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On Waves, Oceans, and Falling In Love

Falling in love the first time was the easiest thing I’ve ever done. Tom (not his real name) and I were in college, and had been friends for a few years before other feelings started to develop. Though we had both dated people in the past, neither had been left broken-hearted or badly burned, and we had no reason to believe that either of us would hurt the other. We expressed what we felt freely, and we were lucky to feel exactly the same way toward each other: deeply, fully in love. In fact, saying that we loved each other never quite felt like enough for either of us. Sometimes, for emphasis, we would shout it out the car window: “I’m in love with Tom/ Abby!”; sometimes we would just look at each other in silence, knowing what the other was feeling, not complicating things with words. My favorite was when he said that he felt “a wave” of love, of affection, of connection surging toward the surface; I knew what he meant, because I also felt it. We told each other of these waves often. It felt more accurate, more visceral than “I love you,” though we said that, too.

Years later, long after Tom and I had broken up, I took my first yoga teacher training. In this training, we discussed the concepts of prakriti and purusha. Prakriti is the stuff of earth, we were told, the things and matter that have formed or been created. It is also our senses, our memories, our thoughts; in essence, it is everything that is impermanent and changeable. Purusha, by contrast, is pure consciousness, or energy; it is the unchanging, the constant. My mnemonic device for these terms was that prakriti is property and purusha is pure - admittedly a little overly-simplified, but at the time, so was my understanding.

It wasn’t until the end of my second teacher training that I felt slightly more secure in my understanding of purusha and prakriti. In this training, my teacher, Jason Crandell, pointed to the analogy of waves in an ocean, and posed the question: “Are waves separate from the ocean, or are they one and the same?” Of course, we agreed, waves were part of the ocean, in some sense, they were the ocean, but each wave was also a distinct and unique expression of the ocean: short-lived but perpetually recurring, and by all accounts real. He offered another analogy: electricity. “What would a lightbulb be without the electricity to power it?” There is, of course, more to it than that, more than can be explained in analogies or words, but the comparisons helped: The waves and lightbulbs were prakriti (the changeable), and the ocean and the light were purusha (the constant underlying, energetic force).

Last week, I was listening to an episode of Invisibilia on emotions. The episode interviewed an anthropologist who had lived in the Phillippines, studying the Ilongot tribe. While there were many things about this tribe he found fascinating (their propensity for literal headhunting, for one), it was the emotion of liget that most fascinated him. While there is no perfect English translation for the word or feeling, the closest he could come was “high-voltage” - neither good nor bad, necessarily, but undeniably intense. When people in the Ilongot tribe felt liget, the anthropologist observed, they were often “energetic, productive, vital.” On the other hand, they could be unbearably upset, feeling “unmoored and out of control.” He also observed that liget was “a communal feeling,” one that is shared and intensified from person to person. (What emotion isn’t? I wondered.)

Just a few days earlier, I had felt such high-voltage with a man I had recently started dating. Despite not having known each other long, there seemed an immediate understanding between us, a feeling of shared intensity, a feeling of excitement, of being slightly out of control. We had discussed this feeling, and how simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying it was. It had been a long time since either of us had felt it, we agreed, and we had both come to accept that we might never feel it again in this lifetime. But here we were, feeling it, not entirely certain what to do about it.

A few days after this discussion, he decided he couldn’t date me. It was too confusing, he said, too intense, too uncertain; it didn’t feel as easy as it should. And while I felt like shaking him and saying, Just give it a chance, won’t you?! I’m not asking you to marry me, I just really like you! I said that I understood and that I would give him his space. I retreated to myself, attempting to reconcile the feelings I thought we had shared with the feelings he was now expressing. Didn’t he know that growing to like and love someone was not always blissful, not always easy? I wondered. Especially at our age??

The truth is, I actually don’t understand how he feels, nor do I know what he felt. I only know what I felt: a wave. We weren’t “in love” - we didn’t know each other nearly well enough to fit that definition - but I felt a certain depth of understanding, of affection, of caring. It’s hard to explain, especially to anyone who wasn’t there. It’s hard to explain, even to him or to myself; I just felt it, and sensed, very strongly, that he felt it too. I think this is the hard thing about growing to like and love someone as we get older and more experienced with heartbreak: feeling such a connection is not enough; it is no longer simple and easy. Instead of just feeling it, we start to believe we have to explain it, justify it, do it right. To feel a wave implies we must then know how to surf it, or swim with it, or at least sit and observe it. Sometimes it feels safer to get out and sit on the shore, or to leave the coast altogether.

I have no resolution, and I have no advice. I do not want to fear the waves, nor do I want to get out of the ocean. I do not want to disconnect from the power grid, to run to the woods and become a Luddite. I do want to share my life, my energy, my heart, with someone who will care for it gently and truly. I want to encourage every student and every friend I have to allow themselves to feel more fully, and to express fearlessly and kindly. I want to encourage myself to do that, too. I suppose this is why I teach, and why I practice.

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