The Unknown

by Angela

The Pilgrimage by Olivia Fraser

The Pilgrimage by Olivia Fraser

When you do your pilgrimage it’s not easy. Nothing will disturb you. Your aim is to see God. If it becomes easy it is not a pilgrimage. -Sharath Jois, January 2014


There are structures of experience so deep that it’s sort of wrong to talk about them. Wrong or ridiculous. Taboo either way.

Let’s see if I can find a light touch for this.

So in the fall, there was this question around the shala, of why I won’t help people plan their first trips to Mysore. Why I won’t help you game the system at the big shala here, so that you don’t have to go through the same awkward learning process as everyone else. Why Mysore is not a place for us to hang out.

Or – more to the point – why I don’t say much or try to fix things when a person has big questions about Janu B or Marichy C, or kapotasana, or kurmasana or urdhva dhanurasana – any one of the postures that’s bringing up emotion or confusion. Bringing up pain patterns that may be energetic or emotional in nature.

I just don’t want to get in your way.

Ok, now and then I can toss out practical information so you don’t waste time or do something dangerous. Ahimsa, always. But if I get in the way of your going through awkward or scary learning processes, you might not realize how smart and strong you are. If I hold your hand every time you come up against the unknown, then you’ll never realize how skillful you can be when the chips are down.

Besides the matter of your own growth, there’s the matter of the collective. If the majority of you don’t become Jedis who can play and create at the edge of what is not known, how is our method –how is consciousness—going to evolve?

Here’s the thing. There is a structure of transformation semi-hidden below the threshold of awareness. This is myth – not in the sense of fantasy stories, but in the sense of structures in consciousness that our nervous systems recognize and use for inner journeys. One of these structures is what’s sometimes called (we probably need a better term) the hero’s journey.

Kung Fu movies, D&D, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Eminem, Murakami, Obama, the Dalai Lama… straight up hero’s journey mythos, all of it. If you think I’m talking Joseph Cambell, well you’re sort of right. But consciousness is changing, and fast. There have been 3 more waves of humanity, plus a raft of new role playing games and Hollywood-Bollywood epics, since Campbell put clothes on the ghost.

Here are some pieces of this vinyasa that I think have been common for figures from Arjuna to Catness Everdine. If you want your nervous system, your unconscious, your edge, to be summoned, then it might be a good idea let something like this structure of experience envelop you. You don’t need to force it. Conscioness is already patterned like this; it knows how to unfold.

There is usually a call of some sort. A tug. And usually we start by saying no. But there are guides who champion us, and who make stagnation begin to feel unbearable. If we accept the call to self discovery, there is a crossing of the threshold into the unknown. In that realm there are helpers who represent grace, and nemeses who represent our own inner BS. Dark nights are weathered and dragons are slain – therein the ego has been drawn out of the shadows, directly confronted, and a little bit of mastery has graced us as a result. Eventually there is a denoument, when we ache for the people and places that represent home. So we return to “normal” life. Which, we finally see, has all the same treasures as the adventure realm. Normality becomes illuminated with sparks of the unknown, everywhere. Reality is enchanted. And our work becomes, always, offering whatever it was we found in the unknown realm as a gift to our communities. Making what has been given to us available to those who ask. And waiting for the next call.

The main thing in this is that it is beneficial, at key times, to step in to the unknown. Actions that scare us even though they’re not actually harmful, or anything representing danger to the ego – these things are FULL of potential or blocked energy. They are your vehicle forward, on key occasions, when the timing is right.

Some of us tough cases have to go all the way to far-off lands to shore up the myth. That was the story of my 20s, whereas my last three years have been an epic of getting grounded in the most mundane possible circumstance, so that its normalcy will be eroded and enchanted by the natural/supernatural appearance of a yoga shala. Smarter people can find it in the grit of a daily morning yoga practice (I see you: you can do it), in quitting smoking, or in a commitment to make every movement from the intelligence of the heart. You all all found it last week in the Polar Vortex, practicing in conditions in some ways more revealing and deepening than those I encountered the same week here in Mysore.

But about India. I’m going to make a bold statement about ashtangis who tell you to stay away, the same way they told me to stay away for many years. Westerners who have been here and back and lived to resent it may, just perhaps, have a special hatred for losing control. I could be wrong here. But for those of us with a perfectionist streak (which I sincerely admire, because I know intimately how sloppy and lazy one can be when born without it), Ashtanga can feel like a program for getting the minutae of life under control. Even if you know, on some level, that you have to die.

But then the person in control comes to India and the expectations game goes to crap. Society won’t cooperate. Objects won’t cooperate. Your body won’t cooperate. So you have to work with your immediate intelligence. You have to trust your gut, and trust other people. You have to let go of your way of doing things. If that’s your dragon, then India is a great place to find her. And with her, your entitlement, your hard-heartedness, the dark and light sides of your survival drives, your relaxed stability, and possibly your love. And maybe you also find something else… a particular energy that comes out of this particular vortex and seeps into you and becomes the gift you take with you when you go. That energy comes in and really makes its mark if you intend to pick up on it and let it change you on a cellular level. Spending all energy collecting other keep-sakes (stuff, asana porn-shots, or even experiences) can distract from this.

For me, India has been a different sort of journey – one of an observing/exploring introvert learning to be in community and in deep friendships. And one of a hard-headed academic + rebellious preacher’s kid surrendering to a lineage, and to her love for a teacher and a community. The study-trips here have called me out in different ways, time and again.

In any case, India is spiritually intelligent in the extreme– intelligent in a way westerners don’t even believe exists. The understanding of individual and collective and (yes) cosmic consciousness that this society has developed reveals in contrast the special backwardness of the western mind. India is also violent in the extreme. The obvious, somehow normalized mass suffering and inequality here could shake you to the core, break you, show you just what are the limits of your compassion and then push those limits a mile or three. But here is the thing. Unlike almost all other beings in India, if you are my student and you visit, you will have a hidden support system. You will never, unlike many other beings here, have to sleep in a gutter. You will never be sick without access to care and love and the best of western and eastern medicine. Somebody has got your back.

But forget about that. If this particular strange trip is one you’re called to, you’ll get the best mileage if you take the big steps alone.