"If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, we lesson the importance of their deprivation. We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world."
As I watched the video of Dr. John Kitchin - or Slomo, as he is now known - on the NY Times website I was literally brought to tears. So many simple but profound things that Slomo said, and just watching him smile and skate, kindled a familiar fire, an ember of light in my heart that cannot, will not, be extinguished. True, it does get temporarily covered as when I fall back, once again, into proscribed formulas of being when approaching my beloved yoga practice. Or when I witness myself, or my students and colleagues, get caught up in what I can only describe as a certain madness around the assessment processes that we go through as certified teachers in Iyengar yoga. But what I am writing about is not really about that, specifically. It is about something much deeper. Because yoga is much deeper than any particular school, or lineage, personality, or preferred way of doing things. Yoga is about being. True being.
Dr John Kitchin was working as a neurologist and psychiatrist when he began to lose his vision and his capacity to recognize faces. He was already questioning his life choices and the decline in his eye site gave him the opportunity to realize something: his life was out of balance. And he had become a self-described "asshole" and thought to himself, "I can stop all this..."
What he describes is nothing other than a realization that he is just a tip on the great iceberg of consciousness - and that he loves to skate. He loves the feeling. And the more attention he gives to it the greater his enjoyment. And as he perfects his technique, tremendous feelings of expansion emerge. His medical training and background in neurology allowed him to research why he was "so darned happy" and come up with a rational, physiological explanation for this zone of expansiveness and contentment that he found skating. But this explanation, as fascinating as it is, does not detract from what might also be described as a mystical experience. His skating is not only fun, and pleasurable, and a type of discipline: it is a discipline of delight. Slomo himself describes it as divine.
The discipline of Yoga, too, has at its core something divine. And I would describe an aspect of that divinity as delight. Something like the sheer and unabashed delight expressed in the childlike smiling face and body of Slomo. He says in the video, "when I skate I am trying to regress to around the age eleven and a half, the last of the idealistic years." And he says, at what must be close to seventy years of age, "I think what I am doing, in all modesty, is a type of flying." And he is flying; he is soaring and gliding like a bird, or a plane. He is flying like you or I might have done in our dreams, particularly as children. He is in harmony with himself and the with the very center of the earth, it appears. He is describing, in simple language and with a soft, southern accent, a mystical experience. And he is the indeed the embodiment of dynamic alignment!!! And I am pretty sure BKS Iyengar would concur.
Is what he is doing risky? On some level, yes. A great deal of skill is involved in this slow motion, effortless looking glide on one leg. He manages somehow to shift from the inner edge to outer edge of his skate wheels while in a warrior 3 position--fluidly carving his own unique pathway through the atmosphere--genuinely smiling all the while. Is he a bird? Is he a plane?
They call him Slomo. He is the embodiment of a deliberate slowing down, becoming a slow motion, moment by moment fulfillment of his time in space. And he is the embodiment of light and delight. He is like a comet, or something like that--comets do not appear to move, but they are. Here are some words from the great Swedish poet Tomas Transtromer to ponder:
""My Life" Thinking these words, I see before me a streak of light. On closer inspection it has the form of a comet. The brightest end, the head, is childhood and growing up. The nucleus, the densest part, is infancy, that first period, in which the most important features of our life are determined. I try to remember, I try to penetrate that density. But it is difficult to move in these concentrated regions, it is dangerous, it feels as if I am coming close to death itself. Further back, the comet thins out--that's the longer part, the tail. it becomes more and more sparse, but also broader. I am now far out in the comet's tail, I am sixty as I write this."
I am not sure how old Slomo is. He has a childlike ageless expression, and an effortless looking physicality but I imagine he must be well into his sixties, or close to seventy. Yet still bright, so bright. Perhaps he is a comet.
At one point in the film Slomo says with a gleeful and devilish smile, "they are cheering for the one who got away!"
There is a stunning and haunting scene at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when the character Chief Bromden, a massively noble but muted Native American, breaks free from the mental institution where he has been incarcerated and runs into out into the night and back into his life and his voice. This vision pricks me, because I know that I too am in an institution of some sort. An institution of my own making, yes--but also one imposed by society. I have internalized so many voices and perspectives about my mind, body, my dreams. I know deep inside that so much of what has been internalized is not real, not true. And my practice is now the slow process of coming to a place of deeper listening and discernment. I am staying with the questions, deliberately making space to hear and feel, something akin to the luminous expansive sky that Slomo skates through. The heart knows when it is in the presence of freedom. The heart knows joy and delight. There is a recognition. We recognize delight. We literally re-cognize. It may be something we have experienced as children. Maybe something like that which Billy Collins describes in his poem "On Turning Ten:"
It seems only yesterday I believed that there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine.
Then follows with the lines:
But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life I skin my knees, I bleed."
There is risk in life. And we do fall. But we must risk delight.
Not that we will be happy all the time. But sometimes we are, we just are. And there may be those who will tell you to stop smiling- you be told to "be sober" as I have been. And there will be those who are uncomfortable with enthusiasm, joy, and exuberance. Some people may think that we are crazy, or "touched" in some way. Perhaps we have been touched, touched by the vision of a fellow being-- being who they are, and seeing that changes us. The light of someone truly at home in themselves as they are-- changes us. Because we too can embody our bodies, our enthusiasms, and our very lives fully-- without shame or apology.
So who is this woman with the gray
breath calling out our names and pointing
to the little desks we will occupy
for the rest of our lives?
-from the poem "First Grade" by Ron Koertge
Who is this woman, or man, with the gray breath? Will the gray breath of conformity will be the very wind that propels any one of us into finding our own breath--and our own delight? And we may, in our own small way, as Chief Bromden does at the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, finally break free from the little desks that have occupied our spirits. And maybe we will, as Rilke says at the end of the following poem "dare to become the wind"
Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
Where everything shines as it disappears
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so
as the curve of the body as it turns away
What locks itself in sameness has congealed
Is is safer to be gray and numb?
What turns hard is rigid
and is easily shattered.
Pour yourself like a fountain
flow into the knowledge that what you are
finishes often at the start, and, with ending,
Every happiness is the child of a separation
it did not think it could survive. And Daphne,
becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.
-from Sonnets to Orpheus translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy