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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.

Can samadhi be reconciled with reality? July 12, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Samadhi is a frightening concept. To the uninitiated, it hovers somewhere in the distance, tantalizing and seductive, a state of bliss and harmony so unattainable as to be cast aside and ignored. It feels trillions of miles away from jobs and paychecks, MetroCards and express trains, and even rubbery Jade Yoga mats and slick bamboo floors. In the middle of a sweaty, frustrating day, the super-consciousness promised by samadhi can seem completely alien to modern life. Moreover, as it is described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, samadhi can even seem undesirable–something, perhaps, to store away in the “maybe later” section of one’s mind. I mean, do they still stage the World Cup in samadhi? Can I still read Vanity Fair?

Volkswagen

I'm not so sure about this...

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.50 states, “The perception gained in nirvicara samadhi through rtam-bhara prajna or intuitive knowledge transcends all normal perception,  both in intensity and extent.” Worldy pettiness, then, and the trivial comings, goings, and fixations of life are subsumed by samadhi; they are overwhelmed by the contentment and bliss of super-consciousness and their pettiness and triviality become manifest.  Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati comments, “Experience born from the higher state, samadhi, due to intuitive knowledge, effects personality changes. These personality changes check all other habits, experiences, and impressions which lead to lower states. Impressions of samadhi stand in the way of other impressions.”

Now, for one struggling mightily to surmount the klesha of raga, attachment, the notion of destroying his attraction to worldly things can potentially seem like a contraindication of samadhi! Though a man who derives pleasure from, say, obsessively collecting antique firearms would benefit terrifically from ascending to a state of samadhi (and therefore ridding himself of his obsession with guns), he might view the loss of such a pleasure-bringing activity with fear and loathing (Much as I fear a blissful future that exists without the World Cup). He might not be able to conceive of a world in which he’s not an avid collector of Colts and Winchesters and Smith & Wessons.

How often, after all, does one hear another dreamily posit that he absolutely can’t–and won’t–live in a world in which he can’t enjoy, say, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Or autumn Sundays with the NFL? Or even daily asana practice? We can even perceive the potential loss of those activities and objects that distract us from the drudgery of everyday life as something to be avoided at all costs. If we don’t trust Patanjali–that is, if we value our own, perceptions and interpretations of the world over those that yoga teaches us are real and true–we won’t see the bliss of samadhi as an improvement over the “bliss” we get from material things.

Since beginning my yoga practice in 2008, I’ve struggled with the notion of super-consciousness. When I practice yoga, I don’t like to see myself as a workhorse who’s merely following the dangling carrot held by his master. And during my teacher training especially, through eighteen-hour days and interminable Sanskrit lessons, I struggled even more. If this were something I really wanted, I would think, then why am I looking forward to my day off? What if the samadhi I’m being sold isn’t the samadhi that I want to buy?

La Furia Roja

These guys seem pretty blissed out to me.

Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that the potential of super-consciousness is irrelevant to my life and to my practice. My yogic alchemy, I think, is to transform me from a driver to a passenger on the road of life (Apologies to Volkswagen, who once stressed, “Drivers Wanted.” I think the notion of “driving” one’s life is bullshit.) When I’m not so concerned with explicitly conducting the course of my life–to Whole Foods, to Rima’s 3:00 Wednesday class at Jivamukti–or to the state of samadhi–then I can appreciate the world around me. I can see others as fellow passengers and not fly into a road rage when they jostle and distract me from what I think I’m supposed to be doing.

Consciousness is as real or imagined as super-consciousness. There is fulfillment to be found in both, as long as you determine not to fixate on either. And who knows–maybe the United States has a chance of actually winning a samadhi-staged World Cup.

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