The girls form two lines, facing each other, arms interlocked and palms flattened. The Most Popular Girl ascends the steps first and turns her back to the group, crosses her arms. The hammock of hands titters nervously but the line of bodies is frozen and silent in anticipation. A counselor starts to call out a final instruction to keep the back flat but the Most Popular Girl’s heels tip back over the edge of the platform and before the sentence is finished her French braid is cupped in my hands, the group is shrieking and giggling in amazement at their combined strength.
The ubiquitous summer camp “trust fall”. I remember the jealous feeling I had watching each of the girls take their turn effortlessly surrendering to the capable group and then, when it was my turn, bristling more than usual and stating in a very confident and very serious tone, “I don’t trust anyone.” While the other girls that had shown resistance to the exercise were carefully guided into a sense of safety then eventually took their turn, the counselors acquiesced to my simple assertion in a way that I then interpreted as reverence. When I look back now I can clearly see that this sense of respect I felt was a projection of the response I had hoped for, that in reality the feelings those counselors had for me were most likely pity and an unwillingness to probe too deeply into something so obviously broken. My refusal to participate existed on an existential level, it surpassed the situation at hand and the core of the feeling conveyed by my four words was so palpable that no one ventured to challenge it.
I still seem to make people feel that way. On accident. A lot.
My best friend in childhood was my mirror opposite. She was as loud as I was quiet, uninhibited as I was tensed, and as loyal and loving as I was independent and blank. I remember that friend waiting until we were alone later in the afternoon on the rocks by the lake to ask me if I at least trusted her, just not everyone else. “No,” I said, firmly and without any sense of guilt or awareness of her feelings. “Nobody.” And in that moment I felt a sensation in my abdomen that I now recognize as power, or the perception or feeling of being powerful. Earlier while observing the exercise I could not do I felt fear and sadness. I felt defective and different. But now the story had shifted. I felt strong, safe, and superior. Because unlike them, I didn’t need anyone else. I was different. I was special. I was made of something else.
The tension between a silent craving for authentic connection with others and a confused, survival-driven need to be unaffected has led me to some strange places over the years. Different locations, different roles, different chemistry experiments. But they all had one quality that was the same — this dribbling, uncontainable disclosure, an ever-intensifying stream of secrets, epiphanies, truths, confessions. Of things only with qualities of either exceptional beauty or ugliness. When I had that specific feeling of transparency and falling through and into me and another, me and my environment, or me and another layer of myself I didn’t care if it was a simulation. I did not expect that the connection and more-alike-than-not recognition would cross over from these intentionally contained and segregated worlds I created to play in over to a linear narrative or a life with coherency and structural integrity. Flimsy meant flexible. I anticipated the comedown. The clock strikes midnight, the carriage turns into a pumpkin, the pill is swallowed, the sleep comes fast, and the thoughts are finally, mercifully, gone.
One of the less strange places the conjoined desires of connection and control led me to was yoga. My initiation was driven by vanity. In practiced fashion I approached the practice and the culture with smug skepticism. I refused to chant and internally mocked the groupthink yet somehow found myself driving up the street to Mount Madonna almost every weekday morning long after my butt had reached an acceptable level of toned-ness. Then it became about the loosening, the ability to control the tension in my body that was so familiar I had not realized its malleability. There’s a quote I saw on the street in San Francisco outside a body modification studio that reminds me of that recognition, that feeling of direction and connection and action and sweat and results and time being rooted in something concrete again: “Altering your physical form makes the statement that you control your destiny and your physical being. Redefining what you are is an essential part of the transcendent human experience.” It’s simple, but that groundedness and feeling that I am actually alive and steering something is what draws me back into a regular practice and one of the reasons I have recently become so infatuated with practicing Mysore style. If I start my day by pinching myself and reminding my brain that I am actually alive in this place bound by things like space and time and that the results of yesterday’s activity has led to the state I find myself in today, I can secure myself to a concrete sense of time and of causation and then use the patterns to find motivation in seeking that revelation for the day, in relation to the day. There is no better or worse because it all builds on itself. Life becomes less about evaluation and more about experimentation. Focus directs at the speed and in the direction of life.
Over the years I continued to practice but was completely disinterested in the mental and meditative aspects of practicing mostly because my brain seemed incapable of shutting up and it felt better to disregard any of the additional context out of my reach as corny hippie shit. Besides, what’s wrong with thinking anyway? It took a daily Bikram practice — once again driven initially by superficial reasons — to take my system to a point of delerium where my mind could finally exist in a state of equanimity and awareness of itself, where I didn’t greedily latch onto each irresistibly interesting thought and claim it for my own while rejecting the ones that gave me anxiety or self-loathing as some kind of foreign parasite.
Now that my needs for control (asana, directed physical release, yoga butt) and connection (meditation, practicing non-attached thought, savasana epiphanies) were met I thought I had reached my full capacity for understanding yoga and that any of the emotional or esoteric aspects of it would continue to be something of that comforting blanket-just-out-of-the-dryer feeling of calm and safety in my life, a place to go and check in. In short, a place for taking stock of and dampening emotions. A quiet but roomy 4x4 box to feel them instead of shoving them deeper and under more and more pressure because it’s not safe out there and the weight of the accumulating layers makes oil and I don’t want to explode inside myself or at someone else whenever somebody in here or out there decides to start a fire.
I realize this week occurred in a scripted environment with similar-minded people and a common goal, mostly void of the daily chores and realities that distract and disconnect us in mundane and arguably necessary ways. And it would be easy to draw parallels to this clearly delineated experience and the superficially safe vortexes of mutual unveiling and masquerading that I found so compelling in the past. The stark difference is that until this week to some degree I still softly held to the idea that not caring about others, about life, about my Self meant that I was somehow above it all and that it could never crush me again. That I could rip up the inky mess I made because I felt like starting over on a pretty blank sheet of paper, that I could survive in environments contrary to my disposition to cultivate resilience and develop the art of camouflaging, that I should always feel and show less because people mostly just use information you give them to hurt or control you.
Anyone who practices yoga understands the difference between the kind of knowledge you can get from a book and the kind you can only get from experiencing or from feeling something, the kind that only transforms into knowledge after it is processed and then assimilates into the executive self. I’ve read enough books to know by now that that second kind of embodied knowledge is the only kind that can radically change a person’s core beliefs. I can’t put a name to the feelings I felt and I don’t care to make grandiose statements about what it all means and where it’s all going. Vulnerability is still uncomfortable and if the pack of cigarettes I bought today just to smoke one and throw the rest out is any indication I’m still a long way from reaching Samadhi anytime soon. I just want to thank you all for helping me come to the realization that my practice and my life can be about something more than just mere survival. And for giving me the opportunity to finally get the courage to practice falling back.
See you on the other side. Or maybe my grandiose statement is that it now, somehow, it all feels like the same side.