Thursday, June 21, 2012

The eyes on the wire

Oh like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

'Bird on the wire'
Leonard Cohen

I was driving from work in the early evening, waiting at a red light in the grim no-mans-land of the space beneath a freeway in Los Angeles and just glimpsed a view of a pathetic, saddening sight. A struggling, misshapen, bundle of feathers, flapped uselessly as it dangled trying to escape from a wirelink fence. I sat, a little horrified, not sure what I was seeing and the light turned green and I drove off.

It was a crow, it's legs somehow entangled and bloody on the wire. Trapped, dangling, helpless, waiting to die.

In the space of thirty seconds, I turned the car around and started looking for a place to park so that I could find some way to help. I had to park illegally and jaywalk to return to the spot. As I walked up to try to figure out what to do, another car pulled up and a guy hopped out with precisely the same thought on his mind as me.

It was a moment of immediate recognition, cooperation and shared humanity. We started trying to figure out what we could do. The crow had some sort of plastic twine wrapped around it's legs that had snagged. It was ten feet up and neither of us could reach it on our own. The only cutting implement we had was a plastic knife. The other man made a cradle with his hands that I stepped into and we started trying to cut the crow free.

Naturally, the plastic knife was completely useless and I had to try to be careful to avoid hurting the crow, avoid being pecked and scratched by the barbs of the wire. I'm not exactly a dainty, little thing: I weigh a solid 180lb and as I was dithering trying to cut the twine, my new friend was finding it hard to keep hold. We took a break to reexamine our options. It was then that we noticed a whole murder of other crows, circling and screeching. They could see what we were doing. They probably thought we were trying to kill or eat their friend and they making a lot of noise. Their caw-cawing probably meant "You bastards! Leave him alone!"

We looked at each other, hopping up to try again. This time, I tossed the knife away and just tried to pull the wire apart with my hands. My friend kept it together, holding me steady. As I came close, the crow on the wire stopped moving, his black eyes focussed on me in a moment of realization. I swear that I saw something glimmer in his eyes at that moment: a sort of desperate hope, perhaps even the recognition of me as a friend.

The twine gave way, and I scratched my hand across the barbs of the fence. The crow fell in a bundle of bones and feathers, but the sudden movement returned him to his element. He unfurled his wings and transformed in an instant from a clumsy, broken thing to the majestic shape of a bird in flight. He swooped away from us effortlessly, rising to join his brethren in the sky.

My new friend gently lowered me to the ground. We looked at each other and smiled. I held out my hand. "I'm Gully" I said. We shook. "I'm Bruce", he replied. I think I said something like "Very well done, sir" and with that we got in our cars and went our separate ways.

There we were: two complete strangers, coming together without any forethought in a moment of crisis to help. Neither of us could have managed on our own, we needed each other. We both knew precisely what we were doing and why we were there without bullshit, without ego, without any need beyond the fierce urgency of saving a life, hanging helpless from a wire.

It is this urgency that we have lost. We rarely see the sheer, bloody, inviolable miracle of looking into another creature's eyes and seeing a thinking being there. We rarely have our interactions be simple expressions of love and support, strength and courage. We sully the miracle of our lives with petty fears and concerns, with our defense mechanisms for our vulnerable egos, with our fantasies for things we see in movies or on TV, with our arguments to diminish other people and elevate ourselves.

But there are rare and real moments of pure clarity that provide the antidote. They are what matter and strangely enough, attempting to construct them artifically almost never results in their authentic expression. Better to live true, be kind, and be ready for them when they appear. I hope that I will be able to.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Walled Gardens

Last year, I signed up to a 300-hour teacher training apprenticeship program in a new up-and-coming school in Santa Monica. I should not have, I had nothing like the sufficient time available in my schedule but I knew a number of the teachers at the school personally and the owner charmed me. He promised that he would do everything he could to make my experience really fantastic. I had the impression that there were things I could learn with this man - his wit, his sense of humor, his laid-back approach to the practice. It all spoke to me of places in life that I, with enough instruction or patience, could one day arrive. It spoke to me a place that I did not inhabit, a walled garden, a sanctuary. I wanted to live there.

Fast-forward a year and the final, guillotining communication from him that severed my contact with this studio echoes with condemnation of me as a person.
"I am sure you are angry ... it is your anger that prevented me from discussing the [DELETED] matter with you and kept me from quickly responding to your demands. You scare me and you have for a long time."
Here, the walled garden was now protecting its serenity, through force.

When I was still in the program back in February, I was going through a rough time. I had met someone at the studio who I had developed strong feelings for. Those feelings were not reciprocated, however, and there followed several weeks where the woman I liked was not attending class. I sent her texts: "Am I the reason you're not coming to class?". "No, no, I'm having roommate issues" came the replies. Something was wrong and I wasn't sure what. I finally came to the realization "No, no, you are the reason she's not coming to class, (you stupid douchebag)" and I immediately left the program, informing her voicemail that I was going and it was now OK for her to return.

During this time, I felt pretty low. The feeling of rejection surrounding the entire experience was traumatizing. I wanted to talk to the owner of the studio about this and maybe ask for a partial refund of the money I had spent to sign up. No dice. He was slow returning my emails or calls. After 6 weeks of waiting, I got angry and told him so. It all degraded even further from there. I wrote a strongly negative review for the studio online and the owner posted a number of quite hurtful, dismissive rebuttals and then sent his final email to me (partially quoted above). He said nastier things in this mail, some of which were deliberately intended to be hurtful, coercive, threatening even. I was quite careful not to make my communications personal (either private or public), but even then, he obviously interpreted the whole event as an attack on him.

I think back on this interaction and furrow my eyes in perplexed confusion. As a business owner, his handling of my participation took a perfectly straightforward situation requiring a little humanity and turned it into something really nasty. Some of the things he did were things I consider both egregious and unethical.

Why would someone apparently committed to the pursuit of yoga treat one of his customers so badly? He seemed genuinely frightened of the 'negative energy' that I had suddenly introduced into his world. I think that he felt that he was fighting for his livelihood against someone who he couldn't empathize with or understand.

All of his actions were geared towards excluding my 'issues' from his life. He initially ignored my requests for communication. When I posted my review, he tried to have it taken down. He then attempted to silence me by discrediting me and then his final communication has the tone of an act of violence: an emphatic rejection of me as a person. Naturally, this had a strong impact on me. I thought that perhaps that it might have had a traumatizing impact on him too, but no, he only really cared about the negative 'one-star' Yelp review I posted about his studio online. When I published this post, I also took down the review since now, it's time to move on.

As he wrote in his email to me, I scare him. Perhaps the purpose of yoga is to make people happy, and it's natural to attempt to preserve a space of happiness around ourselves. It's natural to attempt to avoid negativity, and to shy away from people with issues. We hang out with people we like, we avoid people we don't. It's simple, right?

Well, no. To paraphrase some Sanskrit (and hopefully do justice to millennia of ancient wisdom), yogic philosophy describes the four essential causes of suffering as egotism (asmita), desire (raga), revulsion (dvesha) and our own fear of dying (abhinivesha). These can all be bundled together so that each is a different expression of the same underlying root: a misperception of reality (avidya). Dvesha is related to this fear of negativity. The act of pushing away and ignoring the things that we recoil from prevents us from engaging powerfully with them. One might say even, that it is the basis of hate, of non-acceptance, of cruelty.

How do we learn to mistreat people? We start by distancing ourselves from them.

It seems that we think of 'happiness' as an idyllic walled garden: peaceful, tranquil, and full of gorgeous, happy, perfect people who never cause problems. Here, negativity can feel a little like a smelly homeless man mumbling quietly to himself in a corner. Most people just stay the hell away from him. Some people want to tidy him up a little and maybe make him a little more palatable for everyone by giving him some new clothes and a bath perhaps. Some people want to chuck him out, make sure he doesn't ever come back and attempt to eradicate any trace that he was ever there. Now, that's dvesha in a nutshell.

A little compassion goes a long way. Negativity is usually based on some sort of unresolved trauma. Even aggressive, argumentative, upsetting negativity is worthy of an ear just to listen to. In fact, people who are upset often only want to be heard and understood. Some of the most profound moments of communication I've had in my life were with people who were angry and shouting. When I was able to hear what they were actually trying to tell me, the whole situation usually transformed in a heartbeat. Sadly, that has not always been possible and, God Knows, I've been on the other side of that situation, saying how I feel, trying to be heard, but using a tone or a timbre that frames the conversation in a way that prevents the other person from hearing me. I'm sure that this is what happened with my experiences at the studio.

The defenses of these little walled gardens of human perfection are cold, hard and sharp.

Even now, I value my negativity, my shadow, my 'issues'. It serves as a barometer to gauge people's resilience. If someone can't handle a little honesty about a sticky point of conversation or the authentic expression of an emotion, what sort of person are they going to become when genuinely difficult situations arise? What will they do to protect their own little piece of perfection?

Life is as it is, negative and positive. For me, yoga is somehow to seek a sense of equanimity that treats the negative with the same respect and attention as the positive and isn't afraid of it. My personal challenge is certainly to understand the impact that my negativity has on others and be responsible for that impact (in some contexts though, I still assert that it's not unreasonable to expect a little courage, humanity and compassion from the people around you, especially in the context of something so personal as yoga). Having said that, there is a trend in the emerging multimillion dollar self-help and self-improvement industry towards the complete eradication of negativity. We are encouraged to try to build some version of the pristine, perfect, personal walled garden. These are now being sold as services, practices, tapes, books, courses, gurus (and yoga teacher trainings) as possible vehicles for you to transform your life into something beautiful, a place where you can strive to be perfect and happy: a walled garden all for yourself.

All I can say now, is 'Buyer beware'.
"Don't try to transform yourself.
Move into yourself.
Move into your human unsuccess.
Perfection rapes the soul."

- Marion Woodman quoted in Stephen Cope 'Yoga and the search for the true self'"

Saturday, June 2, 2012

I am a point mass

I am a point mass
Swept up in the flow of folk
Conducted by boys in blue.

Do drops of water have take off their shoes, I wonder?
Do they become strangely uneasy when others move faster than they.
Do they make idle conversation, loitering in tide pools?

I am a point mass,
One amongst many,
To be shuffled and sorted and guided.
I regain my humanity only when I arrive.