Monday, January 25, 2010

The positive energy of discomfort

Am starting a new practice in the new year. Not necessarily as part of a "resolution"--pragmatically, because such resolutions, for me, never outlast the year, and philosophically, because every day should be the "new resolution" day: why wait until the day after December 31, as who knows what tomorrow will bring?

But more because I'm just so sick of a lifestyle that almost always builds and almost never relieves stress. There are a few things that help: cooking for other people, hanging with the guest artists and old friends we can occasionally shanghai into visiting, exercise when I'm being smart and taking care of myself, drinking too much booze when I'm not. But, mostly, I'm building up endless arrays of stress and only sporadically finding appropriate ways of dissipating it.

So I get to the Student Rec Center, where the faculty membership rates are fantastically cheap and where there are literally dozens if not hundreds of ellipticals, weight machines, and free weights. And I put up with the clinical environment and the blasting, dumb-ass frat-rock or mind-numbing talk shows on the sound system.

But it gets just too toxic for me between January and March of the school year, because that of course is when all the little Tylers and Buffy's are cutting classes so they can power-jam in the gym and try to develop enough of a beach bod that they can show off during Spring Break. Most of them are thinking about showing off and getting laid, and between January and February that's all they think about--certainly not classes or other responsibilities.

My experience of physical training is different: I hated the ethos of team sports and, despite being recruited relentlessly in junior high and high school for football (the doctor who delivered me had apparently said "there's my fullback!"), I avoided high school football coaches like the fucking plague. Not a bad decision, in hindsight: there is no way I could have put up with their small-minded hectoring.

No, what little physical training I got regularly as an adolescent and adult (my family were bookworms, not jocks--only my wired-for-sound elder brother was interested in physical activity, and at 6'3" and 145 pounds, there weren't many sports that wanted him) were more solitary--or more serious. I could never get excited about team sports, even when I admired the physical capacities of people who could make them work at a high level.

On the other hand, I was always interested in the combat arts. Team sports, particularly those that were riddled, by the high school coaches, with militaristic imagery and fakery (football the worst culprit, there), just seemed like a macho sublimation. This was brought home to me in the 4 years or so when I studied closely and hard with a man who was a wonderful, focused, patient, gentle teacher--but a very frightening man: a tattooed ex-biker, who'd barely escaped the Bandidos with his life (four nights on top of his house with an M-16, that kind of thing)., who'd broken his back twice and kept himself ambulatory through 3 hours or more a day of chi kung (internal medicine), suffered--in my non-clinician's opinion--from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder--and lived in an old schoolbus in the woods because he couldn't quite deal with people. He never, ever lost his temper with a student, women & kids studied with him fearlessly, and he would do absolutely anything for his students. He just couldn't quite deal with the world. But I loved him and admired him.

When we moved here, and the local pesticides and herbicides pretty much destroyed my thyroid, it became apparent that I was going to have to do something to counter the effect of the atmosphere, and of 16 hours a day at a computer. So I lifted, or slogged on the elliptical, or both, and tried to keep at bay my distaste for the environments, both physical and adolescent, in which college people usually get to engage in such activities. I've got on-campus colleagues who consciously employ the off-campus YMCA or something similar, just exactly for that purpose, but I'm not quite ready for the "soft-impact" aerobics in the pool with the old folks. Probably my absolute favorite physical activity, the one that made me feel most centered, that balanced the internal-health and external-combat aspects of physical training most perfectly for me, is the incredible wealth of the Daoist traditions of Bagua Zhang, the Eight-Sided Star, the endless, circling, flowing Northern Chinese form. But there's no one here who teaches it, and I don't have the skills or insight to study on my own.

So when Dharmonia came to me, just before the new year, and mentioned that the yoga studio, where she--and a sizable portion of our students--either study or teach, was starting an "absolute beginner's" round of classes, I overcame my busted-out knees ass-kicking former martial artist's "disdain" for the practice and thought "fuck it: I'm getting to where I can barely bend over to put on my socks, and I do NOT want to be a crippled-up old man riding a motorized scooter through the goddamned grocery store" and let her sign me up.

Interesting experience. I've blogged before about the difficulty that adult learners have with starting in a musical practice in which they have to be rank beginners, about the difficulty they have with that, with being patient, with accepting a learning method other than the one at which they are accomplished--and about my convictions that this is a good lesson. I've even blogged before about my own experience of what Suzuki-Roshi called "beginner's mind", the challenging--but full-of-possibilities--place in which you know that you don't know anything. And I'm not unfamiliar with the psychological dynamics of the situation myself: I've learned new skills at which I was a rank beginner, repeatedly, and hope always to continue doing this, because it's such a good lesson for me, as a teacher, to be reminded of what it feels like to be a beginner.

So I'm a lot less likely than formerly to be tossed away with the self-consciousness, self-loathing, timidity, and desire to flee that comes from sitting down in a yoga class with a group of 11 others who are younger, fitter, thinner, and (visibly, anyway) comparatively unfrightened. When I realize belatedly that, unintentionally and undesirably, I've chosen a space for the mat, not at the back of the room as I'd intended, but in the front, directly opposite the teacher's seat. When I can't sit cross-legged on the floor for more than 10 minutes without pain in those busted-up knees.

I've actually learned just to observe those reactions: I'm not going to be able to squelch them, but--I've learned--I also don't have to act on them. I just have to sit with the (physical and psychological) discomfort. At one point the teacher says "you should all be able to find a Simple Seat [e.g., rest posture on the floor] in which you're comfortable," and in fact there is no "Simple Seat" that's particularly comfortable for me--the knees are too bad, the hips too tight. And she looks at me, and says "are you finding something comfortable?" and, putting aside all the self-consciousness that the monkey-mind wants me to impose upon the situation, I think for a moment and then say, "well, I can be patient" and leave it at that.

And the teacher smiles, and says, "that's a good answer," and the class goes on. And I still can't sit in a comfortable "Simple Seat", but I've done other hard and physically painful things like this before and they haven't done me any permanent damage, and I know that pain is as temporary as anything else.

And the class goes on, and there's pretty constant discomfort (physical and psychological), but my comfort or discomfort is neither central to the class, nor to my own experience. And at the end of the class, leaving the room, I turn in the doorway and bow to the room, because that's how I was taught to exit the dojo and because, although this is a Hindi not a Sino-Japanese tradition, it feels appropriate to recognize the sacredness of the space.

So I leave the yoga center, and head home, feeling resigned to feeling pretty old, and out-of-shape. But also that I recognize this situation: that I'm old enough that far fewer situations feel unfamiliar and, with a little bit of self-awareness and patience, I can wait-out the initial discomfort of this one too.

It's only afterwards, when Dharmonia comes back from her own (far more advanced) class, that she says "boy, do those yoginis like YOU! The teacher said 'he's great! He sits there, right in front; he does what he's told; he answers right away! He's great!'"

And of course, it's all an accident: the accident of sitting in the front row, the accident of the decades-old practice with my forest-hermit teacher, the accident of--again and again--meeting the right people and the right situations just, and when, I needed to. And, once more, I thank my teachers, and my past, and all beings in the Ten Directions.

For the discomfort, and the resultant possibilities, of this present moment.


masbrow said...


Banjosnake said...

Wow. Great, perceptive post, brother. Makes me wish I could be there to be a beginner with ya. You'd be an inspiration.

Jackie said...

As a yoga teacher, and one who is seeing a LOT of new students right now (this being the time of year when everyone wants to "get healthy"), I can tell you that I'd love you in my class, too!

Little do the beginners know that it doesn't matter if they sit in the back of the room or anywhere else, the teacher is going to be watching you anyway. You will be seen! It's sad that being seen is such a scary thought for so many folks.

CJS said...

Thanks, Doc.

Rev: wish you wuz here, too!

Jax: thanks for the note of encouragement. It's not so much that I want to hide at the back of the class (have taught both music--for too many years--and martial arts enough to know just how much a good teacher as 360-degree vision), but rather that in previous martial arts training, I learned that junior students should go to the back of the class, thereby leaving space for the more advanced people to be seen by all.

But, as I said, in the event it was a fruitful, completely clueless and unintended, productive accident.

Thanks, y'all.

Seeker said...

Really enjoyed reading your post :)

Phoenix said...

I'm right there with you, in spirit. I'm not taking yoga, but I'm taking a simple exercise class. I cried after the first session from the horrifying acknowledgment of my body's condition after cancer treatment. Can't move! No strength! Old! And so it goes. Thanks for describing your process.

CJS said...


I know. I have a friend in rehab right now: former mountain-climber, weight-lifter, football trainer, long-distance swimmer, and flute-player. He was in ICU for almost three months and he's having to relearn how to talk, walk, and--we hope and pray--play.

You hang in there. The world needs you back, all the way.

Kim said...

I'm surprised to read that you were not into team sports. You are such a team player as a musician.

CJS said...

Oh, I'm totally into it--when I'm working for somebody I respect and trust.

But my observation of 1960s & '70s high school football coaches suggested that the ones I saw deserved neither.