The other day, talking to an old friend of mine, he said, jocularly, “After my vacation, let’s get together for another cranky lunch.” “Sure” I said, “Sounds good!”
Then later I started thinking about the word “cranky.” Usually “cranky” means something like irritable or cantankerous, etc. But when you look beyond those ready-to-hand meanings, you can see that the word must also refer to somebody or something that behaves like a crank, or has the qualities of a crank. So what then, is a crank really?
According to the dictionary, a crank is a device that converts back-and-forth motion into circular motion, or vice-versa, like an arm attached to the end of a shaft or wheel. Or it can be the act of converting power into motion. Or a crank can be any turn, bending or winding, as of a river or passage.
This made me think of the Hindu myth found in the Mahabharata, Samudra Manthan, which is the story of the churning of the Cosmic Ocean of Milk. In this story the Devas (the gods) and the Asuras (the demons) each grasp one end of Vasuki the serpent king, sometimes seen as the serpent of desires, which is wrapped around Mount Mandara, shaped like a stone pestle, and they pull back and forth, back and forth, making the pestle revolve - we might say that the gods and demons were really cranking! And in that way, by working together, they churn the Ocean of Milk. Many good and bad things emerge from the churning sea, including a terrible world-destroying poison, halahal, but also amrita, the elixir of life, the nectar of immortality.
Now the original deal was that the gods and the demons were going to share the amrita equally, but with the help of some dirty tricks the gods got away with all of the nectar – luckily for us humans. (Just how they did that is another story.)
Fast forward a few centuries to the Hath Yoga Pradipika and we encounter the hatha yoga practice of nauli kriya, or stomach-churning, said to stimulate the gastric fires, remove toxins, produce happiness, and destroy all diseases and disorders. It’s hard not to see this as a microcosmic recapitulation of the old myth, the macro-cosmic made personal.
Fast forward a few more centuries to the present day, and we arrive at the age of soul-knowing, otherwise called psych-ology. In this mythos, the gods and the demons represent our unconscious impulses towards the light or towards the dark – and it’s the tugging back and forth of these two that churns the generative unconscious mind to release its precious soul-enhancing powers - our amrita - leading potentially to self-knowledge or self-realization.
That outcome is not guaranteed of course. It takes courage, humility, detachment and patience – all qualities which can be cultivated through the devoted practice of even such lowly vehicles as asana and pranayama, by the way.
So I say, “All hail crankiness and the cranks among us, for they will get the job done!” And you might even take one of them to lunch.