Monday, July 14, 2008

Day 116, "Spirituality" and The Peak Condition Project

Recently, our podcast, Zen is Stupid has received some criticism for not talking enough about Zen. We've been talking about pretty secular stuff lately, like movies and video games, but there's always an element of "how can we do this more mindfully" in every episode, so I'm not really worried about the comments. Sometimes not talking about Zen can be the most Zen thing you can do. However, it does highlight something I've found on the PCP as well.

I'm just thinking out loud now, but it seems that the modern world has drawn this sharp line between the base "physical" and the elevated "spiritual." I think it must be an offshoot of the idea that the body is unclean and undesirable and the mind/soul is pure.

Every passing year we find out more and more that the mind and body are so intertwined that it's quite misleading to even call them two things. So there's all this study into the mind-body connection and so on.

However, in India and Asia there isn't such a historical divide between the physical and spiritual. The whole practice of yogic asana is a way of using the body to reach a spiritual destination. And in Buddhism (well, Zen Buddhism) the body is always your home base, where you return if you get stuck in too much circular mental thinking. This can be seen in meditation, where we return to the breath, or to the pain in our legs, or to the straightness of our backs, when the mind is wandering. Or in koans where the student asks an esoteric question and is answered with a smack to the skull. The message is clear. Get your head out of the clouds and truly inhabit the moment, which is where your body is.

Your mind can take amazing voyages to the past or the future, but your body will never leave the present moment. And that's where real life is.

But, I've received a little blowback and a vast amount of silence from the Buddhist community during The Peak Condition Podcast. This doesn't surprise me but it makes me somewhat sad. Buddhists in general are a very cerebral bunch, and all too many do the majority of practice in their heads. In all the retreats and Buddhist events I've been on I've never seen someone in really good shape. Most people are a little thick around the middle, which isn't a shocker as Zen's main event is sitting on your ass.

I get the impression people feel that spending time working out, getting your portions right, and exercising are all a bit shallow. Certainly when compared to the deep wisdom of meditation. Again, one practice is considered base, and the other, pure. And many Buddhists would hint that spending time building muscle and getting strong is just a form of attachment and craving. Attaching to your good physique, craving the validation of others, etc...

Well I'm here to say all of that is misguided. In Zen we are working towards mental clarity. Trying to see the world as it really is, without delusion. And I have found that being in good (peak) physical shape has brought me a lot of clarity. Whereas before I would go around and around with a problem in my head, I'm finding making choices has become easier. I've become less mopey and more motivated, and I'm finding that I want to talk less and act more (except on the blog of course, where I can't seem to shut up!)

And I've written about in this blog before, but zazen has become much easier physically and more placid mentally since I got my core and back muscles toned up.

And finally, doing a difficult set, with your muscles screaming and on fire is a guaranteed ticket into the present moment. You sure as hell aren't thinking about how you'll pay for retirement in those times. The PCP has been the most life-affirming practice I've done in my life, and that includes countless complicated meditations on the body and long periods of meditation.

So, I'm thinking about a new kind of Zen retreat. Where you do your zazen, and instead of the classic "go sweep the leaves mindfully" BS worktime, all the students workout and learn how their bodies really function. If anyone out there has the ability to organize this, I have the whole thing laid out and just need to hear the word "go."

And I don't want to hear any more masters with a huge stomach tell me I need to control my mental states. They need to control their physical states! I leave you with a Bruce Lee quote.

"Too often one of those big-belly masters will tell you that his internal power has sunk to his stomach; he's not kidding, it is sunk and gone!"

By the way if you're interested in applying for the second round of the PCP leave a comment or email me at ThePeakConditionProject (at) We'll be starting three more people up soon.


Nate said...

Very interesting post Patrick. I would like to add yet another way the PCP brings you to the moment. I have found that just paying attention to my diet often brings me from blindly stuffing food into my mouth to stopping, thinking about what I'm eating, thinking about how i feel after I eat, etc. How can oyu be more mindful? I don't practice Zen but from what I understand of it it seems a perfect for the PCP to harmonize with it teachings.

And i just wanted to drop you a note about doing the PCP. I hope you got my e-mail a couple weeks ago I would love to participate. In fact I have already changed a lot just do to reading everyone's blogs here, I can't imagine how much more awesome it would be to actually do the project.


Sean said...

Oh, this was a wonderful read and has inspired me to find a zafu of my own and get cracking on my own zazen practice.

And the second round is starting soon?! Oh that'll be wonderful to experience and read about how other people handle something like this. And if I'm not overstepping my boundaries, I second Nate's inclusion into the second round because he's been a really knowledgeable base of support and he rocks. Looking forward to hearing all about the new developments.

Have a nice day.

Anonymous said...

Agreed, I have never in my life felt more "in the moment" than when playing physically taxing sports... putting my all into winning the game. Not for the sake of winning, necessarily, just playing as hard as I could.

And this is coming from me, a maaajor NON-sports gal.

Anonymous said...

Voice of dissent: I don't think there was a single moment of "how can I endorse Nintendo mindfully" in that podcast! I have to call B.S. on any statement implying there was.

Also, I think the PCP is great, but your blog is starting to read like that of a body-nazi. All things in moderation! (including moderation!)

I leave you with some Dogen: "Cast off body AND mind!"

Mike@PVL said...

I though this sort of contemplation combined with physical rigor was already common? Guess I'm watching too many Kung-fu movies.

Makes me think of this though:

I do agree with the first anon. that sometimes we have to really rack the physical side to be in the moment.

Patrick said...

"Voice of dissent: I don't think there was a single moment of "how can I endorse Nintendo mindfully" in that podcast! I have to call B.S. on any statement implying there was."

Dude, what about when I ask "is gaming wasteful?" or when we spend 10 minutes talking about what it means for Gwen to endorse a product and where her boundaries are?

"Also, I think the PCP is great, but your blog is starting to read like that of a body-nazi. All things in moderation! (including moderation!)"

It's funny I used to think the same thing about people who were in great shape. But now I get it. When you're in good condition, the energy levels, the confidence, and the joy from life are just so high that you can't help but tell people about it, and want it for everyone. And the PCP is "Everything in moderation, including moderation" in action. The PCP is not moderate, it's a short burst of concentrated exertion to get the body up to a high standard of fitness. It's not forever, and when as it ends I'll be sharing how to make it a sustainable and lifelong practice.

"I leave you with some Dogen: "Cast off body AND mind!"

Sorry man, but you're working off a simplified translation. The original Japanese for that quote you left is

Jinnen ni shinjin datsuraku shi

Which is much deeper than a blithe command to transcend the earthly. The nuance is that the thing to be cast off ("dropped off" is better) is the division of the world into ideas and things, the mental and the physical.

Here's a link to a guy who translates it as "dropping out of the mind/soul game." It's a good read!

Dara said...

You can go the opposite direction with intense physical activity, tho, which is bad. As a distance runner, I found myself "unplugging" everything below the neck so that my body could do it's thing for 20 miles while I tried to distract my mind from noticing the discomfort.

That's changed completely with my yoga practice. I have to tune into every cell, and I have a much better sense of where and how every muscle is moving. Before my body felt like a pencil drawing where someone had smudged everything between the knees, neck and elbows. I knew stuff was there in the middle, but I only paid attention to the extremeties.

Oh, and I thought the video game podcast was fine. And I heard you talk about playing and/or evangelising video games in a mindful manner.

Patrick said...

Sorry that should have read "dropping out of the body/soul game.

ted said...

Hi Patrick,

Great post. I'm a yogi who has spent years in the zen tradition. What you've written here hints at the direction that my practice is current evolving.

Certain types of yoga that are getting into that area. I just did a year of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy, which comes under the Kripalu umbrella. In a private session, you are led through yoga poses and encouraged to be entirely present to what's going on in the body. And as a practitioner, you need to be fully present to your client in order to facilitate this. Very powerful stuff.

Also, next February, a guy called Peter Ralston will be leading a body movement and martial arts thing in Tokyo. I expect he also will emphasize this 'being-in-movement." I'm looking forward to it...



Anonymous said...

Patrick + Bruce Lee yr pw0ning Zen all over the place.

Anyway, I have nothing worthwhile to add here. Keep on keeping on. I appreciate the work you're doing in the world.

Patrick said...

You're right Gwendolyn, I've been on a bit of a pw0ning binge recently, I need to cool it.

Andy said...

Terrific post, man, and very well stated. Also, have you read Strength for Life by Shawn Phillips? He's the brother of Bill Phillips, who was responsible for Body-for-Life which you may remember from the late 90s. Anyway, his book is the closest I've seen yet to a truly integral look at body/mind development. he's a Ken Wilber fan in addition to an elite bodybuilder, and he does a nice job of describing how exercise can be very meditative, among other things.

Anyway, again, great insights, and keep on pwning!