August, 2004 NUMBER 14

My Zazen Sakyu Notebook (13)
Rev. Issho Fujita
Pioneer Valley Zendo

Fragmentary Thought XXII
“Movement within Immovable Sitting (3)”
Rhythms Emitted from the Cranial Sacrum System

Up until this point, I have discussed two among the many subtle body movements that take place in the immovable posture of zazen. In brief, the two I chose to write about are the pulsation of the whole body that accompanies the breath and the swaying motion of the body axis that supports upright sitting. To explain this more concretely, the former is a repetitive movement of expansion-contraction (like an amoeba) that originates in the tanden (the lower abdomen below the navel) and pulses throughout the whole body. The latter is a minute movement of the body axis (like the centrifugal movement of a spinning top) that moves forward and backward, left and right.

Both of these movements arise as a natural manifestation of the “aliveness” of zazen and are inevitable and spontaneous movements that we do not intend to cause. So these can be said to be “autonomous movements during zazen.” There are other such movements as well. For example, we could mention movement that originates from the pulse of the heart and the accompanying blood circulation. Speaking from my own experience, I can say that while sitting in zazen, it is possible to clearly feel the pulsation of the heart on the left side of my chest as well as in both hands of the cosmic mudra (hokkai join). At other times, I can feel the whole body pulsating with the rhythm of the heart pulse. This movement is much more minute than the two movements which I discussed in earlier chapters. And it cannot be perceived from outside the body. However, from within the immovable posture of zazen, it is possible to feel this essential life-supporting movement much more clearly than usual.

Everyone is aware of the movements of the breath as well as the heart pulse. With a little bit of attention, it is possible to easily observe these movements through the senses of sight and touch both in your own body as well as other people’s bodies. There is actually a third movement called the cranial sacral rhythm that undulates rhythmically throughout the body. It is not well known among most people. This is a very subtle movement and in order to feel it, it is necessary to have an especially keen sense. This movement is originated from the deepest layers of the body (“brain and cerebrospinal cord system” that could be called the “core” of the body). I think this is a particularly interesting phenomenon when considered from the nature of human life. Of course, I also think that with regard to the study of zazen, this rhythmic movement will offer valuable material. Especially with regard to “movement within immovable sitting”, this is a phenomenon which must not be ignored. At this point, I am still nothing more than a novice when it comes to the theory of cranial sacral rhythm as well as the “bodywork” called cranial sacral therapy. But I would nevertheless like to write about this movement to the extent that I understand it.

I don’t know how well known cranial sacral therapy is at the present time in Japan. However, in America, it is a kind of bodywork that has been gradually attracting attention during the past ten or so years. The cranial sacral rhythm carries out the main role in this type of therapy. With this rhythm our skulls are subtly expanding and contracting and our skeletal systems are subtly turning in and out around the central axis of the body. Both of these movements are extremely minute, but after a certain degree of training, it is possible to feel them whenever the hands are placed on the surface of the body. By placing the palm on the body surface with a very light touch (said to be five grams), you wait quietly with a clear mind until it is possible to feel the rhythm. At the beginning, it is difficult to distinguish this rhythm from the breath or heart pulse rhythms. So, it is important not to be in a hurry and not to force yourself to feel the cranial sacral rhythm by adding your own intention to feel it. When a person is at rest, the breath movement per minute is between fourteen and twenty, for the heart pulse it is between sixty and eighty, and for the cranial sacral rhythm it is between six and twelve. Because the cranial sacral rhythm is very slow and it moves in a peculiar way, it gradually becomes easier to distinguish it from other rhythmic movements as a person becomes used to looking for it.

At the workshop for cranial sacral therapy that I participated in, we worked in pairs and practiced detecting our partner’s cranial sacral rhythm. In my case, it was really rather difficult to grasp this sensation by myself. So, the workshop leader put her hands on mine and moved them, following the cranial sacral rhythm movement of my partner in order to give me the feedback information. In this way, I was able to sense it to the extent that I thought, “Is this it?!” Continuing further by myself, I was able to clearly sense the movement — “This is it!” I remember that when I first sensed this rhythm, which is totally different from the breath and pulse, with my own hand, I felt deeply connected with the “core” of my partner.

The cranial sacral rhythm is created by the flowing movement of fluid in the brain and cerebrospinal cord system. The brain and cerebrospinal cord are not in direct contact with the cranial or sacral bones and spine. In fact, they are wrapped in a bag-like membrane that is shaped like a tadpole. The inside and outside of this membrane is full of a clear liquid called the cerebrospinal fluid. This fluid is secreted from deep within the brain and flows down the backside of the cerebrospinal cord to the sacrum and then returns to the brain by flowing back up the front side of the cerebrospinal cord. When the pressure within the membrane caused by the secretion of the cerebrospinal cord reaches a fixed level, the secretion stops and the fluid within the membrane is absorbed outside and so the pressure falls. When it falls to a certain fixed level, the fluid is again secreted. In this way, the inner pressure rises and falls. (This cycle of secretion and absorption takes between five to eight seconds). This change in the pressure within the membrane is transmitted throughout the whole body: not only places close to the cerebrospinal cord such as the head, face and sacrum, but the cranial sacral rhythm also appears in the shoulders, ribs, buttocks, legs, arms, and so forth. The movements of the breath and pulse easily change as a result of the influence of mental tension or gross body movements. However, the cranial sacral rhythm is by comparison relatively much more settled and stable. In the deep recesses of our bodies, it ticks secretly, yet certainly the life rhythm of each individual person.

If there is stagnation or imbalance in the flow and rhythm of the cerebrospinal fluid, this will then bring about a bad effect on the brain and cerebrospinal cord system, resulting in various symptoms appearing in sense perceptions, body movements and the intellectual life of a person. In a word, cranial sacral therapy is a treatment in attempting to encourage the return to a normal condition of any stagnation or imbalance found in the cranial sacral rhythm. This is done through examinations made by hand of the flow of the cerebrospinal fluid and rhythm (width, intensity, speed, symmetry) by dissolving that imbalance through various techniques. The feeling I received from the cranial sacral therapy that I participated in was of deep relaxation and peace. I thought that perhaps this condition is what is referred to in the Yogocara (Consciousness-Only) School as prasrabdhi or “light -peace”, said to be one of the ten general good functions of the mind that gives a sense of easiness and enables a person to do good. Previously, I had the sometimes had the sense of the way the body pulsates with the different rhythms of breath and pulse. Since I have become able to sense the cranial sacral rhythm with my hands, I can now sense this other body rhythm more often and more clearly. It seems to me that it is easier to feel it during the slight pause that separates the inhalation and exhalation of breath.

If through the benefits of cranial sacral therapy it would be possible to balance the smooth flow of cerebrospinal fluid and we could sit in a way that the cranial sacral rhythm was balanced symmetrically left and right, up and down, throughout the whole body, I think it would be much easier to put the sitting posture and breath in order. I think it is necessary for zazen practitioners to devise ways so that they can correct the body irregularities and difficulties and can create the balanced and harmonized body-mind for the better quality of zazen. It does seem that along with yoga and diet cranial sacral therapy would be of great use in this regard. Might it not be possible while sitting zazen to use cranial sacral therapy in such a way that we could monitor and correct the cranial sacral rhythm by touching our hands to the back of the head and coccyx or the shoulders and the knees? Conversely, might it not also be possible to bring about an improvement in the quality of cranial sacral rhythm by sitting zazen for a certain amount of time? In other words, there may be a definite aspect of cranial sacral therapy in zazen. It also seems possible to get a firmer hold on the various medical benefits of zazen that have been emphasized from long ago — such as improvement in energy, recovering balance in the autonomic nervous system, improving blood circulation, gaining courage and composure — by looking at these things from the standpoint of cranial sacral therapy.

I have come to think that zazen practice is primarily concerned with the core part of human existence (the brain and cerebrospinal cord system), beyond the surface layer of the mind (the neo-cortex). I have come to see the actual condition of this “core” in concrete terms since learning cranial sacral therapy and since knowing about the existence of the cranial sacral system that is moving rhythmically inside the membrane. Zazen, which is one spiritual practice, and cranial sacral therapy, which is one kind of body work — these may seem to be completely unrelated, but I feel that in fact an essential connection will be discovered at some deep place between the two. Can it not be said that this material is a must for furthering our understanding of “physiology of zazen”?

I have discussed the pulsation of the whole body breathing, the swaying motion of the body axis, and cranial sacral motion in relation to the theme of “movement within immovable sitting.” Certainly, there are still other movements that must be considered. We can see that within the immovable posture called zazen, there exist many different kinds and qualities of movement. These different rhythms are played simultaneously within one whole body like a symphony. Isn’t this something that deserves our surprise?! What is the mutual relationship between these movements? Are they mutually independent? Or do they mutually affect each other? I will leave these questions for a future topic of investigation.

Finally, I would like to mention two points that require some caution. The first is that these movements are not restricted only to when we are sitting in zazen. In fact, as long as we are alive, these will exist wherever we are and at any time. Also, they are not created by us intentionally or by means of our personal effort. Rather, they are naturally and spontaneously manifested through the function of beyond-thought (hishiryo). Zazen is the purest posture of “losing, defeated, trusting, waiting” (the definition by Noguchi Mitsuzo of “faith” in the Japanese vernacular visà- vis the Chinese concept of it) in the regard to the work of Great Nature. It is simply for this reason that the forms and rhythms of these various spontaneous movements appear more purely and clearly in zazen.

The second point is that especially in the form of zazen called shikantaza, where a person expressly does not maintain a fixed concentration on any special object; we would not actively try to detect these movements by paying selective attention to them. It is only that during zazen our sensitivity is sharpened and so we notice those subtle spontaneous movements that always exist even though we usually don’t take notice of them because of our usual scattered mind. It would be all right to say, I think, that during zazen consciousness is thoroughly passive — “losing, defeated, trusting, waiting” — and that by some chance these movements are coming from somewhere over there and are picked up in the net of sensitivity. For this reason, the movements that I have mentioned so far are not objects for us to pursue during zazen. We should rather think that we are suddenly given notice to them as one of the sceneries of zazen.


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