Practice as knowing

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

In my work and teaching I emphasise practice-based ‘knowing’ that is central to Indian philosophy—those who participate in my workshops must be tired of hearing me say this! I cannot emphasise this enough in our times because we live amongst paradigms that undervalue practice as a source of ‘knowing’. I see two consequences as a result of this:

firstly practice-based traditions, where they exist, are either ignored or not even recognised because we do not have the frameworks and education by which to ‘see’ these traditions; and

secondly, because of our ignorance of these traditions, we replace them with so called practice traditions which lack rigour and truth and are often used in ways that ignore the philosophical, cultural and spiritual sources of these practices.

Any practice is not a space of ‘knowing’. In Indian tradition, practice as knowing was a structured approach that had deliberate and specific relationships between practice and text and between practice and other ways of knowing including implicit aspects such as presence and relationship between teacher and student. Each of these components contributed to the enabling of ‘knowing’ in these practices. The text was, as my teacher said, a signpost, and not the comprehensive source of that practice.

When I studied dance with my teacher, recitation of the Natya Sastra (the text on Indian dance theatre) was not part of the process. However, when I did read the text many years into my discipleship with him, I found that it was very familiar because through my practice I already ‘knew’ the text. I also realised there was far more to the practice than the text could ever encapsulate.

The fact that texts cannot contain the practice is inevitable in a tradition which is founded upon the principle that the purpose of these practices is freedom from the chitta (mind and material reality) and all of its domains which includes words/language. Practice, whether dance, yoga or music, was explicitly intended to create states of being that would expand experience beyond chitta or mind-based knowing. These experiences were not meant to be compliant with known paradigms which could be described through language/words. Therefore the texts were only one of the enablers of the practice, along with many other equally, or even more, important enablers, such as embodied knowing of the teacher.

Centralising textual knowing is the play of maya and the mind. We are caught in the comfort zone of control as we master texts, analyse them and finally conclude that enlightenment is intellectual mastery. This is chitta’s delight for we appease every drive of the mind to stay within paradigms of mastery, competence, self-aggrandisement and validation in the maya or material domain. Surrender to practice, the ability to recognise the simple, quiet and humble spaces of doing, the courage to give up on the mastery paradigm and the insight to ‘see’ practice traditions—these are not chitta-friendly spaces and, for that very reason, the spaces of expansion and transformation.

Padma Menon