Friday, August 26, 2011

On Yoga & Commitment-Phobia

I went to a new yoga studio yesterday, and found the class I took there quite refreshing. It wasn't so much that the teacher was super amazing - she really wasn't - as that the class she taught was so calm and therapeutic. Of course, there were some challenging poses; any yoga pose is challenging when you bring your full physical and mental attention to it. But there was also meditation to start and end class, and a feeling of calm and sensitivity in the room that made its way into my mind and body. I was able to be present in a way that I have not been in a yoga class (or anywhere else) in quite some time.

The studio I normally go to holds one-hour classes that are incredibly intense from a physical perspective. They are crowded - mats are laid down edge to edge like the patches of a room-sized quilt - and it's hard not to feel as if you're at some kind of yoga revival. I don't mean to be overly critical or dismissive of this approach: it draws a huge crowd and is definitely an intense workout. I'm just not sure that an intense workout is what I'm really looking for from yoga anymore.

What am I looking for, and am I going to find it in yoga? I'm not sure, although I have been consistently drawn to yoga for ten years now, though it's never really found a comfortable niche in my life. I have always been drawn to its spiritual and philosophical aspects, but never enough so to really dedicate myself to their exploration beyond reading a popular book or two. I suppose I'm a yoga commitment-phobe: I want the benefits of a cursory relationship with yoga - strength, flexibility, a toned body - without all the intellectual and spiritual work of delving into its literary and meditative teachings.

Maybe this speaks to a larger issue I struggle with: a hesitancy to believe thoroughly in anything. I try to avoid dogma in its many forms, even when disguised by things I believe in, like nature and science. Does this hesitancy keep me from fully investing myself in a course of study and spiritual development? Or am I simply, as I sometimes think, just lazy? Am I just satisfied enough with the way things stand that I don't feel any need to dedicate a lot of time to profoundly changing my life - a life, I must say, that I'm very happy with?

Whatever the case, the cursory relationship I've had so far with yoga no longer seems to be enough, and in some way, I desire to go deeper. This may mean facing some of my own assumptions head-on: after all, I realize there is plenty of room for critical thought when one is engaged in studying philosophy or in developing a spiritual practice.  It's just a matter of owning up to the rigorous work that represents, instead of brushing the whole thing off as dogma and therefore not worthy of my time and serious contemplation.  It's just a matter of deciding to invest - an always risky, often rewarding, proposition.  

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hiking Tumamoc

Last night, J and I rode our bikes to Tumamoc Hill and hiked up it. I love this little urban hike - about 800 feet of climbing up a paved road that cuts through pristine desert. The hill is owned by the University of Arizona, and has been a desert research site since 1906. The hike is short but steep, with gorgeous views of the city from the top.

The view from the top of Tumamoc Hill, with Sentinel Peak
("A" Mountain) in the foreground and rain over the Rincons.

Hundreds of people hike the hill every night, making it far from a wilderness experience. Almost the opposite - the hill is an urban gathering place where people come together to do something good for their bodies and souls. Strangers of all shapes and sizes share the experience of the climb - the steep curves, the skinny deer nibbling at a creosote bush, the continuous drama of a monsoon evening - lightning pricking the Rincon Mountains to the east, the sun igniting the Tucson Mountains to the west. On the hill, we are in the great middle of it, and we see our city for what it is - an unlikely settlement nestled in a horseshoe of mountains: gritty, sprawled, and beautiful.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Kingdom Animalia

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures.”
-Albert Einstein

We went to see the film Project Nim last night, a documentary about a chimpanzee raised with humans as a science experiment in the 1970s. Nim was taken away from his chimp mother when he was only a few days old, and initially raised in a human household basically as a human child. When that situation proved too chaotic, the lead researcher moved Nim to a house where he was cared for by young scientists who socialized with him and taught him sign language. It's a fascinating story, mostly of human selfishness.

It struck me that out of all the people who interacted with and cared for Nim over the years, the person who was closest to and most compassionate toward him was the one who respected his chimp-ness, rather than obsessed over his pseudo-humanness. Everyone else wanted so badly to mold Nim into a little human that they didn't appreciate or honor who and what he really was. It does beg the question of whether or not we can ever really understand another form of consciousness, an experience of reality that is so different from our own. In a recent New Yorker article, "Dog Story," Adam Gopnik cites the philosopher Thomas Nagel on this topic, in Nagel's essay, "What Does It Feel Like to Be a Bat?":

"It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one's arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one's mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one's feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task."

Most of the Project Nim researchers were fixated on the possibility of understanding Nim's inner world only if he communicated that world on purely human terms - through language. But this would not tell them, to borrow Nagel's phrase, what it was like for Nim to be Nim; only what it was like for the humans to interpret what it was like to be Nim. There's no doubt Nim could communicate with signs; even if what he did was, as many people claimed, only a sophisticated form of mimicry, he still used signs to get what he wanted - "food," "hug," "smoke."  In that sense, he played our game to the extent that it benefited him, but expecting him to be capable of or willing to reveal the experience of his inner life purely on our human terms, by using our specifically human tool of language, seems the height of arrogance.

We cannot help but anthropomorphize, because our personal experience of consciousness is the only one we know, and projecting that onto animals (and, as a friend we saw the movie with suggested, maybe even onto each other) is the only way we can empathize and relate. But it seems worthwhile to strive to appreciate animals on their own terms - to recognize their instincts as completely different from, yet equally astonishing as, our own ability to articulate abstract thoughts through language. We cannot know what it's like to move through the world as animals do, but does that make their experience less valuable, their instinctual understanding of us less impressive? Adam Gopnik writes:

"Yet, for all the seemingly unbridgeable distance between us and them, dogs have found a shortcut into our minds. They live... within our circle without belonging to it: they speak our language without actually speaking any, and share our concerns without really being able to understand them. The verbs tell some of the story: the dog shares, feels, engages, without being able to speak, plan, or (in some human sense) think. We may not be able to know what it's like to be a dog; but, over all those thousands of years, Butterscotch [the author's dog] has figured out, in some instrumental way, what it's like to be a person. Without language, concepts, long-term causal thinking, she can still enter into the large part of our mind made up of appetites, longings, and loyalties. She does a better impersonation of a person than we do an approximation of a dog. That it is, from the evolutionary and philosophical point of view, an impersonation, produced and improved on by generations of dogs, because it pays, doesn't alter its power. Dogs have little imagination about us and our inner lives but limitless intuition about them; we have false intuitions about their inner lives but limitless imagination about them. Our relationship meets in the middle" (The New Yorker, August 8, 2011).

We are, no doubt, a long way from understanding animals on their own terms, just as we are a long way from understanding each other with similar respect and compassion. But it is certainly an undertaking that is worth trying, not only for the animals, but for ourselves.  

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Out of the Store and Into the Woods

Williams Lake, San Juan Mountains, CO

There's something so liberating, and shocking, really, about carrying everything you need on your back. As I backpacked through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado for five days recently, I couldn't help but think, "What's all that stuff back in my house? I have everything I need right here!" Of course, we ate Ramen and wore basically the same clothes for the entire trip, but still, it's an excellent reminder of how little we need, not only to survive, but to be happy, especially when our days are spent doing something fulfilling and soul-satisfying.

So I've returned with a renewed determination to de-clutter our house, to buy and keep only the essentials - though of course "essential" is always relative. Mostly, I want to consciously evaluate what we have and what we decide to buy. Even though J and I think of ourselves as conscious consumers, it is so easy to fall into the trap of believing that material things reflect status and represent a path to happiness (after all, there are enormous forces inundating our lives that are aimed solely at making us believe just that, and I don't think any of us are immune to them). For me, one of the best ways to avoid this, or at least mitigate it, is to leave it all behind on a regular basis, to carry only the true essentials, to sleep under the stars while the cell phone and computer beep and purr alone back at home, and to practice self-reliance.

I left for my Colorado trip thinking that it might be the final journey for my 15-year-old backpack, purchased for my first Grand Canyon hike as a teenager. "I really need a new backpack," I thought, mostly when I happened to be looking at rows of them hanging in an REI store, drawn to their shiny newness like a fluttering magpie. But guess what? When I got out of the store and into the woods, I realized it was nothing a few patches and new buckles couldn't fix. My raggedy old backpack will surely continue to take me wherever it is I decide I want to go, if I only let it.

Columbine, San Juan Mountains, CO