Tuesday, February 06, 2024

Boredom is meditation

Everything that happens inside you during the time you remain seated, silent and motionless, is meditation. [...] Boredom is meditation. The pains in your knees, back, and neck are meditation. The rumbling of your stomach is meditation. The feeling that you're wasting your time with bogus spirituality is meditation. The telephone call that you prepare in your head and the desire to get up and make it are meditation. Resisting this desire is meditation — giving in to it isn't though, of course. That's all. Nothing more.

I like Emmanuel Carrère. I've been meaning to read Yoga for some time. I've been meaning to read a bunch of things by him for some time. On reflection, I realize that I've read only rather a small sampling of his work — a novel, a memoir, and an erotic essay. That novel, however, The Moustache, deeply affected me, and I would rank it as a favourite. Another book of Carrère's goes by a title I made up myself for a collection of stories I'd imagined while waiting on the subway platform (alas, I'll find another title if I ever write those stories). It seems to me that we, Emmanuel and I, have compatible views of the world; we ask similar questions of the world and of ourselves.

I've always found yoga interesting (since I first experienced it at age maybe 11), and I enjoy practicing it (although I've never pursued it regularly let alone zealously, and I am currently out of the habit altogether). Like Carrère, I think of  yoga not as a form of gymnastics, but as an introspective exercise, dare I say spiritual (though "spiritual" feels too intangible); I'd like to call it a way of being, but that invokes too much a granola lifestyle, some kind of mindfulness, meditation of the body (those are my words, not Carrère's).

The body has three hundred joints. The blood circulates through more than sixty thousand miles of arteries, veins, and capillaries. There are forty-six miles of nerves. Unfolded, the surface of the lungs would cover a soccer field. Little by little, yoga aims to become acquainted with all of this. To fill it all with consciousness, energy, and the consciousness of energy.

Yoga, for Carrère, is a form of meditation (or is it vice versa?), classified along with tai chi. He offers several definitions of meditation (but not of yoga), about two dozen or so, though I'm too lazy now to search them out and count them. Most of them variations on a theme, refinements. My favourite may be this: 

observing the points of contact between what is oneself and what is not oneself.

The language of yoga fascinates me. I once started drafting a blog post about it. Those soft-toned phrases, less instructions than incantations. Open your heart. Lead with your heart. Root down to the earth with the three corners of your foot. Put your mind in your feet.  Breathe into your cells. Create more space inside. (Inside of what exactly? And more space for what?) The meditation guide tells me, "The body is designed to move, the mind is designed to wander," while I am expected (by whom?) to restrain the body from moving and the mind from wandering.

This book, Carrère's Yoga, is not about those things. Not obviously, anyway. Had I known what this book was about, I might not have read it. At least, not now. It's mostly about a breakdown Carrère suffered, lengthy and intense, sandwiched between the Charlie Hebdo shootings and his time in Greece giving writing classes to (mostly) Iraqi refugees. While breaking from reality fascinates me, and it is the subject of much of the fiction I choose to read, real-life accounts of severe depression aren't really my thing. 


Carrère embarks on a meditation retreat in a remote corner of France — 10 days of silence. (This kind of journey has a great deal of appeal to me, and I occasionally indulge in researching such opportunities.) 

The question — and this isn't the first time I'm asking it — is whether there's an incompatibility, or even a contradiction, between the practice of meditation and my trade, which is to write. Over the next ten days, will I watch my thoughts go by without becoming attached to them, or will I instead try to hold on to them, which is the exact opposite of meditation? Will I spend the whole time taking mental notes? Will the meditator be observing the writer, or the writer observing the meditator?

Early on it becomes clear he doesn't make it through to the end, and we wonder why he breaks the silence, is it the silence that breaks him? In fact, his retreat comes to an end due to entirely external factors. He is called away on a matter related to the shootings, of which he and the other 100 or so retreat participants were entirely ignorant, while everyone else in the country was actively distraught. The taxi driver offers some perspective: "If you'd known, what would it have changed?"

Behind the scenes are a crumbling marriage and a transportative love affair that came to an unexpected end. Carrère is diagnosed as bipolar and sinks deep: long-term hospitalization, ketamine, electroconvulsive therapy. 

For everyone, being in love is a sort of manic phase, the most desirable of manic phases. [...] If I don't want to cause suffering, love is now forbidden to me. No more love. No more enchantment of being in love, the best thing in the world.

Carrère comes out of the hospital and ends up on a Greek island, we're not entirely sure how, and maybe neither is he. Everything seems a little dulled. It seems to me that he dwells on love, or the lack of love, or the desire to love, the inability to love. He describes a story told by Roger Caillois in The Uncertainty That Comes from Dreams, an arrangement between lovers (that resonates with me as ideal):

In this bubble of space and time, totally sheltered from the outside world, everything is desire, softness, tranquility, understanding between bodies, murmured conversation. They both know that nothing like this would be possible if they lived together, as they've sometimes thought of doing. It's in secrecy that their love unfolds, and they both believe that, protected in this way, it will last forever.

Then one day, he can't find the street where she lives, or any trace of her. He realizes none of it was real, it was all a dream — but the distress is real.

(Tangent. Some thoughts relevant to me right here, right now: "Dreams are extremely intimate: to encounter our work life there is to suffer the invasion of the professional at the very heart of our personal life.")

Ultimately, I believe this book, Yoga, is about love. I think love is a kind of meditation (or is it vice versa?). Maybe because love, at its best (worst?), blurs those points of contact between oneself and not oneself.

Carrère reflects on the successes of his life,

But the essential, which is love, would have escaped me. I was loved, yes, but I had not learned how to love — or hadn't been able to, which is the same thing. No one had been able to rest in complete confidence in my love and I would not rest, at the end, in anyone else's. 

And that is his greatest tragedy (and maybe mine). I believe the enchantment of being in love really is the best thing in the world. When we don't have it, a survival mechanism kicks in; we delude ourselves into believing it's not so important. But love is everything.  


To do 
Consider "Recession," by George Langelaan.
Track down The Uncertainty That Comes from Dreams, by Roger Caillois.
Take up tai chi (again).
Explore the work of Giorgio de Chirico

Remember Glenn Gould's maxim: "The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity."