On the Cheerfulness of Fortitude

A few days ago, I cobbled together a list of all the yoga poses that I wanted to learn and which had routinely defeated me. There were clear patterns to the poses I found difficult. They tended to be: heart openers, hip openers, arm balances, backbends, inversions—and combinations of any of the above. Poses, in other words, that involve large amounts of trust, surrender and vulnerability.

This morning, I lugged my trusty purple Jade Yoga mat to a corner of one of the studio’s rooms and, with the kind of grim determination more appropriate to a boot camp, set about doing the poses one by one.

Obviously, I didn’t get to do them all, and the ones I actually did I did rather badly, but there was still the satisfaction one gets from accomplishing a difficult task (in this particular case, a series of difficult tasks).

And it hit me all over again while I lay in Savasana that I only willingly put myself through this much effort for the sake of yoga. In no other area of life do I draw up a list of the things that routinely defeat me for the sole purpose of systematically undertaking them one by one. In all other instances, it would be a sure-fire recipe for anger and frustration. In yoga, however, I just close my eyes and breathe through failure after failure.

I have yet to figure out how to export this attitude of cheerful fortitude from the hours I spend on the mat to all the hours I spend off the mat. This would probably be Task No. 1 in the list of things off the mat that routinely defeat me.



On the Grace of Difficulty

Several days ago, in response to a note I sent chronicling a recent episode of despondency, my good friend J. messaged me a quote from Rilke:

“People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”

The message sunk its roots deep into my subconscious; it was only today, however, that its first shoots actually broke through the surface into conscious thought.

The first realization happened in the middle of a particularly challenging side forearm plank in this morning’s Vinyasa Yoga class (a pose that eventually defeated me). It occurred to me then that I had always sought the difficult in yoga—that the classes I’d always enjoyed were the ones where repeated failure at some pose or other was an expectation (if not a foregone conclusion).

My second realization was that I bear this attitude of humility and perseverance towards yoga alone. In all other fields of endeavor, I expect to succeed easily and rapidly with the slightest setback sending me into a disproportionate funk.

Not surprisingly, this has made my predominant experience of life one of unrelenting frustration and unremitting struggle. If I do well, it’s simply what’s expected. If I don’t do well, then, oh boy.

That’s when the marvelous thought occurred to me: What if I relate to everything else I do in life in the same way that I relate to yoga? With no expectations of quick or easy success, with a zest for challenge, with a hunger for improvement, with a readiness for failure and with an abundance of gratitude for every tiny victory?

Gee, I thought to myself in response, I can barely imagine it, but it sounds like fun.

So this is me, embracing difficulty off the mat—just as I embrace it on the mat.

Let the fun begin.


On the End of Harassment

I am, ever so cautiously, celebrating.

The furtive feeling of festivity (9.8 on the alliteration meter, wheeeee!) has to do with having written no less than four daily blog posts in a row. I would like to think of these posts as signs of the return to normalcy—or, at the very least, as signs of a return to a less frantic schedule.

(Speaking of frantic schedules, an acquaintance in the mindfulness movement asked me the other day if I didn’t routinely regulate my “ngarag-ness” in deference to my career as a mind-and-body-wellness advocate. Ngarag is a Tagalog word used to designate the mental and emotional state of being harassed. Symptoms can include delayed reactions to stimuli, absent-mindedness, preoccupation, irritability and a sense of being overwhelmed. As I was actually ngarag when she asked me the question, I threw something off along the lines of: I do, but not too much, because hypervigilance in this area, especially when it’s a valid response, would constitute a kind of violence. Not a bad response for someone ngarag, if I may say so myself.)

At any rate, there’s a little more room now for a return to the life of the mind: room for reading, room for studying, room for thinking, room for writing.

Here’s hoping that room expands.

On the Myth of Beginnings

Lately, I find myself preoccupied with the notion of the fresh beginning.

The adjective “fresh” here is necessary, because more often than not, beginnings are stale.

Or perhaps, to be more precise, all beginnings (barring that most primordial one, if it existed) are stale, the seeds of their genesis having been sown in countless prior events. Like all linguistic constructs, the word “beginning” breaks down when subjected to the tortuous demands of accuracy. It’s a testament to our fundamental unity as human beings that we understand each other well enough despite dwelling in a haze of linguistic imprecision.

But to return to the notion of the fresh beginning, the more I think about it, the more it assumes a mythic quality. The observations of early Hindu-Buddhist thought coincide with the observations of existential philosophy and contemporary neuroscience: what constrains us from ever completely starting anew is the fact that our thoughts and actions leave imprints on our consciousness that dispose us to habituate the very same thoughts and actions.

A useful analogy would be picture someone walking through a grassy field for the first time as a shortcut to some particular destination. In the beginning, the passage leaves a barely discernible trail. Still, it’s visible enough to catch the attention of another passersby also in search of a shortcut. The second passerby deepens the marks left by the first passersby, rendering the trail just a little bit more visible. Eventually, more and more hikers deepen the rut created by the initial trailblazers, until at some point, you have a a regular little dirt path, complete with handlettered signposts and a pebbled pavement.

In a very real sense, all of us are in a rut. To be even more precise, all of us are an agglomeration of countless major and minor ruts. All of which simply means that if any of us are to start anew in anything at all, it will be with a long and protracted beginning.

Like I said, all beginnings (barring that most primordial one, if it existed) are stale.

On the Ephemerality of Things

About a week ago, one of the six rubber bird glass charms in our studio mysteriously vanished.

These individualized charms—designed to perch on the rim of the glass to help the owner identify his or her beverage container—belong to that class of not-particularly-necessary-but-nevertheless-very-cute-and-helpful-thingamajigs that I tend to associate with the Japanese. These had been given to Abbey and me as a present last Christmas, and it was with some hesitation that we decided to permit their public use at the studio.

The hesitation, of course, came from the fear of possible loss. Inasmuch as we had functioned perfectly well our whole lives without the assistance of these not-particularly-necessary items, their cuteness had activated a latent avarice and its attendant paranoia.

Nevertheless, as proponents of the mind-and-body wellness attitudes of surrender and letting go, we (reluctantly) perched the birds on the rim of the glass that contained all our handmade beverage container charms. (One red bird we put on the lip of a rectangular glass vase as a demonstration of solitary imperchment and a reminder of the essential isolation of all things.)

Then last week, like I said, one of the birds enigmatically disappeared. As there were only six in the flock, to begin with, the disappearance was quickly noticed:

Abbey (wailing): One of our birds is gone!

Eileen (blankly): What bird?

Abbey (frowning): The green bird! The green bird!

Eileen (blankly): What green bird?

Abbey (frowning more): The green rubber bird for the glasses!

Eileen promptly leaves the office, frantically inspects the pantry and hurriedly returns: 

Eileen (wailing): The green bird is gone!

Abbey and Eileen start wailing together.

For the next ten minutes, Abbey and I brainstormed on how to recover our lost avian. Our favorite idea: to post small wanted flyers around the studio asking, “Have you seen this bird? Please return him to the flock! No questions will be asked.”

Of course, with everything that we both had to handle, the flyers never materialized. We both consoled ourselves by using the incident to meditate on the essential ephemerality of all things. The isolated red bird on the glass vase looked on with skepticism.

Then today:

Abbey (triumphantly): We found the bird!

Eileen (blankly): What bird!

Abbey (frowning): The green bird! The green bird!

Eileen (blankly): What green bird?

Abbey (frowning more): The green rubber bird for the glasses!

Abbey promptly holds up a little green item.

Eileen (triumphantly): We found the bird!

Abbey and Eileen do a little jig together.

Apparently, even mysterious disappearances are an ephemeral thing.


On the Uselessness of Hermeneutics

So, it’s nearly six weeks into 2013 and I feel that I haven’t progressed much (if at all) in my grand project of Being-A-Better-Person.

Of course, this project flies in the face of all the Buddhist (and similarly-inclined) tracts I’ve read, which uphold the basic view that we are intrinsically perfect beings robbed of an awareness and experience of our wholeness by a near-terminal case of existential amnesia. The metaphors abound: the sun obscured by clouds, a diamond concealed by dirt. There’s nothing to improve because there’s no absence and there’s no lack.

Honestly, and I say this with no cynicism whatsoever, it doesn’t make a difference. Whether you’re intrinsically flawed and have to work hard to be better or intrinsically perfect and have to work hard to remember, it all boils down to the same thing: which is to work hard, period. Glass half empty or glass half full, you’ve still got the other half to fill and no amount of hermeneutics will ever annul the effort involved.

But okay fine. To be philosophically-inclusive, let’s grant my project the pseudonym of Remembering-That-I-Am-Already-A-Perfect-Person.

In this case, no amount of rebaptizing will ever annul the absence of results produced.


On the End of Procrastination

The funny thing about inertia is how it has its own momentum. You put something off, the delay gains weight. Put it off longer and longer, the weight grows and grows. At some point, you’ve got this huge snowball of inactivity, piling on layers and layers of dullness, lethargy, sluggishness and guilt.

All of this is exactly how I feel about writing at the moment. The last several days have been so ridiculously busy, that whenever I’ve had the time to actually write, I no longer have the energy. Apparently, however, no matter how fatigued we get, there’s always enough energy for the omnipresent guilt (a snowball that keeps perpetually rolling of its own, er, steam).

The only thing that can be done is to do something—anything—different. Just to get one outside of the snowball’s rut. Of course, the best thing to do would be the dreaded task, but sometimes this can be impossible (existentially speaking).

So this is me, actually doing the dreaded, almost existentially impossible task.

What do you know. I feel better already.