Friday 10 July 2015

Going Deeper into the Forest Within - Templestay at Woljeongsa

People with Asperger’s Syndrome are often described as having difficulty in not being able to see the woods for the tree. Historically, professionals have referred to this as ‘weak central coherence’. Such a weakness though can translate to a strength, eye for detail. Through initially noticing such strengths translated from weaknesses, by starting with what one has, it can open one up to hidden qualities and further possibilities.

To notice and acknowledge strengths and qualities that one may have, including in relation to how they are affected by their Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, it helps to find an environment where one can step back from the flow, free from distractions. Staying at Woljeongsa, a Buddhist Temple in South Korea, I felt that I was able to notice with clarity where I was able to notice with awareness where strengths Asperger’s Syndrome can have can be expanded upon, including being able to see where small, often obscure detail fits into the bigger picture.

Main meditation hall and nine-story pagoda at Woljeongsa Temple
Situated in an expansive fir tree forest in Odaesan National Park, around 140km east of Seoul, Woljeongsa provided me with an appropriate setting for me to help expand my awareness. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I tend to focus on and become interested in very specific details, but seeing where such details fit into a plot or setting can still sometimes be quite a challenge for me. Being able to notice sensations and sounds in a very peaceful countryside environment gave me an opportunity to expand my field of awareness beyond the tree into the woods and beyond.

It is fascinating as to how when many of us find ourselves in environments that are outside our comfort zone, including the comfort zone of our thought patterns and the daily routines and actions that arise from them. On my first meditation retreat, I was also able to notice how much I continuously talk to myself.  During my stay at Woljeongsa, I felt I noticed as well as how my autopilot mode is often a response to my thought patterns, but also how easily distracted I am by them, and how such distractions can become over-obsessive.

Being diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, even now, I still find it difficult to adapt to social situations, including being able adapt to topics of conversation especially where I don’t know anybody so much that behind closed doors I find myself having to almost practice conversation and non-verbal communication. But what can’t be practised behind closed doors is being able to respond in conversations, especially as it is difficult to anticipate how someone may respond to you. In this way, I began to notice how my speech can sometimes feel almost ‘scripted’, perhaps coming across as repetitive, and sometimes out of context through not always being able to read the mood of the conversation or situation.

For the duration of my stay I was given a temple uniform to wear and I slept on a thin mattress on the floor, in accordance with the eight precepts that Templestay participants have during their stay, one of which is not to sleep on luxury high beds. An effect that I noticed when sleeping on the floor was, and something that the thinness of the mattress contributed to was in being able to notice the sensation of contact of my back against the floor, thus opening me up to being able to notice the effects of my breathing on the body. This was very conducive to me being able to sleep soundly. Quite often, distracting thoughts can keep me awake. But, as I was to find when waking up at 4.00am in the morning going to the Zendo (the main hall for practice) for the first meditation and chanting session, a sound night’s sleep helps to ‘still’ the mind. Whereas a mind distracted by excess thoughts, many of which arise from outside influences, can feel full of waves, a mind that has been stilled through being able to ‘switch off’ in such a way can feel very calm, thus enabling openness. The mind stillness I felt was enhanced during my first sitting meditation practice.  
In my temple uniform

As well as morning and evening chanting and sitting meditation sessions, another activity I took part in during my stay included making the 108 prostrations practiced in Zen Buddhism alongside making a chain of wooden beads, adding a bead for each prostration. A prostration is a triple bow made for each 108 actions to help purify 108 defilements (unwholesome states), with the bow and adding of the bead to the chain representing the action. Though such practice may appear to some as just ritual, from a mindfulness perspective, I found it helpful not only in noticing sensations with the body in what was an unusual position and performing an unusual action for me, listening to the English translation of each prostration, it also helped me notice and get in touch with my consciousness. When performing rituals or stretching exercises including yoga stretches, it can be easy for one to be caught on autopilot, possibly also engaging in repetitive movements. Getting in touch though with my consciousness with each prostration though while focusing on the sensations of my physical movement and in putting each bead on the chain, enabled me to be aware of each action. I also felt I was able to concentrate effectively while being mindful of physical movement involved in each prostration.

Through being able to get in touch with my consciousness in this way, I felt that I was able to look deeper inside myself, and how I can be so oblivious to my consciousness, including emotional feelings. The Vipassana retreat I participated in last summer enabled me to look within myself to an extent that I was able to notice myself more clearly in a sensory context, including how physical sensations to which I am mostly oblivious to directly and indirectly contribute to shaping my thought patterns, which in turn determine my moods and actions. During my experience at Woljeongsa, I felt my awareness went deeper, opening me up to being able to change the way I respond my thought patterns, including noticing the restrictions they can sometimes bring. The openness a calm mind contributed to I felt enabled me to go deeper in this sense, enabling me to notice aspects of my consciousness that normally I am oblivious to.
Going deeper into the forest, Odaesan National Park

My visit to Woljeongsa was, physically, a retreat into an expansive fir tree forest, in which the trees depending on each other for their existence together with the fertile land which allows them to grow, yet each also exists independently. Mentally, within I also felt there was a journey into the forest, into which going deeper enabled me to notice the inter-dependent existence of body and mind with much more clarity. 

Monday 6 July 2015

Being Alive to Each Moment - Sunrise over Mount Fuji and the Zen Way of Life

In many cultures and beliefs, mountains are considered sacred, including as places where gods and deities reside, where pilgrims and spiritual leaders seek refuge or as heavenly abodes to where the deceased retreat. Mount Fuji, at 3776m Japan’s highest mountain, a subject of many great works of art with its almost symmetrical shape, is considered divine in Japan’s two major faiths, Shintoism and Buddhism, with pilgrims visiting to make mini-shrines to their ancestors to keep them out of reach of evil spirits.

Mount Fuji peers above the clouds over Lake Ashi, Hakone, Japan
But mountains also have much in common with humans, not least in that they are ever changing and renewing through the weather and micro-climates that their altitude contributes to. In this way, mountains are almost expressing their emotions as to how they ‘feel’ in accordance with their ever-renewing existence in accordance with changing seasons, rather like how humans may express their emotions through non-verbal communication and facial expressions. Often shrouded in mist, the summit of Fuji can often be obscure to tourists hoping to view it from Lake Ashi, Hakone. In this way, Fuji is a ‘shy’ mountain, rather like how some people with Asperger’s Syndrome can feel.

As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I find that it helps for me to go deeper into myself to understand my own emotional thought processes including their sources through stepping back from the flow away from distractions, enabling me to look inwards more, thus enabling more control and awareness. Similarly, to experience the features and qualities of Mount Fuji, I felt it helped to go deeper within the surrounding forestry and mists before making the ascent towards the summit. The trek towards the summit opens one up to a highly varied multi-sensory experience, including huge differences in temperatures and different physical sensations from walking on different surfaces and through different levels of sunlight, air pressure and temperature, including noticing cooler temperatures once I had got above the tree line.

The Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
Prior to climbing Fuji, during my visit to Japan I had visited the Daisen-In Temple in Kyoto, which features a Zen landscape garden. Made up of white sand and rocks, the Daisen-In garden represents one’s lifecourse as a river flowing into the Great Sea, represented by an expansive spread of white sand, where one is of free of the trappings of greed and avarice. To reach the Great Sea though one must overcome the great wall of doubt, represented by a corridor over the garden. The journey along the stream shows highs and lows of different lifecourses on their way into the Great Sea.  The different rock shapes of subjects flowing down the stream that eventually leads into the Great Sea, including that of a turtle trying to swim against the flow of the river, show that you can’t go against the flow or back into the past. From this, much frustration and suffering can result, but each subject can eventually find a way to reach the Great Sea that they can manage at their own level.

The Wall of Doubt on route to the Great Sea, Daisen-In Temple, Kyoto
In the Daisen-In garden, I felt I could almost ‘see’ aspects my life before me, at the point of and after my Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis, including the regret I remember feeling at what I had missed out on in relation to the turtle swimming against the flow in not receiving my diagnosis earlier in life as well as the uncertainty of how the next part of my life was going to be once diagnosed represented by the wall of doubt. Similarly, when ascending Fuji, such ‘walls of doubt’ appear before trekkers in the form of steep ascents walking over volcano ash and as it was the first Fuji climb of the season, there was still some ice and snow. When walking across slippery surfaces, one becomes much more conscious of the sensations experience with each step, to be able to adapt to different conditions.

Sometimes, certain physical sensations experienced on a mountain trek can be uncomfortable, including sensations that certain items of outdoor clothing can bring, much different to clothing materials that one may normally wear, including cotton and denim. But rather than resisting them, it helps to open up to them where we can by being with them. When opening to them, we find that we may have a lot in common with the mountain itself, starting with the elements they is formed of, some which are present within our physical body. The different physical experiences I felt when climbing Fuji, which was formed by three volcanoes, also reminded me that the planet itself experiences physical sensations as a result of activity at its molten core, similar as to how we experience sensations at the physical level that arise out of bodily feeling, including tension.

At Fuji's 7th Station on the Yoshida route
As with Kilimanjaro, the trek to the summit began through the night, with the intention to reach the summit in time to see the sunrise. With only a head torch to light the first few yards of steep gradient in front of me, I found that my attention became more diverted to how I felt within both mentally and physically, including noticing the drop in temperature and that keeping on walking helped me to stay warm. Though Fuji isn’t as high as Kilimanjaro, what I felt made it as demanding a challenge in its own right was that the route towards the summit, the Yoshida route, was uphill all the way, whereas the Lemosho Glades route I took to Kilimanjaro was up and down, and also had acclimatisation periods. Each mountain though is a challenge in its own right with the different weather and micro-climates it creates, which is why it helps to approach a challenge using beginners mind, including seeing each moment as training, and being alive to it. 

Magic Moment - Sunrise from the summit of Fuji
Eventually arriving at the summit, watching the sun rise over Fuji and its neighbouring peaks, lakes and forests was a truly memorable experience. As well as a visual spectacular, it was also a way to see the Zen concept of inter-dependence in action, with Mount Fuji and its formation being dependent on the Sun and it being at the right distance from Earth for Earth to receive enough of its heat to have an active molten core and plate tectonics that enable mountains to be formed through volcanoes. Fuji’s near symmetrical shape which contributes to its visual beauty and thus its place in Japanese mythology, is enabled by it having formed at a junction between three tectonic plates. Meanwhile, the mists, forests and lakes that surround Fuji are dependent on Fuji for their existence, existing independently, but not in isolation from one another.  

Ash slides on the route down
Where I felt that more physical sensations though and where I felt I had to come out of my comfort zone more was on the way down. A sizeable portion of the way down involved descending steep paths of volcano ash and sand. More strain can felt on the joints when descending after a climb, especially since keep balance can be hard on a steep path and it can be easier to slip when walking on ash. Motor coordination has often been a challenge for me in relation to my Asperger’s Syndrome, but what I found helpful during my descent down ash slopes was to make use of the surface by leaning back slightly allowing myself to ‘slide’ down the slope, almost like skiing! Through this technique, I felt I was able to get in touch with and find my centre of gravity.

As well as a physical challenge, the journey to and from the summit of Fuji was also a journey within with regards to the journey through different physical sensations experienced throughout the trek. In this way, mountain treks are analogous to the ups and down experienced in my own life regarding as to how I am affected by Asperger’s Syndrome, similar to the lifecourse expressed in the Daisen-In garden. Coping with different challenges within a challenge, as well as making life interesting, also helps one deepen their understanding and appreciation of their abilities when opening up to them rather than shying away from them. Having said that though, I still feel I have some way to reach a personal state of a Great Sea!

At the summit
Special thanks once again to G Adventures and to Fuji Mountain Guides, for their guidance in reaching the summit of Fuji.