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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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There are no yoga cops: coming to terms with your sadhana June 29, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m not immune to negativity and disenchantment, and if I’m not careful, I can lapse into outright cynicism. About three weeks into my Jivamukti Teacher Training in Rhinebeck, N.Y., I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with what I was being taught. There was too much unquestioned reverence, I thought. There wasn’t enough room for debate and dissent. There were short answers given to questions that guys like Rumi, Thomas Aquinas, and Keith Richards had spent lifetimes pondering.

Whether it was the string of 18-hour days; the never-ending kale, collard-greens, and lentils buffet at the dining hall; or the upper-respiratory bug that had been plaguing me since the second week, I’d just about had it. Maybe I’d heard the word “guru-ji” one too many times. Whatever it was, for a couple of days, I crossed over the dark side and indulged my inner cynic.

We were made to learn, for example, a list of ten ways a student can honor his teacher. It was all perfectly respectful and reasonable, but from my hole on the dark side, I saw it as Orwellian. I spitefully let my imagination carry me away to North Korea. Number 1, for example, instructs a student to use honorifics when referring to or addressing his teacher, which I took as the equivalent of referring to the long dead Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and to his megalomaniacal son, Kim Jong-il, as “Dear Leader.” Number 8 directs a student to ask his teacher to stay in his life, which to me sounded analogous to supporting the hereditary Stalinist dynasty that the Kims had established in Pyongyang. And number 9 charges a student to pay attention when his teacher teaches, to not let the mind wander. Admittedly, I thought USSR, not North Korea, on this one, but the enjoinment nevertheless reminded me of those apparatchiks whom Stalin had sent to the gulag for, allegedly, not laughing at his jokes or for being the first to sit down during a 30-minute standing ovation. Yes, for these and every other item on the list, I’d listed their totalitarian corollaries in my notebook.

As training crept by and my imagination ran rampant, I felt more and more like an outcast, a heterodox dissident living on borrowed time until the “Yoga Police” ferreted me out and banished me from Jivamukti. I even designed a medallion for the Yoga Police Department, which my roommate quickly christened the “Bitter Badge.”

The "Bitter Badge"

But mercifully, the truth dawned on me soon thereafter: There are no “Yoga Cops.”

My practice—and yours—are personal journeys, private experiences. One’s entire sadhana is, in effect, carried out entirely behind the closed doors of one’s body, mind, and soul. One student’s maddeningly rigorous regimen of asana is no better or worse, no more right or wrong, than another’s hours of devotional chanting. Built into yoga’s existential paradox—that it is both the end of the journey and the journey itself—is the space for you to define it how it benefits you—and the people with whom you share your life—the most, and the most joyfully.

Karma teaches us that the intention behind an action is far more resonant than is the action itself; indeed, one’s intention is a transformative agent, the reason behind one’s behavior and the mold into which the wet plaster of action hardens into result. When I set aside my cynicism—and, alas, handed in the Bitter Badge—I found my intention to be no less devotional, no less pure than my fellow trainees. After all, though we had different bodies, different expressions of different asanas,  we were all striving in Rhinebeck for the same thing; that is, the teaching tools and expertise required to instruct others onto their own paths. We were taught to respect our students’ journeys, just as our teachers respected ours. Even if the Yoga Cops had raided my room, they’d have found woefully little evidence to arrest me of any yogic “crime.”

When I was in middle school in Oregon in the early nineties, the skaters would spare no opportunity to slap a “Skateboarding is not a crime” bumper sticker on any accessible flat surface, even the backboards of basketball hoops. After my imaginary run-in with the Yoga Cops, I finally figured out what they meant: no matter what others think of it, skateboarding is definitely not a crime. Neither is your yoga practice.

Infernos & assholes: why I practice yoga June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I.

Dante was thirty-five when he went on his fact-finding mission into hell. Well, I got the jump on him by a good seven years.

I started practicing yoga a month after my twenty-eighth birthday in 2008, primarily as a way to get away from assholes. I’d encounter them every day, on the subway and the sidewalk, at the office and at parties. They were everywhere, conspiring, it seemed, to make my world a touch uglier, my life a shade less pleasant. Some people would push onto the train without waiting for alighting passengers to get off; when this happened to me, I saw it is a virtual license to throw up my elbows and deliver a few forearm shivers to the jerks who weren’t waiting their turn. My boss chain-smoked Parliament Light after Parliament Light in his office, operating under the notion that if his door was merely cracked instead of wide-open, then no one else could breath his exhaust. This I took as license slack off and stop working at 3:30 or 4, time to declare the brain too saturated with carbon monoxide to be of any further creative use.

To get through those days, I’d taken to abusing my clonazepam prescription, interpreting “one tablet as needed for anxiety” to mean “two tablets every day after lunch.” The Simon’s Little Helpers could make sixty minutes feel like forty-five (forty on an empty stomach), and they helped reinforce a general “Who gives a shit?” attitude whenever the hairs in my nostrils bristled in protest at the toxic atmosphere of that office. For anyone who hasn’t spent eight consecutive hours trapped inside a smoke-filled office, the traditional “five o’clock feeling” is quite unique, similar to the way you might feel after eating an entire jar of dill pickles–and drinking all the brine–only expansive enough to engulf the entire body and not just your stomach. It also arrives at 10:30 in the morning. Five days a week, I left work feeling pickled and poisoned, soaked in formaldehyde, cyanide, and misery.

In Spring 2008, I started going to Jivamukti Yoga Center, which was just a five minute walk from work. After my four-week Beginner Basics program, once a week became twice, and twice became four times. Practice days soon outnumbered rest days, rest days became less and less satisfying. And then, slowly, it dawned on me: I was an asshole, too! Everyone in my life was an insensitive prick because I had become one myself.

My transformation began that summer at Jivamukti. I listened to my teachers, did everything they asked (at least in class). I showed up after work every night, eager to detoxify and unpickle my physical body. After a few weeks, my psychology began to follow. Jivamukti Yoga is ardent in its belief that every soul is a holy being, and I slowly began to see myself as such. As I squeezed and sweated out the arsenic, ammonia, and soot that each day would permeate my body, I rid myself of feelings of inadequacy, of loneliness and shame. Dharma talk after dharma talk, headstand after headstand, Warrior II after Warrior II, I could understand my holiness as natural and inevitable. I could touch my toes! I could stand on my head!

Eventually, I could patiently abide subway insensitivity! And an inconsiderate smoker could be a teacher and inspiration, an opportunity to embrace as holy and valuable even the most toxic examples of foulness. Jivamukti became–and remains–my land of Katroo, Dr. Seuss’s magical birthday-land where you’re told, “Today you are You,/ That is truer than true./ There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”

The assholes disappeared from my life. Oh, inconsiderate souls still abound, and reprehensible behavior is everywhere. But the assholes, well they’ve left the building. Yoga has made me holy, and my world whole.

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