USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Meditation’
Folk Beliefs
Folk Dance
Folk medicine
Kinesthetic

Gurdjieff’s Movements

Context:

The informant – LF – is a 20-year-old female from the Seattle, Washington. She currently is a sophomore in the USC Thornton School of Music. Her parents are part of a small sect of Islam, Sufism, and often lead meditation retreats that teach the meditation techniques of George Gurdjieff. The following is from a conversation about the meditation retreats hosted by her parents.

Piece:

LF: On the retreats, they go out to an isolated place – like a retreat center. And their daily routine is, they wake up for 6am meditation. So you have to get up and be there before that. After breakfast, there’s practical work. For practical work, they do some sort of physical labor, wherever they are. At the retreat center they’ve stayed at, they’ll re-roof a building, or build a deck, for example. It’s not like charity: the work itself is a meditation; you’re getting in your body, and you’re being really physical.

There’s not a lot of talking. There’s this idea throughout the retreat of staying collected, which is, kind of like, maintaining sensation throughout your body. And it’s kind of like meditating – it’s not super talkative or out of your head. You’re supposed to, like, stay really aware. And my parents actually met at a meditation retreat, and these are traditions that have been passed down from this Turkish dude named Gurdjieff… I don’t know, he just has a lot of these philosophies and shit like that.

But after the practical work, they have these things called the Movements, which are these dances, kind of, but they’re like, derived from the whirling dervishes. It’s from this religion they associate with, Sufism. But it’s more derived from the mystics from, like, the Quran.

Me: So what is the purpose of the Movements?

LF: It’s like a meditation, and they’re really hard to do, so they take a lot of concentration and focus and intention.

Me: Do they know the moves beforehand? Did you grow up knowing them?

LF: No, my mom teaches them. She knows all of them, because she’s been doing this shit for hella long. And I don’t know them – I was always too young to participate in the retreats. But then as I got older, I would play the piano to accompany them.

Me: Do the meditations each serve a particular purpose?

LF: Yeah, they’re kind of like overcoming different physical… It’s all about the struggle. That’s the thing, is they’re enduring the struggle, and the struggle is good. And you breathe through it, and you get through it.

 

Analysis:

Like LF said, it seems that Gurdjieff’s movements and the whirling dervishes, while part of a religious tradition, transcend religion, and are ultimately meditations that allow the participant to reach a transcendent state by persevering through physical and mental struggle while maintaining a meditative mental state. Though the practices are part of the religious tradition of Sufism, the meditations can be used – and are used, evidently, by participants in LF’s parents’ retreats – for anybody wishing to strengthen their mind through meditation.

 

For more information regarding Gurdjieff’s Movements, see George Adam’s (1998) Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teaching, Nova Religio, 2(1), 161-163.

Folk Beliefs
Legends
Myths
Narrative

Metta -Lovingkindness

Informant (J.H.), my mother, is a 50 year old Buddhist meditation teacher from Los Angeles. J.H. identifies as biracial, with both African and Southern European heritage. I interviewed her after stopping by for dinner one Monday evening. J.H. had a traditional roman Catholic upbringing, and has been studying meditation for 15 years. J.H. shared one of her favorite Buddhist stories, which explains the origin of a meditative chant that she teaches. Our story takes place during the Buddha’s lifetime.

J.H.: “There were 500 monks and nuns, who were sent into the forest to meditate for the rains retreats, which lasted for three months in the winter. Within days, they came running back to the Buddha saying that evil visions and sounds and smells were haunting them and they were too scared to stay in the forest, but the Buddha sent them back. Again, they came running back to him, terrified. Little did they know, that the tree spirits in that forest didn’t want them there, so they were doing anything they could to scare them off. So the Buddha sent them back a third time, but this time he sent them back with messages of love for the forest deities. These messages were; may you be happy, may you be at peace, may you be safe, may you be free. So when these monks went back into the forest, spreading love to these deities, it melted their hearts and they welcomed them. This is called ‘Metta,’ and one would use this when dealing with their own internal fear, or pain, or sadness, or when wanting to send compassion or care to others’ fear, pain or sadness, or suffering. We still use the ‘Metta practice.’ It is a traditional Buddhist practice for emanating kindness and care.”

While J.H.’s story stands on its own, Metta, or lovingkindness, is also a central part of the Buddhist tradition. Such stories in Buddhism are common, and often walk the line between myth and legend. While they are myths to Agnostic-Buddhists such as J.H., who teaches them strictly as metaphors for a greater lesson, these stories can be considered legends by the more traditional Buddhists who do not question their literal truth. Further, this particular Buddhist folk story does not leave the timeline of human existence like most religious mythologies, as from my experience Buddhism traditionally discusses life on earth rather than any divine being or beings. Metta is a very popular form of Buddhist meditation, always using some variation of the quote the monks told the tree spirits in J.H.’s performance.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Proverbs

Ehipasiko

Informant (J.H.), my mother, is a 50 year old Buddhist meditation teacher from Los Angeles. J.H. identifies as biracial, with both African and Southern European heritage. I interviewed her after stopping by for dinner one Monday evening. J.H. had a traditional roman Catholic upbringing, and has been studying meditation for 15 years. J.H. shared one of her favorite Pali phrases, which she uses in her teachings. J.H. was hesitant by my classifying it as a ‘proverb’ due to the word’s Christian connotation in American culture, so I explained the folkloristic definition of ‘proverb’ for clarification.

J.H.: “What Ehipasiko is is basically a phrase that says ‘see for yourself’ would be the most basic translation. For me, why I chose Buddhism is because the Buddha doesn’t require people to follow a faith based narrative. It’s more about seeing how our own behaviors lead us down a path towards more confusion and pain and suffering, or down a path of peace and calm and joy and equanimity. As Buddhists, we are asked to pay attention to how we respond to situations, we’re not asked to have a being that we can’t see help us or save us from life’s truths…. Pali was the formal oral language during the Buddha’s time, but it wasn’t the written language. There wasn’t a written language until 500 years later, it was Sanskrit. Ehipasiko was the oral language, and then there was Sanskrit. Honestly, a big part of my attraction to who the Buddha… has a lot to do with who Jesus is. I think they’re very similar. Not that the religions are similar, but the men Siddartha Gautama, and whatever you want to call him, Jesus, lead very similar rebellious traditions to what was being practiced at the time. Judaism was what Jesus was rebelling against, and Brahmanism is what Siddartha was not necessarily rebelling against, but saying it wasn’t enlightenment.”

J.H.’s Buddhist Sangha is especially targeted toward people who have had struggles with society and are seeking alternative guidance or recovery through spirituality. J.H. seems to appreciate the proverb for its open endedness and universal truth. Ehipasiko makes for a good introduction to how personal of a practice Buddhism is. As a teacher, J.H. speaks fluently and openly about the history and philosophies of Buddhism in general as well as her particular Sangha, or group.

Customs

Family Meditation

From interview with informant:

“My family, every time we go on a big trip, like whether it’s an emotional trip or a physical trip, we all have to sit in the same room on a different surface and take a moment of, like, repose, that my father decides. We take or moment, and then we stand and we go on our journey. I don’t know if it’s a Russian tradition or a Jewish tradition or something from my dad’s family, but it’s something that my family does.”

This is a simple custom that makes a lot of practical sense. It serves to bring the family closer together while preparing for potentially arduous or important times in the near future. It sounds a lot like a moment of prayer, but the informant made it sound very secular, more like meditation and contemplation. It could have any mixture of cultural, religious, or familial roots like the informant suggested. A secularized Jewish prayer, perhaps, or just something a family member thought of that stuck. Not sure about the “different surfaces” aspect. That certainly makes it sound more like something specific to this particular family.

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