The balance between self and other

A few weeks ago I went to a workshop run by US teacher, Sarah Powers. Aside from being an incredible physical practice, what I really took away from the workshop was a sense that perspective is really important in a yoga practice (and, let’s face it, in life). At the very beginning of the practice, Powers talked about how many people think of the idea of self-improvement as a selfish act. She suggested that it needn’t be, if the improvements in self are also then used for the betterment of society as a whole in some way. That is, if we improve ourselves in ways which are beneficial to our relationships with other people, and indeed with other creatures and life forms. Ultimately, that kind of practice is more beneficial for us as individuals too.

Perhaps it sounds a bit namby-pamby to talk about realising and improving our connection with everything else. But I mean that in the most realistic and maybe even boring way possible. Every organism on this planet depends in one way or another on something else. We depend on other human beings, we depend on other species even, both in ways that we’re able to identify and perhaps quantify, and in ways that we’ve no idea about. We eat other species (even vegans and vegetarians eat other species — sentience is a whole other discussion and not one I’m going to have here just now), they eat each other. We rely on other human beings for friendship, but also to build the roads we drive on and the buildings we live in. For the most part, we rely on other human beings to manage our eating relationship with other species by growing our food for us.

My lovely friend and fellow yoga teacher (based in Seattle) Kat Selvocki, brought my attention to this article by Matthew Remski on how the ‘social good’ aspects of yoga are missing in the way most of us practice it. The idea of connectivity, both within and beyond ourselves, is certainly present in the philosophy of yoga, but it’s yet to take off in any concrete way in the way we practice yoga in developed countries. He writes about going to a church service and finding out about all the social services that church has on offer, and about then wondering why those sorts of services are not part of the way yoga generally manifests itself in our society.

I don’t think it’s a problem with yoga, per se. I think it’s symptomatic of broader issues of isolation and fading of community that can come with an increased emphasis on individual empowerment. I write about and do a lot of research into food systems, and I see the same problems there. In food systems there’s a huge disconnection between most people and the actual growing of their food — that is, most people don’t grow their own food, and have no idea who does grow it.

What buoys me as I do this research is the fact that there seem to be plenty of other people who are already aware of how problematic this is, and who are trying to do something about it. In the same way, pieces like Remski’s give me hope that some of these issues in the way yoga is practiced are being or will be addressed. The concept of ecological systems, which, essentially, are a way of examining the relationships between things in the non-human world and between the human and non-human worlds, is one that could easily be applied to the relationships between humans themselves. After all, we are actually our own walking ecosystems, made up of a community of our own genes and microbacterial life. (For a really interesting, if a little icky, examination of the bacterial make-up of human beings and how important it is to our health, have a listen to this short podcast about the medical practice of ‘poo transplants’. Gross, but really fascinating.)

But how does all this relate to a yoga practice? How might we keep a sense of perspective when we’re up close and personal with our bodies and all the physical, emotional and mental issues the practice might bring with it? Sarah Powers offered in her workshop a simple exercise that might help here.

As we held an uncomfortable but relatively supported and passive pose (you might do the same just lying on your back on the floor, or sitting upright on a cushion), Powers asked us to allow our awareness to travel around the body until we found the most uncomfortable sensation, and then to watch that sensation. To notice everything we could about it — where it was, how strong it was, whether it was tightness, whether it affected our breath etc etc. After a minute or so, she asked us to keep that point of discomfort as the centre of our awareness, but allow the edges of that awareness to expand out to the edges of our mat. Then after another minute, again keeping the original discomfort as the centre of our awareness, to expand the edges out to the sides of the room. After another minute, to the streets that enclosed the block the building sat on, then out to the suburb, the city, the region, the state, the country, and on and on, perhaps even out to the knowable universe. Once we’d expanded our awareness out as far as we could — still with the centre point being that discomfort in our own body — she asked us to notice how small our discomfort looked when compared to the rest of what we were holding in our awareness. Very small indeed.

This exercise was not used to try and eliminate that discomfort, or to suggest it wasn’t valid; it was merely an exercise in perspective that hopefully helped us to suffer less from the discomfort. And it worked. The discomfort was still there, but it didn’t feel quite as bad. I think it’s really important to remember that yoga isn’t supposed to just be exercise for the physical body. The physical poses are about realising that there’s more to life than what’s going on your head, and to see the connections between your body and your mind.

Additionally, the exercise certainly helped me to remember that there is more going on in the world (solar system, universe, whatever) than just what’s going on for me, even beyond my physical body. And this is hopefully what yoga is about, at least eventually. A big part of the way that Sarah Powers teaches yoga involves the Buddhist ideas of compassion and loving kindness, and an exercise like this one at the very least shows that we have an emotional capacity beyond our own experiences. The trick then, perhaps, is what we do with that capacity, how we put it into practice beyond an exercise on our yoga mats.

Advertisements

The social function of literature?

On Thursday I rushed (quite unnecessarily, as it turns out) from a lunchtime yoga class I teach at UNSW to get on a bus to Canberra to visit my family. I’ve written here before about how I like catching a bus or a train somewhere by myself. It means I get Thinking Time.

I’ve got a lot to think about at the moment. Exciting plans, not-yet-plans, writing, reading, family stuff, money (sigh). When I slumped back in the seat on the bus yesterday, I realised that it’s actually been quite some time since I’ve given myself a break to think. I mean, I think a whole lot as I travel all over the place to teach yoga and various forms of writing. But it’s really been ages since I’ve let myself just think. When you’re travelling to teach, there’s only so far you can let your thoughts wander, in case you end up missing the bus stop or distracting yourself so much that you end up referring to your students’ feet as their hands and inadvertently instructing them to tie themselves up in strange knots. (I frequently say things like, “Inhale, walk your feet forwards between your feet… I mean…”)

Anyway. That’s a (very) round about way of saying that I got some thinking time yesterday. I put my headphones in, found some thinking music and stared out the window.

One of the things that’s been on my mind lately is the social function of literature. In my ramblings on writing as activism I touched on the idea that my writing is often an attempt to understand the world from someone else’s point of view. I’m starting to try and unpack that idea bit by bit.

Allow me to be embarrassingly earnest here for a moment.

Essentially, for me, trying to put myself in other people’s shoes in writing is about compassion. Most of the things that anger me most about the world come down to other people’s lack of compassion. Human beings seem to have this innate ability to lose all compassion for other people. And then they’re jerks to one another. It drives me nuts. (Happily, I’m also often pleasantly surprised by people’s capacity — sometimes those very same people — for compassion.) I’m guilty of it too, of course, and I reserve my harshest judgement for myself.

One of things that interests me most about yogic philosophy is its teachings on compassion. Yoga teaches compassion for all living things, human or otherwise, because all those living things are really part of the same thing. Atman, Brahma, the Self, the Buddha Self, the Universe. A whole lot of names for the same idea. Whatever you want to call it, and whether or not you’re interested in identifying yourself as belonging to one of the traditions that teaches this stuff, the idea that we’re all connected to one another — all dependent on one another — is intriguing.

When I write, I certainly don’t sit down and think, “I know, I’m going to write a piece that teaches everybody that they’re equal to the homeless man they wouldn’t normally look at.” I’m not out to write didactically. But I don’t think it’s possible to write or read stories about human beings — particularly fiction — without being pushed in some small way to think about the world from another person’s perspective. Even if just for a moment. And hey, we might not always feel compassion for the people or characters that we’re reading about (especially if you’re not a bleeding heart, like I apparently am), but even just a glimpse into that perspective, I think, has the potential to shift something in the writer and the reader.

For me, this is what literature is all about: exploring and presenting different perspectives, suggestion and question. The word that I use to explain that process is compassion, because it makes sense to me. Compassion doesn’t mean agreeing with the person or character’s perspective, but it does mean attempting to understand it. Which of course means, for me, also attempting to understand the perspective of the people in the world who are jerks to each other.

Let me get down from my soapbox now. Pack away my pompous wanker pants.

Talking about compassion and linking it to the social function of literature is problematic, I think. I’m an eldest child, and was often accused of lecturing my younger brothers (most of the time the accusation was probably spot on). As a result, as an adult I’m really conscious of not lecturing people. Saying that literature teaches people compassion makes me uncomfortable, as if I’m advocating the kind of writing that’s overtly didactic, even patronising. Writing that lectures, in other words. That kind of writing, I think, actually creates obstacles in people’s thinking, rather than chipping away at the obstacles that are already there. I certainly observe that reaction in myself.

I’m not sure how to resolve this discomfort. I don’t know where the balance is. I don’t know if I even need to resolve it.

This is really the beginning of my thinking on this topic — it’s by no means an exhaustive exploration of what’s in my brain (although I do feel slightly exhausted after typing it all up). I feel like my thinking has a lot of room for development. Any thoughts on the matter (the social function of literature or the need for brain development on my part) would be most welcome.