12.31.2017

In Search of Grace

Often, when I'm walking the 10 minutes from my house to the train, I find myself moving with a sense of urgency. It's not that I'm late; I'm not going faster in order to catch a train. No, the pace of my feet may or may not be accelerated. But my mind is reeling. Which makes me feel like I'm walking quickly, my frame leaning forward to keep abreast of my thoughts. I clench my teeth a bit; my heart races a little faster.

When I catch myself doing this, I take a deep breath, exhale excessively loud, look at the sky, and slump my body — as if suddenly breaking as I notice I'm going well over the speed limit. I'm slouched, my back hunched, my gaze too focused on the sky, searching for a respite. It's like I'm putting on a show for the karma police. See?! I'm not speeding. I'm, like, so chill. It's a grotesque charade.

Like the would-be highway cop, karma isn't fooled. In the span of mere moments, I've moved from leaning too far forward to leaning too far back. While the affect may differ, the effect does not: I am off balance. Despite the volume of my exhalation, the universe knows, just as I do, that I am not chill.

One summer in high school, I spent six weeks in the French Alps with a family, a long time friend of my mother's. Along with my Jew fro-ed, skinny as a pubic hair 15 year old self, there were the two parents and their two tween daughters (that's another story for another time). We'd climb high, snow encrusted mountains which we'd then descend. The ground was either loose gravel, chunky rocks, or ice. My instinct, like many people's, was to lean back in order to counter gravity's forward pull.

But le père, to whom I was often tethered with a rope, told me to do just the opposite: lean forward to be perpendicular with the ground. Sure, this put us in a near run. But it meant I was no longer fighting the event, fighting to stay on my feet, expending unnecessary energy just to get from point A to B. By leaning forward, I was moving with the mountain. And, just like that, my descent became more sure footed, more efficient, and dare I say, almost graceful — not to mention plain old more fun. Oh, man, running down those mountains, sliding down those glaciers, is an experience that still runs through my body, a memory of grace.

Too far forward, too far back, careening to one side or the other: I have a tendency to move around the event as it transpires. I expend all this energy avoiding, ducking, parrying the event right in front of me. Walking to the train, I think about whether I'll have to pee during my meeting or, worse, shit; or whether I'll get too hungry and feel faint; or if the train might be late. My body is tense, making me burn all kinds of energy simply walking to the train. I feel the furrow in my brow, the tightness in my shoulders, the anxiety in my blood. As I walk, I am teetering. It's not graceful.

But how to find this grace? Is there a center I can occupy as the world spins around me? Is there a wave I can ride, be swept up in its tumult, freed from having to occupy any position at all — a surrender to the torrent?

Like everyone I've ever met,  I have a drive to get lost in the event. I want to feel the centrifugal force of the cyclone, to be handled by the event, taken up in its swirls and eddies. This, I like to imagine, is a kind of going with the world. And how best to be swept up? Well, by imbibing this or that, of course! Pop a pill to feel life! Caffeine, tequila, kratom, all the different strains of pot, Ativan...the list goes on and on: all these ways to feel the event by, uh, not feeling the event. It's a powering through (caffeiene, tequila) or a lazy, hazy avoidance (Ativan, bourbon).

There are other ways of riding the wave other than drugs, of course. There is the mania of the samurai; there is the ecstasy of the sky and the way it can turn me inside out, stretching me unto the infinite. 

In any case, in popping pills, swigging cocktails, maniacally entering battle with sword drawn, there is not only a desire to take leave of this world, a desire to avoid: there is also a desire to embrace, to live fully and vitally with the world. And, yes, there is a concerted avoidance of the event, of life, as we ride the highs and lows of our swills and pills and local surges of energy.

How, then, to move with the event? How to move with grace? What does leaning forward as you hike down the mountain look like in everyday life? Is it a fixed position? Or, as I suppose, does this center move so as not to be a center per se but an ever moving, elusive sweet spot?

But first: why seek this grace? From the perspective of energy expenditure — which is not to evoke efficiency in the capitalist sense — grace is optimal. After all, life is a continuous flow of energy, a giving and taking. Give too much without receiving — say, running marathons without eating, drinking, or sleeping — and you'll feel pretty shitty. Spend all your time with a selfish friend who loves drama and you'll feel like our deprived marathoner. Grace is an optimal energy exchange that fuels health and vitality while contributing energy, like a beautiful swing in baseball. This affords an aesthetic appeal for both the watcher and the doer. We see it in dancers, in writers, in flirts, in baseball swings.



So how does one learn to live gracefully? How does one learn to move with the world rather than ducking, parrying, or finding home in the edge of the cyclone? How does one find this sweet spot that moves as you move, that moves as the world moves?

For me, if not for all, the movement into grace involves an attentiveness. As I've gotten older, a luxury I have is the ability to assess how I'm heading into an event. So this is my practice: as I begin doing this or that  — waking up, walking to the train, eating lunch, meeting a friend at the bar, talking to my parents, doing dishes, watching TV — I notice how I'm standing towards the event. Am I leaning too far forward as if trying to plow my way headfirst through it all, afraid that if I don't that I'll just collapse in a puddle of nothingness on the floor? Am I leaning back, feeling for the sleep of my childhood, for the sleep of the dead, for the sleep of a me that's never been? Am I overeager, drooling like a puppy who hears the jangle of the leash and comes barrelling into the room only to slam into the wall?

Mind you, there's nothing inherently wrong with any of these ways of going. Sometimes, I am actually excited to do something and so jump around like a puppy in heat. Other times, I'm kind of tired and just want to lay back. So it goes. It can be beautiful to be at the edge of the cyclone, taken up in the waves. It's ecstatic, Dionysian, liberating.

Then there is Osho's method of maintaining a non-moving center as the cyclone swirls. For me, this demands a steep learning curve. When I talk to someone, I tend to lean into their energy, into the conversation, as I seek the wave, the tug and pull of that centrifugal force. But Osho asks us to not do that but to remain unto ourselves, observing the conversation without becoming the conversation. He suggests beginning this practice as a sitting meditation: do nothing, he suggests, but sit there and remain unto yourself. And then, slowly, you begin doing more and more complex things — running errands, entering the social, making love. Throughout any and all experiences, Osho tells us we can learn to be still observers.

The problem with this is the problem with any practice — yoga, chanting, silent retreats, meditation: they become a way to judge the event. Oh, damn, I'm such a loser! I wasn't unto myself!

After all, the event is whatever transpires. I make it just as it makes me (more or less: there are aparallel becomings such as a tornado which moves me more than I move it.) The event is beyond good and evil; it is mercilessly neutral. It is that which happens. Moving in it without grace is not a fundamental flaw. Grace is a nice state but when you try bending all experiences to a notion of grace you are, alas, no longer graceful.

Here, then, is the catch: grace is not moral. It is not a should. We go as we go. But as we don't like or trust the way we go — due to self-loathing, due to the pervasive hegemony of the various "shoulds" we impose on ourselves — we expend all kinds of energy and resources to go differently in the event. We get loaded; we double guess what we say; we get bored and make a scene. The thing is: none of these are inherently not graceful. None of these are wrong in and of themselves.

Grace is a way not a law. It's the perpetual movement of acceptance — acceptance of the mountain's incline, acceptance of my taste for the wave, acceptance of the fastball hurtling my way at 96 miles an hour.  It's about feeling not as much for a center as for a sweet spot of the event, a way of operating within the multiple swirls and flows of experience. You can't know it beforehand. Grace, I think, is always to be found, again and again, from within the cyclone of the event.

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