I grew up in Spokane Washington. I really like it there. In many ways Spokane is perfect. It’s a combination between a desert and a forest; nice and woodsy, but dry. It’s small, but not too small, and pretty. The people are very, very nice. One of my best friends lives there. It’s a great place to raise kids. It’s relatively safe with lots of open space to roam free. The weather is temperate so even though the winters tend to be long and cold, the summers never stay too hot for too long and there is zero humidity. There are tons of outdoor activities. It’s a smallish city with a nice community feel and fairly well supported art scene. It is a very nice place to live.
So why don’t I live there? Because, I don’t fit in. Spokane, for all its benefits, is not my place. For as long as I can remember I was out of place in my hometown. I had vastly different political views, have never really enjoyed outdoor activities and I am always, always cold. When I was young, headstrong and outspoken I would rail against Spokane, calling it a conservative hick town, with little or no culture, blah, blah, blah - the kind of stuff you say when you’re desperately insecure and need to feel superior. But now I know that there isn’t anything more or less wrong with Spokane than there is with any other place in the world.
Yogis continually talk about being “present.” It is one of those elusive ideas that often gets translated as “accept the hand your dealt” or “find the silver lining in this crummy situation.” I am not a fan of this translation. I don’t believe anyone should accept a resignation in life. If your situation is out of hand, acceptance doesn't make it less so. It’s only by understanding who you are and how you work that you will get closer to touching Truth. Without this component, without understanding the landscape of your mind, you will always feel torn and confused. Yoga brings us closer to our authentic self not by teaching us how to resign ourselves to crummy situations, but by teaching us how to quiet the noise of constant recrimination and need. Once that happens we can hear and understand Truth and act accordingly.
Take my family's move to a California suburb for example. One of the nicest things about city living is the parks. Parks are communal property. In a place where very few of us have anything that resembles a yard, we go to parks to air out our kids. It’s a collective experience and a nice, neutralizing place. You go, have a brief chat, crack a few jokes and move on. Sometimes you meet people you really like and want to get to know more and sometimes you suffer the fool, but either way Park Time is interactive time.
This is not true in the suburbs. Suburban parks are largely viewed as extensions of people’s yards. As such, cross communication is kept to a minimum. Parents bring their children and toys to the park and expect to be left alone. They rarely want to talk and more often than not spend the bulk of their time either on their phones or avoiding eye contact with other adults.
In the city it is widely accepted that if you bring toys to the park they are going to be played with by all the other kids in the park. Not so in the suburbs. When we’d go to the playground my son would march up to some kid and say “Hi, my name is Jack. Do you want to be my friend?” which means “Hi, what have you got there? I am going to touch it now.” This did not translate into Suburban. In the city, when the child with the toy starts to protest, the parents usually say something like “Now Billy, remember it’s nice to share.” But in the suburbs, the parents would shoot us a look that said “Bring your own toys to the park you mongrels!” Then they would scoop up their kid and stuff and leave.
It was, among many, a sign that we were not in the right place for us.
As our year yawned on, our disillusionment with suburban life grew. Eventually a series of events gave us the opportunity to leave California. We spent many nights making lists. Weighing the pros and cons, discussing the options, obsessing over where we’d go next. The option of moving back to New York was on the list but it was fraught with problems. It’s far away. Our families would be mad. It was expensive. The economy is bad. How it would affect the kids. John asked me “will moving back make you happy?”
I threw up my hands and said “I don’t know! Probably not. But I still think we should do it!”
Then I remembered one of the most often quoted texts from the Bhaghavad Gita;
“Better to do one’s own duty imperfectly
than to do another man’s well;
doing action intrinsic to his being
a man avoids guilt.” (8:47)
In the Gita, Arjuna, a soldier on the precipice of a battle, is holding council with Lord Krishna. Arjuna is having a crisis of faith. When he looks across the battle field he sees his cousins and knows that if he participates in this war, he is going to have to kill them. He doesn’t want to do this. He is about to walk away from battle, but Krishna counsels him otherwise. He says;
“If you fail to wage this war
of scared duty,
you will abandon your own duty
and fame will only gain evil.
People will tell
of your undying shame,
and for a man of honor
shame is worse than death.
The great chariot warriors will think
you deserted in fear of battle;
you will be despised by those you esteem.
Your enemies will slander you,
scorning your skill in so many unspeakable ways –
could any suffering be worse?” (2:33 – 36)
Essentially what he is saying is “Snap out of it! You think this war is going to stop because you choose not to fight? You think this battle isn’t going to happen without you? The only person who suffers from your lack of participation is you. Your people will turn their backs on you, your soldiers will say you abandoned them; the other side will call you a wimp. How is that better than doing what you are meant to do?”
Harsh words from God. Because the setting is war, the Gita is often misunderstood as a pro-war treatise, which it’s not. The backdrop of war is neither here nor there, the story could take place in an open air market and the lesson would still be the same. It’s just that backdrop of war is nice and dramatic. It helps to illustrate how mightily we have to struggle against our inclination to give up and walk away versus hunker down and fight our battles. It is a parable on the work we all must do.
Whether it is parenting, teaching, deep contemplation or carpentry, the work is the thing not the worker. Winning or the losing the battle is immaterial. Arjuna is a soldier. Therefore, he must fight. He must participate in his life. Whether he lives or dies doesn’t matter. Whether he fights well or poorly doesn’t matter. What matters is that he participates in his life.
This is probably one of the hardest concepts for me to wrap my mind around. Being an American I was trained to believe that life should be easy. I am entitled to the pursuit of happiness. Happiness comes from consuming things that will make it possible for me to do as little work as possible, right? The concept that work, whether it is done spectacularly or mediocre, is a path to liberation is completely foreign to me.
And yet, here I am in this self-created tumultuous life. We relocated back to New York in the spring. I started my own little yoga biz. Additionally I manage an on-line database. My husband started his own business and is going back to school. Together we’re raising two small humans. My children are young, my business is young, my husband’s business is young and, for all intents and purposes, we are old. We are starting over when most people have settled down. Every day feels like a race against the clock. The clock is ticking, ticking, ticking it never stops ticking! And each day my children get taller, wiser and older. And every day I think “Hey pay attention! You are missing this!”
But in between those moments of doubt, worry and insanity are these wonderful ones where, for the first time in a long time, I am in step with my own rhythms. I am completely absorbed in what I am doing. My life is working at my pace. I am in the right place for me. I tried to make my life what thought I “should” live. I tried to convince myself that someone else’s life was the one I wanted, but I was miserable. So, here I am in a kooky life that defies common sense.
And I feel better.
Doing your dharma isn’t about finding bliss or being perpetually happy. Practicing presence of mind isn't about rolling over and accepting whatever comes your way as a cruel twist of fate. It’s about doing the work. It’s about learning the landscape of your mind and sticking with it when it’s awkward and hard and sucks. It's about being present so that you can monitor and then moderate your reactions and interactions and maintain equanimity. It's not finding the bright side of a bad situation or accepting that you are meant to suffer in some cosmic way, but accepting that you are in the driver's seat of your own mind.
And deciding that the route you choose to take is ultimately up to you.