Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Love Affairs of Self-Destruction

Special thanks to Kokia Sparis for his meticulous editing and for his inspiring ideas on this blog.

Yesterday I went to the swimming pool with my father. One of us is a Cancer, the other a Pisces; so we like socializing in the water. Instead of meeting at a café we often make plans to see each other in the pool.
It was the same routine yesterday. He took a break every twenty-five meters, I on the other hand, took my break every seventy-fifth. On those breaks we chatted as we enjoyed the free movement of our limbs in the water.  At some point he said: “I keep reading your blogs and I am a bit surprised to see no references to your father. I think I know you very little.” I tried to laugh it off, “Haha, its because mom was the main traumatizer. You should consider yourself lucky”. Then we swam some more. Throughout my next 75 meters, I kept thinking about what he said. Really? Did my dad have no impact on me? What was the role of my father in the formation of my character? What about my strengths and my weaknesses?  When we reached our meeting place at the other side of the pool, I confessed:  “Dad I remember nothing of the times you and Mom were married. It is as if you weren’t there during my childhood”.
But how come, he said. “Remember, when you had run away from home, and I spanked your hands with the bicycle pump? The time at the Golden Dolphin Hotel in Çesme, when I told you fairy tales, for hours, until you fell sleep? I remembered both of those times. I also remember my mom having fun at the discotheque of the hotel and him taking care of me; I remember I found it very hard to accept my mother’s abandoning me that night, and how I cried non-stop for over an hour. Even though I am aware of these fragmented memories, I still cannot find traces of my father in my formative childhood memories, the kind that shaped my feelings and conditionings of today.
He said, “Think about it a little more if you like, I will complete this lap and get out”. He dove into the water and swam away. Could it be possible that my father’s behavior, his words, his expectations, the way he expressed his feelings or his inability to express them, had left no mark on me during my childhood? Or was the trauma caused by him so deeply buried that I can’t see it? Would a therapist be able to expose these wounds residing in the dungeons of my psyche?
After the pool, I drove back home passing through the back streets of Levent, one of the oldest suburbs in the north. In the last seven years that I haven’t been driving in Istanbul, the roads have changed so much that I get lost in what used to be very familiar places. I am bewildered as new streets intersect with the old back roads I used to know so well.
I was making my way from the swimming pool to the main street of Levent when I suddenly realized that everything looks very familiar. Could this be possible?  Wasn’t this the neighborhood I used to visit every day? There must be a house here, I thought: A white villa with a garden, a garden with flowers and fruit trees. The one I had accidently driven over and flattened. But how did I get here? In the past the road would have ended here and a stream would have continued. Wasn’t there supposed to be a shantytown on the other side of the stream? I looked and saw that the little slum was still there, to my right. On my left was the familiar old street. The new road I was driving on used to be the stream. How things had changed!
Where was that white villa with the garden now? Can I find it after all these years? What if I turned right from here? To arrive to the house we’d have to drive down a long hill. In the winter when it snowed it would get so icy that getting down that road was impossible. Oh, how it had snowed that winter! We couldn’t get out of the house for days. The garden was totally white under the snow. The roads were closed and the hill was too treacherous, even to walk on. I remember how happy I felt when there was no way out of that house. We had to stay inside. He couldn’t have asked me to leave or to go out. I was safe in the white villa that was owned by the man I loved so unhappily.
My heart fell into love affairs of self-destruction twice in my life.
I was fourteen with the first one. One morning I woke up and all the poems, songs and love stories had found a reflection in my soul. I was in love with self-inflicted agony, until I finished high school. I loved a boy who could not decide whether he wanted me or not. I mistook the bitter taste of longing for love itself. As that relationship ended, I promised myself, that from now on, I would open my heart only to men who appreciated me.
I didn’t keep that promise though and soon hit the wall of desperation again! With my next boyfriend I did it in such a way, I got to experience self-destructive love in its deepest form. That winter the snow stayed on the ground for the whole of March and as I turned 22 in the White Villa, I knew that soon, I would have to leave.
I read somewhere that it takes seven years for the cells in the human body to renew themselves totally. When I look at my personal history, I see that it is made up of transformations that were delivered in 7-year periods. I spent the whole of that third 7 year period between the ages of 21 and 28 - by warming my story of heart-break over and over in my mind, and injecting its bitterness into my blood.
I am back in the neighborhood of the white villa with the garden although I can’t find the house. If I had come up the main road I would have found it but I wanted the challenge of the back streets. I used to know every single road that led to that house; every pothole and all the plants that grew on the side of the streets, the placement of the trashcans. I had known every detail. Now, there is a black hole in my memory. It has been fourteen years since I left the white villa for the last time. Is that enough time to forget, or did I bury those times away along with the memories of my father? I sensed a connection between the times with my father during my childhood and the times I spent in the white villa with the man I loved so unhappily.
I gave up looking for the white villa and took the main road to return home. From the hole in my memory feelings from the past leaked out. The bittersweet pain of our heart breaks with my girlfriend Ayşe began to surface. I remembered stepping on the gas pedal of my red Skoda; cigarettes smoking in our hands, singing along to Alanis Morrisette at the top of our voices, we had driven to İznik. On our way, to console each other, we talked about the pain of our similar and unhappy love affairs. The emotions were felt deeply like notches made on fresh wood. We thought we were adults, but in actuality, we were just at the end of childhood. As we shared our stories, we were discovering our psyches and exploring our fears, our wounds and the tendencies that piled up inside of us. While the layers within us were being exposed, our stories were also passionate and self-satisfying. A sense of gratitude arose for those unhappy love affairs, as they provided us with much satisfaction and purpose. We were crying, then laughing, drinking and dancing, making oaths to close our doors forever to those who didn’t appreciate us!
It is probably no coincidence that my father had left home when I was seven. No one told me why he left. They had simply said that he had gone to America. From the whisperings of my aunt and my grandmother, who cared for me at home, until my mother came back from work, I could guess there was something going on which I wasn’t supposed to know.
I knew it anyway though, like an animal sensing fear, I too, sensed my father’s insecurity when he was at home. As a consequence of him not feeling safe, my need for safety was not met either. I knew that he loved me but his insecurities made me instinctively stay away from him.
Nowadays I know the story better. He was married to a woman who was powerful, beautiful and emotionally unavailable:  That was my mother. She had an elitist family behind her and that family never appreciated their new young son-in-law of no prestigious background. He needed his wife’s support to prove himself but that support was nowhere to be found. Yet he was young, strong and in love. He expected to have that love reflected back at him. He waited patiently for 15 years. Meanwhile he tolerated criticisms, judgments and insensitivity all around him. One day, a time came, when he quietly closed the door behind him and left.
My charming mother had stolen not only my dad’s heart from the very first sight but also mine. When my dad left, I found it convenient not to inquire about his absence. She may or may not be responsible for moving him away from me I thought to myself. What I really cared about, back then, was that his place in their bed was now mine, and I fell into deep seamless sleeps in my mother’s bosom.
My father remarried soon. I heard the rumours that he’d been “seeing” his new wife for a long time. Long before I heard that though, my friend Ilgaz had informed me that my father was having an affair.  I remember accepting this news with a nonchalant numbness, like I was watching a soap opera. Later, my mother also remarried and I felt deceived and abandoned for a second time when that happened. Finally my numbness melted into a new emotion: Anger. I could not express it as much as I would’ve liked to. My mother was on her honeymoon and my grandparents were too old to be screamed at. Instead I abused the neighbor’s daughter and stole her toys systematically.
Both male characters in my self-destructive love stories had met me, while still in love with other women. They were fairly honest about it. They told me about their situation at the beginning. Still, I told them I would wait for my turn. Perhaps because they found some consolation in me wanting that, they did not stop me from softly falling into their arms. Whenever I settled into those arms a little too much, they were quick to remind me, that my turn would probably never come, but I was not giving up; one step back, two steps forward, I continued to fight.
As I read different psychology theories, which link our destructive relationships to our unsatisfied needs, I wonder what needs was I trying to satisfy in the unhappy love affairs? Why did I stay in these relationships when I was suffering so much? In modern psychology, this type of suffering can represent the need to be emotionally stimulated.
Both affairs ended in the month of May ten years apart. In both times I realized suddenly that it was over and as if it hadn’t been me who begged and cried for years, I silently closed the door behind me and left. Although I struggled with this pattern again, I did not return to an unhappy love affair after that.
According to Freud, all of that had to do with my father. When I was a child, my father loved my mother but also found consolation in another woman whom he later ended up marrying. Perhaps that’s why I believed I could only be loved when I was in the position of the second woman. That position was curiously comfortable to me. If I waited a little longer, would I be loved by this man in the way I desired to be loved? The very same question was on my father’s mind when I was born. It was emotionally encoded in the genes he passed on to me. I felt it in his worry and dissatisfaction. I saw it in his face as the lines of disappointment formed around his eyes.
They say that our parents give us the wounds that help us find our way home.
It is true my parent’s relationship unconsciously provided me the guidelines for romantic relationships in the first portion of my adulthood. I expressed my father’s pattern when I was old enough to pick a man. I became him and looked for my mother’s unavailability in my relationships. I enjoyed the familiarity of the situation in the arms of men who couldn’t promise love.  It was natural and paradoxically safe.
Yet it is also true that in those self-destructive love affairs, I tasted life a little deeper. When I passed through the tunnel of emotions and took a look at myself, I discovered things about the ways we experience life. Even though I was very sad in the those love affairs, I nourished my soul with experience, got enriched and grew up.
When I saw I could not get nourished any more, I closed the door behind me quietly and headed home.
Translation from Turkish original to English: Ebru Salman

Hugging the Teacher

I love my students and I love hugs.
I don’t like hugs from my students.
I remember the feeling when one morning in Istanbul, after my class, a student, who is also a good friend, walked up towards me and gave me a big long hug and a loud kiss on each cheek. I felt uncomfortable. Other students were gathering their stuff and getting ready to leave but they were still in the room. I was trapped in my friend’s need to connect and my own desire to take a distance.
It is not that I don’t like her hugs. When I see her outside of the studio we naturally kiss and hug each other as a form of greeting. This is the cultural norm in Turkey. When a person refuses to offer her/his cheeks to the other, the message that is often perceived is that something is not right in the relationship.
This is at least true among friends and equals.
I often have friends who come to my yoga classes both in Portland and in Istanbul. I heard over and over my friends saying that if they were going to start yoga, they would prefer to start with me. This is not a good idea. I would advise them to start with a good teacher whom they don’t know as a friend even if it feels uncomfortable at the beginning. In yoga we are not seeking the feeling of comfort anyway.
Teaching friends is a tricky business. There is always some degree of confusion by the student on the teacher’s authority when the same person is a friend under different settings.  This is inevitable.  The confusion arises from not being able to switch from one mode of relating to the other for both sides.
Not always but most of the time, it is student-friends who arrive to the class last and they are more easily distracted. Frequently, it is they who don’t see anything wrong with yawning when I talk while other students hide their yawns from me. The lingering of the friendship mode inside of the studio can make me feel uneasy.
There are various “modes of relating” to one another.  Every relationship creates a space. That space is made up of agreements and boundaries that are recognized by individuals partaking in the relationship.  Friendship for example is a relationship based on equality. It usually operates at an emotional level. It is because we love them, we stay connected to our friends.
Teacher/student relationship on the other hand, neither operates on the emotional level nor is it equal. It is a fine balance being kind and at the same time holding the space of authority. My teacher is the excellent example for this balance. I don’t hug my teacher and I can’t even imagine doing that unless he initiates it.
If the mode of relating in friendships is based on love, I believe respect and trust are the two central components of student/teacher relationship. It is not just the teacher in person but also the knowledge he embodies is the source of this respect and trust. The knowledge I am talking about here is not simple information. It is a kind of knowledge which we acquire as we discipline the mind and surrender to the teachings of a system. Discipline, paying attention and repetition are necessary components for this kind of learning process.
However what is equal –at least in my case- is the distance I feel towards each of my students. If there is a consistent group of students coming to my classes regularly, I feel a strong connection between us.  Whatever other modes of relating we might have outside of the studio, do not affect the way I see them in the class.
My teacher always reminds us, the tools we need to operate during yoga are very different from the tools we use in our everyday relationships. During the practice, everyday tools of relating to one another, whether it be partnership, friendship or parenthood, must be suspended for a while.
This is also true for couples and families coming to yoga classes. It is a common thing when couples come to my classes, the husband sneaking peaks at  the wife or wife feeling responsible for explaining her husband’s limitations. For a fruitful practice, it is best if we can forget our outside identities and emotional attachments to other people in the room. In the end, yoga practice is something we do in our solitude.  Whether alone or surrounded by others in the room, we are on our own during practice.
That is why, when my student-friends switch to our friendship mode right after class. When they ask me what I am doing for rest of the day, a pattern for a knitted sweater, when they start a friendly chat about some stuff that happened the night before, when they want to give me a hug or a kiss, I can’t help but think that something is missing in my relationship with them.
I am well aware that it is my job to hold the space of the teacher and to evoke authority and respect.  The desire to please or comfort someone may be an essential component of friendship but it should not interfere with teaching.
As a teacher this is something I am learning. And like all other challenges, I view the presence of my friends in my yoga classes as a good opportunity to grow out of my shadows and transform myself for the better.

Friday, April 1, 2011





Friday, January 21, 2011

Blue Forest

Tonight I am all alone. My roommates are out for the night. There is no humming of the TV from downstairs or human voices traveling through heating ducts. Behind the closed doors I am reading, knitting and listening to music. It is late but I don’t care about the time. I feel so complete in my solitude I don’t want sleep to take that away from me.

I feel like I am 15 years old. Back in the days when my parents went out and left me alone in the house, I enjoyed the silence of the empty apartment and a sense of freedom that was somehow connected to the solitude.

I am back at that age again. Contained, content and accompanied by myself.

All that matters is knit and purl, good music and Orhan Pamuk’s latest book.

I am resting in the moment. In this moment the sense of time and space is lost. I could be 15 or 35, here or there. The fluctuations of my mind are suspended for a while.
Oh how happy I am that I decided not to go to Canada!

What does Canada have to do with this picture?  I sometimes hear this voice inside my mind. It says: C’mon, let’s go somewhere. I shrug. It insists: Let ‘s take the early morning train and go to Canada. We can spend the night in Vancouver and return tomorrow in the evening.
In the old days I always listened to this voice. The “voice”, was my charming guide. Now because I have enough experience to know, I can resist it a little more. What am I going to do in that new place? Most likely I will be lost in the streets of an unknown town and will search for a coffee shop to rest. I will want the coffee shop to suit my taste, not only in coffee but also in music and atmosphere. In my search I will get tired of walking and maybe even cold. Plus I will not want to go back to that cold ugly hostel room where I will be staying because of my college-student budget.

When I recount all these things to “the voice”, it becomes quiet for a day or two, if I am lucky. Then, like an addict, I start to feel that familiar craving. As if I had not described exactly what would happen if we went, or as if we hadn’t experienced the whole adventure before, “the voice” starts again: Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we take a trip to Canada this weekend?

“Let’s Go Somewhere Else, I can’t Take It Anymore”, demanded the voice!
This particular state of mind has been with me, ever since I can remember. When I was 8-9 years old and the voice would speak to me, I used to cycle all the way to the tip of the island where we spent our summer holidays. The tip, which was called the Tongue, was outside the limits of my “permitted zone” in the island. Therefore a short trip to the Tongue was enough to satisfy “the voice”.

Later, during my high school years, I started taking random public buses to unknown destinations after school.  That is how I discovered the poor and old neighborhoods of Istanbul, which were very different from the affluent parts of the city where I grew up. There I saw wooden buildings on the verge of collapse and the people living in them. I walked the narrow cobble stoned streets over which clean laundry was stretched from one house to the next. I watched the neighborhood kids coming back from their schools. I wondered about their lives. What went on in the old wooden houses? I imagined their stories.

When I had my first car, I drove all the way from my home to the Black Sea and the eastern villages of the Asian side.  Driving in solitude, I thought was freedom unlimited and it had an addictive quality. One Friday night I decided to drive to Antalya, a southern beach town 600 miles away. Before I reached the first third of the road - the voice was already silent and I realized that I needed to be back at school Monday morning so I drove back home!

One important and common aspect of these adventures is that I always needed to go on my own and secretly. Since I have no reasonable explanation of why I am going on this adventure, I preferred not to mention my plans to anyone. What if they wanted to join me? 

As I grew older, trips extended to other countries. During the time when I lived in Thailand, I kept visiting remote villages in Laos. If you have ever been there, you already know this: It is a true misery to get from one town to another in Laos. In a sticky hot bus you’re squeezed, between villagers, vegetables and livestock. If Laos sounded too hard, then I took the night train to Bangkok. Once during a summer holiday I returned to Istanbul. I found a cheap flight to London and sneaked out without notifying anyone. Another time in Portland, my cousin lent me her car for the weekend and I drove it to Seattle to spend the day! I have more stories but I think by now you get the picture!

So, you may ask, what happens when you arrive?

It is always the same thing! The first thing that happens is the voice which kept talking and filling my head with the dreams of freedom shuts up completely and is nowhere to be found. I start looking for a place to stay.  Once I settle in a small ugly room in a youth hostel or in some budget hotel, I go out. And then a HUGE emptiness slaps me in the face! That is when and every time I silently scream: “What the hell am I doing here?” Since the voice is not there anymore and the craving is gone, I find no answer, no explanation. The next thing that happens is that I want to go back home!

In the absence of the voice I am left alone with my restlessness that is guiding me nowhere. I feel exhausted and disappointed. Didn’t the voice promise me an exciting new reality at the end of the road? Wasn’t this new place supposed to satisfy my curiosity? What happened? 

Now I realize at the core of all these little adventures is a feeling of anxiousness.  If only I could make my way into the unknown I would be free of this unsettling feeling.

What is this unsettling feeling about? Did I feel it when I went to the Tongue in the island at the age of 8? Did I feel it when I was roaming in those narrow streets of old Istanbul? It seemed that I was excited and joyful during the journey. Back then, the adventures were not my escape from an unsettling feeling but they were tools for exploring myself. Each trip was a journey inward.

Then something changed. I found myself in a restless state. The whole trip was filled with frustration, grasping and a need to achieve the ideal, which had been that calm sensation I remembered from the earliest adventures. Once the ideal was created by my mind, then, instead of being present with my experience, I started to compare everything to that. Childish wonder was replaced by the greed to arrive there. I stopped exploring the experience as it spontaneously happened and transformed. Could the restless sensation, which I hoped to liberate myself from, be connected to the end of my childlike curiosity? The adventures continued but the journey within was over.

Is this what it is to grow up and become dull towards life and its wonders?

I know I am still curious. I still want to learn. The unknown continues to fascinate me and I still believe there is freedom there. The human mind is made for exploring yet one does not have to go far to meet the unknown. Stepping out of everyday routines and into new places has something to do with freedom but it can easily turn into another manifestation of our achievement-oriented lives or even into a pattern of escapism. Such adventures will satisfy our hunger for knowledge and freedom only if they go hand in hand with an inward journey. The inner journey begins once we start to transform our habitual ways of feeling, thinking, and acting in that new place.

A part of me knew this from the very beginning. When I was little, my mom used to read me a bedtime story called The Blue Forest. The hero, named Bunny Nomad leaves his home behind and takes a long journey in search of the Blue Forest. Finally, after many adventures our hero finds his way to the Blue Forest. As he approaches his final destination he looks up and sees that the Blue Forest, was the forest that surrounded his village and also the beginning of his journey.

I remember saying not a word after my mom finished reading the story. When she left the room I cried silently under the covers. Was I crying because my young heart was disappointed with the ending or was it because I felt that my own destiny was designed in a similar way to Bunny Nomad’s?

Sitting here in the silence of my room instead of hanging out somewhere in Canada – I feel so peaceful and satisfied that I think that I have arrived at the Blue Forest after all.

This is an excerpt from my upcoming book Mavi Orman which will be published in February 2011. Special thanks to Kokia for editing and helping with the concepts. 

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Arrival of the Soul

Dear People of the Other Side,

2 weeks after the arrival, I am feeling balanced again. This has a lot do with the fact that I started teaching again. I think I am a workacholic. I don't feel good when I am on vacation. (Well,  maybe, maybe not. Why come to conclusions about ourselves?) What I know for this phase in my life time is I love teaching and it is only when I am teaching I feel at home.

After two weeks of sleeping in (until way past my wake-up time. blame it on the jetlag), last Monday I got up at my usual 5:30am.  By the time I arrived to the studio, the morning prayer from the mosque started. Five times a day we have ezan, the Arabic chanting from the loud speakers that invites people to pray. In the darkest time of the day, the only quiet time of this ever beating city, I started my practice.

The studio I work in Istanbul (Cihangir Yoga) is on the 5th floor of a building by the sea. As my students walked in, I saw the sky changing from black to purple and then to deep pink. I watched the sky waking the sea up from its dark sleep and listened to the seagulls screaming in ecstasy to salute the sea. 

Photo: Murat Pazar
I don't remember seeing any other city in the world that is more beautiful than Istanbul. I am not saying this because Istanbul is where I am from. Most of you know that I have a long list of complaints and reasons of why I don't want to live here.  Yet still, as the day breaks over Bosphorus, I remembered such a  breath taking beauty this city was! 

During the class hearing my voice in Turkish felt a bit strange at the beginning. My mind is still operating in English language. But while teaching something else took over and spoke all the words in Turkish for me. That was the strange part. Who is speaking as we teach?  

The weather is like lemonade as we say in Turkish. Sunny, crispy, no winds, no down jackets. 
Plus my soul finally arrived!
Now that I have my soul with me, it is time to enjoy the beauties! 

I hope you are all doing great whereever you are. Know that you are missed!