Friday, September 23, 2011

Is the universe indifferent?

[Image taken from here]

“I look up at the sky, wondering if I'll catch a glimpse of kindness there, but I don't. All I see are indifferent summer clouds drifting over the Pacific. And they have nothing to say to me. Clouds are always taciturn. I probably shouldn't be looking up at them. What I should be looking at is inside of me. Like staring down into a deep well. Can I see kindness there? No, all I see is my own nature. My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative often self-centered nature that still doubts itself--that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I've carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path. I'm not carrying it because I like it. The contents are too heavy, and it looks crummy, fraying in spots. I've carried it with me because there was nothing else I was supposed to carry. Still, I guess I have grown attached to it. As you might expect.”

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite writers. I don't quite know how to characterize his writing. All of his novels and short stories feature ordinary people who start out facing seemingly ordinary everyday issues (cat getting lost, a teenage boy running away from home, etc.); issues which quickly metamorphosize into bizarre, surreal situations in which the everyday gets inextricably mixed up with the other-worldly, in which the protaganists (and the reader) are forced to question the very meaning of their everyday existences.

I often feel that Murakami's writing is yogic without the woo; through his writing, he induces the same kind of subtly powerful soul-searching and reflection that yoga practice often brings up. However, he does not pull any punches in doing so. He does not pretend that the universe is anything more than an indifferent spectator of the foibles and flaws of the human condition. Yet through it all, there is a certain compassionate tone that underlies his writing, making what might otherwise be unbearable seem bearable, even funny. My favorite novels by him are The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. I highly recommend them.

Murakami's work brings up one question for me: Is the universe indifferent to human suffering? What is the yogic perspective on this question? I suspect that many newcomers to yoga are attracted to yoga because yoga, at least as it is presented in the west, often gives one the impression that there is a universe that is inherently compassionate, nurturing and caring; all you have to do is to evoke the appropriate mantras, and maybe light the appropriate kind of incense, turn on the appropriate kind of soft lighting and soothing music in yoga class, and that all-pervading feel-good feeling will wash off onto you and follow you everywhere when you step off the mat and into the world.

Ashtanga practice, of course, is nothing like that. There is no music, and (usually) no incense. All you can hear is the sound of your own breathing and those of others (if you practice in a mysore room), accompanied by the incessant chattering of your own chitta vrtti, which tends to get louder and more persistent when you approach postures that you find challenging. All you can smell (if anything) is the smell of your own sweat and that of others (again, if you practice in a mysore room). And there is no teacher to lead the class and tell you that everything is all good and will be okay. You have to listen to your own breath and body, and judge for yourself if anything is not so good or not so okay, and then decide how to respond.

With all of this responsibility placed squarely onto the practitioner, one sometimes wonders where the universe stands in all of this. This is especially so when one is facing difficulties in the practice (injuries or illness, major life changes which bring up strong emotions, etc.). Amid the frustration and sweat and tears, looking up at the clouds (or, in this case, looking up at the ceiling of the practice room) for a glimpse of kindness, one seems to see only one's own frustration reflected back onto oneself. And the only things one can do is to either get off the mat and call it a day, or continue to stare inside of oneself, see all the ugliness that is there in all its full glory, accept it for what it is, and try to work with it as best as one can. In such moments, one cannot help (at least, I cannot help) but wonder: What is the universe doing? Is it just standing around somewhere, spectating with benign indifference at my clumsy attempts to come to terms with myself? If the universe is kind or compassionate, where is this kindness or compassion?

And these moments where one senses the universe's seeming indifference do not end when one gets off the mat. One feels them in everyday life too; in particularly, one feels them especially acutely in those moments where one feels that despite one's best efforts, things seem to be going in the reverse direction: It's as if one's inner computer is offline and disconnected from the rest of the universe, which seems to continue to hum merrily along while one vainly spins one's wheels in the ditch of futility.

Fortunately, most of the time, for most of us, the universe seems to be operating in a state of at least tolerable connectedness to us. It might still be indifferent, for all we know; and we know that there are always problems and issues lurking in the background. But we get by. Seen in this light, perhaps the Ashtanga practice is really a sort of magnifying glass. When one is on the mat, one deliberately places oneself in a situation where one has more opportunities than usual to get offline with the universe; these opportunities most often present themselves in the form of injuries, illness or even challenging postures. The challenge here is whether one can maintain a certain level of composure and equanimity in the face of such "offlineness" and disconnectedness. Will I face these "offline" and disconnected feelings, learn to be with them, or will I simply stand up, get off the mat, and [insert your favorite "comfort activity"]?

Well, there are no easy answers. But on a very, very different note, here's some other news: I will be in Portland, Oregon on the weekend of November 4th to 6th. I will be presenting a philosophy paper on procrastination at a philosophy conference at Lewis and Clark College. There aren't too many jobs in which you can get paid for thinking, writing and speaking about procrastination :-) It's things like this that make me feel that academia is a nice place to be in, despite whatever other issues there might be with it (I'm not going there...). Well, maybe the universe isn't so indifferent to me, after all :-) Anyway, I expect that my schedule will be really packed during the day. But I'm hoping to be able to go to at least one early-morning Ashtanga class while I'm there. So I'm going to start looking online for Ashtanga studios in the area. If any of you out there live in Portland or the surrounding area, and would like to hang out with me/practice with me/tell me about interesting places to practice Ashtanga/tell me about interesting places to eat at/whatever, please get in touch with me. I'll love to hear from you.            


  1. I recommend that book to runners and non runners. It is the only Haruki Murakami I've ever read. It's a life guide, a travelogue, and a writing manual in a thin little hardcover.

  2. Great post. I'm going to check out Murakami. But I don't think that I'll get into my philosophical position on whether the universe is indifferent in a blog comment (big topic). I like the way that you described Ashtanga. Helps me to understand better why people find it to be a powerful practice.

  3. I'm also a Murakami fan. is having a promotion for his new novel 1Q84. You have to tell why you love Murakami and they will make a video love letter to Murakami on their site. (I listen to audiobooks while knitting.) I hope you may have time to contribute something to the site as I really enjoy your writing and find it such a coincidence that you should comment on Murakami at the same time as Audible.

  4. sereneflavor, very happy to hear that you are also a fellow Murakami fan :-) You may want to check out his fiction too, especially Wind-Up Bird and Kafka.

    Thanks Carol. Perhaps you can write a post soon about whether you think the universe is indifferent? :-) I hope you like Murakami.

    Hello Martha, I've heard something about Murakami's new novel too. I'll like to read it soon. I'll check out Thanks!

  5. ...isn't Jason from 'Leaping Lanka' in Portland?

  6. Yes, Christine, I think you are right that Jason is in Portland. I'll think about getting in touch with him.

  7. Hi Nobel,

    I practice in Portland at Near East Yoga:
    It is a really lovely space and would recommend it if it aligns with you.

    Jason runs the other Mysore show in Portland at:
    I think he does a Friday evening led primary which might work for your travel schedule.

    Also I'd love to grab a meal with you, or practice, or both, while you are in town - I've enjoyed your blog, at least over the past 3 months since I've made the leap from the martial arts to yoga.

  8. Thanks for reaching out to me, Tom. I would love to grab a meal and hopefully practice with you at Near East Yoga.

    I've heard some great things about Near East Yoga. Is your teacher Casey Palmer? I have a couple of friends here in Fargo who used to live in Portland and are his students.

    Perhaps you can shoot me an email as we get closer to November? I look forward to meeting you :-)

  9. Yes Casey taught me the practice and runs Near East. I'll shoot you an e-mail now so you have my info and we can touch base closer to your visit. Look forward to meeting you as well.

  10. Thanks Tom. I just replied to your email :-)