On Practicing Intensity
I had an intense week—after my last post had languished on the internet for a week with a couple hundred readers, all of a sudden several thousand showed up. While most people would see this as a good thing, my mind used it as fuel for anxiety. (What would I write next? What are all these yogis going to think next time I write some wonky post about urban forestry?)
in hopes that it would be the first post in an ongoing blog, and was wringing my hands about that. My wife and I had just decided that we were going to buy a house, and were hectically driving around Tucson looking at the hideous properties in our price range.
I was traveling for work and preparing to present at a conference. My stomach was acting up, allowing me to eat all of about three flavorless foods. My hips ached. I had reached the limit of intensity–of feeling, physical sensation, and anxious thinking—that I thought I could handle, and wanted to blow off steam. So what did I do? Bought a pack of cigarettes and smoked one.
Didn’t help in the slightest.
Why did I do it?
Because underneath it all, I associate intensity with the sense that “something’s wrong.” Therefore, I must avoid the sense of wrongness with tv, wine, food, smokes, magazines, exercise, gossip, whatever. In the process, I completely contradict what I understand my life to be about: saying “Yes!” to what is and jumping wholeheartedly into the fray.
Many of us even have a hard time staying put in positive experiences of intensity. I am reminded of delicious afternoons in yoga workshops where everyone is feeling warmed-up, buzzing with energy and we’ve made it to a pleasant series of supine poses. In each stretch, the tendency is to groan with a satisfied “ahhhhhh…” as the muscles open and tingle with pleasure. So it strikes me when my teacher (John Friend) points out that “blowing off steam” with the oohs and aahs of ecstasy can be a way of unconsciously discharging—and thus wasting—the subtle energy that we’ve just spent a day or more building through our practice.
The practice of consciously holding intensity is what the late, great Lee Lozowick called cathexis. Catharsis (where energy or emotions are discharged or released) can certainly be healthy, but the deeper transformation that so many of us seek (personal, professional, social, or spiritual) requires that we learn how to build, hold, and skillfully use energy—and energy is intense.
Life is intense (dude), and all you have to do is open a newspaper to understand that a deep transformation is being called from each of us and from all of us. Does this mean that we must transcend all our human tendencies like the occasional glass of wine and Grey’s Anatomy? I sure hope not. Does it mean that next time things get intense, I might choose instead to take a deep breath and feel inside for something higher? Absolutely.
James MacAdam an essayist, spiritual student, teacher and Renaissance Dude. He writes a monthly column with an integral perspective on sustainability, entitled “Thinking Beyond Green,” for the monthly The New Southwest. Links to his most recent columns are here.