A Trip to the Minotaur

I haven’t been able to add anything to this search-journal-for-strength, which I’m now equating with a search for well-being, because I’ve been unwell.

Not unwell in a clinical sense — although last night I felt that I might also be contracting an inflammation of my neural system — but rather I had not been able to keep a firm hold on key elements of health. During this bout of un-wellness (we ask one another how we are doing, then often follow up with the anticipated answer: ‘well, I hope’), I lost consciousness of anything but my suffering. Suffering over what, you might ask. It’s taken me a while to answer that particular question, and the answers may continue to arrive over the next few days.

For one thing, I lost hope. I’m not sure which came first, but I also lost my sense of orientation. It’s also easy to say I lost balance, which is slightly different from orientation, since balance is not about fixing on a central point but rather a playing off of opposite forces. I’m reminded of my Portuguese friend Manuel Gonzalves with Circus Vargas when I worked publicity for them. Manuel could balance himself atop rolling logs and would continue to add logs, stacking them in opposite directions so that the roll of one log would go right to left, while the log underneath would roll forward and backward. He performed this act three times a day. Often I was in his trailer visiting with him and his wife only minutes after a performance. His mind was always on something else. We never talked about his balancing or how he learned the art or how he felt while he was atop the logs being watched by five thousand people, his ears filled with a small but powerful band playing. The balance that Manuel possessed was clearly a gift, something not on loan to everyone, no matter the practice. Yet I think of Manuel when I can’t seem to balance my family life, my personal goals, my job demands, the dictates of a healthy diet, and the exercise that my body, like a dog, waits patiently to embrace at the close of every day.

When things fall out of balance in my world, I have the added, self-denigrating impulse to lapse into depression and begin to see all my pursuits as hopeless. That’s where this bit of prose started out, I believe: with the statement that I’d lost hope. However, there’s so much more involved to depression that to say ‘I am depressed’ properly, one would have to possess a voice like a symphonic orchestra. The word ‘depressed’ should always come out as polyphonic, because so many strands of life combine to make it happen. Depression should also appear as a Yellow Submarine-type character as drawn by Peter Max: a scamp who wears a coat of many colors, their principal hues on the dark side. But not entirely. There are golds and yellows, too, because depression is such a court jester: it’s making fun of our lives when it makes its un-grand, un-wanted entrance. Depression intends not to entertain us but to turn our existence into a joke – for no one but ourselves. It’s a wonder that we stand still for depression, but there you have it. One disappointing episode at work, one slightly wounding letter received in the inbox, one alcoholic drink with double the spirits that evening (as if that were going to shoot down these rocky experiences), together with dreams of oblivious sleep after which everything would be okay: dreams all right, as in dream on.

Any health journal worth its salt should acknowledge the backside of health, which is lack of well-being. And lack of well-being is painful. It hurts in the heart, the gut, and the neurons that keep firing those bad experiences over and over in the mind.

What to do? Personally I had to endure a second day of malaise. However, somewhere in the middle of the day I struck upon a tactic that might help me out of my problems at the workplace. Can you sense the flame of hope re-igniting? I couldn’t do anything about the alienating email (which wasn’t meant to be alienating; quite the contrary, I realized), so I let it rest. I made plans to exercise and run. I had visions of generating endorphins, then finishing with a sweaty thirty minutes of resistance training.

But you know. Somewhere in the midst of these plans. I just. Laid down. In an instant I was out. I knew it wouldn’t last long, and it didn’t. But when I woke up, I felt hugely rested. Of course. It was the first true rest I’d had in 36 hours. At that point I could feel that my body – yes, back in touch with my body – was saying: don’t go running, don’t work out heavily today.

Instead, loosen up with a yoga video. I chose Rodney Yee’s 25 minutes on hip-openers, was going to follow it up with another clip on twists, but the power went off in our neighborhood. These days, in Cairo, power cuts are daily. Why do they always take me by surprise? Just the same I’ve figured out what to do. I can either sit in the darkness and meditate – a good option since there is no light coming into the house from any direction at all. Or, as I’ve discovered, the gas supply to the house doesn’t cut off in sympathy with the electricity. One can cook!

I don’t have to finish this story. You can see that I uncoiled out of my un-wellness; I got in touch with myself again. I have a feeling that you know all about these experiences. Don’t you think they have to be figured into any mindful quest for strength? Otherwise, we’ll begin to cut out whole sections of life. Life! To my way of thinking, it’s either all or nothing when it comes to monitoring health, which is a big part, but not all, of life. The periods of un-wellness count. The trick is to ride them out and pay close attention to how one finally manages to pick back up the thread to wellness.

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The Anti-Pillars of Health

What are the pillars of health? Are they body, mind and spirit? I’ve never been able to feel satisfied by this triad. Just as is the case in contemporary physics, there would seem to be, in the individual, all manner of anti-worlds or worlds which theoretically can run differently than our usual ones – a comforting thought personally.

I think there is anti-body (not the medical term; rather, the opposite-of-body). When I stop contemplating the essence and limitations of the physical body I don’t immediately star-shoot to the mental. That’s not the only option. Nor when I exhaust the mental do I necessarily feel drawn to the spiritual realm. It feels to me that there is an arena of thinking about anti-body – the not-body – that figures into a larger vision of what constitutes health.

When people think of losing their body, they think of death. But that doesn’t necessarily apply if we are quite alive in our body but feel a notion to go elsewhere. What I’ve noticed is that yogic meditation and the deliberate verbal mobius strips of Lao Tze attempt to take us someplace we don’t normally go. Where is that place exactly?

Wrong question, right? Trying to pin things down like that. We can invoke Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle about this question of place. Where we want to go may also be a misnomer. More like: where do we end up? Can we exist there for a while? What is it like? Do we come back stronger, more multifaceted, more peaceful, more something?

This same notion infects me when I think of mental health. Having been inside the mental health corridors on various self-missions, not to mention reading about it as an amateur (like George Plimpton, I insist on amateurism in everything), I have never been satisfied with standard definitions of mental health. All one has to do is consult history to see total cultural dysfunction (which may be going on now around the world) and wonder whether, inside all these cultures, everyone is nodding their heads at one another saying, ‘Thank god we know. There are a lot of ignoramuses out there. But you and I, we know.’

It’s easy to make fun of these consensuses but harder to say what’s to replace them. Certainly on the macro-level, I have no interest in treading even a centimeter toward a solution. But on the personal level, I would like to contemplate non-mind. And even non-spirit. The opposite of mind; the opposite of spirit. Body, mind and spirit are not three peas under shells. We cannot just swap them around and say, ‘Ah, now you’re talking about body, not mind.’ Or, ‘But you’re moving out of rationality and into belief. That’s spiritual, not mental.’ It seems to me that the refuge I am often seeking is the empty fourth shell, the place of conscious non-being in any one of those dimensions. That would seem to be the place where the deeper meditation takes us — the deeper level of any ritual practice like Tai Chi Chuan.

Why can’t we just inhabit these places naturally?

I have no idea. This meditative space doesn’t seem to square with evolutionary demands on our attentions, our need to survive. Yet now, with the world in such imminent danger of ecological disaster – and a seeming inability to pull out of that highway to hell — it may be the path to survival, at least for you and me, the singular persons. Lao Tze admonished the unknown regional ruler to whom he wrote the Tao Te Ching to adopt a path of letting go, of submerging his desires until he and the Way joined up like roads that had formerly been running side by side, but in different dimensions.

When I think of health – of the nourishing and not-so-nourishing things I put into my body today; of the mental acuity and the mental lapses that accompanied me throughout the day; of the spiritual striving that I sometimes felt I needed to act upon during the course of the day – I can’t help but consider that all the many criteria of health constitute something of a frantic search that won’t bring about the deepest health. Not one bit.

If anything occurs during this search of mine, it’s the sincere hope that I will find glimpses of these other zones of awareness and being. They seem to be right there beside me – while I’m rubbing shoulders with my fellow bus rider this afternoon – yet frustratingly beyond my grasp, especially when I dismount the bus and have to craft a walker’s passage between the stop-start gasping traffic of Cairo where there are no stoplights, no police. Do you have any idea how long it takes me to get over this harrowing passage, day after day?

It seems we’ve created a world where we have to spend increasingly more of our time just retaining life, not advancing it.

That last sentence will result in a gauntlet being cast heavily – chain-ily, if I can coin a word – down to the floor. I’m going to do something this late afternoon: run, put on a yoga dvd, or wait until nightfall and swim in the pool at Cairo American College.

These attempts at health, no matter how shallow, end up inserting pads between my frustrations. That I know. With these activities, I’ll make it through another day without running to zero.

Ah, but then this weekend! Maybe then, the deeper search.