Monday, February 28, 2011

17 That Wild Girl Named Pang—The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

Falling Bodies

Falling on the ground seems to be essential—babies trying to walk, dogs chasing tennis balls, hobos who sleep on paper under bushes, the daring young girl on the flying trapeze, people who get caught in scandals, people who get a frightening diagnosis, people having doomed love affairs, people getting divorced, actors who freeze on stage, mothers with post partum depressions, people who one day wake up crazy, people from Sonora sneaking across the night desert into Arizona with plastic water bottles painted black, people in Ethiopia selling fresh baked bread made out of dirt, people who sold everything at the bottom of the stock market crash, people being flamed on the internet, people whose pension funds were stolen, people who give interviews while out of their mind on coke, people who lost their homes to the banks, people who lie on a warm rock in a canyon, people who lose their faith in life, people who pretend that they would never fall, people who get born—falling on the ground happens to all these. Falling is outside of the bounds of acceptable behavior and reality, yet you can’t have a life without it.

The Koan:

Helping Her Dad
Mr. Pang was selling baskets. Coming down off a bridge with his arms full, he stumbled and fell. When his grownup daughter saw this, she ran up and threw herself down on the ground beside him.
“What are you doing?” cried Mr. Pang.
“I saw you fall to the ground, so I’m helping,“ she replied.
“It’s a good thing no one was looking,“ remarked Mr. Pang.
This story shows life as an opportunity for improvisation—a chance to accept all offers. For improv, you need a certain amount of selflessness and a sense of humor, you have to step out of the way things always happen, of who you think you are, of taking yourself seriously, of managing other peoples’ impressions of you and especially of managing your own impression of you. You can’t be clever or playing for a laugh, you just join the situation. You accept the offer right here now. The territory of this koan is what helps others and what doesn’t help, what helps you yourself, and what is possible in relationship.

“It’s a good thing no one was looking,“ remarked Mr. Pang. He is not just teasing and having fun, but playing along, noting how they have moved together from an accident to a theater piece of wonder. He could have said “Thanks for not drawing attention.”

A variant of this discovery is that falling on the ground, while terrible, is also wonderful—the taste of dirt, blood, coffee, oranges, tears, sweat, the taste of life itself.
A friend had a truly frightening diagnosis and in the tsunami of advice and medical possibilities and mind altering medications and surgery and trial drugs, his wife said,
“Things are entirely alive. I have never felt so warm and embraced and so held.”
“The community is helping?” I asked, rather conventionally.
“Well that too, people gather around and bring casseroles, but that’s not what I meant; it’s like being held by enormous arms.”

I have a natural feeling for the Pang girl and her spontaneity, and at the same time, Mr. Pang’s situation is compelling. I imagine falling down and having someone throw themselves down beside me; that is a truly unusual situation, that would be shocking in a fine way. Here are a few stories about people turning into rather than away from a fall.

Smart Nurses and Improv

A woman told me this story in relation to the Pang family chronicles.
I just had a breast exam and there was some sort of question and they took me for more imaging. I’m growing afraid, following the nurse down the corridor in a hospital gown and writing my will in my mind. As we walk the nurse turns back and looks at the gown and laughs and says, “Flashing is optional.” Then I stopped being afraid.
The nurse had an empathy that brought the patient out of a world in which she was saying goodbye to her kids, into the more amusing situation of walking down the hall and being about to fall out of an incredibly poorly designed garment. The distance between heaven and hell is tiny and the nurse joining her makes one into the other.

Doing Not Saying—The Emergency Room Check In

A friend got out of bed, fell over, got up, fell again and called me. That was an offer to me, which I accepted. I drove her to the ER. It lacked the underworld interest of a busy city ER, where if you are not hemorrhaging from the mouth or suffering from a gunshot wound you might wait through the night till the change of shift at dawn—another way of falling. While neither as grey nor as dingy as expected, the waiting area was simultaneously boring and interminable.

I waited while my friend went through her exam. The nurse doing check in and triage made two nice moves—turning towards a situation.
1. A woman flung herself in a waiting room chair. She lay rigid on the chair like a log, touching the edge of the seat and the top of the back. She flopped from side to side. She moaned, she apologized for moaning and moaned louder. She yelled a little. Calmly, impersonally, selflessly, not in the least referring to the pain, the nurse walked up and tied a hospital intake bracelet on the woman’s left wrist. “There you go,” she said, indicating that the woman was now official, having an identity and a place in the lineup of this antechamber of the underworld. This soothed the woman immediately.
2. A woman was in her late thirties—blond, statuesque, agitated; her skin had a kind of glaze and tightness, like an attractive sausage. Her fear expressed itself as anger. Her left leg jiggled and her heel tapped, she looked ready for a fight, looked as if in a fight, she might be happy, relieved of her anxiety. She addressed the check in nurse from some yards away.
“I need a private room.”
“The consulting rooms are private and we’ll take you next. You’ll be the only one there.”
“I’ve got to have a private room now. You don’t understand, I need a private room.”
“That space over there is private,” the nurse pointed to what was indeed an open, dead space a couple of yards behind the woman.
“I didn’t say I needed a private room I need a private space,” said the patient undertaking a small face saving operation, but winding down, moving over into the space, not obviously different from any other square of the floor.
Practical Parenting

I have my own story that makes me wonder about the way koans can get inside you. Without noticing it my body stepped into this koan.
My daughter who was an early teenager at the time was in battle with one of the demons who beset her world. One afternoon she came running into the kitchen and flung herself down at full length upon the lotus flowers painted on the wooden floor. She groaned and sobbed. Before I could think, I threw myself on the floor beside her.
Our eyes met. We began to laugh. We got up and cooked dinner.
The koan wasn’t consciously in my mind and it is almost disappointing that the story is so literally imitated, but perhaps the incident shows how koan moves can become part of a kind of grammar of response to situations. Not setting yourself against a situation can lead to laughter, even where grim sorrow seems likely to win the day.

How to Improve People

I think of another example of this grammar. For some years I hung out with Dick Auerswald, who pursued the transformation of consciousness as a psychiatrist and was one of the founders of family systems thinking. When a family was in trouble Dick liked to do home visits. I remember walking into a house with him, where one of the kids was in what seemed to them to be deep trouble. There were cousins and cousin’s girlfriends, the whole family was gathered. Everybody was  sitting on the edge of their chair trying to look like someone who wouldn’t do it again, whatever it was. As we walked in, Dick stumbled and fell. Everybody rushed to help him up and afterwards they weren’t sitting on the edges of their chairs and they began to talk to each other. Perhaps they felt that they had stumbled and that he was saying, “It’s alright I stumble. Then I get up.” Without thinking about it, he acted out the feeling in the room and that opened a door. 

The Koan's Shadow

This koan has a shadow too, which is to bring up the way we can imprison ourselves in a situation, feeling only the pain, embarrassment and effort that unfold with the story. The shadow of this koan might be something like this: “I’m always down on the ground helping people and it never helps them.”  Or “When I fall I’m pathetic and it's embarrassing.” The daughter could have spent her time picking up baskets and telling her father not to be such a duffer. It's good to notice what reading your mind goes to, and how much you believe that reading. Perhaps we are most alone when we set ourselves apart from the falling, as though we know a better way it should have happened.

Sometimes you don't need to know why something isn't a problem. Here is a story that goes in that direction.
I was on a very narrow two way street heading home from preschool with my kid and the baby in the car seat when a college kid in a big SUV turned the corner looking over his shoulder talking and coming toward me. I leaned on the horn, he saw me in horror, slammed on the brakes and just missed us. I started laughing and he started laughing too and all was well. Afterwards I had thoughts about why it was funny and about how I had been at that age, but at the time it was just pure laughter.
The thought that something shouldn’t have happened is never true. When we are falling there is no alternative, there is only falling. Falling and laughter. 

Questions To Save All Falling Bodies

1.  How have you fallen down in your life, physically or otherwise? How was it for you? Did you have opinions about yourself?
2.  Has anyone ever tried to help you? What worked? What didn’t? When you try to help someone else, what seems to work? Not work? Does play have any part in that?
3.  Do you think it’s important to “pick yourself up” when you’re down? Is that hard or easy?
4.  Remember a time when something brought you down, not a physical fall, but something difficult. What movement in your body would describe that time for you? Did your body change when you got over it?
5.  What does the instruction to “accept all offers” mean to you? How would that be? What would it change?
6.  Are there mistakes?

Pang Lingzhao was the name of the Pang girl and she is known as a Zen master in her own right.

Keith Johnstone's books on Improvisation in theatre and story telling are examples of books that have a lot to say about Zen without mentioning Zen. The phrase 'accept all offers' comes from him.

Addendum: Case Law on Falling:
Ian Frazier considers Wile E. Coyote’s plight

Coyote V. Acme
Wile E. Coyote, Plaintiff
Acme Company, Defendant

Mr. Coyote states that on eighty-five separate occasions he has purchased of the Acme Company (hereinafter, "Defendant"), through that company's mail-order department, certain products which did cause him bodily injury due to defects in manufacture or improper cautionary labeling. Sales slips made out to Mr. Coyote as proof of purchase are at present in the possession of the Court, marked Exhibit A. Such injuries sustained by Mr. Coyote have temporarily restricted his ability to make a living in his profession of predator. Mr. Coyote is self-employed and thus not eligible for Workmen's Compensation.

You can read Coyote's full plea here:

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

16 A Treasure Hidden In The Body—The Zenosaurus Course In Koans

There is One Treasure Hidden in the Body
The Body's Path to Awakening

                 This very body is the Buddha


We are inside the body and the body is inside us. In Zen we have a tradition of embodying or acting koans out because if the body is not engaged it’s hard to really meet life. Once in China, there were dance forms as dialogues and as responses to koans. Those forms are believed to be lost, but I can imagine that through meditation and attention to movement and the body we might find them again.

The ancient koan masters looked for the gates of wisdom first in poetry because language is a fundamental feature of being human. We are inside language the way we are inside the air and waters of the blue planet, but I’ve been thinking that the body is it too, and wanting to treat awareness of the body as an integrative art.

In the Autumn I had back pain from lifting a wood stove, and some of the body workers at the Autumn retreat changed what I was noticing by moving me around. The pain made it so that I couldn’t extend my right arm. But an interesting moment happened when I found that by closing my eyes I could extend my arm easily. The pain, or its connection to the movement, was somehow a mapping problem. It reminded me of the phantom limb phenomenon in which the brain thinks there is pain in a limb that has been amputated.

The neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran at UC San Diego performed experiments in which he used mirrors so that when the patient looked at her amputated right leg she saw her intact left leg in its place. He then asked the patient to relax the amputated leg that she could now see and the phantom limb pain diminished or disappeared.

So the body has its imagination and its stories and, like other stories, sometimes they seem true but they might not be. The process was an exploration exactly like koan work involving the body. And just as in a koan interview it was as if we were inside the same field, sharing perceptions and movements. The few other people in the room could feel in their own bodies what was happening to me.

I remembered earlier experiences of working with my body in a koan like fashion. I have an odd heart rhythm acquired long ago, probably in the islands east of New Guinea where a fever came on when I was in a canoe. About 12 years ago the non rhythm amplified into a kind of storm. I was falling down on occasion and my cardiac doc, whom I liked partly for his gloomy streak, said,

“Atrial fibrillation. You could end up crawling across the kitchen floor to get your granola.”
“What happens then?”
“Congestive heart failure.”

“Oh no,” I thought, “what will my kid do when I die?”

I was suddenly living inside an Edward Gorey rhyme, featuring caskets and orphans and men with long faces in formal Victorian clothes. So I began to explore the scenario and my beliefs about it. First of all I realized that my daughter would be fine if I died. She would live a good life whatever I did, listening to her own inward voice. It was also clear that no date had ever been set for my dying and among important things, unknowns far outnumbered the knowns. And, how to describe this?—I let a koan into the problem and the problem was not directly addressed by the koan but diminished anyway. I noticed that sometimes my heart banged in a way it was hard to enjoy but that if I didn’t worry about it, it settled down and the main effect was that I was tired sometimes in the afternoon.

I feel fine now. But sometimes I don’t and then the treasure has to be there in that pain or disorientation and restlessness in the mind, and if I can’t settle my body, the treasure is there in the not finding and the longing for healing. And that’s enough. My relationship with my body is my relationship with what I am, with how I came to this place. To disapprove of my body seems beside the point.

So there are stories about the body and, like other stories, they seem to generate themselves, like rabbits, or bacteria. I like koans because they refer to a landscape where there are less stories, or where the stories are surprising and unexpected, and we have a better relationship with what we are. Criticizing yourself is one of the great distractions and finding fault with your body is clearly in this class of delusion, expected but untrue. So much for New Year’s resolutions.

The body listens to others and is in an intimate communion with them, regardless of my opinions about them. This intimacy is a way I go beyond myself and is closely connected to the images that arise in my mind. Awareness naturally includes my body unless I make an effort to exclude it. To read my body is to be in a conversation in which I have to listen ever more closely, and not tell myself stories or explain what I’m hearing. When my body can speak for itself then my words become more true, too.

The body’s imagination has its own grammar and its images can lie in ambush for years. A friend told me she heard some 70’s music on the radio “from when I was in high school and suddenly I was in that city, the whole miserable locked in quality of waiting to escape, the dinginess of getting through that time with my angry stepfather and trying to have a normal life and knowing these were bad years, it all descended on me like a grey veil.”

PTSD and pleasant memories both waylay us via the body. Ambush is linked to enlightenment; surprise is the way an epiphany happens, that so intense flavor is the flavor of my life and there is no need to make a choice about it or criticize it, even if it is in the realm we think of as pathology. The pain of memory has some similarity to the sound of the geese clanking overhead, and while it's happening, it is the only sound in the world.

The Koan This Week:

Yunmen said, “In the center of the cosmos, inside heaven and earth, there is one treasure, hidden in the body. It picks up a lantern and goes into the meditation hall. It brings the great three arched entrance gate and puts it on top of the lantern.”

Putting the great entrance gate on the lantern—the impossible might come to be. Anything you think is built of the stubbornness of matter, of the intractability of what you know, of the bricks of nouns, might also be a verb, might be a koan constantly changing its shape, a person changing into  tree, a cold heart melting. My heart problem might be a koan, dying might be a koan, I can’t tell why someone lives or dies and I don’t need to, even if that someone is me.

When I spend time inside it, this koan brings the usual paradoxical effects that lead to a bigger idea of what it is to be alive. We had two warm days, plum blossoms and narcissus leapt out like water from fountains, then the cold west wind returned, loud in the trees, bringing a restlessness and the thought of things changing, seasons, times and nations changing. That one treasure, it might be the sound of that wind, or the sight of a tree branch lying in the field. Then it becomes clear that the wind is in the body and the branch and the field and the lights of the river of cars at night are in the body. 

Leonardo Da Vinci's Vitruvian man

There is a very old idea that the human body is itself a map of the cosmos, the fragment that contains the whole. In the Flower Garland Sutra, the universe is a jeweled net in which each jewel contains the whole, and something like this is implied in Leonardo’s image of Vitruvian man who is literally the measure of all things, the source of proportions for buildings and ultimately the world. Each moment of awareness, each twitch, each ache, each sigh, each tear, each enchantment by perfume or blossom is a world. 

Here are some body questions:

1. How do you use your body? Are you your body? Does it tell you what to do?

2. When your body is hurting or in trouble, how do you help it heal? Can your body help you to wake up? Are healing and waking up related in any way?

Charles Atlas bodybuilding ad
3. We have stories about our bodies, that they are not beautiful enough or too old or too sick or too fat or too poorly dressed… What stories rule your body? Do you like it, find fault with it, hope that others admire it, think it needs a coffee or more vitamin B? 

4. Do you approve of some things your body wants and disapprove of others? Be specific.

5. Do you feel your body? Do you enjoy it? Do you find it exciting or alarming?

6. Do you remember your body in childhood? Was it different? What body memories do you have from earlier times? Show an activity or a movement that your used to do but don’t anymore. Are you stronger in some ways? Weaker in others?

7. If you could have a different body for a day, describe what body you would have.