IN A STATION OF THE METRO
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet black bough.
Written in 1913 in a Parisian metro station, for me this poem suggests the transience and beauty of human experience. It is the anonymous crowd but highlights the faces of individuals, key part of a person’s identity. It speaks to that question of uniqueness vs. sameness.
Speaking of uniqueness, I’m just now discovering Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Guns N Roses. When I was in high school and junior high those bands were popular. Really popular. That kind of popular precluded my interest. Cuz my merry band identified with being different. We were unique. Those other bands were the clarion of a different crowd, in my mind musical and cultural lemmings that could all run off a cliff with their Teen Spirit or Appetite for Destruction and what would I care because I enjoyed a smug uniqueness that they wouldn’t appreciate let alone understand. Or at least I thought so. Stupid I know because in my quest to be unique, I missed out on some great music. I mean really, Slash’s solo on Sweet Child O’ Mine has to be one of the greatest guitar solos in Rock history. It’s an institution. Decades later, I rock to those bands like everybody else.
So what is it about the need to be unique? Are we really as individual as we think or hope we are? In this social media age it’s so easy to project the image of how you want to be seen and identified as special and unique. The irony here is that as poet and speaker David Whyte says, to be constantly explaining who you are is a gospel of despair. But to simply BE yourself, that is more like what it is to experience a real existence. Like the guy who parked next to me at the trailhead the other day. I came off a run and was stretching next to my car and looking at someone’s ride. This thing was a piece of work, like an election billboard but less subtle. It was a hummer with all the super rugged equipment on it: lift, tinted windows, gnarly hitch, exhaust snorkel, front wench, industrial jacks, extra gas tanks on top, mauls, hammers and axes hanging on like he was on a fire squad (maybe was and wanted everybody to know) cuz who knows what kind of trouble you might run into on the way to Dan’s, you know? This dude was prepared to forge his own trail across Africa. And by the stickers plastered over his car I could easily read that the driver was a proud whiskey drinkin’, apple computer using, Black Widdow bike shop sportin’, Alta Skiin’, Hummer Drivin’, Back Country shoppin’, outdoor lovin’, The Front climbin’, adventure seekin’, Patigonioa wearin’ . . .person. Ego in the most pure way, a misidentification with what we think we are. A real mountaineer just is without needing to broadcast it. Like nature is just nature. A horse doesn’t prance around all day shouting, “I’m a horse, people!” It just does its thing and in so doing shows its regal majesty. And who isn’t like this this Hummer dude in some way? I know I am. We all want to be known and seen, right? We all want to be unique. Does that make us all the same?
When you step back we are like Ezra Pound says in his poem, just “faces in the crowd.” We are all part of the masses trying to make our way home. But when you zoom in and look at the individual, there is something special about each person. I believe that our individuality and therefore identity isn’t based on what we do as much as how we are uniquely paying attention to the world. There was only one person in all of existence who paid attention to the world the way Monet did. Or Dali. Or Miles Davis. Or Mary Oliver. No one else in history will ever see the world the way that YOU do. So how are you paying attention? What do you see? For me, I notice movement, jazz, kindness in people, the smell of a chocolate shop. Ah, but there I go, just like Hummer Guy, broadcasting my identity. Maybe not. Maybe it’s different because I can like those things regardless if anybody else is watching. Maybe that’s the test.
So if we are all unique by how we are paying attention to the world what is this malarkey we hear in yoga about us all being one? I have tried my whole life (at least through high school) to be singled out from the crowd, to find a unique identity that could be distinguished from the faceless crowd. The truth is that we are both. We are the unique person who likes the music and sees the world just as we do, but we are also all made of the same matter. We are individual members of a larger organism. You are part of a being which has 2400 eyes that is reading this newsletter. We belong to the yoga community. And yes we are all part of that large thing too, made from the same star dust, the same basic elements but we express those elements differently. The hostas and the hibiscus might be in the same garden but they need different things to flourish. And when you step back it is all one garden. So yeah, we’re unique expressions of the same thing. Would you agree?
For me, that’s how we contribute to the larger organism is by watching the world exactly the way we do and sharing those gifts of perception with each other. This way the whole organism grows. If you are happy, healthy, and well, you are contributing to the wellness of the greater being. That’s what’s so wonderful about the many souls in a yoga class, everybody is so different but all part of the same thing.
This week, I invite you to contemplate sameness vs. uniqueness and notice the way you are paying attention to the world. Come practice paying close attention to body, mind, and heart in yoga class. I’ll be there. And you can bet that this week when I’m not teaching yoga I’ll be paying attention Guns N Roses, particularly to Slash’s face-melting guitar solo.