Andy Douglas' THE CURVE OF THE WORLD: INTO THE SPIRITUAL HEART OF YOGA
There’s a genre of memoir commonly called the spiritual memoir. One of the most famous examples would be Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, but there are many, many others: Kathleen Norris’ Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Faith Adiele’s Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun, or Roger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus, to name just a few. This week I want to introduce you to a memoir in this genre by a writer named Andy Douglas. Born in Brazil to missionary parents, Andy spent much of his childhood in Iowa, where he returned later in his life to attend graduate school. In his early 20s, disillusioned by the conventional promises of his life, and having struggled with some depression, Andy traveled to Thailand, where he planned to stay with monks at an Ananda Marga yoga center: to meditate, help out at a school for poor children, and explore. It turned out to be the beginning of a journey that took him to India, Korea, and back to the U.S., as well as inward, to previously unexplored interior landscapes. The book is called The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga.
This excerpt appears early in the book, when Andy first arrives in Bangkok:
The next day dawned clear and fair, and the Indian monk who’d welcomed me the previous night , all twinkling eyes and unruly beard, peered at me over the scattered remains of our Bangkok breakfast. An elfin young man with long black hair, clad in a saffron gown, he suggested a walk. Slipping his hand into mine, he led me out through the metal gate in front of the house. The heat and oily humid smells conjured some vague memory, perhaps of mowing lawns when I was a kid.
We strolled back and forth in the lane through the perpetual summer of Bangkok as cars and tuk-tuks whizzed by on the nearby thoroughfare.
“Tell about yourself.”
I told him I had come to Thailand to look into working at a school for poor kids. I didn’t tell him that I had also come because I couldn’t see beyond the black hole of my own self and that I had needed to get away from the States in order to clear my head. “Oh, Andy,” a friend who fancied herself a palm reader had murmured not long before, taking my hand and searching the patterns of my palm. Weighing my hand in hers, and nothing the plethora of tiny scratches from broken main lines, not deep and smooth, but full of false turns, fibrillations, breaks, cul-de-sacs, she looked up.
Pushing her hair out of her face, she sighed: “One rough ride.”
I couldn’t argue. In my late teens there were days when I’d imploded, couldn’t bear to be around other people, couldn’t throw a single spark of personality beyond the horizon of my depression. The default ways in which males in my culture were encouraged to become men—sex, drugs, wildness—had left me confused, though I had tried them on for size. I’d been traditionally churched among Presbyterians, but at a certain point this, too, had left me cold, and I found myself turning away from the faith of my fathers. There seemed to be no real rites of passage in my world, no means to understand what it was to become whole. At age 21, I was entering a life, as T.S. Eliot had put it, of being “distracted from distractions by distractions.”
The monk smiled at me. Perhaps he could read the general outlines of my dilemma in my face. “This life is not easy,” he said in his nasal, high-pitched voice. I stared at him.
“As a monk, I am surrendering everything for a higher purpose, giving up everything, for God. So, I am able to be . . .” he searched for the word . . . “concentrating completely on service, and on meditation.”
He turned his doe-eyes to me. “Do you think you could do like this?”
I gave a nervous laugh. It was something I hadn’t really considered. And besides, I had just gotten here. I wanted to explore and enjoy. I wanted to have some fun.
“Think about this,” he said. “You are inviting a friend to your house. Are you keeping the door closed? No, you are opening it.”
He laid his hand on my shoulder.