Patanjali’s circus

Below you will find the first part of an anecdote that was written in the fall of 1988. It describes events that occurred around the occasion of The Russian Academy of Science presenting Silo with an honorary degree. You can read the talk he gave on that occasion here. Along with the various instalments of this story you’ll find illustrations by my friend and co-conspirator, Rafael Edwards.

After Silo read these anecdotes I received a number of requests for copies from friends to whom he had mentioned them. Hence, the Spanish translation which was a deeply flattering gift from some of my friends who thought it worth their trouble to render into another language, something I know from much experience is never an easy task.

Through the usual mechanism, of friends forwarding things to friends, a short manuscript with four of these anecdotes reached Karen Mulhallen a scholar, and writer as well as publisher of Descant , a Canadian journal of the arts. Karen suggested I submit it for consideration and the editors were kind enough to ask if they might publish a representative sample. They chose A Birthday Dream, which I’ll republish here eventually.

Patanjali’s Circus

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Book 4 Verse 1
Perfection of the body, like the attainment of superhuman powers, can be attained by birth, by potent plant substances, by mantra, penance or meditation.

A sort of preface
There’s a saying, Spanish I think, maybe you know it – something about drowning in a glass of water. From the first time I heard it I thought it was pretty good, as platitudes go. Then again, I always assumed it was a recommendation about not being overwhelmed by insignificant things, or something like that. I never suspected that it might refer to something else, something very different. That only became clear to me in the fullness of time and only after a long journey.

You know how they are always saying that the longest journey begins with the first step. But how many steps before the end? How many steps do you take in a day, in a month, over your whole lifetime? Little steps, big steps, firm steps, halting steps and finally no more steps.

A Real Beginning
Most of the time one step leads to another, you walk down the sidewalk of a busy street, the sun shines, people and automobiles rush by on the mysterious errands of daily life—and suddenly you step off the earth and fall into the abyss.

Of course that’s not exactly what happened. Really it was much more prosaic, like when you walk down the stairs while thinking, in some semi-conscious unarticulated way, that there is another step still to be taken – then suddenly you step into nothing and with a start you stumble.

Have you ever noticed how when someone trips themselves and stumbles they always glare back, as if to make sure that everyone knows that they are not to blame but rather it is the offending path that is responsible for their apparent clumsiness.

And that is how it began—I took a simple step—and I stumbled as if stepping into the void. My body jerked and twisted desperately trying to regain equilibrium; my heart pounded and raced; my clothes were suddenly damp with sweat. Predictably, like Lot’s wife fleeing Sodom—or Orpheus almost victorious, I turned back. In half formed thoughts I imagined I had stepped off into some unfinished roadwork accidentally left unfenced, but there was no gapping manhole, no missing step, no yawning chasm. I glared at the sidewalk accusingly but all I could see was a slight crack, little more than a scratch zigging and zagging along the concrete surface. That’s how it began but not how it was to end. Over the next days this strange kind of vertigo occurred more often and more intensely.

These disagreements with gravity happened with no apparent rhyme or reason. In retrospect they seem to have erupted, perversely, in the most mundane circumstance, for example – sitting at my desk I reach for the phone but my hand, instead of encountering a familiar object, plunges into empty space. Loosing balance I lurch forward off the chair, falling forward as if the desk had vanished completely. Tumbling forward I tried to regain my balance, jerking my head back I found myself almost falling on my ass. Having said all that I should add that, I suspect that someone watching me it would only have been a barely visible twitch, if that.

Another time I was raising a cup of coffee to my mouth I lost my balance and had to brace myself so as not to plunge headfirst into that unsounded depth of steaming blackness.

It didn’t seem that anything specific was required to trigger these episodes, at first they took place perhaps once a month, latter a few times a week and soon a number of times a day. Had this been happening to a friend I would have certainly told them to make sure they were taking care of themselves: eat well, get enough sleep and uh oh yeah, go see a doctor. Probably it would have made sense to have seen a doctor. I didn’t do this for the same reason I avoided mentioning my sudden disequilibrium to my wife Donna – I had an invitation to go to Moscow and I didn’t want anything to get in the way of that.

Once upon a time there was the USSR
The invitation came from the Academy of Science on the occasion of their presenting an honorary degree to my friend the Argentine thinker Mario Rodriguez, (better known by his pen name, Silo). I had to be sure that nothing would interfere with this trip, so medical intervention was out of the question; instead I would try not to fall off the edge. Getting Donna even more worried than normal about my sanity would not advance the cause at all. Anyway, it was not like I was hiding something from her, I mean I’m the first to admit that I’m giving you a very colourful version of what happened. What are we really talking about here anyway, a few minor dizzy spells? If push came to shove I’d say it was all probably just the result of a lack of sleep or maybe because of something I ate.

I finally arrived to Moscow as part of the delegation-accompanying Silo. And though the Soviet Empire had fallen, daily life in Russia had not yet fallen apart – completely. And with great kindness our small group was treated to a kind of semi-official tour. We meet with media people, academicians, and representatives of the military. We met with ordinary folk of all kinds; it seems to me that we met with everyone but politicians. In keeping with the frivolous nature of this anecdote I won’t clutter these pages with much more of this kind of stuff really I just want to tell you what happened when we went to the circus but before we get to the that just permit me one more little digression.

An embarrassing admission and then dinner
I boarded an old Aeroflot flight in Montreal. It was a jet-powered cliché; a bit like walking into the set up for some old joke. Everything: the seats, the carpet, the paint, all worn down with use. Everything: smelling of cabbage and cigarettes but it had a skillful pilot at the helm, one who had probably put in lots of hours in combat. I’d heard bad things about Aeroflot (and Ladas) but I travel a lot and I’m not one to worry about such things. I think that like certain other travelers my discomfort with traveling is neither that I mind waiting in airports nor that I’m afraid of plummeting to my death trapped in a plane spinning down toward the earth. Rather it’s about that particular discomfort which seems to increase with the number of time zones we cross. Sometimes the further we travel through space the more we feel like we’re traveling into a dream where everything is so totally familiar, yet somehow different. Or perhaps it’s the other way around; everything feels so strange yet somehow familiar. Either way, it makes us feel as if we were sleepwalkers, strangers not only in space but also in time.

At those moments it seems perfectly obvious to me that my life, as I live it, is something I am seeing from the past. As if this instant were a precognition—a warning or a lesson about what might be. Or, in that same instant, and just as clearly, it seems to be exactly the contrary, and really I’m living a moment already gone by and all this is not a foretelling but a remembering; the review of a lesson already learnt.

Whatever the reasons, I arrived to Moscow excited but exhausted. Our quasi-official delegation was housed at a dormitory building of the Department of Administration of the Academy of Sciences. The morning after we arrived I awoke and stumbling around the unfamiliar room I opened the curtain to gaze across the campus and the Soviet suburb that bordered it. Totally lost I thought, “this isn’t Toronto, it’s not New York. Its sure not Sao Paulo…” For a moment I looked out and, almost in awe of my own confusion, was forced to acknowledge to myself that I had no Idea where I was. Why was I was not waking in my own comfortable bed in my own familiar room instead of here – wherever ‘here’ was?

Now, as embarrassing as it may be I’m owning up to this confusion so you will know exactly whom you are dealing with. That disorientation, profound and brief, passed and I went out to join my companions just as our hosts were preparing to guide us to the cafeteria.

Deeper into digressions
Normally there could be no activity more prosaic than institutional dinning, but we were in the heart of the decomposing corpse of the giant that had been the USSR. Eating at the cafeteria was always interesting not only because of the opportunity to speak to academicians from all over the ex-Soviet Union but because, in its specific physical attributes as much as in the rituals of dining, it seemed a microcosm of the county itself. While the choices of food were limited nonetheless it ran the gamut – from dumplings that would at home be considered utilitarian at best, to incredibly delicate sturgeon that, in Toronto, would have been, not unobtainable, but certainly expensive. You could line up at the counter, make your selection, and join the handful of people scattered around the rows on rows of empty tables. Regional cuisine aside, it was really just one more variation on the functional food that you can find in similar settings anywhere in the world. The only thing that troubled me was why, in a week’s worth of meals, there was never a fork available; there were napkins, there were spoons and knives, cups, saucers, all the usual accoutrement – but never, not once, a fork. Mystery upon mystery.

Enough of that; it’s off to The Circus
I had always heard that circuses were taken much more seriously in the USSR than they were in the west. Not withstanding the tragic failures of Moscow’s often-monstrous regimes this interest in the circus was for me a sign of true culture. More than images of ordinary folk lining up for the opera or of crowds filling sports stadiums to watch chess championships, the ‘respect’ shown to the circus arts struck me as the mark of real civilization.

I sat gazing down at the performance unfolding quite a ways below me. Entranced as I was by an act that was as much theatre as acrobatics, suddenly I felt myself hurtling down from my seat in the upper tier. Terrified I was falling and tumbling as if targeting the bull’s-eye of the circus ring that waited so far below. Instinctively I threw myself back as hard as I could and in the process threw myself halfway into the lap of the bemused stranger who was sitting beside me. I hoped my friends would not notice my strange twitching or the thin film of sweat that stuck my clothes to my now damp and cold body.

There I was sitting on this invisible roller coaster my hands locked in spastic grip on the edge of the seat; my jaw clenched hard so as not to scream aloud. And though I was relieved to find myself back where I began, sitting in the audience, I could not quite relax and enjoy the show. I remember almost nothing about the acts that followed. I was once again swaying on the edge of a bottomless chasm held back from another vertiginous flight by the slightest of threads. I could feel the pull of the abyss that was opening in front of me, calling to me, pulling me down. I started to feel myself tumbling again. This time I was certain to crash into the clowns that were now performing so far below. As I tottered nearly falling, suddenly I started to formulate an unlikely thought: What if I didn’t fall down? What if I could fall up? The thought was completed in the moment just before I crushed some hapless clown, and even as I imagined that I might, I started to rise high above the clowns and the crowd.

Curious and curiouser
I don’t know for how long the circus continued, I had found another form of entertainment and until we left I hovered and swooped, floated and soared. It was a strange perspective. Shoulders: narrow, broad, enclosed in suit jackets or bare. Collars: frayed, drooping, crisp. The tops of heads: balding and bald. Hair: tousled, greasy and well groomed, long and short. Eyes: somehow averted from me, fixed on the performance being played out so skillfully.

But that was only the beginning. After all what did flying have to do with falling into a crack on the sidewalk or diving into a cup of coffee? Soon it became apparent that my ability to fly was just one aspect of something much larger. Whatever laws of physics governed the relationship between my body and the cosmos had become impossibly malleable. I could actually shrink my body down smaller than a mouse I could scurry between the legs of the spectators still focused on the circus performers. I could become even smaller, like an insect or even less. I could vanish in the cracks and scratches that covered the floor. Just as easily I could grow until my head pressed up on the ceiling of that vast auditorium. These changes in perspective and dimension seemed less troubling than the fact that no one seemed to notice my exploits. But what is now an obvious question was in that moment only a vague unease. In the excitement of the moment even that perplexing mystery seemed insubstantial.

That’s all folks
I’m afraid that I don’t have any very satisfying ending to this rather ridiculous anecdote, except to assure you that all this did take place. I suppose that for the sake of completeness, I should confess that for many years I suffered from migraine headaches. Does that bear on these strange incidents? Some might think so – migraines are after all have a neurological component. Macroscopia and microscopia are particular forms of hallucination that involve the sensation that the objects of the world, or the subject (me in this case), have grown to gigantic proportions or shrunken to a tiny size. Certainly not the most common form of hallucination, these are perhaps best known as a relatively rare symptom suffered by some migraneurs. They are also known to occur in some cases of what used to be called temporal lobe epilepsy (now more commonly referred to as, partial complex seizures). For that reason I must tell you that I have had more than one complete neurological examination and was given a clean bill of health—in this regard at least.

These symptoms also have a literary incarnation; some critics claim they are the source Alice’s growing and shrinking during her adventures in Lewis Carol’s Wonderland – ‘drink me’ indeed.

Of course there are others who attribute Alice’s bodily transformations to the mushroom that the caterpillar sat on or to whatever it was he was smoking. Those who are not so readily thrown off the scent by crude materialist rationalizations might well consider what Patanjali tells us in his Yoga Sutras:

Acquiring power over the elements grants the ascetic various perfections: the power to projects his body into the smallest atom, or expand to the size of the greatest being, to grow heavy or light, to extend his body or its limbs to any size, to bend the will of others to his own… (Yoga Sutras, Book 3, verse 46)

If this is a true tale true—and it is—what can it possibly mean? How can I explain it? As a dream, a neurological symptom, the perhaps accidental and undeserved attainment one of the siddhis obtained by the masters of yoga, a hallucination, or something else altogether? You can choose whatever explanation you like. For my part I will not muddy the waters with interpretations. Why confuse things further?