Hey Angry Couch-guy, Genghis, Meet Faith
I’ve been struggling in my Mysore yoga practice for a long while. At first, I was saddled with self-inflicted injuries that dogged me nearly a year. Lately, I’ve been battling frustration at how incompetent I am in so many of the poses in my practice, despite how long I’ve been doing them; or, how long I have been trying to do them without much success.
These realities point to many things, paramount among them, at least in my mind, being the undeniable fact I am not a young man anymore. If I am being honest, I try to be noble and graceful about aging, but in truth I hate that prospect. It sucks. There are other aspects of my life that suck besides aging. I wonder if the struggle am experiencing in my yoga is a reflection of my conflicted feelings about where I currently stand in life; whether it portends anxiety at the thought of more grim realities in store.
I am aware the toll aging will have on my body. It’s an inevitable facet of existence. Up until recently, the reality remained in the realm of abstraction. I am in better shape now than I was in my late twenties and thirties. People aren’t just being polite when they express shock at hearing my age. I sense at times they are thinking “this guy’s pretty immature for a forty-something,” which I’ll take as a compliment. No matter how youthful the image staring back at me in the mirror appears, the duration of time my injuries linger – from yoga, of all things – is certain proof that aging has caught up with me.
Even though I appear young, am not flabby, and don’t have grey hair, at least on my head, teenaged employees at the grocery store call me ‘sir.’ The young and cute marketing reps downtown giving away energy drinks or other stuff to get young folks hooked on don’t even bother giving me a freebie. I’m not in the cool target demographic anymore, which basically means I am in the segment of society whose existence no longer really matters. ‘Is there a smell that betrays my age?’ I wonder.
I don’t know why, but I thought I’d be dead by now. I’m not a gangster; never been a coal miner, high-rise window-washer, or test-pilot. I’ve never been addicted to anything harder than Zesty Cheese Doritos. I just had a feeling when I was fifteen that forty-something was as doomed as ninety-one. There was no forethought to mentally prepare me for the age I’ve managed to acquire, despite myself. It’s the second time arriving at a place in my existence – ostensibly because I wanted to – without a plan for enjoying it or an expectation that it could actually be enjoyed. The first time I was struck by the feeling was the day after I got married.
I tend to push myself in everything I do. I am desperately trying to be better than everyone else; the thinking being that, once I stand alone at the pinnacle, there will only be one person instead of legions to make me feel inferior. Since self-loathing is the quintessence of loneliness I may as well be at the top. So far, neurosis has undermined my ascendancy with perfectly placed banana peels I can’t ever seem to avoid.
When I started doing yoga seriously, the intention was to do the poses I had seen in posters of the Primary Series. I didn’t really take much heed of the possibility my meaty legs, barrel chest, and tight ass might not be able to compress or bend accordingly. It never occurred to me the waifs in the pictures I was trying to mimic didn’t look like they’d been eating bacon and binge-eating their neuroses away in their spare time. No matter, my mind was intent on making it happen, body be damned.
After about a year of that nonsense, my body had had enough. Even the simplest movements were punctuated with pain. My body would not allow me to bend as I had done countless times before. I’ve been paying penance ever since, wondering when I will be forgiven. Every time it seems I’ve got a foot out of the dog house, my body throws a twinge here or a throb there to remind me: you pushed too hard, asshole.
I get frustrated quickly, with myself, with the shenanigans at work, with senseless violence in the streets, with the lack of world peace; with the fact an unapologetic douche-bag like Donald Trump is a genuine contender in the GOP race. I am a habitually impatient person. I’ve never suffered fools very well. It disturbs me profoundly that so much of our society’s wealth and power is in the hands of utter douche-bags; that the wealth we generate is not easing the suffering of so many millions, but increasingly lines the pockets of cretins intent on using their influence to immiserate the lives of the majority.
I have difficulties with focus, my mind wanders madly. I’m often grappling disappointment with many things in the world, especially myself. When I struggle with all these emotions I redouble my efforts to fix the shit out of that negativity. l’m grimacing, pushing, squeezing, wincing, forcing myself to be happy if it kills me. There is no letting go; there is no acceptance of the way things are. There is no trusting in the wisdom of time; no memory of how often it has whittled away the sharp edges of adversity, how it has carried me through in the past. There is no belief in the power of a graceful approach when the intense heat of the present seems unbearable.
It’s hard not to notice all of these mind-states when you’re doing a self-practice based yoga. There are no sultry instructors to listen to, no people to follow along with; nothing to steal your focus – other than your own raging mind. With practice after practice swirling in a mental cesspool of frustration and self-recrimination, there is residual anger at the cruel alchemy of cosmic forces that made me this way.
I imagine in another life I was either Genghis Khan or his caustic side-kick – plundering and ransacking the world with brutality to fill some gap in his soul. There is difficulty with relaxing into my yoga; or into my life. My preference is to force the issue; to push too hard. In the past, the victories arising from this approach were pyrrhic; I don’t know why I still cling to it, but I do. Hence the feelings of constant struggle. All this self-awareness can be difficult, because the revelations aren’t brimming with the positivity and bliss we tend to expect from yoga.
Several months ago, I was sitting with my legs out on my yoga mat, doing nothing. The sludge had bubbled over in my head and drowned out my yoga practice. I battled the urge to call it quits, fought back tears, and was tormented by feelings of being a total fuck-up; a cruel tenor of self-reproach that’s dogged me for years.
My teacher came to me and said, “Just keep moving. Don’t stop in the thoughts. Have faith in the breath and follow it with your focus.”
I said, “but I’m just so … ” gassed, I may have said, or something like it. He replied “take it easy, but keep the practice moving.”
But how? It’s not in my nature to take it easy when I’m in the throes of total, abject failure. I can’t fail, yet again. I need a success.
After doing this kind of yoga for almost three years, I am beginning to understand what makes yoga a “spiritual” practice. There’s no escaping the outer layers of self when you’re trying to bend, twist, or bind and you can’t stop clenching to allow it to happen. The fact I persist, despite the struggles, the self-inflicted injuries, and the doubts about the point of continuing, is my first foray into the kind of faith my teacher was pointing to. Larger truths transcend our limited prior notions about the content of those glimpses of wisdom. In my case the insights have been more often humbling than blissful.
For once in my life, I am not as threatened with being honest about some of my shortcomings. That honesty has allowed me to see the good things too, which were hidden beneath all the anger, indignation, and striving undertaken to please my inner critic. When I practice yoga, it’s me on my rug. The inner chatter, opinions, and negative judgements emerge from a mind conditioned to do just that. It’s not really me, as much as it is a pernicious habit I can’t seem to relinquish despite its drawbacks.
The moment I sense a struggle, my mind reacts quickly with frustration or anger to push through the problem. It’s so automatic I don’t even notice my eyes shifting around and my breath stultified. The angry voice fears failure; it doesn’t trust that something as simple and soft as a breath can solve the problem. My mind, body, and breath have no history of working together. The integration was lost from all the years I gave exclusive reign to my discursive mind.
This highly reactive mind of mine has countless times thrown me under the bus. It has ruined or severely strained countless relationships; I’ve said and done things to cause damage that I can’t take back. And yet there I am, doing it even when I practice yoga. It is irrefutable proof how deep are the ruts, how effectively they carry the rivers of distorted narratives to my consciousness, how routine it seems to drink the poison cup.
It is a profound lesson in humility for a grown man of my age to accept. It is easy to understand how I became injured, why I’m so hotly agitated with things, and why I periodically think of calling it quits with yoga. I cannot stop the affliction despite how pernicious and counter-productive it is to a positive outlook. Sometimes I wish I did not have to see it, but if I go back to denial and distraction it will return as a force in my life again, which I no longer want.
In times of trouble my inner voice is like an unwanted, angry old friend who arrives unannounced to crash on my couch. He fritters away my money, drinks my beer, and binges on junk food as he slouches in my couch, robbing my soul with his incessant put-downs and naysaying. Like a drill-sergeant, he believes the abusive hectoring is needed to light a fire under my waning spirit. In reality he’s fanning the flames of psychic self-immolation. Despite his penchant for destruction, he’s got a set of keys to my mental space, and creates a dour mood when he’s around, which is more often than I would wish.
Zen Buddhist master Suzuki-roshi speaks of the need for a “don’t know mind.” In meditation as in life, the adage is to practice being in the world as if we were beginners, dispensing with our expectations and understandings of the way things are supposed to be. These ideas narrow our perception and close our eyes to endless possibilities.
In our culture, we engage in relentless pursuit of competence to avoid a “beginner mind.” The idea is anathema to how we’re conditioned from an early age. We are told it’s in our best interest to acquire the education, skills and wealth to navigate life successfully. Nobody wants to be a beginner; nobody reveres a beginner; being a beginner doesn’t pay the bills. The greed, indifference, and ethical abyss our societies have descended so clearly attest to just how hollow our ideas of competence truly are.
Okay then, back to the beginning. In this case, this blog post, where I attributed my inability to do Mysore yoga to my increasing age. Clinging to the idea makes it easier for me to remain foreclosed to the possibility of good things ahead despite the inevitability of aging and the certainty of more experiences I will struggle with. The negativity stirs my mind to dispatch its mental army of resistance against reality on a quest to preserve my youth and conquer life’s obstacles with brute force, instead of accepting things as they are and charting a path with heart through them.
Maybe the angst has been a motivator in the past, but mounting such resistance is as exhausting as it is futile in the end. I need a new approach; more openness, less anguish, no expectations. Maybe I’ll learn to just see what happens without all the agitation, and patiently wait to see what comes with a more easy-going effort. It’s a hard shift to make; it’s been the acerbic couch-surfer, Genghis, and I manipulating the tragic, dysfunctional fable that has been my life for such a long time.
When I stand at the edge of my mat tomorrow morning, and the morning after, and the morning after that, I’ll thank my prognosticators for doing their best in trying to prevent me drowning in complacency and resignation. I’ll mean it too. But I’ll have to let them go so my practice, and my life, are imbued with greater freedom, even in the struggle. I will do my best to breathe, focus, and keep moving through it, as the teacher says, instead of fighting it with stridency or conceding defeat.
None of us really knows what lies ahead. Life’s constant flux, the fear of being overwhelmed by the next unseemly circumstance, is at the source of my struggle for control. The uncertainty compels me to reach for my sword. With a little faith I sense a better future; the softening of my mind invites a wider range of possibilities to make it so.