“The blue was gathered in her hand, and she could feel it quiver, as if it had been given breath and was beginning to live.” —Lois Lowry, Gathering Blue
In Ayurveda, we describe the universe in terms of qualities—or gunas—of which there are twenty. These ten pairs of opposites offer a spectrum of states through which we can classify all things in our gross and subtle spaces. One of the most often considered pairs of opposites is snigdha and ruksha, or oily and dry. This spectrum is so telling when we’re experiencing imbalance because it lets us know how nourishing a food, activity, relationship or thought pattern is to our overall system. Things that are more snigdha (oily) tend to increase the way any kind of food nourishes our tissues; things that are more ruksha (dry) tend to have a depleting quality. There’s no better or worse place to land on this spectrum, and we’ll all need different amounts of oily and dry throughout our lives. Consider these familiar examples: how would you feel after eating cooked okra (snigdha) versus raw broccoli (ruksha), or when floating in the ocean or bathtub (water is oily…go figure) versus laying on the sand under the noon summer sun?
The degree of nourishment on the scale of oily-dry is not only based on these gross aspects, but something more nuanced. Sanskrit is a language rich in subtleties, and these Sanskrit words, snigdha and ruskha, are no exception for poetic definitions. Because snigdha also means something akin to “cohering,” or “bonding”—something oil will do—and ruksha also connotes something like “separating”—like wind sending a stack of papers in all different directions. What nourishes us deeply, then, connects us to something or someone outside of ourselves, a sense of belonging, and love; and what depletes us is also what makes us feel isolated, lonely, withdrawn, forgotten, and even unloved.
If I were to put 2020 on this guna spectrum, it’d be far, far to the right—the most ruksha you could imagine, dry paper plus sand plus a kale salad. Our best defense against a pernicious virus required that we stay apart, and literally block the transmission of prana among us with masks, even as the still-rising death toll permanently severed bonds for hundreds of thousands of families and friends worldwide. The events of the American presidential election showed the cavernous rifts between people ostensibly united under one flag, our shared purpose of equality and happiness taking on contrasting shades of red and blue. Our planet erupted in flames and species were threatened to extinction. As the year progressed, I found it almost too appropriate that my normal tendency toward dryness in my physical body was amplified this year; my joints creaked and ached like they never have before; and in my relationships, I felt more alone and distant, even when I was able to share spaces with others.
So when it came to setting an intention for 2021, my Ayurvedic and yogic knowledge told me to seek balance by cultivating the opposite. After a year of ruksha, I wanted as much snigdha as I could get. The first way I found this was the form of my intention, which breaks away from the tradition of setting a “resolution.” Growing up, I was encouraged to participate in New Year’s Resolutions—goals that would somehow give the next twelve months purpose and a benchmark for success. From early on, those “goals” carried the tune of body shame and self-criticizing, highlighting the parts of myself I felt didn’t measure up (or down) and needed to change. Hit repeat on that song for a decade or so during formative years of brain and self-development, and you have a recipe for an insecure and broken individual.
Now, not all resolutions have that effect on people. I’ve seen many friends and family set resolutions that make them happier, more whole, and more comfortable with themselves, achieve personal ambitions and a sense of independence and freedom—more snigdha than ruksha. For me, though, the concept of “resolution” wasn’t getting me there. Perhaps I intuited the word’s etymology, which originally connoted “a breaking into parts,” the “process of reducing things into simpler forms,” or to “loosen.” (It got its modern definition in the 1780s, when people started setting up pious goals for the year.) What I needed wasn’t a breaking down or reduction, but a building up and integration.
Thankfully, I set myself on a more supportive, and generally snigdha, course through wellness practices that opened my mind to another way of marking the start of a new year, as arbitrary as it is a time to set goals (which can happen whenever the heck you want). I choose a word, and given that I’m such a word-lover it aligns quite nicely with how my brain and body make sense of things. A word is rich in history and nuance (per my etymology-geek tendencies), but is also nothing more than a set of marks on a page (or vibrations on the ear) that someone decided means something. It is fluid, impermanent, and defining all at once. Before we had systems of writing, words were nothing more than sounds that blended together when vibrations of voice landed in an ear; early texts didn’t even have spaces between words, just a string of characters that were decipherable when read aloud. Whether spoken or read, those strings of words make stories, and the telling of stories—around a campfire or even around a glowing screen, in our modern form—is one of the fundamental ways that people have connected over the centuries.
With this sensibility baked into my annual ritual, I began thinking about what word I’d choose sometime at the November-December juncture. Normally I’d spend some time free journaling or walking, letting the movements of my spirit stir up what needed to surface for the moment at hand. I didn’t need to wait that long for this year’s word, though. It landed dense and clear, like a drop of oil in the sea of my consciousness: gather. There was no second-guessing, no internal Thesaurus consulting, nothing to impede my whole-hearted embrace of this word as the container for whatever would come my way this year.
Now, you’re probably wondering (as my rational mind did a few minutes after the download finished): how do you think you’re going to gather when all the same restrictions are in place, if not getting stricter? Here’s where my word is offering not only inspiration but a challenge to my creativity, a task of liberal interpretation that is helping to widen the ways in which I will notice how this intention manifests going forward:
- Passively acquiring what’s needed, as in “hunting and gathering”
The first interpretation that came to me was one of necessity—what supplies do I need to gather to make this recipe? To survive the winter, like the squirrels I watch in my backyard? To feel secure in this moment of fear and anxiety? I thought back to how I’ve always lived my life—not being very good at hunting/competing, preferring to wander and stumble across shiny things—and the mentality of gathering rose to the surface like the splendor of a snowy winter morning. Then that sense of the word started to define other areas of my life that were maybe “needs” and maybe not. This year, I didn’t have any new, exciting work projects to jump in with, which made me uncomfortable and tense. So instead of trying to “hunt” for something new, I set my mind to gather leisurely and let opportunities come to me. Looking ahead to how the year would progress around the pandemic, and feeling only cautiously optimistic about what life will be like on the other side of a successful vaccine roll-out and new president, I couldn’t put on my normal planning outfit and set things in place that I could look forward to. So I found a gathering outfit (it’s loose and floaty and neutral-pastel), and let myself be in the space of unknowing, along with the rest of the planet. Since setting this intention, I’ve already experienced how different my mind feels when fielding any decisions— work opportunities, meals, what to wear. Instead of pouncing out of desperation, I fancy myself a Claire Fraser-type, wandering through some highland forest collecting just the herbs I need for my medicines (and trusting that a dashing beaux will appear should danger spring from the mist).
2. Bringing things toward the center
One of the properties of the vata dosha, which is prominent in the ruksha quality, is its tendency to spread energy and attention to the periphery, away from the center, of the body or mind. A vata-deranged being might feel scattered, untethered, nonsensical in mind; fidgety, restless, or poorly circulating in body; lacking faith or a sense of safety in spirit. Exercises that work to gather my focus around a fixed, center point are going to guide my practices as a way to counter these feelings I’ve experienced more and more these pandemic months. In any expression—movement that helps to strengthen the core of the body anatomically, in the abdomen and around the spine; meditation that cultivates dharana, or focus, on an object like the breath, or a light, or a mantra; establishing boundaries at the beginning and end of my day so that the middle feels structured and purposeful—this gathering is drawing in a kind of gravity or centripetal force. The invisible energy that keeps the planets orbiting around the sun, the tides of the world being drawn toward the moon. Keeping these celestial beings in the center of my life will reinforce the inevitable rhythm of life I’ve felt disconnected from in many ways. It will help the unnecessary distractions on the periphery fall way, so that the simple essentials of life are what remain.
3. Cultivating community
At the beginning of the pandemic, my mind often flashed to the scene that opens the film Love, Actually: people arriving at the airport and rushing to meet their loved ones. Bodies colliding in the busy arrivals terminal, then sticking together like magnets. I don’t know when that day will come to pass, and imagine that our ability to have physical contact with one another will be a more gradual, trepidation process. Still, in the meantime I am working to gather and reinforce the pod of souls (human and non-human) who have formed a small but mighty community in my life. There’s more effort involved in reaching out to those whom I care about these days, especially when the indifference of tamas is saturating my heart, but the effort is never in vain; those few hours of connection that I used to take for granted, or show up to in a distracted way, are so precious now, and leave me filled up with light in a way that lasts surprisingly long. Because I don’t have the extra energy to maintain all the casual relationships I once flitted among, I’m committed to a core group whose support I no longer feel guilty for leaning on, or obligated to participate in. In my work-life, the projects I’m creating and participating in are all centered around the idea of revealing the ways we’re more alike than different; how we can use technology to overcome physical separation and re-engage in old-fashioned ways of communicating across time and space. And in my family, where trauma has seeped into our bones and heightened some existing frictions I have dealt with in the past by running away, I’m realizing that I need a new strategy. I need to create enough space in myself to honor what centers me alone and what centers me in a network of people who need each other, whether we say it out loud or not. I realize that I matter, not only as an individual willed into being by a divine desire but also to other people; that my absence would cause a ripple effect of ruksha in ways I can’t begin to imagine, forward and backward in time.
In all of these expressions, gathering also holds the promise of the unknown—a quality that has been colored with fear until now. What creations, people, or ideas will I stumble upon during my wandering in 2021? I don’t know, and don’t really want to know, either. I’m striding into these woods without fear, toughened by the ruksha I’ve lived through the last twelve months. In the words of Lois Lowry in Gathering Blue, a YA novel I’m intent on re-reading this year, I am letting this word help define me with an internal strength I can easily find once I eliminate distractions: to “be proud of your pain, for you are stronger than those with none.”