Wednesday, December 9, 2009 8:11:00 PM
I wrote this poem in the 1970s -- I don't know the year. So long ago! Is it possible that so many years have passed? I was young and full of new spiritual discoveries. I wanted to share these discoveries with others, so I encapsulate them in a single poem.
The false either/or dichotomy is one of the methods our system uses to keep us all divided and conquered. This paralyzing dichotomy extends deep into our minds and hearts, unfortunately. We are not only pitted against one another -- "Conservative" against "Liberal", ethnic group against ethnic group, "Left" against "Right", "Blue" against "Red", in a perpetual nonsense war of geometry and color. We are also divided within ourselves.
This poem began as an attempt to heal our inner divisions and gain access to the realm of joy and freedom. It goes on to address heaven and hell. Then it introduces active proprioception -- spirit-body massage. Then /// well, just read it and see!
Sure, the rhyming is doggerel. But the poem is redeemed by the insight it expresses.
Saturday, December 5, 2009 9:58:29 PM
Two-way flow of energy:
Wikipedia defines proprioception as "the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body", and puts it on the same plane as sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. I would agree that proprioception is that important -- and yet, outside of psychology, there are few who know that such a sense exists.
Consider the world of pleasure and comfort that comes with the other senses -- the sight of beauty, the sound of gentle music, etc.. Proprioception, likewise, can be a great source of pleasure.
The wikipedia article, however, describes proprioception as a one-way purely receptive sense. For me, however, it is a very active two-way process. The same can be said of our other senses, as well: We prick up our ears, we focus our eyes, we caress the object we are touching. Sensation is active, not passive. Making sense of our sense impressions is also an active process: In vision, for example, we project our existing concepts onto what we see and then use imagination to fill the gaps and smooth the edges.
Proprioception, as I practice it, involves continual probing and exploration. Some forms of meditation aim to eliminate emotions; my aim is just the opposite. I seek to free my emotions, revive them, open them up, bring them into the sunlight, and make them stronger. I eliminate the tangles and the knots and the things that block and constrict emotion.
As I listen to my body and my emotions, I am simultaneously exercising, relaxing, tensing, holding, adjusting, etc., and monitoring the effect of these adjustments.
Does this clench or that tiny shift in posture and attitude make things worse or better? Am I angry? -- if so, can I become more angry? less angry? How does that feel? What is the color of the feeling? Is it warm? Is it cold? Large or small? What is the shape of the tension? Can I move along that shape, touching here, there? How far does it extend? Where does it lead? What happens if I tap on it, press on it, hit it hard? What if I yell at it or scream at it? Does it move?
The picture that results is more like a metaphorical MRI or a vector diagram than an x-ray. Actually it is not so much a picture as a dynamic connection: The body is the server for this database of attitudes and emotions, and the mind is the front-end.
A laser for the mind/body:
I sometimes use the metaphor of a laser. As the light in the laser bounces between the mirrors, it becomes coherent and powerful. The tiny movements and adjustments I make correspond to the vibration of the light. The mirrors of the laser correspond to contemplation and mental reflection. As I become aware of the movements and their effects, I feel warmth and pleasure. The body and the emotions crave attention, and that is what proprioception provides -- that is why it is so pleasurable. It is an inner massage, a massage for the spirit.
The feedback loop -- tensing, releasing, observing -- creates a kind of vibration or warm resonance within the body. Different parts of the body resonate at different frequencies. This afternoon, I have been working on my lower back. The frequency there is very low -- I press and push repeatedly before getting a response. Patience and persistance is sometimes required. Often, when I am focusing, my breathing automatically adjusts to the frequency of the area I am probing.
Although active proprioception can be performed in any position, I find it works best when I am lying down, face down, in a quiet room. Often, a weak cup of coffee is helpful, as it improves my sensitivity. Once I lie down, I sometimes need to wait a few minutes for the greyness and confusion of everyday life to settle out. I then survey my body and my emotions: What is my primary attitude or emotion? Am I angry? Am I feeling pain? Where is the emotion centered?
I then proceed with a back-and-forth motion, the kind of motion one uses to rock a boat or a car stuck in the snow. I clench and then I release.
Can I become more angry? Can I become less? Does anything move or free up? Where does my anger want to go? Upwards? Towards what? Can I get under it? What if I surrender? Is there some other emotion hiding beneath the anger? Am I protecting something?
I attempt to follow rivers of tension and emotion to the source. They often lead to deeper rivers.
Sometimes, the process is painful, in the sense that resistance occurs and effort is required. There may be certain feelings that I am reluctant to deal with or explore. Fortunately, with proprioception, one can control the pace of exploration. One can procede gradually, and in this way avoid being overwhelmed. One can also use a technique which I call "dying into the pain": One surrenders or goes limp and then "falls" into the painful emotion, as one might parachute into a battleground. The surrender creates detachment and allows observation without involvement.
No force is needed:
In dealing with emotions, observation is key. One cannot make large or instant changes to body and attitude. One cannot force the process -- force simply creates resistance and thus adds an additional level of complication. Fortunately, very small changes, adding up over time, are sufficient -- like the small steps a tennis player takes. And these small changes occur automatically, as our self-awareness increases -- as they occur automatically for the tennis player who keeps his eye on the ball. We cannot simply force painful or debilitating emotions to go away, but we can look into them and penetrate them with our awareness, and when we do, the emotions release themselves. What the body needs, above all, is attention. Emotions seek acknowledgement and acceptance. Once that acceptance is gained, the emotional distortions subside. Energy begins to flow again. To change, it is enough to listen.
Proprioception is a mirror we hold up to ourselves. Once we have a firm image of ourselves, change occurs spontaneously. We begin to preen and groom and shift our posture automatically. If we are not proud of the person in the mirror, we acquire an urge to change our behavior. It's not an urge we force upon ourselves: Awareness alone is sufficient.
This form of contemplation enables us to observe our emotions without acting on them. Take fear. If we allow ourselves to be driven by fear, we become clenched, and that leads nowhere. But if we step back and observe the fear and ask where it is coming from, we can sometimes release it. Often, we are actually afraid of ourselves, or of parts of ourselves that we want to keep hidden. Our fear, if tracked, can lead us to these repressed parts of our psyche. We can then face these hidden parts of ourself and explore them and welcome them back into the sunlight.
Imagination is required:
Our awareness is limited by conception and preconception. I often tell the story of the fish in the partitioned fish-bowl. The right half of the bowl is partitioned off, so the goldfish learn to swim only in the left half. Surprisingly, when the partition is then removed, the fish continue to swim only in the left half of the bowl: It takes them a while to imagine the right half and notice that it exists.
Similarly, it takes time for us to imagine and discover all of the motions and vibrations and gyrations that are required to follow the track of our emotions. Does the river of tension turn upwards? inwards? Does it twist back on itself?
Necessity guides us. Are there areas where the body is tired or in the grip of inertia? The need to relieve the tiredness leads us to reach deeper into the body, searching for a normal vibrant feeling. We may find that the tiredness is due to an unresolved or unsettled conflict. We then need to imagine a way to touch and release each side of the conflict. Notice that we are imagining feelings and emotions, not pictures. We know when this "tactile imagination" matches physical reality, because we feel a change, a release of tension or a return of feeling to a dead area.
For decades, psychologists and psychiatrists have operated in the dark. They have had no objective way to test their theories against reality. But with proprioception, they now have such a way. Physical reality is the lock and tactile imagination, the key that turns the lock. When we feel the muscles free up, we know we have found the right key. We know what works.
Some of our emotions are taboo and thus unimaginable. This is true of embarrassing or disgusting emotions. It is also true of self-destructive emotions, especially in a person who is strongly life-oriented. When we are constantly telling ourselves that we want to live, it is almost impossible to imagine that a part of ourselves may actually want to die. All of these emotions need to be uncovered and examined and touched and greeted and hugged. All have a place.
What place can there possibly be for a desire for death? I found the answer in James Hillman's masterwork, Re-Visioning Psychology.
Re-Visioning Psychology is unlike any other book I have ever read. When I go on trips, I carry it with me as a precious talisman. The book is an erudite study that brings together polytheistic psychology, Imagination, and the neo-Platonic soul, then applies the vision to European civilization and the Renaissance. The book opened my eyes and enabled me to move from materialism back to philosophical idealism.
What is relevant here is Hillman's characterization of the neo-Platonic soul. This soul, as I understand it, is a mortal soul, not the immortal abstract soul of Christianity. Essentially, we are speaking of the human condition. Soul is the balance between the desire for life and the desire for death. When we repress the desire for death and neglect to face it honestly, it expresses itself covertly -- in self-destructive behavior. Usually, we are not even aware of the desire -- however, our behavior has a consistently self-defeating pattern.
To free ourselves from this pattern, we need to identify the hidden destructive desires and acknowledge them and bring them to the surface and give them sunlight and attention. They then release their grip on us and we can calmly pair them up with more helpful desires.
Repression always makes things worse. Because our society dreads death, we repress all thought of it, and because we repress death, it gains power over us. Our collective dread drives our society to attack other countries and inflict death and destruction there on a titanic scale. As individuals, this latent self-destructive desire drives us to reject political participation or any other activity that might help us or save us from ourselves.
The hidden motivation for our self-destructive behavior:
The death-wish is manifest in our willful ignorance, in our addictions (e.g., cigarettes), in our denial, in cutting and piercing, in dangerous sex and reckless behavior, and even in resignation and resentment.
When one experiences burn-out, a broken heart, a terminal disease, or depression, one gets to know the death-wish. What I learned is that this desire, by itself, is not to be feared: For a broken spirit, the desire for death is a desire to return to wholeness. When our involvement in the world ties us in knots, we feel a need to retreat and drop out and cut our ties to the world of life. This is a normal desire, not something that needs to stay hidden.
Instead of waiting sixty or eighty years to die, we can live and die a little each day. In living, we engage the world and become ensnared in insoluble problems; in dying, we retract and surrender and recover our integrity.
Life is the chalk on the blackboard and death is the eraser. I love to write on the blackboard, but writing is better on a clean blackboard. So I need both the chalk and the eraser. Without an eraser, all of the writing overlaps and becomes unreadable.
The death-wish becomes a problem when we repress it. We then become increasingly sluggish and conflicted, without knowing why. Of course, it is also a problem when we act on it. It is not a problem in contemplation, however.
In the larger society, the death-wish manifests as a desire to kill others: If only we could kill more (Muslims / Communists / Huns / Kulaks / Heretics) faster, we would all "Live Happily Ever After". This latent unexamined urge distorts our actions. Take 9-11. According to the Official Conspiracy Theory, it was all the fault of 19 Superhuman Muslims. If the OCT scapegoated men in suits, instead of men in robes, it would be instantly dismissed as a crazy fantasy, but because it targets the dreaded "Muslims", it seems true. Wall Street CEO's crashing planes? -- laughable! Muslims doing the same thing? -- but of course! The fact that dress makes such a difference indicates that the OCT derives its credibility from prejudice, which is in turn fueled by a desire to kill "The Other".
Life without soul:
Perhaps human beings would be better off, then, without this soul, this balance of desires? I rather doubt it. If we had only a desire for life and nothing more, then we would have no ability to accept death when death is inevitable. The terminal patient would struggle till the last moment, and would know no peace.
But more than that: This desire for death is telling us something very important about ourselves. It tells us that there is something beyond abject materialism. It tells us that we have a choice. The desire gives us the power to reject the superficial material world, at least in our hearts, and distance ourselves from that world. Distance is essential: Without it, we are torn apart by the insoluble problems and dilemmas of the material world. We are consumed and devoured -- as Actaeon, in the myth, was devoured when he got too close to the goddess Artemis.
The material world is like a two-dimensional world. The absence of the third dimension is limiting: Getting from the outside to the inside of a circle is an "insoluble problem", because there is no way to step over the circumference. As we gain the power to distance ourselves from this superficial world, we discover additional dimensions -- a moral dimension, a spiritual dimension. Apparent boundaries disappear. Sometimes, we find a love that transcends life and death. Empathy reaches around doctrines and dogmas.
Distance and imagination:
With distance, comes the liberating power of imagination. Consider the man who is facing a brick wall. His nose is pressed right to the wall. To him, "The World" is nothing but a giant brick. But as he steps back and puts distance between himself and "The World", that world becomes larger: He sees more of the wall, and then the grass and the trees and the sky.
Not only this: Once he breaks his attachment to the brick, he begins to see that he is co-creator of the world. The grass exists, in part, because he chooses to notice it. The flowers exist for the same reason: They exist for him. And as he opens his heart to the flowers, they become more than flowers: They become roses and tulips and daffodils. They become fragile and brave and bold and inviting. They become a universe of splendor. This universe is seen by only one person, and thus, it is partly the creation of that person: Its existence depends on his ability to see with his heart.
Distance doesn't have to mean a loss of emotion. It can mean just the opposite. Think of a man who falls in love with a women. Chances are, he first sees her from a distance. When he gets right next to the woman and sees that she is not what he imagined her to be, his love turns cold. When we get too close to something or someone, we can be overwhelmed. The emotion we feel then -- discomfort, disgust, fear -- lacks sensitivity.
What we are:
When I connect with my body, as I do in proprioception, I am establishing a connection between the mind and the material universe -- inasmuch as my body is a part of that universe. But what exactly do I mean by "my"? Much of what happens in "my" body happens beyond my ken. Do I feel "my" cells growing? Do I feel "my" bones making white blood cells? Is this something that I tell "my" bones to do?
"My" body is made up of atoms, atoms that extend back in time to the creation of the universe or the creation of the sun -- are we not Sun People, then, rather than Earth People?! How, exactly, did I acquire possession of these atoms? Where, exactly, do "my" atoms end and the atoms of another begin? What about the air I breathe? -- is that part of "my" body? Am I diminished when I cut "my" fingernails or trim "my" hair?
There seems to be no clear divide between "Me" and "The Universe". If I am "my" body, then I am the universe as well. True, there is much in the universe that I do not control -- but the same can be said of "my own" body. Apparently, this body is "mine", simply because I choose to identify with it. If I knew how to identify with a tree, then I could become that tree.
If there is no divide, then I am changing the universe when I practice proprioception. Notice the difference between this and doctrinal belief? The later is a purely mental operation. There is no direct effect on the body and no effect on the universe. With belief comes doubt: Belief, being an abrogation of reason, always tries to justify itself, and the harder it tries, the less it convinces. With feeling, there is no need for justification. Once I say "I am the universe", there is nothing more I need to say. It is because it is.
Good and evil:
As a citizen, it is my duty to serve as a check on power and corruption. I am politically very active, and I find joy in political struggle, as my other posts demonstrate.
However, my political work frequently brings me face to face with evil -- with war, with ignorance, with cynicism, with fear, with xenophobia, tribalism and other forms of narrowness. Unfortunately, there seems to be no easy way to combat all of this evil. Just as we cannot force our emotions to change, so too, we cannot force other people to change. All that we can ever really change is ourselves, and that, we change gradually, through a growth process -- many small steps, many small adjustments to the fascia, as tension abates.
To combat evil, then, we must recognize evil as a part of ourselves. In other words, we should give evil no quarter, no haven, no place to hide. All things are in god. All "airtight compartments" leak. All things are vulnerable. If empires rise, they can also fall -- and they do. And as they fall, cracks in the wall of silence appear, and communication, once rejected, is welcomed.
When we discover that evil is "in here" and not "out there", some of our despair lifts. What seemed like an impossible task -- reaching those who do not want to be reached -- becomes a possible task. All we need to do is get to know ourselves. And, knowing ourselves, we gain the ability to empathize with others and talk to others, even to others who we once saw as hopelessly evil.
The desire for Enlightenment:
This needs to be explored just like any other desire. Where is it coming from? What lies under it or behind it? -- a desire for power? a desire for release?
I believe that Enlightenment is overrated. What happens when we become Enlightened? -- life goes on. The body continues to function, just as before. Our needs do not change. The problems remain. As far as I can see, the Enlightened being has only one advantage: He or she can step back from the problems and see the larger picture. But we don't need to be enlightened to do that. All we need is an effective spiritual practice. Chanting, surrendering, dying, contemplating, pondering a koan or serving others -- all of these practices put distance between ourselves and the impossible world we live in. All of these practices lead us back to dignity and freedom and joy, back to the realm of the spirit. All loosen the stranglehold material existence has on us and help us to discover a humanity that stands apart from this world. For this reason, I am inclined to say that practice is Enlightenment.
How I discovered active proprioception:
It happened in 1969 or 1970. I was in a college library -- in the philosophy section, perhaps -- and it occurred to me to ask why we exist. Suddenly, I realized that the inquisitive feeling that prompted the question was itself the answer. Wanting to know the reason for existence is a sufficient reason for existing!
As I found the feeling behind that question, I went on to find motivating feelings behind many of my thoughts. The feelings, which I found to be self-justifying, enabled me to better judge my thoughts and organize them. The feelings, I decided, were more significant than the thoughts.
This is true, I believe, even in abstract thinking. The engineer cannot design a bridge unless she has a feel for the bridge, a feel for the materials. The computer programmer -- if he is me! -- walks through a maze of numbers, six feet tall. He feels the logic, as one might feel a wall.
This introduction to feeling led me to explore my emotions. I found a correlation between emotion and muscular configuration. I recognized the pattern of tension caused by fear, for example, and the pattern caused by anger. That knowledge enabled me to track down buried emotions -- one pattern of tension leading to another. I came to see my body as a landscape, with rivers of energy flowing between mountains (knotted areas) and deserts (blank areas). One river (anger) would lead to a deeper river (fear). Following these rivers, I gained access to buried feelings, and I gained the ability to release these tangled and debilitating feelings. I found that even the feelings of childhood are remembered in these patterns of tension. The rest is history.
Go forth and multiply:
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Friday, December 4, 2009 8:57:17 AM
Practice versus belief:
To change the world, we must change ourselves, and practice is how we change ourselves. With practice, a pianist learns music and gains the power to move an audience. With practice, a gymnast or a skater or a dancer gains the power to perform nearly impossible feats. With practice, a surgeon gains the power to save lives.
The power to know ourselves and know the nature of existence is gained through spiritual practice. As we resolve inner conflicts and release inertia, new possibilities reveal themselves to us. With practice, we find solutions to intractable problems. Spiritual practice is effectual: It makes a difference.
Contrast practice with doctrinal belief (or assent), the focus of modern Christianity. Belief does nothing. The belief is ineffectual, a waste of energy. Consider how much energy has been wasted on arguing whether or not god exists. Does God exist? -- according to modern Christianity and other belief-oriented religions, my answer to this question determines my spiritual fate. But in reality, my answer determines nothing. In many cases, the atheist is closer to god than the Christian, because the atheist is not afraid to be honest with himself. It's not the belief that matters: It's the behavior, the attitude, the practice.
The need for practice was understood by earlier forms of Christianity. The original meaning of the word "belief" was "love" -- not doctrinal assent but an attitude of devotion. The early Christians put character and attitude above doctrinal belief. There was no one set of dogmas that everyone had to assent to. It was enough to love. Unfortunately, in modern Christianity, this focus on character and practice has been largely superseded by an obsession with doctrinal belief.
We have all seen the harmful effects of belief. We've seen mistaken political beliefs lead to war; we've seen foolish religious beliefs lead to mass suicide, stoning adulterers, burning heretics alive, and tribalistic bloodbaths. We contrast blind belief with the rational and the reasonable.
Because belief is ineffectual and often harmful, we mistakenly conclude that all forms of religion are useless and harmful -- even religions that are based on practice and not on belief. Most of us are unaware of the opportunities for growth that a spiritual practice may provide. We may conclude our situation is hopeless, when in fact, it is not. What changes the situation is practice.
Forms of spiritual practice:
Practice entails self-observation, effort, time, and study. It produces immediate and tangible results. The piano practice, for example, results in an ability to play more and more melodies. Spiritual practice comes in many forms:
* group contemplation (e.g., the Quakers)
* meditation, self-discipline, Raja yoga
* a mantra (e.g., SGI Buddhism)
* darshan, good company
* love, devotion, Bhakti yoga
* service to others, Karma yoga
* deep self-knowledge, Jnana yoga (proprioception)
* physical postures (Hatha yoga)
Here, I will describe the three forms that I use myself.
Group contemplation (the Quaker form of worship):
We sit in a circle. We read a brief passage to focus our thoughts. And then we begin an hour of silence. The silence is sometimes interrupted, if people are moved or inspired to speak.
As the silence proceeds, we settle ourselves and open ourselves to whatever feelings are present in the room. We calm ourselves and examine ourselves and examine our attitudes towards others. We strive to empathize with others in the room.
Nam myoho renge kyo (the SGI mantra):
Nichiren (1222-1282), focusing on the Lotus Sutra, democratized Buddhism: He replaced arcane practices accessible only to the priesthood with a chant that anyone might recite. Soka Gakkai International, founded in 1930, revived Nichiren Buddhism. The name translates to "Value Creation Society". In the 1940s, SGI leaders opposed Japanese war-making and went to prison. In 1991, SGI and the Nichiren priesthood split. I regard SGI as secularized Buddhism.
SGI worship begins with a rapid recitation of parts of the Lotus Sutra, in Japanese. I regard this as a focusing exercise. This is followed by group chanting. We chant the title of the Lotus Sutra -- Myoho Renge Kyo -- but I place no significance on the actual words. The significance is in the vocalized intent. I think of the chant as "choir practice for people who can't sing", and, like the sound of a choir, the sound of the chant is cathartic.
Tonight, for example, I used the chant to identify and release anger, resignation and inertia. I then became sensitive to the feelings of others in the room. In the chant, I became one with those others. The sense of being part of a group made the pain of loneliness disappear. I began to feel exhilaration, and I put that energy back into the chant. The feedback yielded more energy and enthusiasm.
The tangible result? Stagnant depressing emotions were released or cast off. My enthusiasm for life revived. I regained my hopefulness and my constructive focus.
Way back in 1970, I was in a college library asking "Why do I exist?" Suddenly it came to me that the inquisitive feeling that prompted that question was itself the answer: Wanting to know the reason for existence was a sufficient reason for existing! As I found the feeling behing that question, I went on to find motivating feelings behind most of my thoughts. The feelings, which I found to be self-justifying, enabled me to better judge my thoughts and organize them. The feelings, I decided, were more significant than the thoughts.
This introduction to feeling led me to explore my emotions. I found a correlation between emotion and muscular configuration. I recognized the pattern of tension caused by fear, for example, and the pattern caused by anger. That knowledge enabled me to track down buried emotions -- one pattern of tension leading to another. I came to see my body as a landscape, with rivers of energy flowing between mountains (knotted areas) and deserts (blank areas). One river (anger) would lead to a deeper river (fear). Following these rivers, I gained access to buried feelings, and I gained the ability to release these tangled and debilitating feelings. I found that even the feelings of childhood are remembered in these patterns of tension.
The tangible result: I know myself.