Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Scotch, yoga practice, reality, and the wisdom of Philip K. Dick

Before I go on with this post, I should issue a disclaimer here: In writing this post, I am not endorsing alcohol consumption (or excessive alcohol consumption). Nor am I implying that practicing Ashtanga and drinking a lot go together. Indeed, I believe that most readers of this blog are probably much more highly evolved beings than I am--beings that are probably way beyond the antics I will describe in this post and in the previous one. However, not being so highly evolved, I find myself prone to excesses such as the ones I will describe in this post and in the previous one. Since I try to tell things in my life like they are in this blog and not pretend to be more (or less) evolved than I actually am, you will hopefully bear with these details of my not-so-evolved existence, and (hopefully) enjoy the story I am about to tell. 

So here's the story: At one point during Christmas dinner at my colleague's place the day before yesterday--roughly, at around the point when I had had my second margarita and was about to down that shot of scotch, but was still sober enough to know that I had had too much to drink (see previous post)--I thought briefly about what reality is. Is there one common reality that we all have access to and experience in the same way in our different minds and bodies? Or do our different minds and bodies, with their uniquely different histories, experience very different realities? If the realities we each experience are each uniquely different from everybody else's realities, how and to what extent are we successful in communicating these different realities to one another?

At this point, you may be thinking: Woah, wait a second! Back up a little... How exactly did you get to thinking about reality in the middle of a Christmas dinner (being intoxicated may admittedly have something to do with it, I suppose, but surely that can't explain everything...).

Well, okay, I guess I do owe you some kind of back-story here. So, around the point when I had had my second margarita and was about to down that shot of scotch, but was still sober enough to know that I had had too much to drink, I started to ask myself if I should perhaps pass on that shot of scotch and call it a night. After all, I rarely drank that much, and I still planned on waking up at a reasonable hour the next morning and doing my regular yoga practice (which is presently full primary and second to Ardha Matsyendrasana), if that was indeed still possible given the state I was already in. Eventually I decided to cast such concerns aside, and just go for the scotch anyway. Why did I do that? One reason may simply be that I was looking forward to the warm feeling that scotch produces in my insides, at least for a few minutes: Compared to this, the fuzzy endorphin high that comes after many an Ashtanga practice seems quite far away. But another reason was that I wasn't confident that I would be able to sufficiently communicate the full weight and reality of my reasons for passing on the scotch to anybody who might think to question my choice. Here's how such a conversation might look like:

Q: Why are you passing on the scotch?

Nobel: Well, I need to not drink any more, so that I can get up in the morning without a nasty hangover and do my yoga practice.

Q: But can't you just sleep in and skip your practice this once?

Nobel: No...

Q: Why not?

Nobel: Because I love my yoga practice too much. I feel good when I'm doing it and afterwards. And besides, it makes me a better person and brings me further along the path of self-realization... [insert big speech about the therapeutic and purifying effects of the practice from Yoga Mala, or wherever.]

Q: Uh, okay...

Given the way most exchanges occur in polite society, it is very possible that the conversation will end at this point, with Q simply accepting what I say (or at least pretending to), and perhaps giving me a somewhat sour, Nobel-you-are-such-a-wet-blanket look. But it is also possible, although not very likely, that the conversation might continue with the following:

Q: So you say that you feel good when you are doing yoga and afterwards. But if you drink the scotch, you will feel good and warm and fuzzy RIGHT NOW! Who can beat that?

Nobel: Yeah, but drinking too much is bad for you [insert another big speech about how excessive alcohol consumption leads to all kinds of terrible health effects that cause one to die eventually.]

Q: Okay.. and if you do yoga everyday, eat organic all the time, and abstain from drinking alcohol, you will live forever, or at least not die of some weird form of cancer? And besides, what's that I hear about yoga practitioners breaking their necks and backs and busting their knees? Hmm.... does doing yoga really give one a better quality of life?

Nobel [grins sheepishly]: Uh...

Of course, the conversation doesn't have to end here: If you are a better speaker than I am, you can probably think of all kinds of interesting ways to respond to Q here. But I guess what I'm trying to get at is that Q and I inhabit two different realities. For me, reality is such that what is "good" in my life are things like yoga, organic vegetarian food, and the occasional session of excessive alcohol consumption. For Q, reality is such that what is "good" in his life are things like sleeping in, eating lots of meat (organic or otherwise), the not-so-occasional session of excessive alcohol consumption, and whatever else rocks his boat. And I suspect that I could try talking to Q until I'm blue in the face, and I probably still wouldn't succeed in arriving at this magical Yoga Journal moment when Q will realize the, ahem, folly, of his way of life, renounce it, and instantly embrace all things yogic and organic. And, to be fair, I also suspect that if Q were to try to do the same thing with me from the other direction, he could try talking till he's blue in the face, and probably wouldn't succeed in arriving at some magical... Sports Illustrated moment when I realize the folly of my wet-blanket ways, and instantly embrace red meat, cigars, and fast cars. In other words, we can say that Q and I live in two different realities, and it is not clear that we will each be successful in communicating to each other (much less converting each other to) each reality.

Which, of course, brings up the big question: What is reality? In his essay, "How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later", Philip K. Dick wrote, ""Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."

Very nice, Dick. But this is really not very helpful for our present purposes, if you think about it: Both Q and I would equally accept Dick's definition of reality, and continue to adopt our respective chosen lifestyles. For me, the benefits of doing lots of yoga and eating organic and vegetarian do not go away even if I were to stop believing in them. Neither, for that matter, would the pitfalls of such a lifestyle (busting one's knees in padmasana, breaking one's neck in Sirsasana, breaking one's back in Kapotasana, etc, etc.). The same thing goes for Q and his lifestyle: The benefits of eating red meat and smoking cigars and drinking excessively not-so-occasionally would not go away even if he were to stop believing in them. Neither would the corresponding pitfalls of such a lifestyle. So at the risk of sounding very cliched, we can say that my reality is just as real for me as Q's is for him. At least according to Philip K. Dick. 
So what gives? What is the moral of this neither-here-nor-there story? I don't know, really. Maybe do whatever rocks your boat, for tomorrow we all die, one way or the other.      


  1. How nicely put mister, just came back from a big funeral, thanks, think i'm with you on this one.

  2. I did not have time to comment yesterday. This is advice from your most undisciplined reader I realize, but take this from someone who was trained by her own mother on how to drink men under the table so they would not take advantage of her:
    1. Choose your poison and be loyal to it for the duration of the evening.
    2. Mixed drinks are for fools. If you don"t like the taste and need to camouflage it your body will still know you did not like tequila without lime and sugar. Lots of people will disagree.
    3. have H2o next to you always and drink that while you drink whatever it is.
    4. Know which one is going to make you barf(sorry)
    and don't lie to yourself about it, just turn it down.
    It is just like practice in a way. You do not mix different "styles of yoga" and you stop when your body says enough. :-D
    P.S. I won"t be drinking for the next few months for the first time since my pregnancy in 1982

  3. Thanks Esther. I'm sorry to hear about the funeral. Hope your holidays are going well.

    Thanks for the advice, sereneflavor :-) I like what you said about choosing your poison and sticking to it. I'll remember the part about mixed drinks too. I think your mother is a very wise woman :-)