In Sri Lanka I seldom watch TV. That’s because I don’t live in hotels where the ubiquitous CNN / BBC / FOX feed keeps people informed to some degree but equally misinformed and fearful. When in Sri Lanka I depend on gossip, the lingua franca of the Blessed Isle of Serendib, and arguably a more reliable source of information than the media, especially of the electronic persuasion. I live either in the Monkey’s Tale Centre in Batticaloa or at Manel Fernando’s gardened villa on Skelton Road in Colombo. Both Manel and the Monkey believe in birds and bees and definitely not the buzz on TV.
What I remember most about moments with Manel and the Monkey are snippets of conversation exchanged while relaxing on the verandah either early in the morning or just before dark, no martinis or arrack zombies, just idle chitchat. I recall silence punctuated by patter about the ways things once were before it all got corrupted beyond recognition and, arguably, redemption. Now the only things worth remembering are ephemera, brief flashes of insight wherein we recognize the abounding beauty of the isle and how reverence for this beauty remains the last best hope before the lights go out. Forever.
On the road I inevitably feel disconnected from friends and fall prey to doubt about the Out-of-the-Box enterprise, mostly because I get sucked into watching TV, a black hole if ever there was one, but at least I make new friends like Stephen Sackhur, Bill O’Reilly, Orla Guerin, Anderson Cooper, Christiane Amanpour, Becky Anderson, Jonathan Mann and recently, Dr. James Fox. Haven’t seen much of good ol’ damn-the-torpedoes Lise Doucet. Wonder what happened to her? Forgot her flack jacket back at the Homs Hilton maybe? All I can say is: if my grandmother were doing the “News”, she’d do it like Lise.
I had to depart from Sri Lanka at the end of September to renew my visa and decided to take a month off in N.Thailand to catch up on these updates and say hello to the cloud bound hills of Lanna. The further out to sea I got the more I questioned the sanity of what we’d undertaken with the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum. Maybe we’re just “chasing grasshoppers on an elephant” as local wisdom would have it, but I don’t think so. Although our ten little toys squared off against the world portrayed on television seem utterly preposterous, I remain hopeful of their provenance and potential to change things for the better, at least a little. Am I deluded? Definitely! But creative energy always finds some way to break through, even when circumstances conspire to smother it.
Maybe because I’m a bit more of a loner in Amazing Thailand than I am in old Serendib, stories get somewhat strange here. I can’t figure out, for example, what’s going on next door to my usual haunt in Chiang Mai at the Sunrise Academy of Cock Fighting, which now has an apprentice cock who sounds like he’s being strangled every time he crows, hence his nom de guerre, Stanley the Strangler. Other neighbors adjacent to the academy, not to be outdone, have opened a poodle factory where the cries of yapping puppies compete for airtime with the interminable bully chorus of testosterone-fueled cocks. Maybe if the cocks took the poodles full on we’d have a big kerfuffle and it’d all be over. All settled and serene the way it’s supposed to be in paradise. Cock-a-poodle do! That would be nice but it’s never going to happen. People are very tolerant in these parts. They dote on their fighting cocks and preening poodles, providing plenty of space for them to live out their various dreams and dramas without the intervention of noise control from any level of government.
My arrival in Bangkok at the end of September coincided with round the clock television coverage of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseberg Oregon. This event mirrors that in Charleston S. Carolina, which received red carpet media coverage when I was last here departing for Colombo in late May. Two young men alienated from family and friends go on shooting sprees in separate events occurring within three months of each other, no surprise really when you realize that on average in America 88 people die a day of gun-related wounds (this statistic courtesy of another TV friend, Don Lemon of CNN). Both of these men acted alone because they are alone, totally isolated in their own warped minds, on the run from themselves, from the anonymity, aimlessness and the anarchy of lives lived without meaning, or purpose, or above all, a sense of belonging in community. The worrisome thing is that young men like this abound everywhere, not just in the America but also in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Tibet and Toronto. Their number is legion. They are the dark angels of our time, many of them wired up and ready to explode.
How do we address this reality? Gun control legislation is a starting point, obvious to everyone in the developed world it seems except the Americans. They’re too busy selling arms to save the world to begin disarming at home. Is it still possible in such chaos to find a moment’s calm wherein hidden opportunities might also become more apparent? Now that we are connected so intimately through digital technology, how do we learn to communicate more authentically? How can globalism acquire depths and inwardness that sustain it more than mere goods and data? These are important questions but the most urgent question of all is this: how do we begin again, if it’s not already too late?
We begin with the heart by composing a new collective fiction, since we humans live by the stories we tell ourselves. We give young people the tools to exercise their imaginations and creativity rather than weapons of mass destruction. We encourage them in the collaborative practice and cultivation of the arts, which connect us to beauty and our innate capacity to recognize, preserve, and create it in this world.
Our fourth focus group at the Monkey’s Tale Centre took place on the morning of September 23rd featuring the first two toys of the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum, Kolams and the House of Peace, both core concentration exercises. Joining us were six students from Eastern University’s Faculty of Fine Arts: Tharshini, Anuja, Navarani, Pradeepa, Gnanashakti and Varanam. Michiku Kurumata, a physiotherapist from Japan working with elders in Batticaloa, also participated. As usual our translator, Madame Rajes Kandiah, entered enthusiastically into the day’s events.
The kolam is a form of decorative painting that is drawn on the ground with rice powder / chalk / chalk powder / white rock powder often using naturally / synthetically colored powders in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, most parts of Kerala and some parts of Goa, Maharashtra, Indonesia, Malaysia.
Decoration is not the sole purpose of a Kolam. They are also considered a form of protection for the home. In olden days, kolams were drawn in coarse rice flour, so the ant would not have to walk too far or too long for a meal. The rice powder also invited birds and other small creatures to eat it, thus welcoming other beings into one’s home and everyday life: a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence, mindfulness and love. Kolam drawing is a way of grounding ourselves through concentration on the breath.
Our rapidly changing world is a fearful place. No one knows whether or not the progresswe have made will lead beyond reason to complete catastrophe. The creation of beauty is an antidote to fear, which itself is the natural response to not knowing what will happen next. Because the world is moving so fast these days we make a deliberate practice of slowing down, clearing our minds and coming home to ourselves. The word rehabilitation derives from the Latin word meaning “to return home”. The natural home of all humans is the heart and we can begin moving in that direction through kolam practice.
We start by practicing drawing two kolams, one a butterfly and the other a flower, on a piece of paper using a pencil or pen. We lay down a prescribed grid of dots and join the dots to make the kolam. After completing the drawing we compose ourselves, straightening our back and emptying our mind of thought. This emptiness has power to open the heart.
The main factor in relaxing an anxious heart with kolam practice is coordination of the gesture of placing the seed in the kolam with breath. Breathing in, we hold the seed in hand placing hand over heart. Breathing out, we place the seed in the kolam. We allow an interval of one breaths between placing each seed.
We regard the act of placing the seed inside the kolam as a gesture of “ceding”, or letting go of negative emotions such as greed, anger and fear. We “seed” kolams by bringing these emotions from unconsciousness to consciousness through mindfulness of breath and body while placing each seed within the kolam grid.
First we seed the Flower Kolam, gazing at it, then closing our eyes and letting the mind rest quietly for a few minutes. When thoughts occur we neither focus on them nor suppress them. They pass like clouds floating across the blue sky, evaporating in the distance. Next we seed the Butterfly Kolam in the same manner as above, gazing at it, closing our eyes and again letting the mind rest peacefully for short periods of time.
There is a closing ritual for this particular kolam practice. We silently recite and contemplate a haiku by the Zen poet Ryokan (1758-1831) describing the meeting of a flower and butterfly. We then close with the butterfly yoga asana and a brief period of meditation. With time and practice we make our own closing rituals and poems.
the flower invites the butterfly with no mind
the butterfly visits the flower with no mind
the flower opens, the butterfly comes
the butterfly comes the flower opens
10.2 THE HOUSE OF PEACE
The House of Peace is based on a traditional carpenter’s puzzle adapted at the Butterfly Garden to illustrate the importance of bringing one’s inner and outer life into accord. Social and ecological harmony depends on people understanding that they do not exist in isolation from the rest of creation nor are they sovereign over it. We are part of an intricately interwoven web of relationships embracing all beings. We are custodians and co-creators of beauty.
Understanding the concept of interdependence can be useful in post-conflict situations where reconciliation and healing require nurturance on three levels – the psychological, the political and the ecological. If these realities are not connected and interwoven with goodwill and genuine understanding the war within and without will never end. Reconciliation requires dialogue, discernment, patience and practice over the long haul. It must be taken seriously but not so seriously that it stifles creativity. This is where the Out-of-the-Box Curriculum comes in. It offers different modalities of engagement and understanding, some ribald and ridiculous others rather more solemn and serene, but all engaged in the spirit of play.
The House of Peace is a puzzle consisting of a simple wooden box containing a block of wood and seven nails. In training sessions we give new participants this puzzle box asking them to make a house with the seven nails contained therein. We also show them an assembled model to demonstrate what a House of Peace looks like when finished and we distribute the diagram illustrated below which provides rudimentary notes on its assembly ad maintenance.
People participate in the House of Peace ‘building bee’ blind; that is, they cannot see what their neighbors are doing nor can their neighbours see them. This arrangement is intended to discourage the temptation to copy. A bell rings at the beginning of the session followed by a five-minute period of meditation allowing people time to settle down bringing the mind into the heart. After this, when the bell rings a second time, house building begins in earnest with silence maintained overall. When participants have finished building their houses they carry them to a central circle which, when everyone is present, becomes the Village of Peace.
The Village of Peace dialogue takes place around a council fire or ceremonial stone. It provides an opportunity to examine and discuss the relationship between ecological wellbeing and the practice of the arts. If a Peace Garden is being newly introduced into a community the House of Peace exercise followed by a Village of Peace Dialogue provides an ideal forum for discussion of the basic process of the Garden Path: Earthwork, Artwork, Heartwork and Healing.
On one level the House of Peace is a simple child’s game intended to bring delight anyone who takes part. On another it is a densely compressed symbol of Garden Path culture, which only comes to life when engaged through play.
THE HOUSE OF PEACE: 10 Points for Contemplation
- Container – your community of relative and friends
- Block of Wood – the world in constant change
- Upright Nail – yourself, also in a state of constant change
- Lower Crossbeam – acceptance of life – letting go, letting be
- 1st Gable Nail – letting be with Mindfulness
- 2nd Gable Nail – letting go through Earthwork
- 3rd Gable Nail – letting go through Artwork
- 4th Gable Nail – letting go through Heart work
- Healing – balance of inner and outer elements
- Raising High the Roof Beam – walking the Garden Path
10.3 THE ART OF EQUANIMITY IN COOPERATIVE COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT
Focus Group No. 4 – Monkey’s Tale Centre, Batticaloa / Agenda
Sunday August 23: Kolam / House of Peace – 9 AM through 12:30 PM
Facilitators: E. Kularaj, K. Thevakanthan
Translator: Rajes Kandiah
Guests: Michiku Kurumata and Paul Hogan
Participants: 6 students from Eastern University Fine Arts Department
- Opening kurumpeti circle under the mango tree in front yard of Monkey’s Tale Centre
- Assembly in the painting hall where Master Kularaj gives preliminary instructions
1st Concentration Exercise
- Participants are given a traditional kolam design (butterfly and flower)
- They are also given a small palmyrah pouch containing kundamuni seeds and seashells
- After a short period of silent meditation (5 minutes) they begin the kolam concentration practice
- They place seeds (41 in number) on dots in kolam mindfully following their breath
- With each breath they pray for the world, for others and for their own needs
2nd Concentration Exercise
- Participants are a given template from Mask Workshop’s story circle “ribbon map”
- They are given pencils and color in the spaces to make abstract design
- This exercise calms and prepares mind for the House of Peace exercise
- 15 minute break for tea
House of Peace
- Participants form a circle in back yard around centre stone
- A House of Peace is set up on the centre stone
- There are mats randomly place around front and back yard, one per person
- Participants sits on mats and try to build their own House of Peace
- When they are all done they carry their house back to centre
- All the house are assembled in a circle around stone to form Village of Peace
- A description is given for the meaning of each nail in House of Peace
- Each person writes down a short sentence about peace
- From these sentences together a song or poem is made
(i) Father Paul made an interesting suggestion when we talked about the House of Peace sessions the next day on the verandah of the Monkey’s Tale Centre. He wondered if might not be a good idea to invite the Bishop of Batticaloa, a Hindu swami, a Muslim moulavi and a Buddhist Bikkhu to participate in an ecumenical priest’s House of Peace program. Such an event has the potential to make national news and generate public participation in a countrywide Village of Peace dialogue.
(ii) The five women who participated in the House of Peace workshop are students from the Faculty of Fine Arts at Eastern University. At the end of the session they spontaneously composed and sang this song.
peace is a smile straight from the heart
embracing friends and family
strangers and enemies
right from the start
nothing will keep us apart
nature shows her smile in beauty surrounding
we respect all communities and their icons
diverse with love abounding
right from the start
nothing will keep us apart
Chiang Mai, Thailand
October 10, 2015
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