By on Jan 31, 2015 in The Unruly Ascetic

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During the interludes between my first few trips to Mysore I would wax poetic to friends and fellow practitioners about the beauty of the experience.  Not the collecting of postures or the ‘energy’ of the shala or the magic of practicing at the source, but of the community.  I loved and longed for the friendships from Mysore: the delving, languid conversations about life and practice over breakfast or chai, the kindred spirits and isolated closeness that comes with practicing here.  I was eager to return and feel the support and shared struggles and elations that intermingled with new friendships.

Friends are easy to find in Mysore.  Many students are looking, actively, for support and sounding boards, for someone to listen and commiserate or congratulate. It is strange to build a friendship based almost entirely on asana, but we are frequently overwhelmed by the experience of practicing in the shala and sharing our physical and emotional struggles produces a vulnerability that is unique and beautiful.

For most people, the first trip to Mysore is a big experience (well… potentially any and every trip, but often especially the first).  While it frequently corresponds with big life changes or a desire for a new direction, it is also our first glimpse into how we fit into the larger community.  It brings up insecurities and desires we didn’t even know we had. Each of us suddenly becoming a small fish in a big pond where no one really cares if you finish intermediate with your home teacher, have been teaching for six years, and have done a certified teacher’s training or intensive. We all start at the bottom and that can make a person feel a bit frantic to prove themselves, whether that means getting all the poses or just being the biggest know-it-all at breakfast. I’ve been through it, I’m still going through it.  It’s hard.

I find this to be the most challenging aspect of the social dynamic of Mysore.  We inadvertently form judgments (positive or negative) about one another based on the very personal and individual work of the practice. While this initially feels like a growing closer, a grokking of a shared experience, in reality it has potential to separate us. We base our friendships on a dialogue over something that is inherently intensely personal. Yes, we share a space and a teacher and an intention.  But the experience itself can not be shared, can not be aided or hindered (by anyone but Sharath).

and here’s the real point.

There is an epidemic in mysore: an epidemic of selfishness.

The concerns of the whole, the desire to be a community with shared values and mutual support comes second to the work of the individual.  The practice teaches us to be self reliant and it begins to warp the reality of our position as a member of a community.

Many feel so desperate for (or entitled to) a worthwhile experience that we will sacrifice the comfort or happiness of our neighbor to get it.  Sometimes a worthwhile experience means attention from Sharath, a certain start time or practice spot, sometimes it means getting a certain pose.  Whatever the goal, the average practitioner in Mysore these days is willing to sacrifice the happiness of their fellow practitioners in order to get it.

So I ask, is it worth it?

I feel comfortable saying that this is a stage that most students grow out of.  Most of the inspiring individuals who have been coming for years or decades set an example of calm equanimity and patience. Many new students are very kind and humble, trying genuinely to live by the teachings of the practice and our teacher.  I don’t want to say that we are an irredeemable group of miscreant anarchists.

But if you’re here, in Mysore, may I humbly request that you ask yourself something…

Are your choices driven by a desire to get ahead of someone else?

Maybe the choice you make is passive and polite and seems the lesser of the evils…

Maybe the choice is in the heat of the moment or reactionary…

Maybe someone advised you to because everyone else would…

Passive cooperation does not leave us free from guilt. Justifications do not negate the simple reality of deciding to prioritize our desires or perceived needs over that of our neighbor.

One of the things I have learned from my few years here in Mysore is that only I can take responsibility for my choices.  I cannot blame my desires or my reactions on any standard of mutually accepted behavior.  We, as a community, have proven that we can not be trusted with setting a reasonable standard.

Being honest with myself is hard, harder than justifying selfishness to myself, my friends, or the anonymous internet.  I am not asking anyone to be honest with me about whether or not they are acting in the interest of the community or in self interest.  I am asking each of my friends and neighbors to look at his or her choices and be honest with themselves; this is the only we hope have of being the community and example that this lineage deserves.