Before I get into this, I want you to know that I do not do this lightly. For most of my life I have been a very private person. No one, not even my therapist, my ex-wife or my current girlfriend, know much of what I am about to share. So why now and why here? Because I'm tired. I'm tired of being ashamed of what I lived through, of where I'm from. Because I need to own it and move on. Yes, it has informed my emotional life and No, it does not define who I am. Not by a long shot.
And here's more good reasons for this uncharacteristic sharing. I have experienced something phenomenal as I have revealed more and more of what is really going on with me. I have been amazed at people's capacity to receive me and to accept me even when it has been hard for me to accept myself. Today my expectation is the reverse of what it had been for most of my life. Today I expect people to understand me and to treat me well if I can just be emotionally real with them. I've seen it again and again and it has been very healing for me and for the people I have been involved with. What better reason could I have for venting my spleen?
So, I have compelling personal and altruistic rationales for conveying my story. I also think my story will fill a gap. I have found that the kind of sharing I hope to do is not seen a lot of in the yoga world. Most really good teachers of yoga revert to a remote place to teach from. It is a place of safe distance. It is an impersonal place. Great concepts can be shared and some of the best teacher's can help you get in touch with what is real inside you. It is rare that teacher's share much of what is real inside them, however. I always wonder if that teacher who overcame illness or injury through yoga also overcame anger at a random world, depression about their isolation, fear of their own fragility and so on? I wonder why teachers who advocate looking completely at things and accepting what they find don't share fully about where a lot of the real work is done and obstacles encountered, the realm of emotions?
This reserve displayed by yoga teachers leads to a common mis-impression. Yoga leads to a cessation of the fluctuations of the emotional life. I don't think this is what Patanjali meant when he wrote in his Yoga Sutras, "citta vritti narodhaha" or translated: through yoga "perturbations of the mind cease." Yogis do not become feeling-less automatons nor do they strive to. I think what Patanjali meant was that we become identified with the witness state inside of us. That more and more we have access to this calm place that watches everything we do, feel and say. This person is us but it is not our personality. It is not the place where we feel our pain, our desire or our joys. But it is the place that watches all these things. We still greet the world with reactivity. We will always have ups and downs. And as we gain greater access to the observer state we can feel safer giving full expression to our emotional life. This is complex and ironic, like many of the most profound truths.
Now that you know where I am coming from with this, let me tell you where and who I've been.
For a couple of years say between the ages of 9 and 11, I witnessed a drawn out drama of escalating tensions and outright fighting that lead to my parents divorce. There were tense dinners where the conflict was so palpable it was hard to keep chewing and swallowing. There was a big fight that scared me and my sisters so much that we all huddled together in the little bathroom downstairs and hid and speculated about what might happen. It was there that I first learned about the possibility of divorce. Only that merciful ending did not come for some time. Before then there were dramatic scenes where a big clunky old fashioned telephone was pulled out of the wall and flung across the room and another where a sink full of dishes were broken, smashed on the floor. It was so disturbing that my eldest sister Lisa, seven years my senior but still a teenager, moved out of our modest but comfortable suburban home and into a 3rd floor walk up, cold water flat, with her boyfriend, to escape the mayhem.
There was no escape for me however, except to retreat inside myself. My Mom told me not to pay attention to the quarrels. She said they had nothing to do with me and that my job was to keep my chin up and to do well in school. My Dad told me before he moved out that he would always love me even if he wasn't around. So I determinedly focused on my schoolwork and I acted as if I was loved, though I did not feel it much.
To do this, I basically cauterized my emotional life. After a particularly horrendous scene, I had no one to cry to, no one to tell how I felt. Having no ability to share it, I stifled my suffering by going numb. I had a deep sense that no one cared about what was happening in my heart and I acted as if I did not mind. Eventually, I more or less forgot how to speak about what was real for me.
I was lucky in some ways, though. I knew my Mom was concerned about me being well fed and wanted me to continue doing well in school which is more than many kids ever get. There was breakfast every morning, a lunch to take to school and dinner every night. And I'm guessing that she was in so much pain herself that she could not have handled hearing about how I was suffering. As a child I had been taught to have a fairly distrustful worldview and to keep things that happened in the home private. My sisters had been trained similarly, so we really didn't know how to share, even with each other. The result of all this was that I was left alone with a boatload of hurt, confusion, pain and anger. For all this, yoga was a soothing balm. The focus on physical sensation during asana practice, grounded as it was in the here and now, somehow eased my mind away from fears about the future and painful dwelling on recent past incidents and toward a joyful part of my interior life.
There is a beautiful quote in the Bhagavad Gita about the 4 things someone might offer the Lord. "He who offereth to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, water, that I accept from the striving self, offered as it is with devotion." I came to yoga without the slightest clue that I was doing what millions of seekers had done before me. I was offering the dried out leaf of my stoicised self to the Lord for redemption. It would take many, many years for me to moisten and soften to compost and then more time to fertilize the flower of an opening heart. It would take longer still to bear the fruit of deep connection with myself and others. I am clearly still in this process of becoming. I doubt that I will ever be able to offer the clear purity of water beyond all yearning and nourish everything I touch, but it is a lovely goal, worthy of continued striving. The first step for me was out of misery toward peace and I've continued in that direction with plenty of missteps along the way, ever since.