Antibes, Ashtanga yoga, betrayal, depression, family life, incest, Louis Armstrong, Manouso Manos, meditation, mental breakdown, Mysore practice, Paul Celan, personal essay, personal history, poetry, rape, Richard Freeman, spiritual practice, travel, Upanishads, yoga, yoga communities
A quick interpretation of some notes by S. Radhakrishnan on the Upanishads
In the quiet forest
in the quiet clearing
in sun and shadow
the sage Bahva
old as a tree root
silent as an abandoned nest
sat in irritation
as an uninvited student
“Bahva,” said Baskali
“tell me the nature of Brahman.”
Birdsong from high branches.
“Bahva, what is the nature of Brahman?”
A breeze turned a leaf on its stem.
“Bahva, I pray that you tell me the nature of Brahman.”
The sage reluctantly lifted his voice from the base of his throat
(these adepts, they never understand).
“I am teaching you,”
“but you have not heard me.
The teaching of Brahman is silence.
The self is silent. The self is silent.”
I have studied with some great Western minds yogic practices and philosophies. I have engaged with excellent professors over books written on the history of Greek philosophy and was well tutored in the precise and artfully perfect science of symbolic logic. I learned to move with quickness and a well-landed fifth long sequences of petite allegro from a former premier danseur of the Paris Opera Ballet. After long, still ongoing struggles with depression and self-loathing I have made something of a home for myself in a searching spiritual practice, one that remains in many ways agnostic but is open, open, opening….
Given my history I am very lucky. I do not write these words with self-regard, self-pity, or a feeling that I am in some manner different or worse off than most. Trauma is everywhere, surging through the world in mass migrations, murders of bodies and spirits and cultures, ever more limited resources being granted to fewer and fewer people. There is trauma writ large within society as a whole, there is trauma within almost every community large and small, and there are the individual traumas that are largely unspoken and, if spoken, leave one speechless.
I have a couple of those traumas, the sort no one reacts to because it is impossible, really, to have a reaction to genuine horror other than silence. Other than wonder. I love the poet Paul Celan, he makes me feel as though there are people on this earth who understand a darkened truth. He was a great poet, one of the finest. He was gifted by a god or biology with a language that can transport and change whole societies. He created great poetry, with new language, and, defiantly, in the language of his own oppressors, after the second World War. And then, despairing of language, he threw himself off a bridge into the Seine. He understood two truths: that language is the only way through, and that language is an impossible bludgeoning tool to describe the indescribable.
On my 19th birthday I had been traveling, essentially as a captive, for several weeks with a sociopathic uncle. We had made our way from Hong Kong to remote northwestern China, almost to inner Mongolia, and were staying among Uighurs who sold my uncle powerful hashish and made half-jokes to him about buying me for a handsome sum. The women, I remember, were incredibly strong and beautiful. They had the brown skin and blushed cheeks of Mongolians, and thick long black braids. Their eyes were the color of a crow’s feather. They carried huge knives, slung casually at the hip. The knives looked like hunting knives. But we were in a small city.
There is a pause here…. I am overcome with a memory. It is a memory that returns to me often when I am in a place of pure solitude, as I am now. About a week before my birthday, we were staying in a small village. There were goats everywhere, and goat herders, and during the day it was very very hot and at night it was very very dark. And cold. I went on a walk, mainly to escape… yes, mainly to escape, although we, my uncle and I, knew there was no escape for me. Not there, not in that little village.
I put on my only sweater and a light jacket. I was so tiny, and my hair was filthy from terror and the sooted air of train travel. It was growing dark, and I was glad for the darkness, as if somehow the darkness would cover me, protect me. As I took the dirt road leading to some herder’s path, a kind man stopped me, and gestured. Somehow he made it clear, somehow but I don’t remember how, that there were dangerous wild dogs about, and that they came out at night, and that they were fearless. I thanked him, gesturing my thanks, and left, walking into the dusk.
I listened to music. Louis Armstrong. I was obsessed with Louis Armstrong. That sound. That pure pure sound. And that sweet rough voice. This little white girl from the West, adoring this man from Louisiana who learned to play for the first time in a boys’ prison at the age of twelve. He had no reason to be there, in that prison, just as I had no reason to be here, in remote China, with a crazed man who had about me crazed ideas.
In the dark, as I walked, I began to hear the sound of the dogs, their howls and yips coming through that beautiful trumpet. They sounded close. The path was rough, and I could see the lights of the village below me, growing distant.
I knew I had a choice. I could continue walking, risk the dogs, and keep to the sound of Louis Armstrong. Or I could return to that little room where my uncle sat, stoned in his hippie sarong.
And so it was, on my 19th birthday, in that town so close to Mongolia and so far from help, that my uncle raped me. He did so repeatedly. It unfolded like a plan, like a letter he had written to himself, and kept in a special envelope deep in the recesses of his angry mind. I was so broken down by then from fear, exhaustion and solitude that I barely resisted. During those few days of nightmare and violation I took many, many showers. They were cold, but there was a little room where I could be alone. In the shower, which was half open to the desert sky, there were a few lizards, curved and thin and lovely. I stood in that shower for long, long periods, feeling the cold water drip down my face and and onto my small shivering, aching body, watching those smooth calm lizards. They seemed so clean to me. As clean as I was filthy.
Eventually I made my way, alone, along trains and finally by plane, and then train again, back to Hong Kong. I kept listening to Louis Armstrong, as if his sound could lead me to freedom, to some time in the future in which the past had not happened, or perhaps could become a story that happened to someone else. I could tell the story, and it wouldn’t be me. It would be a song, perhaps. Or maybe even a bit of gossip. I spent several days stuck in that complicated and humid city, until finally I got out, and made my way home.
Well, I made my way to my home, which was not, and really still isn’t Colorado, but instead a small enclosed and ancient village in Southern France. It has Roman ramparts and sits above the Mediterranean as if it has always been there, and always will be there, like a deathless mother offering refuge to a motherless child. I stayed for weeks and weeks, wandering the cobblestone streets, sitting on the beach, burning my young skin as if trying to brand myself. I swam in the sea and I loved the sea and I felt safe in the sea. I woke up at 4AM every morning, smoked and drank orange juice, and then wandered down the half block, so silent, filled with the scents of summer and Provence, to the sea. Dawn. Thank god for dawn. Thank god for the sea. Thank god for Antibes.
I still visit Antibes as much as possible. I know, once the children have grown, that I will eventually live there, hopefully die there. There is stillness there, and brilliant light and the mistrals and the winters are so quiet that one can almost hear the rays of the sun. Old people live there, and the tourists come in June and the rich people come to their villas on the Cap, and it’s all a ritual one can relate to. It’s gentle and old and the small parks are filled with dusty decades old trails from the men playing Petanque. The outdoor market is there with its cheeses and lavender and fruits, and then the sapphire sunsets and those stone walls, as protective today as they were in the 1st Century. People I know still ask me why I ever came back to the States. I still have no answer for it. To this day it’s the only place I ever feel safe.
Eventually after years of solitude and dance and study, and then a few years of drugs and silly men, the latter being far more of a waste of time than the former, I stumbled upon practice. Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga, meditation, Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism. I found a few wonderful teachers, first Tias Little, then and still Richard Freeman, and for the past seven years Manouso Manos. Practice stayed during children, left completely during a fairly recent nervous breakdown, which has left me, still, vulnerable and weakened, like a broken bone that will never quite heal, and has now returned with renewed intensity and gratitude.
As I slowly recovered from my breakdown and from giving birth to my fifth child (third surviving), I began practicing less and less at Richard’s studio in Boulder and more at a mysore program in Denver. It felt right, I felt like I had community, was slowly making friends. I felt like I could take my damaged mind, with all its intelligence and all its stubborn self-annihilating pain, and attempt to live within my body, in the steady presence of others.
It is difficult to describe to people who have not experienced rape or incest how permanently vulnerable the body remains, how sensitive the mind becomes. Or, to be more accurate, one must choose: exquisite sensitivity or hardened denial. After attempting the denial part I settled almost involuntarily on sensitivity, and this makes for some rather interesting challenges in every aspect of life, from motherhood to friendship to spiritual practice. It can also lead to unwanted events like, say, a full-blown suicidal breakdown. But that is another topic.
During mysore practice, the body is observed. Hopefully carefully, and with infinite care, tenderness and compassion. The body is touched, ideally in the same manner. The trust that is required for a vigorous and full asana practice is almost inconceivable to many survivors of rape and incest. If the trust can be earned, and tuned, and granted over time, however, the benefits are literally infinite. Because practice is infinite. Love is infinite. And the relationships that develop in community, and with teachers, are profoundly important and life-changing, particularly to those with traumatic backgrounds.
Recently, very recently, I made the slow realization that the teachers with whom I have been practicing possess much judgment of me, of my practice, of, I suspect, my general personality. We differ greatly in our approach to practice. I am what one might call a “highly unorthodox” Ashtangi, which to some might simply mean false, or vain, or… fill in the blank. The signs that I was not exactly fitting in have been obvious to the simplest idiot for months, but in my yearning to be loved I continued on, hoping my instincts were simply the damaged suspicions created by my skewed background. But my instincts turned out to be much closer to the truth than I ever wanted them to be, and so, and so, and so…
The whole damn thing blew up. Furious emails were exchanged. For a moment there was hope that another teacher might help me, might assist me through the difficulties and differences. But that blew up too, with no explanation or acknowledgment, and I am now without a practice community. The sense of enforced solitude this has given to me is at times so difficult my skin hurts, as if it’s been peeled.
I returned this week to my original studio in Boulder. It will be beautiful to study with such wise teachers again. But for now, there is nothing but ache and loss. I cry constantly, and find the shadow of my breakdown coming down upon me, looming. A visitation from the recent past reaches toward me, and unwelcome patterns of thought imprint themselves like a cartouche with an unwanted sovereign.
My body has been observed. My body has been touched. My body and my mental patterns have been seen, and revealed, in all the nakedness practice invites. And I found my body judged, and observed not with love but with an agenda. The pain I feel from this has turned me into a wanderer, my mind taking odd dusty paths long believed healed, or at least sealed.