I keep in touch with old friends. Whenever I visit a city to teach mindfulness or yoga I contact as many old friends as possible and organize a dinner. There's no agenda. Nobody is selling anything. It's just an opportunity to connect, reconnect, and practice the dying art of conversation. Usually the dinners are extremely festive and sometimes even a little raucous depending on which restaurant I choose.
I'm going to teach "Yoga for Stress Relief" at Omega so I booked hotels near restaurants that I like in Manhattan to bookend my trip to the East Coast. I was about to send out an email to some old friends from Stamford High School and the University of Pennsylvania when a name popped into my head. I remembered playing guitar a few times in High School with Fred Sheftell who was a psychiatrist in our community who loved music as much as I did. We took guitar lessons from the same teacher and he recommended that Fred and I jam together.
I imagined it would bring a smile to his face if I sent Fred one of my DVDs on depression letting him know that I had become a psychotherapist. Googled Fred Sheftell... "after a 4 year battle with colon cancer Fred Sheftell died..." Wow... that is seriously sad, I thought, he was such a lovely guy.
Then I Googled his son to send my condolences. Jason Sheftell and I met at temple probably when we were ten or eleven, played Little League together, maybe blew up a mailbox or two together, went to junior high and high school together (drank peach schnapps in a parking lot on more than one occasion), and ended up at the University of Pennsylvania and in the same fraternity (yes, I was in a fraternity - don't ask).
CUT TO thirteen years later when a buddy bumped into Jason in NYC and gave him my number. Jason rang and we lunched outside in the West Village in the summer of 2001. I remember that he was astounded that I had lived in France for many years and had written movies that he had actually seen in theaters. He was as jovial and animated as always and had a unique childlike sense of wonder, similar to the curious spirit that most writers embody but even more exaggerated. I remembered hugging Jason goodbye on the curb on that hot summer day as I began my walk back to the East Village.
Last night I Googled Jason Sheftell: "died in his apartment in the West Village at the age of 46..."
Must be a misprint, a mistake, another Jason Sheftell, I thought. I Googled his name again. Same results. Cause of death: unclear. Unclear?
46 year old, white male, Ivy-League graduate. As the joke goes, "If life were a video game, 'White Male' would be tantamount to 'Easiest Setting'."
How does a white, 46 year-old, well-educated man - oh, I just described myself - go to sleep one night in his apartment in the West Village and not wake up? Murder? Suicide? Drugs? Rare disease? Not-so-rare disease? Or, as fellow disturbed jewish writer Saul Bellow wrote: More Die of Heartbreak?
I needed to know so I emailed everyone with whom we went to high school and college. Our friend Adam said he saw him last year and that Jason had taken his father's passing very hard. That was the closest I got to an explanation but it didn't jibe with all of the photos of Jason's ruddy face in the obituaries.
When I'm not shrinking other people's heads or facilitating workshops, I practice yoga with Rudy Mettia. He's a few years older than I am and has also employed yoga to overcome challenges he faced earlier in life. I get Rudy. He's authentic and honest and frank and also knowledgeable and compassionate. Over the past twenty years I've practiced with upwards of 350 different teachers in India, America and Europe and the only teachers with whom I'll practice now are Rudy, Kia Miller, Rodney Yee, Richard Rosen, Tracee Stanley, Malachi Melville, Larry Payne and Jodi Blumstein.
Because yoga is my therapy. And I need a teacher who knows how to hold that space, that "container," as we more mature teachers refer to it. Because you never know what any particular student is processing when he or she enters your class.
Suryanamaskar A & B were supposedly designed to warm up the spine, get the juices flowing, move the kundalini energy up the sushumna nadi... or Pattabhi Jois and Mister Iyengar just happened to steal them from the British Army after witnessing the soldiers practice their "burpees." Six of one, half a dozen of the other. Today it didn't matter to me.
Suryanamaskar A & B is where I process and hopefully sublimate my shadow side, my dark emotions, so that I don't do anything unseemly the next time I go into a Post Office or hug a horse that's being whipped, collapse over mankind's inhumanity towards sentient beings, and never speak or write again (c.f. Friedrich Nietzsche).
But trying to fathom the unexplained - "unclear" - death of a peer...
Trying to make sense of a father and son dying, trying to fit that into my understanding of how the universe is operating... my understanding of the Dharma... my understanding of my dharma...
A complete mystery.
And for me also a tragedy.
So today I went to yoga class drunk.
Today I went to yoga class drunk with grief.
Fred and Jason Sheftell. May your souls rest in peace.