pity this busy monster, manunkind,
not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
[. . .]
listen: there’s a hell
of a good universe next door; let’s go
—E. E. Cummings
My four years as an undergraduate in Cambridge scarred me in many ways. I’ve softened and all but erased most of them—through therapy, meditation, and experiencing life outside of the bubble of academia—save for one set: the red blotches on my knees.
Picture this: It’s a dreary October day. Rain leaks from the sky at a volume ranging from fine, hair-frizzing mist to puddle-making downpours. I was a sophomore, so I had calculated down to a science the amount of time it took me to get from the Alumni office, where I had a part-time job as an editorial assistant on Reunion books, to the English department, where that semester I had a seminar on the depiction of international travel in American literature. Donning my colorful rubber boots—a veritable rite of passage for every student adjusting to the 7 ½ months of rain that soaked the campus from September to May, the two glorious weeks of sun and warmth inevitably aligning with finals—I made my way along the familiar route. Past the Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, past the parking lot and Starbucks, the storied gates opening to the Yard were in sight when, suddenly, I was on the ground, wet and confused, all my things strewn on the ground.
One of the ways Harvard scars everyone, even visitors, is the cobblestones. Admission should require a physical fitness test of one’s ankle stability, because even the most minimal of missteps will wrench that joint out of alignment and send you to your knees. Wet, leaf-strewn cobblestones are more dangerous by a factor of 1,000, in my estimation, and were the cause of my tumble that October morning.
The nimble adolescent that I was, I picked myself up and continued onward, determined not to be late for one of my favorite classes (which also happened to have just about twenty students, so tardiness was hard to hide). During our break, I thought it’d be wise to check things out after my fall, so I made my way down to the bathroom, my knees feeling stiff and old with each step. Pulling down my tissue-thin leggings, I audibly gasped from inside the stall. After peeling the fabric off my skin, I saw not knees as I knew them: Instead, there were swollen, red globes caked in a combination of partially dried blood and what I assumed was wet-leaf detritus and dirt. I did my best to clean up before returning to class, and stopped by CVS for more advanced wound care on my way back to the dorms.
I thought I did a pretty good job until I got home for Thanksgiving over a month later. My mother let out an even louder cry of alarm when I walked out of my room in pajama shorts, bandaged knees on full display. “What are they doing to you there?” she asked, half-serious, half-joking. “I was just trying to get to class . . .” was all I could say.
Falling down on the sidewalk wasn’t just a Cambridge problem, it seemed; it persisted even when I moved to the great city of New York. Here, cobblestones are not as much of an issue, but the frenetic pace and people-dodging one has to do to get from point A to point B is just as hazardous. I’ve fallen at least half a dozen times, sometimes with people gawking from the edges of the sidewalk, other times with no one to observe my embarrassment but me.
After tearing several pairs of pants, spilling food all over my bag and person, and, of course, adding layers of bruises and sprains to my kneecaps, hands, wrists, and feet—a corporeal palimpsest of commuter accidents—I’ve learned to walk in a steadier, more coordinated way, which (fingers crossed) as reduced my number of falls. But here’s the thing—these falls were not so much the result of clumsiness. I’m not clumsy; I’m actually quite coordinated. The fact of my legs propelling me forward faster than the rest of me isn’t a problem with my body; it’s a problem with my mind.
At some point in college, my mother gave me the nickname “purple flash,” in honor of the purple pea coat, tote bag, and rainboots I had at the time. She imagined me jetting around campus like a streak of lightning, which for the most part was accurate, not because I was running late (also not a thing for me) but because the speed with which my mind was moving at the time was translating into a compulsive, unstoppable energy. I had places to be— the life-goal kind of places. I needed to take more than the typical four classes a semester to “fulfill my potential” (my actual words, which my TAs responded to with furrowed brows of confusion and concern); I needed to read as much as possible so I could write as much as possible and eventually publish books on the books in which I lived vicarious lives of romance and tragedy (rarely comedy); I needed to become someone worthy of my place at Harvard, in New York City, and, ultimately, in the world.
What my impassioned, blinders-on movement toward those goals prevented me from seeing, though, was that I was not really getting anywhere with that state of mind. I was falling down in all sorts of ways—tripping over my own feet on the street, but also struggling with my mental and physical health and relationships. I was not okay, but as long as I kept moving I could convince myself that I was not just okay, but thriving. I ignored all the signs and, even when I could admit to some level of pain or fatigue or unhappiness, I figured that I’d get better once I became the person I wanted to be. Not that I knew who that person was, because I always struggled with setting real goals—the kinds you make one-, three-, and five-year plans for, with measurable steps and outcomes, with a commensurate salary and stock options. The most concrete thing I could say about my goals was that I wanted to be useful but invisibly so; to help make things happen without leaving a trace of myself behind, like the wind that lands a cherry blossom petal in your eyelashes, or that sends the roots of a tree to the sky in a storm.
You might guess where this story is going. Eventually, I fell down and stayed down, where a lot of good things happened. Being forced into stillness, watching all the people around me continue to go forward on their path to becoming, I was uncomfortable to say the least—just because my body stopped moving didn’t mean my mind stopped. I adopted much healthier habits and patterns of moving—yoga, self-employment, Brooklyn (if you know, you know); but still, in almost predictable seasonal cycles, I’d fix my attention on some activity—a project, a kind of exercise, an element of diet or self-care—get into a flow, then plateau or find it backfiring on me. Even though I have been learning to slow down, and embrace that pace, it was only recently that I had an epiphany about why I’ve been continuing to fall down. Forward was never the ends or the means I needed in my moments, physical and mental. And from this clarity emerged a new goal: maintenance.
Maintenance is not a sexy thing to aspire to. Our culture is unabashedly in favor of growth and improvement—if you didn’t think you needed to change something about yourself, how could companies sell you new stuff all the time? Even outside of the material realm, those who are not somehow trying to move ahead with their careers, families, health, or any other aspect of humanity fall somewhere on the spectrum of complacent to lazy. If what I have is good, why wouldn’t I want something more or different? we’re taught to think. And as our collective attention spans shrink, this idea seems more painfully true; waiting a whole week to watch a new episode of a TV show is too long, let alone waiting to find the right romantic partner, to heal from an injury or trauma, or allow any other meaningful transformation to happen on its own timeline, or in its own direction.
I’ve been longing to get off of this forward track for a while; I’m more of a gatherer than a hunter, I now proudly admit, which means I find fulfillment in wandering, discovery, and a lot of nothing happening punctuated by small moments of something happening. But it wasn’t until recently that I encountered bits of reality that got me to really embrace maintenance as not just a concession, but a valuable goal. I’m thirty-four years old—and I know, I know, that’s not “old.” Still, I’ve started experiencing more aches and pains, and signs of the inevitable process of aging, that sent me into a bit of depression. All my hard work of trying to be “healthy” wasn’t preventing me from feeling old, prematurely no less, and yet the forward-moving activities I knew so well seemed to be a fast track toward aging, as well as toward more degeneration and depletion of my already-delicate self. Then, I stopped—moving, thinking, stressing—and the answer arrived. I can’t stop aging, none of us can, but I can slow down the process by slowing and reorienting myself. Rather than moving forward, I could move in a way that holds onto what I have, and maybe builds up some resilience along the way. This way, even as time hurdles along, I’ll be in sync with that movement, not tripping over myself in an attempt to rush ahead and become something.
Maintenance might seem boring at first, but the more I thought about this goal from an Āyurvedic perspective, the more challenging I realized it was. The forward-moving goals of our culture are all about raising our own bars of achievement and challenge: Add more weights to your workout once it feels easy; go for the promotion or raise at work once you’ve “mastered” your skills (now possible after just a few months, apparently); pull out your phone and swipe once things get mundane in your relationship. In my experience, this conscious raising of the stakes is totally unnecessary, since life itself is always changing the circumstances in which we live. Dealing with the weather, other people’s moods and needs, political and cultural events, death and birth and injury and illness, good things and bad things, is enough to keep anyone on their toes. Just this past week in NYC, the weather has gone from freezing rain to 70 and sunny—adjusting what I eat and drink so I can continue to have good energy, sleep, and, most importantly, poops, was practically a full-time job, let alone dealing with work stuff and big-picture emotional ups and downs. The thing is, when we’re on the forward track, it’s really hard to even be aware of how poorly we’re maintaining ourselves. Our legs keep going forward, but our center is lagging behind, ignored and floppy. It’s only when we break down, and have to take a few steps backward, that we realize this whole other way to move—together, as a system, integrated and cohesive.
In Āyurveda, movement is governed by the air element, which is the theme of my teachings for this month. Although comprising both space and air, the vāta doṣa is more often associated with air because of this vital function. When moving at a steady, rhythmic pace, vāta maintains life. It’s what brings together our seed cells at conception; it’s what keeps our heart beating and lungs pumping and blood circulating and cells recycling all with nearly imperceptible consistency and precision until we die. Healthy vāta is often referred to as prāṇa, or life force, for this reason; it is the movement of life, which is no small thing. Not even the most conditioned athlete in the world, or even the best-build machine, could work as long and hard as our own heart. We might not feel that kind of movement as intensely as the spikes of cortisol, adrenaline, and endorphins that we get after a good workout, a moment of bliss, or even a period of acute stress (good or bad). But without this unsexy, boring kind of movement, we simply would not exist.
I’m interested in existing, and you should be, too. This is not to say we should merely exist—i.e., fall into a predictable and mindless set of habits that feel more like elevator music than the song you can’t help but get up and dance to. Rather, there’s an in-between where adjusting to the seasons of life is not just necessary, but enough. Sometimes this looks like changing your breakfast cereal from oatmeal to buckwheat, or packing up your sweaters and pulling out your shorts; sometimes this looks like taking a few weeks (or months) off from life to tend to the hole that grief tore into your soul. Either way, these movements—benign or devastating, micro or macro—deserve our full attention. They are revolutions that, when we give them a chance to be completed, take us to places that we never could have imagined or planned to arrive at. And certainly not if we just thought about going forward, tripping over ourselves all the way there.
A few weeks ago I taught a yoga class that focused on spiral and circular movement. As I watched the students trying to follow my cues, criss-crossing their arms and legs, swiveling around on their mats to face the back, the sides, the front, I saw expressions of both frustration and intrigue. This was not the up-down, forward-back, version 1-2-3 style of yoga that many people are taught, where you start with externally rotated standing poses, proceed to inversions and arm balances, then arrive at enlightenment. The sequence was hard because it was different, but also because it forced them to think about where their center was while their limbs waved around through space. Without a stable core, which comes from a stable breath, none of those fancy moves are possible. And when it all got to be too much, the boring, unsexy poses like downward facing dog and child’s pose were a welcome relief. A moment to catch their breath, to be rather than become.
I’ll leave this reflection with a bit of Āyurvedic anatomy to bring home the importance of maintenance as a movement and as a goal. In the center of the body, where digestion takes place, live representatives of all three doṣas. There’s pacaka pitta, which cooks the food; kledaka kapha, which moistens the lining of the gut so pitta doesn’t burn it all up; and samāna vāyu (another word for vāta), which instigates hunger (like a bit of wind stoking a fire) and keeps the food churning and moving down, down, down. Samāna vāyu doesn’t really move anywhere, but its circularity creates the circumstances for the other two doṣas to have a job at all; it also keeps the other four vāyus in check, moving up and down and side to side in a way that coordinates the ingesting, digesting, absorbing, assimilating, and eliminating phases of digestion—and life. By simply keeping samāna happy—with regular meals, regular rest, and regular elimination—the whole system is happy. But when samāna gets distracted, pulled outward and in other directions, the whole system is unhappy.
I know I use digestion as a metaphor for life maybe more than I should, but here it’s not a metaphor. It is life. The intricacy, sophistication, and complexity of the movements involved in digestion are unmatched by anything man-made, and yet we so rarely look to our own center to acknowledge and feel the power of movement that’s there, all the time, maintaining it all so we can dream bigger and fall harder. Maintaining this awe-some system doesn’t mean we stop moving forward all together. But it might mean pausing every so often to admire the pattern of the leaves on the cobblestones, to breathe in the smell of coffee and rain and budding trees, to let this moment of life stretch out a little longer before taking the next step—or fall—toward the end.