Wednesday, October 30, 2013

what's underneath your words

Today I am thinking of the words compassion and brahmacharya.

Brahmacharya is one of the yamas (which is one of the eight limbs of yoga, we've been through all this already, right?), the restraints, ways that we're encouraged to behave as practicing yoga students. They include things like honesty, nonviolence, not stealing and a few others. Brahmacharya is often (mis)translated as celibacy. Listen, I should say, if it's not obvious to you because you don't know me well: I'm no kind of Sanskrit or yoga scholar. At least, not today. So I can't say I've studied ancient texts in Sanskrit and that celibacy is not the word. I can just say that a lot of what I've read makes brahmacharya something other, or more, than celibacy.

Another way it's translated is as moderation. In fact, I was on the bus a few months ago and saw a woman carrying a Lululemon bag that with the word on the side. I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud, but I had the good sense not to speak to her about it. It looked like this.

please note the cookies, candies, liquor bottles, french fries, playing cards and pills that spell out the word. Thank god for Lulu, to show us what moderate really means.
Really? I thought to myself. A company that sells $100-yoga pants has the nerve to advertise using the concept of moderation? Who y'all think you're trying to kid?

The blog post on their website featuring the bag includes a strange post from a woman who says without brahmacharya she'd sit around all day eating fried chicken, playing with puppies and posting selfies on Instagram. Instead, she found this yama, and now she's whipped herself into a tight, fit, "healthy" and (anything but) moderate shape, through various yoga and cleansing programs. I found it pretty disturbing and a little sad.

But that's not the point. The point is the word. I recently learned that the etymology of brahmacharya is, "to walk with God." I was driving down Ashland Avenue when I heard this, and it took my breath away. I almost had to pull over. The idea of moderation coming from a word that means to walk with God: it was astonishing.

When I was little, someone told me the story of Enoch, remember him? "Enoch walked with God." I think I learned it in school, and they made us say it over and over again, "Enoch walked with God." Evidently one day, God was so taken with him that God just beamed him right on up, and no one ever saw him again. When I heard this, I thought of this story. Now that I think about it, I don't know what the teachers were trying to say: maybe if we walked closely enough with God, we'd get beamed up, and spared the reckoning that is dying, or the always complicated and often painful experience of being human.

So something else this speaker mentioned was brahmacharya as using your vital life force appropriately in order to connect more efficiently with the divine. The vital life force is probably something that could be used when you're having sex, so maybe you think about not being indiscriminate, so that you can connect to your higher self when you want and need to, rather than being zapped from all the lovemaking. But maybe you use your life force at work, in front of a room full of thirsty young minds, or typing away at a keyboard and herding corporate digital cats, or dealing with an endless line of customers who demand that you move heaven and earth to meet their expectations. Is there enough of it leftover so that you can get still and quiet and connect with the divine, when the time is right?

Maybe walking with God, connecting up or connecting out, makes us better able to abstain when we want to, and not be bound by our desires. I'm not a person who believes if it feels good it must be bad, I'm just not. But there are things that I don't want to do that I do. I binge-watch television on Netflix. As hard as it makes it for me to get up the next morning, I take the iPad to bed and watch the 11th episode of some show I've already seen three times late at night. Every now and then, I buy a horrible, sugar-filled, gluten-free vegan cupcakes, and I eat the entire thing, despite knowing how shitty I'll feel afterward. I consistently over-schedule, and wind up late for something.  I get so angry with people who cut me off, and with people who expect me to move out of their way. Really, I'm not above shoulder-checking strangers as I walk down the street. I'm not confessing to these things because they're particularly bad. They're not particularly bad. But these are places where I begin to feel out of balance, where I want more of the divine. Maybe I walk with God so I will experience less attachment, or aversion, to experiences like these.

I don't know yet. I'm still thinking about it.

The other word on my mind, compassion, is a buzzword, right, it's being thrown around so much that I wonder if it even has meaning. The etymology for compassion is with suffering, or suffering with. No surprise. What I was thinking is something I heard here about being compassionate: if you don't have compassion for yourself you can't be compassionate with anyone else. I hear this a lot in terms of love: love of others starts with self-love, and I don't have any issue with it.

I was thinking about suffering. Suffering is something that no one wants to do, and that we try with all our might to avoid or to avoid feeling. Being sick, being sad, being lonely: we do whatever we can to bounce out of those feelings mightily. But what if we didn't? What if we just let ourselves hurt? I don't mean the rest of our lives, that we marinated in our pain and used it as an excuse not to grow. I mean what if, instead of distracting and over-medicating and indulging and drinking, if we just felt the pain? If we acknowledged our own pain, loneliness, ache? Maybe this would allow us to be more compassionate. Rather than feeling pity for someone who's hurting, maybe we can say, I know that hurt, I'm sorry that you feel it, because it really, really sucks.

But what I've been thinking about is that we can't be with someone else who's suffering if we're doing everything in our power to avoid our own suffering. If we can't acknowledge our pain, and ever having experienced it, does our sympathy have any chance of being meaningful, of producing true connection? I don't know.

At any rate, there's a lot on my mind.

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