Dunbar’s Number • 2 August 2016

Sri Durga Sunday

Hello from the cone of silence. Two months of training in Mysore, with about 80 teachers from around the world. Today is the new moon, and the midpoint of the trip.

I won’t talk about the content of the course. That’s just the condition of the instruction. Besides, practice these days has dibs on my prefrontal cortex; what’s gone down in the depths of my being, most days I can’t say. But most importantly it doesn’t work to talk technique because of the gestalt of a deep dive. Figure flickers back into its ground. This training has no syllabus and no certificate: it’s the transmission of a whole background that can only be carried forward in my way of being, not broken off into news you can use. This experience defies documentation.

Not talking about the course could mean not posting. Or I can try to say more than usual about bodily experience. I mean my body, and the student body. Usually these are the ineffable spaces I try not to reduce to words. But what the heck. This is the day for writing practice.

My body has done more intensive physical practice this month than ever before in 16 years. At home, technically I work harder because I’m running a school– this gradually imbalances my body and onloads emotional/energetic information from every person I touch. The main justification I see for the thousands of hours of asana I did before 2011 is that they conditioned me mentally and emotionally to love this work. That is method. Back on study retreat, I can step out of the low grade stress of teaching and reset on all levels – physical, emotional, energetic, mental and so on.

My body knows exactly how to do that. First, bank sleep. Nevermind viparita chakrasana – the impressive achievements here are the sleep marathons. Second, ramp up the tapas of the asana and pranayama and use this to rebalance the body. Now the healing goes down in hyperdrive. This spacetime with my teacher is potent. Third, inoculate for yoga + alienation by merging with the only people in the world who understand my work. There are so many long term practitioners who have taken the narrow unbranded path in the teaching profession, who spend months every year as students without viewing that as a sacrifice, who are so convinced of the healing power of what they carry that they will do what it takes to pass it on individually, one by one by one. There are hundreds of these people, every one a library. A peacemaking force. A covert operation.

It’s generally a bad idea to talk about practice, so the secret I’ve been keeping about the current intensity level is that it’s sweet. I like it. Like anyone with some training, I can initiate an inhalation a moment before jumping to some stunt, and on the exhale lock the arches through the adductors into the bandhas and up the spine. That breath dies into the mind-dissolving double-image of the tip of my nose. And so on, vinyasa by vinyasa. The method is efficient and clear, and it rides on a basic understanding of how to place the mind so that the body will flow with a lot of energy and love. Technically, the asanas are less fascinating than scraping my tongue. (No really, waste is interesting.) But… what is unique now is that I have to stay as precise about the attention, and the arc of action, all day long. I don’t get to waste my mind. Tomorrow morning’s body leaves me no choice. It never really did, but this is the actual razor’s edge. Save the prana for manana.

If I get distracted, if I allow myself to think cognitively about what awaits, if I want a different situation, if I allow people to put their projections on me (“it’ll be over soon,” “you’re doing it wrong/beautifully”)… I will not have the faith or concentration required. Turns out a lot of beliefs look like waste on the razor’s edge.

Traversing a physical edge shows me what I’m made of, in a way that 10 long meditation retreats have not. I see that under pressure I am not just stable but stubborn, not just emotionally open but vulnerable. I have a funny need to experience lightness and play in everything I do. I hate to struggle. Under pressure I don’t get forceful, but instead hyper-receptive, feeling everything going on in the student body. My physical heart is being conditioned into courage, but the emotional heart trembles because boundaries are in flux. The mind that is too still to write coherent email (sorry friends) is weirdly alert. It catches more detail than ever, and has a cool new ability to stay unfixated all day long. This experience of mind is very direct, using the container of the body to sharpen everything in awareness. I have no intention of living like this. But I will let it break down some subtle habits, and take a better trained mind back to work.

Around Gokulam, the student body is sleeping this morning. There were moon parties last night, marking a full cycle since we convened. It feels like the top of a long inhalation. Tomorrow we start to exhale, and to integrate. We disperse on the first of September, after the next new moon.

Most women synched for three days of rest over the weekend; and the non-menstruators intuitively took to protector-nurturer mode. I stayed in, and noticing that, four different alpha brothers wanted to know if there was anything I needed. Each of them was probably holding awareness of a half-dozen of us. Today those in protector mode are all hyper-alert yet also oxytocin-addled, doubling their gravity and using that to create an environment of peace. (This is the energy signature of advanced series, for the few who actually understand it as a practice). Meantime the women have gone psychic, communicating with each other by whatever biointelligence that bees and fungi use to make hiveminds. Oh and also by Facebook message: that’s an edge we have on fungus. Potentially.

Humans are evolving through technology, yeah, but most importantly I think through leaps into small social nervous systems. Real shalas make me suspect that the people keeping the species one step ahead of the machines are those who learn to merge in small groups, and are made more perceptive and caring by that experience. The rest of us, alienated, addicted to the machines: that’s a liability. Collectives are annoying and scary sometimes but whatever; the empathic-alert ones change us for the better.

This is not backward looking, toward tribalism, which is ecstatic, superstitious, hallucinogen-dependent, and potentially violent towards outsiders. That’s where we come from, and where party people go to forget how bad it is out there. Small collectives feel more hopeful. I’m thinking of dolphin pods who go flirt with stupid humans in motorboats, and in so doing make them feel more alive and less interested in killing.

Do you know about Dunbar’s number? Above a certain threshold – 80 to 150 –human collectives naturally break down. Social connections beyond your relational capacity are inherently shallow; you can have only a few intimate relationships, and a couple handfuls of meaningful social relationships. (Maybe a reason to choose those relationships deliberately… or to question charismatics who appear to connect personally with thousands?)

Twenty years ago I was a liberal arts frosh in a cohort the size of our group here in Mysore. This process now is the same but different because we are adults, and because we all have hyper-conscious nervous systems. Attuning to others, one by one, is what we do for a living. Ten years ago, I wrote a masters thesis on the dynamics of a radical group of 80. We loaded two buses in LA and drove through the most racist track of America we could map – got arrested in west Texas and stalked by white supremacists in Tennessee. I went native in that makeshift tribe, losing scientist identity for a month after, but in the end the research couldn’t address interlinked nervous systems because sociologists only have tools to study behavior. Even cultural anthropologists can’t understand, let alone design, shared minds. Yoga is the best tool I’ve found.

So here we sit in the late mornings, bellies empty and shirts off, exposed in sunlight made ultra beautiful by the shala’s filthy windows. Vendors in the street yell about their vegetables, and the flying chipmunks caw between the palm trees. Our knees touch. Elbows. My spine tingles with the awareness of other spines. My diaphragm falters as someone makes a weird valve-sound in her soft palate. Collectively we exhale, hold, face death. Inhale, hold, pack the root system with prana.

And this is possible because I am so safe. The group manifests as a protector when it needs, and this strongly conditions my experience beyond the group. Out in the world, grounding feels almost constant; consciousness and care appear everywhere. So I live alone in a tiny house on a street where I’m the only foreigner. Windows don’t close in this country, doors are thin wood with little midcentury slide-locks. Inside is outside. Neighbors are almost roommates. These ones know everything about my rhythms and boundaries. They have seen me negotiate the coconut man almost to Indian price using dirty looks and head wobbles. They they know I sing warm western folk songs to myself between chanting sessions. They worry about me slipping on marble steps in the rain, and bring the special monsoon rugs from a favorite store downtown. They share that they’ve known my teacher since he was a boy and would love for their children to have the honor of studying with him.

They’re asleep when I wake at 4, and rain-breeze is moving through the houses’ open windows from south to north. Most mornings the rain is less loud than the grandfathers snoring on both sides. I move out into the dark street, walking the motorbike a little way before firing up the ignition. If I were to startle enough to draw a sharp breath, ten neighbors would wake on that inhalation, and they’d be in the street with me a minute later. Instead, a grandmother comes to the porch six hours later when I return home exhausted, giving the softest look of welcome home. God thank you. She likes that I cook inside instead of eating out like a tourist, though it’s clear in the smells from my kitchen that this outsider can’t fry spices for shit. Good thing there’s also a social smoke alarm here, in case in post-practice exhaustion I fall asleep while the kitchari is cooking.

I was annoyed to sacrifice Michigan summer for this, but monsoon makes me love Mysore again and more. The worst drought in 40 years just ended; plants and animals are living the life. I love the way my lungs taste in the mornings after sleeping in the rain, and dreaming under these conditions is my idea of very good drugs. Morning and evening light is epic, like Alaskan and Scottish summers – tilted gold against small, low black clouds. The moving shadows make the landscape feel so dynamic. Somehow I just noticed this city is all hills, and so I love it for driving more than ever, moving into and out of the sky.

Under conditions this beautiful, with my subtle body this awake, “thinking god” is automatic. Nature does it for me. And I wonder if the consciousness trained in small groups, trained to merge while staying responsive and strong, could make me (us) less obnoxious and more loving in the world.

Guru Purnima

Yoga problematizes documentation. You think she’s all love and light, and then you catch her getting cheeky with the paparazzi. Atta girl. There may always be money changers in the temple.

Yoga is a science, so it’s objectifiable, language captures it, and you can teach it with words and pictures. And… also yoga is art, so its role is to undermine our natural desire to objectify. All art does is make it a tiny bit more possible to contact intimate ineffable awe. It annihilates time and space and self and world. For a second. Then they’re true again, which is also fine.

Yoga science is mentally intrusive, and it’s objective. Good. Fill the analytical mind with some science. Meantime the art can be hard to notice because it’s background. It comes through in the meaningless one-word instructions that go all the way in and unlock years of wrong analysis, maybe in the communication between a palm and the back of the heart. In some moment of eye contact that was a long time in coming, and suddenly changes everything.

The closer you get to the heart of a good method, less is explained. It’s increasingly intuitive, even in academia. The guides let you flail and rail, if you have a chance of falling from there into intrinsic understanding.

I like to watch masters drop precise, objective instructions and then stand back, holding open the door to the Void. That is happening here. We’re absorbing sensibilities and feelings, ways of perceiving and appreciating. Learning how to think (and not think), and how to touch lightly. How to thow down the background and get out of the way.

I think the art is doing more with less. It’s a fast track you can find behind or above the hard ground of science. (Hard to say where exactly, ‘cos timespace keeps collapsing…)

This may sound all wrong, but I can’t do more to substantiate it. I’ve got no documentation.

Sisters' back window

What are all the unsaid things we absorb from our first teacher? I don’t know. Too much to say. Most of it good. But things can get weird around teachers’ attitudes toward their bodies and minds. Teachers’ stuff can get transmitted by accident. What if your first teacher is neurotic about food/body control, or has too little discipline, or they seek pain, or cannot truly rest? To the degree they have not worked that out, they may pass on unhelpful mindsets.

This isn’t destiny or anything. One really sweet way that long term practitioners learn is when there’s some rupture in consciousness and troublesome beliefs are seen directly and simply fall away. It’s always something. Examples for me have been taking driste seriously. Stabilizing the hormonal cycle. Accepting chaos when it is time for chaos.

So, a mentor is next level. They model how to teach. The implicit beliefs we absorb at that level aren’t about the body and mind so much as they’re about what teaching actually is. Someone who is mature in the mindbody domain might be deranged in the professional one. They might be able to teach you to find peace and discipline in the body, but transmit a mindset about teaching that actually has nothing to do with yoga. Instead what you get is a model of teaching as accumulation (money, fame, followers). It’s hard to get this to coincide with with a root pedagogy that ideally detaches the teacher’s actions from their fruits, or values softening of the boundaries of the teacher’s ego, or encourages service that doesn’t try to get something in return.

This weird disconnect has emerged. It’s not a surprise: capitalism consumes santosha. If we don’t insulate our pedagogy from the forces of accumulation, then greed and resource extraction remain as our background value system. This is hard to look at directly. We’re all in it to a degree. And we can make it conscious.

I see now the ways in which everyone who has ever taught me is an extremely hard worker who happens to be badass at santosha. This is who I have always chosen. Healing practice and direct transmission are so obvious to them that they don’t even have words discuss it.

For I year I have been talking about grassroots shalas, safe space, and alienation with reason and respect, from my half-broken 21st century heart. My teachers just sneer, and they are clear. Honey doesn’t go to the bee, the bee goes to the honey.

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