Those who celebrate Samhain, the ancient pagan festival that predates Hallowe’en, believe that on this day of the year, the fabric that separates our world and that which our ancestors inhabit becomes penetrable, so that we might cross over through a portal or communicate with those who have passed. It is a time for honouring the dead, for healing and for celebrating; a time for ritual, prayer and reflection. It is a liminal time, with rituals dedicated to helping us to move on or move through – either symbolically or literally, and also to finding our place in the vastness of human experience and history.
Certain paths of yoga teach austerity – a denial of the material world. Hunger for fruits of the earth must be replaced by a spiritual hunger for a realm that lies beyond the furthest outposts of human intellect and experience. Ascetic yogis deny the pleasures of the senses, abstain from human comforts and dissociate from our complicated animal existence of flesh, sorrow, love, decay and death.
The ascetic yogis were not mothers. In fact this ideal of the perfected human as something other than Homo sapiens sapiens: primate, is emblematic of the patriarchal paradigm – the exaltation of the abstract, the sublimation of the intellect, the taming of the beast. Where the feminine is associated with emotional relationships, with hands-on caring and submersion in the messiness of our matter, the truly masculine (and truly human, in patriarchal terms) is a triumph over Nature and a transcendence of the smelly, gooey stuff of day to day life.
I have given austerity a bash, as a younger and more zealous single and childless yogini. Denying sense pleasures and withdrawing from the hedonistic life certainly increases self-control and also comes with a sense of relief at no longer having to decide how much and when, and when to stop. As with much life in extremis, it comes with a certain hardening, a rigidity of the will and a loss of the ability to listen to one’s inner voices. There was no nuance, no commingling of desire and discipline. The swirl of temperament, whim, responsibility and energy was reduced to a line to toe. It was an interesting holiday from the nitty gritty and a good training in self-discipline (tapas) but for me it became just another addiction and a way of escaping reality. I had just turned hedonism inside out. We see the physical representation of a life lived in black and white in the hard, angular shapes taught in much of Hatha yoga today – a rendering of the masculine aspect, with its mechanical and formulaic expressions and overly technical adjustments. It is celebration of intellectualised form in sad neglect of sensuous movement and the organic body.
One of my most influential teachers, Chetana Jessica Torrens, a writer, yogi, teacher and creator of Akhanda yoga, explained to me once that motherhood can be jnan yoga, or the yoga of knowledge. That meant little to me then, and everything to me now. In the throes of mothering a toddler, I have become lavishly embroiled in the world of objects as never before. I am heavily implicated in their agenda, in a relationship where they are the consumers and I the consumed.
It’s me vs Objects.
On a bad day, I am tricked by the housework, swindled by the dinner, marched all over by the tiny, half-masticated bits of rice cake and apple that decorate our carpet and finally wrong-footed by the last-minute dirty nappy on the way out of the door. Meanwhile the washing basket eyes me with wry amusement and undertones of contempt. The Duplo conspires to mutiny.
On a good day, I rule objects, although I am still owned by them. They humour me with token compliance and move aside permitting me to wash, dress and leave the house unscathed. They behave as they should and diligently set about their roles as my servants. We all know, however, who really wears the trousers.
This is all in the forgetting, as all awareness practice is a process of forgetting, remembering, forgetting again.
In the remembering, there is the jnan yoga and it is here, the place where the fabric between the worlds yields a little. Through all this ritual, this close and grubby work, the tripping over and making mistakes, I am connected to all those who have gone before me. My hands strapping my daughter’s shoes back on, become the hands of my own mother, and hers. As I hang up tiny clothes, scrub tiny stains, wipe tiny tears, I am in the presence of all the mothers, all the carers, all the people who graft and scrape and labour in small ways to create the minutiae. It is these tiny moments, these small loving acts that together form the warp and weft that becomes the great tapestry of our existence, they are the fabric of our lives. Surrendering to this world of objects and their power over me, I honour the trillions of pairs of hands that carried me into the world and held me here safely until this moment.
The world of objects is perilous – it’s dirty, complex, unpredictable, irrational and terribly emotional, and by its nature it is treacherous. But this world of ordinary things is its own portal to other realms. Through the ordinary we are intimate with life; all the moments before become this moment and in turn this moment is gifted to those who follow like a baton being passed as we process around the space-time track ad infinitum. In the tedium, the veil of illusion lifts and we can, when we remember, touch something real yet unseen. Holding onto that one thread of the weave, we are connected to our family of human. Timeless, intangible and magnificent is this connection between us, the stream of consciousness that pours through everything we touch, hold and are bound by. All the joys, sorrows, fears and hopes pour through and we are the ones to hold them in our hands for this time.
I am reminded here of a Taoist saying:
Do not use your mind to overcome by force;
You must fit into the ancient grooves, naturally.
We are all part of this great and ancient procession. I’ll close this with a poem I read in pregnancy – again, it meant little to me then, and it strikes right into my heart now.
by Kate Clanchy
This is close work, this baby-stuff,
the intricate wiping and wrapping, the slow
unpicking of miniature fists;
village-work, a hand-craft, all bodges
and spit, the gains inchingly small
as the knotting of carpets, raw wool
rasping in the teeth of the comb.
The strewing and stooping, the prising
of muck from the grain of the floor –
I think of gleaners, ash-sifters, of tents
sewn with shoe soles, wedding veils, plaits,
how patchwork is stitched-up detritus,
how it circles on quilts like a house split
to bits when the typhoon has passed.
And the ache in the neck, in the back,
in the foot, are the knocks of wood looms,
narrow as cradles, borne from pasture
to valley to camp. I am learning
the art of mistakes, to accept
that the marks of each day are woven in
by evening too far back to pick out.
This is the work women draw from the river,
wet to the waist, singing in time,
the work we swing from our shoulders,
lay on the ground and let the crowd
hold and finger and value – the young girls
wondering, the laughing old women,
the bent, the milk-eyed, the blind.