How deeply do you wish to participate in your life?
To my teacher Douglas Brooks
Ten years ago today I sat in a room with 26 other people and listened as you said to us: You are sufficient unto yourself. Everything you truly need is present. The question is: How deeply do you wish to participate in your life?
This was day one of my Yoga Teacher Training, and I could say that I didn’t know then how much my life would change, which might make for a better story or at least build more drama for a later moment of epiphany, but the reality is that I did realize in this moment that my life had just shifted. I had no idea of what was to come, but I knew that I had stepped into something seismically upending.
What I did not know was that throughout the next decade I would begin to shift my identity away from the Susanna whose life revolved around the art world, organizing my weekly schedule around openings in Chelsea and my annual schedule around my residencies and exhibitions. I did not imagine that I would walk away from a highly coveted position at MoMA in order to teach yoga classes in the East Village and Soho, then in Paris and in Rome. At that point I could not have pictured myself meditating in a temple in South India and wanting to be nowhere other than exactly where I was. This paradigm-shifting moment ten years ago was not something that I had consciously sought out, yet clearly, beneath the surface, I had cultivated an internal space for it to take root and blossom. And I recognized it when it happened – that’s the thing.
At this time last year I was returning from pilgrimage in Tamil Nadu with you. In an article I wrote upon my return, I proposed this: Make a pilgrimage within yourself. Treat this year like a journey. Visit every place you can find that resides within you. And then honor your experience, regardless of what you find along the way.
I had just moved through the humid and darkly ecstatic interiors of Tiruchendur. I had climbed past waves of camphor smoke, pressing the folds of my sari against my leg to mount the hundreds of steps to the top of Palani. I had woken up day after day before dawn in anticipation of the cacophonous temple music that preceded each sunrise, then stained the soles of my feet red with the spilled kumkum at Tillai Kali Amman Temple. I had craned my neck toward the Cit Saba in Chidambaram, my body sweat-soaked and immobilized by so many other bodies, all of us yearning for a glimpse of the dancer’s face gleaming behind the flames of the arathi, and pressing against the grate to see the rahasya as the Dikshitar priests drew open the curtain.
The external experience merged with my internal process, which was sometimes ferociously passionate, and at other times sweetly bewildering. I have written about all this and more, but the sensory experience still inhabits me so thoroughly that I soften my eyes and I am there with you now as I write these words.
I have another teacher who showed me how people like me, whose minds are ever moving, ever flickering, sending off sparks of energy in all directions, can build palaces within ourselves with rooms upon rooms in which to meditate. In those rooms I can arrange things to create particular environments. Then I can go back and change it all around, redecorate to structure my meditations and to expand them. I have different rooms for different purposes and the content of the rooms gets rearranged when it suits me. Everywhere I’ve ever been and everything I’ve ever done resides in this inner landscape, my interior palace. This is the site on which I broke ground that day ten years ago. Although I was never not building it, that day was when I cut the ribbon and walked in. That was the day I began to lay claim to the palace within.
I have already written that once you have been to Chidambaram, the temple takes up residence within you. And so it has. My friend Harrison Williams told me a couple of days ago that he dreamt of the temple, walking endlessly through its elaborate corridors. He remembered, with precision, where certain stones were cracked and loose and he could feel them beneath the soles of his feet in his dream as he made his way through, pausing to offer mantra and mudra at Ganesh, then Subrahmanya, at Dakshina Moorthi, and at the feet of Nataraja, just as you showed us.
You have told us how in the north, the traditions tend to revolve around Tirtha – a place such as a river or mountain as a site of pilgrimage, whereas the southern traditions invite us to the temple to pay homage and to receive Darshan, the exchange of glances between the deity and ourselves. Inside of me I have temples, I have palaces, I have forests and fields. As I traverse my inner landscape, I wander across dry clear plains, rest in dense green thickets, and wind my way through the labyrinthine temples that have assembled themselves within me.
There are so many places to pause, so many reasons to bow down. Nothing has become simple and streamlined in my creative and spiritual practices. On the contrary, everything has become infinitely more complex and so wildly beautiful. This is our tradition, which utterly suits me. And for this, on our tenth anniversary of study together, Douglas, I thank you again and again and again.
Special thanks to Frank Andolino for the his beautiful photos of our time in Chidambaram.