Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Wearing Pearls to Walmart

Some months ago, during my yoga teacher training course at the Kripalu Center, I came across a quote from the center’s founder, Swami Kripalu. While a whole lot of yogic philosophy soars over my head without ruffling my hair, this particular phrase has stuck:

“The highest form of spiritual practice is self-awareness with compassion.”
Self-awareness is neither nombrilisme nor egoism; it is a way of watching yourself react to the world without giving your whole being over to the petty problems that invariably arise. Hassles, nudniks, aches, and failures push their way to the foreground and you’re often not even aware of them stealing the show. But zoom out just a bit, detach just enough to see them getting your goat and it somehow takes the edge off the nuisance du jour. Self-observation allows you enough perspective to avoid letting stress make you snap… its like keeping an eye on your skin to avoid a sunburn.

The last word is the most important, though – compassion. If you’re going to constantly watch yourself traveling through the world, you will often see yourself (even knowingly) go in the wrong direction. This is why self-observation must be tempered with compassion; seeing yourself screw up sucks, but countering it with self-loathing sucks like one of those jumbo straws they give you with bubble tea. Instead, file all the disappointment in yourself in a nondescript folder labeled “Just Another Observation” and move on. In theory this certainly sounds like a cool way to do life… at least it’s something worth striving for.

Why am I writing about this? (I’m trying to remember, myself, in fact). It’s probably because I am noticing how much my lifestyle and perspective change with each city on tour. My priorities shift, my routine is different, and it’s easy to find fault or pride in myself for these changes. I’m trying for neutrality, for compassion in what I see myself become each time. During much of the North American tour, I felt like this vibrant, active, natural girl, walking everywhere, eating all macrobiotic and taking yoga most days of the week. I could easily wear the same pair of leggings and tank top to yoga class, to the bookstore and to work. Andy was on tour with me, sharing my days and giving me a teammate to care for and be cared for by. My memory of last-year’s me is quite cool, I must admit.

And then I came to Asia. And now I wear pearls to Walmart.

There is also now an Armani dress hanging in my closet and a whole line of custom-made clothes tailored to fit only me. There is silk, cashmere, and leather. My nails are polished pink and my hair’s a new chocolate brown. These things are buoys, and so I’m floating, coping, in the shallows (for now).

Maybe I’m fickle, but rather than judge myself too harshly for having traded the transcendent for the temporal, I prefer to allow for some flexibility in my self-image. Sometimes you have to experiment with the face you prepare to meet the faces that you meet.

The truth is, my world has become rather small here in China, which is ironic, what with its unparalleled enormity. Aside from going to work, which is a chore in a place where it reaches 120 degrees and GI grief is the norm, my options are limited. I have a few cocoons – Starbucks, Superbrand Mall, Dragonfly Day Spa, and the hotel gym, all air-conditioned down to a goosebumpy chill. I am hiding out in a sense, and feathering my nest with luxury goods I couldn’t afford anywhere else but in a place where I am the luckiest of ducks. My money goes pretty far here, and it’s more than tempting to take advantage of the situation… it’s my little stint as a material girl.

I know I am not wholly changed; I still read like a madwoman , learning about Jewish pilgrims, the Taliban, and industrial agriculture over the past weeks. I still practice my yoga daily and work on my dancing. And I do see the city’s poverty and dysfunction as clear as day … But I don’t know what to do with what I see, other than convince myself that buying a leather jacket will give a merchant some business and give me a little buzz of temporary happiness.

So I put on my pearls, a sun hat and heels and I walk around the corner to Walmart, where $10 buys me more groceries than I can carry. I smile and befriend the women behind the tofu counter. I no longer cringe at the chicken feet or hold my nose at the durians. A woman wearing pearls has more class than that.