A brief introduction: as part of our martial arts training at The Peaceful Dragon, Sifu Eric Sbarge provides us with a lesson each month via newsletter. Each lesson contains some historical teaching related to our training, such as the founding of the Shaolin Temple in China or how Bodhidharma brought meditation and yoga to China in approximately 527 A.D.. The lesson typically includes one or more Zen parables or koans for us to consider, as well as some thoughts on how our training applies to our lives, and it then concludes with one or more assignments. During my nearly 2 years of training, I have read each lesson, but never actually completed the assignments or handed them in. It is my intention to correct that by writing my assignments here, which will then be submitted to Sifu. While this is primarily for my own benefit in training, perhaps these Lessons will be helpful for others, too. I welcome your thoughts and comments.
The Zen Parable of Lesson 1
A young student arrived at the Temple, anxious to embark on the training that would lead him to enlightenment. Upon being introduced to the master, the student proclaimed, “I have just entered the monastery, ready to learn. Please teach me.”
The master asked him, “Have you eaten your breakfast?”
“Yes,” replied the student, “I just finished.”
“Then go wash your bowl,” replied the master.
In martial arts training, we are not just learning to fight. In fact, it could be said that the mark of a true master is that s/he understands how to avoid conflict entirely by living harmoniously with all living beings. Certainly, our training includes punches, kicks, throws, joint locks, and more, and we certainly train to use them if necessary. But the underlying goal is to train the mind, body, and spirit to be in complete harmony. A weak spirit can not support a strong mind or body; neither can a weak body give life to the creations of a strong mind; a weak mind wanders aimlessly and allows the body and spirit to waste away. Thus, we must train all 3. Hence, before the new student can begin training, he must wash his bowl. Each thing in its own turn. Complete each action fully and properly and appreciate what you are doing as you are doing it – mind, body, and spirit. Do not think of the next item to do until you have finished the one on which you are working. This is called Mindfulness, and is an important part of Zen living.
Exercise 1: Belly Breathing
While standing, place one hand across your Dan Tian (lower belly just below the belly button). Observe your breathing, and make sure that every time you inhale your lower belly expands, and when you exhale the belly contracts. Do this for a minute or two several times a day.
Especially in the hectic pace demanded in our Western lifestyle, proper breathing is so often neglected. We are constantly thinking of where to go, what to do, hunched over our desks, slouched on our sofas, shuffling down the street. Our posture is poor, and without good posture, it is difficult to breathe correctly. I first began learning about proper breathing (although there are numerous different ways to breathe, each with its own purpose) during my Taekwondo training in Chapel Hill, and later learned more about the benefits of both good posture and correct breathing in yoga classes. Trust me – it makes a HUGE difference! If you don’t believe it, take a moment and examine how you are sitting or standing right now. Then notice how shallowly you’re breathing because your posture is probably slouched forward, shoulders falling in, chest collapsed. Now stand or sit upright, as if someone were pulling a string from the top of your head, such that your spine is straight; roll your shoulders back to open the chest, and finally breathe deeply in through your belly as described above. Feel better? It’s amazing, isn’t it!?
Many years ago, I found this CD at a yoga studio, and I’ve since loaded it into iTunes to listen as a meditation practice. It’s called Relax into Greatness, and I listen to it almost every night as I fall asleep, practicing deep breathing. In our training, we practice breathing a LOT, as it helps us focus on the present moment, regardless of how tired we are or what else is going on in our lives. Admittedly, the breathing part is a lot easier than staying present and aware!
Exercise 2: Lists of Beautiful vs Ugly Aspects of Life
Take a few minutes to contemplate and think about those things that you regard as beautiful, useful, or interesting in your life. Come up with a list of 10 things, writing them down and saving them on your computer. Next, write a similar list of their opposites – things that you regard as ugly, useless or uninteresting. Now envision yourself in a world where the things on your first list never existed, and only those items on your second list are familiar to you. Try to imagine how, in such a world, you might feel quite differently about the things on your second list.
Because I’m 20 lessons behind, and this exercise is to include 1 new list each week for a month, I will be adding a link to each of my lists (in Evernote) here as I complete them over the next 4 weeks:
In your opinion, are you more likely to find happiness in life by seeking to surround yourself with more and more things that are beautiful, useful or interesting, or will you find more happiness by finding greater beauty, value and interest in those things that already surround you? Why?
This assignment is an important one to me as my wife and I work very hard in our dental practice to earn a good living to afford the finer things in life. And yes, we enjoy those finer things in life, whether that is eating at excellent restaurants, planning family vacations to different far-off resorts, sending our daughters to excellent schools, furnishing our home. I think that we particularly enjoy them for the simple reason that we were on the verge of bankruptcy just 6 years ago; at that time, we couldn’t even imagine that the blessings we now enjoy were anywhere within our reach. I remember the stress of those days, worrying how we were going to make it through, and it sure wasn’t enjoyable or very happy back then. And yet….it could all be taken away so easily through any number of means: accident, illness that prevents us from working, who knows?
I like to believe that I have learned enough mindfulness that, should any such tragedy occur that stripped away our worldly belongings, I could still be happy and at peace. Realistically, it would not be easy to maintain such mindfulness and equanimity during the initial shock and transition because once one is accustomed to a life of plenty, it’s not easy to give up. To merely contemplate such a scenario, however, illustrates clearly that happiness can not be dependent on external circumstances, possessions, or appearances. That is not true happiness – it’s mere pleasure and enjoyment. True, deep, lasting joy and happiness must arise from within me, regardless of circumstances.
I first learned that this was possible while reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, who learned that he could be happy even while a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. And whenever I start getting worried or stressed or unhappy about something in my life, filled as it is with beauty and love, I remember that story, quit complaining and remember to be happy. 🙂
P.S. if you’d like to join a wonderful conversation that ensued in the comments on my Google+ share here.