In school when the tribe really wanted to insult me, they’d call me by my bad name. Ms. Why.
By the end of eight years together (school started in first grade—before that we were feral), the 17 of us knew all each other’s buttons. We were 13 boys and 4 girls, children of corn and beet farmers with a few shadow children whose parents were constantly avoiding the law and wouldn’t be noticed or hassled coming around our isolated county school. And me, a preacher’s kid imbricated in frontier farm society for reasons I’m still not supposed to tell.
Anyway, I never understood why Ms. Why was supposed to be such a bad thing. The more affectionate nicknames based on body size were much more annoying. It was my curiosity coupled with extreme luck that eventually made me one of the two of us 17 to escape and attend college. I like the Mrs. Why in me, and like the But why? vibe in others too.
But I understand that it can become annoying. We had a little hiccup last week over whether we should chant in a teacherless room. People coming from different perspectives, considering reasons for and against an arbitrary, senseless, beautiful, meaningful, crucial, empty, formational act.
As a public service, I am trying to think up a justification for every belief system that an ashtangi might hold. (There are reasons not to do it for every belief system too. Haha.)
Why chant to invoke the jungle physician with his thousands of gleaming white heads? Well that depends. What’s your belief system?
Proto-nationalist/groupist: You want to be a member, don’t you? Chanting is an inclusion-rite.
Magical thinkers: It’s a mystery. Nobody really knows how the spell works but let’s not risk not doing it. I hear that if you practice on moon days you get really bad injuries, too.
Mythic: We are speaking the unconscious in to existence!
Psychological: Chanting establishes rapport between teacher and student. Chanting without a teacher present calls that rapport to mind and helps us feel supported by the teacher’s. It re-engages the transformative energy of transference.
Scientific: The cadences and vibrations of the chant initiate a shift in brain wave frequency. This is especially true as students reinforce the practice until it becomes a trigger to shift mental states.
(Reactionary Postmodern: Science is the control-myth of the powerful. We liberate ourselves into the randomness, by doing something irrational. Fuck you, science.)
Postmodern: But isn’t it more beautiful that way? (And beauty’s all we’ve got now that we have temporarily deconstructed truth and goodness.) Do what thou wilt, but do it in style.
Postpostmodern: All of the above. With maybe some extra love on the side.
I am learning to appreciate the mindfuck of substituting in a different belief system’s answers to arbitrary questions. So, for example, the Encinitas/Carlsbad shala is our knowledge center for moon days. The dominant belief system of the shala is mythic—they’re a good bunch of practically minded Hanuman-worshipers down there—but the reason they give for refraining from moonday practice comes right out of the Farmer’s Almanac: our bodies are mostly water so like the sea we respond to the moon. That’s science, not myth. Woah! Are you saying it’s about molecules, Tim?
Swapping justification schemes on people is likely to piss them off: it can be harsh to tell a therapy head that transference is empty and we babble like idiots merely to celebrate randomness.
It can also be dangerous: in ashtanga, groupist and magical thinkers like to use “science” for false power. They tell students not to question authority, but instead of stating their true reasons—that they dislike noncomformity or think the chant is magic—they justify their own unconscious power plays by telling students that the system is a perfect science and cannot be altered. That’s a pretty hilarious misunderstanding of self-conscious science, which is thoroughly experimental. This self-contradicting delusion—that ashtanga is a science and therefore is perfect—used to show up a lot. Thankfully, our culture seems to be mostly over it as practice turns us from quack scientists in to real ones. (Admittedly, in addition to the mythic belief system, the scientific one is my favorite.)
Despite the drawbacks, a good sleight-of-ideology mindfuck can create empathy, inspiring a person to shift between belief systems. Sometimes it’s worth taking the risk.