Wednesday, 15 May 2013
The Essence of the Mindful Arts
What is the inherent dynamic nature of a plant? We can say something like: "upwards growth towards the sunshine, drawing in and channelling water into it's cells, and replicating its DNA in various ways". All of these properties of a plant are seamlessly interwoven into a whole which is greater than the sum of it's parts - a true nature or single essence of a plant.
What is the inherent dynamic nature of a human, then? It seems the difficult answer to this question lies at the root of all philosophical and religious schools. Because the human mind is so powerful and creative there have been so many different conclusions and theories. The very existence of a variety of conceptions of the true nature of humans points to something in itself - that there is no apparent truth in such conceptual answers, since concepts are mere maps of a territory. As we can see on Google Maps - we can look at a territory from 'street view', or satellite, or major roads - none of them are ultimately wrong, but none of them are truly an accurate representation of the territory they are referring to. Similarly for our concepts mapping reality; these complex inventions created by the mind - impositions on reality - can cover up simple truths.
In the same way killing and dissecting a frog to understand it's living state undermines such a study, the act of using criteria, machines, or exercises to analyse humans from outside will be cutting up and 'tainting' the humanity under study in various ways to the point key information may easily be lost. Scientists have now been discovering, however, that they can look into their own humanity without the need for surgery or even criteria - that when they focus upon their internal world, even when limiting their thoughts, aspects of their nature which are normally hidden come to the fore as the mind settles.
When philosophers and scientists have turned to study their own living humanity, they have often again found that their own analytical activity has got in the way - that their minds could not settle enough. Therefore one common conception of human nature has been that humans are 'investigators'. However this seems to be akin to looking in a mirror to undertstand oneself and coming up with the answer "I am a mirror-user". If we can go beyond the reflective process enough, then we can see something within ourselves deeper than the surface of a mirror. This is a huge feat in itself, since we are so used to actively doing something and attaching conceptual purpose to it. The active process of doing anything often covers up the 'raw' state of existence with conceptual manipulation.
In order to focus the mind more effectively, so that it does not habitually drift off into imagining things so much, a single point of focus can be utilised in order to turn the energy of the mind into a kind of laser which burns through potential distractions. This focused energy can help to bring about a state of awareness beyond thoughts - beyond impositions placed upon reality, and the practitioner will obtain an experience of human nature beyond mental constructs. Classically and in modern times, this mindful practice has revealed a basic underlying nature which is calm and at ease - with breathing and heart rate relaxed, deep, and tranquil - the body's functions continuing automatically and instinctively like a plant quietly reaching towards the sun.
Once a mindfulness practitioner has become acquainted enough with this underlying true nature, they can use it's existence as a reference point in their life when they need to make adjustments to their behaviour - when unhealthy habits surface. These unhealthy habits are not the essence of the true nature of the human concerned - they are a product of human true nature meeting unfavourable circumstances. Humans are not the only organisms to meet unfavourable circumstances, of course, and it seems we can learn a lot from plants and animals - nature in general, to better understand our own particular nature.
If a plant grows from a seed sprouting in an unfavourable location, the plant will act according to its true nature to the extent that it may grow a long straggling stem and pale leaves as it attempts to find sunshine. We can still see the plant's true nature in it's malnourished state - we may say that the plant is unhealthy due to it's environment or birthplace. We can see it's noble intentions to reach for the sunlight in it's over-stretched elongated form and so we feel sad for the plant's unfortunate beginnings in life. The plant's deeper internal state - it's true nature - can never be unhealthy - it has always been following it's genetic programming. The same can be said of human beings - we all start out with noble intentions - the tales of princes and princesses inspire us, and then, depending on our environment, we either find a way to meet those ideals, or we fail and become pale and over-stretched. This does not mean that we are ever inherently unhealthy - it just means we have met unfortunate circumstances.
The natural attention of a human, and the tendons we use to manifest our intentions are intimately linked etymologically through the Latin word tendere - "to stretch or extend", and the word tendon comes from the same idea. So we can say the human body tends to follow it's intention by paying attention to the stretching it's tendons. When one considers the practice of mindful yoga, one can see that yoga is this very process of following, and immersing oneself in the body's natural intension/tendons/attending.
In Chinese, this intention - the potential dynamic nature of something - is called yì: 意. It is a combination of the Chinese characters 音 and 心; sound/tone/pitch/pronunciation + heart/mind respectively. This is very similar to the character for mindfulness; 念, which is constructed from a speaking mouth above a heart.
The mindful arts all appear to try to be in harmony with the calm, tranquil 'yi' - our healthy, soft inner tension, or intention, which allows our dynamic true nature to manifest in the physical world. This true nature or intention can be felt in the muscles maintaining our calm breathing, our upright yet flexible spine as we sit in meditation, or even as a whole-body postural muscle sensation as we stand in the various standing yoga postures of the martial yoga system of YiQuan. Even though gravity and other forces and energies attempt to pull us down or apart, our dynamic inner tensions hold us together as a unified whole.
This inherent dynamic true nature - a peaceful, dignified dimension to our being, forms the backdrop or 'anchor' to all activities when practicing mindfulness - whether in formal seated meditation or otherwise. Certain activities and arts can be, and have been, calibrated so that the backdrop of true nature can be amplified and made more tangible while those activities are carried out, and the expression of one's true nature becomes all the more apparent in the products of these various mindful arts.