Mudra Musings: Its Reasons and Its Beings
Mudra is the Tool for Chaos
By Craig Warren Smith
“Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news…Chaos is the great space of emptiness that occurs before genesis. … This space provides an opportunity to reconnect with what lies under the chaos and negativity — inherent awakened nature. Another way chaos is good news is that when things seem very bad, there is a big opportunity for something good to take place.” – Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche1
Mudra is for NOW
In 1974, the same year Trungpa Rinpoche introduced Mudra Space Awareness (Mudra) to us hippies, he uttered the iconic phrase, “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news.” It was not just a bumper sticker. It was a prediction. He warned us that chaos was coming within the scope of our own lifetimes. Trungpa wasn’t just prophesying capitalism’s demise. He conveyed a kind of Dante’s inferno in which one would enter the gates of hell and then resurface the better for having gone through.
Trungpa wasn’t just prophesying capitalism’s demise. He conveyed a kind of Dante’s inferno in which one would enter the gates of hell and then resurface the better for having gone through.
Anticipating the breakdown of modern society, he transmitted two upayas (skillful means in Sanskrit) that are fierce and intense enough to transmute the chaos now triggered by Covid-19. These tools are the evocative, haunting poem “The Sadhana of Mahamudra” and Mudra Space Awareness, which is the embodiment practice of the Sadhana of Mahamudra where the words of the Sadhana become postures. Thriving on groundlessness, Mudra must come out of the shadows of Shambhala Buddhism as an essential response to the imbalances that lie at the root of this dark age. The end-goal is to activate transformational “gestures” (“Mudras”) within ourselves and through those gestures, uproot materialism embedded into our lifestyles and by extension, all social institutions that define business-as-usual in the 21st century.
Mudra is a practice that creates comfort with groundlessness. Unlike yoga, chi gong or tai chi, Mudra exercises are not particularly tranquil. Each exercise intensely challenges the practitioner to be a Garuda, the mythical bird-human buried in our DNA. Garuda flies through open space, resting on space itself: groundlessness becomes its own ground. As we change our lifestyles to adjust to the Covid-19 pandemic, we too can rest in space. Mudra can help us transform and adjust to chaos. After doing the postures, we gather into small groups and are asked to put into words the experience of doing the postures. Thus we birth a new kind of language called MudraSpeak – a language of unfiltered, raw experience that can be shared.
Mudra is a practice that creates comfort with groundlessness. Unlike yoga, chi gong or tai chi, Mudra exercises are not particularly tranquil. Each exercise intensely challenges the practitioner to be a Garuda, the mythical bird-human buried in our DNA. Garuda flies through open space, resting on space itself: groundlessness becomes its own ground.
Doing Mudra in an era of Covid-19 can function like a lotus blooming in the mud; uplifting us from helplessness and depression and producing a new class of Mudra-trained leaders who take skillful advantage of the chaos unleashed by the virus. Mudra itself is not new – it has taken a full half century, right up to last year’s Mudra Summit, for leading Mudra teachers to begin to discern the framework that unpacks the depth of meaning held within the exercises, how they rework body and mind, and how to apply them in a practical way to shifting life circumstances. Mudra exercises cannot be done alone. It is a group practice. Retaining social distance, the Mudra Community is in an era of evolving online to realize the potential of Mudra to transmute chaos into human empowerment.
Chaos is Good News
So what did Trungpa mean when he said, “Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news”? Certainly Covid-19 itself is not “good news”. It is unleashing pervasive suffering. However, we can transform this suffering into compassion by applying the precious tool of Mudra. The “good news” of the chaos that the pandemic unleashed is “good” because it produces the incentive for mass awakening of society overall. “Good news” could refer to the reality that in moments of dark despair spiritual renewal is a reality. The notion that Covid-19 could be the basis of spiritual renewal is so compelling that it even made the front page of Wall Street Journal 3 – a main mouthpiece of materialism.
Since the zen-koan like phrase was published in The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, it has been adopted into mainstream culture, showing up in a Leonard Cohen concert, Pema Chodron’s books (including When Things Fall Apart) and Harvard mathematics lecture halls expounding Chaos Theory2. Chaos Theory, explains the meaning of chaos as a transformational concept. In mathematics, it refers to the reality that by deeply and carefully examining a chaotic event, you may discern the underlying pattern and meaning of the event. Applying this to sociology, Trungpa meant that chaos is an underlying reality beneath the phoney order imposed by culture. For many people, in recent years the appearance of normalcy in our society was beginning to seem very fishy as the Trump era unfolded.
How do we meet this chaos? We should greet chaos with equanimity, leaning into the specific constellation chosen in each moment. Mudra provides a lens to see the underlying sociological and psychological patterns within the current cross-sector social chaos of the pandemic by bypassing our “rational” thoughts, carefully investigating the chaos in our mind and experience, deconstructing our experience into sensory, emotional and cognitive dimensions until — wham! — we can begin to see its underlying logic and then act on that insight. Mudra demands that we let go of the experiencer altogether in order to become in sync with the underlying experiential meaning of each moment. This is the very essence of Tantra: the threshold of nondual experience. From there, we can find the crazy logic behind the apparent disorder of each moment. With that awareness comes marching orders. Trungpa Rinpoche called that moment the “lion’s roar,” when one transcends the chaos with a gesture that dispels hesitation.
Mudra as Lion’s Roar
The Lion’s Roar, which is the core of one of Trungpa’s books4, became watered down as pop psychology5, but only Mudra transmits Lion’s roar as experience. It refers to the commandment, often articulated by someone playing the role of “shadow,” in leading a Mudra exercise. After the shadow leads the practitioner step by step to a logical precipice, the practitioner must create an emotional leap that lies beyond the rational mind. This leap is what is called “Mudra,” a gesture that catapults one into ineffable nondual awareness is which neither self nor other exists. At the same time, this gesture clears the chaos. It creates certainty and clarity. Dispelling confusion, it provides the marching orders so that a path forward can be made with tremendous confidence.
This leap is what is called “Mudra,” a gesture that catapults one into ineffable nondual awareness is which neither self nor other exists. At the same time, this gesture clears the chaos. It creates certainty and clarity.
“Lion’s roar” sounds angry, and in Tibetan spiritual terms it may be considered “wrathful,” but actually the focus is not so much anger but total engagement, total arousal. It could be a very subtle shift of mind or it could be fierce. My favorite example of this comes from 1984 when I was attending a seminar conducted by Trunpga in Pennsylvania. One day, I was walking down a hallway alongside Pema Chodron. As we walked, we loudly overheard someone making caustic remarks about Trungpa. Without warning, tiny 5 foot 2 inch Pema Chodron, dressed in nun’s robes, jumped up onto the guy and started pummeling him with her fists while she shouted “don’t do that”!!! It was her Lion’s Roar.
Lion’s Roar is best expressed in Western philosophy by the Danish philosopher Keirkegaard6. Considered the first existential philosophy in the early 19th century, he advocated the notion of “Leap of Faith” in which one goes beyond logic to powerfully assert one’s own truth. Leap of Faith marks the boundary between German idealism marked by Hegel and Kant and later French philosophers of phenomenology, such as Husserl. In Mudra, we call this “leaning in” to a moment. It relates to certain Mudra slogans like, “Act As If,” which means make a 100% gesture as if you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. In recent years, this notion was adopted as a rally for women to define their role in the workplace by the Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg7.
In other words, Lion’s Roar — aka Mudra — is the solution to chaos. It cuts through the surface of chaos to achieve certainty. Among the bewildering array of upayas (meditation methods) introduced by Trungpa, Mudra is certainly not the only one that could be described as Lion’s Roar. Trungpa found the Lion’s Roar principle in design methodologies, particularly those of the Japanese tradition; for example when a master of Ikebana places an object in a gesture that ”brings heaven to earth” in a holistic design, when a kyudo master shoots the arrow, when a calligrapher makes a transcendent stroke, or when an adept Japanese filmmaker shouts “cut?” to open a new dimension into storytelling.
Mudra’s gestures emerge from the spectrum of every sensory realm and every dimension of the mind/body relationship.
What sets Mudra’s Lion’s Roar gestures apart is that they are not tied to a craft, a sense perception, an art form, or realm of expertise. Mudra’s gestures emerge from the spectrum of every sensory realm and every dimension of the mind/body relationship. This is what ties Mudra to theatre where the aim is to draw upon all senses and the mind/body interaction to transform the actor/audience relationship. This is also what links Mudra to life when shape-shifting must occur to adapt to shifting circumstances — like the Covid-19 pandemic.
So here we are more than 40 years later wondering what to do as if Trungpa never offered clues to how to handle chaos. Groundlessness is the ground of Mudra, We may think that our ground is our job, our family, our body, our mind, our breath, our life. But these are all temporary. The bardo of life gives way to the bardo of dying, which is all about overcoming letting go of everything so that we can launch graciously after our last breath.
- Chaos is Good News, Myth of Freedom. https://books.google.co.id/books?id=wX9O-rhRW7sC&pg=PA88&lpg=PA88&dq=chaos+is+extremely+good+news+myth+of+freedom&source=bl&ots=xGt8j0Imvb&sig=ACfU3U2u-t7FwSm-j8MV-e3E5GLPUzrliA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiRpIvGsajoAhUBfX0KHRNqB1gQ6AEwBHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=chaos%20is%20extremely%20good%20news%20myth%20of%20freedom&f=false
- Chaos Theory: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaos_theory.
- A Coronavirus Great Awakening. Wall Street Journal. 3.27.2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-coronavirus-great-awakening-11585262324
Q & A with Leading Mudra Teachers
Karmê Chöling and Mudra Institute are presenting a Mudra Space Awareness Summit: A Radical Mind-Body Immersion, Oct. 22-29, with an option of attending just the weekend, Oct. 25-27. Both programs welcome newcomers as well as Mudra adepts.
In anticipation of this deep dive into Mudra Space Awareness, we asked the teachers some questions about their relationship to this profound mind-body discipline.
Please share the first time you participated in Mudra Space Awareness. What were you going through? What attracted you to begin with?
Dr. Craig Warren Smith: I was about 21 years old, and an activist in the early gay rights movement around the time of Stonewall. Though I already had an excellent education at Stanford and UC Berkeley, I was in the radical fringes of the counterculture and full of anger at the homophobic bias in all cultures. I needed very powerful medicine to get grounded in everyday reality and let go of my anger. When I saw my first Mudra exercises led by Trungpa Rinpoche at Karmê Chöling in 1971 and later in Boulder and Berkeley in the early/mid 1970s, I was immediately, passionately attracted and that feeling continues to this day. I could not make sense of it. But it appealed to my radical, intense nature and led me into a lifelong journey into dharma.
What might a first-time student experience?
Acharya Suzann Duquette: You might say that at first you either love Mudra or hate Mudra! Then as you work with Mudra as a discipline, you find its treasures and positive influence on your awareness, creativity, self confidence, and ability to stay in your body. I would say many more people today than in years past find the wakefulness of Mudra to be completely relevant to life on planet earth and a powerful antidote to aggression, ego fixation, speed, and sleepiness.
What is the relationship between Mudra and meditation?
Greg Heffron: Mudra is meditation, but in a way which threads through every aspect of movement, speaking, sensing, acting. It is the definition of “Meditation in Action.” However, it has completely changed and turbocharged my sitting meditation practice (especially mahamudra).
Is Mudra Space Awareness a dance tradition?
Dr. Craig Warren Smith: One could say that Mudra is dance. From a vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhist) point of view, dance is the joyful play of opposites. Mudra exercises work with such play on many levels both physical and mental. The exercises were influenced by Trungpa Rinpoche’s early training in Monastic Dance in his monastery when he was a teenager in Kham, Tibet. Later on, after teaching Mudra for decades, I was given an opportunity to teach Mudra to the graduating class of the Juilliard School of Dance Department in New York’s Lincoln Center. Though these were the most highly trained dancers in the world, they were overwhelmed, tearful, challenged and inspired by Mudra. It transcended their training. Many them felt that Mudra spoke to why they became dancers in the first place.
Is Mudra Space Awareness a parallel practice to Qigong?
Acharya Suzann Duquette: These are both powerful embodiment practices that lead to a strong connection with earth, flexibility in body and mind, increased mindfulness, and presence. Mudra, or “gesture” in English, results in heightened awareness of body and the multi-dimensionality of space, and it increases confidence. Qigong works with physical strengthening and flexibility, the energetics of the body, and the stillness and clarity of mind.
How has this mind/body practice supported your life-long spiritual inquiry?
Greg Heffron: Mudra has shown me that the spiritual search doesn’t have to limit itself to ‘calming techniques.’ Mudra finds calmness within challenge, resistance and even fear itself. Conquering these ‘rough’ territories, Mudra then can open us up to deep calm, beyond our small-minded preferences. This is such a radical, tantric “twist,” that one comes away understanding that the “hard core” aspects of being a living being in a living body — pain, fear, confusion, and so on — are all 100% valid experiences if we orient towards them instead of running away from them.
What question begs to be asked?
Greg Heffron: What if I’m not strong enough for Mudra? This isn’t really an issue. Mudra can be adapted to different bodies with different issues. Most of the strength requirements are about using the strength you have rather than “achieving” what another student might do. We’ve had people in their 80s doing Mudra for days at a time, as well as people with disabilities. Thus far, nobody has been injured (although sore muscles do happen), and we’ve found solutions that worked.
Acharya Suzann Duquette: If Mudra is a group practice, what influence does it have in a person’s everyday life? While Mudra is only done in groups, there are many aspects that can be integrated in life. These ways have continued to evolve over 50 years, and are now referred to as the Six Spokes. A key aspect here is how one brings awareness to any moment in order to make a “gesture” in one’s life. Gesture here, or Mudra, is synonymous with waking ourselves up and propelling us to take the next step forward with intent. Mudra’s effect on our daily life will be a main theme of the upcoming Mudra program at Karmê Chöling, October 22-29.
Dr. Craig Warren Smith: Why does the Karmê Chöling Mudra Summit speak to the current moment? The circumstances of the mid 70s when Mudra Space Awareness was developed are completely different than our own time. Today we’re in a groundless moment when we can no longer count on entering passively into the steady unfolding of paths and stages of dharmic paths. This groundlessness is reflected in the recent upheaval in Shambhala, in the leaderless nature of the Trump era, in the acceleration of global warming and pun-precedented wealth inequality and threat of terrorism. This is a time similar to when Padmasambhaba went to extreme actions to conquer the Tibeten Bön tradition, and thereby turning Tibet into the world’s platform for transformational spiritual development. It was a similar time when Trungpa Rinpoche made a crucial decision (codified in “Sadhana of Mahamudra”) to let go of the trappings of Tibetan culture and make a radical, outrageous connection to the most inspired hippies and intellectuals of the counter culture. This is a similar time. It is time for radical, transformative action, action that transcends hesitation. Mudra actually requires this groundlessness. We begin every exercise with total groundlessness and we end it that way too. Groundlessness is the ground of Mudra. But to use today’s groundlessness to optimal benefit, we can not do it alone. We need a group. The Mudra Summit will create such a group.
Times up for Patriarchy!
Times up for Patriarchy! Well, only if we make the inner changes that dispel dominant tyrannical behavior from our actions. We must rework the mind/body balance, rework the senses, totally reject aggression by meeting it on its own terms.
By introducing us to the vastness of space, Mudra exercises connect with the heart and defeat the patriarchy within us. It doesn’t happen without training. Mudra rips patriarchy from one’s behavior like a nurse ripping a bandage to get the job done as quickly as possible. Then we can respond creatively to each moment.
What’s “Space” Got to Do With It?
Introduced by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in the 1970s, “mudra space awareness” was the name given to a theatre training practice that we pursue here. In the past decade we here at Mudra Institute shortened the phrase to Mudra alone. But that does not mean that space doesn’t matter.
Here are the seven ways that “space” plays an important role in Mudra training:
1) Mudra refers to optimal action — action that resolves duality. For actions to be optimal, they must arise in a spacious (mental) environment. Therefore, each exercise begins with an orientation to space as it exists in the present, e.g. by scanning.
2) Therefore, mudra exercises always evoke a subjective experience of vastness. Without spaciousness, actions would be mere ordinary reactions, not transformational.
3) Senses are not physical mechanisms but “fields” of spaciousness. Each sense field has its own quality of space. Seeing has a quality of space that is different from hearing or touching. Reducing each sense field to its essential nature reveals it to be space.
4) Seeing the co-dependence of” this” (the subjective — over here — nature of experience) and “that” (the seemingly external nature of experience) requires establishing a spacious viewpoint.
5) While gesture (Mudra) is a masculine action, space is a feminine context. Both work together in a balanced way. That’s why Mudra requires awareness of space. Muda + space is non-bilnary, non-dual.
7. Gestures made without space lack compassion. When gestures arise from space, they are compassionate. Thus Mudra = space + heart.
Mudra as an Extreme Sport
Normally one would have to do extreme sports or join the Marines in Syria to experience Total Involvement. Apart from that we prefer to avoid the fully engaged state.
But 100% engagement is in fact required by each Mudra exercise. If you don’t go right to the edge, it doesn’t work. As it turns out the skill of leaning into experience in this way is highly useful and actually enjoyable. Though it is what we most avoid, it is what we most want.
Join Mudra training and we how you might get to full totality without leaving the shrine room.
‘Confidence Beyond Concept’ weekend – April 2017
Mudra as “First Person” Science
WAITING FOR THE DALAI LAMA: Mudra as “First-Person” Science
Mind and Life Conference, Washington DC
6 pm, Nov. 9, 2005
The Dalai Lama is late after lunching with President Bush and Condi Rice. Thus, an unexpected gap has appeared in today’s agenda of the Investigating the Mind conference here in a Washington DC conference hall owned the Daughters of the American Revolution. For most of the 1200 participants here, His Holiness’s tardiness due to his visit to the White House became an unexpected networking opportunity. Hundreds of scientists and meditators streamed out of their seats in the main seating area and into the hallways, some wearing maroon robes. As they exchanged business cards, I found a plug for my computer. Sitting on the floor with open laptop, I’m writing you a report. Call it a “Mudra Blog.”
Everyone has an agenda at Washington conferences. This one is no exception. I’ll admit to my own: The secret purpose that brought me here is to crack the code on how to communicate Mudra to larger audiences.
I have three comments to make:
1) Pondering Francisco’s Gesture
Being here causes me to remember my friend, the late Francisco Varela. Though he died four years ago from cancer, his spirit is very much here. I knew Francisco well in the 1970s where we both did Mudra together in Berkeley. Even back then, I knew his inspiration was to bring the dharma to science. In the early 80s he made his first gesture that brought the world of science and meditation together. He gathered together a few of his scientific/dharmic friends to conduct the first dialogue on meditation and science in the Dalai Lama’s living room at in dharmasala. A Harvard PhD scientist and a student of Trungpa Rinpoche, his dialogues became the catalyst that stimulated today’s gathering here in DC. Certainly it is a major step words the mainstreaming of Western Buddhism. Remarkably, his efforts are also changing science itself. While there was already a lot of talk about quantum physics and its parallels in Buddhism, Francisco went further than any scientist in challenging modern science’s claim that it was the arbiter of so-called “objective” reality. He brashly argued that modern science was untrue because its methods incorporated the subjective experience of the observer into its research designs.
What does all this have to do with Mudra? Well, Francisco’s action are what the Mudra principle of gesture refers to. He leaned into science. He brought science to the dharma and dharma to science. He overcame hesitation and collaborated fully, creating a community of colleagues whose influence grew as the dialogues evolved from theory to practical application. He enjoyed what he was doing and never got sidetracked by petty quarrels as the movement he spawned became embraced by dozens of academic medical schools and research institutes. At the same time, Francisco was always sensuous. He always enjoyed the process of transforming the world around him.
2) Mudra as “First Person Science”
The second point has to do with one of Francisco’s pet ideas, “first person science,” which you hear a lot at this conference. Francisco spent his last decade in a research institute in Paris and, making his ideas fashionable there, and draw upon Merleau-Ponty’s notions about “phenomenology” to coin the term neurophenomonology. The term refers to the dynamic activity in which self and other interact to produce the subjective experience of mind.
I was so interested in this idea that I looked up Francisco’s articles about First Person Science on the internet at my hotel. Yesterday, to my delight, I ended up chatting with Francisco’s junior partner, a very cute French chap named Antoin. I asked him, “What are you guys doing in Paris to actually express this idea of ‘first person science?’” He told me, “Francisco died before he was able to help us develop methods for this mind investigation which he told us was from the vajrayana tradition of Buddhism.”
Then I got it: Mudra is first person science. Put in scientific terms, Mudra expresses the “plasticity” of mind. That is, it shows that mind can take many forms as a result of one’s total gesture. A first-person researcher using Mudra can see for himself what it means to see, to touch, to hear, to experience body, to experience mind in its specific aspects.
I invited Anton to a private Mudra session, pointing out some exercises tomorrow. Hmm I wonder if I get invited to Paris to explore the idea further. Ooo-la-la.
3) The Physiology of Mudra
The third idea came from one of the points made by a scientist who spoke yesterday at the conference. It was in the form of an on-stage discussion with His Holiness, who nodded in his avuncular way as the scientist made each point. The scientist explained that the optimal state of brain function is not achieved through what Westerners call “relaxation.” This insight made me think about the intensification/relaxation exercises in Mudra, in which the practitioner is never allowed to flop on the floor. Mudra teaches us how to be fully tensed without being locked into unhealthy stress and it teaches us to let go without flopping. It seems that the scientists are finding physical evidence, expressed in brain imaging, that shows Mudra postures may be healthier than we ever imagined.
Ooops. Here comes the Dalai Lama. The security men have asked me to unhook my computer and get the hell out of the way. Till later, my friends.
Bellingham Herald on Mudra (2005)
From 12/14/05 issue of The Bellingham Herald: