March 23, 2008

Scribbler Does Yang Cheng Fu

OK Folks. I promised it. So here it is: me doing the first third of the Yang tai chi set. The initiated will be able to see the weaknesses and mistakes (which I myself can see), but my form has "stabilized" into the state it will be in for a while. This is what I do every morning (three times) after I warm up with twenty minutes of Chi Kung exercises.

The outfit I'm wearing is my Easter Sunday outfit. I had my son take this video while we were there for family dinner. There's a strong tradition among some Chinese wu shu masters that they never wear uniforms, and only train in everyday clothes. I've worn theses clothes to the office, so that's fairly everyday.

March 12, 2008

Developing a relationship to fairy tales - closing remarks (part 2)

(To interpret, or not to interpret?)

Why is it important that these stories are a mixed bag, and don't neatly fit the categories scholarship has created for them? Because seen in this way, one can appreciate that all of the approaches I've mentioned so far in this essay, as well as many others I haven't mentioned, are legitimate in their own rite.

But precisely because there are many different kinds of narratives lumped together under the rubric of "fairy tales," one has to be careful which methods one applies to which fairy tales.

Again, there's an apt comparison to dreams and dreamwork. When working with a dream, it is essential that the dreamer feels deeply within his intuition to determine what kind of dream is in question (I credit Robert Moss and his book Conscious Dreaming for making this clear to me).

Let's say that you dream your uncle Charlie comes to you and tells you that your boss has a sharp sword in his office and he plans to cut off your head the next time you go there. In order to begin working with this dream, the dreamer has to decide whether it is a) transpersonal, b) prescient, or c) psychological (or another type of dream, but this covers the big categories). The dreamer has to ask himself: do I really feel that uncle Charlie came to me? Or does the image of Charlie represent something? If he feels it really was Charlie (i.e. a transpersonal dream), then it would be foolish to try interpreting Charlie as a symbol. One would miss the entire point! If one feels Charlie is a symbol, or represents a principle or "archetype" (i.e. it's a psychological dream) then one would apply other tools. The dreamer would also have to ask himself "do I feel this dream is speaking of the future?" If yes (i.e. it's a prescient dream), then the manner of treating this dream would, again, be different.

Using the wrong tools on a given dream yields dubious results. The same applies to fairy tales, especially considering the types of fairy tales that Rudolf Steiner and Werner Zurfluh are talking about. If the narrative speaks of a hero who must cross a threshold into another world, and the terms of the story indicate that what follows is the hero's psychic experience, it does very little good to get out all the tools of literary analysis and try to interpret this passage or the subsequent passage (dealing with the hero's adventure beyond the threshold) with post-modern, post-colonial, feminist, queer, hermeneutic, Jungian, Freudian, structuralist or any other type of criticism. It just misses the point.

And another parallel between dreamwork and "fairy tale work": It's very important that you base your own understanding of a fairy tale on your own experience. There is great danger in abdicating to so-called experts one's own right to decide the significance and meaning of aesthetic artifacts. Just because someone has degrees from respected institutions doesn't automatically give them insight into matters as deep as the ancient stories told by our race, nor into the meaning of creative inspirations from sources deep within our beings. The modern world regards the word inspiration, which means "to breathe in the spirit", as a quaint, colorful, but ultimately antiquated metaphor. Creativity is believed to arise in the physical brain. The average educated person believes that all the meanings of artistic creations can be found by means of various intellectual, analytical processes. And this is patently untrue. There are some things the objective mind cannot penetrate. Let's look again at that remark Rudolf Steiner made about symbols:

"Explanation and interpretation of symbols is really nonsense; so too is all theorising about symbols. The true attitude to symbols is to make them and actually experience them. It is the same as with fables and legends and fairy tales. — These should never be received merely abstractly, one must identify oneself with them. There is always something in man whereby he can enter into all the figures of the fairy tale, whereby he can make himself one with the fairy tale. And so it is with these true symbols of olden times, which come originally from spiritual knowledge..."

Many people are confused when you tell them that you should not focus your efforts on interpreting fairy tales, just as they have troubles understanding how you deal with dreams without immediately jumping to the interpretation. That's what the intellectual culture we've been brought up in tells us to do. Everyone has seen films in which there is someone lying on a couch and telling their dream to a shrink, and the shrink tells that person what the dream means, right? Your English teacher in high school (or English professor in college) gives you a poem or a story, and you're supposed to analyse it and interpret it, right? So, naturally, when you get something as highly symbolic as a fairy tale, which anyone with a couple of live nerve endings and a remnant of the natural in-born sense of awe knows is just pregnant with significance and meaning, what do you think you're supposed to do with it? Interpret it, of course! Wrong.

What can you do instead of interpret? If you have graphic skills, you can take a page out of the Waldorf school book and draw or paint the motifs of a fairy tale. You can act them out with friends and family playing different roles (OK, I admit I've never tried this with fairy tales. But I have tried acting out dreams with friends. Powerful stuff!) You could simply review the dream in your mind and then journal about the episodes in your life it reminds you of. You can use a tale, a part of a tale, or even just an image in the tale as the subject of a meditation. The possibilities are up to your own creativity. But the most important thing is to read them repeatedly. If you have children the right age to tell fairy tales, you are blessed. You don't have to contrive a reason for reading them, nor to justify the time you spend reading them. And there is also something special about reading them out loud. You get to experience the tales as a fringe benefit of doing service for your children. And never doubt for a moment: reading fairy tales to your children is a great service.

One last remark. I apologize to anyone who takes umbrage at my sometime somewhat dismissive attitude to the discipline of psychology. As the old joke goes: some of my best friends as psycholgists (I just wouldn't want my daughter to marry one!). The reason for this is that, despite an increasing number of enlightened individuals among their ranks, there is still a frightening number of them who fail to be human when examining the human mind, and who feel it is their duty to destroy and discredit anything that supports a viewpoint based on the divine nature of man's essence (the soul), mistakenly believing they are fighting superstition and ignorance, when indeed they are only showing their intolerance and ignorance of things beyond the ken of their particular sub specialty.

The blinders that give many psychologists tunnel vision is a combination of materialism and the limits imposed on them by the scientific method. Materialism is a state of mind that refuses to acknowledge anything beyond the physical senses (or the measurement instruments that represent an extension of our senses). Unfortunately, dealing with the products of the subconscious and the imagination does not always yield easily repeatable results. Instinct, emotion and intuition are equally as important as reason and logic. And although many psychologists would like to stake out the territory of fairy tales and dreams as their own, in which non-shrink dilettantes dabble at their peril, they forget that dealing with these worlds is much more an art than a science. And these realms are everyone's birhtright.

March 4, 2008

Of heptads, rebirth, solar energy, tai chi and everything

It's a special day today. I'm buzzing with enthusiasm. Now lots of people especially in our youth-oriented culture would say I'm completely nuts about being happy it's my 49th birthday today. But I am. I've been looking forward to this day for weeks.

It all has to do with cycles of seven. Rosicrucian teachings say that human life unfolds in cycles of seven. First of all, there are seven days in the week. Then the years can be divided into seven periods of 52 days each, and then there are cycles in our lives consisting of seven years each. Anthroposophists and Waldorf teachers and parents will be familiar with the latter. Well... I have now finished the last year of a seventh cycle of seven. Something very "complete" about that. And what makes this year, and especially this day, so special?

Look at the star illustrating this posting. That star can be found in the Occult Philosophy of the Renaissance mystic/philosopher/magician Cornelius Agrippa, along with explanations of how to use it to calculate the planetary influences of a given day and hour. Every week starts with the day of the sun (Sunday), followed by the day of the moon (Monday) and so forth, following the lines of the star. The first hour of Sunday is the hour of the sun, followed by the hour of venus, following the points of the star clockwise. There are 24 cycles of seven hours per week, bringing you back to the hour of the sun in the first hour of the week. So, obviously the first year of each cycle is a solar year, and the first cycle of seven years is the solar cycle. So... I have gone through seven cycles, meaning this new cycle of seven is a solar cycle. This is the first year of that cycle, so this is the solar year, And this is the first 52 days of that year, so this the solar section of that year. And it's the very first day!

I am reborn today!!!

The wind is in my sails! And I know I had better take advantage of this, and use all this energy wisely, because times of such positive momentum are precious. Honestly. I feel an electric buzz all through my body and mind.

It was thinking a few days ago that I needed to do something special to mark this occasion, when I got a serious brain wave. And here's what occurred to me.

As my loyal readers know, I started relearning the Yang tai chi form about five weeks ago. I say "relearning" since I learned a short version of the Yang form in an Experimental College class at UC Davis, back when I lived in northern California. First of all, that was twenty years ago, and I didn't really remember much of it anymore. And I don't recall – if I ever knew – what particular style of Yang tai chi my teacher taught, but it wasn't as rigorous, nuanced, or detailed as the form taught on the videos of Erle Montaigue. Essentially, I had to learn it over from scratch.

Well, two days ago it occurred to me that I was only two moves away from finishing the first third of the Yang Cheng set, which is considered to be a short set in an of itself. I realized that if I busted my butt and learned the last two moves, I could do the whole set. That represents an accomplishment to me. Five weeks of daily work to not only regain something I could do in my late twenties, but to even learn it at a higher level than I could do it back then.

For the first time, this morning, the first day of the first 52-day cycle of this first year of the second solar seven-year cycle of my life (hope you could follow that), I performed my new Yang Cheng Fu tai chi set. It was still dark outside, and my family was still asleep, but I felt vibrant. What a wonderful birthday present to myself!

In a few weeks, once I've ironed some of the nastier wrinkles out of the form, I'll have my son make a video of me doing the routine, and I'll upload it to the blog.
I'll have a big party next year to celebrate my 50th, but that'll be for everyone else. This year's the important milestone to me.

March 3, 2008

Developing a relationship to fairy tales - closing remarks

(Some observations about the arbitrariness of genre)

Although it's obvious that I think certain modes of dealing with fairy tales completely miss the boat at times, upon reflection, I can't truly assert that those approaches are either without value, or that they have not contributed something important to my understanding of fairy tales or to the understanding of fairy tales in general.To begin with, let's posit that there's something akin to dreamwork that applies to fairy tales; let's call it "fairy tale work." One of the central tenets of dreamwork is that one shouldn't rush jump straight to interpretation. One needs to absorb the tale, play with the tale, live the tale. Only when one has finally experienced the tale on several different levels should one venture to say what it "means." One thing that has to be kept in mind when talking about fairy tales (and when talking about all literature for that matter) is that all categorization of literature into genre and sub genres is arbitrary. To get a sense of just how arbitrary, indulge me in considering the following potted history of literature.

Story telling began around the campfire 150,000 years ago. After the tribe had sated itself on whatever beast they had roasted that night, Ogg, Igg and Oog would perform a dramatic re-enactment of catching a particularly worthy antelope: the world's first narrative. The story would have everything. There would be the foreshadowing of the place and time they found the magical creature through omens along the trail. There would be the enchanted moment when they beheld the beautiful animal, and it looked back at them, and consciousness beheld consciousness. There would be the tests of strength, endurance and courage the hunters underwent, as they chased the wounded prey across the landscape and almost got hopelessly lost (or they actually did get lost but magical beings and powers aided them in returning to the tribe).But was that the only kind of tale told around the fire? Well, no.

In succeeding generations Org, appointed by the elders to remember everything that happens to the tribe, as well as all the stories he was told by elders before they croak of, would give recitals of certain stories of particular importance to the tribe, including Ogg's famous story of stalking the enchanted antelope. Org's stories tended to be what we would call history, or legend nowadays.

Big Mama, Ogg's main woman (monogamy hadn't quite caught on just yet), would sometimes be called on to tell about the visits she got during the night from the Sky Mother, whose tits are the stars and whose womb is the waxing and waning moon. Sky mother would tell her which plants to use to cure various illnesses tribe members suffered from. Sky mother tended to talk in riddles, so the tribe would have to play around with Big Mama's dreams to figure out which plant Sky Mother meant and how they were supposed to prepare it. Very often the solution was a horrible pun that made the whole tribe groan and then giggle. Sky Mother has a strange sense of humor.

Then again, there were the tales told by Jackal, the tribe's shaman. These tales were always fantastic, and involve travelling to other worlds; some of them are like the world the tribe knew, and some were very different than their world, inhabited by gods, people and beings unlike anything they knew.In his tales there were heroes who leave their tribes to find women and treasures they have seen in their dreams. To triumph in his quest, the hero (or heroine) must bravely fight battles with creatures unlike any beasts the tribe knew from it's world, and the hero must perform tasks requiring great skill and cunning.Once Jackal told about visiting a world of people with white skin who live in square boxes and travel inside things that look like shiny turtles with clear ice on the sides they can see through. There were so many things in this story that no one could understand, like the giant seed pods these people hold to their ears to talk to other people who are far away. Jackal said he didn't understand this world either, but he went there and watched how people do things if he needed ideas for how to make better tools. He said he couldn't go there very often because it drained his spirit; although the people in this world are god-like, it was clear to him that most of them are lonely, and afraid of each other.

Oops. Got carried away there. But my point is this: although it's the shaman's tales that would most easily be classified as fairy tales, the historian's tales as "legend", Big Mama's tales as some sort of "religious" text, and the hunter's tales as something else, all of them would cross lines into one another. The hunter's tales have elements of the religious tales, the historian might relate an important ancestor's encounter with with a supernatural being, or his voyage to another world, which are more fairy tale-like.

The same goes for the collections of folk tales created in the 19th century. When some philologist doing field work found a peasant who was willing to offer up some of the yarns common people told each other around the hearth (a modernized form of the campfire, mind you!), there was no telling what she/he might tell the scholar. It might be a ghost story. It might be a local myth. It might be a legend connected to a local landmark. It might be a fable. And many times it was some mixture of these "genres." Many times it's not exactly clear what category a narrative fits into, but it has to be put into some pigeonhole or other.

And the picture is further muddled by the fact that various collectors attempted to edit and rewrite some tales. It is evident when reading some collections that editors made attempts to "prettify" some tales, and to make the language, plotting and other elements more consistent with the standards of the current literary (read: high culture) texts of the time.

(Next: to interpret or not to interpret)