July 22, 2013

The Unexamined Life: How Do People Live Like That?

There’s a story that Jerry Seinfeld tells to a young, frustrated comic in the documentary, Comedian.

The younger comic says to him, Did you ever stop and compare your life and think…my friends are all married, they all have houses-

Ugh, Jerry interrupts. He says that doing stand-up isn’t about that, that it’s special, and he proceeds to tell what he says is his favorite show business storya story about Glenn Miller, one of the most popular musicians in the world until his mysterious disappearance in 1944.

Miller is on tour with his orchestra and the tour plane has to make a sudden landing in a snowstorm. The band, all dressed in their show suits, have to walk through the snowstorm to that night’s gig. Sloshing through the cold slush, instruments in hand, they come upon a country house lit from within, its chimney puffing. Through the windows they see a family around a table; a father, a beautiful mother, and two well-kept children. They are laughing, warmly jovial.

Watching this scene, one of the bedraggled band members says to the others, How do people live like that?

That, says Jerry, is what it’s about.

This story resonates with me not because I have any hopes of being a stand-up (being on a stage turns me into a puddle, an unfortunate amalgam of of uncontrollable bodily fluids), but since the first time I heard this story, I’ve thought that it was the perfect way to describe my spiritual path. Right down to the plane being grounded in the middle of a blizzard.

I crash landed into spirituality with no time to put on an oxygen mask or contemplate what was happening. I grew up in a home with two ministers, so I’d grown up with romantic notions about God and sin. I was fairly primed for it by the time I reached adulthood. Still, it was not something I planned on or had any idea was coming.

Many of you reading this had a story very similar to mine, so I’ll spare you the full retelling. After meeting hundreds of yogis and reading dozens of memoirs and being fully immersed in this small world, I’ve noticed a theme, a through line: most of us start out in different places, but somehow we end up in the same place, feeling a gnawing ache for some kind of deeper experience of the world for years before we do something about it.

We find ourselves out of step with society’s values and expectations. The paths we’ve walked all our lives become dark and impassable to us, so we attempt to find the lighted way.

But it really is a wreck, this thing they call a spiritual journey, complete with fire and snapped wires, the confusion of smoke and sparks in the smoldering fuselage of your soul. You will find, among some of the most dedicated yogis, former addicts of every kind, divorcees, people with eating disorders and fused spinal columns. You will find a lot of people looking for a second chance after some human catastrophe that clipped their wings and sent them nose-diving into the cold dirt.

Very few people start meditating because their brains are so lovely and uncluttered they just want to be in there all the time. For most of us, we’ve got the entire Chicago O’Hare baggage claim up there.

Many of us don’t exactly choose it, the way we chose a major in college, or, say, the way we choose to have children. Career paths, marriages, what to wear and where to live—there may be severe limitations on what we can choose, but it still takes a bit of our own initiative to make these things happen.

Disillusionment with life isn’t a choice; it’s just something we’re guaranteed, for however long or short a span of time. It’s the price we pay for being human, moving from blissful innocence to adult experience. For some, it’s a few days, or maybe a few thousand moments in a lifetime. For others, it’s core-smashing and lengthy and inescapable. You may choose to go to a yoga class, but the groundwork, what led you there, was probably entirely out of your control.

So there you are, a changed person with new hopes and goals, renewed optimism and stability. You are a yogi! You have crashed and survived and now everything is peaceful and stable—free from all the nagging doubts and fears. Answers given and done.

Except that you must trudge through the storm without wings and very much grounded. You still have to carry your baggage with you because it doesn’t feel right to leave it behind. On the road, though, you have your band, your sangha who will carry it for a stretch so you can rest your arms and your weary back. There is joy of finding others in the wreckage to walk alongside, those who share the same sense of direction and courage.

A friend recently asked me why I spent so much time on all my yoga stuff—the trainings and workshops and kirtans and asanas and frustrated bouts with meditation. She pointed out how much money and time I’ve spent trying to heal myself.

To her, it’s fully a choice.

I could, she thinks, find a good therapist and an upwardly mobile job with benefits and the right fellow and leave the chakras out of it. I could be reading the new J.K. Rowling poolside instead of the Bhagavad Gita in my Nag Champa-smelling office/yoga room. All this introspection seems a bit ridiculous to her, in spite of how much she loves me.

It is ridiculous, I told her. But remember how ridiculously fun I was before I found yoga? Remember how fabulously depressed and hopeless I was? Remember the joy I was to be around after no sleep and a six pack and a horrible crush on yet another mean, distant man? Man, those were good times.

She did, much to my embarrassment, remember. This is what it’s all about for me.

I’m walking down the path and still in the cold, but when I look through the windows of my past all I can think is, How do people live like that?

When I think about how anxious I was, how hell-bent on pleasing everyone and doing what I thought was expected of me, I think, How do people live like that?

When I think about all the diets and disappointments and striving, I think, How do people live like that?

If you’re on the path, there is a point at which you accept where you are. You accept the circumstances of your journey, the hardships and the joys. You could have stayed the same, you could remain lustful for that beautiful tableau on the other side of the window. You could fight to get off the path, fight to get inside and rest in the warmth. You could bail at any time and go back to the unexamined life, just check out and be done with it all.

But there is a voice inside of you that asks, How do people live like that?

The unexamined life isn’t even an option because its lost all appeal and meaning.

There is no gain or success or house or job promised on this path. Even your spiritual vessel, your soul’s plane, may be grounded along its way. But you will forge ahead, instruments in hand, through the blizzards and heartbreaks and unforeseen spiritual crises. You will see the unexamined life, blissfully ignorant, on the other side of the glass, and you will not choose it—you wouldn’t even want to.

That is what it’s all about.




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 Ed: Bryonie Wise

 {Photo: via Pinterest}




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