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Thread: Autonomic Nervous System?

  1. #1

    Autonomic Nervous System?

    The best way for me to honor his passing, I felt, was to do some reading and self education about Gudo Wafu Nishijima. It did not, however, seem appropriate to ask this question in the ceremony thread. Master Gudo seems to place a good deal of empahsis on understanding Dogen in terms of translating his explanations of Zazen into the stablization of the autonomic nervous system. I believe Jundo has said that he is cautious of this understanding or has moved away from it. ( correct me if I am wrong) How then, could we better understand this conceptually?


  2. #2
    Hey Clark,

    I saw that in the video too. He talks about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, that when they are both balanced body and mind drop away. The sympathetic nervous system is what speeds up heart rate, respiration and what not, while the parasympathetic nervous system slows them down, both are part of the autonomic nervous system.

    Basically this means that if they are balanced, then involuntary processes in the body are neither being told to slow down, nor speed up. The ANS is also part of the peripheral nervous system (PNS) which is basically all the nerves outside of the brain and spine (the central nervous system), such as the sensory nervous system which feeds the brain stimuli.

    This all makes sense, but it seems intuitively that when body/mind drop away, it is when there is a balance between the CNS and the PNS, rather than just within the autonomic nervous system. Either way, guessing Jundo and Taigu would tell us just to sit and let it go haha.

    Gassho, John

  3. #3
    I don't mean any disrespect, but I think that not raising questions about teachings when I have questions is actually disrespectful. Sometimes to gassho is appropriate, sometimes asking until understanding is what is called for. And if we are here to actually benefit all sentient beings, then we all have to drop egos for the asking and the answering. Now I'm on a tangent. lol But that's what I feel; I always appreciate the openness here.

    Anyway, in my humble opinion (and I never met Nishijima Roshi; my knowledge is mainly limited to what Jundo and Brad Warner have written).. But from my experience in life, I'm leary to take the word of someone who is not a neuroscientist throwing around brain science terms to fit a particular point of view. It would be if I started using medical terms to solidify some belief system, and I'm no doctor Or if I henpecked a few principals from physics to justify why my brand of martial arts is superior and everyone else's is inferior, or if I used pseudo-science to justify you to give me large quantities of money to support a lavish lifestyle.

    As you guys said I guess this is for Jundo and Taigu to address, but I'm just a skeptic by nature so I sort of never give that type of stuff much credence. It's the same way when a new "scientific" article talks about the benefits of meditation… Great, it doesn't make a difference to me. I don't need to be sold on anything… chop wood, carry water, sit, live life.. make a lot of mistakes, chop wood, carry water, etc.



    P.S. Sorry for the rambling; post-workout adrenaline (damn there I go with using a hormone to justify my poor typing. hahaahhh I'm a hypocrite :P )

  4. #4
    Hi Guys,

    It is good to question, one should always question. I have written on this a few times before, including my own cautions.

    My late, dear Teacher (recently departed, yet always with us) was not a scientist, but he was a former runner (long ago) who found a great stability and balance of body-&-mind in Zazen. He often compared this to the peace and balance he found in his running. In those days, almost nobody in Japan tried to explain Zazen in terms of neurology and physiology, and Roshi was on the cutting edge of doing so. Now, we put monks and meditators in MRI machines, and all this is accepted. Nishijima was way ahead of the curve in speaking in such terms.

    However, Nishijima himself was not a scientist, just a Zazen fellow, so developed some rather personal and a bit simple scientific layman's ideas about what was happening in the body and brain. Nishijima Roshi was very influenced by some of the research on meditation by Dr. Herbert Benson and, earlier, by Karl Menninger. Nishijima came to compare the experience of balance and oneness experienced in running to the sense of peace/balance/wholeness/oneness that is often experienced in Zazen. Nishijima Roshi came to attribute this in significant part to the physiological effect of the sitting posture itself. Here is a sample of Roshi's writing on the subject:

    In Zazen we sit on a cushion on the floor with both legs crossed, and with our lower spine, upper spine, and head held straight vertically. Keeping the spine straight has a direct and immediate effect on the autonomic nervous system that controls many of our body’s functions. Its effects include control of heart rate and force of contraction, constriction and dilatation of blood vessels, contraction and relaxation of smooth muscle in various organs, the ability to focus the eyes and the size of the pupils, and the secretion of hormones from various glands directly into the blood stream.

    The autonomic nervous system is composed of two subsystems: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. When the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated, our heart rate increases, arteries and veins constrict, the lungs relax, and our pupils dilate; in short, we become tense and alert. When the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, the opposite happens; our heart rate decreases, arteries and veins dilate, the lungs contract, and the pupils constrict. You can see that the two systems prepare the body for an active or passive response sometimes known as the “fight or flight” syndrome. When the effect of the two systems on the organs is in balance, we are neither ready to fight, nor ready to run away; we are in a normal state.

    The parasympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal chord at the base of the spine (the second, third and fourth sacral vertebrae) and through the cranial vertebrae in the neck, whereas the sympathetic nerves emerge from the spinal chord through the middle vertebrae in the back (the T1 to L2 vertebrae). Keeping the spine normally upright, with the head sitting squarely on the top of the vertebral column minimizes the compression of the nerves of these two systems at the points where the nerves emerge through the vertebrae, and ensures an uninterrupted supply of blood, allowing them to function normally. When the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems are both working normally, they function in opposition to give us a state of balance of body-and-mind; not too tense, and not too relaxed, not overly optimistic or pessimistic; not too aggressive and not too passive. It is this physical state of balance in the autonomic nervous system that give rise to what we call a balanced body-and-mind.

    In addition to this, sitting in the upright posture, where the force of gravity acts down through the spine onto the pelvis, is a position in which our body’s reflexes can work efficiently to integrate the functioning of the whole body.

    (p 11-12 here) ... -Zazen.pdf
    Personally I, as do about all Zen folks, believe that a balanced and stable posture does aid in allowing a balanced and stable mind ... as body-mind are intimately connected and whole. I also feel that Nishijima Roshi was decades ahead in realizing that Zazen does have a neuro-physiological component which science is just coming to recognize (through placing those meditating monks in MRI machines and other testing). Much of Roshi's assertions are based on the writings of Karl Menninger, Herbert Benson and others, and have a solid basis. However, I believe that Nishijima Roshi's theories on the marvelous effects of sitting in Lotus Posture itself with a straight spine, and attributing too much to "balance of the autonomic nervous system" ... while having some such basis, and while a balanced posture is certainly important ...were perhaps stretched by him rather too far into areas where there is really no scientific backing, or where scientific data is directly contradicting some of what he says.

    As I said, Nishijima was very much influenced by the work of Harvard Professor Herbert Benson ...

    Here is a bit of an interview with Benson, but note that Benson does not particularly attribute the effect to sitting posture or the spine) ...

    Herbert Benson, MD, is the father of modern mind-body medicine. From the late 1960s onward, Dr. Benson’s breakthrough research at Harvard Medical School has demonstrated that the relaxation response, which can be elicited through a variety of methods including meditation, is the physiological counterpoint to the fight-or-flight response and serves as a natural antidote to stress. Numerous markers including metabolic rate, heart rate and blood pressure are increased by stress and decreased by the relaxation response. Benson continues to lead research into its basic physiology and efficacy in counteracting the harmful effects of stress.



    What we found was that when people practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM), there were a set of profound physiologic changes that were opposite to those of stress. Namely, decreased metabolism, decreased blood pressure, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, and also slower brain waves. These findings were performed at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, in the very laboratory in which Walter B. Cannon had defined the fight-orflight response back in the early 20th century, where he found increased blood pressure, increased heart rate, increased rate of breathing, increased blood flow to the muscles, and called it “fight-or-flight,” or emergency response. ...

    It is elicited by using two steps. The first is a repetition, which could be a word, a sound, a prayer, a phrase or even a repetitive movement. The second step is, when other thoughts came to mind, you disregard them and come back to the repetition. This would bring forth the same physiologic changes that were brought about by the practice of Transcendental Meditation. The importance of this was that, again, for millennia people have been bringing forth a response opposite to the stress response, that has therapeutic value in disorders caused or exacerbated by stress.

    We recognized the importance of this immediately. We recognized that what we were doing was putting numbers on what people had been doing for thousands of years, be it through yoga, meditation, repetitive prayer, tai chi, qigong, jogging, knitting, crocheting. it didn’t matter. There was one response brought forth by scores of techniques that have a scientific definition for the first time


    The conditions in which the relaxation response is found to be effective include anxiety, mild
    and moderate depression, and excessive anger and hostility. They are all effectively treated by regularly evoking the relaxation response. It’s very important to note that health and well being is akin to a three-legged stool. One leg is pharmaceuticals. The second leg is surgery and other procedures. There has to be a third leg and that leg is self-care. And within that self-care leg we have the relaxation response, nutrition, exercise, the beliefs of the patient, socialization, and also cognitive restructuring. So you see, when we say that the relaxation response is effective in many mental disorders, it does not preclude, nor is it meant to preclude, the simultaneous use of appropriate medications or surgeries


    Is the nervous system the primary means through which the effects of relaxation response are mediated?

    It seems to start with the breaking of the train of everyday thought, as I just pointed out. So it would appear that as a fundamental entry point, it is the nervous system. But the breaking of the train of everyday thought needn’t be a mental effect; it could be a physical effect brought about by, say, jogging. Or knitting or crocheting. Are you with me? Ultimately it’s mediated through and by the nervous system.
    More here ...

    Yes, Roshi may have gone a little hog wild with some of his views sometimes. I miss him.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 02-20-2014 at 01:51 AM.

  5. #5
    Thank you for such an informative answer! I was not afraid, nor did I think it inappropriate TO question. The issue was more of a point on WHERE it was appropriate to question. I do appreciate the quick feedback on this question. It does not diminish my desire to learn more about Nishijima Roshi. I appreciate where you are coming from Risho on mixing too many disciplines and terms which aren't always connected when fully examined. Nameless thank you for your input also. It isn't so much that I do not understand WHAT Nishijima Roshi is tryin gto say about the connection to neurological states. My question is, if we do not think this IS the ideal way of looking at it, then how SHOULD or COULD we better interpret this aspect of his interpretation of Dogen's ideas in the Shobogenzo regarding the criteria for Zazen to be "JijuyoZanmai'? Nishijima explained this as the autonomic nervous system. If not that.. what?


  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Clark View Post
    My question is, if we do not think this IS the ideal way of looking at it, then how SHOULD or COULD we better interpret this aspect of his interpretation of Dogen's ideas in the Shobogenzo regarding the criteria for Zazen to be "JijuyoZanmai'? Nishijima explained this as the autonomic nervous system. If not that.. what?
    Great balance, harmony, wholeness, dropping of frictions and barriers that divide our small self ... with its wants, demands, judgments, fears ... from the "world out there".

    While I very much support their work and research as very important, I leave it to the scientists to figure out what scientists will. I just sit.

    It is a bit like saying that I let the scientists figure out the hormonal chemistry of loving my children or the neurological basis for appreciating a flower as beautiful. I just love my children, inhale the lovely perfume of the rose.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 02-19-2014 at 04:20 AM.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    Great balance, harmony, wholeness, dropping of frictions and barriers that divide our small self ... with its wants, demands, judgments, fears ... from the "world out there".

    While I very much support their work and research as very important, I leave it to the scientists to figure out what scientists will. I just sit.

    It is a bit like saying that I let the scientists figure out the hormonal chemistry of loving my children or the neurological basis for appreciating a flower as beautiful. I just love my children, inhale the lovely perfume of the rose.

    Gassho, J
    Dang it I knew you would say that. But thanks anyway I will just sit too.

    Gassho C

  8. #8

    Masters teach balance amid a lack of balance.

    Humans have (at least) three 'brains': Head, Heart, Guts. This is scientific, therefore, provable.

    ANS fits within this balance. Experiential, experimental, it's all one. Soooo. . .

    throw it away and just sit.


    The Sixty-first Gate
    The faculty of balance is a gate of Dharma illumination; for [with it] the mind is pure....
    Thank you, Shohai!
    Last edited by Myosha; 02-19-2014 at 03:06 PM.
    "Recognize suffering, remove suffering." - Shakyamuni Buddha when asked, "Uhm . . .what?"

  9. #9

    gassho, Jindo Shokai, an itinerant monk emeritus still learning the way and knowing nothing.
    gassho, Shokai

    仁道 生開 / Jindo Shokai

    "Open to life in a benevolent way"

  10. #10
    Quote Originally Posted by Shokai View Post
    still learning the way and knowing nothing.
    Gassho.. that is a great reminder for me.

    After reading my post, I thought it could sound a little arrogant, and that was not my intent.

    I wanted to add that although I'm skeptical, I'm respectfully and humbly skeptical; it's an important point because questioning is important in zen but there is questioning that can be divisive... meaning questioning that is not sincere, the type of questioning where one knows the answer (or thinks they do) and simply uses a question as a platform for their point of view, not being willing or open enough to learn.

    It's difficult with language. I'm good at arguing and sometimes I can come off with an edge to my writing and speech even though that is not my intent. I guess that's why Right Speech is part of the 8-fold path; it can heal and hurt.

    My point is that although I'm skeptical, I'm very indebted and respectful to Nishijima Roshi and to his heirs and grand heirs (Jundo and Taigu). He practiced longer than I've been alive and lived through times that I've been thankful enough to not have had to. Ultimately, I wouldn't be practicing if it weren't for him giving so much to transfer the teaching.

    So while I question things, I thought it was important to state and emphasize that it is out of the spirit of humility and respect toward his teachings and the teachings here.

    There can be a skepticism that cuts off practice, and that's definitely not where I'm coming from.



  11. #11
    Please stay skeptical. If there is ever anything taught or bandied about around here that sounds like B.S. ... please call it bullshit. I am as skeptical as you.

    And if that happens too often, head for the door. I will.

    Gassho, Jundo

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by Jundo View Post
    Please stay skeptical.


  13. #13
    Skepticism is healthy. For me it just takes balance, staying objective so that I don't get sucked into cynicism (a very familiar realm to me lol). Practice has been imperative while going to school and learning about neurology and evolution. When being bombarded with genetic, neurological and evolutionary theories of behavior, it's easy to dismiss people as confused little monkeys.

    Practice allows one to cultivate compassion and an open mind. Even all this talk of nerves has been fed to from teachers, so it's just secondhand knowledge. I've never performed any experiments myself (humanity should breathe a sigh of relief, we don't need a mostly blind neurosurgeon digging around haha). Anyway, it humbles me to think of how little I know through firsthand experience.

    Gassho, Foolish John

  14. #14
    One of the things that attracts me to this practice, and indeed Buddha's teaching is that we are asked and challenged to check it out for ourselves. I am very skeptical of many things, but at some point you also have to sincerely ask if you havemadthe effort. To me, making the sincere effort ish challenging enough. Still it is good to broaden ones understanding along the way.


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