There is strength to open pickle jars. Strength that can hold a twisted, inverted asana where all of one’s body weight is supported across the five fingers of one hand. And then there is the strength that burns down cities in war, of storms that rips trees from the earth, the true strength of death that makes smoldering matchsticks of us all.
It was a hot, smoldering summer. Without thunder or mercy, just the drone of dry heat. It was easy to fall into lassitude, into believing everything would go on being the way it was. To think of strength as the muscles, and a personal thing. I practiced handstands. There were many black flies. I flicked at them, absently.
Then one day it thundered. It roared. Someone said ‘it’s fall now, so…’ and I thought but no, no it isn’t. By the end of her sentence, though, it was. September is irrevocable. And I was snapped out of my dailyness when told I’d have to move, things are changing, I’ll have to make decisions and things won’t be the same anymore.
The westernest leaves of the sugar maples turned a burned red.
When you meet persons who have practiced yoga or meditation for a long time, you are struck by their levelness. They have a kind of grace. A quality of being touched, joyful. It seems, sometimes, that they are a lucky brand of bastard whom suffering and the chaos of life hasn’t touched. Their lives must be different, less stressful than ours.
This isn’t true.
When you ask, you learn that they suffer and worry just as we do. Their lives are no less stressful than our own. I’ve known yogis who battle massive depression. Folks who weep when their parents die. Ones who have lost money, a limb, a child.
It is not that they don’t suffer or that they are immune to life’s changes. It is only that they have learned what true strength means. It isn’t that they don’t age, don’t hurt, don’t have headaches or have to work and find time and defecate like the rest of us neurotic humans. They suffer and struggle.
But they are not overwhelmed. They are strong.
Before I practiced yoga, my life was a kind of war. It seemed very hard. I seemed to have to work, constantly, to hang on with both hands, to keep the whole thing going by my own efforts. I wavered between a kind of self-pity (why can’t I have a life like hers? Why is that person so lucky? Things would be different if I had the money, time, if I lived there, if I met the right person, didn’t have to deal with this person…) where everything appeared very random and an overweening sense of importance: I would make my own life happen, I would learn the right skills, I would or would not make relationships work, have a happy life, be healthy.
Most of us spend most of our lives with this kind of erratic, frantic movement. Where we have to juggle and keep dancing. Where we are constantly busy or too busy, but never really seem to get anything done.
I thought of my depression (devastating, disgusting, brutalizing and wanting me dead) was a thing I had to manage and control. I thought of my time as I thing I had to control. I thought happiness and success were things you got if you were good enough at it, and I tried but doubted the outcome. I thought, most of the time, that I understood The Way Things Are, whereas others seemed only to have opinions and not know The Whole Story. Relationships, just like projects, were things I had to navigate.
I rarely noticed the color of leaves or the passing of seasons. Unless, of course, it came as a kind of insult and affront to my efforts; the passing of time making a mockery of my best intentions. The whole of ‘life’ being out of control and myself as powerless.
We forget who and what we really are, says yoga. We are blind.
The practice is to discover strength. Not of muscles, not of pickle jars, but the strength to be fully alive with the burning leaves and the thundering storm. To know we are not supposed to and never can ‘control’ life – we can’t even control our own thoughts and feelings, for chrissake -
we are supposed to live it. To participate in power and strength, rather than fight against it. To realize there is power and passion and awesome, more baffling strength in being than we’d ever glimpsed. Strength is there, is real, but we’ve been looking for it in the wrong places.
Yogic strength is in attention, in showing up and watching without turning away. We watch our thoughts…churning, not so pretty, unstoppable, sometimes just plain stupid, every once in a while deeply provocative and profound.
When we learn to watch them, we are not crippled and driven by them. We can access the profundity. And we learn to not be cowed by all that pettiness and drone. Attending can let it be, thoughts being thoughts, mind being mind.
When we learn to attend, we may be slapped with the shock of strength. Craving, for example. We slowly start to practice just watching and will notice that ‘craving’ is an understatement: it is an avalanche of physical sensations, sweaty palms, salivating mouth, a spreading subtle tension across the entire body of muscles, a tightening in the belly, a compression around the eyes, perhaps even a closing of the hearing; it’s a ruckus of thoughts, terribly uncomfortable and pressing and insistent, and you cannot stop it. Attempts to stop it make it worse.
Muscle, for another example. When we learn, slowly, as we can, to literally pay attention to what stretching feels like, it might hit us like an orgasm or an drug altered state: reality is more intense, more vivid, more than it was before. We notice not only that the muscle is tensed, but whether it is clenched or trembling or steady, hot or cold, rough in texture or smooth like water, we notice how one muscle touches another muscle, where sensation begins and ends, that sensation in one tiny part of the body spreads like ripples in water. A clenched hand spills up the arm and into the neck, it alters our breath, it clenches the jaw, it tightens the chest, it shifts our toes, and it literally changes the way we think, shouts a change in our hormonal levels, heats or cools the skin, raises hairs, focuses or unfocuses the eyes.
Every emotion, every movement, has this powerful swell of energy behind it. Even boredom, apathy, hunger. Attending shows us how powerful these things are.
When we get stronger, we might be able to tolerate attending to a thing like anger, rage, depression, anxiety.
I am afraid, we will think. And we’ll have the strength to go on, anyway.
We’ll realize, more and more and over and over, how much is involved in this being alive. It’s as profound, I tell you, as the ocean is deep or the cosmos is baffling. We cannot control our minds, we cannot control our lives and our deaths. But we can know them.
Do this, and the strength in you suddenly seems something out of a fairy tale or a comic book, something almost divine. There is a reason yoga talks in metaphysics.
Oh, my god, you’ll think: I LOVE this person, and your love will swell. I am HUNGRY, you’ll realize, and start to eat differently, all the colors and textures and tastes being louder than they were before. I want to be happy, you’ll know, and you’ll start moving, moment by moment, into the person for whom happiness is possible.
It doesn’t matter if I can do the pose, or not, you’ll think in your yoga class. And you’ll be dumbstruck to realize you’re standing on your head.
Life, friends, is hard.
We cannot control life.
But it is possible to be alive in it.
Walking, I notice the passing of time. The cicadas are dying and lay on the sidewalk in alien corpses. The air is sharper, pungent. There was a time in my life this would be hard: to be suddenly without a place to live, to be asked all of the sudden what my plans were. I am different, now. I can feel the panic, like a little fist in my heart, pulling the whole body into it. I can feel afraid, but I can also wonder and feel: I wonder at all the options, I wonder what is possible, I realize what a difference I can make, here or there. I decide to open a yoga studio in a little town I used to know. I do not know whether this will succeed or not. But I can try.
The fact is, I try more now. In relationships, in my heath, with my very body thrown upside down with a seeming disregard for things like safety and bruises. Truth is I am more afraid, more often, than I have ever been in my life.
But the fear doesn’t matter any more.
I am strong.