Zen and the Art of Not Tearing Your Hair Out
If you had a time machine, would you speed forward into the future or relive the past?
Someone asked me this once in a car on a road trip, and while my car-mates reminisced about times they’d go back to, I just thought, “FAST FORWARD PLEASE!” I would have loved to have skipped over the period I was in and entered into some fantasy future where I was rich and famous and being lauded as the next Mariah Carey. Or, you know, whatever.
I’ve always been the kind of person that wants to speed forward—I hated being a kid because whenever I asked a question, people would say, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” I hated that. I started a crusade against ageism: I even made buttons.
I’ve always been waiting for the next step: waiting to finish high school, waiting to finish my degree, waiting until my career evens out, waiting to find the right person, waiting for the bus—my goodness, we do a lot of waiting around here. And you know what we think about when we are waiting?
The past. You know, that gorgeous backlit past where flawless images of your loved ones frolic in fields, in a time before some innocence must have been lost.
One of my teachers likes to call this tendency time-traveling. Most of us would give our right big toe to be anywhere but here and now. We always seem to be in between something—don’t want to be then, don’t want to be later, don’t want to be in between them, so we struggle.
I suppose the news for us time travellers is this: there’s nowhere to get. As soon as you arrive where you thought you were going, you’re either hoping or remembering, fantasizing or reimagining. The present is the only thing that exists, and it’s … well, it’s nothing.
I’ve been doing a 30 day meditation challenge, as of this November 1st, and my challenge is to sit with myself for 20 minutes a day. I can handle 10 minutes, 15, 16 … but right around that time I start to want to pull my hair out and run screaming from my meditation cushion. My thoughts just start repeating themselves over and over and an epic battle of wills arises between me and, um … me.
See, I think the root of the problem starts around here: When I’m not a yoga teacher, or a daughter, or a sister, or a girlfriend, or a writer, or a studio owner, or [insert approx. 72 000 things I've tried to be thus far in my life], who am I?
The Buddhists say the worst form of laziness is busyness. When you are constantly doing something, you don’t take the time to learn anything about yourself or do any real work. And you have this illusion that you are going somewhere, that there’s a past and a future. They don’t, of course, exist. We just live off them—we are like addicts racing to get our fix, to convince ourselves that we are going somewhere. I am so guilty of this.
This is where yoga asana [my saviour!] appears. It’s challenging for future addicts like me to sit for very long, but get me moving, and that’s where I can get my stillness. It might sound strange, but it’s the moments of flow, movement, mindful breathing, workin—that I can get that feeling of still presence. I’m actually paying attention. Sometimes.
Partly for this reason, my favourite classes are those when there’s no real stopping in between postures. You are just moving and moving, and the transitions become the most interesting thing about the class. I’ve been really watching myself lately in between the poses—the stuff that happens after A and before B. I’ll see how far my breath takes me from down dog to warrior two, from warrior two to ardha chandrasana—and of course, what I discover, is that I never actually get there. I never get anywhere, I’m just still breathing, watching the pose change and morph into something else, in perpetual transition from one place to the next.
Just like life.
Moving, waiting, the future, and the past, stillness: it’s all an illusion. Get as still as you can in a pose–you’re still breathing. And even if you are not breathing, then girl, you are decomposing, in the process of becoming something else. Forever.
So I’m going to keep on trying to sit with myself and not tear my hair out, day by day, and just work with what comes up, doing my best to remember that even this moment where I am desperately trying to convince myself not to get up and do my laundry is a moment of transition, and it’s all I’ve got, the present. This sweet, sweet, nothing.
PS: If you are in the mood to be grossed out, I wrote a poem about what was going on in my mind in my most recent sit:
They took bites out
many years ago, before I
knew what a heart was, before I
thought I needed protection.
Maggots are good at multiplying. Some say they sleep in
living flesh, waiting for the moment of death to be born,
to wake up and eat, from the inside first, so the flesh falls off when you touch it,
reveals the new-birth feast that’s almost over.
And I think of a peach, beautiful and sweet, bit into with a hollow heart,
nothing on the inside but maggots and ashes
the illusion of life and nourishment beaten into submission by
looking beneath the veil.
I am afraid to see the inside of my heart. Rotting like that.
So I pushed it out.
I breathed maggot heart hard, I pulsed, I showered
I opened my chest and let the ashes vomit out
it fell, broke, confusion and anxiety among the bugs
wouldn’t you know it, there were bedbugs in there, too,
centipedes, making a home in the flesh they were eating,
burrowing in, and now,
splayed out on the hardwood floor, ashes and insect shit pouring out of my chest onto them
they are afraid of a new life. As am I.
Our peach heart can no longer lie to us.
I ask for water, think of buckets, pailful by pailful
flowing over the dirty cavities of my body
I ask for help, wash me clean, please, wash these ashes out of me
I have no idea how to live without my maggot heart, I wonder if I’ll die,
regret for a moment how cavalierly i rejected this vital organ–
but then I thought, the illusion of life still isn’t life;
I’ve been living on the heartbeats of insects
they don’t belong to me.
So I let the pailfuls flow, water for new blood, carving out gullies in the
monstrous piles of insect shit and
there’s clean flesh under there
hollow muscle, strong, a good burrowing place for insects, or a night home for an owl
I look in deeper, and soaking up the water, getting clean, breathing green:
a little seed, a sprout.