Saturday, January 13, 2018

Open Doors

Hilary in La Concha, my shell in Guanajuato

I began the year in a dark cave.

My friends Lya and David I awoke on January 1st to coffee and papaya, then made our way to a small town south of Mexico City known for mysticism, magic and magnetic energies. Like many other visitors to the town of Tepoztlan, we climbed to its Aztec temple, sitting at the top of a small mountain - a mountain scaled and scrambled upon by athletes, high-heeled glamazons, hippies, gentle hombres blasting the melodic stylings of Freddie Mercury, children, grandparents, pets. . . it's an equal opportunity kind of ascent. Apparently the temple is dedicated to the Aztec god of the alcoholic beverage of pulque - one nectar of the agave plant I have never sampled.

Lya and David

We descended for a temazcal ritual, which is the Mexican indigenous people's sweat lodge tradition. It takes place in a small round adobe cave where a door is positioned to catch the midday sun, uniting masculine and feminine energies. Our guide led us through four 'doors' accompanied by songs and herbal infusions poured over hot volcanic rocks, each door representing a different element - earth, water, wind and fire. Temazcal means 'house of heat' in the Nahuatl language, and it is used for purification. The temazcal is sort of a return to the womb - the original cave - where we have the opportunity to be born anew.

Hilary is pressured to jump by a four year old
Lya takes a leap at Las Estacas

Storytelling, I'm convinced, is fundamental to everything we do - in whatever ritual, profession, creative pursuit or practice of self-reflection. We tell ourselves stories to create meaning, to understand our experience of life - and we tell them collectively as we write laws, endure government occupations and sell toothpaste. We use storytelling to establish cultural norms, as well as to define acceptable levels of deviance from those norms. Esther Perel, for example - a couples therapist and writer with whose work I have been fascinated of late - challenges the narrative we have adopted collectively about relationships, marriage, mating and fidelity. Our understanding of these experiences often fails to embody any nuance - we are rigid and fixed in our concepts and expectations, too afraid or threatened to consider other narratives, and therefore other forces that might inform or determine our experiences. Our collective understanding tends to provide a rather limited selection of acceptable life possibilities.

Fernando and Yola cut the rosco on King's Day

But never let the truth get in the way of a good story, as the saying goes. This also seems to be the guiding philosophy of the current White House occupation. You could say that Trump is a monster feeding on our own cultural gluttony; he is our obesity, which has developed its own appetite and metabolism. At the risk of defiling the French culinary tradition, he is force-feeding the goose. He is distracting our attention from the real power players: the untouchable multi-kabillionaires who are gleefully spreading the engorged liver of America on their Saltines while designing apocalypse bunkers. Of course, this is just one story, one way of seeing what-is. Truth remains elusive - or as ephemeral as the vapors of the temazcal.

We do our best to construct meaning from advertising, religion, and other cultural building blocks. Another way we learn to create meaning is by perceiving the world through a lens of duality - you/me, good/bad, surrender/conquer. This construct of duality - though limited and limiting - gives us a simple formula for the stories we tell ourselves about our lives - which, in turn, create our reality.

Somehow I seem to keep finding myself in conversation with people who actively challenge this, the dualistic nature of our conditioning - and I am questioning and paying attention to this in my own habits of constructing meaning in my life. I can't help but wonder if these encounters are a doorway to a new story, a new way of being for me. A wonderful Australian architect I met in Guanajuato was telling me about the spatial theorist Edward Soja and his concept of 'thirdspace,' where "everything comes together. . . subjectivity and objectivity, the abstract and the concrete, the real and the imagined, the knowable and the unimaginable. . . " Tantricas are another philosophic group whose way of thinking and being challenge the notion of duality. They are not just people who are sexually experimental or unconventional - although indeed pursuit of the ecstatic in sex may be one aspect of their interest.

I will admit that a freewheeling, playful, experimental approach to life - one in which I create and accept less conventional possibilities and ways of being - a 'third space' - is harder for me to embrace in some arenas than in others. I straddle the realm of conventional responsibility - the realm where I aspire to do things like excavate my apartment in the case of my untimely death, or buy renters insurance - and the realm where I surrender and open myself to whatever is happening in the moment. Of course, pitting these two ways of being against each other is just more dualistic thinking - I'm pretty sure that you can have renters insurance and still be free-spirited. . . I just haven't tried it yet. I would like to believe there is a way to both be experimental, and to apply the learning from those experiments to future decision-making - this is the way of the seekers, intellectuals, artists, tantricas and third spacers. This is the way of those who sit in the house of heat and sweat it out - the people who find out for themselves rather than taking someone else's word.

My friend Pablo Diablo in Guanajuato, a glass artist, gardener and patio revolutionary - maintains that there are studies indicating that 9/10 people are 'go-alongs,' or people who want to be told what to do, what to think, and ultimately how to live. I was reminded of this principle when reading an essay on narcissism - perhaps the most popular psychological diagnosis being bandied about these days, - in which the writer references a famous social psychology experiment from the 1960s about obedience to authority. As much as we like to think of ourselves as exceptional and the other as corrupt, Stanley Milgram attempted to illustrate that people will do terrible things if the conditions and a compelling authority figure dictate such behavior. According to Pablo Diablo, only 1/10 people - assuming they manage to avoid being burned at the stake, kidnapped or otherwise eliminated - dare to think independently, differently, and based on a more experimental approach to life. Their narrative is less determined - they inhabit questions rather than conclusions. Their story does not begin with 'This is how it happens' but rather, 'Let's see what happens if . . .'

La Playa Aragon

my patio

I sat at a table the other night with a wonderful group of people, all of us captivated by a professional storyteller and teacher. Intoxicated by the sound of the ocean and yet another nectar of the agave plant, he led us through an exercise in 'constructing our future narrative.' Each person at the table shared an aspiration, which Murray pledged to support when he makes his fortune. When it was my turn to share my project for Murray's support, I struggled to come up with anything. Have I come to recognize that money can't buy what I really want - or have I just lived in Brooklyn for too long, such that my aspirations have become as mundane as having a washer/dryer and a real couch? Live the life that is in front of you, he said, and 'don't try to walk through closed doors.' I challenged him in saying that if women accepted that idea, they wouldn't occupy board rooms or corporate executive offices. . . but of course, not all doors that appear to be closed actually are, which is why it's not as simple as it sounds to follow this instruction.

Life begins in a cave - the womb - and ultimately it ends there as we turn to the infinite, away from our contracting and dying bodies. Everything but death lasts a very short time. Let us drink the fullness of this stream, hear the message in these whispers, lose ourselves in the position of the stars.

sunrise from my patio