August 12, 2010

The Language of Embodiment.

I drive a car.

It strikes me as shameful, especially when I’m at the pump.

I can’t quite reconcile this dirty habit with all the other things I do to promote mindfulness in my own life—such as eating an organic vegetarian diet, recycling, composting, refraining from using toxic products, conserving water and electricity, and avoiding disposable items. At the end of the day, I’m not sure how far these efforts go… when my oil consumption is factored in. Nevertheless, it’s easy to mount that high horse and lose sight of the fact that learning is an ongoing process, especially when it comes to learning how to understand oneself as a small yet influential organism in an elaborate ecological web.

I was recently having my tank filled at a gas station in Portland, where it is illegal to pump your own gas. The attendant struck up a conversation with me as he wiped down my (filthy) windshield. He asked me what the tattoo on my wrist means. I told him that it’s a gear, and it represents interdependence. Independence? Are you single? he asked. Yes, but no—interdependence, I said. He asked me to explain, and I tried.

I told him that for me, interdependence is exemplified by the idea of a small gear in a large mechanism. Although the gear may appear insignificant to an observer, all it takes for the entire mechanism to be thrown out of whack is a disturbance of that single gear. The mechanism is the universe, the world, our countries and communities. The gear is anyone, anywhere. Our actions have ripple effects subtle and overt.

He said, And you really believe that?

Well, yeah.

I don’t know, he said, shrugging. What about 9/11? Everyone said it was such a big deal, but it hasn’t really effected me, and I bet it hasn’t effected you, either.

All of a sudden our exchange felt like a pertinent riddle, one that I still haven’t solved. But my first instinct was to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the situation. Look where we are, I said. You work at a gas station and I drive this car, and here I am spending $30 on a week and half’s worth of oil. And we’ve been at war in the Middle East for nearly 10 years now because of this business.

But this guy wasn’t buying it. Nah, he said, my life isn’t any different.

I left the gas station bewildered. Maybe it was on account of being confronted with the first person in a long while who could dare deny the real, often fatal impact of our government’s decisions. Maybe it was the realization that much of the United States probably thinks the same way he does. Or maybe it was my own inability to figure out what exactly had just occurred. I felt mixed up and turned around.

Later that day, I relayed the story to a friend. In its telling, I arrived at the question of embodiment. There I was, sitting in my car, shelling out cash, and consuming a resource that incites violence and injustice every day, all the while trying to talk to a “non-believer” about how we are all connected, and how each action reaches far and wide without our even knowing it.

I’d approached my conversation with the gas station attendant as though I was the one who was capable of imparting insight, but there was a lesson at the other end of that assumption.

The space between word and deed can be cavernous. Language is a mischievous beast, and it is often used to create an image of oneself and one’s life that does not equate with the total sum of one’s habits. When you begin to seek embodiment of your beliefs and ethics, you quickly realize how much learning, growing, and reevaluating must be done.

So what’s worse—touting interconnectedness and still making decisions that negatively effect humans, animals and the earth? Or basing all behavior on the outright denial of underlying networks of give and take, cause and effect, choice and consequence?

Of course, most of us don’t do just one or the other. There’s a lot of gray area in matters such as this. Furthermore, perfection isn’t the point. In fact, the compulsion towards perfection can often manifest itself as eco-elitism and sustainability one-upping, or an excuse to do nothing—neither of which help the evolution of collective consciousness. There’s nothing more convoluted than striving to out-organic, out-green your friends and neighbors. Except, maybe, supporting the status-quo out of some misplaced resentment of “do-gooders.”

The trouble with eco-elitism (or any kind of sociopolitical elitism that carries on in the name of progress) is that it is alienating and unproductive. Ultimately, making sound decisions that take the chain-effect into consideration is based on education and inclusion. This is a conversation that needs all of our voices, especially those that aren’t familiar with the jargon. Condescension and patronization just won’t cut it. It is crucial to keep in mind that it takes time and work (and a great deal of both) to truly cultivate a new way of being in the world, and there is always something to be said for intention.

I have heard many a yoga teacher invite students to set an intention for the practice, and to phrase this intention as, “I embody _____.” The trick is to state it (whatever it is) as though it is already happening, as though you are already that. This is simply another technique for expanding awareness.

Here is what I do: in any given moment in which I am unsure of how to choose according to my beliefs and ethics, I think, “I embody ______.” Then it becomes a process of elimination: if I choose A, am I embodying ______? If I choose B, am I embodying ______? In some instances, I go through half the alphabet. And one more thing on the subject of perfectionism—I can’t expect this technique to be flawless. It does not render me exempt from making mistakes. Yet it engages my mind, and my heart, in a way that grounds me in the present moment. This applies to both making decisions for myself and to the judgements I am prone to make regarding other people’s decisions.

What do I embody when I fill my gas tank? What do I embody when I judge someone else for their wastefulness or convenient denial? In either case, I do not embody compassion or acceptance or love. The language of embodiment can lead you to the source of so much indecision and reactive frustration.  It seems that one of the ways to live a happier, more uplifted life is to choose to embody, day by day, the qualities that you most seek in the world and in other people. But hey, if you feel like embodying self-righteous rage once in a while, go ahead—it’s up to you.

It is always up to you.

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