This one’s a personal post, a philosophical one (maybe), and a very belated eulogy for a friend. It’s about illness, infrastructure, Cartesian dualism, yoga, and one of today’s buzziest of buzzwords: mindfulness.
The flesh is weak
Some of this is the result of notes made during a string of recent illnesses. Nothing major, just a run of bad luck in the germ department, an unfortunate side effect, as it were, of spending time among the teeming undergrad masses. I don’t have my physician-slash-kindergarten teacher immunity built up yet. Sometimes, my immune system just gets hacked.
That metaphor is important here, in fact. Getting sick is like a system crash, like losing the wifi signal, like driving a car that suddenly sputters and stalls — suddenly you become acutely aware of the formerly invisible or ignored infrastructure. When the wifi goes, we finally notice that wire stretching from the roof of the house to the pole in the back yard as we question its viability. We’re made newly aware of “our increasing dependence on it for the practices of everyday life” (Dourish & Bell, 2011). Bodily malfunctions are analogous to the studies of Dourish & Bell, Susan Leigh Star, and others who examine infrastructure systems; they make us aware of the embodiment we usually take for granted. We become aware — conscious, now, in the moment — of the fleshy, fluid-filled infrastructure systems that we are similarly dependent on for our everyday practice.
That’s a good thing, or it can provide important lessons. We often live prejudiced toward mind over body. Much of society remains built on that original idea that the two are separate, that mind will prevail over body. It’s the promise of all religions, as well as futurists like Ray Kurzweil and others: fear not your mortal flesh, soon you’ll be uploading your mind into neural networks for silicon immortality (which is just a different embodiment with its own, as yet untested effects on the mind)! But when our body winds up affected by something else bodily — for good, in the case of having a great day or drinking a great glass of wine, or for ill, in the case of illness or injury — we’re reminded just how much mind depends on body. As body suffers, so does mind. Feverish several weeks ago, I could not focus, couldn’t read, stopped making sense (complete with jerky Talking Heads movements). It’s not as if my body can suffer alone while my mind continues thriving, unchanged; vice versa, too: a poor state of mind negatively affects the body (i.e., my nervous stomach before teaching or traveling).
The infrastructure scholars I mentioned above think along similar lines. Star sought to apply ethnography to infrastructure as a means of surfacing silent or marginalized voices. Her work allowed objects some measure of subjectivity in order to highlight another perspective in the human-computer interaction (HCI) relationship — in examining the I, the H always gets a voice (the human, the acting agent, thus reason: mind), rarely the C (the allegedly inert body). Dourish & Bell bind practices to the infrastructures, connecting the points where elements of practice are inextricably dependent on elements of infrastructure. Either way, infrastructure is presented as a fundamentally relational concept, taking on a life worth examining when it transitions from being inert tech stuff and becomes/facilitates a set of human practices.
Frankly, this all sounds like yoga to me.
But the spirit is willing
So it’s at this point in this rambling dialectic that I turn to an old soul — a departed soul — from whom I once learned a lot about the symbiotic and inextricable union of mind and body. His name was Richard Stathem. He was a math teacher, he was a yoga instructor, he was a groovy sumbitch. And I was recently deeply saddened to hear that he’s dead.
Again, I’d thought of Richard while I was ill. For each round of under-the-weatherness, the chief prescription I received from doctors was simple: rest. Well, not so simple when trying to accomplish it. Not so simple when my to-do list software begins piling up with unchecked tasks and my worker-bee instincts frown at my sick-bed sloth. Resting thus became a task in and of itself. I began to hear Richard’s voice in my head. He would speak softly during yoga sessions, calmly advising, gently instructing. One of the things he said most often was, “Not just rest, but conscious rest.”
My body sought rest, so I rested with greater awareness of how that was or wasn’t happening. In yoga, in meditation, in T’ai Chi, whatever — often the greatest challenge is calming the mind, letting go of its reins, freeing the expectation of constant running thought-stuff. I laid in bed, in my sick-asana, practicing rest. I was tender and achy, so when I moved I did so with care, with greater awareness of moving. Awareness, mindfulness, living in the present, whatever you want to call it. I was practicing yoga, and I thought: is this good self-help-book advice — live each day as if you were feverish?
I thought Richard would chuckle at that. He had a great laugh — two of them, really, alternating between a Cowardly Lion snuff-nuff sound and a throaty belly guffaw. I was privileged to know him and be his yoga student for nearly a decade. Curious about the practice, I signed up for an intro yoga class at Tulsa Community College back in the mid-’90s, and Richard was the teacher. From the beginning, he made it so easy, and it would take a while before I understood why that was.
Richard — lithe, fit, not tall, a humble smirk underneath his signature trim mustache — was cool, but humble. He loved rock and roll, and he had a huge vinyl collection. He taught math part-time at TCC, and supplemented with the yoga classes. And he didn’t charge for those; instead, he simply left a black leather satchel on a table near the entrance to the room, and participants could place in it whatever money they wanted or could. I never contributed enough for what I got out of it.
After the TCC course, he mentioned that he conducted weekly yoga sessions at the Episcopal church near my house. For the rest of my days in Tulsa, I’d go there once or twice a week, sometimes regularly, sometimes intermittently. It was a large room, a chapel. Richard sat on the chancel, usually cross-legged and meditating as people gathered. Then he’d lead us through 90 minutes of yoga. It wasn’t a class, really, it was just a yoga meeting. He’d step out and give people pointers or assist with certain positions, but he was never instructing. Not directly. He simply narrated the rhythm of the movements, reminded us to breathe, and guided us from one asana to the next, almost always in the same order. Toward the end, he’d read from something semi-inspirational or at least thought-provoking — on a spectrum from the Tao te Ching to Henry David Thoreau — but in a let-your-thoughts-go kind of way.
Praxis was his axis
It was so easy and effortless — and after a while I finally understood it: He wasn’t teaching, he never was. Richard didn’t see yoga as a particular practice, a thing you do — that is, a task separate from the body that you begin and end for an intellectual purpose. Richard lived yoga. Yoga was life to him, moving through the day, through the street, stretching through work and play and grooving to his records. There was no outside for him. He was always in an asana – yogasana, lecturasana, drivingasana, groceryasana. That’s why it was so easy to flow with him, because he didn’t start something. You just fell into his rhythm. Richard was just there, living, and those of us lucky enough to encounter him just sidled up and joined in.
It was perfect and invigorating and so very beneficial, and I haven’t found it since. One of the first things I did after moving to Chicago was shop for a yoga studio. They were all awful — the three or four I sampled, each on high recommendation or the result of careful online evaluation, were intense, performative, power-yoga kind of places. It was about exercise, strength, showing off. They all sought quantifiable, evident results. It turned my soul. I fell out of practice.
Apparently Richard died of cancer, age 66. No obit in the Tulsa World. Tragic, perhaps, but no doubt he wouldn’t care. Whatever he experienced at the end of this life, I trust his mindfulness served him well. His main mantra in yoga sessions was — in a slow, sonorous tone — saying, “Just notice … just this.” Whatever experience you were having, that’s what he’d say: just notice, just this. Fortunately, he wrote a book about his practice, and the title (yes!) is Just Notice … Just This.
I’ll close this mess of a post with a piece Richard wrote in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. It’s a typically mindful, realistic outlook on a terrible situation — made hopeful by Richard’s inherent faculty for noticing what was in front of him, what was happening in the moment, and the inevitable trajectory of all things toward their opposite. He employs an experience with Yellowstone National Park, the place he loved most on this earth, as the lens through which he sees some light.
The World Trade Center
I'm THOMAS CONNER, Ph.D. in Communication (Science Studies) and culture journalist.