So the myth holds. Winter’s deep. It slows down water so you can see it as breath leaving your body and steam-clouds over tea. Water as ice shavings makes cone-hats on holly berries out front of professors’ homes. The sky is blue or pitch black, and the space between me and it is all layered in with brittle-fluffy branches. The snow-webs held up by these branches make a kind of atmosphere, though the air is thin. Two nests—bluejays and crows—are swept clean by wings; a third is drifted in and ready to topple.
Eyeballs ache. And it’s extremely quiet. If there is a train, or a door slamming in the next block, the sound is breaking and bone-clean. Beneath it, constant background-crackle: branches under snow making the same sound they do in a fire.
If I could dream a mothering world, it would be this. Being held in a huge, white-blue space. Being clearly—perfectly—heard. Yet staying mostly quiet against a white background noise. The physics of this place are such that nothing could smother you. There is clarity as a result of stillness. And when I’m here, the core of my body becomes sooooo warm—the depth of it can flash-heat four degree air to a nurturing 98.6 in the space of a trachea. This place is supersoft, but chill. I won’t stay forever. Or she won’t.
The usual question—It’s six am: do you know where your bandhas are?—has a really good new answer. In LA, the solution is to drive 85 on empty freeways, listening to root-lock blues-rock on the stereo. The Denial Twist served me six days a week one summer, all holler and kick drums, enough to help me deny that being addicted to driving is a problem. The denial on a motorbike is of a different sort: in Mysore, the answer is to work that bike from arches to adductors to the mulabandha after an hour of chanting sotto voce with the old guy-neighbor who does puja at 4. Pretend that the motorbike’s gas-tank is tied to the core of the Earth with an endless iron cord. Swing on that cord from your house to the shala: then the inner body will be awakeasitisgonnabe.
I thought the general formula was bass-drone singalong, plus fast vehicle, plus excitement to practice. But until I lash the planet halfway-around with planeflights (how long will I hurt the environment like this, as my practice?), the pre-ashtanga ritual involves little petroleum. Cover the body in four layers of animal warmth—silk, wool, cashmere, down. Affix enormous footwear. Then before town wakes up, kick through the night’s drifts. It’s too cold for singing, but the tree branches play an impressive minimalist electronica. After just a few minutes, the core of the body starts to simmer, and the foot-leg-pelvis system is greenlighted for whatever nonsense it first learned in the tropics.
Same bandhas, same difference. Oh ashtanga, you make everything glamorous.
Friday night, a group of maybe 30 did a “strong determination sit” on the phone with Shinzen. He does not teach stick-to-itiveness through the mechanism of the will. At all. The instruction is not “decide not to move.” Nor “tear off your eyelids.” But: “scan your body for any kind of a restful state—even if it’s only in the silence of your auditory field—and give yourself to that rest.” Halfway through, another call beeped through the white headset noise. On retreat, the Shin-heads say that life is just a phonecall away, that is, your mindfulness is only as effective as it can be when you’re called away from retreat to some emergency. I received the call, expecting it to be big.
Both of my grandmothers went down this month. Dad’s mom—the one you know more about—a hip snapped. Her hip bone. She was reaching for a cat she’d rescued. And my mothers’s mom, 89 and kicking (in the pool, on the bike, at my shins like a champ when she says How about some lipstick?), a stroke. From horror to morphine.
The dreams are of giant animals that invade the world, and of a black Dodge Charger I drive under the railroad tracks in pitch dark.
Every night, shortly before I wake up, I stand at some dream-ocean and watch new animals roll toward me on the waves. (This happened so many nights that I broke down and started reading The Human Chain – Irish shudders, ancestors, and a watery underworld.) The dream-ocean has brought swarms of monkeys. Thieving rascals! Also, there was a gigantic squirrel. Very inauspicious. Saturday night, the waves brought in several college friends dressed as blue Teletubbies. (You had puffy triangles on your heads.) I don’t remember if this was bad or good.
Last night, a tribe of us stood naked on a sandstone cliff over the water. The sky was yellow-orange. When the animal came, it was an ancient rooster-pterodactyl, surfacing like a nuclear sub. It was white with red war-paint and a huge red beak. Instead of floating to shore, it rose up and just spun in the water like the garba-pindasana that precedes the rooster. Plunging its greedy, scythe-beak over and over in to the surf. The Editor held my hand and we shivered.
I thought I’d begun to feel grief with them in October, but I had no idea. Maybe I still have no idea; maybe this is already a lot. What’s happened these weeks is that life has spun me up in a series of weird membranes. The most notable was the Victim Sheath. I just woke up stuck in it one morning as a dream-animal (a giant spider) faded out. For three days, stuck in the membrane, I experienced every event in relationship, in the weather and in my body as a mild assault. Oh, practice felt like hard work. The weather has changed. Some people are making noise. There’s no more kale. How could they do this to me?
It felt like my nervous system had a self-pity itch it could not reach around and scratch. Self-pity is a pattern I have pitied in others, but now I feel what it would be like to live with that weakness. I am trading out the pity for a measure of been-there understanding.
The next layer was a more diffuse Loathing Sheath. Existence is loathsome. Practice exists. Relationship exists. Snow exists. I exist. Congress exists. Don’t you loathe them? Everyone loathes everything. It felt like the emotional system’s way of repelling stuff away from the chest—a set of reactions to feeling insufficient in myself and unsatisfied with the world.
The sheaths are permeable, and they unzip one after another like a series of body bags. But seeing them doesn’t make them just go poof. This is a little different from psychoanalysis, which in recent weeks has been full of vaporizings. I see a little pattern, objectify it, give it a chance to disappear. Sometimes—yes, it dies by the self-awareness laser. What’s left is psychological paydirt, revealed particularly well by life’s closing in to phone-call range.
It's pretty uncomfortable, but still, Owl Whisperer and I just cruise. I keep remembering those childhood winters of ice-skating for miles on the irrigation ditch: good sharp skates, but a meandering, out-of-control surface warped by pools of warm cow pee, frozen spillways, and the half-submerged carcasses of foxes the farmers would kill. I skate along miles and years a minute, just barely in control, sliding fast on a love of language.
Whisperer uses the a highlighter the shape of an eyebrow to makes rare interruptions. This calls attention to a denied feeling, displaced judgment or insane belief. It seems that Whisperer’s main interests are, in this order: mother, father, work, art, sex and death. I slip everywhere some days. Psyche-leakage. Slips cut through so much old, dense chatter, speeding the process along. Now that I’ve given myself to the method enough to let it catch me doing that, it responds supportively, mirroring back the secrets I keep from myself.
Thus that room—which manifests in three different offices (no, I didn’t say orifice, you louse), depending on the week—feels like a kind of honesty factory. That is, it’s a place where I create something like honesty by suturing self-understanding back together with my denial.
Whisperer slipped a few weeks back, with an “I” for a “he” that revealed counter-transference in the form of love. This is an icy method, a most impersonal way in to the psyche. But intimate. And so human. The last moments of each session become steady, unexpecting, and careful. Outside the afternoon snow usually falls without going anywhere, just hanging mid-air. I step out in to the crackling, open chill and feel more nurtured than ever.