I’ve been noticing more and more migratory birds hanging around the frozen shores of our lake these past winters. It’s early March now and a number Canada Geese and Mallard Ducks, both species well-known for their v-formation flights down south, just didn’t get off the ground this year.
I can’t say I blame them. It’s been an unusually mild winter up here and I understand the journey is not an easy one. I suspect strong winds, hydro wires and predators are guaranteed while reliable nourishment is not. At the same time, I feel funny about the shift in ancient patterns. I wonder how much of this new behaviour is attributable to us, either directly (due to well-meaning humans putting out bird seed) or indirectly (due to our role in the climate crisis) and I wonder about the long-term implications for our feathered friends.
I suppose migration’s been on my mind today because, after months of dragging my heels, I’ve finally made the move to a new platform for my blog and podcast. I cringe a little as I write this because my old software had to die an ignominious death and my web hosting service had to go the way of the Dodo before I took the necessary steps forward. Change is rarely easy, it seems.
Let me tell you a true story about egoism, disgrace, and a bottle of perfume. It was the late 1990s, I was fresh out of law school and I had just spent the longest year of my life working as an articling student at a downtown law firm. It was a good year in some ways: the money was outstanding, I learned lots, and my parents were brimming over with pride. The experience was also pivotal because it confirmed a growing suspicion that the legal profession was not for me. Call it negative research, if you will. And so I walked away from the firm’s job offer, applied for unemployment insurance and broke my parents’ hearts.
The thing is, while I had some clarity on what I didn’t want, I still hadn’t figured out what I actually wanted to do with my life. It wasn’t unlike that feeling you get when you’ve left Mr. or Mrs. Wrong but you don’t have much faith that Mr. or Mrs. Right will come along. It was a groundless and edgy time. In the meantime, my rent was due and I started to have anxiety-filled dreams about the mountain of student debt I incurred to become a lawyer.
Around this time, a friend’s mother took pity on my situation and offered me a job to tide me over while I plotted the next step on my career path. She was an upper level manager at a swanky department store and the job she offered me was almost too good to be true; it would’ve paid more money for less work than my legal job, but there was a major catch: the department store was located in the same commercial complex as my former law firm and the job would have had me standing in a conspicuous location holding a bottle of perfume while my former colleagues walked by. I could just imagine their pitying looks. “Poor thing,” they would say to each other as soon as they were out of earshot, “she couldn’t cut it as a lawyer. Just look at her now.”
The perceived tumble from lawyer to perfume spritz girl was too much for me to handle. My poor, fragile ego couldn’t deal with the shame, the disgrace, the loss of face, and so I turned down the job. What happened next? Well, pride goeth before the fall, as they say. I don’t mind admitting that I spent another six months or so broke and in a minor funk. I lost touch with my yoga practice, sat in front of the TV for days at a time, and had nothing to show for the time off but a pile of bills and a few extra pounds. In the end, I took another lawyering job out of necessity and spent another five or six years figuring out what I already knew—that I wanted more from my life than financial security and an impressive title.
In hindsight, the perfume spritz incident was a stark lesson in something Master Patanjali calls egoism (asmita). In book II, sutra 3 of the Yoga Sutras, he says egoism is one of the five major obstacles to true happiness and freedom. The others are ignorance of who we really are (avidya), excessive craving (raga), excessive aversion (dvesha), and fear of death (abhinivesah). He implies in this list that our ignorance of who we really are causes us to over-identify with our ego selves and that misidentification causes us to chase our selfish, petty desires, on the one hand, and cower from anything that challenges our ego identities on the other hand, especially the death of the body.
One of my teachers says we spend the first part of our lives acquiring our ego identities and the remainder of our lives defending them at any cost—even when it hurts us and the people we love. Does this mean we should abandon our egos and adopt an egoless existence? Good luck—that’s like asking the mind to stop thinking—it’s next to impossible. As yogis, it’s incumbent upon us to cultivate beautiful, graceful egos, in the same way we build strong, flexible bodies and elevated minds. Let’s make our egos our allies, rather than our enemies, and use them to assist our movement towards greater happiness and freedom. And don’t forget that when push comes to shove, you are not your mind, you are not your body and you are so, so much more than your job.
Not long before I officially traded in my legal career for the life of a yoga teacher, I had one of those pivotal, change-everything-in-the-blink-of-an-eye experiences en route to a dental cleaning. It was a hot August afternoon and I remember cursing the overly air-conditioned office environment I had just left (the one I called home during waking hours) as I sweltered along in skirt suit and nylons. Passing a busy patio, filled with carefree bohemian-types relaxing over pints, I caught myself muttering under my breath: “who exactly are these people who loaf around on patios all day? I mean, don’t they have jobs to go to or something?” Busted—I was already becoming a sour-faced professional, filled with outrage and moral indignation, and I hadn’t even made partner yet.
Now that I’ve retired my suits and crossed over to the other side, I don’t mind admitting the outrage and indignation were probably just envy in disguise. Really, who wouldn’t want to spend less time living for work and more time living it up?
The thing is, most of us assume we don’t have much choice in the matter—we feel bound by honor, familial pressure, and/or our current financial obligations to walk the straight and narrow path to sustenance and stability, if not exactly riches and respect—and so we defer the real stuff till later. Much later. We say, “when I retire, I’ll see the world, write short stories, paint, meditate, do good deeds, spend more time with my loved ones….”
But, in actuality, we just don’t know if and when this will all come about; the moments of this life are fleeting, as one of my teachers likes to point out, and we don’t all have the luxury of growing old before we die.
We also happen to be living at a time when traditional assumptions about the way things work no longer hold true. Author, journalist, editor, and critic, Bruce Sterling brought the point home for me earlier this year in his post on the “State of the World, 2009” when he wrote:
I’m a bohemian type, so I could scarcely be bothered to do anything
“financially sound” in my entire adult life. Last year was the first
year when I’ve felt genuinely sorry for responsible, well-to-do people.
Suddenly they’ve got the precariousness of creatives, of the
underclass, without that gleeful experience of decades spent
Perhaps the time has come for us to reconsider the terms of both the social contract and the deal we’ve made with our innermost selves. Did you make your career choices freely, unfettered by external forces? Did you fully understand what you were getting yourself into? Did you get what you bargained for? And most importantly, are you happy with the results of your choice today?
No doubt, these are big questions that lead to even bigger questions, but they seem to be front and center for an increasing community of people who are actively re-examining what they want to do and who they want to be.
I’m delighted to have friends who are brave enough to make a fresh start (I’m thinking of the corporate manager who moved to Australia and started teachers’ college in her forties, the seasoned IT professional who recently enrolled in massage school, and the CEO who left his corner office to work in the public interest); I’m delighted to have friends who wholeheartedly pursue their artistic and spiritual callings; and I’m delighted to have friends who keep checking in with themselves as they continue to run their businesses and go to their day jobs.
There was a time when the decision to follow my passion, rather than a pension, felt like a big deal. I’m happy to say I don’t feel so special anymore—the tribe is growing day-by-day and I’m in good company. Great company, actually. Why not pull up a patio chair and join us?
While the longest night of the year has come and gone with the winter solstice, it feels like we might still have a way to go on our annual journey back to the light. Granted, long nights have much to offer—think of all the extra time for quiet contemplation, journaling and reading while cozying up with a steaming mug of something or other—but the lack of sunlight can also be a little depressing.
A surprising number of spiritual traditions share the concept of a dark night of the soul—a painful, but necessary, initiatory phase in a person’s spiritual life, characterized by a certain anguish, loneliness, despair and even physical illness. A shamanic initiatory crisis, for example, might involve both a psychological breakdown and life threatening illness during which the initiate has the experience of being transported to the spirit realms and dismantled or devoured before being reassembled anew.
The dark night of the soul ultimately brings integration, but it achieves its ends through a process of disintegrating the entanglements of ego. It may not be pretty, but as St. John of the Cross, the Christian mystic who coined the phrase explained, “…the endurance of darkness is preparation for great light,” and that’s downright beautiful.
Chanting the Gayatri Mantra is a lovely way for yogis to invoke the light on dark nights. Considered to be the holiest verse of the Vedas, these lines honor the sun as the source of light and life:
oṃ bhūr bhuvaḥ svaḥ
(a) tat savitur vareṇyaṃ
(b) bhargo devasya dhīmahi
(c) dhiyo yo naḥ prachodayāt
Here’s a translation by Manorama D’Alvia: Earth space heavens. We meditate on the divine light of the radiant source. May that inspire our hearts and thoughts.