Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Pondering Action

In a comment on “Pondering Desolation,” Monique wonders why the life of action is so distracting and compelling—and why it produces imbalances with undesirable results. Good points. Her comment reminded me that life on the frontier, and here of course I mean life on the borderzone, has its own solution to the demand for “action in the world.” We are, after all, supposed to be in the world if not of it. The Sufi tradition is but one of others that calls for realizing spiritual values in the world—but it is a tradition that gives this matter emphasis. In that tradition withdrawal into solitudes—and celibacy, for that matter—are seen as temporary practices to strengthen the individual for the life of action.

I would also note here that in Asia the martial arts, and related practices derived from it, like Tai chi chuan, directly link physical with spiritual action. And there is also the body of useful western observations about types of personalities—inner- and outer-directed (introverts and extroverts), sometimes linked to body types (somatotypes). This last concept was developed by the psychologist William Herbert Sheldon and studied at Yale. Sheldon proposed three body types called endomorphs, mesomorphs, and ectomorphs, roughly associated with personality types that are gregarious-social, active-muscular-athletic, and inward-sensitive-cerebral. People are, or tend toward, one or the other of these. Thus we may be drawn into the social whirl or the world of action by our own temperament. But beneath our temperaments we are all souls, and ways of life that let us express our given natures at the highest form have been developed over time.

I’ve always felt that the Chinese concept of chi, rudely rendered as life force, is perhaps the key to the spiritual life—no matter what our constitution. Four strangers, all from different parts of the world—in a time before English became a world language—met at a tavern and decided to journey together. Some days later they came across an orchard, and all four cried out in delight. One saw cherries, another one les cerise, a third one die kirschen, a fourth called them cseresnye. They saw the same fruit—a sweet red berry with a stone in the middle. The Asian chi or qi, ki, or gi is another’s baraka, the third person’s grace, a fourth traveler’s prana, and so on.

Why does chi flow more readily in the desolation of the desert, on the peak of rocky mountains? Because the distractions of the world have been minimized. Our genuine happiness derives from increasing and concentrating the flow of grace; unhappiness rises when this flow is rapidly dispersed or blocked by endless distractions. The modern error is to confuse baraka with ordinary life energy of the sort we get from carbohydrates. If it were only that, mere over-eating would make us saints. The wisdom of the traditions lies in recognizing that this energy is of another dimensionality, above that of the coarser kind. It is subtle but, when present, of tremendous potency. In very concentrated form it will cure ills spontaneous and more, much more…

The key to spiritualizing action seems to be concentration. The key to concentration is detachment—not in the sense of withdrawal but in the sense of presence. This demands the cultivation of a peculiar sort of duality within ourselves. We must be present to ourselves while simultaneously attending to the action before us. This may sound weird and contradictory, but it isn’t. What we must detach from is identification with the constant upwelling of emotional reaction to anything and everything. It is that automatic commentary of our habit selves—sometimes a whisper, sometimes a shouting, sometimes rage, sometimes hysteria—which actually distracts us. Action only requires seeing the facts, understanding them, selecting the right action—and then doing it. Without commentary. When the phone rings just as we start typing a sentence, the mind shouts, God dammit! I hope that’s not…whatever. A centered self, a concentrated self, a self that has prepared itself in the morning with appropriate meditation—renewed at intervals—will simply…pick up the telephone. The three dots I placed there stand for an inward pause, a conscious breath to suppress the shouting; it’s a reminder.

Yes, yes, already. But it’s hard. — And it is. But in a real sense the distractions are all internal. What’s out there is just the bombardment of facts. The distraction arises when we let them—distract us. From our intention. Our intention to act. We want to focus on something—and therefore, interrupted, we lose our focus. The trick is not to lose our focus even in the midst of interruptions. The result of this, if assiduously cultivated, is that the atmosphere will cool. The mind will become more disciplined. Slowly. Gradually. The flow of chi will increase, less of it will be blown away into the winds of emotion. We will become more efficient. The lower self is in many ways quite like an animal and requires long and tedious training—and retraining. And again.

My own experience is that practices of this type wear out after a while. As I succeed in organizing my own action better, as things calm down, I tend to ease up on the discipline and then over days I gradually slip back into bad habits. But the upside is that each succeeding effort is more successful, and even in these matters habits do build, not least the habit of just clearing the desk when I feel myself getting hysterical—putting the To Do list aside, overcoming the terror and panic of doing so—and beginning all over again with a session of reminders and a forcible recall of what it’s all about. It works—if we do. We learned that last motto, years ago, from Laura Huxley.

I’ll have more to say on this subject. The whole reality of chi and grace has many more interesting aspects. The teachings of Montessori were centered on natural concentration as a “normalizing” phenomenon. I’ll get to it. It’s on the To Do list.

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