spirituality

Bones Water-n-Harmony

I’ve slowed down in my book reading a little bit and got lost in the Internets again, with specific focus on mobility, bones, fascia, movement, and other wonders of the body.

My search has taken me strange and beautiful places, such as Emilie Conrad’s Continuum. “The woman who dances like water” has since the 1960s pursued her inquiry (not a complete theory, as she emphasizes, not a masculine assertion of infallibility) into the essential unity of the universe, movement as its graceful expression, water as our eternal environment. Stressing the spiral, the spontaneous, and the involuntary, inspired by fetal development and the evolution of our species, and drawing on Haitian dances, Conrad has found a way to float without water, seemingly diluting gravitational pull, opening and nourishing every cell of her body in the process, as she puts it. Her videos show remarkable corporeal awareness, rarely seen in human beings, as in this video:

I have gained much body awareness in the past couple of years, but am still half asleep when it comes to reading internal sensations. I’ve begun wondering how my scoliosis fits in here. I wore a back brace through high school, a plaster cast for about three months, and finally was operated at 18 (two metal rods screwed into my thoracic vertebrae). Luckily enough, I never had any complications and even though I was told that sports were an absolute no-no (with the exception of swimming), I kept sneaking some into my life. It always felt like breaking a taboo, though, as if my life was on the line. I was scared of becoming badly hurt, or disabled, but I kept trying. Until today, each completed run, vinyasa sequence, or boxing class feels like a miraculous victory to me.

I listened to Liz Koch‘s audio book on scoliosis the other day. Liz Koch is the psoas woman, studying and spreading the good news about the human filet mignon, as she calls it, with fierce love and dedication. It would appear that nourishing the psoas, keeping it juicy and supple, is the key to everything: alignment, freedom from pain and fear, openness to love. She wrote about and collaborated with Emilie Conrad, and her psoas exercises echo Conrad’s liquid movements. What I found startling in Koch’s words on scoliosis was the idea that it had much to do with family dynamics, sexuality, creativity, and a score of other, deeply embedded issues. I balked at the claim that getting her spine surgically strengthened was tantamount to sending a message to a young girl (as scoliosis usually appears or worsens at puberty) that she, her developing body, is not ok and has to be called to order, or fixed. Koch unraveled her own curvature, but I have met hunchbacked people – and yes, the hunch was the result of untreated scoliosis. So I am very grateful for having been operated and being more or less straight now. Perhaps, had my parents been Californian hippies, and had we had any idea about alternative treatments back then, we would have found another way of dealing with it. The way things were, my mother did everything she could to save my back: I was followed by orthopedists, chiropractors, I swam and exercised every day, until I was about 13 and grew 12 cm in one year, which was when my scoliosis became dangerous. Perhaps mine was a pathological case. Not everybody requires surgery, but I reached the 50 degrees threshold.

Criticism aside, it is true that emotions and physical experiences do leave traces in the body. An invasive surgery, involving stretching, drilling, scraping, and grafting of the skeleton, must present an enormous trauma to the organism. According to Koch, fear and pain get lodged in the fused vertebrae, which in turn influences breathing patterns, both physically and psychologically. I also know the importance of early attachment patterns and the constant, unconscious replaying of family dynamics every adult is bound to perform, unless they acquire a bit of a higher awareness. So I followed Koch’s suggestion, went into the memories linked with my scoliosis, saw many things surface, and cried. I’d never cried over being sick before – that was what my mother, aunts, and grandmothers did. I laughed it off, and roughed it as well as I could. But the sorrow I felt today softened me. It was good.

It’s interesting that three weeks ago I was moved to write a story about my scoliosis in the creative writing workshop.

Travis Bedel

Travis Bedel

It seems like I am getting deeper and deeper into this flesh business, and oh, them bones! Ania, my Berlin-based dancer friend, spoke to me of Klein Technique today, and I wish I could try it in motion, but reading must suffice for now. Susan T. Klein writes,

Bone is the deepest, densest tissue of the body and thus it conducts the greatest currents of energy. Bone is at the core of who we are and through it we know the essence of our being. When all else is gone, as a tree stripped bare in the season of winter, we can read its code; we can see its essential nature and know what was, through reading the bone. Bone does not yield to gravity, but acts as a conductor, conducting energy, and connecting us to the system of nature, to the greater whole. It is through the bone that we stand as a ridgepole, “the tai chi”, between heaven and earth. When all else is gone, it is the bone that remains. It is bone, which holds our self-identity, our essential selves and our will power. Dropping away from the superficial and deceptive strength of the muscles we access strength from coordination; we access power connected to the knowledge of self-identity and the spirit of will available in the bone. Our power and identity come from working at our deepest physical level – the bone. (source)

This is so fascinating. Somehow, this knowledge results in enormous relief and humility. And it just seems so natural that I am doing it now, the whole going inside thing, reaching through to the bones. I was reminded of Clarissa Pinkola-Estés’ words, in “Women Who Run With the Wolves”:

Some say that the soul informs the body. But what if we were to imagine for a moment that the body informs the soul, helps it adapt to mundane life, parses, translates, gives the blank page, the ink, and the pen with which the soul can write upon our lives? Suppose, as in fairy tales of the shapechangers, the body is a God in its own right, a teacher, a mentor, a certified guide? Then what?  . . . It is in this light that the wildish woman can inquire into the numinosity of her own body and understand it not as a dumbbell that we are sentenced to carry for life, not as a beast of burden, pampered or otherwise, who carries us around, but as a series of doors and poems through which we can learn and know all manner of things. In the wild psyche, body is understood as a being in its own right, one who loves us, depends on us, one to whom we are sometimes mother, and who sometimes is mother to us. (205-206)

I need to sleep now (my morning ritual has suddenly become a Saturday night thing, how did THAT happen?), but I want to note down two more things.

One: I saw Jane Goodall speak at Concordia University on Friday and it was an absolutely beautiful experience. Her new book, out on April 1st,  is about plants and is called “Sowing the Seeds of Hope.” Along with Vandana Shiva, she advocates for Mother Earth with such steady passion and conviction that I know it must flow from some deeper source. Goodall turns 80 tomorrow. Reportedly, after one of her recent lectures, someone asked her, “You achieved so much in your life, what’s the next thing?” She smiled and said, “Well, death, I suppose.”

Two: I am listening to the audio of Julie Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity” and it is precious, offering lots of kindness and compassion. Cameron writes of “artists in recovery,” as if life without creation were one drunken spell, while creativity meant sobriety that could only be granted by the Great Creator (aka God). It sounds  religious, but not institutional, and I am with her on it. Happy that I chanced upon this book. Goodnight now.

 

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Wise Old Men, Wise Old Women

I don’t think I will go through everything that is available on the J. Krishnamurti website (it is so vast!), but I’ll stick with it for some time still. In the concluding talk of his 1967 series, Love and Loneliness, he offers a kind of closure, promising a way out of the crazy, self-destructive mind and world:

“To be aware of thought, of feeling, never to correct it, never to say it is right or wrong, never to justify it, but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching and moving with that thought, with that feeling, you begin to understand and to be aware of the whole nature of thought and feeling. Out of this awareness comes silence, not simulated, not controlled, not put together by thought.”

This is true meditation, according to Krishnamurti, who at the same time brusquely rejects all other contemplative practices (involving sound, visualization, etc.) as phony. I wonder: does this rejection not lead to further division and thus conflict? I would rather believe that any path leading to a worthy goal (such as peace) would be commendable, but Krishnamurti seems to question the very idea of “taking a path” and insists on everybody assuming absolute authority over their own existence:

“We cannot depend on anybody, there is no guide, there is no teacher, there is no authority, there is only oneself and one’s relationship with another and the world, there is nothing else. When one realizes that, faces that, either it brings great despair from which comes cynicism, bitterness and all the rest of it, or in facing it, one realizes that one is totally responsible for oneself and for the world, nobody else; when one faces that, all self-pity goes.”

What follows is that “each individual human being is responsible for all the misery, for the wars, for the hunger, for the brutalities and . . . enormous violence that exists in the world,” and so each one of us must bring about a revolution in ourselves if we ever want to end this vicious cycle.

I want to retort, shut up Krishnamurti, I did not commit atrocities in my life, but I know that essentially he is right. If we are one, then each individual is also humanity, and so contains in herself the seeds of all good and evil. Thus the need to cultivate virtue… except it sounds so puritan and cold that I am taken aback. The idea of watching oneself carefully all the time, being aware of each thought, each motive, and the consequences of each action – and hoping for grace which may or may not descend – gives me shivers. Then I turn to the belly-laughing Alan Watts, who likes to say, “Don’t worry so much; it’s only a game.” But as I was listening to “Out of Your Mind” the other day, it struck me how lightheaded Watts sometimes was. Speaking of world poverty, for instance, he affirmed that humanity is at such an advanced stage of development that, thanks to robots and machines, hunger and deprivation will soon be absolutely eliminated. And then what, he asks, what will a modern man do? When all the sick and poor are taken care of? Imagine having that dilemma for real. Sure, he was a product of his times, and that was a common belief in the sixties, but it only goes to show how detached the overspiritualized people can be.

Anyway, who isn’t. I know I am. I don’t believe in objectivity, and I know that universality tastes different to everyone. All the wise men say essentially the same thing, albeit in different words, using different examples, appealing to different facets of their listeners’ personalities. When I leech onto their words and try to follow with too much intensity, I miss the message, just as I fail to grasp it by way of criticism. My critique is partly motivated by the fear of being naive, gullible, and easily manipulated, and partly by the confidence of being smart enough to see through them. And yet I keep coming back for more, instead of effin’ taking the cue and following my own lead. How fascinating is that. How addictive.

To counterbalance the voices of wise old men, I am reading Marion Woodman’s “Addiction to Perfection.” I discovered this Canadian psychologist and writer thanks to a documentary film, “Dancing in the Flames” and loved her immediately – she makes for a great mother figure. The book was first published in 1982 and deals mainly with eating disorders from a Jungian perspective.Woodman’s insights on addiction and dysfunction, especially in women, is extraordinary. Identifying the drive for perfection (bodily as much as spiritual) as a deadly threat to sanity, she writes:

“The further I move into the white radiance on one side, the blacker the energy that is unconsciously constellating behind my back: the more I force myself to perfect my ideal image of myself, the more overflowing toilet bowls I’m going to have in my dreams. . . . As human creatures, not gods, we must go for the grey, the steady solid line that makes its serpentine way only slightly to left and right down the middle course between the opposites.” (15)

Again, the path emerges. Woodman does not promise her analysands a dissolution in the ocean of bliss – it is what they often pursued prior to admitting that they needed help – but feeling one’s own way through life, which also means heeding the needs of one’s own body, needs that find sneaky, often destructive ways of expressing themselves if they are denied.

A younger Canadian author, Matthew Remski, questions the extremities of spirituality from another angle. Inquiring into the philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (the ancient foundational text of Yoga) and its value for contemporary yogis, he asks in a recent interview:

“Do we really believe that our ultimate goal as human beings is to ascend into the splendid isolation (kaivalya) of pure consciousness? Do we really want to maintain good hygiene so that we can discover how disgusting our bodies are? Do we think that meditation can allow us to be bodysnatchers? It’s ‘no,’ I think, to all of these. So why has this text been translated and commented upon uncritically as an object of faith for the last 150 years with vanishingly little regard for the paradigm it is encountering currently? Why is an ascetic meditation manual advocating anti-social goals at the heart of the modern postural movement, as if it has anything specific to say about asana? Why is it held as a textbook to salvation, when it can’t even come close to addressing the complexities of neoliberal narcissism or radical climate change?”

So many questions! I love it even as I proclaim the end of intellect. And I can’t deny it.

What is it that is aware?

“What is it that is aware?” is a question I’ve been turning under my tongue for over ten years now, without ever arriving at a reasonably satisfying answer. When I’d first heard it from an annoyingly admirable man, it was meant to encapsulate the essence of zen Buddhism and higher consciousness, and so it seduced me instantaneously. I kept it as a poetic souvenir and my life’s koan. It returned to me last night.

Over the past few months I have been binging on spiritual texts of all sorts, ranging from self-help, through mythology, anthropology, Jungian psychology and neuroscience to spiritual writings par excellence. Interestingly enough, I still haven’t touched the Bible, but yes it’s on the list.

I have also been trying to develop rituals that would help me write regularly. This blog is an attempt at one such productive habit. Every morning, I want to devote one to two hours to noting down my thoughts on what I had read the previous day, to track my own mental processes. I have some misgivings about this idea, and fears too, naturally, but here I am, more ready than not.

Currently on the agenda are transcripts of J. Krishnamurti‘s public talks, delivered in Saanen, Switzerland, in the summer of 1967, under the collective title “On Love and Loneliness.” In contrast to Alan Watts, another teacher popular at the time, Krishnamurti is no spiritual entertainer. He demands utter seriousness on the part of his audience, and often sounds impatient. There is no charm to his persona (a quality that Alan Watts oozes), and he may sometimes seem irritated at the inability of listeners to grasp his ideas, which he claims are not opinions, beliefs or judgments. He seems convinced to have found the truth, but also to know that truth is incommunicable, which is why his teaching method involves guiding listeners through stages of logical reasoning. He frequently insists on having everybody follow his line of argument with full concentration (or leave the tent), and stresses that not just listening, but full mental engagement is essential. The goal is to arrive at an understanding which is universal and yet absolutely, earnestly individual and particular.

The unity of all being, love as universal power, thought as source of attachment and misery, attentiveness to the present moment, and the necessity to quiet the mind are recurrent themes in Krishnamurti’s teachings. When listed in this manner, they could be attributed to any Buddhist guru, mindfulness coach, or New Age enthusiast, but Krishnamurti is no feel-good preacher. His dismissal of lowly forms of human activity, such as sex or entertainment, reminded me of Marion Woodman‘s characterization of the archetypally male energy:

“[T]he spiritual feminine is always grounded in the natural instincts so that no matter how spiritualized it becomes, it is always on the side of life. In this it is different from the overspiritualized masculine (in man or woman) which tends to seduce us into the sleep that ends ‘the heartache . . . that flesh is heir to.'” (Addiction to Perfection)

Granted, Krishnamurti’s vision of truth evokes anything but sopor, but it does seem rather heavy and ascetic in its disregard for instinct, drive and liveliness.

But what did I read last night? In the ninth talk on love and loneliness I found reiterated the question that has pursued me for so long: “Who is it that is aware?”

Advice given to meditation novices goes somewhat like this: to quiet the mind, do not try to suppress the thoughts that arise, but rather gently acknowledge and push them away, much like you would a balloon floating your way. Watch from the outside, see them as a product of your frantic ego that forever wants, and remembers, and plans, and attracts, and distracts, and rejects what is. Create an observer that brings benevolent awareness to ego’s selfish antics. It is not easy to achieve, but when it works, it brings calm and contentment. Krishnamurti, however, points to the paradox of dividing one’s own consciousness into the observer and the observed. For if the observer is outside the observed, where does it place her in the realm of consciousness? Says the teacher:

When we say we are aware, we generally mean the image becomes aware of itself in relation to the other image – which is part of awareness, but we have gone much farther than that. And we say that when there is this image there is a centre which observes, there is a division and hence a conflict. Where there is conflict there is no awareness at all. To be free from conflict one has to become aware and do so without creating another centre which is aware of the image that I have created about myself or about another. So, is there an awareness without the centre, of this whole of consciousness, with its boundaries, its limitations, its content?

I love this intimation of heaven, or oneness, or ocean of consciousness that belongs to no one in particular but always is, a promise of belonging. I dream of this awareness without a centre, a dissolution that is pure existence, which cannot be reached the way I keep trying to reach it, that is through mind.

I asked my aunt the other day how she understood “surrender,” which is one of the basic ideas in the Alcoholics Anonymous movement. She has been member of AA for many long years now and regularly sponsors (offers guidance to) inductees. She said, “It means admitting that alcohol is a power greater than myself, and that rationalizing only took me that far.” Apparently, the smarter, the more intellectual a person is, the harder it is for her to surrender. Highbrows may memorize the whole book, quote from it profusely in the meeting, and hit the booze right after. Their power for self-deception is as vast as their vocabulary. They often want to reform the organization, or to boss over it; they may claim they’ve understood it better than anyone since and so they proffer sophisticated criticisms with their own twist on the issue – but they do not make space for truth in their hearts. “Surrender” means shutting up, listening, and admitting that we are essentially no different, no better from others. That we are all one. It means humility and not striving to impress and achieve. It is the most difficult thing for the kicking and screaming ego, for the intellectual alcoholic, for me.

I am on a quest to understand something that escapes my grasp, and even if this is not the the right way, I will pursue it for a while still, just because I feel that I must. I admit that I binge on spiritual writings to fill my bottomless curiosity, hunger, thirst, and that I am still a smart ass. I will keep on writing and flexing for as long as it takes. Perhaps one day I will find a way of acting from the place of surrender. Bear with me. I will not take advice and I will go wherever I want to, because I don’t feel the difference between being lost and exploring.