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Yoga and Anger Management March 9, 2012

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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My doctor made a suggestion to me the other day. “Get angry,” he said.

And he didn’t mean in a bumper-sticker, “If you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention” sort of way, or a Rage Against the Machine debut-album “Anger is a gift” sort of way, either. He meant that I don’t have to keep whistlin’ and keep on keepin’ on whenever someone treats me unfairly or disrespectfully. He meant that actually, getting screwed over is a perfectly valid reason to get bent out of shape–even for a yoga teacher like me.

At my yoga teacher training, we began each morning and evening by chanting in both Sanskrit and English. We asked both ourselves and the universe to make each and every one of us a force for good, to charge us with the maintenance and upkeep of the happiness and freedom of all living things.  “Free me from anger, jealousy, and fear,” we sang, a cosmic request imploring that, come what may, we’d always keep a level head.

It sounded good at the time–it still does–but I’ve come to the conclusion that freedom from anger, jealousy, and fear is inhuman at best, crippling at worst. To keep myself anger-free, I routinely avoided conflict. And while this is a fairly common human behavior, I found myself taking it to the extreme. In a given situation, then, I’d imagine potential conflicts to avoid; I’d storyboard anger-inspiring scenarios in my head, then erect elaborate emotional scaffolding so that, should they actually occur, I’d know how to navigate them without getting angry.

I also took freedom from anger to mean anyone’s anger. That is, I began to feel it was no longer enough to avoid my own anger; I had to protect others from getting mad, too. I created more scenarios, plotting how my potential actions could potentially enrage others. I imagined that potential anger and let it wash over me, confident that by experiencing it “virtually,” I’d know exactly what steps to take to spare the rest of the world from experiencing it in reality. I did this so frequently and so naturally that I warped my imagination: my scenarios became anthologies of possible ways I could screw something up. After all, how could I avoid and diffuse potential anger if I didn’t avail myself (in my imagination, at least) to any form of ugliness that that anger could possibly take?

But when a foundering project was dumped on me with the blunt directive to sort it out, I found myself at a loss. Or, at least, I found myself getting angry. All of my invented “screw-up” scenarios involved my mishandling the project–or at least perpetuating the mistakes that had already been made by others. It upset my sense of fair play, like Republicans blaming Obama for Bush’s multifaceted mess.

I went in a different direction, beating myself up for not being creative enough to find an anger-free way through the gauntlet, all the while growing increasingly terrified that no matter what I did, I’d be responsible for unleashing a great wave of rage into the world.

Which is when my doctor told me to embrace the anger myself, even if it meant steering into a potential conflict–not so that someone at fault could feel my wrath and be put in his place, but so that I’d stop abusing myself with self-fulfilling prophecies of failure, humiliation, and–of course–someone else’s imaginary anger.

Rather than try to “free” myself from anger, I’m now working to better handle it. Like so much of yoga, the emotion itself is hollow, given weight only when I choose to engage it. Poorly processed anger can indeed make the world an ugly, vitriolic place. But when embraced properly, and used appropriately, anger–while not necessarily a gift (sorry, Zack de la Rocha)–is certainly human and (on occasion) certainly me, too.

Unlike Monopoly, there are no losers in life July 18, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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When I was a kid, my older brother and I played Monopoly at least once a week. He was always the car token; I always took the horse or wheelbarrow. We had a huge stack of board games—Go For It and Go For Broke (which my brother steadfastly refused to play for our entire childhood, a prohibition that’s probably served him well in his present-day business dealings); The Game of Life and Stratego; and Sorry! and Aggravation when our mom wanted to join us (She loved the games where the goal was to get your family of colored tokens “home”).  It was Monopoly, though, that probably accounted for about half of the games I played against my brother.

Kleshas are just another kind of jail.Monopoly’s skeletal rules and regulations left vast procedural voids into which my brother could finagle subtle aspects of the game into his favor. Rather than end the game as soon as I went bankrupt, for example, which is how Monopoly is supposed to be played, my brother would extend usurious loans to me to keep things going. One time, he even let me buy “stocks” from the NYSE quotes and–for a Monopoly-money fee–he’d track them for me in the local paper’s business section and let me know how much I’d get if I sold off any given day. I usually bought stocks for companies I thought were cool, like Boeing and United Airlines (As a seven-year-old, I thought flying was awesome). Whatever his motives were for the financial engineering, I was happy that he’d deigned to play with his younger brother in the first place. Slowly having my ass handed to me over a few hours, then, always seemed like less of a disaster than having to abruptly put the entire game away with the commandment, “Loser cleans up.”

Though I beat him at Monopoly more times than I beat him at chess (once) or Stratego (zero times), I was very much the underdog every time we chose our tokens and prepared to pass GO.  Really, my badness at Monopoly was a perfect storm of my business ineptitude, my brother’s corresponding acumen, and–or so I’d like to believe, since it lets me off the hook of being a completely hopeless player–a younger sibling’s subconscious fear of prematurely of superseding his elder and thus finding himself in the uncharted territory of being number one.

Rich Uncle Pennybags

It's hard to practice asana in white tie and tails.

Today I’m at T-minus seven weeks till my brother’s wedding in Seattle. I haven’t started writing the Best Man’s toast yet–these tend to come together at the last minute for me–but I have my plane ticket purchased and wedding outfit chosen. Since my brother’s getting married the same month he turns 35, we’ve–mostly I’ve–been able to maintain an extended sibling rivalry longer than most sets of brothers. Like our board game contests of yore, though, it’s been fairly one-sided, with perhaps a few victories snatched from the jaws of defeat on my part. For the most part, though, my brother’s “won” them all.

Because as ridiculous as it seems (to everyone other than me), I had, at some point, extrapolated his victories at The Game of Life into a victory over me at Life Itself, a personal manifestation of abhinivesha–attachment or clinging to life. I’d lost sight of my true sadhana and found it easier to define myself as little-cum-inferior brother. Coming in second, I realized, had been hardwired into my identity. I was clinging to the old life I knew because it was easier than trying to win at one that was unknown and new.

I don’t remember the day it dawned on me that, well, we weren’t actually competing against each other. But I think I was upside down, wobbly, in a headstand for the very first time. It was something, I knew, that my brother couldn’t do. When I got down–light years away from holding it for five seconds, let alone five minutes–I wiped clean a little bit of my imaginary win/loss, brother/brother scoreboard. Since then, slowly, achingly, and frustratingly, I’ve begun to forget about the win/loss figures altogether. My “victory” in headstand showed me who I’d really been competing with all along. It freed me from the life I’d assumed I was living.

In headstand–and eventually forearm-stand, and Warrior I, and Triangle, and even Child’s Pose–I’m only second-best to myself. Paging Dr. Seuss–you’re needed in the asana room. And no “loser” will ever have to clean up my life.

Bad attitudes make better bread: Pastry, karma, and you June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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In any bakery, the worse the attitude of a baker, the better his bread. Some of the best muffins and scones I’ve tasted were made by jerks with nicotine-stained fingers and criminal records, and cinnamon rolls I had to fight with–and then punish for their intransigence–inevitably tasted better than those more willing to come to terms with their 410-degree destiny. (For those who are curious, “punishing” uncooperative dough involves slicing it with the older, slightly less-sharp dough scraper, or allowing some of its fringes to get pinched, like a roll of fat in a zipper, between the handles and roller of the rolling pin. You just have to be creative and work with the implements you’ve got.)

Sure, stories abound about cooks and bakers who’ve infused their product by chanting mantra over it, and though my baking career predates my yoga practice by a good three years and was thus never informed by the Sutra or Gita, I’m convinced that muttering “God-damn-motherfucking-piece-of-shit” over too-soft white dough or unrisen whole wheat is a much surer way to improve the food’s performance than reverently singing “Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu.”

With living plants and animals, and to a lesser extent protists and bacteria, I’d recommend mantra every time, but dough is different, existentially and biologically. Don’t forget that with leavened dough, you’re collaborating with a living organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae–baker’s yeast–and fungi responds far better to the stick than it does the carrot (Think of athlete’s foot—the soggiest, nastiest conditions always produce the most fecund fungal forests). And for unleavened food, like cookies, muffins, and scones, I’ve found that physical abuse trumps verbal as far as discipline goes. It must be noted, though, that like any ward given too much of the rod, over-beaten dough easily becomes overmixed, leading to longer baking times and tougher, less succulent product.

Alone in the bakery at 3:45 in the morning, day after day, I developed several theories about why quality of attitude is inversely related to quality of product, but, ultimately, these don’t serve to explain anything. It takes a certain kind of who-gives-a-shit curmudgeon to get out of bed at 2:30 each morning and enjoy his lunch break at 7, his five-o’clock-whistle at noon, but this merely explains why certain kinds of people become bakers, not why any one is any better than his peers.  Certainly, a congenital bad attitude can be synergized with a too-early shift, but again, this is something that affects all bakers, not just the antisocial ones.

Great writers, of course, are famously miserable, even though many of them, it seems, were simply playing a role. I’m sure that had Doestoevsky been a well-to-do descendant of a boyar, there’d be countless literary strivers today chasing after serfs, suppressing Cossack autonomy, and generally espousing the merits of reactionary thinking. Brooklyn and Montmartre’s brokers of windowless garrets would be completely out of business.

Ultimately, I’ve arrived at the understanding that, while a bad attitude is a benefit to baking, it need not extend beyond the breadboard. Dragging my bad moods to and from the bakery each day was an expression of immaturity and ignorance. Yoga instructs us to create an internal heat–tapas–that’s capable of incinerating whatever negativity and vileness has taken root in our bodies. Certainly, if a 99-degree human body can destroy malevolent thoughts, then a 410-degree oven can consume even more. Today, when I bake (now as an amateur), I make sure to baste my product in flavor-stimulating pessimism, then consider it transferred to the food and out of my body, on its way to certain destruction in the oven. Baking has become therapeutic, an act of contrition, no longer the violent brawl between man and food that it once was.

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