Friday, August 11, 2006

Wrong, wrong, wrong

A typical set of instructions:

Interlace your fingers, extend your index fingers, and raise your arms over your head. Bend to the right, extending your left hip. Hold here for five breaths. Come back to center. Release your hands and shift your fingers to place the opposite thumb on the outside. Interlace your fingers again, feeling the difference in your fingers. Bend to the left, extending your right hip. Hold here for five breaths. Come back to center.

Why change the interlacing of fingers? Try it right now, and see. Interlace your fingers the “normal” way. Unlace your fingers, and try it with the other thumb on the outside. All of us at some point interlace our fingers the “wrong” way. I did it before I took up the practice of yoga. But in doing so, I understood it to be the wrong way. Unnatural. Out of order. The first time I received this instruction in a yoga class, I had no clear idea of what it was supposed to do. But because the teacher called for it, I did it. It poked the “wrong” part of my brain. And, in the full light of awareness, the wrongness was obviously … well … wrong. It makes no sense that one hand grip should be wrong, another right. But that’s what my brain had concluded, with or without my conscious consent.

The same teacher, a couple of years later, elaborated the point while we were in a resting pose. “This week,” she said, “do something the wrong way – anything – put on your pants starting with the ‘wrong’ leg; answer the telephone with your ‘wrong’ hand; thread your belt through the beltloops of your pants the opposite way that you usually do. Become aware.” So that week, I put my belt on backwards, threading it through starting on right-hand side instead of the left. For some reason, that felt more “wrong” than interlacing my fingers. When I went to take the belt off at the end of the day, I started off wrongly, expecting the tail of the belt to be where it always had been. Unsettling.

Mindfulness – awareness of the operation of one’s own mind – is unsettling.

One day I was exploring a canyon in the slickrock sandstone formations of eastern Utah. It was August, midday, and blazing hot. I followed the dry streambed up the canyon. After a couple of miles, I came across a plunge pool formed where the stream poured over an eight-foot drop, gouging out the sandstone at the base of the waterfall. While in flood, it was probably a torrent, in the midday sun of a dry week of a pretty dry month, all that remained was sun-warmed water, clear and transparent at the shallow edges of the pool, a darkening bottle green as it deepened toward the base of the overhanging wall. Stepping into the water was marvelous. Even warmed by the sun, it refreshed toes and legs and mind, a stark change from the heat and rock and sweat and sand of the prior miles. But the deeper I moved into the pool, the more muck I churned up. The water went from crystalline to puffs of brown muck to a swirling, opaque tangle of stirred-up silt.

Mindfulness is like that. It upsets the settled sediment of a mind.