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January 23, 2009

Reflections on a Shakuhachi Lesson

I was taking a lesson recently with my shakuhachi (Japanese Bamboo Flute) teacher, Masayuki Koga. Koga-sensei's teaching style emphasizes among many other things activating the body through the direction of attention on specific areas at specific times. For instance, students of Koga-sensei might be guided to attend to the muscles at the sides of the hip to provide support. Or we might be instructed to open up the muscles near the eyes and forehead to better open the sound. We release the tension in our fingers, hands, forearms, to allow the energy so constrained to be freed up to contribute to the sound. Lessons with Koga-sensei are a constant process of tuning up our organisms so that we can convey a freedom and expansiveness through the shakuhachi.

One recurring theme in this process is for students to open the third eye as a key means to take to an entirely different level the quality in the sound that the organism can produce. Physiologically, this action is in part achieved by relaxing and opening the muscles of the forehead. In addition, this direction of attention induces an expansive action whereby the head remains upright and the mind keeps an upward or soaring trend of attention. Practically this action allows for a more expressive sound and the holding of a continuous tone, even when the breath pressure reduces and the sound softens. This approach also has the technical benefit of allowing the pitch of even difficult-to-achieve notes to remain true.

But although the approach of opening the third eye and "looking to the sky" can be analyzed physiologically and practically, experientially it is an integrative approach. By opening the third eye and connecting attention with something higher outside ourselves, we don't have to be concerned with controlling the details of the micro-movements of the organism: the organism aligns and configures itself naturally in response the to quality of attention we are invoking.

Attempts to control the sound or to control the position of the body tend toward a reification of tension in the body, which closes down the sound and results in a more mechanical sort of playing. In my recent lesson I had a vivid demonstration of this observation. I was playing a particular phrase in an orignal composition by Koga-sensei, and he was observing and commenting on my struggle with a particular progression of notes that would normally require a coordinated movement of the fingers, neck, and breath to achieve. He noted that I had tension in my upper lip. His suggestion was for me to connect my upper lip to my third eye while I was playing. I did this and immediately the difficulty of the particular progression was gone and I was able to return to a consistent expansive playing of the phrase. The distinction was quite apparant to me and was typical of the many such epiphanies that I have been privileged to enjoy through the brilliance of Koga-sensei.

As I was enjoying the freedom of that very subtle interior gesture of connecting my upper lip to my third eye, I looked at the root of the tension I had been holding in my lip. Describing the ensuing impression in words does not capture the instantaneous impression of my seeing the root of this tension, because my seeing of it was not a product of analysis. It simply was what it was. What I saw was the tension arising from a fear of missing the note and the corresponding mechanical attempt to compensate for this fear by overcontrolling the muscles of my upper lip to make sure that I did not miss the next note in the progression. This seemed like a left-over habit from my early years of practice and the resulting tension was functioning like an energy block or a unresponsive knot (all very subtle however). When I connected my lips to my third eye, this energy had a place to go and the fear and corresponding tension simply went away. A suppleness had returned to that part of my body.

In seeing this particular mechanism of tension revealed, I appreciated the occasion to reflect on the pervasiveness of micro and macro tension throughout the body. These tensions are created as defensive responses to a myriad of perceived threats. I perceived how these tensions enslave energies in service of mechanical reactions to circumstances in all aspects of our lives. The insights and discoveries that Koga-sensei teaches about liberating the Self in the performance of shakuhachi apply equally well to other aspects of life. The key elements amount to striving toward a higher octave of energy, while at the same time being mindful, at the level of sensing, of the activities of the organism as a whole.

January 08, 2009

Darwin, Saints, and the Instability of Certainty, Or, The Soul of Science is Uncertainty, and Uncertainty is the Science of Soul

2009 is the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, the naturalist and scientist whose impact on human culture and thought may exceed that of any other scientist in history, and may exceed the impact of any single human being in the modern period, including Newton, Copernicus, Napoleon, Marx, Einstein, Picasso, etc. The influence of Darwin’s work upon religion continues to reverberate prominently 150 years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, most noticeably within Christianity, but there have also been recent discussions in the Muslim world debating the impact of Darwin upon Islam. In this posting, I want to consider the relationship of Darwin’s work to spiritual practice, as distinct from religion.

First, let’s distinguish between a spiritual tradition and a religion. Tayu founder Robert Ennis used to call religion the skeletal remains of a previously living spiritual practice. This metaphor aptly depicts the relationship between the two phenomena. A spiritual tradition arises when someone has a profound and sustainable realization about the nature of reality far beyond the capacities of the egoic mind, and can skillfully transmit that realization to others. Such a realization has profound effects upon the moment-by-moment experience of life. A spiritual tradition remains alive as long as a fully-realized practitioner of that tradition can demonstrate its principles in daily life. When an incompletely-realized successor seeks to continue to promulgate the teachings without full understanding of their underpinnings, then we can speak of the birth of a religion.

At its foundation, a religion consists of ossified, more or less unvarying rules. These may be ethical codes (e.g., “Honor thy father and mother” and “Do Not Steal”) or prescriptions for producing particular results (e.g., “Pray to Lakshmi for abundance” or “Meditate to realize your Buddha nature”).  The rules of a religion tend to be frozen because the mind of a religious adherent (as opposed to a spiritual adept) is itself more-or-less frozen, and such a mind naturally clings to, and reverences the preserved words of the founder. In contrast, the mind/heart of spiritual realization comprehends without thought that conditions and contexts of practice necessarily change; hence appropriate change is not simply enabled, it is embraced and executed.

Back to Darwin and religion: Interactions between Darwinian thought and religion are often seen as a competition between two more-or-less incompatible idea systems. This is the basis for the religious fundamentalist rejection of Darwin. Or more generously, the interactions between Darwinian thought and religion have also been viewed as an opportunity to expand the relevance of each separate system through cross-fertilization and a general broadening of perspective. But the focus either way has been on interaction between two differently constituted ideational systems. Some people insist that only one can be right; others prefer to try to make both correct.

In contrast, there are some very interesting points of congruence between Darwin’s work and living spiritual practice. Darwin sought a comprehensive explanation for the observed distribution of differing species of life across time and space. Natural selection was a brilliant insight because it was based upon deep observation of the ways that organisms live, reproduce, and die, and because it enabled immediate comprehension of relationships between phenomena whose linkages had not before been obvious. But the true scientist understands that even the most stunning theory must, in a fundamental sense, always remain provisional. Evidence – the observed facts – must always come first before any explanation to account for the nature of evidence, because without that attitude, newly-observed data that might support another explanation may be ignored or jettisoned from a desire to save a cherished theory. That attitude – the priority of evidence over theory – is the essential core of the scientific enterprise.  It is even more important than the ideal of “controlled experiments” because in many cases, and Darwin’s naturalist observational data is one such case, establishing and conducting meaningful controlled experiments with certain types of evidence is completely impractical. It’s quite hard to do with species of finches, to use one of Darwin’s examples. It is only in recent years that Darwin’s scientific successors have been able to directly demonstrate the action of natural selection upon species of microorganisms under laboratory conditions.

Like Darwin and other scientists, practitioners and adepts in living spiritual traditions seek comprehensive, meaningful answers to important questions. Who am I? What am I doing, and why am I doing it? Is there some aspect of experience greater than the ordinary experience of life that people commonly agree upon, and if so, what is it, and how can I obtain reliable data about it?

Like the best scientists, practitioners and adepts in living spiritual traditions strive as part of their endeavor to always remain open to new data that might call for revision or replacement of even the most profoundly beautiful answers so far attested. One could even characterize the achievement of a true spiritual adept as the creation of a reliable habit of interior openness, of deliberate instability of certainty, operating simultaneously along with a full, richly wholehearted and unimpeded appreciation for the beauty of reality so far revealed.

So it is the inscription within consciousness of the instability of certainty that marks the best scientists and the best spiritual practitioners. Our ordinary discursive minds compulsively seek to eliminate uncertainty; but the wise recognize the futility of grasping after false assurances as the egoic mind insists. Because the habit of grasping after ideas is so strong, people assume that replacing one dogmatic system of ideas with another represents profound change. But the opening of heart and mind to whatever the universe has to tell us takes us farther still, as great saints and scientists demonstrate. Great scientists and great practitioners do not just leap once or twice into the unknown. They make careers of leaping into the mystery at the heart of existence. What career do you seek to create with your life?

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