We grow from imaginative play with the world
In a mind-drifting moment during Yoga practice this morning, I flashed on a childhood fantasy about leaping in zero gravity like the astronauts. How fun it would be to float freely without burden, without weight forcing me down to the earthbound reality that I could never fly.
As I floated uplifted arms to the ground in forward fold, my mind shifted from boundless childhood to tethered teenhood, when not gravity but some other imperceptible force oppressed me as if the world were conspiring to keep me down, keep me from breaking free from parental chains—the perceived source of my anxious captivity. In hindsight, the unseen force was a growing will to independence and self-hood.
Arms to the sky again, I silently mused how forty plus years later, feeling strong and free, lifting legs and arms to the sun as if I were unbound by muscles taut and responsive to the many, many hours of teaching them to love the burdens of gravity and to lift against it in celebration of its grounding force, I flew. It felt like playing with mass-laden air, teasing and testing it, while daring it to strengthen my shoulders, wrists, and calves, help me lengthen my hamstrings, iliotibial bands and sides.
Just then, I fell into the dream of a marionette, surrendered, yet the star of the show, the guiding hand of movement being gravity-God itself.
The ticklish notion swept alongside my brain sloshing left and right in trikonasana left side, then right, that gravity was also inside me, forcing blood to pump through contracting muscles as I heated my body and the room with breath, moving air and elevated temperatures. I was the room, house and the Earth. I was the cosmos and the beginning-ending. I was gravity.
In seconds, these thoughts rushed through me with blood-flow to and away from my brain, ending in a familiar childhood sensation of floating butterfly-like, just like a moon-walker, as I alit from the sky, all of space and time just then, into down dog.
Mind-Gravity holds us down
Another brief shift from standing to sitting poses, my mind pored over the human condition, specifically, how language conditions thought and experience.
In play, language shapes us. For instance, the word gravity has a double sense. In the English language, gravity is negatively associated with seriousness, often accompanied by the word utmost as in crimes or thoughts of utmost gravity. At 15 years, my thoughts were grave as I pondered the future that always seemed both too far and too near. I sought meaning that I believed resided out there somewhere, far away from my small suburban town I longed to someday leave. But my own gravity grounded me.
In the moment, I pondered in hero’s pose: humans spend the sprouting years in defiance, like those bean plants we grew from seeds in sixth-grade science class long ago, leaving their hidden earth home to burst through to the outer world of air, water and possibility. We call that growth. Physically, it’s growth. And the force of breaking through is one of vital, natural strength and rebellion—both physical and mental. It’s an us-against-the-world stance towards shaping ourselves as selves—an arduous journey against the forces that push, pull and grind us down or prop us up. In youth, we conquer gravity by tossing our bodies against it, flinging ourselves in tumbles and fence-hopping, snowboarding and parachute jumping, mad-dashing across a soccer field and pole-vaulting to beat the air down.
Growing up is the metaphor, like a slow-rocket burst through the air in defiance of gravity. So many metaphors about becoming our ripe selves bespeak struggle against warring forces like the pitfalls of acquiring experience called trial and error and the raging hormonal bodily take-over that is puberty. Not only the breaking through, busting out and bursting forth metaphors of rising roots characterize maturing, but also minefield metaphors of making mistakes as we learn, falling in missteps (failing a driver’s license test, choosing the wrong partner, losing a job) and picking ourselves up from such falls. Struggle.
In shoulder stand, I reached through gravity, blood rushing to my head. The upturned flow forced questions: Why must we struggle to become ourselves, and what exactly do we gain by it? What do we lose?
Learning our bodies and minds requires overcoming, according to Charlotte Joko Beck in Everyday Zen, a book on how to achieve Zen through spiritual growth. She describes the process of becoming or experiencing ourselves as independent is “to be terror, over and over and over.” Our inner battle wages in fear of breaking free of our own mind chains—a fear of falling. If we lose the consciousness of ourselves, don’t worry about things we can’t change, we believe we are lost. If we don’t worry about the rent, it won’t get paid. In truth, however, losing fear lessens suffering and increases freedom.
But other losses are illusory products of our language. We speak of losing childhood in gaining adulthood. We lose our shine, laughter and innocence as we gain wrinkles, weight and wisdom. Childish ways disappear, replaced by the firmly formed reality and concreteness of adulthood—the real world. Our language posits growing old as a war fought and lost. But those metaphors depict change and time as linear—that a child dies as time moves along the trajectory of the arrow shot from birth to death because people grow up and out of childhood, leaving it behind for good—despite evidence to the contrary.
Time and space are the weight of illusion: The presence of child’s play (anti-gravity) is the lightness of being
But that is merely the outer language that moulds human experience. We also know a deeper language—largely unspoken, often buried yet authoritative and authentic. Presence.
If we can re-sense that weightlessness imagined in childhood, the child is still there. If we can hold ourselves in our own arms, the child is still there. If we can laugh at ourselves, at others or at nothing at all, the child is still there. If we can fly by the fuel of our own blood and breath, the child is still there—only if we summon her to step forward through the sediment of our imaginations and bodies—again.
Surrender—to gravity, growth, self and oneness—is the silent language that rejoins our selves and frees the child in soaring play. It’s a giving in, up and out. We can be fully ourselves if we envision not the suffering of becoming but the acceptance of being.
These were the thought-flashes that burst and then folded back into the still yoga mind. Breathing.
The final sun salutation nearly ended. I silently, almost wistfully, hoped that I would remember that tiny joyful moment of flight, not lose it in the silence and cleansing of meditation and focused quietude of sivasana to follow.
It was not an anxious or rueful hope that I would remember; it was a soft thought with no attachment to the outcome. Whatever was lost, if anything, to the flow of my morning practice in breath-ful, attentive movement would be enveloped inside and return at its will.
And it did. I finished my practice, namaste, bowed to the oneness of my breath to air, stars and forces that rebounded in creation of earth—and me. Afterwards, I sat down to my computer to write as I always do, and without will, intention or remembrance, the playful words slipped through the shanti, past savasana and meditation, onto the page effortlessly as the flow of breath, body, mind and (anti-) gravity as one. Om Shanti Om.