Monday, April 6, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 16.53: First What Not to Do

pragraahakam yat tu nimittam uktam
uddhanyamaane hRdi tan na sevyam
evaM hi cittaM prashamaM na yaati
[- - -]naa vahnir iv' eryamaaNaH

A "garnering" stimulus

Does not serve when the emotions are excited,

For thus the mind does not find peace

Like a fire being fanned by [the wind].

To illustrate what I think is the meaning of this verse, following on from the discussion of strength and weakness in the previous verse, I will cite the example of a sensitive woman in a caring vocation -- for example, in medicine -- who has a bad back. Her sensitivity and compassion can be regarded as strengths. But her bad back is a symptom of weakness.

Let us say that the compassionate nurse with a bad back comes for a series of Alexander lessons to address the misuse of herself -- a fundamental weakness -- that is causing her back pain. If the teacher adopts a more direct approach, his first instinct might be to tell the nurse to care less for others and more for the integrity of her own spine; and to teach her how to strengthen her spine, by garnering her energy in an upward direction during the acts of sitting and standing.

First instincts are generally direct and interventionist: our first instinct when confronted with any problem tends to be to do something, in a hurry. But such instinctive interventions have a tendency to turn out badly, to do more harm than good.

So I see it as significant that Buddha/Ashvaghosha's detailed explanation of the means whereby afflictions are given up, is begun with a negative direction, i.e., a preventive direction. The primary thing, Buddha/Ashvaghosha seems to be saying, is not learning what to do. The primary thing is learning, in a given situation, what not to do. Thus, when there is already undue excitement in one's energetic system, which for most of us there generally is, the first thing is not to do anything that might pour fuel on the flames.

So the Alexander teacher in the above example, confronted with the nurse with the bad back, will do well to inhibit his first instinct to read her the riot act and get her immediately going "up." He might be wise not to do anything until having listened for a while with hands, ears, and eyes, to what is really going on. It may well transpire that the nurse's fear reflexes are unduly excited, in which case the best starting point, before trying to teach her anything, might be to draw the nurse's attention to stimuli that will tend to calm her system down.

Pertinent here is a passage that FM Alexander wrote in the preface (1941) to The Use of the Self:

Those who have written asking for help in teaching themselves are obviously almost wholly occupied with the idea of learning 'to do it right'. In reply I would refer them to the first chapter of this book, where I put down as exactly as possible what I did and (what was still more important in the end) what I did not do in teaching myself... At the beginning of my experimentation I found that I must not concern myself primarily with 'doing' as I then understood 'doing', but with preventing myself from doing.

In the first line nimittam literally means "a cause." I have given the translation of this word considerable thought since Linda Covill's translation "meditational technique" rattled my cage a few months ago. In this verse I considered translating nimittam as "starting point," and in future verses I intend to translate nimittam as "antidote."

In the end, however, "stimulus" seemed to fit best: here: it carries a medical connotation, like a needle for sitting-dhyana; it includes the sense of a causal factor; and it ties in very neatly with the teaching of FM Alexander, who saw the act of living as basically a matter of constantly reacting (directly, unconsciously, emotionally) or responding (indirectly, consciously, reasonably) to stimuli.

pragraahakam (nom. sg. n.): seizing , taking , bearing , carrying; a rein , bridle
graahaka: one who seizes or takes captive; one who seizes (the sun or moon) , who eclipses; one who receives or accepts; m. a hawk, falcon
yat (nom. sg. n.): [that] which
tu: but
nimittam (nom. sg.): n. a butt, mark, target; the point, the aim; sign, omen; cause, motive, ground, reason; (in philosophy) instrumental or efficient cause (opposed to upaadaana, the operative or material cause)
uktam = nom. sg. n. ukta (past participle of √vac): spoke, said; called; declared, promised

uddhanyamaane = locative of present passive participle ud- √han: to move or push or press upwards or out, lift up, throw away; to root up or out
hRdi = locative of hRd: the heart (as the seat of feelings and emotions) , soul , mind
tat (correlative of yat): it, that
na: not
sevyam = nom. sg. n. sevya: mfn. to be resorted to, followed, practised etc.

evam: thus, in this manner
hi: for
cittam (non. sg.): mfn. "noticed"; n. thinking, the thinking mind, the mind
prashamam (acc. sg.): m. calmness , tranquillity (esp. of mind) , quiet , rest , cessation , extinction , abatement
na: not
yaati = 3rd person singular yaa: to go , proceed ; go to, come to; find out, discover

[- - -]naa: [3 missing syllables] + inst. ending?
vahniH = nom. sg. vahni: m. the conveyer or bearer of oblations to the gods (esp. said of agni , " fire "); fire
iva: like
iiryamaaNaH: nom. sg. m. present passive participle √iir: to agitate , elevate , raise (one's voice); to excite ; to cause to rise ; to bring to life

EH Johnston:
But when the soul is excited, he should not resort to the subject of meditation known as 'inducing energy'; for thus the mind does not reach tranquillity, as fire fanned by (the wind) does not die down.

Linda Covill:
The meditational technique known to promote energy should not be practiced when one's spirits are excited, for thus the mind, like a fanned fire [- - -], does not become peaceful.


Jordan said...

First instincts are generally direct and interventionist: our first instinct when confronted with any problem tends to be to do something, in a hurry. But such instinctive interventions have a tendency to turn out badly, to do more harm than good.

Hi Mike,

I find this is a tendency which is terribly difficult to inhibit. Even when I "Know" better, I still find myself taking a direct approach. I am fairly certain that I am conditioned to respond to a more direct approach as well though.

Do you think that there is room for both direct and indirect?

Thanks as always for your efforts.


Mike Cross said...

Hi Jordan,

Your question maybe arises as a result of me going directly for the target, instead of translating the opening chapters first. In those chapters the hero of the story comes across as a very human being, more or less a slave to the senses. But by being taught the indirect, inhibitory principle, and then gradually learning to apply it for himself, Nanda's confidence is progressively built up. So I think Ashvaghosha's intention in recording for posterity the story of Handsome Nanda was to give encouragement to those of us who are struggling in the lower foothills of the inhibitory mountain.

So keep on keeping on!