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Philosophy Phriday: Yoga, Iyengar, & Seuss September 2, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Philosophy Phriday.
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There is a frequent misunderstanding of the journey inward or the spiritual path, which suggests to most people a rejection of the natural world, the mundane, the practical, the pleasurable. On the contrary, to a yogi … the path toward spirit lies entirely in the domain of nature.

— B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life

You must never forget that, as a yogi — indeed, as human, as Homo sapiens — that you are a natural being! Your twenty-first-century, plastic-fantastic, yoga-practicing, New York City-living body is a precious, living thing. If I may quote Shri Seuss, “You are you!”

We often hear that as modern Americans, we’ve become isolated, distant, removed from nature. We’ve forsaken our “natural” roots for the pleasures and conveniences of pre-packaged and digital, man-made and artificial. Yet this perceived separation need not exist.

So while, yes, the flavor of a juicy, fresh-picked strawberry is better-tasting (and better for you) than its artificially-manufactured simulacrum (which comprises 49 different biochemical compounds; “cognac essential oil” and “orris butter” are my favorites), the fact remains that it’s still your being, your soul that’s enjoying that taste–regardless of its provenance. As humans, we could never completely turn away from nature because we are nature. We must embrace, not eschew, the mundane, the practical, the pleasurable. After all, it’s a maddeningly sterile world if you don’t; non-attachment doesn’t mean that everything does — or should — taste like watered-down instant oatmeal.

We must identify our bodies — and the thoughts and feelings and ideas and questions and fears of our bodies — as holy, as natural creations. We’re no better than a soaring spruce, and we’re no worse than a sliming slug, no more or less unfortunate than a three-billion-year-old fossil of sulfur-eating bacteria. Iyengar’s “journey inward” is a true journey, drawing us from one place, or mindset, or reality, to another. From one state of nature to another. We feel good after an asana practice, and as “spiritual” as a post-yoga high is, we have to acknowledge that our cells are performing some heavy duty chemistry to get us there. Creating that pleasure is natural endocrine behavior and certainly not something to be rejected.

When we practice yoga, we certainly don’t swear off urdhva dhanurasana or halasana because these objects — wheel and plough — are manmade devices! We don’t spend the entire class in tadasana because, after all, there’s nothing less artificial than a mountain! We bend and flex and stretch into these poses to remind us of our own innate nature. We use yoga, then, not only to “connect” to nature, but also to find it within ourselves, to recognize our divinity, our union with the planet.

So if you must practice in Lululemon Smash pants, then by all means practice in Lululemon Smash pants! It’s your nature. If you cannot put your head to ground in a devotional warrior pose, then by all means put your head on a block; again, it’s your nature! And if you’re vegetarian, then (naturally) do not like green eggs and ham! The beauty of nature is that it cannot be fought, cannot be defeated. It cannot be parsed from our identities without some serious philosophical and surgical intervention. Revel in your nature. Revel in yourself.

Don't like 'em? Don't sweat it!

If you’d never been born, well then what would you do?
If you’d never been born, well then what would you be?
You might be a fish! Or a toad in a tree!
You might be a doorknob! Or three baked potatoes!
You might be a bag full of hard green tomatoes.
Or worse than that . . . Why, you might be a WASN’T!
A Wasn’t has no fun at all. No, he doesn’t.
A Wasn’t just isn’t. He just isn’t present.
But you . . . You ARE YOU! And, now isn’t that pleasant!

Philosophy Phriday: Life is long, enjoy it! July 1, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays, Philosophy Phriday.
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I’ve always bristled at the expression, Life is short, because, well, not only is life not short, but also because those three words inject a kind of fatalist inevitability into anything you do. Who wants to hang out with the guy at the party who acts like he needs to confer with the grim reaper on his shoulder before he actually does anything? People often say, “Life is short,” to justify reckless or foolish or other non-circumspect behavior, the conceit being that since you have only a little bit of time on this earth, you’d better take advantage of it.

To me, though, this seems to be the exact opposite sentiment you should have when determining your course of action in any given moment. With such fixation on the dimensions, of life, you lose sight of the actual content; that is, the reality that’s actually in front of—and all around—us.

Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher (and vocal vegetarian), had much to say about life’s fleetingness. “The majority of mortals,” he writes,

… complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live. … [But] it is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity, we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.

For Seneca—and you’ll have to forgive the humorless aridity of his writing; the man, after all, was a Stoic—the quantity of one’s life is irrelevant when seen through the lens of its quality. That is, an unsatisfying life is too short, but a fulfilling life is, by definition, long enough.

Peter Paul Rubens, "The Death of Seneca," 1615.

Now, Stoicism (or stoicism) notwithstanding, the point here is not to devote oneself to entirely serious pursuits and to abandon enjoyment altogether (Or to save time by turning off our risk-assessment and critical thinking tools). Rather, we should, as yoga teaches us, be mindful of our activities and behavior, but not attached to them: if you’re doing something fun, like, say, watching Law & Order, then you should see it as something fun, not as a mere empty-calorie diversion that’s getting in the way of your “real,” more earnest mission in life, like putting a man on Mars or getting yourself elected to Congress. Your real “mission,” in that moment, is to enjoy the magic that is Jerry Orbach. There are plenty of moments for Mars awaiting you back at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

There’s an equanimity to our actions–whether they service work, rest, or play–whereby the thing we’re doing now is no more or less important, nor more or less focused upon, than the next. An instant is a self-contained eternity, and each moment is infinitely urgent regardless of how many came before or will come after it. True, a moment at a job interview may seem to be more consequential than a moment spent brushing your teeth, but the notion of krama—sequential order—teaches us that the moment at the job interview is but the last instance in a string of moments that, when sequenced together, brought you to that ultimate moment in your future boss’s office.

Through yoga, we fulfill each moment (kshana) of our lives one at a time, and when all of these fulfilled moments are added together, the result is, naturally, a fulfilling—and therefore long, per Seneca—life! We don’t need to use the threat of death as daily motivation, and we don’t need to worry about how what we’re doing now will be interpreted later. Life is neither short nor long; it just is.

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