“untie your knots
soften your glare”
— Lao Tzu
“Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.”
Occasionally in one’s life something sudden occurs, and though it may have been building for months, or for years, or for lifetimes, if one thinks along those lines, the event nonetheless appears to the eye and mind like some hallucinatory flash from the ether. Such events are perhaps like witnessing the Northern Lights, though I’ve never seen them, but I imagine them to be ephemeral, constantly shifting, an eternal surprise to the eye and a visual trick to the mind.
The Northern Lights, however, are beautiful, and one yearns to witness them. The event I just experienced was not; it was the sort of thing one dreads, and as quickly as it arrives, the residue, one knows even as it occurs, will stick around like unwanted sap from a poisoned branch, for years. It is a flash that penetrates the body, and as it exits leaves the very skin forever altered.
Human beings, and for all we know some animal species, have engaged in spiritual life for tens of thousands of years. Two years ago my father explored the great cave paintings of Chauvet in Southwestern France, and in his description of them, of their eeriness, their depth, their beauty and their otherworldly wonder, it was easy to feel a communion with these long dead beings that bore the interwoven threads of survival, creative impulse, and spiritual searching.
When exploring art created thousands of years ago by communal bands of peoples, or reading the stunningly prescient texts of the pre-Socratics, or connecting the historical puzzle of Egyptian gods and those of Mycenae, one is always tempted to envision a uniformity of spiritual cohesion and intellectual thought: the images gorgeously morph and shift, but the seeking is the same.
And perhaps in some fundamental, wordless way this is true. Human consciousness has left in its wake a riddle, the riddle of its own awareness, and it is one we ceaselessly attempt to answer and to solve. The mutable then becomes fixed, water becomes walkable land, and the horror of one’s own mortal body becomes linked, in the mind’s surety, to an immovable Divine. Spiritual life, even one that consists primarily of questions and tracing links in an endless chain of inquiry, has then a sort of comfort. There is faith. There is shraddha, as a yogi might say. There is hupostasis, roughly meaning a contract or promise (literally a “standing under,” as a support), to the scholar of Greek and the New Testament.
When surveying practice, whether Christian, Sufi, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, one sees so much connection, so many mirrors and layers upon layers of analogous impulse, it makes one joyously hopeful that unity does indeed exist, that humans in their suffering, in their fears, in their mental patterns, are indeed…. alike.
Sadly, we are also alike in our rage, our judgment, our estrangement from love; in our loneliness, our ache, our sorrows existential, our sorrows of loss, our violence and fear. We are alike, too, in the manner in which societies, governments, communities large, communities small, right down to the individual, tend to use spiritual practice as a cudgel and a cave, as a mask for judgment and easy decision.
One week ago I had a falling out with the founder of the Ashtanga shala where I practice, or, used to practice. She and I have known each other a long, long time, and have always had enormous differences in our practices and personalities. I am a perfectionist, deeply insecure, never settled in a belief system, constantly questioning, wondering, asking. I am, I have always been, an unsettled person. And I am aware, constantly aware, that the spiritual practices toward which I am drawn – yoga and Buddhism – will forever be in some sense alien to me, to my birth as a Westerner whose family is much closer to the Mayflower than to Mysore. My grandfather was an Episcopal priest, brought up on an estate in New York and in a townhouse on the Upper East Side. Why, then, and how, did I come to be drawn toward a practice so many thousands of cultural miles away from my own antecedents?
I remember vividly the day my sister and I jointly decided we were no longer going to church, and no longer Episcopalians. It was a Sunday. We were upstairs in her bedroom. We were lolling around on her bed, lazy, giggling, half arguing, half knowing what the other would say before it was uttered. As if in tandem, we looked at each other. No more. No more church. No more pretending. We called my mother, who was at work. That’s it, we told her. We are not going.
When she died a few years later my sister was rather absurdly given a full formal Episcopal funeral. But in my mind, my mind eternally connected to her mind, I knew that wasn’t the practice for us. We will always be lying around on her bed, worshiping at the feet of David Bowie and (the good) David Byrne, arguing about our parents, envious and adoring of one another and in sisterly communion saying “No. That isn’t our practice. We’ll find our own.”
But I didn’t find my own. Or rather, I jumped from practice to practice, for a long time. First and always, with an attachment bordering on the erotic, ballet and music became, and remains, though in a different way, my practice. And then academics. Particularly poetry. And then travel. Wandering. That’s it, I would think to myself. Being a nomad in a settled world will keep me dropped in. Then for awhile cocaine was my practice. Cocaine and Stevie Wonder and Al Green, and, oddly, an obsession with Bach’s sixth Brandenburg that would deafen and bore my high, jittery friends. Stilettos and long tresses and late night long forgotten conversation with my-still best friend. That was a really fun practice. But it only got me to nose bleeds and crushing depression later on.
Somehow, through the drugs and vodka and pills and anti-depressants I found myself bleary in a yoga class. I thought it was beautiful, and I thought the instructor even more so: I developed a wicked crush on a slender woman with waist length mermaid blond hair who spoke to me about Tarot and Virabhadrasana II, and how everything in existence was essentially a metaphorical stand-in for something else. She told me that cocaine was the perfect drug for the Gemini-Pisces mix that I am, but that I had to move through it. She told me psychiatrists are essentially sexually frustrated idiots. I loved her. Now I think a lot of what she said was beautiful bullshit, but my gratitude to her wisdom about my self-destructive patterns will always remain true.
Finally I landed in the lap of Krishnamacharya. Or, to be more precise, his most famous students: BKS Iyengar, and Pattabhi Jois. And there I have remained, slowly, slowly establishing an asana practice, a meditation practice, and, even more slowly, altering the egoic vision I’ve always had of the world around me. So beautiful, the practice, when the “me” fades away altogether, and there is nothing that remains except the smoke of whatever burned. Then it takes hard shape again, the ego, the desires of the heart, the hunger of the mind, the judgment of one’s body, and practice begins again from the beginning, wherever that is.
We carry our histories like mules. And our habits intertwine themselves to our flesh like mineral veins in hard granite. Our minds are stupid and stubborn, hard to train and easy to indulge. The hungers of the body, for food, for drugs (and drugs come in many forms), for fucking, for control, for losing control – they are endless, and, I believe, unlike what is taught in much spiritual practice, that they are not bad. Indeed, that hunger can be grand, and lead to creative, aesthetic, and spiritual revelations that would without craving be impossible.
And so I practice. And I struggle with practice. I struggle with my ego. I struggle with my age, with my fading beauty, my sharp and lonely mind. Practice has made me far more lonely and far more loving. I actually do love, now; I couldn’t before. A few days ago I led my precious students in pranayama. They dropped in. They trusted me. They trusted their own sacred bodies, their own breath. I looked at them, and wondrously I saw not bodies, not personalities, but beings. Just beings. And the only thing I felt, the only identifiable thing on the horizon, was love. Just love. God what a gift.
Which makes it all the more painful, all the more strange, to have recognized, after a long, long time of denying it, that I have been engaged with and working with a teacher who thinks poorly of me. She thinks poorly of my practice, of my habits, of, I suppose, my general personality. A week ago, when I finally allowed the truth of this division to settle on me like some sort of invisible sticky dust, I was shocked. And furious. Affronted. How… how on earth… how could a teacher say such things to a student… I spluttered on and on in my mind.
In my pain I reached out to another practitioner who knows her. I placed people in the middle, trying to create my own little war. I did this unconsciously, hoping to find connection, hoping to find love and support and a prop for my delicate, fragile ego. No go. It is a real falling out, with a real person, who has totally different values, totally different opinions. A real falling out with a real person who doesn’t like me.
Impossible, the pain. However, even now, just a week later: what a gift, the pain. Because not every damn person is going to feel love, or even affection, for another practitioner, even though they stand together in a similar practice day after day, year after year. And accepting this shadow, this simple fact, is an amazing and wonderful challenge to the power of the ego. Stunned, I was: she doesn’t like me. Stunned, I was: the person I confided in just doesn’t want to “go there” with me.
This evening, I hear a voice, like a distant call of birdsong: practice. Practice through it. Practice with it. The pain itself is the practice. The rejection is the practice. The cultivation of practice in the face of such loneliness… is the practice.
Why bother? Why not have a drink, seduce my husband, and call a friend to bitch for an hour? Because practice is where the poetry is, where the flash of love’s absence and love’s presence abides, where the dance is, and I want to dance the dance, even when it hurts.