It’s more than ok….It’s hanok.

‘Home’ is an increasingly abstract concept for those of us who are living in a country in which we were not born. An evocative word, which many have attempted to define, a concept most spend their efforts to create and even design, home is where we all go when we need to take shelter from the outside world. Wherever you are, home, as the saying goes, is where the heart(h) is.

The first signs of Spring stir up the nest building instinct in all creatures, with cleaning sprees, refurbishments and embellishments as strong theme of Spring festivals and celebration in cultures across the globe. Jeju Island’s annual “Moving Week” or Shingugan 신구간 took place in 2019 from January 26th to February 2nd. During this auspicious time the local gods take their vacation, including the household gods such as the Kitchen God. This means that mortals can get on with their upheavals and removals without disturbing the gods’ work.

http://www.jejuweekly.com/news/articleView.html?idxno=2908

Most of these respectful home-makers re-settle into modern apartments, prioritising convenience and economics over sustainability or tradition. Lately, however, restoration of original buildings has come into fashion. Korean architects are turning their eye to the past for inspiration. The Korean traditional  house or ‘hanok’ 한옥 brings together the key elements of style, functionality, efficiency, and national customs, which perfectly reflect what it is to be Korean. Hanoks provide the inhabitants with an environment carefully manufactured to help its inhabitants to survive the fluctuating temperatures plus varying humidity levels of the annual four seasons, whilst still presenting an aesthetically pleasing inside and out. Historic hanoks are restored and visited as national treasures and tourist attractions, are often used as film and television or venues for events such as weddings. Most Buddhist temples are modelled on the painted wooden hanok tradition. Pictured here is the iconic silhouette of the sloped Korean temple rooftop:

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New hanoks are being restored, rebuilt, renovated and used as modern homes, guest houses and cafes or restaurants. Here is a really beautiful example of a new-build hanok “Hanok Dong Dawon” 한옥 동다원. It is a teahouse and cafe, with tea fields to the back of the property. The garden seating area at the back of the L-shaped main house is East facing to catch the morning light, whilst the courtyards backs on to Halla Mountain to the South.

 

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Here is a link to Hanok Dong Dawon’s Naver blog in Korean

The residential part of the building is available to rent and is located in the Aewol countryside off the main Aejoro Road (애조로). https://www.airbnb.co.kr/rooms/19061409?guests=1&adults=1

All of these examples of hanok maintain a combination of features that date back to the 14th Century Joseon Dynasty era. These features are in many ways an antithesis of modern high-rise architecture. The hanok takes time, effort, and thought to build. Its materials are well-sourced for their longevity and harmony with the immediate surroundings. Becoming popular in an era when land space used not to be regarded as such a scarcity, breadth of space takes priority over height. The most traditional designs are built slightly raised from ground level, multiple storeys are not generally included, and stairs are kept to a minimum.

One of the most charming features of the hanok is its courtyard. A space shared by the inhabitants that is in the centre of the L, U, or square-shaped collection of buildings, depending on the regional style favoured. Here are two styles of simple, functional Jeju hanok located near Iho Beach on the North coast of the island. These humble abodes are juxtaposed against the modern apartment tower blocks of Shin Jeju, Jeju City seen in the background. The photograph on the left shows a tin-roof typical seaside or ‘fisherman’s’ house. On the right, the property makes use of a vegetable garden to the North and an L-shaped courtyard to the West. The overhanging eaves of the roof provide shelter for firewood and an outdoor workspace with adequate shelter from the wind:

 

 

 

Courtyards can also be used as a safe and functional storage space for necessities such as kimchi (stored in covered ceramic jars outdoors during Winter long before the invention of electric refrigerators):

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The semi-public space nestled within the adjoining walls or buildings can be enjoyed in pleasant weather for socializing, gossip, romance, and, more recently, taking selfies. This is a newly-built hanok building at Gyeongsang National University, Jinju, Gyeongsangnamdo. It is not in daily usage, and is opened up only for special traditional events and ceremonies, such as historical re-enactments. It was well shaded and naturally ventilated on a humid early Summer’s day when this photo was taken:

 

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The architect considers the prospect of the hanok’s estate carefully to maximise the natural provision of shelter and insulation. Ideally, the mountain should be to the back or the property, and river, well/spring, or ocean to the front. Equally, the hank architect has considered the position of the Sun and the effect of sunrise, sunset and daytime light exposure in relation to the house, to make best use of Winter sunlight, whilst providing enough shade in the central courtyard during the blazing Summer months. The roof, originally made of thatch harvested from dried long grasses, should be sloped to provide indoor ventilation and to drain water away from the house during the rainy season. Recent roof designs make use of treated wood, ceramic tiles and corrugated tin. Traditional wax-coated papers line the window frames to maximise insulation, privacy and shade. Finally, ondol (underfloor hot water pipe) heating systems protect against the bitter Winter temperatures (still in use in modern Korean buildings to this day), creating a cosy indoor space in which to rest and recover until Spring.

For more a more detailed analysis of hanok architecture, please visit: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3130/jaabe.11.231

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Running Up That Hill

“And if I only could
I’d make a deal with God
And I’d get him to swap our places
Be running up that road
Be running up that hill
Be running up that building….”

Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God) from Kate Bush’s 1985 LP Hounds of Love

 

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You can’t really go wrong with a mountain on a sunny day. This is one of the Gwanaksan trails in Gwanakgu, South West Seoul. There is a part closer to Seoul National University entrance that has impressive views in return for a fairly easy climb.

On the way down, wooden totems line the path with their expressive carved painted faces.

 

Best Foot Forward….. It’s going to be, like, toe-tally awesome.

It was easy enough to get my toe in the door. Ironically, in the true and original sense of irony, it was getting my toe out of the door that broke it.

I’d never broken a bone before. Firstly, I appreciated how lucky I had been, and secondly, I developed a true appreciation for my feet, which I had never underestimated, but relied on perhaps a little too much. I thought slowing down would be a nice little exercise in patience, and soon realised there is no such thing as a pleasant enforced learning curve.

“Footsteps on the dance floor, remind me, baby of you”

(Womack & Womack, ‘Teardrops’, 1988)

I could at this point wax lyrical about ‘injury being the profoundest teacher’, how I adapted my yoga practice to include more inversions that relied on arm balances instead of standing, how I got into a core strength routine to keep the existential angst at bay, fluctuated between berating myself for my own stupidity, and telling myself that it could have happened to anybody…..However, that is undoubtedly of no particular interest to anyone, and certainly best left as a ‘Dear Diary’ entry.

What I believe is of general interest here, is the metaphors of the body and its actions that imbue our everyday psycho-linguistic structuring and organising of our thoughts, movements and conversations, and, more importantly, subconsciously guide our thought patterns until we either listen to their subtle whisperings, or are suddenly ‘woken up’ by their screaming demands.

I borrow heavily here from the theories of, and highly recommend reading: Yalom, I. D. (1989). Love’s executioner, and other tales of psychotherapy. New York, N.Y: Harper Perennial. Yalom, a practitioner of the biblical adage “physician, heal thyself” (Luke 4:23), in turn leans heavily on the philosophy of Nietzsche, who finds meaning in life through wallowing, sorry, revelling in the liminality between the horror and absurdity of the human condition. Nihilism, I feel, is under-rated, although perhaps the movement suffers from under-playing itself.

Having lived and travelled abroad, I am lucky that my mother tongue (the phrase itself is an interesting idiom), English, has really been the only lingua franca I have needed and, as an ESL teacher, a type of cultural capital that I have exploited. Through living in and among other cultures and battling through some rather painful dictionary and online translation moments in everyday conversations, I understand that the metaphors of the body shape our experience as we use a dominant language to label and explain external events during the mental process of sensing, interpreting and internalising.

Attributed to a variety of folks, from The Buddha to Margaret Thatcher, the oft-quoted phrase “As we think, so we become” could be referenced here. Also, it is difficult to resist a nod to Aronofsky’s 2010 psycho-thriller blockbuster film “Black Swan” which takes this theme to extremes and depicts a visceral (very over-used phrase, but completely appropriate here) experience of the physical effects of psychosis.

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Koreans, for example, don’t have ‘pins and needles’ when they experience that tingling sensation in a limb or extremity as the circulation starts to get cut off, they get ‘mouse feet (or legs)’. So next time you get pins and needles, imagine a mouse crawling inside or outside your foot, and see how that brings about a different concept of that sensation.

When working with more advanced students, a lot of time in the ESL classroom is spent unpacking idioms. I am careful here not to use the term ‘explaining’, since a lot of idioms have roots in an antiquated way of life, reveal a rudimentary knowledge of science, have unsavory or downright cruel histories, and cannot really be ‘explained’ or visualized by modern students who have never known life without a smart phone. Terms like ‘lily livered’ ‘lost his head’, or ‘rule of thumb’ spring to mind as examples of these respectively. As you repeat these phrases to young people, you wonder why they persist in our language, they are at best nonsensical, and, at worst, a source of slight embarrassment that they are still in current everyday use.

To bring myself back to the broken toe which, like many things, has escalated in importance due to being benignly ignored for several months. The good news is, on the physical level, I have had another X-ray and the correct steps are now being taken (haha, do you see what I did there?). However, it’s continued resistance to settling down and going back to normal, has forced me to keep going back to my whining baby toe, and asking it what is wrong on a metaphysical level.

Just like an actual baby, the toe cannot speak, so I have to search back into the events around the injury to look for clues. In English, ‘getting a toe (or a foot) in the door’ is usually seen as a good thing; getting a start in something, moving from ‘knocking on doors’ to ‘getting over the threshold’.

European society places a lot of emphasis on the feet as cultural indicator. We once idolized ballet and ballet dancers due to their exquisite ability to place their feet infallibly in five distinct unnatural positions, we are obsessed with shoes, some of us, and many people are grossed out and unaccustomed to seeing bare feet. We judge people by their footwear, so someone who is ‘down at heel’ has very worn shoes and is looked upon as impoverished. ‘Footfalls’ are counted as a marker of popularity. Contrarily, ‘Dragging your heels’ is a slovenly, lazy way of walking and generally conducting life at an undesirably slow pace. ‘Tip-toeing’ or ‘pussy-footing’ is acting too shyly, not assertively enough for the situation, and if you are in Scotland, you can receive symbolic good fortune from a ‘first footer’ (preferably tall and handsome), the first man to walk into your home on January 1st.

‘Put your feet up, love’

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Very tellingly, we coined the phrase ‘put a foot wrong’, as in ‘she was a good worker, she never put a foot wrong’. She followed the rules, she did what was expected, she ‘toed the line’. However, in my case, I toed the wrong line and got my toe in the wrong door. A door that was not designed to have my little toe crushed under it. Such a wrong step in fact, that I caused myself damage getting out of a tight spot, was so busy that I kept on going, and didn’t even notice until I got home later that day when it was already too late to see a doctor or seek treatment. It wasn’t too bad, it was bearable, it wasn’t killing me, it was just a toe for God’s sake, I have others……all of these ‘excuses’. Excuses not to address a real physical problem appropriately and realistically, to let it just get brushed aside in the hope that it will go away without me having to do anything different.

But you can’t just keep blundering along in the wrong direction, even if you are going very slowly. I’ve been ‘one foot out the door’ since June, and since a new year has begun, I will be attempting to ‘put my best foot forward’ from now on.

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Beautiful, traditional Korean silk-covered shoes, courtesy of In Hanbok Traditional Korean Wedding Service, Jeju City, Jeju Island, South Korea.

 

I’m Very Very Goo-ed

It’s the beginning of a new year, a fresh start, a promise of old ways being reformed and the health and fitness industries welcome in the hogmanay, rubbing their hands with glee. As we blunder, dazed and unsure of the day of the week into 2017, they are ready to affirm our suspicions: yes, you are bloated and broken, and here is how you can spend money to fix yourself.

At the root of the many modern cures for indulgence is a kind of ancient puritanical sense of self-flagellation; purging and purifying should have some element of pain and regret in order to be truly effective. And sure enough, there are all manner of products and treatments to appeal to our sense of plummeting self-esteem. Deep down, we’re all hoping that the New Year could be some kind of rebirth, a snake skin-shedding or other epiphany, but in reality we are just too frazzled or sozzled to achieve it.

You may sense a hint of cynicism in my tone here, and, agreed, I am past the point in life of caring what advertisers think I should want to buy or do in my free time. It’s important to remember that what’s ‘trending’ is indeed a trend. Fashions and fads come and go, and historically society has not been entirely wise about the use of innovative tonics and beauty tips, from applying arsenic as face whitener, irradiating and electrocuting ourselves as a recreational pursuit, purportedly adding cocaine to coca-cola (ref. 1), to the still pervasive idiotic pastime that is smoking nicotine (now re-branded, equally vacuously, as ‘vaping’). The UK government’s health professionals took the bold step this year to inform us that there is no such thing as a ‘healthy’ volume of alcohol (ref. 2).

Throughout my life, I have not been a stranger to all manner of cosmetics and goo. I have spent time researching goos, effort applying them, and an unjustifiable amount of money supporting an industry that is in essence based on the theory of ‘negging’, i.e. drawing attention to and exaggerating real or imaginary flaws in order to undermine self esteem, induce paranoia, and manipulate behaviour (ref.3). However, no amount or brand of goo will fix you; you will need to apply some internal adhesive to address any broken bits on the inside.

Despite all this, I’m not immune to trying something new if everyone’s doing it and especially if I can’t see any obvious harm in it. I was previously an avid practitioner of hot yoga, borderline addict, until my Korean yoga instructor simply stated to me one day “To practice hot yoga, wait until Summer and practice yoga with the window open”.

anandaHere is my Korean guru-ji Ananda 서관협 in his natural habitat at the side room of his yoga studio in Shin Jeju, surrounded by tea and wisdom (ref.4).

I recently read about the upsurge of Japanese wrapping themselves in cloth for reported therapeutic purposes (ref. 5). The news story reminded me of my experiences in Korea of seeing people burying themselves in sand at the beach so that minerals could allegedly seep through their skin into their systems, and other odd practices such as being scrubbed down with soap to within an inch of your life at the sauna, covered in suction cups to relieve muscle pains, having fish nibbling at the skin on your feet, and some very brutal deep tissue massages.

So here is a photo story about the time I had myself buried in compost for fun a few years ago, and paid for the privilege. I went with friends and would recommend for what it is, a very enjoyable low-risk gimmick, similar to adding products to a hot bath or going to the sauna. This is a place in Jeju City, Jeju Island, South Korea, where you can still arrange to have a treatment for a reasonable price of 30,000 won (around 35 USD), or so (ref.6).

It is no secret that Koreans are proud proponents of their fermented products. Kimchi is the one edible global export that almost everyone can name, and dwenjang, fermented soy bean paste, is the dish most frequently smuggled across borders to Korean expats by their friends and families.

Pictured here are kimchi jars in the snow on a neighbour’s rooftop.

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After the annual Thanksgiving or Harvest Festival 추석 in September or October, all types of root vegetables are traditionally spiced and prepared, and then kept fresh outdoors over Winter. Many kimchi jars seen today are more decorative than active, but they are still a typical sight on rooftops and in gardens.

Spicy red peppers are one of the key ingredients of kimchi, giving it it’s hot character and all-important vitamin C content. They are picked and laid out to dry during the hot Summer months in preparation for the annual kimchi-making.

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If fermented foods do you good on the inside, why not take things a step further, and become fermented on the outside? Get past the initial smell, and surely an external application will enhance the benefits.

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The human compost burial, or, using the more official translation, ‘enzyme bath’ itself only takes 15-20 minutes and is sandwiched by a whole ceremony of showering, putting on cotton pyjamas, being shown the different natural fermenting products in the side room, and lastly lying in a cooling steam room whilst drinking a special enzyme drink.

If you can overcome any phobias of being buried alive, it’s a bizarre and oddly cathartic sensation.

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Similar to the way the Japanese cloth-wrapping experience has been described, the ‘enzyme bath’ might have the comforting effect of tightly enclosing a fretful child in a warming, constraining embrace. ‘Swaddling’ is a practice still used on babies for this effect, although I am told that I wasn’t a fan and took great pains to let everyone know that I was displeased with being bound up and imprisoned in fabric. Here, the compost burial was brief and novel enough for me to be continually distracted by new sensations to pass the time, and although I didn’t actually feel comfortable at any point (the internal temperature of the soil bed is up to 40 degrees C), my continual amusement at the bizarre drama of it all meant that the entertainment factor more than compensated for any physical discomfort.

My verdict:

Harmless fun: good for laughs, improved circulation to the skin, and photo ops. Nice for a warming and sociable experience, any weight loss would be water lost through sweat. Drink water beforehand and don’t forget to take a camera.

References:

  1. http://www.livescience.com/41975-does-coca-cola-contain-cocaine.html

2. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-alcohol-guidelines-show-increased-risk-of-cancer

3. http://www.newstatesman.com/blogs/voices/2012/05/negging-latest-dating-trend

4. http://cafe.daum.net/anandeyoga

5. http://kotaku.com/in-japan-theres-a-freaky-looking-way-to-relax-1790311754

6. 제주도 제주시 삼도2동 1241-14(동인스파월드 건물 내 5층)

http://blog.daum.net/_blog/BlogTypeView.do?blogid=0ZgQp&articleno=10&_bloghome_menu=recenttext

Going Wild in the Kitchen

Recently, I dreamt that people were holding an anti-vegetarian protest outside my house. They had chants and banners and had made fake sashimi from carrots and beetroot and put them on skewers to be held up as an example. Writing this down now and reading it back, it becomes clear how ridiculous this is as an image. In my view, all forms of censorship and evangelism are to be met with a certain amount of skepticism, in the same manner as this strange, illusive vision which was conjured by my imagination.

I am vegetarian, and have been so for over twenty years, and I reckon it suits me pretty well. If it didn’t work out somehow, I would have abandoned it as another lifestyle experiment that wasn’t meant to be, just like that time when I had short hair.

I am not vegan, however, a label people often erroneously attach to me. Possibly because people are unclear about the difference between vegetarianism and veganism, or maybe they just make assumptions based on other aspects of my character. I tried veganism for two years or so whilst I was living in London from around 2003 to 2005, and to be quite honest I intentionally loosened the reins on myself for a variety of reasons; to save time and effort shopping, social pressure, and the realization that I had been doing it (mostly) all wrong by eating honey and figs, drinking red wine and continuing to use regular cosmetics (to name but a few of my errors). In a word: convenience, the scourge of modernity, drove me out of my culinary comfort zone. In an ideal world, I would like to be able to follow my ethical choices without hesitation, but life forces us to do a daily dance between our sense of idealism and our impending reality.

Vegetarianism suits me because it represents a life of moderation in keeping with the guidelines of a yogic lifestyle following the Hindu tradition. The Five Yamas and Niyamas are a list of ethical/spiritual ‘dos and don’ts’, and asteya (Sanskrit: अस्तेय) is the fourth Yama of Patanjali’s Five Yamas of the Yoga Sutras (ref.1). It is roughly translated as the rule of ‘not stealing’. Asteya is a niyama or a ‘don’t’, similar to the Bible’s eighth commandment, also found in the Jewish Torah, and usually written as “thou shalt not seal”.

Asteya isn’t necessarily restricted to the stealing of material possessions, but refers more widely to other types of tangible and intangible resources. There are strong parallels here with the five moral precepts of Buddhism (ref.2), which express ‘non-stealing’ as the ‘abstinence from taking of that which is not freely given’. Here, there is a fluidity in the concept which calls into question: What can be not freely given? Well, pretty much anything, especially as we venture into the territory of the conceptual; time, love, trust, commitment, praise, goodwill, etc. It is the recognition of others’ capacity for either reticence or generosity that leads to the elusive ‘freedom of the heart’.

Coming back to asteya, we can delve more specifically into one of its branches, aparigraha (Sanskrit: अपरिग्रहा):

Aparigraha is the concept of non-possessiveness, non-greed and non-attachment. It …teaches that one should take only what one needs or serves and let go of the unnecessary. The word comes from the Sanskrit a, a prefix meaning “non”; pari, meaning “on all sides”; and graha, meaning “to take,” “to grab” or “to seize.” Therefore, aparigraha translates as “not taking more than one needs.””

(ref.3)

Here, we can apply a start to understand the sutra’s ethical applications to food and diet, as an individual’s needs will vary and fluctuate according to a person’s life stage (age and development) and their present context. To my mind, asking an animal to sacrifice its life for me when I have plenty of other sources of nutrition available is a form of greediness, or stealing. However, it is completely unclear to me, as an urban dweller, whether chickens agree to part with their eggs, cows with their milk, or bees with their honey to feed me. I just hope that if they are not, since they are still (hopefully) alive, they can forgive me. It is very difficult in my current communal living environment to eliminate these products, or even really know their inclusion and/or provenance. To go vegan just now would be a form of extremism against my social context, plus there are other factors to be considered such as food waste and food miles, energy consumption and packaging, and in this case, school cafeteria meals win (please scroll down to the end of this post for photos).

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Please enjoy the examples pictured above of simple dishes I have prepared for their visual appeal. They were put together conscientiously without fuss or undue finesse, with the intention of incorporating the principles of ‘aparigraha’ and garnished with a general taste of frugality.

  1. Turmeric and cinnamon-spiced jack-o-lantern pancake (homemade).
  2. Green juice, wholemeal bread, hummus and avocado with tzatziki (store bought).
  3. Sweetcorn soup (from dried powder) with re-hydrated seaweed, fresh chili peppers and rice flour dumplings (store bought).
  4. Diced tofu with chili pepper leaves (prepared fresh from the vine with soy oil, black pepper and dried chili pepper powder).
  5. Hand-drip cinnamon latte (home-prepared).
  6. Red peppers stir-fried in soy oil with black pepper on sliced avocado.
  7. Diced tofu with aubergine (eggplant), fried in soy oil with turmeric.
  8. Courgette (zucchinni) and scrambled egg with sesame seeds (home cooked).
  9. Mushrooms with black pepper and rosemary on wheat noodles with maté tea and a freshly picked organic fig (all home-prepared).
  10. Crispy tofu with spinach and white sesame seeds.
  11. Non-vegan tomato soup (store bought) with freshly chopped baby turnip and baby spinach leaves.

Like most home cooks these days, I try to avoid ‘chemicals’ in the kitchen (a nonsense, since we are all made of chemical components; I prefer to use the pretentious term ‘non-foods’). Obviously, artificial colours and hydrogenated fats, substances that the body can’t break down are to be treated as potential poisons. To quote a current meme ‘if you don’t recognize something on the label, your body can’t either’ is to over-simplify and defy logic. Before I came to Korea over seven years ago, I didn’t know that 물 meant water, and therefore didn’t know cognitively what it was when I read the bottle label, but my body was certainly thriving on it. Likewise, I have discovered a whole range of cooking ingredients from the traditional Korean food store or herbal medicine cabinet that I had never eaten before* (and didn’t know the name for in any language) because they don’t grow or are not commercially available in Europe, yet are perfectly nutritious and mostly ‘chemical-free’, such as acorn jelly, persimmons, quince, schizandra berries, lotus root, ginseng, jujube, fermented soy bean pastes, and all varieties of kimchi.

In the last month or so, the university student cafeteria started a weekly ‘fruit day’, introducing a kind of stealth meatless day. So here are the meals throughout an atypical day.

Breakfast:

Pumpkin and peanut rice porridge with dried seaweed and carrots and courgette.

Lunch:

Egg fried tofu with dried seaweed. Fruit platter.

Dinner:

Sweet chili batter tofu and soft ricecakes, spicy green salad and fruit juice.

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Traditional temple food:

1. Buddha’s birthday meal from Yakchunsa Temple, Jungmun, Jeju Island (bibimbap mixed vegetables without rice and rice cake).

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2. Bibimbap meal, sujaebee (rice pasta in white sesame and seaweed soup), and side dishes from Bap-E-Bo-Yak (Let Food Be Medicine), New Jeju City, Jeju Island.

References: 

  1. Satchidananda, Sri Swami. (translation and commentary) “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” Integral Yoga Publications, 2012.
  1. The 5 moral precepts of Buddhism as outlined by the Buddha. Those undertaking the precepts are forbidden from:
    1. harming living things.
    2. taking what is not given.
    3. sexual misconduct.
    4. lying or gossip.
    5. taking intoxicating substances eg drugs or drink.
  1. https://www.yogapedia.com/definition/5076/aparigraha

Self-practice in a selfie-centered world

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.

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The photograph above finds me indeed in a beautiful patch of golden sunlight, reflecting on the near 3-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. Our lives are not meant to be all a public spectacle, a 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.”

from: “Light on Yoga: yoga dīpikā”(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’, 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 downturned 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 ‘mouna’. 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.

References:

1. Freud, Sigmund. “The Ego and the Id (Das Ich und das Es). Vienna: Internationaler Psycho-analystischer Verlag, W. W. Norton & Company, 1923.

2. Hoff, Benjamin. “The Tao of Pooh” Penguin Books, 1983.

3. Hoff, Benjamin. “The Te of Piglet” Penguin Books, 1983.

4. Iyengar, B. K. S. “Light on yoga:  yoga dīpikā with foreword by Yehudi Menuhin”. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1986 (second edition).

5. Lee, Ang (dir).”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Series, Sony Pictures Classics, 2000.

6. Milne, A.A. & Sheppard, E.H. (illus). “Winnie the Pooh”. London, Methuen Books, 1926.

7. Rudlin, John. “Commedia Dell’Arte: An Actor’s Handbook”. London: Routledge, 1994.