Photo: ©2010, The Magazine of Yoga
Waiting For The Big One
BY MAGAZINE EDITOR SUSAN MAIER-MOUL
The New Yorker ran a profile of the Dalai Lama, called “The Next Incarnation” in the October 4th issue.
The Dalai Lama’s death, which he calls a “change of clothing,” is not a taboo subject; as a Buddhist, he says, “I visualize death every day.”
An accompanying photograph by Manuel Bauer shows HHDL – we’re told this is how his Twitter followers know him – walking in his robes on a treadmill. Barefoot, naturally.
I’m not a Buddhist, but I sort of love the Dalai Lama. I think it’s because he’s totally comfortable disappointing so many people. You know, he eats meat, and there are “learned Buddhists who cringe at the sound of Scripture being boiled down to bromides,” when he gives talks and interviews.
It reminds me of Chogyam Trungpa. By some accounts, Trungpa let people down by getting drunk at parties, and even treating guests in wildly poor taste.
Maybe it runs in Tibetan teachers.
Everybody’s so keen to take their practice off the mat. Trungpa and HHDL seem to be demonstrating an edgier strategy: taking practice off the pedestal.
Milton Glaser, probably most famous for the “I love New York” logo, spent twenty years of his career designing things for the supermarket chain, Grand Union. Glaser says:
A lot of the work we [graphic designers] do is sort of aimed at a thin hierarchy of design interested personalities and other designers and fancy people and so on but those years designing supermarkets were very fundamental in shaping my perception of how to communicate clearly.
The idea of being a teacher is that you’ve got to pass it on, you learn something you develop some insights, your experience can be transmitted and that is the nature of civilization.
What students get from a good teacher is not instruction. What they get is a demonstration of someone’s view of life.
-Milton Glaser: To Inform and Delight (2009)
I can’t stop thinking about the people in The New Yorker article who really believe they have something to teach HHDL about how to show up. This is a man who wakes up at 3:30 every morning to practice for hours before breakfast, studies during the day and practices for hours again before bed. Just for starters.
Glaser’s comments make me think about the current vogue of pettiness in what is and isn’t the spiritual part of yoga. And how so often when we’re talking about yoga we’re talking in this rarefied way, directing yoga to a thin layer of fancy people.
How many of us who scorn gym yoga would be able to turn twenty years of it into an understanding of how to communicate clearly?
There’s nothing wrong with gyms, that’s for sure. It’s just our lack of genius.
Staring at the ceiling
Recently, I had dinner with a psychiatrist and her wife. The doctor talked about her insomnia. “I fall asleep, but then I wake up wondering about how I’m going to get all my work done.” Her wife said, “I can’t fall asleep, but I wouldn’t say I’m thinking about work. There are a lot of other things on my mind.”
I don’t know about you, but I’m often fairly relieved to be in conversations with people who just do all the talking. The psychiatrist resumed with her stress and her overwork and no one asked me what I think about if I wake up at night.
I’m with the Dalai Lama. I visualize death. I get the feeling it’s volitional with him, though.
And I doubt it would have made good dinner conversation.
In Albert Brooks’ movie Defending Your Life Brooks and Meryl Streep play souls who meet after death in “Judgment City,” a sort of station stop between life on Earth and whatever’s next.
As they’re getting to know each other they describe how they died. Brooks, picking something up from the floor of his car, has an accident while driving. Streep trips on the patio chaise lounge, hits her head and rolls into a swimming pool where she drowns.
“Did you feel anything? Were you scared?” asks Brooks.
“I was pissed,” says Streep. “I was a good swimmer.”
I think to myself about the moment I will die sort of like this: one minute I’ll be alive, and the next moment I won’t be. It’ll be like New Year’s – one second it’s 2010, then for sort of arbitrary reasons, the next second it’s 2011. Brooks’ movie makes me laugh because it manages the ironic truth that dying isn’t such a big deal once you’re on the other side of it.
At night, it’s the ball in Time’s Square part that grips me. Death is really going to happen to me. At night I can’t quite get my head around that fact in a way I could describe to you as meditational, like it must be for HHDL.
I do, however, take his point. HHDL says we don’t do ourselves or each other any favors by not talking about it. When I’m thinking about how it will be to die, I don’t try to kid myself about it or make deals about it or get all gothic. I try – often not successfully – to find a semblance of calm.
When I visualize death, I don’t try to imagine how.
I visualize being aware.
The moment of This Is It. The moment that doesn’t have anything, on Earth, after it.
What’s yoga got to do with it
I tossed an hour of interval yoga into my practice today, maybe because it’s been awhile or maybe because Margo has been up to her old Bikram habits again. Interval yoga is like salt: a touch of it doesn’t make things salty, it brings out the flavor of other ingredients. When I practice interval, it highlights so much of what’s present.
Most days in my practice I come into postures with a lot of awareness. I’m often working out some relationship in my twisted hips or uncurling my right shoulder when I’ve been writing steadily. In other words, it’s slow. When I hold the postures, I’m involved and interested, paying attention, breath after breath. Each patient posture builds strength, takes me deeper, prepares me for the next. Like being a good swimmer, as Streep says.
Just, I may not have the option to take my time getting ready for everything life – or death – may bring.
When I do interval style postures, there’s not anything like the kind of time I usually take for an aware approach, which is actually one of the reasons for practicing interval. I get thirty seconds, that’s it. Five seconds to shake it out and change postures. Then the gong, and it’s time to be there, again, right away in the next posture.
Sometimes it is downright scary doing postures this way.
I don’t mean I’m afraid of hurting myself. I’m talking about the sensation of “Wait!” and “No, not yet -” that gets stronger for the first half of my practice. The demand on me to swiftly accept the unfamiliar, to just show up, is unnerving.
As I go on, a kind of natural compassion arises, too.
The compassion for my real state, the liminal one between now and forever, in which our uncertain human lives flicker and glow.
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.