Sunday, 10 May 2009

Tea and Understanding

Just like sugar in tea or salt on food, knowledge is an added extra we don't really need.

Yesterday, I did pretty well at a Taiji excercise I hope to be assessed on. In fact, I was able to go beyond the expected standard and proudly felt, "This is great, I'm doing well. Won't they think I'm good. Yay me!" So I carried on longer than I needed just to see if I could do it.

I don't know enough about Taiji and qi (chi, energy) but these excercises certainly energise; and doing more energised more. I felt great! So in the afternoon I did more gardening than usual. Mistake: my habits of thought and movement were still their usual unhelpful selves and more activity just drained me more. (Another lesson in the fact that we are whole persons and that shortcuts are not fixes.)

The problem was not the excess Taiji but my mental commentary. It was extra: not only unnecessary but (like sugar and salt) potentially damaging. And it occurred to me we don't need knowledge to live! In fact, it gets in the way.

Disembodied knowledge

Of course knowledge is essential for the science and technology we mistake for "civilization". We believe we must know things in our heads to understand the world and our ability to function within it. An awareness of how symbols (sometimes words, sometimes wordless images) connect to other concepts and implications is certainly one form of understanding. But there is another way.

Consider "tea with sugar". We may have a mental awareness of what we know as "tea", and how we remember "sugar" affecting it. Alternatively, we can embrace the real world that occasionally includes tea and sugar (or references to it). When we need to understand "tea with sugar" there will be something in the Present Moment bringing that to our awareness (often the tea itself). How can we have a need for something without being aware of needing it? Everything we require is present, literally, and we can be conscious of it if we choose.

Incarnate comprehension

A famous roboticist, Rodney Brooks, made history in the world of AI (Artificial Intelligence) when he demonstrated that the world is its own best model. For us too, the world as it is, is sufficient. Accumulated memories and complex webs of connections are unnecessary baggage, unless we want to live someplace other than the present. Surely imagining we live in an insubstantial flicker sandwiched between a hefty past and a real future is to live in a dream world. It is a kind of madness to evade the obvious — our only be-ing is the eternal Now.

True understanding is an involved corporeal consciousness; an awareness of how things "fit", along with the consequences of that dynamic equilibrium. We may build a model in our heads but that is just a poor copy of the real thing. The important word is involved. On the occasions we visit "reality" it seems too limited for our sophisticated lives. That's partly because we confuse sophistication with living, and partly because we simply visit it.

The third person view required of science can never produce genuine understanding because it stays detatched, never embracing its subject. The world is already embracing us despite our resistance. As we return that embrace our interdependence means we are inseperable; to remove the other is to cut away part of ourselves, and vice versa. Instead, in our poverty, we gather scraps of "understanding" and piece them together as best we can. How misguided to be proud of such "knowledge"!

Alan Watts used to talk of going to a restaurant, seeing all the good things described on the menu, then eating the menu. Understanding only comes as we eat the food. And it departs as easily when something else arises in this wondrous, eternal present we live in. Travel light.

Friday, 1 May 2009


Practice means "to do". I am thinking of spiritual practice here. But the same is true of a doctor's practice: it is what they do. We expect that a lifetime of doing means we get better at it, but the "getting better" is quite different from the advancement expected from a student, for instance.

Consider waves moving sand and pebbles up and down a beach. That is what waves breaking on the shoreline do. We glibbly say that waves shape the shoreline rocks, but there's a lot more going on. These waves give some insight as to how spiritual practice brings about spiritual change.

For the wave there is power in each moment. Sometimes it is shoreward, until the power over-reaches itself. The surface water moving fastest begins to move faster than the body can sustain. The finest droplets, more mobile than the rest, leads the way but it has gone too far; there is no water beneath it so it drops. The wave's momentum means solid water follows, falling into the undertow beneath to create swirling eddies of foam. This is our daily experience.

Having lost its power, the water falls onto water and moves with it. But this water is directed by the sloping ground beneath, and the cyclic movement of the waves would leave a vacuum if this undertow were not there to rush in and fill it. So more water surges upward for a new wave, driven half the time back toward the shore by the tide's rhythmic flow. Our interaction with our surroundings have similar self-sustaining patterns.

Water is heavy, and like a child on a swing the movement reinforces itself, driven by the shape of the shore, wind and tide. This power is dispassionate and relentless. Anything small enough is caught up in the motion — sand, seaweed, flotsam, pebbles. It isn't intentional, but these have their own movement, their own actions and consequences. Of course, we aspire to include intention and consciousness, but the same is true for us: our activity has its own power.

Consciousness, as something we do, has the power to move cliffs. If we can truly be, aware of the present moment and acting from that consciousness, our intentional mind can (at some point) have the power of the wind and the waves. For then we are an agent in the only place Life happens — Now. But for most of us that is patchy at best. No surprise then, that more of us aren't "rock-shapers" yet!

The relentless movement of the shore has its own dynamic, its own shape and rhythm. Variation at this level is with the tide, the weather and the seasons. Every wave is part of this unchanging pattern: slow changes that build sand in one place while dredging it from another. The sand has its own movement. They are interdependent: if the sand was not there, the wave would break somewhere else. Each wave has no control at this level. Behaviour is a cummulative concequence of particular, habitual, interactions.

On a time scale unknown to wind and water, sand and pebbles, the rocks themselves are also changing. Scientists might talk of friction and erosion caused by a grain of sand or a stone rubbing on the rock's surface. But we may as well say that raindrops causes a flood for the amount of understanding that give us. The incessant waves are part of an equally obdurate form. Swirls and eddies maintained by the to-ing and fro-ing of mobile matter have their own relentless cycles. These are the energies of life (and why I practice Taiji).

Sand and pebbles are the same stuff as the rocks they move over. It is inconceivable that their effects would not be mutual. So pebbles become sand, and the rocks themselves also yield of themselves under such an uncompromising onslaught.

Do the waves form the cliffs? Maybe, but it is futile to think each wave sculpts the cliff it breaks upon. In the same way, it is futile to think each practice shapes who we are. It is neither the water nor the sand it carries that makes the rock the shape it is, but the the pattern the waves fall into. The pattern is a nebulous thing without matter or energy, hardness or strength, yet without it the rocks would never change. It is the pattern of our daily life that is our power, too. This is a much bigger investment than an interest, something to try.

In the same way spiritual (or any other) practice is just activity. It is what we do, and can have no more effect than that. I for one tend to take my spiritual practice too seriously. But when I look at the waves, they play! Frolicking and dancing or angrily pounding, they do what they do with their whole being, having no thought or intention except to be what they are. Practice does not change us in the way we learn to drive a car, for instance. That just changes the practice.

But if it is in my nature to practice, having formed a lifelong habit of sitting in meditation, I miss it when I miss it. Like a swirling pebble wearing a hole in a rocky outcrop, it has made its own shape. In turn, the water that drives the pebble flows differently because the hole exists.

Is it the habit that changes us? No, that is just change at the level of behaviour. Perhaps change occurs in the dynamic equilibrium we call living, the rhythm of action and withdrawal, doing and reflection, interacting with our surroundings. Part of that scenario is us, how we are. Some parts of us are the sand and some parts are rock. Do our individual actions changes us as people? Superficially perhaps. Can singleminded patterns of behaviour change our being? Its inescapable.