by Matthew Remski
Study how a child chooses shells on the beach. The precious ones are precious for no reason we can fully know. She reaches for them with a mind empty, but for a little rhythmic song. Her small shivering body forgets cold and snack time. This shell has a fleck of turquoise, this one has thicker pearlescence, this one is a hundred times smaller than the rest. She makes a small pile in the sand, contiguous with the shells beneath it. She’ll have to sort them again when it’s time to go, but with little concern: an hour has shown her the beach is infinite.
Hers is research driven by fascination alone. She doesn’t need perfect shells, but simply the right shells for her. Each shell she picks speaks to a unique interest: her friend may pick other shells and they may argue about which are better, but neither will truly believe their arguments. An hour has shown them both that the beach is infinite. Bickering is boring: every assertion will be one-upped by another, until both children tire of proving things and shrug and go back to combing the sand with empty minds and half-sung songs.
The child is feeling her neurology blossom. The infinity of shells intimates infinite systems. Attraction that flows over a sequence of particulars is the beginning of pattern recognition. Things repeat, things vary, things disappear, things return. It is blissful and commonplace, because she feels the beach and experience mirror each other. This is why she forgets time, loses self-consciousness, and doesn’t really care how many shells she brings home. Her mummy gave her a bucket to put them in, and after her infinite hour the bucket is full and heavy. But dad doesn’t want the shells in the car, so she has to choose “just three”. She chooses in an instant and happily dumps the rest at the tidal line. Within a day, the shells will be lost in her room amongst books and clothes. Her room is an internal beach, a ground of memory. Years later, a good therapist might comb through its artifacts with the same wordless wonder.
Her fascination with shells wasn’t about collecting. It was about the infinite hour, the pleasure of resonance between mind and beach, and the exercise of pattern recognition. Detail and number melt into the immersive flow. It wasn’t about preserving, but about noticing with the whole being: sand between toes, surf in her ears, sun on her back and cold spray on her shoulders, eyes scanning for what dazzles and fingers digging through what’s hidden. Quiet ecstasy, quiet entasy, and humming, humming. It all takes place in the safety between two mothers: the mother her body came from standing behind her on the dune, her call-outs like a gossamer umbilicus. And the mother of the sea, the one her primal life came from, with open arms of blue and green.
When do we experience this as adults? The best artists are doing it all the time: a mood of engagement overtakes them, and provokes an intuitive harvest of images, sounds, and turns of phrase. An entranced poet is like a 5 year-old child on the beach of words. The documentary filmmaker shoots an entire shoreline of footage, and then picks up her shells in the editing room. If she had a specific story she wanted to tell when she started, the shells and how she chooses them will rewrite it. Painters tease patterns out of the ocean of paint. The research of creativity is a simple and primal wonderment with connection, through any mode: shape, through-line, colour, resonance.
There’s something about time as well. Limiting the shell-gathering to that infinite hour prevents fatigue and banality: doing something because one should, or because no other options are apparent. For us, what could be more oceanic than the web? And who can surf intuitively from interesting shell (or link) to shell for more than an hour or so, before the infinite roll of the digital beach provokes anxiety? The shift from pleasure to dis-ease is marked by the emergence of a controlling self: the person who, dissatisfied with textures, must comb through and distill meaning from the entire web, and who suffers because he cannot. This is the self of metaphysics: stuck in despairing confrontation with a complete mystery, which will kill him because he can’t solve it. At this juncture, the wonderment of “what is this?” turns into the oppression of “what am I supposed to do with this?” But the child didn’t collect shells for the sake of collection or interpretation. The infinite beach did not expose her insignificance, but rather provoked and magnified her very circulation, her very breath.
Post-traditional yogis are admonished: don’t pick and choose from the tradition according to your attractions. But isn’t this precisely our first yoga? Weren’t we drawn, inexplicably, to that shell, to that book, that friend, that lover, to that method of breathing, to that twist, that teacher’s language, to another teacher’s radiant body? Have we not so far trusted the attractions of our infinite hour? Was it even a question of trust? Did the abandonment of that hour release our self-healing skill? Did the body not reach for what pleased it, and the empty mind for the shape that would kindly sculpt how it filled back up? And did that hour not hold more than any memento we brought back from it, to lose on our shelves?
The beach is data. Shells of biology and history. The skeleton is driftwood on the dune. Technology glints in the sand beside ethics, and cognitive science. There are also spiritual shells: a sutra, a visualization. How could we pull these shells apart into subjects and disciplines? Why would we? What would you exclude from your infinite hour? Aliveness is the complete path you wouldn’t even think of completing. You walk it by living, with sand between the toes, finding what shines.
The creative posture in yoga practice is a squat on the beach. Its wandering focus prevents a system from developing. Baffled by infinity and patterns, femurs fully grounded, the senses absorbed in continuity, mostly naked, unashamed. The reverie can last for about an hour. Hum along with every connection. You know you can’t bring everything home. You don’t have to count every shell on the beach. It’s perfect to just love the ones in your hands. It’s getting late. There will be another day. Find one last really nice shell. Run to mum when she calls.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a writing and community-building project.
yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.