Janus is the two-faced god of beginnings and transitions, in whose honour the ancient Romans named the month of January. On coins and sculptures, the faces of Janus point in opposite directions, west and east, suggesting the past and the future. As we enter January, we also look back before looking forward, tallying up our achievements of the past year. How likely is it that we are happy with our efforts? Perhaps we did not complete what we set out to achieve, or, if we did, we do not consider it a success. It is all too easy to enter the New Year dragging the chains of the previous year’s failings behind us, weighing us down with a sense of time squandered. We live in a world where achievement is praised above all else, where a person is judged as much by what she does, how much she is worth, and what her prospects are, as by her character. And it is hardly surprising. This is a technology- and money-driven culture in which everything is quantified, catalogued, and graded. How far are we from a star rating being applied to real people? Probably not as far as we’d like to think. Consider Facebook, which has made a religion out of collecting and cataloguing “friends.” Everything is on show to the entire world, if it cares to look, including our private lives. So we must impress people with our skills, our achievements, our tastes. It is hardly surprising that simply living one’s life is no longer fashionable. The checklist is our personal monitor, and we must always be checking off something. Done, done, and done! On to the next thing. But is it not enough to have lived and loved? To have given and received? To have been gracious and courteous, kind to other people (not forgetting to ourselves)? To have been honest in our dealings, loyal in our affections? To have inspected our actions and found them worthy? Perhaps these questions are irrelevant to the modern mind; they ask too much of us—or perhaps too little. What is clear is that we want to be judged on our achievements, not our behaviour, and that suits us fine because it avoids the need for too much introspection. But we are not just a checklist of experiences, achievements, qualifications, and “friends,” are we? I hope not. In one of his essays, the great French writer, Michel de Montaigne, wrote: “To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquillity in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” When we look back on the past year, let us look closely not only at our achievements, but at ourselves.
Archive for the ‘Inspirations and Musings’ Category
A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia Dela Aldobrandeschi, Written Christmas Eve Anno Domini 1513 Fra Giovanni Giocondo (c.1435–1515)Friday, December 14th, 2012
There is nothing I can give you which you have not got; but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it to-day. Take Heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!
The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness, could we but see; and to see, we have only to look.
Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendour, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the Angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty: believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing Presence. Our joys, too: be not content with them as joys, they too conceal diviner gifts.
Life is so full of meaning and of purpose, so full of beauty—beneath its covering—that you will find that earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage, then to claim it: that is all! But courage you have; and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.
And so, at this Christmas time, I greet you; not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem, and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and the shadows flee away.
There is a street in my neighbourhood too narrow to accommodate a pair of red London buses trying to pass each other in opposite directions, but that does not stop some drivers from trying to do so; the resulting congestion can take a considerable time to disentangle itself. I have been wondering why the local council doesn’t alter one of the routes, or permit residents’ parking on one side only during the daytime. They must have their reasons, I suppose.
This recurring event calls to mind Dr. Freud’s concept of Repetition Compulsion, in which a person is obliged to reconstruct a traumatic event, or to mimic the circumstances of such an event, time and again. The interesting question, to me, is whether a person repeats such an exercise in the hope of changing the outcome, or whether the attraction of the repetition is that the outcome is always the same.
Let us apply this example with the buses to a more personal matter. Have you ever found yourself displaying the same counterproductive, if not downright destructive, behavior, repeatedly? (If you have, then join the club.) There are, I have concluded, three stages to such a cycle: 1) you are doing it without knowing it, 2) you know that you are doing it and want to stop, 3) you find a way to stop—or you continue to do it, knowing that it is bad for you, but deriving some obscure satisfaction or comfort from it.
How tortuously we think. How inscrutable are our motives. When does counterproductive behaviour mutate from an irritating, infrequent interruption to a deep-rooted, compulsive habit? Is there a point at which we can stop it, but fail to, and then must live with it forever?
Or should we be looking at such behaviour in an entirely new way? Consider this remarkable aphorism by that most enigmatic of writers, Franz Kafka:
Leopards in the Temple
Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and becomes a part of the ceremony.
If you read Kafka’s aphorisms, you discover a writer with truly astonishing, mind-bending insights, but also someone who clearly struggled with his own self-destructiveness, and tried to control it, or use it, by writing about it in metaphorical and abstract ways. The “Leopards in the Temple” is a fascinating insight into the rationalization of destructive behaviour.
If the leopards are the traumatic event that continues to return to Kafka and needs some sort of release or expression, then what he is saying, perhaps, is that instead of trying to “kill” the leopards, tame them, or otherwise render them harmless, he prefers to accommodate their mayhem and live alongside them, incorporating them into his writing (the “ceremony”). That is why, I think, the story takes place in a temple, and Kafka, presumably, is the priest, the holy man—the writer.
Kafka did not want to lose the shock—the inspiration—of allowing these beasts into his “temple” (the mind). It was integral to his creativity. If he had somehow subdued the leopards, he would not have been able to create in the way he wanted.
In our culture, self-destructive tendencies are something to be dismissed, eradicated. They are bad for us, so the orthodoxy goes. But the truth is that, for highly creative people, self-destructive tendencies are most often part of the package deal of brilliance. They come, as the saying goes, with the territory. For a genius like Kafka, accommodating his self-destructive tendencies was a very necessary part of the creative process.
People tend to think of genius as an unconditional gift, like winning the lottery, but both come with strings attached. Consider the recent, memorable example of Steve Jobs, the Apple maestro, a man whose personal life was a maelstrom of emotion, and whose management style was, to say the least, unconventional.
So my final question, to myself, and anyone else out there who struggles with so-called self-destructive impulses, is this:
What if those impulses are leading us towards something positive and transformative (instead of towards self-inflicted doom)? Like the leopards in Kafka’s temple, can we use repetition compulsion as a basis to guide us towards a creative, constructive outcome? Instead of fighting our leopards, should we be using their energy and power (and sleekness), and building a system around them, taking advantage of their singular entrance into our lives? It appears that this is what creative artists do.
Who is stronger, happier—or safer: the person who fights her self-destructive habits, conquers them, and becomes another kind of person in so doing, or the person who accepts the elements of self-destructiveness in her life and uses them, like the leopards in Kafka’s temple, to make her life more interesting, more creative, and, following Kafka’s example, more like the life she needs to lead?
by Harriet Maxwell Converse
Translated from a traditional Iroquois prayer
We who are here present thank the Great Spirit that we are here to praise Him.
We thank Him that He has created men and women, and ordered that these beings shall always be living to multiply the earth.
We thank Him for making the earth and giving these beings its products to live on.
We thank Him for the water that comes out of the earth and runs for our lands.
We thank Him for all the animals on the earth.
We thank Him for certain timbers that grow and have fluids coming from them for us all.
We thank Him for the branches of the trees that grow shadows for our shelter.
We thank Him for the beings that come from the west, the thunder and lightning that water the earth.
We thank Him for the light which we call our oldest brother, the sun that works for our good.
We thank Him for all the fruits that grow on the trees and vines.
We thank Him for his goodness in making the forests, and thank all its trees.
We thank Him for the darkness that gives us rest, and for the kind Being of the darkness that gives us light, the moon.
We thank Him for the bright spots in the skies that give us signs, the stars.
We give Him thanks for our supporters, who had charge of our harvests.
We give thanks that the voice of the Great Spirit can still be heard through the words of Ga-ne-o-di-o.
We thank the Great Spirit that we have the privilege of this pleasant occasion.
We give thanks for the persons who can sing the Great Spirit’s music, and hope they will be privileged to continue in his faith.
We thank the Great Spirit for all the persons who perform the ceremonies on this occasion.
…The world of transformation
is real and not real but trusting.
Joanne Kyger, “September”
Every month of the year gives us the opportunity for transformation, but September, summer’s bridge to the autumn, is, to me, the most auspicious. The start of the academic year, a new season of culture, summer’s last fling, and the first leaves falling. Delirious anticipation! There is a curious frisson I always feel at this time of year, which tells me that change is afoot. If change is afoot, then it must imply a foot forward—and if a foot, then why not a mile, why not a revolutionary, evolutionary journey of the self? A complete transformation. How do we bring this about? By doing something positive every day. As the writer Trollope had it, “A small, daily task, if it be really daily, will beat the labours of a spasmodic Hercules.” (Take it from Trollope—he managed to write 47 novels.) Our daily task, then, is to transform ourselves, inside and out. To become the person we were always meant to be. It will not happen in a day, because transformation is a gradual prospect, like the view from the top of a hill. First you must climb the hill, and just when you are beginning to think you will never arrive at the top, you do. What you can see is now transformed. And so are you.
If you are not currently studying yoga, might I make a suggestion? Start now! This very month, the auspicious month of September. If you live in Central London, you could join one of our new ISHTA classes at the Life Centre in Kensington on Mondays and Saturdays, at the Commander in Notting Hill on Tuesdays and Thursdays, or at evolve in South Kensington on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. If you would like more personal guidance, please contact me for private lessons. ISHTA Yoga is the science of self-transformation. Why not start today?
“The world of transformation is real and not real but trusting.” So the poet says. Trust in the power and possibility of self-transformation, which is to say, trust in yourself.
“…imaginary gardens with real toads in them…”
Marianne Moore, “Poetry”
In the heat and humidity that have recently gripped half the world, even the idea of a garden is a sort of relief, especially if you do not have a real one of your own to enjoy. Let the mind roam where the feet may not. A Japanese Zen garden, solitary and self-contained, with perfectly raked sand and smooth rocks, warm (but not hot) to the touch; a Chinese garden, perhaps, with a pavilion overlooking a rippling lake, a heron standing on one leg in the water, and yonder a thicket of long, leafy bamboo lightly swaying in the wind; or the epitome of an English garden by Capability Brown, with its undulating grassland, extravagant folly, and half-hidden Ha-Ha. But as Hannah in Tom Stoppard’s brilliant play, Arcadia, says: “English landscape was invented by gardeners imitating foreign painters who were evoking classical authors.” The harmonious result of Brown’s excavations and manipulations was very much not what Nature intended, but in that turning point towards modern gardening (and towards modern art itself), we have the throwing off of classical tradition in favour of the modernist idea of taking the old, disassembling it, and remaking it into the new. Brown’s synthesis of influences and imitation is not such a long way from Cubism, which combined African art, photography, and the fragmenting effect of modern life (the clash of industry and psychology).
Marianne Moore, whose poem is quoted from above, never had a garden. A poet of some genius whose star has long since declined (her style too cerebral, too formal, and perhaps too moral), she lived in a little apartment on 12th Street in Manhattan (I used to pass the plaque almost every day when I lived nearby), and wrote her verses in virtual isolation, with few friends, and no spouse. She lived frugally, ate sparingly, died quietly. But when Manhattan sweltered in the midsummer heat, she sat down at her desk and wrote. Her poem, “Poetry,” is a heartfelt plea for verse that is genuine, imaginative, and true. A prescription for a good life, just as much.
If I cannot walk in the leafy shade of my own garden in this sultry summer atmosphere, I will be content to wander in my imaginary garden, honour the real toads in it, and take the rough with the smooth, the high with the low, and the hope with the doubt.
I wish you poetry (and a garden) the summer long.
I went to hear a lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall featuring the pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet and works by Debussy and Liszt; the selections were exquisitely played, but it was the histrionic thunder of Liszt’s Grosses Konzertsolo that took my breath away. This piece requires enormous technical skill, and Bavouzet gave a performance of controlled mastery, scarcely betraying the intense effort that such music demands from its performer. The composer Franz Liszt is regarded as one of the greatest pianists of all time, but he lived before the advent of recording equipment and we can only know him from contemporary writings. Apparently, when he played before an audience, he delighted in exaggerated gestures and passionate displays. Bavouzet, on the other hand, was content to let the music be the centre of attraction, but his technique seemed all the more impressive for his discretion.
As I watched, I began to think about the similarities between a musician and a yoga teacher. Although I consider teaching yoga an art, it is not “creative” in the sense of making something from nothing, like a painter or writer. A yoga teacher is more like a professional musician or actor: we work in front of an audience; we interpret and perform texts (a musician has a score, an actor a script, a yoga teacher the asana sequences and teachings), and the wilder flights of our id are kept in check by the need to stick to what has been written down before. Nonetheless, there are as many varied interpretations of music, drama, and yoga, as there are professionals who are successful in any one of these fields. The most prominent of today’s yoga teachers all have very different styles of presentation, even though they are teaching, essentially, the same thing. One is very physical, another more cerebral, a third emphasizes the flow, etc. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the great yogic teachings are open to infinite interpretation because of their depth, universality, and genius.
My own guru and mentor, Yoga Master Alan Finger, has his own inimitable style that combines profound knowledge with decades of experience, and a way of teaching that is both droll and magisterial. Can I claim to have found my own unique style of teaching yet? I’m working on it. With every class I teach, with every training I lead, I feel I am getting closer. The goal is technical mastery welded and wedded to personal interpretation in the service of yoga. That is my creativity and my freedom.
I had been teaching all morning. On Notting Hill Gate I ducked inside a coffee bar for a latte and a moment’s rest. I took a seat where I could watch the people passing by outside. Notting Hill Gate, Saturday, midday: tourists gushing into the entrances to the Tube and being flushed out of the exits, all searching for El Dorado—Portobello Road.
While I was looking at the faces–laughing, talking, shouting, smiling, frowning–I was reminded of an astonishing passage from Seize the Day, one of, if not the greatest of, Saul Bellow’s books. Here Bellow is describing the thoroughfare of Broadway on the Upper West side of Manhattan, as it looked to him (through the eyes of his protagonist, Tommy Wilhelm) in the mid-1950s.
On Broadway it was still bright afternoon and the gassy air was motionless under the leaden spokes of sunlight, and sawdust footprints lay about the doorways of butcher shops and fruit stores. And the great, great crowd, the inexhaustible current of millions of every race and kind pouring out, pressing round, of every age, of every genius, possessors of every human secret, antique and future, in every face the refinement of one particular motive or essence—I labor, I spend, I strive, I design, I love, I cling, I uphold, I give way, I envy, I long, I scorn, I die, I hide, I want. Faster, much faster than any man could make the tally. The sidewalks were wider than any causeway; the street itself was immense, and it quaked and gleamed….
The wonder of Bellow’s genius (freely on show in all his books) is that he can deftly marry pictorial description with psychological insight. Great writers are miniaturists and visionaries at the same time, and Bellow is one of the very greatest; it is one thing to describe a crowd in motion, but it is quite something else to enter into the minds of the crowd and to render the rush of thoughts and feelings, as Bellow does in this passage. It takes us out of the moment and projects us into the infinite. Undoubtedly this was Bellow’s intention. He wanted us to see all of humanity “antique and future” in one strike. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but a thousand pictures could not conjure up what Bellow achieves with a dozen lines.
Was Bellow thinking of Purgatory as he described the crowd on Broadway? Perhaps he did not see people at all but lost souls swept this way and that by the forces inside them that were outside their control.
It is the paradox of the modern world that we appear to have greater choice and greater control over our lives, and yet, more than ever, we seek advice and help to live our lives fruitfully, as if the centuries past have taught us nothing, as if with every era we must start again and experience the same anguish and uncertainty about the world around us, whatever progress we appear to have made.
I sipped my latte and then had a surge of elation. (It wasn’t the caffeine—I drink decaf.) I was suddenly very grateful for my yoga; without it, I am sure I would already have been swept away by the fierce currents of modern life. Yoga creates space between me and the abyss. I closed my eyes and breathed in and out several times. When I opened them again, the sun was doing its best to shine—which in London in April takes some doing.
I took up my latte, left the coffee shop, and was swallowed up by the crowd.
The story of Agnes Bojaxhiu, the Albanian Roman Catholic nun who became, rather more famously, Mother Teresa, is a testament to selflessness and devotion. When we think to complain about the difficulties of our lives, our struggles, our doubts, and our feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, we can look to the supernal example of a woman who left her family, her home, her country, and every comfort to care for “the poorest of the poor” in Calcutta. That she became an unstoppable force of one, untiring and unceasing in her efforts, is more than an inspiration: it is proof that the world can be changed for the better. This poem - “Do it anyway” - was discovered, so the story goes, written on a scrap of paper tacked to the wall of her room.
People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centred;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some unfaithful friends and some genuine enemies;
If you are honest and sincere, people may cheat you;
Be honest and sincere anyway.
What you spend years building, someone may destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, some may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today will often be forgotten;
Do good anyway.
Give the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give your best anyway.
In the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.
The original poem was written in 1968 (by a Dr. Kent Keith), and Mother Teresa made some amendments, the most notable of which may well be in the last line. “It was never between you and them anyway.” What did she mean by the use of the word “them”? For me. it stands out. It seems to hint at the struggle Mother Teresa underwent to fulfil her mission. Perhaps those people who did not believe in her at first, who would not help her, are the “them.” She did not let “them” stand in her way, and with success, and the worldwide attention it brought to her mission, everything changed. Her name has, in the end, become a synonym for devotion to others. Selfless acts—after they have been performed successfully, of course—will always bring a stream of well-wishers and offers of help. Everybody wants to bask in the sunlit aura of a saint.
I was in India recently, teaching a group of yogis staying at the Shreyas Retreat in Nelamangala near Bangalore. One evening after practice I went to a puja ceremony at the Santoshimata Temple close by and watched as the priest painstakingly followed the steps of the ritual offering to the Goddess: water, rice, flowers, incense, prasad (sweets), spices, and lit candles. Having made his oblations, he chanted a number of mantras, rang the temple bells—loudly!—and then knelt in silent prayer before offering prasad and the blessed water to the temple guests. The priest’s precise, unhurried movements were a pleasure to witness. It was a graceful ceremony, and I felt transported.
In the West, we tend to regard novelty as desirable and routine as tedious, but we can, with some effort, infuse our daily activities, secular or spiritual, with thought and care, and make them seem fresh again and again, just as the priest was able to do with a ritual that he had probably performed thousands of times. Our routines do not have to be circular and self-defeating, if we approach our tasks with love and an open heart. (Interestingly, the word routine comes from the French word “route” meaning path or way, which alone implies that there has to be a destination for one’s repeated activities!) The lesson, if I have learned one from the priest at the Santoshimata Temple, is that the more often one performs the same task, the more assiduous one should be about it: instead of hurrying, slow down; instead of wishing for the end, relish each moment; instead of resisting, yield to the beauty of repetition.
If your yoga practice has begun to feel a bit flat, turn routine into a ritual by treating every part of the sequence as an offering: consider at every moment what you are doing and put your whole self into it. Follow the advice of the renowned guru Pattabhi Jois, who told his students: “Practise—and all is coming!”
With each breath discover the joy that comes with repeating familiar, much-loved actions. Your practice will come alive and seem new once more. And, before too long, so will you.