Few Notes on Contemplative Practices Workshop

Theorising on Social and Embodied Aspects of Contemplative Practices Workshop was held in University of Tampere (Finland) during 13-14 July 2016. As an acupuncturist I considered the conference very important and thought provoking. The presentations were carefully planned, organized and very easy to follow. These short comments are thoughts risen during the presentations. Besides the commented speeches there were many other fantastic presentations. These few were selected as I felt them more “directly” related to my profession. For full program please refer to this page


Pessi Lyyra (University of Tampere): Obeservation of one’s own mental states in meditative practice

Postdoctoral researcher Pessi Lyyra presented, among other theories, how Global Workspace Theory of consciousness can be used to explain mind observing its wandering and content. He mainly focused the question what is consciousness and how we can become aware of our mind observing the contents and what makes the content. It led me to reflecting the theory to experiences during Daoist contemplation practices and the art of acupuncture.
One thing that has always been hard to explain and to really understand is how we make the diagnosis. One can always lean on theory of Chinese medicine and categorizing the signs and symptoms. But in reality when we take pulse and inspect facial colors and tongue and interview the patient, how we really draw the conclusions we make?
Many long time practitioners often note that we just know. It takes years of study to understand the theory, but in the end, more we are able to empty our minds during the practical work and just observe, more accurate our diagnosis becomes. Slowly we become aware of different states of mind where we can “recruit otherwise unconscious sources of knowledge”. This also makes it more understandable how and why the experience of empty mind still relies on solid theoretical background while making the diagnosis.
The way Pessi Lyyra explained the unconscious specialized processors, global availability, mentalizing and self-observation made lot more sense compared to other theories I have come across earlier. Especially when reflected with the experience of mindfulness practices during the studies and practical work. Sometimes during the diagnosis we become aware of how we perceive in our minds colors, symbols, feelings and how different associations give spark for the realization of the symptoms. With these partly unconscious initial clues we formulate the diagnosis fitting to the Chinese medicine theory. The theory seemed also fitting to describe how in certain states of meditative practices you become aware of thinking process and dream formulation. And it also sparked few questions about lucid dreaming phenomena and interest to read more about the theory. I have to admit that the Global Workspace Theory was previously completely unknown to me but it was explained with such clarity that the basic ideas could be easily understood. And so I already collected few published papers on subject for further reading.


Kristina Eichel (Brown University) & Hana Sysalova (Univesrity of Warwick): Critique on Measurements of “trait” Mindfulness

Kristina Eichel gave great and very entertaining speech about their research dealing with different testing methods and ways of measuring mindfulness. It was very refreshing critical overview of how “flawed” the testing and therefore the results can be. One of the examples was frequently used Mindful Attention Awareness Scale (MAAS) which we also had possibility to take during the presentation. She demonstrated how some of the audience got better results than much more mindfulness oriented Thai monks and presented possible reasons why the test might have “failed”.
In her presentation she showed the facts why many of the conclusion made from the studies might be misleading. She did not delve much in to software bug recently found from fMRI software but focused mostly on critique of questions and definitions.
These same problems are of course relevant to many other fields than mindfulness. It is basic problem every field of science faces. It is not rare to see a acupuncture study which has clearly biased or very unclear questions. But this has also lot to do with clinical practice where we ask questions from the patients as part of the diagnosis. One of the basic questions many acupuncturist use is that if one wakes during the night to take a leak. The question is frequently used, among many other questions, to map functioning of the kidneys and also partly functioning of the nervous system. But it not that often that an acupuncturist really spends time thinking about why he/she was given the answer. For example it is not infrequent that nowadays a patient works in late shifts and return home late at night and eats and drinks something before the bed. Knowing this the answer would tell a different story than it would otherwise. Very similar example is bed wetting of child. The acupuncturist often just consider the traditional explanation of kidneys and/or feeling of insecurities in many cases. It is sometimes very easy to forget simple question of how much the child drinks before going to sleep.
As I also practice contemplation this kind of research also feel very relevant. I was truly “relieved” to hear how there is not even clear and generally agreed definition of what mindfulness truly is and therefore it is nearly impossible to really try to measure it. Her comments seem to corresponds to experiences of different types of mindful states.


Dr. Catherine Wikholm (National Health Service, UK): The Variety of Meditative Experiences: psychological effects we might not expect

Dr. Catherine Wikholm is co-author of The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You. Last year I had read news about her findings about darker side of meditation but her presentation brought the subject so much more touchable. Just like Kristina Eichel she criticized the way we measure happiness and relaxation and generalize the benefits of the mindfulness without willingness to see the downsides or even considering if there are enough evidence for claimed benefits.
The findings she brought to our attention were plain and simple – mindfulness or meditation is not always just relaxing and quick way to happiness. In worst case it might be a shortcut to asylum. At least 60% of practitioners have suffered at least one negative side effect even though these are rarely mentioned in modern mindfulness literature. Most of these are minor and short lived annoyances but it is still important that we are aware of them.
In a way I consider her speech one of the most relevant for clinical work. Partly because I have encountered people with mental problems, some of which have gotten worse through mindfulness. I am also aware of one Finnish man who was hospitalized after Vipassana retreat and few others whose panic attacks have become much more frequent after the practice. Different kind and degrees of dissociative experiences actually seem to be “quite common”. Even though we cannot compare acupuncture or other CAM-therapies directly to meditation, there is very real possibility to encounter the same phenomena in different CAM treatments. It is not just once when the patients have reported mood swings, slight dissociation, resurfacing of past traumas and psychosomatic reactions to these traumas after acupuncture or massage based therapies.
Beside acupuncture I find this topic to be extremely fascinating. As I have been “researching” roots of Daoist contemplative practices and their connection with Chinese medicine (values, ideals, language, teaching, conception of disease and idea of being human) I have come across with Daoist texts mentioning these same problems. For example in Dìngguānjīng 定觀經 mentions how trying to control mind too harshly results in disease and madness. It also explains how the possible visions of monsters and demons are all according ones own heart (=mind). For the same reason visions of immortals and gods were seen as good sign. Daoist writings outline experiences of detachment, hallucinations and other experiences that can be perceived in positive or negative way. In Daoist texts there are also different concepts of emptiness. In early literature there are for example kōng 空 and xū 虛. As words they both mean emptiness and they seem to got mixed later after Tang-dynasty. Kōng is used some times to denote emptiness and meaningless common in depersonalization-derealization syndrome. This can lead to high anxiousness or certain forms of nihilism where one loses interest in everything and becomes depressed. Xū on the other hand is seen as emptiness which is the goal of apophatic contemplation practices which were common in Proto-Daoism and early Daoism. While approaching the emptiness you still need to be able to maintain “light in your heart”. This also reminded me of experience of dark night of the soul that was well known in Christian forms apophatic prayer/meditation.
Catherine Wikholm pointed out how the mindfulness practices have their origins in the religious practices and how the practitioners knew to prepare for certain “rattling effects”. The idea was in a way to crush the ego and we should not think that it was easy thing for the ego to handle. This problem of losing the roots also came up in presentations of several other speakers especially in professor Ronald Pursers (San Francisco State University) speech Beyond Neoliberal Mindfulness: Towards a Critical-Contemplative Studies Agenda.


Professor Suvi Salmenniemi (University of Turku): Therapeutic technologies, politics and gender

The speech by Suvi Salmenniemi had the most direct focal connection to alternative and complementary medicines. Her research was about therapeutic discourse in Finnish politics. Even though the most of the patients using acupuncture in Finland are female, I hadn’t considered it in the connection with political aspect and gender studies. The speech gave me many insights to some of the discussion I have had with my patients.
In her presentation she gave us an overview how the gender and politics are connect in three fields of therapeutic technologies:
1. CAM-therapies & spiritual practices
2. Self management – self leadership
3. Empowerment & self-help groups for women
It was fascinating to see how she had decided to divide these as the mentioned fields are often highly interwoven. Especially in case of therapists, who often seems to fall in all the categories at the same time. Suvi Salmenniemi also highlighted the political values which were most prominent, some reasons for them and how they fits to larger political change in Finland.
It was fun to hear the research and thoughts about the same things one observes during patient interviews. Women often express two very contrasted ideas about femininity and ideal female. The other image is strong, independent woman who can stand up for her rights. The other one is soft, accepting, loving and fragile. In the clinic many women are balancing between this ideals and wish either to relax and not to be so demanding to them self, or they want to find courage to stand up and say no. Both are often speaking about womanhood.
Professor Suvi Salmenniemi spoke of these same images also in context of Finnish stories of strong and hard working woman and social norms. She also detailed discourse used in these connections and forms of modern political activism they implicate.


Associate Professor David Forbes (City University of New York): Critical Integral Contemplative Education

David Forbes gave striking commentary and critique for using Mindfulness in education (among other uses). He was not against the mindfulness itself but demanded attention for the much deeper issue. Why we really need it? For what ends? Is it good to become more productive and more open and accepting while our society would need great change? We are now trying to cope “all this shit” with mindfulness.
His presentation delved deep into how we make the studies, to which do the studies concentrate on and how we should expand the studies to include social change and context. He used integral theory by Ken Wilber and modified version from Jane Loevinger’s theory about stages of ego development to explain how we could go deeper into potential of using mindfulness and meditation research to understand and maybe even to promote the change. I found his speech to be highly needed.
Like many others pointed out that we have extracted a simple technique out of old traditions (and I am intentionally using plural here), poking it a bit and then calling it scientific. While, at the same time, being even unable to define it, we have sold it to masses for very different purpose. And the masses have converted it to a tool serving our current way of economy-centered consumerist lifestyle. This lifestyle, mentality, forgetting the past&future and our narrowing conception of time was also addressed by John R. Williams from Yale University in his wonderful speech Being Here Now and the End of Time.
As an acupuncturist I have to come across this same dilemma in professional life. Acupuncture and Chinese medicine has become more and more just a way to cope this society. Every year we get more scientific studies showing the effectiveness of our beloved art. But at the same time we are trying to use it just as a different kind of pill extracted from vast tradition and rich cultural context to serve our needs to cope all this. We no longer try to adhere the ideals and values of the traditional context. In the old philosophical tradition it was more about the way of life, not just healing of symptoms caused by losing the way.

Final Comment
Even as the philosophical sides of art of living from different medical and religious (be it Buddhist, Daoist, Christian etc.) traditions have been secularized away and from this solitary ingredient we have composed array of new Prozacs for this century, we still follow the tradition in a way. Even the most superficial and for-the-profit mindfulness courses have produced certain “awakenings” as their by-product. What was meant to produce more efficient and content worker sometimes flowers in resignations and delivers us an individual who incorporates new ideals and values which appeared in speeches of Suvi Salmenniemi and David Forbes. And in the end many contemplative traditions have asked us to throw away all the traditions and to just contemplate.

Sun Simiao and Preserving Shén and refining Qì

Sūn Sīmiǎo (孫思邈)Sūn Sīmiǎo (孫思邈) is one of the best known of ancient Chinese doctors. According historians Sūn Sīmiǎo lived between 581-682. Legends however tell that he lived more than 140 years and his body did not decay after his death. When he was buried his body was light as plain clothes.  He, like many other great doctors, was also alchemist and scholar of classical Daoist scriptures like Dàodéjīng (道德經) and Yìjīng (易經).

Today every student of Chinese medicine knows his name and at least two of his works – Essential Prescriptions Worth a Thousand in Gold (千金要方 Qiānjīn Yàofāng) and A Supplement to Prescriptions Worth a Thousand in Gold (千金翼方 Qiānjīn Yìfāng). These works are both huge 30 volume writings combining knowledge from many classics. They are still in use today. The influences of Buddhist medicine coming from India during early Tang-dynasty are also visible in these works and his other writings. The knowledge Sūn Sīmiǎo collected was so vast and important that he became known as King of medicines (Yàowáng 藥王) and temples were later built in his honour.

Like many other great scholar doctors he also wrote about alchemy and ways of preserving life. One of these writings is Inscription of Preserving Shén and refining Qì (Cúnshén liànqì míng – 存神錬氣銘) which is found in Daoist Canon (DZ 834). Today many scholars and doctors consider these texts as mere wishful thinking. Regardless the truth studying them give us great deal of information about the philosophy and world view of the most skilled doctors in past and helps us to understand and follow their thinking through the classics.

Note: While reading the following translation please bear in mind that the Heart also means Mind, Shén is usually translated as spirit and Líng is could be roughly translated as the Great Spirit or Numinous.

孫思邈 – 存神錬氣銘

Sūn Sīmiǎo – Cún shén liàn qì míng

Inscription of Preserving Shén and refining Qì


Human embodiment is dwelling place of Shén and Qì
If Shén and Qì are stored the embodiment is tranquil, strong and healthy
If Shén and Qì disperse the embodiment dies
If one desires to support the embodiment [one must] first calm Shén and Qì
The Qì is mother of Shén, Shén is the child of Qì
If Shén and Qì are whole the life is long and there is no death


If one desires to calm Shén one must refine Yuánqì
[When] Qì is within embodiment
The Shén is peacefully in Qìhǎi
[When] Qìhǎi is full and overflowing
The Heart is calm and Shén is settled
If [Shén] is settled and not dispersing
The embodiment and Heart are concentrated and tranquil
Tranquility peaks to being settled completely1
The embodiment is maintained years everlasting
Always dwelling at the source of Dao and one naturally becomes a Saint

1. (定倶 term comes from Buddhist sources and is usually translated as Samadhi)


Qì is connected to condition of Shén, Shén is connected to wisdom and destiny (Mìng)
Destiny residing within [constantly] maintained embodiment unites with True nature
[Thus one obtains] age equal to Sun and Moon and Dao is obtained
According the inscriptions of refining Qì if one wishes to learn this technique


First the cereals must be renounced and Heart must be placed to Qìhǎi
Store Shén in Dāntián and collect the Heart to tranquillize [its] anxieties
When Qìhǎi is whole one is naturally satisfied
In concentrated Heart cultivation 100 days [bring] small accomplishments
Three years [bring] great accomplishments
First one enters five states [of mind] and then one can go through seven stages


Shén and Líng transform and change exiting and submerging freely
Steep cliffs or thousands miles, leave or staying without hindrances
If Qì does not disperse Qìhǎi fills to overflowing
[When] Shén is still in Dāntián, the embodiment and Heart are always constant
Naturally returns the [youthfulness of] colors to facial features and stature
The embodiment changes to immortal
The hidden and obvious [reveal their] natural origins
One understands hundreds of transformations of Líng
This is called Passing through the world
[One is then] entitled as True person (Zhēnrén)


Heaven and Earth are like his years, sun and moon like his lifespan
With this way one does not [need to] swallowing Qì or saliva nor is it exhausting or painful
[When] needs to eat one just eats, [when] requires rest one sets to rest
Naturally and spontaneously without blocking and without obstacles
Five states and seven stages [all happen by] entering the womb and fixing the contemplation
Student of Dao starts with five states


1. State: Heart has lots of movement and peace is minimal
[In mind] thoughts, green colours and 10 000 things
Conditions come and go without continuity
Jealous, anxious, considering and measuring like a wild horse is the usual human Heart


2. State: Heart has very little peacefulness but lot of movement
[When] regulating movement one enters to peace but Heart disperses and escapes often
[Mind] is difficult to control or suppress and direct it to [this] method
Here the pursuit for Dao begins


3. State: The Heart moves and is still equally
Heart is peaceful and seem directed
Heart in general is peaceful and scattered in equal amounts
[One is able to ] use Heart for the method
Gradually consciousness adjusts and becomes skilled [using the method]

第四時 心靜多動少

4. State: Heart has lots of peace and little movement
The Heart is collected and more and more skilled in [technique]
The movement is right away directed with it
One is truly focused to the present
If [concentration is momentarily] lost then [focus is] immediately obtained


5. State: The Heart has unified direction and is pure and calm
Then doing is not doing and [even] emotional blows don’t move
[Dān]tián has gathered Heart deeply and steadfastly the scattered has made to set
This already completed ones place is clear and one enters to the seven stages
Making use of [method] one naturally obtains [Dao] without obstructions!


1. Stage: Old diseases dissolve
The embodiment becomes light and the Heart joyful
[When] Inside man the Heart is meditative Shén is tranquil and Qì is peacful
Four big (elements) are married and six passions are in profound peace
The Heart is peacefully suspended [over] circumstances and embraces unity and protects the center
Joyfully happy about every new day
This is called “Obtaining Dao”


2. Stage: Crossing over normal limits
One’s appearance returns to younger outlook, form is joyous and Heart is in peace
One opens to Líng and has [all] penetrating vision
Change [your] residence, leave [your] country, select place and settle down
Associates and relative who [once] had known one, no longer recognize him


3. Stage: Prolonging life years to thousand
This is called immortality
Traveling all famous mountains, flying and moving freely
Azure servants follow as guardians, jade women are singing praises
Rising and walking vaporous rosy clouds, green mists offer its support


4. Stage: Refining the embodiment to Qì
Qì revolves [ones] embodiment with light [and one] is called True Human (Zhēnrén)
Appearing and disappearing (living and dying) freely
Brightness and light naturally shines and day and night are constantly illuminated
One can travel all caves and palaces or attend all immortals immediately


5. Stage: Refining Qì to become Shén
One is called Spirit-human (Shénrén)
Transforming and going freely and doing and using without exhaustion
One has power to move Qián and Kūn (Heaven and Earth)
Move mountains or empty the seas


6. Stage: Refine Shén and uniting it with color (substances creating the body)
[One] is called Perfected man (Zhìrén)
[Being] Shén already one connects to Líng
Color and form are not fixed
They respond to moment by changing
And [one] reflects other beings with his shape and form


7. Stage: Embodiment transcends outside material
One distances oneself outside all normal order [of the world]
Together with Jade Emperor of Great Dao reside in Líng-realm
Saints and wise assemble spreading the greatest truth of Mother Nature and universal Líng
There is nothing that could not be reached
Cultivation culminates at the root of Dao
10 000 ways all end here and this is called The Ultimate


People of this age study Dao less [each] day and cannot [obtain even] the first stage
How could they obtain universal Líng?
Ruled with maintaining their stupidity and sentimentality
Only preserving and holding on to their filth and material [wealth]
Four seasons turn and change, their shapes distort and color (body) grows weak
Their substance declines and [they] return to the emptiness
To call this obtaining Dao is absurd!

細詳留意 必獲無疑
賢達之人 逢斯聖矣

These Daoist techniques of embryo-breathing and fixed contemplation keep Shén and halt form
[These] were transmitted orally and not written in language
Having the virtue to meet the Perfected man and this teaching
[One must] be very precise and throughout to keep the idea
These must be learnt without doubts.
Man worthy of attainment will meet this Saint

Classic of Inner Contemplation (Tàishàng Lǎojūn Nèiguānjīng)

Sitting in contemplationRegarding the post about the Over-simplified body I got a question about the possibility of having the translation of whole source text (Nèiguānjīng – Classic of Inner Contemplation) available.

So to begin a series of contemplation (nèiguān) related articles the Tàishàng Lǎojūn Nèiguānjīng or Classic of Internal Contemplation has been translated to English. Download the English translation here:  Neiguanjing.