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.