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11.3: Ancient and Modern Approaches to Training the Mind/Body Connection

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    Wilhelm Reichwas by no means the first person to consider the connection between the body and the mind as something of essential importance to understanding the nature of the human experience. Gotama Buddha had developed just such a system approximately 500 years B.C. (see Chapter 17 for a more detailed discussion of Buddhism). The Buddha did more, however, than simply describe the nature of the human mind. He offered a few ways to begin quieting the mind, so that one could become a more peaceful, aware, and content individual. In the following section, we will consider his four techniques of mindfulness meditation.

    Buddhism and Mindfulness

    Andrew Olendzki (2003, 2005), a scholar of early Buddhist tradition and executive director of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachusetts, has done a marvelous job of trying to put the teachings of the Buddha into a perspective understandable to Western psychologists. In very simple terms covering only a small part of what the Buddha taught, when a sense object that we are capable of detecting is, indeed, detected by one of our sensory systems, we become aware of the experience. For example, when a sound is detected by our ear, we become aware of hearing a sound. Consciousness is an emergent phenomenon of each of these individual moments of contact, i.e., the moment of contact between the sense object, the sensory organ, and the awareness of the object. Since we are constantly encountering different moments of contact that arise and then fall out of consciousness, from all of our various senses, the Buddhist concept of consciousness is not a continuous one (this is in contrast to the stream of consciousness perspective of America’s preeminent psychologist William James). Since consciousness is not continuous, neither is the self. Our sense of self as continuous and real is an illusion, and it is because we cling to that illusion that we inevitably suffer (the first noble truth in Buddhism). In order to alleviate our suffering, and to understand the true nature of our self, the Buddha taught a series of mindfulness meditations to help us see ourselves as we really are.

    There are four mindfulness trainings: mindfulness of body, mindfulness of feeling, mindfulness of mind, and mindfulness of mental objects (Olendzki, 2005; Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1996). When meditating mindfully on the body, it is common to focus on the breath. This can be done in a variety of positions: sitting, standing, lying down, or walking. One can also become very mindful of the body by performing certain martial arts as moving meditation, particularly Tai Chi Chuan or Qigong (Khor, 1981). When meditating mindfully on feelings, one considers the pleasant or unpleasant quality of each experience. For example, after sitting for a while, pain or discomfort may arise in a knee or hip. There is nothing wrong with this pain, and with practice one can experience it as a sensation without the negative or unpleasant feeling that we describe as pain. This is, of course, not easy. All forms of meditation require time and practice. Still, it is important to remember that if there is a real problem, such sitting on a sharp rock, you may want to move in a slow and mindful manner until comfortable again. When meditating mindfully on the mind itself, one takes notice of the thoughts arising during meditation. One should pay particular attention to whether the thoughts are related to one of the three root causes of suffering: greed, hatred, or delusion.

    …In any given moment, the mind is either caught up by one or more of these or it is not, and this is something of which one can learn to be aware. Greed and hatred are the two polarities of desire, the intense wanting or not wanting of an object, while delusion is a strong form of the basic misunderstanding that gives desire its power over us. (pg. 255; Olendzki, 2005)

    One does not pass judgment on these thoughts, mindfulness teaches us only to become aware of our thoughts and to recognize their presence and reality. Finally, there is mindfulness of mental objects (or mental qualities), a deep understanding of the content of mental experience that arises as one masters mindfulness meditation (Olendzki, 2005; Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1996). Mindfulness of mental objects involves focusing on the nature of desires as they arise in relation to the five hindrances: desire, aversion, indolence, restlessness and doubt.

    This conservative and traditional understanding of mindfulness may seem rather esoteric, but it is proving to be very influential in psychology today. To be sure, meditation has been described as “now one of the most enduring, widespread, and researched of all psychotherapeutic methods” (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006). A mindfulness-based stress reduction program has been developed and popularized by Jon Kabat-Zinn (1990, 1994, 2005), and a similar therapeutic technique, called Focusing, had previously been developed in the late 1970s (Gendlin, 1990). Mindfulness has also been incorporated into psychotherapeutic approaches to dealing with anxiety, depression, and feelings of unworthiness and insecurity (Brach, 2003; Brantley, 2003; McQuaid & Carmona, 2004), and it has provided new perspectives on the treatment of addiction and anger issues (Aronson, 2004; Dudley-Grant, 2003). Of particular interest to students, mindfulness has proven to be helpful in alleviating the stress associated with studying psychology in graduate school (Borynski, 2003)! In addition, Janet Surrey, one of the founding members of the Stone Center group, has studied comparisons between mindfulness and relational therapy (Surrey, 2005). Likewise, Trudy Goodman, who studied with Jean Piaget and now also teaches insight meditation, has utilized mindfulness in therapy with children (Goodman, 2005).

    This traditional approach to mindfulness is usually associated with Southeast Asia, particularly the Thai forest monks. Jack Kornfield, a former Buddhist monk and currently a clinical psychologist, practiced with the renowned Ajahn Chah. Ajahn Chah’s teachings have been translated into English (Ajahn Chah, 2001), and another of his students has written two books in English (Ajahn Sumedho, 1987; 1995). Thanissaro Bhikku is another interesting individual dedicated to offering the teachings of the Buddha, known as the Dhamma. In conjunction with Dhamma Dana Publications, he has written his own book (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1993), translated the works of Buddhist monks and nuns (Ajaan Fuang Jotiko, 2005; Upasika Kee Nanayon, 1995), and translated with commentary some of the Pali Canon, the first written record of the teachings of the Buddha (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, 1996). Dhamma Dana Publications is committed to the free dissemination of these teachings and their books, sending many copies to people in prison who wish to better their lives. This is, of course, an active application of the Buddha’s teachings, and a way to help improve our society.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Buddha proposed a method for alleviating the suffering associated with our desires and distresses: the four mindfulness trainings. Have you ever tried meditating, particularly the form of mindfulness meditation taught in the Theravadan tradition? Has it been helpful, or if you haven’t tried it, do you think it might be helpful?

    The Neurobiology of Mindfulness

    We began this chapter by looking at genetics and biology. We then transitioned into Buddhist mindfulness techniques that are thousands of years old. Today, these two disciplines have come together in some fascinating research. Neurobiologists and psychologists are working together with advanced meditators and respected Buddhist monks (including His Holiness the Dalai Lama) to study the activity of the brain, in real time, during meditation. These studies may also help to advance our understanding of the nature of the mind, but that may still be somewhat beyond our technical abilities. The interest of the field of psychology, and academia in general, is clearly evidenced by articles that have been written about these studies in venues such as the prestigious journal Science (Barinaga, 2003), the popular The Chronicle of Higher Education (Monastersky, 2006), and the Monitor on Psychology published by the American Psychological Association (Winerman, 2006).

    Cognitive neuroscience has taken advantage of many technical advances in brain imaging, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), and positron emission tomography (PET) to study the activity of the brain during mental tasks. Initially, these studies focused on identifying brain regions involved in very specific tasks. More recently, however, some investigators have become interested in using these techniques to study broad questions, such as the nature of the mind. Since we don’t know what the nature of the mind is, we don’t exactly know what to look for in these brain imaging studies. So, the investigators pursuing this research must creatively examine the brain during meditation (as well as under other conditions). It has been shown that meditation activates neural structures involved in attention and arousal (Lazar et al., 2000, 2005a; Newberg, 2001), alterations in sensory processing and the sense of space (Lazar, 2005a; Newberg, 2001), and a dramatic increase in synchronization of neural activity (Lutz et al., 2004). In perhaps the most striking of these studies, Lazar and her colleagues have demonstrated that long-term meditation practice is associated with increased cortical thickness in brain regions associated with attention and sensory processing (Lazar, 2005a). These effects were most pronounced in the older subjects, suggesting that meditation may have beneficial effects in terms of offsetting age-related declines in cortical thickness. Given these dramatic changes in brain function as a result of meditation, perhaps it should come as no surprise that meditation and mindfulness have proven to be useful adjuncts to therapy for a wide variety of psychological and medical disorders (for reviews see Lazar, 2005b and Newberg & Lee, 2005; see also Cozolino, 2002; Germer et al., 2005; Siegel, 2007).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    PET scan images of the author’s brain on the anti-Parkinson’s Disease drug l-DOPA (for research).

    The use of these brain imaging techniques to study the mind during meditation raises the possibility that they may be useful in studying other altered states of consciousness. Indeed, Amir Raz and his colleagues (2005) have utilized fMRI and electrical scalp recording of event-related potentials to demonstrate that hypnotic suggestion reduces the activity of cortical regions in the brain that have been associated with conflict monitoring. In other words, when hypnosis is used to alter the behavior and cognition of individuals, there are recognizable changes in brain function. When the study of hypnosis is combined with the data obtained on alterations in brain function during meditation and under the influence of mind-altering drugs (see Mathew, 2001), it seems clear that the mind, either in its normal state or in various altered states, is reflected in unique states of neural activity. We may be a long way from fully understanding the details of the relationship between the mind and neural activity, and there may indeed be more to the mind than simply the neural activity itself, but this is certainly a fascinating field of study on the nature of who we are as individuals.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Cognitive neuroscientists have begun to identify changes in brain activity associated with meditation, and similar changes occur during hypnosis. What do you think this says about the mind?

    Martial Arts

    When we think of the martial arts, most of us think of East Asia. The different forms are typically associated with the countries where they developed: Kung Fu in China, Taekwondo in Korea, and Karate and Judo in Japan. Actually, Karate was developed on the island of Okinawa, and, although it is part of Japan today, its martial arts history has been influenced more by Chinese settlers than by the Japanese (Chesterman, 2003; Hornsey, 2002; Johnson, 2003a; Lewis, 1993; Ribner & Chin, 1978). Today, however, the martial arts are popular worldwide. There are many forms in addition to those listed above, including Capoeira, a martial art developed in Brazil by African slaves (Atwood, 1999). Capoeira is a particularly complex martial art, involving play, dance, and music. As some slaves escaped, they banded together to fight Portuguese soldiers and help other slaves to escape. More recently, Capoeira was one of the inspirations for break dancing, an African American dance style that developed in the 1970s and 1980s (Atwood, 1999). Although the Western world certainly has its equivalent forms of armed and unarmed combat, such as wrestling, boxing, and fencing (e.g., see Styers, 1974), they are not typically thought of as belonging to the Asian forms of fighting known as the martial arts.

    It is estimated that as many as 18 million people in America alone practice some form of the martial arts (Nathan, 2005), and martial arts films have proven very popular. From Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan, and more recently Chow Yun Fat (star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which won four Academy Awards [Lee, Ling, Schamus, & Jung, 2000]), we have seen examples of the classic good-guy, an honorable individual defending those who are abused by others. The famous American martial artist and movie star Chuck Norris, in cooperation with former President George H. W. Bush, has established a national program called KICKSTART to introduce martial arts to “at risk” middle school students to raise their self-esteem (Nathan, 2005). Although the martial arts are often seen as an opportunity for athletic young men to engage in disciplined and/or ritualized combat, there are also programs for children of all ages, general physical conditioning, and people with disabilities (Chaline, 2003; Johnson, 2003b; McNab, 2003). There is also a rich history of women practicing the martial arts (Atkinson, 1983; Chaline, 2003b). Indeed, Bruce Lee first studied the Wing Chun style of Kung Fu, a style developed some 400 years ago by a Buddhist nun named Ng Mui and her student Yim Wing Chun, who was also a nun. It was later that Lee developed his own technique, known as Jeet Kune Do or “the way of the intercepting fist” (Lee, 1975; see also Johnson, 2003a; Lewis, 1993; Little, 1998; Ribner & Chin, 1978).

    What sets the martial arts apart is the balanced approach to both physical exercise and spiritual/mental discipline. Although the martial arts certainly existed farther back in ancient times, it is accepted by many that they were first formalized in the Shao-Lin temple by the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma. When Bodhidharma first arrived at the Shao-Lin temple in China, after leaving his home in India, he found the monks in very poor physical condition. He developed a series of eighteen exercises that helped the monks to achieve a good level of physical fitness, something necessary for their self-defense as well as for extended periods of sitting in meditation (Johnson, 2003a; Lewis, 1993; Red Pine, 1987; Ribner & Chin, 1978). These exercises established the first formal practice of Kung Fu. It is important to note the role of Bodhidharma, a highly spiritual monk who had left his home to help spread the teachings of the Buddha. Since one of the basic tenets of Buddhism is to not harm any other living being, the martial arts have always emphasized mental discipline and the intention that the fighting skills should only be used in self-defense or in the defense of others who cannot defend themselves. Non-combative forms of the martial arts have developed around the concept of mindfulness of the body, which can be used as forms of moving meditation. Examples of such forms are Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong (Johnson, 2003a,c; Lewis, 1993; Khor, 1981; Ribner & Chin, 1978). There are also more traditional forms of martial arts, such as Aikido and Hapkido (Hapkido being “the way of harmony”; Chesterman, 2003), which emphasize the soft style of defending oneself that is advocated in the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tsu, c600 B.C./1989). As with the regular martial arts, these soft, meditative, defensive martial arts originated in the countries with the strongest histories in the more aggressive forms: Tai Chi Chuan and Qigong originated in China, Aikido in Japan, and Hapkido in Korea.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    Samuel demonstrating an excellent side kick on the way to earning his black belt in Taekwondo.

    When the martial arts are approached properly, as a means to health, strength, and a calm state of mind, we can refer to the practice as the Martial Way, a means to living one’s life in a virtuous manner (Chu, 2003). Because martial arts training can prepare one to injure others it must be approached with the right attitude:

    This concept of power as the cornerstone of personal freedom lies at the bottom of all martial arts philosophy. The recognition that power emanates from physical force and martial capability cuts both ways; it can be channeled toward constructive uses or abused as a means of destruction. This is the reason why martial arts training must always be directed toward the cultivation of the higher ideals of discipline, humility, benevolence and responsibility. (pg. 29; Chu, 2003)

    Continuing to emphasize the role that the martial arts can play in helping people to live a more satisfying life, Chu goes on to say:

    The demands of work, family, finances, as well as fatigue, neglect and health all distract the martial artist from his best intentions. Even the devoted student may be disappointed if he expects martial arts training to neatly bring his physical and spiritual condition into working order. Nevertheless, regular training can serve as a constant, to discipline him to develop his best self even as the daily routine pulls him in different directions. The strategies underlying training can be effectively applied not just in life threatening situations but to daily life. (pgs. 44-45; Chu, 2003)

    In order to help martial artists pursue and maintain this virtuous Way, various codes and tenets have been devised. My family practices Taekwondo, so we have been taught to follow the five tenets of Taekwondo: courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, and indomitable spirit. These principles were set forth by General Choi Hong Hi, who re-established the modern forms of Taekwondo when Korea regained its independence after World War II. He believed that if Taekwondo students lived their lives according to these principles they would become better people and help to make the world a better place (Chesterman, 2003; Lewis, 1993). Perhaps the most famous of the martial arts codes is the Bushido code of the Japanese Samurai. It can sometimes be difficult to translate Asian languages into English, but generally the Bushido code contains seven essential principles: making right decisions, bravery, compassion, taking right actions, honesty, honor, and loyalty. Although these principles seem to include states of mind, or conscious intentions, it is through the physical practice, through the body and the unconscious mind, that Bushido becomes a way of life (Deshimaru, 1982). Only after many years of practice does this become a natural way of life, without the need for continued attention to one’s practice. Then many more years of practice are necessary before one finally becomes a true master. The consciousness, or mindfulness, necessary for this combined practice of body and mind can be found in Zen Buddhism, which is closely intertwined with Budo, the Japanese way of the warrior (Deshimaru, 1982). As with the tenets of Taekwondo, the principles of the Bushido code helped warriors to restrain themselves from violent aggression in their daily lives (Chu, 2003). According to Chu (2003), it is the higher ideals of spirituality in codes like Bushido and the tenets of Taekwondo that separates the warrior from the predator.

    Despite having emphasized the balance between physical and spiritual aspects of the martial arts, we must still consider that they can play a most important role in self-defense. It is an unfortunate reality that there are many people in this world who don’t follow virtuous principles such as the tenets of Taekwondo or the Bushido code. I am fortunate to know a martial artist and special education teacher named David Schied, who wrote a most interesting book combining martial arts, Eastern philosophy, and basic techniques of self-defense in all aspects of one’s life (Schied, 1986). Many people live timid lives, some live in outright fear. It has been suggested that as many as 160,000 children miss school every day out of fear that they will be bullied by other students (Nathan, 2005). This fear can seriously disrupt our ability to function in our daily world:

    Most of us don’t see ourselves as unified human beings (people who can call forth all our resources and use our total capabilities at will). We tend not to give our all to the situation at hand (even when nothing less will do). Instead of giving our best we give “enough” which rarely is enough. Left to our own means most of us respond to life’s demands in a fragmented fashion. Instead of reacting to the challenges of everyday life by focusing and directing our energies to the task at hand, we respond haphazardly and incompletely. (pg. iv; Schied, 1986)

    By studying the martial arts and other techniques of self-defense and security, and by learning strategies to become aware of and deal with our emotional responses to danger, we can not only resolve our fears in those dangerous situations, but we can also remain calm and in control of other aspects or our lives (Schied, 1986). In addition to simply preparing for danger by learning how to avoid it or how to fight when one can’t avoid it, the age-old Eastern techniques of meditation and mindfulness can help to calm one’s nerves before, during, and after facing a crisis. As peace of mind becomes your usual emotional state, you become more open to living your own life and enjoying your relationships with others in a loving and compassionate way. Then, when faced with danger from another:

    The opening of yourself to life with love will enable you not only to take proper measures for the extension of your life (surviving) in an attack, but also to greet your attacker as everyone else you meet - with an open hand and an open mind. You will begin to see an infinite number of ways to share love with those who mean you bodily harm. By giving to another that love which is so plentiful within you, you will help instead of hurt him. This is the ultimate self-defense. (pg. 208; Schied, 1986)

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    The martial Way refers to integrating the physical, spiritual, and mental aspects of the martial arts into your daily life. Have you ever practiced a martial art? If yes, how seriously did you take the spiritual philosophy of your particular martial art or the martial arts in general?

    Final Note

    This chapter may seem to have an odd assortment of topics, but if we look closely we can better understand the meaningful connections. We have covered: 2,500 year-old Buddhist teachings on mindfulness, 1,500 year-old techniques in the martial arts, 100-year-old Victorian era theories on somatic psychology, recent theories in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and cutting-edge brain imaging of real-time changes in mental states! How can all of this possibly fit together? The answer is actually quite simple. For as long as people have been able to wonder, they have wondered about the two things in our lives that cannot be denied: the fact that we have a body, and the fact that we are aware of it. Conscious awareness of our own existence, and the body that is the physical manifestation of that existence, is something that all people, all races and all nationalities, have shared throughout time. These topics are the most thoroughly cross-cultural topics in psychology.

    Finally, when Bruce Lee’s famous movie Enter the Dragon was first released in the United States, they cut one of the opening scenes in which he is tested by his master on his understanding of fundamental Buddhist/Daoist philosophy as it pertains to the martial arts. In the twenty-fifth anniversary special edition, Warner Brothers studios apparently decided that American audiences would now appreciate this dialogue, so they put the scene back into the movie (Clouse & Allin, 1998).

    This page titled 11.3: Ancient and Modern Approaches to Training the Mind/Body Connection is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.