I’m writing lately about proprioception and sitting the lotus; I write for myself, first and foremost, but I’m hoping this approach will also serve for Westerners who want to learn to sit the lotus. I don’t sit many sesshins, and I don’t care if my sitting is ten minutes or 50; maybe I average about 30. It’s about stretch, but it’s also about subtle activity that takes place because of the stretch in the ligaments and fascia. These tissues can generate nerve impulses to contract muscles to relieve stretch, and in the lotus there’s a constant reciprocal stretch and activity.
Here’s some of what I have so far:
I would like to think that zazen, like the practice of “standing” in Chinese martial arts, puts me in a position to realize activity out of the necessity of breath.
Sitting cross-legged is sitting with a stretch. The ability to relax and allow action generated by the stretch of ligaments or fascia is part of the necessity of breath in the posture, and informs the place of occurrence of consciousness and the ability to feel.
Most people don’t realize that the ligaments and fascia of the body can generate nerve impulses that will contract muscles. Stretch in one of the seated postures of zazen (like the lotus) or in one of the standing postures of Tai-Chi (like the “single-whip” pose) can result in a subtle muscular activity that facilitates the lengthening of ligaments and can gradually include the entire body.
Stretch and activity in these postures is an involuntary reflex, as the location of awareness and the ability to feel respond to the necessity of breath at the moment.
Moshe Feldenkrais described three exercises that he said would facilitate getting up from a chair without holding the breath. These exercises consisted of swaying the upper body forward and back, then side to side, and finally in a circle around the base of the tailbone. Similar exercises are often recommended for settling into the posture of zazen, although instead of swaying in a circle, the zazen practitioner leans out diagonally over the knees.
These stretches highlight the ongoing activity of an upright posture, namely the action of the obturators that hammock the hips from the pelvis (side to side), the action of the sartorius muscles that shift the wings of the pelvis (toward the diagonals), and the action of the extensor and psoas muscles that balance the weight of the upper body on the sitbones of the pelvis (forward and back). The idea is to stretch ligaments and facilitate activity in all three directions, to allow the movement of breath to remain continuous even as the posture or carriage shifts.
In zazen, the sense of equilibrium associated with the current location of awareness in space brings forward the particulars of stretch necessary to the relaxed movement of breath. In particular, feeling for stretch side-to-side and action in the obturators comes by necessity with a sense of roll in the current location of awareness; feeling for stretch on the diagonals and action in the sartorius muscles comes by necessity with a sense of yaw in the current location of awareness; and feeling for stretch forward-and-back and action in the extensor and psoas muscles comes by necessity with a sense of pitch in the current location of awareness.
The sense of pitch, yaw, and roll that an aircraft pilot might utilize is very much at play in zazen; through the sense of equilibrium associated with the location of awareness in space, stretch and activity are initiated that align specific vertebrae and permit the ability to feel necessary to the current movement of breath.
In juggling, the juggler realizes the momentum and weight of each object as a contribution to the juggler’s own sense of physical location, in order to relax the activity of throwing and catching; in practicing zazan, the sitter experiences the orientation and weight of any body part that crosses the mind as a contribution to the sense of physical location, and the pitch, yaw, and roll inherent in the experience of location informs the stretch and activity necessary to the relaxed movement of breath.
To be clear, the effort is to relax and calm down. Master Cheng Man-ching’s instructions for the practice of Tai-Chi emphasized a thorough relaxation of the entire body, followed by a relaxation of the chest:
(The practitioner) should relax. The relaxation should be overall, that is, throughout the entire body. And it should be thorough, that is, without the least strain anywhere. The aim is to throw every bone and muscle of the entire body wide open without hindrance or obstruction anywhere. When (one) has done this, (one) will be in a position to talk about ch’i. To start with, (one) should let (the) ch’i sink right down to the “tan t’ien”. To do this (one) should first relax the chest, for the ch’i can only sink freely when the chest is relaxed. Gradually the ch’i will be felt to accumulate.
(Cheng Man-ch’ing, T’ai-chi Ch’uan, North Atlantic Books, 1981, pg 7, copyright Juliana T. Cheng- parantheticals paraphrase original)
And a little more:
The Chan teacher Yuanwu appears to have described the induction of a hypnogogic state, when he wrote:
You must strive with all your might to bite through here and cut off conditioned habits of mind. Be like a person who has died the great death: after your breath is cut off, then you come back to life. Only then do you realize that it is as open as empty space. Only then do you reach the point where your feet are walking on the ground of reality.
(Zen Letters, translated by J.C. and Thomas Cleary, pg 84)
Yuanwu began by telling the reader to “bite through here”, drawing to mind the placement and movement of the jaw relative to the current sense of location; attention to the placement and movement of the jaw engages the sense of proprioception, or “the awareness of movement derived from muscular, tendon, and articular sources” (credited by Wikipedia to Sherrington’s “The Integrative Action of the Nervous System”, 19 6), and Yuanwu instructs his reader to engage the proprioceptive sense with the sense of location (“bite through here”), just as the Gautamid did in his description of the first meditative state (the ability to feel that leaves out no part of the body and that informs the sense of the location in awareness).
Yuanwu made a connection between proprioception as a contributor to the singularity of location and the ability to “cut off conditioned habits of mind”, where to “cut off conditioned habits of mind” meant to cease any voluntary activity of thought or direction of the body, just as though one were letting go of life itself. Yuanwu stated that as a matter of course, such a cessation of habitual activity results in a feeling that the activity of breath in the body has been cut off, and causes a person to come to their senses as though they have been returned to life from the dead. Returned to one’s senses, the location of awareness is freed to shift in three-dimensional space without restriction, as in empty space; activity is engendered by virtue of the occurrence of a single-pointed awareness that is inclusive of the senses, proprioception and equalibrioception among them, rather than through conditioned habits of mind.
Although Yuanwu was not explicit that walking on the ground of reality requires an aware state of relaxation like that in which any subject of hypnosis rests, he was quite explicit that walking on the ground of reality is associated with an experience of necessity connected with the movement of breath, and he implied that such an experience is a gateway to an altered state of mind.