I find it fascinating to watch peoples’ interactions with panhandlers on the subway. Generally speaking, most people when confronted with another person’s need avert their eyes, trying to close off to the the panoply of emotions we feel when we do not help someone: guilt, shame, disgust, resentment, pity, among others. In a city so devoid of personal space such as Manhattan, we constantly seek moments- in particular on the subway- to claim our as our “own.” We use this time to: eat breakfast, do our make-up, read the news, send that last minute text or email, or just bliss out to whatever jam has been on our ipod as if we are completely and entirely alone. The reality is, we are completely surrounded on all sides, wedged into the metal serpent of public transport like closely packed sardines in oil. The close proximity of all this amazing humanity- everyone with a particular reason they happen to be in New York and a particular history behind who and why they are- somehow results in an increase in isolation as well as an increase in our resentment of others who ask for help, no matter how innocent their motivation. How interesting then that when people seek to engage on the subway, we respond through body and verbal language that simply says, “LEAVE ME ALONE!”
It is surprisingly easy to feel isolated in New York; people are constantly willing to remind you that you are on your own, and talking to them is not so much wrong more than socially unacceptable- in particular on the subway. New York City is a location attractive to people, because it is “where all your dreams come true.” Individuals travel to: live, work, and play in this city in order to actualize their dreams, ambitions, and goals. Every person in this city, whether born and raised or an immigrant, has a very specific reason as to why they choose to be here.
In order to actualize their dreams, the city provides them with the necessary tools to do so. To realize one’s potential, whatever that may be, one must, according to our western notions of success and achievement, strike out on one’s own. New York is the place to do this; it is the place where we go to become who we can be, who we are meant to be, and as a result, often, we find that experience to be a terribly lonely one. It becomes this for a number of reasons: actualization is difficult! Whatever variety of success we seek, the many hurdles of disappointment one must fly over to get there, can result in the not so subtle break down of one’s sense of value. The once confident actor from the suburbs of Ohio is met with the sudden reality that perhaps they are not the amazing prodigy they were at the community theater house. In addition to this constant grating down of our ego’s sense of self-worth comes the added difficulty of reconciling that we are, without a doubt, a foreigner in a strange land.
The simultaneous exciting aspect of being in a place that is not our own is immediately curbed by the harsh reality that initially we do not fluently speak the language of this place. The synthesis of having our expectations of success dashed further confounds this sense of ‘outsiderness’ that catalyzes, for most individuals, a need to survive. There is no safe space in public, and everyone is a potential threat. Our public transportation system has become a social nervous system of urban culture; it is where our emotions, opinions, and ruminations distill themselves as we physically travel from one place to another and are shot back into the reality of our: careers, experiences, and lives, fresh and able to face whatever disappointment or odd success may come. We do not want to talk to anyone, because anyone can generate disappointment and a sense of un-belonging of which we already have an over-abundance. New York preaches “enlightenment” for our dreams but inadvertently mandates we do it in isolation.
One afternoon, shortly after I moved to New York in 2010, I saw a woman struggling to walk up some steps from the subway at 14th street and Union Square. She was overweight and carried a cane. When I offered to help her, she responded with, “I’m going as fast as I can!” I was shocked that she had misinterpreted my intention. I was in no hurry at all, and it looked as if she needed a hand. I felt so sad to have caused, what I thought, was some form of animalistic fighter response in this woman. I thought a lot that afternoon; at what point in living in any place, but in particular New York City, do we start seeing everyone as a threat to our existence and well-being and close our selves off to the possibility that we are not as isolated as we think, that in fact, maybe, we could be very intrinsically connected? Why do we assume the worst and alienate our selves and others from the possibility of compassion? Why do we make our selves and others feel so foreign?
I cannot help but examine the question: what does it mean to be alone? Today, being alone is stigmatized and implies a lack of wholeness. Referring to something unkempt and unsightly, the idea of being alone or apart from others, to some is utterly frightening, to others, it is the exact opposite. Perhaps we need to understand the general concept of how we, as Western Capitalists, have come to impose a negative view on the word ‘alone.’
‘Alone:’ its primary and current definition: ‘having no one else present.’ Its secondary definition describes ‘alone’ as ‘without help or participation of others.’ If we look at its etymology, we find that ‘alone’ finds some of its roots in Middle English, all an, a contraction meaning ‘all/wholly one.’ Even earlier, from Old English, all ane, meaning similarly, “all one,” or “single.” ‘Alone’ can be traced further back, originating from alleen and allein, in Dutch and German respectively with similar meanings to its Old English cousins. Essentially, “alone” is a complete state all on its own.
How have this word’s etymology, or perhaps, our interpretations of the implications of this word, resulted in the stigma that to be alone implies some sort of absence or lack?
The word ‘alone,’ in this instance, differs from ‘solitude’ in that ‘solitude,’ by definition, discriminates, and specifically states that it is ‘a state of being both apart from others, geographically and otherwise,’ as well as simply put, ‘an unfrequented place.’ Whilst it derives its root from Old French, solitude, and even earlier from Latin, solitudinem, its evolution resulted in words including: ‘lonely,’ ‘loneliness,’ and eventually ‘alone,’ despite the perhaps subtle fact that their original definitions are polar opposites, and these two words do not, in fact, share any obvious linguistic similarities, as they are derived from different source languages entirely. Whilst the latter implies a separation and perhaps even a lack of satisfaction in one’s socio-cultural interactions, the former suggests, by nature of the contraction, that to be alone is, in fact, to be all one.
That somehow, we come to view the implication of being alone as being something much more akin to the feeling of foreignness or otherness is also of note; the etymology of this word from Old French, forain, meaning ‘strange, out of the way, remote, external,’ more clearly links to the feeling of isolation and distance associated with our current usage of the word ‘alone’ as well.
From a psycho-linguistic perspective, theorist, Julia Kristeva, seeks to observe this dichotomy between all+one-ness and solitude/foreignness, apparent as an immediate awareness of the doubling experience of foreignness in both our selves as well as others, as seen in the first pages of her book, “Strangers To Ourselves,” translated by Leon S. Roudiez. Her exploration of the “foreigner” perhaps synthesizes and analyzes the issue being discussed here.
“Strangely, the foreigner lives within us: he is the hidden face of our identity, the space that wrecks our abode, the time in which understanding and affinity founder. By recognizing him within ourselves, we are spared detesting him in himself [...] the foreigner comes in when the consciousness of my difference arises, and he disappears when we all acknowledge ourselves as foreigners, unamenable to bonds and communities.”
Whilst Kristeva’s perspective is definitely pessimistic as to the outcome of our social capabilities within the structures of culture here, her acknowledgment that we become aware of our separateness and our pain when we become conscious of it, is noteworthy and fascinating. It is then safe to say that our awareness of our interconnectedness is a non-issue when we are not conscious of our differences. How do we get to that place?
She continues, ”[...] A secret wound, often unknown to himself, drives the foreigner to wandering [...] Not belonging to any place, any time, any love. A lost origin.” Kristeva continues to examine the reason behind why people experience that feeling of foreignness and separateness as being a result of these individuals having lost their ‘mother or origin.’ Regardless of how the word ‘mother’ is being introduced and handled here- psycho-socially, linguistically, or otherwise- it is apparent that Kristeva is keenly aware of the duality that exists and is implicit in every single person, such a duality being: the roles of opposing forces, union, separateness, or in the case of her observations, the maternal being an organic origin, and the paternal, a socio-cultural structure as seen through such scaffolds like that of language.
Yoga’s intention is kaivalya, also known as: moksha, nirvana, encountering Isvara, or God, the Divine Mother (aha!), or liberation- call it what you will. All these things provide liberation from the many attributes of our ‘selves’ that bind us to this life: our karma, the infinite sheaths of time, behavior, and experience, that define who we are now, in this moment, why we are, and why we suffer so much. This arena also provides an interesting framework to further understand possible interpretations for what it means to be ‘alone’ as well as perhaps why people may default to such aggressive and isolating behavior that contrary to desire, isolates them further from others.
As people, we want to live so very badly- our bodies are designed to KEEP us alive. It is our most gross and basic instinct as living organisms to desire to stay alive and, if we are lucky in that experience, pass on our genetic material. Because of this need, and, in order to survive, we create impressions of our perceptions; what we see, feel, and experience become logged in our bodies and minds, and as such, they pave the pathways for our ‘selves’ to ‘evolve’ both biologically and spiritually, the primarily intention, however, is to keep living.
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, our bodies have worked so very hard at maintaining themselves, that they have inadvertently caused a major problem for our spirits. Whilst our cells work hard to keep us alive, they generate thought and behavior patterns that both protect us from harm and limit our ability to remain a compassionate and objective witness of all of our experiences. It is a good idea for our survival to not touch a hot pan, if once we got burned by it; however, the result of assuming the world is a dangerous place is that our spirits gather dust, as they languish in the stasis of judgment.
Whilst our bodies work to evolve, our minds remain a closed worksite, with no one to man it. The discrepancy between what our biology is doing to make the best lives for our physical selves, and the lack of what our energetic selves may be doing to nurture, grow, and evolve at the same rate as our gross bodies, results in a serious amount of discomfort for one’s ego, to be certain, “All men are liars… All women only want to settle down and have kids… No one is ever going to love me…” This poses an even more profound problem for our consciousness and its ability to evolve. When one is completely apart and isolated, regardless of how they got there, nothing happens. There can be rain, but if the plants are covered by a greenhouse, there is no effect. Perhaps Kristeva’s observation that we seek to return to our source is not so far off, and that it is our own sense of foreignness that prevents us from finding that sweet sweet bliss of kaivalya.
But wait! Kaivalya is the notion that when we discard our understandings of: cause, effect, purpose, and support, we encounter a negation of the self, or as Edwin F. Bryant’s translation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras states in Chapter IV, verse 11 says, ”Since [Samskaras] are held together by immediate cause, motive, the mind, and the object of awareness, the samskaras cease when the latter cease.” If we negate the self, what remains?
“The negation of the self,” linguistically, is problematic; any time we experience words like ‘negation,’ ‘detachment,’ or ‘absence,’ to name a few, we are socialized to associate the remainder of their partnered thoughts with stasis or something negative. Here the framework of language is too limiting; if we are, as Kristeva states, just trying to get back to our origins, the experience of the return must be something that transcends language, as it, by nature of the act itself, implies a relinquishing of the awareness that we are isolated and separate from one another, and language, paradoxically, separates us.
To have “negated the self” or the ego is to return to pure awareness of consciousness, and perhaps to see the sheets lifted up to bear witness to the fact that we all share this same experience: the feeling of lack and hurt, the desire and need to stay alive, and resulting isolation of our selves from others- we are all separate physical bodies, but ultimately, we are all+one. There is the misguided interpretation and subsequent judgment that when one reaches this unattainable and unknowable place of liberation, they are alone, and are no one and that this is bad.
Again, language fails us! Language leads us to believe that upon attaining liberation, you do not matter; you are not important; quite the contrary. The process of this “negation” requires the recognition that the physical and energetic selves are, in fact, “all + one” at all times with all matter and energy. Whilst a series of unsheathing one’s awareness and the discarding of previous notions of the self does take place that may, on a semantic level, lead us to believe that we are isolating our selves from the cultural matrix and definitions of selfhood and becoming more “alone,” what is clear is that the process leads us to quite the opposite, and by altering our perspective, we become more “all+one,” as seen in Chapter IV sutra 23, ” The mind, colored by the seer as well as by that which is seen, knows all objects.” This familiarity with all things, all matter, or prakrti, results in what was earlier discussed as judgments and suffering, until we see sutra 24, “That mind, with its countless variegated subliminal impressions, exists for another entity [other than itself], because it operates in conjunction [with other instruments].”
When I recalled my experience with the woman on the subway steps, I felt a number of emotions; initially I was angry that my genuine concern for her well-being was so drastically misinterpreted and punished with her hostile remarks, who had decided against the possibility or likelihood of ever receiving my help.
I empathize intensely with this sentiment. Asking for help is hard! As children we are taught that it is good to ask questions, to seek out answers, to petition for help when we need it; asking for help is expected of us when we are young, not so when we mature. As I said before, we learn behaviors that guarantee our survival, much to the chagrin of our spiritual development. As a child, I learned quickly about my separateness with regards to everyone else, and it has definitely been to my detriment. Other people’s fathers did not almost die from ulcerative colitis when they were in middle school, permanently fracturing the framework of their family. Most kids did not have mothers who loved them so much, but only actively noticed them and validated them when they were sick. Most kids did not have sisters who experienced lengthy periods of deep catatonic depression, in some cases, those episodes were followed by violent bouts of mania, in which the local police paid frequent trips to their house, so that their family almost became legend to the local police force. But then again, I was the one who decided that most people could not relate to me and therefore could not possibly help me. My instinct to survive decided that as a result, I was better served staying guarded and never ever asking for help, forever to remain separate, in solitude, foreign, and “alone.” To sum it up, we have a sense of foreignness occurring between our selves and others, but we also have it happening internally, betwixt the folds and fabric of our individual subjectivities. My understanding of my self and everyone else for that matter is biased. Who is to say that woman does not have her own story, and her own understanding of the world she inhabits, and if that is the case, why then, are we not more similar than we originally thought?
There are aspects of my body that almost intuitively refuse to lengthen and loosen as much as I feel they ought to given my experience as a practitioner of yoga asana. There was a period of my life when performing any forward fold to lengthen the backs of my legs and lumbar spine was the most anger-inducing and uncomfortable experience. I attended an Ashtanga yoga class a few years ago, and my instructor, Matthew, put the class into paschimottanasana, a seated forward fold. Typically, my thoracic spine curled down to the floor, but my lumbar spine- the location of years of scoliosis- refused to fold, the muscles, staunchly stubborn, remained in their location protecting my curved spinal cord. Matthew came up behind me to assist me, and effortlessly, I was folded in half, My body gave in willingly, and every cell in my body jumped around frenetically as the air pressed from my diaphragm, forcing me to inhale deeper via my back, to seek out oxygen through different means, and maybe even, to acknowledge what it was like to yolk that exhalation for a little bit, whilst my body encountered a place of existence it had never known so fully until that moment. After class, I approached him and sheepishly thanked him for the adjustment; his response was a typical coy smile followed by, ”You can’t do everything by yourself. Sometimes you just need some help.”
One of Patanjali’s final sutras: chapter IV sutra 34, “Ultimate liberation is [...] when the power of consciousness is situated in its own essential nature.” Perhaps our essential nature involves the acknowledgement of our interconnectedness, and an open acceptance of support and help from others. Maybe to get home, we require it. ”Kaivalya literally means the state of kevala, or aloneness, onlyness, one’s-own-ness, not-connected-with-anything-else-ness. In other words, purusa’s (energy) awareness is now absorbed exclusively in its own nature [...] The yogi’s physical body and cognitive apparatus can now return to the elements through reverse involution [...] Once liberated from prakrti and its effects and having gained awareness of its true identity, the purusa is eligible to enter into a divine relationship with God, Isvara.”
For the duration, whether in New York, or deep in the woods, each person, creature, thing, enters into our life with purpose; if for no other reason, simply to tip their solitary hats to ours, to say, “Hey! You over there! I AM as well!”
The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
~ Rumi ~