My mother, a self-confessed first generation hippy, started practicing Reiki in the early 2000s as part of a small community group of like-minded alternative types who had initially met as a Tai Chi group. Drawn together by various ailments that they had decided to address with complementary medicine, the group provided a strong support network for each other. During this time, my mother also started to practice various methods of hands-on and hands-off healing, including ‘distance Reiki’. Although my beliefs are on the secular side of spiritual, I went along with it. She told me that she always imagined me dancing in a patch of golden sunlight.
The photograph above finds me indeed in a beautiful patch of golden sunlight, reflecting on the near three-year anniversary of my mother’s death. The quiet bamboo forest where some branches had recently been felled onto dry yellowed leaves formed a natural carpet is located surprisingly close to a busy road and the university campus where I live and work. By chance, I had stumbled upon a perfect setting to explore a short meditation and yin yoga practice, and to notice the hidden ‘me’ that had been masked for some time by my public role. Silence, as they say, is golden. Whilst others around were frenetically exercising different muscle groups on the abundant free equipment found in all Korean public parks, I was exercising my right to silence. This quick un-staged snapshot captured a ‘real’ moment in time, without make-up or any specific expression. The selfie culture has always grated on me somewhat, as I was brought up on the classics; literature, dance and fine arts, from which we learn cautionary tales about becoming self-obsessed or narcissistic. Narcissus, one of the gods depicted in Greek mythology, is the prime example of one who spends so long staring at his own reflection that he is turned to stone.
Our lives are not meant to be all public spectacle, theater performance or circus act. I gave the photograph the title ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Cherry’, paraphrasing the title of Ang Lee’s film (ref.5) and put it up on social media. I wanted my younger friends to feel ok with, and even empowered by, being seen in an uncontrived manner, compared to the theatrics of the myriad of daily ‘selfies’ that are seen on my newsfeed symbolizing the age of the ‘selfie-stick’. Ironically, my photograph was well-‘liked’.
Like most people these days, my life is ‘busy’ and it’s easy to be lazy about self-practice. I work as an English Teacher in South Korea and my life is more than somewhat cluttered with other people’s needs and emotions. Often opting out of group activities is seen as a negative, especially in a society where individualism has been often stigmatized, and the role of the outsider synonymous with the outcast or lunatic. Being alone and especially introspective of outwardly glum is to be avoided at all costs. An optimist would refer to my enforced collective experiences as ‘full’ and ‘rich’, whereas my inner Winnie the Pooh character of Piglet finds that sometimes there is a little too much stimulation, with potential for imaginary monsters. Benjamin Hoff noted in his 1992 tomes ”The Tao of Pooh” and “The Te of Piglet” (ref.2&3), that there are parallels between Eastern practices from which meditation and yoga stem and the familiar childhood characters of Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne and illustrator E.H.Sheppard’s imaginations (ref.6).
Current political events in various nations have left me wondering about a lot of uncertainties, as I circulate amongst friends whose origins are both from East and West. Perhaps Piglet was right to be cautious in the face of the unknown, and to seek solace in the little things, and reassurance from his more confident friends. Too often it seems that we are being led by the entertainment industry, rather than our own thoughts. We are surrounded by so many painted faces, parties and balloons with messages fill our metaphysical world. It takes time and effort to step away from their illusion, and to exercise our right to silence and solitude in a noisy, upset world.
Whilst we quietly absorb ourselves in self-practice, Harlequins, the archetypal ‘clowns’ will forever steal the spotlight with garish colors, agility, and bawdy slapstick humor. Fashions follow, and yoga culture is often not immune from the influences of novelty, gimmicks and gymnastics to reflect the current zeitgeist.
“Many actors, acrobats, athletes, dancers, musicians and sportsmen also possess superb physiques and have great control over the body, but they lack control over the mind, the intellect and the Self. Hence they are in disharmony with themselves…They often put the body above all else. Though the yogi does not underrate his body, he does not think merely of its perfection but of his senses, mind, intellect and soul.”
Light on Yoga: yoga dīpikā B.K.S. Iyengar, foreword by Yehudi Menuhin (ref.4)
Clowns, however are usually depicted and mythologized as sad inside, with tragedy being at the heart of all comic premise, and, some would argue, all human existence. Yogis following the Buddhist tradition would refer to this as ‘suffering’, in Sanskrit ‘duhkha’ (दुःख), the endless cycle rooted in attachment to the physical world. If we are applauded by others we are validated and ‘liked’, but to regard our worth by the esteem of others is known by the self-reflexive to be vacuous. A yogi is said to be equanimous in both success and failure, as both conditions are illusions by the imagination.
To follow an analogy of the Italian Comedia dell’Arte tradition (ref.7), if Harlequin is the clown icon of the entertainment industry, his alter ego, or perhaps in Freudian (ref.1) terminology, his ‘id’ is Peirrot, the sad, unmasked clown. Most theater traditions play on the themes of societal archetypes, long before Freud formally identified them in his works on psycho-analysis. Pierrot’s unpainted face is often decorated with a single tear to emphasize his struggle and vulnerability as he loses the competition for Columbine, the female clown’s, affections, and subsequently the audience’s. More poignantly, he often falls into episodes of silence. The audience can choose to mock his down-turned mouth and to transfer their own dialogue onto his motionless lips. Instead of acknowledging his moment of contemplation, their gaze turns to Harlequin’s more active and diverting antics.
Self-practice offers us the chance to choose silence, and to glean from it consciously and knowingly, and to choose it before we are cornered into it by external circumstances, such as exhaustion and defeat. Life draws us into its circus, its struggles, its competitions and defeats. There is an alternative, however, when the dramas get too intense, and the monsters a little too realistic in our imaginations to conscientiously object to the endless chatter of internal and external conversations. By making time for a regular self-practice, we won’t let others interpret our silences, but assert them meaningfully. Please exercise your ‘right to silence’, the practice identified by the Sanskrit word ‘mauna’ (Sanskrit: मौनम् or Maunitva मौनित्व). Whether this golden silence is your meditation, or other form of self-practice such as yoga or Tai Chi, these healing practices are our strength and our right.
- Freud, Sigmund. “The Ego and the Id (Das Ich und das Es)” Vienna: Internationaler Psycho-analystischer Verlag, W. W. Norton & Company, 1923.
- Hoff, Benjamin. “The Tao of Pooh” Penguin Books, 1983.
- Hoff, Benjamin. “The Te of Piglet” Penguin Books, 1983.
- Iyengar, B. K. S. “Light on yoga: yoga dīpikā with foreword by Yehudi Menuhin”. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986 (second edition).
- Lee, Ang (dir).”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Series, Sony Pictures Classics, 2000.
- Milne, A.A. & Sheppard, E.H. (illus). “Winnie the Pooh”. London, Methuen Books, 1926.
- Rudlin, John. “Commedia Dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook”. London: Routledge, 1994.