AHAMKARA—PART I

Gazuntite!
Gazuntite! // Creative Commons

You’ve had a cold for a week. A website has told you that you have a sinus infection. You will not go to a doctor.

You’ve lost all sense of smell, of taste; you can barely hear — if you lower your head your whole face seems to swell and grow heavy. As you stumble down the hallway, deciding finally to appease the phone that has been ringing all morning, you feel as if you are swimming through sludge. You pick up the handset and offer a greeting. Through the receiver, your mother’s voice informs your hot ear that you sound horrible. You quickly tell her that you’re sick, but that it’s fine, and she recommends Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot, what she calls a Neti pot (“It’s Hindu. Or maybe Zen. Something-or-other, anyway”). She learned about it in this great new yoga class she’s taking at the fitness center, which she is now begging you to try.

You’ve heard of Neti pots before. Your short-haired high school Spanish teacher from Eureka used to swear by them. For 20 minutes she would try to describe the strange porcelain object in a language that the class did not yet understand before defaulting to English, which she would then use to gush about her strong and handsome Yogacharya (se dice “un hombre fuerte y hermosísimo”) for the remainder of class.

Mass-marketed Eastern medicine has always struck you as stupid, so you’ve tried to keep your distance. But over the years this distance has rendered it obscure, mystical and, somehow — secretly — right. You hang up the phone, and in the haze of silence that follows you feel that everything, at one time tossed up and confused, is now settling. It is as if all of your restless hatred and sadness and uninformed smirking is sloughing off of you and drifting onto the ground just as

thin and broken leaves

wobbling down in autumn breeze

find home in red dirt!

Suddenly, you are considering the possibility that throughout your entire life, so thick with trouble and frustration and now with mucus, all you ever needed was an alternative. And here it is. Here is the answer. It is speaking to you, offering you control.

“And if I am to partake in this journey into the East, into clear sinuses, into wellbeing and wholeness, what better point of entry than the [b] Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot?” you ask yourself. Its small, portable design will make it easy to stash when your friends come to visit, saving you from ridicule. Even if the nosy ones discover it resting among embarrassing creams in the medicine cabinet, the thing so closely resembles a teapot that you’ll be able to explain that no, this is not what it looks like (that is, an ancient artifact of a lost but now reemerging art form, a product of eons of trial and error and mystic revelation, a beautiful ceramic pot complete with an ergonomic handle and a slender proboscis for maximal intra-nasal saline delivery) — no, this is a minimalist, “arty” teapot that you found at a flea market and, gosh, how the heck did it get in there, anyway?

There is another reason why, as far as spiritual starter-kits go, Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot is probably your best bet: unlike Sundance What’s-Her-Name, the beginner’s yoga instructor over at the fitness center, a Neti pot won’t demand in a cooing voice that you contort your spine and tie up your limbs into unimaginable knots.

Snot gurgles deep inside your skull. Look: it’s you, clutching your head and pulling your hair, brooding on a black and white screen. The frame is shaking, the shot zooming steadily in, the pressure mounting. Everything is vibrating and painful — hopeless. Suddenly, the camera slows its jiggle, righting itself. You crack a smile. Rich Technicolor floods the screen. A bold catchphrase spirals into view, obscuring your face and most of the picture: Neti to the rescue!

 

* * *

 

In the parking lot of Whole Foods, second thoughts. Ladies stroll past one by one, leaning into their shopping carts, some glancing at their cell phones, others squinting in the afternoon sun. Most of them are wearing a variation of the same outfit: sneakers, ludicrously tight yoga pants (butt cheeks tensing, relaxing, tensing again), a synthetic shirt, and huge sunglasses apparently meant to eclipse the face. At the other end of the parking lot, the pavement shimmers in the heat. The highway roars.

Look at these people. Why do this? Who decided? Neti? Lies seem to linger overhead; they thicken the air like crop dust. Think: Hope like this has only ever proven itself to be a fiction. What mystical cure could possibly be found there, in that building, sitting in the company of granola, grass-fed beef, linoleum floors and rich suburbanites? Why not just go to a doctor’s office? The needle smell, the nice, clean carpets, the reassuring diplomas, proudly framed and mounted on the wall — what do you think you’ve been —

But now you are stepping out of the car and walking across the parking lot. Now the automatic doors are sliding apart, a pimply teenager in a green vest (nametag: Jared) greeting you. Now you are sheepishly but excitedly making your way towards the health section, now inspecting the aisles, now passing the fish-oils and flax seeds, the antioxidant infusions, the aloe drinks, the rows and rows of soy. Now you are numb, struck with awe: The parking lot is worlds away, the asphalt almost inconceivable now that your eyes are filled with waxed tiles and soaring ceilings and endless objects. And here — right here, in aisle three — you are extending your arm and pulling a box off the shelf, relishing its weight as the concept of Neti becomes something tangible, like a lofty wish materializing at the nod of a genie’s head. For a second you imagine that the box is covered in lines of Sanskrit, but soon the label comes into focus — no, not Sanskrit, just a smartly chosen typeface (Papyrus, to be exact). It spells out, for the first time, the savior’s title in full: Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot (Original Ceramic Model For The Cleansing And Moisturizing Of Nasal Passages According To The Traditional Practice Of Neti)!

You stand in a stupor for a minute or so, staring at the cardboard box that has appeared in your hands. You are paralyzed. Yes, your limbs are giddy with the memory of your dreamlike march through Whole Foods, but the world seems to have slowed down. Something’s happening, everything is rising up into a sneer. Anger and ridicule wash over you. For a moment, you are transported back to the parking lot. You can feel the yuppie women strutting past, unseeing; you can feel the sun making you sweat.

“Ohhh, Neti pots are great!”

Not one of the women from the parking lot. Not the short-haired high school Spanish teacher from Eureka, either. No, this one has long hair, brown, not gray, with some strands of gold flickering in the fluorescent light. Pretty. And, Jesus, how long has she been standing there?

“Sorry if I’m intruding or whatever, but if you’re unsure about trying it out you can take my word for it.” She points at the box in your hand. “I know it seems kind of, I don’t know, perverted to stick a teapot up your nose like that, but it actually feels so good!”

Is your distress really that obvious? You look at her wide set eyes and wrestle your mouth into a smile. Might as well say something to reassure her, make her think: uncertain? Who, this guy? No, he couldn’t be more sure of himself if his life depended on it.

“Oh really? Well, my mom told me I should get it for this cold I have, and I mostly just want her to stop nagging me about it. Gotta appease her every once in a while … you know what I mean … I might not even use it, just have to prove to her that I took her advice and bought it.” Throw in a scoff for good measure.

“Oh.”

She’s looping her hair around her finger, her delicate lips parted into a withdrawn smile. You idiot, it’s the look. It’s the look of confusion — confusion with traces of pity and ridicule and fear — that often falls across a woman’s face when you open your mouth. It’s as if you’re speaking in a strange accent that’s hard for her to place. And just look at her; she’s so heartbreakingly pretty, standing there, uncomprehending.

“Well, feel better! You do sound pretty terrible. Hopefully that thing helps. I think it will; it worked for me!”

“Thanks.”

To keep things from getting any worse, you turn and walk back down the aisle. The stupid box clings to your hand, a trophy for your failure.

But stop for a second, think: Why sweat the little things? Her image lingers at the backs of your eyes, and you feel stupid, but there’s a chance here to get back on track. Her beauty, though painful, is a confirmation. It is. You imagine her cheery face hanging over you, nodding at your every move as if to say:Yes, what you are doing is right.

And, really, why shouldn’t you take her word for it? She seemed normal enough. If you were to introduce her to your friends at a party, they would probably nudge you in the ribs when she turned her back, say something like “how’d you land that one?” And of course they’d all laugh at that, and you wouldn’t able to come up with a retort, but it doesn’t matter — you see the jealousy in their eyes as they inspect her backside and drink deeply from their cups, all of them wondering about the future, wondering whether you’ll have room for them in it. Look at this: In a miraculous turn of events, you have become the one who tolerates them. They are dispensable, insignificant; the Girl from Whole Foods is the only one who seems real to you anymore. She is the one who loves you for who you are, the one who has nuzzled your shoulder in the empty hours of the morning, the one who has coaxed out your innermost thoughts and treated them tenderly, as if they were her own.

At the cash register, the conveyor belt whisks Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot over to “Stacy,” who scans it. The beep, high and quick, is like a bell going off. You think, “the Girl from Whole Foods appeared before me like a spirit, recited her truest, most honest testimony, and demonstrated a kindness that I’ve never felt before — a great lotus flower of kindness that is now opening up before me and inviting me into its bloom, taking me into its glowing petals, dousing me with its cosmic nectar (a mild saline solution that, when warmed and deposited into the nostrils by way of a minimally intrusive proboscis, moisturizes and cleanses the nasal passages) and, at last, carrying me across ancestral waters towards a beacon of promise in the East. She has given her blessing unto me, and —”

You mutely shove a fistful of bills into “Stacy’s” palm. Before she can hand you the change, you’re grabbing Ancient Secrets® Nasal Cleansing Pot and shooting past “Jared,” fighting the urge to clap him on the back and thank him for his service. The sliding doors part, and the parking lot spreads out before you. You inhale deeply. Snot collects at the back of your throat. The cars whip past on the highway. For once, for once, the world is within your grasp.

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