger watched his lower body shift slowly from side to side as he relaxed completely.
Upledger utilized his understanding and the sensitivity of his hands to locate particular places in his patients’ bodies that did not move freely with the changes in spinal fluid volume; he then followed and encouraged the flexion and extension of the body at the places that did move in order to release the places that did not. In the same way, attendance on the reciprocal innervation that occurs in response to the present sense of location in awareness can serve to open a movement somewhere else in the body, and gradually to open movement throughout the body. Awareness and reciprocal innervation can act to open the spaces between the bones and vertebrae for the nerves that exit from the sack around the brain and spinal cord; the nerves that exit from the sack through the skull, the spine, and the sacrum permit feeling throughout the body (a), and the extension of feeling to the criss-cross of ligaments just below the skin brings the sense of location in awareness to focus as consiousness takes place.
To put oneself in a position that encourages reciprocal innervation in the major postural muscle groups, and to awaken feeling right to the skin and hair, is the basis for the practice. “Take the seat and don the rags”, said Yuanwu; “then see what you see”.
In Zen, the position used to encourage reciprocal innervation in the major postural muscle groups is the lotus pose. As conscious action in the lotus is abandoned in favor of awareness and relaxed innervation, the turning motion generated by the changes in spinal fluid volume in the head and neck is carried down through the chest, and the motion of the rib cage engages one of two pairs of ligaments at the base of the spine. As the breath is drawn in and the ribs move forward and upward, the action of the ribs stretches the fascia of the muscles that circle the abdomen, upward from attachments near the fourth vertebrae of the lower spine; the fourth vertebrae finds support in the stretch of ligaments that run vertically from the vertebrae down to the wings of the pelvis, on either side. As the breath is exhaled and the ribs move rearward and downward, the motion of the ribs is encouraged by the pull of the stretched fascia of the same muscles, downward to attachments near the fifth vertebrae; the fifth vertebrae finds support in the stretch of ligaments that run horizontally from the vertebrae to the rim of the pelvis, on either side (b).
The stretch of the paired ligaments between the lower spine and the pelvis is the basis for a Sufi practice. In one of the “zikir” practices (the word translates literally as “remembrance”), the participants bow to the left, then straighten up while bending both knees; the practice continues with a bow to the right, and again the knees are bent as the body is straightened. The bowing and bending are continued with the recitation of prayer for a period of time, usually to the accompaniment of music. Such an exercise stretches the ligaments between the fourth vertebrae and the wings of the pelvis with each turn and bow, and stretches the ligaments between the fifth vertebrae and the wings of the pelvis each time the knees bend and the body straightens up.
The support on the left and right for the lower spine in inhalation and in exhalation changes the pivot of the sacrum on the wings of the pelvis slightly, and as the pivot changes, the motion of the sacrum stretches the ligaments that join the sacrum to the pelvis. The ligaments between the sacrum and the “sit-bones” of the pelvis stretch with the pivot of the sacrum, and the hamstring muscles along the rear surface of the thigh bones begin to alternate with the quadratus muscles along the front surface to generate a relaxed length in both sets of muscles, so that the weight of the body rests on the ground at the sit-bones (c). The activity in the hamstring and quadratus muscles stretches the long ligament between the lower leg bone and the upper rim of the wing of the pelvis on either side of the body, and the left and right iliacus muscles are brought into play to balance the outward pull on each leg (d). The motion set up in the legs and in the pelvis as the sit-bone ligaments are stretched tilts the pelvis at the hips from side to side, and that motion is carried upward from the pelvis into the spine through the paired ligaments at the fifth and fourth vertebrae.
The lever-arm of each leg from the sole of the foot is brought into play as the weight of the body rests on the sit-bones of the pelvis, and in the lotus posture the leverage at the soles of the feet returns to the pelvis in part through the ligaments associated with the “tailor’s muscle”: the sartorius muscle, the longest in the body, connects the lower leg bone with the top front of each pelvic wing (e). With the slight alternate turns of the pelvis to center from the innervation of the sartorius muscles on either side, the ligaments that control the rotation of the pelvis left and right on the hips are stretched, and the ligaments and muscles that “hammock” the pelvis from the hips are engaged. In the lotus, the obturator and gemelli muscles that normally “hammock” or lift the pelvis on the hips tend instead to extend the upper thigh bones and turn the pelvis on the hips. The extension of the upper thigh bones stretches the ligaments of the piraformis muscles that rotate the sacrum and the lower spine into the paired ligaments of the fifth or fourth vertebrae (f).
The pratice most often associated with Sufism is that of the “whirling dervishes”, begun in the thirteenth century by the Muslim sage Rumi. The whirling of the dancers demonstrates the relationship between the occurrence of consciousness and the reciprocal innervation of the rotators of the pelvis and sacrum, and how that innervation allows support to be realized for the structure of the spine from the soles of the feet to the crown of the head.
Upledger established in experiments with monkeys that the forward-rearward alignment of the tailbone with the sacrum has a profound effect on the motion of the bones on either side of the skull above the temporal bones, the bones that adjoin the nerves that control the volume of spinal fluid. As the hips are extended by the “hammock” muscles of the pelvis, the forward-and-upward and rearward-and-downward pivot of the pelvis around the hips is facilitated, and activity in the vertical muscles of the abdomen attached to the pubic bones reciprocates with activity in the muscles that cross from the pubic bones to the tailbone to align the tailbone as the sacrum pivots (g). The motion of the pelvis forward and upward adds to the stretch of the paired ligaments from the wings of the pelvis to the fourth vertebrae in inhalation, and the motion downward and rearward adds to the stretch of the paired ligaments to the fifth vertebrae in exhalation.
The three motions transmitted from the pelvis to the lower spine stretch the fine vertical, horizontal, and diagonal ligaments between the vertebrae of the spine, and the stretch of the ligaments generates action in the fine muscles of the lower spine. At the same time, the motion of the pelvis is transmitted vertically, horizontally, and diagonally from the pubic bones and the wings of the pelvis to the surface of the abdomen, and the stretch of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal ligaments that intersect along the front surface of the abdomen generates activity in the muscles that join there. The ligaments of the external and internal oblique muscles and of the transverse muscles of the abdomen are equally weighted in their connection to the rectus sheath at a point one or two inches below the navel; opposite the same point, the ligaments and fine muscles of the spine directly affect the alignment of the spine relative to the paired ligaments.
Given the rotation of the pelvis and the stretch of the paired ligaments in inhalation and exhalation, the placement of the little fingers against the lower abdomen in the posture of Zen provides a direct sense of the geometry of support for the lower spine initiated through reciprocal innervation. In particular, the placement of the fingers on the centerline of the abdomen provides a sense of the ligaments of the vertical muscles from the pubic bones upward; if the little fingers leave the abdomen, awareness of the forward and backward motion wherever consciousness takes place and relaxation of the activity of the body in awareness can restore the little fingers to the abdomen. Similarly, the placement of the little fingers provides a sense of the ligaments of horizontal muscles from the lower back around the sides of the abdomen; if the elbows lose their angle from the body, awareness of the side-to-side motion wherever consciousness takes place and relaxation of the activity of the body in awareness can restore the angle. Likewise, the placement of the little fingers against the abdomen provides a sense of the ligaments of diagonal muscles up from the wings of the pelvis; if the shoulders lose their roundedness, awareness of the turn left and right wherever consciousness takes place and relaxation of the activity of the body in awareness can help restore the round to the shoulders.
The feeling of the body as consciousness of the body takes place or the feeling of mind as consciousness of the mind takes place can condition the subsequent occurrence of consciousness. Attachment to a pleasant feeling, aversion to a painful feeling, or ignorance of the existence of a neutral feeling can predispose consciousness to occur with a particular sense of location. Without the lead in the balance of the body brought about by the spontaneous occurrence of consciousness, the reciprocal innervation that supports the spine in the movement of breath can be cut off. When the relationship between feeling, consciousness, and the movement of breath is observed, a sense of detachment in the experience of consciousness and feeling is realized, and the subsequent freedom of awareness restores the reciprocal innervation necessary to support the spine in the movement of breath.
Guatama the Buddha said that after he lectured his monks, he returned to “that first hallmark of concentration, always for such as I the constant repose”, a statement that implied that whenever he spoke he did not have singularity of mind; Yuanwu wrote of a master who said, “for three decades, I did not enter into mundane thoughts, save only at mealtimes”, words that imply that at mealtimes the master did not experience the concentration he knew the rest of the day. Nevertheless, the Buddha admonished his disciples to speak and offer his teaching when appropriate, rather than to remain silent; likewise, one of the early Zen masters in China revised the traditional meal schedule of the monks, so that even today there are three meals a day in monasteries in China and Japan rather than just one. The masters let go of all that they knew and all that they could do, as they ceased to act out of concern for the self.
To cease to act out of concern for the self can cut off the breath. The practice that Gautama the Buddha described as his own, both before and after enlightenment, placed the movement of inhalation and exhalation foremost in the realization of concentration:
- mindful breathe in, mindful breathe out;
- mindful of the long inhalation as long, breathe in, or mindful of the short inhalation as short, breathe in; mindful of the long exhalation as long, breathe out, or mindful of the short exhalation as short, breathe out;
- mindful of the whole body, breathe in; mindful of the whole body, breathe out;
- relaxing the activity of the body, breathe in; relaxing the activity of the body, breathe out;
- mindful of a feeling of ease in the body, breathe in; mindful of a feeling of ease in the body, breathe out;
- mindful of a feeling of absorption in the body, breathe in; mindful of a feeling of absorption in the body, breathe out;
- mindful of the activity of thought, breathe in; mindful of the activity of thought, breathe out;
- calming the activity of thought, breathe in; calming the activity of thought, breathe out;
- mindful of a particular thought, breathe in; mindful of a particular thought, breathe out;
- mindful of a feeling of joy in thought, breathe in; mindful of a feeling of joy in thought, breathe out;
- collecting the mind, breathe in; collecting the mind, breathe out;
- freeing the mind, breathe in; freeing the mind, breathe out;
- in the witness of the occurrence of consciousness and feeling, breathe in; in the witness of the occurrence of consciousness and feeling, breathe out;
- in the witness of detachment in consciousness and feeling, breathe in; in the witness of detachment in consciousness and feeling, breathe out;
- in the witness of the cessation of activity in consciousness and feeling, breathe in; in the witness of the cessation of activity in consciousness and feeling, breathe out;
- in the witness of the relinquishment of activity in consciousness and feeling, breathe in; in the witness of the relinquishment of activity in consciousness and feeling, breathe out.
©2005 Mark A. Foote (except “At The Zendo” drawing ©2005 Clay Atchison, used by permission)