MU, The Hardest Hitting Heavyweight Of All Time And The Incomparable Ramsey Lewis

MU, The Hardest Hitting Heavyweight Of All Time And The Incomparable Ramsey Lewis

It’s not every day that you find yourself cross legged in an empty Yoga studio staring down the guy in the 118 ad whilst he makes the sound of a large cow. As a trained actor, my friend Ed is probably a little more used to these kind of situations, but by any measure this ranks as an unusual morning. Sitting in front of us are a large bag of tea-lights, a wooden Buddha, and a monochrome picture of the hardest hitting heavyweight of all time, Ernie Shavers, bearing the cheery autograph “Keep working hard Pete and it will come to you”. I don’t think this was what Ernie had in mind when I cornered him in Vegas….

The cow sound is in fact “Mu” not “Moo” (though I’ll admit they don’t sound awfully different) and is part of an old Zen tradition hell bent on discovering the secrets of the universe. The Japanese Mu translates roughly as “no” or something like the English negative “un” and finds its origins in a Song Dynasty tale of Chan Master Joshu (778-897). With only two lines in it, it is worth quoting in full: “A monk asked Joshu, ‘Has a Dog the Buddha-Nature?’ Joshu answered, ‘Mu!’”

Without further explanation, this is exactly the kind of talk which can see Master Joshu swiftly relocated to the highest shelf, however, there is something wonderful and reassuringly strange going on here.

Zen history is fundamentally concerned with the mind’s tendency to misunderstand itself. When we look at our world, there is often a sense of a controller or “driver” operating from somewhere between the ears. This same controller sees other drivers and objects as just so many separate entities moving through its gaze, some attract and others disgust. It is exactly this sense of a solid “I” like a billiard ball, rolling around among other similar balls, which both Yoga and Zen seek to address.  The ancient Hindu Upanishads spell this problem out beautifully: “Where there is separateness, one sees another, smells another…speaks to another….But where there is unity… this is the supreme goal of life, the supreme treasure, the supreme joy”Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 4.31-2). Chanting Mu is essentially a practice to see if we might experience a taste of life stripped of this sense of separation. It asks, what would it feel like, not intellectually imagine but feel like in your bones, to know the world in this way.

What if the sense of a “me”, that person I greet in the bathroom mirror every day, does not exist in the way I imagine, and is in fact as porous and changeable as the water disappearing down the sink? The negative implied by the Mu is designed to question at a very deep level whether my assumptions about myself have any true validity. Am I really just a skin bag looking at other skin bags or am I something much more expansive, peaceful and sacred?

So to return to the morning in question, the challenge was simple: you have 24 hours to solve the secrets of the universe and to realize your mystical divine nature. Piece of cake.

We had all the provisions we needed and a small group of helpers and fellow meditators who were going to join us along the way. Now in addition to the chant itself, there is a physical side to this practice. Nantembo Roshi, a fearsome Zen master from the turn of the century, took the Mu and discovered that it could be supercharged to enhance the power of the mantra. This involves a series of muscular contractions (jaw, arms, legs, pelvic floor) combined with a glare, all of which amplify the force of the meditation. Needless to say, over 24 hours this is something of a challenge but we had all booked a day off work so there was no backing out now.

 The first six hours carried something like a sense of rhythm.

I could hear the changing of the guard downstairs as classes filed in and out whilst I had reached an agreeable level of force with the muscular contractions. Too much jaw squeeze and the Mu becomes a sort of growl, too little and you feel like you are cheating. It is amazing how quickly time passes when you find the right pace and I had started to feel that this was going to be easier than I thought. At the back of the mind always though was the sense of waiting: when is something extraordinary going to happen? Dress it up anyway you like, you are here because you want to know the answer to something. Oddly, there was a sense of shame. Feelings like “bet you think you are special for doing this” or “what have you done in your life to earn the right to know this?” were persistent and persistently unhelpful.

One of the treasures of this kind of practice though is the opportunity to sit with your thoughts for more than the odd passing moment. As these patterns arise again and again, they start to become familiar and with that familiarity comes a sense that they are not something to worry overmuch about. It’s rather like watching a horror film at midday with all the lights on: never as scary as the night before. That part of me which watched those patterns arise was neither afraid nor bored nor worried, in fact it didn’t seem to do much at all other than “be here”. Any attempt to burrow deeper into this part of me though was flatly rebuffed: the “be here” did not feel like talking back, at least not in a language that I understood. It was like trying to look into your own eyes by staring as far as you can to the left, frustrating and doomed but you just know that something is going on back there.

By the 12 hour mark, things were beginning to unravel.

Co-pilot Ed had fulfilled his promised twelve hours to be replaced by my dear wife Karen and Zen buddy Mark (Ernie Shavers had not moved, he was in for the long haul) but the earlier good vibes were evaporating fast. Having run through the full range of tones in which a human being can pronounce one syllable, I was flagging badly. I remember feeling cold more than anything else even though we were well stocked with blankets and my skin was starting to coat with an unhealthy late night film. A particularly unwelcome visitor was the fear that I had driven myself insane. Never having meditated for this long before, I was unsure what state I was going to crawl out in. At the time, the only answer was to soldier miserably on with the worrying thought that every Mu was sending me further and further towards a date with the psychiatrist.

 As the night wore on, morale nosedived. I took to lying down for extended periods and was only kept awake by the relentless chanting going on either side. I remember thinking how dull the nightlife was in Hammersmith with no fun to be heard or seen through the windows as I paced the room. Even worse, the more I ploughed on, the more I felt like I was getting nowhere. No golden Buddha appeared to anoint me with his seal of truth, no surge of fire lit up my spine as the kundalini awakened. Just a feeling of flatness and failure.

 Now I have only ever owned one Ramsey Lewis album and I must say it was very good but I would hardly call myself a super-fan. It was a surprise therefore to find “The In- Crowd” stuck firmly in my head by 4am. The deeper realms of the mind often communicate in mysterious ways but this did seem particularly unlikely. As I paced the room and stamped my feet to keep awake, around and around went the tune, which was less irritating than it sounds. For one thing the sun was up and there was a definite feeling that the worst part was over, but also something rather like an inflated wetsuit felt like it was swelling in my legs.  I had felt like this before during acupuncture and also on various Zen retreats and it’s probably best described as feeling “full”.

Zen training, which takes a lot from the world of Taoism, makes a great deal of the connection between the energetic state of the body and changing levels of consciousness so in other words you can often feel when these start to take place. 

As I paced the room, it felt at times like my feet were thundering against the floor and the Mu practically roared out. The belly also started to take on the nature of a storm-cloud swelling and emptying with each drone; imagine the sound of a powerful motorbike throbbing in Westminster Abbey and you get an idea of the visceral quality it took on. None of this, however, was half as much fun as feeling fabulously and madly horny. Sex in all its glorious technicolour filled my mind from every angle and each contraction served only to fan the flames. Much has been written about the connection between sexual energy and spiritual energy – try reading about vajroli mudra in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika for starters – and the great Tantric, Yogic and Taoist traditions all have made use of sexual practice to gain mystical insight. The trick is to know what to do with all this built up energy.

All kinds of elaborate and frankly hazardous techniques exist which involve reversing the flow of semen in a bid to channel this energy up and in rather than down and out but you have to be well-trained. As a footnote, a friend of mine tried this once and succeeded in splitting his innards, narrowly avoiding surgery. He lived to tell the tale but it taught me to be wary of amateur experimentation with this sort of thing. Anyway, as I paced the room that morning, turning the seed back and up was quite honestly the last thing on my mind!

 So we lived to tell the tale. We three finished our marathon, shook hands and headed home. Yet two week later I was feeling extremely low. Ever since the Mu I hadn’t felt quite right. Whether through exhaustion or whether I really had turned my brain inside out, I had been hit with a wave of anxiety. I didn’t want to talk to people very much and felt unsettled as though I had opened a door that wouldn’t close. I have tried a number of pranayama practices over the years which had left me feeling similar so I was acutely aware of how sensitive the relationship could be between breath and mental state. More than anything though I think was the feeling of failure. After 24 hours meditation you would hope that something would happen, but there really wasn’t much to say. Yes, I did it. Did you get anything out of it? Erm…years of therapy?  Yet a fortnight later, I lay in bed twisting the sheets and fretting as the rain fell outside. And then something happened. It crept over me quietly, or rather into me.

All my worrying became for that moment quite insignificant. I thought how funny it was that at some level all of us accept the world ends where we see the sky.  What if we could see beyond the atmosphere and see ourselves standing in the middle of a space which reached infinitely far in every direction? What if the sky was not blue but transparent so that we could see through to the stars as we floated among them? Why I found that so comforting I don’t know but all my fears in that moment became beautifully quiet, as though they evaporated in this hugeness. And that part of me that could never be afraid or bored or lacking, seemed to be very close. More than that, its peacefulness lay in the fact that it did not want a thing. All my ambitions, all my future plans, all my failures echoed like distant voices in some deep underwater canyon to be replaced by this vast empty space which asked for nothing.

I lay there for a few minutes, excited but calm and I remember the overriding sense was relief. Relief that I had not gone mad, but also relief that I had touched something sacred for what seemed the first time in my life.

Yet, it was not the first time and I knew it then. I had felt something like this when my son was born and perhaps a handful of other moments. What brought all these moments together was the total lack of fear for the next moment. I am here, right now and I don’t need to be anywhere else or busy planning my next move. You have everything you need, relax dear boy, relax…

And the incomparable Ramsey Lewis? That came the next day as I wandered to work late afternoon. The feeling from the night before had faded but I still felt like some being which had just pecked its way out of an egg. The world seemed fresh and full of colour and I felt like listening to music more than I had in a few weeks. As I reached the end of the road, the first few bars started playing on the ipod and I knew that this was going to be fun. “The In Crowd” kicked in and it nearly knocked me off my feet. It was as though I had been transferred to the world’s longest catwalk and was strutting down as the whole world clapped its hands (God only knows what I looked like).  It was a moment of genuine euphoria. The tune unfolded around me and through me while every note was just so effortlessly, radiantly full of soul that I felt like crying. As I pranced along, there was the most joyous feeling that I was unburdened just for a moment from all the malaise that had dragged beside me like a weary dog.

Have you ever been to a foreign city and enjoyed yourself not just because you were on holiday but because nobody knew who you were? It’s like the slate is wiped clean, these people don’t know you so you don’t have to wear the heavy mask of bonhomie. That is what that moment felt like. Exactly that. And of course the catwalk! So did I know who “I” was? It felt more like I knew who “I” wasn’t in that moment, and it was like shedding a great weight of sorrow and regret. What I felt then, amongst all that heavenly music, was happy and loving and utterly unconcerned with how I might look to others. And I didn’t feel in the least bit ashamed.

How much fun would life be if weren’t burdened with pretence, this need to live up to our expectations and everyone else’s? How liberating to be that stranger in a foreign city every moment of every day? What if “I” is dying and being reborn every moment? How much fun would that be…?

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