Sunday, April 29, 2007

BOOKS | Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It

Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It

Yoga For People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It
By Geoff Dyer
[Non-Fiction; Travel; Memoir]

I thought of bringing Geoff Dyer with me in Turkey. As it happens, my friend who was travelling with me thought she could borrow the book if I had brought it with me.

"It's not about yoga," I said.

"It's not?" she asked.

In fact, it has nothing do with yoga ― at least not the sort you learn at the gym. It's a collection of tales from his travels, from New Orleans, to Bali, Cambodia, Rome, Libya and Detroit. It's a series of what he did or did not do on his travels. It's about him getting drunk, getting stoned and getting up to nothing actually. Yet something's going on ― inside him at least. As he wrote:

This book is a ripped, by no means reliable map of some of the landscapes that made up a particular phase of my life. It's about places where things happened or didn't happen, places where I stayed and things that have stayed with me, places I'd wanted to see or places I passed through or just ended up. In a way they're all the same place ― the same landscape ― because the person these things happened to was the same person who in turn is the sum of all the things that happened or didn't happen in these and other places. Eveything in this book really happened, but some of the things that happened only happened in my head; by the same token, all the things that didn't happen didn’t happen there too.

I suppose we can try to categorise it as a sort of travel writing. Someone once wrote that a good travel writer must have a strong sense of Self in their writing. In that case, Yoga for is all about Geoff Dyer. One can try to understand it, I guess, if we apply the metaphor of travel as journey in life. The journey without is the journey within. If we allow this interpretation, we can begin to make sense of Yoga For People, and realise it is all about yoga, whether you meant to do it or not. The Yoga of Travel, perhaps?

But what is travel? If it is merely a moment from Point A to Point B then there really isn't much of a point of travel. And with globalisation where everywhere is gradually reduced to a kind of banal sameness, why travel? Geoff Dyer is well-traveled. As he moves from one destination to another he ruminate on himself against the place he is currently in.

During a miserable stay in Libya, where he went there for goodness knows what reasons, it occurred to him to ask: Why travel?

I lay in bed, preoccupied by the age-old questions of travel: why does one do it? What am I doing here? These questions generated a third: What do I want out of life? The answer to which was: to be back home, to stay put, to stay in, to put my feet up, to watch telly. For at least six months before coming to Libya I had been feeling what I suspected might be the tug of middle age. It manifested itself as a diminuion of everything by which I had previously set the greatest store (vitality, appetite for new things, new challenges) and an intensifying wish for the familiar.

Isn't ironic that travel makes us yearn for home? Haven't we learnt this from Wizard of Oz?

Geoff Dyer is a man who cannot be still. Who is constantly looking for the next thrill, the next cool place to be, the next fix. Yet what it all comes down to is an inability to stay still or to stay at one thing. Always moving, always distracted, it makes it easy for him to ignore the obvious.

I had become so habituated to this state of serial distraction that I scarcely gave it a second thought. Then I came across a passage in Shadows on the Grass, in which Isak Dinesen recounts a painter's description of a nervous breakdown he'd suffered during the First World War: 'When I was painting a picture … I felt that I ought to make up my bank account. When I was making up my bank account, I felt that I ought to go for a walk. And when, in a long walk, I had got five miles from home, I realized that I ought to be, at this very moment, in front of my easel. I was constantly in flight, an exile everywhere.'

Not for the first time I realized that I was continuing to function — continuing, more accurately, to malfunction — while in the grips of some kind of domestic shell shock or pre-traumatic stress, that I had been in the midst of an ongoing nervous breakdown without even being aware of it, that I had, in fact, gone to pieces.

It was some time before he realises that he was really in flight from a state of mind that had "gone to pieces." Why is it so difficult for us, mere mortals, to stay still and face up to ourselves? Anyone who has ever tried meditation will realise how difficult it is to still the "monkey mind." A yoga teacher once reminded us, "We start — by being still. And we achieve the most — by being still. It takes a lot more effort to stay still than it takes to move." A paradox of yoga and of life.

We're talking about more than just taking flight. Human unease manifest themselves in other little habits too. Dyer is constantly talking about projects he is interested in — in Rome, he thought about "writing something based around the bit in Civilization and Its Discontents" or about the movies he will make with his 8mm recorder. But these projects rarely seem to come to fruition. He's forever procrastinating, meandering. What is proscratination, after all? A deferral of arrival. Without arrival, we avoid the possibility of disappointment. So Dyer's unfinished projects will always be luminous in their possibility.

But I love the way he celebrated his journeys, and what it has led him to:

And here I was now, staring at the embers where the Man had stood. It was a high point in my life but it also felt familiar: one of those moments that make your whole life seem worthwhile because it has led to this, to this moment. Given a choice, I'd lived my whole life over again quite happily, changing nothing … Some kind of offering had to be made.

I really like this bit. It says to me something I have always believe in, that in life you need to make the mistake of getting lost to find your way. Geoff Dyer's conclusion is an affirmation of a faith in life.

He also intuitively realises that there is an reciprocatory aspect to life. With the gift of wisdom and revelation, "[s]ome kind of offering had to be made." So he offers up the feathers in his pocket, souvenirs from a previous trip, perhaps a symbol of a Self from a previous journey. The offering isn't about the monetary — it's symbolic and it completes a circle of life.

A question came up recently: Why is it so hard for us to believe we deserve happiness in life? I wonder if it is because we have failed to see the greater connection of giving and receiving. One can't just take without giving back. Many ignores or neglects this circle of giving-and-receiving to their own detriment. Then I remember Geoff Dyer wrote this:

I remembered something I had read years ago — 'Burn what you have worshipped, worship what you have burned' — and, for the third or fourth time that week, found myself in tears. They were tears of recognition: that I had reached some frontier of what I was capable of. Even as it felt like I was accessing this new part of myself, however, I remembered other occasions — on my first visit to the cemeteries of the Somme, for example — when I had come to some previous high point of my life. So why were these embers moving me so deeply?

Nothing I had ever experienced had brought home to me as forcibly as Burning Man that fundamental truth which is so easy to know, so hard to live by: giving is getting. Because nothing is sold at Black Rock City, people often assume that bartering takes the place of cash. But barter, really, is just a less efficient method of exchange. At Burning Man something very different — a gift economy — is at work. Life, it is often said, is a matter of give and take. Yes, but at its highest level life should be a matter of giving and giving. Years later, in Bali, I visited the Ubud Sari Health Resort. It was set up by someone whose name I can't remember. Not that it matters; but what I do remember is something written on the plaque that was dedicated to his memory: 'No one ever became poor through giving.' At Black Rock City everyone becomes rich by giving.

Perhaps we forgot the meaning of charity and generosity. "Life ... is a matter of give and take. Yes, but at its highest level life should be a matter of giving and giving." We are deserving of the beauty in our lives, yes. But these gifts are acts of grace, and it does not come by our will. We can only hope to be worthy of it when it does arrive. Perhaps we think we do not deserve the gifts in our lives, because we have forgotten how to give without expectation, trusting the world to provide in its own ways.


Rebecca H. said...

Great post! I'm so glad I read Yoga because it has really stayed with me, and I like how you discuss it as a book of travel writing -- that makes perfect sense. And I like this idea: "it takes a lot more effort to stay still than it takes to move." I have found that to be so very true.

darkorpheus said...

Dorothy, you know what the irony is? I had some trouble trying to finish this post - it was reading your post on Eat, Pray, Love that set me thinking - about travel, about searching, about being still - and then some things fell into place.

I believe I owe you thanks for helping me think.