Thursday, December 10, 2009
Pretending to be dead
The best thing about going to yoga is the time spent in savasana – corpse pose. Every yoga teacher I have ever had calls it the hardest pose to do, which I suppose it is. The reason for its difficulty is because you have to lie flat on your back, eyes closed, muscles relaxed, and pretend that you are dead. A lot of people in this wired world, their nervous systems all jacked up on too much caffeine, too much wireless technology, sleep deprivation and general culture-driven neurosis get up and flee when this pose, which traditionally ends a class, is talked through by the teacher. You can practically feel their relief as they exit the room.
I find it extremely relaxing. I don’t fall asleep at all – ostensibly you are supposed to meditate, and I suppose what happens to me is a form of meditation, although it’s more of a rumination than anything else – I chew over snippets of thought, things I have read, things that have happened to me during the day, things people have said, what a random occurrence meant to me... I could spend the whole day in savasana. Maybe that’s my characteristic laziness coming to the fore, but seriously, I could.
I don’t even mind the contemplation of death. After all, we spend much more time – an entire eternity – being dead than alive. It’s the fate of us all. Sooner or later we will all experience it. So if twisting your body into weird pretzel shapes is intended to help you feel alive and prepare your nervous system for the serious meditation work which enlightenment requires (this is, after all, the real intent of yoga), then the yin to that yang is obviously thinking and preparing for death. And after a number of years on the planet, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is it. This is Heaven, this is paradise, this is the happy hunting ground – right here, right now, in this body, at this point in the continuum of time, for me as an individual human animal. So learning to be present and in the moment is my lifelong work. And sometimes, when I pretend to be dead that’s when I feel most alive.
I’ve often wondered if being Kanienkaha’keh has anything to do with my comfort around the whole concept. I remember how close and real death was among us growing up. One of the coolest things about growing up as a Haudenosaunee is how real everything is to you. Nothing is shielded, nothing is considered off limits to children. Birth, death, heartbreak, illness, conflict, joy, grief – all of these things are open and expressed, all of these things are right there in front of you. Every Iroquoian funeral I’ve ever been at, there’s babies crawling beneath the coffin, the kids hang out and play around where all the people are sitting in the room at the visitations and wakes. Children are present at births, at grave illnesses, at all of those primal rites-of-passage moments that the dominant culture, from what I’ve observed, tends to shield their children and even each other from these very human realities under the label of “privacy”.
Children are, after all, going to be the people at some point, and most of the families that I knew believe you are not raising children, you are raising adults. There was a lot of benign neglect from my parents. Not neglect in a survival or nurturing way, but we were left alone for long periods of time, with my older cousins assuming the responsibility for me and my brother’s safety. I remember long periods of time of hanging out in the bush doing nothing in particular, just sort of playing – some of my earliest memories are being out with my cousins and playing down by a creek or in the barn without any adults around at the age of four and possibly younger (Side note -- some of the very few non-indigenous people who share a similar experience were from northern communities, and then they were mostly male).
People freak when I tell them that, and get weirded out when I tell them I’m sad that my own children never got as much of that unfettered free range playtime as I did. But that’s Iroquoian parenting for you. Too much supervision is considered stifling, negating the necessary work of becoming an independent, self-reliant Haudenosaunee person with duties to fulfill. I’ve always been chagrined and yet secretly proud of that core Iroquoian value – that everything and everyone – plants, animals, microbes, water molecules, sunlight and people -- has a duty to fulfill as a resident of Turtle Island. It goes back to peace, power, and righteousness. Those who want the rights and privileges that being alive entails must embrace their responsibilities and fulfill their duties – “pick up their medicine”, as the translation from the Mohawk goes.
I ruminated on this a lot during savasana in class last night. I hope that when the time comes I meet my inevitable death with the same kind of equanimity that I have on the mat. I’d like to think so... but there’s always the meat and what it wants, and no matter how disciplined your mind, the body has its own ideas. But all of us cross that bridge when it comes, some by choice, some by the random vagaries of fortune...it all comes down to whether or not it’s a good day to die, as the Lakota used to shout upon entering into battle.
My own people used to compose a death song upon battle so that the enemy knew exactly who it was they were taking out. I think maybe I'll start doing that metaphorically. My song has a lot of wailing guitars in it with a definite psychedelic sound...the sound of a life lived in the journey.