Ashtanga, Poetry, and Ganesha’s Eyebrow

On our home altar we have a murti of Ganesha that I got a number of years ago. This is the Ganesha who received Vyasa’s dictation of the Mahabharata. He is standing contrapposto with his notebook in one hand and his broken tusk in the other. If you don’t know the story, it’s Ganesha who wrote down the epic, and so inspired was Vyasa that when the pen broke, Ganesha snapped off his own tusk and used it instead so as not to interrupt the poet. His hand with tusk is poised lightly just above the page. His trunk hangs down in an elegantly relaxed “S.” He is looking at you, head tilted to one side, elephant ears perked, and something like a smile implied in his demeanor. Above one eye, his eyebrow is cocked, as if he is waiting for you to utter the next words…

I nearly emptied the bank account to buy this image of Ganesha. I loved it the instant I saw it, but I couldn’t tell you why, exactly, until today.

The summer means a break from teaching for me, and as a result I spend it writing as much poetry as I can. I try to make the most of each day. But here’s the thing about poetry writing. You can’t really clock in, sit down, crank out a bunch of words, and then clock out.

“If poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree,” wrote John Keats, “it had better not come at all.”

That process is shrouded in mystery. In the West, it’s long been compared to demon possession (“daemons” in ancient Greece were in an intermediate state between god and human); or at the very least, to possession by the Muse, something poets ardently sought and tried to magically evoke at the start of their poems (“Sing, Muse…”). So, basically, I sit around and wait for inspiration. “Inspiration”: from the Latin inspirare, “divine guidance.” (Also, interestingly, another name for the inhalation breath.)

But I’m under a certain amount of pressure not to waste my time. To make the most of my leaf growing. When something magical doesn’t happen, I get pissed. Which in turn insures that something isn’t going to happen at all, and makes the whole non-process difficult. Which, as Keats noticed, it’s not supposed to be. But of course it is, in turn making me more pissed off.

This was not the case today, however. I sat down, and I waited without waiting, and something like poetry came. In the moments following that odd phenomenon of creation, there’s something like relief: “To me alone there came a thought of grief,” wrote Wordsworth, “A timely utterance gave that thought relief, / And again I am strong.”

When I was done, and the poetry pathways were clear, and the work of poetry was finished, I grumpily rolled out my mat to practice. Because, you know, that’s what we do.

Ashtanga, as has been noted, is also hard. Not particularly wanting to practice doesn’t make that any easier, and a deep-seated sense of insecurity about whether or not one should even be doing Ashtanga can make that difficulty…well, more difficult. Combine that with the fact that you know exactly what’s coming, and what’s coming is hard, and you encounter a lot of mental resistance. Which does not exactly get you ready for yoga in the greater sense of the word: The calm mind. I was not ready. But as I put my palms together for the opening mantra, I looked into Ganesha’s eye with its cocked eyebrow, and had a vision.

The vision took the form of a scene from the 1969 film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Sundance: [Cocking his gun for the fight.] “Ready?”

Butch: [Inspiration striking.] “No, we’ll jump.”

Sundance: [Looking down the cliff at the raging river below.] “Like hell we will.”

Butch: “No, we’ll be okay. If the water’s deep enough and we don’t get squished to death. They’ll never follow us.”

Sundance: “How do you know?”

Butch: “Would you make a jump like that if you didn’t have to?”

Sundance: “I have to and I’m not gunna.” [This is exactly the way I feel before I practice, by the way.] [Snip.]

Butch: “I’ll jump first.”

Sundance: “Nope.”

Butch: “Then you jump first.”

Sundance: “No I said!”

Butch: “What’s the matter with you?”

Sundance: “I CAN’T SWIM.” [Pause.]

Butch: [Laughing.] “Why, are you crazy? The fall’ll probably kill you!”

Unable to resist in the face of Paul Newman’s impeccable logic, Robert Redford shouts film’s most famous “Woooooah shiiiit!” as they jump together. End of vision.

Standing there on my mat, I was laughing. The very act of poetry writing is in essence impossible; the very act of trying to write a poem is in fact the very thing that will keep you from writing a poem, which suddenly seemed, in the eye of Ganesha, very much like the impossibility of Ashtanga. I laughed, and had a delirious practice. I fell into it, like I fall into a poem, because the fall will probably kill me. But it might not. There’s only one way to find out. This, I suppose, is what surrender feels like, and I’d been doing it all along as a poet.

My murti of Ganesha so captured my attention years ago because of course he embodies the perfect state of artistic surrender. He’s waiting to receive, without anticipation and without expectation. He’s prepared, but in no way suggesting that anything must be done with all that preparation. And it’s in the absence of all those things that inspiration comes.

Posted by Bobbie

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Talk about balance: Being a Hindu priest and a surfer

The story of Mega Semadhi is featured in the latest issue of The Surfer’s Journal. Semadhi not only has won on the pro surfing tour, but he’s also a Hindu priest in Indonesia. More from TSJ:

Mega is a member of the Pecatu community, one of the largest and oldest on the Bukit. His grandparents owned a ranch atop the massive cliff that overlooks Bingin. At a young age, it was determined by his elders at the Uluwatu temple that Mega would take up the role of high priest as an adult. Between the sense of duty to his community, his own world-traveling ambitions, and the many points of conflict that a local on Bali faces, Mega has a lot to balance with his surf life.

There’s a video that’s worth watching, too.

Some old coverage of his contest win is here. And there’s an older YouTube video:

Those spots are a lot more exciting than Venice Beach.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day poetry: The Waste Land

Regular readers will know that Bobbie teaches a college writing course; for the past couple of years, the central text has been T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. You may have suffered through enjoyed it at some point during your own schooling. Or maybe not.

I re-read it last while flying back home from a business meeting. It’s a bit long, true, but all together wonderful. Below is the last lines, which end with three familiar words. The full poem is at the link above:

Then spoke the thunder
DA  400
Datta: what have we given?
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed  405
Which is not to be found in our obituaries
Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider
Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor
In our empty rooms
DA  410
Dayadhvam: I have heard the key
Turn in the door once and turn once only
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
Only at nightfall, aetherial rumours  415
Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus
DA
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded  420
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands
                      I sat upon the shore
Fishing, with the arid plain behind me
Shall I at least set my lands in order?  425
London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam ceu chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins  430
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
      Shantih    shantih    shantih

 

As it says, these are just fragments. The whole is even greater than the sum of its pretty incredible parts.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day poetry: Mark Strand’s ‘Eating Poetry’

Former U.S. Poet Laurete and Pulitzer winner Mark Strand died over the weekend. It’s of note in our house because Bobbie studied with him at Johns Hopkins.

So we mark his passing with this poem: Eating Poetry.

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.

The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.

The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.

Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.

She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.

I am a new man,
I snarl at her and bark,
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.

There’s a similar rush and joy involved in “eating Ashtanga,” right?

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day poetry: Nobel Prize edition

Sometime between now and the next sunrise we will learn who this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature is.

I wouldn’t bet money on Bob Dylan or Thomas Pynchon, if I were you. Although I’ve been waiting for TP to win for more than a decade. Having a movie hitting theaters in a few weeks probably dooms his cause, again.

Here’s one poem by 1996’s winner, Wislawa Szymborska. (Link here.) She was born in Western Poland in the early 1920s.

On Death, without Exaggeration

It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.

There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.

Death
always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.

 

By Wislawa Szymborska
From “The People on the Bridge”, 1986
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

Copyright © Wislawa Szymborska, S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

It somehow seems to fit with some of the intent of a yoga practice.

Posted by Steve

Mercury Day poetry: A few gems from Basho

One minor change in the daily routine since returning from India is trying to limit the garbage that goes in my brain (knowing that it means there will just be garbage coming out). So rather than go anywhere near a computer as I drink my pre-practice coffee, I’m just sitting quietly. Maybe meditating. Well, maybe trying to get to the point that I’m getting close to meditating.

We’ll see when that comes.

But it has reminded me of the generosity of stillness. I don’t get a lot of that normally. And it also reminded me that I used to enjoy a version of that stillness in simple haikus. So here are a few by Basho. These are all as translated by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass, who is well worth looking up when you have a chance.

A monk sips morning tea,
it’s quiet,
the chrysanthemum’s flowering.

Autumn moonlight–
a worm digs silently
into the chestnut.

Awake at night–
the sound of the water jar
cracking in the cold.

old pond…..
a frog leaps in
water’s sound

And maybe the best:

A caterpillar,
this deep in fall–
still not a butterfly.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: Shankaracharya’s ‘Thy Guru’s Feet’

Our trip home is about to start, and so it seems appropriate to be thinking about gurus and teachers and learning.

Here’s a short poem by one of the great gurus: Shankaracharya. It’s titled, “Thy Guru’s Feet.”

Thy body may be beautiful and glow with flawless health,
Thy fame colossal and thou mayest have won to fabulous wealth,

But if to the Guru’s feet thy heart untethered still remain,
Then all thou hast achieved on earth is vain, is vain, is vain.

Thou mayest be deep-versed in all that scripture have to tell
A beacon of light, a master of prose and verse delectable,

But if to the Guru’s feet thy heart untethered still remain,
Then all thou hast achieved on earth is vain, is vain, is vain.

That about sums it up.

Posted by Steve