“You must treat everyday like a present and open it with great expectation.” ~ John De Lemme
Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday. Carnivale. New Orleans. Rio De Janeiro. Venice. The time period, in the liturgical calendar between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday, marks one of the most celebratory delineations of time in the earliest Christian calendar. What began as a simple period of joy became synonymous with decadence, lasciviousness and hedonism.Yet, regardless of one's religious beliefs or affiliations, Mardi Gras has its own delectable spirit that is both captivating, and feels a little dangerous. It is the idea that all inhibitions can be released before a period of austerity. It encapsulates the impression of absolute license for freedom proceeding deprivation. It's the purging of animal impulses before the mastery of them. It's retrogression of composure before the ultimate test of asceticism.
Rather than give an easily found, and utterly fascinating, full history of Mardi Gras, I would like to explore why this holiday is captivating to so many of us. Few people live by the true liturgical year any longer. Lent is rarely a time of fasting and self-mortification in the 21st century. If observed at all, most people I know try to give up a bad habit, such as smoking or junk food. This is less about trying to deprive oneself as Christ fasted in the desert, tempted by the Devil. These relinquishment's are much more about letting go of something we shouldn't be doing in the first place. Like New Year's resolutions, these are begun with the very best of intentions but generally, without a conscious effort to become Christ-like in the process. Additionally, like most New Year's resolutions, these promises for self-improvement are usually begun with the very best of intentions but fall short within a week or two. I'll never forget the year my friend, Debra (a sweets fanatic) gave up desserts. I gave up shopping the same Lent. As we walked through the Mall, I pulled her away from Godiva's immense chocolate covered strawberries, as she gently led me away from Ann Taylor. We were like two addicts, trying desperately to be sponsors for one another, but failing horribly. As she bought her box of truffles and I my blouse, we promised to hang onto them for one another two weeks, just until Easter Sunday, when we'd exchange them as gifts of bonded friendship to one another. We didn't even make it home from Portland before we were digging through the two parcels. On the one hand, we felt horribly guilty. On the other, we secretly delighted in our sins. It was a dangerous combination.
That experience taught me something valuable: being forbidden makes the acts we're trying to avoid all the more delicious. We, as fallen, wretched humans, are prone to deep desires and desperate wants. We are tempted and we can resist, but we often fail. Mardi Gras may seem riotous and deplorable to many, but what it really does is to tap into our base natures of rapaciousness. I believe that the reason this holiday is so attractive is because we know that "anything goes" has a time limit. We understand that our days of infatuation are, indeed, numbered. Perhaps the early designers of these times of revelry knew that people would be more likely to succeed during Lent if they were given free rein the time period preceding. One of my first teenage jobs was at Dunkin' Donuts. The store manager told me that I was allowed to eat as many doughnuts as I wanted. I have to admit, I was more than just a bit of a glutton the first few days. I sampled the glazed, Boston Creme and the blueberry. I gorged on the cinnamon, the chocolate and the jelly filled. I feasted on the sour cream, the maple frosted and the apple fritter. By the end of my 5th day at work, I was not only disgusted with myself, but never wanted to eat another doughnut again in my life. This experience was thirty years ago. I have never eaten another doughnut since. Is my doughnut feeding frenzy anything like the intention behind Mardi Gras? Do we need to move through a time of extreme indulgence to teach ourselves self-discipline?
In my yoga classes, I try to teach a balance in all areas of the class. We practice willpower, self-restraint and control in our breath, in the movements of our bodies and in the thought patterns of our minds. Yet, there are asanas in which I lead movement for the pure exaltation of being alive and well. The Warrior poses are
a good example of this phenomenon. They do require a singleness of thought and focus, and yet, they feel utterly empowering. The delight to be gained from practicing Warrior is heady; it allows the Yogini to feel mighty, beautiful, desirable, exceptional and even a little racy. There is a powerful sense of being when in Warrior. It feels at once self-controlled and alluring. Warrior is a highly transforming series of dynamic poses.
Mardi Gras, for all its decadence, its mystery and its ribaldry is ultimately about just such a transformation: from the boundaries of gluttony to be remade into the self-control over weakness.It's very difficult to overcome our useless attempts at discipline unless we have tired of them. Additionally, it's harder to see the metamorphosis into the enlightened life if we don't understand the transitory attractions of the alternative. This is not to say that we must all rip off our clothing and fall down in a drunken heap on Bourbon Street to understand the value of seeking spiritual illumination.What Mardi Gras has the potential to create is a way past those tiring impulses and a way to see more brightly see the window of inspiration.
Whether you feast on King Cakes tonight, or share a cocktail with friends, I hope the coming of new awakening awaits each of you. As we begin our magical transformations from spiritual worms into butterflies, I pray that these weeks inside your own personal chrysalis bring you the radiance you are meant to develop.
"The journey between what you once were and who you are now becoming is where the dance of life really takes place." ~ Barbara De Angelis