Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A Peaceful Heart

The martial art known as aido does not involve an opponent. It is practiced by a single individual, and focuses on the correct method of drawing one’s sword, making the stroke, and returning the sword to its scabbard. All movement in aido is an expression of economy, poise and balance – of not expending unnecessary energy to achieve one’s objective.

The art of aido grew out of situations in which an unarmoured samurai wearing everyday clothing might find himself in a situation of having to rapidly improvise a defensive action – even while sitting having a meal while his sword lay beside him in its scabbard. Using the techniques of aido the sword could be drawn in a counteraction within one second of time – or left in its scabbard to block defensively when even that second of time is not enough. This explains why aido also can be performed when starting from a seated position on the floor.

Watching an accomplished proponent of aido can be remarkable enough, with all movements seeming as fluid as water, as effortless as breathing. As with other martial arts, neither age nor gender need have any bearing on levels of skill, with the practitioner using only exactly as much energy as is required for the actions. It might seem as if such an accomplished level of aido, where all actions express absolute fluidity, is the ultimate goal of this art. But there is another, perhaps more mystical, level beyond even this.

The ultimate expression of aido is not to fight, but not even to need to draw one’s sword in the first place. This ultimate goal comes only with the poise of the supreme warrior. For such an individual projects such an aura of calm, such equanimity, that any potential threats or aggression will be stilled in this individual’s presence. A potentially overheated situation is diffused.
All will be at peace, for a peaceful heart creates its own reality.

When the sword is at rest
and the wind stills to silence
the song of the birds
will again be heard.  


Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Cosmic Dance

When we gaze into the starry night what we see is an echo of a distant time. Science tells us that this echo is a remnant, a far reminder from an ancient past, of the beginning of everything. The language of science calls this distant event the Big Bang. The term is descriptive enough, but hardly evocative of the sheer, overwhelming majesty of the event. If we really wish to taste the magic we need to turn to myth. In the beginning…

In the beginning there was a dark, seething, heaving void: an ocean of chaos, full of potential. This dark ocean filled all of space, and all things that were to come drifted in its depths, as yet unrealised and unborn. There were no stars as there are now, for even light had not yet been created. There was only the idea of a light yet to come. But there was life, even before life existed, for just the thought of life is also a form of life, for thought is the potential form of something which exists before that thing is created. This dark ocean was in motion, writhing with the momentous event to come. In its depths a creative seed was growing, growing: the cosmic egg out of which the universe would be born.

With the breaking open of the cosmic egg light and life welled forth, unimaginable in its intensity, in its raw power. All of space vibrated with a new knowing: a knowing that was an awareness of its own existence. This Awareness could create its own form, and the form which it created was a new darkness: a darkness that was other than the darkness which had gone before. This darkness was a wise darkness, a darkness which was aware that darkness is a gift, a necessary part of a light to come: something which light needed to define itself by. This darkness was a new chaos, for without chaos it knew that there could be no cosmos, no dance of magic to bring forth new awareness. This new creative chaos was called Sophia.

How things began fascinates us: we find this story of the birth of the universe in many cultures. To the Ancient Egyptians this primal ocean was known as Nun. The Babylonians knew her as Tiamat – and it was a ‘her’, because to the ancients this ocean was female, for the dark ocean was the cosmic womb out of which all was born. It was full of potential, because it already contained everything that would be created in potential form: the templates for everything that would flow forth from its depths. So while this ocean was (to use the Biblical phrase) ‘without form’, it was a void, yes, but not a ‘void’ in the sense of being empty. In Norse mythology this void is known as Ginnungagap, whose meaning, when translated, brings us close to what is truly being expressed: a magical space, full of creative power.

The power and magic of myth lies in more than its language and vivid imagery. It also lies in the fact that a myth goes on being true. The birth of our universe is also the birth of each individual soul, and our own trials and experiences are reflected in those experienced by Sophia, with light and darkness, chaos and cosmos, weaving their eternal dance through all of time. 

‘So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.’
~ T.S. Eliot, from ‘Four Quartets’.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Paradoxes of Love

The storming of love is what is sweetest within her,
Her deepest abyss is her most beautiful form,
To lose our way in her is to arrive,
To hunger for her is to feed and taste,
Her despairing is sureness of faith,
Her worst wounding is to become whole again,
To waste away for her is to endure,
Her hiding is to find her at all times,
To be tormented for her is to be in good health,
In her concealment she is revealed,
What she withholds, she gives,
Her finest speech is without words,
Her imprisonment is freedom,
Her most painful blow is her sweetest consolation,
Her giving is her taking away,
Her going away is her coming near,
Her deepest silence is her highest song,
Her greatest wrath is her warmest thanks,
Her greatest threatening is remaining true,
Her sadness is the healing of all sorrow.

These beautiful lines about love by the 13th-century mystic Hadewijch of Brabant seem full of paradoxes. Those paradoxes challenge our sense of reason. How can we arrive if we have lost our way? How can something be revealed if it is also concealed? How can something which is given also be taken away? These statements seem to make no sense. Here are some more lines:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
You who tell the truth about me, lie about me,
and you who have lied about me, tell the truth about me.
But whenever you hide yourselves, I myself will appear.
For whenever you appear, I myself will hide from you.
I am the substance and the one who has no substance.
On the day when I am close to you, you are far away from me,
and on the day when I am far away from you, I am close to you.

These lines seem to voice the same contradictory paradoxes as those of Hadewijch. How can someone who is barren bear many children? How can one of substance have no substance? How can one who is far away also be so close? These two mystic voices seem to be so similar – and yet the second voice predates the first by several centuries, and was not discovered until centuries after the first. The second voice is that of an unknown writer speaking as Sophia, from the text known as ‘Thunder, Perfect Mind’, the Gnostic scripture discovered last century. Clearly there is no way that either writer could have known of the other’s existence, and yet the ideas which they express are wholly sympathetic with each other.

What we seem to encounter in these texts is a common experience: a language of mysticism. We feel that, had she been able to read it, Hadewijch would readily have recognised the experiences described in the older text. But both texts have more in common than apparent paradoxes. Both seem to offer a reassurance, an unstated advice to let go. Not just in the sense of letting go to trust in events, but an urging to let go of forms, of preconceptions, even of a familiar logic. Perhaps this is the clue, the way in to a greater understanding of what this mystic language suggests: that these greater truths are beyond language, beyond the world of forms, of logic, of preconceptions.

Perhaps the marvel in these lines, in both these voices, is their sense of consolation. Both writers convey a sense that ‘all will be well’, in whatever circumstances we might find ourselves. For as we know from our own life’s experience, logic is not always present. Sometimes things just happen, and we are left gasping for breath and wondering why. But in the visionary worlds of Hadewijch and the remarkable unknown writer who is the voice of Sophia, consolation is in the letting go of even trying to understand, of even trying to seek for rational ‘answers’. Consolation comes with an acceptance of paradox, and when we open ourselves to a loving spirit that simple acceptance can be enough.

Painting by Bernardino Luini

If you like to read more about Hadewijch, you are welcome to read my post The Eyesight of the Soul.