I have a kind of visceral response to the use of the word purity, especially in certain contexts. I have wondered why and figure it is partly because of all that I am or am not—I am pretty sure I am not pure.
I grew up in a loosely Catholic household. My dad was Catholic, my mom was a free thinker but became Catholic to make my dad happy. My brother and I were baptized as such and I did my first communion even though I barely knew the prayers. I kind of squeaked by. I felt funny wearing that white Bride of God outfit. I knew I was not a "good girl" and was not a true believer. My very Catholic Polish grandma used to whisper in my ear when we were leaving after our summer vacations in Elmwood Park, Illinois, "remember to be a good girl." That made my skin crawl. It was as if I was messy and bad and clearly needed the reminder to be a good girl.
I just never felt "good" in that sense. Or clean. I was a grimy rough and tumble sort of a kid, a tomboy with an athletic body and long, unkempt hair and plenty of scrapes and bruises. I was in fact pretty dirty much of the time. I remember my mom never much cared but once I entered puberty and the hormones started kicking in, I started to smell. She gave me deodorant and said I needed a "training bra. "What am I training, exactly, Mom?" I did clean up and bind my barely-there breasts. But I also felt a certain sadness and shame that I hadn't previously felt begin to deepen as I started to clean up and conform. Someone was gone. Someone else came in her place.
I remember feeling shame at a very early age. My most vivid memories came when I started going to school. Kindergarten was in a Catholic school and was a painful experience. I didn't fit in. I felt like something was wrong with me. My teacher thought so too and told my mom she thought I had a hearing problem. My ears were tested and were fine. But I felt like I did not belong in that world and so withdrew and retreated into the world of my own imagination. I could not stand that sterile place. It felt cold, strict and even hostile. Colorless is a more apt description. Pure and puritanical.
First grade was better, brighter and more colorful. I went to public school and I remember it felt like a warmer, sunnier place where I could relax and be. Then I got in trouble for touching myself inappropriately. Like many six-year-olds I didn't realize that there are things you do in front of people and things you don't do and some things are not appropriate. I did feel ashamed but got the idea and got over it fairly quickly.
But my education after that, like many women I suspect, was a gradual process of learned shamefulness. Shame about my body and proportions, shame about my thoughts and feelings, shame about not being good, clean, or pure enough.
My strategies for dealing with this were typical. I decided to restrict , constrict, re-create myself in a more acceptable form. I wanted to conform. And this only made the feelings of shame and impurity more intense. I was not ok—I was impure—I needed to purify myself (i.e., punish myself) and I did this by crazy food restrictions and behavioral rituals. It was temporarily effective in taming my life-force and imagination (impurity) but it wasn't thorough enough. Deep down I was still not the pure being I thought that I was supposed to be. And it wasn't any fun. I wasn't any fun. Are any of your puritanical friends fun to be around? Do you feel joy and ease in their presence?
Climbing out of that pit of purity and shame has taken years. I still struggle at times. But I am not so interested in purity anymore because I don't feel that it really exists. It is a fine enough word and concept—who doesn't like the pictures of crystal clear water or sky? Or images of fresh flowers, baby animals and the like? These are the images often associated with purity. But what makes a baby pure? A flower? God? What does this word really mean? Is it something that you, or I, are not?
I might be going out on a limb here, but so be it. I get especially nervous when I hear this word used in relation to yoga, in the same way I am affected when it is used with regards to politics, religion, race, or any ideological thinking. Who decides what is pure and what isn't? And by what criteria, exactly?
In yoga philosophy, as in many religions, purity is a value, as is cleanliness. Cleanliness is great—it is nice to have a clean house, clothes, and body to the degree that we can. And the discipline of yoga certainly includes close observation of body, mind and behavior in this regard. But what about purity? And how are we determining what is pure or impure? Who is determining what is pure or impure? And when does this observation of cleanliness and purity become a fear of contamination or corruption by contact with the other—as if any of us were actually, and totally, clean and pure. We are living beings. We are a part of the natural world. We depend on nature and other living beings to live. So why is it that nature is itself considered impure, as it sometimes is in various religions? Is it because it is temporary? Is it because everything in nature is constantly changing?
As mentioned earlier, I am not pure by any formal definition of the word. I strive for clarity in my life as much as is possible—but things are not always clear so I mainly try to stay curious. And open. And to ask questions.
I don't mean to get hung up on a word. It is just a word. But I think we must question and remain curious about concepts like purity. Because a rigid adherence to purity has, historically for example, resulted in the deaths of millions who were deemed by someone or some organization to be impure. Women, and people of different races, religions, and cultures, who have been subjected to questions of purity have suffered brutal consequences.
I don't mean to get super serious here—but it is something worth reflecting on. And if we don't remain curious and question our understanding of such concepts we might (even in some small way) cause harm to ourselves and to others because of our misunderstanding and the actions that we might take based on this misunderstanding.
So let's take purity out of the pit and into the open air. Let's let her breath, mingle, get her hands dirty. Let's let purity play with the other particles and people in the universe. I doubt she, or we, will be corrupted by this interaction. Because what, or who, is purity anyway?