Teaching last year on the Falmouth MA Online Illustration course, and this year on the Found and Ground course at Dartington, then with Dark Mountain at Schumacher College, I often returned students to the importance of an embodied, physical practice, no matter if the mind says, ‘Yes, I get the theory already’.
There is a line in a quatrain by Rumi often rendered as, ‘There are a thousand ways to pray’. But it literally reads, ‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground’.
How much of life goes missing when we speak only of disembodied ideas? Replaying the words of a prayer as a voice in our heads is not the same as lowering our bodies to the earth and placing our mouths softly against it. Feeling glad that Scottish country dancing is still popular is not the same as regularly hurtling through ‘Strip the Willow’ with kids and elders.
Below I have expanded upon a letter I wrote to one of the students who wished to get to the heart of their practice and to another person who wondered, if we have been subject at home or in the wider culture to such severe deception that we cannot trust our inner knowing, what can we do? (I have changed their names to one: Mariam, so as not to infringe their privacy.)
Dear Mariam, I realise you are probably writing to me about art. But as your question is a good one, and sincere, then I owe you a good and sincere answer,
A GUT or Grand Unified Theory is a term from particle physics relating to the quest for one theory that would be able to unite and explain the Strong Force, the Weak Force (including electromagnetism) and Gravity. Currently one needs different theories and maths for these things. As a metaphor, GUTs are how I term an overarching theory that combines seemingly different things in vastly diverging areas of thought and life. As an example of this, Taoism seems to fit very well. But Taoism is in reality an embodied path, and not just ideas communicable in words. Indeed, most of Tao is self-contradictory and unsayable, hence 'The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao' being the first line of the Tao Te Ching. (Which is still one of the best jokes in literature.) I like Thomas Cleary's translation of the second line very much: 'Names can be assigned, but not permanent labels'.
Personally, outside the context of physics, I am a little suspect of Grand Unified Theories. Especially as some thinkers are prone to positing over-arching explanations of everything, which may conveniently leave out important outlying details, groups of people or historical events. I coined the term 'Grand Unified Practice' for myself, where all the many parts of my work could be seen as what they really are: part of one tao manifesting in myriad ways. In the T’ai Chi Classics, (which can be seen as a gloss on the Taoist Classics themselves), an important line is:
The principles are few, the permutations are endless.
I value reliance on practice as the guide, and embodied experience as the test, rather than whether something fits a preconceived idea, set of rules or beliefs. This puts me at odds with the current popularity for defining everything in words and then looking for infringements. I don't mind. As a lifelong T’ai Chi person and nature lover, I have come to trust embodied experience more than theories. It is how our ancestors ever learned anything, and passed it on, until very recently. Our forebears were scientists and artists, and they really knew how to pay attention, which is how they survived and thrived.
I advise not making yourself a GUT. Instead, pay close attention to what it is you are doing (when it works, when it feels just-so, when it is good in the world), and to the results of what you do, and then after the fact you can extrapolate on what it was that worked. You can then test this theory, and keep modifying it, and changing what you do according to the goodness of the results. This could be called art, or enquiry, or creating a lifeway. This is also at heart the phenomenological model, or empiricist approach, based on things as they are rather than only ideas in the mind.
Thoughts in words are certainly useful, but they are not the same thing as what they seek to describe. The wild world itself is beyond word-language. We need all our senses and more to approach it. There is a 'shortcut', which is to spontaneously recognise oneself wholly as identical and part of the wild world itself. This is rare. It probably took me 20 years’ painstaking dismantling work in body, psyche and lifeways before I could stand here at this laptop tapping these words to you, and them not just be wishful thinking. The methods I used for this work were: T’ai Chi pushing hands to learn yielding, counselling and internal work to sort out my own conditioning and learn what was not mine, immersing myself in nature and really paying attention. Allowing my hands or voice, or body, to craft or draw or sing what it was inclined to, without judgment, until I saw what needed to be done. (This was particularly hard, as ‘judging what I am doing while doing it’ was until recently a favourite pastime). Finding my people, a posse if you like, later in life, and being convivial with others, not dwelling on self. Then trees and rocks, books and birds all began to speak to me, and the wild materials of earth came into my hands. Dreams helped and working with these and over the last 20 years has led me to develop a practice and a method that I now share.
Writing all that down it seems a lot more deliberate than it was. In fact, the whole thing was often just 'following a hunch' and 'trusting my gut'. Yet it is almost impossible to trust your intuition if it has been systematically over-ridden by others. Although my family situation was full of the usual secrets and lies, there was not an overt intention to gaslight us, just a desire to maintain an ordinary facade. The media frequently mislead us, some politicians, too. On bad days, I sometimes think the so-called culture itself is a cheap trick, like tissue paper taped over an abyss.
I'll cut to the chase. No matter how many layers of deception or lies layer up, (which is something I obsessed about as a young girl, I now remember), there is always a path out of this. In our tradition we call this 'True Lead'.True Lead is the 'true sense of real knowledge'. This is experienced through the physical senses themselves: the five usual ones on the list, yes, but also, proprioception, interoception, balance, heat, tactility, texture, pressure, wetness, all the myriad touch senses which are not usually listed as separate but are. So, all these things are only received by the right hemisphere, neurologically speaking, so in western, layman's terms, (rather than the wonderful but obscure Taoist Internal Alchemy terms), when we fully perceive and attend to the physicality of the sensory information we receive in our animal bodies, we are returned to our right minds.
Then all the layers of deception fall away. Not metaphorically, but actually. The famous 'flow state' speaks of this. Yes, there are awful tricks that can be played in extremis, in torture of various kinds, in terrible neglect, or through being drugged. But thankfully these are rare occurrences for most people. Instead, it is usually one's own and others' stirring minds, tutored by the bankrupt culture's toxic habits, which cause the proliferation of falsehoods, like layer upon layer of peeling paint on the good bare wood of the psyche.
Because, finally, I now persistently return to True Lead, to the body, to nature, to reality, to walking, to water, to my singing voice vibrating in my chest - there is a method for transforming False Mercury in myself. Before this, I was trapped in what felt like wheels inside wheels, spinning endlessly more complex scenarios and explanations, none of which could ever approach truth. ‘False Mercury’ is the overthinking, endless layered, hypothetical, utterly reactive, discursive, involuted machinations of individuals and groups, fundamentally misled about the ground of reality, the interconnectedness of all life, and the nature of their own minds. Usually, a classic 'ego death' and ‘dark night of the soul’ experience is necessary to break the cycle initially, and that was certainly the case for me years ago, but the more interesting work came a decade later, and involved humour, loss, pain, injury, not taking things personally, and other currently highly unpopular methods.
True Mercury, the 'essence of conscious thought', is what lies behind this whirring mind.It is the 'quickness' of mercury, the way it can flow into everything. But this can't happen when we wear ourselves out on the calculations. We exhaust ourselves overthinking, then think we can think our way out of that. Ha!
Without an embodied practice - and the list is endless for these - there is no access to True Lead, to real peace, or to seeing through the trick of the apparently endless layers. Without access to the fundamental ground, the real knowledge that we as creatures are from here, belong here, and are neither partial nor broken, no one can trust the present moment, themselves, or each other. It's profoundly disheartening to see this massive sleight of hand working, over and over, just to produce consumers or pliable citizens. All I can do is my practice, stay in fond connection with those who come near, and hope that they too find a Way. I attempt to embed the bones of this in everything I make, teach, or do, and very occasionally I think I might be marginally successful with this aspiration, though I am far from sure.
I learned all this by doing, studying at The T’ai Chi Centre, but also through my lifelong obsession with a Grand Unified Practice, and my heart’s desire to no longer be in pieces.
Without trust there is no ground to stand on. As someone who started with no trust whatsoever in self, others, family, truths... Nature, books, my dreams, and a few beloved teachers in my young life gave me a chance to stop cowering, and start making moves towards freedom, as Charlotte DuCann so beautifully puts it. I had to trust my gut, to learn to trust my gut. And that is where the true luck of my life has been: so many good and bad life examples, amazing teachers, access to nature and stories. These made the realm of possibilities circumscribed by my sex, class, family and genetics burst open. Without these, I would still be in the hall of mirrors, shouting and pointing.
That was a big weaving, I hope you don't mind, but once I pulled on one thread, the whole vast bright tapestry was pulled into view.
All good wishes to you, Caro.
This week’s good thing is the superb RSA animated film made for the recording of the talk Iain McGilchrist gave in 2011. I was lucky enough to be there. This film helps introduce and skilfully illustrate some key ideas from ‘The Master and his Emissary’, which I will refer to in this newsletter, often. I highly recommend this short film, it’s fun, too.
I will be writing further about these useful alchemical terms and where to read about them in the Taoist Classics, as well as their possible relation to the modes of the left and right hemispheres, in the New Year.
‘True Mercury’ is one of the main themes of the famous teaching story ‘The Cook and His Cleaver’ in Chuang-Tzu. I wrote about this in Dark Mountain 8 Techne in 2015 and will republish it here with further notes, next week.
It’s so good to hear your voice speaking these words of growth and to be able to name the forces I feel pulling on my heart and mind. Many days it seems impossibly hard to break free of the patterns that would have me fall in line. I look forward to learning more. Thank you.❤️
Thank you. In listening it reminded me of how often in the media, particularly with news stories out of the US and other western countries about storms- wind, snow, water, the reference to being at war with nature.