The Elephant’s Neck

November 21, 2010 § 21 Comments

What does it mean to find a way and follow a way, whether it is Buddhist or Christian or an esoteric path that pre-dates both?  Real knowing, real direct engagement is necessary.  This is what makes a path something other than a college course.   Yet direct knowing has it’s limitations.  Think of the tale the Buddha told about a group of blind men exploring an elephant.  The one touching the trunk described as being like a snake; the one touching his leg compared it to a tree trunk–none of them had the whole picture.  The Buddha himself emphasized the importance of direct experience, without de-valuing a connection with the knowledge handed down from the past–and from a higher source–and without discounting some ability to reason and reflect on great ideas.  The Middle Path, always and everywhere.

Lately, it’s struck me that the  practice of mindfulness itself brings together all those elements–being grounded in direct experience in the present, yet open to past and future–open to the influence of the unknown.  Mindfulness is a practice that brings higher and lower worlds, angel and animal together.  The word “sati” or mindfulness is related to the verb “sarati,” to remember.   “Sati” or mindfulness is connected with recollections from the past–recollections of the Buddha, the Dhamma, the Sangha, and even heavenly beings (and moments).   Sati connotes the ability to remember one’s own past lives–or one’s own past insights and more open, balanced moments.  Most miraculous of all, however, sati is the ability to remember the present moment. It is the capacity to know we are here now, the capacity to actively engage in the present moment.

The quality of mindfulness, the ability to remember or recollect, is granted extraordinary power and importance in Buddhism.  It is listed in all the major lists of the powers and qualities that help one on the way to full Enlightenment.   It is accorded many similies and images–a cowheard, a high tower from which one can see far and wide in a calm and objective manner, a surgeon’s probe, the ploughshare of the farmer, opening the ground of our being for insight and understanding.  Of all of the similes, the one I find most galvanizing at least today is the elephant’s neck (the part the blind men never touched).  The neck supports the head and connects the body with the head.  To the early Buddhists the nect connected the knowing of the body to the wisdom of the mind.  Also, in this case, it doesn’t move.  Apparently, it was a characteristic of elephants and Buddhas to turn around by turning the entire body, not just the head.

What does it mean to really remember who we  are?  First, bowing to the Buddha’s wisdom and those long-ago blind mean, it means that we cannot know it all.   We must bow to the unknown.  We must open to the possibility that we play a role in a greater Whole, of which we are not yet aware.  And that image of the Buddha turning his whole body around and giving his full attention to the being or situation at hand is a powerful teaching.  We are meant to pay attention with the whole of ourselves, body, heart, and mind.  We cannot truly be mindful–we cannot truly remember–otherwise.

What is it or how is that we are supposed to remember?  That deep body, mind, heart awareness that we are here and now give rise to a finer sensation of how good it is be alive here on the Earth–and even a finer awareness of the surrounding mystery of our lives and of the Whole of life.   Mindfulness is broad and open.  It is related to the unknown.  The Buddha and his early followers thought that vast ideas of the impermant nature of phenomenon and the interconnected nature of everything was paramount.  They were to mediate and note the impermanent and partial nature of the body internally (our thoughts and feelings arise and pass away; our very bodies are made of different parts).  They were also to observe and reflect on impermanence in others and in life–no thought or feeling is final.    But the impermance of the body and all phenomenon also brings down the walls of separation between self and other, linking us with each other and with the whole of life.   Everyone is subject to certain laws; everyone gets sick, ages, and ultimately dies.  Our bodies are not ours.  They come to us from the distant past–and they are made up of elements that make up the stars and the whole universe.  We are all inextricably part of a greater Whole.

In early Buddhism, it was considered a very great attainment in meditation to lose the sense of separation between internal and external experience–to be able to observe unfolding phenomenon in an impartial way–and ultimately discern the working of great laws in the organic material of our own lives.   Why not start now?  Open to thenew/ancient knowledge that this body is made of star stuff and that our very individual experience might echoe something universal.  Why not dare to glimpse that in the movement of our breathing, in the story arc of the myths and movies we love, in what we find beautiful, there is evidence of the laws the stitch together the Whole, that reach back to the origin of human beings and the world.    Be mindful of the intelligence of the body.  There might be a deeper significance in the delight we take in something done well, for example, a physical movement or a craft, even watching football on telly.  The great theater director Peter Brook once said that watching something done quickly and well gives people a sense of the spiritual.   The body is waiting to be remembered.   The way is openning, to the past, to the higher, to our capacity to pay attention and reflect on what it means.

In the words of Mary Oliver:

“You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Only see it, experience it directly with the whole of yourself and know that it is part of the world–and the world goes on.

§ 21 Responses to The Elephant’s Neck

  • artxulan says:

    Michel Conge, Inner Octaves

    Do you think patience would mean anything if there were no impatience? And yet that’s the way we live all the time. Either we are immersed in impatience and oblivious to any sense of patience, or we are apparently patient, but only because we’re not being tempted by an impulse of impatience.

    Do you understand this? It’s very important. We are always losing ourselves in blind alleys. There is an axis. There is a path that resolves contradictory elements.

    Mr. Gurdjieff used to say, “Let angels help you. Let devils help you.” And sometimes he would add, “And between the two, may God keep you.”

    You’re always into some intrigue … either with the angels or with the devils! You need both, the two poles, the two natures, the two tendencies, the plus and the minus. But what deals are you up to ? Trafficking with the angels? That’s bad too, you know. No good ever comes of it! As for the devils, I won’t even talk about them – we’ve known about that for a long time! But “between the two, may God keep you: means there really is an axis toward which I should learn to orient myself.

    And what is God for me today? It is surely the intelligence of an attitude that will gradually take hold and find an equilibrium among the various tendencies that characterize me. I don’t need to like them or hate them or judge them. I must take them into account. They are there. They are what I am made of. What’s the good of arguing, debating, or getting upset? It’s useless!

    I enter into this game – the great cosmic game that, without knowing it, I already am – or else I don’t enter into it. Either this game, like some kind of immense machine, grinds me up and transforms me into another substance, or the opposite happens, and ‘I’ appear. For my part, I see no alternative. Do you understand? Without the appearance of that ‘I’, there is no search. The middle way, the find line … Of course, we are incapable of holding to it, but that is the guiding principle that I must learn to recognize. I must always be close to that attitude, and not let myself be influenced by the highs and the lows – all these diverse movements, these very complicated spiraling movements that you will come to see, and which even follow an extraordinary pattern.

    I have see a time-lapse photography of the astronomical movement of certain stars. It is the same pattern, the same spiral form. The stars do not move as one might think. They trace a very complex kind of movement. If I am able to see, I discover that exactly the same movement is inside us.

    What’s interesting is to be able to be true to that line. at the moment, I am true to nothing at all! You must demand a certain attitude of yourself, now. It’s urgent. I have to learn a new approach, an approach I am unfamiliar with. That’s why we are asking this question now: ‘How do I understand myself?’

  • Ron Starbuck says:

    From … http://www.gnosis.org/library/marygosp.htm

    The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene

    . . . Will matter then be destroyed or not?

    22) The Savior said, All nature, all formations, all creatures exist in and with one another, and they will be resolved again into their own roots.

    23) For the nature of matter is resolved into the roots of its own nature alone.

    24) He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

    25) Peter said to him, Since you have explained everything to us, tell us this also: What is the sin of the world?

    26) The Savior said There is no sin, but it is you who make sin when you do the things that are like the nature of adultery, which is called sin.

    27) That is why the Good came into your midst, to the essence of every nature in order to restore it to its root.

    28) Then He continued and said, That is why you become sick and die, for you are deprived of the one who can heal you.

    29) He who has a mind to understand, let him understand.

    I love Mary Oliver too …

    “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting./You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

    • artxulan says:

      In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky

      G.I. Gurdjieff: If instead of religion in general we take Christianity, then again there exists a Christianity number one, that is to say, paganism in the guise of Christianity. Christianity number two is an emotional religion, sometimes very pure but without force, sometimes full of bloodshed and horror leading to the Inquisition, to religious wars. Christianity number three, instances of which are afforded by various forms of Protestantism, is based upon dialectic, argument, theories, and so forth. Then there is Christianity number four, of which men number one, number two, and number three have no conception whatever.

      In actual fact Christianity number one, number two, and number three is simply external imitation. Only man number four strives to be a Christian and only man number five can actually be a Christian. For to be a Christian means to have the being of a Christian, that is, to live in accordance with Christ’s precepts.

      Man number one, number two, and number three cannot live in accordance with Christ’s precepts because with them everything ‘happens.’ Today it is one thing and tomorrow it is quite another thing. Today they are ready to give away their last shirt and tomorrow to tear a man to pieces because he refuses to give up his shirt to them. They are swayed by every chance event. They are not masters of themselves and therefore they cannot decide to be Christians and really be Christians.

      • Nick_A says:

        That excerpt is IMO both true and extremely offensive to our ego.

        I once read imagination defined as the excess of desire over ability. I think this is one reason why recognition of levels of reality is largely ignored. We don’t want to admit, to “experience” the contradictory plurality that we are in relation to a higher level of reality. It is far more satisfying to dream. This keeps everything on one level.

        It is also far safer. We can become dirty on the outside which is not all that bad. Good seed remains good seed. Yet there are those that seriously begin inner work without a preliminary understanding of our being in relation to the potential for human being. Then they can become dirty on the inside which, from ignorance, can lead to disatrous results.

  • Nick_A says:

    Hi Tracy

    Ravi Ravindar spoke at the Orchard House Cafe sunday night on the topic of love in John’s Gospel and in the Gita.

    When it became time for questions I asked how to fully understand what Simone Weil wrote: “Love is not consolation, it is light.” If love is light and there is the light of consciousness, what is light?

    First I learned that he is another admirer of Simone Weil. Then he said something which was really interesting. He mentioned that in some languages consciousness and conscience are really the same. In other words, at the level we are referring to, one doesn’t exist without the other.

    I believe the elephant’s neck concerns conscience that connects the body to the conscious mind. The trouble is that we are not open to the experience of conscience. We are drawn to consolation and self justification. We lack the attention of the heart to allow the light to nurture it. To make matters worse, these concepts are easily corrupted.

    This is why I believe a lot of concepts such as compassion become lovelied to death since they are digested by the lower parts of the soul.

    From Jacob Needleman’s book “Lost Christianity” P. 137 concerning Evagrius Ponticus:

    Apatheia means litrally, “without emotions” – or, more precisely freedom from emotions. Its quality of being, an intermediate state of the soul, the above mentioned bridge, is characterized by the translator in the following way: “Apatheia…….marks a decisive turning point in the spiritual itinerary of the Christian. It is the door to contemplation, or more exactly, its vestibule.” And Evagrius himself writes, “Now this apatheia has a child called agape [love of God] who keeps the door to deep knowledge of the created universe. Finally to this knowledge succeed theology and the supreme beatitude.”
    ***************

    “That is why St. John of the Cross calls faith a night. With those who have received a Christian education, the lower parts of the soul become attached to these mysteries when they have no right at all to do so. That is why such people need a purification of which St. John of the Cross describes the stages. Atheism and incredulity constitute an equivalent of such a purification.”
    “Faiths of Meditation; Contemplation of the divine” as translated in The Simone Weil Reader (1957) edited by George A. Panichas, p. 418
    ****************************

    I may be wrong but I believe this same phenomenon is rampant in a lot of New Age thought where esotericism becomes a source of consolation while denying the “light” causing far more harm than good if taken to far. Agape, if it exists, is only experienced as a concept.

    For the elephant’s neck to serve its objective connecting purpose, it requires a quality of “light” our normal quality of being denies in order to do so.

  • tracycochran says:

    I think you are right about people not being open to the pain of conscience. In Shakespeare “conscience” meant consciousness…and Hamlet reminds us that conscience (consciousness of what happens after we leave this life) makes cowards of us all.

    • Ron Starbuck says:

      I should be noted that Aristotle, referred to Apatheia as the Golden Mean, a balance between extreme feelings and an attribute of beauty.

      It makes me think of the Middle Way in Buddhism, the path of wisdom and compassion.

      While agape, many would see as the “the love that consumes,” i.e., the highest and purest form of love, one that surpasses all other types of affection.

      A Bodhisattva, is one who is full of agape, compassion for all. Another term is “wisdom-being.” It is anyone who, motivated by great compassion, has generated bodhicitta, which is a spontaneous wish to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

      Agape is a noun, derived from the use of the verb agapao in the Septuagint. It is the common Hebrew term for love which is used to show affection for husband/wife and children, brotherly love, and God’s love for humanity.

      When 1 John 4:8 says “God is love,” the Greek New Testament uses the word agape to describe God’s love.

      Or 1 John 4:16 “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

      Am I mixing metaphors? Aren’t they all fingers pointing at the moon?

    • Nick_A says:

      I don’t know if our avoidance of conscience is the result of pain or in the fear of death. The depths of all religions initiating with a conscious source assert the need to die to oneself which conscience can provide the force for.

      When we get down to it, we don’t want to die since we define ourselves by our acquired beliefs. IMO this is an obstacle far worse than fear of pain.

  • Miriam Sagan says:

    Do you think there is any specific connection between writing poetry and Zen?

    • Ron Starbuck says:

      well, many poets are drawn to zen, or maybe poetry brings out the zen in all of us

      that’s kind of clever actually

      “poetry brings out the zen in all of us”

      should I copyright that? 😉

      • tracycochran says:

        Very good, Ron! Actually, I’ve heard Zen described as a literary tradition rather than a philosophical tradition. Zen poetry and stories evoke states rather than defining them.

      • Ron Starbuck says:

        I can remember the first time that a Zen story rewired my thinking or mind, it felt like something inside me had physically shifted, and that I was literally aligned to a new Axis Mundi.

  • Start stuff-
    Coming together
    In you and me.

    Looked at deeply,
    Who is “you”, and who is “me”?

  • Ron Starbuck says:

    Well all this go me working on a poem, a simple one. So, here goes. This is it folks …

    the Zen in all of us

    http://whenangelsareborn.blogspot.com/2010/11/poetry-brings-out-zen-in-all-of-us.html

  • Ron, I especially like the stanza: “the fearful hero
    the loving heart
    the painless pain”

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, everyone.
    We have so much to be thankful for,and for me, this site is included!

  • tracycochran says:

    Happy Thanksgiving Elizabeth and everyone!

  • BS says:

    interesting post, especially like this part: “no thought or feeling is final”. The part about doings things with the whole of yourself sounds exhausting though. lol.

    I was thinking today that it seems some Buddhist type meditations lay emphasize on emptiness/impermanence, “the voidness of the seeming full”, rather then laying emphases on the plenum of light, the “fullness of the seeming void.” The first one is easy to see, the second one of course isn’t so easy to ‘see’ except as a mental-view.

    I’m gonna share your blog😀

  • tracycochran says:

    Thanks BS!

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