Tuesday, January 27, 2009

attaining the marrow

Dogen and other Zen masters often used the phrase "attaining the marrow." It's understood to be a stage of work.

The phrase suggests the realization of a penetrating insight. Because of our habit of interpreting everything as something of the mind -- the intellect -- I believe that most of us, especially we Westerners, presume it means some kind of knowing that involves an insight of intelligence.

Of course, it can't be quite that simple. Like most esoteric allusions, it almost certainly has multiple levels of meaning. All we can do is explore the meaning of a phrase like this from within the context of our own direct experience--of where we are now.

This morning, while I was walking the Famous Dog Isabel, I had an experience that echoed what took place during my sitting this morning. The two moments, taken together, gave me a different impression of this idea of attaining the marrow.

That impression moved into deeper territory than just the idea of a more permanent and comprehensive connection to sensation, which I have mentioned before in this space.

If attaining the marrow is an attainment of intelligence, it is not the intelligence of the mind alone that participates.

It is a three centered experience: a moment where the intelligence of the mind, the body, and the emotions converge in such a way that the penetration of life, the physical penetration of the experience of life, into the organism becomes more fully integrated.

By fully integrated, I mean not just that sensation becomes so complete that it cannot be separated from experience of Being -- from "I". It also means that intellectual intelligence and emotional intelligence coexist there within that same moment, so that a unity arrives which is born of and within our blood itself.

This intelligence I speak of, furthermore, consists of an inner harmony of each center, so that intelligence of the centers arises from the harmonious blending of their unique internal intellects, bodies, and emotions.

This unique moment of "three-centered intelligence" is where we may discover that we can breathe our life in and out; that the entire process of experiencing life is a form of breathing.

Just as the lungs have moments when they are full, and moments when they are empty-- just as the heart has moments when the valves are open, and moments when they are closed -- the attention and the sensation have their rhythms of opening and closing as well.

Under the ordinary conditions of our life, our three centers are not in synchronization. Allegorically speaking, when the mind is inhaling, the heart may be exhaling; or, the body may be inhaling, and the mind may be exhaling. So one might say that the objective is to discover a moment when the centers work together: they discover a rhythm of inhaling and exhaling in harmony.

Remember, this is an allegory. The experience does not lend itself to the words. In reaching for understanding, we must search with the wish, the sensory ability, and the intelligence of each of our centers, not just the one that reads the words.

So how is this possibility?

At a moment of attaining the marrow, we inhale our entire life, within one moment, in harmony; we exhale our entire life, within one moment, in harmony.

We discover, through harmony, that life is a complete vibration, received within this marrow of Being.

And why is it called the marrow? The marrow lies within the bone -- it is centered within the most solid part of ourselves -- and it is the richest part. The marrow, of course, is one of the most prized of foods. So if we "attain the marrow," we are feeding ourselves a rich and desirable food. To feed ourselves with this more complete sense of Being is to offer ourselves the most satisfying opportunity for growth.

Attaining the marrow isn't a destination; it's a process. It isn't an end point; it's a beginning. In a certain sense, everything interesting starts there. Where it goes from there is a mystery that can only be lived.

May our hearts be opened, and our prayers be heard.

1 comment:

  1. I also am familiar with the term attaining the marrow. It is not limited to Zen but reached through alchemical Chinese medical theory.

    The bone marrow is considered an extraordinary organ. This does not mean extraordinary as it is meant in English, but rather it implies that it is an organ that falls outside of the regular 10 paired organs (Yin and Yang) in the torso.

    The bone marrow as well as the brain (which is called the Sea of marrow) are coupled with the kidneys, which again are not the kidneys of Western medicine, but are considered the seat of intelligence and vitality. In Mr. Gurdjieff's terms, attaining the marrow would be the equivalent of reaching Fa 96, the place of animal magnetism where "mosquitoes will not bite you."

    Since the bone marrow also creates the blood, and the hormones and neuropeptides of the emotions are carried on the blood, "attaining the bone marrow" also implies a control of the emotions and of the vital powers from the inside out.

    There are exercises in Chinese martial arts which are expressly designed to cleanse and strengthen the bone marrow. Some of these are very similar to Mr. Gurdjieff's exercises, which I will leave unexplained, because they are part of an oral tradition.

    When I am teaching the guitar, I am always telling my students that they must get this knowledge into their bone marrow. Occasionally I have practiced to the point where the bones of my hands ache and I can feel the bone marrow itself. There are also practices of qigong and the pranayama of yoga which are directly involved in affecting and reaching the bone marrow.

    So when these Zen masters speak of "Attaining the Marrow", they are not inventing something new, but are hearkening back to a Shamanic practice which stretches back to the mists of proto-history.

    I thought that these comments may be of interest, which is why I have written the above.


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