Discover more from ULTRAPHYSICAL
Filling the Mind with Sky
It’s four a.m. and dark outside. The desert night is still. The moon is shining through the small window in my hut. I’ve been up for about an hour doing chak tsal, (ཕྱག་འཚལ་). Chak tsal is the Tibetan practice of forward folding, sliding out into a prone position, then reversing out of it back to standing. It’s similar to a Hindu push up or a sun salutation in yoga. I did more than three thousand of them yesterday and I’m guessing I’ll do about the same amount today. My body just remains sore without relief. Inhaling, feel the weight shift in your feet, allow the rebound to come through you to lift your spine and push the head up, arms float up, exhale sinking down touching hands as they take the weight and slide out on the floor. Lying flat I flip my wrists up, forehead touches the ground, inhale, pull hands back to shoulders, use feet to pull body back into a squat, roll up to stand, reaching hands up, arms down. One hundred sixty-eight.
It's been three weeks of this daily routine, before sunup and past sundown, all day for the last four weeks. My Tibetan teacher had recommended this six months ago, and it’s taken six months to gather things and organize this retreat.
The first day I arrived I stared out of the door of my hut, and I was hit with the blindingly bright hot Arizona afternoon. I was gripped with a profound sense of loss. All those months preparing, traveling, and then suddenly everything stopped. This is what I had come for, this isolation, the stillness. At first, it’s jarring. It happens every time I enter a retreat, yet the sudden shock of the stillness is never lost on me. I haven’t seen or talked to anyone since I’ve been here. I’m supposed to be here for just about four months, which will give me plenty of time to finish the practice I’ve been given. Lift arms up, forward bend to the floor, slide hands out until I’m flat, reverse it back up to standing. About an hour in, I lose track of time, sun begins to rise, no thoughts, back down, slide reverse and up. Movement is effortless, I feel like I’m swimming through the air. Later in the day I will feel like a boxer just trying to make it through the rest of the fight, but for now my body is enjoying it.
Being isolated in the desert without anyone to talk to, it feels as though my mind had slowed down weeks ago; almost as still as the desert itself. Even on my breaks between my practice sessions my body and mind are calm. Removed from daily engagements, there is nothing for me to mull over, nothing to worry about, nothing to anticipate. My senses are very clear. All sounds, smells, and colors are vibrant, unobstructed by the normal internal incessant chatter. Still, I am not able to let go to the point where I feel my mind and my body singularly integrated, where they no longer exist in duality. In spite of my relaxed attitude, I can feel my mind and body as distinct entities, separated. Intellectually, I have worked out the meaning of the “non-dual” to some extent. I can grasp that my body is not a solid thing, nor is my mind, but actually exist in such a state is something I have yet to accomplish.
There’s no obvious reward for doing this. No one will celebrate me, or even really notice when I leave. So why would I keep doing this? What is my motivation for putting myself through this? The secret is in the practice; it’s impossible to be taught by reading about it. It’s only through practice that embodied knowledge is discovered. There are many moments that I experience this—just being, feeling my body, my feet on the floor, and falling into the rhythm, losing myself in the movement. In my normal day-to-day existence, my mind is heavy, confused, full of thoughts, but in this retreat my mind is calm. When combined with the practice, I am able to find moments of freedom.
Chak tsal is a very important practice in the Buddhist tradition for other reasons as well. It can lead one to develop a sense of humility, patience, and even perseverance. Chak, means something like “sweeping away.” The practice shows us how to remove distractions, just as you sweep away dust and dirt. Tsal means that we create the conditions to free our mind from the dualistic and distracted thoughts. Our reaction to the practice can be very strong. We will want to quit along the way, at these times we must reevaluate our motivation. Of course, the practice is difficult, both physically and mentally demanding. Therefore, I must be diligent, but also learn to embrace the difficulty. I chose to do this practice because I want to cultivate the mind-body relationship. Even though the practice is difficult I remember my intention and I can shift my attitude. Hands reach up and come down, body, speech, mind are one thing, relax tension to go down slowly, hands touch and slide out, inhale push back, stand up, reach up.
There are many layers to this practice. The physicality is one, but the more profound part is the mental aspect. When I can allow the conceptual mind to just be and not grasp at it, I’m free to embody the action. There is very little complexity to the physical aspect of the practice. The difficulty is in the extraordinarily high number of repetitions; my entire body is moving continuously all day long. The mental part of the practice is a bit more involved. There is a very complex visualization I create in my mind as I move through the practice. It’s not a fixed visualization but one that moves and interacts. The essence of the visualization is a conceptual representation of the nonconceptual experience. How to perceive or conceive the nonconceptual? The conceptual aspect of our mind needs something to occupy it, or it will excitedly run amok. Therefore, it can be useful to use a conceptual symbol that points towards something nonconceptual. For instance, the thought of the sky is a concept, it’s not the actual sky. Whereas directly experiencing the sky is a non-conceptual event. One doesn’t differentiate the sky or the one perceiving the sky, there is simply the experience. Therefore, holding the sky in one’s mind can point one in the direction of the nonconceptual experiential state.
If our mind was simply a construct of conceptual images, then the visualization would be enough to focus on, but the mind is more layered and complex than that. There also exists the internal dialogue that comments on those mental images as well as the external information our other senses are constantly in contact with. Therefore, I must occupy that aspect of my mind as well. The traditional method used for this is mantra. The Sanskrit word mantra is made up of its root, man, meaning “mind,” with the suffix -tra meaning “tool” or “mind tool.” The Tibetans describe mantras as a form of “mind-protection,” a method to protect the mind from distraction. Recited vocally or mentally, in or out of meditation, mantras help our minds to settle and hold our attention.
The visualization helps keep my conceptual mind occupied and the mantra keeps my inner dialogue occupied, these two methods combined with the physical practice allows me to completely absorb and remain in the embodied state. It’s an ingenious method. The people that developed it had an extremely sophisticated understanding of the mind and how it functions. I feel grateful and humbled that I have found this practice.
Hours go by and I hardly notice. I don’t have a watch; I can generally tell where I am in the day by the sun. I have nowhere to go and no one needing anything from me. All I have is time. I really don’t have a goal. The practice requires the completion of 111,000 but I’m sure I’ll do more than that. In the evenings I do extra sessions sometimes. It’s a goal-less goal, in that I’m the only one who knows how many I will do. As I see it, the number is more about time, how much time I’ll spend fully immersed in the practice. That’s a high mark. Even a moment of complete embodiment is extraordinary. Up from the ribcage, forget the arms, lengthen from the spine, initiate the movement down from the front of the middle of the spine, the weight shifts faster than normal, grip hard with my toes don’t fall forward, hands hit hard control the slide into a plank before touching down, plank back up, stand with a bit of a hop reach up again. When the practice is going well my mind doesn’t control as much as it inhibits distracting thoughts that break my concentration.
The desert is dead silent. Up, down, I can hear my clothes swoosh and floorboards squeak as my weight shifts. Other than my clothes and feet on the floor I can hear my thoughts as if someone else is in the hut talking to me. I can’t control them, I’ve tried. I tried to ignore them, but they just keep coming like waves on a beach, it’s useless. I’ve figured out that I can choose to place my attention wherever I want and that’s more useful. I can feel my body and focus on that, on my breath, and bodily sensations. While it’s not a fully embodied state it’s still a form of peace, at least time out of thoughts.
Let the body be natural, don’t think about the movement at all, just allow the body to move, be aware of cognitions but don’t engage, slow down, unfocus, allow whatever thoughts to arise to arise, don’t cling, don’t embellish. My current level of understanding is that if I can remain in a relaxed state of listening then anxiety, caused by the endless distracted thoughts will not arise. However, as soon as my mindfulness breaks, my habitual thoughts come rushing back in. Up by way of the mind, body following the mind down, sliding, reversing up stand, stretch, rest. One thousand five hundred and forty-six.
Walk to Lunch
It’s about noon and I conclude my morning practice. Stepping out of my front door I’m immediately hit with the full heat of the desert sun; I slowly begin my walk to the kitchen. It’s about 96 steps along a dirt path through sage brush and some trees. I’m barefoot, my head is shaved, I can simultaneously feel the sun on my head and the rocky hot ground beneath my feet. Feeling my spine upward moving from my tailbone, back widening, jaw relaxing, from my hip sockets my legs go down, pelvis rotates off the impact of my foot on the ground propelling me forward, relaxing my gaze, I see everything. Moments like these I’m able to take leave of my conceptual mind and blend into the movement and the natural surroundings. There is no dirt path, there is no sun, and there is no me, there is just awareness. It’s sublime! I’m reminded why I’m here.
I started studying the Alexander Technique a few months prior to this retreat. It seems to me that Alexander invented another approach to the Chinese internal practices (nei gong). Frederick Matthias Alexander was a late 19th century Australian stage actor who lost his voice while trying to project his lines to the back of the old theaters before sound systems were invented. He went to a slew of doctors but wasn’t ready to accept their prescription of rest. Convinced the loss of his voice was brought on by something he was doing, he stood in front of a mirror for months and sang observing his every move. Finally, he realized what was causing him to lose his voice. He was pulling down in the front of his body, contracting his neck and shoulder muscles, and this habit was causing him to lose his voice. He realized that knowing about his habit allowed him to stop it. However, stopping his habit was not the same thing as changing it, that was the next piece of his movement puzzle that he had to figure out.
Alexander understood his habit was in his mind and that he had to catch himself before he engaged in the habit and then he was free to engage in new movements or behaviors that would achieve a different result. After months of arduous practice in a retreat setting very much like one, Alexander managed to regain his ability to project his voice, and never again lost it. He then went on to share this new knowledge with other performers, dubbing it the Alexander Technique. He came up with a few basic directions. “Let the neck be free, allow the head to go forward and up, spine lengthens, back and shoulders widen, allow the knees to go forward and away”, that’s it. I’ve been using his technique during my retreat, especially while walking to lunch every day. Back heel lifts, shifting weight forward, allow my neck to be free, spine lengthens, shoulders broaden, toes lift, knee swings forward and away from my hip, set the heel down, shift the weight, roll the foot.
Like his Chinese counter parts, Alexander’s method requires mindfulness and a deep attunement with the body that goes beyond thoughts about anatomy. I can feel my whole body as I move, although I’m walking in slow motion, the fluidity and control are unbelievable. Mentally repeating the directions acts as a mantra. In this way the mind doesn’t control as much as it inhibits distracting thoughts. I just repeat it over and over. The more I do it, the less I think about it and the more I start to “feel” them. This makes sense to me. It takes me about thirty minutes to reach the kitchen.
Returning to my hut I once again wrap my hands in cloth, so I can slide them on the wooden floorboards. I stand for a bit gathering my mind, regain my motivation and intention. Following lunch, I’m in no mood to resume the practice. It’s hot, I’m tired, I want to rest, even though I just rested. Then I remember why I’m here, in part to break these tiring habits that seem to define who I am and what I do. They continually sneak up on me. Arms up by way of the feet’s connection to the floor, I feel my arches engage, entire body bends forward as my toes grip the floor, hands take the weight, slide forward lay flat, move tailbone back and roll over toes, squat and raise up, lift the arms. It’s never as smooth or connected as I want it to be, too mechanical. When I first start the practice, it’s a bit bumpy and I conceptualize more than I’d like. My inner dialogue is louder than I’d prefer and it’s typically critical. I can’t quite get it through my head that it doesn’t matter what that voice says.
The most difficult part of the practice is when the disorganization of the mind and body set in. I lose the rhythm and just have to grind it out. I’m overwhelmed with a barrage of distracted, unwanted, thoughts that won’t stop. I start debating with my internal dialogue, I’m completely disembodied. This seems to happen after lunch quite frequently. I know my body can be a refuge, an opportunity to lose myself in the experience of the movements, but it doesn’t seem that way a lot of the time. My thoughts override the experience. My awareness is completely entangled in any thought that arises; I can’t sense my body in any real way. I’m feeling stuck, faking my way through the practice.
Every session has a different flavor, it’s not predictable. Whatever comes up, I just have to deal with it. Hands up, bend down, what’s that sensation on the inside of my knee, bend down touch the ground with hands, slide out, be careful on that knee, come up, stand up, lift arms, knee hurts, this can’t be good. What do I do if I get injured out here in this desolate canyon? I guess I’ll limp up and out of here. Mind is racing. The panic and anxiety are real. Arms up, bend down, slide hands, knees down, face down, roll back, stand, arms up, down, rest. That seemed a bit better. Focus more on the mantra, let the noise go, pain subsides, for a bit.
I eventually realize that my knee doesn’t hurt at all, it’s anxiety. My anxiety plays out as bodily sensations quite often. It’s easy to put mental anguish on the body. The body seems solid, real. We can see it, feel it, make some sense of it. If the body is injured, we can diagnose the problem. It’s seductive to experience mental pain as physical pain for this reason. Unlike the body the mind is not a material object, rather it’s experiential, continually changing, which makes it so difficult to work with. I want to develop the level of mindfulness needed to identify anxiety before suffering its adverse effects. Up whole-body awareness, soften mind, down, keep mind soft, allow thoughts to come and go, slide, reverse, stand, reach, rest. One thousand eight hundred and ninety-two.
I can think about the practice all day, but little will be gained, the embodied learning happens inside the practice. The more repetitions I do, the more is revealed. Insights arise all day long, every day. They are not huge things, but many little things arise in my mind, and I continually adjust, taking the advice. In this respect, my practice is continually changing, internally and externally. However, I’m sure there is very little noticeable change that anyone can see, and this is probably why most people will never do this practice, they just can’t see it.
Since the mind and the body are impermanent, they are changing moment to moment. This understanding allows me to not get caught up in any one moment. I know the inner dialogue will continue to arise, change, and dissolve and so there is no need to fight with it. When a habit arises, instead of fighting with it, I just recognize it and due to its impermanent nature, it arises, changes, and dissolves. To be able to recognize these continual fluctuations is one more step of discovery about the mind-body complex. The more I’m able to experience the impermanent changing nature of my mind and body there is less to do. I am gradually able to settle into the experience and stop trying to control this continually unfolding process.
Movement in this state becomes free and spontaneous. I don’t need to direct the body, the body knows what it’s doing, I can feel it all happening like a dream. I need to go beyond the mechanistic conception of my body. The mind and body have always existed in a non-dual state, an impermanently changing process, therefore there is nothing to “fix” or “build,” it’s simply a question of recognition. Up yang (expand), down yin (contract), sliding out yang, pulling back yin, stand up yang, rest in wuji (emptiness) undifferentiated, timeless.
Each session seems to go about three to four hours long. I do four, sometimes five sessions a day. In between sessions, I will take water breaks or go on a short walk. Today I’ll sit just outside my hut. I do my best to rest in the open expanse of my mind’s nature. It’s much easier to do in this isolated desert. The landscape is vast, I stare up and fill my mind with sky.
By the end of the day my body is sore. I cannot get through the last session with grit alone; I need to let go. In some ways, the last session of the day is my favorite; I like feeling worn out with nothing left to give and then grind through. The way the desert changes as the sun sets is surreal. It’s other worldly and easier to collapse my sense of “I,” losing all sense of time and space. In this state I don’t need grit, I just let go of the struggle.
According to both traditional Tibetan medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine a practice like chak tsal is an ideal way to improve qi and blood circulation. Chak tsal combines the benefits of qigong, taiji, and other gong fu’s. Repeated, mindful physical exercise with regulated breathing enhances our energy which helps dispel symptoms of internal physical imbalances caused by poor qi circulation. It opens the joints or energy gates and invigorates the internal organs through the movement of repetitive bending, kneeling, stretching, and rising. When the conceptual mind dissolves, it stabilizes our emotions, leading to a balanced body and mind free of stress. In this way it is a very effective medicinal practice.
Both Tibetan and Traditional Chinese Medicine are based on a set of intangible "internal" channels or what in the literature is referred to as the meridian-collateral circulation systems. I find viewing the body through this lens is more conducive to embodiment. Thinking of the body as a fluid whole, an energetic process cuts through the materialistic objectification of the body that so often sets me at odds with my body, and even my surroundings. From this view my body and mind are immaterial which frees me up to move unrestrained by habits. Suddenly the soreness is gone and I’m only moving. There’s no objective self that is commanding my body to move, instead it’s just purely experiential. I do hundreds of these without experiencing any soreness or the passing of time. I continue the practice through the sunset, and into the night. Three thousand two hundred and twenty.
I conclude the day sitting in meditation. I make my evening tea and sit some more, gazing out at the night sky. There are so many stars, the desert landscape is completely illuminated. Finishing my tea, I unfold my sleeping mat and lay down on my back gazing up at the night. I fill my mind with the vastness of the night sky as I fall asleep.
Bryson Newell is the host of the Somatic Primer Podcast and the creator of the Somatic Restructuring education program at Vidya Method.