“That man is happiest
who lives from day to day and asks no more,
garnering the simple goodness of a life.”
-Euripides, 425 B.C
The best metaphors help us use something we know to understand something that we don’t know. Metaphors are not just for studying literature. English teachers certainly love their metaphors, but so do scientists.
Trees are the original metaphor for understanding brains. The word for the branching out of a neuron, “dendrite,” means “treelike” in the original Greek. As a teacher, I like to remember that as students make connections between concepts and make meaning out of the world around them, on a physiological level their neurons are mimicking them by forming new connections and synapses in their brains. I’m in the business of growing brains.
The metaphor of the tree is also helpful when it comes to understanding how our brains recycle resources to strengthen what needs strengthening and shut down what needs to be shut down. Neuroscientists call this process “synaptic pruning.”
This week, the fifth week of the 40 days of yoga, is the week of centering. Centering is yet another abstract concept, and I find myself using the metaphor of the tree to understand what in the world centering could possibly be. I have come to understand centering as a different kind of mental pruning: a pruning of time, priorities, and space.
Centering our attention means bringing it to the essential, and pruning away the inessential. It means spending the the currency of your life, your time, with the people who you love the most, and strengthening what needs to be strengthened. It means pruning out what’s trivial.
“I am rooted, but I flow,”
-Virginia Woolf, The Waves
In yoga, there is a tree pose. It is a balancing posture, where you balance on one leg, and place the foot of your other leg on your thigh, your calf, or your ankle. In this pose, like in all balancing poses, finding your center is essential. If you lose your center, which usually happens when you start worrying about falling out of the pose, you fall out of the pose. Balancing poses are about a weird negotiation between your mind and your body, and the figuring out of what is possible for a short period of time versus what is possible for a longer period of time.
Now, at the end of the post, is the time where I tell you that I have failed once again at 40 days. I went to Mississippi this past weekend with family, and skipped Saturday. Then, on Sunday, I did some crowded hotel room sun salutations. On Monday and Tuesday, I slept after work. On Wednesday, I did a ten minute youtube video. And today, Thursday, I plan on going back to the studio to a proper yoga class.
In a recent conversation with a friend, he mentioned how not everyone would be down to make a commitment like the 40 days of yoga or Nanowrimo. Most people don’t want to break their commitments to themselves, he said. So most people are afraid of the possibility of failure? I asked. No, it’s not the fear of failure… Well, I guess maybe it is, he said.
Thank goodness it’s not the perfection of the thing that I’m into, this time around, at least. I’m more interested in changing the texture of my daily life to make way for more types of movement. I’m more interested in the growing the part of me that went back to yoga on Wednesday and Thursday, despite the failure of my commitment, than I am in punishing the part of me that failed on Monday and Tuesday. I am more interested in centering.