I was having a cup of coffee with my mom this morning. We like to start morning coffee chats by talking about how great, funny and charming her grandchildren are — Funny things they say, how cute they look in the outfits they pick out, how smart they are. We might talk about the challenges of being mother and grandmother to such precocious children, then we come back to how great and clever and funny they are. So, we did all of that and then we still had coffee and time so we moved on and she told me that she saw the movie, Beasts of the Southern Wild. She had the same look in her eyes that I had after seeing it. There is something so mysteriously human about that movie. When I saw it, I cried and cried which is something I tend to do when there is truth that is beautifully spoken. It speaks to our very basic need to be free and to the strength within each of us. It is really good.
My mom and I talked about the themes of freedom and aloneness and of connection between people. We talked about the amazing girl and her character, Hushpuppy, and the independence that she was both blessed and burdened with. And then the beasts entered the conversation.
In this movie, there is a herd of mammoth, prehistoric beasts that appear in the midst of a very vivid and raw reality. Hushpuppy knows vivid and raw. She lives in poverty with a dad who loves her in strange ways, is sick and doesn’t function all that well. There’s no mama. These beasts seem to embody this destructive power-force that is out there in the world and that Hushpuppy knows, firsthand. These beasts are powerful, necessary and frightening.
The first time the beasts appear, they are way far away, tearing down glaciers and raising the water levels in the oceans. This is a problem for Hushpuppy’s island community. If the water levels rise in the bayou, their island goes underwater. That’s why they call it the “bathtub.” Later, the bayou does flood. Some people leave. Hushpuppy and her dad stay. And once the water starts to recede and everything is dying from the water, the beasts appear again, much closer this time. They root and stomp around in the dead and flooded parts of their island. They appear to be feeding off of the carnage.
The movie continues and Hushpuppy’s dad is dying. The beasts come with their bulk and speed toward the hut where he is. Hushpuppy has something that she must give her dad before he dies and she’s walking toward the hut, knowing what her purpose and job is. There is all of this tension as the beasts come running toward the hut, stirring up and shaking the earth as they come. I watched and wondered if Hushpuppy was about to be trampled or if she would refuse to turn around to see them and they would pass her by and get to her dad before she made it there. Or maybe she would be so overcome with fear that she’d just freeze or sob or fall down and cover her head. Very unexpectedly, as the beasts approach, Hushpuppy turns and looks at them and they slow down to a trot. And then they walk. And then they stop. These huge mythical destroyer beasts see her standing there and then they stop and look into the face of this small child. She tells them that she has to take care of her own and they wait. She goes to her dad and then he dies.
It’s so good.
Today, it’s these beasts that are so interesting, because this week, in the aftermath of what happened in Boston, I’m reminded how hard it is for me to look at the powers of destruction and to see past the disorienting fear. Hushpuppy has to take care of important work. The work of delivering something to her dad is something only she can do and she doesn’t let these really huge and thundering beasts knock her down. She faces them, standing, and she says with simplicity and clarity what she must do. And they listen.
Yoga teaches that each of us have our own svadharma—the personal work and role that each of us is here to carry out. It’s one thing to actually know my svadharma with both clarity and conviction. It’s a whole other thing to be able to do it and this is because there can be scary beasts out there that stir up fear or seem too forceful or that can make my resolve breakdown into dust. This is what is so captivating about Hushpuppy. She turns to look at what is coming and she does not fall down and cry or beg them to stop or pass out from the fear. In the past, when I’d start to feel overwhelmed with the horrible things that happen out there, my self-soothing talk would go something like, “well, that probably wouldn’t ever happen to me for all these reasons…” I’d ignore the faulty reasoning and then I’d attempt to put the hard stuff out of my mind. In yoga speak, this is avidya. This is not seeing things clearly and for what they really are. Arguably, avidya is the cause of much suffering because when shit does hit the fan, then not only are you cleaning up the shit, but you have all this angst because you didn’t see it coming and you didn’t think it could happen to you. Maybe you are in such a deep state of avidya that you convinced yourself that shit doesn’t really exist. When the really difficult and destructive did happen in my life, to me, I had a painful avidya lesson. Not only was I dealing with the new circumstances at hand, but I had to admit that bad shit did and can actually happen to me today or anyday. My perspective on life and living changed dramatically. There’s a strange freedom in knowing, at a cellular level, that life can change, inexplicably and without seeing it coming, at any moment. In some ways it is liberating, but I still don’t like it. And yeah, I still fear it, too.
I guess I’m saying that I admire Hushpuppy’s clarity and presence with her duty. I admire her ability to see the destruction and not be thrown off course. She doesn’t hate the animals for what they are. She sees the situation with equanimity and this allows her to do her job and do it well. That’s something to admire and aspire to. And for the record, I’m perfectly convinced that yoga is a fine way to get there.