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quiz: wait. am i a traumatized yogi?

There’s been a lot of talk about yoga and trauma of late (especially here). It may beg the question: “Wait. I think and act like this sometimes. I’m not traumatized.”

“Am I?”

Some argue that everyone is traumatized in the post-post-modern era. While we certainly live in an age of anxiety (Kali Yuga for sure), and anxiety sufferers may experience life in similar ways, not everyone has been traumatized. Trauma is not an abstraction or a dramatic manner of describing experience.

Clinically, trauma survivors suffer from PTSD, survivors of repeated trauma (e.g. child abuse) CPTSD, Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I avoid these labels as I find them unhelpful. They flatten human experience and elicit cliché. They are, however, extremely accurate regarding the symptoms and experiences of trauma survivors. If you are curious, Judith Herman’s beautiful Trauma and Recovery is the book to read:

At the moment of trauma, the victim is rendered helpless by overwhelming force…. Traumatic events overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.

Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaptations to life. Unlike commonplace misfortunes, traumatic events generally involve threats to life or bodily integrity, or a close personal encounter with violence or death. They confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror, and evoke the responses of catastrophe. According to the Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, the common denominator of psychological trauma is a feeling of ‘intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and threat of annihilation.’

The ordinary human response to danger is a complex, integrated system of reactions, encompassing both body and mind. Threat initially arouses the sympathetic nervous system, causing the person in danger to feel an adrenaline rush and go into a state of alert…. Finally, threat evokes intense feelings of fear and anger. These changes in arousal, attention, perception, and emotion are normal, adaptive reactions. They mobilize the threatened person for strenuous action, either in battle or in flight.

Traumatic reactions occur when action is of no avail. When neither resistance nor escape is possible, the human system of self-defense becomes overwhelmed and disorganized. Each component of the ordinary response to danger, having lost its utility, tends to persist in an altered and exaggerated state long after the danger is over. Traumatic events produce profound and lasting changes in physiological arousal, emotion, cognition, and memory. Moreover, traumatic events may sever these normally integrated functions from one another. The traumatized person may experience intense emotion but without clear memory of the event, or may remember everything in detail but without emotion. She may find herself in a constant state of vigilance and irritability without knowing why. Traumatic symptoms have a tendency to become disconnected from their source and take on a life of their own. pp 33-34.

The worst fear of any traumatized person is that the moment of horror will recur, and this fear is realized in victims of chronic abuse. Not surprisingly, the repetition of trauma amplifies all the hyperarousal symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. p 86.

Unprocessed feelings of intense anger and fear become locked into the body and unconscious mind, waiting for release, easily triggered by sights and sounds that would not phase someone with a relaxed nervous system. Peter Levine’s In an Unspoken Voice offers a remarkable explanation from a medical perspective. He explains why and how trauma becomes frozen in the body, and what to do about it. Another must read.

Avoid most common internet literature, usually about veterans, often asking why some people suffer shell shock (the WWI appellation) and others don’t. C/PTSD is the normal human biological reaction to devastating events that cannot be integrated into a person’s larger experience often due to the level of horror, as well as a lack of understanding, empathy and support. Herman underlines the social complications of trauma recovery, which we’ve seen much of in the media lately, e.g. victim blaming in rape cases. “It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering” (Trauma and Recovery, p 7).

Since I began writing about yoga and trauma, several students, colleagues, and friends have come out to me as trauma survivors. As Herman says, trauma is not rare. Nor is it imagined. Survivors have many biological markers that identify them (low heart rate variability, HRV, among others). It has raised a lot of questions for me about yoga and trauma, teaching survivors in designated classes and out, in classes for the general population. (More on this next time.)

My own yoga practice has often been subsumed by observing my traumatic reactions: fight or flight in asana practice, and freeze (dissociation) in asana and meditation. This only began after years and years of practice, when I finally found enough safety (through a solid, caring relationship) to explore. It was an opening of sorts.

Before when agitated in practice, I just numbed out. A vigorous practice can be good for that, with the endorphins and all. (This, in my honest observations, is how most people practice yoga. Like athletes who force and train the body, rather than being in and of it.) I didn’t experience my anxiety or nerves. It was all on lockdown, deeply repressed. I can pretend nothing bothers me better than most, and when my nervous system is agitated and I feel unsafe, I often do just that. Sometimes, I numb and float upward. It can actually feel pretty good, especially when my muscles go all soft and give up.

But the racing heart and shortness of breath of a challenging practice can also trigger hyperarousal and shift me into fight or flight. I shut down feeling and move faster, trying to break free.

Even when I feel safe and calm, sending breath and awareness into long held parts of my body brings up energy (and emotions and memories) I’m not sure what to do with. It can be scary. One’s own body is not a safe place for trauma survivors. No where is.

This, though, I have to work with and through, because ignoring feeling, shutting down, numbing out, strengthens the ingrained patterns of traumatic reflex. Forever I have fought between maintaining my status quo, which has gotten me through fairly well in some ways, which on some levels I like, and the change healing demands.

None of this is to say that my years of practice before I opened to all all this, when I numbed out and so on, were not beneficial on deeply healing levels, much deeper than, say, running around a track. They certainly were. I do believe it was my practice (yoga and meditation) that got me to a place where I could finally trust someone and begin the baby steps toward feeling and integration. That is the thing. While we’d love a one-step fix, healing these types of wounds requires care and effort from all angles: physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, cognitive, etc.

Thank you for reading :)   Anastasia

how to feel awesome [?]: self-soothing vs self-care

There was some helpful, interesting feedback on the last post, yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you, about how we often use yoga and meditation to stay right where we are rather than to help us see and behave more clearly.

Giulia, an art historian, had two remarks. First, well, can’t we just have some fun? Second, some self-soothing is necessary and helpful.

Of course we can have fun. Holy linoleum. We need fun, and there’s definitely an element of fun in my classes. I don’t intend to be unnecessarily stern in my writing, it’s just that most of us have the fun part down. Fun is healing in and of itself.

And, yes, self-soothing is necessary and helpful. Absolutely. I did mention that: “Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing…. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky.” Giulia concurred. This is an especially difficult question.

Sarah, a yoga teacher in the final throes of her psych doctorate, gets at the same thing. She wrote that the post, “got me thinking about difference / overlap? between soothing and self-care.”

Self-care requires more discernment. Sometimes self-care is sitting down to work instead of going to the beach. And sometimes it’s going to the beach instead of staying at your desk. (How to know which is a question for later.) Self-soothing is more of an emergency practice. When the nervous system has been jolted into sympathetic response, known colloquially as freaking out, it’s time to soothe.

The problem is when we self-soothe for kicks, because it feels nice, or maybe it’s habit. Trauma survivors, and perhaps everyone, take refuge in fantasy, good and bad, quite a lot. Even to the point of living there. Yoga and meditation can be excellent tools to spot it and back off (as it’s so ingrained in our realities, it’s harder than you think). Or they can be tools of spiritual bypass, by trading one set of fantasies for another.

For example, instead of imagining that your teacher, about whom you know nothing, really, is a controlling, unspiritual bitch because she calls you out when you come to class late (frequently), you get spiritual and pretend that her comments do not affect you because we are all whole and one and you do not need her guidance or acceptance in the banal material realm. This is bullshit. You are not “healed,” and on some level, you know it.

A trauma survivor may go further and fantasize that the teacher doesn’t want him there, will invalidate his class card, ran into his sister on the street and talked mess about him, somehow knows his boss and…ad nauseum.

But then! When he is in a good mood (or the teacher is—the anxious are always sussing the Other’s mood in attempt to stay safe), she’s nurturing, informative, and generally awesome. His imagination spins wildly in this direction. Next thing you know, his wife is into polyamory, Teacher has revealed her unmanageable desire for him, unlike his wife she adores his poetry, and they’re off on an extended trip to…ad nauseum.

It is self-soothing on a rampage, and trauma survivors often live there, in the ups and downs of their imaginations. Here self-care is required. When a glimmer of reality breaks in, it’s back to the breath. But that comforting fantasy can be as difficult (more?) to abandon as nicotine for a smoker.

The breath is not quite as much fun. Not quite (yet) as soothing.

Back to lateness and the controlling teacher. If the breath is not breaking your fantasies open you could:

  • Observe how you feel when she calls you out and suss what’s going on there. Then leave it for later and come back to your breath.
  • Later, when you are alone, observe in retrospect how you feel. Go into your breath and feel. Yes, we know you don’t breathe sometimes, because if you breathe you will feel, and if you feel you will break. But now you are alone, and safe, so feel. Break if you want. You will come back.
  • Look very closely at the reasons you always show up late. Check yourself. (Please consult yoga etiquette 101 & yoga etiquette 201.) Are your excuses valid? Do you really believe them? No one else does, but worse, in seconds of stone cold honesty, you don’t either.
  • Actually have a conversation with her about it (this is the hard one) so that the issue is pulled out of your fantasy realm and down to earth.

You will learn that your teacher is nurturer and bitch, but for reasons you hadn’t fathomed, having nothing to do with you. It is an enormous load off, if you can let go of the fantasies. But those fantasies have protected you through unspeakable, unfeelable things. Soon you’re shocked to find that it’s the manic ones that are trouble. It’s easy to peer under the heavy trips, as we don’t (consciously) like them, but the happy fantasies brighten our day and give us hope. What are we without them? Underneath they are bolstered by the same terror, grief and rage that spin the negative. Stepping back, they are one and the same.

It is daunting, but also fascinating and human. Self-soothing allows us to calm our system, self-care allows us to slowly shift toward health. Though when to do which can be difficult to discern, when we check in, and we’re honest, we know very well.

yoga, self-soothing, and feeling what ails you

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I’ve had little to say here of late. My thoughts on yoga are all over the place, which inevitably seem too intertwined with thoughts on life to give them voice here. How to separate and distill? It’s a practice, so I’m here. I could be swimming in the ocean, but I’m here.

One looming theme in my recent intimate conversations is just how far we go, how many tales we tell, how many distractions we seduce to avoid our pain. The (Buddhist?) idea that suffering is what we create when we refuse to face and feel our pain is intensely accurate.

But how do we call the original pain up to be felt when it’s been refused for so long? How do we find (carve?) a safe space to explore the depths of our misery? This question is complicated for trauma survivors, whose emotions and memories have been chopped up and scattered within to protect us from the unfathomable, rendered unconscious but unforgotten in the nonverbal, primitive brain. It’s a difficult question for everyone, traumatized or not.

Our friends, families and communities, wanting to see us happy, may brush off our anguish with it-happened-for-a-reason-esque platitudes or unhelpful analyses. Unfamiliar with their own pain, they may be quick to minimize ours. Health professionals are quick to medicate and pathologize any behavior or emotion presented them. “Grief? I have just the thing for that!” the doctor quips as she scribbles out another prescription. And the happy affects, those must be at acceptable levels, lest you be labeled manic III-bipolar, or whatever diagnosis is trending this year. Even spiritual counselors—helpers of all kinds, really—condescend with false compassion or stone cold silence. I’m given to the latter.

Someone exploring her fear and insecurity may quickly trigger the Helper’s own unexamined vulnerabilities, and suddenly Explorer is scapegoated as weak, emotional, or out-of-control. Heavy. She’s shoved to arm’s length with fake compassion and a weighted stare. I’ve been there, on both sides. Preferred is the awkward rawness of an honest, present silence, which comes sometimes, when the strength is summoned.

Though vulnerability was all the rage on your tedtalks last year, I’ve seen no trickle down, no real time embracing of our pain, to say nothing of our ugliness and evil. It’s always out there. It’s Her. Or them. Very, very few of us have done the work of facing our pain. Without it, real, engaged compassion is impossible.

So. How do we do it? There is this ungodly pull to pretend we are nurturing ourselves when in fact we’re just numbing out. Or distracting ourselves. Or maintaining.

Like many, I excel at maintaining. I watch carefully what keeps me going, what keeps me floating above the morass. As early as my undergrad years I found that if I kept myself extremely busy, so busy I felt like a robot much of the time and dropped into bed of exhaustion each night, I did not feel depressed. I didn’t actually feel much at all, but I didn’t notice that until later.

Years later I’m much more subtle. Yoga soothes me, as does the ocean. And books. If I’m feeling a bit off, or fear I might soon, I’ll drink an afternoon coffee to perk me up. Maybe an innocuous stimulant, but it definitely sweeps me up and away from my pain. I know how often I must schedule time with friends to avoid loneliness. I know how to practice so I feel, and I know how to practice to numb myself. Why would I ever choose the latter? Sometimes it’s the only choice.

The soothing. Most of us know how to self-sooth, whether we call it that or not. Some soothing is important, good, necessary, healing. Especially for trauma survivors. But when is it too much? Spiritual bypassing? Avoiding the pain? This is tricky. I read a comment about a post I’d written on yoga and trauma on a reposter’s fbook page. Someone unbeknownst to me wrote, “That’s probably all these people can manage, anything to just get them through the day.”

This may be true of the newly traumatized and the most dire, but the majority of us eventually come to a place where we are much like everyone else. We just fly into flight, fright, or freeze mode far more quickly than average. Still, you cannot generally pick us in a crowd. We want to engage with life and thrive too. We want more than to just get through the day. Don’t you?

Everyone needs a safe space for this, inside ourselves as well as out, and self-soothing plays a role. But when the nervous system settles, we need to probe a bit and feel our emotions, to face and integrate our terror. It’s a dangerous place, but it has to be done. It is impossible to meaningfully engage in life without accessing our humanity and our emotions and using them to steer our lives. It is just impossible. Those little machinations you have for keeping safe? They are killing you softly. Stop it.

If it seems I am speaking only to trauma survivors, I am not. I speak to everyone for whom this resonates.

And then there’s the problem of everything. Everything quick and shiny and soon. Our culture teaches us that if we feel bad, instead of feeling it, investigating it, going inside it, we should make haste to feel better. This ubiquitous fantasy that when we find the right job, the right diet, the right partner, the right asana, the right teacher, the right shiny green t-shirt, we will be healed. Until then (soon!), a fabulous snack will do.

The prevalent idea that shifting your mood so you feel better for the afternoon (maintaining) is somehow healing your pain is a tease. It does not. Affirmations, slogans, positivity clichés disguised as spiritual wisdom—another coffee or a swim in the Atlantic, whatever your tricks—may work for the short term, but if you’re refusing your pain, the nagging, rotting sense that your world will collapse (your health is failing you, your boss will retaliate, your kid is unsafe, whatever your demon vrittis) will still gyrate underneath, lurching up just when you thought you were clear. This will not go away with a few magic tantric breaths or a weekend workshop.

It is inane. There is no way to heal without walking straight into your pain.

And for $2500, I will tell you how.

Haha. Not really. Til next time. ~Anastasia

yoga mat as security blanket :: break it in

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Mid-air I crashed. Bodymind lurched into panic, blackness. I felt myself tangled then searing pain. My left knee. What happened? Someone said, “I’m so sorry. Are you okay?” I couldn’t see her, only indefinite forms moving around me. I sat on my mat holding my knee, trying to breathe. Recycled, unexpected terror, unknowing, pain, humiliation and confusion expressed itself in the only emotion I know how to express when afraid. Anger.

“Yes. I. am. okay,” I gritted my teeth in reply. To whom, I don’t know. I couldn’t see. I sat, trying to breath, trying not to cry, hurting. Needing help but not wanting any more of a scene, I just sat. It seemed that crying or limping off the floor were not options, so I did the only thing I know how to do with pain. I kept going. I practiced. I found downward dog and I finished, angry, hurt, and humiliated. Irate that after all this time, I still cannot ask for help. Cannot come out of my shell. I imagine that to the observer, I looked territorial and punishing, making a scene because someone was on my mat, in my space. Never mind I was hurt. I said I was okay.

My self-hatred and masochism felt infinite.

What happened? I don’t even know. I don’t wear my glasses, usually, and I can’t see much without them. Even with them, I have little depth perception because of my left eye. I cannot tell for certain how close or far things are from me. When the shala is crowded, my sympathetic nervous system takes over and keeps watch for possible assault. I deal with this through my breath, but largely, I practice over it. Or under it. I’m not sure.

These protective systems are not easy to shift. But I watch them. And they do shift, millimeters at a time.

So what happened? What I know is that I was jumping back, I think from Ardha Baddha Padma Paścimottānāsana. I hit something soft, someone, midair and the impact forced my left knee into the ground at the speed of my jumpback. Hard. I felt darkness and panic for a split second, then heard “I’m so sorry! Are you okay?” I couldn’t see her, though, and I didn’t know who it was. There was a guy practicing behind me, I’d thought. But this woman was somehow on my mat when I jumped back. What, why, and who, I still do not know. “Was it my teacher?” I wondered as I finished, because sometimes they walk across mats in their hurry to reach someone. But I think I’d recognize her energy and voice. I don’t think it was, but I’m not totally sure. I hoped not. I hoped I could accept her help, were it offered. But I don’t know.

Was it my fault? Should I have seen? Shame and pain around my eyes, my sight, my inability to move my left eye into drishti comes up for me a lot of late. I never knew.

My knee is ok. I landed at the top, more on my quad and femur, and though it is bruised, hurts to bend with pressure on it (e.g. Utkatasana), and pops frequently, I can still practice. It will heal and I will live. It was mostly a painful look at my inability to ask for help, my inability to break through my defensive anger and show my pain, fear and vulnerability, my longing and desperation to feel protected, cared for, and safe. And nursing myself through that, dragging myself against hellish resistance to practice each following day, watching my thoughts, feelings and projections, until a point (four days later) of feeling okay there, feeling again love and appreciation for my teachers, allowing space for their own needs, difficulties and vulnerabilities.

There was a morning, Wednesday, walking across Grand Street in dread, I felt the heavy armor of my back muscles tensed in a fear I have held as long as memory, a constant bracing for when it might happen next, knowing I could never know I was safe. I teared up in that moment, and felt a small crack of softness and hope ripple through me, massaging my hyper-vigilant muscles with gentleness.

While in some way it’s that familiar victimization, as per my usual, I get that the righteous victim invites more nails. There was a baby step. This time I did not wallow in self-pity and take comfort in its treacly warmth, as I wrote about last fall. This time I saw how my defenses keep my needs from being met and felt the sorrow of my entrenched inability to ask for help. While I don’t imagine this will change quickly, seeing it, feeling it, is a relief. And a beginning.

By Friday, after tears of relief, I laughed. All this took place on someone else’s mat, someone who asked me to break in her new manduka because it was too slippery for her. (My rollovers and daily practice break in mats quickly.) I am somewhat superstitious about mats. I think of my own as a talisman, and the crash happened on the first day I used another. But I forced myself to keep practicing on it, to break it in for her. Now that I’ve been injured, afraid, hurt, angry, teary, grateful and smashed open on that mat, it’s broken in. Little does she know. ; )

the plumber’s son & the professor

t3eyeWbIt’s been established that American yoga practitioners don’t go in for critical thinking, much less a little history. I find both to be vital to self-reflection and hope a least a few readers agree. Next time we might be back to trauma.

The highlight of Prisoners of Shangri-La is the chapter on T. Lobsang Rampa. It’s the remarkable story of the most-read book about Tibet, The Third Eye (1956), albeit told through the lens of an academic distraught (traumatized, even) by his own irrelevance. His work will never have the reach of New Age crackpot Rampa. Yes, I understand that rankles. Most people are not interested in facts and history, and this drives me crazy too. And the New Age influence on my profession? Staggering. Though not quite as staggering as the blind bias of academics full of disingenuous political correctness. Lopez looks to establish authority in this chapter (itself a dubious ground for argument), but instead defends his class privilege. And that privilege is precisely why he should know, and do, better.

“This chapter considers notions of embodiment and possession in an effort to raise the question of what authorizes the author of a book about Tibet. The occasion for these reflections is provided by three books published [by Rampa]…”  (Lopez p87). Frankly, I find it a little embarrassing that a leading scholar feels compelled to compare his own authority to that of an occult writer popular in the 1950s. I’ve taken a Tibetan religion class or two and I’d never heard of Rampa, even though these books are still in print today. And rightly so. They’re pretty fantastic.

T. Lobsang Rampa was born Cyril Henry Hoskin, a disenfranchised English nutter whose books about Tibet have sold more copies than any other. He is what academics most despise. He is popular. Even worse, he is eccentric, popular, and of the wrong social class (Lopez 107). His 19 books have sold millions of copies, many still in print over fifty years later. As of last week, Amazon ranks sales of The Third Eye (1956) at #27,559. Prisoners of Shangri-La (1999)? #239,020.

Indeed, Rampa claimed to be a Tibetan Lama who possessed the body of Englishman Cyril Hoskin, and his books were fantastically fictive. But Rampa doggedly claimed that his books were absolutely true and autobiographical. This outraged the Tibetan experts (Western scholars, diplomats, etc. Tibetans had bigger concerns, ie, China), especially the mountaineers, one of whom hired a private investigator to suss things out. Plenty of evidence suggests that Rampa genuinely believed his story, and even Lopez agrees (p111). This sparks my curiosity about the illustrious fellow, who believed he was a Tibetan Lama with a surgically implanted third eye. Alas, perhaps this is because I’m a plumber’s son myself (literalists: this is a metaphor. And my bias). But Lopez has only wrath thinly veiled in sarcasm and condescension.

t3oeil2Lopez completes an exhaustive task of putting three books about Rampa’s life into a chronological summary. This is the highlight of the chapter. A shorter but less fun summary by Lopez can be found here. Summary is Lopez’s forte, as demonstrated in the first chapter on Lamaism.

Early in the story, Rampa received a “surgical procedure designed to force clairvoyance, after which Rampa could be instructed hypnotically. The operation, performed on Rampa’s eighth birthday, involved drilling a hole in his skull at the point between his eyes to create the third eye, an eye that allowed him to see auras, ‘to see people as they are and not as they pretend to be.’” He soon used this skill “to learn the intentions of the Chinese emissaries to the Dalai Lama. The Chinese were filled with hate, their auras showing “the contaminated hues of those whose life forces are devoted to materialism and evil-doing” (pp 88-89).

Rampa became a trappa, or medical priest, and was brilliant enough to suggest “design modifications to the monastery’s kite master to improve their air worthiness” (Lopez 88-89). On first seeing an Englishman he noted: “Occasionally the man would hold a white cloth to his nose and make the sound of a small trumpet, which Rampa took to be a form of salute to the Dalai Lama. He assumed that the man was crippled because he had to sit on a wooden frame supported by four sticks” (p89).

In short, Rampa is creative, hilarious and a great writer. Does Lopez appreciate his talent? No. He’s miffed that Rampa insists his works are absolute truth and doesn’t bow down to the Tibetan experts, and so sets out on a cringe-worthy crusade to denounce Rampa’s authority and trumpet his own. As Matthew Kapstein of The University of Chicago notes in his review for The Journal of Asian Studies:“The ruminations on power and authority with which Lopez concludes this chapter however are uncharacteristically labored and Lopez’s remarks on material and symbolic capital (“by accepting this power the professional authority [derived from Lopez's University of Virginia doctorate] I had to forever disavow any interest in the possible commercial profits that might derive from my work”) seems disingenuous or, at best, just plain silly” Kapstein, 105). At best, indeed. Later in chapter six, Lopez whines that this PhD program at Virgina, completed 20 years earlier, left him with the education of a twelve-year-old monk. But never mind that for now.

Let’s be clear. Rampa was a nutter. He was no threat to the establishment. One of his books, Living with the Lama is the autobio of his Siamese cat dictated to Rampa telepathically, a cat he took for walks on a leash. Does this invite your scorn? Does it threaten your authority? Your sense of what is right in the world? Or is your interest piqued? Who was this guy, writer of almost 20 books of incredible imagination, still in print (in several languages) fifty years later? This fellow who donated the profits from My Visits to Venus to the Save a Cat League of New York** and willed his handsome royalties to several cat organizations in Canada and the US***? His first book, The Third Eye, was published as non-fiction and was widely believed, bestselling in several countries to rave reviews.

Richardson, Britain’s leading expert on Tibet, offered to review the book for the Times Literary Supplement. But the Times had already found a reviewer, who concluded, “There is no doubt that this book was worth publishing, since, though it would be a matter of extraordinary difficulty to say whether it is a work of truth, it comes near to being a work of art….[E]ven those who exclaim ‘magic, moonshine, or worse’ are likely to be moved by the nobility of the ethical system which produces such beliefs and such men as the author.”

Lopez 97-98

The European Tibetan experts who’d recommended it not be published were not so moved. They were flabbergasted. “There is a series of wholly un-Tibetan obsessions with cruelty, fuss and bustle, and strangely, with cats” Richardson review, p98. You can’t blame them, really, the world being so ridiculous, but The Third Eye is totally fantastic. It’s incredible someone could put it together having never left England, given the few books available on Tibet at the time. Hoskin/Rampa was really a piece of work. I am beyond charmed.

klite

How Not to Be an Asshat Academic

You’d think that 40-some years later, Lopez could see the humor and elegance, too. But no. To Lopez, Rampa is the son of a plumber, ergo holds no right to authority whatsoever. In an ad hominem attack, Lopez writes:

Hoskin’s father kept a plumber’s shop in the Ridgeway, Pympton, Devon…(private investigator’s report, p99).

Hoskin was then employed by a Surgical Goods Manufacturing Company and described as a Works Manager” (private investigator’s report, p99).

…[he is] a man who grew up in a rural village, the son of a master plumber…(p100).

…held a variety of jobs, including that of making “surgical fittings” (corsets, trusses, and other unmentionables)…(p100).

…they are the works of an unemployed surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, seeking to support himself as a ghostwriter (p103).

…what is it about The Third Eye that so enrages the expert, apart from the fact that Cyril Hoskin was of the wrong social class to qualify as an authentic English eccentric (p107)?

…the son of Devon plumber could become the scion of the Lhasa aristocracy…(p110).

…a man who made surgical fittings could become a surgeon…(p110).

This trashing even made wikipedia. Their entry on Lobsang Rampa states succinctly: “To Donald S. Lopez, Jr., an American Tibetologist, the books of Lobsang Rampa are “the works of an unemployed surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, seeking to support himself as a ghostwriter.”[4] 

How is this blatant, grotesque, ad hominem classism acceptable? How does it pass for scholarship? Lopez isn’t even a Brit. He teaches at a public American university. I do hope that no children of plumbers dare to take his courses less they be scarred by his ignorance. Though at least he’s direct. Most professors wax poetic about the less privileged while at the same time subtly and not-so-subtly alienating students who come from “the wrong place.” The hypocrisy is nauseating. And not one reviewer called him on it. Most agreed. They picked up the “son of a plumber” line and, through its use, endorsed the ad hominem argument.

Lopez slurs Hoskin/Rampa further by calling him a lazy and spoiled child, as well as a disappointment to his parents (pp 99-100). This is all entirely hearsay. I have a hard time imagining the writer of 19 successful books to be lazy, but obviously I have different standards. Honestly (and I fully admit, conjecture), Rampa’s eccentricity and imagination remind me of public figures like Ellen Gould White and Bertha Pappenheim, people who survived difficult lives by escaping into fantastic imaginary worlds. The first paragraph of The Third Eye features a four-year old being “thwacked” (Rampa, p1) and the second page describes a father who was large, bulky, tall and strong. “Often he would give way to bursts of anger for no reason that we could see (Rampa, p2). Above Richardson noted Rampa’s “un-Tibetan” obsession with cruelty, and there is mention of Rampa’s ill health throughout.

catRamY

by Mrs.Fifi Greywhiskers, Translated from the Siamese cat language by T. Lobsang Rampa

So, we could call him lazy or we could wonder why a child was cranky and bedridden. Was Rampa just naturally so, and deserved the labels “lazy” and “disappointing” in some spineless fabrication about why a child should not grow up to write books? In most of the reviews of Prisoners of Shangri-La, the critics referred to Rampa as a surgical fitter, the son of a plumber, or, incorrectly, a plumber (as does wikip). Only does one reviewer, an Aussie, refer to him as a writer. Apparently it’s acceptable in the American academic world, in the 21st Century, to label someone by the working-class occupation of his parent. Unbelievable.

Lopez further muddles his argument and somehow defends his judgments of Rampa by adding that his father was a master plumber in a rural village (one Prisoners reviewer calls Hoskin/Rampa “provincial”) and “thus a member of the working gentry and financially comfortable” (p100). “The son seems to have been something of a disappointment, especially compared to his sister who married above her station.” Again, hearsay. Now the father plumber is of the working gentry? This puts Rampa above the position of the poor, and so malignable as a ghostwriter and the son of a plumber? Lopez takes issue with a comment Rampa made about poverty, but shames him for writing to support himself and working odd jobs:

It was necessary that I renounce any self-interest in the economic value of my work, exchanging such capital for something higher and more noble because it was severed from crass material interests. This was symbolic capital, which in its own way would provide for my financial security by insuring that I would never have to offer my services to a publisher as a ghost writer in order to support my wife and my cat, as Cyril Hoskin had done (Lopez 105).

Or all the homeless cats of New York and a good chunk of North America, as it turned out. Yes, this is the disingenuous, silly bit Kapstein commented on earlier. It’s a clusterfuck of ad-hominem argument, one that seems to pass in academia without the blink of an eye.

Lopez continues his argument by pointing out that there is in fact consciousness transference (‘pho ba) and body possession in Tibetan Buddhism, Rampa was just off on the details. Less dramatic about them, even. He also suggests Rampa could have argued, had he known enough, that his work was in the tradition of a newly discovered text, a technique of legitimation (pp 105-107). It galls Lopez terribly that Rampa wasn’t interested in these arguments. He just insisted his works were true. Somehow this does not make me think less of Rampa, but more. How close he was, while so far away!

Next Lopez imbibes Max Weber and traditional vs charismatic authority: “But Weber is less helpful on how charisma is lost, and that is perhaps the more mystifying question in the case of Rampa.” He then rambles on about Roman law and Tibetan lineage, totally ignoring the fact that no one cared about what the experts thought. Rampa did not lose his charisma. He was caught out when his book sales were at a few hundred thousand, if that. They went on to sell into the millions. Years later, according to Michael Buckley, he also had something of an entourage following him in Canada. What Lopez and many of his ilk seem to not understand (should they care to), is that fans of Rampa, fans of the disenfranchised, you know, sons of plumbers, love Rampa, the occult, and 92oz cokes partly in defiance of The Experts’ condescending, insulting, ignorant insistence that they are wrong to do so. They defy the pretense that The Experts know better than they can know for themselves.

“It is not simply that the scholar needs the dilettante to define his identity” (p111). Ah yes, that’s me. How am I doing? Let’s continue. There’s more.

MLLVTAIn his next tenuous argument, Lopez suggests that Rampa is like the lü (glud): “[T]he ransom offered to the demons in a Tibetan exorcism ceremony in exchange for the spirit of the possessed. The officiating lama, the person authorized [authority again] to perform the exorcism, makes a doughy effigy of the person possessed…. And so Rampa, invested with the wealth of his royalties, which the scholar must renounce, is given to the public as a Tibetan” (pp 111-112).

It’s a nice attempt to control the situation (i.e. Rampa) symbolically, but it’s flawed. The experts, Lopez’s authorities in this analogy, did not create Rampa. He was self made. The self-made millionaire son of a plumber. As Lopez himself states, the making of the by the officiating lama, the authorized person, is essential to the ceremony. The lama did not make Rampa. He cannot be the experts’ lü. Another fail.

In the last and perhaps most painful argument of all, Lopez calls upon Freud. He tells us that many European Tibetologists first came to their interest in Tibet through the works of Lobsang Rampa. (American academics, wisely, deny having read him.) “In order to become professional scholars, they had to renounce any interest in that which had served as the precondition for their eventual scholarly identity. It is, indeed, the very reading of Rampa that ultimately brings about the death of Rampa” (p113).

That is so profound.

“Some might see this as a case of killing the father [seriously?], but it might be more accurately described in the Freudian sense as a disavowal or denial (Verleugnung), a mode of defense in which the subject refuses to recognize the reality of a traumatic perception: in this case the scholar fondly remembers Rampa for his “good effect,” refusing to acknowledge that he represents everything that the scholar most loathes, that it was this fraud that brought them to their profession” (p113).

A traumatic defense? Are you kidding me? Let me posit this, Dr. Lopez: Perhaps European academics do not suffer Verleugnung from their past relationship with Mr. Rampa. Perhaps they do not take themselves so seriously, do not have their have their heads quite so firmly up their asses. Even more, perhaps they have a sense of play, a sense of humor. Perhaps they simply have no shame regarding their early relationship with the brilliant, adventurous three-eyed lama. Maybe they even enjoy it.

What is most mystifying is that Lopez never makes the most important argument, the argument which strongly supports the thesis of Prisoners of Shangri-La. It might have been a subtext of his arguments, but it was never stated. For almost sixty years now, the most commonly read book on Tibet is a fraudulent biography of a Tibetan Lama by a Westerner, a work of New Age fiction. And no one cares. We love it anyway. What demonstrates our romanticization, our spiritual and occult projections, and our disregard for Tibetans’ actual reality better than this?

And it’s nothing at all to do with Rampa’s father.

today’s practice :: check yourself

chursl

I spent 15 minutes looking for a photog credit, but couldn’t find. :-/

Last time I gave a very brief rundown on Catholic/Tibetan Buddhist comparative religious history, as explained by Donald Lopez, Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies, in Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. I learned, again, that you don’t care much for history. And I offended some, which wasn’t my intent. I did not write it from the outside. Anyone deeply involved with yoga or Buddhism is at some risk of romanticizing or appropriating culture ways that may be offensive, myself included. What offends varies. Anglicizing names of Sanskrit asana (or even yoga as practiced in the US) is considered by some to be colonizing yoga, while others find using Sanskrit an appropriation of culture. I don’t proclaim what is right or wrong, or condemn anyone’s practice, but I do suggest we take a look at what we do and why we do it.

It’s offensive to disregard the context of living religions and cultures, take out elements that appeal to us, and use them as abstract symbols onto which we project our own spiritual, psychological, or professional needs.* Ripped out of context, these symbols don’t carry the baggage that our own religion of origin may, but they very well might hold their own equivalent baggage in the context of the religion as fully practiced in, say, India or Tibet.

By taking a look at this, we can learn something about the religion we so respect. And maybe a little something about ourselves, as well.

Next time I turn the critical lens on the academic, who would also do well to check himself.

* “PRISONERS OF SHANGRI-LA.” Kirkus Reviews.6 (1998).

the devil-lama & the wafer-god

During a recent meditation retreat, the senior teacher played this video of the Guru. I was troubled. Didn’t the teacher, holder of a hard science PhD, or anyone else, for that matter, feel uncomfortable? Embarrassed? It exoticizes Tibet to an extreme. Is it okay, unquestionable, because the Guru is of Tibetan descent? I went home and asked an anthropologist friend who studies the Tibetan diaspora. She replied, “Of course they do! culture is a commodity in our times.” Well, yes. What isn’t? I’d forgotten. In the yoga world this commodification is usually undertaken by the Other.

She recommended two books, the Comaroffs’ Ethnicity, Inc. and Lopez’s Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. I read the latter almost immediately. It was not as revelatory as I’d hoped, but the two parts I liked, I loved.

The first was in the review of Lamaism, the pejorative term that Europeans used for Tibetan Buddhism until the 20th C, an appellation that implied that it was not Buddhism at all. Further, from at least 1255 to the early 1900s, Tibetan Buddhism (Lamaism) was compared to Roman Catholicism. “The comparison was first drawn by Catholics, who felt constrained to account for the many similarities they observed between this form of heathenism and their own true faith….[then] later by Protestants seeking to demonstrate that the corrupt priestcraft observed in Tibet had its counterpart in Europe” (Lopez 17).

William of Rubruck, a Flemish Franciscan monk, wrote of Mongolian Buddhism (a descendant of Tibetan) in The Journey Of William Of Rubruck To The Eastern Parts Of The World, 1253-1255, as Narrated by Himself (if you are not familiar with the Catholic tradition you may not appreciate this):

They (the idolators) place their temples east and west ; on the north side they make an alcove projecting out like a choir, or sometimes, if the building is square, it is in the middle of the building. So they shut off on the north side an alcove in place of a choir, and there they put a coffer as long and as broad as a table, and after that coffer to the south, they place the chief idol, and that which I saw at Caracarum was as large as we paint Saint Christopher. And a Nestorian who had come from Cathay told me that in that country there is an idol so big that it can be seen from two days off. And they place other idols around about (the principle one), all most beautifully gilt. And on that coffer, which is like a table, they put lamps and offerings. Contrary to the custom of the Saracens, all the doors of the temples open to the south. They also have big bells like ours : ’tis for this reason, I think, that the eastern Christians do not have any. The Ruthenians, however, have them, and so do the Greeks in Gazaria.

All the priests (of the idolators) shave their heads, and are dressed in saffron color, and they observe chastity from the time they shave their heads, and they live in congregations of one or two hundred. On the days when they go into the temple, they place two benches, and they sit in the region of the choir but opposite the choir, with books in their hands, which they sometimes put down on these benches; and they keep their heads uncovered as long as they are in the temple, reading in silence and keeping silence….Wherever they go they have in their hands a string of one or two hundred beads, like our rosaries, and they always repeat these words, on mani baccam, which is, “God, thou knowest,” as one of them interpreted it to me, and they expect as many rewards from God as they remember God in saying this.*

(Rubruck 144-146, guided there by Note 26 at Lopez 219-220).

poslaFive hundred years later, in 1741, Picart asserted that the similarities between Catholicism and Lamaism were due to the Tibetans’ allegiance to Prester John, the mythological Catholic priest-king who presided over Muslims and pagans in Asia (or Africa, or wherever he was needed to justify Catholic righteousness). Some claim that Prester John was the first Dalai Lama, others that the Dalai Lama, in the “fraud and deceit of the devil” took power in a classic form of demonic plagiarism (Lopez 22-27).

In 1844, missionaries Huc and Gabet believed that Tsong Kha pa had been the disciple of a grand Catholic missionary whose premature death caused Tsong Kha pa’s education to be incomplete, resulting in the practices of Lamaism. As Lopez points out, had “the Catholic missionary lived longer, Tsong Kha pa would have received full instruction in the dogmas of the Church and so could have converted Tibet to Christianity” (26).

Incredible.

These assertions by Catholics were not curtailed by the enlightenment, and by the 1700s, Protestants joined in. “How could there not be similarities!” they cried. “The Catholics are idolators as well!” This line of reasoning provides my favorite comparison of the religions. From Thomas Astley’s A New General Collection of Voyages and Travels Consisting of the Most Esteemed Relations which Have Been Hitherto Published in Any Language, Comprehending Everything Remarkable in Its Kind in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America, as quoted in Lopez (29):

We find, in this religion, every individual article, great and small, in which the Romish system is composed: Such as the Worship of Images, praying to Saints, and for the Dead; Purgatory, Pardons, Indulgences, Confession, Absolution, Penance, Exorcism, the Treasure of the Church, Merits and Works of Supererogation; the Pretense to work Miracles, a Hierarchy, or different Order of Priests, with a Pope at their Head. Monks and begging Friars, Nuns, in short, every thing in Speculation and Practice down to Holy-Water and the Beads. They have not, indeed, a Wafer-God, which they first adore, and then devour, but they have a living Divinity in human form [the Dalai Lama] transubstantiated, or transformed, as they believe, from Time to Time; who dwells among them personally, and is therefore, we think, a much more rational Object of Worship.

(Astley 220)

Protestants further argued that Catholics had no luck converting Lamaists because they had nothing new to offer. Rhys Davids found the similarities, e.g. services in dead languages, choirs, processions, creeds, incenses, spectator-only laity, mystic rights and ceremonies performed by shaven priests in gorgeous robes, ruled by a pope with a triple tiara on head and sceptre of temporal power in hand, “one of the most curious facts in the history of the whole world” (Lopez 33).

These comparisons continued even into the 20th century, when J Strunk, a Nazi, wrote in 1937, On Judah and Rome-Tibet: Their Struggle for World Domination (Lopez 40).

Who knew?

All this strikes me as historically fascinating, maybe partly because I was raised Catholic. Next time I’ll fill you in on my favorite bit, The Eye, and offer more of my take on it. Festooned with bottle caps.

*Chapter Four, “The Spell,” in which Madame Blavatsky makes an appearance, is about scholars’ (and others’) gross misinterpretation of the mantra “Om Mani padme hum” which Lopez concludes is “a vocative invocation of Avalokiteśvara….based on the Tibetan sources and on an analysis of the grammar, it appears that the mantra cannot mean “the jewel in the lotus” and that the endless variations on this misreading are merely fanciful” (133).

 

yoga, meditation, and dissociation

For a few months now, I’ve been working with trauma survivors. Yeah, that’s where I’ve been. It’s an Experience. I’ve felt unprepared for the work to an extreme I’ve never known before. So I’ve been talking to trauma survivors and therapists, and reading as much as I can. It has brought things together for me in a way I never expected. It highlights questions I’ve had about repression in meditation practice since my first experiences with it.

I’ve long noticed a strong habit of dissociating (usually non-pathological) in both yoga practitioners and meditators, both myself and others. This is generally is the opposite of the practices’ intentions, to be more aware one’s present experience. But numbing out can be soothing, or sometimes just habit, so we do it anyway. It’s become something of a pop-psych topic in yoga blogs of late (mine included), usually defined as spiritual bypassing.

In a physical yoga practice, this can show up as the “love-and-light-just-be-positive” sheen that some like to polish over difficult emotions and issues, and has somehow become associated with yoga. For me, it occurs as more of a physical bypass. A vigorous yoga practice feels fantastic. “Exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators” (Harvard Men’s Health Watch, 2011). It can result in a high that takes me out of my body if I let it.

Is this a problem? On most levels, no. It feels good. It’s great for health. It’s better than most other addictions. But it’s not bringing awareness to the moment or physical experience, which a physical yoga practice can, and arguably should, do.

In a meditation practice, it can be trickier. Like physical yoga, meditation can lower stress and bring better health. “If stress has you anxious, tense and worried, consider trying meditation. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace [What does that even mean? Are you selling me something??]” (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014).

But many meditation instructions can inadvertently lead to suppressing emotions. “Touch an emotion and let it go. Detach from the emotion and observe it, then return to the breath.” While these practices can be extremely helpful, they can also be an excuse not to feel difficult, painful emotions. And these emotions can’t be “let go” until they’ve been felt and processed.

If you have a habit of dissociating from your emotions, e.g. emotional numbing, this can be counterproductive. At an extreme, detaching from emotion and observing is exactly what some trauma victims do to survive unbearable experiences. When a person cannot escape (flight) or fight, the body will go into a freeze mode, similar to an animal playing dead. Dissociation in its extreme form: muscles go soft, painkilling endorphins and opioids release, and heartbeat and breath slow to all but a stop. Sometimes the person has an experience of floating out of his body and observing from afar (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 1997). To ask this person to detach and observe his emotions is, at best, not helpful. While this physiological response to inescapable terror is not likely to be triggered by meditation, habituating a dissociative response by numbing out difficult emotions exacerbates the problem. This might not be immediately obvious if the practitioner finds it soothing. Yet it inhibits long term recovery. Current models of trauma recovery involve remembering (if dissociative amnesia occurred), experiencing the emotions, and integrating them into conscious awareness and identity (Herman again). Only then can some semblance of “letting go” begin.

So what’s this got to do with the average person? Maybe not so much. While emotional numbing is certainly encouraged in pursuit-of-happiness America, and all meditators fall prey to dissociating (daydreaming is a mild form) now and again, if learned properly, the average practitioner will learn to connect with and experience emotion instead of repress it.

Yet I experience this and see it frequently in others. I don’t know if more trauma survivors are drawn to yoga and meditation in attempt to manage or heal their pain, or if the average person is so accustomed to pushing away hurt and anger that he has totally forgotten how to feel and process it. We’re encouraged to be tough and strong. Socially, we often gloss over our emotions as well as others, because we don’t have the social capacity to handle them. We have so many stories and theories and dances around our pain because the terror of facing it is too high. And for some, it is. Those who lack strong community, long-term, trustworthy intimate relationships, or a stable home life don’t have the support system that makes processing emotional pain possible. If you have trained yourself to detach from your emotions (through meditation or otherwise) you lose the ability to feel even when you want to feel. Unfortunately, you can’t just turn off the painful emotions. The good ones shut down too.

I’ve no empirical evidence to support this, but it seems to me that there are probably more trauma survivors in yoga and meditation communities than the population at large. And that’s a good thing. Because if done properly, these practices can lead us into our experience rather than away from it. But God, it’s hard. The temptation to use meditation to float away and self-sooth is incredible. And it probably has health benefits, if the body calms down as a result. Because many trauma survivors have lost the basic, essential ability to self-sooth, this can be an incredible boon.

So why not? Using meditation or yoga (or anything) to self sooth or numb out can calm you down and keep you okay, and that’s fine. The issue is that it won’t change you. It won’t heal you. It won’t transform you.

I do meditation retreats because it takes me a long time (a few days) to stop dissociating and actually meditate. For the record, I do not find them either peaceful or fun. After a retreat in 2012, I realized that after over a decade of daily practice, and finally being in a pretty good place, my biggest fears were still fully intact. My patterns did not want to budge. So I finally made a commitment to face my pain. It’s not soothing. It’s not easy. And my resistance is often just as massive as my will to face myself. But I try. In a way, yeah, I’ve been trying since my practice started, but only since I made that commitment have my baby steps gotten me somewhere a little bit new. Before that I wanted and expected someone else, something else, to take me out of my pain. “If only this…if only that…” I whined. When I let that go (haha) and owned how I actively, if unconsciously, prohibited this or that from ever becoming a possibility, something started to shift. It’s not exciting or sexy. It’s not saying an affirmation and manifesting a trip to Paris. It’s more like getting to the mat every f***ing day. Like asking for help when I don’t even think I want it, because I need to learn how to trust. And how to ask. Like sitting down and writing an hour a day, even if everything feels inchoate and unsayable. Like sharing parts of myself I’ve hidden for decades because they feel, I feel, too ugly and hateful to share.

Unbelievable. So how do we market this? eh??

We don’t. There’s nothing to market, no one way to break your patterns, if that’s what you want to do. It’s different for everyone, and extremely painful and scary because it requires feeling the unfelt, and for some, integrating unspeakable traumas that often feel better off forgotten.

But yeah, sexy ladies sitting on the beach, or in the middle of Broadway, meditating? Bliss out. Numb out. Self sooth. Buy something. Just ask yourself, why are you doing it? Is it serving you? If it’s not, come back.

 

*I migrated the site to a different web host last week and am waiting for wordpress support to migrate the email subscribers. Hopefully that will happen soon. Thanks ~Anastasia

Happy 2014!

Just off a week-long meditation retreat. I snuck out to teach on my birthday and New Year’s Eve, and practiced yoga before the 9a start time. Priorities.

Having just read Emerson & Hopper’s book, Overcoming Trauma through Yoga, which recommends pretty much the opposite of the (formless) forms of the retreat (my 7th, so I was willing to play with those forms a little bit), I’m very interested in reading Prisoners of Shangri-La. For different reasons, none of which I’ll go into yet.

Over the holidays, I watched Food, Inc., and a few dozen Rémi Gaillard videos with friends (thanks, Shirl). Tears of laughter! I promise you. One of slight relevance posted above. Go to his channel and watch ten more. I seldom watch or recommend moving image, so grain of salt.

Happy New Year! Much love and success in 2014. ~Anastasia

the thing about gurus: a kumaré review [revisited]

Another repost. Because it’s the time of year we huddle inside and watch flicks. Well, if you’re in the Northern parts anyway. This is one of the five movies I’ve seen in the last few years. Highly recommend. (Originally posted July 1, 2012.)

Gurus have always been problem for me, perhaps my biggest in the yoga and meditation worlds. Though perhaps it’s the strange and often appropriated spirituality that bothers me, and gurus are an offshoot of that. The reason I’ve left most sanghas (communities) is because there comes a point that if you aren’t into the guru, you just aren’t going to be accepted or go further. It’s kind of sad.

I teach at a university rather than a studio because most studios require their teachers to drink the kool aid, so to speak. Even studios and meditation centers without gurus tend to have very strong head-teacher personalities and a doctrine to which their teachers must subscribe. Take just a few classes somewhere and you get the idea. If you don’t, take their teacher training. Corporate studios are usually an exception, but they’re corporate. It’s a shame, because a community of like minded yogis or meditators is an amazing thing.

Why are gurus a problem? Because they pretend to have something you don’t. This is Vikram Gandhi’s point in the documentary, Kumaré, playing now at IFC. Because their willingness to be deified is problematic. Because more often than not, they abuse their power. Because they often take advantage of their disciples, sexually and otherwise. Because anyone worthy of being your guru won’t let you deify her. Good teachers encourage personal agency rather than usurp it. That’s what yoga and meditation communities need, amazing teachers.

So Vikram Gandhi’s documentary was poignant. He’s a Jersey-born Hindu who was frustrated by religion. So he studied it at Columbia and was frustrated further (sounds familiar). He didn’t like the YogaGuru madness blossoming in America, and didn’t find them to be more authentic in his motherland of India. So he set out to become a fake guru, to prove that gurus have nothing you don’t. You don’t need anyone but yourself. The answers are within.

Okay. I agree. But what I don’t quite follow is why Gandhi so strongly needed to tell others what they do or don’t need. I’m never terribly comfortable with that. That’s what gurus do, right?

Regardless, the results were great. The first impression I had of the film (full disclosure) was from anecdotes of a student of mine who played Kumare’s assistant. It seemed that its initial intent was to ridicule those who will believe and worship anyone, even a complete fraud from Jersey. But if that was the original intent, it didn’t pan out. What clearly happens along the way is that Vikram falls in love with these people. It changes him. Temporarily, anyway.

I discussed the film with two friends, Surya, who saw it, and Orit, who did not. Orit said “He fell in love with the power, you mean.”

Surya was raised by European parents who followed a Hindu guru. She was part of a spiritual sangha until she was 12. She is incredibly cynical about the experience, yet she agreed. “No, he fell in love with the people. He did.”

And that’s what makes the movie. But it also, for me, disproved his point. The followers needed Gandhi and he needed them, though not as a guru but as a teacher. Because of the circumstances of the documentary, Gandhi was more of a really good teacher than a guru, in the western sense of the word. In Sanskrit, guru generally means teacher, but has a spiritual context which tends to add some baggage. Teachers also learn from their students, at least as much as they teach. The guru tradition is more unidirectional. Knowledge is imparted by teacher to student.

identGandhi was being filmed while he played the role of guru, and not simply filmed, but filmed by close friends and creative partners. He had checks on his power, and he knew the plot: he was going to reveal himself, which forced a certain responsibility and humility, especially when he began to care about his disciples. Instead of behaving like a typical guru, with omnipotence and hubris, he behaved himself while he communicated his message. Because of this he was a powerful teacher. And because he cared.

I’m not sure that Vikram expected the transformation that came about. I’d guess that he was out of prove his point, not be transformed by his role of the master. But transform he did. As many yoga teachers can tell you, the projections of goodness that students can place on you are powerful. So is the joy of simply helping people feel good. When Vikram Gandhi’s disciples loved him and thought he was great, he felt it, and loved them back. And because his friends were around to film him and keep him in line, and he had to reveal himself in the end, it didn’t go to his head. Instead, he became great, helpful, loving, and caring. And as Gandhi says pretty frequently, “Ask my friends. I am not that kind of guy. I think people miss Kumaré (read: prefer him to me).”

When he said this on stage in a Q&A with cast and crew after the screening, there was a resounding, “Yeah!”

The film provokes two questions for me. Do people need gurus? Why wasn’t Gandhi’s transformation long lasting? Or, why does he wish he could always be Kumaré, instead of somehow incorporating Kumaré into himself? Why did he return to his cynical, judgmental self after the filming? That for me is a large question. Did he require the constant projection to be (and feel) loving, open and helpful? Or does he just miss feeling needed and useful?

Do people need gurus? These people clearly needed someone to reflect their goodness and inner guidance back to them, just as Gandhi needed people to reflect his. While I prefer teachers, who am I to tell someone not to seek a guru? I have friends whom I respect, amazing and intelligent people, who believe in a guru. The disciples in the film clearly face difficult problems, issues well beyond existential cynicism, and likely lack solid, understanding relationships in their lives, now and as well as in their tender, developing years.

At one point in the movie, Gandhi talks with a woman who’d been sexually abused by a family member. Just after her interview, he states (I believe as the camera shows her walking off), “We are all really the same” in a very we-are-one guru-y kind of way. I suppose it was meant to make us relate to her, to feel with her, but said at that moment, after that interview, I questioned if Gandhi really gets it. If he gets what it’s like to be someone without a comfortable life, without parents waiting with friends and supporters in the restaurant next door to celebrate his most recent success, with problems larger than showing up to his ten-year Columbia University reunion to face his more successful friends. A personal history filled with trauma and lack of support creates a psyche that aches to be seen and to believe in something more grand than the pain thrown one’s way. Does he get that? Or does he really think they can just find their inner truth on their own? Because, clearly, these people needed to be seen. They needed what Gandhi gave them as much as he needed them. No one can just do it on his own.

Who knows? Maybe he does get it. It’s not clear. I guess that is my question for him. How did making the film change his perception of needing a guru and finding truth on one’s own? Especially in light of his post-filming difficulty finding the same joy in himself as he was able to find in Kumaré.

That said, teachers able to help you believe in your own voice are far far better guides than gurus. In Kumaré, Gandhi is almost as good as they get.

the daily minimum, at home

This is an edited post from a few years back. I’m working on another project so nothing new to say here. You’ll like this, though.

Tuesday I shared a basic ten (ok, fifteen) minute class to practice at home. Today we have a slightly more vigorous ashtanga-based option. We’ll call it “the daily minimum +.”

If you are just beginning to practice at home, make sure to the same things you’d do in a class. Turn off your phone. Take a minute to ground into your body, using some pranayama or mantra. Commit to spending the next 10 minutes (or hour, or two) on your yoga. If you don’t think you have the discipline to do this, you can pay me a handsome fee to come teach you some. (Now that thought will get you right on the mat.)

This sequence takes about 25 minutes, unless you want to dally. If you have less time, simply do the sun salutations, shoulder- and/or headstand, and savanasana.

Some good suggestions for abbreviated ashtanga practices can be found at the top of this FAQ. I especially appreciate these lines at the end, “While it is important to be sensitive to the needs of the body and mind, it is also important to look critically at these needs. Frequently, these needs are actually subtle avoidance mechanisms. If you are sore, tired, or don’t feel like practicing. Acknowledge those feelings and sensations, drop the expectations about what practice should be like and practice anyway.” Yup.

Savasana the movie (above) is short (1 minute) and pretty funny. Watch! (Thanks, YogaDawg!)

 

yoga at home for the holidays

This is an edited post from a few years back. I’m working on another project so nothing new to say here. You’ll like this, though.

Last week I was commiserating with a student who’d missed class about how difficult it is to establish a home practice. It took me about two years of consistent classes to really get into practice on my own. Establishing a daily home practice took not only dedication, but concentration. It’s much easier to make yourself go to a class than to maintain focus amidst the endless distractions of your home. But once you’ve got it going, it’s really harder just to do yoga once in awhile when you can’t make class (like now) because it’s not habit and you have so many (pitiful) reasons not to do it.

It took a little trickery (and still does) to get me started. If I thought of the whole 1.5 hour series, I wouldn’t do it. I was too hungry or tired or pressed for time. So I told myself I’d do one pose (which was usually the lazyman’s legs up the wall. It’s the best pose ever. We need, most of us, to be lazier), then I could relax. After the one pose, I was relaxed, and liking it, so I did one more. This went on through the whole series, often ending in seated mediation two hours later. No way? Believe me, it will happen.

Whether you are looking to keep the hamstrings happy until you get back to class next week, or you’re trying to establish or motivate a personal practice, a few minutes of yoga a day are enough to shift things into habit. As Ethan likes to say about meditation, “You wouldn’t skip brushing your teeth for a few days, then brush for an hour on the weekend, would you?” And so it is with yoga.

So here’s a 10-minute home practice that my Iyengar teacher Genny Kapuler gave me as a daily minimum of sorts years ago. Tomorrow or Friday I’ll post another that is more Ashtanga influenced.

So go get your mat (though you don’t really need one) and do some yoga. Then teach your family a few poses.

Don’t even think of skipping savasana.

Very good. Now go teach your family, and everyone will be well behaved for the holiday dinner.

Happy Thanksgiving!

against platitude :: or :: a spiritual examination of “for a Reason”

Please know that this is not meant to insult or belittle anyone’s spiritual beliefs. I am not the gentlest of communicators. Trust that I’m working on that: Delivery is everything. I simply feel the need to point out relying heavily on platitudes as a form of spiritual bypassing might not be serving you well.

When I see the word spiritual, I often recoil. What is meant? It is used as if it has a shared meaning, and perhaps within specific groups it does, but it lacks a real definition. Yeah, I just looked it up, and even wikipedia agrees. In our neoliberal age, spirituality is individual. There’s something oxymoronic about that but never mind, not now.

I didn’t take ‘spiritual’ out of the title because I mean it. (Mean what? I’ll use the as the social scientists’ definition, as per wikip, for the moment.)

In the past few weeks I’ve been around some yoga people. I was taken aback by the repetitiveness of the phrase, “It happened for a reason.” And not just the repetition, but its delivery. The sense of disquiet beneath the words was palpable, as if this explanation was not quite quelling their unease.

Well, good. It shouldn’t. Maybe it didn’t just happen “for a Reason.” Or more likely, the reason is that perhaps you made a bad decision, one you’ve made in similar ways before, and you’re rejecting those gnawing little feelings of discomfort. Maybe you should take a second or two to explore that before hoisting it off onto divine providence. Maybe that woman who just broke your heart did so in a way not dissimilar to the last three, and you need to look at the reasons you choose the way you do. (You don’t choose? Please. Take some responsibility. You choose.) Maybe jaunting off for a little trip to Brazil while your sister was on her death bed was not such a great plan, and the guilt that hit well before she made a turn for the worse is something that needs your attention. It was not the first time you jumped ship. Chalk it up to A Reason, and it won’t be the last. And maybe taking that job with the Man when you’d saved three-times enough to start your own business was for no reason but fear. And over and over again.

It is a problem. Not only because it’s annoying (50x so when you’re dropping it on someone else’s pain), but because it prevents clarity. I’m not going to tell you what yoga is, but for me, the (spiritual) practice is about clarity. Using platitudes to avoid pain is an obstacle, not a gift from above. In the long run, nothing you eat, drink, wear, buy, or otherwise use will save you from that discomfort. It must be faced.

And it’s painful.

The biggest positive changes in my life were inspired by pain. An easy example: Around the time I finished college, I was a bridesmaid. My friend and her wedding party were fashion-model stunning. After the ceremony, a friend of the bride dressed in a gown very similar to ours (I was told she felt she should be a bridesmaid), snarked that I looked like a cow in the bridesmaid dress. A horrified groomsmen quickly tried to gloss over her comment, but it was too late. I was hit. It hurt for the obvious reasons, but also because it triggered something in me that was uncomfortable with how I ate, looked, and felt. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have hit me like that.

Thanks to luck, I didn’t head off on a get-thin-quick or a binge-and-purge regime. I found books like Geneen Roth’s, who said to eat what I wanted and noticed how that felt. It was slow going, but long before I learned to meditate, I meditated on each bite I took. This happened for quite some time, maybe months. I didn’t just notice that when I ate too much I felt horrible, I noticed that when I ate high-carb, low-fat food, which the health science of the day advised, I felt tired and awful. In this shift toward awareness, I also noticed that looking at women’s magazines made me feel equally dreadful and that moving my body (hiking, walking, etc) felt really great, both during and after.

I lost weight. If I was tempted to indulge in a pint of ice cream, I called up and felt the searing pain in that horrible comment, and I didn’t. This was, for a time, the main focus of my life. It was not what I ate, but noticing, at every bite, how the food tasted, and if I was hungry. I came to the point I could have chocolate or ice cream or pizza, and without restraint or wanting more, eat only enough. And though I’ve gained weight once or twice in the 15+ years since, while indulging on long trips or depressed in a bad relationship, the knowledge of how to check back in was always there when I came back to it.

Sorry to burst any “naturally thin ashtangi/yoga teacher” bubbles. :-) Like most people, if I don’t eat well and exercise, I gain weight. (Other than NYC walking and summer swimming, my ashtanga practice is my only exercise. This is not to say people larger than me don’t eat well and exercise.)

It seems shallow, that this change in my eating was a significant life change, but when we look at the money, time, and anxiety women (and increasingly men) feel about food, eating, and our bodies, it is not. If only I could have all the time spent in my teen and college years spent on worrying, counting calories, and reading about nutrition (the science of which changes every few years to fuel profit for new diet fads. Vitamins, too. Who funds that “research”?). It wasn’t just the weight loss and feeling comfortable in my body, it was the awareness I gained of how I felt. It shifted so much.

So the comment. It was for a Reason! Maybe in hindsight it looks that way. But if I’d have used that excuse then to diffuse my pain, it’s unlikely I’d have done anything about it. Anything that nags at you is asking for exploration, not platitude. If you are in too much pain for that, I ask: Do you want a band aid to get you through to the next round of the exact same experience, or do you want to find in yourself the Persephonean effort required to meet your pain and its causes? That’s the only place real change comes from.

While I am writing a lot on pain of late, I should say that the rewards of facing it are so rich and light and robust that it is better than anything I could have imagined. More on that later.

supta kurmasana. & other shells.

Supta Kurmasana is a rough one for many ashtangis. Not so for me. For me it is a natural state, to be curled all up in a ball of protection.

It’s possible that I didn’t have much trouble with Supta Kurmasana because I have the most externally rotated hips ever, or because I was held at navasana for two years without ever knowing why.

Created by & courtesy of Aaron Hill of the Facebook group Ashtanga Memes

Created by & courtesy of Aaron Hill of the Facebook group Ashtanga Memes

I tried to have that conversation with my teacher, but I couldn’t bring myself to it. My hateball mess of teacher and authority issues, low self worth, and questions of competence were too much. In the Ashtanga tradition, you aren’t supposed to have that conversation anyway.

After trying a few times and being met with an expression that stopped me, I finally took it as a hint I wasn’t wanted in that mysore room and moved on to self-practice, then another teacher. (Please understand that this was my issue, not his. I’m aware that throwing one’s trip on someone is not pleasurable, even if it comes with the teacher territory. And that this pattern extends far beyond the mysore room into every corner of my life.)

My fear of authority is still, at forty, all wrapped up with an unconscious refusal to need people. Because there, alone, I am safe. This is one of the many reasons Mysore Ashtanga is good for me. I have to face this, and the fear, grief, and anxiety it provokes. While retaining space for myself, too.

“They [tortoises] are generally reclusive animals”  ~Wikipedia

My difficulty in kurmasana and supta kurmasana is lengthening my head and spine forward out of my curled up ball of protection. Even now, I hear my teachers silently coaxing, “Come on, come out, come out, turtle” as they assist me in the pose.

Kyphosis. It runs in my family. We sink in on ourselves in protection, grief, and shame. Somehow, though, this is not what you’ll notice at first glance, or even after you know me well. I strike most people as confident and self-assured. In some ways, I am. Especially if I’m in my own space.

My own space! My turtle* shell of comfort and familiarity. This shell has taken me around the world more than once. The turtle is remarkably well designed. They’ve been around since the Late Triassic period (over 220 million years) and can live over 150 years. One of the oldest living animals of recent times was the Indian tortoise, Adwaita. (Advaita/Adwaita means not two, or non-dual.) Perfection.

20130829-TorI’m given to stay in my shell unless I’m forced out of it, or coaxed. When I do stick my neck out in places not comfy and familiar, it’s not a great love and light fest, an oh-what-was-I-hiding-from celebration of life. Instead, I see all sorts of vicious reasons to slide right back in and keep on as I was. Because that’s how I’ve trained myself to see. That is how my early life molded me. It is very, very difficult to shift that. But it can be done.

Inside this shell, Urdhva Dhanurasana is all but impossible

It asks my shell to break and crack off, and it’s painful. Before going in, I feel all sorts of shame and apprehension.

A few weeks ago, I felt a rush of emotion behind my heart and a deep sense that my father died because I was bad, because I had done something bad, because I had stepped out of the bounds of being a good, the good, daughter. Because some unknown, long-repressed part of me hated him for taking on his wickedness and shame. Take it back.

It was something I’d understood theoretically, and the narcissism within it. I believed on some level he died because I failed him, and worse. But I never felt it. The abandonment, the relief, the rage and the hatred.

By all appearances, it is ridiculous. I was the good girl. We were “close.” Our twisted relationship ended when my sixteen-year-old acts of independence met his harsh judgment and punishment, and coincided with his always feared (yet always wished for?) but still unexpected death. And my mother’s hard-fought desire to follow him.

My shift into immediate adulthood forced me deeper into survival mode, able to function but not flourish, my explorations into self locked further into shame, my defense mechanisms cemented. Some of these feelings poured out that morning before backbends, along with a sense of hatred seeping into consciousness. For the first time, I fell on my head dropping back. My hands found the floor first, but my arms buckled. My crown landed with a swift thunk. It hurt. I ignored it. I stood back up. And dropped back again, careful to keep my arms straight. And stood up again.

While I’m sure I’m terrified of dropbacks, I don’t feel that fear, don’t even sense it. I just do them. Much as I’ve lived my life.

newyork_0_yogaanastasia_43It was strange and punishing, the fall after feeling, and maybe connected to my intense denial of rage. Thou shalt not hate. Thou shalt not feel. The unacknowledged anger behind focusing so intensely on their needs and obliterating my pain, of defending them and hating myself, because this is what children must do to go on. The rage of giving myself up, trying so hard, and failing him anyway.

What happened? What did I do? Was it this? Was it that (I puzzle now, silently, toward authorities of all kinds)? I kept my part of the deal! And you DIE!? No chance left to repair the unrepairable. Damaged, broken, innocent trust lost forever, now only to be won back in my unconscious mind, the splits fighting themselves within. Soul vs fragmented self fighting for, and against, oh yes, wholeness.

At surface, the defenses that bury the lost, fragile heart. That cloud vision.

The patterns are deeply engraved. Concentrating on another is a sparkly red herring when I don’t have the slightest idea of what I want or need myself, because I am sure it’s not acceptable anyway. “What did I do?” is an easier question for me to tangle with than “What do I need? What do I feel?”

An emotion even more strange to observe

Comes up some days, days when I feel particularly unseen, incompetent, and unsupported. A strange but familiar attachment to my weakness, my invisibility, my unprocessed pain. There is a certain warm, treacly, sedating comfort in this victimhood. On some level, I like it. I like to put the responsibility out there.

Ugh. Ugly. Now what do I do with that?

Practice, I guess.

 

*American English is not particular about the by land or by sea turtle/tortoise distinction

emo yoga :: rage, fear, so sorry, etc

yogaagoa

New Yorker Cover 2003

The last post talked a little bit about emotion from a classical Yoga standpoint. It may have been a little dry and unhelpful, especially if you do yoga to feel good rather than to achieve enlightenment. Most yoga practitioners today aren’t that interested in enlightenment (I’ve noticed that far more meditators practice with that aim than yogis), and that’s understood. In the late 19th and early 20th Cs, yoga was revived and transformed for the lay person, the householder. This opened the door for even more transformation when it arrived in the West, to the point that you hear anything and everything is yoga. Maybe. Maybe not.

Western psychology is very different from Indian, and the Self and emotions are viewed differently. (There are different views of emotion and Self within Indian philosophy and psychology, but they do tend toward a different, less individualistic view than in the West.) We often hear a mishmash of philosophies and psychologies when we walk into a Western-style class, which can be very confusing. Especially if you just went to your local gym for a stretch, you begin to feel hot with anger, and the teacher is telling you to feel the love blossoming from your newly-opened forth chakra. What do you do with that?

As mentioned last time, for the yogi, emotions are something to be transcended. Compare this with the words of Carl Jung, the 20th Century psychoanalyst interested in consciousness and ways of being. His ideas tend to resonate with people interested in yoga:

“Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.”

For me, this resonates far more than transcending my emotions altogether, partly because I trained myself early on to repress emotions, to bury them to the point it can still be difficult for me to access how I feel, particularly if my ego deems them threatening. It’s a pretty common defense mechanism for Westerners, who preference image and the rational-cognitive mind above all else. If you haven’t felt your emotions, you can’t transcend them.

redthingMy biggest issue with the love and light spiel is that it encourages repression. This is why spiritual bypassing (“The use of spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs” —Robert Augustus Masters) is such an issue. Take a person who isn’t comfortable with his emotions and tell him that he’s headed toward enlightenment if he transcends them. POOF! You have a person with little-to-no self awareness who sits on a cushion blissing out and avoiding half his life, because he skips that crucial early step of meeting and feeling his emotions.

So if yoga brings “a lot of neurotic thoughts and unmanageable emotions (particularly rage) more to the surface” (previous comment), that’s a good thing. Look at it. Feel it. Notice it. Anger can tell us a lot. Just as much as joy and bliss.

Since the So mUch Yoga and Still Such a Bitch post, I’ve had a number of conversations about rage, all with women. Thinking about it now, I should probably have more. It seems that this getting angry, shutting it down, then some time later exploding in violent rage, usually toward an intimate, over, say, taking out the trash, is almost ubiquitous. It’s common. I had no idea.

The maddening thing about this is that it’s impotent. If you freak out on a minor last straw, you are just a hysterical bitch. Your feelings and arguments are moot. You are out of control. Unfeminine. Too feminine. Bad. Shame on you. Take the shame and self-loathing, press it down and play nice. You were so wrong to throw the lasagne across the room like that. What is wrong with you!?

I am so sorry.

But I’m not.

Maybe you’ve noticed that this relationship with anger doesn’t work now, and didn’t work the last 1, 10, 100 times. But what else is there to do?

lionrageThe pattern does serve us well in one way. It keeps us from really facing our rage, which is far scarier than the anger, self-hate, and occasional melt-down we despise but are used to and comfortable with (if you don’t believe me, watch how much you resist changing your approach).

So then how to face the rage?

I don’t know. What I have started to do is watch myself closely, and instead of judging it, just watch. It starts with irritation. Often it ends there, but sometimes not. I’ve noticed that I become extremely irritated when I feel someone has transgressed my boundaries. When someone is late, when a house guest reads over my shoulder (my god, some space and privacy, please!), when the neighbor blares pop music at 5:50am, even if I am awake. Do I respect other people’s boundaries? Of course I do! When I notice them and feel like it. Sometimes.

So, why do these human slights make me so irate?

Maybe it matters, maybe it doesn’t. I could go back to childhood or family patterns, and that’s probably helpful in some ways, but what’s really interesting is just noticing. I’m getting irritated. I’m getting angry. What does that feel like? Where is it coming from? As soon as I go into story or analyzing, I try to go back to not knowing and just feeling what’s there. Where is it in my body? What does it feel like? Is there sensation? Is it constant? Does it move or change?

One thing I like to do when I get close to the heat is shift my attention to someone I love, a funny moment, a fuzzy, loving feeling that floats me far away from the hot, sticky pull of anger. That feels so nice! But it’s cheating. It takes me away from what I’m afraid to feel, leaving it underneath to do God knows what.

There is something bigger there. Something as yet untouched. I feared it before but it’s beginning to be a little more okay. The fear is still there, though, more conscious than the rage. But the more I play with this, the less wrapped up I feel in it. The more I feel my anger, the less I react to it. Recently a friend apologized for something that would have angered or hurt me before. But I wasn’t angered or hurt. I understood where she was coming from, though it’s a different place than I inhabit. When she apologized, I’d totally forgotten the incident. I was able to say, honestly, clearly, “Oh, no worries, I totally understand,” in that way we hope to say it (like we mean it) when we want to feel that way because we know we should, but don’t. I watched that exchange. It felt really nice.

Of course, that’s still rare. I still get angry and overreact. I still hover over something unacknowledged. I don’t know.

As with the Jung quote above, the Western psychological perspective on emotion is often that if felt and listened to, it will tell you something valuable. Lead you somewhere you need to go. This strikes me as crucial to our time because most people care so much more about their image than about how they feel. We’re afraid of our emotions because if felt and respected, they may lead us down a road that’s not acceptable, cool, or in line with what we thought we wanted, with what our ego wants. If we avoid this with some spiritual bypassing, we’re missing the point, and our lives.