Wednesday, September 30, 2009

SAUNDARANANDA 14.29: Reptilian Faults & Overcoming Fear

doSha-vyaalaan atikramya
vyaalaan gRha-gataan iva
kShamaM praajNasya na svaptum
nistitiirShor mahad bhayam

To neglect the reptilian faults,

As if ignoring snakes in the house,

And thus to slumber on,
does not befit a man of wisdom

Who wishes to overcome the great fear.

Training to be an Alexander teacher at the Alexander Re-education Centre run by Ray Evans, I first heard of the importance of primitive vestibular reflexes.

These reflexes, which are deeply implicated in the problem of faulty sensory appreciation, are housed in the deepest centres of the old reptilian brain.

So when I first read Linda Covill's translation of doSha-vyaalan, "the reptilian faults," I was struck by LC's phrase.

Among many reptilian faults, the main fault line might be profoundly related with fear paralysis and its antagonist the Moro reflex (also known on this blog as the Mara reflex).

When there is unresolved conflict between this pair -- when paralysis vs panic are fighting it out for supremacy -- there is a feeling of something being wrong within the self, and there is irrational fear which need not be linked to any fearful object in the outside world. There is a fear of being wrong.

The great fear (mahad bhayam), then, might be an inner fear, the self fearing itself. Perhaps because he wished to de-personalize this fear, to indicate to us that it is nothing personal, the Buddha spoke of having defeated the king of demons, Mara:

Sitting there, mind made up,

As unmovingly stable as the king of mountains,

He overcame the grim army of Mara

And awoke to that step
which is happiness,
which nobody can take away,
and which can never be destroyed.

Sensing the completion of his task,

Beings in the sky minded towards the undying

Buzzed and fluttered about with unbridled joy,

While Mara and his crew departed, downcast and trembling.

If Mara is a symbol for every person's inner demons, then demon number one might be the fear of being wrong. It is the fear of being wrong that causes a person to try to be right. And it is just such thirsting, the Buddha suggests, that is the original trigger for all the faults:

And this suffering,
associated with continual doing in the world,

Has its cause in a cluster of faults
which start with thirsting --

Certainly not in God,
nor in primordial matter, nor in time;

Nor even in one’s inherent constitution,
and not in predestination or self-will.

By way of an antidote to the great fear of being wrong and the associated tendency to try to be right, Zen Master Dogen in his instructions for sitting exhorts us:
ZEN-AKU OMAWAZU. Don't think good, bad.
ZE-HI KANSURU KOTO NAKARE. Don't care right, wrong.
SA-BUTSU O HAKARU KOTO NAKARE. Don't try to become buddha.

The Alexander teacher Marjory Barlow, in similar vein, often used to say: "Being wrong is the best friend you have got in this work!"

This verse suggests that truly to overcome the great fear (rather than merely "sweeping the problem under the carpet" to use Ray Evans's phrase) requires us not to neglect the reptilian faults. Overcoming the great fear, rather, might necessarily involve awareness of the link between the reptilian faults and a faulty sense of feeling. But fear of being wrong blocks that awareness.

Why do I hammer on endlessly about the Alexander Technique? Am I out to prove something? To prove that in the rift between Gudo Nishijima and me, his position was wrong and mine was right? If that were so, and if Alexander's contention is true that "There is no such thing as a right position, but there is a right direction," then I would be totally wasting my time.

I would like to think that I hammer on about the Alexander Technique because, in my own efforts to overcome the great fear, I have found, over and over again, that Alexander's way of working on the self really works. So I would like to be clear in regard to what the method is, for the benefit of others, for the benefit of myself, and for the benefit of clarity itself.

The essence of the method, as I see it, is:
(a) to give up the desire to feel right in the gaining of an end, thereby not neglecting the problem of faulty sensory appreciation but making it possible to circumvent the problem by
(b) consciously directing the head, out from the depths of one's being, in a direction that Alexander called "forward" and "up", and then, while continuing to direct oneself up, and "without a care in the world" (i.e. still not trying to be right),
(c) to go into movement.

Alexander's method in short is: inhibit, direct, move. When I apply it, it always works to unblock my awareness. Sadly however, when I don't apply it, it never works.

And the reason I don't apply it, in general, is that I fail to inhibit my desire to feel right in the gaining of an end. In that case, I don't overcome the great fear, I don't defeat Mara. In that case, Mara defeats me.

EH Johnston:
It is no more fitting for the wise man who desires to escape from the great danger to sleep in neglect of the snakes of the vices than for a man to sleep in neglect of snakes in his house.

Linda Covill:
It is not right for a wise man anxious to avoid grave peril to go to sleep, side-stepping the reptilian faults as though ignoring snakes in his house.

doSha: fault
vyaalaan = acc. pl. vyaala: mfn. mischievous , wicked , vicious; m. a vicious elephant; m. a beast of prey ; m. a snake
atikramya = absolutive of ati-√kram: to step or go beyond or over; to pass by , neglect

vyaalaan (acc. pl.): snakes
gRha: house
gata: come to, being in
iva: like

kShama: bearable , tolerable ; fit , appropriate
praajNasya = genitive praajNa: m. a wise or learned man
na: not
svaptum = infinitive of svap: to sleep

nistitiirShoH = genitive of nistitiirShu (adjective from desiderative from nis-√tRR): wanting to pass over
nis: (as a prefix to verbs it has the sense of " out of " , " away from "; or the sense of a strengthening particle " thoroughly " , " entirely ")
√tRR: to pass across or over , cross over (a river) , sail across
nis-√tRR: to come forth from , get out of. escape from (abl.) ; to pass over or through , cross (sea &c ) , pass or spend (time) ; to overcome or master (an enemy)
mahat: great (in space , time , quantity or degree); violent (pain or emotion)
bhaya: n. fear , alarm, dread, apprehension; terror , dismay , danger , peril , distress


Jordan said...

Mike, keep on yammering on.
I think its getting through my thick skull.

I remember years ago on another blog I was quite aversive to the Alexander Technique. Now I think it's something quite helpful.

So please, keep on keeping on!


Mike Cross said...

Thanks Jordan,

Sometimes I resort to yammering as a substitute for the hard work of thinking -- and a very poor substitute at that.

But thanks as always for the encouragement to keep on keeping on,


Raymond said...


Great post. What is that fear/ anxiety that is always in the background? Might it be the fear of being wrong? And then..?

PS - I regarding your response to Jordan, I am interested in how you define "thinking" in the sense you used it.

Mike Cross said...

Thank you, Raymond.

I was just this very minute reflecting, following my blog post this morning, how the words "I am Buddha" can express both the essence of a Buddha's enlightenment and the essence of a deluded person's delusion.

Hence, "Beware the written word."

I can't even begin to define thinking. I have enough trouble endeavouring to practise it, even for a moment.

Winston Smith said...

Thanks for your interesting posts connecting some of your eastern background with AT.

In my point of view AT deals with 'thinking in movement'. Inhibiting allows us to move freely in any direction, it might liberate us from the 'isness' of being.

A 'single' thought does not exist on the level of the self, it's rather a collection of various interacting rhythms. The 'body' reflects this symphony of life in any moment, directions produce much more harmonies.

And movements expresses our self. sweet are the moments of connecting nervous systems.

Mike Cross said...

Thanks for your comment, Winston.

It reminds me of the old Sufi story of the blind men investigating an elephant -- one feels the trunk and says it is like a big snake, another feels a leg and says it is like a tree, another feels the side of the elephant and says it is like a wall, et cetera.

If we say that what Alexander meant by thinking was thinking the words "Let the neck be free, to let the head go forward and up, to let the back lengthen and widen," that statement would not be untrue. But it might be very far from the whole truth.

And what he meant in 1904 might not be exactly the same as what he meant in 1954!

Anyway, good to hear from you down under.