Friday, 16 December 2016

The pelvic floor in detail

In this article I'm going to turn my attention to an area of the body I've been trying to develop more of an awareness of for quite some years – the pelvic floor (which I have written about before).

The pelvic floor is a multi-layered sheet of muscle and fascia that functions like a hammock at the bottom of your torso. The weight of your organs rest on it and in doing so it helps to maintain optimal intra-abdominal pressure. The muscles work to help maintain continence, and stabilise the hips and the whole spine-leg connection. Once it would've also lifted and wagged your tail! It's also the location of your muladhara chakra.

Over the last year I've been reading and digesting the book "Pelvic Power" by Eric Franklin. It's a very good little book. Franklin specialises in using visualisation to help your awareness and functional coordination of your body, which is great and makes it kinda fun! But as far as I can work out there are a couple of mistakes in his diagrams and I've been left feeling a little confused as to exactly what's what.

No surprise really since the pelvic floor is actually a very complex area!


Let's start with the bones to get our bearings. Here's an image of your pelvis from the front. If you can feel your hips sticking just underneath your waist, they're your Iliac Crests. The two protrusions sticking down underneath your bum are your Ischial Tuberosities (commonly known as your sitting bones). The two halves of your Ilium come together at the front at the Pubic Symphysis – commonly known as your pubic bone.
Credit: Pearson Education, Inc (2015)

That seems relatively straightforward...

Take a moment to identify the four "corners" of your pelvic floor with your fingers: your pubic bone at the front and your tail bone (coccyx) at the back, and the two sitting bones (ischial tuberosities) underneath. Actually touching these points really helps in getting a sense of where we're at in the body.


From now on we have to be careful as there are some differences between the male and female anatomy. I think this is what has confused me for so long, as the books and sources I've read often show what it's like for a woman and don't say how it's different for a man...

(1) The deep layer

So let's start by looking down on the pelvic floor (as per this beautiful image of the female anatomy from There are three main muscles here: the pubococcygeus and the iliococcygeus (which, together with the puborectalis are collectively called the levator ani – literally "anus-lifter") and the coccygeus.

The Pubococcygeus forms the the top layer and connects front to back – tail to pubic bone. To engage this one, visualise drawing your coccyx and pubic bones towards each other. You might even feel some movement in your coccyx as you do this (you're wagging your tail!).

In men, contracting the Pubococcygeus muscle (and/or the abdominal muscles) can voluntarily engage the Cremaster muscle to lift the testicles. Normally the Cremaster is under involuntary control.

The Iliococcygeus and Coccygeus sit underneath and connect the tail bone to the sides of the ilium (a touch back from the pubic bone). The fibres of these muscles form a triangle (or fan) with the apex at the tail bone.

Fan shaped pelvic floor. Credit: Eric Franklin
The levator ani muscles can be thought of as a fan radiating out from the coccyx. Engaging and releasing these muscles shorten or lengthen the distance between the hips and the coccyx (putting your tail between your legs). Credit: Eric Franklin

The puborectalis forms a sling around the rectum helping you hold things in when you need to... Squatting when you poo helps relax this muscle and eases the exit channel.

(2) The mid layer

Moving outwards, the next layer is the Urogenital Diaphragm. This is composed of the Deep Transverse Perineal muscle and the Urethral Sphincter (a ring muscle around the urethra – what you wee through).

The word perineum usually refers to the part of the pelvic floor between the anus and vagina/scrotum. The deep transverse perineal muscle sits under the levator ani muscle group and connects side-to-side (sitting bone to sitting bone). It's function is to help support the perineal body (central tendon running north-south along the perineum), the expulsion of semen in males, and squeezing the last drops of urine out for both sexes. To engage it, visualise pulling your sitting bones towards each other. This might take a bit of practice (you can tell when someone is trying by the look on their face...)

This image shows this mid-layer for both the male and female anatomy and how they correspond.

Credit: Antranik

(3) The superficial layer

For this layer it's helpful to look from underneath. As I'm sure you realise, the pelvic diaphragm has a number of holes in it... At the back we have the anus (surrounded by the deep levator ani muscles). At the front we have the urethra (and vagina for women) surrounded by the ischiocavernosus and bulbospongiosus muscles. In men, the bulbospongiosus surrounds the base of the penis and is the big spongy muscle you can feel running front-to-back along your undercarriage. It helps hold an erection and also helps ejaculation. In women, it contributes to clitoral erection, and closes the vagina. For both sexes it contributes to the contractions of orgasm, and also squeezing those last drops of urine out.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

There's also the Superficial Transverse Perineal muscles which are narrow muscular strips connecting sitting bone to the central tendon on either side. In some people they may be absent or connect slightly differently.

Here's another diagram from Fraklin's book showing the geometry of these muscles on the bottom surface of your pelvic floor (note: diagram is of a female anatomy). There's the triangle at the front formed of the Ischiocavernosus and Transverse Perineal muscles, then the figure of 8 formed by the Bulbospongiosus and anal sphincter. With these shapes, Franklin does a good job in simplifying things to help you work out what's what.

The triangle and figure of eight of the pelvic floor. Credit Eric Franklin
Credit: Eric Franklin

I'd like to finish by noting that these layers of muscle are (of course) all wrapped in fascia, forming the whole connected integrated (and complicated) pelvic diaphragm.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Buddha's enlightenment

I'd like to tell you a story. Are you sitting comfortably?

Axial age

It's around 500 B.C.E.. The Persian king Cyrus was preparing to invade Babylon. Pythagoras was alive and Greece’s experiment with democracy was flourishing. The great philosopher Confucius (Kong Qui) was beginning to teach in China and Lao-tzu was laying the foundations for Taoism. Zoroaster founded Zoroastrianism, the dominant religion in Iran up until the coming of Islam. It was a time of revolutionary change the world over – some historians call it the "axial age".

In India, the dominant religion was the Vedic faith, which had been around for a good 1000 years at this point. The Vedas are texts that lay out descriptions of particular rituals (and their associated poems, hymns, etc) for things like fertility, rain, bringing good luck in battle, etc. Over these 1000 years, the highest caste Brahmin priests had assumed more and more power since they were the only ones allowed to perform these rituals and communicate with the Gods. As you can imagine not everybody was happy with this situation...

At around this time a kind of protest movement, or peaceful revolt, to this Brahmin domination started. People from the lower castes, typically the warrior/ruler Kshatriya caste, started renouncing the Brahmin-controlled system and going out into the forest-wilderness to search for another way.

Siddhartha Guatama

At this same time, a boy was born on the very edges of the Vedic/Brahman culture, in Lumbini on what is now the border between India and Nepal – in the foothills of the Himalayas. The little boy, who was called Siddhartha Guatama, was born to the Shakya family clan, and his father happened to be the tribal leader of this small kingdom.

When the baby was born he was taken to the fortune teller (as is the custom in India to this day) and they gave two possible destinies: (1) he was going to be a great, wise and wonderful ruler, or (2) he was going to be a great, wise and wonderful spiritual leader. His father, being a ruler himself, didn’t really like the sound of the second option, so the boy was brought up to be a ruler. He was also brought up in complete luxury with his family not wanting to expose him to any kind of suffering at all. He had a palace for each season, only good-looking, courteous people to wait on him, and as he got older, no end of dancing girls!

One day in his 20s, as he was preparing to take over the rulership of the kingdom, he went out with his chariot driver, Channa, for a drive to have a look around. As they were heading down the road they encountered a sick person hobbling by. The young Siddhartha had never actually seen anybody who was ill before – the old texts says he didn’t even recognise the person as human. “What’s that?” he says, and the chariot driver explained to him. A little further on he saw an old person, slumped over, and again he came to the realisation, through the gentle guidance of Channa, that everybody (including himself) was going to get old. Further down the line still they saw a dead person carried along in a funeral procession. Again the prince was dumbfounded and realised that not only will he get ill and get old, but he will also die.

Siddhartha out with his charioteer having his mind blown!

As you can imagine, he was in shock! Further down the road still he and his chariot driver saw a wandering holy man (a sadhu), and the chariot driver explained that this person was seeking for that which was beyond old age, sickness and death. This very much intrigued Siddhartha.

So the young man had a chat with his wife (who'd just recently given birth) and he somehow convinced her that he wanted to go off to search for himself for "that which was beyond old age, sickness and death". He slipped out of the palace with Channa, his charioteer, in the middle of the night and disappeared into the forest. He was about 29 at this point.

His search

I can't imagine what those first few nights must have been like. He'd grown up in this sheltered life of luxury – what a contrast! However, bearing in mind the age he was living in, there was a whole movement of people in the forests of northern India searching for new ways outside the established Vedic/Brahmin tradition. Over the coming months or years he found a number of different teachers (possibly yogis) to study with, and became very skilled at what they had to offer, but none of them could show him that which was beyond old age, sickness, and death.

After about 6 years of wandering and studying, he got really into fasting and reached a stage of eating just one grain of rice a day... He was on the verge of starvation and saw that, far from seeing clearly, his mind was getting duller by the day. It just so happened that one day a maid named Sujata was wandering by, and, looking at his emaciated body, offered him a bowl of milk rice sweetened with lumps of honey. He accepted it.

A very early statue of an emaciated Buddha-to-be
He started eating properly again an getting his strength back. One day he was sitting by the river Neranjara in northern India and sees a boat going past. Perhaps it was a vision or perhaps real life. On the boat there was somebody playing a veena (a type of Indian guitar). This veena had three strings, one of which is so loose and flappy that he can’t get any sound out of it, and one of which is so tight that the instant he touches it, it just breaks. The middle that’s tuned just right where he can get some music out of it. Seeing this, Siddhartha saw that humans are the same: they don’t work well if you over-tighten things (like doing ascetic practices), and too much slackness doesn’t work either (his life of luxury in the palace). He became convinced that the middle path was the way to go.

So with this in mind, Siddhartha went and sat beneath an enormous fig tree (of the type that has a big root structure with little niches to sit between) and began to meditate. He made a commitment: "Let my skin and sinews and bones dry up, together with all the flesh and blood of my body! I welcome it! But I will not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom." He was at a place called Bodh Gaya, in the modern Indian state of Bihar, and was in his mid-30s at this point.

A Bodhi tree with a big root structure ideal for meditating inside.


According to some traditions he sat for just one night. Others say three days and three nights; while others say 45 days. Between his periods of sitting, he apparently mindfully paced up and down a path about 17 steps in length in walking meditation.

After one particularly eventful night of meditation, so it is said, Siddhartha looked up and saw the morning star (Venus) in the golden light of daybreak. At this he had a great awakening and exclaimed "I am enlightened, together with the whole of the great earth and all its sentient beings." He saw in his mind all the life of the world and the planets; of all the past and all the future. He understood the meaning of existence, of why we are here on this earth and what has created us. At long last he found the truth – that which is beyond old age, sickness, and death. The name Buddha means “the awakened one.”

But what is this truth? If you want to know that for yourself, come along to one of our Zen meditation sessions!

Different schools of Buddhism remember the Buddha's awakening at different times during the year. In the Zen school it’s always on December 8th and they call it the Rohatsu retreat – it’s akin to a sort of Zen Christmas! So last night (7th Dec) we sat all through the night (9pm through to 7am) to remember this journey the Buddha took, and to share in his commitment to "not move from this spot until I have attained the supreme and final wisdom".

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 1 December 2016

Having a conversation with my deep tissue

Over the last few months I've been going to a guy called Giovanni Felicioni to be Rolfed. Rolfing Structural Integration originates from an American Woman called Ida Rolf who died in 1979, and is all about integrating human structure and function in the field of gravity. This is done through working on the level of connective tissue (fascia) with touch and manipulation and through educating the person in their body use and sensory perceptiveness. It's fantastic!

Although the touch can often be very strong (elbow deep into the side of my thigh, for example), the work is surprisingly subtle. His fingers are doing something on my back, but it's not massage... Massage is about relaxing muscles and that I can understand. But with Rolfing, my mind is often filled with the question "what is he doing?" He also asks me questions, and they also often leave my thinking-mind reeling. Like a Zen koan, they can't be answered by thinking about it, but only through feeling. While my rational mind is dazed and confused (and a bit put out that it's so useless), my intuitive mind is right on it. I often cannot put an answer into words so I say "I don't know" and Giovanni replies saying "don't know is a great place to be! It's a place of potential, of exploration."

I've come to see Giovanni's touch more like communication than massage. He's having a conversation with my body (through the fascia and tissues). What my rational mind can't work out is the language of the conversation – that's why it feels so put out! Besides the more direct work on releasing the unblocking the fascia in certain parts of my body, he's also helping my system to make new connections and relationships. Part of the conversation he's having with my body (I think) is about saying things like "hey, what about making friends with this part over here?"

I said to Giovanni at our last session that I understood our work to be on the level of connecting body and mind. He thought that was too simplistic! He thought it better to think of the work on four dimensions not two:

Physical tissues

This would be the muscles, fascia and bones that make up your body. The physical stuff.

Mind that makes sense of things

This is the part of the mind that likes to make sense of things, make storylines, and interpret what's going on. For example, "my pelvis has an anterior tilt (bum sticks out) because my hip flexors are tight and my sacrum isn't free to move easily", or "I round my shoulders forwards because I feel timid", etc.

Coordinative function

So we've got the physical stuff of our body, but when we bring that into movement that's a whole different story. How we coordinate our movements and actions are a function of things like who we learnt from, our environment, our habits, past injuries or traumas, etc.


This would be on the level of the way you perceive yourself, or how you'd like to be perceived in the world. For example "I'm a hurt person", "I'm a big tough guy", "I want to stand up straighter", "I want to be more confident", etc. These are the intentions or resolutions that we make that influence how we coordinate the physical tissues and how we make sense of all that.

I feel like I'm just starting on this Rolfing journey. It's a whole different wisdom which isn't yoga, but is. Ida Rolf studied yoga in her early life and yoga was a major factor in her understanding of the human system. Giovanni also teaches yoga based in the Scaravelli method.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 6 October 2016

From a clockwork universe to the uncertainty of quantum mechanics

Before the turn of the 20th century, most people (physicists included) thought the universe ran like a clockwork machine. If you could measure the properties of the universe accurately enough, you could predict how it was to behave in the future. It was, in other words, "deterministic". Much of this was down to the ideas of Newton.

Newtonian mechanics

It's probably fair to say that no single individual has had a greater influence on the scientific view of the world than Sir Isaac Newton. He was a genius (a god in the physics world!), but like all genii he lived in his particular era of history. In 1543, a century before Newton's birth, Nicolaus Copernicus launched a scientific revolution by rejecting the prevailing Earth-centred view of the Universe in favour of a heliocentric view in which the Earth moved round the Sun. Galileo was summoned to appear before the Inquisition in 1633 charged with heresy for supporting Copernicus' ideas. As a result Galileo was "shown the instruments of torture".

Newton's great achievement was to provide a synthesis of scientific knowledge to explain why the planets went round the sun (among other things). He discovered a convincing quantitative framework that seemed to underlie everything else – he proposed his law of gravity. By combining this law with his general laws of motion, Newton was able to demonstrate mathematically that a single planet would move around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. For the first time, scientists felt they understood the fundamentals, and it seemed that future advances would merely fill in the details of Newton's grand vision.

An orrery – a mechanical clockwork model of the motions of the planets in the solar system

Newton's discoveries became the basis for much more study, and the upshot of this was a mechanical world-view that regarded the Universe as something that unfolded like clockwork – predictable and mechanistic. People thought that once this mechanism had been set in motion, its future development was, in principle, entirely predictable. Hence the Universe was thought to be "deterministic", and physicists felt very safe with this idea.

This mechanistic view still prevailed two centuries later (up to the end of the 19th century) as scientists continued to stand on Newton's large shoulders and think they just had to "fill in the details". For example, a stormy sea may look random and unpredictable, but this is just a consequence of its complexity and the huge number of water molecules involved. In the mechanistic view, if you had a big enough computer and accurate knowledge of the starting conditions, such a system would be entirely predictable.

Cracks in the clockwork

However, some cracks in Newtons clockwork mechanism were starting to appear. In the late 19th century, a number of discoveries happened that just couldn't be explained by the old model – including the discovery of the photoelectric effect by Heinrich Hertz (1887) and of the electron by J. J. Thomson (1897) and the fact that electric charge occurs in indivisible units called quanta (Millikan, 1909).

Along came Einstein in the early 20th century. He put forward new theories of gravity and energy (he won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for his explanation of Hertz's photoelectric effect). In 1913, Nils Bohr explained the discrete spectral emission lines of the hydrogen atom, again by using the idea of quantization and what later came to be known as "photons" (1926). The "quantum revolution" had begun!

Over the last 75 years or so, quantum mechanics has brought a profound change in human thinking, particularly around the notion of "indeterminism".

The quantum revolution

Quantum physics is concerned primarily with things at the microscopic scale such as atoms and molecules, and how they move and interact. In the quantum world we find a very serious kind of unpredictability that cannot be blamed on our ignorance of the details or our lack of computation clout. Instead it turns out to be a fundamental feature of nature. In the realm of atoms, all we can do is calculate probabilities for different outcomes – and we can never, even in principle, do any better.

A 3D quantum view of an atom formed of protons and neutrons in the nucleus, surrounded by electrons. Electrons aren't really in orbits, but more in fuzzy "probability zones" that look like shells and lobes.

One example is the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus. Unstable nuclei (e.g. uranium-238) will "spontaneously" decay into a more stable form by emitting a particle. Quantum mechanics allows us to predict with high accuracy the time after which half of a collection of unstable nuclei will have decayed (the half-life), but not when one particular nucleus will have decayed.

Strange behaviour

The problem is things at the quantum level just don't behave like things on a macroscopic level. One of the inherent differences is that single particles (like an electron) sometimes behave as if they're solid "particles" and sometimes behave as if they are waves. This paradoxical behaviour has been known since Thomas Young's double-slit experiment way back in 1805. The fact is they're both, and neither. The concept of a solid particle (like a snooker ball) is inadequate, and the idea of a wave (like a water wave) is also inadequate. What we call particles (like an electron) are really more like packets of wave-like energy and they just appear to behave differently in different circumstances.

We're taught at school that an atom is composed of a small, positively charged nucleus surrounded by electrons that travel in circular orbits around the nucleus (similar in structure to the solar system). This model was introduced by Niels Bohr and Ernest Rutherford in 1913. It's a helpful way of thinking of things, but not entirely correct. The electrons are not balls whizzing around in an orbit. All we can say is that there's a certain region within which we're most likely to find the electron wave-packet when we look.

in 1927, Werner Heisenberg discovered what he called the "uncertainty principle". It says that one can never know at the same time the precise location and velocity of a "particle". The better you know one, the less certain you can be about the other. It's a consequence of their very nature.


After hundreds of years of thinking of the Universe mechanistically, this old mindset has filtered down into society as a whole. We all, to some degree, view the world as acting like clockwork. If I do this, that happens; cause produces effect – it's safe, secure, predictable and dependable.

But reality isn't like that. Uncertainty and probability are built in.

Uncertainty, fuzziness, indeterminacy are wonderful things! In his essay on the "Seven Radical Principles of Wise Decision Making", Martin Boronson comments that it's because we deeply despise uncertainty that we value decisiveness so much. However it's in holding that uncertainty that and being ok with it that creativity can happen. "New ideas only emerge if we can sustain the tension and anxiety [of the uncertainty] and wait."

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 23 September 2016

We're all made from stardust

We're all made from the same 96 elements (like carbon, nitrogen, etc). Actually humans are only made up of about 11 of those 96, but they're the same 11 as are found throughout the Universe. It's all the same stuff!

Have you ever thought about where all these elements come from? Maybe not! The answer is they all come from space, either being formed right back at the very beginning of the Universe or in stars that have born and died through the aeons. Quite literally we're all made from stardust.

I feel some astronomy coming on...

The entire Universe is one

To all intents and purposes, the theory and our latest observations agree that the beginning of the Universe started with a Big Bang. At the point of the big bang, everything was compressed into a single point of infinite density and infinite heat (which is really just energy). Everything in the entire Universe was once compressed together into a single point. Isn't that amazing – science shows we are all one.

As you might imagine, the explosion that followed was immense. The physics implies that the Universe underwent an incredible period of what's known as "inflation", where it increased in size by an enormous amount in a very very short time.

As the Universe then continued to expand and cool after this rapid inflation, the pure energy began to condense out into subatomic particles. In 1905, Einstein published his theory of special relativity, stating that energy is equivalent to mass (multiplied by the speed of light). Energy is equivalent to mass – it's another incredible concept! Essentially, mass (basically all "things") is just condensed, solidified energy. It blows my mind every time I think of it!

The Big Bang element factory

So as the Universe was cooling from it's infinitely high temperature, pure energy started solidifying into particles – first into things like quarks and other exotically named particles, then into more common or garden protons and neutrons, etc. At these high temperatures, a series of reactions started to convert single protons into atoms of hydrogen (two protons together) and helium (four protons and some neutrons), and a small fraction of lithium and beryllium. At the end of this cooling off period, the Universe contained about 75% hydrogen and about 24.99% helium.

So we've now got 4 of our elements (albeit not much of the other two). The big bang couldn't produce any elements heavier than beryllium due to a bottleneck in the reaction (as it happens, the absence of a stable nucleus with 8 or 5 nucleons).

The stellar element factory

Now we need to fast-forward about 200 million years to when the first stars formed. (This is a mere blink of the eye for the Universe, bearing in mind it is currently 13.5 billion years old.) So these large clouds of hydrogen and helium were floating around, getting bigger because gravity was pulling in more material, and gently cooling. Eventually, one clump somewhere deep inside one of these clouds got big enough to start collapsing in on itself. One of the things about gravitational collapse is that it really starts to heat things up. Right in the middle it got hot enough to start a totally new type of reaction – that of compressing 4 hydrogen atoms together to form helium. Stellar nuclear fusion was born and indeed the first star was born.

Stars can be thought of as giant furnaces that convert lighter elements to heavier elements and in the process release energy that radiates out (some of which we see). The reaction bottleneck that the plain Universe got stuck on was overcome in this fusion reaction.

Stars spend the majority of their life converting hydrogen into helium because it's extremely efficient, and there's so much hydrogen (even in a star like our own Sun) that this reaction can continue for billions of years. There are two main fusion reactions that are important inside of stars. For stars of small-medium size with (comparatively) low core temperatures, a reaction known as the p-p chain dominates. For medium-big starts with much higher core temperatures, a process known as the CNO cycle (standing for carbon-nitrogen-oxygen) dominates.

Both the p-p chain and the CNO cycle have the same effect though. Four protons are combined to form a helium atom, liberating energy (and a few other bits). The difference is that the CNO cycle requires the presence of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen to act as catalysts, thus producing energy more efficiently than in the p-p chain.

So where does this carbon, nitrogen and oxygen come from if all stars do is convert hydrogen into helium? Some of it is produced very near the end of a small-medium size star's life. The majority, however, is formed in a supernova.

The supernova element factory

A nova is a burst or explosion in a star. Some stars undergo regular nova outbursts. A supernova, as you might imagine, is a much bigger version of a nova, and it tends to be catastrophic. There are two main types of supernovae. The first happens when there are two stars in orbit around one another, and the more massive star is sucking material from the smaller one. At some point so much material accumulates on the bigger star that it can't cope with the pressure (literally) and it implodes. The second type concerns very massive single stars (typically bigger than around 8 times the mass of our Sun). These massive stars consume their hydrogen fuel fast. At the end of their lives, as the fuel runs out, the outward force holding the star up fades and again the star implodes. A supernova happens when the imploding material rebounds to produce one of the Universe's most energetic explosions.

Binary star where one star is sucking material from the other

It's in this second type of (so-called "core collapse") supernova that many of the heavier elements we know and love are formed. In fact all the elements from carbon up to and including iron are produced in supernovae through various processes. For example, large amounts of radioactive (and therefore unstable) nickel can be produced, which would quickly decay into stable iron.

The periodic table indicating the main origin of elements found on Earth (source).

For the elements heavier than iron another process is needed, and this is called r-process neutron capture (r for rapid). This can only work in the super-high density and high temperature conditions of a supernova. Lighter elements rapidly accumulate neutrons to create particular very heavy isotopes, which then decay to the first stable isotope. All the "heavy" elements from iron up to about plutonium are made this way.

The remnant of a core-collapse supernova explosion
When the supernova explodes, it blasts all this enriched material out into its environment. It stirs up the gas and mixes everything together. This is another reason why supernovae are so important – they get the newly enriched material back out into space.

Generations of stars forming and exploding

So let's say you have a big gas cloud that initially forms a few million stars. After some time a few of the big ones will go supernova. Leave it another few million years and some of that expelled gas will come together again and form a new generation of stars enriched by the previous generation of supernovae. After a few times through the cycle you collect up enough material to start forming rocky planets – and eventually (maybe) life.

Our Sun is thought to be a 3rd-generation star and has been shining for about 5 billion years.

Look around you right now. Everything you see is made of material that was forged in the furnace of past stars and supernovae. And who's to say that all this stuff may be swept up in some future event and incorporated in a new star and planet system...

As the Buddha said, all things are subject to change, even if it takes millions of years.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 2 September 2016

Mindfulness and family

The Buddha talked about four stages of enlightenment. The first he called "stream enterer", describing someone who sees through the delusion of self and no longer sees themselves as being separate from the rest of the Universe. In Zen you "enter the stream" when you have your first kensho – when you see your true nature.

Push-pull factors, desire & aversion

The next two stages describe someone who has greatly reduced and then completely eradicated those things that act as push-pull factors in our lives (i.e. things that we're attracted to and averse to, wanting things to go "our way") and any feelings of ill will (including hate and anger). The final stage is to see through all delusions and attain the highest enlightenment.

So in this description, someone could've entered the stream (seen through the illusion of our self being a separate entity that needs constant protection), without dealing with any of those other things related to sensual desire and aversion. Basically that person could still be a pretty horrible person! It's rare, but it could happen.

At this point it's important to point out that being free from those push-pull, desire factors doesn't mean we stop liking or disliking things – we still, for example, like hot sunny days and dislike cold wet days. But the difference is we're totally ok when it's cold and wet. It's no problem.

Seeing our true nature and entering the stream is not that hard to do. In Zenways we run 3-day retreats aimed at precisely this. But reducing and eventually eradicating our desires and aversions – well, that's something else entirely! This is the part I want to focus on here. Whether or not you've reached that first stage it's so important, and in my understanding has a lot to do with mindfulness.

Spending time with family

I've just spent almost two weeks with my mum – probably the longest continuous time I've spent with her for years! She's been living in Stockholm for more than 10 years and this year she decided she wanted to move back. The move date was last weekend. I went over and spent a few days with her in Stockholm helping her prepare things, then we spent 3 days on the road driving back with her cats, then I spent a few more days with her in her new house in England.

On the road with mum's cats

Because she's disabled there are some things she can do fine, other things she can do, but not quite as you would, and other things she just can't do. Maybe everyone is actually like this. The trick is to let her do what she can do, be ok with the things she does not quite as you would, and jump in with the things she can't do.

As we arrived at her new place in England, I felt a rising sense of wanting to do more to help her. Lots needed to be done that she simply couldn't do. This feeling kept rising and actually felt like it accelerated as the days went by. It got to the point where I realised I wasn't doing some of the things I enjoy doing because I perceived her need as being greater. Of course that was just my perception – a delusion. It had nothing to do with her. I was being sucked in to the drama of the situation to the detriment of my internal balance.

As I'm sure you know, family members have a particular ability to press your buttons like no-one else can! They wind you up! By definition that phrase means the effect is cumulative. Lots of little things that slightly annoy you or frustrate you literally wind you up until you blow up over something quite trivial.

In both these situations, mindfulness is absolutely key.


If we can be aware of each little thing that annoys you as it arises then in each situation we can make a choice – to acknowledge and allow that thing without judgement, simply letting it go, or you express the emotion(s) that arise because of it. If we do this truly and honestly then we don't hold onto anything and there's no cumulative build up.

Of course discerning if it's appropriate to express your feelings in that moment or whether to hold your tongue and mention it later also requires mindfulness. And discerning when you're holding on/repressing an emotion because you think it's not appropriate to express it (at all/to that person) also needs mindfulness.

The original translation of the Pali word "sati" (which nowadays is translated to "mindfulness") is "recollection" or "remembering". Remembering to stay rooted in the sensations and feelings of the present moment without being carried away into worries and anxieties about some fantasised future. Remembering that you are not a separate being with a separate self that needs protecting – you are actually not separate from the other person or indeed the whole Universe. Getting annoyed and irritated at something stems from the delusion of a separate self.

Another analogy for the stages of enlightenment that Daizan often uses is that of cleaning a very dirty window. It starts off so dirty that no light can get through. As we start to practice, we start cleaning one tiny part of the window. Kensho is when that first shaft of light breaks through. The next stages represent more and more cleaning and more and more of the light coming through. It's all the same light, but there's just more of it. More of us comes into the light.

The result of all of this is that I feel my relationship with mum is much easier than it was. There's a sense of flow in the relationship and we can have fun together! I can love her more fully, and better appreciate the love between us. So it's well worth it!

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Saturday, 27 August 2016

Who are you to decide?

In my previous post I was talking about Peter Levine's amazing book called "In an Unspoken Voice". It summarises what Levine has found over a career of over 40 years in the field of stress and trauma. Specifically I was talking about a section of the book from near the end where he discusses emotions and embodiment.

In this post I'm going to take another aspect from this same section of the book where he talks about change, and the concept of free will.

Free will

As I mentioned in the previous post, at the turn of 19th century psychologist William James concluded that rather than acting because we feel an emotion, we feel the emotion because we are (re)acting.

In his book, Levine discusses how this realisation highlights the illusory nature of perception. He says "We commonly think that when we touch something hot, we draw our hand away because of the pain. However, the reality is that if we waited until we experienced the pain, our hand might be damaged beyond repair. First there is a reflex, then comes the sensation of pain." Makes sense when you think about it...

There have now been many experiments that show that when you "decide" to do something, seemingly of free will, the activity in the brain starts about 1/2 sec (or more even) before you’re consciously aware of making that decision (the first experiment to show this was done in 1985). The brain starts by unconsciously preparing the motor action (springing to life as it were), then the awareness of the decision to move comes, then the action is made.
“Your decisions are strongly prepared by brain activity. By the time consciousness kicks in, most of the work has already been done." – Dr. John-Dylan Haynes (a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences)
William James argued that a person’s passing states of consciousness create a false sense of I or "ego" that runs the show – like a little man (or alien) inside our heads controlling things!

A little man in the head controlling things. From "Men in Black"

When we look at the reality of things, we see this is simply an illusion. The idea that we have a separate self that needs nurturing and protecting is simply not true.


Levine suggests that instead of "I think therefore I am" it should be "I prepare to move, I act, I sense, I feel, I perceive, I reflect, I think and therefore I am". (This sounds remarkably like the Buddha's 12-linked chain of causation.)

It's this unconscious preparation for action (or pre movement as he calls it) that's so interesting. Levine suggests that it's "because we are unaware of our environmentally triggered premovement that we falsely believe we are consciously initiating and constructing the movement. Furthermore, when the (unacknowledged) premovement drive is strong, we may feel compelled to fully enact the entire movement sequence." He then gives two examples:

Interrupting the premovement

The first is about his dog, who has a strong instinctual urge to chase other animals (don't they all!). He found that breaking his "habit" by reprimanding him after the chase never worked. However, "if at the very moment his posture changed as he noticed an animal up ahead (hinting at his readiness to leap forward), I would firmly but gently say "No, heel" then he would calmly continue on his walk." So he interrupted his dog in the premovement stage so the action was never carried out.

The other example is a Zen story.

A young, brash samurai swordsman confronted a venerated Zen master with the following demand: "I want you to tell me the truth about the existence of heaven and hell." The master replied gently and with delicate curiosity, "How is it that such an ugly and untalented man as you can become a samurai?" Immediately, the wrathful young samurai pulled out his sword and raised it above his head, ready to strike the old man and cut him in half. Without fear, and in complete calm, the Zen master gazed upward and spoke softly: "This is hell." The samurai paused, sword held above his head. His arms fell like leaves to his side, while his face softened from its angry glare. He quietly reflected. Placing his sword back into its sheath, he bowed to the teacher in reverence. "And this," the master replied again with equal calm, "is heaven."


Here the Zen master showed the samurai how to become aware and restrain his rage at the peak of feeling (just as this mind and body were preparing the action), so he could transform his "hell" of rage to a "heaven" of peace.

So here is the key to transforming our habits and moving from unconscious reactions to conscious responses. Bring awareness to the stages of premovement (I prepare, I sense, I feel, I perceive, I reflect, I think) before they graduate into a full-blown movement sequence. In Buddhism they say "to cool and extinguish the glowing embers before they ignite into a consuming flame".

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Wednesday, 17 August 2016

What is an emotion?

I've recently finished reading a book by Peter Levine called "In An Unspoken Voice". It's a pretty amazing book – the result of a career of over 40 years in the field of stress and trauma, detailing his pioneering work into how trauma happens and the methods he's found to work with it. Coming out of these methods is the therapeutic body-awareness approach to healing trauma called Somatic Experiencing that's now available across the Western world. (If you're interested in this area, Bessel van der Kolk's "The Body Keeps The Score" is also well-worth a read.)

Towards the end of "In An Unspoken Voice", Levine touches on the subject of emotions and embodiment, and that's what I wanted to pick out to talk about in this and the next blog post.

What is an emotion?

It's simple to ask, but very tricky to answer!
If your everyday practice is open to all your emotions, to all the people you meet, to all the situations you encounter, without closing down, trusting that you can do that - then that will take you are far as you can go.  And then you'll understand all the teachings that anyone has ever taught.
– Pema Chödrön
As Levine points out, Descartes claimed "I think therefore I am" and it seems many people might agree with him. With this in mind, when something provocative happens you might think that your brain recognises this provocation and produces an emotional response. Then the brain tells your body how to react in accordance with this emotion: maybe increase heart rate, breathing, tense muscles, etc. What do you think? Does this seem like the way it works in your experience?

At the turn of 19th century, experimental psychologist William James took a different approach and arrived at a different conclusion. Through introspection, he would attempt to infer the chain of events that led to an emotion being generated. Most of us might think that when we see something scary we get frightened, and then motivated by fear, we run. Through his studies, James concluded the opposite – that rather than running because we are afraid, we are afraid because we are running. We feel sad because we're crying, feel happy because we're smiling, etc. The emotion comes as a result of the (re)action.

James was remarkably ahead of his time, and the importance of his work is only just being appreciated now.

Emotion is an afterthought

Emotion doesn't originate in the brain – it's the brain's perception of the body's reaction that generates the emotion. As Levine puts it "it's almost as if the brain canvases the body to see how it's reacting in the moment" (or in reality, assesses all the information it's receiving about the sensations and state of the body) and calls that collection of sensations and actions an emotional state.

Emotions happen in the body – they are 'embodied' processes. Levine has a lot to say about embodiment – he defines it as "gaining, through the vehicle of awareness, the capacity to feel the ambient physical sensations of unfettered energy and aliveness as they pulse through our bodies." Gut feeling, precognition, and what we call intuition, then "emerges from the seamless joining of instinctual bodily reactions with thoughts, inner pictures and perceptions."

"Mu shin" calligraphy

No-mind, no emotions

This sounds remarkably Zen! In fact it sounds like the Zen idea of "no-mind" (mu-shin), which means being directly in touch with the experience of now (and acting from that place), without concepts, ideas or mental commentary getting in the way.

And as my teacher Daizan Roshi says, "when you're on the cutting edge of reality, there are no storylines or thoughts" – or indeed emotions. Emotions are simply our labels for patterns of specific thoughts, sensations, reflexes and actions. "Its only when we look back with hindsight," Daizan continues, "that we try to make sense of things and the story-lines come."

Or as Charlotte Joko Beck puts it in her book, "Behaviour is what we observe. We cannot observe experience. By the time we have an observation about an event it's past – and experience is never in the past. That's why the sutras say we can't touch it, see it, hear it, think about it – because the minute we attempt to do that, time and separation have been created. ... Who I am is simply experiencing itself, forever unknown. The moment I name it, is it gone."

When you're truly, directly experiencing that moment of feeling happy (i.e. on the cutting edge, as Daizan puts it), there are no thoughts about it. There's just... it.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Thursday, 28 July 2016

Vanity in Lefkada

My wife and I recently spent our honeymoon on Lefkada, a beautiful island in the Ionian chain off the west coast of Greece. Our good friend Kim Bennett runs a holiday company out there (specialising in holidays for solo travellers with optional meditation and mindfulness classes; She always takes the hot mid-season months off, so offered for us to come and stay for a couple of weeks in one of her apartments. The location was absolutely stunning, right on the beachside, and the weather was hot and sunny every day! Thank you so much Kim for inviting us!

Now I'm not used to walking around in just a pair of shorts or going out to lie on the beach in the sun. With so much of my body exposed (not all of it mind...) and much of our time spent on the beach, I felt the arising of feelings of vanity much more than usual, especially around the idea of getting a tan.

Why do we want a tan? 

In the old days only people who worked outside in the sun (like farmers or labourers) would have tanned skin, so wealthy people would want to avoid getting a tan in order to show they're rich enough not to have to be outside. This is what led Queen Elizabeth I to whiten her skin. More recently, as more people worked indoors and rich people were able to take holidays to sunny places, having a tan became a sign of affluence – of having enough money to be able to lie around doing nothing on a beach far away.

These days, the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair have made going to spend time on a faraway beach much more accessible, so is having a tan still a sign of richness? Probably yes. In equal measure, people (at least Northern Europeans) generally look more healthy with a bit of colour in their skin, so with getting a tan there's perhaps a sense of wanting to look healthy and well. It's also an obvious outward sign for others to show we've been on a sunny holiday. 

Lying in the sun

Our apartment in Lefkada was right in front of its own little beach, and Kim had very kindly left out two sun loungers and a parasol for us to use. Usually, she commented, after a couple of days her guests are "velcroed to the beach"! So what is it that velcroes us?

Lying there in the sun reminded me of our lizard ancestry – basking in the heat and soaking up the warmth. I'm not a particularly cold blooded person, but I came to really enjoy basking until I began to sweat. So when my intention was to soak up the warmth like a lizard, that was one thing, but when my intention shifted towards "I want a tan" that was another. Wanting a tan is pure vanity, wanting to bask in the warmth was simple in-the-moment pleasure.

There were times when I'd come out of the water and want to dry off and warm back up – then I'd lie in the sun. But what about the other times? Why was I not satisfied with lying in the shade under the parasol, letting my body tan as it needed from just living outside more? Because some part of me wanted to get a tan – wanted to look a certain way. 

I occasionally found myself moving different parts of my body into the sun with the intention of evening up my tan – like a rotisserie oven...! Again the intention is the key – moving because one part is hot is sensible, but moving to even up the tan is vanity. 

Vanity ultimately arises because you see yourself as having a separate self that wants to impress and be "better", nicer looking or more handsome than others. It's delusive behaviour.

Body dissatisfaction

I also noticed increased feelings of dissatisfaction with my body shape. Walking around our holiday apartment with far fewer clothes than I'd normally wear at home, I'd catch myself in the mirror or look down at my uncovered chest and notice yet again the overly forward tilt in my hips, the lifted left shoulder, the uneven tan on my arms, or that wonk in my spine.

These feelings also crept into my daily yoga practice. I've found myself focusing (more than usual) on stretching out my hip flexors and lower back to help straighten my posture, or stretching to the left side to counter my wonky spine.

My yoga was not yoga any more, just like my lounging on the beach was not lounging on the beach anymore. Both became anxiety-filled activities centred around wanting to be something I was not. 

Of course that's an exaggeration! It was a wonderful honeymoon full of amazing experiences and lovely people (including my wonderful wife). Nevertheless there were moments when that anxiety-filled self-interest arose. 

What do you do in that situation? I tried my best to acknowledge it, allow it, and see the patterns of how and when it arose. I didn't manage it every time, but that was my intention. Once it's acknowledged and seen it no longer has any power over you.

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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Friday, 22 July 2016

Dharma combat

The Hossen ("ho" meaning Dharma in Japanese, and "sen" meaning combat or challenge) was my third and final ceremony for becoming a junior-level Zen teacher. The main point of the ceremony is to allow a teacher to demonstrate their embodiment of Zen, and to give the sangha a chance to test them out. If they're going to become a new teacher, do they think they're up to it? Can they talk as the Dharma, not just about it?

A complicated ceremony

The dojo full of people
Despite the simple intention, the details of the ceremony were a bit more complicated. It started with a short introduction from Daizan, then we chanted the Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra). I then read out the koan I'd chosen and gave my talk on it (I posted about that in my previous article), then everyone in the audience got a chance to ask me a question. It finished with me reciting the 4-line verse I'd composed summarising my understanding of the koan, and Daizan giving a short summary to finish.

Where it got complicated was around how all these aspects fitted together. So Daizan told me, the whole thing is designed not to give me (the aspirant teacher) a moment to think – and therefore the potential to worry and get caught up in the world of thoughts, ideas and discrimination. From the beginning I was holding my teaching fan – a traditional symbol of a Zen teacher called a chukei. There was a special way to hold it which I had to be mindful of at all times. There was also a very specific way I had to collect my teaching book, and I had to start my talk on the very last syllable of the Hannya Shingyo chant so as not to leave a moments gap. As soon as I'd finished I had to ceremonially take my teaching book back to Daizan, perform a number of bows, and collect our dojo's shippei (staff/stick; see photo below) and come back to my place. Once the questions started, I was encouraged to answer every one, again, without a moments gap or silence.

As I was reading out the koan, I was conscious of speaking from the hara. As I'd spent quite a while preparing the talk, I felt quite ok following on from the koan and giving the main talk. I think I managed to continue speaking from the hara, and I even got a laugh or two at some point!

No questions and no answers

Collecting the shippei from Daizan
Once the talk had finished and I had collected the shippei and sat down, I banged it hard on the ground and said "What say you?". This was my appeal to the sangha to ask me their questions. Pete Jion Cherry, my assistant, was the first questioner. The format was for the questioner to start by saying a loud "Here!" (to indicate where they were sitting) then give me their question. I would then bang the shippei on the floor and gave my answer. If they thought my answer was sufficient they would say "congratulations" – otherwise they were allowed to ask me to explain or ask a further question. After the "congratulations" I was to bang the shippei again and say "I thank you". Then the next question would start with "Here!". All this was supposed to happen with the minimum hesitation or silence.

We had about 35 people in the room, so the questioning took a while. Some were very short and some I gave just one-word answers, some had some further questions. There were certainly moments when there was literally no questioner and no responder – the emptiness and no-knowing that Bodhidharma refers to in the koan were manifest in the room. There were also other moments when I could feel the spinning up of my thinking mind, wanting to assert control and work out how to answer the question, worrying about what the "right" answer was.

Looking back I can't really remember the actual questions or my answers – I feel like it all happened without being registered in my normal memory!

I have a feeling something changes in the way memory works and the way you perceive time when you're in that true place of oneness – where intuition and instinct are master, and logic and reasoning are in their rightful place as servants. Its like trying to remember what happened in meditation, or during a period where time "just flies". The memory becomes more related to feeling and action than thought and storyline. Luckily we videoed the whole thing (I'll post that up soon)!

After it was all over, people were asking me how it felt. It felt simultaneously really hard work and totally effortless. Maintaining that energy and resisting the temptation to let my reasoning mind take over was perhaps the hard part. Letting the truth speak through me was the effortless part. In essence there was no me – the answers just flowed out of the universe through my mouth.

What happens now?

I'm now officially a lay Zen teacher. What that means is for us all to find out in the coming years. My intention is to stay open to whatever opportunities or situations arise, and do my best to simply act. Let's see what happens...

I am a member of the Zenways sangha led by Zen master Daizan Skinner Roshi, and I teach meditation, mindfulness and yoga at the ZenYoga studio in Camberwell, London. See my website for further details.

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