Artfully Seeing

Yesterday morning my wife and I wound our way down to Hamilton to drop off Santa Maria’s halyard, which needs replacing. We then made our way over to LaSalle Marina, her home on the hard in this year of pandemic. We finished replacing a thru-hull, started a couple of weeks ago, after which we decided for a stroll on the shore. There we found a beautiful swan.

She, or he – I guess – was busy cleaning herself. It was most amazing to watch her. She could bend her head in pretty much any direction, and reach places I didn’t know to exist on a swan. The swan paid no attention to my paying attention to her. I took a video, and then wondered why. I wanted to capture the moment, I guess. But why?

I recall a professor some years ago talking about walking along a via in Rome, at sunset, with a friend who commented on all the tourists snapping photos (in those days with cameras not phones). The friend noted that they were trying to freeze a moment rather than enjoying it. They wanted to “capture” it; to have it ready at hand. I have thought about that comment for some time.

I also remember reading an article more recently about a study concerning memory and photographs. People taking photos of an event, or a monument were later asked about it. Set against those who simply took in the event, the photographers had less-clear memories and far weaker impressions than those who simply observed. But there was an exemption. Photographers who were trying to get artful images had a stronger impression than both groups. So, what does this tell us?

It is hard to know. But it does seem to be the case that those who practice art are practiced in patience. And patience is the sine que non for seeing in the richest sense of the word. Some ancient Greeks believed that when a person saw something, they became one with it. This was the condition for the possibility of knowing something, also evidenced in the Hebrew word for “know.” Yada is used in the broader sense of knowledge, but also with reference to sexual intercourse. Truly knowing comes from truly seeing which means being one with what is known.

I didn’t become one with the swan. But I know that she certainly gave me pause, and as I watched her bend in so many ways, I thought of my recent foray into yoga. The swan needs no guru to guide it. Maybe that’s why I took the video, hoping that she might be my guru, inspiring or in-spiriting me with this vision of flexibility and balance. And maybe too it, I wanted to remind myself that there are no ugly ducklings.

Notice What You Feel

When I was younger, I used to think it important to be strong. Now I know it is wiser to be flexible and balanced.

This applies to many levels – intellectual, spiritual, physical, etc. – but I am increasingly convinced that intellectual and spiritual insights have to be grounded in physical practices. I have always been physically active and have written in other posts about the ways in which running has been spiritually and intellectually enriching. But over the last few years I have been spending more and more time trying to keep limbs and such malleable and have mused often about trying yoga.

I decided that this recent lock-in was a good time to give it a go, and so I asked my daughters, who are my doctors in many ways, for advice and they suggested “Yoga with Adriene.” Adriene Mishler recently completed a 30-day program called “Home” and so I began watching her January 2020 series on YouTube some days ago. I just finished day 22 with the theme of “Stir.”

On day 22 Adriene made a comment that gave me pause. She said “You should not be in pain, but we do want to be in a place where we can observe sensation.” I am a beginner, but what is slowly coming to clarity for me is the goal of getting your body into a place where some new awareness of what you physically feel is evident. She often says “scan your body,” or “pay attention to what your body is saying to you,” or “notice what you feel” or like. When I was younger, I played football, where strength was king, and no-one invited us to “notice what you feel.” Numbness rather than awareness seemed to be the goal. I recall, for instance, a drill where we would jog on the spot and at the blow of a whistle fall jarringly to ground: no pain, no gain. Perhaps things have changed. I hope so.

In yoga we are invited over and over again to observe breath, body, and the beat of the heart. Balance and malleability are the collateral benefits of a practice that is about getting to know the body and so the self. There is a spiritual tradition associated with yoga, and the practice of yoga in North America has sometimes been criticized for underplaying this. I do not really know enough at this point to weigh in on the critique, but I know that the attention to the breath in my daily time with Adriene has caused me to think deeply on the breath of God: the Holy Spirit.

Next month I will be teaching an intensive course remotely called Spirit and Community. The theme of body should loom large when Christians think about community (often called the body of Christ) and the Breath that animates it. If the bible sees the body as a fit cypher for the spiritual community of Christ, then we need to take a careful look at how we apprehend the body. Although much still needs to be decided in how the course will proceed, one thing is clear to me. A healthy body is balanced and flexible. This is true for physical bodies and for communal bodies. How could it be any different for communal bodies that are Spirited?