This blog is an eleven year letter about finding purpose. Through the combination of (1) an inside path, with (2) systematically meaningful action. I’ve been scrutinizing my life purpose for two weeks and therefore not posting.
Today ends a wild waning moon cycle. Before that, May was about floating in space. That month was the first unstructured time I’ve had since 1999. I gave myself so much entertainment, excitement and worldly life that it was a set-up to forget about yoga. The question was: will my sadhana become expendable? Is it time to graduate from formal practice to life-as-practice?
It was time to look at the highly structured nature of my life, and at how much care I am giving to others all of the time. I relax within ritual. I believe that the most meaningful activity, even more than creativity and spiritual peak experiences (which I also pursue), is being a good friend-family-teacher-earthling. I’ve found/decided my life purpose, and operate in the “now what?” that follows that. This found-a-life-purpose world is an easy one in which to get lazy and fall off the razor’s edge. But, there are ways to remain sharp.
People think it’s constitutional, my ease in ritual and rhythm and role. Who returns and returns and returns to the same people and places not by nostalgia, but because that’s what excites her? They see how strong emotions self-generate every time I land in Mysore, or every time the tree in my front yard blooms; how I do insane devotional things for Seattle, the city I fell in love with at age ten. I’m told this patterning of action and emotion looks weird in someone who seems to be committed to novelty. From the inside I’d say that spiritual restlessness is fundamental in me. Specific patterns, practice, places and people are chosen as grounding in the chaos. I knew when I was shorter than the Montana wheatfields that I would get out of that place, would study history to make the world bigger, and never ever stay put. That’s still true. The restlessness isn’t a problem now though, because it’s got purpose around it. I am still a quiet disaster in ways that are just for me. My office, closets, sense of time and space: little churning cyclones. Very important, the entropy zones.
How ever. It is rhythm that makes me manifest. Like some sort of spin cycle. Service, friendship, beauty, whatever. What I’ve figured out is that to have some sense of inner path and outer purpose—one that’s not just some dogma or idea—this woman must have rhythm.
Yoga for me is the source of steadiness of mind; and that comes not so much through stillness but syncopation. The beat actually needs to be beautiful, not stupid or random, for my consciousness to stream in sattvic ways. Beautiful is rhythms within rhythms, a life of finely tuned cycles. The inner teacher in me isn’t so much some sort of knower who gets insights. She’s just, finally, a damn fine choreographer. My inner teacher knows how to DJ a life.
Time came in May to drop the rhythms completely for the first time since 1999. The last unstructured time in my life was that year, on a Fulbright in Managua. Landing in a city with no street names, with no friends, no maps, no phones, no responsibilities… just the names of the Revolutionary archives and an ongoing drive to study history of Empire.
I kept it secret, that I was a wreck. What I did with that unstructured time was relentless advnenture-intrigue: flattering a large retinue of revolutionaries with my scholarly fascination (read Omar Cabezas), sleeping on volcanoes reachable only by banana boats (image search “Ometepe”; banana boat here means barge that transports actual bananas), mantrafying my mind with epic poetry you would not even believe (Jesus God Leonel Rugama), running the hash on Saturdays and then getting wasted with the ambassadors before refinding my religion every Sunday by mainlining liberation theology at the Misa Campesina. This was all more life and excitement than I previously knew possible; I was dying inside again with every moment. Like an acute unhappiness that I had to look at every minute. My mind was lonely and hopeless. Pleasure (rum, reading) did not help. Even studying the American war machine could not ease the inner itchy unbearableness with a drive for truth, or a belief in justice. I wasn’t depressed; I was actively dying inside, drying up and crackling away from the edges of my inner self like a caterpillar whose dead pulp of possibility is desiccating inside its cocoon. It was like no hell I’d known existed, thought by thought, and it was there for no good reason. Compounded a hundredfold by guilt. Meantime I had no purpose, no path, no responsibility. No damn rhythm.
So. This past month of unstructured time was a chance to summon old existential shadows. Good energy gets trapped in the unexamined places. I intended to stop being so orderly and predictable to see what I couldn’t see when I’m in my rhythms.
I didn’t set out to spend the month living next to an almost theatrical idealization of a cemetery bathed every evening in golden light, and frequented nightly by cloaked occultists. But that is how it happened.
I sank into the flowerbeds by that cemetery and read L’Etranger, this time in the original and only half comprehending. Wandered alongside the wall where they shot the last resisters of the Paris commune. Sat in a seventh-floor bathtub every night watching the sun set over the monster on Montmartre’s hill, Sacre Coeur. (Other cathedrals in Paris thrilled me with their brazen occult magick, but I sense that edifice belongs entirely to a different team.) As with every bit of the city, there is a whole long story of Montmartre, about one of the first grassroots uprisings against empire, resistance in the streets, redoubt to the butte later made famous as an artists’ commune, and the massive stone sanctuary the winners built there with a Jesus who I swear looks like he’s giving you the finger. In my 20s, traveling the officially illegal countries on a shoestring (Vietnam, Cuba, Laos…), I stayed out of Europe because I claimed the whole continent would be dull and rich and stuffy. Oh what I did not know.
This May I ate whatever, slept whenever, planned nothing, put the phone in airplane mode, left my laptop closed. I spent lots of time in shops, because a good number of Parisian people think little, delighted, super-attentive women in non-tourist neighborhoods are fun to dress, feed and teach new words. One day I slept 14 hours, got on the mat well after noon just because I felt like it, rolled out of savasana and immediately ate the croissant I’d left sitting on the side table to tease myself during rest. A few admired friends from grad school came to town; ever epic, now that they’re notorious writers what they do is chill in Europe in summer. To them I’m the washed up ex-ex-ex-intellectual who becaume a (cough) yoga teacher and is still too fit and too happy and lacking in scholarly achievements. We had everything talk about, which was done best in bars carousing. Something they’d never seen me do.
None of this sucked. The mind of suffering from 1999 did show up as an echo, interestingly. Everything was intriguing, diverting and delicious. But on an energetic level, I got scrambled. Rest-adventure may be good for the soul, but with my mind in one place, my emotions in another and my G-I tract washed daily in white flour, I landed back home feeling like a cubist painting of myself.
At every sharp edge of me, there was and is the echo of the question that has always organized this journal. What am I doing with my life?
Doing nothing is one way to push on that question. This time around, renunciation of structure didn’t kill me inside or force me up against the wall of existential crisis.
At least, it didn’t force the existential question any more than I always am wanting it to face me down:
What is this life. What is the consciousness of this moment. What is the purpose of this action.
Life and death stuff, really.
Back home again I am re-embedded in the action circuits. Hundreds of human interactions every day. Directing a program, iterative presencing with the same places-people who are also always different. Getting myself out in the door, into and out of the forest, into and out of the shala, into and out of different states of consciousness. Regulating my nervous system to be a still center amid huge amounts of information and activity. That’s what it is to run a Mysore program. Regular time in India is its own version of that.
But first, before this and after that, the last days of May happened alone on the coast Montenegro. What a place to get completely receptive after so much entertainment, the action circuits all buffed out in perception mode. My phone didn’t work. The light was this steady Adriatic soft-white, with air that temperature where you can’t feel the boundary of your skin. My physical body opened up to the whole environment as a diffuse sort of homeostasis.
It’s a place where it rains in sunshine. I’d thought that was just bad lyrics, but it’s also good magic. People would interrupt me over Greek salads on stone walkways along pink shell-dust beaches. I’d be eating extremely local olives, tomatoes sweet as strawberries, cucumbers bitter as grainy south-European espresso. Before we’d talk in English fragments about the wars, and NATO and the old embargo, they’d ask if I was from Moscow. How kind but no. I’d say Detroit, mispronounced the American way with an “oy” and a hard final T.
Oh! Hands on an imaginary wheel, steering, steadying. Shifting their eyes away from my face to the horizon to imitate the contemplative trance of the road.
Yes, something like that. That is where I’m from.
There was no reason to undertake spiritual practice in May, but that is what happened. Formally, methodically, superduper gently. It didn’t save my soul, or make my day, or whatever. I didn’t alter any adventure schedules for it.
Just the formal zero-time, in its own way, every day. Meditating on the breath, gently true to the method that I teach the mindbody of that time.
Practice is just practice. The new people on this adventure were not “my teachers.” My teacher is my teacher. People’s only role is to be completely ourselves, not tools for some narrative telos. Life is for living, people for loving. The whole yoga-context disappeared and there was no new one inside or outside of me to make sense of practice.
Still practice was there.
Coming back to baseline, my body’s been disorganized; practice is slow and nurturing in a way that eases the pelvis out of torsion. It seems 20,000+ steps a day on cobblestones will do that. The first days back, there was sharp asymmetry between my energy for teaching (full power) and practice (two extremely internal and quiet hours). There’s a lot of information for me in that breach. A lot. For example, for me personally, I see the honesty that arises out taking practice before I teach. I see how the intimacy and information-density of this week’s slow practices make me the kind of teacher I want to continue becoming. The sensitivity I have in the long relationships in the Mysore room is potentiated by hours alone daily inside my own energy-body. Again, this is just my experience.
By contrast, I see now a shadow: if I just dropped into my Mysore room without a daily practice, I personally could get big ideas about teaching. In a raw human way, I think that I could get caught up in compensation, supporting others to do what I’d not be making time to do myself. I describe this as human because one sees various body-therapists get off on such things – any caregiver with a “fix it” approach is broken, and we know it. “My body or mind is in pain, so let me not observe that and fix myself through you.” This is a deeply human tender, predictable thing that happens when a caregiver has no container for their work.
What I see now is that for me personally as a teacher, practice creates an raw and constantly self-updating kind of accountability. Qualitatively different from the accountability in student-teacher relationship. Counter-transference is evergreen; self-study keeps it clean.
I have a history of blowing off practice sometimes. The last time was 15 years ago April. So I don’t know what it would be like to teach without also practicing. The only thing that makes that sustainable is an understanding of practice as mental, emotional and spiritual care. Doesn’t matter what it looks like, at all, but a daily, technically clear, body-based breath meditation has been the program so far during my experience as a teacher.
I emphatically do not recommend this for anyone else. But I share this to note that it is my experience. I’m not the only one.
Sadhana is not an achievement or a hardline commitment and there is no prize. It’s just a wellspring of meaningful work and a good life, maybe even when sense and structure fall away.
While floating in space I asked the Austrians and the Montenegrians and the Netherlanders: do you have words to put light on this very specific idea called dharma?
Yes and no. People are brilliant. And their different languages come up out of deep wells of history that have their own meanings to carry forth. We laugh and dive into layers of connotation as I try to learn a little of their living history. Dharma per se, we repeatedly see, is intrinsic to a culture that is not easy to understand. But there is a nous-ne-savons-quoi around purpose that bears a deep existential look-see.
Purpose is values that are deeper than story. It’s a drive that needs no outcome or movement to mean anything at all. Purpose, in different languages, is a sense that has no actual attainable visible sense in it. It is a form of meaning too cellular to be expressed through achievement, yet must always be acted out.
I don’t know. Different language-groups have distinctly insights on what life-purpose might be. But while most of my writing stays unshared, this blog-space holds the line of the question of what is my path and purpose. The writing itself gives me space to see that there’s creative energy in jumping outside the question.
So now I see where the sadhana began, in my mind. It was science. The first year of grad school in LA, I did math. My main professor was one of the most committed and exacting teachers I’ve ever had. We did stats, probability, survey research design. I learned the value of a clean data vector. A clean unbroken data sequence contributes to Knowledge. A true scientist doesn’t seek fame; she gives herself over to the method required to advance human understanding of reality itself. Statistics done honestly is surrender, and you come to admire those who love the data more than the sex appeal of a massaged trend line. Most science is a little fake; I was taught how to sound out the cheats and love the quiet devotees.
And in that era, Los Angeles just after 9/11, I gave my body to yoga science. This was as genuine a surrender as my sincere quixotic commitment to honesty in data analysis. You know pure science is a myth, but that devotion to an honest truth search is the only hope in the void. You don’t ask about the soul in science. Non-lying is just a way of life. Its fire is so clean.
Science gave me a decade and more of superfocused, systematic action with an extremely sensitive bullshit filter. Concentrate the mind; do not invite complication; do not under any circumstances astheticize the search for wisdom. Find a line of true knowledge and know your discipline stone cold. Move the collective understanding forward. Know also that you don’t know. What you know as a scientist is your method. You understand that the temptation is to cheat truth to get famous, and that there will always be careerists who stop putting science first and put publications first instead. The early training was never to take that bait. And to remember what you don’t know as a scientist – no matter how stone cold clear your analysis – is how your limited method articulates with reality. So you have to stay curious and open as much as you stay committed.
This was a world view with integrity and purpose. It wasn’t rigid like you might be imagining. It gave great data. It turned me into a massively more healthy, happy person who could look at herself and could show up for others. It mainlined me straight into persistent non-symbolic states of consciousness, as they say.
But I see now that when I started to learn other bodies, other minds, another world view began to mix in with my science. It was the unknown again. It crept in where the science couldn’t serve me.
A complementary and parallel way begin in me then, eight years ago now, as the radical indeterminancy of each human bodymind exploded into my world. The uniqueness of every self. The not-going-somewhereness of many experiences of practice. This understanding came as strong emotions is best not to express: adoration mostly, plus a kind of devotion that aches for epic action at times, and a sense of mystery that science conflates disapprovingly with mysticism.
Yoga’s not science for me now, not like it was. These elements of emotion and meaning are bad for that kind of knowledge-building. But I’m moved forward, and backwards, and into stillness by action that is no longer so vector-like.
It’s adoration without an object, devotion without a deity. It’s hard to say so, but the parallel complementary path is art.
That’s what I see now. Science got me across the foundational years. Then teaching began. And slowly my mental-emotional nourishment shifted from science to art. Art is much easier to bullshit, and much harder to assimilate into my learning process. I don’t recommend it at all. I don’t identify with voices talking about how their “practice” is their cooking/cleaning/walking/gardening and their “study” takes place with random people who contradict each other, and their “teachers” are the flowers and the sun. Art practice is still practice. It’s still clear.
So that is what this is now, for me. It’s a habit that started rigorous, but now feels non-replicable. The difficulty in it is humbling, and funny in ways that nobody outside the art itself could understand. Often practice is just there and beautiful for its own sake.
If this practice that some of us do is art, no wonder it gets a few vicious critics, ones who want to fix others because they are broken, who wring their hands and instruct strangers to be normal and socially acceptable.
Art can be froufrou, sure. Just objects. And then also there is the sort of art practice that’s committed and doesn’t ever apologize for itself and doesn’t expect to be understood. Yet sometimes amid all the misunderstood-ness, there’s connection. And those moments of shared meaning so massive that they are worth everything but everything, every sacrifice and all the years of anonymous creation, and every systematic invisible step of the path.
What I’m experiencing now, if it’s an art of yoga, is the kind of difficult that is easy, and yet extremely hard to break.
P.S. I’ve edged out of corporate social media, but am still very much online. There are a newsletter + email contact here.