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Buddhist Traditions, Mindfulness, Modern Postural Yoga, Self-Care, Social Issues, Westernization, Yoga Cultural History, Yoga Philosophy, Yoga Student Tips

Burning Man & Yoga for Assumptions

Today I noticed Marcia Sirota’s article on assumptions in omtimes, and it brought back a poignant memory for me. Even as we attempt to follow the Yoga Sutra directive toward “right knowledge”, we sometimes overlook the schism between our inner world and the external and the roles external context and internal interpretation of observation play in our formulation of truth. Even though our attempts to create meaning from observation are often sourced in imagination, it is our stability in the seat of the observer that strengthens our interactions. Since Burning Man 2012, though, it all comes down to Exodus and a coin.

The Context…

Although I am a Bay Area yoga practitioner, I was very resistant when it came to Burning Man. Many of my friends went for a decade before I did. I felt like it was a massive waste of time to do something out and away from the world we live in rather than invest that time and energy (and MONEY!) into creating beauty and acceptance in this one.

On top of this, most of our friends went and my husband’s birthday almost always falls while “the Event” is occurring. One year our friends wouldn’t take no for an answer and made him go. I held out for a few more years until my traitor of a spouse convinced me to give it a shot. Just now I told my sweetie I’m writing a yoga blog about it…

“With your REAL NAME?” he replied.

“Yup.”

“Whew. Good thing 1998 Google doesn’t have a future search feature.”

I laughed, reflecting on past Me’s response to present Me. (When I realized he’d picked the year we got married, I laughed harder.) After going, I understood why it occurs where it does.

The Black Rock Desert has a sort of “blank slate” ecosystem created by the high alkalinity of the dust. Playa dust is a bizarre substance, somewhere between a mildly chemical burning chalk dust and Oobleck, the weird liquid/solid experiment with cornstarch and water you may have done in 3rd grade. Very little flora and fauna lives on the playa, so you don’t have to worry about harm when you set stuff on fire or blow it up, so long as you clean up after yourself. The chemical properties of playa dust have sparked message boards analyzing the scientific properties.

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One of the tricks with playa dust is that it sticks to everything and doesn’t wash off. It makes clean up upon return a challenge, and rain on the playa is a complicated situation to maneuver. If it gets wet it forms a seal. Even if you get the surface glop off, the fine dusty film will stay on permanently until you manage to break the bond with an acid, often vinegar or lemon. White out dust storms are not uncommon, and driving conditions can be extremely challenging, particularly during “Exodus.”

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Exodus refers to the part of the event when everyone leaves. If you’ve never been, you might be picturing leaving a venue after a concert or Memorial Day traffic. Imagine, rather, that the majority of a city of 50,000 needs to vacate in a relatively short period of time— structures, flat beds and all, over a 48 hour period. If you’ve ever lived in a city where automobiles are discouraged, you may have an understanding of how unfriendly traffic can get. If you’ve ever tried to leave San Francisco on a Critical Mass day or after a game, you know that continual exposure to bad traffic conditions can strip people of their reason and humanity, resulting in madness and melee. Emotional tension, as well as our physiological response to it, can often deactivate our “cooler heads prevail” mechanism to pure fight or flight. As lanes reduce and mergers happen, sometimes people get a little animalistic.

The Event and the Exodus…

On the Tuesday after Exodus began, husband and I were leaving in a caravan and got separated on the road out. As we proceeded toward a key merger, we worked out a cunning plan via Walkie Talkie, where my husband would slow down drastically at just the right time so that I could cut over in front of him but no one else would cut him off. We executed it brilliantly and were quite proud of ourselves.

Community builds camaraderie, however, and the truck behind my husband did not interpret the situation as we did. As they came up around him on the shoulder, they sped up to be even with me, and doused my windshield with a super-soaker water gun. In regular traffic, this would be annoying. In this environment, my visibility was shot for a hundred miles until I could find a way to fix it, and every time a dust storm came up looking out my window was no longer an option. Driving for the next several hours became seriously dangerous for both of us in our caravan. Immediately after spraying me, they slowed down and returned to their position behind him.

The Interpretation and Reaction…

Perhaps they thought I was viciously cutting him off and decided to defend the underdog whose bumper they’d memorized over the prior hours. I will never know. I sincerely doubt they intended for any harm to occur, and may well have thought themselves the heroes in the narrative, despite creating a dangerous and tense situation, both for their Kia in distress the Kia’s wife. Perhaps, although it was the end of the lengthy survivalist event, they didn’t think about the effect of their spraying a windshield amid dust-storms. Honestly, it doesn’t really matter.

I can’t control what happens outside of myself. I’m going to repeat that, because I think all of us can afford to hear it more often: I can’t control what happens outside of myself. I will never crawl into the brains of others, sit in the chair of the seer and start working the mechanical controls, no matter how much my ego would like to believe that will solve everything. I barely manage to find the controls inside this brain and body as it is.

What matters is that each participant in the minor event acted according to our respective understanding, even if it was imperfectly, unskillfully, or had an unforeseen outcome. I could react, much like my truck friends did. I could assume, in a frazzled, vacation traffic-obsessed mind, that they had an ill-intent and were out to get me, and I could respond with equally escalating force. Or, I could respond to the problem at hand and let them go on their way, assuming that there was some greater miscommunication at work.

The Conclusion and the Coin…

At the end of the day, that is what preserves our humanity and our yoga out in the world. Sirota’s article recommends empirical thought and right knowledge to avoid the pitfall of assumption. I agree, but yoga practitioners above all should understand that empirical thought has it’s own pitfall of assumption: that the person measuring the observations hasn’t tainted them. The answer to managing this problem is still in yoga texts, however, which is why I always carry a coin.

Pratipaksha Bhavana is present both in Patanjali and Buddhist texts and refers to cultivating the opposite. If your tendency and unconscious pattern goes negative intentionally practice maintaining a positive counterpart to balance out the thought.

When I teach this, people sometimes misinterpret it a a Pollyanna Sunshine thing, or, in the cases of my favorites, like a Monty Python “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” scenario, because they think you are painting over reality with a rosy-tint. What they fail to realize is that reality is ALREADY PAINTED OVER by their klesha-s.

There are times when our observations are inconclusive. It is the brain’s will to reach conclusion because the brain loves progress. It is the seer’s job to remind ourselves to accept the incompleteness of the world around us, to acknowledge our need to tidy it up, and to correct our child-like imaginings about the functions around us.

Just as we can’t control or know the minds of others, we can’t really Know the world around us because our experience of it is mediated by our perception. It doesn’t really matter if my coin is tails up or head’s up. I am the one ascribing meaning to the object. I am the one who arbitrarily defines a visible surface as “Good” and another as “Bad”.  I can always choose when to do that and when not to do that, just as I can choose which value judgment to apply. The coin, however, remains unchanged and undisturbed by my emotional or moral labeling shenanigans.

When I am faced with moments of ambiguity, where the actor’s intent could be perceived as good or ill, my practice is to avoid reaction and remind myself of my Exodus experience. Sometimes I even fidget with my coin as a material world marker. It reminds me that I for all I think I know, I am the one who classified it as knowledge, truth, or wisdom in the first place. All that I don’t have the ability to perceive or comprehend is a far, far greater part of my world. If my brain-meat is too desperate to ascribe meaning to a scenario and evoke an ill-considered response, my pratipaksha bhavana practice helps re-activate my “cooler heads prevail” mechanism and stay seated in my abode of lovingkindness. (Note the qualifying word “helps”! In active traffic, I usually really on vehicular simhasana, which is fun for both me and my traffic neighbors.)

In the unlikely event that the folks in the truck read this someday and recognize themselves, I hope they do so with laughter and the eye roll that comes with realizing that the world is ALWAYS more complicated than we realize. Although I would have to make an assumption about their state of mind in the moment, I choose to assume that they acted much like everyone else in the world: They did what they thought was best from their limited vantage point with the information they had available in the moment, even though their actions may have been mistaken or unskillful. And quite frankly, that is the best any of us can ever hope for.

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