I am now a ghost-in-training. I got laid off a couple of weeks ago, from a university where I’ve worked for eleven years.
In the exchange to work with pay for one last month, a concession to attachment on my part, I’ve accepted a slow social death. All of the years of my work in this place are falling softly to the ground around me, but nothing here renewing: only projects winding to a close, no new projects coming in. The most interesting thing about this as it happens is that I get to watch myself, and feel what it feels like to, vanish in stages.
People do not know how to treat you when you get laid off. Everyone feels awkward. You are uncategorizable, no longer a part of the organic mechanism. It’s no one’s fault, but something primitive, atavistic, tribal. I’ve been on the other side of it. The fired person has the taint of being fired on them, and this time it’s me. It may have been more straightforward to tie this person to a rock in the desert as in ancient times, so they aren’t a contagion sharing space with the viable.
When you’ve been let go, the whole social landscape alters. Some people come forth more your friends than you suspected; exchanges with others become weird; and for the people whom you really didn’t grok, it’s a bit of a relief not to have to interact with them anymore. It’s a tonic and a clarifier, but scrambles your brain from what you’re used to. A large part of how we understand ourselves is built on relationship, so when those relationships shift, we’re in territory both existential and surreal.
When people look at you, their eyes don’t know where to focus. I think this may be what being a ghost feels like.
I know that I am experiencing a species of dying, so what can Yoga teach me about death? I feel dread at the loss which is coming. Vanderbilt has been my biome, my ecosystem. There are trees here that I know personally, and the secret ways of campus. My words and the energy of my mind have gone into sustaining this place and promoting it, my mind and energy and blood.
But everything I identified as myself, as my worthiness, was ultimately was not enough to save me. And now I’m exiled from the place of the Elect: to no longer belong to this tiny Vatican City within Nashville. Farewell to being able to check books out of the library, to strolling over to the Jewish Center’s cafe for a midafternoon vegan cupcake sugar mainline, to my health insurance and perquisites, and most importantly to all my friends. All the sweet and accustomed habits and conversations out of which I had constructed the patterns of my days, as well as the look of ready recognition when people saw me, have been taken from me; I am wrestling with abhinivesha like an angry angel, and the process isn’t pretty.
Abhinivesha, translated usually as ‘fear of death,’ but translating something more like ‘clinging to life,’ is one of Patañjali’s kleshas, the mental afflictions which are obstacles to a state of Yoga. It keeps company with egoism, ignorance, desire, and aversion, but is more deeply seated than any of these: it’s the basic concern for one’s own survival, the desire for self-preservation, and lives, the commentators say, in the very back of your brain. It dogs the heels of even the wisest: svarasavahi vidusah api tatha arudhah abhinivesha. ‘Self-preservation or attachment to life is the subtlest of all afflictions. It is found even in wise men’ (Yogasutra II.9). Its current engulfs everyone.
In our modern life, we are fairly protected from death, unless we are sick or old or in immediate physical peril. We are a lot less likely to be eaten by a tiger, say. But we still confront death. Abhinivesha is fear of change. Abhinivesha is fear of losing your identity, your name, what you have made your ‘I’ out of, everything you have constructed and built. It hurts and is scarey.
But in order to move on, I have to let go.
I have to realize that when people look at me without focus, they are doing me a favor. The deep magic is this: if they saw me too clearly, in a category, I would never be released to be able to do my next thing. I would be trapped in an obsolete identity, a grudgeful ghost pacing the halls of a castle.
In order to be anything else, in order to transform, I must release my clutches, my clinging claws, from this life.
Our old ways can be refuges for us, but they can also be prisons, limiting us in ways we might never be conscious of. Sometimes when I talk students through shavasana, I have them relax,through a subtle nyasa, each feature of their faces: their palates; their sinuses; the tiny micro-muscles in their ocular orbits, until their faces are relaxed utterly. Then I say to them, ‘Your face has outlines that you are used to seeing in your mirror and in pictures and reflected in the faces of other people. Forget what your face looks like and rest.’
It’s a subtle magic. The first time I ever said this, it came spontaneously out of me, and I worried that I’d done something wrong or manipulative by asking my students, basically, to dissolve their faces. But when they came out of shavasan, their faces were glowing and soft, ten years younger than when they went in: because they had stopped holding on, just for a few moments, to their self-definition. They made themselves new.
May I as I need it, may all of us when we need it, be able to have the same wisdom!
Awaiting re-creation with you,
Photograph by Jeff Frazier, www.jefffrazier.com