feeling uncertainty

I think that my practice is in quandary.

Generally I adhere to the idea that speaking about one’s practice is, well, bad practice. And if anything this blog is testament to it’s that I tend to resort to abstract language to capture practice related thoughts and feelings. But in this case I feel the only way to work through this quandary is to write about practice, in all its mundane glory.

So, I think my practice is in a quandary. At first my brain wanted to write ‘in a rut’ – but no it is more a sense of uncertainty and loss of purpose I feel. I wake up and feel like I don’t want to practice. Most of the time I wake up and feel ‘I don’t want to get out of bed’ but the difference is I also would feel ‘I really want to go to practice’, and so the desire would win over my tiredness. Now without the desire, more often than I would like I remain glued in my bed, paralysed almost, as my mind battles with itself, debating the appropriate course of action.

It has taken me a while to realise that my inconsistent practice of late is not so much a matter of motivation and laziness, but that I have lost some of the excitement for practice. I am not especially motivated by being disciplined for the sake of it. I have maintained a regular early morning practice because I wanted to practice. When people – friends and those who I live with – would express awe, surprise, or incredulity at my daily routine, it was hard to communicate to them that the sacrifices were easy when going to yoga was far more exciting to me than the other activities on offer: mid-week drinking, heavy evening meals, and even, spending time with friends.

It has been over ten years now since first discovering ashtanga, and about eight years of regular early morning practice. Mostly I respond well to a routinised schedule and having the structure that a mysore practice provides has been greatly beneficial to me, in terms of making me more focused and organised in other areas of my life. Most importantly, it means that out of each day I have carved some time for myself, despite the other inevitable stresses that work and London life have to offer me.

At the same time, the routine (coupled with full-time work and daily commuting) has also often felt punishing and utterly exhausting. Then, if I fail to maintain this disciplined schedule, a sense of complete failure. For me, this is when I struggle. Because yes, yoga practice is about sadhana, and also a source of necessary physical exercise, but most importantly, in my view, practice should be enjoyable. I don’t feel that yoga was designed to make me feel guilty for having a much needed lie-in.

I feel my body is actively resistant to encouraging this sort of sense of shame and self-hatred. As a child and young person, discipline was forced upon me. Caring duties meant often broken sleep and waking up at 5.30am from an early age. Living through that means that now as an adult, with no dependents, I want to prioritise freedom and flexibility, and taking care of my self. And so my desire to practice is only maintained if practice remains in accordance with what I need to do to take care of myself.

It is a delicate balance, which I am now belatedly realising. When I am exhausted I am out of balance, and not going to practice is one way of remedying that through getting rest. I recognise as I write that I need to more effectively use practice as restorative rather than something that depletes me. I also realise just how many anxieties are caught up in the simple act of yoga practice; how many expectations, fears, disappointments, hopes. In this way the practice happening in my own mind connects with the mood across the wider community. Recently, more than before I have had to individualise my practice in order to best manage thoughts and feelings on the socio-political climate of ashtanga. Perhaps in doing this I have become more preoccupied with individual failings. Perhaps the meaning behind everything has felt more fragile, and the purpose has got lost.

Writing here again after so long is a way to draw myself out from my individual thoughts, bring my practice into the open, vulgar as it is. Shame has no place in yoga practice and though I don’t really know what I want from my practice anymore, I won’t feel ashamed of my uncertainty.

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You are good enough

Some periods of life are too close and too real to write about.

For a number of months now I have been unemployed. I have been clinging by a thread to normality, in a seemingly unending precarious spiral, feeling at times the only way out was to cease existence. This felt a logical solution to the fact I couldn’t afford to live. If I just took myself and the price of keeping myself alive out of the equation, the burden would lift. In short: it’s been dark.

There are many essays to write about the unequal damaging structures of higher education and the perpetual precarity and anxiety they foster for the many that struggle for those few elusive jobs. The competition began to consume me. Feeling palpable envy of those of my career stage who got the fellowship I applied for but didn’t get, or who had more publications than me, or who won a special prize or got the job straight after the PhD.

This background noise plays out in the daily routine of job searching and job applications. Starting out with the naive assumption that if you meet the essential and desirable criteria on the person specification then you will get an interview. Envisioning the possible futures every time you submit, and then the waiting. All the waiting, checking the inbox over and over, and sometimes, often just nothing. I started to get so used to the rejections that when they came I often couldn’t even remember applying for the job in the first place. I was rejected from the type of jobs I did before the PhD, as though I was slipping further backwards, the PhD a huge wasteful burden that made me ineligible for a minimum wage.

The handful of interviews that punctuated the waiting and nothingness became increasingly more weighted with importance. I got more and more desperate and thus more incapable of performing at an interview and getting out of the spiral. I loathed the circus of interviews, the performing, all that energy poured into 30 minutes of questioning, or a 5 minute presentation. The ups and downs of glimmers of hope followed by desolation. And then hope again before desolation, and so on until the body is so exhausted and drained by anxiety and self pity.

I was haunted by the sentence: You’re just not good enough. I had tried to make my way through the system but I had failed, it was my fault. I read first hand accounts of others, academics trying to find work after the PhD, and they were all framed with a sense of individual responsibility for failure. All the comments below the line declared: you need to publish more, you need to try harder, you need to sacrifice more.

This story has a ‘good’ ending though. It might not have, the spiral it seemed to me was set to continue, and I was at a point where I had to begin considering a different path. In my powerlessness I could only have faith in an ambiguous idea of the universe that would somehow reveal, when it was ready, whatever the hell was in store for me.

Yesterday I received a phone call – from the sort of elite higher education institution I felt so sealed off from – offering me a job. I accepted. Later in the afternoon I received an invitation for a job interview at the University of Cambridge. I declined the interview. I presume that was the universe showing a sense of humour and letting me know: you are good enough.

a field guide to getting lost

Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession; you lose a bracelet, a friend, the key. You still know where you are. Everything is familiar except that there is one item less, one missing element. Or you can get lost, in which case the world has become larger than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control. Imagine yourself streaming through time shedding gloves, umbrellas, wrenches, books, friends, homes, names. This is what the view looks like if you take a rear-facing seat on the train. Looking forward you constantly acquire moments of arrival, moments of realisation, moments of discovery. The wind blows your hair back and you are greeted by what you have never seen before. The material falls away in onrushing experience. It peels off like skin from a molting snake. Of course to forget the past is to lose the sense of loss that is also memory of an absent richness and a set of clues to navigate the present by; the art is not one of forgetting but letting go. And when everything else is gone; you can be rich in loss.

Rebecca Solnit (2006) A field guide to getting lost, p.22-3.

manifesto.

This year I’m going to put practice first.

This year I’m going to put practice first and do less. I’m going to do less and say “no” to things I don’t really believe in. I’m going to take time off and do activities for the sake of it.

This year I’m going to step down the career ladder and step away from the screen. I’m going to read less news and more fiction and begin to imagine again. I’m going to start dreaming once more and rebuild optimism, for pessimism has no future.

This year I will mark my successes and gloat when appropriate. I will change my name on my bank cards to “Dr” and not feel like its trivial. I will look at the final version of my PhD on my shelf and wonder what else I can create and achieve. I will think too about how to detach from the need to prove myself in academic pursuits.

This year I’m going to stop lamenting the dispersion of friends that were once so close and have faith that connections can bear the distance. I’m going to stop feeling nostalgic for a recent past where I remember living life less carefully, and where emotions felt heightened and bigger. I will remind myself that the confusion of not knowing what you want was never exciting and desire reciprocated is always better than unrequited.

This year I will put practice first. I will work to re-establish practice as my centre, my fetish, to secure order in the pending days of little money and little jobs and little that feels like home. I will dream of travelling to new places, learning new languages and becoming new.

I will find spaces within myself to give time and energy to those who need it and love the best that I can without giving myself away. This year I will put practice first and carve out something small but beautiful, starting with a few words here, in the hope that I will see the world again in light and not only darkness.

on stuckness.

London in August. A mocking sun occasionally appears, setting the backdrop for the temporary migration of people out and in of the city (locals out, tourists in). In this month London feels even more of a transitory place to be, and with it a confusing pattern of weather in a place that only truly suits greyness. I find that I endure August waiting for September when greyness descends once more and the days get shorter so that my sadness can hide better in the darkness.

People said to me that submitting the PhD is an anti-climax, yet it wasn’t quite that. Rather I experienced a hollowing out which was both a relief and an empty feeling. I am lighter but I am also more pointless.

Lauren Berlant described writing as a performance of stuckness. Recently I have wondered if once unraveled, writing leads you back to stuckness. But along the way you hope something might shift.

A week after submitting my thesis the country descended into the biggest political and economic crisis of my generation. Soon everyone was aware of precarity and how porous safety can feel. It can feel sudden, or somewhat arbitrary, the way that familiar structures dissolve. Left with liminal spaces and no hidings places we were all just blobs striving to divide ourselves – remain/leave, British/other: all that was solid melting into air.

In this way stuckness is never just stuckness. It’s a dynamic and moving reconfiguration, but one where the transformation cannot be known in advance. Yet we still need images and visions to hold us, to keep us in place, on track. In short, we need optimism.

For this reason stuckness has always fascinated me, theoretically. The ambivalence of grief is an extraordinary demonstration of becoming an obstacle to one’s own flourishing, to progress, to recovery. But the desire to hold on to what is no longer there provides its own comfort and optimism even as it counteracts the notions of modern life, where life should be lived at a pace, and there are so many things to do, people to meet, roads to cross.

I like to think that flourishing is possible in stuckness, and that stuckness is only one interpretation of an experience. It might feel like stuckness, or it might feel boring and banal, liberating or terrifying. But stuckness cannot be transformed simply by changing how you think about it. Stuckness, liminality, is also a structural problem (its not necessarily a choice). It’s a state caused by the existence of structure, by falling in-between. It’s not nothingness.

Stuckness is also a judgment, a negative one, but only if existence is viewed linearly. I found that grief was one instance that can revert people to a cyclical way of living. As a vision of the future died along with a person, people focused on building new structures to get them through the everyday. The banal activities of daily life – grocery shopping, cleaning, taking the dog for a walk – became important strategies to navigate what I described as the liminal space of grief.

The repetition of the everyday is not always a reaffirmation of sameness but a hope for change. Its an energetic movement: if energies are directed towards particular actions, a shift must occur. But what actions to choose? The engagement with the seemingly banal activities of managing the everyday are viewed by the bereavement professional as distractions not cures. The judgment is that this is stuckness, not healing.

Perhaps, as psychologists of grief tell me, people need meaning and linear stories – we need conventional structures and to be able to make sense of things. Ontological security, sociologists would describe it. What then of flourishing? I think the thread I was trying to follow – that perhaps I still haven’t grasped – is that life is lived not only when the future is knowable, but in the liminal unfolding present.

 

lost notes from Mysore.

There was a phrase, a thought cluster that repeated itself all over Mysore the last month: Don’t be afraid to step into the unknown.

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The only thing to say with any certainty about the process of getting older is that you become more accustomed to your edges. That is, you see the repetition of things, of your actions, and deduce that perhaps it is not simply error but what is consistent in you. Consistency becomes persona when we perform similarly enough times to have a coherent sense of who we take ourselves to be. Though sometimes what is consistent in us turns us off: bad habits, resentment, insecurities. How to remedy the gap between that which we are: problematic matter, and that which we ‘ought’ to be: in control, bounded.

Coming to the concrete realisation of being the odd one out: it’s a lesson I’m still learning. But then we are always becoming odd and becoming normal as we travel across different spaces. We’re moving targets. Failed performances start to become instructive when we see failure not as reflective of innate characteristics of our personhood but as reflective of environments that hold us or reject us. India is a place where I feel both held and rejected. It’s a space for unravelling but that unravelling rarely happens at a rate you can control. The cost of unravelling might cause you to feel violated. And it’s hard to find space for flourishing amidst violence.

How to build a world that can hold us when in constant transit, a world not centred around four walls, a world with no centre at all. When in flux what can hold us? What is lasting? Is it the practice, is it pure repetition itself. Is it love without the attachment – is it love that remedies the gap when our loves manage to hold an image of us more complete than the image we can hold of ourselves?

Amma.

Sometimes days happen like this in Mysore. Friday I get stopped by a woman in the street. She’s lost her yoga mat. Can she borrow mine? Sure. She repays me later in breakfast and it turns out we live in the same house. We see a flyer about Amma’s visit to Mysore this weekend. My friend is going, says my newly discovered housemate, I can ask her to get us tickets? I am curious, I say. Next day, practice, then conference, then some more breakfast. We’re indecisive about going. We get told you have to be there by 8am or you haven’t a chance of getting a hug. It’s now creeping up to noon. We decide let’s just go and see. We rickshaw over to the Ashram, the driver likes my skull tattoo. On entering a beaming face wearing all white greets us. My housemate mentions her friend has got us a ticket. Somehow she knows. We get fast tracked past hundreds of people to the front of the stage, hanging out with the VIPs. We exchange a look of disbelief – and guilt – people have been waiting for hours. Amma is a few rows ahead, singing, I’m trying to take it all in. When we exchange our ticket for a hugging number, I get A5. The order goes alphabetically. Before I know it I’m led through eager pushing Indians and I’m buying fruits to gift to Amma. What language? Where are you from? ask two men as I prepare for my hug. I get moved along into Amma’s arms and she makes what sounds like a wailing noise in my ear before giving me a mini banana and Amma brand sweet. I get told to sit on the stage behind Amma and I look to the hundreds queuing and waiting. At some point a group of Bharatanatyam dancers take the stage and I get moved again to the other side and find myself in a special queue of people to give prashad to Amma. In the queue we get trained how to put the sweets into Amma’s hand. Be fast, not too firm, you have to stretch, watch her hand at all times. I’m still not at all sure what’s happening but as I get closer, I feel my heart pounding. As I have my 4-5 goes at putting sweets in Amma’s hand I get a closer look at the hugs in action. So many people telling their stories. And women, Indian women clearly overwhelmed and overjoyed to encounter their inspiration. Women hugging women. And men, all the men too wanting a touch of this woman. And in this politics of late: of wrong female flesh, of male gazes, of violence and repression, the idea of Amma started to make some sense to me. Here was a safe space at a time when a safe space feels hard to find. After my prashad honour was over, I wandered the ashram grounds. Another kindly face dressed in white asks me if I have a ticket, oh they took it already I tell her. You have already met Amma! And you have had time to sit on the stage? Yes I gave prashad also. Wow! she exclaims, it is usually only us tour group who do that. Yes I say I don’t know how it all happened. “It is Amma’s grace,” she tells me. I smiled curious as to why Amma would wish to favour me. The skeptic in me had been trying to resist but I had to admit there was a very haphazard quality to the past two days. Whether there’s something more meaningful to the whole series of events, I still don’t know. When I left five hours later the queue had only got to L.