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Mehndi, Circles, and Contemplative Mathematics

Math Circle 1.28.2014

Mehndi and Circles

NOTE:  This report was written by Gina Gruenberg this week, with a few mathematical notes from Rodi at the end.

(January 29, 2014) Yesterday was finally the second meeting of the “ Nexus of Sacred Geometry and Henna”.  I was a bit concerned due to the frigid weather, as Henna is a cooling herb.  In the deserts of Africa, people paint their feet - actually cover their feet with Henna - to cool their bodies down in scorching temperatures.  In the warm studio at Awbury, the kids stood around a heater trying to get their henna to dry in time to not have smeared, smooched designs. We talked about India and looked at designs and symbols used in India.  I made name tags for everyone with transliterations of their names in Sanskrit, and a handmade book with symbols used in Indian Henna.

Then we talked about black henna and how important it is to always know what ingredients are in henna before using it on ones’ skin:  “ There are several things marketed as "Black Henna", and some things believed to be ‘Black Henna’.  Some are very dangerous.  Some are harmless.When para-phenylenediamine is used to make black temporary tattoos, often called ‘black henna,’ it can cause blistering, open sores, scarring, and lifelong health problems.   Some people make a black temporary tattoo they call "Black Henna" with synthetic black hair dye containing para-phenylendiamine. “

I only use pure henna powder purchased from reputable sources; we will be making a batch (there are many recipes and varying ingredients) and rolling applicators in the course.  Henna is an ancient tradition that is thousands of years old; it has been found on mummies and was even used by Cleopatra. It is typically a group activity and in India, which was the focus of this week’s discussion, Mehndi  (the translation in Hindu) is used to celebrate rites of passage, especially Indian weddings.  Family and friends join in to give each other henna designs to celebrate this momentous occasion. We encouraged the kids to give each other henna, as it is also considered by many to be “blessing on the skin” or a talisman.

Rodi informed me that math is also a collaborative activity (which I did not know).  Of course! “Math Circle” where students discover, invent and explore math as a group!   While we were doing Henna (and some kids wanted me to draw designs on their skin), Rodi read poems about sacred geometry and nature. I am always happy to share my henna skills and I am glad they were not shy about asking.  For me, it is helpful to watch how professionals apply henna and approach designs and I find demonstrations useful so that they can create their own styles.  And create them they did!!! (see photos) No one seemed inhibited and the henna just flowed.

Rodi talked about circles.  What is a circle?  How do you make a circle, one of the most fundamental (and sacred) shapes that we know: the earth, the iris, infinity.

Next week we hope to look at Moroccan designs.  How do they differ from the designs of India, both in their meaning and their form?  And finally, how will we seal the designs so that they are clear and unsmeared in a short time when the weather is cold?  This varies from design to design and will be an ongoing experiment.  J, for example, was covered with henna paste by 5:30 when we ended.  We used medical paper tape, one solution that works as long as the henna is dry. We will also try other sealing methods like a lemon spray.

In India, the Henna bride typically has henna designs applied all over her body: hands, arms, legs and feet.  This can take 8 hours!  Then she meditates and everyone waits on her so that her henna can dry thoroughly and create beautiful stains.  They say that the longer the henna lasts the longer the marriage will last! Gina

Mathematical Notes from Rodi:

The poems I read aloud were verse 9 from Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, and a quote from Thomas Huxley’s A Liberal Education and Where to Find It.  Both were excerpted in the book I’m using as the main background for this course:  A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe:  Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science by mathematics educator Michael Schneider.*   A few ideas we discussed were

  • Plato’s 4 stages of the ascent of the mind (from his Republic)
  • which studies Plato recommended to elevate the mind
  • Schneider’s description of 3 levels of mathematics:  secular, symbolic, and sacred.  I asked the kids for their terms for school secular math (as opposed to deep mathematical thinking); they came up with “math,”  “maaaaath,” “for the 1%”, and “math with quote marks.”  We continued last week’s conversation on the definition of sacred.  We are using Schneider’s definition at this point:  mathematics that is “applied  functionally (not just intellectually) to facilitate the growth and transformation of consciousness,” and that only has “significance when grounded in the experience of self-awareness.”1  
  • Plato’s take on using mathematics and other contemplative practices2 , compared to that from the emerging field of contemplative neuroscience
  • Schneider’s explanation of the Greek position that once sensory characteristics are removed, “only number remains.” 3  
  • the inherent characteristics of a circle and different cultures’ explanations of its meaning
  •  mathematical art (I showed the kids images of the mathematical art on display at this year’s Joint Mathematics Meetings in Baltimore.  We discussed which pieces could be considered sacred geometry, with particular attention to the work of Conan Chadbourne.  Interestingly, I had printed and cut out the artworks in strips of 4.  The kids arrived and, disturbed by the insufficiently symmetrical 1x4 arrays, took scissors to the strips to give each work a single square.  You’ll see what I mean from the photo in the gallery.)

Rodi *What a book! Thank you, Mr. Schneider, for writing this.

1  Schneider, p. xxiii

2 ibid

3 ibid, p.xxvii  

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