July 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering – Alan Watts
I was moving through Surya Namaskara B at the Phoenix Center in Ann Arbor, MI, when I saw you through my peripheral vision in the glass windows of the shala, but it wasn’t you. I met you four years ago in India, we studied Sanskrit with Jayashree. One day you were crying while we sang sutras, I didn’t understand why. We drank chai at Santosha’s, probably ate something too. You told me you just got married and told your husband you wanted to come back to India next year. He said he expected that you would. You were happy. You had been a Peace Corps Volunteer and were an Ashtangi, enough to make us Facebook friends. Until, of course, I deleted my account. I was never good at Facebook. The day after my Surya Namaskar siting, I learned you passed away. My visceral reaction was this rapid hand shaking thing I do when I feel like I don’t know what to do with what I’m feeling <–that’s definitely an image that language alone cannot convey. I don’t know what happened to you, and when I grasp to remember details, I can only see scattered photographs, real or imagined.
June 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
“When you write you lay out a line of words” – Annie Dillard
Sometimes I sit down at my computer and my mind syncs up with the letters on the keyboard. I go to a coffee shop, sit down, set up and write. Sometimes it’s easy. I go to school, find a spot to plug in my laptop, and write. Perfect. And sometimes I’m so completely disconnected from constructing anything coherent out of the alphabet at my fingertips. It’s as if the planets all have be in some kind of auspicious alignment in order for me to produce written content in a way that is considered acceptable for someone else to read. Sometimes it’s awful. To top it off, I’m really fidgety. So I have to “deal” with myself. When I’m home, I give myself “yoga breaks,” I do handstands in between paragraphs, or every other hour, I never actually keep track. I cook food, I over water the plants. I organize things. But sometimes I wonder, what do other people do? By other people, I mean other academics. I wonder how they find the patience to write?
About a year ago I moved in with J, who is a counseling psychologist at a University in Pittsburgh. We’ve always had great conversations from opposite ends of the dining room table, our laptops set up like Battleship. One night after an intense game of dissertating, I had stuff on my mind. Here’s how it played out:
Me: Someone once told me that if I “took an Adderall,” I would probably write a novel in one night.
J: “Possibly, but you don’t need Adderall.
Me: Well, that’s just not fair. It’s not fair that some people get to take pharmaceutical drugs and I have to do hours of yoga. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my yoga, but it’s not easy. Adderall seems easy.
J: Well, yes, but not always. There’s side effects to these drugs and, yeah, maybe you would be able to focus more on your writing, but you might also end up focusing on your plant. Or a spot on the wall.
J went on to explain to me the clinical side effects of amphetamines. I got it. I still get it, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t romanticize the idea of uninterrupted writing patterns. Part of the reason I feel this way is because I chose a life that requires me to write, like, all the time. But when I do this writing, I don’t sound like this. I sound more vacant. Less human. More direct. Very clear and to the point. Which is obviously not how I “think.” It’s not how my brain naturally works. I don’t construct thought in a straight linear way. I’m more recursive. If I had to describe my writing process in a visual way I would have to say that it’s more like surya namaskar than a flow chart.
The problem is that these deductive patterns are the favored form of written communication. No one wants to have to “try” to understand anything. It’s kind of like fast food. Just like sometimes people don’t want to have to take the time to make food, sometimes people don’t want to have to take the time to understand writing. But fast food is fast gratification. It’s “get it fast, eat it fast.” Should writing be fast gratification, too? “Read it fast, understand it fast?” I think it spoils all the fun. What do you think?:
May 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
I never imagined what “real” academic life was like back in my budding graduate student days. Before I committed myself to higher education. Before I became a doctoral student. I never imagined it. Undergrad was confusing. Grad-school, a fantasy. Life experience whipped me into shape. It was like bootcamp back then, and it still is.
My academic life is a nomadic life. A gypsy life. It follows my diaspora consciousness as it vacillates between Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and Pittsburgh and Indiana. And Pittsburgh and anywhere else I need to be. For real. I’m all over the road. I’m on the highway so much that it has become a significant place to me. It’s a contemplative place.
May 24, 2014, 5:30am: The morning after digital marathon week. US-79North via 376W. Linear lines. Uninterrupted thought. Sunshine and Marc Bolan. Sweet therapy! The combination of these ingredients is zen inducing. I give myself what Shinzen Young calls, “microhits” and coast on the residue. I thank and curse the truck drivers for keeping things real. Without them, this highway might not be so therapeutic. They are the yang to my yin. We play games — “ring around the highway” and “pass you on the left.” I might have small car complex, but I can’t be sure. At a steady 65 in the right lane they’re always encroaching and slowing. They look intimidating at night, like enormous arcade monsters. Sometimes they can be guides. Sometimes they act like perverts. They piss me off, they keep things real.
But wait. This isn’t academic life. Not the road. The road is just the “in-between.” The journey. Sometimes it’s a productive journey, sometimes it’s the road to Mordor. We can zoom out on this “in-between” business, too, but not right now. Right now, I want to talk trucks. Trucks, because they challenge me to generate good juju while vehicle bound. They challenge me to work “in-between.” To lessen road rage so that I don’t bring it with me to the classroom or to my colleagues. Can’t do that. We can use words to help us. Label association. Say, for example, the word, “Unicorns” = “relaxed state.” (((truck anger is happening RAWR))) –> (think) “unicorns,” –> relaxed state. It works. But eeeeeeevery now and then, some cursing happens first. Yin and yang.
Academic life is a balancing act, too. Financially, mentally, and energetically. It’s produce. Produce. Produce. Do. Do. Do. Give. Give. Give. If you’re crazy enough to love it like me, you keep doing it. But it’s unproductive to bitch about the bad stuff, just like it’s unproductive to mess with the truck drivers. We all have work to do. I have to go home and write something, they have their own agenda. Negative energy burns fast. Positive energy burns slow. We all need to conserve.
I take my yoga mat with me wherever I go. It has become a way of “doing” home. I travel a lot. Sometimes local, sometimes less familiar. Rolling out my mat in the morning and practicing gives me “home.” It’s the most calming act I’ve ever known. I do “home” before I do “school,” and devour the times I can think more consciously about my yoga under the observation of a teacher. I don’t have a lot of time for this kind of practicing. These practices are few and far between. But they are the “in-between,” slow burning fuel for the journey. I don’t know what I think about “gurus” in a modern, North American, sense. It just doesn’t translate. Then again, I got a lot of light on the road today.
December 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Embedded deep in our cells is ourselves and everyone else”–Juliana Spahr
I think about Duchamp’s “Nude descending a staircase” the way I think about human behavior. The idea that we’re all so porous that every action is embedded with a history—a response to something that came before it, whether we’re conscious of it or not. Now, even as I write this, I’m aware of a series of interactions that inspire my words, and those that I’ve forgotten lay actively dormant on the surface of my mind.
Like waves in an ocean, what we do connects us to others who become a part of ourselves. There’s something beautiful and comforting about understanding the way that people stay with us, and the way that we summon them whenever we transmit their qualities, isn’t there? My grandmother passed away this year. At her wake, a friend of the family commented she had an ‘old fashioned grit and tenacity to keep moving forward no matter what.’ I know what that tenacity is because for better or worse I have it too. All of my family, all of my teachers, and all of my friends are a part of who I am.
December 17, 2013: A rocky flight takes me from Buffalo to NYC. While hovering in the clouds over JFK waiting for the runway to open, I reach into my purse for a bottle of white flower oil to soothe a cabin pressure headache. Flying is the opposite of travel. Moments later the guy sitting next to me puts his head in his hands expressing pain, and the people behind me comment, “this was the worst flight ever.”
New York City is cold and rainy. Clad in my faux fur-lined Sorels, down coat, hat, scarf and gloves I’m prepared for weather. I step on to the Lexington 6 bound for Chelsea and notice a homeless man, passed out in the corner of the train next to an empty bottle of whiskey and a dirty plastic bag. The train is packed, so I stand in the only empty spot which is right beside his feet. In front of me a little girl who is sitting on her mother’s lap is concerned. She asks, “but why doesn’t he have a home?” Looking up at me her mother comments, “some things are just really difficult to explain.” Yeah, homelessness is a reality. Men board the train at nearly each stop and explain why they are homeless and ask for cash and all I can think about is the kind of determination it must take to do these introductions for a public in transit.
I get off at 23rd street and head to see Dharma. Six years ago, Dharma taught me about un-waivering determination—the kind of determination it takes to maintain a self practice. Angry determination is what he calls it. This determination combined with my grandmother’s grit and tenacity is a recipe for a life that craves something real. Postmodern mystifications be damned—why glam it up when we’re all really living a real life? To all of you: my family, teachers, friends, who contribute to aspects of me, thank you.
August 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
“Silence almost everywhere in the world now is traffic.” -John Cage.
After watching a Youetube video of John Cage I have been inspired to explore, for myself, the sound of silence. I spent the past week in Michigan, studying and practicing with Angela Jamison at Ashtanga Yoga: Ann Arbor. Each day after practice a group of us sat for 30-40 minutes in silence, in whatever meditative practice was most familiar. I dusted off the mantra Narasimhan gave me 2 years ago in India, since transcendental med is the only training I’ve ever properly received. There is something about having a word as a focol point for consciousness that I like. Figuring out what to do with my mind without it might be little difficult.
I sat cross-legged in an upright shape and I repeated mantra. The initial experience was soothing, especially after doing over an hour of yoga, but minutes later my awareness moved from mantra to a growing point of discomfort at the front of my ankles that were pressed against the floor. I probably should have set myself up on props a little better. Stacked enough blankets to create a barrier between my ankles and the floor, but I didn’t.
Around me, the only sound that filled the air was traffic– “automotive traffic” and “people traffic.” The vehicles outside of the Phoenix Center generated unique sounds that formed, at certain moments, one whole sound like an orchestra. Sound became “sonarus” as Cage says. Upstairs from the shala, people traffic produced a variety of different noise, but none of it formed “one sound” at any moment. The floor creaked. Objects clanged. The muffled sound of voices dissipated into the distance.
Wavering between mantra and sound I hit a wall in my ability to focus: I wanted to move around. I wiggled a little. Thought about stretching out my legs and standing up, but didn’t. The line of energy in my body, as a imagined it, was like one of those Windsock men that businesses use for advertisements? Can you see it? That’s what I felt like. As I sat and breathed, releasing as much energy I could, I recognized how important sitting in stillness is for me. If I can train myself to sit in stillness of body and stillness of mind for 30-40 minutes each day, maybe I can sit and write for longer periods of time without the need to get up and move around or do handstands (I know, I’m a weirdo).
Back in Pittsburgh there is an addition to my meditative entertainment: cicadas. There was a bloom this summer so there are millions of them. They are like miniature string instruments that always play slightly out of sync. How wonderful.
July 17, 2013 § 2 Comments
I drove back to Pennsylvania from Buffalo this weekend as I have so many times this year. Instead of my usual playlist that includes way too much Arcade Fire, I listened to a podcast on mindfulness. It was interesting to hear an expert from UCLA talk about focussing the mind outside of a yoga context. I suppose that some part of me thinks that since I practice yoga I don’t need to learn about “mindfulness, ” I take care of that on my mat in the morning. Oh, but what I often ignore is the fact that my mind wanders all over the place on my mat in the morning. Give me a linear path; a “runway,” a highway, it doesn’t matter, and a buffet of thoughts are there for the thinking.
This often works to my advantage, or at least it has an advantage. As a student of the academic variety my head is always full of ideas and after about 5:00 in the evening, none of them make much sense anymore–the space is too crowded. A modicum of successful breath/bandha/dristi focus in the morning, even for a millisecond, brings clarity. There were a number of times this year I stepped off of my mat, wrote something down, and then went back to my marichyasanas. Sharath would scold me, no doubt. Any teacher would, but….. it happens. My mind is rarely in the present. I try my best (I really do), but it’s not.
In this podcast the expert on mindfulness was talking about the action of “recognizing and returning”–recognizing that the mind has wandered (to the past or future) and returning to whatever it is supposed to be focused on right “now.” This is what I try to do in seated meditation, which I have time for never these days.
The process of recognizing and returning is useful to writers too. I was really interested in exploring this deeply when I began my doctoral research, but now I just view it as something useful. Writing is a meditative, contemplative practice. How often, while writing, do writers stray from the main point? When the mind-body is in a good habit of recognizing deviations from the present moment, it is more likely to recognize them in the writing moment too.
May 27, 2013 § 3 Comments
Writing. I need to write. I need to write in the in-between periods when I don’t have someone telling me what to write. And I also need a possible audience. Without an audience the intention of my writing changes and I get something different out of the process. A possible audience forces me to make sense of ideas for maybe you and definitely me.
Movement. Because I move intentionally, in “the Patanjali way,” most days of the week, it is no surprise that I am drawn to transcultural conceptualizations of bodies, language, and thought. Researchers talk about these relationships in ways that I find fascinating. At times I am guilty of exoticism–being fascinated with the unfamiliar because it’s new, interesting, and shows up Western “familiars,” I think. I just recognize this when it happens and then think what I should do about it. I’m still not sure. I’m just doing my best.
Lately I have been thinking about the Ashtanga Yoga mantras. What do you think about when you transmit opening and closing mantra? I asked myself this question a few weeks ago, and I don’t think of any particular picture. I definitely do not think of the meaning as it translates in English. I think about Sanskrit sound/word shapes–vande gurūṇāṁ caraṇāravinde–and I “feel.” Samasthiti (the posture I stand in for opening mantra) is a reverent embodiment for me. One that I associate with the ritual nature of Sanskrit mantric sounds. Opening Mantra is comfy. These sounds have had more practice time than closing mantra, which I’ve only been doing regularly for a few years. I speak mantra in a rhythmic way. I don’t “chant” mantra unless I’m following a teacher, it’s not my habit. My English word for the embodied feeling of the opening mantra is gratitude. I feel gratitude for the teachers who have given the practice to their students and to me specifically. It’s all of that feeling for a few seconds before Suryanamaskara A.
The internal body. How do we translate experience? The conceptualization of words and meanings? An edited collection I read recently looks the perceptions of internal body organs across cultures. In Chinese, for example, 心 xin “heart” is the seat of feeling and thought–the “heart-mind” as understood in English. In Persian, the word del “heart-stomach” is used to describe cognitive, emotional, and social experiences that emanate from del as a container of thought, emotion, and desire. These cultural models of the heart differ from Western understandings of the same organ. The body generates belief based on our linguistic conceptualizations of word-symbol associations and, in turn, influences the way we see and experience the world. From our perceptions of “how stuff works,” we develop body habits and practices that shape who we are. I have a personal understanding of this based on my own daily practices, of course, but I’m interested in globalization and how different understandings of the body across cultures might cultivate new perspectives on experience.
October 23, 2012 § Leave a comment
Michel deCerteau writes in The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) “the opacity of body in movement, gesticulating, walking, taking its pleasure constitutes a here to an abroad…a spatial story is in its minimal degree a spoken language…space appears once more as a practiced place” (131) Taking into consideration that knowing always happens from somewhere, that we can’t “know” from no where, how do the movements of our every day inform our correspondence? Do we first compose in our bodies before we compose in our speech? Or before we compose in our writing? What’s the relationship between language and movement?
April 6, 2012 § 3 Comments
The language of transformation, that is. It is the constant flux of temperatures and barometric pressures, the cold fall-like chill piercing through the windowed illusion of out door heat, and the humidity of summer 48 hours later. The heavy pebble-like raindrops that fall by morning, and the birds that chirp ceaselessly by late afternoon. And it is the tide, we are all feeling it.
I was practicing earlier this week and as I cart-wheeled my left arm from trikonasana to utthita trikonasana, planted my palm on the outside of my right foot, pulled up through mula bandha, and pushed my right hip back, just before I gazed my peripheral right eye at the palm of my right hand, I ejected to 5 breaths of deja vu I had on the mat almost 2 years ago. It’s the same sort of thing that happens when you smell a perfume you used to wear, or hear a song or album you listened to non stop for a period of time. The only difference is that I have been doing this practice religiously for almost 6 years, so the practice itself didn’t trigger the rendezvous, my muscle memory did. I’m not sure if something released or was just in the same place at the same time, but it was pretty cool.
Presently speaking, my muscular body has been tired and unpredictable—stress. I fight the natural course of moving on in the practice because I don’t want it to get any harder, because it’s too exhausting, and because my practice is the longest it has ever been and I’ve tried at least 4 different kinds of cereals to eat pre-Rocky – I joke that I try and channel Stallone – but none of them make managing the stamina any easier. I’ve really never hit this type of wall before and it’s difficult because I start my day with, “I’m stopping here,” and, well, that’s an attitude. Sure, I’ve always stopped somewhere, but I’ve stopped because nothing else was expected of me at the time. Sigh.
Going back to that moment on the mat earlier this week; it was spring in China and I was practicing outdoors, I had found a somewhat private place, near my campus apartment in the faux mountains of YZNU, and all of nature was buzzing away. I was teaching Emerson and Thoreau at the time and beaming with how perfect it all was because nature was swelling storybook style. And the next day a tornado hit. This is what life feels like; one minute, Emerson’s Walden, the next, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, and Buffalo’s forecast isn’t much different. Viva la Moon day…
March 9, 2012 § 2 Comments
I rushed down to my class this evening after having a great conversation with a colleague who has truly been an incredible teacher, mentor, and friend to me for years. Good things are happening for the both of us, and I was all a buzz, good juju. As usual, I energetically opened the door and immediately steered myself towards the window; it’s always musty as hell in this classroom, but the students won’t crack the windows themselves, it’s so weird, they will sit in the humid, sweaty smelling room, looking exhausted until I arrive and let the air in.
My class is in writing workshop mode and I like them to enjoy the time, so I DJ Pandora stations in between instruction and reading their revisions, while they write, and if they’re not into my Pandora style they can drown it out with Ice Cube, Drake, or whoever makes them happy on their iPods, as long as writing is happening. I have found that discussing the ways in which Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Robert Lowell used to write; setting aside 2 silent hours in the afternoon, devoted to the pen, with or without the twinkle of inspiration in my eye, does squat. Music, humor, and charm get me more with my students.
Just as I began to address the class, down the aisle of the room, being all encroaching as I discussed the research paper, Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing In The Dark came on the radio. I grinned. It was nice to hear, but it was out of context for me. I kept talking about writing, about introducing quotations, unpacking quotations; the importance of threading someone else’s words into one’s own work etc., and then my students started laughing at me, and I realized I felt like I was in a music video and it was probably difficult to take me seriously while Bruce was singing. I gave them my best “snap & sway” and they laughed more, and then I turned it down. I do sacrifice myself for comedy often, all for the greater good of education. My morning students, for example, had me wrapped up in various scarves via an essay on the hijab today. One of my best students is from Yemen; “the country of perverts,” she calls it, and much of her writing tells stories of cultural experiences/differences she has had there.
I keep thinking about all the work I’ve done this year, all the while fanatically pursuing several different future endeavors. I figured, I would pursue them all, and whichever one came through would make the decision for me. For a while they were all potential possibilities, but the path is getting clearer. I’m going to be leaving Buffalo, and it’s hard to let go. It’s one thing to say, I’m going to leave and the intention is to come back. It is another to make the decision to leave, when that decision will ultimately lead elsewhere as well. As I left my teacher’s office today he said, “You just walk through your life.” And we do.
Bruce Springsteen will be in Buffalo April 13th and I’m really excited to see him. When he came a few years ago I wasn’t here and felt like I missed out. He is blue-collar, denim, grit and desire; all the truth I love.