There is a seven-year pulse in the deep psyche. At least that is the rhythm of mine. This is my seventh year out of LA, so when my teacher said he was doing a week of yoga on UCLA campus in May, I turned my life around to get there. A wave of old conditioning has been coming to the surface; this was a chance to ride it consciously. When I bumped in to my PhD adviser on a plane to New York last month, and then we took the morning together, I got some taste of the integration that is possible here.
Los Angeles was heaven for me from age 24. It was so good, and so transformative, for so long, that afterwards it was painful to recall. I drove off UCLA campus at the end of 2009 (drove away is how you say walked away in Californian), and kept on going to Scottsdale. Then Marfa, then Nashville, then into the freezing lonely winter in Michigan. The sun went away behind Lake Huron’s permanent cloud layer, the toes I got frostbit in my teens went blue. For months I was heartsick, furiously cold, and missed salad. The sweetness of being-a-student had been taken from me and here I was exiled in a flat, conventional place.
Eventually the self-pity jag, addictive as it was, just got boring. What showed up next were purpose and meaning. The present moment got more beautiful; the whole pace and content of my everyday mind shifted; and I started learning to do honest work.
Love the world you’ve got. That was the first real decision. Not sticky fan-girl cheerleader like-your-social-media love. A love of I will listen to you and know you and accept you and not claw away at trying to fix your surface features.
Back in LA just now, I was reminded that presencing the past feels like science fiction, wobbly and surreal. Los Angeles itself is epic: thrilling, beautiful, vata-deranged, willfully shallow. At the center of all that: the oasis of UCLA, which holds the past selves that interest. And on top of that: led intermediate series in heavy A/C, and a hundred or two beloved old friends, and my teacher. I spent afternoons in the city and on the beach, and crashed in a pool house near the marina – a place my thoughts wouldn’t find me and neither would my friends. Sleep there was eerily quiet. It’s been a long time since I’ve slept without vivid dreams; it emptied me out to go without the night show. That plus constant déjà vu made the day show more vivid than ever. When the sensory information got to be too much, I’d sneak down to Venice and drop in to a puffy white void by the pool.
Otherwise, it was like this: morning circum-ambulation of the Sociology building before invocation in the gym. Dense sensorial memory, years of it stowed in me, now surfacing in response to full-blooming jasmine, jacaranda, and the cypress and sycamores. Tight lane-changes on the 405, one place besides Mysore where I enjoy the way people drive. The first classroom where I taught sociology, accidentally unlocked and empty, with the blackboard covered in notes on cooperation. People asking me at Whole Foods and Profeta and Sage if they knew me, not because they did but maybe because I got that familiar.
And… a visit to my chapel perilous, the grad library where I found the first threads of the esoteric and gnostic literatures 14 years ago, and where I took refuge following the initiation drama of my qualifying exams. That’s when my mind first broke open from some kind of days-long satori/vata derangement/dissociative episode. Nobody at the corporate yoga place saw the signs, so I tried to find my way back to ground in the library. Better than nothing. Robert Anton Wilson’s spiritual comics were where I first learned the grail lore term chapel perilous, and thank god, thank Thomas Merton, thank Gopi Krishna, thank Patanjali, thank every other spiritually mature guide who says don’t just stay there in your hall of mirrors and magic and woo; don’t fail to realize how siddhis and shamanism are just another way of solidifying the self.
The chapel perilous is any labyrinth in which your self inquiry takes you in circles and you either don’t know or refuse to be honest about it. Instead of getting insight, you get off. Over, and over, and over. The hits that keep you there can be the post-practice high, compulsive sex, addictive love, the teacher or scene you have to be together with all of the time, ceaseless knowledge accumulation, and so on.
For me, the chapel perilous went from being that library and what it represented, to a sentimentality for old spiritual highs. Falling back on remembered ecstasies. This too is spiritual materialism. But past is past. The consciousness I have now is the field of practice.
On campus this time, there was graduation glitter on the sandstone stairs that lead directly from Sociology to the ashtanga ritual at the other end of the quad. Conferences after practice communicated something true, not just factually true and contextually true but simple and direct enough to lodge deep. Seven years from now, some effervescent remnant of this weekend will resurface and then be gone.
The day I left, the Sociology building was empty. You’re supposed to have keys on weekends, but the door next to my old office was open. This is the door one floor above the department where Carlos Castaneda wrote his fake dissertation on his imagined shaman (he never did research, just hung out in the same library I did and plagiarized anthropologists who had gone to the field), and across the quad from the undergrad library where Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 about the future burning of books. That last morning, I walked the halls like a temple, then took the red stairs down to led primary with so many friends, said goodbye to the group with my eyes, and sped down the 10 Freeway to the Krishna Temple + Masonic Lodge of Culver City.
Krishna and the Masons sit together on a corner in the middle of film industrial zone, just down Venice Boulevard from the Museum of Jurassic Technology. I went to re-meet years of secret Saturday mornings. I don’t know the people who dance 5Rhythms in that temple every week, but I know them. The daytime rave scene is nothing new; it started 40 years ago with some of this crew. Aesthetically and culturally, their scene is about as close to my style as a pro football game. But secretly, what really excites me is process and play and experimenting and a little weirdness. So from the first Saturday I found the dance, I felt completely at home its chaos and tenderness and anonymity and intimacy. Just as I feel home in Mysore rooms. That spontaneity can be hyper-intelligent, bringing consciousness to ideas, knots, funny habits and pools of numbness hiding in my organism that don’t show up clearly anywhere else. Doing it every week, for years, exploded my creative life, ate away at my interest in professional stuff, and ended up being the thing I missed most bitterly when I left LA. (Until dancing by myself became the way to wake up every day here in the rust belt…)
These dance people, they show up every Saturday as a practice, without language, but without form also. I hear rumors that they are a bunch of screenwriters and therapists, but they don’t bring identities like that to the space. I was disciplined enough about the chaos to ghost all my comings and goings, so I never met them on the threshold; and if we saw each other around town we’d make fleeting eye contact and not talk, same as in the dance. As my Ashtanga got more fluid and gentle, dance became the only place I really sweat; and last week it was the same, brushing against bodies and looking in eyes I haven’t seen in seven years. Nobody rushed to greet me. They don’t have a name for this face and don’t want one – but they knew exactly what was happening when I surfaced among them. What was happening the rhythmic level. In terms of the seven year pulse. So many nods, so much recognition for what we all look like now and how differently we move, years on from our last time together. Recognition, gravity, chaos, again goodbye.
Everyone says LA changes constantly, and does not change. Many of my best places are gone now, but the freeways are the same; campus is the same. I know and love this city. Same and then some for my teacher. Put those two forces together, and the way that the city attempts to understand my teacher is a little weird. LA understands the value of an action by what it looks like on camera, it understands rock stars, it understands the pace and pressure of freeways, it understands always always always through charisma and image. Celebrity culture and yoga have mixed together here for a long time, but usually ashtanga has been too gritty and quiet to be the headliner. For the mundane long time practitioners, this is no glamorous practice. It is not a special event. You wear the same clothes on the same runway for for years and years, letting them become a part of you (cue Garth Algar). The non-industrialized practice is boring from the LA perspective. For which I am grateful. The culture of star worship is a whole other circle of the hall of mirrors.
This March, I felt a return of the vegetable hours.
When I started teaching years ago in Michigan, to 4 or 6 students per morning, holding that room together took all the concentration I had. After, I’d collapse in their non-vegetarian sweat on my sofa, mind-numbed from concentrating so hard. They were trying to learn a complex concentration technique in a room where nobody but the guide really understood it yet. (At the time, they did not know how technically clueless they were, how much more focused their minds would become, how it would feel – later – to practice in a state of gentle undulation and a concentrated mind. Later, once they had owned it, they were glad they labored through the steep start and I respected them so much for it. Everything got easier after about 4 months of actually doing the work.) So building tristhana from scratch, without a gestalt of developed practitioners to support you through osmosis, is extremely hard mental work. When that first batch could transmit it implicitly to a new person, my formal teaching responsibility became lighter. New ones could walk in to the waves, become sensitive, and absorb the habitus. A technique this rhythmic – whether its done well, or done technically wrong – travels laterally.
But back to vegetable mind. It is concentration/reasoning fatigue in the extreme. It feels like you just took two standardized tests in a row. In the worst months of it, there on my sofa, it would take two hours of vegetabling before I could gather the will power for a shower.
When I got home to Michigan from Mysore in March, just being in the country felt like those mornings on my sweaty sofa.
The level of ambient mental static was overwhelming, with huge amounts of misinformation and disinformation and generalized mental disturbance screaming through the air. It was extremley hard to concentrate, to reason, or to hold to a stable point of view. The internet was moving fast and people were on it way more than before, fully hooked up to the machine with a push notification drip. Emotion was everything: people would say “I feel x about y” in context where they should be describing what they see or what they think. Their eyes would dart around. There was more alcohol, and more people getting strong prescriptions to take the edge off. Conversations were disorienting, with mismatched thoughts/emotions, incomplete ideas, and a tendency to take the opinions of dramatic commentators as one’s own without thinking them through. There was a messianic feeling around both politics and commercial yoga. In both spheres, there was one brutally clear road to prominence: condemn some group of people, and perform witch hunts while talking incessantly, and illogically, and pointing to a brave new world of safety and promise. From vegetable mind grows cult mind: this how it works when logic goes away, emotions dominate, your reasonable friends lose their ground, and people are too exhausted to hold a single line of thought. So we rest our minds in demagogues. Demagoguery doesn’t have a political valence; it’s just a storm of victimhood and unreasonableness and drama.
It has gotten a little better now. I saw and felt the mental endurance all around me strengthen so much this spring. In response to a strange new challenge, some people stop knowing what to do. And, some people get very clear and creative and strong. The strategic ones have found reasonable friends, instituted some mental hygiene around screens and social media and the so-called news, toned down the substance use. Among them I sense a weird new interest in personal accountability, responsibility, and being really honest. Brilliant. What an amazing dialectical move to take out of collective insanity. This is not droll, old-school logic. It’s spiritual warriorship for our wild new zeitgeist.
Before I got this glimmer of hope that some minds would get stronger and clearer in these times, I was afraid to even name the vegetable mind. Instead, I just shifted the entire focus of my teaching this year to the subject of yoga for mental health and discernment.
That focus remains. It may remain for a while.
It will help to learn to be uncomfortable with uncertainty in a new way. There are stories behind the so-called news and we won’t always be able to see them. The options for dealing with the pain of that are to (A) join a reality silo or a cult, or (B) stop living in the world. These are the hall-of-mirror options. Or (C) we can come up with ways to to deal with incomplete information without that breaking our spirits or making our emotional bodies hyper-reactive.
The stakes are high. In addition to everything moving really fast now, people and psychopaths smarter than the rest of us are trying to scramble our minds. What they want is this: they want all the natural allies in the world to fight among ourselves over dumb things. So they can proclaim the loser. And they want the real battles to happen behind the scenes. My gut has gotten pretty good, but it still takes me time to know when a person doesn’t have a conscience. To that end, it seems helpful to notice who is in the business of proclaiming losers, being a savior, and making you feel awesome for agreeing with them or being their friend. These actions meet some primal human needs, in a dark way. Psychopaths are 1 or 2 per cent of the population. They like politics, the business world, and spiritual/religious scenes – arenas in which they can play with people. Please don’t let’s be divided from our neighbors over small differences. There is more important work to do.
Discernment. Discpline. Pattern recognition. The people around me who are getting it together are the ones with a systematic mind training practice. Something dispassionate and daily that establishes a baseline of stability. Yoga doesn’t always do that. Sometimes it’s just dissociation and entertainment. But again, there is more important work to do.