Anger and Pride in the Practice

In his poem, “A Poison Tree,” William Blake has this to say about anger (long before Freud said much the same thing, by the way):

I was angry with my friend;

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow.

I’m going to tell my wrath with supta kurmasana now.

At any number of points in my practice, teachers have said some version of, “If you got angry, you could do it.” This past Sunday, taking some comfort in First Series, enjoying practicing next to Steve, I tried to put myself in supta kurmasana. And failed. Then Steve tried to put me in it. And failed. So I embraced acceptance, started to move on, and thought, “Dammit, I can do this pose!” and sat up, locked my feet behind my head, lowered to the floor, and took the bind. I got angry, and I did it.

Blake's illustration: Bad news for your foe.
Blake’s illustration: Bad news for your foe.

But of course that’s not what the practice is all about; you’re not supposed to desire it–non-grasping, et cetera, et cetera. All the same, if we didn’t like the challenge and the sense of accomplishment, we wouldn’t be practicing Ashtanga. We’re not supposed to be so goal-oriented that we end up doing violence to ourselves by getting angry at a pose.

Goal-oriented. This is the great paradox of Ashtanga (well, one of them). Anyone just starting the practice knows that if you’re not goal-oriented, you’ll never make it to savasana. Even experienced practitioners have a hard time relinquishing the desire to “nail” a pose, or “get” the next one–or the next series for that matter. Very violent-sounding, very graspy. And this is Ashtanga; we’re supposed to be working for that eighth limb, samadhi.

Still, it’s frustrating when you’ve been practicing a pose for a long time, and still can’t find it in the middle of all the desire to get there—the “asana,” the seat, the place where you feel the pose. You can’t, in other words, do it.

I remember a moment in one of Tim Miller’s trainings when someone asked, “Is it necessary to take the wrist in the bind for marichyasana B?”

“No,” Tim answered immediately. Then he paused, and added, “but it’s so satisfying when you do.”

The fundamental absurdity of our position in this moment of satisfaction is that 1)It may not ever happen again and 2)There’s always something else to grasp (the wrist in, oh, I don’t know…marichyasana A, C and D, for instance).

So sometimes, you get angry, and it works. But I don’t think it’s in the anger, or even in the sense of satisfaction where the danger lies, however; it’s in the pride.

In Dante’s long poem, The Divine Comedy, the poet takes a tour of hell, purgatory and heaven, stopping along the way to chat with various sinners suffering their poetically fitting eternal punishment. The Wrathful are writhing in the River Styx, wallowing in mud and biting and striking each other–basically punishing themselves. But the Prideful are in Purgatory—redeemable—and are humping it uphill with massive boulders on their backs.

By Gustov Dore. Dante checks it before he wrecks it.
By Gustov Dore. Dante checks it before he wrecks it.

What can we learn from Dante? (Who, by the way, considers pride to be his own sin, since he is presuming to write a long poem presuming to know the mind of God.)

Well, anger may take you to the wrong place, and pride is a burden. Pride will weigh you down.

Both will, in other words, keep you from the goal.

So how do we reconcile these contradictions in the practice? I think one of the reasons why pride is a redeemable sin for Dante is that there’s always something to check it. It took me a long time to learn this from my practice. It’s hard to get perspective on the pattern (“samskara / halahala”) until there’s been a certain amount of repetition. It might go something like this condensed version of the Ashtanga Pride Flow Chart:

Yay! I can touch my toes!–>Boo! I can’t grab my toe.–>Yay! I can grab my toe!–>Boo! I can’t get my hand flat on the floor.–>Yay! I can get my hand flat on the floor!–>Boo! I can’t get my hand flat and next to my foot–>Yay! I can get my hand flat, next to my foot–>Boo! I can’t reach around my foot to take my wrist.–>Yay! I can take my wrist!–>Boo! I can’t get my foot behind my head…

You get the idea ( you can call this one the Hamstring Pride Flow Chart—it’s infinite). At some point, you begin to recognize that you can feel satisfied, but you shouldn’t get overly fond of that emotion, and desire for more shouldn’t be why you practice.

And you should not be proud of it. At all. I mean, what’s the point of that? Proud of what, exactly?

In Dante, it’s pride that leads to a whole list of horrible things–it leads to the worst treachery possible, which is why at the very bottom of Hell (which he calls “The Coccyx,” by the way), frozen in a lake of ice up to his waist, and still angry, we find one of the most prideful characters in literature: Lucifer.

So I’m letting myself get a little angry. But I’m not proud of it.

Posted by Bobbie

 

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Use the tools best fit for you

Seamus Heaney, one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century and one in a line of wonderful, broadly audacious writers to come from Ireland, passed away on Friday.

Bobbie, who shared a few drinks with him 20-plus years ago, and I raised a small glass of Paddy’s to him last night, and we read a poem of his, “Remember Malibu”, given its geographic closeness to us.

The following poem, an early one, is generally recognized as his rumination on working with the tools best fit for him and in many ways set forth how he’d approach his life — via his art.

It seems a fitting reminder of one of yoga’s lessons: harnessing your best attributes in order to extend yourself outward/inward/further. WordPress won’t get the formatting correct, so also check here:

Digging

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

 

Posted by Steve

A poem for a Moon Day

This one is a bit strange, and dark, with a hint of beauty. I can image the critics trying to decipher what it means about Mary Shelley.

The Waning Moon

Percy Bysshe Shelley

And like a dying lady, lean and pale,
Who totters forth, wrapped in a gauzy veil,
Out of her chamber, led by the insane
And feeble wanderings of her fading brain,
The moon arose up in the murky east,
A white and shapeless mass.

Posted by Steve

A Bukowski poem, on moving to LA

I don’t know too many writers — male mostly, I’ll admit — who didn’t go through their Bukowski phase. The question more tends to be whether, maybe how, they come out of it.

Charles Bukowski is, arguably, Los Angeles’ great poet. Ray Bradbury may have him beat as LA’s great writer, and any great number of great writers passed through here, perhaps doing a bit of work in Hollywood. But living, breathing, fighting in LA — that’s Bukowski.

His writing is raw, bare and stark. You can almost hear the clanking of the typewriter.

It’s writing that, for me at this point, doesn’t resonate so much. But yes, I went through the phase. I tend to take my poetry these days a bit more formalized and explicitly crafted. (Look through our old Wednesday poems to see what I mean.) The commonalities, if they ever were real, are largely gone, although the move to LA got me thinking again about his tales of race tracks and bars and alleys.

To learn a little more, here’s one site. And here’s a poem of his that feels relevant on an Ashtanga blog.

***

Bluebird

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
he’s
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
works?
you want to blow my book sales in
Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
sad.
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
die
and we sleep together like
that
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do
you?

***

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: Poe’s ‘A Dream’

Edgar Allen Poe’s birthday is just 10 days away, and that’s all the excuse we need to print a morbidly lovely poem of his today. It’s called “A Dream.” I’d say enjoy, but that’s not quite the right experience to seek:

In visions of the dark night
I have dreamed of joy departed-
But a waking dream of life and light
Hath left me broken-hearted.

Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream- that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar-
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?

Posted by Steve

 

Mercury day poetry: ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’

In honor of the just past winter solstice, we have a poem that arguably refers to that night: Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The reference to the “darkest evening of the year” just may refer to the solstice.

Here you go:

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Posted by Steve

Mercury day poetry: ‘On a walking tour’ and Theodor Adorno

In an earlier post, Bobbie talked about our thinking about the shootings in Connecticut and just how one goes on creatively in the aftermath of such horror.

Theodor Adorno, who wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” was center stage.

Below is a poem that Adorno discusses in the critical essay in which he wrote that sentence. (For the truly intrepid, a link to that essay is right here.) It is by Eduardo Morike, and this translation is by Charles L. Cingolani. (Link here.)

On a Walking Tour


I enter Into a friendly town,
Where streets reflect the red evening glow.
From an open window
Down across the richest flower carpet one hears
Golden sounds like a bell drifting in the air,
And a single voice seems like a nightingale choir,
Making the blossoms quiver,
Bringing the air to life,
So that the red of roses glow richer yet.

Amazed I stand there long, frightful in my joy.
How I got outside the gate,
In truth I know it not.
Ah here, how the world is bathed in light!
The sky billowing with purple clouds,
Behind me the town in golden haze;
How the brook rushes here, and rushes down at the mill!
How overjoyed I am, how confused —
O Muse, you have reached my heart
With a breath of love!

***

That we’ll soon be entering into new towns is not lost on me.

In his essay, Adorno focuses on the reflective moment in the poem and how it occurs after the speaker leaves the town, the scene of all this joy. But this isn’t Wordsworth’s emotions recollected in tranquility. This is poetry seen with a Marxist eye, with the town is objectified, the speaker isolated. The attempt to make the feelings — joy, love — real collapses because our actions have proven that we are not capable of such grand gestures. They have proven us to be barbarians.

Posted by Steve