First Principles

When I started this blog I was looking for a tag line; an overarching sentiment that expressed what it was going to be about.  The line from U2’s – One – said it all.  I do come here to find insight, to search, to look through the tracks being laid down in my brain.  Others could see this as more navel gazing but I felt as though I need to live my life as well as be the resident pathologist or forensic expert that resides within.  I have to be the one who goes in to play Jesus to the lepers in my brain.  There are many.

So…cleansing, detoxifying, purifying…these words are tempting.  The notion of deconstruction, a return to first principles and a building of something new, something beautiful, is tempting.

There isn’t an iota of order in the way I live my life.  I don’t live well.  I don’t air things out often.  There are years of sediment, years of accretion of things.  Sure my slate is cleaner than most, perhaps I haven’t even lived enough through it all.  But I probably need to break this slate and start afresh.  Either way, a deconstruction and a getting back to first principles is called for.  Or so I feel.

I headed on over to a retreat where we were going to be on a system cleansing raw food diet while we explored cleansing and purification possibilities in other areas of our lives.  I wanted to emerge from this experience scrubbed fresh, blinders removed, ready to go at the world in a reasonable and precise manner.  I wanted to reject this overwhelming notion of absurdity that shades everything, clouds every judgment in a fog through which I am finding it hard to emerge.

More on the retreat later.  Before I go there I need to take an archaeologist’s look at what lies within.
***

There are many themes worth exploring in this bird’s nest of a mind.  Even as I try to keep my thoughts linear and coherent they come unhinged, wanting to digress and bleed tendrils everywhere.  I’ll be better off pinning them down as they appear.

There was a clearly marked point where things started unraveling for me at a rather fast clip.  I remember my amateurish attempt at poetry several years ago.  The sentiment I had tried to express then was of an eerie calm, eerie because it carried within it a hint of dread…a sense of hurtling toward a dreaded destination.  I have reached that destination now.

In 2010 I turned averse to everything my life was all about, starting with the job.  I found what I did at work absurd beyond description.  Perhaps my aversion became apparent in my work and I was the recipient of some harsh words from a boss.  I went on a vacation to India after this exchange.

I went with my parents.  I spent many hours telling them about my discontent.  I met my cousin’s friend.  I saw the spark of fulfillment in her eyes.  I sensed a freedom in her soul.  I craved that.  But all cravings aside, I didn’t know how to get to the same place where she was effortlessly present.  I still don’t know.

I spent some time with my relatives in Indore.  My uncle and aunt. as welcoming and as cheerful as ever, their pain and their anxiety about their child’s future never evident in their interactions with us.  I then felt ashamed at myself for my petty, almost nonsensical anxieties.

I visited a few temples while I was there.   I felt absolutely nothing in the presence of idols and thousands of other devotees.  I was ashamed at this lack of “shraddha”.  I felt out of place, strangely attired, larger than others, more well-fed, uncomfortable, in pain and discomfort at being barefoot on the burning marble, brushing flies away, ignoring beggars.  I felt like Frankenstein.

I was out of place.  I am always out of place.  No matter where I am I feel as though I don’t belong in this skin or on the firmament on which I find myself.

I returned from the trip determined to try and get more comfortable with myself.  I was determined to examine the roadblocks to this feeling of “fit” even as none of my clothes fit anymore after the sweets and other treats at every host’s place in India.  Landing at EWR in a state of bloat didn’t make fitting in any easier.

I returned to work where every absurdity was reinforced.  I was always angry,  always frustrated.  I was angry when cost-cutting eliminated the half-and-half I could use in my coffee, I was rabid when they took my local printer away.  I foamed at the mouth when the workload smacked of redundancy and illogic.

Several times during those months of ferment I came to the conclusion that I had to let go of expectations.  I couldn’t expect any happiness from work, any happiness from my disordered home, any improvement in my financial condition, any deep connection with friends real or virtual.  There was a targeted, conscious effort at cultivating detachment.   A detachment that only made me feel less connected and less of a fit.  There were weeks of expectation-free success followed by several weeks of wallowing in dashed expectations that always managed to creep up again.  I was on a yo-yo diet of letting go of expectations.

The one expectation that always stood its stubborn ground, however, was the expectation I had from myself.  Somewhere along the line, through all these years of growing up, I’d convinced myself that I was capable of much more than I had achieved.  This notion is perhaps all in my head.  Maybe I am really only capable of what I have achieved so far.  It plagued me nonetheless.

Perhaps it started with my mom taking a picture of me by the statue of John Harvard, thinking I might end up at Harvard some day.  Perhaps all my friends and relatives who encouraged me when I sang or wrote were just being nice to me.  Perhaps I am not capable of excelling at all. These doubts never leave me.  They are like the little demons I must now fight.

But before these little demons emerged I did believe I could excel in the arts.  This belief was never supported by my inherently lazy temperament and so I drifted in and out of misery at wanting to be someone and then thinking it could never happen.

Through it all, I couldn’t stand the tone of defeat in any of my friends.  If they ever felt they were slipping away into failure I would offer them words of encouragement and tell them that they needed to just get up and do it.  Sadly, I was never able to take my own advice.  I didn’t think and I still don’t think that advice would work for me.

I think fate tried to intervene toward the end of 2010.  I was on the phone with my husband one Sunday while he worked (or played?) in sunny California.  I asked him to say the word, to tell me I could quit.  I wanted him to tell me that I had the green signal (keeping in mind our precarious household finances) to walk into my boss’s office and say, “I quit”.  He laughed it away.  The next day, at work, I was summoned to the Human Resources offices and told that my job was being eliminated from  NYC and shipped out to Florida.  I wasn’t offered a stint in Florida.  I was in shock.  It was almost as if the universe had acted on my behalf when I wasn’t prepared to act.

I wasn’t sad, I wasn’t upset, I didn’t even feel worried about our future even though I had every reason to worry.  The severance pay was going to last for a month.  The average job search these days is an 8-12 month long affair.  I should have been catatonic with rage and anxiety but I wasn’t.  All I could think of, in that instant, was how I was talking about wanting to quit the day before and how the next day I had my answer.

Over the next three months I spent a lot of time with my daughter.  I tried to introduce into my life the things that I thought had gone missing.  We played together, read together, experimented with cooking, spent time at the bookstores, at the library, for the first time in my life I was a real mom…in the hours when she was home.

The hours when she was at school were strange.  They were spent refreshing contacts, sending résumés, learning that many of the contacts who could have helped me find a job were themselves jobless.   I exercised like a maniac, for hours, then I slumped down on the floor in a “shavasana” state for an equal length of time.  I read a few more chapters of my book after emerging from that state.  I then showered and got back to the task of searching for a job or exploring our bank statements for areas of cost cutting.  I laid off my own laundry and cleaning lady.  I ridiculed my search for a job because I was once again seeking the absurdity I so despised.

Two blank canvases, oil paints, brushes stared me in the face for all those months.  Never once did I pick them up.  My mind was such a blank I didn’t know of a single thing I could express in paint.  I have always been excellent at copying things but did I really want to turn out more unoriginal art? I suppose the answer was no.  I practiced all my ragas, scales and études in violin, I tried writing.  But I don’t think I have lived through a more uninspired phase.  I felt like an empty shell or a deactivated robot who only experienced motion or animation upon the return of her daughter from school.

Around that time I decided to start volunteering my time.  I answered several requests for volunteers and ended up with three organizations who wanted assistance sans remuneration.  They all did good work.  One was an institution for adults and children with developmental disabilities, the other was doing some work on diseases of the brain and the third was doing some wonderful work helping less fortunate people.

I ended up on my hands and knees putting together dreary employee manuals and filing invoices for the institution that helped kids with disabilities.  I had to photo copy hundreds of pages and then learn how to use a machine that bound pages in a spiral book.  A new skill learnt, a cause for celebration!  I laughed at the lines in the pages that asked paid employees to be nice and considerate to the volunteers.  Once again – absurdity underscored.  Even my volunteering yielded absurd results.

I tried to assist the other two organizations enhance their social media presence.  That was somewhat satisfying until I learnt of their fears and trepidations about having a vast social media presence; they weren’t willing to post videos or photographs, they didn’t know what to blog about, what they said on their sites had to be censored on many levels, they couldn’t understand Twitter or Facebook or the essential why of it.

Before I could get them to understand it all a job came along.  Since the prospect of a year long stint at unemployment was starting to scare me and since I am only able to drag my heavy shackles around when I have some money coming in, I decided to stick an arm and a leg out of the poverty sack and go for a much downgraded job.  These people needed me to do all the things I had ever done at all my previous jobs, they just weren’t going to pay me as much.  I decided that would be acceptable.

So I experienced unemployment, poverty, self-pity, joys of motherhood and amplified feelings of inadequacy all under the umbrella of absurdity in the space of three months.

Could I have started a writing project during the time I wasn’t working? Could I have envisioned a better life in those moments of leisure and taken a first step towards it? Perhaps.  But something always keeps me glazed over, numb and inactive.  What hinted at being latent in the days of my youth has started feeling stale.

I’ve noticed a marked shift in my attitudes over the last several weeks.  A few things happened in the weeks leading up to my cleansing, purifying, detoxifying retreat.

I had visited my sister-in-law’s home in NY.  While I was there I had pulled down the Carl Jung’s “Memories, Dreams and Reflections” from my brother-in-law’s bookshelf.  I was absorbed and fascinated by the book.  I couldn’t finish reading it nor did I borrow it.  I probably just left it sitting there on his nightstand or some unusual place.

Back home I got deeply absorbed in another book.   I am still only halfway through it because reading time is in short supply these days.  This is Alex Ross’s second book called “Listen To This”.  It is about the history of music.  The theme of it is that all music we call classical now didn’t use to be so.  It was perhaps considered licentious, was perhaps banned.  He talks about other things as well.

The chapter about “laments” was fascinating when he explained the concept of a ground bass line; when he talked about the studies that show that when people mourn, when they grieve, if they express this in sound it’s always something close to the same four descending notes -A, G, F, E.  Many pieces of music incorporate this ground bass line also known as the “basso ostinato”.  Beautiful music often gets woven around this ground bass – the constant.

When an idea hits home in this fashion, I often put the book face down as I think about all the other associations that get triggered.  I ponder, I contemplate, I dog-ear the page of the book at the bottom.  The reverse dog-ear tells me that there’s something on a page I must revisit.

I was in this state of pondering when my brother-in-law emailed me to say that he had noticed I had been reading Carl Jung’s book when I visited.  He told me he found what was within horrifying and reassuring.  He said C.G. Jung re-envisioned western religion and philosophy for him.  He also sent me a link to site that had listed Jung’s Seven Sermons To The Dead  from his Red Book.

In Sermon I Jung says:

“Not your thinking, but your being, is distinctiveness. Therefore not after difference, as ye think it, must ye strive; but after your own being.”

This and many other things he says in his sermons which can be found here reminded me of the Bhagavad Gita.

I am a non-religious person with a very limited understanding of the scriptures and wisdom of the religion into which I was born.  What I’ve gleaned through the tales my parents, my grandparents and those wonderful illustrated gems called “Amar Chitra Katha” are the bits that give me some succor in moments of confusion.

I’ve absorbed some fractional essence of what is being said in the Gita.  Arjuna was struggling with absurdity, with the notion of war with his near and dear loved ones and Krishna set him straight in conveying to him that he was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing in this life.  He was fulfilling his karma.  Krishna revealed his all-encompassing monotheistic form, he talked about the inverted aswattha tree with its roots in the divine and the branches spreading in our world.  Carl Jung’s vision of Abraxas jogged my memories and drew me straight back to whatever limited impressions I have of the Gita.

The absurdities in which my perceptions see me drowning are all just a part of this flow.  They are a part of this journey that will end somewhere.  I feel as though I lose my way a little bit every time I question it or react to it in ways that breed doubt and confusion.

By this time my thoughts have all converged into three points of a bookishly acquired harmony – Basso Ostinato, Abraxas, the notion of striving after YOUR OWN BEING and another thought – Nam Myoho Renge Kyo.

I have talked about the last one before in another post.  It is a very compelling picture for me, of the lotus flower, holding its own, flourishing in muddy waters, just like a ground bass that holds it’s own as other music happens around it, my own being – a constant, my trials, vicissitudes all a constant as I see my journey in a new light, a journey of being in the world, of the world and finding a way to flourish.

If I was to pick up that canvas now I could probably create something of beauty that reflects these thoughts.  Perhaps the right medium would help the thoughts coalesce into a philosophy.  It hasn’t happened yet, as you can see, but I feel as though I am on to something.
***

So we now return to the retreat. I went to a “Goddess Rejuvenation Retreat” in the Berkshire Mountains.  I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew some of the people who were going to be there.  I liked them.  The first time I had met them I came away with the impression that they had a firm handle on living this thing called life to the fullest.  I was hoping that a cleansing, purifying, detoxifying retreat such as this would help my thoughts coalesce further.

I was looking forward to the solitary ride up to the Berkshire Mountains, absorbing the brilliant fall foliage while immersing myself in my music.  I wanted a break from thinking and wanted to relish a smooth ride up to the mountains without grasping at searches and thoughts or reliving past mistakes, failures or successes.

It was all going very well for me until this song called “Arziyan” came on.  About halfway into the song tears came, unbidden.  They were streaming down my face uncontrollably.  I didn’t want to control them.  I relished being washed in them, they signaled a breakthrough of some sort.  I wasn’t sure what it was but the lyrics that triggered the lachrymal response were about complete surrender.  In the last part of the song, throughout the song, but especially in the last part, there is the expression of a sentiment that in a prior life the poet strove for success and glory, had dreams and ambitions and went about it with a certain chin-up audacity that yielded scant results.  He didn’t find fulfillment of any sort until he came forth in total surrender:

Sar utha ke maine to kitni khwahishein ki thin
Kitne khwab dekhe the kitni koshishein ki thin
Jab tu rubaru aaya nazrein na mila paya
Sar jhuka ke ik pal mein maine kya nahin paya

It was this message of humility that got to me and stayed with me as the song built to a climax.

By the time I pulled into the driveway of the retreat I felt washed clean.  I felt as if there was a lesson for me.  A lesson that hadn’t sunk in in its entirety but was there for the taking; reaching for it was up to me.

There were many beautiful souls at the retreat.  That is a statement that isn’t very likely to come from someone like me.  I feel as though the part of my life that I haven’t lived in a self-absorbed manner, I’ve lived observing others.  I am a human camera.  I observe, I absorb, I collect impressions.  I go about it with the detachment of a collector.  I don’t say things like “beautiful souls”.  I am fascinated by my collection but I have seldom felt any emotional attachment.  That wasn’t the case this time.

I studied the faces of the people I was meeting again and I saw some new ones.  I was stunned by the beauty in some, the radiance in the others.  I hugged people with genuine warmth.  I wanted to convey that I really liked them and that I was thankful to be in their presence.  There was a dog there, Daisy.  She felt like a bundle of love walking around the room, spreading warmth with every lick, every shake of her tail.  I haven’t felt these emotions so deeply before and I don’t understand why I haven’t.  Where was I lost?  I felt every emotion coming up to the surface.

My daughter wasn’t there with me.  I thought of her, I conjured up her face and I smiled.  Someone asked me why I was smiling and it was because I had suddenly felt as though I love her so much that my heart could burst.  She brings me so much happiness.  How could I ever feel angry or frustrated or in a state of ferment when she is around and being who she is?

As the weekend unfolded all the women got to know each other well.  We learnt of each other’s hopes, dreams and deepest fears.  We learnt about our pasts our hopes for the future and we all probably spent a lot of our Sunday crying.

I remember feeling shaken to the core by some of the stories I heard.  Once again I was filled with shame at my seeking, striving, grasping, reaching, permanent anxiety when my life is relatively charmed.

In the last part of the retreat, our brilliantly intuitive host, L, gave each one of us an assignment.  We all had to do some role-playing and enact a scenario.  Each scenario was designed for maximum impact, maximum honesty and catharsis.  Mine required me to take on the role of a drunk woman who had lost all meaning in life.  I was required to select a few participants and recreate a bar scene where I walk in drunk and proceed to tell the bartender about my feelings on anger, desire, lust and confusion.  I was also required to flirt outrageously and act promiscuous with the guys (girls pretending to be guys) at the bar.

I was stunned when I received my assignment.  The part L wanted me to play was indeed me.  Or perhaps it was me from before my tear-washed journey to the retreat.  I generally find it all absurd in the extreme, I have been angry, I have been confused and about desire and lust the lesser said the better (or perhaps that’s where the most needs to be said, don’t know).  As for acting drunk, I haven’t experienced a single drunk moment in my life.  I have never sought inebriation.  I have been asked why and have felt annoyed when people assume it may be for religious reasons.  That is not the case.  I haven’t felt a desire to lose control.  I have always wanted to be in control of myself.  Perhaps L sensed that as well.  Perhaps total surrender and control don’t go well together and pretending drunkenness may have been a way to send this message home.

I gave my assignment a lot of thought.  I read it several times and during my reading as I hit upon each note therein – anger (hit a key on the piano), confusion, lust, desire (play a triplet) – I felt as though I was on the verge of tears just leading up to my part.  I told the others, “I really don’t need to act drunk to talk about these things.  I could write a book.”  But when it was my turn I got into the role, I came into the bar singing a drunk song, I staggered, I hiccuped, I slumped forward, flirted with the “guys”, danced and kept repeating how my life was all about putting little numbers in little boxes and how it was all so absurd.

I got through my assignment, I was told I made a wonderful fake drunk who danced really well.  E invited me to a dance party and I said, “Sure, just make sure you have my fake booze flowing”.

But at the end of it I felt as though I had shut down inside.  That I hadn’t really used the opportunity to share the things that tend to eat me up inside.  I felt like I had escaped and wasn’t happy that I had.

In the very last bit, before we said our goodbyes, L, for fun, brought out these “goddess” cards.  The eighteen of us, shuffled the cards and picked one up.  Each one got a message that appealed to them.  Mine was loaded with irony.  It was the goddess Coventina and she said to me, “Your soul needs cleansing, detoxifying and purification.”  I said to L, “What?? Wasn’t this what the last three days were about? There’s more?”

L said, “More? There’s a lot more!”

I know there may be more, I am just surprised she knows this too.

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