A diffuse awareness of everything
In my garden there is a certain vantage point where I can see almost everything contained within it. If I stay there for a while and watch quietly it is possible to rest into a certain diffuse awareness of all the flora and fauna – it is a pleasant way to spend some time. Imagine that I decide to take this up as a daily practise. If I allow enough time to observe everything in this unbiased fashion – not just the plants that I prefer or the areas I think will be most interesting – I will, after a certain amount of time, become quite knowledgeable about what goes on in my garden. For not only would I witness the obvious things that transpire but also the small interactions; the constant minute changes of how everything interacts, relates and balances together. Eventually I could come to understand my garden at a deep level.
If it seemed necessary to alter something in my garden having such a standpoint would allow me to do so in accordance with its nature; rather than blindly interfere I would intelligently augment. I could use the same awareness in my actions that I had cultivated in my years of study.
As an alternative scenario suppose that I go into my garden and happen to take my smartphone with me. If I am distracted by notifications every couple of seconds I will not become knowledgeable about my garden even if I spend a hundred years in such a pursuit – instead I will master being distracted. Even if the stream of notifications are about gardens it will not foster direct experience; something I can only glean from actually being in my garden and paying attention. If it came to altering my garden I would not have the experience to do so in accordance with its nature – I would probably spend my time battling with it and stressed by all the variables.
We are well versed in looking at things on the outside and relying on external sources for information. When it comes to our own body and mind an entirely different orientation is required for we are actually within our experience of them all the time – everything we do is embodied yet the simplicity of this is difficult to realise. To learn how to use the body and mind in an optimal way requires an internal diffuse awareness – through Standing Meditation we can build such a vantage point.
There are many fascinating aspects to Standing Meditation and my aim in this two-part article is to outline the basics. It is a beautifully simple and incredibly nuanced practise; I continually notice new things each time I settle into my training. For rather than being a chore to try and get to the end of or an abstract goal to achieve, it offers a process of experiential education that promotes rest and work for the body and mind in equal measure.
Standing has foundational, intermediate and advanced levels of practise which all emphasise different elements of the same continuum. There are a wide variety of postures and an array of fascinating observational and motor/kinesthetic tools that make up the training. The postures range from a simple neutral stance to more physically demanding positions and even to postures on one leg for extended periods of time.
‘We want to ‘balance’ our skeleton 3-dimensionally within the fluid and elastic elements of our fascial fabric and form a favourable long-term relationship with gravity‘
All of the postures we utilise in Standing, when practised correctly, move us toward optimum bio-mechanics, present moment awareness and ease as our default settings. We do not want to blindly force ourselves to stand for as long as possible, disappear into a trance or think about special things.
The aim is to move toward a balanced physio-cognitive state of relaxation and non-distraction. As one might expect, to sit down in a half squat or stand on one leg for any length of time, and develop a real sense of effortlessness in doing so, is an obvious challenge. What is less obvious is that most people find the simple entry point postures demanding enough to begin with.
Regular tactile cues and guidance from a teacher are essential to move us in a favourable direction because our usual habits are thoroughly engrained. For when it comes to maintaining a standing position where ones centre of gravity is lowered and the arms rest in the air just managing to sustain the body in a balanced way can be surprisingly taxing; our lack of whole-body integration becomes evident. Elements which are not tensionally balanced to offer functional connection, structural support and internal flow will rapidly make themselves known – although it is something we are unlikely to notice unless we try for ourselves in an objective way.
Compared to watching a film, a freeze-frame allows many more details to come to light – you lose the narrative and in doing so you get to see things as they are at that point in time. With the act of deliberate motion taken out of the equation Standing Meditation comprises an experiential ‘movement snapshot’ and an opportunity to get to grips with the distraction of our own internal narrative
It is difficult for most people to comprehend that when we train in Standing we do not want to ‘hold’ ourselves in a fixed position using overt control or brute force. Instead we want to learn how our skeleton balances 3-dimensionally within the fluid and elastic elements of the fascial fabric in which it floats and optimise this process. Amongst other things, doing so allows us to form a favourable long-term relationship with gravity rather than continuing our usual fight against it.
There is a kind of fluid omnidirectional stability that we want to uncover and develop which is both incredibly useful and feels quite wonderful. Learning how to do this takes time and you will certainly discover a lot of distractions and deviations on the way. Nonetheless, right from the start Standing can build useful body and mind skills that grow exponentially with consistent training.
While these are simplistic examples every person exhibits various combinations of such qualities in the body in a way that is distinct to them. We all have bits that are too loose, too tight, too strong, too weak, too sensitive or not sensitive enough and yet it all works together for better or worse. It is the working relationship and integration of the whole that we want to come to know and improve. This is a difficult task to realise during the complexities of movement and/or with a busy mind but Standing offers a chance to do so in a systematic way.
While it is intellectually convenient to conceptualise attributes such as strength, flexibility, mobility, coordination, relaxation, cognition, balance, cardio fitness etc as being distinct, in the real terms of our experience and function this isn’t the case. Nor is it as useful as we usually assume to divide the body into separate parts whether that be via traditional anatomy models, separate fascial lines or acupuncture meridians. An optimal middle path of development for the body and mind is not facilitated by acquiring more information from external sources, nor by leaning in one metaphorical direction or another or from veering between extremes. Instead we must look for and discover a new way of balancing within ourselves.
‘It is hard to convey to intellectuals the intellectual superiority of experience’ Nassim Taleb, Anti-fragile
Two overarching goals of Standing can be summed up as follows. Firstly, the development of a clear sense of how the body is connected and balances as a whole and secondly, cultivating the tools that will allow us to augment such qualities in desirable way. However an over stimulated and distracted mind is like a wobbly low-quality camera, it’s impossible to get a clear picture of what’s what:
Imagine that you are looking out over a large beautiful lake. It is a stormy day and the surface of the water is being whipped by the wind and the rain to form an endless stream of indistinguishable waves, shapes and patterns. After steadily surveying the scene for a time the storm gradually allays – the surface of the lake begins to settle. Watching quietly and patiently you now notice how each waning drop of rain and gust of wind distinctly pattern and affect the water. Eventually the storm subsides completely; tranquility transpires and the lake becomes motionless and clear. To your immense curiosity you can see through the surface and all the way to the lakebed – the fascinating topography of an underwater world presents itself.
The wind and rain equate to the patterning of an over stimulated and distracted mind upon our experience; it masks our ability to see beyond the surface and distinguish what’s what. Over time and with regular practise we can gradually lower our base rate of stimulation/distraction and perceive things more clearly.
The Gravitas of Gravity
One simple way of looking at Standing could be as the experiential study of gravity – our body is the subject and ones mind needs to be calm and stable in order to observe the results of our experience objectively. Let us imagine that for a fish who spends her whole life in water the very sensation of being immersed in such a medium is so continuous that it would hardly ever be noticed. I certainly do not know what the experience of a fish is like but I do know that the persistent force of gravity is constant and yet we do not usually notice it at all. Despite this it is one of the most significant players in how the human body is organised and how we move.
Jumping into a swimming pool one immediately feels the whole body enveloped and supported by water – the diminished action of gravity and sense of watery freedom is really quite liberating. When you clamber out again however, you probably don’t stand there and remark “Ah Gravity my old friend, how supportive!” but you would if you could, and more to the point, you probably should.
‘Standing is a superb tool to traverse an experiential path toward making gravity our friend and an optimum tensional balance across the entire fascial network of the body’
One of the first skills that we work on in Standing is the gradual release of unnecessary tension from the body. It is particularly important not only because it incurs vast health benefits but also re-familiarises us with gravity in a visceral way. We do not want to deliberately hold or control our body against gravity (a common misconception) but instead release that which impedes the body from supporting itself quite effortlessly and build this quality. This act of letting go can be counter-intuitive at first but poses a rewarding challenge; for don’t we all spend an inordinate amount of effort holding on to things?
‘A body unbound from tension is at liberty to respond to gravity with ‘free’ support from the ground upwards; to effortlessly inflate in all directions with fluid stability and elastic movement potential’
We tend to carry considerable amounts of tension which it would be very prudent to let go of and this is often especially the case with people who regularly train in some way – I speak from my own experience of course. A tense body is a blunt and unfeeling instrument, extremely uneconomical and highly prone to injury and illness. While we neither want a body that is an over-stretched or floppy mess there is an intelligent middle way between the two extremes. Unfortunately we do not know any better until we do and that means to accrue a considerably wider experiential frame of reference. Just thinking that it is a good idea ‘in theory’ will not be of any use. In theory there is no difference between practise and theory but in practise there most certainly is.
Developing the Release Signal
If you clench your hand into a fist and hold it tight for a while you can see that the colour changes as the fluids are squeezed out from the tissues. After some time you may feel that the tension isn’t only in the fist but also manifests in the arm and shoulder (and maybe other places too). If you persist for long enough you will eventually start to lose the feeling in your fist completely, for along with the flow of the fluids, neural functioning and perception will be severely impeded. You wouldn’t want to stay like that for too long would you? When you eventually release the hand back to a normal it is quite a relief: the colour returns as the fluids rehydrate the tissues and sensory perception is revived.
If I were to do the opposite and stretch my hand and fingers out as much as possible it would actually be the same as squeezing my hand into a tight fist but in reverse. It’s certainly no better or more useful; all the same restrictions will manifest. When I release my over stretched hand back to normal relief ensues once again.
The release signal is a specific command that your mind gives to tell your fist, or overstretched hand, to let go and return to normal. In order to be able to do so you actually need to ‘know’ where your hand is in your internally felt body map – this is easy because we are usually quite aware of our hands but not so the rest of our body. Through Standing we train to get to ‘know’ the internal architecture of our body and by cultivating the release signal we can restore the entirety of ourselves back to balance and away from fixed extremes.
‘Progress comes as the natural result of release and an open minded sensory inquiry into omnidirectional balance’
Once a person has reached a certain benchmark of release a new experience of how the body supports itself will come to light. For rather than being continually oppressed by gravity a body unbound from tension is at liberty to respond to it with ‘free’ support from the ground upwards; to effortlessly inflate in all directions with fluid stability and elastic movement potential. This is a remarkable sensation. It has many similarities to the liberation of being in water but because we are immersed in gravity, and full of liquid ourselves, we remain firmly anchored to the earth to balance the dual qualities of stability and freedom of movement.
It is important to note that this ability is not acquired by ‘trying’ to do it; it is counter intuitive. We do not want to pull ourselves up, suck bits in, try to be tall or ‘tight and light’, such in-fighting results in more unwanted tension. Neither do we want to collapse or fall into a soggy heap. Instead our progress comes as the natural result of release combined with an open minded sensory inquiry into omnidirectional balance. I cannot overstate just how worth it it is; in experiential terms such a discovery can be quite liberating.
The genius and efficacy of Standing lies in its simplicity: the absence of deliberate movement allows one the chance to discover and develop fundamental attributes of the body and mind that we usually miss. By repeatedly bringing the wandering mind back to rest on observing our standing form not only can we develop some considerable skill in mindfulness but also uncover the awareness of ourselves as a holistic entity.
Holistic: that the parts of something are inextricably connected and explicable only by reference to the whole
On a personal level I continually find Standing fascinating and highly beneficial. While there is always room for improvement via Standing I have enjoyed uncovering and developing ‘whole-body’ awareness, movement and power, not to mention superb health, highly refined motor skills and elevated levels of proprioception. I have also benefited from building a sense of peace and ease within my mind and body that isn’t reliant upon anything other than my ability to pay attention. As I get older I genuinely feel that all of these attributes only improve rather than diminish; I am considerably more physically and mentally capable than I was twenty years ago.
On countless occasions I have witnessed some amazing aspects of nature and wildlife while Standing outside. I have a deep passion for the natural world – being calm and still in some quiet spot out in nature allows the interconnectedness of our environment to come to light. All manner of creatures come along when I am training outside; they are completely unperturbed by my motionless standing form.
Finally, I have seen excellent development in the people whom I have taught the practise to over the years. Those who take the initiative to regularly train in Standing end up with considerably better skills than the those who do not – they develop a superior awareness of where their whole body is, what it is doing, how and why. Standing Meditation really is an excellent resource – if you want to understand your mind, body and movement then get to grips with stillness.