Video Stills: Shahzia Sikander
A few days ago I was reading in the newspaper how to twitter at the office without getting caught. It involved the use of a software application that looks like Excel. In effect, you could be twittering while appearing to be working on a spreadsheet.
The article was a strange bedfellow of the one I read before it. Penguin has recently published a new book by Winifred Gallagher, Rapt, which “makes the radical argument that the quality of your life largely depends on what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to do it.” **
The juxtaposition of these two news items struck me as at least ironic. It’s like the tale of the blindfolded scholars describing an elephant as being like the part they were touching. It made me think of yoga, especially how we talk about it and what we’re thinking we’re up to when we do yoga.
When I ask someone why they do yoga, the answer is generally that they feel better when they do it. If I ask what that means, “Feel better how?” the response almost invariably includes feeling calmer and happier.
Which makes me wonder if I’m some sort of anomaly. Am I really the only person who finds practicing yoga profoundly unsettling? I don’t think so, yet in a culture which rightly values non-pharmaceutical reduction of stress, we rarely talk about the disturbing quality of truth.
Though I’m not someone who wants to twitter while appearing to be doing what I get paid to do, practicing yoga has taught me that I am involved in something similar: a kind of internal game of 3 card monte, a sleight of hand where the action that’s important is never going on in the place I’m looking. I’m always distracting myself from what I’m really up to by engaging in some shiny elaborate process of accepting myself.
And the more I practice yoga, the more aware of this behavior I become. I don’t find this reassuring. I’m pretty sure that’s the point.
Like my confrere with the twittering spreadsheet, the way I typically go about things inside myself in my not-so-awake state is something best described as dissembling. To dissemble means “to conceal, to disguise, or to feign,” behaviors that if they aren’t exactly lying, are certainly acts that prevent truth from being apparent.
In my own case, at the bottom of my day-to-day life I seem to think the world is a better place than I am, that in most ways I’m not really good enough to take my part. My suspicions in this regard are on speed dial with me – they have the most direct and most privileged path in the ways I make sense out of my experiences. My self-criticizing way of meaning making boils down to a super efficient equation: somewhere along the line there must have been a right thing to do, and I didn’t do it, a) because I’m stupid, b) because I’m lazy, or c) all of the above.
Most of my internal dissembling appears to be intended to help me cope with this feeling of inadequacy, and the subsequent rage and fear that arise because of it. So I’ve spent all this time and energy, I have all these behaviors and practices to help me deal with my feelings. I’ve made this huge investment in helping myself cope because my feelings about being inadequate are so overwhelming.
But here’s the thing: the practice of yoga keeps taking my attention away from appearances, keeps directing my attention to what’s real. Away from the pretend spreadsheet if you will, to the fact of the twittering, toward how I am really spending my time, how I am therefore, really literally spending my life.
The practice of yoga doesn’t say my feelings aren’t worthwhile, it only asks, what if the world is not actually a better place than I am? What if there’s no reason to feel inadequate?
I find myself again and again with a wheelbarrow full of whatever I’m building my world view out of, asking this foolish question in response: well then what am I supposed to do with this?
Chogyam Trungpa says “we find our self hatred a kind of occupation… If we begin to give up our self criticism, then we may feel that we are losing our occupation, as though someone were taking away our job.”
In her book, Rapt, Winifred Gallagher challenges us to notice not only what we pay attention to, but how we choose to do it.
Gallagher asks, “Why do we often zero in on the wrong factors when making big decisions?”
Well, yikes. Could it have anything to do with twittering and dissembling?
**John Tierney writing for the New York TImes Ear Plugs to Lasers: The Science of Concentration.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.