culture

Mindful Transitioning

I'm almost sure I've used this picture once before, but it bears repeating, no? Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 2012.

I'm almost sure I've used this picture once before, but it bears repeating, no? Silver Lake, Los Angeles, 2012.

The intensity of practice reveals yoga’s nearness.
— threads of yoga, matthew remski

I had just turned 27, and everything was changing. My roommate had moved out; she announced at the beginning of summer that she was leaving Chicago to attend grad school in Philadelphia. I never said this to her, but I felt abandoned by her. I had connected with her in a way I never had before with another woman; despite being vastly different, I felt we understood each other. I learned so much from her. She challenged me, she encouraged me, and we had so much fun together. When she unplugged herself from my life, with as much effort as unplugging the toaster, I was heartbroken. I moved out of our beautiful three-bedroom apartment in East Humboldt Park and away from the spiritual community I'd built, into the only place I could afford, a tiny studio apartment.

I was awash in language. It was my last year of grad school, and I was completing my master's thesis, a collection of short stories about people I knew, people I didn't know, relationships and ideas and connections that fascinated and troubled me. I knocked around my hovel of a studio apartment in Uptown, dark, dingy, utterly unromantic, from bed to desk to stove to sink and back again. I bounced out the door once a week to a classroom in the South Loop where I taught a roomful of undergrads about what fun it is to make story. I bounced around the country teaching children, teens and adults the transporting magic of reading. I occasionally had brunch or looked at art with the man I'd eventually marry. I tried to go to yoga class, because there was no place to practice in my studio. And I spent every waking moment with my journal or in front of my computer making stories. 

I love writing. Crafting language is the first, last and best way I know of understanding the world around me, of celebrating what is marvelous and understanding what is frightening and untangling what is painful. Constructing language, when crafted without too much self-aggrandizement, with sincerity and beauty and simplicity, can be a spiritual practice. Language is what I use to practice compassion and vulnerability, two qualities I come more and more to believe are intrinsic to the human condition, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But at the time, when I was 27 and adrift, there was just too much language in my life. Lines from the story about the two kids who found the dead body, lines from the story about the housewife's meltdown, lines from the story about what I imagined my grandparents' marriage could be like: they were all over me all the time. They were in my thoughts, under my fingers, in my mouth, it was like living in alphabet soup.

Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.
— The Bible

I didn't know I was seeking silence when I started going to yoga class in Edgewater; I just knew the studio was close to my boyfriend's place and the Sunday night community class was half-primary, which I had a crush on at the time. I found silence. I would go to class, and once we started moving, there was a lot less talk, fewer words. I remember at one point, sweating through parivrtta trikonasana and parivrtta parsvakonasana, and realizing all I could hear was my breath. I was grateful for the silence: no music, no drums or kirtans, just my breath and the sound of my limbs on the mat, and whatever quasi-verbal sounds came out of me in a particular shape.

I kept going, because I needed the silence. Moving away from my spiritual community, losing my best friend, these things had left a hole in me, and even though church in the traditional sense was still available to me, it just felt too language-based. I wanted to be close to the G_d that lived in the space between words, in spaces: not the God of edicts and rules, or rhetoric, or even worship.  Yoga felt like a spiritual practice, as much as attending church, reading holy books, even praying, ever had. I was moving into a new place where my physical practice felt like prayer. 

I've been reading threads of yoga lately. It's slow, dense, something you need to digest in small bites because it features words I don't understand clearly, like "ontological" and "praxis". This isn't a judgment of the text, only a statement of how slowly I must engage it to understand. But when I engage it slowly, it hits me fast and heavy, the way a rainstorm blows in, soaking everything, threatening a flash flood. The text helps me consider what yoga is: is it something I do to keep my blood pressure low, is it something I do because I like touching my toes; is it a Western subculture largely dominated by a energy of privilege and homogeneity, that for all of its talk about union and spirituality, is in staunch denial of its shadow side, and the ways in which that manifests oppression; is it more than exercise, or not more than cultural appropriation; is it prayer...

My practice feels as though it moves not linearly, but in concentric circles. Rather, it moves linearly when I consider only what can I do with my body. When I  consider that I can touch my toes standing and seated, when a bind in half-lotus feels not so tight and impossible, when I can move my body through the transitions my teachers ask me to with a tiny bit more grace than I could a few months ago, then my practice moves linearly. This is interesting, but only for a short while, if I set my sights on the next pose, the next vinyasa, the next physical feat.

But when I consider the practice that feels like home when I can't make words, when I step to the mat--tired, confused, frustrated, alienated--and it feels like a prayer rug, when I touch the tide of yearning that rises within me wanting to dive deeper into the practice that, beneath all the commerce and homogeneity and (I'll say it again) oppression, beneath all the acting out and the ego and the missteps of humans, is something healing, even holy: Ah! Then it feels like a spiral, a cycle I move through ever deeper toward Divinity.

I bring this up right now because I feel in the midst of another of those transitions, those moments when I have the opportunity to choose whether or not to move deeper. There's a lot in my life that's making it difficult, but the call to move nearer, to engage in the practice more deeply, is so strong. Yoga lifts up parts of me that I don't really want to look at, that I'd rather pretend aren't there, or that I've "overcome". It is a fine mirror, accurate, honest, surgically precise, in shining a light on the things I have sought to keep buried for so long. If my physical practice never changes, that is still a reason to step to the mat everyday: for the spiritual work the physical practice bids me do.

Square Footage

A close-up of a playground study by writer, artist, yogi and dear friend Adam Grossi. For more, visit www.adamgrossi.com.  

A close-up of a playground study by writer, artist, yogi and dear friend Adam Grossi. For more, visit www.adamgrossi.com.  

I have this memory of being in a yoga class with a teacher I wish I remembered more clearly. I can't see her face, but I remember her energy and passion in class. She would put us in these deep, powerful hip opening postures and say, "As you breathe in, create space in your hip; as you breathe out, take up that space, rest in that space." 

It's taken me a long time to understand what she was saying. At the time, all I could think about was the sensation in my butt: it was loud and bright, and softening into it, resting in it, seemed impossible only because it felt so big I wasn't sure there was room for both of us.  

This idea--that there isn't enough room--comes up in my life a lot.  I'm big, there is nothing small about me: I have a big body, big feet, a big mouth, and a big voice; I have a big personality, big feelings, a big heart, big anger, big generosity: it's all BIG. My whole life, since I was about 12, people have been telling me to be less, be smaller, to tone it down, quiet down. I'd never attract a man with an attitude so big. I intimidate people with a personality so big. I'm too much, there's too much, there's just not enough room for all of me. 

I believed it for a while, and I tried really hard to shrink. I softened my voice, slapped a plastic smile on my face, sublimated the fringes of my bigger, less desirable feelings into more accommodating, agreeable ones, and tried to deny the reality that I wasn't living as my true self. It took a lot of effort, and it cost me a lot.  

I don't try so hard to shrink anymore. I'm as big as I need to be, and I'm much more comfortable apologizing for it than trying to be small. The trade off, though, is I'm often concerned that there isn't enough room for me.  On the el, at the lunch table, even in the studio, I'm afraid of being squeezed out. 

I feel a lot of pressure in my world to accommodate, to create space for others. I identify as a woman, I like (most) people, I'm conciliatory and affectionate, and so I'll make room for you. On top of which, I've been socialized to be a "good girl", to accommodate, to acquiesce; even when it's not easy, my programming encourages me to sacrifice for others.  But it bugs me when people assume that. When they're out of room, and so I have to move me and mine, or get squeezed out, in order to accommodate them. I am particularly not a fan of the manspreading. As someone who's on public transit at least once a week, I have dealt with my fair share of dudes and their giant balls taking up space on the train. It bugs me, and I'm not above sitting down beside someone and spreading right back. Once, I moved someone to another seat--he was manspreading into my seat, on his left, and had his gym bag in the seat to his right--with the power of my inhale. I squared my shoulders up to his, and expanded my ribcage with every breath in, and after about five breaths, he got up and moved! Now, it isn't that I wanted the space all to myself, because I didn't. I'm okay to share: but share is important there. He wasn't sharing, and so I felt I had to take what I was owed. 

I see this aversion, and anxiety, about space all around me. At the yoga studio, on social media, in line at the ATM or coffee shop:  we're, none of us, sure that there are enough resources, that we can get what what we need (more often just want) and so we squeeze into each other's space, we take up too much space, we steal space. At one end of the spectrum is the person who takes up an extra seat for her purse and her fried chicken on the red line during rush hour, or the lurker peering over your shoulder as you get cash at the ATM. At the other end is the person who violates another's autonomy and personhood by using power and force to assault* others. 

Right now I feel mired in this anxiety of there not being enough for me. My partner and I are trying to move.  This move has been especially difficult: demoralizing, dehumanizing, and incredibly stressful. All of us in the process have been reduced to our roles--the "buyers", the "seller", "listing agent", "buyers' attorney"--and we aren't dealing with each other as people. Each of us is trying to get as much as we can, at the expense of others. 

We talk a lot about giving, about taking, but seldom do we talk about sharing. When someone asks me to share space, I am often happy to, and here's the difference: there's a kind of mutual witnessing and acknowledgement of one another in that process. Each of us knows that since we're sharing a resource--money, space, food, education, safety, the surface of the earth--that to be good to someone else is to be good to ourselves. What's yours is mine; mi casa es su casa.  

What if, rather than pushing and shoving, rather than feeling threatened by everyone all the time, we were able to view others as a part of us. Even those who seem anathema to all you are, care about and work toward? What if the mere existence of others wasn't quite such a threat to you, to me, to us? What if we didn't have to antagonize, to provoke, to annihilate one another? What if we could all share?

Naive? Maybe. But this is my work, and I think it makes the world an easier place to live. So next time you see me in the studio, don't ask me to move over; ask to share practice space with me. It'll be better for both of us.  

 

 

 

 

*It's easy for us to intellectualize about why people do violent, terrifying, deplorable things. It's just as easy to dismiss them as batshit mad.  I don't pretend to understand or explain. But I think it's better for all of us if we do the work to try to see a glimmer of humanity, of something we can relate to, even in those who feel the furthest from who we are. When we rob others of their humanity, we become a little less human. 

Rooting Down: A 40 Days of Devotion Update

Thanks, Mister, for taking this picture.  

Thanks, Mister, for taking this picture.  

I can hardly believe that I've been at this 40 Days of Devotion practice for halfway.  There's all kinds of writing out there about change management and cultivating hew habits, but to look back over the last two and a half weeks and know I've been holding steady at this practice is really encouraging. Doing anything quietly isn't really in my nature, and as much as I love cultivating stillness, it's been really difficult for me to do.

Theatre geek that I am, I keep thinking of that line from Macbeth, right after he's been scared to death by the ghost of Banquo, when he's thinking about all the ugly, deplorable stuff he's done to become king, and says, I am so far into this river of bloody deeds that to wade out were as difficult as to continue forward. (Yeah, it's totally morbid to compare my fledgling meditation practice to an overambitious soldier's murdering ways, and My Mister would say it's also mad pretentious to paraphrase Shakespeare in a blog post, but hey, I did 'em both!)  I look back and think I can't believe I came this far; and every time I'm tempted to let the day, the hour, the moment when I'd sit just slide by me, I think, how hard it would be to start from scratch and build up all this momentum, all this positive energy propelling me forward.

Lots of people make promises of what a mantra practice will DO for YOU! As if the Hindu pantheon were a cohort of cosmic gift givers, you pick your problem, pick your deity and pick your blessing. On further reflection, reminds me some of the contemporary prosperity doctrine that's taken hold of the Christian church, but that's a thought for another day. Anyway, I remember when I started, wanting very much not to approach my chanting practice with that in mind: this is not about chanting loudly or softly or sweetly or earnestly enough that I will earn favor demonstrated to me in the form of more money or travel, a new home, a thinner body, stronger arms, more flexible hammies, or any of the other objects or experiences I covet from day to day. This doesn't mean there wasn't anything I hoped to get: I definitely had my hand out. But I was seeking different qualities, as opposed to stuff.

I hoped to become less angry. I've been a person who is easily angered my whole life, and by so many things: I curse at drivers in traffic, I get belligerent when store clerks ignore me when I approach them for help, and I shoulder-check perfect strangers on the street who assume I will move out of their way. Usually these are white people, but not always, and I don't discriminate; I take up space, I demand that space, and I seldom apologize for it. There's plenty true about doing life as a woman of color that makes it reasonable to be angry. But often, I can see life around or above or apart from our fucked-up social constructs. At my best, I can see more humanity, and I sometimes I wish I weren't this way. I wish I were more accommodating of people for whom I am an obstacle and not a human, people who are consumed by their own lives and who have no problem expecting that I'll accommodate them. More than anything, I have trouble letting go of anger, of the pain I feel as a response to the behavior of loved ones, past and present, who either don't know or don't care that they've hurt me, and can't or won't make amends.

There's so much more to say about that. Blog post on taking or sharing space forthcoming. 

Suffice to say, I'm angry a lot, and I hoped that this process would drain the anger out of me, pulling the plug on a cold, stinky dirty tub full of my anger.

Well, not yet. A few days ago, I flipped some guy off who cut me off in traffic, and last night I definitely bumped into a Northwestern student who was kicking it with his bros, for whom I was invisible. ( I should say, I wasn't actively seeking to run into him, I just didn't move out of his way.) So, my dirty tub of anger: still full.

BUT--

I have noticed that there is some part of me that feels more real, and more concrete, that isn't angry. When I spit language or side-eye at someone, deep deep deep, there is some voice in me that says, "Huh. Okay, Jess. You're angry. Like, 99.99% of you is angry. But I'm that .01% of you that's not angry, that's just watching you fume. When you're ready, how about we turn the dial down on that anger?" And the rest of me listens. I become less angry, and a little faster than I used to. I'm also a little more compassionate with the person who made me angry, and a little more compassionate with myself for getting angry. 

A friend of mine described the mala of mantra every day as a kind of anchor, that drops down down down, into the center of us, a kind of touchstone that is present in the midst of all the junk roiling about in the surface of our lives, that maintains equilibrium. Even though we might feel tossed about, there's this practice that holds us firmly, safely, certainly, and can witness all of that movement without being ruled by it. 

Now that, I did not expect, but it's not bad, as consequences of meditation go. Let's see what the next 20 days hold.