Thursday, December 8, 2016

Using the "Ring of Control" and Bodily Awareness to Control the Mind

If you've read Journey to the West one of the things you should remember is the way Xuanzang (the Monk) controls Sun Wukong (Monkey) is through the use of a golden band that Guanyin gives him. He gets tricked into placing the band over his head, where it shrinks, and, actually binds itself to his skull. Guanyin teaches Xuanzang a mantra that he can recite that makes the band shrink, squeezing Sun Wukong's skull and causing excruciating pain. This is the only way that Xuanzang can control his "chief disciple".

A Japanese painting of Sun Wukong 
Journey to the West is a collection of folk tales that people have been reciting as entertainment for a long time. But most people don't realize that that the most popular version of the text is considered by some to be a Daoist teaching story. It's taken me a lifetime of learning, but reading the W.J.F. Jenner translation for the third or fourth time, I can now see this is obviously true.

People sometimes get hung up on this interpretation because they believe that these sorts of teaching allegories have to be totally universal, or else they aren't real. They point at the characters of the Dragon horse and Sandy and ask what they are supposed to "represent". But the fact is that Journey to the West is primarily an piece of entertaining fiction, not a book of Daoist theory. It needn't be completely allegorical, all the time---it just needs to be so once in a while.

Another complaint is that since Xuanzang is a Buddhist monk and the journey is to the Western Buddhist heaven to get Buddhist scriptures, it "obviously" cannot have anything to do with Daoism. Well, this misses the constant refrain in the book that "all religions are one", the way Daoist teachers are often referenced, and, the many, many allusions to arcane aspects of Daoist teachings---all of which would be missed by the casual reader of a bad translation.

One of the ways to see this is to understand the group travelling to the Western heaven as one entity with each character representing one particular part of the human psyche. Pigsy represents the instinctual drives of the human beings. Xuanzang is the higher intellect that attempts to control the other elements of the human being. And Monkey is the "mind ape" that is the well-spring of mental activity that gives human beings their ability to think their way through the problems of life.

The part of human beings that Monkey represents is that bubbling well-spring of creativity that goes on in our mind and allows us to think of solutions to the endless problems that life throws our way. As such, it is essential to life. That is why Sun Wukong is the protector of Xuanzang in Journey to the West---because our "monkey mind" is what has allowed human beings to survive and prosper. But the problem with this bubbling well is that if we don't exert some control over it, it creates havoc in our lives. The well can create ungrounded fears that eat us alive. Or it can develop weird prejudices that alienate us from the community we need to survive. Or it can create strange obsessions that cause us to waste away our lives pursuing absurd delusions. All these problems are represented in the start of the book by the crazy havoc that Monkey creates in Heaven.

10th century Northern Chinese wooden Guanyin
The Buddha traps Sun Wukong under a mountain for five hundred years until Guanyin releases him to become Xuanzang's protector. But she realizes that without some way for the higher intellect to control the "monkey mind", there is no way that anyone can become realized or enlightened. So she tricks monkey into wearing her band and teaches the monk how to recite a mantra to control it. This is the important point.  The band is a literary device, but a mantra literally is a way of controlling our run-away creative thought process. It is like a "clamp" that blocks up the bubbling, crazily over-flowing ability to create ideas that can overwhelm our minds.

The problem is that most of us live our lives with a constant internal voice burning through out minds that says all sorts of destructive things like "you're too fat", "what's wrong with you?", "what if I run out of money?", "what if I lose my job?", "who the Hell do they think they are to tell me what to do?", etc. This voice can get louder and louder until they take over our life entirely. Repeating some phrase over and over again---which is what saying a mantra really is all about---literally drowns this voice out and allows our intellect to regain control of  our thought processes. Contrary to what some people may tell you, it doesn't really matter what the mantra is. You can repeat "om mani padme hum", "da do run run, da do run run", or, whatever. My first meditation teacher said if I wanted, I could repeat "cocksucker, cocksucker cocksucker" over and over again if it made sense to me. But the point is to be able to "clamp down" on that monkey mind and stop it from becoming so loud that it overwhelms your consciousness.

People often go into great detail about the various and sundry ways there are to meditate. But ultimately, meditation is a very simple process. It is looking at the way your mind operates, deciding what is the ideal way for it to be, and, finding out ways that you can learn to control it. In the case that I've mentioned from Journey to the West, I've identified one of the easiest---using a mantra. But there are other mechanisms too.


The traditional Daoist
map of the body
One that I use a lot lately involves bodily awareness. I suppose that to explain it in Daoist terms I could say that by practicing neidan (qigong---in this case taijiquan), I have learned to move my qi around the body from my lower Dantian up through the mysterious gateway, along my twelve-story pagoda up to the mud pill. At least that's the language that comes from traditional Daoist teaching, and what is used in Journey to the West.

Being a modern Westerner, I would much rather say that through a process of dissecting my body with my consciousness, I've learned to identify different elements of my bodily awareness. This allows me to loosen my lower abdomen and chest region. This has allowed me to dramatically improve my bodily posture. It also allows me to become aware of the subtle ways in which my visual, auditory, and, bodily awareness interact with my consciousness to influence my thought processes. Frankly, I find this sort of language a lot more useful than saying that "my qi moves" from one place to another. But I do think that I am describing the same thing as the old Daoists.

And the upshot is that I can control my "monkey mind" by focusing my consciousness on the subtle feelings in my body. One part of this is feeling my feet come into contact with the floor beneath my feet when I walk. The experience is somewhat like what I expect walking on my hands would feel like. The heel makes contact, I can feel my weight rippling through my (pitifully collapsed) arch, and then each of my individual toes engages with the floor and then rolls off. At the same time, I consciously "drop" my shoulders and chest, counter-acting my genetic predisposition to "hunch" my shoulders into a "scholar's hump". At the same time, I consciously try to look through both of my eyes, giving each equal weight of attention instead of allowing one or the other to dominate. Together with these and other conscious activities, I create a calm and peace of mind that results in a feeling of something coming up my spine and manifesting itself in between my brows and on the top of my head. (At the same time, I am acutely aware of the almost constant throbbing of my chronically infected sinus cavities and ear canals---I get a lot of virus infections at work, plus I am very allergic to dust.)

This "hyper awareness" has the same effect as repeating a mantra constantly. It overwhelms the chattering monkey mind and allows the intellect to assert control over the random creative impulses that the mind spews at us like a fire hose. As a side effect, for me the hyper awareness technique has added benefits lacking from the mantra method. For one thing, it helps improve my physical health. I suffer from many complaints:  arthritis, tendonitis, tennis elbow, chronic sinusitis, etc. (Most are the result of a hard life doing physical labour, inheriting some bad genes---such as very, very flat feet--- and being exposed to thousands of teenagers from all over the world every day at work. Without taijiquan and other neidan practices, I'd be a mess.)


I was asked recently why it is that I write about this stuff and do all the things I do. After all, I walk a very narrow path. Traditional religious Daoists have sometimes attacked me very angrily for being a Western "innovator" who they feel "spits on the tradition". At the same time, I often meet Westerners who can barely hide their contempt for me because they think that I am an apologist for "New Age super-naturalism". But the point is that we all suffer greatly from the delusions that our monkey minds create for us. In fact, I don't think that there could be a greater gift that a man could give another than to help them tame the dumb notions that befog their minds.


Zen Buddhism is the "first cousin" of Daoism and there is a story about a Japanese Zen hermit named Ryōkan.
One evening a thief visited Ryōkan's hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. "You have come a long way to visit me," he told the prowler, "and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift." The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. "Poor fellow," he mused, "I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon." (From Wikipedia.)
The point is that Ryōkan had something that was absolutely priceless:  insight into how his mind operated and the ability to unify his consciousness. Ryōkan would have dearly loved to be able to give this insight to everyone, including the thief. Yet the thief not only didn't want it, he didn't even know the value of this gift or that Ryōkan could give it to him. That is the point of Ryōkan wishing he could give the thief the moon. That is the dilemma that anyone who has gained any realisation faces---almost no one knows enough to even want it.  Yet, we have to keep on trying.  That's because once in a while someone actually does want the moon---.

Sculpture of Ryōkan
by Dready at Wiki Commons


Galen Pearl said...

I just spent some time browsing on your wonderful blog. I found it through the "Conveyance Doctor's" blog after he found my blog and commented on it. Love those cyberspace connections!

I learned a lot from the several posts I read. Love the term "mind-fasting." And I see you just published a book. Wishing you the best with that.

You and I share a love of the Dao De Jing. I spent almost three years contemplating the original Chinese so that I could get a sense of it directly. Exquisitely profound. I learned so much from the rhythm, poetry, and elusive meanings that are much more evident in the Chinese than in my many beloved translations.

After several years away from blogging, I started a new blog a year ago to reflect on my study of the text, as well as my practice of martial arts, and whatever else strikes my fancy. My posts on the DDJ chapters are not as in depth as your offerings, so I especially appreciate your fuller exploration of these topics.

Anyway, just wanted to say hello.

Galen Pearl said...

Hi, I just spent some time browsing around your blog. Really wonderful. Your posts are a great balance of information and inspiration. I especially appreciated the post on mind fasting and Trump (I live in Oregon). And your personal story is fascinating. Looking forward to reading more! All the best, Galen Pearl

Bill Hulet said...
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