Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dislocation of the self

This is almost a spiritual post. I'm not sure it can be counted truly as "spiritual" simply because it's more concerned with biology, as far as I can see. However, I'm sure that there's good ground for calling the two - spirituality and physicality - the same thing under certain conditions. I'm not sure, which is perhaps why I'm forcing myself to write this down - to get myself to think it through and work out what it means, if anything.

For a little while, on and off, I've been doing a tiny bit of Tai Chi. This came out of getting into the Tao Te Ching and "philosophical" Taoism in general. This may explain my reluctance to disentangle the body from the spirit above - the link between the health of the body and of the mind in Taoism is, I would argue, much stronger than in any other religion or philosophy.

In the Tao Te Ching (for starters - Chuang Tzu uses the idea a lot too) there is much talk of "nothingness", which leads to many statements which seems paradoxical and back to front on first reading. Here are a couple of examples that lend air to the idea much better than I could:

The ordinary person who uses force,
will find that they accomplish nothing.

(38)

and:

All movement returns to the Tao.
Weakness is how the Tao works.
All of creation is born from substance.
Substance is born of nothing-ness.

(40)

This idea that nothingness and weakness create strength and substance is a powerful one once you get your head round it. It's also the basis behind Tai Chi, a martial art that uses "weakness" to overcome an opponent - using their own strength against them rather than merely attempting a battle of pure power. In order to "flow" with your opponent, it's essential (but not necessarily easy) to clear out the "power" that your mind pushes into your own body first. In other words, the extraneous levels of "resistance" you put up against an opponent are also extraneous amounts of energy that we're used to exerting upon ourselves. You can train soldiers to march powerfully together, but are they flexible or reactive when doing so? When an attack comes, a good unit will act as one, but be fluid in avoiding damage and manoeuvring into position. Rigid resistance bows down to flexible dynamicism.

So I've been doing Tai Chi, as I said. Getting the right amount of yin (weakness) vs yang (resistance) is key, and generally it's a lot less yang than you'd expect from a martial art. In this aspect, then, it becomes a form of meditation - one cannot calculate the right balance, nor can one work it out through protracted thought. The balance is one to be discovered, as if independent from learning. I cannot write it down here. I can only find it through observation. It is in this sense that I must reduce my capacity for thought to "nothingness" and, in true Jedi style, let my feelings take over.

I think I finally had a real glimpse of this last week. A peek at that moment when the brain actually switches "off", becoming merely a spectator for what the body is doing. Note, though, that I haven't done any Tai Chi in a couple of weeks. It occurred, indeed, as I was washing the dishes - a routine, non-challenging activity, which helps immeasurably.

As I was washing the dishes, I started to just observe what my hands were doing - I certainly wasn't instructing them as to how to clean the plates. At that point, I realised that my body was doing all this stuff by itself. My eyes were checking what parts needed to be concentrated on, my hands and arms were rotating and brushing as needed. The amazing reality of doing-without-thinking became amazingly clear in a moment. It was as if I had no need of a brain at all - that each part of my body knew what it was responsible for, and reacted to the information itself had, plus any information passed to it from another part elsewhere. Perhaps my brain was essential to the process, but only as a messenger, not as a controller. And there was certainly no need for my consciousness to be there.

When people say that we only use 10% of our brains (which is, AFAIK, dimissed as a myth), I can see this may be true for some definitions of "use". If it's defined as that conscious part, the ability to run things through in our mind, analyse them and come to some kind of logical, "rational" conclusion based on the evidence we have, then perhaps the saying is fair. For 90% of the things we do are routine. We don't even get to decide what we want to do - we just have an urge that comes from somewhere, and our body acts on it. Logical control doesn't need to be a part of that 95% of the time (which plays havoc with the idea of rationality and freedom of choice).

The 10% of the brain that is "rational" ("logical" is definitely the better word in this case) is still vital - we need to think in order to come to some conclusion about a new scenario, which encompasses the whole field of "learning". But learning is simply the process of moving things from thinking "analysis" into unthinking "response" - the more we learn, the less we have to think about it. Thinking is slow, which is why you can't pass your dirving test even though you might know everything about how a car works. Learning, and experience, are that "nothingness" side of how we react and respond, and are essential to getting things done in time. Dynamicism and flexibility.

Quite what this means, I haven't found out yet. Certainly, it sheds a new light on my Tai Chi practice, and on my ideas of rationality. In a way, much of it just about faith - faith in your own ability to react, and not to spend too much time thinking about how to do things.

Perhaps this translates up to a larger scale too - a reflection on the emphasis we place, as a society, on analysis vs experience, knowledge vs sprituality.

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