Selective Narcolepsy and the Still Small Voice
In response to a six-day ashtanga practice, my nervous system started de-fragging about a decade ago. Most of the results of this spontaneous re-wiring have been pretty nice so far. For example, there are unusual levels of concentration, strong positive emotion when summoned, some ability to enter wakeful and restful states on call, some capacity to not take stuff personally, a tendency to take energy from most situations (including “negative” ones), and a feeling that the happiness and health of others literally make my life better.
However, there is one nervous system condition that seems increasingly odd the deeper I get into this yoga teaching thing. Is it a glitch? A mutation? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s here to help. Other people might want to cultivate it as a kind of neuro-linguistic program. The program, or condition, is Asana Book and Video Induced Narcolepsy. AVIN for short. Here’s how it works: if I am exposed to asana instruction in books and videos, my eyes automatically glaze over. It’s like on Johnny Carson, when unsuspecting audience members would get hypnotized to fall asleep on mention of the word “banana” or something. And then Johnny would push this neuro-linguistic button in front of an audience. “Banana.” Next thing we know, Jane from Tulsa is slumped in a puddle of her own happy drool. That’s me in front of a how-to ashtanga book.
I have to wonder… Heather Duplex, Chuck Miller, Joan Hyman: did one of you program me with AVIN in an early ashtanga class? Did you recognize the ravenous, sharp mind of a PhD student, and also see how she was blocked from the healing and happiness available in the quieter depths of her own awareness? Did you whisper the AVIN program in to her wiring to spare her countless hours of asana spectatorship and analysis?
Nooo. Though I guess it’s normal to wonder if both mutations and wisdom come from outside. It can be hard to take responsibility for both kinds of anomaly– perhaps especially the wisdom. But everyone has an intuitive layer of awareness- what much of the Vedantic tradition calls a wisdom sheath (vijanamaya kosha). This is a kind of knowing that can sometimes be freed from the usual mental activities of protecting a tightly defined sense of self, or repeating old patterns in compulsive, limiting ways. The wisdom sheath has the potential to render a kind of direct, clear knowing independent of figuring-it-out mind. Intuition, grokking, and sheer creativity are said to arise from this part of a human. It’s not so special, even though in highly analytical cultures we might get a bit alienated from what my father (a hospital chaplain in Montana) calls the still, small voice.
I wonder what little wisdom mechanisms and intuition particles are floating around in all of us, just hanging out while the small self plays its games on the surface. The wisdom wires seem to get tripped by the weirdest things. Stories you’ve told me lately: (1) a man walks into a yoga class for the first time, and his monkey-mind flatlines. Boom. The discursive thought, play of reactive emotion, and mind-pictures stay outside the room. It’s odd. But he trusts it. He lets it keep happening, and does whatever it takes to keep his practice clean in this way. From day one. Later, he learns that most teachers don’t bother to suggest that level of concentration to beginners. (2) A woman’s family generates yet another instance of a durable crisis pattern. She leaps to react according to the shared script, then there is a pause. Let’s try something different this time. Give more. Prove nothing. Expect nothing. Oddly, the entire family dynamic shifts.
I don’t know for sure, but there’s a chance my AVIN condition is this kind of a blip. Nobody ever told me to practice this way — indeed Los Angeles yoga culture was fairly obsessed with what postures looked like and how to analyze them to death. But I was flanked by many secretly wise practitioners, and it’s possible I intuitively copied their inner discipline. When after a few years I got around to reading the old yoga texts, I ran in to some ancient versions of this program.
Here’s how AVIN works. (1) I simply do not consume asana-instructional books or videos. (2) I don’t discuss most details of my physical practice, or the deep aspects of my student-teacher relationships, with others. (3) I learn the raw, physical technique (both how to practice, and how to teach) through relationship with teachers who know me very well. I receive and work with what they offer. In sum: I leave the asana on the mat. Outside the Mysore room, I refrain from wrapping my information-loving, analytical mind around matters of the physical practice. When I perceive a compromise to this discipline, some deep switch flips and the whole discursive mind goes dim.
This doesn’t mean I’m not sort of obsessed with the physical practice. How else to explain the never getting bored, the thrill of getting on the mat every day, and the respect for the method that increases with each new person I get to work with? But here is the thing. If I were letting my acquisitive, gotta-get-answers, read-a-buncha-books mind run the show, I’d have gotten bored about 16,000 hours ago. Asana in and of itself is… boring. What keeps me engaged is using the method as a means to clarify consciousness– not only on the physical layer but all the others as well.
Here’s what attempts to document or learn “tricks” of asana do: they generalize; they often commodify; they turn practice into something abstract and somehow explainable. They take up time that could be spent being quiet, caring for others, or being in the world. They turn asanas into problems to be solved, or into decoys to hunt down and conquer. Uh oh… I suddenly feel verrrryyy sleeepyyyyy…..
Even more boringly, trying to learn ashtanga from a book pretty well circumvents the energetic transmission that comes through this practice. I submit that it is waaaay more interesting to work directly with teachers who were chosen by their teacher, who were chosen by their teacher, and so on. Is this energetic transmission thing trivial? To the analytical mind, yes. But if you’re reading this, you’ve probably felt a little of the heat and love coming through that person-to-person line of awareness. You probably have a sense that this (not merely technique) is what’s really going on in this practice, and that it’s not something that can even be discussed.
So we go to spend time with our teachers. This is how it works. Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence. (Wittgenstein, maybe the sharpest & most beautiful analytical thinker of the 20th century, said that.)
The last time I saw my philosophy teacher, MA Narasimhan, he put it like this. “Every time you try to put knowledge down in a book, something is lost.” Narasimhan has a sharp analytical faculty and a deeper understanding of the western mind than most professors… and he only teaches through what he calls parampara. Oral tradition.
Anyway. I have seen some people learn the first stages of ashtanga practice from a book without their practice turning into a train-wreck. By “a few,” I mean two. Both of these people have extremely clear minds. You know who you are; and you have my admiration. I could not have done what these people did. My mind just was not that clear when I began to practice. For me, the effect of asana book-learnin’ would have been the same as it is for most: fragmentary, yet rigidifying. For me, it was important to stay soft and receptive enough to learn the technical, personal method from real people, who really perceived me, in real time. And it was important to keep my mind clear of discursive, digital distractions. So that I could learn the more interesting skills of concentration, letting-go, and discipline. These skills play out in the meat and bone of physical layer, as well as on the energetic dimension, the mental, the intuitive, and beyond.
Here is another nice thing about oral tradition: it keeps things specific and real. It generally teaches a person to be emotionally and mentally flexible, to listen very clearly, and to move through the technique in a confident, relaxed way. For me personally, the practice has been to keep my technical learning relational, instead of mixing it up with arbitrary advice from strangers or vids from people who might not be acting out of a love of serving others. I probably would have sat around obsessing about my asana practice instead of doing my PhD work, but because of AVIN, I just didn’t have the option. If you get pulled in the direction of analyzing your asana practice and looking around for tricks and commentaries, here’s a suggestion. Check in with your deeper intuition. Do you actually want this in your practice? Is a different habit of mind more free?
Small stuff like this is the big stuff. It only takes a wisp of delusion to start building new samskara. I don’t know what your choices will be, and in a sense I don’t care as long as the micro-practices get filtered through your deepest and best intuitions. Just cultivate a relationship with the learning process that gradually supports the emergence of concentration, clarity, and healing.
It is true that I own two asana instructional materials. The first is Yoga Mala. It is very important for learning what to put on the floor of your practice space and which nostril to breathe out of during sexual intercourse. Everything Pattabhi Jois writes there is wonderful. I understand it a little better every year. Honestly, he saw stuff most humans never will; and it seems he had a very good sense of humor.
The second item is the video my teacher Dominic made of my teacher Sharath practicing the primary series. I would recommend that too, but to be honest, I don’t know anything about it. I can’t stay awake past the first surya namaskara. Sorry, guys. I’ll come learn from you in person.