29 January 2010

Sophrosyne: The Escape from Senseless Violence

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Obedience to what Professor Whitehead has called the unenforceable, that to which no force can compel, the Athenian accepted as the basic condition of freedom for men living together, obedience to kindness and compassion and unselfishness and all the long list of qualities without which life would be intolerable except to a hermit in a desert. The limits to action established by law were a mere nothing compared to the limits established by a man's free choice.
- Edith Hamilton, The Echo of Greece

I take to heart the "except to a hermit in the desert" phrase. Nevertheless, this passage captures a spirit of freedom, of an essential goodness to human nature and culture, that I believe we have lost sight of. The imperative is to recover "the unenforceable" within ourselves. To that end, I am striving for greater discipline and balance in my own life.

For a great number of reasons, I am attracted to "things in threes". There is a fundamental simplicity, a philosophical purity, an aesthetic pleasure, an elegant (beauty + power) harmony, to things in threes.

Spirit / Mind / Body - the structure of the Memory Cathedral
Thesis / Anti-thesis / Synthesis - Hegel's map
Just / Good / Beautiful - teleological harmony in Plato
Past / Present / Future - Sartre's despair, forlornness and despair
Yin / Yang / Tao - aspects of I-Ching trigrams
Purity / Simplicity / Grace - idiosyncratic triad. Desert / Mountain / Ocean
Flesh / Bone / Blood - the blood is new here, rises out of the bone, flows through the flesh

The capacity to embrace two polarities, opposites, and then also locate the whole that embraces both, is like an exhaled breath of satisfaction in my mind.

Previously, I detailed certain physical disciplines for my body. It is without any doubt, the basis any philosophy. The foundation of all philosophy and religion. Framing these physical disciplines are those of the Mind and the Spirit.

The Great Platonic Day exhibits this structure:

Spirit - 3 h
Mind - 3 h
Body - 3 h

Society - 3 h

Sleep - 6 h
Food - 3 h
Transitions - 3 h

Emphasis here on the essential Platonic nature of this program. It's the Ideal Form for the day. It is the skeleton around which the various interruptions, distractions, sidetracks all collect. 
"The Platonic idealist is the man by nature so wedded to perfection that he sees in everything not the reality but the faultless ideal which the reality misses and suggests..."
- George Santayana, Egotism In German Philosophy
Here is the danger of living according to a set of Ideals that is out of step with the society at large. There is argument that no one is more egotistical than the Hemit in the Desert. I understand this all too well. However, the Desert that I have emerged from is one in which there was no perfection at all. And now, searching for structure (also penetration into the core of my problem and potential solution), I turn to the Greeks, to the roots of Western thinking and culture - to the locus of our mutually understood values.

What is imperative is to establish a sphere of discipline, of self-control, within which I can exercise and celebrate my freedom. Thus, the Platonic Day. Thus, these frames. These mediations and fragmentary notes.
This conception of what freedom means dawned upon the Greeks. The quality they valued most - the Greek word is sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη) - cannot be expressed by any single English word. It is oftenest translated by self-control, but it meant more than that. It was the spirit behind the two great Delphic sayings, "Know thyself" and "Nothing in excess." Arrogance, insolent self-assertion, was of all qualities most detested by the Greeks. Sophrosyne was the exact opposite. It had its nature, as Aristotle would say, in the excellent and it meant accepting the bounds of excellence laid down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, shunning excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion. This was the virtue the Greeks esteemed beyond all others not because they were moderate lovers of the golden mean, but because their spontaneity and ever-changing variety and ardent energy of life had to have the strong control of a disciplined spirit or end in senseless violence.
- Edith Hamilton, The Echo of Greece 
I often wonder about the resolve - sophrosyne - of Ulysses in the heart of the siren's songs....
What pulled him out of Circe's arms.... What kept him directed back towards Ithaca...

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27 January 2010

Rituals of Wabi: Worship of the Imperfect

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Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage. In China, in the eighth century, it entered the realm of poetry as one of the polite amusements. The fifteenth century saw Japanese ennoble it into a religion of aestheticism— Teaism. Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.

The Philosophy of Tea is not mere aestheticism in the ordinary acceptance of; the term, for it expresses conjointly with ethics and religion our whole point of view about man and nature. It is hygiene, for it enforces cleanliness; it is economics, for it shows comfort in simplicity rather than in the complex and costly; it is moral geometry, inasmuch as it defines our sense of proportion the universe.
- From The Book of Tea by Kakuzō Okakura.

There is the frame. And within the frame, balance.

What I am attempting to flesh out here is a way to approach the day either as a blank canvas or as a painting to worked upon. Two things: there is an aesthetic imperative and there is an end. Wendell Berry defined elegance as the balance of beauty and power. How do you structure your day to think and act with elegance?

The body is the foundation. The practice of going to the gym. Around this are a series of "frames", ritual steps that lead up to a singular moment of epiphaniacal ecstasy, the still point of the turning day, and decline away from it.

One of the fundamental differences between ritual and routine is this: in ritual, each moment, each act, no matter how seemingly trivial, is charged with meaning; in routine, you are merely going through the motions.

The World is charged with the grandeur of God.

The Japanese Tea Ceremony is an intensely ritualized practice that is intended to function as a transformative practice. One of the aesthetic requirements of this ritual is Wabi, to create a beauty that is impermanent, imperfect and incomplete - roughly corresponding to the Buddha's Three Marks of Existence: Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta.

My project is to ritualize my workouts at the gym into a ceremony similar to the Way of the Tea.

Here is the practice as it stands in early formation:

Inclining Frame 15
15 min. bike ride down to the Gym
As I travel down, I re-collect the days thoughts and various projects, organizing, restructuring, editing in my head

Liminal Frame 5
5 min. changing into appropriate clothes - check body weight

Core Rituals
For purpose of memory and discipline, all postures and exercises are in 3s of multiples of 3
1. Pectorals, Lats, Deltiods
2. Biceps, Triceps, Forearms
3. Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Calves

Aerobic - primary 24 min
24 min. cardio - currently, this is low impact: recumbent bike

Anaerobic - secondary 24 min
12 min. stretching - warm up on low resistance machines
12 min. low weights - specified for whichever muscle group is being exercised

Still Point
The mind, consciousness, should be down into the flesh. Complete integration of body/mind. In the exercises that follow, the will should be focused with great intensity. No distractions.

Anaerobic - tertiary - 24 min
2 exercise per body part
3 sets per exercise
Each set follows this repetition sequence with increasing weight load: 12, 9, 6

Aerobic / Anaerobic - quaternary - 15 min
9 min treadmill / cross train

Liminal Frame - 15 min
Steam / Sauna - 9 min
Shower 3 min
Shave 3 min

Declining Frame 16 min
Bike home

Total Time: 135 min
2 hrs 15 min

24 January 2010

No More Moon: The Word Is Not the Thing

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When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time.

At last one moonlit night she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!

In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
- 101 Zen Stories

The notion that there is a body and there is a mind led me into confusion for a long time. Language is a powerful tool that operates on reality. Of the Thirty-Three Teachings that Mattered Later in My Life - this - taught to me by the late Richard Williams - was one of the easiest to forget and most quickly forgotten:
The Map is not the Territory.
The Menu is not the Meal.
The Word is not the Thing.
That we have only a handful of words for states of consciousness (the phrase itself recursive) in English is reflective of how little we know about the world inside of us. The Upanishads, The Bardo Thodo and the Pali Canon all have extensive vocabularies for "consciousness." Unfortunately, within our limited set, the tools we use most often are the words body and mind. Or, in my non-intuitive taxonomy, the flesh and the bone.

After a good day of writing, I ride the bike down to the gym at the Y. Along the way, I am still mostly "up in my head," thinking about the words and ideas that I want to continue to explore through writing. Often I discover new connections and contexts to ideas that I had been considering while writing - getting the body on the bike, getting the robotic consciousness involved with an activity other than moving my fingers across the keyboard, is critical and liberating.

At the gym, I always start with light, low-impact, cardio. Recently, the recumbent bike has been ideal. The part of the gym where I workout is on the second floor. The row of bikes is next to a set of windows looking out over downtown Bellingham. I ease myself onto a bike, set the time for 15 or 20 minutes, level about midway, open a book and start. I start off reading to "remind" myself of the tension between the mind and body. I go back "into my skull" while putting the body under stress. It is as if I am loading my mind up in the bucket of a catapult while increasing the tension by stressing the body.

After light cardio, I stretch for about 15 minutes, usually at a 20 count for each position. This is where the mind is suddenly thrown back into the body. My consciousness during the stretching of the warmed muscle inhabits the muscle. I attempt to sink the consciousness down to most fundamental level. Like walking through a memory theater, I travel through the processes of muscular contraction.

I am in the bone, the tendons, the contractile tissue, the myofibril, the sarcomere, the actin, the myson, the titin. I am the action potential, the acetylcholine. I am the rush of sodium in and the leak of potassium out of the t-tubules. I feel the surge of calcium release into voltage gated channels, as it binds to troponin on actin filaments allowing it to modulate the tropomyosin to open a binding site for the ADP charged myosin head. I am the head of myosin rotating at the myosin-actin interface, coiling and uncoiling like a helix, a spring contracted and extending the muscle. I am two heavy chains of amino acids that make up the motor protein, myosin. I am coiled like two snakes wrapped around each other, a caduceus. I am in a coiled-coil morphology. I am hydrophobic strands of amino acids wrapped around each other and buried in between hydrophilic strands to create a knobs into holes packing structure. I am side chain atoms branching off the parent structures of amino acid molecules. I am an amine group. I am a carboxylic acid group. I am nitrogen. I am carbon. Hydrogen and oxygen branching off of me, whipping around in storms of atomic torsion and bonding. I am an atom of nitrogen with 7 protons. I am atom of carbon with 6 protons. I am neutrons shivering in the atomic center. I am a bayron. I am electrons whirling in quantum clouds. I am a proton. I am three quarks held together by strong forces mediated by gluons. I am elementary particle of matter, a fundament of the Universe. I am a Fermion. I am Up. I am Down. I am Charm. I am Strange. I am Top. I am Bottom.

I am Strangeness. I am deep down in the Bone. I am consciousness. I am stretching in a gym at the YMCA in Bellingham, Washington, United States, North America, Earth, Solar System, Orion Arm, Milky Way, Universe. I am consciousness. I am Energy. I am.

I am aware of the inter-weaving, inter-secting, of duality arising out of the One: energy and matter, mind and body, The Bone and The Flesh. The Universe flows through my awareness like a river through a net. My mind is like a wire mesh basket that my Grandfather would hang off the side of the boat while we fished to put the catch in. This is my Cosmos. Words are all the fish in the basket: lured, hooked, reeled in, unhooked, and thrown into the keep. For all of the energy of the Universe, I have a word called Mind. For all of the matter, I have a word called Body. It seems, because of these words, that my mind is located within my body. It seems that they are separate things. It seems that the mind, imprisoned within the body is the one who controls and guides the body through the world, makes the decisions.

But this is not the case. These are only words. Grammar. Language. They are threaded into and through each other, up, down, charm, strange, top and bottom.

My body is performing a series of exercises. My mind is performing a series of exercises. At some point, the bottom will fall out and I, like the moon, will suddenly disappear.

Life has to change into a thing vast and calm and intense and powerful that can no longer recognize its old blind eager narrow self or petty impulse and desire. Even the body has to submit to a mutation and be no longer the clamorous animal or the impeding clod it now is, but instead become a conscious servant and radiant instrument and living form of the spirit.
- Aurobindo

23 January 2010

Making the Skeleton Dance

A monk asked Zhaozhou to teach him.
Zhaozhou asked, "Have you eaten your meal?"
The monk replied, "Yes, I have."
"Then go wash your bowl", said Zhaozhou.
At that moment, the monk was enlightened.

This kōan is beloved of students, perhaps because it seems to negate the need to understand obscure doctrines. Wu-Men comments in verse "Because it's so clear / it takes long to realize", and straightforward it may seem, but this kōan is an idiom and the student is assumed to be aware of its cultural context. If one does not know this context, the kōan cannot be understood from the traditional reference point.

The meal of consideration is a traditional meal of rice. It was customary for monks to maintain samadhi (the practice which produces complete meditation) while eating this meal, and so Zhaozhou is not asking whether the monk has eaten: he asks instead whether the monk was able to remain in samadhi throughout the meal. The monk affirms, and then realizes he has already received the teaching. This kōan is one of the 12 Gates taught in the Kwan Um School of Zen.

- The Gateless Gate, Wumen Hui-k'ai

The point is to be mindful in every moment. Exercising the body at the gym after a hours of sitting in front of the computer is an amazingly mindful practice. Focusing my will into a particular piece of muscle flesh stretched between two bones, making the bones move, in every sense, is an intensely rewarding experience.

I've been working out now for over a month. What I do not want to happen is for the ritual to devolve into routine. I want my mind to flow out of my skull and the ethereal Platonic realms of the Ideal and rush into the flesh. I want to make the actual skeleton dance, not the Imago Skeleton.

This is vital. If I am truly re-covering - better: re-habilitating - myself, it is imperative to maintain this spiritual state through harmony / balance of mind and body. The Reality of the Bone and the Dreams of the Flesh.

Regarding the kōan (and the name of this weblog), I believe that the Truth is not something that has to be committed to memory, that anyone should ever have any fear of forgetting the Truth. It is evident in every moment of existence. To forget the Truth would like forgetting the air you breath. A fish forgetting the water that it exists within. The danger is in not being aware of what is always, necessarily, present. You forget it because you are so used to it, habituated to its presence.

The Truth, God, Enlightenment. These are all fragile containers for this "presence." Thimbles filled with what we are trying to call the ocean. I have gone to summits of mountains to find God. And I have gone to the desolations of the deserts to find Enlightenment. I have taken all sorts of entheogens and other drugs to open my mind to the Truth. I have lost and found myself again and again. In the end, I remember that if God was not present in every moment, no matter how mundane, no matter how trivial, then God would no longer be God. I remember that God is just as present on the mountain and in the desert as he is in every single instant of my being: awakening from dreams each morning, brushing my teeth, making the coffee, chopping wood, carrying water, washing my bowl.

One function of ritual - as opposed to routine - is to bind you down to a sacred perspective, to keep you from forgetting the Truth in the most seemingly trivial occupations. Ritual is one of the core components of all religious practice. Going to the gym every day to move the body through a series of positions and exercises is a vital ritual. It has the potential to be a form of Yoga - a means of yoking, gathering together, mind, body and spirit. The practice of Yoga is at the root of religion - over 5000 years old. From Wikipedia:
Several steatite seals discovered at Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3300–1700 BC) sites depict figures in a yoga- or meditation-like posture, "a form of ritual discipline, suggesting a precursor of yoga", according to Indus archeologist Gregory Possehl. He points out sixteen specific "yogi glyptics" in the corpus of Mature Harappan artifacts that suggest Harappan devotion to "ritual discipline and concentration", and that the yoga pose "may have been used by deities and humans alike." Some type of connection between the Indus Valley seals and later yoga and meditation practices is supported by many other scholars.

Karel Werner writes that "Archeological discoveries allow us therefore to speculate with some justification that a wide range of Yoga activities was already known to the people of pre-Aryan India."[5] A seal recently (2008) uncovered in the Cholistan desert was described by Dr. Farzand Masih, Punjab University Archaeology Department Chairman, as depicting a "yogi". Thomas McEvilley writes that "The six mysterious Indus Valley seal images...all without exception show figures in a position known in hatha yoga as mulabhandasana or possibly the closely related utkatasana or baddha konasana...."

The most widely known of these images was named the "Pashupati seal" by its discoverer, John Marshall, who believed that it represented a "proto-Shiva" figure. Many modern authorities discount the idea that this "Pashupati" (Lord of Animals, Sanskrit paśupati) represents a Shiva or Rudra figure.  Gavin Flood characterizes the Shiva or Rudra view as "speculative", and goes on to say that it is not clear from the 'Pashupati' seal that the figure is seated in a yoga posture, or that the shape is intended to represent a human figure.