Monday, January 2, 2012

Mysore, departure narratives, and why life is not like the movies

I just read Spark's recent blog post, where she ponders why she is in Mysore. Even though I have yet to go to Mysore, I feel that a lot of what she writes speaks to me. She writes:

"Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is a system, where you learn directly from your guru, who learned directly from his guru. This practice should be done in a certain way and I personally feel that Sharath is the right person to show me this way.

But this way is also such a crazy struggle. I have faced so many obstacles, practice has been so hard with my injuries and I have hesitated this practice a lot. I have had many days, when practice has been just crap. I have been tired, fed up, lonely, hopeless. I have hated this practice so much and I have cried. I have also faced (and will face) so many people, who can’t understand my decisions related to this practice. They will never understand, why I studied a degree in law, then gave up my career and just started to focus on my practice. They won’t understand, why I want to spend all my money to be able to be here with my teacher. And it’s not always easy to be here either. Sometimes India is just getting on my nerves and making me very tired. This is my fifth Christmas away from home, second in Mysore and my family keeps asking, if I ever plan to be at home during Christmas time. And among other small questions they keep asking, where I am going to live and work, when I go back home.

For me it is just some really strong feeling, that I have to be here. That this practice is actually doing some good for me and this way is right for me."

Spark's personal story really, really speaks to me, even though Spark and I are in quite different circumstances. There is something very powerful yet often lonely about giving away everything you've got in order to do what you believe is the right thing to do for your life. Being somebody who has voluntarily chosen to live and work in a place that is half a world away from where I was born and grew up, I certainly feel very vividly many of the feelings that Spark describes. This may sound very cliche, but it is never easy to make a conscious decision to depart from a particular "default" way of life that you have grown up with and/or have been socialized to believe is the "right" way to live, and adopt another course of life that you (and sometimes, only you) know to be the right way for you. For the sake of brevity, let's just call this kind of story the "departure narrative." 

In the feel-good movie version of the departure narrative (at least, in the Hollywood-movie-version), the hero or heroine goes on a long journey somewhere, accomplishes something tangibly great, and returns home to become a hometown hero/heroine. In this version, the closing scene usually shows the hero or heroine sitting by a fireplace or patio as an old person, regaling his or her cute grandchildren with tales of the valiant journey that he or she undertook back in the day.

Things often aren't that clear-cut in the lives of off-screen people like you and me. For one thing, in off-screen dramas, the hero or heroine usually does not look anything like, say, Brad Pitt (I don't). For another, the thing that the hero or heroine sets out to do (in Spark's case, going to Mysore every year and giving up a law career to do so; in my case, coming to this country first for grad school, and then staying to pursue a career in academia) is not tangibly great, at least not in the eyes of others. Indeed, in the eyes of others, what the hero or heroine sets out to do may often seem incomprehensible, even downright foolish ("So you give up spending Christmas with your family every year just to go to this place on the other side of the world where you live in spartan conditions, get up super-early every morning, bend your body into funny shapes while sweating like a pig, and risk possibly injuring yourself? And how much do you get paid for doing all this?"). And as for the ending of the story... well, I don't know, I can't predict the future. I suppose it's possible that one may one day have grandchildren who will be regaled by tales of getting up super-early in the morning in some strange country to go to this place to bend oneself (and get bent) into funny shapes.

Perhaps what's even more frustrating is that, as far as I know, none of the traditional moral philosophies can be appealed to in order to justify taking on this long journey. For example, if you believe that to do the right thing is to do the thing that brings about the most happiness to the greatest number of people, then it seems that going to Mysore or going to another corner of the world to work and build a life there would be the wrong thing to do, since a lot of people (namely, your family and close friends) would presumably be happier if you had chosen to stay put where you are instead of leaving them. I don't think that Kantian theories or Confucian philosophy would think well of such a choice either. Which is one of the reasons why I think that traditional moral philosophy is pretty much intellectually bankrupt. But well, this is probably not the place to go there...

Anyway, I guess what I'm trying to say is this: In most real-life departure narratives, the hero or heroine can undertake the journey only at the risk of being in a situation that often involves being "tired, fed up, lonely, hopeless." And there is no guarantee that there will be a lovely sunset and cute grandchildren to regale at the end of the story. So why do people still do shit like this? Because they're dumb? Well, maybe... but I like to think that we do shit like this because it is the right thing to do. Even if traditional moral philosophy can't prove this.

What is the moral of this long drawn-out post, you may ask. Well, I'm not sure. Maybe it is this: Real life is not like the movies. But I'm sure you already know this. Oh, well. Thank you once again for taking the time to read about something that you already know.


  1. Hmm.. I wrote my piece before I read Spark and your blog posts. I'm thinking that we do this spiritual pursuit because we are fortunate enough that we have the freedom to do it. If we were born in North Korea, or even to a low Indian caste, we might not be allowed to practice yoga. The part where family doesn't understand and support is really difficult. I share that with you and Spark. Indeed, me practicing yoga may not directly benefit society in the short term, but many jobs that pay good money do not benefit society in the long run. So what's worse? Sadly not enough people care about this.

  2. Hello Yyogini, I just read your post, and agree with the sentiments that you express there. It is true that if we were born in North Korea, we might not be allowed to practice yoga; although I often think that somebody should go to Pyongyang now and maybe offer to give Kim Jong Un some yoga lessons. Maybe that will help him be a better dictator (is there such a thing?) than his dad.

  3. Well, as Americans we were raised to believe in "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" - surely having the freedom to go to Mysore simply because it feels most meaningful to you is fully in line with traditional American values?

  4. Interesting, Carol. I take it that you are suggesting that even though traditional moral philosophy may not be able to justify the choice to go to Mysore, political philosophy/ideology (at least the kind that is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution) might be able to? This brings up more interesting questions, which will take up too much space to go into here. Maybe I'll write a follow-up post to this soon.