Sunday, February 23, 2014

The onion and the hereafter

Over the past few weeks, I have been feeling emotions in a more intense kind of way. These feelings can be described as a sort of muted melancholic feeling that originates somewhere deep in the gut. It's not the "can't get out of bed" kind of depressed feeling that some people who are depressed report feeling. Rather, it's more like a deep melancholic feeling that feels like an undercurrent that is undercurrenting everything else that I may be feeling or going through. And honestly, the feeling is not entirely unpleasant. It feels like tapping into something deeper within myself, wherever "deeper" may be. I also feel a bit like an onion whose layers have been peeled away, exposing deeper parts of myself that I may not have aware of before.

I think the occurrence of these feelings has something to do with my second series practice, but I have no objective way of proving this. It may, of course, also have something to do with the fact that I am reading existentialist writers (Sartre, Heidegger, Camus) very intensively and closely in the course of teaching my Existentialism course. But again, I also have no objective way of proving this.  

Anyway, these intense episodes usually occur off the mat and at seemingly random times. For instance, I was in a restaurant a few weeks ago, and the in-house TV was playing a documentary about the 1994 attack on the figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan. I suddenly found myself feeling very sad (and yes, I will even confess that I felt a lump in my throat...) for Kerrigan, even though I normally don't feel too much for the trials and tribulations of celebrities, being the normally cynical person that I am.

I have communicated with a couple of my teachers about this phenomenon. They have encouraged me by telling me that this is 100 percent normal, and that I should continue with my practice. They also suggested that I learn to appreciate and love these moments, and to see them as windows into a deeper place within myself (probably somewhere in the liver... just kiddin').


Recently, I have also been struggling with a very simple question: Is there life after death? Or, more specifically, do we need to believe that there is some kind of existence after death in order to be an effective Buddhist or yoga practitioner? I know that Buddhism and yoga are two very different things (whatever clever new-age-ists out there may say), but this much at least seems common to the two traditions: Both traditions seem to presuppose that this worldly existence is not all there is, that something, whatever that may be, persists after our earthly bodies have expired and decomposed.

Of course, none of this should be any concern to you if you practice yoga simply for "stretching" or to stay in shape. But if you take any of the accompanying spiritual mumbo-jumbo (karma, purusha, the five koshas, to name just a few) even a little bit seriously, I simply cannot see how you can then call yourself a yoga practitioner and not believe in some notion of an existence beyond this one.

So what's the problem here? Well, maybe there isn't a problem. One could simply accept the minimal amount of metaphysical baggage that your community deems to be kosher, and continue to merrily do one's asana practice as is. You know, maybe believe in some kind of afterlife, just don't commit yourself to too many specific details, so that when you die and go to wherever you go, and find out that the details are not quite what you thought they were, you can quickly adapt and be on the right side of the fence :-)

The problem arises if you have a slightly more rationalistic bent of mind, like me, and if you have always had the suspicion that any talk of the hereafter (even if it is packaged in cool-sounding shit like karma and purusha and emptiness and whatnot) is a kind of intellectual opium designed to pull the wool over your unsuspecting eyes and make you more likely to listen to people who want to control your life and tell you what to do. The problem is also compounded by the obvious fact that nobody (at least nobody that I know) has actually been to the other side and seen what is actually in the hereafter. So if you tell me that there is karma and purusha and a bigger purpose beyond the ken of our intellect that can guide us to a better place, my first question would be, "How do you know this? Have you been there?"

Oh well. I really don;t know what else to say at this point. This is really just me talking my head off, as you can see. If you have anything to say, feel free to comment. If not, I hope you have fun reading and thinking stuff through with me. It's all good, one way or the other.     

Monday, February 3, 2014

Floating pigs, (eating) shrimp, ducks, and progress in Karandavasana

Warning: This post contains descriptions of dead animals being chewed to bits and then burnt. It also contains what is commonly referred to in the blogosphere as food porn. If you are offended by any of these things, read no further!


Over the weekend, I made a trip to Boise with a couple of friends from work. While there, we decided to go on a Vietnamese food binge, because there are no Vietnamese restaurants in Pocatello, where I live. Everything went well on Saturday, not-eating-animals-wise: We went to this nice Vietnamese bistro in downtown Boise for dinner, and I had a really flavorful tofu dish, and my meat-eating friends got to indulge their share of pho and boiled beef.

But things took an interesting turn on Sunday morning. For brunch, we went to this hole-in-a-wall Vietnamese place in a more... industrial part of town. I took one look at the menu, and knew that this was going to be difficult: There were no tofu or other meat-substitute dishes listed on the menu. Still, I decided to try my best to find something that does not have meat in it (we needed to be somewhere immediately after brunch, and I did not think it appropriate to make an issue by alerting my friends to the apparent absence of vegetarian options on the menu). Under "Appetizers", I saw something called "Spring Rolls". It doesn't say anything about the presence of meat in it, so I ordered it. Then under "Noodle", I saw something called "Noodles with Egg Rolls" which, again, does not say anything about the presence of meat. I asked the server about whether there was meat in any of these two items. In halting English, she told me what was in them. I couldn't really understand what she was saying, but whatever she said did not sound like any kind of meat. Just to be sure, I asked her if there was shrimp (some Asians do not consider shrimp to be meat) in any of these dishes, and she said no.

Having thus ascertained the absence of meat (and shrimp) from what I took to be a reliable authority, I went ahead and ordered the spring rolls and the noodles with egg rolls. A few minutes later, the noodle dish came. I bit into the spring roll, and felt this stringy, slightly rubbery texture which had to be pork. Ha! Do Vietnamese people not consider pork to be meat (or is there some place on this earth where pigs grow on trees?...). But I ate it anyway, because not to do so would involve either eating nothing of the dish or eating only the noodles, and I really did not feel like loading myself with only empty calories in the morning.

A couple of minutes later, the spring rolls came. They looked something like this:

 [Image taken from here]

As you probably notice, one does not need x-ray vision to see that there are shrimp present in these rolls. But I decided to eat them anyway, because, what the hell, I have already eaten pigs, so why not shrimp?
And besides, these shrimp (who probably don't have central nervous systems in the first place) are apparently already dead, so they can't possibly suffer any more from my putting them in my mouth, chewing them to bits, and then burning them in the inferno of my digestive fire. 

I should also report that both the pork and the shrimp do not taste half bad. So if you are a meat-eater and love Vietnamese spring rolls, Boise isn't a half-bad place for Vietnamese food. Unfortunately, I can't remember the name of this particular restaurant... I know it has "pho" in it, but that's not terribly helpful, is it? I mean, there are probably like a million Vietnamese restaurants with "pho" in their names... 


So, to sum it all up, yesterday morning, I (knowingly) ate meat for the first time in, like three or four years. And I don't even have a particularly good excuse for violating ahimsa, beyond the rather prosaic fact that I don't want to have to not eat what I have ordered, and possibly insult the good people who run that little Vietnamese restaurant in Boise, Idaho. 

Naturally, I was very curious about what effect eating meat would have on my practice this morning. Quite surprisingly, the answer is: Not much. The vinyasas were floaty as usual (not to brag or anything, but people have said this about my vinyasas, so I am just reproducing their compliments :-)). Which is proof that even if pigs can't fly, they might at least be able to float when ingested by an Ashtangi. What's even more surprising was this morning's Karandavasana. For maybe only the second time in my not-so-long Karandavasana career, I was actually able to lower the lotus to my forearms with control: Rather than simply crash down onto my forearms, I was able to kind of slowly, with control, move my knees from the apex of the pose to my forearms. But coming back up is still not coming. But that's alright, I'll take what modest progress I can make.

Hmm.... this is intriguing. Could ingesting shrimp actually help me to better impersonate a duck (as you know, "Karanda" means "water fowl" or "duck")? What is the relation between shrimp and ducks/water fowl? Do they, like, love each other in nature? Hmm... well, here's a question for you second series practitioners out there: If scientists could somehow scientifically prove that eating shrimp would improve your physical performance of Karandavasana (like they would care, but you know, this is purely a thought experiment), would you start eating shrimp? This question assumes, of course, that you are a vegetarian. If
you aren't, well, then it is moot. No judgment or anything. Just curious. I already kind of know what the answer would be, anyway. But just for the sake of sheer curiosity (and fun), I'm going to set up a poll for this
question in the right-hand corner of this blog. Come to think of it, it's been a very long time since I ran a poll here. So if you are (1) vegetarian, and (2) practice Karandavasana regularly, think about taking
a second to answer this poll. 

Oh, and just so you know: I have reverted to my non-animal-eating ways. The only thing that might possibly tempt me into eating shrimp again would be, I don't know, dim sum (ever heard of shrimp dumplings?)? 


Speaking of (not) eating animals, below is a very recent music video from the person who first inspired me to stop eating them. I studied with PJ Heffernan at his shala for a year when I lived in Milwaukee, WI. PJ's practice and teaching are both awesome (as you can see from the video), and his fierce devotion to Sharath and Guruji is even more awe-inspiring. Enjoy!