Sunday, January 6, 2008

India: Day Four (Delhi)

Awoken by rosy "mood" light emanating from all of our furnishings, we skedaddled through our ablutions and took the gorgeous glass elevator up to the club room for breakfast, where tea was brought to me while I checked my email, I read the International Herald Tribune, and omelets were fried up to our specifications. We hurried through a feast of yogurt and dried apricots, fresh fruit (melons and pineapple, peeled, are supposedly safe to eat; we'll see), eggs, and tea. On the way out, I also gobbled a small slice of French toast, but it was not so tasty, unlike everything else. We met our driver outside, and he brought us to the Habitat Center, where yoga was beginning at 7:15. I've not done any physical activity for about a week now, which is bad enough, without considering the hours put in on the airplanes. Although the yoga involved much more talking than I would have preferred, having time dedicated to stretching my abused muscles, even if we only did what I would consider a cool-down (no sun salutations, no standing postures, no twists—only three seated postures and one backbend, followed by a lot of chanting). Mom and I made a pact that, since the conference lets out today at 6:30, without dinner, we'll practice together at the hotel fitness center with an mp3 class I have on my computer. For the moment, we split, to attend different panel discussions, hers on creativity and spirituality, mind on the science of consciousness. I imagine those choices alone are very telling of our differences.

***

Three of four presenters on the consciousness panel were nearly impossible to listen to, not because of frivolity of their subjects, as I had feared, but simply due to poor public speaking skills. I will admit to having tuned out to finish writing about yesterday. I stopped my reveries, though, for the last speaker, a quantum physicist talking on the topic of the reason physics leads to spirituality. He was from Germany, and spoke in an amusing, intelligent way, and somehow managed to use the word "fiddlesticks!" in a serious way. The first thing he said that caught my attention was this: "We need to think in ways that do not lead to meaningless questions. Meaningless questions arise from false assumptions." I feel as though most of my philosophical conversations, particularly in the few courses I took on the topic at Berkeley and Columbia, were spent in parsing meaningless questions. Here is a much longer quotation, cribbed from his wordy powerpoint presentation. I think that it encompasses the core of his talk: "Contemporary physics makes more sense in the context of a spiritual world view than it does in the context of a materialistic one. Materialistic world views assign ultimate reality to a multitude. Spiritual world views assign ultimate reality to a unitary principle. If we conceptually partition the world into smaller and smaller regions, we reach a point where the distinctions we make between regions of space no longer correspond to anything in the physical world. . . Space isn't a self-existent and intrinsically differentiated expanse. Ultimately there is only one place, and this is everywhere." If this makes sense, good. If not, I will rephrase: it's basically the blanket thing from I Heart Huckabees—we are all connected, because we are all made of the same thing (we are all in the blanket, and by "we," I mean not only people, but also animals, vegetables, and minerals. . . as Dustin Hoffman's character says, "Here's France—here's the Eiffel Tower—and here's a war, and this is an orgasm, and this is a hammer—" so that "Everything's the same, even if it's different." After the talk, a fair question was raised: quantum physics is all theorizing. Could an empirical experiment be performed to demonstrate this? The speaker responded that, though we try to understand the micro-world in terms of the macro-world, the micro-world actually supervenes (rather than constitutes) the macro-world. Quantum physics thus investigates how the world is manifested by the energetic stuffs that one finds when one dissolves everything. Some people call this God. When I was a child, I would ask my father where people came from, and he would say "chimps," and I would ask where they came from, and so on, through invertebrates, amoebas, and eventually onto energy. When I asked "where did energy come from?" he would answer: "It was always there." This infuriated my childhood logic, and so we would have to undertake this process again and again; sometimes the list of intermediate creatures would vary, but the end answer was always the same: it all came from energy, and energy was always there. Also worth mentioning is a comment by another panelist in the process of answering a different question: "Materialism is a curious faith."

We then broke for tea, and I found my mom, who was chatting with a textile artist who prints spiritual images on brightly colored fabric. She was thrilled to bits that he had promised to make her a dress. He gave me a postcard and I smiled in the most friendly way that I could; I found his work rather garish. For the next panel session, I attended a discussion on Forgiveness and positive psychology. This panel consisted of five speakers, one of which was engaging. She spoke on her work in prisons, using positive psychology with the incarcerated. She explained that her first step in meeting with someone (incarcerated or not) is to give that person a resource by identifying their core competency—this gave me a bit of a chuckle, since at work (in executive search), we always make lists of necessary core competencies, but treat it as a bit of a joke. Her example, though, applied in an organic way that it rarely does at my job; she said that when sitting down with someone incarcerated for drug dealing, the core competency would be sales, and identifying this enables the prisoner to realize that he could sell anything—cars, insurance, real estate—out in the world. Someone asked what good that would do for a prisoner in prison for life, and she told us that person's competency would be "statesman"—someone who could spend years collecting knowledge that he could share with other prisoners. This requires making a perceptual shift. She pointed out what freedom life imprisonment can give to a person, who no longer needs to worry about a roof over his head or food in his belly—he knows that he will be provided for, and can dedicate his life to interior study and public service. This does sound like quite the Pollyanna worldview, and might not be realistic (never having any experience of prison, I cannot know), but her program seems to have met with quite a bit of success, with many of her incarcerated students becoming teachers of her method, and helping other prisoners.

Three of the other speakers on this panel spoke specifically on the topic of forgiveness. We were led through a guided meditation, in which we were asked to recall a still-festering wound, for which we had not yet forgiven the person who had violated us. Not to brag, but I could not think of any festering wounds; I think I'm pretty good about forgiving ever since I started practicing yoga seriously—it's simply become impossible to hold onto anger or even hurt, which often flushes out of me through tears during class. One of the speakers called forgiveness "an impossible necessity," but I find it far from impossible. He explained that when we suffer, others do too, as our emotions spread to those around us; he asked us to imagine what it would mean if the US apologized to Iraq for our actions there, and asked for forgiveness. He asked what it would mean if we realized that we were each responsible for the world (via the aforementioned ripple effect). He insisted that forgiveness, therefore, is practical, and dramatically needed, but cautioned that it's not an action that cannot be performed by whim; instead it's a process.

In Catholic grade school, we were required to perform the sacrament of "Reconciliation" or "Penance" or "Confession," as it is alternately known, and it was my least favorite thing about school (I never minded mass, because we sang during it, and I loved the sound of the church walls ringing with our voices). I was always anxious about this sacrament because it required one to tell, in list form, all of one's sins to the priest. I was anxious about this because I could not think of many sins, and anyway, the ones that I could think of were so dramatically despicable that I could barely voice them (once, it was that I had thrown our family's cat out the window). By the time I switched to Catholic high school, this sacrament was no longer required, and I was thankful for that, and forgot all about it—perhaps, I think, until now. And now, thinking about it, I realize that the sacrament was taught to us in a completely backwards fashion. The importance of this sacrament is not the confession—particularly not in list form—so much as the possibility of forgiveness. Precocious logician that I was, I was always frustrated by the concept of forgiveness as a child. Why would anyone refrain from sin if God would consistently forgive? Of course, the only form in which "mindfulness" was taught (and certainly mindfulness will prevent anyone from ever "sinning") was the Golden Rule of "Do unto others," which does work, so long as one considers the planet as an "other" as well. That aside, though, I realize now that forgiveness is much more important than confession or apology, because holding grudges leads to anger, and holding anger leads to hate, and holding hate leads to "sin"—that is, actions that transgress against others. The most recent wound I could remember during the meditation, though completely healed over, had festered for a short time, during which the person with whom I was engaged in conflict was able to push my buttons and thereby escalate our conflict, until I began spewing angry and cruel words, which I wish now I had never lowered myself to say. This was proof enough for me for the importance of letting go, and I've flushed away all of the hurt and anger associated with that relationship. Though I have decided not to speak with that person again, to protect us both from that dynamic of escalating anger and insult, I was able to sit, during the meditation, and send him waves of loving acceptance and forgiveness. I hope I'm not tiring all of you readers with all of this touchy-feely nonsense; perhaps I am more porous to this conference's topics than I had expected or would have liked. Anyway, it's time for lunch.

***

Mmm. . . eight more curries, with brown rice and nan, and piles of vegetables—particularly beautiful green peas. After butterscotch ice cream and chocolate cake (who are these people that get sick in India, and what are they eating? If I get sick at all, it will have been strictly from gluttony), I moved along to the third panel discussion, on deep ecology. Mom hasn't been interested in any of my topics; last session she went to Spirituality and Aging, and now she's going to Spirituality of Death and Dying. Who would have guessed that she has a big birthday next week?!

This "deep ecology" panel turned out to be less about ecology than a variety of topics concerning communing with nature. One of the more interesting presenters spoke about a program called Sacred Passage, which sends people into nature for a period of seven, 14, or 28 days, to be alone, with no books, music, journals, or any other distraction, simply with nature and oneself. Another of the presenters showed plans for a meditative garden that she hopes to build off of Pier 49 in Manhattan, with a labyrinth and a fountain. I would love to have this as a spatial resource. She showed us a list of phrases and quotations she planned to have posted around the park, like inspirational Easter eggs, or Oblique Strategies. I particularly liked these two: "Love came as a gust within my breast," and "How do you like to go up in a swing, up in the air so blue?"

After another tea break, everyone convened in the big auditorium for another presentation of speakers. One of the more interesting talks was on the topic of why Western psychology considers yogis' high-consciousness experiences pathological. Rajiv Malhotra explained that Jung, who practiced yoga himself, considered it dangerous for his Western students to practice yoga. He believed in the existence of the first five chakras, but didn't support any exploration of the higher ones, through which "duality" is dissolved. Malhotra proposed that Westerners are unable to create spirituality from a pure, present experience, that we have a dependence on institutions marketing religion as intellectual property. I'm not sure that I agree with this statement (I might, but it's a dramatic accusation that requires some consideration), but I agreed with his next: that conversely, the yogic state is self-evident, not taught. Although one takes yoga classes, only the asanas, or postures, are taught. The spiritual experience and "beliefs," if any, bubble up out of that, within the practitioner. Furthermore, with yoga, every person has an opportunity for an experience of knowing during their lifetime (rather than after death; so many religions withhold). Yoga demands that the instrument of knowing, the mind, must be clean (just as one's scientific research tools—a microscope or pipette—must be clean), to prevent distortion. Malhotra noted the huge amount of ADD diagnoses in the West, and our general inability to silence the mind while remaining aware and conscious. Yoga teaches us to do that.

Ultimately, the key takeaway of this talk is that yoga is a first person empirical spiritual practice, as opposed to the third person methodology of psychology (or, I am considering arguing, religion). And yet, thanks to some new studies using functional MRI technology to study the brains of yogis, third person research is validating the first person science, and thus validating yogic claims. I am delighted that yogic "claims" are becoming less and less "fringe" or new-agey; many of my intellectual friends (readers, you know who you are) have laughed and me and my practice for some time now, but I've never felt so happy or complete since I started practicing seriously. Forgive me if I'm getting "out there," but I'm certain that if every person in the world practiced yoga, there would be no war, no terrorism, no genocide; perhaps the gap between the rich and poor might even close. Now, of course the probability of every person in the world practicing yoga seriously is nearly as low as the probability that we'll all reach simultaneous nirvana. And yet, thanks again to the aforementioned ripple effect, the more people who practice, the better.

Tonight, I'm too exhausted and too full to make it through dinner. I've had another two happy hour gin and tonics, this time along with unidentified happy hour snacks (some kind of mutton thing—absolutely delish—and some kind of flattened falafel-ish thing), and I'm off to bed. You've asked for pictures. I will do my utmost to add them tomorrow. Hold on to your hats.

2 comments:

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