Everfresh in the Changing

Month: September 2017

Rituals and the Body of Being

My relationship to ritual took a powerful turn, after I read David Michael Levin’s philosophy book, The Body’s Recollection of Being (1985). In it, he conveys that the purpose of ritual is to put our body into a felt gesture which invites the felt meaning of Being.

So, for me, the ‘object’ of devotion in a ritual is never out or over ‘there,’ or ‘out there’ in the universe somewhere. It’s not the statue to which I bow. Neither does the statue represent some deity somewhere else. I am bowing to Being itself, retrieving my connection to Being via the being of my body. This is possible because one’s body participates in Being. A ‘human being’ is a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said.

Each morning, the first thing I do, after rising, is: I put my hands together in a ritual gesture before a statue of the goddess of compassion Kuan Yin, and I say this gatha (inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh):

“These twenty-four brand new hours, may be my last.
I vow – together with all beings – to live them fully,
and look on others with eyes of compassion.”

I am waking up to more than the simple fact of the day: I’m inviting myself, first thing, to acknowledge the primordiality of Being.

The meaning of any words, like the true meaning of any ritual, is what the words do in us – how they shift our state of being. Each word we speak is a gesture toward Being. The Nikaya Buddha suggests, in the Mindfulness Sutta (Satipaṭṭhāna Sutta): be mindful of the body in the body. So, I have a practice of speaking the gatha from my body, with awareness in my body, and feeling into the saying. It’s an experiment in consciousness.

I check inwardly, after saying my short verses, to see how the ritual has changed my body. This way, the ritual becomes an experiment, because I am present to see how I am changed by the posture and the sayings. Has the ritual brought me home to the greater field in which I have my being, with this very body as its conduit?

And, when I say ‘together with all beings,’ it invites the bodily feeling that this grounded Being is the ground of every sensing creature. The sensing bodies of all beings are in your body. So, I’ve added another verse to this gatha:

These twenty-four brand new hours are just for me;
All the more so, because they are just for each and every sentient being.

I think of the English mystic Thomas Traherne (1636/37 – 1674): “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”

Also, in the case of this particular ritual, I am retrieving the true life of death. Where else does one become intimate with death, than in one’s body? In my bowing and in saying my gatha, I am putting myself in a gesture of being “one hundred percent for life and death” (as the late Robert Aitken Roshi put it).

A Scientific American article suggests that: “Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective. Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.”

David Michael Levin’s 1985 book (and his presentation therein of the work of Eugene T. Gendlin on ‘felt meaning’) gives us a good philosophical case as to why, by the gift of embodiment* our bodies respond to ritual gestures.

I’ve tried to think how I can quote Levin, to show, in a pithy way, the power of his vision, but when taken out of the context of the whole book, isolated passages are difficult to transmit. What I got from Levin’s book, though, (supported by my mindful inquiry and meditation) is as follows:

Our bodies participate in “the wholeness of the field of Being” (p.117); and so, the body’s symbol-making power combined with skillful embodiment can retrieve the primordial lived meaning of existence. Living this way, we realize our authentic belonging in Being, which illumines a host of problems we humans feel burdened by.

May all human beings – through the gift of  combodiment* – be a hundred percent for birth and death.

* “The primordial participation in the wholeness of the field of Being,” deserves a better word than ‘embody.’ So, I use the term, coined by Akira Ikemi, ‘combodiment.’
To ‘em-body’ is to put something into a body. However, ‘Com-‘ says that something is ‘with.’ All of life is ‘with’ the body; all there to be revealed. It’s a body primordially intertwined with all else.
You might want to read Akira Ikemi’s Responsive Combodying paper on this, stored at the Focusing Institute.

How to Kneel Down

I could be writing about ensuring one’s legal will has been prepared; or, about the powers of attorney that might be needed. (In case you aren’t in your best mind at the end, someone who is competent may need to give permission to turn off your life support.) I could be writing about planning your funeral (and paying for it, now). You could choose some music and texts for that inevitable day; or, write your own message for those who will gather for your farewell.

Reminding you of these tasks is surely helpful, however, for me, practising A Year to Live primarily means living in such a manner that I am really here on planet earth, in the flow of how things are, now; so that I’m not just a bystander. Like Mary Oliver says in the poem When Death Comes:

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.

I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

If I die today, I want to be as ready to leave as I have been to enjoy the day’s wonders; as ready as can be to open to that particular experience, an experience which is no less a ‘being in the flow of life’ than having breakfast. The gospel song asks, Are you ready? We can add, ‘..to be here today.’ “The readiness is all.”

Is it any wonder that when the Zen adept Ikkyu was asked for a calligraphy representing the highest wisdom, he picked up his brush and inked: ‘Attention.’ The no doubt disappointed petitioner said something like, “And that’s it?” So Ikkyu did another one for him: “Attention. Attention.”

In short, today’s imperative is to live such that if death should happen this day, my life would be in harmony with this planet’s touching destiny. It gave birth to aware organisms! That’s awesome. And, practising A Year to Live inspires me that the quality of my life be of some benefit to all life.
Of course, if we live this way, with this kind of attention, of course we do look after our last will and testimony. We look after others. We will get our worldly affairs in order. (Currently, I’m going through a de-cluttering process, which is partly for daily clarity, but also: so that nobody has to do it for me after I die.) All that is good and real. However, how painful it would be, to arrive at death’s threshold and feel like you haven’t lived!

Many people think that living means fulfilling a ‘bucket list’; as though on my deathbed I’ll say, “Oh, yeah. I should have gone to Kathmandu. I should have listened to more opera.” “Oh, shit. I didn’t get to see Old Faithful!”

I can visit those places, of course, and still not be there. I can fulfil my bucket list, but forget to be wake in the ordinary moments of living and loving day to day. It’s much harder, of course, to be awake than to book some tickets. “Oh, yeah. I went to Kathmandu, but I just worried about whether I was doing the right thing, or not.”  I think of the tourists (in Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends) disappointed that the geyser Old Faithful hardly lasted long enough for them to get their pictures.

Naturally, to be awake in this world includes encountering, and understanding how our selfishness works. Hence a lot of the exploration in this A Year to Live project investigates how we set up a fictional self. Freedom in life and death is aided by this investigation; because, when unexamined, the conventional, faux mode of being a person (that is, a way of being a person which is based in our self-image) obscures our relationship to both life and death. Our default mode distorts our understanding of this big life process.

Just as a parting irrelevancy: given how much water there is on the planet, and how much the atmosphere matters, who named the planet ‘earth,’ I wonder? What was the reasoning, there? How unexamined is this? Before we die, can we know the nameless planet of which we are? Are we ready for this ‘now’? Mary Oliver writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

– from The Summer Day.

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