Neuroplastic Visualisation for Chronic Pain: Day 7

One week in, and today I have let go of meditation. Anyone who knows me knows what a huge statement that is. I don’t just skip that part of the day though — I still sit down as if I were to meditate. But rather than traditional shamatha-vipashyana, instead I’m reallocating the time for dedicated visualisation. The pain is bound to interrupt a meditation practice of any decent length anyway. I mustn’t let meditation distract me from the technique. I must be more relentless than the pain.

Focused visualisation for a good thirty minutes helps prime the pump. I’ve been unable to sit quietly today at times, despite feeling a pain spike, but I’ve found that I can bring to mind the visualisations even when e.g. in a conversation. It’s a good sign if I can do both at once. To me it seems as if the practice is maybe — just maybe — starting to get a subconscious foothold. Why? Well, I don’t think I can discount the simple fact I’ve been doing it for a week now. But I also attribute it to the focused practice that I began the day with.

The pain relief is also noticeable today, which is welcome, and even better is a sense (whether a sign of neuroplastic change or other side effect) that the relief is lasting longer. Today, whenever I run through the full practice, I get a good few minutes pain-free.

Having said that, I’m still very unsure if I’m doing enough to make permanent change in my neural anatomy. For this reason, I dug deep into my wellbeing fund and ordered a copy of Moskowitz’s Neuroplastic Transformation Workbook (see http://zigzagyogi.com/2016/07/visualization-for-chronic-pain/ for some links to that book and other resources I am using).

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
Frank Herbert, Dune

Neuroplastic Visualisations for Chronic Pain: Day 6

I have found this the most challenging day so far. I haven’t had a day with this many pain spikes since I started. Because of the frequency of eruptions, the “Relentlessness” aspect of the technique interferes with everything! The only thing I don’t interrupt is yoga teaching — both arriving on time to teach, and the teaching itself. Everything else is fair game — appointments, meetings with friends, housework. When I become aware of a pain spike, I drop everything and focus on the pain maps. Even during mindfulness practice. Normally, meditation gives a cumulative benefit, but I have to let go of it in order to maintain the relentlessness of the neuroplastic technique. I miss it, but need to remember that this is a time-limited thing. The neuroplastic retraining takes 6 — 8 weeks. After that it should no longer be necessary.

Neuroplastics for Chronic Pain: Day 5

This is my fifth day of using Michael Moskowitz’s visualisations for chronic pain. The relaxation response is starting to become ingrained. In Day One I noticed that when I stopped whatever I was doing, closed my eyes and went through all the steps (establishing intention, crafting a visual map of my brain’s pain system, and then shrinking them in my mind’s eye) that I became more calm. In response to this, the pain, always in my peripheral awareness, eased to 1-2/10 and my whole body, but especially neck, shoulders and core, relaxed. Today, it seems all I need to do is start the process, even visualising with my eyes open and the relaxation starts to take place — not, perhaps, to the same degree, but subjectively still very noticeable.

Two things from this. Firstly, an observation and some speculating. On Day One, the relaxation response was so pronounced that, as I said, the pain all but disappeared and this disappearance was accompanied by feelings of freedom and blissful breathing that I’ve hardly experienced all these years since the accident (June 2012). Since then I’ve been able to access this level of pain relief only a half dozen or so times in total across the four days.

Could it be that my body-mind is accustomed to the new level of comfort, and though the relaxation response is actually occurring to the same degree, my experience of relief has faded? Or is there some objective difference between the way I was visualizing and the effect it had on Day One vs the way and effect of subsequent days? Perhaps some inhibitory response has begun taking place alongside the visualisation that wasn’t present on Day One but is now having a dampening effect?

Perhaps (and this seems most likely to me) the newness of the practice and the novelty on Day One stimulated my brain to higher levels of concentration and this, combined with early placebo effects, led to greater temporary relief than in the days since?

Regardless, the practice does not actually rely on achieving a certain level of temporary relief in each session. The aim is to reassign the duties of certain networks of the brain that also happen to process pain input (the posterior parietal lobe and the posterior cingulate as well as the prefrontal area which is involved with creativity). By relentlessly coaxing these systems to work with stimuli other than pain, we make structural changes in these areas so that the neurons are less dedicated to pain processing. So, while I suspect that having a greater sense of temporary relief equates to stronger motivation, deeper concentration and therefore more vivid visualisation and greater engagement of the above brain regions, which we could assume would lead to faster progress, in the long run, repeated effort will still create the desired result — it may just take a week or two longer. Still worth it.

Secondly: a cautionary realization that I must follow the full practice through each time, from setting intention to creating visual maps to shrinking them, and not simply stopping when I feel the realaxation. While that may be tempting, such a method skips the step of engaging the specific brain areas mentioned, so will not lead to the kind of neuroplastic change that this technique is designed to engender. Instead, I’ll become reliant on the temporary relief of relaxation through visualisation, which although real and beneficial, is in the end just like any other form of pain relief in that when stopped, the pain returns.

The ‘I’ in MIRROR stands for Intention and the intention is this: to focus the mind, in order to change the brain.

“Mental efforts help build new circuits and weaken the pain networks.” Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing

“If focus is merely on immediate pain control, positive results will be fleeting and frustrating. Immediate pain control is definitely poart of the program, but the real reward is to disconnect excessively wired pain networks and to restore more balanced brain function these pain processing regions of the brain.” Michael Moskowitz, Neuroplastic Transformations Workbook

Visualization for Chronic Pain

I have begun reading The Brain’s Way of Healing by Dr. Norman Doidge. It details case histories in the new medical field of neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself), and was recommended by my GP at Helios Medical Centre. It appears to be well researched, and is endorsed by neurologists, psychiatrists and physicians from institutions like the University of California, Boston School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School…

Bless Doidge for putting chronic pain as the subject of chapter one.

In that chapter, Doidge reports a way of retraining the pain circuitry in our brains that was discovered by a pain specialist in the United States named Michael Moskowitz. Not wanting to necessarily wait on a copy of Moskowitz’s “Neuroplastic Transformation Workbook” to arrive from Amazon, I will be undertaking that mental rewiring programme at home here in Christchurch, kiwi-style. I will be using as motivation and further study all the blogs and websites I can find of people doing the same. I’ll also be using that single chapter by Doidge, while continuing to inhale the rest of his book. And I’ll write a brief post each day about my findings, and changes or setbacks I notice.

There are likely to be plenty of the latter over the next six to eight weeks, which is the timeframe Dr. Moskowitz suggests before results are truly signs of neuroplastic change, and not just placebo and the result of temporary distractions from the pain. Hopefully I already have some useful experience from my seven-years-since, daily meditations.

Eventually, the visualizations and constant relentless effort of retraining the circuitry should be pretty much unnecessary, and my pain circuitry will have returned more or less to what it was before the chronic feedback cycle set in.

So, the preliminaries.

May all beings be happy. May all beings be free. May all beings share my good fortune.

Days One — 3

I’m currently on Day 5 — here are my brief catchup notes for the previous four days.

Day 1: elated. Probably mostly due to the placebo effect and the simple fact that, when in pain, anything that takes your mind off it is going to have a relaxing effect. Went to the park with my partner and her toddlers. Because of the elation, I probably overdid things. Lots of monkeying around — shoulders and neck!

Day 2: confused about the technique. Setback in terms of pain — possibly caused by trying to keep up with toddlers yesterday! Lots of questions — do I have to interrupt what I’m doing at any time of the day when I feel pain, and visualize? I am in almost constant pain sometimes for hours. Should I continue visualizing all that time? Feeling as though I can’t guarantee I’ll be on time for things if I need to keep stopping all the time. Even visiting friends was tricky today. Don’t seem to be getting any relief from the technique at all today.

Day 3: Moskowitz uses the MIRROR acronym to describe how to apply the technique. The first ‘R’ is for ‘Relentless’. So, in answer to yesterday’s questions — yes. All of that. “Anytime pain intrudes on consciousness”, writes Moskowitz, “it is greeted with visualization.”

Which seems intimidating — and yes, it’s hard to be that consistently motivated. But, reading about the experiences of others helps. Learning about the science behind the technique is motivating for me. And I’m also learning to do the visuals “on the fly” — closing my eyes at red lights to imagine the brain maps. Sometimes the visualization is bringing relief from the pain. Other times, I’m working on accepting that sometimes the visualization will be feeble or feel ineffective.

Day 4: elation returned. Feel emboldened to continue with the technique. Visualizations more vivid. Relaxation more pronounced than last two days. Quite significant relief from the pain if I stay focussed, fades as soon as I stop visualizing though. And still nothing like as much relief as Day One.

There! All caught up. From now on I will post each day separately.

Further Reading

This blog post has a reasonable summary (if you squint past the typos): http://www.lifeinslowmotionblog.com/visualization-chronic-pain-and-neuroplastic-transformation-an-introduction-to-dr-moskowitzs-neuroplastic-pain-management-strategies/

Here is Dr. Moskowitz’s book on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Neuroplastic-Transformation-Workbook-Michael-Moskowitz/dp/0615814654?ie=UTF8&keywords=neuroplastic%20transformation&qid=1456245317&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1

And The Brain’s Way of Healing on Norman Doidge’s website: http://www.normandoidge.com/?page_id=1042

Mind Training and Mental Health

Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light -- Groucho Marx
Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light — Groucho Marx

Some of the sanest people I know also have the most disordered thinking underneath. We all do have plenty of that in reality. But those of us with a bonus dose of thought chaos — we are the ones who’ve had to learn to pause before we leap. To mind the gap between thought and action. To calm ourselves inwardly, somehow, first, before we jump to conclusions or react. No matter where you are in life, it’s those pauses that make us sane. Nothing else. One can have the most measured, efficient, rational thought processes in the world, and if you never pause from one thought to the next, you can still be a complete psychopath. Maybe that’s even a workable definition of a psychopath (I don’t know — IANAP).

Morality

We pause. We doubt our own minds — our own ego — our own so-called self. Most of us have learned to do that through toil and pain. Seeing how negatively our disordered thoughts affect others or our self. And so at this stage the pause is more like suppression — a squashing down of our own thoughts and feelings for long enough to consider the feelings of others. We have to or else the chaos takes over.

Squashing down is ok. It’s like morality — what Buddhists call the first training. (By the way I should mention that I don’t identify as Buddhist. I’m way too zig-zaggy for that. But I have done a lot of Buddhist meditation training, and naturally use their frameworks for talking about our minds).

The problem with just relying on morality for our sanity is that it becomes a habit of mistrust towards ourselves. We don’t give ourselves free rein, ever, even when our intentions are good. We have learned to never listen to ourselves. This is plain unpleasant.

Not only is suppression unpleasant, it’s also not enough in the long run — because, by not listening to ourselves, we learn to not look at ourselves, and then all sorts of shadow issues start coming out sideways without us being aware.

Moralising alone is necessary, and yet both painful and not sufficient. This is why we need mind training.

From Morality to Mind Training

What mind training teaches is a new way to pause. A new way to “mind the gap” between our thoughts / emotions and our actions; a way that doesn’t involve suppressing our feelings. The disordered thinking won’t go away. Although it may lessen somewhat, we’ll still need to pause. But we learn to use those pauses to let our feelings flow through us like rain (American Beauty, major spoiler alert). Instead of squashing them down anymore, we let ourselves feel them; radically, like never before. This takes some serious emotional-mental strength and insight. Which is most often called “mindfulness”.

Morality really shines, and ceases to be unpleasant or difficult or boring, when it’s combined with high levels of attention and awareness.

In short, while there may be good reasons why we suppress our knee jerk reactions, over time that’s harmful to ourselves, and even with all that hard work it’s not reliable.

That’s why we need mind training. We all need it — but especially the sanest, kindest-acting ones among us, who’ve learned not to trust ourselves.

There is a better way.

Afterthoughts

Since penning these words, I realized that of course sometimes we are so confused or baffled in our thinking that we cannot even learn to squash down our thoughts or mind the gap, even in a suppression sense, let alone take mind training practices into our lives. Although my post does intentionally edify emotional and thought disorders, which I think is a much needed and refreshing viewpoint from current attitudes of mental “illness” (I dislike this term), it was not my meaning to minimize the suffering of being in the full grip of our difficulties. I certainly didn’t mean to imply that, when we find ourselves gripped by chaos, we should just “try harder”. Internal suppression or transcendence are impossible for all of us at times — and some of us more than others. When this is the case long-term, I still recognize the need for conventional medicine in helping to find traction within thoughts / emotions / moods, as imperfect and riddled with side-effects as most of those treatments are.

I guess the times I’m talking about — when we are apparently sane but inwardly tortured — are those in which we are in active recovery. I define active recovery as putting into daily practice some system of morality to keep us from getting trapped by our own internal chaos. Whether we arrive at active recovery through medication (and I include herbal medications in that), through internal work, or a combination as in my case, it is an essential first step.

The Genius Sex Dwarf

We hardly had any clue what he was up to, other than the upside down pentagram drawn on his door. Us younger kids left him to it, mostly because he had a habit of knotting my collar with his fist if I came too close. When he did emerge, at mealtimes mostly, it was in full leather jacket and boots. To his credit, he usually carried an LP or several under his arm, which he’d flip onto the family record player and educate us with over dinner.

The Genius Sex DwarfThe recent death of musical genius Prince Rogers Nelson triggered memories of the first time I truly heard his music.

Let me just say, I’ve never identified as a Prince “fan” or anything. I didn’t, and don’t, go in for celebrity idolatry. But anyone alive in our culture during those times probably has a few memories brought to mind by his songs.

Flashback to 1992, and I was fourteen. Radio stations at the time had seen to it that I knew most of Prince’s big hits. But I’d never paid much attention.

My elder brother Joachim (Yok — five years my senior) had successfully intimidated the crap out of me for most of my childhood.

Though rarely present in the family home, Yok did return at times to occupy his bedroom. We hardly had any clue what he was up to, other than the upside down pentagram drawn on his door. Us younger kids left him to it, mostly because he had a habit of knotting my collar with his fist if I came too close. Now that I’m an adult I can see that mostly I was scared of how much I looked up to him.

When he did emerge from his dingey pit at the front of our weatherboard house in Lyttelton, for mealtimes mostly, it was in full leather jacket and boots. He usually carried an LP or several under his arm, which he’d flip onto the family record player and educate us with over dinner.

My own nature lacked what others seemed to just grok: boundaries. Social boundaries. Physical boundaries. Imagination (and imaginary) ones. Emotional boundaries. I had an internal confusion about raising walls between myself and others, both internal and external. I’d love to say I had a rare ability to keep my heart open, limitless, my interactions free of prejudice … but I don’t think that was the case. I just wasn’t very cluey about keeping things on the level.

My primary school days had been studded with unwise revelations on my part. I recall whispering to a new friend, “maybe we can get Leah and Elizabeth to come stay at my house in the holidays”, hoping it would make us a team, only to have those notions repeated back to me with elaborations, sing-song nicknames and group laughter the next lunch hour. Another time, it was a made-up language that I offered for playground ridicule.

I had a copy of the Lord of the Rings printed on the finest of rice-paper pages. When I took this to school, the other nine-year-olds found it hilarious, and not thought-provoking as I’d hoped.

Eventually I became good at hiding, and at fighting with my back to a wall. I became, ironically perhaps, both open and alone.

Little Red Corvette

Hagley High School was like a new start. I formed friendships with the most startling of classmates — another boy like myself fascinated with Celtic myth and rituals. We dabbled with Egyption magick and astral projection. I befriended girls who laughed at my jokes instead of my long hair, who teased me in ways that left me breathless — for more.

I didn’t work so hard in class, but I did work very hard to find interesting music that might hold currency with my new clan.

Yok was away one day about that time. I was bored, it was Saturday afternoon, and I came up with a plan to raid his music collection. The plan was: A) sneak into his room. B) take his stuff. C) head to my own sanctuary.

A)

Sepia light through undrawn curtains revealed my brother’s messy bedding, walls covered in posters — Zeppelin to the Pixies, Metallica to Morbid Angel. His floor and desk were equally strewn with empty mugs, greasy plates and cutlery, hand drawn maps of fantasy lands, overflowing ashtrays (at least three of those) and D&D books. My nostrils blended briney sweat, the must of unwashed clothes and stale tobacco into a reek that I barely let myself inhale for fear of choking. Or perhaps it was his imaginary fingers around my neck?

An oasis of tidy, his vinyls were stacked against one wall, plastic sleeves meticulous. I knew most of them from his dinnertime sessions. Black Sabbath — “Paranoid”, Talking Heads — “Stop Making Sense”, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Dire Straits, Split Enz, Judas Priest.

B)

Though jealous of his LPs, they were no use to me, being without a record player in my room. His tape collection, though, was less free from my predation because I could retreat with the family’s portable tape deck.

I went straight for a careless scatter of cassettes on his carpet. Most of them were dubbed off a mate or girlfriend, with scrawled names like “scott’s wicked part one”, “spacey stuff” or “to Yok from Libby”. One caught my eye: “the genius sex dwarf”. What was that all about? I grabbed it and a handful of others impulsively and scarpered before he could return home.

C)

My bedroom was a space where I could dream up a new self, every day. I had draped the walls with mystical velvet hangings and crafted a canopy for my rickety second-hand bed. I’d fashioned my dresser into an altar, bedecked with candles, skulls, charcoal and fragrant herbs set out to dry at cardinal points. Mirrors and chalices to catch moonlight and quill and ink for automatic writing. I wish we’d had digital cameras back then to provide proof of this stuff.

I set candles, burned incense, and in this mystical funk, beneath my admittedly vainglorious canopy, I lay back, eyes closed to tune out the world. “Feeling the music”. (This was something Yok was fond of saying).

I think it was some rather weird guitar drone from Sonic Youth that masked the sound of his footsteps. I later pieced together that actually he had alerted mum and the two, not without an Irish sense of humour, waited outside my room for the best time to sneak in, when the music was loud enough. I didn’t notice the crackle of the hinges as they opened.

His impression of a drill sergeant was legendary in our house-hold and he knew how to use it.

“What the fuck!”

My ears ached at the loudness of his voice, my skin prickled with fright at his apparent nearness, and my eyes flew open. There he was, inches away, veins out, face red, mean smirk somehow still visible around his wide open mouth.

“… are you doing!” he finished, grabbing me by both sides of my collar and twisting mercilessly. He lifted me upright. The canopy above my bed wasn’t very high off the mattress. It tangled around my face. I could barely breathe, nor see him. He gave me a shake.

“That’s my fucking music! Ask first!!”

“Yok!” came the warning voice of my mother.

“OK, fine! I’m sorry!” I shouted back, over the muffling fabric and the sounds of Sonic Youth, quailing from an expected dead arm at least.

“You little shit!” He shouted.

But the blow never came — maybe because of mum’s nearness, or maybe because, as I found out later, he was secretly pleased that his music taste was rubbing off on me. Whatever, instead of thumping me like I probably deserved, he threw me back down on the bed, jabbed the stop/eject button twice and removed his stolen contraband. He grabbed up the others too, then stood and spun around, dreadlocks flying — the sergeant, checking for stragglers. Finding none, he stalked to the door, then paused to survey my room. He saw the altar and sneered.

“You can’t borrow ANYTHING for a MONTH! Stay out of my room!” He stabbed a menacing finger from the doorway, turned away and slammed the door, shutting my mum in the hall, carrying all his tapes with him.

Once my heart-rate slowed a bit, I shakily stood. Mother had left me alone, mercifully.

Sliding canopy fabric along lengths of dowel I’d used as rails, I saw the edge of a cassette sticking out from beneath the altar. He or I must have kicked it there in our haste. All except one eh, Yok?

I retrieved the remaining item. One side was unlabelled. I flipped it in my hand: “the genius sex dwarf”. I slipped it into my pocket, nonchalant with no one around, and carried on tidying my room. Awaiting a better occasion to listen, when I could be sure of my brother’s extended absence.

D)

I’d been dreaming (asleep and awake) about “the girls that tease” for a long few years. Songs like Little Red Corvette removed the need to ask anyone else’s permission for that.

Maybe it was because of the period in my life that I deciphered Prince’s lyrics, or maybe it was a sheer transmission of energy that Prince embodied on radio and television in those late decades of the 20th Century.

But I like to think it was because from that day onward I wasn’t really scared of my brother any more. And despite his threats, in fact he gave me a bit more leeway with his music.

Regardless, whatever it was — all of that probably — the sounds of the Genius Sex Dwarf — Purple Rain, When Doves Cry. Sign o’ the Times. They evoke liberty, passion and potency. A feeling of utter urgency to be heard that was so apparent in Prince’s vocals.

It’s these feelings more than anything else, that will be his legacy to me. I am by no means attempting to be just like him. Even were that possible (let me assure you it is not) God knows, one was enough. But his unapologetic expressiveness is something I do admire, and aspire to. May his particles scatter freely to the four winds.

Oh and one final thing: my brother never cottoned on. To this day I still have that tape in a box of flotsam somewhere.

Glorified Excuse — Yoga and Anorexia

Glorified Excuse has published a heartbreaking piece of writing about yoga and anorexia — all the more heartbreaking for how much hope there is in her words. How close she and others in her situation have come to giving up all hope, brings me to tears sometimes.

It’s not just eating disorders. Many illnesses, physical or mental (is there a difference?) can turn us away from our bodies, lead to segmenting our experience, compartmentalising it into parts that are “OK” and parts that are not. Parts we disown.

Get reading! It’s a gripping, unsettling but ultimately uplifting tale. A reminder that the hero’s journey exists in all corners of the world, every day.

One by one as they occur

Ju&Leo

As I worked my way through a ten year career as a software engineer, each trip to the office was accompanied more and more by a sense of regret for what I’d set aside to step into those high-powered cubicles.

The seeds of this regret were sown by my ignorance of life’s transience. I had taken the blessings in my life for granted and unwittingly traded them in. For the innocence I surrendered in order to “get ahead”, I was compensated only with mechanics and logistics.

It’s not just the dryness of programming tasks. It’s the detachment of busy-ness. Doing fifty, sixty hour weeks, again and again, we begin to acknowledge our joys only when they get in the way. We forget that one day they will be gone. We do things that encourage them to leave even faster.

I only saw my son when he needed feeding.

We scour them with our rushed decisions, life scours them and sours them for us. And when it does, we tell them out of hyperwhelm “not right now” and like troopers they soldier onwards and we want to say “wait, I was wrong, come back,” but we are too proud, unwilling to recognise how lost we truly are, and so we daren’t say it loud enough or soon enough to make a difference.

I could see the pattern forming before my itchy, tired eyes: necessarily they move on. Reluctantly, but with a growing confidence, and when they look back they see a path, straight as fate, paved with yellow bricks, and they think “I’m happy with who I am, I’m glad it happened like that, it all turned out for the best”; but we won’t help thinking “I wish I could’ve made that better for us all” once it’s too late.

Fuck that shit, I believe was my general thinking process, as I resigned my contracts and ceased trawling for new ones. I won’t abandon my joys, or my loved ones. Watch me abandon the departure every morning, the late arrival home instead. Abandon the grind that processes my life into monetized units.

It’s not been a materially successful decision. I wasn’t aiming for that. What I was aiming for, was a life lived in recognition of the moments, one by one as they occur. Fitting material needs around recognition of heartache. In holding a space for loving life so much, while knowing that one day I will be gone.

The doctors call it burn out, there’s talk of “recovery”. So that I can get back that 75k per year I’m missing out on.

Whatever. If I only live another thirty seconds, I will die knowing that I was doing what mattered most to me. And that knowledge is not, any longer, for sale.

All Things Are Connected

Plants communicate via a hidden network of fungal connections.

So it turns out that plants communicate via a hidden network of fungal connections [article thanks to the BBC].

Trees and other plant life are not, as scientists have naively thought until recently, sub-sentient lifeforms, separate from each other. In their natural habitat with full fungal symbiosis, forest flora collect, process and disseminate multi-dimensional information to one another within a network or “macro-organism” of massive scale.

Broad bean seedlings that were not themselves under attack by aphids, but were connected to those that were via fungal mycelia, activated their anti-aphid chemical defenses. Those without mycelia did not.

Here’s a YouTube video about this by a forester with a Ph.D. (for the sci cred):

In this video she states that the communication takes place even across different species of plants. And further in the first article, we are told:

“These fungal networks make communication between plants, including those of different species, faster, and more effective,” says [chemical ecologist at Xavier University, Ohio] Kathryn Morris. “We don’t think about it because we can usually only see what is above ground. But most of the plants you can see are connected below ground, not directly through their roots but via their mycelial connections.”

Imagine how much earthy wisdom was lost when the old forests of Europe were felled… Mindlessly… By the clever human; and how much ancient light is currently being lost, traded for soulless monocrops, perversions of natural ecosystems, using plants that do not have even the capacity to reproduce, in places like the Amazonian rainforest or the jungles of Indonesia.

Check out the video text description for more writings by Suzanne Simard about the role of fungal networks in forest macro-organisms.

Vedana — Nothing is Neutral, or is it?

The Buddha placed the notion of “feeling tones” pretty high up in his teachings. Known in Sanskrit as vedana, these feeling-tones refer to the way sensations and thoughts get sorted by our minds into pleasant, unpleasant or neither.

When hearing this, my first thought was always “what about feelings that are both pleasant and unpleasant, like nostalgia?” But I’ve since come to think of a single hit of nostalgia as actually a constellation of many different sensations and vedana.

These vedana have been coming to the fore in my sitting meditation practice lately, usually with some kind of reminiscence woven in, and it got me thinking …

12b3gv

The pleasant / unpleasant feels often get the most attention from our conscious mind. You could say that a main function of having an attention span is to limit our exposure to the details by tuning out the neutral vedana as “inconsequential”. There is good reason for this: take a scene like sitting beside a stream in a forested glade with bird and insect life all around, the smells, the feeling of the sun’s warmth. There is simply too much sensory input to process through our focused attention span without overwhelming ourselves. Instead, most of it fades into the background, our peripheral awareness. Or else never even enters our field of experience at all. There are whole brain circuits in charge of keeping input out of our mind.

This is one reason why in meditation often we close our eyes. We tend to favour quieter locations. Because during meditation we are making a deliberate attempt to be as aware as possible. This has powerful effects on those input-dampening brain circuits. It requires, at least initially, that we create an environment with less input, so that we can focus more intently on noticing every sensation that is present.

I’ve found that even after meditation (so, off the cushion as it were) there is a lot to be gained from being a little more mindful of the full spectrum of feeling including the neutral. For one thing, the neutral tones are far more numerous than the rest, and so by becoming more aware of them we are coming closer to a complete experience of life. Also, there is something to be said for coming to see the world less as a source of entertainment and conflict.

A more comprehensive awareness of the plainness of reality promotes a kind of sensory moderation that in itself is liberating from the push and pull of striving and attainment. Think of how a flower grows on time-lapse through day and night, wind and sun and rain, with a total lack of vainglory and a simple impression of selfless expression. Total surrender to its own being with no regard for right or wrong, sun or rain, pleasant or unpleasant.

Thirdly, there is an important amount of insight in the very arbitrariness of these “neutral” experiences — the sound of the refrigerator kicking in. Bzzzzzzz… reality. Mundane reality. Not a psychodrama of wonder, delight and horror. Just … refrigerator turning on. Chains of cause and effect. Neighbour loads a trailer. A smell of smoke.

And then you have the Tantric viewpoint, which takes neutral beyond the mundane, with realizations that bring deep insight even from the neutral vedana. If we take the object of these neutral feeling tones into deeper awareness they have the same capacity to reveal the nature of mind as any other experience. Tantrikas place great weight on the insight that all phenomena are “intrinsically luminous” — even the mundane. Even the agonisingly painful. All can be taken skilfully as objects for deepening consciousness.

In Buddha’s original teachings, in fact there are no true categories of feeling, not to the Enlightened Ones. All is simply taken as “such”. This is the essence of equanimity — full comprehension of the entire input stream, without preference for any of the vedana. All simply are in possession of suchness — tathātā. That page is a highly worthwhile read. And another name for the Buddha? Tathāgāta: “one who goes such”.

A human. Transmuted, through the effortless effort to let things be just as they are, into a frictionless passage for cause and effect, in each moment synchronised with and manifesting of the beginningless and endless suchness of reality.

Let this be the goal and the actual attainment of all beings.

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle. — Thích Nhất Hạnh