Rodin's asana, Yogi's move
WITH da Vinci's `Mona Lisa' and Munch's `The Scream', Rodin's `The Thinker' must surely rank among those canonical images of high art that have been reduced, almost to the point of banality, by frequent use in the mass-circulation imagery of advertising. Familiar even to those who have little interest in sculpture or painting, `The Thinker' has long ago been recruited into popular visual culture, variously appearing as corporate logo, signature image, spoof symbol, motif of the computer subculture, and, preeminently, an embodiment of the power of thought. And yet, he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself or his puissance, the subject of this bronze sculpture: he sits with his torso hunched forward, the right arm resting on his knee and supporting his chin, the other arm laid along a thigh; the embodiment of intellectual power is, in fact, pensive anxiety made flesh.
Rodin believed that musculature ought to reflect the inner tensions and vibrancies of the self, and the Thinker's energies are, accordingly, knotted up in the torsion of intense mental effort. This key work of art incarnates a particular mode of approaching the universe, in which reality is apprehended by the exercise of the reason, composed into a coherent world-picture, and transformed for human purposes by an act of will.
The figure most completely opposed to the Thinker, perhaps, is that of the Yogi, archetypally seated in the lotus posture, spine erect and eyes closed, his being anchored firmly in meditative calm. The Yogi is a centre from which awareness radiates out in every direction: his is a radically different way of embracing the world from that of the Thinker; he attends to the world by harmonising the self's desires, motives and levels of consciousness, and releasing these harmonised energies towards reality in the form of heightened receptiveness. Lewis Thompson, the British mystic who came to live in Varanasi in 1933 and died there 16 years later, phrases the Yogi's mandate elegantly in his meditations (which have been collected and edited by the independent scholar and artist Richard Lannoy, in the volume, Mirror to the Light): "The Yogi fulfills the world of Principles in Nature: he begins by transforming himself, and Nature, in his consciousness." Yoga, observes Thompson, uses up and transfigures such basic drives as hunger, sex and breathing; but it suspends or absorbs activities like thought, emotion and will.
Between Rodin's Thinker and the Yogi, we have two models of how the self relates to the world: those, respectively, of analytical thought and Yogic consciousness; here, for brevity's sake, Rodinism and Yoga. Each can manifest itself either as an attitude, an authentic way of relating to the world, or as a style, in which only the externals of the attitude are practised without attention to its inner dictates. Rodinism, as an attitude, indicates a focusing of energy for pragmatic ends; as a style, it takes on the excessive colouring of anxiety. Yoga, as an attitude, stands for the self's total awareness of the environment and a corresponding skill in action; as a style, it can imply withdrawal from engagement with the world of action, and indeed, the conversion of action into art through the stylisation of all activity.
The question that faces most of us is this: How best to combine the Thinker and the Yogi within ourselves, as we cope with the pressures of the contemporary world? How can we cultivate the resources of the self in such a way that Rodinist energy and Yogic total awareness are efficiently balanced and combined, instead of cancelling each other out? One possible answer is that we ought to recognise the true relationship between Rodinism and Yoga: the fact that, even though they may appear to be antagonistic styles, they are complementary attitudes. At their best, these attitudes manifest their mutual affinity; likewise, at their worst, each of these styles stands guilty of the worst ascribed to the other. It is a significant paradox, for instance, that many scientists, trained in analytical reason, demonstrate the serene equanimity of the yogi; while many religiosi, disciplined in yoga, nevertheless reveal themselves to be deplorably gripped by the lust for power and the anxiety for adulation. As attitudes, both Rodinism and Yoga are gifts; as styles, both are indulgences, conditions of imbalance. And while we may not deny that much achievement, spiritual as well as worldly, artistic as well as political, seems to derive from such conditions of imbalance as madness, narcissism, fanatical ritualism, or the drive towards domination, such achievement is customarily a debt to the demons of the spirit.
Lewis Thompson writes with illuminating clarity about imbalance: "When a man is discontented, hypercritical, extravagant or violent, abandoned or ascetic, it simply means that he has not come to terms with himself, especially with his highest spiritual self, and therefore cannot see the harmony, the complex, delicate, vibrant, dramatic, musical equilibrium of actuality." Thompson's conception of `musical equilibrium' sidesteps the dichotomy between Thinker and Yogi. For, in this condition of balance - which he called, very plainly and precisely, `seriousness' - Thompson argues that we spontaneously find the "weight of the truest part of ourselves". Perfect seriousness, then, is what is described in Hindu religious thought as sahaja, the condition in which the self relates to all creation and to all necessity in the spirit of play. The practice of this seriousness leads, not to tedium, but to the joyous life that illuminates itself. For this seriousness, Thompson observes, "is simply collectedness - to remain polished, poised, organised, honeycombed, rich, full, intricate, by an attention equal to oneself - truly present and active on the stage where one's real life is being played out."
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