Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What's in a Mantra

By now, readers experienced in eastern forms of meditation will have probably begun to wonder if all this talk about the great Nelson via New Denver to Nelson jog is much more significant in its status as a training image than in an actual goal that has to be accomplished. Westerners, as I understand them, are more likely to feel that my actually pondering such a feat without caring whether I actually do it is only a lamentable exercise in ego.
My longest trot so far, and this took place just over twenty years ago, was fifteen miles. But also, around the same time , I picked up in my contemplations the sense of someone wishing he could say he had run that far in one go, but without actually doing it. As John of the Cross points out in his commentary on the 20th and 21st stanzas of his "Spiritual Canticle", the mature contemplative is forever carrying the burdens of those less proficient and even downright sinful. So why would I even think of something so ambitious as a week of twenty-milers? Because of the mantra, the koan. Mantra in India, koan in Japan. A mantra is a phrase, an image, a concept, given either by the soul's spiritual guide, or by God himself. It is first of all mysterious, somewhat in the tradition of the poet Browning's words "A man's reach should exceed his grasp", to help us get our thoughts heavenward, or at least for the purpose of deepening our insight into our own particular need to go deeper, to get out of our own shallow approach to something.
I first looked into the East on Christmas Day, 1957, when I found a book on Buddhism, written by a Westerner, in my uncle Alf's house in North Vancouver. At the time knew I was hurtling toward formalizing my relationship with Christianity and had begun the study of Aristotle's "Ethics", so the eastern text was not fascinating. (I was in fact only 48 hours away from turning up at the same party as my wife-to-be. Not for the first time, but for the first occasion of a thoroughly meaningful encounter.) But by the school year of 63-64, I was teaching introductory lessons in both metaphysics and meditation to my grade eights, as I have said, and within the year, after landing in Nelson, I found myself reading a magazine article about the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and knew I was not alone in my determination to get students familiar with the prayer life before, and outside of, the seminaries and novice schools. Then, in 68, by now a spiritual director, I found myself near a bookshelf with a copy of a Jesuit's observations on Zen Buddhism.
Hugo Meyer Casalles had spent a year or two in a Japanese monastery and wrote about his time with the monks in a clear and useful fashion, celebrating silence, simplicity, obedience, and firmness. There was a very nice spiritual light in his text and I quite noted the custom of the roshi tapping those who nodded off with a stick. Furthermore, with a view to the year around the corner when I would finally come to grips with Loyola's "Spiritual Exercises" in a finalized way, I appreciated the Zen approach to those who held images and concepts and words to be of a higher order than the being beneath them. That's where the stick seemed really useful, especially in my case. And I read about the koan. It was not quite the same as the locution, as it was described in such complete detail by both John of the Cross and Teresa, for a genuine locution can only come from God, but it was related, especially in the aspect of mystery.
So why the great 230/140, which on some days I honestly "feel" that I will be able to do, and on others think of as preposterous?
It may be the Almighty's cunning way of having me pray for vocations to the priesthood and religious life, for one thing. I mean, only a complete fool, or someone constantly buoyed up by an unfailing schedule of consolation - profoundly unlikely - could always think him or herself easily capable of meeting all the challenges of such a calling without difficulty. And under the category of "the needs of the Church" lies one of the daily obligations of the soul who works long shifts at prayer and meditation, and of course the Church and all mankind needs celibate priests and religious. Then, at the Sunday mass previous to our most recent, our retired bishop, back in town to receive a convert into the Church, spoke of his pilgrimage on foot to the shrine of Saint James of Compostella, in Spain. 260 K he hoofed it, and as a retired bishop he is of course no spring chicken. Ah, thought I, is the great Kootenay ramble simply the image by which I meditate on behalf of those pilgrims? Our new bishop has a favourite phrase, "other centred love" and of course it's no real contemplative whose primary focus is on himself. The convert, by the way, is retired teaching legend and, coincidentally enough, formerly a Buddhist.
But if I do focus on myself for this supposed week of running, I realize that it's all about being well enough prepared for such an arduous undertaking by a thorough grasp of my physical structure, both general and particular, and the recovery methods necessary to keep it on the road for a week. Thus I've had to figure out what goes wrong with various joints and muscles, especially those grouped around my right upper leg and lower back, knowing I can't set out on such a sustained programme without knowing how to spot and deal with signs of trouble. I've had to study nasal breathing, as taught by Dr. John Douillard, and I've had to make a massive effort to come to grips with the origin and inserts of the muscle groups, simply to understand why the medial side of my right knee - the inside - is usually the first spot to complain. As a result of, hopefully, pegging the source, I've actually invented a new asana.
Can you cross each leg over the other with equal facility, when you're sitting in your armchair?
No? Shame on you. But neither could I, for decades. The Loyal and Ancient Fellowship of Western Half-tracks must have a huge membership. Let's shake up the club.
Sit in your chair, after you have pulled up a stool or a coffee table close enough to rest the heel of the loose leg on it. Now lift the tight leg and place it over the horizontal leg so that the lower leg of the tight leg hangs straight down and the upper part of the tight leg, along with all the gluteus muscles on the tight side, feel moderately stretched', from knee to hip. Do this regularly for the Chinese 90 days it takes for real physical change, and you should feel much more flexible on the troubled side.
The real goal is to be able to cross the tight leg over as the loose is in its ordinary position, with the foot of the loose leg flat on the floor. But if your stiff leg is as tight as mine was, this position is initially impossible to hold with any comfort. So the easier version is necessary for some weeks if not months. All real change is slow. Besides, Patanjali"s rule that the asana must be comfortable as well as stable is never to be broken.
My meeting with the principal of the International School of the Kootenays went very well. We simply talked for three hours in an organic bakery/restaurant that is an example of the healthy reality that our little city has been all about for some years now. The length of the conversation was possible only because she had a genuine interest in the spiritual life, and we did not talk all that much about music, which I had assumed was the main reason for her interest. I was reminded of what my life became after I left the ordinary teaching profession, forty years ago, with the difference that no one I talked with in those days could consider offering me a job.
And yesterday my faithful assistant started collecting camera and recording equipment, so I could study my own fingers on the neck of the baritone ukulele that hangs on the study/studio wall.
This also means that one of these days there will be a photo of the writer.

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