Float on • 28 July 2013

Two Runways

In clouds over the lake. Why is it that the view of Earth from space turns astronauts to mystics, but travelers on planes aren’t enraptured by the million?

We just flew past the east coast of lake Michigan. The dunes along the coast are lit up in afternoon sun, and the bay at Saugatuck is full of little white triangles. Michigan is water country. Summer thunderstorms, a latticework of ponds and lakes, months of snowcover, so many lighthouses, more freshwater shoreline than any other state. The water element is good for my spirit here. Water underlies our zeitgeist.

Zeit = time. Geist= spirit. The energy signature of a certain time-place. For example, Laksmipuram 1979. Gokulam 2010. Ann Arbor 2013. Zeitgeist is a vague, shared interiority that, in retrospect, good art can evoke with objects. Sense memory stores it up in the emotional body. I don’t know how there can even be a word for it without acknowledging something like geist. How is it that the languages I’ve studied –German and Spanish and Hebrew and Sanskrit—are infused with spirit, while our own finds ways around it?

As the cultural moment of the Encinitas trial passes and I’m stuck thinking about how it feels like the pendulum has swung to the other extreme of the Scopes Trial, I’ve been really sensitized to the spiritual repression we take for granted in public life. This is really hard to put into words, must less substantiate. But… most cultures aren’t like this. I mean, America is not a place where I can cop to working for reasons other than pursuit of personal “success” without coming off as a flake. It’s a place where meditation is legit if you do it for stress reduction (i.e. increased sense pleasure, a longer life), and religion makes sense if it’s about community and tradition. But the transcendent stuff – worship, selfless love, inner silence, oneness with everything that exists – aren’t part of our legitimate shared reality. You have to find a bounded epistemic community (a family, a yoga shala, a church) to even think about articulating these matters with others.

This repression isn’t just the vibe of intellectual movements like the new atheism, science done by people who don’t get the fuzzy roots of physics and math, or abstract modeling and rat choice theory in social science. It’s in the general idea that transcendence is ever so unique, and minds are ever so private. Spirituality is as personal as religion. Riiiight.

No wonder westerners who go to India mistakenly identify it as a “spiritual” place. It’s got more violence, inequality and environmental horrors than most places… but what it is not is spiritually repressed.

Anyway, I’m going west to PDX, going back in time, feeling Portland 1995. I lived here until the end of the 90s, during a period of enthusiastic anti-spirituality. Still a beautiful time; and I’m nostalgic for it. Everyone I knew was an artist; no one had any money. It was always dark and wet. Fertile. My uniform was a burgundy polyester V-neck from the Goodwill; it hung over my Levis and matched a pair of twice-resoled Vasque Sundowners. Social interactions were intensely self aware and ironic. Casual words were an image liability. So I kept up appearances with spitfire wit and a refusal to smile. Philosophers and musicians on Up Records were important. If there was a god, it was Jean-Paul Sartre, and Will Oldham sat at his right hand.

Saturdays were in the fiction aisles at Powells. I remember reading Gravity’s Rainbow, my body collapsed against the stacks, mind dumbfounded that writing could be so perfect. I was getting used to foreign film, to paying my own bills, to drinking indiscriminately. To blow off steam, I’d cycle for hours through wine country in the rain. Email was epistolary and monospace; the library used card catalogs. I wore a pair of Gap khakis to wait tables 3 nights a week; now threadbare, they made great capris this spring teaching yoga retreat in Puerto Vallarta.

* * * * *

On the plane again now, Portland back home to Detroit. Three days off the radar.

There is the presence of Portland’s past within and as me—-bootstrapping, overeducated, and self-serious—-but god the zeitgeist two decades later is so different. A creative, gritty, shockingly friendly town. The life my brother has built there is epic, yet more mysterious than anything I could ever carry off. That is not for me to describe.

I visit Portland whenever I can, first, for a strong flavor of his alternate reality. And, second, because jet lag and distance from the work of Mysore teaching allows me to shut down my sense organs very deeply at night. In fact I’ve just had a trifecta of ten-hour sleeps and am still happily groggy. Long, deep sleep feels sort of like an achievement.

This trip, I’d sink into a memory foam mattress laid out in the center of a vast mezzanine floor, prepared with an eye mask against the solid half-block of sunlight that shows up at 5. Holocene, an electronic music venue, is across the street, so I’d use earplugs to block out the kids carousing in the street. That would be the last moment of outer sensing – the crinkling of the foam against my eardrums and the skin inside the ear. Tap, tap, crinkle, muffle, nothing.

Then, boom, straight to theta state with nothing to perceive but the relaxation of the spine and jaw. God. Within a few minutes, the body would drop away, leaving just the psychedelic imagery auto-generated by deeper layers of my mind. Eventually even that would sputter out into silence.

During the days, there was an infusion of big ideas and beautiful minds. And entertainment. Last night in the alphabet district, we patronized the establishments with the longest lines – a new taco place built to look like it’s been there forever, an ice cream parlor where you can get the flavors habanero-marionberry-goat cheese or honey-balsamic-black pepper (I had both) and, finally, a sensory deprivation tank center named for a Modest Mouse track. Float on.

The overwhelmed owner at the float place gave us a tour, once he realized he didn’t have to worry about us wanting to get on the schedule. He’s booked two months in advance! “The business is growing so fast. We’re still trying to figure out who our market is… are they trippers, artists, meditators, people trying to heal…?”

“How about humans with sense organs?” I offer.

Here’s his mystifying bottom line: pratyhara sells.

And this is because there’s something there when consumers stop pouring auditory – visual – tactile – culinary content into the orifices. It’s just that we have this funny culture that tells us meaning reliably comes from sense pleasure. And Spirit – collective or inner, immanent or transcendent – is for suckers.

I dunno. My 1995 self would not approve, but I’m going to power down the laptop and go back to worshipping the clouds out over the Lake Michigan.

12 Comments

  • Posted 29 July 2013 at 6:18 pm | #

    “How is it that the languages I’ve studied –German and Spanish and Hebrew and Sanskrit—are infused with spirit, while our own finds ways around it?”

    I can only speak for German, which is the only language in this list that I have formally studied: It depends on whether you are reading the German of Frege or the German of, say, Heidegger and Schleiermacher and Hegel. The latter openly acknowledges and embraces Geist, while the former tries (too hard, I believe) to purge all Geist and Gesit-like dinge from the ontology.

    Actually, come to think of it, insofar as Frege’s work influences Ango-American philosophy (and maybe by extension, Anglo-American everyday thinking?), this split in the German thinkers may go some way towards explaining the dearth of spirit in our language.

    But so much for philosophical historical speculation. I hope to come to Ann Arbor one day soon, and be infused with the zeitgeist of the place (or is zeitgeist the kind of thing that one can be infused with, in the first place?).

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 12:58 am | #

      Yes! You come! You’re always welcome here, Nobel. One of these days, we will meet.

      Very true that the era of the Vienna Circle led to such a loss of depth in language. Verificationism my ass. Really.

      But you probably have long since sniffed me out as a serious crypto-Hegelian. The owl of Minerva has yet to fly… ;)

  • fatou2002
    Posted 30 July 2013 at 10:47 am | #

    Hey
    water you say. I just changed my job and started to work for an organisation that deals with water in Africa. So water is definitely the thing that sets the tone in my word these days.
    And also my leaking toilet is a water issue. And the excessive rains here during Ethiopian summer.
    I wish your shala could be around the corner and I would come to sweat some water, instead of tears that have been welling up in face of all kinds of corrupt and mean people I have had my workday filled with today.
    hugs across continents

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 12:55 am | #

      Love to you, Fatou, as always.

      You will be in my thoughts…

  • Posted 1 August 2013 at 10:05 pm | #

    thank you, always, for your posts.
    they are at once familiar and ausserirdisch (perhaps that is the same thing).
    much gratitude. and love.
    &
    float on is a real trip. my first float was a gift– my first alone time after having a baby. i needed that.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 12:54 am | #

      Kelly.

      Thanks so much for letting me know you’re still here. You at Float On after the baby – love this. Now I know I have to go back there and take the inner float trip.

  • Posted 4 August 2013 at 3:21 pm | #

    This brings up so many things in me, Owl.

    First, your plane mysticism– I share that dumbfounded perspective– people, we are IN THE CLOUDS and you are playing angry birds and shopping in skymall? (although skymall is rather awesome and weird too–for example, it sells a pee-porch for dogs– astroturf that absorbs pet urine!)

    Louis CK aptly said (I paraphrase): ‘People whine and complain about being stuck for three hours on the runway. But people, you’re FLOATING IN THE SKY IN A CHAIR! YOU ARE STRAPPED TO A SEAT HURTLING THROUGH SPACE! YOU CAN GET ACROSS THE ENTIRE COUNTRY IN FIVE HOURS, YOUR ANCESTORS DIED DOING THIS!….Everything’s awesome…and nobody’s happy!’

    We are trained to look away or devalue just about everything natural that is, actually, amazing. We have bodies with immense intelligence that basically run themselves; we have minds as big as the sky and hearts as big and impersonal and extensive as the whole atmosphere, but we convince ourselves both are these little organs, subject to their own whining and complaint, on repeat. Who wakes up in the morning and goes, “Holy s&%#, I have a body! A mind! A heart!”– It’s pretty ceaselessly extraordinary, and all the more so when we invest, like you have done trailblazing for so many of us, in understanding exactly how ineffable and unbound that “trifecta” is…

    I am always put back in touch with the technicolor of existence by your compelling writing. Whatever prowling you did in Powell’s, you definitely used your powers of absorption to take on extremely compelling diction.

    Here’s to the powerful unspeakables in our culture and time being loosened and invited into the conversation in some way– I’d like to say an unthreatening way, but anything that topples taboos carries a threat, albeit a healthy one.

    With my usual bow to you as writer-teacher-yogi-devotee of ___________,
    SARA

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 1:03 am | #

      SARA. I MISS YOU.

      That’s true. Our bodies do pretty much run themselves. It occurs to me that the universe runs itself too. How does it pull that off so well?

      It is past my bed time. Some part of me is still sweating the small stuff…

      *love you*

  • laura
    Posted 4 August 2013 at 7:30 pm | #

    Thank you for your recollections of Portland in the 90s. I, too, have such nostalgia for that place and time (which, for me, was late 90s to early 00s). I vividly remember other places I’ve lived, but not in the same way I remember Portland. I miss those scruffy trees (evergreens?) on the hills near the airport that I would look towards while landing at PDX. I miss driving along Burnside and listening to Elliott Smith. I miss the cloudy days of winter when it became dark around 4pm and a slow, soft rain seemed to last for months. I miss the craftsman houses in SE and the wet leaves on the ground during fall. I miss the Matador and Shanghai Tunnel and smoking Lucky Strikes in the rain (even though I no longer have any inclination to smoke or drink). I miss that strange but good pizza at Oasis. More than anything, I miss Reed and the people who shared that place and time with me.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 12:52 am | #

      Oh god, Shanghai Tunnel and the Matador. The evenings are just like that, yes. Thanks so much for all these images, Laura. They bring back another wave of memories.

      If we lived there now, we wouldn’t have any of this. The going out, smoking, drinking, and taking pop music seriously. (Elliot Smith was better than anything now, surely?)

      We’d aestheticize the mornings instead. :)

  • (OvO)
    Posted 1 September 2013 at 12:44 am | #

    FROM DEBORAH SANTORO:

    I too had a pair of Vasque Sundowners, bought for a backpacking trip to Europe right after highschool. Only resoled them once though.

    Thank you for writing. I have not been writing lately. Practice seems to take up that space for now. Or rather, for my practice to evolve some of the energy going into writing has to be channeled onto my mat, for now at least.

    • (OvO)
      Posted 1 September 2013 at 12:46 am | #

      I just re-found the Sundowners when we moved this month. Time for them to take them on another round, I think.

      As for not writing, I feel like blogging is for years 3-5 of practice. But it’s still great and I miss being here more often once a month. Just got an August post in under the wire tonight. :)

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