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The Coldplay Vāsiṣṭha

Recently, I was among the thousands of people who saw Coldpay at the Estadio Único de la Plata (outside of Buenos Aires). Music is something that we hear, but a concert is something that we see, and this show was a constant explosion of light and color. Three massive mandala-shaped screens projected live footage of the crowd and startling films that moved across and through the band members, their bodies immersed in the fantasia.

Each spectator wore an illuminated plastic bracelet that changed in color and intensity for each song, while giant balloons bounced through the crowd and paper confetti exploded in sudden bursts like the geysers in Las Vegas. Like the Indian festival Holi of colors, or the hit video “Hymn for the Weekend” that it inspired, we were spattered in a riot of color.

For my husband Juan and I, going to the show was quite an event. Dismal though it is to admit, with two kids, two careers, a house and dog, it seems like a real triumph these days to pull off dinner with friends. I often see billboards for the big names who come to play in Buenos Aires, and I think that it would be fun to go see them — in the same way that I imagine that it must be lovely to sunbathe in the Maldives. Then I pick up the kids, buy tofu for dinner and dream about watching Netflix from the bathtub after everyone’s asleep. Driving an hour and half to La Plata on a weekday to see a concert just isn’t on my menu, but a friend happened to have two extra tickets and I have always been a fan and so we decided, for once, to go for it.

We left the house late (because in reality we would rather watch Netflix in the bathtub) and ended up running through the crowds of fellow latecomers towards the boom of the stadium. During the two hours we spent in the car, I gave a masterful performance of the passive aggression that is my trademark and blamed Juan for being late, talking on the phone to his boss, and breathing. Mostly, I was tired and a bit nervous, which sounds ridiculous; but the last concert I attended was Belle and Sebastian at the modest Luna Park theater downtown. And that was a decade ago. I had never been to a mega-concert in Argentina, but I’d heard many stories about the explosive energy that fans here emit. Many bands, including Coldplay, say that Argentina is their favorite country in which to tour because the audience goes bonkers by the thousands. As I jogged through the dark, feeling old and out of place, I had no idea what awaited.

Over the next three hours, we witnessed a magical conjunction of image, sound and emotion. Most stunningly, it was festival of artifice, an unending projection of brilliant unreality. Amidst this visual glory, the band played the songs we know by heart, tethering us to earth with the melody of the familiar. The dance of prana and apana is present everywhere and in every moment. Chris Martin’s famous falsetto and the colored lights sent us soaring, while the base and the drums brought us back to our bodies, to the earth that takes you back after you take flight. Having left everything behind(the kids, the tofu, even Netflix), the entire universe burst and bloomed inside the Estadio Único de la Plata.

Or, for 180 minutes.

Suddenly, the show was done and credits (just like the movies!) rolled on the big screens as the band took their bows. No encore, no deafening call of “Otra! Otra!” (Argentines’ classic for “another” until the band comes back on). It was just over. We turned towards the gates, part of a literal mass exodus, and shuffled into the night. We found ourselves back on the street where hundreds of informal vendors had sprung from nowhere to hawk everything imaginable: pirated t-shirts, beer, Coke, food, water. We were no longer inside a technicolor India or a British circus or the imagination of a prize-winning set designer. We were in the shabby, mobbed streets of la Plata without the slightest clue as to where we had left the car. But we didn’t care. After all that we had seen and felt — the vibration still alive in our hearts, the joy of jumping and singing in unison with hundreds of thousands of people. That moment of presence was already in the past, but we could still hold it close.

During the show’s fireworks, I kept thinking about the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha, probably the most psychedelic text in the yoga tradition. It’s like a mix of Don Quixote, the Mahābhārata and an acid trip. In theory, the story takes the form of a dialogue between Rāma (an incarnation of Viṣṇu) and the sage Vāsiṣṭha, but everything that “happens” turns out to have been a dream, a trick and even the narrator is a character in the narrative (a device not uncommon in the Hindu cannon).

In one of the stories, Vāsiṣṭha tells the story of Lavaṇa, an honorable and pious King. One day, Lavaṇa stands in his court, surrounded by the pomp and majesty of his kingdom, when the jester performs a magic trick with a peacock feather. Instantly, the King is transported into a different land in which he is a poor and forced to endure terrible privations. In order to survive, he has to break many of the vows he considers sacred. He eats and sells meat and marries a young girl in what he describes as a “demonic ceremony”. After years of suffering, he and his family are starving to death in the desert. He offers his own body as food to his youngest child and, in that moment, returns instantaneously to the former splendor of his court, a King once more. No time has passed, but like Alice upon her return from the Looking Glass, Lavaṇa is inwardly transformed.

While thousands of cars inched forward in their attempt to leave La Plata’s narrow streets and return to Buenos Aires, I thought of Lavaṇa, the court jester and his peacock fearther. Just was he was transported from his sumptuous court into a brutal landscape, so we had left the million hues of light to contemplate the single red glow of an interminable line of traffic. Up ahead was exhaustion, frustration, futility: the trinity of modern life.

An hour and half later (which felt like years), Juan and I took refuge in a gas station in order to ingest enough coffee and chocolate to wake up and make it home alive. Juan devoured a supposed “veggie hamburger,” taking a moment between bites to scowl and say “this is inedible.” I looked at everyone else waiting in line for coffee, and they all shared the same exhausted resignation. In a moment of cruel sincerity, I recognized myself in their faces. We were no longer jumping in euphoria, and the bracelets on our arms were dull hunks of plastic. How was it possible for the magic to disappear so rapidly and so completely? What was the point, really, of making such an epic pilgrimage for a mere illusion? I imagined Chris Martin and the band resting comfortably in a five-star hotel, and all of my warm feelings towards them turned cold. We slumped back to the car, our stomachs turned by the bad coffee and sugar, but we made it home alive. We laid down in bed at four with a sigh and then set the alarm.

The next morning, Juan went to fight against the windmills of the Argentine government, the kids went to school (somehow dressed and fed) and I took my regular seat at the neighborhood Starbucks to do my daily quota of translation. My work began that day with this fragment from the Maitrī Upaniṣad:

“We see that all this is perishing, as these gnats, mosquitoes, and the like, the grass and the trees that grow and decay. But, indeed, what of these? There are others, superior, great warriors, . . . Kings too. . . . But, indeed, what of these? Among other things, there is the drying up of great oceans, the falling away of mountain peaks, the deviation of the pole star, the cutting of the wind-ropes (that hold the stars in their places), the submergence of the earth, the departure of the gods from their station. In such a world as this, what is the good of enjoyment of desires? For he who has fed on them is seen to return repeatedly. Be pleased, therefore, to deliver me. In this Saṁsāra (cycle of existence), I am like a frog in a waterless well. Revered Sir, you are our way, you are our way.”

Maitrī Upaniṣad, I.4

In translation:

“Vemos que todo esto fallece, estos insectos, los mosquitos y sus semejantes, la hierba y los árboles que crecen y se descomponen. ¿Pero qué, entonces, diremos de estos? Existen otros, superiores, guerreros eminentes…Reyes, también…

¿Pero qué, entonces, diremos de estos? Entre otras cosas, los océanos se secan, las montañas decaen, la estrella polar se desvía, las sogas del viento (que sujetan los astros) se cortan, la tierra se sumerge, los dioses abandonan sus puestos. ¿En un mundo tal, de qué sirve gozar de los deseos?

Se ve que quien se sacia de estos placeres vuelve repetidas veces. Ten la benevolencia, entonces, de liberarme. En este Saṁsāra (ciclo de la existencia), soy como un sapo en un pozo sin agua. Estimado Señor, eres nuestro camino, eres nuestro camino”.

Maitrī Upaniṣad, I. 4

With the symphony of color still bright in my mind and the strange lightness of limb that a sleepless night brings, I had a very different sense of what we had experienced in the passage between the concert, the gas station and our bed. It was an entire life, a world that dissolved in seconds, or as Vāsiṣṭha says, “What happens in the mind is like a city in the clouds”

Now, most of us know intellectually that our perception of the world is an illusion. The world’s sacred traditions tell us so, as do scientists and artists across the ages. But we also know, just like Lavaṇa, that we often have to cooperate with this illusion in order to survive. I don’t have to believe in the eternal sanctity of the IRS, but if I don’t pay my taxes, the “illusion” in which I live will be more challenging. This is a very important point for modern yoga practitioners, as we are often confused by the assertions of different sacred texts about what it is real, maya (illusion) or eternal. It’s easy enough to wonder, “If everything is maya, do my kids really have to brush their teeth and take a bath? Let them be free from societal conditioning and follow their hearts!” Spiritual seekers often fall into this trap when they discover the nondual philosophies of Advaita Vedanta and Tantra. If everything is illusory, then why work hard, show up or do your duty? Or as Richard Freeman would say in his best imitation of the Boulder hippies, “It’s all good, man.”

The morning after the concert, sitting in Starbucks with a foggy head and the sudden lighting of caffeine, I began to translate a long passage (from Richard’s book The Mirror of Yoga) about death:

“One consistent thread within all schools of yoga is that the process is initiated through a deep, visceral understanding of impermanence. It begins with an understanding that not only are our bodies extremely temporary events but so are the bodies of all other sentient beings, and that beyond that, all types of manifestations are also temporary. Quite naturally, we may be afraid to let our minds dissolve into the obvious fact that not only are we going to die, but our children are going to die, as are our children’s children. We are all faced with the fact that our parents are going to die or have already died, as have their parents and their ancestors before them; all beings, past and future without end, are going to die. Not only that, but the circumstances in which all of these beings have lived and the environments they have created are temporary, and the very planet we are living on is an extremely impermanent event. The universe may be fourteen billion years old, but even if it endures for another trillion years, that will be just a blip in the potential of infinite time.”

This is the opposite of illusion, the colored lights and collective euphoria. In the words of the poet Billy Collins, “It’s Sylvia Plath in the kitchen and Saint Clement with the anchor around his neck.” It’s the passage between the show and the street. It’s the death we experience a million times and that we consistently seek to ignore, but our denial deprives us of its true gift: absolute attention, presence, or in the immortal words of Marisa Tomei “one hundred percent, dead-on-balls accuracy.”

My husband Juan Mora represents many things to many people. Over the years, I have watched how the dynamic screen of his self receives the infinite play that his students, friends and colleagues project. After twenty-five years beside him, I do the same thing and, even worse, forget that I’ve fallen again into the pattern of projection. But something interesting happened during the odyssey between Coldplay’s concert and our house. Alone in the car, free of our everday context and a little out of our minds, I saw him again with a little more clarity, not as my husband or the father of my children or a public servant or a charismatic teacher. I saw him, as Richard Freeman suggests, as “someone who is dying.” And I understood that I shared his doomed lot; we were only a slightly more solid extension of the confetti that flew into the air during the glory of the show, floating on the music for a few seconds before settling to the ground, soon to be trampled by thousands and swept into trash bags destined for a third world landfill. This may sound a bit harsh, but it is simply the destiny of rock-concert confetti. And all the rest of us.

In the Teacher’s Intensive that Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor offer every year, there are two “Cadaver labs.” They are also a bit harsh, but it’s an astonishing opportunity to learn. As students in the lab, we find it unthinkable that we will be like the opaque, inert bodies laid out on the slab, like the bracelet that shone with such intensity before becoming a plastic “thing.” But as a friend said to me after watching his partner die, “There’s nothing as recognizable as death.” I have participated in four cadaver labs and I remember every detail of every moment, the colors of flesh and viscera, the feel of the gown on my own body, the change of light back on the street, the rumble of cars, the surprising texture of food. After such an experience, the world floods in as a terrible, vivid mystery.

In those moments, sometimes we are able to pay attention to the world around us, in the way that I was able to see Juan in the dark capsule of the car while he invented songs in order not to fall asleep. I loved him deeply in that moment. On the way to the concert, I had disliked him just as much (for being late, always on the phone, because I had a headache and was worried about a book I’m working on, blablabla). But in the car, awash in the death and defeat of the spectacle of light, I could love him.

Years ago, we went together to see “Slava’s Snowshow,” a miraculous experience created by the Russian clown Slava Polunin — and not unlike Coldplay’s recent concert. But unlike El Estadio Único de la Plata, the theater where we saw Slava’s show was small and had a bar in the back. Towards the end, while giant colored balloons also floated throughout the audience and a blizzard of white confetti overwhelmed us all, Juan and I noticed that the old clown had left the stage and was placidly drinking a pint at the bar. He had pulled his costume down to the waist, and his belly pushed against his undershirt; he looked grizzled, tired and astonishingly old. He didn’t seem worried that we might see him and forgo the illusion of the magic onstage. In that moment, he was creator and observer. As the yoga tradition would say, Iśvara and draṣṭā. Just like us.

It’s always risky to write about these ideas. They are so obvious (everything is an illusion, we are all dying, etc), but they are also so hard to grasp that we have to return to them over and over again. We can read texts like the Yoga Vāsiṣṭha or the Maitrī Upaniṣad, but knowledge seems to come in the line at a gas station or in the car with our partners or holding a sick child in our arms. As the tradition says, it comes like lightning. It comes from the play of action and rest, practice and dispassion, spectacle and silence. I am thankful to Coldplay and to Juan Mora for this umpteenth opportunity to experience confusion, death and the permanent reality of love. In the words that Chris Martin borrowed from the eternal Gustavo Cerati, gracias totales.