Meditating on Yoga

by Lucy Kenningham on 15 November 2022
Meditating on Yoga
In this chaotic, intense and unclassifiable read, French literary star Emmanuel Carrère dissects the act of meditation

“My only real problem,” states Emmanuel Carrère in the first few pages of his newly-translated 2019 book Yoga, is “my unwieldy, despotic ego”.

This, readers, is the reason that the successful journalist, filmmaker and author has been meditating for over 20 years. He uses yoga and meditation “inter- changeably”, which is actually reasonable given that the two practices were originally intertwined when developed in ancient India in 5 BCE.

He’s not alone in struggling with “unwieldy” thoughts: “the mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy,” explains Mattieu Ricard, the Dalai Lama’s French translator, in an interview promoting his 2010 book Why Meditate?

As a sufferer of bipolar disorder type ii (a diagnosis that is revealed in Yoga) Carrère knows this paradoxical reality only too well. He hopes to temper it with meditation, which it’s believed can change the brain in enduring ways. “Usually we fully identify with our emotions,” Ricard says serenely and earnestly. “But if you think about it: you’re not anxiety; you’re not anger; you’re not fear.”

If you take the time to meditate and to observe your emotions without judging them, “you create a space of awareness which naturally unfolds and the anxiety naturally folds away, without you falling victim to it or suppressing it.” Bref, “you let it vanish”.

For years, Ricard has been working with neuroscientists who say the same thing. A study of meditating monks conducted over 20 years demonstrated that the high-frequency gamma oscillations in their brains (which correlate with “flashes of insight” or “aha moments”) had become far more frequent and longer lasting. After 50,000 hours of meditation (or nearly six years uninterrupted day and night), your brain changes forever.

That’s a big commitment. Luckily for the non-monks, the BBC reports that “even two weeks of 30 minutes a day of meditation is sufficient to change the brain and increase a person’s prosocial or altruistic behaviour”. In fact, psychiatrists are even starting to prescribe meditation to patients. In July, an “uber-study” demonstrated that low serotonin levels are not, in fact, linked to depression as previously thought. Thus, alternative treatments to SSRIs (medication that targets serotonin levels) are being suggested; these include meditation.

Carrère does not involve himself in such debates. That’s not what Yoga is about. In fact, dogmatists like Ricard “get on [his] nerves a bit” because he has “a problem with saffron robes and monks who tell you: ‘Religions are sectarian and specialised: what I’m teaching isn’t a religion, it’s simply the truth”. Rather than being a “personal development” self-help book, which - strangely for this pioneering and eccentric author - Carrère claims he wanted to write, Yoga is instead focused on Carrère himself (much more his forte) and is a continuation of his series of novelistic memoirs. These are trailblazing, compulsive hybrids of multiple genres: history, sociology, psychology and waver along the blurred line separating fiction from non-fiction.

For example, his 2014 masterpiece The Kingdom examines and imagines the lives of Saint Paul and Saint Luke. It was an interpretation of the cultural, political and social context in which the first Christians managed to spread this new religion. In it, Carrère painted extraordinarily vivid pictures of the first century AD. Greeks and Romans in that time “believed in Zeus hurling bolts of lightning the way children today believe in Santa Claus”. Prayer was used “a lot like meditation” is today. “For Luke, going to the synagogue was less like embracing a religion than attending a philosophy class.” Paul the Apostle is compared with the 1960s American sci-fi author Philip K Dick and ecclesiasitcal organisations are compared to the Bolsheviks. Carrère is a “whirling eccentric”, similar to a “brilliantly improper teacher, the one you were lucky enough to enjoy before he got fired,” writes James Wood, in perfect summation.

Yoga begins at a Vipassana meditation retreat in January 2015, we are told this is the original nexus of the novel. A ten-day semi-fasting yoga session, the retreat is compared to “North Korea” (you are barred from speaking, reading, writing, drawing, exercising, talking, communicating and technology). It’s not Carrère’s most refined metaphor. The retreat, which you go to by choice, involves hours of stock- still meditation in a single sitting lotus pose; fairly extreme under-nourishment (it’s just one main meal of “rice and boiled vegetables”); and potential sleep deprivation (you rise at 4am). “Your whole body protests and resists your stillness” once you are in the lotus, Carrère writes. It’s the extremity of meditation, a sort of super-challenge for practitioners old and new. For the two days Carrère spends on the retreat, we are privy to his ambulating thoughts and furious battle with his body to retain the posture for hours at a time.

But after just two days, Carrère is forced to leave. Heis summoned back to the French capital as he is the second choice of eulogist for the funeral of Bernard Maris, a journalist who was murdered in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. The first choice was Michel Houellebecq, but he was unavailable due to being in police hiding after the publishing of his provocative novel Submission, in which there is an Islamic coup over France, that same day.

After all this, Carrère reveals “the story of my madness” in which he spirals into a mental breakdown and is hospitalised for months, receiving treatment with strong doses of ketamine (horse tranquiliser) and even severe electro-shock therapy. It is now that he is diagnosed with bipolar disorder type II. “It’s disturbing,” Carrère writes, “at almost sixty years of age, to be diagnosed with an illness that you’ve suffered from your whole life without it ever being named.”

He leaves hospital and travels to Greece to help with a creative writing course for refugees, hangs out with the eccentric American Erica (but doesn’t sleep with her) and it is on the island that he begins to truly recover. He does not pin his recovery on a particular reason. The fifth and final section of Yoga is short and entitled “I Continue Not To Die”; it deals with the death of Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, Carrère’s friend and publisher, and the author’s rehabilitation through - surprisingly - learning to touch type. “Typing correctly could be my personal and ultimate form of yoga”, he claims.

This is a bit of a surprise, although it’s true that very varied definitions of yoga and mediation punctuate the novel. At one point, yoga is tai chi. At another, there is an intimate and sensual passage in which yoga is sex: two bodies melded into one. Touch typing is, to be fair, a physical and meditative practice using muscle memory. And Carrère is keen to impress that meditation and yoga can take numerous forms.

Reading Yoga can be frustrating. Segments of thought seem to cascade down from the tornado of the author’s head. They are presented in small chunks, sec- tions, clearly outlined in large text with slightly pompous headlines such as “It’s simple” and “Things as they are”. It’s as if the author is trying, almost childlike, to impose order on an unorderable mind. Stamp, stamp. Carrère’s voice in the text is gratingly repetitive about his original intent to write an “upbeat, subtle little book on yoga” and constantly pipes up with meta comments reminding us what this book could have been and what will happen later in the narrative. Equally, this hyper-aware narrative state, present at different temporal moments, reflects a mind in crisis.

Throughout it all, there is meditation. Meditation is a chance to observe your thoughts without participating in them; “instead of trying to eradicate [these thoughts], you stick to observing them without blowing them out of proportion”. It allows Carrère to practise focusing on one thing at a time. Memorably, “Meditation is pissing when you piss and shitting when you shit”.

In The Kingdom, Carrère pronounces: “all our misery is rooted in self esteem. Yoga complicates simplified notions of meditation: it’s not an easy route out. It is a practice that is painful, deeply painful, but one that with time might briefly allow you to escape the inner prison of your ego. Meditation “is discovering that you’re something other than the thing that is relentlessly saying: Me! Me! Me!” For an author of memoiristic novels, or novelistic memoirs, what a relief that must be.