Every once in a while, I hear a yoga teacher, a counselor, a self help wonk or a how to make your life better guru promise palaver and platitudes along the lines of ‘you are not alone’.
My reaction is usually along the lines of yes, actually, I am. And every time you tell me I am not, I feel not just alone, but alien. I feel denied.
I have had students say things like ‘you don’t know me’, ‘you can’t understand’. Once, I touched a woman’s shoulders and felt her cringe. Later, she said that she knew my good intentions. She knew that yoga is a healing, deeply personal process of love and connection. She appreciated the fact that I was trying to fight the good fight and be a good person in a bad world. ‘But’, she said, ‘when you touched me, I couldn’t help but recoil from the fact that the only people who care for me are people, like you, who are paid to do so.’
Teaching often breaks my heart.
I know loneliness. I imagine it is loneliness that makes things like a personal god so attractive. A true love. A perfect family or at least one in which everything will be okay. Someone to rescue us, or someone we can rescue.
On the one hand, it is ridiculous for something like a yoga practice to discuss relationships; this is work we do ourselves. If anything, yoga affirms our solitude. This is a blessed relief, to me, after so many empty spiritual teachings and false advertisements about how I should feel and that I’m not alone. Empty spiritual teachings make it worse, not better.
On the other, yoga is relationships, and reality, to the full. You are alone, teaches yoga. But you are with others. Now, what will you do?
It is a practice of being human, and being ourselves. The key experience of being a self is self, which involves longing and solitude and a deep, hardwired, inner fused desire for connection, authenticity, reflection and recognition. We ache to belong. Specifically, we ache to belong to someone.
The experience of the self is also a root problem in most of our modern psychology and perhaps our current global experience. We promote self-sufficiency, personal accountability, self-mastery, and do it yourself ness. We applaud the individual and have funny concepts and philosophies about the rights of humanity and the individual, property, boundaries. Yet we suffer, collectively, a kind of weariness of the self. A weakness in our communication. A fear of actually being seen and a feeling of being put upon when asked to care about (let alone, for) others. Yes, there is poverty and war and violence and food shelves and addiction and depression and lassitude everywhere. But what am I supposed to do about it, we say…I can’t do anything about that. That isn’t, we say, my problem.
The shortest answer I have is that most of our pain comes from a failure to love, a mess and lack and violation of relationships. Yoga is a practice of having a better life and being a better self. If you want to practice yoga, try getting married, raising kids, starting conversations and keeping promises. The yamas and niyamas do. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your poses are, or how long you can flow without having to take a break, how sexy you look in your capris or how many days a week you practice in a hot room. It doesn’t matter if you are vegan or meditate for an hour every day if you still can’t look people in the eye and go to bed feeling something is wrong with you.
Yes, yoga says, you are alone. You must work with that aloneness.
The core teaching of yoga is this: nothing is permanent, everything changes, all that you are capable of loving and being attached to or longing for will, one day, be nothing. You, yourself, will be nothing.
From this, two rather esoteric and often contradictory theories of yoga have become popular. The first insists on a kind of global oneness, that everything is linked in essence, on a sub atomic and microcosmic level. We are each other and every blade of grass that has ever been. Love, universal. The love and the beloved are everywhere, always.
Secondly, we should practice non-attachment. We should recognize everything and everyone is an illusion, a passing moment, and learn to be non-reactive. Cool to the touch and unmoved as a stone.
I believe, in an intellectual kind of way, both of those precepts. But neither is an answer to our aloneness. Neither one tells us in any real way how to live. They are abstractions, and what we’ve got here is flesh and bone.
All is one, the moment is perfect, you are already divine and Jesus loves you all leave me feeling a little hollow. I do not want a generalized love or an imaginary friend. I want a real one. And the second practice, of non-attachment, denies the very embodiedness that we are. Sure, it’s an illusion and temporary and imperfect. But it also happens to be the only shot we’ve got.
I think honest yoga teaches ruthless honesty: to be happy, be as alive as you can, knowing full well that love is flawed. Love anyway.
That is what you were born to do.
Not to be disaffected, detached, cool as a stone and unmoved as death. But to be ripped open by our love and survive. We survive our love by loving, more.
There is integrity in knowing and accepting our aloneness. Yes, it will hurt at times. But it will also prove to be the most potent source of power and creativity you’ve got.
Slowly, painfully at times, wrapt wondrously at others, baffling me dumbstruck with obvious truths I’d been ignoring for far too long, yoga reveals us to ourselves, and gives us life without illusions.
For some of us, it will be a dawning realization that we are lonely and have been cutting ourselves off. For others, it will be the brutal recognition that we have completely given away our selves to others: to images, to shoulds, to family, to career, to abusive histories, to the pursuit of instant gratification, to faking it, to roles that simply don’t work any longer and roll along like a tricycle with a rusted wheel when what you need is to travel hundreds of miles like an adult. We seem strange and hollow to ourselves and wonder what ever happened to us, the US in us, the person we used to be. We’ll realize we’re old, and we never got around to being the person we wanted to be when we grew up. For most of us, it’ll be a bit of each at different times. Most of us are too selfish in some of our world, completely selfless and disappeared in other roles.
Just as no one is all assertive, creative, extroverted or introverted. No one in the world is entirely right brained or right handed. None of us are ever happy all the time or awake all the time.
If we practice, we’ll start to see ourselves. Not as we should be, or have been, or want to be. But as we are. Human. This is the truth.
There are other truths: you are not just your thoughts or emotions any more than you are entirely right brained. You are not ‘always’ depressed or joyful. You are not ‘always’ alone.
There are moments of connection. However small and flimsy and half assed and misunderstood and frustrating. They are real, and human, just as you are.
Yes, you are alone. From there, you can seek out truths in five million different ways, day after day after day. You will have opportunities for realness with a co-worker, even if you generally hate the guy’s guts. You will have opportunities to make amends to your father, even if most of the time you still don’t want to. You can play a part in your community, or not. You may go poking around a church, because you feel alone and miss god. It might disappoint you, for the most part. But you may also have two minutes of feeling relief, or a brief conversation with someone at the door. If you can see parenting through the lens of reality, you can accept that you don’t actually have control, that your children are not really your own, and that you are never either a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ parent, but a boiling and confusing blather of both. From there, you may spend the next few hours trying to weight the scale a little more on the generous side, or at least brush the kid’s hair out of his eyes, spend half an hour listening to him speak.
No one will ever, ever know you completely or love you perfectly.
That does not mean you can’t be known and loved.
By allowing your aloneness, and truth, I think we can be loved, true. Criticisms will not whither us any longer, when we no longer depend on that other to give us our whole worth. We can do as best we can at our job, take credit where credit is due, and apologize when we screw up, without devastation. Some people will love our cooking or our singing or what we do at that job, others might love our humor or just the fact, if he is your dog, that you are bringer of food and taker on-er of walks. We look for approval in appropriate places and stop looking for it in dead ended and bruise forming places. The trick, of course, the difficulty, is that we have to chip away at dependency and control. We have to know, since we are human, that others are too. No one can rescue you. And you have no business trying to rescue any other. No one will love you perfectly, because they will get tired and disappointed in some other part of their own life. They will have indigestion, fear about a looming bill, concern about their own necks. They will not love you perfectly, or at all as you expected, but they will love you fiercely.
We know that the opportunities are there. Someone in the world thinks your body is beautiful. Someone knows how sarcastically smart you are. Someone will appreciate your art, and hundreds of others would spend the night more comfortably if you gave the gift of your listening, a meal, or a few bucks. Even if they are strangers. There are friends you can chat about books with and spiritual leaders who will listen to your own soul thrashings. Someone wants to play music with you. There is, somewhere, a yoga class you can take.
This is true.
I keep coming back to the word. Yoga. It means union. Connection. This is what I know:
I have read books by persons dead 2000 years and felt my soul stand up in answer. I have spent days feeling sorry for myself and years looking for solace in bottles or in relationships I knew, on some level, were harmful. Afterwards I found myself wandering a gravel road with no one but a crow to love me and felt suddenly both sad and alright. I have loved hard, have lost, but still feel that love rippling through me when certain angles of light hit a certain kind of tree, mostly in January. I remember words my grandfather taught me, grieved the loss of that grandfather, and suddenly felt a tremendous desire to teach those words to my two year old niece. I have laughed until my belly ached, though it was years ago and I haven’t seen those friends in years. I have cussed god out, and questioned him, and hated churches because they make me feel so alone, and envied people who seem to find some solace there; but when I have been invited to go again, I have said no. I know the smell of the black hills, though I haven’t been there in years.
I have visited paintings and cathedrals in foreign cities and felt them homecomings and diagrams to my insides. I have seen dawn over mountains and lakes. I have laid my cheek down in the snow because it seemed the most honest and intimate thing I could possibly do.
I know people who find prayer in the dirt, planting and sweating. I know others who find it in song. I know people who feel closer to books or ideas or the way wood feels under their hands than they do in a room full of people.
I know this: connection is real.
Who are we to say it isn’t love, because it doesn’t last? To say it isn’t real, because it doesn’t involve face to face communication? Who are we to say that god doesn’t exist when wars have been fought over him and people dedicate their lives and their bodies to feeling him out?
None of these are perfect, or absolute, or in any way enough. But they are, none the less, real. Have them, practice them, in addition to the practice of family and work and friendship, and even though you may still feel lonely, from time to time, you’ll have ample proof of the fact that your feelings are just as fickle as time is.
Every tuesday, I teach in the city. Recently, I had a bad class. To a yoga teacher, a bad class is one where no one seems to care how hard you’ve thought about what you’re going to do, you’re treated with all the respect a wealthy republican gives to a hotel maid who doesn’t speak english, or you step into a service type class with a bunch of teenagers who have to be there and therefore don’t want to be and are more than willing enough to tell you you’re an arrogant cunt or a white bitch. These happen. I walk to the metra station to take the commuter train home and a man with no teeth waves a dirty plastic cup at me, telling me he’s hungry. He smells of baked piss and rank sweat the way sweat smells when you have to stuff newspaper and cardboard inside your clothes to keep warm. I shook my head and hunched my shoulders and he, too, cussed me. And then I began to cry.
I cried all the way home on the train, took the long walk home to the house, and then had to circle the block four times before I felt I could walk in without people asking what in the hell was wrong.
I didn’t know, and I didn’t want to talk about it. If pressed, I think I’d weeze and sniffle ‘I tried so hard…I tried. So hard.”
It didn’t occur to me until the next week, after the same class, when I passed the same homeless man with what looked like the same goddamned cup. He used the same lines, to the word. I realized, with a wave of sadness, that he’d been saying the same line to me week after week, for months on end, every Tuesday. I felt no matter how much I taught, how hard I tried, what kind of non-profit yoga world I try to live in, I could never change the brute facts of this world. The man was still there, and I couldn’t do anything.
This made me feel very alone, and very tired. And I’m not even the guy who’s hungry.
The word is connection, union. Typically, people breezily say it means connection of mind, body and spirit. Or moving and breathing.
I think that’s bullshit.
I think connection means the way a painting affects me, and my need to write poems. I think it is what happens when my friend gets her hands and knees dirty for hours at a time in her garden. What other men find in music. I think some people call it god. I think it is the truth of the fact we have laughed, have touched sexuality, have held children, looked into a friend’s eyes even if we couldn’t hold it very long.
I think connection means knowing the truth of who we are, how imperfect and flailing our motions usually are, how no matter how good we get or how hard we try all of our relationships will end, someday. The truth of the five minutes we have, five minutes at a time.
I think it means knowing I cannot make that man not hungry, but teaching anyway. Knowing love is fleeting. Insisting on loving, still.