Thursday, January 20, 2011
A Subtle, Precious Light
Copyright Lance Kinseth, The Way Of Light/Kodo, 2011
IN 1971, as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Iowa, I had the privilege of working with Dr. George Hillery Jr. whose specialty focused on the sociology of community. At that time, we were researching individuals’ sense of “freedom” in restrictive communities. I was involved in surveys in a prison and monastery. There was an obvious freedom of alternatives [which were restricted in prisons and monasteries], but also, and importantly, a freedom of discipline [as was the case in monasteries where participation was by choice].
This is sort of a complicated way of giving background in coming to a sense of presence with “light.” Because of our research, I was permitted to be in the cloistered part of the Trappist monastery of New Melleray Abbey near Dubuque, Iowa. I was struck by the sense of simplicity, especially in the cloistered areas. Relaxed by the visual simplicity and then walking a sunlit interior corridor, I was taken by the patterns of sunlight on the concrete walls. A process I had seen throughout my life on any sunny day was suddenly different. The rectangles of sunlight were like living paintings of light that were constantly, quietly changing.
We all have such patterns on the walls of our living spaces and wherever we go, but they are likely to go unnoticed. But even in the midst of complexity, there these patterns are, awaiting us. Even though it is commonplace, this light is not unlike th general reaction to Robert Ryman’s all-white paintings. They are difficult to take seriously and to spend time with, because of the way that they are overwhelmed by almost anything else. And yet, awareness and interest, followed by an appreciation of many events like this light can be a measure of our calmness. It is a measure of our capacity to dial down the fast-pace stimuli that is our everyday. Light is “worthless” in our value system, but it is the core work of the world, and it gives us our very life, starlight—deadly nuclear fission/fusion at the right distance—a few minutes away--becoming biomass, becoming a strong part of our bodies.
In January 2011, I stumbled on this light again in the late morning, in the bright sunlight patterns on the wall of a room in my house. Perhaps odd to some, I slowed for a time, and then offered a bow of gratitude to this way of light. I stuck my hand in it, and played shadow games as I did as a child. Still, why this piece in relation to restorative-yin yoga? I feel that I was readied, due in part to a strong practice of restorative yoga that had also provoked some time spent in seated and walking meditation. These perceptions are the gifts of calmness and quietness.
There is the joy of childhood still within us that plays shadow games, and there is the monk’s spiritual joy in acknowledging light as transmitting insight and life itself. This light is a miracle in the way that starlight makes the world—makes its atoms and its biomass. And perhaps even more miraculous, this light is not just external. On a deeper level, it is within. In a very real, deep physical way, we are made of light, and when deeply penetrated, we can find it emanating from everything everywhere. Thomas Cleary, in Zen Essence, translates fourteenth century Ch’an [Zen] master Yuansou’s admonition:
The mountains, rivers, earth, grasses, trees, and forests, are always emanating a subtle, precious light, day and night, always emanating a subtle, precious sound, demonstrating and expounding to all people the unsurpassed ultimate truth.
It is just because you miss it right where you are, or avoid it even as you face it, that you are unable to attain actual use of it.