Friday, 24 August 2007

Inner Truth

It was an evolutionary leap when mammals first evolved, not least because one of the features that distinguishes mammals from reptiles is a capacity known as limbic resonance. Unlike reptiles, a mammal can detect the internal state of another mammal and adjust its own physiology to match it. It is our capacity for limbic resonance that makes us emotionally responsive, which is to say, capable of relationships, and capable of love.

The capacity for love is a marker of spiritual health – perhaps its most important marker. What the saints and realized beings of every spiritual tradition share in common is an extraordinary capacity for love.

It is love, reflected in the eyes of our parents, that tells us in infancy, who and what we are. In our earliest days, the physical presence of loving adults may mean the difference between life and death, quite independent of the provision of food and warmth: recent research suggests that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome may be the result of the physical separation of mother and child. The countries with the lowest rate of SIDS are those in which infants sleep in physical contact with their mothers.

As a baby’s growing awareness takes in more of the world, including himself, he continues to learn from his parents what it is to be loved, and to love. This is not an intellectual learning; it is not something that can be defined and taught with words. A child learns from the experience of love; his internal world, as it grows and takes form, is shaped by that experience. Relationship, for mammals – and we are mammals – is in large part a physical experience, and it changes how we experience the world.

For millennia, right back to the dawn of our species, human children – like all mammalian young – spent virtually all their time with their parents and extended family until they themselves were ready to venture out into the world, their independence emerging naturally and effortlessly from the satiation of their dependence. By observing everyday life within their families, they learned both values and survival skills, including crucially important social skills: how to live in relationship with others.

But human children learn something in addition to survival: in the loving gaze of parents who truly see them, they find a sense of themselves as unique individuals. Adults who were fortunate enough to have enjoyed the consistent presence of a supportive family tend to be confident, emotionally stable, and able to withstand the knocks that life deals out. They know who they are; they have a sense of their own value, perhaps even a sense of destiny. And they are able to form close relationships with others; they are able to love.

There are intimations of many of these themes in Hexagram 61, ZHONG FU. Zhong means centre. The character Fu is formed with the legs of a bird on top, and a child underneath: thus, it means to hatch. It implies the quality of a mother hen: steady, faithful, loyal, trustworthy. In the context of Hexagram 61, it is most often interpreted as truthfulness and sincerity, and particularly being faithful to yourself. Zhong Fu is the equivalent of the Daoist concept of ‘zhen’: authenticity: being faithful to what is at the centre of your life, to your own nature, your own Dao.

Huang sums up the essence of the lines, from 1 to 5, thus:

The Duke of Zhou says that, being sincere and trustworthy, one should be at ease and confident. It should be as natural as a mother crane calling affectionately to her young. One should persist in being sincere and trustworthy. First beating the drum and then stopping is not the proper attitude. Being sincere and trustworthy, one is able to link with others in union…
This might well be paraphrased as a description of good parenthood: being at ease and trusting our own instincts, we respond to our children as naturally as we breathe. We are there for them, not when we can fit it in to a busy life, but steadily, all the time; we don’t make a fuss over them and then ignore them. If we give them this foundation of relatedness, they will then be able to form loving relationships with others.

Modern Western society does not support us in spending the time our children need to establish their strong centre, their personhood, their inner truth. In Southeast Asia, I observed a different norm: families spend most of their time together. Extended families live together; small children are looked after by their grandparents, and wander in and out of their parents’ place of work; the whole family takes meals together, often in the workplace.

But even in Asia, this is changing, as ‘developing cultures’ begin to ape the patterns of social isolation that have poisoned the West. Most of us have lost the immediate proximity of extended families; most of us in nuclear families work outside our homes.

It is into the cracks opened up, as families fracture, that we slip deeper into Kali Yuga. I applaud those families who are raising their children to be strong enough in their personhood to eventually pull us out of it.

Huang says of Hexagram 61: “In hatching chicks, the hen must be faithful to her obligation.”

The Tuan commentary for the hexagram says that sincerity can transform a country.

In the 21st century, we need it to transform the world.

Monday, 13 August 2007

Abiding Passion

I’m having a love affair with my garden. Every day we bring each other gifts. I bring water, or new seedlings; or I prune or weed, or build supports for the beans and climbing tromboncino courgettes and wineberries and tomatoes. It produces something new and surprising, magical and beautiful every day.

I came to gardening in my 40’s, with a half acre allotment which I tended for ten years. It was way too big for me to keep up with, and parts of it always looked like it had reverted to jungle, but it churned out a vast array of fabulous fruit and veg.

I’m still passionate about gardening, though more relaxed about it. I know that not everything always works as I expected or hoped, and that’s OK. The garden goes on and on and will always continue to be magical and surprising and beautiful.

This constancy through change is Hexagram 32, HENG. Heng is variously translated as Duration, The Long Enduring, Long Lasting, Constancy. But it lasts precisely because it is always changing. The hexagram is formed of Thunder over Wind: two different types of movement, the Gentle and the Shocking. Both trigrams have the quality of movement, but the relationship endures. This is the hexagram of lasting marriage: stability in the midst of changing circumstances, a living marriage, a steady state of constant renewal.

The character heng has the ‘heart’ radical – representing feelings, the realm of the mental and emotional – plus an ideograph of a boat between the banks of a river. This is a ferry one relies on to cross the river, always making the same journey, continuous and dependable. It’s a cyclic journey, not a linear adventure. Thus the meaning is: to rely on, constancy; something that will go from here to there and back again, without ceasing: a steadfast heart.

This hexagram is exactly in the middle of the I Ching, and is the heart of the I Ching: in the middle of change, something is permanent. The theme is beautifully stated in the Confucian commentary on the Decision: ‘The four seasons change and transform; thus can their production of beings long endure.’

Reminding me of this truth is the very best gift my garden gives me, and it gives it every day.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Limbic Resonance

Standing in the mud at WOMAD with my Sweetheart last week, my heart was captured by a couple who started dancing at the side of the stage. While almost everyone was moving in time to the music in some way, these two were twirling and swaying as one. I don’t know if they had just met and fallen madly in love, or had been together for twenty years and were still madly in love.

That sweet madness is the subject of Hexagram 31. This hexagram opens the second half of the I Ching, the half dealing with humanity, and specifically with personal and social relationships.

It is formed of Mountain over Lake: a pairing of opposites in harmonious conjunction. Mountain is stable and rises upward; Lake is on top and sinks downward, so they are coming together. Mountain is the youngest son, Lake is the youngest daughter; it is a picture of courtship. It’s also a great Taoist image: Stillness (Mountain) inside, and Joy (Lake) outside – a perfect marriage of Yin and Yang.

Although the name of the hexagram is XIAN, Huang says that according to Confucius’ Commentary on the Decision, it should be GAN. Gan means influence; it has the connotation of moving the heart, being emotionally excited or stimulated. But there are also resonances with xian, which has two meanings: (a) to bite or be bitten – what we might call ‘smitten’, and (b) entirely or completely. All of these meanings are aspects of being in love.

It’s a hexagram of feeling, of being moved or touched by someone. Wilhelm translates it as Influence (Wooing); Blofeld as Attraction, Sensation. Huang calls it Mutual Influence. Wu calls it To Influence, To Move. LiSe calls it Affect and Affection.

Brad Hatcher calls it Reciprocity, and relates it to Eros. He says:

“Beyond simple union, beyond putting our fractured, fragmented selves back together as viable, functioning wholes, there might be no other purpose or plan. Every human being alive has myriad generations of human and near-human ancestors to thank for bringing them here, not to mention the primates and far longer lines of descent. Each of these beings in turn had something to give in exchange for something they wanted. Each self struck a bargain with other, to negotiate a new pairing while acting in what they hoped was their own best interest. Each had to take a lover. Life learned long ago that the self by itself is extinguished. It learned to want and desire, and that it would need to merit its rewards and fulfilments. This is what brings out our best.”

We can also consider this quality in terms of ‘limbic resonance’. In A General Theory of Love, authors Lewis, Amini, and Lannon explain the concept of "limbic resonance" as the special ability of mammals (including humans) to become attuned to the inner states of others, influencing them and in turn being influenced by them. Mammals, unlike reptiles, regulate each other's internal states – not only their emotional states, but physiological function. An example of this is the way a group of women who spend time together will often find their menstrual periods coming into spontaneous alignment; close friends will achieve synchrony more readily than women who merely share a living space, even though the latter may spend more time together.

When two people are in deep limbic resonance, they are in love. They are in touch, they are ‘touched by’ each other; and being the responsive, malleable beings that we are, they are influenced by each other.

The authors conclude that humans, like all mammals, have "open-loop" physiologies, and require the sympathetic presence of others to maintain systemic balance.
“That open-loop design means that in some important ways, people cannot be stable on their own – not should or shouldn’t be, but can’t be. This prospect is disconcerting to many, especially in a society that prizes individuality as ours does. Total self-sufficiency turns out to be a daydream whose bubble is burst by the sharp edge of the limbic brain. Stability means finding people who regulate you well and staying near them.”

Since the heart has its reasons (that the Reason knows not), this would imply getting our own Minds and Hearts (our cognitive and limbic selves) on the same team, or to reprise Brad Hatcher’s commentary, “putting our fractured, fragmented selves back together as viable, functioning wholes”. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, in his book True Love, in order to truly love, we must practice oneness of body and mind, to be 'entire', to be 'complete', to be xian.

I don’t know the real story behind that beautiful dancing couple, but they sure looked like – at least at that moment – they had it sussed.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Crossing the great (muddy) waters

Womad 2007, Charlton Park
I’ve just returned from four days at WOMAD, a festival of world music and dance. Thousands of people braved knee-deep mud to celebrate music and dance from countries and cultures all over the world.

Unpredicted torrential rain made the physical conditions of the festival extremely difficult. Nevertheless, it was a joyous gathering, and a beautiful example of Hexagram 13, TONG REN, which is formed of Heaven over Fire.

Tong means together: to come together, gather together, meet; agreement, harmony, concord; or comrade, colleague.

Ren is people, or person.

Tong Ren is people uniting to become a cohesive, coherent group. This is the hexagram of society and the community, in which people are equal. It’s about understanding the intrinsic qualities of things and organizing them for the benefit of all, rather than for personal gain.

It’s variously translated as Similar People, Fellowship with Men, Like-Minded Persons, Union of Men, Community, Seeking Harmony.

What was noteworthy about this gathering was that the similarities were not the superficial ones we normally notice. People came from across the spectrum of ages and classes. The performers came from all over the world, and from a wide range of musical genres.

What we all had in common was a love of music, an enthusiasm for experiencing a wider context of our humanity, and the intention to have a great time.

Music, and the arts in general, bring people together. So do the pure sciences, and cooking, and gardening, and the spiritual quest. I once spent an afternoon as the guest of a family of pineapple farmers in the hills of Viet Nam; they served me tea in the tiny one-room shack that was home to a couple and their three adult children, and although we had no common language, the mother of the family and I felt the bond of the shared experience of motherhood.

The Decision of Hexagram 13 refers to a union of men ‘beyond the suburbs’, i.e. the common people, as contrasted with the government. Huang observes that “Tong Ren reveals the truth that if people deal with each other in a spirit of equality, then peace and advancement are possible.”

The Decision also says we can “cross the great waters”, meaning that we can bridge a gap, accomplish something important, cross over into new territory.

It’s a hexagram of recognizing how we are similar, and how we are different, and celebrating both.

Bradford Hatcher – always an inspiring interpreter of the I Ching – hits the nail on the head:

The fire does not enlighten the night, but the flame will make a focus in common, a unifying vision, a bonding experience and quite a little spectacle. Gathered here we agree to disagree, exchange the best of our stories and songs, make our peace...

And so the search for the greater world means going across the great waters, across our cultural boundaries, across the ages of time, outside of our niches and sometimes out of our minds. After ages of trials and wars, the clans start to take steps towards consensus, overcoming our disparities by returning to our old common grounds...

Our hope is as much in seeing things not the same way. Our frontier isn't the known. Is that not the whole point of frontiers?