Sunday, December 9, 2012

So many wounds, only one tongue

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Words strain,
Crack and sometimes break, under the burden,
Under the tension, slip, slide, perish,
Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,
Will not stay still.
—T. S. Eliot

It has been a bit rough lately, and it is not just the usual weariness of another commercially saccharine Valentine’s Day. However, if I am honest with myself, I must also say it isn’t exactly unrelated. Most everyone I know is heartbroken, disappointed, or borderline cynical about intimate relationships these days. Even the people I know in seemingly fulfilling and stable relationships. I’ll get to that, but the first thread I want to pull is the fact that I have been dealing with a tenacious form of laryngitis, which has been coming and going for over two weeks. Now, trust me, I get it. I GET IT. I have already been inundated by well-meaning advice and concern offered up from the four corners of my life, and it all essentially boils down to two perspectives: see a doctor to get that checked out or explore the more symbolic/energetic message of this prolonged struggle with my voice, my truth, blah blah blah.

Those of you who know me know where this is going.

And those of you who don’t—who only know me through these words on this screen—well, you are really the point of my story today. Yeah, you, stranger.

I probably don’t need to say that I have yet to see a doctor, but it’s not because I am dismissive of the physicality of this…this plague, as I affectionately call it. By no means is the physical aspect of this situation irrelevant. In fact, I would argue that the physical, embodied, felt experience of this…whatever it is…is the only point here. Truly. On some level, I am writing about—and trying to access—the meaning of my body, or your body…and how bodies connect and commune. Sometimes beautifully, sometimes painfully discordant. But there is no language for it, really. Nothing that can convey or express exactly what it means or feels like or suggests or challenges.

How we see and experience our worlds, our lives, and definitely our relationships to others is largely defined by (and thus so often limited to) the language we use to bind it all up. If you are trained to read the world as divided up by men and women, and even more specifically into roles we play within those careful scripts, that is what you will write upon each individual you meet. You will inscribe upon the infinite possibilities of someone a very restrictive category. And you will mistake that inscription for truth, and the danger is when we assume that what we are hearing is truth. As though your readings were objective, and as though the translation was clear. As though the filters were uncomplicated. As though we all got the same script and it’s just a matter of acting it out convincingly. You be the man I am dating and I will be the woman. Action.

What bugs me
 Is that you believe what you're saying

What bothers me

Is that you don't know how you feel
What scares me
Is that while you're telling me stories
You actually
Believe that they are real

And I've got
No illusions about you

And guess what?
I never did
And when I said
When I said I'll take it
I meant,
I meant as is
As is


(Ani DiFranco, As Is)



We collapse who we are our into the words and lose that sense that everything is everything. 
And uniquely so.
So my words can never really convey to you—exactly—what it is I am attempting to say, feel, or express. Each word directs your attention to one of many fields of possibility, and I cannot control which way you go and what that evokes in you. There is what is said. There is what is heard. And they don't always align. So our responses can seem erratic. Our reactions don't always make sense.

Nevertheless, words do serve us—through them we attempt to access and excise the mystery of it all. Words are like tools, surgical and steely. But we are instruments, not tools.

I can tell you this is writing about sound. And maybe you read this as a rambling about love. Meaning cannot be contained. Or, if it is, it’s in everything.

As William Blake wrote:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

Which is why I find myself basking in the morning winter sunlight, sipping hot things, listening to sharp-angled, throbbing, loud music, and writing about the ways in which language fails. And music works.

And it will take me a long time to say something meaningful, though the words may spiral around in pretty (or awkward) sounds and images. Because they only ever point toward what I mean, deferring and deflecting meaning, like sign posts or web links: click here for more. And off we go, wandering in the labyrinth of all the words that suggest and invoke and evoke, one leading to another, never landing, never arriving.

I recently returned to an archived On Being.org interview called "Language and Meaning: An Ojibwe Story." Krista Tippett spoke with David Treuer, an Ojibwe writer and translator who has been compiling the first practical grammar of the Ojibwe language—a language, like so many indigenous languages—that faces extinction, obsoletion. One thing Treuer shares is his discovery that language is so much more than mere currency of meaning. His mother tongue allows for a distinct awareness and understanding of himself and the world that is not accessed through another language, like English. Repeat: awareness and self understanding is not always accessible through the language we wrap around it.

This tells us something very important about the words we use to express ourselves—they are not just labels slapped onto things we can all see and agree upon. In worlds both internal and external, there is infinite possibility for meaning, connection, and understanding. And these worldviews—entire systems of who and what and why we are—are not universal or generalizable.

Let’s repeat that one again, too: how one person sees and organizes the world is not the only way. There are infinite silent voices for every one given the power of Truth. And I don’t just mean to chafe at another example of cultural imperialism. I am just as surely digging around for the inner silence in each of us—the places and spaces within that haven’t yet found expression. Because the language fails. Because it can’t accommodate the experience. Some aspects of Treuer’s identity can only be expressed in Ojibwe. I get that—don’t you? I understand that there are concepts and perspectives only made available within certain discursive contexts. Language is not a reflection of what is out there. Language creates what we see and experience out there.

It’s probably worth noting, then, that space and sound are intricately and irrevocably bound. If you want to understand space, in other words, you should make a study of sound…the way it moves and undulates and fans out. And if you want to understand sound, you immerse yourself in space. Sound needs space, body. An instrument, we could say. And sometimes the only way to find space in oneself and ones experience is through a new language, a new song.

It is no epiphany to say that music so often conveys something for us—beyond the lyrics, even. We know that the melodies and the rhythms and feel of a song can express something shared, something we know is more than the words. But music doesn’t merely say for us what we can’t or won’t say…music holds the space for us to feel what we need to feel, uncensored, and to embody something that might in fact go against the confines of our language. Music allows vibrations to carry you, to give you shape from the inside out and the outside in, until a loose harmony is struck.

In the nerdy academic world in which I was first introduced to this perspective that language does more than communicate ideas, we explored the difference between constitutive and mimetic. Most of us believe that our words directly reflect and describe a solid reality—the fixed and objective world we can observe. By extension, we believe that if we just find the “right words,” we can capture that truth so that others will see it too.  And so, we (mostly unconsciously) employ language and assume we are clearly, directly, and precisely conveying to another exactly what it is we are feeling, thinking, observing, or experiencing. In other words, we think and thus act as though language merely reflects something true and real, and thus the task is to become more adept at using the tools.

But a constitutive understanding of language recognizes that words, and the discourses that evolve from them, do not reflect reality, but rather create it. Words aren’t accurate and equal currencies; they can limit and reduce. They organize the world in its complex and interconnected relationships into manageable categories around which we can wrap our minds and land, if only for a moment. This is why an Ojibwe requires his mother tongue to express certain understandings and experiences. The words create a world, and that world is not available in all tongues. Not all tongues speak of the same world, even when the word is the same.

From a cultural perspective, I think we get it. I think we can grasp the fact that an Inuit really does see hundreds of types of snow, because they have a language that allows for wintery nuances ours cannot. Or maybe we are comfortable acknowledging the seemingly “foreign languages” of women to men and vice versa. The words might even be the same, but what they mean to each individual has less to do with something innate than it does with something they create. Feel. Embody.

And how we respond to creation—like what is created in me when someone says, “I love you” is a world all my own.

Yet it’s also, in part, a world that has been conditioned and reinforced through our shortcut use of the words. So I hear or read a word like “love” and the spiders of my mind and past instantly begin to weave a complex web that I think of as REALITY. But the utterance from the other person may have been woven according to an entirely different intention than the design I am now caught within. The more we struggle, the more we wrestle to reconcile what we have created with the intended creation of another in a word like “love,” the more stuck we get in the silky, sticky threads of language.

I guess laryngitis kind of draws my attention to the usefulness of words, or more specifically of speaking to people through them. Because it matters that “express” means both to give voice to AND to extract and force out. Slapping a word on something is neither, and yet I wonder if what I am after is a kind of surgical precision that can help me both articulate and excise this ache of collapse and the stripped down and whisper thin reedy fragile feeling of “heartbreak.” 

We are all looking for the right words, the right tongue, to express something and therefore heal it.

So many wounds, only one tongue.

In spite of my academic training, I am also a student and teacher of yoga, and so I have another model to consider. The chakras, the energetic centers of consciousness—what we are aware of, and thus from what state we act and experience ourselves/others in the world. The yogi nerds in my life, upon hearing I am struggling with my voice and chest are immediately up in my esoteric business (always so lovingly, always so genuinely) pressing me to explore what Truth I am holding in, or asking what in my heart is not being expressed, or how I am resisting my own Voice or how it relates to my dislike of being on the phone….you know, very yogic sounding things. And, again, all very relevant. This is not news to me, I tell them. Vishuddha chakra, the throat center, is the center of communication. It’s also the next step from the heart, where transmission and reception can get stopped up. Communication here is not just what or how we say what we want to say. It’s also about what we take in/receive (the messages we internalize or hear), and all the things we don’t hear, say, or let reverberate deep in each cell. Vishuddha chakra is also related, as each chakra is, to certain relationships and essential understandings. Throat chakra? Your relationship to yourself as divine, whole, and holy.

Because that is the only Truth, as far as yoga is concerned. The rest is ego, and we choke on that a lot.

Of course, when we are least conscious, words act as a shorthand for thinking (or not thinking, as it were) and simply reconfirm, reproduce, and contain. Collapse.

Collapse

If you have ever spent time in another country, where you didn’t speak a lick of the language, you know that there are some things that get communicated without words. Sometimes we make meaning together in spite of—or more likely, because of—the chasm where language fails. Those moments are the intimate transactions where, as bodies of sound, we entrain in something far more intimate than the words we might have spoken had it been easier. There is a space, in other words, where we find fluency in one another and it need not be pinpointed to a single action, a single utterance. A single tongue.

Physicists and yogis share perspectives on a surprising array of things, including vibration. That is, the essence of all matter is vibrating energy. Sound. Music, if you will. We are, at our most basic level, made of sound. Even our atoms and cells, our skin and tongues. Reverberating, resonating, pulsating. Where we insist there is concrete form, the physicists and yogis shake their heads and cluck their tongues and remind us, it is all energy, spinning and vibrating. For the practitioner of hatha yoga, the ultimate goal is to hear the nadam, the everpresent vibration of life itself. The universal hum, from which all things arise and back to which they all return. The song within all things, at all times.

This sound, this vibration, this thing emanating within and around us is what connects us more than any touch, taste, or word. It’s a song that holds it all together.

This is key. The matter, the essential matter, with me as with you, is vibration. The vibration of a thought is no less important or real than the vibration of a body. In fact, we might say that the body—the forms we see and feel, that eat and breathe and have sex and hold and take and sleep and die—are just the apex of the song that began with a single note. So when you are muted—either internally or externally, by fear, heartbreak, grief, self doubt, or shyness, or laryngitis or too much screaming or not enough speaking—the effect is the same. Think of it like this: you are an antennae, receiving and transmitting all the time.

The question arises, then, are we in fact listening? Or are we always superimposing onto the so-called silence?


The heart, we know, is an organ. An organ. An instrument. And all instruments require an outside force to bring forth their song. Yet in yoga, the heart center is anāhata chakra: the un-struck instrument. It suggests that the heart plays with or without an outside force—the love of another, the attention of another, the touch of another. The issue isn’t whether or not the heart has something to express. The issue is whether or not we can hear it over the din of all we are saying.

You know, like “heartbreak.” We say something like, “my heart is broken” and it creates this experience that may or may not be the real truth of it. The raw and ripped open experience of it. For us. It serves as a shortcut I can use so you can meet me somewhere in there, nod your head and say “I know how you feel.” But the problem with the shortcut is it disallows, hems in, and restricts. It mutes. If I tell you that I am heartbroken, I am being honest. But I am also withholding and tiptoeing around the silent space of it all. The shadowy place where the experience (the feeling, emotion, pulsation) is so much more than the label, and so it requires something other than the label to bring it forth.

Sometimes the only way I can really access and feel what I am, well feeling is to break out of words (she writes, nodding her head with you about the irony here). To quickly change course and run in a new direction, into the thickets of my body’s own language (wild and untamable) before discourse, like a neurotic and overprotective nanny, bundles it all up in a safe and totally suffocating embrace. A label. A word. An expression. Some experiences require a new contour, a new melody. They need to move through the body in a new way, or the new song will re-work the space for a new perspective. And this is what is so awesome and painful about playing the right music at the right time. We can lick the wounds with more than that one tongue.

This is also why this same cold dull February day I go running. Against the oppressive and well-meaning advice to stay warm and stay in and sit and drink things and just be. But today I know that what my silent screaming place needs is space. A new shape to move the sound, to find the voice, to find a way into expression. It isn’t that I am not speaking my truth or holding back or holding things in. It’s that I haven’t yet found the right language, the right tongue to give shape to something inside, much less lick it. And I don’t want to rush that. I don’t want to mistake the quiet for being dumb and without voice. I don’t want to assume that the pre-made phrases and sound bytes are enough. I don’t want to cheapen the depth and richness and singularly meaningful feeling of what I have to say by forcing it into something lifeless like “heartbreak.” You see, I don’t mind the silence. It isn’t punitive. I think the silence is my way of insisting I find something new to say. To myself. Gods know I need a new song to make sense of this space.

In the brittle cold, on a frozen dirt trail, I zip up my layers and cover my face (my eyelashes are already forming spiky little eyecicles). I can’t speak out loud, but I can listen. I can see the shape of my breath and know there is something big and loud brewing in my every garrulous cell. And as I start to make way down the icy trail, I realize all the trees around me are so still that the forest itself is a dense and woolly concert hall. Beneath the rhythm of my breath, I swear I hear the sap moving. Still, I want my body to be the amphitheater, the concert hall, the echo chamber. And though I am sad (shorthand for a feeling like bloodletting and rage and humiliation and a giddy freedom that doesn’t fit “heartbreak”), it’s not sad music my bones crave. It’s raucous and loud and hypermasculine and raging. It isn’t making me feel something or echoing a thought. The music is vibrating through my entire instrument and it is giving me the space to feel what I am feeling. It is carving out a new shape in me, and in that shape, sound arises from the silence. And my body is running full throttle on a frigid day, and I am sweating and my breath is forming tenuous clouds, like comic book balloon texts that ferry all I am saying—from deep within—into expression. And then into resolution.

Most of the time, we don't have words to corral what we feel or think into a useful shape. It's all so imprecise and fleeting--words on a page or words on the uttered breath do not hold meaning or convey it precisely. They stain the infinite space of all that is unsaid, leeching from all that possibility one ill-formed utterance that transmits a mere fragment of what you feel. When what you feel is so much bigger. Unruly. Vibrant. Unique to the hum of the organ within. And the wrong words, well, the wrong words are a labyrinth in which we too often lose ourselves trying to translate what was meant. John O'Donohue said, "music is what language would love to be if it could," and when I consider all physical matter is made of vibration-that we are music at our very essence--it seems wise to remember we are instruments so much more than we are tools...

Sometimes what we think of as a failure of relationship is really an inability to resolve foreign tongues and find fluency together in something new. Something not yet penned or spoken or sung. All I know is that an imposed silence has asked I be a better listener, and what I have heard has changed the very fabric of who I am and what I transmit, transmute, and receive.

Is this the resolution then? Have I said anything at all? Perhaps not. But I have made room for and given shape to something that was silenced when I would try to talk about it. And it isn’t up to me to translate for you whatever worlds these words evoked. When we think of “resolution,” we tend to think of something coming to an ending. Closure. Something final. But in musical terms, a resolution suggests the progression from dissonance to a consonance…the note or the chord toward which it’s all moving. Resolution brings all the seemingly contradictory threads together into a place, a space, a sound where each can hum and together, where two tongues come together, and hold the world together.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Goldfish and Rabbits

 "This is freedom: not a freedom to judge which comes from knowing who we are,
but a liberation from our finite self-images, an opening to life."
Claire Colebrook

Among many many strange habits I had as a child, I would often egg myself on to run faster by imagining something epic depended on my speed. "Imagine we are being chased by a huge, bloody skeleton!" I would call out to my best friend when we would race across the lawn. Twisted, perhaps, but that spooky specter motivated us to go a little bit faster, a little bit harder. Laughing, but running. I was a soccer player, and incentive came in handy. There were times I imagined my mother's life depending on my running, or the plight of the mountain gorilla ("imagine that you could save all the gorillas if you can get to that fence post in 5 seconds"). I ran for the lottery, a cure for cancer, and to end a few wars. But mostly I ran--fast--when something I feared was nipping at my heels.

Fear is like that, is it not? It makes us run. Fast. 
Faster.
But, sometimes it paralyzes us and we just freeze, holding our breath in hopes the danger will pass. 

There is an enormous jackrabbit who lives in the woods nearby, and every time I see him, I am struck by two things: how he magically blasts out of an invisible hiding place once I get too close, and how damn fast he moves once he starts. In the life of this rabbit, I am, potentially, a really large coyote. Or a featherless, walking hawk. Either way, when he senses that I am too close to his burrow and he might be found out, he does what he and all of us are programmed to do--he runs like hell.

We are clear where this is headed, right? I mean, sure I still strap on my running shoes and head out 3-5 times each week and let loose...but now it's more likely Siouxsie and the Banshees that motivates me to pick up the pace than any imaginary bloody banshee. So I'm not talking about running on a trail anymore, really. 

I'm thinking about fear and what it is I most fear and why. 
And these are weighty considerations for a warm Friday in January. It would be so much easier to instead, just....well, do anything, I guess. Anything other than look, listen, or acknowledge my fears. I guess that is the point I am circling. The point, like the scared rabbit, huddles, hides, and prepares to bolt at the first distraction or relief. It doesn't want to be found out. 

There is a great Ani DiFranco lyric that I think offers a good entry into the burrow: "They say that goldfish have no memories, I guess their lives are much like mine. And the little plastic castle is a surprise every time." Ah, the mighty goldfish. Whether or not this is true, they have something profound to teach us: when we meet each moment, each situation, and each person in our lives as though for the first time, we remain open to infinite possibilities. But when we think/act like we have someone or something all wrapped up and defined, we limit ourselves as much as anything. If we have a bad experience around the plastic  castle, then we are more likely to project that feeling onto the castle every damn time we swim past it. To be awed by what IS instead of being reactive to what you think it was/will be/should be/could demands our presence. This is what the goldfish has to teach us: if you want to be present to the little plastic castles in your life, you have to let go of the fear and hurt of the plastic castles of your past.

Fear is one of the primary reasons we bolt from our present reality--that is, what IS--because our fear is always already about the past or the future. We don't want to feel or experience something unpleasant again, so we develop hypervigilant defenses around each moment, each breath, each heartbeat. "Never again," we say, wary of the plastic castle in the murky water before us. Leery of anything like a plastic castle.

So, fear is as much about memory as anything.
  
Memory. To remember. The word, like the process, is complicated. We so often think of remembering as calling back to mind, thinking about someone or something. Yet the word is to re-member, and it is here that I find myself settling into it. Member suggests part of a whole, and suggests flesh—the body.  Remembering is a sensual, fleshly, physical process though we often think of it as merely cerebral, the flickering of the past images across the synapses of the brain. But as quantum healing (think Candace Pert/Molecules of Emotion here) has demonstrated time and again, the thoughts themselves not only trigger a cascade of physiological responses—they are themselves physical. 

I often tell my students that yoga is about remembering oneself as already whole and perfect--without the need to attain, obtain, or overcome anything. This is the true Self. The oneness of being. Yoga. To re-member is to bring back to mind, yes, but more importantly we bring back into the body the essential truth, the memory, the form...to remember then is simultaneously a physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual process. In asana practice, we approximate form after form, moving through formlessness with awareness of and attention to what stories, memories, habits, and beliefs are stored there. Beliefs around which we shape our perceptions and thus our actions. We do all this to cultivate some consciousness around the knee-jerk reactions that might otherwise dictate how we participate in this world. So we can traverse, more gracefully, what IS, and not get so tripped up on what was once or what we assume/expect it to be in the future.

In those approximations, as we take the form of so many "others" and invite in the experiences of such scary-as-hell things as open hearts, exposed throats, and standing on our own without a plan B...we allow ourselves to remember. We bring back into the body and breath and awareness the experience that we may otherwise resist, deny, or avoid.  And in so doing, we allow whatever memories--old stories, old feelings, old beliefs--to arise. In other words, we bridge something more than time and space and preference and prejudice and difference; we bridge otherness altogether. We dissolve separateness, smallness, and finality. No small wonder, then, that a moment of commemoration and memory feels like transformation in one's very cells, in the very breath.

We do all this so we can actually see the little plastic castle in its presence.
Or the co-worker, or the new lover, or the old lover. 
We do all this so we can stop projecting onto others and ourselves the limitations that come from hunkering down in a hole you think keeps you safe from what you most fear.

Feeling fear is not bad--feeling fear is the message that there is something to see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch. But we pull away or push away that opportunity in favor of reinforcing the posture we build around the fear.

So we withhold love, affection, or sincerity. We become more rigid and dogmatic. We seek control by dictating what should be, and exile anything and anyone who disobeys our rule. We contrive all manner of behaviors to manipulate or seduce a situation so it matches our beliefs. And when all else fails, we run, hide, or fight. 

When you remember--actively remember--having your heart broken or being betrayed or being rejected, or you remember scarcity or pain or grief or abandonment, there is a physicality to your memory. It triggers your instinct to run or hide. Or fight.

For most of us, this becomes a posture-a shape/perspective we take that is at once physical, emotional, intellectual, and energetic. And over time, with lots and lots of practice, we become so adept at that posture that we mistake it for who we are. It becomes the stance from which we act and interact with the world around us. So we become runners--always busy, distracted, and otherwise engaged so as not to face the fear. Or we become hiders, afraid of being seen, obsessed with being small, terrified of being heard, and just waiting for the threat to pass so we can slip under the shadows unnoticed. Or we become fighters, convinced the every action of others is somehow undermining our own safety, integrity, value.  Fighters don't believe they are enough, so they don't believe they have enough. They fight over territory, validation, and dogma. They want to be right rather than free.

In each case, we are reactive to the true, underlying fear. And reactive is the antithesis of creative. In a reactive state, we just do what we have always done--fight, flee, or hide.

We run from something or someone--through distractions, busyness, imposed distance, control, drugs, or dogma. Whether tyrannically controlling others/situations or numbing out, we run. Or we hide. Paralyzed, trapped in the burrow of a moment, a feeling, an experience around which we build elaborate and complex identities that we insist are "Just who I am." 

"Deal with it," we say to the world, "This is the way I am," digging our claws a few centimeters deeper into the dirt. Into the hole.

That burrow, that identity, that posture, that old story--it can FEEL like a safe place to hide and wait it out. It can FEEL like you are right, or you are protected, or you are validated (since no one can really fit into that hole with you). But we mistake our prison for a home, and the invitation of that raised heartbeat and the feeling that something is tracking you is this: take a deep breath, get out of the hole, and look it in the eyes.

What are we most afraid of? And do we have the courage to ask how we keep insisting on the same damn experiences by projecting those fears onto the little plastic castles right before us? 

My mother taught me a long time ago that if something is "always" happening to me, or I am "always" experiencing something, the common denominator is, well, me. I watch myself and others in patterns of reactivity--doing the same things over and over, not realizing they are creating the very reality they fear. If you are convinced the little plastic castle is going to hurt you, and you react as though that is the only possible scenario, you will find a way to be hurt...and that will validate all your past hurts, all your self righteousness, and all your attempts to lock down and control (yourself as well as others) all future hurts. 

The balance to the "fight or flight" syndrome is the parasympathetic nervous response we refer to as "rest and digest." In other words, the way to bring equanimity back to the scared being is to find a way to actually digest what is happening. And to do that, we have to be willing to rest in it--to allow for it. To sit with it. Pain, depression, guilt, anger, whatever the reactive emotion is, it's giving us an opportunity to digest what is ACTUALLY happening. See the person before you as they actually are, listen to the words they are actually saying, and instead of projecting onto them their own past or the ghosts of those who came before, let them be free. So you can be free.

What is the worst thing that could happen by facing fear and looking it in the eye? One of my most influential mentors taught me to follow up each response with, "So what???" It's a profound way to access the real fear, which is more often than not, the fear of change. Because what happens when your safe little burrow that gave shape and form to all your beliefs will no longer hold you? You feel exposed. So what? You feel vulnerable? So what? You might get hurt? So what? If you get hurt you feel sad? So what? 

So many fears and fears of fears become layers that may at one time offer protection, but can just as easily bury you. And bury the possibilities this life is offering you, moment by moment, breath by breath.
Perhaps our task in all this is to find space out of the hole but not yet running in a panic, so we might actually look at the fear that is tracking us and making prey of this life. Maybe in our reactive state we can cultivate curiosity and compassion instead, genuinely interested in what we are feeling and how it might be a re-run of a past experience. How might we respond differently, if we knew we are safe and whole and no matter what we experience, we have a choice about the stories we choose to re-live over and over.

What are you afraid of?
So what?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Sex (yes, sex)

When I was in graduate school, I had the great fortune of taking a science writing course with a professor of immunology who was also a beautiful writer and poet. I learned from Gerald Callahan that the memory of the immune system--that is, the part of us that is entirely devoted to discerning, moment by moment, what is Self and what is Not Self--is more comprehensive and eternal than cognitive memory. In other words, though I may forget names, dates, and events of my life, my immune system will remember everything.

That may not strike one as something particularly fascinating at first read. But consider this: every cell in the body contains not only the memories of all those who have shared  our lives, but physical evidence of them as well. That is, if you have shared a cold with someone, you carry inside of you--forever--part of them, imprinted inside your glassy cells. Like ghosts, they continue to haunt us even long past their exits from our lives or their own.

When this system goes awry, the body will begin to attack itself as though it were the enemy. Who are we, and how do the intimate relationships in our lives expand or contract that sense of Self?

I think of this beautiful work of the immune system every time I miss my father, dead now over 7 years. We experience this haunting as a feeling--a yearning, a longing, a hunger. As though every cell is suddenly seeking the next chapter to a story that cannot be completed. It dangles, unbound. Incomplete. But here is another perspective--a vibrant, sensuous, equally confounding truth. Every lover you have ever been with is also a part of you, and this is something the yogis (and many great masters of many traditions) have known for thousands of years.

A few weeks ago, a beloved student of mine lamented a recent breakup with a man with whom she had shared an intense but brief relationship. As I listened to her regrets, confusion, frustration, and hurt, I heard echos of all my friends who have grappled with the tricky terrain of intimacy, sex, identity, and integrity. How do you open yourself fully and completely to another without losing balance? "I just wish I had never slept with him," this beautiful woman groaned. "I think I should just be celibate...things would be so much easier." "Why?" I asked, "What exactly do you think sex can or cannot do?" She shook her head and laughed, "Well the problem is now that he is all I think about."

My friend felt haunted.

According to the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali, suffering arises from attachment and aversion. That is, we experience suffering when we hanker excessively for things that give us pleasure or when we push away the things we fear will cause us pain. And most of us expend the majority of our time and energy striving to accumulate more of what we want and less of what we don't want. So long as we get the good stuff and keep the bad stuff at bay, we enjoy a tenuous peace...but we never rest, and we are rendered vulnerable to the slightest shift in the balance. So, we yoga teachers talk a lot about "letting go of attachment" and "sitting with discomfort." It sounds simple enough, but apply it to your actual lived life--the stuff of bedrooms, board rooms, and highways, and it gets a little more complicated.

Yoga, in its most essential teaching, is the experience of union--the realization of the oneness of being. Most of us experience ourselves as separate, skin-bound entities and egos whose lives are made up of mini victories and losses. But according to this tradition, what we really want is to feel whole and part of a whole. Instead, we mostly wander around feeling like holes in search of something to fill us up. For some it is shopping, for others it is control. Some fill up with money and things, while others stuff themselves with the attention/affection of another. Be it food, drugs, technology, power, or self righteousness, what we binge on to feel whole is what keeps us behaving like holes. The true happiness and freedom we seek, according to the yogic scriptures, comes from the merging. Remembering. Re-membering. Bringing back into the body the memory of who you really are. Whole. Not dis-membered, fragmented, and empty. But whole, complete, and full. And to remember also suggests to once again find membership. To be a member.

Of course, it is worth noting that a more antiquated English referred to sexual relationships as "knowing" one another. Though we tend to joke about this as "knowing" another physically, the real sense of the expression runs much deeper. After all, to be fully known--seen, recognized, heard, held, and embraced--is the true power of sex. We don't just want to be adored, we want to be remembered. And when, in the embrace of another, we are ourselves reminded, there is magic. But when the embrace is hollow and you are left feeling entirely forgotten or unseen, there is despair.

What my sad student was feeling was the brokenness and fragmentation that follows in the wake of a breakup or a loss. She felt rejected because this man was no longer communicating with her. The affection and attention she had felt so filled by were now memories. Ghosts. Like the sun that once warmed and nurtured her had gone black.

In sex, ideally, two individuals share for a moment--however brief or dramatic--a complete dissolution of separateness that goes beyond the physical, whether or not we are cognizant of that power. For a moment, there is a complete merging with something beyond each individuals singularity. Perhaps this is why the ethical tenet of brahmacharya is such a charged one for yogis. Translated by some as self imposed celibacy, this yama inevitably creates a lot of questions about whether we are seeking to live as part of this world or apart from this world. When Patanjali lists the yamas, he also describes what a practitioner who is firmly established in them can expect. And in the case of brahmacharya, we are told that we will enjoy true health and vitality. Vigor. This is no suprise, as many spiritual traditions do in fact encourage celibacy as a way of harnessing the energy one may need for the rigors of spiritual practice.

But I am not sure about that, as I look around at all the universe, teeming with life that is creative, revolutionary, dynamic, fluid, and sensuous. So, I tend to sit more with the translations given to me by some of my most influential teachers. Brahmacharya is more literally understood as "the way to Brahman," which is like saying "the way to God." Or Source. Or The Divine. Or The One. Or.....

The point is, we enjoy vitality when we don't waste our energy on pursuits that have nothing to do with leading us toward yoga--union, remembering who we are. And an awful lot of people waste their powerful sexual energy in relationships that make them feel even more alone, even more separate, even more incomplete. If charya is like a chariot--like a car, a vehicle, a way, a means--then it matters which one you choose. There is a part of you that is forever reminding you who you really are, and each time you share that kind of intimacy with another, you braid them into your physiological, emotional, and energetic fabric. Every cell knows every lover you have ever embraced. And, as my dear sad friend felt, those cells orient toward that lover like sunflowers to the sun. So devastating can it be then when that sun goes out and every cell continues to wait longingly. Because each cell knows that lover to have been a part of you at some moment, however briefly, together you made your way to Brahman. To Yoga. Union. Oneness.

It is said that what we seek is the seeker...that all the practices, techniques, disciplines, and austerities are essentially ways (means, methods) to remind us of who we have always been. Our goal then is to remember. And there is no more powerful memory than that of the system whose entire raison d'etre is to sort through what is Self and what is not. So I suspect that sex, as a method, a means, a technique, a technology, is one of the most powerful ways to reach Brahman because it circumvents the careful policing we all do every day to keep ourselves separate. But it's a powerful method, and one that can just as likely steer one more deeply into isolation, disconnection, and fragmentation if you, well, choose the wrong charya.

In the sexual afterglow (or aftermath, depending on your situation), we have the opportunity to stay connected--against all our cultural training and insecurity and need for control. To my beautiful student whose heart is aching and hungry, I offer this humble reflection that you are already whole, unfurling cell by cell into this universe as you slowly discern all you are and all you are not. That you ache for someone whose light once fed you is neither an indication that he is the sun upon whom you now depend for happiness nor is he the blight that wiped out your vitality. Like every lover we know in this lifetime, he is helping you remember something...and it isn't about pleasure or pain.

Who you are--becoming and unbecoming--is an eternal work in progress, shaped, in part, again and again by those whose lives are forever grafted to your own. When the path leads you toward the darkness of being alone, isolated, or forgotten, remember that there is a true and potent exchange of energy that occurs when you merge with another that you are recalibrating moment by moment. So, yes, choose the charya wisely, but don't confuse the method for the goal. You are already whole--now go out there and merge with those who know it, too.












Friday, September 16, 2011

Lost and Found


"Children are all foreigners"
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Over the past weeks, I have returned to Emerson's wisdom again and again. I spent the month of August teaching yoga in Taipei as part of the Taipei National University of the Arts summer dance festival, TaiepeIDEA, which invites guest faculty from all over the world to work with children, high schoolers, and college/professional/adult dancers who come mostly from Taiwan and mainland China. It was an amazing adventure that reminded me of the importance of remaining open, like a child, in awe of each and every stunning moment we have in this lifetime.

When we let go of the need to be something or someone perfectly defined, we make room for the unexpected. And it is the unexpected--sometimes painful sometimes beautiful--that so often awakens us to aspects of ourselves we scarcely dreamed existed.

Sometimes we have to, quite literally, get lost in order to be found. To discover.
Or recover.

Of course, we need not travel any further than our own lives to cultivate a sense of exploration...what better landscape than the peaks and valleys of our daily experiences? I have found that each time I travel afar, I better understand "home," as a place and as an experience that begins and ends inside of me. When we take time off from the routines that normally dictate and frame our responses and understandings, we get a glimpse of what truly carries, supports, nurtures, and inspires us. 

And we also gain perspective on what binds, limits, and burdens us. 

In High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver marvels at Buster, the Bahamian hermit crab who inadvertently immigrated from the beach to her desert home in Tucson, AZ in a shell she collected while strolling the beach. Surprise gives way to a low-grade guilt that gives way to fascination as Kingsolver and her daughter decide that, "when something extraordinary shows up in your life in the middle of the night, you give it a name and give it the best home you can." And as Buster begins to settle into his new home in the desert, so far from the Caribbean seas of his infancy, something shifts in his behavior. What Kingsolver observes is so extraordinarily poetic and mysterious in part because it echoes something so entirely ordinary and familiar and ancient.  They witness Buster's gradual shift from awkward disorientation to a mysterious conciliatory dance to a rhythm that can only be described as high tide...in Tucson. In other words, Buster, like all of us, has an innate ability to tune in and listen and hear and feel and sense and smell and know hope and Home...no matter where he is under the weight of whichever latest shell he carries upon his back.

We find our way.

My time in Taiwan was extraordinary, in part because I had never been to Asia and thus had no pre-conceptions about what to expect. I was Emerson's foreigner in the truest sense--a child completely in awe of all I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. I arrived raw and bare--the shell of my known life cast aside somewhere between Tokyo and my first day of teaching a relatively unknown practice to students who spoke little to no English, much less Sanskrit. I found myself stripped of all the usual tools and props that might otherwise support or dictate my teaching--they had no prior experience with yoga and wouldn't understand the most specific of cues I might give. We were all together in that space where native language and cultural context can't bridge the gaps. I couldn't just say, for example, "Down Dog" or "sit up tall" or "inhale, exhale."

I had come to Taipei as a teacher from a foreign land only to find that most of what we teach in yoga relies upon so many givens. A given context, a given motivation, a given set of cues. A given language. In a few simple syllables, I can guide my U.S. students through a myriad of shapes and experiences, from standing toes together to lying in the corpse. And somehow (sometimes) I can convey, too, the essence of the pose, can invite them to feel what it is to be a snake shedding skins, belly to the earth...or feel what it means to be the corpse, letting go of everything in complete surrender. Because we share the language and the context--we find ourselves in a class together and can safely assume an awful lot.

But when stripped of the given language (be it English or the language of yoga as a discipline), stripped of the cues and the culture of it, I began to see IT--yoga, and by extension something far less easy to label--differently. I had to distill the subject matter down to something beyond language. To something I could convey, inspire, encourage, and support.

What is it, really? What exactly was I there to teach? What, at the end of the month, did I want these incredible beings to have, to feel, to know? To remember? When you have to start from scratch, and you cannot even take for granted the underlying motivations or desires of your students, what exactly do you teach? And how?

And upon returning to the States, I found that though I was "home," everything had shifted. What I see around me--in the (how else can I say it) scene that yoga has become (the magazines, fashion lines, jewelry lines, vitamin/supplement lines, shoes, festivals, conferences, etc) no longer offers me refuge. There is something empty about it, something I once crawled into but now must follow my instincts and scuttle away in search of a more honest home.

My time as the foreigner has made me, to a certain extent, a foreigner in my own discipline. I am not sure, in other words, what it is--stripped of the merchandising, glamour, gloss, bells and whistles, cliche and commodification. So much of what I see is just another trussed up version of the same old stories...

But I am jumping ahead. Impatient. What can I say, I am from a land of impatient people.

My first few days in Taipei were as exhilarating as they were intimidating. The Taiwanese are the most gracious and friendly people I have ever met. The students were eager and quick to smile, even as we were all adjusting to the sheer awkward newness of yoga in the land of dance. Everyone calls you "Teacher," Laoshi, and even those who were not in my classes would pass by smiling shyly and waving to say "Hello, Teacher." Their questions (or later, their warm and loving responses to classes)  tingled in my ears like the gorgeous insect sounds that pulsed and surged in the mountains all around us. Familiar yet totally unfamiliar. Comforting yet foreign. I didn't necessarily know what they were saying...but I felt we were on the cusp of meeting, of truly connecting. Our words were like empty shells, lovely and scattered, passed back and forth by tides we had not yet attuned ourselves to. 

It wasn't lost upon me that the students seemingly have an innate and organic comfort with recognizing the teacher--all teachers--reverently, humbly, and with enthusiasm. In my own training and practice as a teacher of yoga, no invocation has been as powerful or influential as the Guru mantra, which honors the teacher in all things at all times. It is all the teacher. May we have the good sense to see it. May we have the humility to honor it. Even when it makes us vulnerable. Especially when it makes us vulnerable. 

Because it is here--when the hard shell falls away and we feel most exposed-- that we tend to flee...to run, hide, get compulsive, get manic. Frantic to get back to the comforts of habit, the known, the givens. The drinker drinks, the shopper buys something new, the control freak clamps down, the defeatist retreats. 

Yet the teacher--the guru-- is that force that is coaxing us one step beyond the old story, one breath beyond the resignation to who or what it is we think we are. One moment more in the unknown so we might truly meet ourselves, know ourselves. The teachers in my life have been exactly those circumstances and individuals that blew like typhoon winds until my clenched fists released whatever tenuous tether I thought so necessary, be it a man or a job or numbers on a scale or numbers in my account. In the letting go, we more surely let something in.

This is nowhere more obvious to me than in my own asana practice, where I settle into the posture--into its experience, its lesson, its challenge, and its evolution--on the exhale. When I watch students learn to breathe and make the breath primary in their practice, I also watch them more gracefully receive and more deeply express the asanas, the transitions among the asanas, and their truth of it. Their truth. Not mine. And so it is with my own practice, at that soft still hollow that concludes the exhalation, the asana and I are one story. Like the wave that pulls back to the sea folds into that space and becomes the power behind and beneath the next articulation crashing ashore.

But it's also true that when I hold a bit of the last inhale in--as though clinging to that breath with fear I will not receive more breath with untold new messages ferried upon it--my posture is crippled and static. It becomes a stilted performance hiding a deep fissure, a cellular or molecular disconnection between what I am expressing and what is actually happening. To merge with what is requires surrendering what has been. As Utah Phillips says, "The past didn't go anywhere."

And the future? Well, we know the trite admonishments around that. It doesn't exist.

But it's more than that, isn't it? The future doesn't just not exist...it is also always envisioned upon what has happened before, what we expect it to look like. And that vision, as limited and limiting as it is, changes when the earth beneath you shifts and the scenery and the customs and familiar all change; then there are new possibilities. The future shifts course.


In Taiwan, the challenges of the language barrier were amplified by the greater complexity of introducing Yoga--a practice and experience of wholeness and union--to dancers: a culture-within-a-culture, where the sense of self and body are so often steeped in harsh and dispiriting beliefs, traditions, aesthetics, and ideals. By no means do I wish to suggest that this is necessarily so. In fact, dance should and can be a glorious revolutionary celebration of the body, of the individual, of the creative sensual unbridled pulse of life. But there is an underbelly of the dance culture that often leads to corrosive self image and obsession with perfection and performance--two things from which, I believe yoga is meant to liberate us.

And yet today I wonder, as I see the latest Facebook posts and photos and flip through pages of magazines and sift through email after email and countless advertisements and realize it's all reproducing the same old story under a different name. As if huddling under the umbrella of "Yoga" can somehow give substance to ideas and products and behaviors that would otherwise be exposed as empty facades--pretty packages that offer no real sense of home. Maybe I am wrong, but yoga, the real deal experience of who we are, should feel like home. But I look around at the marketing of this experience and realize that but for a few well-rehearsed and overused words, I might as well be reading Glamour magazine or attending aerobics.

Call it "yoga" and you can sell it. And lots of people are all in the market for whatever "yoga" is peddling these days--glorification of certain body types or attributes, glamorization of fanaticism and compulsiveness, homogenizing tendencies that make desperate teens of us all, and the disingenuous ploys that unapologetically conflate spirituality with self righteousness. Or, more disappointing still, with business.

Because this is yet another multi billion-dollar industry selling yoga to you--and the interest of any business is to keep you dependent. Slap on the right label and market it as "yoga" and people come in droves to be filled up. As though they were empty in the first place.We are a nation of well-trained and insecure consumers of identity, taught to scuttle through our lives like beggars, hands stretched out pleading, "Tell me who I am and how to be, and tell me if it's good/smart/sexy/funny/strong/bold/ accomplished enough." The American yoga machine reinforces this outward gaze, this need for studios, the new clothes, the yoga music, the recognition, the validation, the performance to a standing ovation. Standing in Mountain, maybe, but clapping those hands and feeding every insecure needy drive that prevents us from really experiencing yoga, the naked now.

"We shall not cease from exploration," wrote TS Eliot. "And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." After all, how long will we circle around ourselves, chasing our own tails and previous trails, pushing and looking and efforting our way to something, some place, someone that was always right there, whole and perfect?


I stood in a classroom, the foreigner and yet the teacher, the one with no sense of direction and culturally in the dark asked to illuminate.  How do you introduce and share the message and embodiment and experience of yoga--as liberation, freedom, love supreme? When the language, the culture, and the context are so completely alien? 

One thing I learned: you start from scratch. In the dirt and sands of all that has been passed to you. You sift through it and let fall away everything that can't be conveyed authentically. You recover the elemental, and find that you don't focus on the forms as much as you linger in the in-betweens. You teach the emergence and the dissolution, because you teach the discovery of something entirely belonging to the student. Road signs are all you offer. You find meaning between the words, in what is unsaid as much as what is said. And somehow you navigate and guide the way home.  

I am not just talking about yoga, here.
And I am always talking about yoga. Here.

The initial challenge seemed to be how to offer anything of value, of substance, without relying on the means and techniques I have been trained to use. I had to tap into something more, something deeper.

Something that didn't rely on the newest Lululemon fashion, an impressive posture (try impressing a Taiwanese-trained dancer), rote or cliche sayings.
Something that didn't rely on being clever or articulate or beautiful (try being beautiful in extreme heat and humidity) or smart or funny or entertaining.
Something, in other words, NOT about me.
Something I can only call yoga.

Like, without the bells and whistles, without the glamour or seduction or exploitation of our inner wounds and scars.

My teachers Sharon and David tell Jivamukti teachers to teach with 150% of our attention on our students--on holding space for them, on providing them the experience and opportunity to go deeply inward and explore, discover. Recover. Remember. "You cannot do yoga," they say over and over. "You are yoga." So what we are doing in any given practice is exploring where and how and why we are resisting that state that is our natural state, our birth right. Our home. All you need then is a sense of adventure as you explore the voices and habits and beliefs that you carry on your journey until one day, as Eliot wrote, you arrive at the start, ready for the first time to be there and know it as home. David and Sharon taught me that my job as a teacher of yoga is to shine light on them, not on myself. If students are being asked to look at the teacher all the time, how is that any different than the magazine ads and the tv shows whose incessant message is to look outside of oneself for validation, approval, or direction? "Stop looking at me," David corrected us years ago in CA. "Stop looking away from what is happening." Be in it and don't get distracted, seduced, lured, or scared out of this moment.

Buster the hermit crab withdrew deeply into his shell and remained so completely still in his experience that Kingsolver believed him to be dead. This displaced crab, an Arizona refugee, withdrew from everything outside that would normally give him a sense of where and who he was. The props and decorations faded away so he could tap into that mysterious tidal rhythm that brought him home.

I've had the exquisite opportunity to travel a lot these past years, but what is new (place, students, region, culture, custom) or alien is usually buffered a bit by some comfortable known. Something I can wrap up in and feel safe, confident, protected.

Hidden.

It seems we all go there sometimes, to a place where you feel laid bare by the absence of what you took for granted (once, or for a time, or for a lifetime), and you struggle to connect with another, with yourself,  across the unknown territory as you yearn to crawl beneath and take cover in something, anything, familiar. Maybe it's a trip to a land where nothing--not the sounds, the sights, the tastes, the smells or the surroundings are familiar. Nothing anchors you into a former sense of stability. So you discover where and how (and maybe why) you hung your center of gravity on something outside of your own life. Whatever we hanker for or grasp at in the moments we feel most lost are the teachers, too. But the teacher wants nothing more than for you to be free. 

Maybe Kris Kristofferson was right when he penned the famous lyric, "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Nothing left to lose. 

I write a lot about death and loss. There is a reason I do so, and it isn't because I am macabre or depressive or even Scotch Irish. It's because I have witnessed and known great beauty and, yes freedom, in the places where my own small life has dissolved at some seam I once thought central to my fabric. And what I can say with some certainty at this moment is that the experience of being lost in translation was not altogether that different from the experience of being lost in loss...whether I felt unmoored by the sudden death of my father or by an inability to buy a mango at an outdoor market where no words worked, it was the loss that something was found. Something that cannot be lost. 

I'm learning to find my sea legs. I'm learning to trust the tide. I'm learning to be home with who and what I am.

Want is a thing that unfurls unbidden like fungus, opening large upon itself, stopless, filling the sky. But needs, from one day to the next, are few enough to fit into a bucket, with room enough left to rattle like brittlebush in a dry wind. (High Tide in Tucson)
Sometimes we are lucky enough--and I mean this--lucky enough to find ourselves entirely lost in a moment, a circumstance, a situation, a place, an encounter. To be at a loss. Lost to who we are and who we were and who we are becoming. And all we have to work with is who we are in this moment, in this context, in this relationship, in this breath. Now. 

In fact, the past and the future are really just variations, riffs really, on now. How we experience or remember ourselves is more than recollecting or retrieving mere facts. Memory creates us--to remember ourselves is to manifest ourselves. Memories are not stored in us like computer files. Each retrieval of a memory--a feeling, a song, a conversation--actively initiates a molecular-electrical-chemical dance. Different each time. The memory is not stored, it's created, it's felt. It is a posture. An asana. And the practices of yoga are, theoretically, meant to help us remember. As the White Queen says to Alice in Lewis Caroll's Through the Looking Glass, "It's a poor sort of memory that only works backwards." 

Teaching in Taipei changed what and who I am now (as a teacher, a practitioner, a woman) in part because it so irrevocably changed my perspective on who I have been and what direction I am headed. The challenge and beauty and magic of teaching (a job that suggests knowing) where I was unknown and knew so little revealed more to me about yoga, about myself, and about my so-called direction than anything known could have yielded. What is yoga, really? 

One afternoon a student, a woman in her late 40s, came up to me, tentatively. She had tears in her eyes and a smile. "Teacher," she said softly "Today my body feels like friend for first time." I wanted to cry. I wanted to hug her--and did. I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, "Hallelujah, this stuff really works, I did my job!"In successive days I was blessed by more revelations and confessions from students who were able--sometimes on their own, sometimes through a translator or fellow student--to tell me they had found yoga. From the former beauty queen and ballerina who was facing increasing pressure to lose weight so she could do more to sell her book to the Beijing choreographer who did wheel for the first time in years when she made it a dedication to forgiveness. "Your words touch me," she said through Kady, my beloved ad-hoc translator. "Even though I don't know your words, I know what you are saying and it touches me." Something crumpled and fell to the floor at my feet when I heard that from Mai. She had made me the teacher, she had called it forth as they all had, allowing me to transmit something pure and authentic. No bells, no whistles. Nothing fancy. Just yoga.

By the end of our weeks together, my students were to give a "final showing" alongside the ballet, contemporary, aerial, and capoeira teachers. I decided that though it was almost antithetical to perform yoga for an audience, these students had yoga in their cells and could move through a complex sequence without any thought about who was watching--or why (and in a festival where Cirque de Soleil scouts popped up, that was no small thing). For 10 blessed magical minutes, we watched them move together in sun salutations and then into an advanced standing sequence that included twists and an arm balance. Resourced with modifications and variations, they unfurled and blossomed in waves, following their own inner rhythms and breath--all moving into postures and out of postures with their own timing and with unbelievable grace. Though they were all moving through the same general sequence, they were distinctly their own expressions--joyous, radiant, embodied yoga.

"Now you have yoga," I said. "You no longer need me. You never needed me." Ah, but I was so incredibly honored to have been there.

My Taiwanese students were not any different from my U.S. students in many respects. Almost all of us have had times we felt like foreigners in our own bodies, our own lives. This disconnection is woefully exploited by an industry that uses "yoga" the word to sell us images and ideas that make tourists of us in our own lives.

From all I understand (which is admittedly so very little, a grain of sand in Buster's home stretch), the job of the yoga teacher is to do all you can to encourage students to go inward and marvel at what they find. My task then is to say, "look at you," NOT "look at me."

But in order to teach the Taiwanese students, students who couldn't understand my usual verbal cues, I was in the position of juggling how to show/demonstrate without reinforcing or encouraging a habit of mere mimicry, of looking to others for a sense of self. I didn't want them to imitate me. I wanted them to find their own expression of yoga. To feel, from the inside, how Warrior energy surges up and opens the heart or how plugging into the earth helps conduct the fear and hurt that so often arises in full wheel. To guide them just far enough that they could, for even a moment, forget about me. Because it seems to me that in order to empower a student, the goal has to include rendering oneself obsolete. The teacher's job, really, is to remind students they are already whole. To support their independence, and not seek from them greater dependence on you. Even if that means going broke, having no one show up for your classes or never being praised.

Teachers and studios who cultivate dependent students are not teaching liberation and wholeness. They are themselves dependent, bound up and looking to be filled by those who have graced them with the opportunity to embody and support yoga.

Dependence on the students for money, on gaining popularity, on achieving success or fame...preying upon students to be fed is not yoga. It's marketing. 

As hard as it is for those of us who teach as our careers, the teacher is not called to sit before her students so that she can keep them coming back. Her job is to help them set themselves free. Love them enough to let them move beyond you. Not to think so little of them that you foster neediness or allegiance or loyalty. There should be a marked and obvious distinction between a teacher and a pusher...but I can tell you that there are those who interact with their yoga practice as an addiction just the same. Just because you call it "yoga," and just because it is "a healthier addiction," doesn't make it any less crippling--any less unconscious. If the imbalance is already swinging in the direction of compulsive, the teacher's job is not to indulge, much less exploit it. And if the imbalance is already a tendency to keep seeking approval and validation, the teacher's job is not to indulge, much less exploit it. The teacher isn't given the supreme honor of sharing what has been shared with him so that he gets rich or famous. He is there to do one thing: see them as whole--insist on it--and not seek to fill them like holes.


The best teachers I know are the people and forces in my life that eventually render themselves obsolete. "When you touch someone in an assist," David taught us, "you should be invisible, like an angel. You come in and hold that space so that they can experience where they are headed. Then go away." Don't seek recognition, attention, or even gratitude. Just do your job and get out of the way.

And yet, all around us are messages--from teachers, teachers of "yoga"--encouraging us to look outward. At them. At their practice. Their product, their brand, their prowess, their progress. Call it "inspirational" and it hides what is, essentially, performativity and a need to be recognized. The small self is always on stage, needing an audience. A spotlight. The gaze of others. Like models on the pages of the glossy magazines.

But our lives are to be lived, as subjects, not objects--not mere backdrops to the lives and gazes and needs and desires and pocketbooks of others, whose own subjectivity is imposed and elevated to somehow determine our value or place. Or home.

So many magnificent women and men have washed up on my humble shores looking to be found, to be enveloped in something sturdy and safe. Some arrive with the shocked look of the newly vulnerable, raw and mistrusting and wide-eyed in the wake of what has been suddenly or violently ripped away. Others arrive quiet and carved out and brittle, hollow enough to hold to my ear to hear the sharp whisper of every cruelty that emptied them out for the sake of such fragile beauty. And whether they are yearning to be held or to be filled, I know they have long stopped hearing the call of Home.

And Taiwan was no different.

But neither is my own history, and my guess is neither is yours. I suppose that is what became so poignant to me on my travels. In being a complete stranger in a strange land, where I was forced to communicate and express and connect in new ways without any of the old crutches or strategies or even talents, I was simultaneously laid bare to new and alien elements. I was emptied of all I had once sheltered as my substance as a teacher, a practitioner, a woman. A human. An animal. And so I came to know, a bit better, who and what I am.

There isn't a word for that, or even a precise way to communicate it. Language fails.
No, language isn't necessary.

So these past few weeks I have been curled up in a shell, listening for that rhythm while around me so many voices echo the same old bullshit. I'm trusting the crazy tide that is dancing inside me, even if it isn't lining up with precise measurements of an industry or a culture. It's ok to unfurl and blossom in ways that make no sense to the world around us on its surface. We are all in synch even if we are moving so very differently into and out of things.

I refuse to scuttle around and play a part in something that won't hold up in the typhoon winds or the high tide of my life. I will not ignore my instincts and the call of Home.

There comes a time when we must travel lightly, with nothing but an open heart and mind to guide us through unknown and mysterious lands. And there comes a time when our desire to see and taste and hear and feel something true and beyond language outweighs the compulsion to fit in or be filled up...and in that openness we find we are and have always been fluent in the language that counts and will be offered shelter, comfort, and warmth wherever we go.

We find our way home.