Sunday, August 3, 2014

When the sky is falling

Not too long ago, I was a graduate student whose Master thesis was a little novel called 'The Unsettled Dead'. I spent two years writing 300 pages, and then I spent the next three years, rewriting and reworking it, because frankly the novel in my head did not match the novel I produced. Like many a writer before me, I put the words and pages that had been etched in my brain in a virtual box, and I moved on to other things. I told myself and everyone who asked that I needed to be much older to write the book that I want to write. That I am practicing patience and discernment. That the time is not right.

In a lot of ways, my reasons were all valid. My subject, or rather my obsession, is the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980's. This is something that I know on a visceral and emotional level; this is the backdrop to my entire childhood: missile attacks, red sirens, basement hideouts, panicked adults, crying children, the sounds of explosions that still make me hate fireworks and fourth of July and even thunder, fallen and still smoldering buildings with people's random belongings obscenely on display, the news of the dead and the wounded, the captured relatives, the widowed and the suddenly child-less and their screams into the night, and the utter normalcy of war when it's your everyday reality. I wrote that book: raw, emotional, honest, but also clumsy, reactionary, and a bit overdone.

To understand this story better, you have to come back with me to even before I wrote the book. You see, in my early twenties, I was a scientist and an assistant researcher working for a pharmaceutical company formulating cancer treatment medications. I calculated, measured, and observed without an agenda. There were clear boundaries to the experiments, and an order to the process that calmed me. Naturally, 'the scientist' part of my brain watches me as I lose myself in emotion, in reflection, in story, and beckons me to look at things differently: without an agenda, objectively, and without getting too involved. This part of my brain is, as a new friend recently called, my 'bullshit meter'.

So you could say that my 'bullshit meter' convinced my idealist romantic side to use time to her advantage. Why am I telling you this? Because I feel as though some wounds are coming undone again, and I have gone back in the past few days and reread passages from 'The Unsettled Dead' and I feel as though we repeat the cycle of violence when we place more importance on empirical reason and less on empathy, compassion, and emotional honesty.  If you've taken my classes you know that I am allergic to talk of 'open hearts,' because my 'bullshit meter' has always gone off the charts when I've heard others talk in this way. But lately, all I want to do is go around the world and beg people to open their hearts to the suffering of others, and particularly, to the suffering of those they don't agree with, those they have historically (read: samskara) considered as other.

Needless to say, for the past three weeks, with the world falling apart around us, I could care less about my asana practice. This is rather inconvenient when you are a teacher, and your job is to help others move in their bodies in a way that makes them better people. And this is what I've been grappling with: how does putting my leg behind my head in increasingly absurd ways (I'm looking at you Durvasana) helping the world? How is it making me a better person? How is it relevant to what is happening now?

I guess you can call this doubt or lack of faith. I call it reality, and healthy skepticism. Truth is, even if I am dragging myself onto my mat everyday, it is helping me in tremendous ways: I am less likely to snap at those around me, I can read and hold the information that is coming my way these days without completely losing my mind and getting sucked into oblivion, I am able to challenge myself to think about this 'same story' in a new way. Also, I get to sit with the terrible feeling of being powerless, of knowing that even if I suddenly became enlightened mid-jump-through, bombs will still fall and children will still die. I get to sit with what is, as despondent as that may make me.

If you've read this far looking for answers, I am sorry, I have none. What I have are even more questions: how can we, yoga practitioners, help with the dualist mentality that is at the root of many of these violent conflicts in the world? What do we practice when the world is falling apart around us, and is asana just an analgesic, a numbing agent that we either indulge in or escape to? And, how can we do better? Is it, like my shelved-novel, a question of time? That with time and with more people 'awakening' we won't keep repeating this mess? Is that terribly naive? This last question from my bullshit-meter, of course...