Saturday, July 16, 2011

Snakes and Dragons: Breathing in order to Walk Down the Street

Though I'm embarrassed to say it, after several days in a whole different country, with an entirely different way of dressing, a complex set of cultural norms to learn and experience, and no small amount of political upheaval, my first blog post is about, well, me.
I haven't been sleeping. I'm full of anxiety. I've been really sick with a chest cold. I love my sister's apartment and it makes me happy to share the space, even though she's far away. My Google web sites are showing up in Bengali/Bangla because I had to change the timezone on Google calendar.
And it's hard right now for me to leave the house. Not just because I'm sick -- because I'm anxious. I try to leave the house early in the morning, as a kind of vaccination for the rest of the day -- if I do it once, I can do it again. The guidebooks tell you as a white person here you're always the center of attention, that especially for women it's worse and, of course, more dangerous to be on your own. I get so anxious thinking about it that it's better just to do it. A walk down to the river with some people staring is not nearly as bad as the books make it sound. You really do get to greet almost everyone. People smile. You get to read people's faces, see what they bring to the interaction, without any words. This lady asked me to take a picture with her kids.
Generalized anxiety is like a set of boa constrictors, which never quite kill you but choose a different part of your body and squeeze and squeeze until you're all worn out and scared. And if anxiety is snakes I guess fear is dragons -- enormous obstructions that stand in a path you might take and breathe fire at you until you either give up, or steel yourself to walk through the fire.
I've meditated once since I've been here, a simple vipassana. This I find very nourishing. While I am labeling thoughts and focusing on breath, it becomes clear where my mind is, the patterns it is falling into.
At the end of this vipassana, realizing how much anxiety and fear were present for me, I decided to do a bit of tonglen meditation: breathing in the heavy and icky, breathing out light and effervescence.
I have always done tonglen with some degree of reservation. Pema Chodron describes the practice as breathing in the crap of the world without resistance -- as she puts it, the practice "dissolves the armor of self-protection we've tried so hard to create around ourselves." I strongly resist the idea of breathing in the crap of the world. I never know how to breathe in the heavy, polluted yuck that exists in the world without allowing it to stick to me. Sometimes when I do tonglen, I keep that thick, heavy feeling all day.
But this time I read Pema's passages on tonglen differently -- she really sees this, too, as a place to confront our inner demons. "Start where you are. This is very important. Tonglen practice (and all meditation practice) is not about later, when you may get it all together and you're this person you really respect... You don't have to transform anything... That light touch of acknowledging what we're thinking and letting it go is the key to connecting to the wealth that we have." (Start Where You Are, 1994, Shambhala, 35)
The beauty here is that whatever you do for yourself, you do for others, and vice versa. Breathing in my snakes and dragons, being with them, their fangs and fire and scales and terrible constricting bellies, I had to breathe in fully. And, the next moment, I was still there, breathing. The snakes and dragons weren't gone, but they weren't freaking me out so much. Chodron writes, "When the resistance is gone, so are the demons."
I always thought that finger-wagging phrase, "Wherever you go, there you are" had a deterministic and judgemental cast to it -- I have often interpreted it to mean that my wanderlust was sort of an ill-disguised attempt to try to escape myself. The puritanical schoolmaster in me tells me to stay where I am, don't try to get fancy, don't focus all that energy on getting away.
In fact, "wherever you go, there you are" is an amazing and expansive truth --  wherever you go, you find opportunities to work on different things about yourself, you get to know different things about yourself. Different pieces of you are exposed to the light. Wherever you go, you discover new and beautiful and crazy things about you. There you are.

Here's a funny thing from today... I asked a friend if we could go to a bank, and we ended up at an ATM in Baridhara. There's a smiley guy who sits at the little ATM kiosk and opens the door for you. All day! He sits with the bank all day. There are no tellers, no bank managers, just this guy and the ATM kiosk. And he was pleased as pie to see us.


DiamondLil said...

Kye, how beautiful you are in your new togs! Will you wear them around HDS?! I can almost see the snakes and dragons, your companions, rising up in power and majesty behind you as they become your servants and not your masters . . .

I've had some sleepless nights of late, wrestling my own reptilian brain. Around 3am the other night I found great comfort in an essay by the great travel writer Pico Iyer, about a monastery he goes to several times a year for a retreat. Like you, I have often worried that my nomadic nature was just escapism -- maybe that's why I've been itching to hit the road so badly of late. But Iyer captured what I actually feel and have never been able to explain, even to myself.

He talks about going to his monastery as infidelity, a shadow story as all great myths are -- infidelity "against the life I know and the values by which we are suposed to live. I am being disloyal in the deepest way to the assumptions of the daily round, and daring to lay claim to a mystery at the heart of me. . . . No, the flight is TO something much larger than a sigle text or doctrine. It's to -- this the word I otherwise shy from -- eternity. I step into a place that never changes, and with it that part of me, that ground in me, that belongs to what is changeless. There is a self at the core of us -- what some call "Christ," others the "Buddha nature," and poets refer to as the immortal soul -- that is simply part of the non-shifting nature of the universe. Not in any exalted way: just like the soil or sky or air. It does not fit into our everyday notions any more than sky fits into a bed. But I steal into this better world as into a secret love, and there, as in the best of loves, I feel I am known in a way I know is true."

Its so easy to become some version of ourselves when we settle in one place. And at some moment we chafe under it because it is not the real us, or not the whole us, or we get trapped in that persona and people don't want us to grow out of it or change. That's always when I want to hit the road. When I'm itching to shed my skin. Is that why snakes frighten us so? They remind us of the new, more powerful, more potent selves wanting to get out?

Happy travels my luv!

Kye said...

I love it :) Thank you for these insights. Infidelity is right! Concerns are so different, priorities and problems so separate from what I consider to be my problems at home. Mystery, yes, and basic survival -- things that I might reference or think about in everyday life but don't truly wrestle with.
Here's to shedding our old skin :)
I hope you are sleeping better soon! Or getting in a lot of good reading, if not :)

Matt B. said...

Things I like about this blog:

It has pictures of you in it. Four of 'em, carnival photo-booth style! (Though I suppose to do it properly you'd have to kiss yourself, or your garment, or something.)

It is lovely stuff. I've had so many of these same thoughts, and I really love the way you render 'em - so Kye-ly, such a pleasant mix of the high-minded and the bellyful.

These fights remind me of the thing I was inevitably going to be reminded of today, because I want to talk about: this movie I saw called...well I don't know, it's "Copia Certificada" in Spanish, and it has Juliette Binoche in it, and this guy William Shimmel, and it's very excellent. Almost the entire movie you don't know what's happening. The whole thing is a conversation between two characters - initially, you think it's a writer and a fan, but then you realize (I think) that it's a couple that used to be married, but you're not really sure, not sure whether it's two people who've (for some reason) chosen to ACT like a former married couple or people who actually are. And there's this whole thing about copies and originals and why we like the latter more, etc. Watch it in t-minus 5 weeks when you get home. With me!

Miss you.

PS Diamond Lil is that Lily Ross? I loved yer post.

Kye said...

Matty B. :)
I tried to jump back and kiss myself, but no luck :) I think that is James Brown's superpower, and his alone.
Diamond Lil is a friend from church... I love her. She is full of insight and groundedness and brilliance.
Can't wait to see you, and watch this movie. T-minus 23 days or so. With the time difference do I gain a day? :) Been re-reading Around the World in 80 days :) SoooOoo good. Also, in an amazing NGO that sets up traveling libraries ( ), found a copy of The Idiot. Dostoevsky is so bleak he scares me, but I am checking it out anyway. Thank you for this delicious post... Hugs.