What kind of subtle reading nurturance will you give yourself this year? How will you feed your mind in ways that are satisfying, even healing, for you?
In Ayurveda we work with the five koshas for healing. These are different levels of experience, sheaths, dimensions of being, ways that we relate to the world around us. They include the physical, the energetic, the emotional, the intelligence sheath, and the sacred dimension of who we are. We feed each of these levels in different ways. In Ayurvedic anatomy, these koshas are found within Mano Vaha Srotas, the channel of the mind.
There are clues to how each kosha is fed within its Sanskrit name. Annamaya kosha: anna means food, maya is “made of”, so literally physical food makes up and nurtures this kosha.
Pranamaya kosha: prana is the subtle alive energy that comes with breath and the movement of energy. Breathwork, pranayama, is one way to nourish this sheath.
Manomaya kosha: manas relates to the sensory and emotional mind. Sensory input and feelings make up and feed this level. Mantra can nurture and stabilize this kosha.
Vijnanamaya kosha: vijnana is intellect, intelligence. It often also includes Jnanamaya kosha, jnana being knowledge. Ideas and intuition can feed this intelligence sheath. Classically meditation is a primary nourishment for Vijnanamaya kosha. Reading can provide subtle nourishment for this level of our being.
Anandamaya kosha: ananda, the bliss of union with the Divine feeds our sacred self. There are many ways to provide this nurturance; samadhiis what the ancients advocated.
I am a glutton. My loved ones can attest to this, yet it’s a secret to most. Not only do I have a ravenous appetite for food, which is not subtle at all, but my hunger is large in other areas as well.
As a little kid, growing up in the middle of the US, far from any coast, I wondered how in the world I got here. Much of my life didn’t make much sense to me; I struggled to find nourishment on the subtle levels. The 1950s Midwestern white culture I grew up in was solid and to me, sort of bland. We had strong routines, a deep work ethic, a homogenous culture that didn’t invite much self-reflection. (Not a great deal of vijnanamaya kosha stimulation.) There were also attitudes and beliefs that seemed short-sighted to me even as a kid, like mistrust of other cultures or the assumption that war keeps us safe. I was lucky to be part of a large family that had plenty of nourishment on the physical levels. Yet I missed something larger.
When I went to India in 1983, I was shocked to realize that I’d been starving my whole life. Not physically, yet spiritually and in terms of community. Surrounded by the enthusiastic East Indian devotees of Baba Neem Karoli at his temples after his passing, I experienced deep joy and relief. This was like nothing I had encountered growing up.
Subtle Reading Nurturance for Children
One subtle kind of nourishment that I did revel in as a kid, gluttonously, was reading. It helped alleviate my confusion; it gave me some place to be (inside) that made more sense than what was happening on the outside. There was this great public library in downtown Wheaton, Illinois within walking distance of a little toy store. Model car kits and books, what more could a young girl want?
The library looked like a miniature castle to me built of old rounded stones, you went up three flights of stairs to get in there. t must have been a historic building. The excitement I felt climbing those steps was euphoricprobably the most exciting thing happening in my whole life at that time. The freedom! To take out a pile of books, whatever I wanted, as many as I could haul away, it felt heavenly. I have to confess, I still feel like that today in our local neighborhood library. It has a limit of 25 books!! How sensible. Where else can you indulge so flagrantly and do no harm?
As a kid, as long as I picked from the children’s section of books, I could choose whatever I wanted. Again, how rare. This wasn’t the case with food, where obviously I had to eat whatever was being served. We weren’t the kind of family that recruited kids’ opinions on the menu or the grocery list. My mom had clear ideas about this. Yet at the library, she was open. Whatever you want. Wow!
I found company in the company of the characters in the books I chose, their adventures, heart-felt curiosities, friendships, courage, gawkiness. The subtle reading nourishment I received compensated for my somewhat awkward introverted social persona. To simultaneously feel oneself in alive, connected human relationships, yet alone, reading, can be a paradox of this particular media experience.
The Nurturance of Other Cultures
In high school, some subtle nourishment came into my life when I got a job as a sales clerk at Woolworth’s, the local 5 and Dime. Shyness had dissipated some in my teens; I was thrilled to meet foreign students coming into the store. Wheaton College was a privately owned fundamentalist Christian school, associated with evangelist Billy Graham. It was quite “white” in general, yet its solid reputation attracted young people from around the world. They would come downtown to look for window shades, keys, towels, whatever. As a clerk, I would rush over to help them and have whatever kind of conversation they were willing to engage in. This way I got to meet people from Africa, Japan, Indonesia, South America. Granted, it was for a few minutes, yet I found it sustaining. Those days felt richer and brighter to me.
As I grew older, I followed my tastes for subtle reading nurturance around the world. History, life sciences, fiction, it was all up for grabs. Ayurveda, Polarity Therapy, Integral Yoga, herbs, astrology, gardening, how delicious. When I first became involved in Tibetan Buddhist practice in the early 2000s, I read only non-fiction for 4 – 5 years, mostly Dharma.
A Surprising Shift in Feeding Habits
In the years before 2016, I’d taken up novels again, yet my tastes in subtle reading nurturance became unexpectedly rebellious. At firstI just gave up reading men (sorry guys). Then I refused to take in any novels originating in the US. Ultimately I found comfort in the books of Bengali women, mostly immigrants to the US writing about India, all of necessity in English. (My skills are limited. If I could read Bengali, there’s a slew of good writers I’ve missed.) I kept searching out fresh novels and new authors to delay my departure from Bengal. (Which could seem surprising, as I’ve never had the fortune to be there in this lifetime.) This went on for two to three years; it was the subtle reading nurturance I needed.
One Nourishing East Indian Novelist
One of the authors I found sustaining during that time was Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I read every novel of hers the neighborhood library had (fortunately our head librarian is adventurous). A fantastic storyteller, in The Palace of Illusions (2008) Divakaruni recounts the tale of India’s revered Mahabharata from the perspective of one woman, Panchaali, wife to all five Pandava brothers. Moving smoothly between history and myth, Panchaali often finds herself in some nether world between waking reality, dream, and unexpected visitations from Indian gods or goddesses. Fierce and often unrepentant, she struggles to make her way in a world of powerful men. As the tale unfolds, what war means to the creatures in its path, human, plant, animal, devic, is painfully evident. Yet as the novel closes, some kind of inner reconciliation has occurred. Dancing between deeply conflicting worlds, she says, “I am beyond name and gender and the imprisoning patterns of ego. And yet, for the first time, I’m truly Panchaali.” She finds some kind of precious truth in who she is in the present moment. The deep passion with which she lives her life fed Vijnanamaya kosha for me. How of necessity, she had to open to other worlds of being within her mind. At this point in my practice of Tibetan Buddhism, a complex and rich inner landscape, I could connect. Her existence provided encouragement to me on my own unfolding path.
Another Sustaining East Indian Writer
Another Bengali woman many revere is Pulitzer Prize winning Jhumpa Lahiri. Her fiction is an entirely different kettle of fish than that of Divakaruni. Cool and urbane, she has defended her writing against being pigeon-holed as Immigrant fiction, stating, “The tension between alienation and assimilation has always been a basic theme” in literature, something more universal.
These days the struggle between alienation and assimilation has taken to the streets, as well as in the innermost places of our hearts. Unaccustomed Earth (2008) and The Lowland (2013) accompanied me as I struggled unconsciously to make some kind of sense about what was going on in my own country in the years preceding 2016. It also shed light for me on what was going on in India in the 1960s, the setting of The Lowland. The Lowland met my thirst to understand. Part of subtle reading nurturance for me is that a book has to help me understand – the perspectives of the characters, the conditions of their struggle, why they would choose to do what they did. (For this reason, autobiographies have long been my bread and butter.) The Lowland, a novel, took place in a period in Indian history I knew very little about, the 1960s in Calcutta. Why young people chose to rebel, and what this meant to their families, at home and abroad, Lahiri explores skillfully. Juxtaposed against my own bewildered memories of being a Midwestern teenager in the ‘60s, this larger uprising of young people on the other side of the planet retroactively made sense to me and helped me make some sense of my own times and context. (I was 16 when, less than an hour away from our home, Chicago descended into the chaos at the 1968 Democratic convention.) This digesting and metabolizing on the intelligence-knowledge level is what can occur in healthy Vijnanamaya kosha.
Return to the United States
With the elections in 2016, I had to face I’d been in unconscious exile. I hadn’t wanted to face what was going on in the US, our deeply conflicted rifts of perspective and experience. Yet I still kept reading, voraciously now, accounts of current events in newspapers, blogs, as well as fiction. It’s telling to look back now and realize that one of the first women authors to invite me back to this shore was Joan Didion, as well as many African American women writers. Didion was plain-spoken, so utterly ruthless in facing the truth of her own life (cf The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005) – and in writing about the realities we all face as North Americans. For decades she shined a light on the underbelly of the U.S. Writer Hilton Als expresses her trajectory well here.
While I spent a lot of time (metaphorically) around Sacramento, Didion’s home stomping grounds in those months of subtle reading nurturance, it was a different book of hers, a novel that entirely caught me up. The Last Thing He Wanted (1996) explores the journey of one formerly powerful and comfortably situated white woman journalist into a world far less well-defined. It’s at one moment a scathing primer on American history, political assassinations, arms dealing, DC, California, Cuba, and family allegiances. Yet in another, there is a quiet covert love story on an unnamed island melting down in the Caribbean, all offered with Joan Didion’s deft touch. It’s a quiet sleeper.
Like its deliberately low-profile lovers, it hasn’t made the lists of Didion’s acclaimed best. In The Last Thing He Wanted, it’s obvious that capitalist imperialism, the structure underpinning their lives, is a phony. Yet the two protagonists still find ways to love each other. In the shadows of mortality and impermanence, it’s a fleeting and sympathetic portrayal of two humans. Even in the midst of rapidly eroding conditions, they think about the others beyond them, considering the consequences of their actions. This fed me. In the most improbable of circumstances, one cares deeply. And then there is the question the author poses, what might have happened? If it had all gone differently, like its backdrop, so much of US history?
What we “feed” ourselves in terms of the ideas, wisdom, and mental companionship we invite into our daily lives, impacts us. My taste in subtle reading nurturance is unique to me; you could be fed by entirely different flavors.
Other Ways to Nourish Vijnanamaya kosha
Reading is one way to nourish our intelligence sheath. Other examples include meditation, courses, study with others, mentoring relationships, deep reflection, writing, long walks with a loved one talking over ideas.
At this moment I am as gluttonous as ever in terms of subtle reading nurturance, as you can see from the attached photo. It’s some of what I’ve taken out from the library plus my personal stash this month. Bless the forces of public kindness!
This is an unusual menu of subtle reading nurturance. If you were to describe your own stash, how you nourish your intelligence-knowledge sheath, what might you say?
Subtle Reading Nurturance Books Amadea image thanks to iza Bruen-Morningstar
Dr. Lad, Textbook of Ayurveda, volume 1, pp.193 – 196
Dr. David Frawley, Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide, p. 318
With Ralph Steele, Amadea is offering an online course Inclusion as Medicine that includes journalling, meditation, and reflection, Feb. 15 – Mar. 29. Registration closes January 31.