April 1, 2014
Where, I wonder, does your body end? This is what the old Zen masters called a koan, one of those puzzles that can’t be held in the hand of Reason, any more than air or smoke can be gripped by the fist.
The general, common sense answer would of course be: at my skin. Yet that answer ignores the electromagnetic emanation of the living body; it has nothing to say about what the Chinese called chi and the Japanese qi, or the life force. It tells us nothing about the arcs of energy and body-force that artists such as Da Vinci have explored. Nor does such a response account for the breath. And as for mind, the greatest of all Western mystics may be allowed the definitive word: “one thought fills immensity.”
The honest answer is that body has no definitive, measurable endpoint. And the insightful answer may be that there is none; and this is because we are not strangers, not separate, foreign entities dropped into this world, this universe. In any event, the question itself, the koan, is a nice topic for meditation. Such a question is (in the spirit of the new season) to the game of consciousness what the red-seamed white sphere is to the play undertaken today in ballparks across our nation.
Fairly often, I wonder: can meditation be taught? That is, can I show you how to connect and communicate with all of who and what you already are but have been taught to deny or repress?
It is, I suppose, as it is with teaching art or music: we can teach technique or method. Presuming that I have enough experience and a modicum of ability, I can show you how to play the piano or paint with oils or write according to some general rules of grammar and prosody. And such method is crucial; I will not dismiss it in the slightest. I am only saying that it is not art.
So we can teach certain elements of technique. But teaching the recipe does not make the student into the master chef. Teaching musical theory cannot create a great composer or performer. Thus, teaching a method of meditation cannot inspire enlightenment or realization of oneself. So it appears as if art and truth cannot be taught or transmitted.
Yet we do it — or something like it — anyway, because experience has shown us something else, another aspect to the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship. For when such a relationship occurs purely and thoroughly, it is an arc of communication rather than a line of transfer. The Tesla coil can be considered a guiding metaphor on this. The arc of creation is an interaction, not a transmission. As a teacher, I can explore the sublime within you; but I cannot hand it over to you, for I do not have it. Nor can I experience it for you. It is the same, incidentally, with knowledge, the kind of knowledge that arises from awareness as well as mere memory.
A similar metaphor to the Tesla coil is the phenomenon of birth. The doctor, nurse, or midwife will never claim to be the creator of the child, merely a mediating energy that guides it into being, through the moment of parturition. The teacher must remember this as well: just as there are principles and method common to the enabling of a successful birth; so are there certain practices which can catalyze insight and art. But your ability — your birth as an artist or an individual — is something I can only call, not command.
So it is with practices such as the I Ching: I can show you a way to use the oracle to self-create a future consistent with your true self and the remarkable, never-before-seen circumstances of your life. But neither I nor the oracle’s voice itself may presume to reveal your future for you, as if it were the next chapter of a novel already written by some cosmic Author. No one can divine your future; but its potential can be revealed to, or rather, within you.
This is one reason why the teaching of any kind of art, insight, or genuine knowledge does not tend to fare very well in institutional settings. An institution has its own agenda, which is often at variance with the very dynamic of creation. The creative is what practices like the arts and meditation are all about. And the creative is the product of another realm, which is only “other” as long as we imagine ourselves separate from it, through either self-abasement or denial. In every other respect, it is your core, your essence, your nature.
Thus, I am not advocating against universities and schools, far from it. My problem is with the knowledge-transfer mindset. Knowledge transfer is simply not a creative process, not an enduringly developmental approach to education. Once again: I can share a certain method or practice structure that has been shown to work for others; this is what can be taught. What I cannot transmit to you is your own path, on which these teachings are reinvented and transformed through your experience.
Still, a teacher can be a capacitor in creativity’s Tesla coil. When it comes to that — how you turn the teachings into art or insight or quantum growth — then the teacher’s role changes. He is no longer the mover but the mirror; no longer the current but the conduit. And this is when some of the most rewarding moments occur in a teacher’s life. This is when teacher and student join in that connection with the invisible third, the cosmic well of the creative.
Yet most teachers prepare and then carry themselves as if the method were everything; as if being that dump truck of knowledge transfer were the essence of teaching. This ass-backwards sense of priority needs to be reversed. It makes the ultimate sense to do so, from both the most self-interested version of pragmatism and from the perspective of plain humanism.
Masters of method tend to be a dime a dozen these days; rote knowledge is cheap and ubiquitous. It is the Information Age, not the Insight Age. In an era of vast economic disparity and inequality, access to ordinary knowledge remains uniquely democratic. So technical expertise and encyclopedic knowledge mean less than they ever have.
Therefore: teachers — especially those who work in fields where creativity and self-insight or inspiration are paramount to the student’s development — must transform their own preparation and orientation toward both their subjects and their students. And I mean tip it onto its ear and set it up anew. Now while it may help to adjust one’s self-image as a teacher around the metaphors of the Tesla coil and the midwife over the role of the knowledge feed-bag; there must be more to it than that.
This is to say, we need a revolution from within; an overthrow of what we assume it means to teach — and for that matter, to study. For the relationship has been so weighted down with hierarchical burdens that entire societies and nations are being pulled down into a morass of rigid inertia.
Let’s take one prominent cultural example: the doctor-patient relationship. Doctor, of course, is the Latin word for teacher. Well: do you ever feel as if you’re learning anything when you visit the doctor? Do you ever leave his office with a deeper understanding of either health or illness? Or do you typically come away with some superficial drill along with a handful of illegible prescriptions?
The fact is that in modern medicine, as in most modern education, the third party of life’s party is missing. Not nonexistent, just repressed. If we can even speak of a goal to meditation, to art, to music, to living — it is this: that we find within ourselves the great spark that ignites the fire of being, the flame of creation, the torch of passion for everything we are and can touch with a single moment’s opening and outpouring of consciousness.
Ask again, now: where does your body end?