I have this idea I’m trying to flesh out, about how we experience the passage of time. Being a kid lasted a forever. Days, summers, and years crawled by, and it took a lifetime to become a teenager. Even then, with the busyness of high school life, I marked off the days to graduation in my planner like an inmate serving a long-term sentence. Time in my twenties moved more slowly than time does now, and it doesn’t seem dependent on how packed my days are, because I’ve become less and less busy through my life (so far). So my idea is that we experience time differently based upon how much time we’ve experienced. Like, time travels exponentially faster as time travels. Katelyn suggested we gather experience like a snowball gathers snow as it rolls down a hill, although that of course implies a slowing. Maybe more like an avalanche picks up speed and mass as it crashes down a mountain.
I definitely don’t think we get smarter, as in quicker or wittier, as we get older, but it does seem like we get wiser. How do we define wisdom? I think it’s a recognition of repeated patterns. I also think it’s the knowledge that we aren’t witness to any objective reality, but are interpreters of a messy, contradictory world, full of compromise and grey areas. So, what if as we get older it just takes us less time to process everything? Not just because we’ve seen it before, but because we’ve learned to live with uncertainties and indeterminacies. Now, that’s the kind of thing we’re supposed to be wary of, as in the story of the three pots. We’re supposed to stay open-minded, leaving room for new ideas and experiences. But does that actually happen? Is that even possible, or desirable? I think rather than the idea of leaving “room” in our minds for more stuff to come in, we actually exercise flexibility. As more and more experience piles up, we don’t really throw out any old foundations (unless they were built on a sinkhole to begin with, in which case we have mid-life crises, born-again episodes, and nervous breakdowns). Instead, we stretch a bit, fine-tune and bend, growing new webs only as needed.
The earth spins once a day, and orbits the sun once a year, but I think the subjective way we experience time is just as real. But why? Can faster, more efficient pattern recognition, with the ability to accept the unknown and unknowable, be the answer? We also thought maybe time just travels more slowly when you’re miserable. And, “time flies when you’re having fun.” This could be more valid. Being a kid and an adolescent and a young adult were all a lot more miserable than being an adult is, unless you’ve had a very unfortunate adulthood. But let’s think about lonely old people, as in the Magnetic Fields song, “When You’re Old and Lonely.” The lyric goes:
when you’re old and lonely
and the rush of life is past
days go by too slowly
and the years go by too fast
Does that make any sense? That days can creep by, but the years still fly? I dunno. Humor me and discuss.
Life’s not fair. Terrible things happen to good people. Kids die. Bad guys win.
We try to find order and patterns in everything, because that’s what humans do. When something good happens, religious people say, “Our God is great.” When bad things happen, we wonder what we did to deserve it.
Sometimes when people say “Life’s not fair,” they’re just lazily or selfishly excusing something shitty. But in general, people want justice. “I have a dream!” We want justice except for when we benefit from injustice (see: slavery). Striving for justice is the noblest of human social endeavors, in my opinion. But it doesn’t always work, and much of what happens is out of the human jurisdiction, anyway. (Unless you’re Pat Robertson, in which case every natural disaster can be attributed to gays, abortion, marijuana, and liberal professors.) My point is, shit happens, and we look for reasons to explain why the shit happens. Because an uncaring and unjust universe is hard to swallow, apparently. We want “god” to be “just,” like us. Ha. Ha.
Aside: I think this is why most of us who love sports love sports. Not because we love to see speed or strength or winning. But because sports exist in an idealized, human-created world in which we attempt to establish a level playing field. We dislike cheating and cheaters: refs who bet on games; boxers with loaded gloves; Lance Fucking Armstrong. We like competitive balance. Everyone’s supposed to have a decent shot at winning. This is why we love it when the Yankees lose: because they’re the richest, and the way they buy the best players isn’t fair. (Unless you’re a Yankees fan, in which case you’re probably against Communist revenue sharing.)
Yoga isn’t a sport. Yoga exists to help us deal with the realities of life. It was developed to provide tools for us to achieve mental, physical, and emotional balance. Yoga teaches unattachment and being here now, even if ‘here now’ sucks. Especially when here now sucks. These lessons are readily available to us when we take a yoga class. Look around: is it fair that some people are stronger or more flexible or look better in tights than others? Is it fair that you’re the one working through a shoulder surgery, or hamstring tear, or broken heart? We throw the concept of fair out the window. We leave it outside along with competitiveness. In class, we simply come up against our frailties, injuries and discomforts and deal with them. You can’t win at yoga, and no one’s there to prop up your ego.
Now, why we would invite difficulty and discomfort into our lives brings us back to sports. A yoga class is an idealized, human-created world in which we practice Yoga. There, in the safety of our friendly neighborhood studio, we create and confront obstacles to practice dealing with them. In practice, we become aware of our reactions to conflict, defeat, vulnerability, and work on owning those reactions, or changing them as needed. We practice awareness and reaction, so we are better prepared for outside-the-studio difficulties, reactions, and consequences. (Also, we just feel good after class. We may do some important work, but let’s be real: it’s the endorphins that keep us coming back.)
Life’s not fair. But we should always have a dream of justice and work for it, and when that fails, we should have the tools to deal with it. That’s what yoga’s good for.
We have to remember that there are two different meanings of the verb practice. In one, we practice as a means to an end. We repeat an exercise until we become proficient at it, as we would practice layups in the driveway until they become automatic. The other kind of practice means merely to do. We practice meditation, we practice abstinence, we practice medicine, or at least we do on TV.
The term asana practice is inherently confusing. Because asana means posture, more or less, so we have posture practice. Are we then practicing poses to master poses? We go to the workshops of big name yoga teachers, and this is what happens: the teacher shows off some difficult, advanced posture or sequence, and everyone applauds.That’s ok. We applaud because the performance is impressive. It probably took an immense amount of practice, strength, determination, and poise for that instructor to know she can consistently nail that pose. And yet we’re told asana practice isn’t about mastering postures. We’re told we are using the postures as tools of self-knowledge.
If that sounds like bullshit lip-service, it’s because in the mouths of some, it is. But the longer I do yoga the more I understand asana practice to really be about self-knowledge. When we do yoga we repeat mental exercises, breath exercises, and posture exercises over and over again. And naturally we learn to move more easily into and out of postures. But the proficiency we gain is awareness: awareness of our mental patterns and states, awareness of the quality of our breath and our control over it, and awareness of our bodies and how we move through space. We never want to achieve automatic. We always want to be attentive, methodical, aware.
We learn what feels normal, and what feels not right. This is important for several reasons, not least of which is we will notice sooner if we are injured or exhibiting symptoms of an illness. We won’t suddenly look in the mirror and see we’ve grown a hump on our backs, or a horn on our heads. We learn better command over our bodies, which means we’re less clumsy and injury-prone. We learn to use our breath to calm us in traffic, or to give us strength to hoist a bag of potting soil or courage to kill a cockroach.
Most important, to me, is the study of our minds and hearts. How easily do we give up? What motivates us? How do we react in the face of difficulty, change, success, boredom? To where do our minds wander? What do we need and love? Or, how do we beat ourselves up? What do we still hang onto that is no longer serving us?
“Know thyself” doesn’t mean paralyze yourself with self-consciousness. It doesn’t mean saying “I’m the kind of person who” blah blah blah (no one cares). It doesn’t mean ceaseless navel-gazing. And I don’t think it means cobbling together a narrative out of a string of events, either. It’s simpler than that, and more in the moment. Right now, how is your environment affecting the way you’re treating someone, for example? Right now, are you eating because you’re hungry or anxious? Right now, are you putting off doing something, and why?
Think about some dumb shit you did years ago. A “what was I thinking?” moment or era, that caused you or someone else pain. What you did or chose was probably the result of not knowing yourself in some way. You were not very practiced in self-awareness, and you hurt yourself or someone as a result. Or you reflexively responded to something, say a conflict, in a way that was habitual, but the habit (say, punching, or getting tatered, or subordinating your needs to someone else’s) wasn’t the best one. Our choices and behaviors affect everyone around us. So learning yourself isn’t selfish; your yoga practice isn’t selfish, unless there’s a nursery burning down next door and you can’t be bothered to pause your podcast and lend a hand.
Try this: at the beginning of your practice, set an intention. An intention is like a resolution, but smaller, shorter-term, achievable. Resolve to be aware. Use your awareness to add a little something to your library of self-knowledge. It can be anything, no matter how insignificant. Write it down in your yoga journal. (Make a yoga journal.) And keep on practicing, keep on learning yourself, because we don’t stop changing ’til we’re dead!
If you love something, set it free. I’m not thinking of the butterfly or the bird, or your child or your ex, but of you. Set yourself free. Let yourself off the hook, why don’t you? Stop punishing yourself. There’s a statute of limitations on your crimes.
You really are worthy of love. For as long as you need to, treat yourself like something that needs you. Imagine you are a damaged kitten [or puppy or baby or whatever floats your boat]. Practice nurturing the damaged kitten. Practice loving yourself in this third-party way; make sure it’s eating, sleeping, resting — be gentle with it, get it out in the sun, see the world through its fresh eyes. Treat yourself like an innocent. Habit makes character. Habitually act in your best self-interest, for as long as you need to. Practice, practice, practice, until treating yourself like someone you love is just what you do. Because you do.
In the past month I’ve only taught two classes, and it’ll be at least another five weeks before our new studio opens. Meanwhile, it’s the holiday season, and the food— the delicious, plentiful food, and drink — is unrelenting, like a daily horn of plenty, but rather than overflowing with fruit, it’s stuffed with mashed potatoes, pie and beer. And so am I.
In this series I’ll post sections of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran: much read at weddings, less so in its entirety. Today’s lesson is on houses. Because sometimes our houses feel more like anchors than masts. And sometimes our comfortable routines makes us chomp at the bit. If your house is your larger body, what does that look like? Is it alive, or like a tomb? Is it uncluttered enough to allow you to think? To move? Do you lock your doors, and if so, what are you protecting? “Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.” Let’s think about our houses today.