Under the Skin.

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. – Deleuze & Guattari, Anti-Oedipus.

Sometimes yoga talk throws around bad science. I’m not a scientist so I find this amusing. People might start a practice wanting to transcend these fleshy casings we call bodies: lose weight, get fit, heal injuries, ease the pain. But the daily practice soon gets wearing when it confronts you with your too fat, too stiff, too old body over and over again. It hurts. Focussing too much on alignment, talking about anatomy, and god forbid, using props, this is all just distractions, laziness. We’re turning our bodies inside out to uncover the subtle body – to become a body-without-organs. How can we become enlightened when that block is cushioning our fall, or if we can’t mentally overcome our back pain.

But it makes sense: get the body out the way and you can concentrate on ‘things that matter’. I was laughing with a friend the other day over our relative poverty. “I can’t keep my concentration”, he said, “I’m concerned about money all the time. I can’t pay attention.”

Yoga talk also gets it confused when it starts talking about sacrifice. The practice should be a matter of desire, not cultivating indifference. We can loosen those attachments and still desire. There’s no good and bad morals here. This is about being vigilant: it’s about developing an ethical practice.

The practice is wearing because there’s no remedy for all the stuff that gets under the skin. We just get hyper aware of how the outside gets in. Sometimes this starts as a fixation on food, or keeping a strict sleep cycle; distancing the self from ‘bad’ toxins: late nights out, casual sex, pollution, noise.

Mastery over the body can be a helpful illusion, but denial is just as toxic. I can’t help but bristle at talk of human nature, instinct, biological urges (this is what Foucault did to me). And yet I find myself invested in agreeing upon some type of biological consistency that makes us identifiably human. But this has little to do with things we often attribute to human nature: power, greed, selfishness. These are just relics from too many Sunday school lessons. This is the type of stuff we should be aiming to relinquish in all our backbending: the learnt ideas of the people we think we should be.

I’m captivated by the process of losing, though it took me some time to figure out why. It’s a question of rupture, what it means to experience disruption. But more so it is about what is in the nature of being that it is possible to rupture. In the daily Ashtanga practice the body can feel so very translucent, so very precariously thin. It can feel like a slow dissipating, dissolving.

I’m captivated too by the process of loving, though it took me some time to figure out I was speaking about the same thing. It’s a question of wanting to become different; about violating your attachment to intentionality without being anti-intentional. That’s why yoga is such a good model for love and vice versa. (I can see the book cover now: ‘Why Yoga Can Make Us Better Lovers’).

Desires always have an object as a stand-in, whether a person, pair of shoes, or a political ideal. That doesn’t make them bad or wrong, it’s just that the object can never return on the intention. That’s how desire works. Some theorists talk about desire as an affect that exists independently (prior to and outside) of consciousness and the mind’s control. It’s an intensity between bodies in which we get caught up. This is an exchange of energy, not words. You only have to enter the atmosphere of a full mysore self-practice Ashtanga room to feel this for yourself. That’s what feeds all the bodies in Mysore, and why people return with a serious consciousness lag.

Affect doesn’t owe you anything and desire has misguided intentions. This is the price of entering into relationality, the space of unknowingness. Unknowingness is necessary if we want to utilise our capacity to affect and be affected. This is where loss and love come in. It’s an opportunity to be affected, to come undone. If this is a sketching of a theory, it’s a theory that states: I don’t know.

Somewhere too far down this line though we start to lose the body. The opening up that happens through practice or a external rupture makes the body suggestible. The self performs, imitates, repeats itself. This might manifest in myriad ways: self-destructive behaviours, hoarding, militant monitoring. Injecting incoherence, ambivalence, resistance into the subject, welcomes liminality. And yet it’s only by unravelling you might catch a glimpse at what it is that holds you together. Or to take a Deleuzian line: how do we hang together when we are multiple?

I don’t see the point in dispensing with the body, with the flesh. Nor attachments. They are both messy and inconsistent. I rather like that. Even if the not knowing, the insecurity of the attachment can feel unbearable. Its only by situating ourselves in a space of unknowingness can we experience desire in a way that escapes the banal, commercial, crass or conventional. These common objects make viable our desiring that somehow circumvents our desires by emptying them out of substance and returning them to us in a safer form. This is not about being against the superficial, but perhaps it is about making better choices.

Its not about getting to the truth either. Or uncovering ‘real’ desires. Its just to point out that the root of that something, that something that whether you want to call it human nature, or affect, or love, or enlightened consciousness, might not be found somewhere deep and obscure. You might not have to wander distant lands, or practice six series of Ashtanga, or live like a nun, or read all the texts on neurobiology you can find in the University library to find it. It might just be lying softly there, right under the skin.

Postscript.

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Berlin, 3am, I’m stood waiting on a bitterly cold train platform. I had just read something that moved me and I didn’t know it yet, but I was lost. Sometimes even when we put something to bed we can’t help but start pulling at those fraying edges, if only to see how far we can unravel that thread again.

To stop writing felt necessary because whatever I wrote always became a note on love and I was exhausted. I remain unsure what I mean by love, I’m still slowly un-peeling all the layers of illusion and banality that our culture coats over it. But if anything it feels like a resistance to cynicism, a resistance to boundaries and boxes. So in many ways what I describe as love is very opposed to the modern conception of it. For me, it’s a destablising force not a moderate or conventional one; it gives space to think about what it might mean to be dispossessed, non-sovereign, to lose one’s composure.

Though sometimes (like LB) I feel disassociated from all my loves. It can feel safer than navigating that leap into uncertainty, not knowing if you can contain that space of difference that exists in between. That’s why love is never too far from hope, a little shortsightedness comes in handy, and besides love greedily gobbles all that rational long-term thinking. If you manage to feel love and stay grounded (without the use of some stabilizing practice) you might be doing it wrong. The newly in love couple are selfish and introverted, the world closes in but we think we’re expanding. Disassociation comes about because the stakes are raised too high. And even if I really don’t want you to be everything to me I can’t help but enjoy the reflection of the image you have of me.

I watched a dumb film about a girl who after turning 29 gets engaged to her long-term boyfriend before he freaks out and has a change of heart. She then faces the ‘monumental’ task of being single for the first time in her adult life, ‘worst of all’ in her late twenties. “Have you thought about freezing your eggs?”, her mother asks. In the end she decides to concentrate on her PhD studies, go to yoga class. The ex-fiance comes to her at the end, “I want to give it another a go” he says, apologizing. I was throwing my chocolates at the screen. “I need time to focus on me”, she replies.

What happens when we reject the objects we are supposed to desire? The dumb film felt like a mini-symposium on bad timing. How a relationship dies or flourishes depending on whether you find yourself aligned together within the right window of time. A woman freezing her eggs is a perfect example of how we stretch the possibilities – I’m just not ready right now to commit, so can we pause this and do it five years later? I can’t help but feel these are just the measures we take to suppress the sense that we know that we are always already dispossessed, made un-sovereign, by love and all the other wearing features of what it means to live the ‘good life’.

I keep having the same conversation in different contexts: Why is this modern (city) life so wearing? Why is the act of working for a living also the means of being worn out by it? Where does value lie, and how can we fill our lives with a purpose that feels meaningful? And the subtext: what room is there for difference? What does it mean to connect with others? What is happening in this space between us?

I’m reading a book that discusses how yogis used to be understood as people that could transfer their soul into another living being. What might happen if we applied that to our relations with others, where commitment becomes a process of losing the self, a means of dissolving. We might then start to see getting lost not as a bad choice but as an important rite of passage in discovering just how far inside us those lines of desire reach to.

This is the little I know.

I’ve just been trying to tell you this.

I.

Two years ago I was preoccupied with the idea of finding my home, with finding my people. Two years ago I started this blog, two years ago I fled the grey skies for the heat of India. I thought I was going to figure it all out. I wanted everything. I had nothing.

II.

Sometimes I forget I am 28 because I still feel like the lost child waiting for her mother to come home. It’s a funny life when the worst has already happened by age 15. When everyone is so desperate to grow up, you’ve already grown. And when everyone else finally grows you’ve grown even further. You’re out on the periphery, impatient, always waiting for everyone to catch up. And even when you know they’re not coming, you’re still waiting.

III.

But I still don’t feel angry. I don’t know why.

IV.

I thought for a little while that maybe I could become normal. I thought I could shake off all the dust of the past and pass as normal. Turns out my performance wasn’t as convincing as I thought. When you don’t try to be crazy – when you actually labour to tuck those frayed edges out of view – you don’t see it, you don’t get it when people drag you back out to the peripheries. They just don’t know how lonely it is out here on the outskirts. I was just looking for someone to join me. Affect alien.

V.

I’m not anybody’s type. To be a type means performing a relation to some form of normativity; it’s just an act of becoming something else (not yourself). I’d rather not see humanity in types but in colour; I’d rather keep undoing my attachments; I’d rather let go of expectations.

VI.

I never keep enough of myself to really know who I am. You would never guess it but I give it away all the time. I give myself over to an idea, to an artwork, to literature, to a yoga practice, and sometimes in my foolish moments, to a person. I don’t really do relationships, and this is why. (or getting laid – I don’t actually do that). The yoga sutras tell me to lose my selfish, personal desires that attach me to things I don’t need. And so I got rid of the clutter out of my life, the things, material objects, bad attachments and desires to people (most of them). When you don’t have anything you have your self always, the sutras write. The stuff is just a fog that hides us from coming face to face with the only real possession we can claim. At 21, when I was alone travelling the world I wrote in my diary: ‘Even when you have lost everything you have not lost yourself’. But what is this self we don’t lose? I can’t see it, sometimes I can feel it. But most of the time it doesn’t feel like very much at all.

VII.

People are afraid to merge. Every time I drop back into a backbend it feels like my heart is breaking. And even though I can’t pick myself up again, I keep doing it over and over again. Giving yourself over to another is a bad idea, or so I’m told.

VIII.

Aren’t all the connections we make always in some way misaligned? Aren’t we always making contradictory demands of each other; aren’t we always investing in fantasies that always exist beyond what an other can provide? Isn’t the act of truly communicating always so troublesome for we never really speak in our own words but in frames already provided that limit our desires into codes and norms. If love is a moment when we admit to wanting to become different then no wonder it falls apart because we never found the capacity to break outside of the normative fantasies of love, and sex, and friendship. If only we could pause and start to see each other clearly.

IX.

What does it mean this desire to be known? The exchange of stories that seek only similarity is just noise. And sure noise can help drown out the loneliness momentarily, if that’s what you need. The writings here have sought to note all the things I have lost and gained. I was writing in order to hold myself together. I’m trying to the tie up the ends here, but perhaps I’m looking at it all wrong. Writing is always a performance of stuckness, it is an unraveling not a putting together. Sometimes I wonder what comes first, the event or my writing of it? My writing of all the affective surges of living, from sadness, joy, boredom and of course love, are only poor sketches, and the people that embody the words, who may or may not know how deeply they are woven into the words here, are mere shadows in my mind. A writer is only as good as the friends who allow her to become.

X.

Sometimes people express surprise at my honesty on this blog or how I have used my own life in my academic work. And true something about personal disclosure/exposure is sort of vile. And often it has been a result of naivety or youthful clumsiness and I’ve had to edit myself out later. But it would be more vile if it were the truth. It’s not the truth. That’s not to say I’m a pathological liar and I’ve made everything up. Events happened to me and I observed and experienced them. The rest is just stories. I can make a hundred different stories, each one being true in their own way. But it doesn’t mean that if I tell a story it holds the truth of me. Just because something happened to me doesn’t mean I can understand you. There are a million stories you and I will never tell.

losing you.

When we talk about an object of desire we are really talking about a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us. To love something/someone is a wearing labour-intensive process of investment that can devour you and yet also enlivens and expands your understanding of what is possible. (In other words, it’s a yoga practice).

I still remember a time when I lived a life where my unhappiness or happiness was reliant only on how I angled myself to a situation; a result of the choices I alone made. Sometimes, just sometimes, I wish I could empty out all this sensory debris embedded in my flesh and start over. I’ll be sensible this time.

But moments hit you before you have chance to dodge. When I was younger, but old enough, I gave something of mine away. I gave it to a person who I thought would never hurt me. That was my first mistake. Because we are all capable of hurting each other, even if we don’t love them. More so when we do. Before we have time to catch up its somehow already happening. And there’s no chance to pause now. No matter how you wait, what time you take, the everyday affects persist in their surging impulses. Encounters affect, bruise, or heal, on a level that is always somewhat imperceptible.

We stay stubbornly fixed to situations of bruising attachments because to lose you, is to lose the future self and possibilities that you represent. I tell myself again and again: “It’s who you love that makes you who you are, not who loves you.” This helps to remind me to lose my attachment to the need to be loved. And yet if who/what I love makes me who I am, not only is my happiness and my future resting in the continuing presence of my object of desire, but to lose them means to also lose part of my self; and the promise of what I imagined I could be.

Speaking of love gets tired unless you can rescue it from the sentimental banality to which it has sunk in a consumer culture. But ‘I love…’ fixes its gaze in the wrong direction. Isn’t love rather something that passes through us, residing, if anywhere, only in the spaces in-between. This is why it can never quite be possessed, or given. And we frame love with time markers, it has to be said at the right moment – not too soon or too late – it is a benchmark in a relationship (after an appropriate number of months of dating/having sex). To say ‘I love you’ is then quite detached from love as a feeling: an affective atmosphere or attraction between two. Instead it becomes a way of claiming, a stealing of another; this one is mine we say.

No wonder we can get claustrophobic, no wonder we get so insecure about losing the other. Because the insecurity of losing or the fear of an inevitable break-up emerges only because we presume a permanence to the people in our lives. We might shy away from investing until the ‘right moment’. We might take up strategies (consciously or otherwise) to protect ourselves. We might try to always act appropriately, nonchalant, unaffected; we might try to fantasize that we are autonomous and seek control, and feel despair when that control is forever out of reach. We want emotions to only happen on our own terms. But affect always gives you away. We give ourselves away in the saying too much, in the spontaneous actions that change everything, in the piercing sense of insecurity that won’t subside, in moods that fluctuate between wanting to run for cover and curl closer.

Establishing a sense of permanence is a necessary mode of living in a confusing, contingent world, anchoring ourselves to something/someone helps make sense of it all. Yet when love becomes one of those anchors, we neglect to recognize how love, like all feelings and human nature, is not something that remains static. It is tempting, almost irresistible, to not begin to invest in the daydream vision of life, in the promises a person can encapsulate. The changing form of things, beings, encounters, reminds us of the very contingent nature of all things, especially love – as an affective response that emerges in-between. To invest in something that is inherently transitory is unsustainable – it means living on the edge of permanent uncertainty.

That’s not to say all relationships are doomed, but rather to point to the fact that if love is a space in between two shifting points (people) then to seek reassurance from an evolving moment is directing our energies in the wrong way. The “I love you”‘s and the marriage proposals, are all attempts to acknowledge a feeling that persisted longer than expected. But it doesn’t make it indestructible, nor should we live in fear lamenting a loss of sovereign control that was never ours. We cannot lose love because it was never ours to have.

And so until we conjure better words to express how we feel (“I enjoy occupying this space with you where love circulates around and over us” sounds pretty clumsy) the true essence of love is captured best in the subtle encounter and the unfinished moments; in the incomplete sentences and the ordinary silences.

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Solange, Lauren Berlant, Kathleen Stewart, AdaptationGilles DeleuzeBefore Sunset, Slavoj Zizek, Polica, Lia Ices, Yoga Sutras.

ordinary affects.

Sometimes you have to pause to catch up with where you already are. – Kathleen Stewart ‘Ordinary Affects’.

The more I think about it, the more I see the world is composed of lines. Everything has its own geography. People too, and bodies. A class of art students can construct you in two minutes, broad strokes of pastel, a rudimentary outline, a few curved and straight lines, somehow capturing your own specific essence. We note the lines of those we observe more closely. We remember the shape of a face, the angles in a foot, creases and dimples, the line of a nose. Lines are what we live by, a myriad of lines from which we select from, or are forced down, or resist. The lines we take and create elaborate a trajectory, they make us up. Like the lines of a hand, they are changeable, fluid, fleshy and living.

Lines can tie us or liberate us, depending. Lines are our lineage. Where do you come from? To be attached to a long line, a family tree that reaches deep, an intense cross-section is to be well drawn out. Not only an outline but a figure fully coloured in. Sometimes we might find ourselves at the end of the line; all antecedents have died out. The line is full of omissions, gaps, and disparity. The self is imbalanced, but light and always shifting. In yoga practice lineage is of utmost significance. Perhaps that’s why we cling to it so, with our blurry outlines; lineage will give us form. But the chatter confuses lineage with authenticity, and oh how tiresome it is. Which is the ‘real’ Ashtanga? Have we not learnt by now the search for origins should not be confused with truthfulness. The origins of a thing does not dictate its form; no living thing remains in a single state but mutates, transforms, grows; it becomes. Over and over. New lines added, taken away, extended, cut short.

The line of sirsasana wavers again. We train ourselves to straighten that which desires to bend and to bend that which desires to be straight. The bending, the folding in two, is my comfort zone, an endurable zone to take hold, to breathe and to think. The fold is the protective zone in which to confront the line, to cross the line, to protect ourselves as we venture outside the familiar. The straight lines are the powerful surge, controlling, and self-assured. Trust yourself they say. The fold says, trust me.

Practice shows me over and again that where I already am is always slightly outside of my conscious awareness. The practice allows the register of all the ordinary affects we collect on our skin in lines, grooves, wear and bruising. It’s only when we pause long enough do we experience all this sensory debris. It is only inside this fold can we see how the cracks have formed. Few things point a way for life through the cracks, an ashtanga practice is one, art another. And with both it is all about alignment, being in line, not too far over the line or too fearful of it; it is a daily confrontation of living on the line.

Affect points to the something not quite already given and yet somehow still happening. It’s being cast into the space of liminality and losing the ability to navigate. It’s desperate attempts to negotiate the space with no signs, or signs too big they are blinding. It’s the encounter, the between-two, the something that lies beyond and outside. It’s where the lines refigure and collide. It’s the suspension of a hopeful love and a waiting scattered with happenings that form into events, and moments that hit you before you have chance to dodge.

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Kathleen Stewart, ‘Ordinary Affects’, (2007). Gilles Deleuze, ‘Negotiations’.

return of the drifter.

Whatever I said I didn’t mean it. This feels a good place to begin. A continual undoing. All endings are beginnings right?

I’m sat in padmasana in the Gurdwara, wearing a suit, chunni covering my head, the kirtan is playing, and a few aunty are probably giving the blonde girl the eye; ha it’s been a while.

We begin the Naam Simran, I close my eyes, palms to my knees.

I think of my two best friends who, in different ways, I have lost. I think about how a connection can be so indisputable and so confusing. I think about how we reverberate through each others lives and how we cannot ever quite foresee how we affect into the other and they will never quite see how far they reach within us.  “The pull is always stronger than the push…” someone said earlier. What is it that pulls us at these moments, seizes us, makes us not the master of our own actions?

All my friends tell me I should move on… Everyone’s asking: and I’m tired, tired of the advice. Though it seems my intuition isn’t up to much. “It’s just that your instinct was wrong, they’ll be another situation and you’ll make the wrong choice.” Waheguru. I’m trying to dissolve this. I think of India, I think of you, I think of how simple it could all be. I can’t feel my legs and my arm tingles, a body sedated with langar and a sleepless night. I’m absorbed, I’m lying in the ocean singing your song, la la la la la la.

Kirtan. Cur-tan. A circle of eager yogi faces and bad tabla and bad pronunciation. I almost snort with laughter remembering.

“God is inside you”. Have you ever truly visualized this? It’s wild. No looking up, out or beyond, inside others, objects. Not even to a dristhi at the end of your nose or your palms or feet. A dristhi that drenches the whole body. Directed nowhere and everywhere, at the porous, the fleshy, the bones, and the vitalism that keeps you breathing. Is this where God lies? In the breath? Is God then not just the vitalistic element of life. God is in all that is vital, living. Why do we seek to fill ourselves to feel alive? Infused with vitality we are full to the brim. “For the moment forget about those you love”. And then I’m suddenly desperately alone. I- I- I am nothing “..no words…”.

A spirit that lives on: I’m ambivalent about this. How much do we say to make us feel better, to reduce the fear of death, and how much do we feel to be true. “I’m not an atheist”. If God, that is to say, the spiritual essence exists within us, and is what infuses our body with vitalism and is what infuses our creative endeavours like art, writing, music, yoga, then vitalism is the extra in addition to the biological – its the body without organs – its what’s left over. And too, loving is an excess, even if they tell us loneliness is pathological or gives you heart disease or whatever: it’s just the excess we conjure in our encounters. We’re already full up, but in the encounter the water levels change and we become all over again. This is a spirituality with no form or boundaries, it moves in and out and in-between.

I’m just not at all sure how to feel on the journey back as the sweet prashad rests in my belly. I think of my two best friends who, in different ways, I have lost.

ugly feelings.

Something happened to me at the start of the year, but it’s been too close to talk about. But let’s leave that for a moment because I love to watch Korean soap operas and I’m gonna tell you why.

The narrative of the Korean soap opera goes something like this: plucky female heroine, unconventionally beautiful, poor family background, unsuccessful career, meets handsome, rich, egotistical man with burgeoning career and father issues. On meeting they dislike each other and argue profusely for the whole 16 or so episodes, all the while trying not to admit they are in love with one another, culminating in heartbreaking scenes like this (Info about the clip: they weren’t really married – another great thing about Korean soap operas is the often preposterous story lines):

Who loves someone for so long without respite, without return? This is love gone ugly. How long is too long? A couple months, 6 months, a year.

This is not about patience, this is a gesture that reads: even when I know you are not coming, I’m still waiting. This is a situation of suspended agency sustained by ambivalence. Ambivalence is not calm or linear or cathartic or moral, it offers no satisfaction or release, it bubbles away persistent, no object to direct it, no recovery in sight. And so the feelings of a love frustrated become ugly not transformative or magical. It interferes and obstructs, the single self-determining self is suspended indefinitely, and the love frustrated fills the environment, fills the space between the self and the other, its everywhere, huge but pitiful. It’s characterized by it’s flatness (lack of events) and yet expectant (hopeful for that one moment).

Anxiety is a negative affect that emerges at the emptying out of the imagination. When everything becomes equivocal, anxiety floods to fill the space, that terrifying space of non-signifiers, of the meaningless, the death of the imagination. Anxiety becomes a way of clinging on, compulsive habits give a structure in the horrifying swirl of what is not in the desperate attempt to stop the self-unraveling.

Anxiety is a restless undramatic signifier that says: something is not working. But the ambivalence arrives because as we know, it is awkward and troubling to detach from what is not working. Expectant emotions weigh heavily and colour in a picture of a life that could be lived. The anxiety can subsume to a baseline irritation, perhaps after being smothered by the chosen antidote, and the niggling fears and anxiety become minor and reabsorbed once again into the system of failed relations that produced them. Irritation becomes useful and functional when it adopts new objects of self-improvement and dancing on one’s own.

In the world of Korean dramas the two protagonists end up happily together. The waiting is finally provided with an endpoint. The flatness is filled with shapes and events and the love is recognised in one another and no longer shameful and ugly. It is beautiful and blossoming.

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I have played with Sianne Ngai’s idea of ‘ugly feelings’ from her remarkable book Ugly Feelings (2005), Havard University Press.