25 October 2009

That August Night in New Orleans

Mind met up
with Soul
of Tchoupitoulas & Canal.
She undressed
him on the ferry
to Algiers.
Other passengers
they didn’t say
a word
against that
pale naked Mind
(It was New Orleans, remember?)
just standing
by the deck rail
in the rain
stunned but
glad to have
figured it out
at last.

New Orleans, it's one of those magical cities where you know just about anything can happen. My favorite time to be there is August, when most of the sensible tourists stay away from the 100 degree heat, monsoon downpours, and steam-bath humidity. Something about the town, especially then, peels me down to what's essential; especially when each breath is saturated with moisture, the aromas of fabulous food, and the muddy-wet smell of the Mississippi as it curves around the French Quarter.

I wrote this poem (yup, it's one of mine!) upon returning to Tennessee, my mind still soaked in a funky residue after spending a few days in New Orleans. The piece comes from a waking dream of sorts, one in which it's easy to imagine the feminine Soul getting the masculine Mind to let go and just be. Lately, my mind has been racing into fast forward or short circuiting in the past, so looking at this poem reminds my Mind to hush now, be still, let Soul strip us down.

10 October 2009

Kali, Ganesha, Energy and Angels

One of my favorite characters in Tony Kushner's play Angels in America is Harper Pitt.  She's an agoraphobic, delusional, valium addict coming to grips with the realization that she has married a closeted gay man who also happens to be a devout Mormon.  Harper is also plenty worried about the hole in the ozone, and in one of her delusions, she actually visits Antarctica to try and get a look at it.  By the end of the play, though, it seems Harper has made some peace with her delusions and fears, and has come to terms with what it means to be alive in a broken but hopeful world.  In her final scene, Harper has left her husband behind in Brooklyn and is heading for San Francisco.  She turns to the audience and says:
Night flight to San Francisco.  Chase the moon across America.
God! It's been years since I was on a plane!
When we hit thirty-five thousand feet, we'll have reached the tropopause.  The great belt of calm air.  As close as I'll ever get to the ozone.
I dreamed we were there.  The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening.
But I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things.
Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, of people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, and they floated up, like sky divers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning.  And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles, and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.
Nothing's lost forever.  In this world, there is a kind of painful progress.  Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead.
At least I think that's so.
Harper, it seems, has figured out a little something about reincarnation.  I suspect she also knows a little something about the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It only changes form.

 Considering Harper's speech also makes me think a bit about Kali, the goddess of eternal energy (and death) and about Ganesha, the god of transitions and remover of obstacles, and about how energy, a constant force shapes and changes us as we, in turn, seek to shape and change it.

In yoga, we learn to breath and to be one with the moment, with what is.  We embrace stillness, but our existence is not static.  The practice itself is transformative; as breath moves through us, it changes our bodies and minds; it changes our way of being here. As we move through our asana practice, we flow through the transitions, the space between each posture, as much as we move into the posture.  Transition compels mindfulness, as does stillness.  Being present in the moment can mean being present in a moment of change.

06 October 2009

The Universal Translator

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of
      the Soul,

The pleasures of heaven are with me and 
     the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself,
  the latter I translate into a new tongue.
Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself"

In those vintage old Star Trek episodes, the crew of the Enterprise can communicate with folks from other galaxies by using the Universal Translator, which conveniently translates the languages spoken on distant planets into English.  Apparently, no one in the TV audience on Earth in the 1960s spoke Klingon, Romulan or Vulcan, though I understand many folks do today. Still, the Universal Translator served its purpose well back then, rendering the speech of those distant races intelligible to a generation of American Trekkies.

When I read the above passage from Whitman, I can't help but think of him as a different sort of Universal Translator, a very literal sort -- he literally (and literarily) Translates the Universe into his poems, a new tongue.

What I, like many readers, find so compelling about Whitman's poetry is the way he takes it all in -- it seems everyone and everything are included in his work. He addresses all of us collectively and at the same moment speaks to each individually.  Indeed, he tells us in the first few lines of "Song of Myself" For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.  Now that's what I call aparigraha!

I wonder what would happen if we stepped into a transporter beam together?

27 September 2009

Try a Little Tenderness

On a day when the events of the world can seem inordinately cruel and random, I recommend either listening to some Otis Redding (and dancing in your jammies around the apartment) or reading some Jane Hirshfield.  Take, for instance, this little piece from Hirshfield's collection The Lives of the Heart.

Late Prayer

Tenderness does not choose its own uses.
It goes out to everything equally,
circling rabbit and hawk.
Look: in the iron bucket,
a single nail, a single ruby --
all the heavens and hells.
They rattle in the heart and make one sound.

I love the quiet astuteness of Jane Hirshfield's poetry.  No doubt her studies in Zen have helped her develop a keen, still gaze, the kind that penetrates through the illusory world of objects to see what is essential about this existence.  Hirshfield's poetry can take readers to the calm center of the universe, reminding us that the true self is the self at peace, one with the world, one with what is beyond the world.  And, if as Hirshfield says, tenderness "goes out to everything equally," it goes out to you, even if you are the one who has to send it out to yourself.  Go ahead.  Try a little tenderness.

24 September 2009

Laughter Yoga -- Maybe in Slidell

Gonna go to West Memphis to look for my joy
Go to West Memphis to look for my joy
Maybe in West Memphis I'll find my joy
Maybe in West Memphis I'll find my joy

Gonna go to Slidell to look for my joy
Go to Slidell to look for my joy
Maybe in Slidell I'll find my joy
Maybe in Slidell I'll find my joy
--Lucinda Williams

There is an ayurvedic doctor in India who prescribes Charlie Chaplin DVDs to patients with depression, looking for joy. Really. Here's what the good folks at NPR had to say about him today:

In India, laughing is a serious matter. There are laughing clubs — groups who gather in parks for a collective guffaw to relieve the stresses of daily life.

Ashok Aswani goes one step further: He hands out free DVDs of Charlie Chaplin movies to patients as a cure for depression.

"This makes them feel better," he says. "They enjoy it. The next visit, they ask for another movie."
Laughter Yoga...it's about finding your joy. Wherever you are.

21 September 2009

Emily’s Brain on The Upanisads: The Case for Divine Mind in a Ketchup Bottle

Emily Dickinson had a taste for riddles and paradoxes, as we can see in the following poem, which ponders the size of the brain in relation to the sky, the sea and the divine.

The Brain  -- is wider than the Sky –
For -- put them side by side --
The one the other will contain
With ease -- and You – beside

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For -- hold them -- Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb
As Sponges – Buckets – do

The Brain is just the weight of God —
For Heft them -– Pound for Pound –-
And they will differ -– if they do —
As Syllable from Sound

The poet concludes that since the brain conceives the sky, the sea and God -- holds them in mind so to speak -- the brain is actually bigger than anatomy allows for in the space between our ears. Once again Dickinson connects the earthly life with the ethereal, examining the paradoxical nature of that relationship, toying with our notion of size as a physical absolute, showing how that which appears to be impossible or contradictory is actual and true.

In browsing my Penguin Classics Valerie Roebuck translation of the Upanisads, I came across a bit of dialogue between Janaka of Videha and Yajnavalkya from Chapter 1, Book IV of Brhadaranyaka Upanisad:  The Great Forest Teaching.  In it, the wise one, Yajnavalkya, tells his majesty Janaka “The mind, your majesty, is indeed the supreme brahman.  The one who knows this, and worships it as such, the mind does not desert him; all beings flock to him; and becoming a god he goes to the gods.”

Thus, both Emily and the Upanisads tell us that the ability of the mind to conceive of the divine means the mind itself is divine. In imagining a model of this relationship, I see eternal Russian nesting dolls, the mind doll holding the divine doll holding the mind doll holding the divine doll.  Or there’s that picture I remember from the ketchup squirt bottles in the old time New York diners, the one with the waitress holding the tray on which there was a ketchup bottle with a picture of the waitress holding a tray on which there was a ketchup bottle with a picture of a waitress holding a tray on which there was a ketchup bottle…hmmm, this could go on forever.

14 September 2009

Thoreau and the Secret Life of Bugs

Who doesn't love a good metamorphosis?  Creatures become new creatures in the natural world all the time, and thus we take the small miracle, the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis for instance, as an inevitable, biological fact.  In human symbolic terms, metamorphosis means hope, positive transformation, unless of course, one is Franz Kafka.  Henry David Thoreau knew about transformation and hope when he went off to live a contemplative life by Walden Pond, observing the small changes in the woods around him day by day, taking pleasure in the change of seasons,  knowing that the seed of each transformation is sown in the present moment.

In his memoir Walden, Thoreau writes

Everyone has heard the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leave of an old table of applewood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts, -- from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn.
From this story of the buried egg, Thoreau creates a parable:
Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this?  Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb, --heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board,-- may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!
And finally, Thoreau concludes with a meditation that suggests this tale of transformation is akin to the realization in a given moment that there are more moments to come embedded here in this moment.  The realization of those moments comes through transformation of perception.
I do not say that John or Jonathan will realize all this; but such is the character of that morrow which mere lapse of time can never make to dawn.  The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us.  Only that day dawns to which we are awake.  There is  more day to dawn.  The sun is but a morning star.
Thoreau and his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson were well read in ancient Eastern texts, and such texts may very well inform Thoreau's ideas about transformation and perception expressed in this passage.  What I particularly like about the piece is its hopeful tone, its embrace of mindfulness ("only that day dawns to which we are awake"), its wonder at endless possibility.  Who indeed "knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages...may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last?"  I think we practice yoga to find out!


12 September 2009

Jacques Crickillon, Billy Collins and Krishna

One of our best known American poets, Billy Collins, published his poem "Litany" in a 2002 issue of Poetry Magazine.  A quick internet search will reveal just how popular this often quoted poem has become over the years.  It begins with an epigraph, a translation of a French language poem by Belgian poet Jacques Crickillon, which reads "You are the bread and the knife/The crystal goblet and the wine."  Collins riffs off of these lines, continuing the list : "You are the dew on the morning grass/and the burning wheel of the sun./ You are the white apron of the baker/and the marsh birds in flight."  The litany proceeds with a series of declarations about what the reader is or is not, what the speaker is or is not, enumerating a catalog of vibrant and delightful images:
It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.
I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley,
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.
The poem reaches its conclusion with another declaration and an assurance:
I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I am not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and—somehow—the wine.
Not long ago, I was thumbing through Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Bhagavad Gita and discovered a passage that struck me as rhythmically and thematically similar to Collins's poem.  Krishna, assuring Arjuna of his omnipresence, says,
There is nothing more fundamental
than I, Arjuna:  all worlds
all beings, are strung upon me
like pearls on a single thread.
I am the taste in water,
the light in the moon and the sun,
the sacred syllable Om
in the Vedas, the sound in the air.
I am the fragrance in the earth,
the manliness in men, the brillance
 in fire, the life in the living,
and the abstinence in ascetics.
I am the primal seed
within all beings, Arjuna:
the widsom of those who know
the splendor of the high and the mighty.
I am the strength of the strong man
who is free of desire and attachment;
I am desire itself
when desire is consistent with duty.

A bit later, Krishna states:
I am the ritual and the worship,
the medicine and the mantra,
the butter burnt in the fire,
and I am the flames that consume it.

I am the father of the universe
and its mother, essence and goal
all of knowledge, the refiner, the scared
Om, and the threefold Vedas

I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.
Now I can't say what Collins or Crickillon might know about the Bhagavad Gita, but it doesn't surprise me that in making assertions about the essence of being, a poem would assume the voice of a chant, a litany, a ceremonial list of declarations.  The rhythm of both texts sooths, each assurance easing through the line in a gentle wave, rising with the thought, ebbing with the breath, the pause, followed by another affirmation.  And while Collins is, as we often find him, a bit playful and wry, we find in his litany that same essential notion we find in Krishna's affirmations, that we are one and the same with some greater essence, that we live in the happy paradox of being many things at once, and one thing all the time.

09 September 2009

Look! Look Again!

This week I had the occasion to revisit a much anthologized essay by Samuel Scudder, sometimes titled "In the Laboratory with Agassiz" or "Take This Fish and Look at It." In the essay, Scudder describes his experience studying a preserved specimen of a fish as a lab assignment for a course he was taking in ichthyology. The only instruction the esteemed Professor Agassiz gave Scudder was "Take this fish and look at it." The teacher disappeared from the lab for hours at a time, leaving the student to see whatever he might see. "In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish," Scudder says.

Professor Agassiz was nowhere to be found, so Scudder dutifully continued to look, finding the fish "loathsome." "I turned it over and around; looked it in the face --ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways at three-quarters view--just as ghastly." Then he began to count the scales, feel the teeth, and eventually decided to draw the fish. As he drew, Scudder says,"with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature. Just then the Professor returned." Professor Agassiz praised his student's efforts, saying "a pencil is one of the best of eyes." Thinking his work for the day was done, Scudder was astounded when his teacher, instead of dismissing him, instructed him to "look again, look again!" And again, the more Scudder looked, the more he discovered about his fish. He declares that Agassiz's lesson in looking was "a legacy...of inestimable value which we could not buy, with which we cannot part."

Agassiz taught Scudder to approach his learning with beginner's mind, with patience, with a humility that prevents us from assuming we can know a subject at first glance. He taught Scudder to take responsibility for his own learning.

Each day when I return to yoga practice, I too must learn to keep beginner's mind, to be patient, humble, to allow what I thought I knew about my practice to change and grow. I need to look at Adho Mukha Svanasana again and again. Each moment the asana is the same; each moment the asana is different. And while my teachers can offer me sage advice about my practice, it is up to me to get myself to the mat and to look, look, look again!

07 September 2009

Emily Dickinson on the Perception of Time and the Infinite


Forever – is composed of Nows –
‘Tis not a different time –
Except for Infiniteness –
And Latitude of Home –

From this – experienced Here –
Remove the Dates – to These –
Let Months dissolve in further Months –
And Years – exhale in Years

Without Debate – or Pause --
Or Celebrated Days –
No different Our Years would be
From Anno Domini’s –

Emily Dickinson did some seriously playful thinking about our perceptions of time, place and the infinite. To grasp infinity (and ultimately the divine), says the poet, we must set aside what we use to count and quantify time, even holidays. In doing so, we are compelled to experience the now, being present in this moment.

"Forever-- is composed of Nows--" Dickinson writes. Ram Dass would approve, no doubt! Yogis strive for such mindful presence in practice, finding contentment, stillness, peace there, in that one moment, without the mind fast forwarding to the next moment. In that one moment, we experience all moments, eternity.

Another aspect of this poem that makes it appealing for a yogic reading is Dickinson's use of breath imagery, "And Years -- exhale in Years." Transcendent breath carries us outside of time.

As I consider this poem, I am also struck by the irony of my absolute dependence on things linear to communicate what I think about it. My text unfolds in time and place. The software dates my blog posts. I think how sly Dickinson is, how she knows full well that we can't really give it up, this illusion of linear time, and yet, she invites her reader, for just a moment, to consider what it might be like to be here now.

06 September 2009

Atha Yoganusasanam

A beginning. As a writer and teacher I make my living with language. The practice of yoga gives shape and meaning to that living. When I first began studying yoga nearly twelve years ago, I started to see yoga not just in the studio, but off the mat, out in the world as I went about my daily work, chores, play. I saw it in the way a breeze bent back the small branches of a pin oak just outside my window. I noticed it in the rhythm of a colleague's high heels clicking down the hallway, how my breath followed the sound of her steps. And when I studied a poem, an essay, a play, a novel for school, I felt the authors giving voice to the principles of yoga practice even though that may not have been their intention.

Thus, while yoga defined my subjectivity in responding to literature, literature also shaped how I responded to yoga. When my instructor told us that being in Savasana was a little like practicing to be dead, I thought of Emily Dickinson's poetry, her imaginative flights into and beyond the grave. When we talked about union, connectedness, Emerson's notion of the Oversoul came to mind. Hopkins poems sang out in celebration of the perfect divinity of imperfection. Even Gertrude Stein's quirky repetitions and patter began to fit themselves into the cosmic pattern I was discerning all about me.

I thought perhaps it was a phase, my new obsession with yoga was simply that, an obsession which, like so many others in my past, would abate and fade. Yet, a dozen linear years later, I still find yoga at work in my perceptions of the world. And so, I have decided to start chronicling this experience. My efforts here with The Literary Yogi are aimed at articulating those connections, and in doing so, deepening my yoga practice and perhaps encouraging readers in theirs. Happy reading! Namaste.