yogi incognito

The winners of ascent’s first annual writing contest as chosen by Noah Levine.

illustration by sam weber, www.sampaints.com

excerpted from the print magazine…

Last autumn, we asked our readers and writers to tell their stories of someone in their life who embodies the attributes of a “yogi incognito.” A yogi incognito: someone who may not have a yoga practice or even know what yoga is, but their life journey, perspective and actions resonate with the yoga teachings. We had many entries, some written about parents, lovers or best friends, but a surprising number of entries were of nameless people whose actions somehow touched the writer’s life.

Whether it's a bookstore worker with a ratty cardigan reminding you to always challenge yourself, a sandwich maker whose smile and generosity can carry you through a day, or a punk-rock bassist who embodies the warrior spirit and meets each old and new acquaintance with a hug, the entries for the contest were not so much about recording random acts of kindness, but about being fully present in our interactions and finding beauty and transformation in the tiniest details of everyday gestures.

Thank you to all who entered our first annual Text Quest writing contest. And thanks to ascent staff for curling up with the many entries that arrived throughout February. We were looking for engaging writing and moving stories and we found many. A special thanks to our guest judge, Noah Levine, for his insight and love of storytelling and for choosing the following three stories from a shortlist of nine. Noah’s comments are pasted above each of the pieces.

Clank and the Path of the Spiritual Warrior
by Daniel Douek

This was the only story that spoke to my counter-culture sensibilities. “Clank” is my hero. Punk rock, mindfulness, kindness and bad jokes – I wanna party with this dude. – nl

As I gingerly pick my way around Montréal’s icy puddles, the February sky and ground blended into a slush-coloured swirl, I suddenly notice a figure up ahead. His exposed legs shine between his trademark Bermuda shorts (de rigueur in winter!) and rubber boots; his figure is framed by a yellow jacket and topped with a fluorescent orange hunter’s tuque. He advances cautiously but with surprising speed along the sidewalk, his cane reading the terrain before him in broad sweeps. It is, unmistakeably, Clank.

I rush to catch up with him, my day brightened immediately, as if his orange hat were an ancient symbol of human irrepressibility that he alone had been appointed to wear. As I announce my presence he reaches out for a hug, a ritual that he insists upon when greeting friends or meeting someone for the first time.

I happen to be prone to hugging virtually anyone, but over the years I have seen Clank request hugs from a wide variety of characters. For many, it must have been the first time in their lives that they found themselves hugging a brand-new acquaintance. Then they would learn that his name is Clank, “like the sound of metal striking metal.” Clank decided several years ago to assume a name in tune with his sensibilities, and drew inspiration from his repeated encounters with signposts and other hazards of our blind-unfriendly urban environment. We all adjusted.

For me, Clank is not only a cherished friend – he is the modern embodiment of the warrior spirit. His compassion, sense of humour, and fearlessness are as obvious as his bare knees on a winter day. Clank is my Tai Chi elder brother, a long-time practitioner from our martial arts group. His graceful, precise renditions of elaborate forms, both empty-handed and with weapons, are all the more astonishing when you consider that he began learning Tai Chi only after losing his sight.

When “pushing hands” (a contact two-person Tai Chi exercise) with him, I would sometimes announce that I was closing my eyes so as to rely only on touch sensitivity, as he did. “You’ve taken away my advantage,” he would declare with a smile. By detecting subtle misalignments in his partner’s posture and then capitalizing on them, he has forced me to lose my balance on numerous occasions.

The spiritual warrior is ever mindful of the need to live fully in the present moment, taking full advantage of circumstances and squandering nothing. This means never expecting a second chance. As a blind diabetic, Clank has a slim margin for error. He needs to check his blood sugar levels and eat fruit at carefully timed intervals, just as he must assiduously observe every dip in the road. This has contributed to his precise, no-nonsense disposition. Every object he carries has a carefully calibrated use, and is chosen and handled with the utmost care. A small burlap sack attached around his waist serves as an instant seat cushion; he wears a mouth guard similar to that used by hockey players to protect against face-level obstacles, such as off-loading ramps; within his backpack lies an expertly selected stash of apples.

Clank’s unerring ability to navigate Montréal’s geography and topography reveal a sense of direction worthy of a crack wilderness scout. His ability to locate points throughout the city by keeping track of the streets as he crosses them is reminiscent of a soldier measuring distances at night by counting his paces.

This emphasis on exactitude manifests in other ways, too: for example, Clank’s home stereo, a magnificent assemblage of components that resembles nothing so much as a dark spaceship looming across the floor. A visitor to his apartment will be treated to a demonstration of the system while seated at the “sweet spot” on the sofa, where the confluence of both speakers can jolt you to the core. Clank’s love for loud music finds its highest expression in his role as bassist in a local punk band, B9, of which he is a founding member.

Though the spiritual warrior possesses a highly unorthodox set of skills and attributes that may set him somewhat apart from the general population, he is characterized by the effectiveness with which he transmits his wisdom to others. This is known to Zen Buddhists as “skillful means.” After all, this wisdom does not exist for the warrior’s sake; it is for the benefit of all sentient beings, and as such must be abundantly available to all. Nor does it suffice for the warrior merely to cast an example for others to emulate from a distance; the very magic of the warrior lies in the juxtaposition of his uncompromising toughness with his approachable demeanour. Thus, Clank’s strategies for dealing with unforgiving elements are cloaked by a warm, gentle wit.

A photograph of Clank once appeared in Montréal’s weekly Mirror, walking the streets at Halloween time with an enormous pumpkin over his head. Clank also possesses an inexhaustible supply of terrible jokes with which he regales his friends and his girlfriend, Roxanne. We have shared many laughs over such classics as, “What did the zero say to the eight? Nice belt!” The utter banality of his jokes puts me in a laughing mood right away; whenever I see him, I ask whether he has any new ones to share.

Those unacquainted with Clank’s sense of humour cannot help but be impressed by his near inability to be embarrassed, and so they quickly befriend him. Clank’s friendliness and his power are both so clear that when you meet him, they hit you simultaneously; it is impossible to notice one without the other. In this way, he fuses the sharpness and the gentleness of the spiritual warrior – wise as a serpent, harmless as a dove. In the manner of the wandering Taoist sages of old he walks the streets of Montréal; with his endless determination and easy laugh he bestows blessings upon the city.

As a child, Daniel’s greatest ambition was to run like a cheetah and jump like a gazelle. Things haven’t changed much. Today, in Montréal, his culture consists of lingering over meals with family and friends, singing reggae in the shower, practising Taoist arts, and tackling his cats, Kaya and JAHLenks.

A slice of bread a cup of cocoa
by Patti Pitcher

The power, kindness and generosity shines through in this engaging and well-written essay. I enjoyed the reminder that "it is not what we do, but how we do it that makes a difference in this world." –nl

I love to stand and watch him chit-chat with the customers before me in line as he builds each sandwich individually. First he slices the bread, his choices delicious offerings from the organic bakery down the road. “Sourdough or rye?” he asks his regulars.

Never in a hurry, no matter how many people stand there and wait, he carves the loaf with care. Each slice falls off the knife thick and even, a perfect base for his creations. “Mustard? No? Well, then you must have some of our new mayonnaise. I bought it special for this sandwich.” Thick slabs of cheese, chunks of ripe tomato, luscious leaves of the freshest lettuce, each ingredient added with the tenderness a mother might use to soothe a crying child, each motion his full attention.

As he works, he looks deeply at each customer. He somehow knows to offer a joke to one, a smile to another and a bit of comforting wisdom to yet another. His ability to simply be present, as he does the mundane work of creating food and drinks, is his gift. This man’s work makes a difference in people’s lives all day long. Any attempt I have made to take note of his special presence in the world is pushed away with a flick of his hand. He is who he is, doing what he does. He needs no comment from the world to do his work with love. But what may seem like a small act to him – offering up a smile and a cup of fresh coffee – can make such a tremendous difference in another person’s life.

He did this for me the other day when I walked out of a therapy appointment feeling completely leveled. It had been a grueling session. I came away knowing I had done good work, but feeling completely drained. My heart felt raw, seared by the pain I had been grappling with. I was not looking forward to the hour-long drive home. Feeling around in my pocket, I saw I only had $1.27, not even enough for a warm drink before facing the traffic.

On a whim, I decided to go to his sandwich shop and just see if my few pennies could buy anything. Laying my $1.27 on the counter of the empty shop, I asked him if he could make me a smaller drink than usual because I didn’t have quite enough money to pay for a whole one. He smiled at me and said, “Sure, what do you want?”

“Hot chocolate,” I replied.

He looked at me closely and asked me what was wrong. You see, he knows me pretty well from my other forays into his shop. He runs a friendly place where people tend to congregate, laughing together as they wait for their latte or sandwich. “You hurting?” he asked. “Yeah,” I replied, looking down, not wanting to elaborate. Quietly, he made the drink. “Whipped cream?” he asked from behind the counter. And then, with one of his glorious smiles, he handed me a huge, delicious hot chocolate just the way I like it.

“It will get better,” he said.

His simple generosity meant so much to me in that moment. Clutching my drink, I wandered out of the shop and thought about all the joys his smile and caring bring to people each day. He is one of those people who knows how to make a sandwich an event, a cup of cocoa the taste of salvation.

It’s funny, I’ve been wandering into his shop off and on for the last three years. Some days I wander in with a smile and other days barely managing to cope. Every time I am greeted by his warm smile. It doesn’t matter what is going on for me, he greets me right where I am. No expectations. He stands there offering his kind and very human presence, in the form of a sandwich or hot drink. He sells me a raffle ticket benefiting his child’s school and I tell him a funny story about something my son did on the way to school.

Each interaction is a simple interaction between two souls. And always, these little moments leave me feeling fuller, more alive than when I arrived. Like a saint who blesses all who fall within his shadow, there’s a sense of grace following this man’s footsteps. And yet, after all this time, we still don’t know each other’s names – introductions are unnecessary in the realm of hearts.

I may not have learned his name, but I have learned a great lesson from my small interactions with this kind man. It is not what we do, but how we do it that makes a difference in this world. His simple, attentive presence offers solace to those he meets. I truly doubt he knows how powerful his actions are as they reverberate in the world around him. And yet, he continues because that’s the way he is. Kind, grateful, always with a ready smile, this man doesn’t need to find his yoga on the mat. He takes it with him in his heart.

Patti Pitcher loves writing and practicing yoga. She lives with her family on a small farm in Snoqualmie, Washington. She co-authored Under The Chinaberry Tree: Books and Inspirations for Mindful Parenting published by Random House in 2002.

by Elisabeth Weir

The importance of a mentor on the spiritual path was so clearly shown in this essay. The Buddha encouraged his followers to relate to a spiritual teacher as a "spiritual friendship." The warmth and kindness of "George" is that of a spiritual friend, one who did not charge money or demand devotion. He just made himself available for talking about the important stuff in life. –nl

When I was sixteen, I worked every weekend and all the holidays at a Safeway store up the street from my house. On Saturdays during lunch, I would go to a little bookstore nearby and browse.

One Saturday the owner wasn’t there; instead, there was an old man wearing a ratty old cardigan that smelled of pipe tobacco. His name was George Lewin. He explained that the owners had gone on an extended holiday and that he would look after the store for them indefinitely.

I began my usual browsing when he came over, looked at the popular novel I was considering and said, “Maybe you’d be interested in this one instead.” He handed me a copy of Jump Over the Wall – a story of a nun who eventually left her calling. He more or less pressured me into buying the book, and reading it demanded that I think about the spiritual part of my life, which up until that time I had kept well hidden.

From then on, on my lunch breaks, I would bring my bagged lunch to visit George, he would make tea; we would chat.

George had grown up a Saskatchewan farm boy and “joined up” at the beginning of WWI when he lied about his age – he looked old enough, so the army accepted him. Not only was he strong and healthy, but he had a keen intelligence that was put to use: first as an engineer, then as a secret service agent in India. I sat enthralled as he spoke of India and books written in Sanskrit. This was in 1961, in Burnaby, and I came from a working-class family – no one I knew and none of my teachers at school spoke about Sanskrit.

As I prepared to go to a small liberal arts college in the United States, George said, “You have to keep challenging yourself; you don’t want to be a big frog in a small pool. You have to think about climbing the ladder beyond your reach now.”

I kept in touch with him minimally when I went away to college, but two years later my life came crashing down and I returned home. I called George and began visiting him in the little suite he rented in the top of a house (the bookstore had closed). He was my salvation at that time and was the only adult I had met that I could say anything to and he would listen and respect me for who I was. I was in a terrible relationship with a guy both of my parents disliked. George had no attachment and it was his voice that I heard. “Marry him,” he’d say, “and you’re committing hari-kari.”

He began talking about his years in India, his gurus and the holy places he’d visited. He practised hypnosis, something he had learned in India. Doctors would call on him for help with patients. He had some kind of spiritual practice, but I don’t know what it was – it was all mystical and magical to me then – but I was like a sponge, absorbing everything he told me. George subscribed to some small Indian journals full of stories of reincarnation and children returning to the old life and finding some buried treasures. It all seemed too fantastical, but there was a kernel of something that spoke to me.

Sometimes I felt as if I had always known George. Once, looking at some of his pictures of ladies in Edwardian clothing taken somewhere in India in the 1920s, I had a strange dizzy feeling of recognition. But it might have just been an overactive imagination wanting to put an explanation to such an unlikely friendship of young and old. What was important was he saved me that year – I had returned battered from my first encounters with my own sexual nature. I’d suffered a miscarriage and couldn’t tell anyone. I was ashamed. But George was there, accepting, open, and supporting the best in me.

He talked about spiritual life as something that required commitment and a willingness to work at it. When some of my friends were experimenting with LSD, he said to me, “Instant Zen – that’s not what will get you there.”

His friendship and care for me, which came without expectations, helped heal me that year and I went back to school, got a teaching certificate and went up north to work. We corresponded and his letters were full of thoughtful encouragement. Then suddenly he died of a heart attack. At his funeral there were many other young people, some I recognized and others I didn’t. What I didn’t know until then was that he had the same depth of relationship with them that he had with me. We all met him at the heart level and he’d been there for each of us in his wise way.

As is the nature of being young, I remembered him warmly with love and then went on with my life. I didn’t think much about him except as a kindly memory. Then, ten years later, I began to study yoga intensively. It came into my life at that time as a blessing and a healing, but as I began to absorb the teachings, I realized that there were seeds within me that were starting to blossom. They’d been planted during my time with George – his gift to me, and the first yogi I met. I will always hold him in my heart with gratitude because he pointed the way, and deep within, I remembered.

Elisabeth Weir is a lifelong spiritual seeker currently living in British Columbia.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life