Tuesday, August 24, 2010

"Who" is the Final Destination? The Looking Glass and Sister Elaine MacInnes

It really depends on how you look at it. But you can see a wave forming before it actually comes up. I mean, you can see it underneath, before the surface rolls over.  There's an introduction, a pre-amble, a subtle shrinking almost in the opposite direction that happens a split second before the swell.  Something that hints at what's really going on.
Extraordinary people are wonderful to watch when they are doing extraordinary things. That's obvious. But extraordinary people at rest are also a revelation; because they look empty until something comes through them. And they appear aware of that fact...of that ground zero....Resting in some steady neutral...
Sister Elaine MacInnes, Yoga Festival Toronto 2010

Sister Elaine MacInnes is sitting in an S-shape. At eighty-something, she is curved gently over the clay colored metal chair in the mirrored room at the National Ballet. The light is peppered unevenly, glowing grey in the early evening, coming through the slender rectangle of a window on the far left corner. Sister MacInnes' chair is tilted to the right; and the floor, a smoke-blue, is covered is washy streaks left by toe shoes....like ice-skates, the geometric shapes, half-arcs, scratched into the reflective surface of its rubber.

And then with a few words everything about her unfolds, quite literally, as she opens her shape across the chair and leans into the small gathering at this weekends Yoga Festival Toronto.

"They have usually tried everything else. And this is their last hope"

Sister Elaine MacInnes

She says it as if she's seen it a hundred times, as she narrows her eyes and speaks about the experience that brought her to prisons for the first time; where she would teach inmates how to do seated meditation, or Zazen, 5 minutes at a time. Sister Elaine MacInnes describes how she began her work as a Juilliard-trained violinist sent to the Philippines during the worst years under the Marcos regime to teach music; only to wind up teaching meditation to a leader of the underground movement in a maximum-security prison.

"Well, i had no idea i would wind up doing this. And I want to dispell the idea that it was out of any great idea i had, or any great compassion. I simply had the experience myself of what meditation was. Shortly after I started meditating, i noticed that i wasn't carrying around all this garbage that i had been stuck with all these years. And i thought this is amazing. this really works. So i had confidence it would work for them".

For anyone who doesn't know, Sister Elaine MacInnes was made an officer of the Order of Canada in 2001 for her work with inmates. She is a Catholic Nun and Zen Monk of the Sanbo Kyodan, based in Kamakura Japan, who has spent 32 years in Asia learning the healing power and spiritual experiences that yoga and meditation can bring to inmates. She is the founder and President of Freeing the Human Spirit that continues the work of bringing therapeutic disciplines into the prison system to aid in the rehabilitation process. In 2005, Vision TV aired the biopic, The Fires that Burn: The Life and Work of Sr. Elaine MacInnes

Over the weekend I sat in on a number of the workshops presented by Yoga Festival Toronto. And, the very last of the workshops I attended was presented by Freeing the Spirit, the national not-for-profit registered charity founded by Sister Elaine MacInnes, to provide inmates with a program of meditation and yoga. In her presentation, MacInnes showed excerpts of The Fires that Burn, narrated her introduction to Zazen, as well as her early days bringing meditation into prison life. She wove an elaborate tale about living under the close surveillance of the CIA who "did not trust this person who was teaching people to sit there doing nothing, in front of walls". She dispensed stories from her life about the Marcos dictatorship, the furtive activities of the CIA, as well as dealing with the suspicion and resistance of prison authorities, with a curious mix of mischief and dry, even amusement. Everything spoken flickered across her face, and then dissipated, like the simple play of afternoon sunlight. It didn't seem to stick.

I found myself asking why her face had a sort of "water off a duck's back" quality. And then I asked myself why I would go see this particular session. I mean, what was I wanting to see? Did I want to know something? Was it because I wanted to get involved with the organization and donate my time and energy? Well, the truth would be yes; in part.... in that i had filled out the volunteer form on the freeing the spirit website several months ago...but no ...

My primary purpose was more intangible that that.

Anyone who might have read the previous interview with Dr. Ravindra might remember that Ravindra talks about the potential for transformation being a two-fold process that involves the receiver's ability to be attuned correctly, as well as the transmissions, or "presence", of the seen.  My interview with Dr. Ravindra had got me convinced that the presence of people has a real capacity to transmit...As in, there is potential to transform via proximity to people who have "been there, done that"...
In this case, the seen was Sister MacInnes; and I was going simply to "see" her. To see whatever I could see. But I have to admit I had my doubts about the dubious objective "to see"; as if this yoga panel were some kind of modern-day equivalent to pilgrimage...
I mean, what if that's the same reasoning that makes groupies out of fans?

I'm also fairly certain Sister MacInnes would have little to say about the idea of some kind of pilgrimage to see her. She appears coolly irreverent about what might even remotely appear to be some kind of desire to make her into something out of the ordinary. She doesn't even like to discuss the more visible aspects of her unusual choices; like the fact that she is at once, Catholic nun and Zen master. In fact, when a question about how she manages to reconcile these two faiths was raised obliquely, MacInnes made a guffaw... I mean an actual sound came out of her which was guttural and guarded. She seemed disinclined to answer. The co-presenter-said,

"Sister often just says: What's there to reconcile?"

But whatever she says, she still seems different to me. Prisoners have said her presence carries a kind of  "silence"; and, as we in the gathering were reminded by the co-presenters of Sister MacInnes' workshop, inmates have a nose for fraud as good as any bloodhound. A shrewd instinct for pegging hustlers, con-artists, flakes and ideological salesmen apparently comes with the territory. But am I bordering on wandering into dodgy religious terrain here suggesting "presence" matters? Am I piously sculpting the figure of a wax saint out of a simple human? What is the nature of anyone's presence; and her presence in particular?
And how do we actually learn from the presence of other people?

Our life is a more or less a mirror on our thoughts
-Oscar Wilde

Well, interestingly enough, an altogether different workshop by Geoffrey Wiebe, (whose provocative paper called, "Our Rishis have Fmri's" at the Yoga Festival) yielded some thoughts. And because i hope to interview Geoffrey at a later date, I won't give away his main arguments. However, he did hijack the concept of mirror neurons from neuroscience, as a way to explain the deep relationship one has in yoga practice to the physical presence of a teacher...standing in front of you, demonstrating an asana. It has since occurred to me that this idea about mirror neurons provides another framework from which to understand how one can learn simply by looking.

The hypothesis in simple terms, runs something like this: there are neurons that fire both when we act; similarly, when we observe another human act, these same neurons fire. As in, our neurological activity mirrors that of the observed. So, if we see a teacher lift her right arm, the observer experiences a firing neuron that mirrors the same activity.
So you can see how this hypothesis suggests that it is through proximity that we really learn. And further, it might mean that it is through direct observation of action, and then by mirroring this action, that we learn.

While the existence of mirror neurons constitute a fairly recent and contested field of inquiry, it has nonetheless caused some excitement in its milieu because the hypothesis may serve to further our understanding of the cognitive mapping of concepts such as empathy, compassion or transformation.

Mirror neurons make us imitate without thinking with those little grey cells. It is the viewer, and not life, that metaphors really mirror. We still need a distinctive tool for localizing art as the product of a complex neuronal network. The synapse is like the soul of the brain.
-Jasper Johns

So while in scientific terms, mirror neurons are a mechanism for understanding imitation learning, and the simulation of other people's behaviour; in yogic terms, mirror neurons support the ideas we already work with. Namely, that the presence of teachers is valuable; not only in what they communicate directly, but also through their very physical presence. We mirror those we observe and therefore, clear seeing is key to transformation.

Now I suppose it's obvious this idea is prey to misuse; it is possible to ignore the receiver's pivotal role in engaging the relationship. And then one would have the kind of blind guru worship that doesn't know how to check itself. But as long as the transmission is clear and the receiver is "tuned in", the seeing stands a chance at being impartial, and therefore being able to re-map cognition.
Maybe this is why Lewis Carroll talks about going "through the looking glass", rather than simply standing in front of the mirror; chanting "Mirror, mirror on the wall..." If we are engaged, mirror neurons kindling, all systems-go, the reflective magic of the mirror should be able to give us accurate information about "who" the final destination is.

You might be able to look at someone like Sister MacInnes in order to answer the questions that Arjuna so famously asked Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita:

What does a person with stithaprajna (steady wisdom) look like? how does he speak? how does he sit? and how does he walk?

It's funny, by the time the session had ended, there were a few stragglers still remaining in the room, and Sister MacInnes was sitting on a chair at the back of the room resting her legs. Again, just waiting and resting. I went up and asked her,

"Would you mind if i took a photograph?"
She said, "No, of course not",

and very politely stood up for the picture, angled towards me in front of her chair. And I looked through my iphone lens and clicked once. And then I looked again. And then, I left the room, gathered my things together, - papers, shoes, umbrella, yoga mat -, and I stopped and chatted with some people in the hallway. Several of us exchanged e-mail addresses outside. People shuffled away, the glass building echoing, a faint whistle.

And then, with some reservation, I came back in and glanced across, and saw the wall of slick mirrors stretched horizon-wide alongside MacInnes. The room looked interminable. Its boundaries, its patterns, its bodies, repeating over and over again, sounding like a familiar chorus, and moving like a repetitive strain injury.
I looked at Sister Elaine MacInnes and looked again.

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