santosha

Wrote this while sitting in Cafeteria (formerly the Muddy Cup) last night:

So… I went to bed angry last night and woke up angry this morning.  It’s not a state that’s conducive to restful sleep.  I was jealous of someone; two someones.  I kept asking myself, “Why do they get everything handed to them on a silver platter?  Why do they, without the slightest modicum of planning, preparation, or forethought, stumble into opportunities that make the things for which I’ve worked my ass off look like garbage in comparison?”

And I started thinking about yoga, and to my discredit I started wondering if there was anything in yogic philosophy to justify my anger and jealousy.  I went through the yamas – ahimsa (non-violence), satya (truthfulness), asteya (non-stealing), brahmacharya (restraint from sexual indulgence), aparigraha (non-covetousness) – nope, none of them really worked.  Then the niyamas – sauca (cleanliness), tapas (intense practice), svadhyaya (self-study), isvarapranidhana (offering to a higher power).  No, none of these helped justify the way I was feeling either.

But wait – I only listed four niyamas – aren’t there five?  Which one did I forget?  I thought about it and thought about it and all at once it came to me:  I’d forgotten santosha (contentment).  But far from justifying  my anger and jealousy, remembering santosha was like smothering the fire of my emotions with a warm, cozy blanket and a cup of chamomile tea.  I settled right down.  Patañjali didn’t give me any tools to keep me locked in my pettiness, but he gave me something far better:  the key to escape.  Yoga is rooted in being satisfied and calm with our own circumstances, whatever they may be, regardless of what anyone else may or may not have to deal with.

I turned to yoga looking for something, but found the exact opposite thing instead.  And it was exactly what I needed.

concealment and revelation

I have not been in very good space lately.

I feel like I am engaged in a constant battle between opening up and shutting down, letting go and white knuckling it.  I am also in a constant state of anxiety or tension, and have been for years.  Coincidence?

Sitting in a therapy session last Saturday, I found myself thinking what an odd thing it is for me to be working on opening myself up with my girlfriend when in other areas of my life (dealing with toxic people) I feel like I need to work on shutting down, protecting myself.  And then there are all these more ambiguous relationships in between where I don’t know what the hell I’m doing or should be doing.  Something about having to adopt wildly different approaches in my interactions with different people does not sit well with me.  I know what Emerson said about consistency, but some part of me still feels like it’s a virtue I should be working towards.  Perhaps I must find consistency in my motivations rather than my actions.

Time was, no matter how bad I felt about myself, I could console myself with the fact that I hadn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t become my father.  This sentiment is losing some of its capacity to soothe me.  Not because it’s untrue (it is certainly true; my recent contacts with him have confirmed this), but because it’s not enough.  What does it matter if I don’t become a jackass like him?  There are a million ways to be a jackass.  Avoiding just one is small potatoes.  I need to avoid them all.  Part of me thinks this is too high a standard to which to hold myself, but most of me thinks even if I hit the mark, it’s still the barest minimum that I owe the world.

And then there’s yoga.  Lately, I barely feel worthy of getting on my mat and practising, much less teaching.  Again, it’s about this schism between opening up and shutting down.  Even on good days it feels somewhat insincere to put on this giving, open facade when I teach.  That’s not how I treat myself.  To my discredit, it’s often not how I treat the people I love.  Yet what am I supposed to do, act like a jerk when I teach?  That’s clearly not an option; I try to be my best self when I teach.  Is there some sort of middle ground which I haven’t found yet?  Is it possible for me to be genuine when I teach without being a jerk?  Or, better still, is it possible for me to be giving and open the rest of the time, with myself as well as others, without it feeling forced?  I guess the Right answer is to work on being more my better self when I’m not teaching, and it will feel more real when I am.  But then that gets back to the issue of needing to adopt different approaches with different people, and needing to shut myself down to some toxic people without being open or giving with them.  And this in turn brings me back at the question of whether I can find a consistent motivation in all of my actions, whether opening myself up to the people I love, closing myself off to emotional zombies and vampires, or teaching a yoga class.

And suddenly, it’s method acting!  Director, what’s my motivation in this scene?  How about the act?  How about the whole play?  Hey!  Isn’t there anyone directing this thing?

It took some rambling, but I think I’ve arrived at the right question.  Why am I doing what I’m doing?  Guess that’s my essay question for homework.

Rolling the hard six

So… after a few months of renewed communication via email, I met with my father yesterday morning for a bike ride. We rode the rail trail out to the bridge in Rosendale; spent about two hours together. It was the first time since 2002 that I’d spent any time with him. I asked him about his job and about his siblings, and he told me a little about his health as well (his prostate cancer responded very well to treatment, and he’s free of cardiovascular disease – a concern, because it runs in his family). The only question he asked me during our time together, on the other hand, was how my company keeps track of me while I’m telecommuting; i. e., how they know I’m actually working. It really felt like a continuation of the last conversation we had in 2002; him talking about himself and his beliefs and interests, and me listening. For a while yesterday evening, I considered the possibility that perhaps he was just trying to avoid any sensitive topics (and maybe this was true); but he really didn’t ask me anything at all. It wasn’t surprising, but it was disappointing.

I gave him my sister’s email address, as she asked me to, and he seemed happy for (and surprised by) that. Perhaps she will be willing to come with me if I meet with him again.

I don’t know if I’m being too harsh on him or missing something or jumping to unwarranted conclusions. It wouldn’t be the first time I misread a situation. But I don’t think I’m wrong here to let my memories of the past colour my experience of the present. He doesn’t seem much different from who I remember, and, well, I guess that’s what I have to accept if I want to continue having contact with him.

Watchmen – a review

A review of the graphic novel, that is, which I finished reading this morning.

I should start by saying that I’m generally not a fan of the comic book / graphic novel genre, though Maus and Persepolis were both very, very good, and lived up to the hype surrounding them. But both of those titles used what is an essentially frivolous medium to look at deadly serious real world issues, and I think that’s why they worked. Watchmen, on the other hand – well, vigilante crime fighters in skin tight suits of primary colours isn’t exactly a big stretch for a comic.

Having said that, Watchmen wasn’t half bad, and it did raise some interesting issues. The first, of course, is the question that is explicitly asked by the story: Who watches the ones who watch over us? This question has been asked to death, though, so I’m not going to devote any more ink to it. Or pixels, rather. I’ll move on to some of the other questions that occurred to me: Do we, individually or as a species, need to have an enemy in order to define ourselves or establish our sense of identity? Deprived of such an Other, do we necessarily create one for ourselves? And, um… what if we didn’t? How would that go?

I think the answer to the first two questions is probably yes. Perhaps a nuanced yes, but one way or another, for almost all of us, yes. The third and fourth questions? H’mmm. It just occurs to me now that those are the questions I’m asking by resuming correspondence with my father. Interesting.

Release

I was thinking today about nature and civilization, and how arbitrary the line between them can be. Everything ultimately was produced by natural forces, right? So is it just the act of laying human hands on something that makes it an artifact of civilization? This was touched on briefly in His Dark Materials. Perhaps a more significant distinction is our expectation of things, depending on whether we call them natural or man-made. We expect natural things (trees, forests, mountains, cockroaches) to change. They gradually come into existence, then just as gradually die away. Generally, both of these processes are happening at the same time, so like the Scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz, it’s hard to say whether something is coming or going. Adding to the complexity, things in the natural world are in a constant state of becoming something else. A mountain is constantly being eroded by wind and water, and what was once mountain is now silt; and what was once silt is now river bed or flood plain soil. Animals are constantly playing host to myriad bacteria and fungi, which, far from parasitic, are necessary parts of the larger animal’s existence. Where do I end, and the flora in my gut begin? It’s hard to say. In nature, everything is constantly in flux, and nothing is well defined.

On the other hand, we seem to expect man-made things to exhibit a bit more consistency. Once something is made, we expect it to last. But that’s nonsense, isn’t it? It’s a basic tenet of Buddhism (and the second law of thermodynamics) that everything falls apart. Doesn’t matter if I made it, you made it, Flying Spaghetti Monster made it, or it came into existence on its own. It will, eventually, return to its most basic components. All work we do sometimes seems like a struggle against acceptance of this basic, undeniable fact.

I’ve forgotten where I was going with this… oh yes. In his speech this afternoon, President Obama talked about how it’s time for us to take responsibility and fix what’s broken. I know he’s right, but I’m embarrassed to admit that part of me would rather look for excuses. “It’s all going to fall apart anyway, so why bother?” Well… here’s why. It’s not about the end result. It’s not even remotely about the end result. It’s about the work itself. Honest work undertaken with whole hearted intention and awareness (tapas and svadhyaya for all you yogis out there) creates its own reward (isvarapranidhana), regardless of what the material consequences may be. Of course whatever we build is going to fall apart in the end. If it didn’t, it would rob us of the opportunity to rebuild it yet again.

Speaking of fixing what’s broken, I finally initiated email correspondence with my father in November. At first, I just wanted to thank him for letting me (and my sister and brother) know about his health issues, and wish him a speedy recovery. But we’ve kept emailing back and forth. We haven’t touched on any of the big issues that divided us for years. We’ve really only talked about movies, actually. But, well, I had to start the rebuilding process somewhere.

The legend lives on

Perhaps of limited interest to the readers of this blog, today is the 33rd anniversary of the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I won’t go into details here. The wikipedia entry is quite a good summary. I usually mark the day by thinking about nautical disasters in general, and my father, because this is one of his favourite songs. I still haven’t contacted him. I still need to contact him.

I don’t know what it is that makes nautical disasters so compelling for me. I think of a line by Dar Williams: “I thought the ocean; the ocean thought nothing.” Maybe it’s because despite the incredible human ability to anthropomorphize and personify almost everything in our environment, the ocean resists, absolutely. It is not kind, it is not cruel; it just is.