Telling stories

Telling stories. Telling stories. RE-telling stories

I was formally trained to study the past. I used to be an archaeologist. My academic training taught me that there’s usually more than one interpretation of the evidence and if you follow the more radical post-modern theories the past is unknowable and all interpretations become equally valid… Death of the author and all that stuff.

When it comes to my own past I’m just starting to develop awareness of all the stories I tell myself, the personal narrative I’ve unwittingly honed all my life, and I’m beginning to question whether there are other interpretations possible here too. Could I retell my story a different way? Are the thoughts I have about myself necessarily true?

My teacher has been talking recently about his own habitual tendencies, how he’s worked to change them steadily through his decades of practice — and then how recent stressful situations threw him right back to square one, in modes of reactivity laid down through childhood experiences. I found this sharing quite touching. Also quite terrifying. If he hasn’t yet mastered the re-told narrative, how long will it take me? I look to him for inspiration, after all. And yet there’s also something rather wonderful and comforting to learn that even those we hold up as more ‘advanced’ in some way also face difficulties. This is big work after all. It’s rewiring one part of our brains even while the other part is telling us not to.

I found Patanjali has a word for it (1.30): anavasthitatva (अनवस्थितत्व) = ‘backsliding’, essentially. The naming of things is comforting.

So I took both forms of comfort to class with me, knowing that my teacher faces these difficulties himself helps me not feel so alone and by naming this difficulty I can objectify it and give it less power. And class was hard for me, really hard. It took a lot of courage to show up. It was quite a free-form class with an emphasis on hip-opening, all postures low to the ground and it was taught (an advanced class rather than an open class) with an emphasis on personal exploration without so much instructional cuing. It triggered all my old insecurities: I don’t know enough to do this, everyone else in the room is better and more experienced than me, my body is so broken it doesn’t take these shapes, I can’t feel the sensations my teacher is suggesting, my practice is not real yoga because it’s not breath-led (I’m just trying not to freeze in panic), my teacher must be judging my practice and wondering why I take up space in his advanced class…

On and on in a relentless stream of hideous self-criticism. With the icing on the cake being my awareness that self-criticism is not all all what this is about, that the class had in fact begun with my teacher urging us to practise observation without getting involved.

So after about an hour I left the room. I couldn’t bear it any more. It was like being forced to watch a horror film where I was both audience and protagonist. I needed a break. I sat outside the studio door, listening to the low murmuring of my teacher’s instructions and feeling my breath settle a little and my body soften away from the source of fear. As I observed found a bit of distance opening up between me now and my negative thoughts from the past. I almost laughed at myself and the difficulties I create. I thought about leaving the studio, calling it a day. I felt I had done my work, had nothing more to give. But I did make one more effort, returning to the room and taking some quiet forward folds to close my practice, offering myself some state of calmness and closure. I have learned something of how to do this and how necessary it is. And in these folded-in shapes, drawing myself together — all of me not just the negative thinking part — and allowing myself to observe how much skill and awareness I am actually cultivating, how much work I did today.

I know I’m still stuck in big-time avidya (a lack of seeing clearly, not perceiving the true self), but the mists are clearing a little. And deeply uncomfortable though it is, I am grateful to my teacher for providing me with some viewpoint and some perspective.

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