Saturday, October 20, 2007

Enlightenment is not a Competitive Sport

One of the post-Firesign Theater “rock and roll comedy” groups was The Conception Corporation. They put out two albums, A Pause in the Disaster, and Conceptionland. Both were good for Progessive Radio play in the 60s, which is to say the early 70s. (As I understand it, there is a third, live album now available as well).

One of the cuts on Conceptionland was “Rock and Roll Classroom,” another “What if Freaks Ran Things?” idea (see also “Returned for Re-Grooving,” by Firesign Theater). In this case, what if high school were really hip, or at least trying to be?

In one bit, gym class is taught by “Fizz Ed” who announces to the class in a drill instructor voice, “Today, we’re going to learn to meditate! On three, one, two, meditate! One, two, meditate! You! Over in the corner, you’re not meditiating!”

In short, it was a lot like a Pilates class.

A fair number of Aikido practitioners also practice zazen, meditating in seiza, the standard Japanese sitting posture, knees and feet on the floor, buttocks resting on the feet (feet tops flat on the floor). Seiza is a natural and comfortable posture—provided you have been sitting that way since you were a child. For us Westerners, it can rapidly become torture; our bones, ligaments, and blood vessels did not grow into seiza as we matured, so at the very least, our legs tend to fall asleep, not to mention the cramps, aches, etc. that also accompany extended periods in seiza.

In zazen, a zafu, a small circular cushion, is often used to alleviate the seiza problem, but many students don’t use them, or they don’t use enough of a cushion to straighten the legs enough to really make the thing less of an ordeal. So then we get all sorts of rationalizations about “letting go of the pain,” etc.

It’s quite true that meditation is often used as a way of alleviating chronic pain, but pain isn’t actually the point of meditation. Meditation itself isn’t supposed to hurt, nor is the posture you’re in supposed to hurt. Actually, being in a painful posture during meditation is dangerous, since you are then basically ignoring an important message from your body, and you can cause or exacerbate an injury by doing so.

But, of course, “letting go of the pain” feels like such an accomplishment.

At a college reunion many years ago, one of my freshman buddies was there with his wife, and they were explaining their study of kundalini yoga. The posture in which you begin meditation is supposed to cause some group of muscles to stretch, though not to anything approaching pain. Then, as meditation progresses, the stretched muscles relax, releasing kundalini energy. The reason why advanced students wind up tying themselves into knots, so to speak, is that it becomes more and more difficult to give your muscles that necessary stretch, because the practitioner becomes more and more limber. But the limberness is not the point of it, the kundalini is.

“Kundalini energy” sounds like woo-woo Asian mystical mumbo jumbo, but actually, all of the related concepts, prana, ki, gi, chi, and all the related “energies” are fairly easy to perceive if you put a bit of work into the matter. As for the “woo-woo” part of it, one can just as easily talk about dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and any of the other myriad neurotransmitters that have been discovered and studied. If freeing up kundalini energy went with an increase in dopamine levels, what then? Does that “explain” the matter, or just make it more palatable to a mechanistic world view?

In any case, the question becomes, what is all that energy for? In the martial arts, of course, we have one explanation: it makes you stronger, more able to practice the art, and, if necessary, win the fight. But there are other answers, some more prosaic, some downright cosmic. Meditation becomes yet another tool, whatever your goal, be it better health or a doorway into infinity. Whatever floats your boat.

It is noteworthy, however, that so much energy is expended in oneupsmanship. “I’m more enlightened than you” seems to be, on examination, a self-canceling statement. To have it issued (albeit usually indirectly) by someone who has achieved that state by spending hours staring at a wall and literally doing nothing, well, that just makes the leap into paradox, doesn’t it? But then, zen thrives on paradox, and art thrives on irony, even the unintentional sort.

No comments: