The Mother of all Threats to my Yogic Worldview?
November 20th, 2015
Sky full of rippling cliffs and chasms/That shine like signs on the road to heaven
It is not uncommon for a student who has been practicing for a while to inquire about the literature behind the Ashtanga practice. I often recommend the basics that were offered by Pattabhi Jois when I asked him that question. He said Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras were the first and most important, followed by Bhagavad Gita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Shankara’s Aparokshanubhuti. When I pressed further, he suggested Shankara’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya, and he gave me a look that this one was important. He would often chant quietly under his breath while teaching, and when I asked he told me it was the Isha Upanishad. In his book Yoga Mala he quotes from the above texts, and also references Shankara’s Yoga Taravali, Vedanta and Ayurveda in general, various other Upanishads, and the Rg Veda.
When one begins to pursue this library, it quickly becomes complicated. In particular, we begin to notice that disagreements have arisen and debates have ensued on almost every topic under discussion. These debates have been part of the story from nearly the beginning: around 500 BC, the Buddha argued and disagreed with, among others, Upanishadic thinkers as well as materialists who were remarkably similar in their ideas to many scientists and philosophers today who argue from scientism (which is the belief that empirical science has all the answers to everything). The 8th century Brahma Sutra Bhashya is a very long debate between Sankara the Vendantin and his opponents. How do we sort through all these arguments and find the truth about yoga?
I’ve come up with three categories that we can see today for those pursuing the theoretical aspect of the yogic quest. First: those who put their work into mastering and even memorizing a chosen canon, and for a large part, accepting those teachings exactly as presented. This is essentially taking a perspective of faith, and especially in the older texts like the Yoga Sutras, it is also considered one of the main ways of gaining knowledge: resort to textual authority. If this seems quaint to you, think again: when the media presents a scientific finding, do you subject it to rigorous scrutiny or even try to replicate the experiment yourself? Most of us accept such reporting on faith; we have faith in science, and those who don’t come off as crackpots, such as climate change deniers. However, this first category is the least critical and the most poetic, if you will, of my three, sinking deeply into the languages and, in particular, how the meanings therein can influence practice. And with good reason: all of the texts above, if pursued with sincerity, will reliably guide one’s spiritual practice towards relative degrees of what has been considered enlightenment. I would put Pattabhi Jois in this first category. When he gets critical, it tends to be about practice guidance rather than scholarly quibbling, for example, criticizing those who consider themselves “scholars beyond compare” who nonetheless give in to lust and rage.
The second category could be exemplified by Georg Feuerstein, who took the position of a critical scholar of yogic culture and languages in addition to viewing the literature for its spiritual value. In the process, he clearly declares himself as one who follows the guidance of these texts, not just one who looks at them from a distance.
The third category can be represented by a group loosely calling themselves the Modern Yoga Researchers, who identify more as cultural and linguistic historians and critical scholars; they just so happen to be focusing on the yogic/eastern spirituality field, and as a rule, make no claims as to their own experiences. Spiritual values are less important from this perspective than truth (whether modern or post-modern), morality, analysis of historical influence, and attempts at precise determinations of the meanings of old texts. Santa Barbara’s David Gordon White and his entertaining writing (such as Sinister Yogis) is an exemplar.
If we put aside practical debates about the best ways to practice, we are left with arguments about the ideas themselves and the world views contained within these ideas. Of the above categories, the first category values primarily spiritual ideas, the second both spiritual and materialist/ postmodern, and the third primarily materialist/postmodern.
What do I mean by materialist/postmodern? In academics today, almost everybody is either materialist or postmodern, or they take the spiritual angle through aesthetics, or they do some combination of the three. This is to say that by and large they belong to my third category above. They often don’t agree with each other but what they do agree on is a wariness toward actual spiritual practice-generated spiritual data, which I’ll get into in a bit. This has been the circumstance with intelligent respected thinking; academics doesn’t have a yoga and doesn’t seem to want one. As Pattabhi Jois used to say, “No yoga there!”
Which leads us to the following situation: if we pursue a practice such as yoga with the intent of self-development, with perhaps a quiet or not so quiet yearning for the possibility of enlightenment, we will begin to familiarize ourselves with the history of ideas behind such a quest. Researching these ideas, we will find that although the traditional literature clearly has spiritual intent behind all the debating, this literature is often surrounded by modern scholarship, much of which is neutral towards- or even dubious of- the value of spiritual practice itself. As we try to discern our way through these different perspectives, both within the traditions and in the more recent scholarship, we come to recognize that we have undertaken a process of philosophical inquiry, and that we’re going to have to weigh the evidence and come to our own conclusions. And if we follow any thread in philosophy, it will not take long before we run into a flat out declaration that the entire spiritual pursuit is…One Big Illusion And Thus A Falsehood. Or, at best, begrudgingly, of possible practical benefit. The entire spectrum of higher spheres of which almost the whole corpus of spiritual literature, East and West, is built upon is typically cut to ribbons and left for dead. And we will begin to note that this voice is very loud and very prominent: the voice of materialism. The prominent current version is scientific materialism. And it is a formidable opponent.
So the view we’ve been gaining through practice, and through familiarity with spiritual materials and literature and community, gets directly and rudely “trumped” by aggressive and sophisticated materialist negators and debunkers. In the face of this, many yogis just steer clear, carrying on with their practice and/or teaching entirely unconcerned. I did this when I was younger, but lately, for better or worse, I’ve found the subject impossible to ignore. As I go about my research, I’ve learned to recognize when my “geiger counter starts clicking” as Ken Wilber puts it, which indicates an intensification of my interest level, and this is often the loudest when I feel a threat to my worldview.
I’ve actually developed a taste for such threats. As a long time professional yoga teacher, I can now say that the scientific materialist negation of spirit and ultimate meaning in life has been the mother of all threats to my yogic bliss. At existential hazard, I’ve chosen to face it and it has led me on a lengthy search for light in the darkness. This post represents one way through this maze. The argument I will engage has played itself out through history in a lengthy and dauntingly complicated process, but it can be generally simplified as that of Materialist vrs Idealist, which I see as the main issue. (Post-modernism has its own attacks against both fields but I see this debate as relatively peripheral, and I believe waning in influence now that its touch has been felt.)
Aggressive materialist negation of spirituality can lead us to doubt some of the more hopeful implications of our yogic experience. It certainly has in my case. This is not necessarily a bad thing. If what we are doing is real, it will be able to withstand challenges, and any serious practitioner will feel doubts coming and going as the self inquiry process proceeds. On the other hand, a common teaching in yoga is the need for some protection for our practice realizations, treating them like delicate plants which require loving care until they can get rooted more strongly. I believe this is true, and if you put yourself in this category, you may want to stop reading this now (spoiler alert: this post has what I think is a happy ending). The first 15 or so years of my efforts at practicing, teaching and holding a community of yogis together were periodically marked by internal and external upheavals that could make it extremely challenging to gracefully face the room of students in front of me. To make a Mysore-based Ashtanga Yoga Shala work day by day, with the many trials of what it is to hold a higher kind of energy which manifests collectively and maintains interest month after month, one often feels he has little room for error. My first five years I would sometimes nearly get whacked right out of the room. About five years ago I must have finally put down deep enough roots, and I felt ready to drink the materialist kool-aid straight, determined to get at the truth.
One of my drives in this was to engage the larger picture behind a feeling I get after being exposed to some materialist ideas and approaches, a feeling captured by David Loye as “degraded world view”, a view also frequently referred to as “flat-land”. The strongest I’ve felt this has been after reading Stephen Pinker’s How The Mind Works. And when it comes to that feeling of raw threat, a sense that something precious and essential is being gutted and raped, the best author has been Daniel Dennett, especially his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. One of the reasons that they both rattle me so effectively is that I admire them and their work, especially Dennett.
Indeed, about a decade ago, I began to hear geiger counter clicks around neuroscience. I had been swimming in the yogic arts and literature, as well as psychology, both developmental and Jungian, and had been a working yoga teacher and musician. I did lots of meditation and hatha yoga. This was where my research had been, this was the kind of data I had been taking in. I recognized I was fairly ignorant about science. Undaunted, I began studying the sciences, in particular the literature of the brain, as much as I could, and derived great benefit. But as Stuart Kauffman notes, virtually all neurobiologists hold the view that consciousness is entirely mechanically generated. It wasn’t long before I felt the tension growing between this materialist outlook and my own view. Simultaneously, I began following the growing avalanche of data from the lab about the material benefits of spiritual practice, i.e: yoga makes your brain grow, decreases stress markers, is good for heart health, etc. This is the current emergence of clear evidence, from the material view, that spiritual practices have material benefit and can be fruitfully pursued entirely from that perspective. In fact, as I was checking out the popular current Atheist group The Four Horsemen, I pretty quickly sniffed out that Sam Harris, one of the horsemen, has legitimate yogi credentials, which is to say lots of hard practice, quite beyond just trying the hat on. Which is also to say, it is possible to pursue spiritual techniques from an entirely materialist, even nihilist, point of view. And if yoga and mysticism really are simply ways of tapping into unusual brain states, including getting good at recruiting the brain’s happy chemicals, then what’s the problem? Don’t worry, be happy! But as Daniel Dennett hints, many scientists may not have actually followed that materialist view all the way to its necessary conclusion, don’t really want to, because it can be rough and scary, more on that below.
Back in May of this year, there was a fairly interesting exchange that illustrates this year’s model of the ongoing fracas, published in the Washington Post, between popular author Deepak Chopra and Steven Newton, who is the director for programs and policy for the National Center for Science Education. Newton began the exchange with a “tongue-in-cheek” piece that dripped with acidic sarcasm towards Chopra’s apparently obvious pseudo-scientific New Age buffoonery on the subject of evolution, Newton offering instead a perhaps humorously exaggerated grim view of eat-or-be-eaten Darwinism. It may have been tongue-in-cheek, but it was definitely not friendly. Chopra fired back in a manner that made it clear that he may not be such a clown after all, offering his case for the role of consciousness in evolution, in addition to chiding Newton for flirting with internet troll-vibe. Newton responded in turn with an altered demeanor of recognition that he had to take this debate seriously, concluding his conservative materialist outlook with a warning that Chopra is aiding and abetting fundamentalist creationists and intelligent designers because his untested ideas resemble theirs.
Now, Newton has a point as regards creationists in America: currently, the number of Americans who believe that matter and life happened as described by the book of Genesis is at approximately 45 percent. And Newton’s urgency has some justification: surveys currently show that somewhere between 25 and 50 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, and this view is typically accompanied by a skepticism toward science. Also, on the other side of the coin, Newton was warning Chopra to stay out of the scientific playground unless he is willing to enter the fire of peer-reviewed discussion, which has zero tolerance for speculation without lab quality evidence. In his response, he marshals experimental findings to support his points. Chopra, in his turn, while clearly demonstrating his familiarity with the contours of the current rich debate about mind, consciousness and evolution, offered his position as that of provocateur of new ideas. “I work with high-level scientists, including physicists, geneticists and others who believe, as I do, that mainstream science, like mainstream medicine, has a lot to gain from keeping the flow of ideas moving.” Presumably, it will be these scientific colleagues of his who will enter the actual scientific journal environment, their imaginations piqued by Chopra as to how to set up the experiments. And Newton also made a big mistake: Chopra is no friend of the creationists; he is a practitioner and integrator of current psycho-spiritual technology, which can be likened to creationist religion in a similar manner as string theory is to medieval alchemy. Chopra has a “substantial audience” partly because many people are practicing yoga in some form right now, and many people with spiritual inclinations have moved far beyond mythic level religion.
Allow me to present two stories at this point. The first is heavily indebted to Shri Aurobindo, who in turn drew from both the great corpus of Indian philosophy as well as European idealism of the early nineteenth century (Fichte, Hegel, Shelling), to help unpack his own profound yoga practice. We could call this story a version of the Life Divine or the Great chain of Being. It goes like this, story number one, the Idealist story:
There was a Being. Call It any name, it could be Satchitananda, or Krishna, or Yahweh with or without Jesus, with or without the Prophet, it could be Great Spirit: God. Any name. Let’s just call it Spirit for now. It had no form that we can understand, but it desired to fulfill itself by coming into being as matter, like that in our universe. So it caused a Big Bang.* Hydrogen and helium suffused into space. The basic laws that governed these elements were either already there or they developed over time. Gradually gravity shaped the hydrogen and helium into clumps which heated up through fusion and became stars. The hydrogen in the stars turned into helium. As the stars ran out of hydrogen, they begin to create other elements, including oxygen, nitrogen, iron, zinc. Stars eventually began blowing up and expelled these elements out into space. Time passed. Some pieces of these blown up stars got caught in the orbits of other stars and turned into spherical planets. Some of these planets- at least ours- happened to reside in the “goldilocks zone”: places in solar systems where the ratios between sun and planet and moons are such that the stage is set for the elements to begin radically arranging themselves into organized patterns. Some of these patterns became complex enough that they begin to show signs of agency: separate units acting of their own accord. Time passed. The complexity of these patterns increased. Some units developed features that others didn’t have, which allowed them to proliferate better than the others, or at the expense of the others. They took on more elements and put them and their unique capacities to use, such as iron and zinc, in ways that conferred further advantage. Complexity increased. They gained more abilities. Bacteria arose, and then worms, and fishes, and then lizards, and then rodents, and then monkeys and then…people. There were other branches, such as the dolphins, but it was the monkey line that burst through first. Along the way amazing things called neurons developed and those who found themselves with larger numbers of neurons proliferated abundantly. Humans grew this “cognitive niche” to the degree that they began to outsmart all the other creatures. And they also begin to think and reflect on their situation. They created civilization and culture and gained safety and leisure. From this place they slowly accrued a knowledge of the forces that operate in the universe.* Some of them also awakened within themselves a consciousness which was “sleeping” as it subtly guided the elemental play, but now was capable of being perceived. People developed psycho-spiritual technology of various types which allowed some of them- the brave pioneers at first- to go along inner “pathless paths” whereby they awakened to the fact that this Spirit is within them, and is and had been the “eyes” through which they had viewed the universe from the beginning.
They are gradually remembering who they have been all along. The purpose of the entire “show” has been to awaken to this Spirit and to realize it within oneself, such that Matter and Spirit are united. From this perspective, humans can become agents of proliferate creation, much like Spirit before them, taking things into greater and greater complexity and beauty, the delight of the experiencing of which joins them with the ongoing Lila- divine play- which was the reason Spirit began the whole ordeal and passion in the first place. The delight of Lila allows us to see that the messy nature of evolution, the starts and stops, mistakes and triumphs, were part of a creative process, like a work of art. People now can consciously assume their role in the ongoing delight, drama, passion and satisfaction of the Kosmos.
Quite an appealing story, isn’t it? This is my updated edition; even since Aurobindo wrote The Life Divine much has been discovered- by science- to flesh it out.
OK. Now take the above story and cut out the first part all the way to the sentence about the big bang, and turn that sentence into simply: There was a Big Bang. Now, read along as it is, all the way to they slowly accrue a knowledge of the forces that operate in the universe. (See asterisks). And from there we’ll proceed with the story, which becomes story number two, the materialist story:
Through this process of discovery they conclude that, unlikely as it might seem, all this beauty and complexity and design is the product of mere chance working through the physical forces and elements over time. We are what we are, consciousness and all, merely because certain organization of atoms survive better than others, and right now, the human form is among the best out there suited for continuing as an organized unit through time, up there with cockroaches and ants. None of it means anything. Organizations of elements are no better than unorganized elements just lying around. There is no purpose to life, not even survival. Urge for survival just so happens to be a trait that gives one organization of atoms a greater likelihood of continuing in that state of organization than others. Complexity often confers greater abilities to a form, allowing it to continue and reproduce. We are here in our complexity because through an accumulation of accidents a design has developed which is fairly well suited to continue in its form over time. There is no value in survival, it is just that forms which survive are the ones still here. Our form is one of the ones still here. There is no value anywhere. This being the case, we might as well take advantage of the accidental by-products of this big nervous system of ours and enjoy ourselves, maximize pleasure and minimize pain, because we seem to like pleasure, we have this personality system that has a hard time without it. But “hard time”, suffering and pain are meaningless, they are just survival mechanisms and survival is meaningless. We have a life-span and if we participate in human civilization which was set up to minimize pain, we can make it easier to pass the time that our particular body will be “alive” by attempting to realize variations on pleasure. All culture, and human relations, including the spiritual pursuits, are a result of the fact that we prefer pleasure to pain and happen to accidentally have a brain that can have variations of pleasure rung from it; “meaning” is just a subtle form of pleasure, no better than what the rapist feels during violent sex or the pleasure that many animals feel when they kill. Civilization allows an increasing number of us to live until the body dies of its own accord. But pleasure and long life are meaningless. Once the organization which is our body stops surviving- dies- the personality system is no longer conjured like a movie from our neurons, and there is nothingness. The big bang happened and the elements exist, and there is nothing else to be said as to why they happened and why they are here.
And, in the words of Daniel Dennett, “that’s all there is to it”. If we faithfully follow the implications of materialism, there can be no other conclusion.
Degraded worldview. Kinda grim.
A common materialist response to this bleak picture is “We don’t necessarily want it to be like this, but, uh, this is how it is. We need to tell the truth. This is the truth that has been revealed to us by the data. The data does not support that first story. We have and must build our meanings and purposes in life on top of empirical truth. Stop worrying about it. Get over it. You can still enjoy your life. Besides, you get to be free, within and without, from all those old power trips parading as religious rules.”
Such a dichotomy between these two worldviews! Here’s another way it can play out: say you listen to a piece of music. You are quite touched by it, tears come to your eyes and you feel an exquisite feeling, it seems to open your heart; you’ve had a fabulous aesthetic experience. Straight-up materialist Stephen Pinker would render it like this: the music fan has “a mind that rises to a biologically pointless challenge: figuring out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment without the inconvenience of wringing bonafide fitness increments from the harsh world.” This follows from the observance that “Some parts of the mind register the attainment of increments of fitness by giving us a sensation of pleasure.” (How the Mind Works, p 524)
Here’s a version of the other side: Eros is a force that is woven into the fabric of the universe. It is a subtle guide that beckons arrangements of matter into ever greater complexity through a force which is ceaseless new creativity and, in the case of those who have attained a sufficient level of self-consciousness, (i.e. humans, dolphins?) toward ever greater self-recognition. At the simpler levels of organization, jolts of enjoyment are part of a useful reward system towards self-preservation and reproduction. At the human level- and for animals that play- they become part of the on-going Lila, pulled by a loving urge for ever greater complexity, and ever increasing recognition of the Spirit which lives within us. The experience of musical delight is a significant eros event, a contribution to the divine dance and an education for the listener about her true identity, which is non-different from Spirit itself. It has revealed “signs on the road to heaven”.
Alright. We have these opposing cosmic views. Our first cosmic story, the variation on the great chain of being, has shown itself to be the predominant view arrived at by people who have seriously pursued spiritual practice throughout history; these often aren’t the church fathers or popes or preachers or rabbis or brahmin royalty but rather the monks and mystics and nuns and yogis, the ones actively engaged in spiritual practices- which is different than just thinking about spirit or laws or ideas. And it is different than controlling others. There are no laws inscribed on stone tablets from this spirit- although laws such as gravity and electro-magnetism are likely closer to the mark- but rather a subtle beckoning towards greater complexity and delight. On the other hand, variations on the second story have been the view of materialists, accepted at varying degrees, since at least the time of the Buddha.
Ken Wilber has a good response to this. Here’s my take on his approach. His is an insistent voice that there are different ways of gathering data. The position that raw empirical materialism is the only valid source of data eventually runs into trouble in a variety of ways and here’s one: the scientist supposedly is just working with the simplest forms of sensory experience, like a tree as seen by the eyes and their technological extension such as a microscope. Only problem with this: “tree” itself is a concept that our mind does for us, usually without our conscious realization. If we go all the way to our eyes, we are left with “colored patches”. Hard to do much meaningful science if we are just hanging around with colored patches. We need to resort to mind, which is a different level than elemental material and can’t be “pointed to” at the deepest material level. All that can be pointed to at the material level is colored patches, vibrations in sound, smells, etc. “Tree” like “square root of 2” is a concept and exists at the level of mind. It can’t be pointed to at the material level, only at the mental level which organizes the material level. The material level needs things like mathematics and logic to organize it. So, our cosmic story number two above, the materialist story, involves many mental ideas, and is not an actual material assessment based on our senses and nothing else. Materialism wants to keep everything as close to actual sensate experience as possible. But it needs to resort to the level of mind to say anything meaningful. So, strict materialism is out the window.
Most people who have spent time with mind agree that there are ways to work with mind which are valid and those which aren’t. Your math test in 8th grade, some of those answers you gave were not. There are also good ways and poor ways of conducting scientific experiments. Likewise, having recognized that we need mind, many people claim that there is another level to our existence other than mind. This is the spiritual level. It has been recognized by humans for a long time. And there are ways of working at that level which are good and ways that aren’t. Which, Wilber insists, tells us that there is data that can be gathered at each level: material, mental and spiritual. Mental data is gathered by doing things like math. Logical Positivism argued that math only serves to organize sensory data; Wilber is arguing otherwise. He is arguing that mathematical objects, like the square root of two, are real things at the mental level. Moreover, spiritual data works the same way; it is gathered by doing things like…yoga. It can be done well, like the other levels, or it can be done poorly. The objects it discloses are real. Wilber’s argument here is the best I’ve seen for integrating science and spirit.
Those who do yoga and mysticism well, in all its myriad forms, often eventually report a story which is a variant on story number one above, the idealist story. This story has emerged across cultures far removed. And again, these yogas, these psycho-spiritual technologies, are NOT mythic religious stories like the biblical creation myth. They are rather the “contemplative core” of the world’s religions: Judaism has Kabbalah, Christianity has monastic monks and nuns, Islam has sufis, and for some reason India just went straight for it and emerged with their yogas right on the surface in Buddhism, and Vedanta. Good yogis are just as intently focused as good scientists, and have equal integrity.
These yogis and mystics residing at the nucleus of the world’s religions were not just thinkers and theorerizers. Rather, they were primarily practitioners learning, using, experimenting with and propagating psycho-spiritual technologies, with certain features shared cross-culturally, such as intensely focused inward attention and periods of solitude. To deny their validity, one must undertake the practices themselves and then prove them false- without that, no yogi could take you seriously. It would be like a yogi walking into a science lab, looking at a few test tubes, and declaring the whole venture a big charade, which would have the scientists rolling on the floor; any materialist who denies spiritual experience and reality without undertaking spiritual practices is just as foolish, and the intimidating yoga ladies would look at him askance. Add to this that many scientists and philosophers in general don’t even conceive of ever going outside of or beyond discursive mind.
I’ll lay out my personal position at this point, what I can report from actual experience, without any leaps into “metaphysics”. This is to say, that although I am inclined toward story #1 above, I cannot claim the entire thing with much certainty, although it feels intuitively right. My current yogic experience, both individually and collectively, is that there is without a doubt a subtle realm (sukshma sharira) with its subtle senses (sukshma indriya). Subtle phenomena can be seen as less dense forms of matter/energy, for example a person’s energy field. Gross phenomena are on the denser end of the spectrum, for example a football. The entire spectrum from gross to subtle to very subtle plays itself out in a spaciousness that can be likened to the theater in which a play occurs. This spaciousness carries an unmistakable sense of “I-ness”; it feels as if it is our own identity, and this is where the plot thickens. I’m not inferring that this spacious I-ness must be there, I actually experience it regularly. It presents empirical data to my subtle senses.
Just as Einstein’s new physics responded to data in ways that disturbed the scientists who themselves were discovering it because of what it did to the secure Newtonian world view, so yoga practice which generates subtle data tends to do the same to materialism. This is largely because the exploration of the subtle realms is not just a “looking at things” but also brings us into engagement with a process of identity and consciousness itself, thereby confirming the reality of that consciousness empirically: we actually sense it; I have sensed it.
Keeping this in mind, if we practice yoga today, we can arrive at an understanding of the cosmos which includes every shred of good science that’s been done through history right up to today, and it will still remain possible to have room for a view that recognizes Spirit. I would like to back this statement up with two approaches, one that reveals the way that a good percentage of hard scientists and rigorous philosophers themselves have viewed the debate, and the second is to offer a few suggestions that speak of data sources difficult or impossible to collect in traditional empirical scientific lab settings.
First, let me offer an extremely condensed view of the rise of materialism: although the strands disappear into the darkness of history, including the above mentioned opponents of the Buddha, the strength of the current Western view stems from the irresistible urge for human thought to liberate itself from the confines of established religion. A first big flower was in the 1500’s when Copernicus presented his discovery that it was the sun at the center of things, not the earth, which rattled the Pope’s metaphysicians. Copernicus was careful and savvy, and stayed mostly out of trouble, but Gallileo, in furthering the ideas, nearly got on the wrong side of the inquisition, which threatened hot consequences. Nonetheless, science was not to be stopped, and it began blooming forth at every angle. By the late 1700’s Kant, who himself was not a materialist, blew the candle out of traditional metaphysics, such as the classic proofs of God, unintentionally giving rise to an unfettered proliferation of materialism. 19th century notables were Karl Marx with his socialism and communism, Friedrich Nietzsche and his nihilism- freaking out about the death of God- and of course, the big guy for our current materialists: Darwin. Into the 20th century we find the existentialists, gleeful of the freedoms from the big brother church yet mourning the “god shaped hole in their head where god used to be” and the exceptionally influential Freud, who told us God was just a part of our subconscious, and called it the super-ego. Not long after, The Holocaust left Jews and people of faith everywhere muttering, “What the hell happened to God? There’s no God here.” Simultaneously, logical positivism took over large swaths of philosophy, influencing scientists and beating up idealists and theologians. By the 70’s, even the post-modernists, who were whacking with all their might at science, also attacked Spirit with their assault on introspection, demanding that everybody remain on the surface, far from the depths required for any actual knowledge of Spirit. And today, as evidenced by the Newton-Chopra exchange above, materialism is still currently trying to carry the day and banish the spookiness in much of academia. And again, in its scientific materialism mode it is formidable; whereas the logical positivists and behaviorists at its roots went way too far, including denying any interior life to the mind at all, which is one very efficient definition of insanity, the current crop of cognitive scientists “allow” and even practice much of the richness of life that any humanist or artist would insist upon, but couch it in strictly material causes. However, as a yogi, I hold the position that there is more.
And the case is far from closed. Within science and academic philosophy, there are many thinkers who have delineated limits to the materialist view, opening up the possibility of our first story above, the Life Divine. Before I get into them though, it is essential to side with Stephen Newton here that this definitely does NOT mean that we can plug our good old fashioned Christianity story, or any other myth, into the gaps in materialism noticed by these thinkers. In fact, every one of these guys would debunk a merely mythical level religion. Rather, I find that the following hard scientists and philosophers are actually closer to a mystical view that can work in today’s world than most of the theologians of their times, and they present a very solid theoretical foundation which a strong yoga practice can infuse with bliss.
Beginning with the new physicists who broke open that field in the first part of the 20th century: Einstein likened his spirituality to the view of Baruch Spinoza, who held that God has thought and extension, the extension being our creation, this universe, presumably among others. This view fits in well with updated great chain stories. It is also similar to Erwin Schroedinger’s view, which has been described as Vedantic. De Broglie declared that “the mechanism demands a mysticism” and Max Planck said that god is “the crown of any reasoning concerning the world-view.” Arthur Eddington said “Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature”. Wolfgang Pauli had the following side to his life, as quoted in wikipedia: “The Pauli Effect was named after the anecdotal bizarre ability of his to break experimental equipment simply by being in the vicinity. Pauli was aware of his reputation and was delighted whenever the Pauli effect manifested.” This led him to work with CG Jung, no great fan of materialism, exploring the paranormal. (This will lead us to an affirmation of the subtle realm, more on that below). Werner Heisenberg held out for Platonic archetypes, and he shares variants on this view with Roger Penrose the eminent contemporary mathematician and physicist, as well as Noam Chomsky, the man who gave birth to Cognitive Science and was convinced that our language capacity cannot be explained by materialistic Darwinism. The brilliant and lauded mathematician, Kurt Godel , was quite sure that his two incompleteness theorems proved that materialism was an inadequate view of the mind.
Stuart Kauffman and Henry Stapp are two scientist’s scientists, among many others, who hold a quantum view of mind, which opens the door to the same mysteries that the above pioneering physicists could only fill with Spirit. But my primary interest in Kauffman stems from his other main idea, which he culled from his pioneering work in chaos and complexity theories: that of self-organization, which was the result of “years of muttering at Darwin” that there must be some other force at work in evolution beyond simple mindless natural selection. Stephen J. Gould also held out for some additional process in Darwinistic evolution.
Another theme that has developed among serious thinkers has been panpsychism, which views consciousness as existing in all things, the smaller the particle the lesser the consciousness, all the way down to atoms and whatever is below them. Leibniz, the creator of calculus, held this view, as did William James. The esteemed mathematical philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell supported it. Russell’s view was that mental and physical aspects of existence are the same but not reducible to the physical. More recently, philosopher David Chalmers has offered it as a plausible explanation for consciousness.
Chalmers made a big splash twenty years ago with his breaking up of the philosophy of mind between the easy problem and the now famous “hard problem”. The hard problem takes up the challenge of how to use strictly materialist explanations for the sense of self that accompanies all of our experiences, the sense that there is an “I” looking at that tree. Many philosophers and scientists currently share his view that mere neuronal processes are insufficient to provide us with this experience, that there is something about consciousness which cannot be reduced to materialist explanation, that consciousness is an irreducible force in the universe.
The issue with philosophy of mind is that either one affirms this view of irreducibility of consciousness, or has variations of skepticism about it. The skeptics may claim instead that consciousness is, for example, merely a projection of neural spike trains in an algorithmic process, similar to the way pits and lands in a dvd puts us under the illusion that a real scene is being projected onto our tv screen; the sense of I is a creation of algorithms in the brain.
On the other hand, if one affirms consciousness as an irreducible reality, then the gateway to a full expression of yoga has been opened. Yoga has always stated that that very consciousness within you, the entity that feels a sense that there is someone viewing the tree, that very someone, if pursued with rigorous focus in various ways, becomes all the god there is and ever has been, the Spirit that is dwelling within you right now and has been there all along without you knowing it. The mystics and yogis tell us that that presence is actually the witness that views the entire “show” of life, and yogic process will allow us to free ourselves from needing to keep it just to ourselves in selfish egoistic form, realizing rather that this is the self that pervades all of the”eyes of the world”.
So, all of these above mentioned scientists and thinkers together- each of whom is a heavyweight in the scientific/philosophical world- offer a broadside toward the grim materialist view. Again, they don’t in the least herald the triumphant return of Jesus, or even bring back the god who will answer our prayers with interventions on our behalf. Rather, these are guys who bring scientific findings to the table that we cannot ignore while hoping to remain in integrity with the state of current human knowledge. But, wonderfully, they also offer a view of the cosmos into which Spirit can easily integrate. And there is also one other thing to notice about these guys, along with the strict materialist opponents who they debate. That is…they are all guys.
Which brings in the next question, into which I will tread carefully: where are the women in this story? I bring this up because of my belief that there is something about the feminine that breaks another hole in the materialist view.
In Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, there are exceptionally few women among the multitude of characters he draws into the argument. Why is this? Women are just as smart as men and they write just as well. What happened to their voice? Is it because academia has been and still is unfair to women who are having to fight to break down these barriers? This is certainly one part of it; The Washington Post just ran a story about women trying to work their way into Astronomy at UC Berkeley and having to contend with a sexually predatory potential nobel prize winning male professor who rules the department. This is just the latest in a series of such whistle-blowing events revealing that the hard sciences are the academic departments most resistant to female cohabitation. They are also the ones most likely to espouse the materialist world view.
Compare this to my yoga studio where the roster is 90 percent female. That number is a bit higher than Yoga Journals’s report of the national average, which is 83 percent. The reasons for this gender disparity in current western yoga has been debated for a few decades, but suffice to say that there is something about embodied psycho-spiritual technology that attracts women, and gets into what has been called “women’s ways of knowing”. I will take Carol Gilligan as a suitable and relevant feminist scholar and offer the results of her research, which indicate that men are more inclined to “rights and justice” and women toward “care and responsibility”; another contrast has been “separate agency” for men and “connectedness” for women. Taking the broad brushstroke of these male/female differences, how can we view our opposing idealist versus materialist world views?
Quite simply, the yoga process, especially a group hatha yoga process among a community of people familiar with one another, can lead to a deep feeling of connectedness, connectedness to community, one’s own body and to Spirit. Yoga, often translated as “union”, and spirituality in general, aside from old religious trappings and rules, is a way of connecting with physical and mental process and investing energy in these processes, thereby eventually breaking down inner barriers, into which floods new life and new data, which has always been said to facilitate the capacity to transcend the isolation of the separate ego and opens one to higher connections. When Ken Wilber talks about Spiritual data, he means the stuff that comes in during this process. Those who do this a lot frequently state that they feel a presence all around them, a spirit that both transcends and is infused into ordinary life and matter. And feeling is a valid source of empirical data, although it has been without value in the scientific lab where vision is god. In intimate relationships, research has shown that whereas men value looks in a woman, women place more value on how it feels to be with a particular man.
Finally, my position becomes the following. The materialist world view has missed two things: psycho-spiritual technology, and, the influence of strong women. It has missed the data that comes from a sustained, quality yoga practice, and it has missed the connectedness of women. I’ve noticed that many women who are hard-headed scientists do not buy the materialist view; one example is Clare Pert, the discoverer of endorphins, who in her book, Molecules of Emotion, offers a passionate urge for both science and embodied real connection to this earth and the spiritual process; she’s big enough to embrace them both, and I wonder why so many materialist men have such a hard time with that. And of course there are also deliberate straight-ahead materialist women, and there are also atheist women, but I believe this is partly because religion has been a dreadful misogynistic force in history; our atheist Buddhist friend Sam Harris notes that his fan base is 70/30 in favor of males. (Thoughts on atheist women here and here.)
I would like to bring in one more angle on the subject, one that I will develop in my next post, that of the subtle realm. In materialist views, there is frequently not only just a denial of the possibility of any kind of spirit in the creation and development of the world, but there is also a debunking of the entire subtle realm, which I find incredibly clueless.
What is the subtle realm? Vedanta has likened it to the dreaming mind, but experienced while wide awake. EEG machines have borne this identity out. This is the realm where various connections and occurrences which are “non-ordinary” happen, such as the Pauli effect mentioned above.
Just the bones here, more in my next post:
- Those of us who do a lot of yoga, especially in intimate proximity with a group of long term students, begin to feel an “energetic” connection that is every bit as real as the vision in front of us, and it therefore has an empirical aspect. It manifests essentially as something that we feel, and suggests an empiricism based on feeling as the relevant source of data, although it can take on pan-sensory qualities.
- It’s effects can be studied in a statistical way by those who have developed the capacity to sense it, but it doesn’t hold up well in the scientific lab. Why? One clue is the dream analogy: dreams are often ephemeral and difficult to remember in the glaring face of waking consciousness. Likewise, achieving specific psychically transmitted data in a lab, such as mind-reading the number on a card that a person is repeating in her mind, unfortunately often kills this more sophisticated aspect of the subtle realm. Which is to say, my claim is that there is an aspect of the subtle realm which allows transmission of actual mental discursive content such as a number or complete thoughts. But the more reliable and more routine subtle exchange mentioned in #1 is that of feeling based content, which is a different kind of data than labs can typically measure, and is often less about specific discursive information, and more about what one’s subtle body is expressing, which can be emotions and their subtler extensions, such as feeling someone’s anger. This sensing often picks up feelings that the person being felt may not be aware of, or is in denial of.
- It could potentially be explained “within casual closure”, meaning that it might fit into the materialist world view without any need for a spirit behind it. It could be explained by some currently unrecognized capacity to detect electro-magnetic energy; or it could be related to quantum gravity which we haven’t figured out yet; or some other as yet unexplained force we could call prana. Prana transmission may involve dark matter, which makes up 26.8% of the universe, or dark energy, which makes up 68.3%, both of which we know next to nothing about. (Ordinary matter makes up 4.9%). 95% of what’s out there (and in here) is still basically unknown to the sciences.
- Typically though, the subtle realm is taken for granted and used in a daily way in yogic circles, and has traditionally been seen as a step toward realization of the witness or emptiness.
I’m a lover of science. I really look forward to what’s coming out of the lab next, especially about the brain and the effects of mindfulness practices. But I’ve done way too much yoga to ignore what I’ve learned by doing it. If I keep this spiritual knowledge in mind, I find that I do not love the materialist story and find it exceptionally partial, just one part of a much bigger story.
Stephen Pinker has said that science, “to put it mildly”, has not been kind to common sense. My response is that history has not been kind, to put it mildly, to scientists who say, in the words of Daniel Dennett, “that’s all there is to it.”
Experience in yoga tells us that there is more.
What Happens if we Keep Doing This?
February 8th, 2014
The frequency of the Ashtanga hatha yoga practice that I’ve undertaken, as per tradition, averages out to a little more than eleven practices every two weeks, or 5.5 practices a week. I estimate the number of days I take off per year comes to an average of one and a half weeks- some vacations I’ve kept practicing, others I haven’t. All told as of this writing, working through my twentieth year of practice, I’ve recently passed the 10,000th hour of actual mat time doing my Ashtanga practice. In terms of actual floor time as a teacher with people coming to class, I’m now pushing into 18,000 hours.
The “10,000 hour rule” has captured the interest of the public, with Daniel Coyle claiming it went “mainstream” 5 years ago. By that he is referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Much of Gladwell’s inspiration seems to come from this paper, written in 2002 by Canadian Physical Educators. Prominent developers of the theory are K. Anders Ericsson in the early nineties, with earlier foundations by Chase and Simon- who called it the ten year rule- from 1973. Both groups of researchers did studies on how experts develop powerful working memories for the kind of data that shows up in their circumscribed fields. ( The essence of working memory is the ability to temporarily hold pieces of information in mind bearing on the situation at hand.) Coyle also conveys the disappointment of some prominent voices in sports training on the subject:
It’s absolutely nuts,” the head of one nation’s soccer federation told me. “Coaches are tracking practice hours and the athletes are clocking in and out with time cards like they’re working on an assembly line. There’s no ownership, no creativity.”
So, obviously, although learning happens through dumb repetition, just logging the hours won’t necessarily cut it. In his fine little book Mastery, by Esalen founder George Leonard, we find four learning curves for those who undertake a discipline, in his case, Aikido. The first and of course the best is the master, who gradually develops from plateau to plateau, each one a little higher than the previous. The plateau is where outward progress isn’t overtly visible, but where inward things are developing physically, neurologically and psychically, and they typically emerge and become evident in surprisingly mature form in a sudden rush. Leonard contends that those who are inclined toward mastery love the plateau.
The next three types: the dabbler, who goes from one thing to the next and always quits when he hits a plateau; the obsessive, who goes like crazy and then burns out and burns her bridges; and then, the great bummer for our soccer coach above, the hacker, “after sort of getting the hang of the thing, he is willing to stay on the plateau indefinitely” a guy who loves “hacking around with other hackers”(p. 23). So, even after 10,000 hours, the hacker is still hacking because he isn’t really focusing during this lifetime. Why? Well, one possible reason: staying with a practice over time will eventually ram us directly into ourselves, including our shadows, the places where the light doesn’t easily go. Keep hacking and these difficult uncomfortable things can be avoided. If we stay in the moment with focus (which is not hacking) at some point we’re going to discover the facts of our limitations, which are often surrounded and shrouded by unresolved emotional content. Not everybody is up for that.
So, we have to pay attention while we practice if we want to get to a place which could be called mastery. And if we look at this from a yogic perspective, paying attention is the point and it leads us somewhere, more important than the skills gained in the gross realm by the practice. And if we keep paying attention we get better at paying attention. I’ll get into these last two points in a bit.
The literature of 10,000 hours is by and large one of gaining abilities at competitive human endeavors, such as sports, chess, music, law, business. Gladwell’s outliers are almost entirely those who have achieved fame and wealth, with a major character in the book, the Montana-raised-fighter-bouncer-elite-elite-elite-genius-writer-of-a-theory-of-everything Chris Langan being portrayed as a failure because he didn’t make it in academia. If you glance at my previous post (August 2012), such abilities would by-and-large be deemed as development of “vertical” lines by the Wilber-Combs Lattice: they exist mostly in the gross realm of existence, in a cosmic map that also articulates spiritual levels subtler than the gross. These subtler levels become relevant when we’re talking about mastery and yoga.
From the worldview expressed by the W-C Lattice, (which expresses the larger view of Integral Institute, which builds immense things on the bones of the Perennial Philosophy and in particular Sri Aurobindo’s worldview which was offered in all its glory in The Life Divine, finished way back in 1940 [The book is astonishing but needs to be taken one word at a time, a tall order indeed considering it’s length: 1109 pages]), gross level mastery, fame and wealth are all fine, but they are not the whole story, not by a long shot.
One way of looking at Patanjali’s yoga sutras, that quiet brooding living text still hiding there behind the profusion of market-place yogas, is one long celebration of what happens when we focus our attention, allowing it to turn itself inward. The sutras are also a guide to what we will find if we do. Pattabhi Jois used to say, “Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali Yoga.” Which is to imply: 10,000 hours of focused hatha yoga practice will do something to us, will take us somewhere, other than just getting better at the asanas.
However, we can begin our discussion in the gross realm, because physical changes to the body are important in themselves as well as laying the foundation for the special whole-person transformation that sincere hatha yoga can make possible. From a fitness perspective, hatha yoga as it is in Ashtanga- which is a root form for most of the hatha yoga in the world at this point in time- offers primarily strengthening and stretching in about equal measure, the strength coming from weight-bearing movement and static holds, the stretching sustained in a stable manner between five and eight breaths. To a lesser but still significant extent, Ashtanga also develops balance and coordination, and it has us turn the body upside-down and stay there multiple times per practice. The breath in yoga never gets as deep into aerobic conditioning as the classic aerobic endeavors such as running, but Ashtanga’s emphasis on Ujjayi pranayama develops awareness and intelligence in the lungs and respiration process. These are the basic physical exercise categories in Ashtanga.
Like any other kind of physical training, the muscle exercise over time does many amazing things. The following is a list of the main discoveries on the subject from exercise physiology. To begin: the enzyme systems that get nutrients and oxygen into the muscle cells will genetically upgrade, which progressively allows the whole muscle to generate more energy. Mitochondria, the engines in the muscle cells that burn the nutrients, will increase in size and number. This will up the energy consumption of the body, speeding metabolism, which, among other benefits, burns excess fat: fit muscles burn fat. New capillaries will grow, surrounding the muscle fibers, allowing greater blood supply. Likewise, the myoglobin content of the cells will increase, which allows faster transfer of oxygen to the mitochondria (the “fire” which puts energy to use in the mitochondria needs oxygen, just like a flame does). The nerves which control the muscles will steadily improve their synchronization at the the level of the motor units (a motor unit is the group of fibers that one nerve controls). Coordination between agonist and antagonist muscles is refined. The muscles will grow both the size of their existing fibers as well as the number of fibers, i.e.: muscles will get bigger. The filaments that force movement between the fibers within the muscle- the basis for muscle contraction- will increase in number. To sum all that up: the muscles have multiple responses to regular exertion, they are just waiting for it to show up.
These gains are temporary: muscles worked on Monday will typically peak in their growth response by Wednesday and will begin to degrade thereafter, so if one practices on Monday and then goes on bedrest, he will be back to where he was somewhere around Saturday. Which is to say, to keep the muscles on an upgrade curve, they need to be worked at least twice a week, and with progressively greater loads. If one works up to a certain level of asana intensity, and keeps it there, the muscles will improve up to that level and stop. If the yogi quits asana and just lives a daily life without specific exercise, the muscles will downgrade to the level that is required of them, lots of chores, couch potato, whatever.
Ligaments, the collagen bands that connect bone to bone, and tendons, the collagen bands that connect muscle to bone, will also upgrade. The repeated strains on these bands will stimulate an increase in collagen production. The fibers within the bands will organize with maximum alignment advantage in terms of strength in the direction of the forces being asked of them. If exercise stops, the advantageous fiber alignment gets disrupted, and the “band width” decreases.
The same goes for bones. Exercise makes them stronger, more durable, less brittle. In particular, bones need at minimum the weight bearing loads of the earth’s gravitational force to be healthy. There is a unique page in Wikipedia called “Spaceflight Osteopenia”, which is the unforeseen calamity of gradual bone deterioration that astronauts suffer from the mere fact of no gravity in the final frontier for the bones to work against. Fittingly, the best bone workouts are load bearing, which yoga covers quite nicely, for upper and lower body bones. If you are hiking, it is the downhill part that really convinces them to upgrade. The cells that make up bones are called osteoblasts and they need movement and stress to even function. Bones will be most dense in exactly the areas where the most stress is received. And similar to the muscles, when the exertion routine is stopped over time, the bones, as well as tendons and ligaments, will return to the strength of what is asked of them, and they will become more brittle.
Surprisingly, most of the fitness gains that happen to athletes are covered above. Believe it or not, this is even the case for distance runners, with whom most of us would associate strong hearts and lungs. The heart, as a muscle, does upgrade like other muscles, but apparently not as much; a very fit individual will have larger stroke volume than he did before he began exercising, which is the amount of blood his heart can pump per beat. But this has been described as a “drop in the bucket” compared to what happens to the muscles that are primarily used in the exercise, i.e.: for runners, legs and hips (Hahn, 2003). As for lungs, they barely change at all, with endurance atheletes primarily gaining greater neurological skill at using the lungs. We know that this also happens to yogis who regularly engage pranayamas: the lungs get “smarter”, but, as per the literature, they really don’t change much. What does change is blood volume in the entire body, which goes up with exercise, as well as the chemistry that delivers the oxygen to the cells, as mentioned above.
All of these strength gains happen equally across gender. Of course, mature women have a special hormonal situation with their bones, but if a woman is dealing with bone loss, the more exercise she can get the better, as long as nothing gets too rough. Interestingly enough, as far as muscle strength, women’s muscles are exactly the same strength as men’s on a fiber to fiber basis. The difference is that women have more adipose tissue (fat) mixed in to a muscle with the same area as that of a man. Women’s muscles are also usually smaller than men’s. Otherwise, the training curve and ultimate limit per fiber are exactly the same.
That’s all strength conditioning stuff. Yoga also obviously has the stretching part. Intelligent stretching will lengthen the fibers of muscles, tendons and ligaments, as well as creating a little more space between fibers. Modulus is a mathematical term used in exercise science to express the elasticity of tissues; increasing the modulus of muscles, tendons and ligaments will allow them to receive a blow by warping but not snapping. Stretching will increase the modulus of these parts. (Modulus will be increased in bones as well, but primarily through the strengthening work.)
A primary indicator of stretching’s benefits is that of increased joint mobility. Such gains allow freedom of movement and far greater options for movement, which, in addition to the obvious physical advantage, has big psychological benefits in terms of felt interior spaciousness. This last benefit is a major aspect of hatha yoga’s greater intent of reformatting the body and opening it up, allowing the soul to reside deeply within it, which provides a foundation for an approach to the timeless pursuit of the spiritual life, more on this in a bit.
Range of motion gains by stretching seem to go on the rule that 6 weeks of practice will be lost after 4 weeks off. (The published physiological studies primarily reflect stretching effects on dabblers [or maybe even hackers] check this one, surely a good study, but 6 weeks is not long-term; I’ve found that those of us who do this over years eventually gain a very durable flexibility once we’re warmed up.) Regardless, if you stop stretching, the body will become less flexible.
All of these are essentially the body’s incredible evolved need to not just receive the shock and awe of life on earth but actually dial up its abilities in the face of such challenges. All of it happens completely unconsciously, higher mind and deeper awareness not needed. Millennia of nasty brutishness for cavemen and women bequeathed us moderns a set of genes prepared for messages of stress and strain, genes that respond by sending out developmental materials that won’t be forthcoming otherwise. Couch potato cavemen got assimilated into the bellies of saber-toothed cats and did not pass on their genes.
With that in mind, the statistics on total bed rest are astonishing. Complete bed rest such as a coma, where the body doesn’t move at all, shows that just getting up to putz around in the bathroom for a few minutes before getting back in bed does a lot. Twelve weeks in bed and the bones will be half their beginning density and strength, tendons and ligaments will be sixty percent. All three will greatly lose elasticity. Muscles will atrophy at twelve percent a week- after twelve weeks that’s not much left. Nerves will die back and lose their capacity to organize motor function. All told, not a pretty picture.
So, keeping all this science in mind, I’d like to move on to a deeper dimension of exercise, that which physiology terms the training effect. It is one step up on the consciousness/evolutionary ladder, although it too shows up on its own as a response to experience, it’s just that it can also be subjected to degrees of conscious awareness and assistance. That is to say, it will happen unconsciously if need be, but awareness can make it happen more and better. It is primarily neurological and is likely a function of receptor processes in other types of cells as well. It can be exemplified by the phenomenon of learning to ride a bicycle.
We can see two parts of bicycle training, one obviously being the fact of learning how to ride the bike itself, the other being the building up of strength and stamina through training. The latter comes and goes, as per the conditioning factors considered above. The former is rarely ever lost once gained. I’ve noticed that women who logged long hours in dance studios as girls have better balance than most everybody else, even though few of them are still practicing dance. And in my own experience, once I’ve discovered a solution to an Ashtanga challenge, I don’t lose it. On inwardly hazy days I may lose sight of it, but once clarity returns, it’s still there. This is a problem for the aging ex-basketball player: his nerves still remember how to slam dunk, but after doing so, his body says to him, “What the hell did you…?”
In developmental psychology, once a cognitive level has been attained by the child, it is not lost except under situations of regression. Once the stressor that caused the regression is resolved, the highest attained level is regained. It then becomes the foundation upon which development eventually proceeds to the next level. So, the general conclusion here: muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones come and go; barring illness, nerves are relatively permanent. Once laid down, a nerve circuit will lose a nerve or two (or million), will lose details and refinement with non-use, will be subject to potentially constant modification according to experience; but the basic foundations of the overall circuit will remain in place, even if rarely used. (Sequential cognitive levels of development, as mentioned above, can be likened to computer operating systems; they remain cutting edge and constantly updated because they are the software running the background engine which powers the entire mental show moment to moment. As we go through life, particularly in the earlier years, just gathering experiences and data- doesn’t really matter what kind of experiences- the bodymind will eventually gather enough information and stimulus to get the wherewithal to self-update its own operating system in a relatively sudden process, into something more adequate to the life complexity encountered. For adults who choose “the road less traveled”, this can continue throughout life.)
Recent lab findings have also added a new dimension to the neurological picture: that of exercise’s incredibly positive effect on the brain. The brain is like the muscles, in that its training and use will positively condition it. There are those who see a hill to walk up and they do not want to do it and they don’t. Likewise, there are those who sense intellectual and developmental challenges and they don’t want to accept them and they don’t. Body and mind not used up to their capacity.
Fortunately, the more common problem for your typical person is on the other side of that equation: she is too stressed out and feels daunted by life’s difficulties. Her mind and emotional chemistry are over-taxed. Such a situation releases crisis chemicals into the body and brain, such as cortisol. Put a neuron in cortisol and it tends to shrink back its dendrites, which are the branches that connect it to the rest of the brain. The unhappy conclusion: too much stress causes brain damage. So, inconveniently, the mental exercise which helps the mind develop now crosses over into too much, which becomes stress, which starts to break the brain down, whereby one needs to find a way to rest the brain so that it can be ready to receive such strong inputs and translate them towards mental fitness. The stressed muscle, when rested and fed, will become stronger. The same with the brain. The only problem is that resting the stressed brain isn’t always easy to do. (Enter yoga.)
But cortisol is not the whole story. There is another chemical called Bone-Derived-Neurotropic-Factor (BDNF). Put a neuron in it, and it grows dendrites. One of the best ways to release BDNF is exercise. A way to release more BDNF: stronger exercise. And BDNF has cousin chemicals, also released by physical exertion and with similar effects. There is lots of research on this, and a good starting point for it is in John Ratey’s book Spark, where he outlines the ways in which nature has set us up so that exercise allows incredible optimum chemistry for both brain health and mood. Up to a point, the stronger the exercise the better in this regard. Most of the research is based on aerobic studies. My personal experience was that as a competitive runner, I knew the joys of relaxing after the workout; I also discovered that different kinds of exercise had different “cocktails”, all of them pretty good. When I got to hatha yoga, I couldn’t believe it- it was by far the best. Studies still need to be done to get into what yoga’s exact chemistry is, but the consensus is clear: yoga helps you feel really good, you even begin to take such a state for granted.
So, 10,000 hours: any discipline taken up with focus, Ashtanga, ballet, piano, chess, will exercise in emphasis a specific set of nerve circuits. Put in the 10,000, and those circuits will be utterly robust, bushy, fleshed out, ramified, with huge numbers of connections within the circuit as well as to the rest of the brain and nervous system. Play chess with a 10,000 hour guy, and you will not be seeing the same board as he sees. Not only does each piece pattern fire off actual experientially learned circuits for him- not speculation, but actual, hard knocks been-there, seen-that memory. But also, for the less clear strategic part of chess, as per the literature, he has an ability to hold more options in his working memory than you do in yours, even if you have a better than average working memory. In piano playing, he will not have that working memory advantage. In chess, he does.
How does this operate in yoga? Well, for one thing, by the time one has done 10,000 hours of focused hatha yoga, she will no longer view the practice simply as physical fitness. Depending on her inclination, she will have varying degrees of achievement in the subtler spheres of existence by then. If one does Ashtanga, and settles year after year into pose after pose, staying in each one for at least 5 breaths, focusing, noticing, there will be some results from the universal human need to remain on our evolutionary edge, our creative edge, our interested curious alive edge. One would have to actively fight to stay down to avoid this. And 10,000 hours is way too long for someone who doesn’t want to go in this direction. They’d already be onto video games, yoga mat forgotten in the corner.
This human trait will take us on a particular path in Hatha Yoga. Specifically, all that time in feeling and breathing and somatic noticing, and attempting to quiet the surface mind to get at the authentic process in the now, will take us from grosser to subtler experiences. Following bodily felt sensation, which presents itself prominently in hatha yoga, the gross sensation- that hamstring stretch- will give rise to subtler energetic currents that flow throughout the body, with stronger concentrations in the areas recognized by subtle tantric physiology as the chakras, the most prominent emphasis winding up in the heart and the brain, and eventually flowing out beyond the physical body into the transpersonal subtle realms, outside of the body but still clearly and obviously felt, in a progression that gets ever subtler, without end as to how subtle it can get.
So the above paragraph’s sequence went from gross to subtle in a straight journey. Such a description is an ideal and illustrative model, basically accurate. But most people come to yoga as full fledged adults, having already passed through the gross younger realms by whatever walks life has taken them, many of them already with some spiritual experience, basically all of them intellectually developed to lesser or greater degrees. I came to hatha yoga as a buddhist meditator, seeking somatic grounding, which is to say that I was already out there, and wanted to turn my body into a vessel which would help me realize the gifts, abilities and profundities of the subtler spheres in a manageable way. And, as mentioned above, many people come to yoga seeking tools to handle their stress. Anybody with a reasonably developed intellect is already flirting around with at least the denser regions of the psychic realm.
So I would put the hatha yoga master- different than the chess master- in this category: someone who can navigate the subtler spheres of existence while firmly and powerfully grounded in the gross realm. It should be noted here that one of the common themes of sages and yogis through the ages is that the individual’s path along the great chain of being, and specifically through the higher stages of spiritual life- through the subtle realms- is one of movement toward something less illusory and more real, from an individual experiential perspective. Note right away that this puts the scientific-materialist realm exactly on its head, with science only accepting gross realm phenomena that can get through their labs as real. Physics is getting pretty small with bosons and gluons, but even these become knowledge as a result of “outward/ it” investigations, gigantic incredibly expensive machines devoted to getting a material measurement.
From the yogic perspective, the subtle realms begin to carry more weight, and become more interesting, than gross level experiences. If our yogi from above stays on her mat for 10,000 hours, she hopefully will not devalue the hamstring stretch, although that tack has been taken heavily in the history of the world’s spiritual life. Rather, it is more likely that she will eventually be unable to ignore how interesting the subtle currents themselves are, especially when the more she does it, the more they become very very real. One of the reasons the higher realms are so compelling is the organizational possibilities and organizational power they offer to the more normal spheres of life, the fact that a larger perspective can greatly help one’s work in smaller realms (see the previous post).
Alas, for most of us coming to hatha yoga, staying with the hamstring actually won’t be the easy thing to do, in fact, trying to keep attention on the gross somatic field presented by the asana will be the first great value of the “spiritual” aspect to yoga, because it will be a focusing point, an alter if you will, for the mental process she had when she walked in. That mental process will be wanting to simply carry on with business as usual, and it takes some determination at first- and periodically thereafter- to drag the consciousness in the yoga practice direction. If instructed or instinctively inclined to put the focus on the sensations in her body during practice, she will notice a force that not only organizes the mind but also matures the emotions, so that after practice that mind stream she walked in with will be clearer, a little further along, less wacky, less tortured. If she goes though an hour and half yoga class where she struggles and at times succeeds in focusing on her body and surrendering to her breath, this will be the beneficial cumulative effect, to greater or lesser degrees, pretty much guaranteed.
This is active mind-body integration, and the process of getting it in place on a regular basis is the beginning of “what happens to us if we keep doing this.” As per the training effect from above, if this is done over time, much of it will begin to become stably established and habitual, a gaining of fluency at the skills which use the experienced-in-the-moment body to benefit the life of the conscious mind. When things get hard or confusing, or awful, we will have a resource in place to draw upon. And like muscles, practicing that very resource will make it into an even stronger resource.
The physiologic benefits discussed above, from muscles to ligaments to tendons to bones, will become the body’s way of reformatting itself towards greater capacity to embrace and contain the stream of the mind. As we all know, the mind stream has stretches in time where all is well and easy; it has other times that are not not easy, stretches of fear, despair, hurt, anxiety, misery, the various and sundry things that have always bugged us and still bug us. These difficult feelings have a depth to them that can make them seem insurmountable, they reach so far down and come in so strong. The ever-more-fit regularly practiced hatha yoga body can begin to become a resonation chamber big and robust enough to handle the intensity of these feelings.
Many of our challenges, many of the ones we brought with us into our yoga practice, can be classed along a spectrum from gross to subtle, and again, most people who are functioning and intelligent have several things already going in the subtler realms, even people who have done no overt spiritual practice whatsoever. Working at the gross level can offer a firm foundation for bringing these challenges to fruitful resolution, but finally, issues need to be resolved at the level on which they exist.
If we stay with yoga, moving towards mastery, we will eventually rise through all levels from gross to incredibly subtle, allowing environments to form within ourselves which can potentially contain any and all existential dilemmas (except for the one final big one, more on that in a moment.) Following the natural current of our experience while we practice, continually returning our attention to the work of the asana but noticing how eventually the mind floats away. Bringing it back. Noticing that it is not always thoughts that pull us away from our gross level focus but sometimes it is an unspoken, authentic energetic current surge. When we go with this energy we begin registering phenomena that we didn’t notice before. Very interesting phenomena. These are the subtle currents and they will begin to beckon. And when we are ready, we will willingly go, they are that essential. Eventually we will be led into a different environment, one that needs to be learned like any other. We won’t lose what we had, but we will be integrating something more.
The gross realm is what our senses see, hear, smell, taste, touch in the concrete outside world, not an illusion, very real, right there. In turn, a spectrum expressing the realm of finer-stuff-than-the-gross, can be labeled psychic on one end of the spectrum and subtle on the other, with subtle disappearing into the ether in its endlessly more subtle-ness. Common spiritual wisdom points to this realm as the same place we go when we dream at night. Like dreams, it can be very vivid, unbelievably beautiful- more so than the gross realm- deliciously exciting, terrifying like a nightmare, full of resonant meaning, totally absorbing, weird. Occasional peak experiences are one thing, but to live from there, one needs a very strong yoga body, which I would call a body that has capacities from the gross to the subtle.
The subtle end of this yogabody is like a telescope. It is not easy to maintain in full consciousness. At first we just get glimpses, and we become curious about them. The spiritually inclined will want to pursue them. Beginner yogis can start building a framework which will bring meaning to these experiences. Nevertheless, as we get stronger and manage to sustain the subtle life for a while, eventually we will run into something over our heads, either as a result of what is happening in our lives, or due to the potency of what is coming in. Even if we’ve done the 10,000. At which point, the telescope will retract, and we will keep our awareness closer to the gross body. But as the yoga practice continues, we will be able to stay out in the subtle regions longer, eventually centering our gravity at a higher stage, ready to get curious about the ones above it.
Movement along this path, into the subtler spheres of existence, is not a new found discovery. The sages have been clearly or mysteriously talking about it for millennia. Some have been yelling about it. And it has been universally described as a path of increasing scope and increasing bliss. Just in case you as reader had any questions as to why one would want to go there. It arises inevitably and authentically and irresistibly from the matrix of our regular practice which already brought good things in the way of mind-body integration. The rise of the subtle currents is only more good things. Following their path will put many of our previous dreadful crises into perspective, they will loose their awful bite. Delights will be felt more delightfully, meaning will resonate powerfully, humor begins to lurk around every corner, the grim drama turns to heartfelt sorrow expressed by healing tears.
I mentioned above the “one final big one” and it is this: the great sages in history have merged their identity with what Patanjali calls the “drashtuh”, the seer. Like it or not, he is already on to this eleven words into his sutras. One need not get all the way through the subtle realms to reach this state. Several traditions bypass a percentage of “all this yogi stuff” and through variation on inquiry and perspective altering techniques, get the practitioners to realize that the awareness behind the eyes by which you see these words right now is that very drashtu, you are already there as we speak, it can’t be attained because it’s already in place, always was…yes the language of the ultimate perspective sounds like that. Anything less than that solution brings about issues of division. If you can survive the first 200 pages of Aurobindo’s Life Divine, you will understand something of division (it will be pounded into your head, really), and I won’t belabor it here, so much as to say that the entire gross-realm-into-the-subtle-realm which is the subject of this entire piece until now , all of it is in the divided realm. This brings a paradox that the deepest sages have felt a need to resolve. For these saints, and zen masters, and yogis, this incompletion was unbearable, and it spurred them on to the non-dual, which is another story and not one which I am currently telling.
Why? Because I want to affirm an integral yoga which does not in any way negate the subtle currents, or even the gross currents. The dream realm is the way the sleeping mind prepares itself to go into deep sleep. The gross mind opening up to the subtle mind is a way of following the path from waking to dreaming while still awake. A tiny percentage of those who center themselves at the subtle level will want to press on, and will succeed at it, largely through an act of grace. Others will get to the nidra state- deep sleep while still wide awake- and then into sahaja, the no-taste, without needing to get the subtle realm worked out too much. My proposition is that a stably grounded residence in the subtle realm is a good idea in and of itself, as well as for those who plan to go onward, partly because to remain there on a consistent basis one has to clean oneself out and get through one’s stuff, shadows and all. Also, it is the most likely place from which to realize non-dual reality. And also…because it is such a wonderful place, the muse lives there, the gods and goddesses, they periodically peek through in bliss hints which have stirred sensitive artists throughout history. The perennial poet’s longing instincts through the ages haven’t been wrong- it is a place of haunting beauty and awesome aliveness.
On the incredible journey of hatha yoga, 10,000 hours is just the beginning. And the adventure into bliss that awaits is very real. If I were your teacher, I would try to help you get out there stably first, with deep strength. From there, the divine may claim you. At which point, we will become one, you and I.
What I’ve been waiting for: Hatha Yoga and the Wilber-Combs Matrix
August 5th, 2012
(So, in this era of daily tweets and hyper-communication, I’ve written a lengthy thing which may require moments of slower reading- not something many internet surfers want to do- and it took me four years to cough it up. But I hope you will find it worthwhile. These posts are more like parts of a book than a blog, and all the different entries through the years should offer a different angle into the themes. May they shed some light on your yoga practice. Happy reading, Steve)
I haven’t published a post in four years. In the meantime, I’ve done a lot of yoga- lots of easy yoga, lots of hard yoga, everything in between; blissful yoga, not blissful yoga; I’ve dragged the trusting long suffering yogis and (mostly) yoginis who pay me and show up in class through no less than three location changes; been alternately delighted or stumped in the role of yogi-householder-version-2012-California with twin boys; taught lots of full classes, taught a few not-so-damn-full classes…and… I finally found the psycho-cosmic map that I’ve been waiting for: the Wilber-Combs Matrix. We hear that the criteria for a good jazz tune can be determined by the inspiration it provides for the soloists who play it. Well, the W-C Lattice, as they call it, has given rise to all kinds of insights for me, hopefully some of which shared here will get across.
This quest of mine started in 2005. Michele gave me the book Sex Ecology and Spirituality by Ken Wilber for father’s day, a big long book, I took it to Mysore, India for Pattabhi Jois’ 90th birthday in July that year and sat there in my Gokulam flat, at a beat up plastic table for six weeks taking notes in the hot nights after the rest of the family had retired under the mosquito net.
I kept at it because it was one of the few spiritual book I’d ever read where I was keenly sensing that some grand revelation was going to come from getting to the end of it. (I’d sniffed out a variant on the phenomenon three times before: Jung’s Mysterium Coniunctionis: knocked me over in my early twenties as Jung’s mature world came in, but I never got back up and finished it, not sure if that book needs to be finished- but if you read those first 20 pages with a clear receptive mind, something weird and wonderful may happen to you sometime shortly thereafter, it’s about alchemy; Shankaracharya’s Brahma Sutra Bhashya: after an initial conversion experience, Vedanta in all its profundity, it wound up putting me into a coma every time I touched it; the book is longer than you can imagine, leaves no 8th century didactic stone unturned, and would’ve morphed me into Rip Van Wrinkle entirely if I hadn’t done the right thing by putting it back on the shelf, thereby returning to normal waking consciousness. You can read it in its entirety right here, give yourself at least a year, sweet dreams; and Aurobindo’s Life Divine: the biggest brick of all, the first 30 pages blew my head clean off and may do the same to you. I also found out how God comes down to earth, such a large number of angles into this theme that I finally skipped to the part where human rises up to God.) But Wilber’s brick was clearer and quite exciting in the way it integrates so much cutting edge materialist thinking into a spiritual context, so I slapped at mosquitoes and finished, wiser for the experience and… the grand revelation fizzled.
There is a happy ending though: two years later I was teaching in Manhattan and realized that Wilber’s Integral Spirituality had recently been published, and there it was, St. Mark’s Bookstore, East Village, page 90, the thing I was hoping for but couldn’t figure out myself: the W-C Lattice itself, the icing on the cake of Sex Ecology Spirituality. It has taken several years, right up to the present day, for me to recognize the helpfulness of this tool- I feel thankful for Wilber and cohorts for getting it out there.
Sex Ecology Spirituality is organized roughly the opposite of Life Divine, the first part draws on cutting edge thinking, in addition to everything else under the sun, to explain how life evolves into greater complexity and inclusiveness. The second part takes the cosmological view of how Spirit descends to Earth and the way that it has played out through the course of history. The WC Lattice has explanatory value for either direction. Here it is:
There are two axes to this box, vertical: stages, and horizontal: states. The vertical axis charts lines of human development through successive stages. We all develop differently as we go through life, and this includes different lines which rise up through stage levels, for example: emotional line, kinesthetic line, morals line, cognitive line, (the grid above doesn’t show the lines but you could fit them in there, climbing vertically), each line a slightly different region of the body and brain. Individual lines will climb up the vertical axis depending on the degree of evolutionary resource and endeavor the person might have and apply during her lifetime, and some lines in some individuals can eventually reach up to that blue/integral stage or even above. Different people are inclined toward different groups of lines, so some will push the emotional line up there, others kinesthetic, etc. Each stage has increasing degrees of inclusivity, embracing more of the cosmos, as well as increasing the sophistication of the patterns of connection within that larger field- to reach a stage, one must satisfy certain criteria in this regard. These aren’t tests on which we can get an F so much as what Wilber calls cosmic habits or grooves, and they correspond to broad generalities that appear to reflect the way human organisms evolve over time; for those who are inherently or deliberately working at an evolutionary process, the claim of this grid is that it describes stations through which such individuals will progress. Much of the previous posts in this blog discuss different dynamics contributing to this growth through stages.
However- and this is a glimpse into the complicated kind of issues the lattice clarifies- other processes mentioned in the previous posts, often things about yoga, take us along the horizontal axis, growth through states. Regarding states, the W-C Lattice uses the classic divisions, first set down in the Upanishads, which correlate spiritual states, or yogic attainments, with the main states of sleep. The gross/purgation column corresponds to normal waking consciousness, the subtle/illumination column corresponds to dreaming sleep, the causal/dark night column corresponds to deep sleep, and the non-dual/unification column corresponds to the ability to hold all of these states stably and pass one into the other, ie: realizing the causal state (also called yoga nidra) while functioning in gross or subtle reality. Everybody- including our fabled unmotivated couch potato (see previous posts)- travels their way through all these states in their nightly sleep; but the spiritual life, as it has been expressed through cultures and time by adepts in different traditions, has described spiritual development as the realization of variations on these states of sleeping mind while still fully conscious. (If you want more of this kind of stuff- and it can be life changing- read any of Wilber’s books, or check out the Integral Institute or Integral Life.)
Here are a few illustrations to get at the main area in terms of states for hatha yoga, which aspires to the psychic/subtle realm: many of us know of classic images of meditating yogis whose eyes are rolled back in their head behind their lids. This also happens to the eyes of people during sex and orgasm. I saw the Rolling Stones in India once, poured rain the moment they started and stopped the moment they got off stage. Darryl Jones, their bassist during that period- considered among the finest- had his eyes rolled up the entire time. These are examples of someone entering a zone similar to the dream state while still awake- in REM sleep the eyes roll all over the place behind the lids- seeing things inside, or using the visual capacity to add dimension to internally felt energy contours.
So, let’s look at hatha yoga development in this light: a person walks into his first of many ashtanga classes. He brings with him a life history of somato-motor experiences which have given rise to a series of developments in the somato-motor systems in his bodymind. We’ll call this his kinesthetic line on the vertical axis of the lattice. This history starts with wiggling around as a baby, reaching for things and trying to eat them, figuring out crawling, walking, running. For most of us it develops from there. He has been using his somato-motor capacities non-stop since birth, and all this practice has entered data into his memory, and the brain has been crunching it up and putting things in the right places with much of this occurring beneath his awareness, unconsciously. The nerves have been making connections in an auto-poietic fashion, organizing themselves, following their own subterranean will. And, most interestingly, periodically through time, there have been incidents of global reorganization, where suddenly a threshold is passed in the individual, many things shift at once, and the somato-motor movements, awareness of them, capacity to do them in the moment, and to put different pieces of them into coherent wholes, suddenly increases. He has moved up a level on the vertical axis: the crawler suddenly stands (balance is added to the mix), the stander suddenly walks (balance is now applied toward something higher).
Where can this go? I spent the first eleven years of my life in Boston and my Dad and I are still Celtic fans, occasionally I still watch, they advanced to the conference finals a few weeks from the time of this writing, (June 2012) and lost a great series. Their chief foe: Lebron James of the Miami Heat, age 27. He has put in thousands of hours of intensely focused basketball practice- he had probably attained the lauded 10,000 hours by the time he was twenty- much of it in heightened prana environments during games, often with millions watching- thousands actually in his physical space, the rest on TV. He was putting together spontaneously improvised moves of enormous complexity, every fraction of a second presenting the possibility for large numbers of new adjustments, each one coming both from his internal toolbag- partly conscious, partly unconscious- and modified on the fly. All NBA players do this. But he was a vertical level up on everyone else, at least in game 7: greater complexity and thus greater options for new arrangements, or as they say in neurology, greater calculation speed through more efficient signal routing and “richer high-level representations” (Lynch & Granger): that which less advanced players would see as a chaotic situation, he sees as a whole; where others see a mess, he sees patterns.
And there was another force operating on that floor too, one with implications for yoga and longevity: Paul Pierce, age 34, more time logged on the court than Lebron, has even more in his toolbox and also very high-level, but having to add another twist into the neurological data-crunching: all that time in all that physical intensity has left him with a few strained and even broken parts; he’s smarter than ever but his musculo-skeletal body can’t do what it used to do. He can still evolve along the vertical axis of somato-motor development, which is largely chemical and neurological, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s better at winning basketball games than a young guy whose gross body parts aren’t broken down yet. In this particular series, the beat-up-smart-old-guys held their own until the structurally sounder young guys finally passed them right at the end.
Basketball, like ballet, is a young person’s game. 34 and you’re nearly over the hill. But yoga is a different story- hopefully. One of the points I want to get to a little later is that conscious residence in the subtle state is a huge contributor to creativity, such as our bass player above: eyes rolled back, that’s the zone from which his creativity flows. But in Hatha Yoga, as opposed to basketball, gaining traction along the horizontal path of the lattice, along the states corresponding to sleep, is really the basic intention of the practice, at least as it has developed in Indian history. NBA basketball (and much of the material world) is about winning and money and vertical stages (and aggression and luck) rule the roost. Yoga is about enlightenment and happiness and these need some horizontal progress, something that is known to mature with age if valued and given a chance, with the potential of getting progressively more developed even as the physical body wears down, ie: into old age.
Back to the basketball players: a typical non-mystical player will put in hard practice time during gross waking hours and then sleep at night. What happens within him as he sleeps? On the simply physical level, sleep is the time of maximum anabolic activity: growth and repair activity. It is when the body’s response to exercise happens the most, a complex process which includes increase of muscle mass and the upgrade of the muscles’ enzyme systems. This is also when more severe strains and injury heal most quickly. In my post from March 2007 I introduced the idea that yogis can maximize their residence in this anabolic state by, essentially, consciously moving themselves along the horizontal axis of our lattice: getting the benefits of sleep while still awake, in addition to the time logged during sleep.
Also, very interesting neurological things are happening to our player while he sleeps. The theory that seems to be getting the upper hand in current brain circles is that memories stored from experienced are “interleaved” in a progressive process into the cortex from the hippocampus. The hippocampus stores memories short term, the cortex stores them long term. And they get put in the right places. Essentially, impressions received by the bodymind are organized auto-poietically into coherent, intelligent patterns, allowing the mind to be guided by the same kind of wisdom that guides the cells in their profoundly complex operations. (An almond has around 21 amino acids; when we eat one, we do not need to worry about where to put them or what to do with them, the body does it for us and does it with a nearly incomprehensible biochemical genius; likewise, I’m drawing a parallel to what the brain does during sleep with the daily intake of data.) If our player has actually done a lot of basketball that day, these impressions will arrange themselves. If he sits around watching old reruns on TV all day, those impressions will arrange themselves, poor guy. If he does lots of focused basketball, day after day, he will, without conscious effort on his part, begin neurologically developing higher order representations and longer lines of association, brain items which indicate degrees of mastery. He puts in the focused basketball time, his self-organizing bodymind does the rest.
This physical and neurological progress also happens during waking hours, but, if sleep doesn’t happen- if he never moves horizontally along the lattice- he will eventually catabolize: break-down, the opposite of anabolize. And it doesn’t take long; the feeling we get at the end of a long hard day is that of our subtle and gross systems wearing down. They call out to us to get horizontal, both in bed and along the W-C Lattice. Once rest and sleep begin, then everything suddenly switches to the positive, and the strong impressions received from the tough day become the evolutionary fuel for greater development, for both vertical and horizontal attainment- and those who advance furthest in this life, along either axis, have a hunger for strong impressions. Our basketball player is going to need to get himself way up that vertical axis if he wants any chance to make it in the NBA, couch-potato lifestyle will never work. And his nightly sleep can be seen as the matrix which regularly, reliably- miraculously- brings him into the force that can get him there. Vertical development in the gross waking state cannot happen without regular passes through the deeper horizontal stages. Put differently, regular passes along the horizontal axis are required to get anything going vertically. Yoga is the art of getting into these horizontal stages while still fully awake.
So, returning then to the “grand revelation” I mentioned earlier, the one I thought I was onto as I read Sex Ecology Spirituality (SES as they call it). For a long time, I had a burning question: how can hatha yoga bring us to the highest goals of the yoga traditions? By that time, I had settled on my understanding of the tantric ideal as the best way to live a yogi’s life, an approach to the time given us in this life which is fully aware of the material world and alive to its dynamic forces, but also able to tap into the deeper realms of consciousness. The great paradox at the heart of tantra- of which hatha yoga is a branch- emerges when we take even a perfunctory tour through the corpus of yogic and buddhist literature, and the fact of the drashtu or seer or brahman or witness or causal matrix (in the WC Lattice it is represented by the dark night/causal column along the horizontal axis)- there are many more names for it- jumps out at us. It can’t be ignored and is clearly set out ad nauseum as the goal of spiritual life and the realization of enlightenment, either integrated with the grosser realms or not. This causal matrix is not a thing per se but is the absence of things, it is not the result of our yogic efforts but rather the presence that was there the whole time and has only, with the moment of realization, been uncovered. OK. No problem.
But the burning question and the conundrum: how does all this work with active life and practice, such as hatha yoga, where we aren’t doing nothing but rather, are developing something. Like most meditations, hatha yoga is a deployment of attention, and that very attention develops the contents upon which it focuses. Also, it is a practice that develops hierarchically and as Wilber puts it, holarchically.
Here’s an example: kharandavasana is an ungodly difficult asana two thirds of the way through second series in Ashtanga. It puts together several pieces of things which require development time on their own. To begin, one must be able to do lotus, and for some, this is a huge hip-opening undertaking unto itself, requiring full attention; for many people, putting the parts of lotus together is as much as they can do at their present level of practice. If things are given a chance to progress, with practice, all the separate openings and movements required for lotus become unified in a coherent whole, the many have become one. The same goes for the next part of kharandavasana, which is forearm balance: the strength and balance may take a while to develop before any kind of success sets in. We then put these two together, lotus and arm-balance- and there’s even more to the asana than that. I don’t need to go any further with this description to convey the main point, which is a different angle of my take on LeBron James from above: to achieve kharandavasana, one must put together multiple wholes, which themselves are comprised of multiple wholes, each of which needed learning and development time before it could even be realized as a whole. Before that we were just struggling through the parts, which themselves can be broken into parts, which themselves…you get the idea. Development within active life and practices- the vertical axis on the lattice- proceeds through the transformation of parts into wholes, which then become parts of larger wholes, on and on as far as we have the guts to keep going. This is progress up the vertical axis of the lattice. And the thing that was bugging me: when and how does this process eventually help us to get over to the causal matrix which is…gasp…nothing, nothing at all. How does getting better at Hatha Yoga, and by extension, practicing any material discipline, get us closer to the stated goals of yoga and spiritual practice?
In SES and a few later things, and in all of his previous books, Wilber made no clear developmental differentiation between states and stages and simply placed the highest yogic states at the very top of the vertical axis, on top of the very highest levels of cognitive, emotional, kinesthetic and other types of achievement, as he later and wiser put it, “Bam bam bam bam…East and West integrated!” After reading the book, I sat there scratching my head for a while. It occurred to me that a scientist or a basketball player or a hatha yogi could integrate himself way up an active developmental line, doing all his work in the gross waking state, and never get anywhere near the causal state other than in his sleep. It seemed to me that yogic/spiritual states were a different kind of line, a certain kind of intelligence that developed in a learning way just like the other lines, but one that had an essential and unique relationship to the development of other lines and managed different kinds of phenomena. It wasn’t until I finally found the lattice and its addition of the horizontal line to the vertical line that I was satisfied on this.
Here was how I viewed the problem: we can keep doing asanas for years and, while we will get physically fit and better at performing the asanas, what exactly about it is spiritual? What does spiritual mean anyway, and does it just sort of show up one day? Why do we even want it? One clue to understanding this issue has to do with that which happens to us as we focus our minds. Most yoga teachers at least make some reference to quieting the mind and staying in the present moment. Many also emphasize focusing on the breath, and in Ashtanga, hopefully, these guidances are overt. Making attempts to focus the mind on an actual sensate field in the present moment- which is different than giving energy to memories and plans for the future- and adding breath control to this, transforms hatha yoga from “just exercise” as Pattabhi Jois used to say, to something greater. Two things begin happening at once. One: time spent doing the asanas will have their developmental effects on the yogi’s body, upgrading it, developing it, neurologically stimulating the generation of higher order representations, etc.: movement up the vertical axis of the lattice, particularly in a somato-motor line. But then, two: what does the focus and breath do? My answer: it can simultaneously moves us into the inner sheaths of our existence, and these offer qualities different than those of the gross waking state: horizontal movement on the lattice.
Seated meditation is a way to get horizontal as it were without the distraction of bodily movement. One aspect of seated meditation is that it is the absence of doing anything, we’ve pared it all down to inner focus, minimizing distractions. Of course, what is really happening is just a more simple and subtle version of hatha yoga, because the back and neck muscles are still working and the hips are being stretched, and anyone who has sat for a while knows that around day three these areas begin to express their opinion about the forces to which they are being subjected. Regardless, at some point along this act of focusing and noticing- or as it has been in the west, praying and contemplating- the bodymind begins to move into a realm where different kinds of phenomena present themselves, and they take a form akin to the dreaming bodymind- less logical, more visionary and flowing, more connected to larger spheres of energy, heartfelt. Psycho-spiritual technology, East and West, has developed as a way of getting us there. The path is robust and has been repeated countless times all over the world; there appears to be an innate human curiosity to follow the roads opened within us every night as we sleep, but to follow them while awake, and to plumb their depths with our witnessing consciousness fully aware.
In the yogic literature, this path is said to reveal and eventually integrate and/or release our samskaras, a word which can be translated as unconscious psychic material. These are referred to as “vrttis” or subtle fluctuations of consciousness and the classic goal of the yogi is to get them quieted down (although this has been challenged, see below). Notice right away the parallel to the dreaming mind of normal sleep, seen in many of the mature psychological arts and sciences as the revelation to the psyche of previously hidden unconscious material, a “gift of the unconscious” which night by night slowly reveals us to ourselves, and hopefully allows us to get some purchase on the task of mastering our inner demons. When we go in this direction, whether asleep or in yogic wakefulness, subtle vibrations reveal hidden psychic material. This stuff must be integrated before we can stably go further. (Look at the previous post, “Yogamind” , May 2008, and most of the other posts in this blog, for a look at my take on the ways of “getting horizontal”, the practices that get us going in that direction, and what happens to us once the path is undertaken.)
And another mystery of sleep: at some point as we lie down at night, we get “taken” by the dreaming mind. If we have any will in the switch from waking to dreaming it is in our will to relax. Those who are good sleepers have the gift or acquired skill of getting themselves into the place where the dreams can take them. And likewise the move to deep sleep: it follows on its own once we’ve hit the layers of the dreaming state, it claims us.
And so it is with the spiritual life, and those who have attained to the mysterious and elusive causal or yoga nidra state: having brought themselves by their skill at the yogic/meditative/contemplative arts to the place where psychic and subtle phenomena present themselves, at some point of penetration into this subtle state- and this expression of it seems to be universal- they get surprised, grabbed, engulfed, claimed, taken, submerged- as an act of grace- by a profound stillness and quietude which presents itself as more real than normal waking reality, indeed, which appears to be the matrix from which normal waking reality originates, the womb of the whole thing. In fact, a reticence and reluctance to return to daily life can be a by-product of this realization. Spiritual people become less material because they have found something… better. (How many of us enjoy being awakened from deep sleep?)
Adept yogis can get themselves to these higher states at will and sometimes quite rapidly, once the state territory, the horizontal axis, has been objectified and traversed several/many times. The history of renunciated East and West includes many individuals who have decided that as long as they have this ability, then typical waking human life has little draw for them.
On this issue, Shri Aurobindo, a deliberately transformational figure within Indian spirituality, had a bone to pick with many of the rishis who preceded him: ”through many centuries a great army of shining witnesses, saints and teachers, names sacred to Indian memory and dominant in Indian imagination, have borne always the same witness and swelled always the same lofty and distant appeal- renunciation the sole path of knowledge, acceptation of physical life the act of the ignorant, cessation from birth the right use of human birth, the call of the Spirit, the recoil from matter.”
And herein lies a vindication of hatha yoga and the beauty of the W-C lattice. For my three cents, Hatha yoga is the path par excellence for integrating gross and subtle states, which allows the subtle planes of existence to enter the gross realm. This has been likened by Pattabhi Jois to that of a woman walking along with a bucket full of water on her head, a common sight in the Indian countryside, and one which is dauntingly difficult at first but eventually appears effortless: bringing God down to Earth, living the spiritual life in the material world. And is it ironic that many of the women doing this are quite beautiful to look at? Is it ironic that the human form doing hatha yoga is often among the most beautiful incarnate sights to be found? Hatha yoga is India’s great gift. It is the realization of how to bring the great rishis’ profound dedication to the horizontal axis- to the higher yogic states- back down to the very muscles and skin of the waking state, which stimulates the bodymind up to the higher reaches of evolutionary development. It is the horizontal progress itself that allows extraordinary vertical progress to happen. The W-C lattice has room for both heaven and earth.
I’ll say it again: although many seekers who have achieved the further horizontal states can show an indifference to the vertical realm of material life- in no small part because they have finally defused some or all of the drama of embodied existence- the great gift of higher spiritual states is the beautiful elegant organization they present to the material realms, should the yogi choose to return to them. In the yoga tradition one way to express this was through the siddhis : flying around, ability to read minds and disappear, to shrink, to grow, to be two places at once, walk on water, that kind of thing y’know, abilities beyond the ken of typical people, said to be acquired by higher yogis because their spiritual abilities allowed them an entirely uncommon penetration into gross “mundane” matter.
…and the causal, the next step beyond the subtle? Well, the pre-eminent techniques for that seem to require relative stillness of body and mind, such as seated or lying down meditations. But the time spent mastering and continuing to master hatha yoga can get the yogi to a robustly supported place in the subtle realms where, inviting the causal in, and everything ready, divine rapture hovering, she gets taken.
May 20th, 2008
Take your non-dominant hand and try to press the index finger and middle finger together and separate them from the ring finger and pinky which are pressed together, a V shape with two fingers on each line of the V. Spock used to do this. Make it flat. Not too hard? Now press the ring finger and middle finger together and separate the pinky off by itself and the index finger off by itself. Make it flat. Can you do it?
Apply yourself for a moment and you’ll get these. They require a bit of concentration as we tease muscle groups apart which usually work together. This act of leaning into our nerves so we can come up with something novel, by teasing apart something that usually works as a composite piece, is an act of tapas and I will call the region upon which it works a tapas-field. Tapas is a Sanskrit word which means “glowing fire” or “heat” and is used by yoga to convey a transformative act of concentration. The fire that will burn you clean, will burn you both toward higher development and deeper spiritual realization. The tapas field here is: that moment where you can’t quite get the fingers apart, the fingers don’t just jump to it because they don’t yet know how; an act of learning something we can’t do yet.
The Ashtanga system seems designed to always have us up against this field. Learned through a teacher assisted self-practice setting (Mysore style), the student basically gets the green light to progress through the asanas until she encounters something that she can’t do. At this point, progress through the series stops and she stays there until she learns at least basic competency with the difficult thing; she learns to do something that she can’t do yet. An act of evolution. As the progressive series unfold in Ashtanga, the degree of asana difficulty becomes an insurmountable curve, and even the most willing and gifted yogi eventually peaks out and gradually slides back down. Tapas is built into the system.
After succeeding at the Spockfinger thing, we can move onto greater tease-apart challenges. A good one is Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Up Dog. Try to tease apart firm squeezing of the thighs with total relaxation of the buttocks. (For people with tender lower backs, this is a good skill.) Mula Bandha goes further. If Ashwini mudra is the anal complex of muscles, and Vajroli mudra the uro-genital complex, Mula Bandha is recognized as the cervix for women and muscles further back at the base of the penis for men. Try teasing those apart: 1. genitals from anus, and 2. for women: the cervix from the muscles that hold back urine, for men: isolations between the front and the back of the root of the genitals. You get the idea. (Check Mula Bandha by Swami Satyananda Saraswati for more than you ever thought you wanted to know about this).
We can move into the lungs, a movement which will take us from the gross physical level into the next layer of subtlety, the pranic layer, hence pranayama. Hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe; notice the nature and quality of this set of urges and the associations that may come with it. The prana, the life force, that comes from breath is fairly important- hold your breath for a while and you’ll see what life is like without it: nasty, brutish, and with an emphasis on short. Tease apart: 1. a deliberate relaxed decision to resume breathing from 2. the unbearable need to react to the urges. In many ways, I see this as a very easy way to get right at the heart of yoga: an intentional exercise of pushing ourselves right to the edge of life, in a highly safe and contained manner, to open a laboratory of reactions in which we can train ourselves. Every little reaction-urge not acted upon is growth of yoga. Hold your breath long enough and the grim reaper himself shows up: what better teacher?! And how great that you can get him after only a few minutes. All yogas of any depth don’t just address death but actually flirt with it slightly. And the irony, of course, is that such death-considering practices release and cultivate fear-trapped life force rather than destroying that life force. It gives us a chance to “get over it” which is incredibly freeing.
And then moving to the biggie: teasing apart what I will call yogamind from discursive mind. This too requires that sense of bearing into, a quality which will be a joy and a rapture at times when we are up to it, and a burden requiring discipline when we are less inspired. It is the sense of taking on inner work, driven by the intuition that we are following an evolutionary path, which in turn provides the motivation to pursue it. Any other reason to do this? I will argue that yogamind, although periodically an aspect of the experience of all of us throughout life, is a way of being that can develop deliberately and stably only after a degree of competence has been gained in discursive mind; yogamind is a next step after discursive mind, and a necessary step for those who want to gain true bodymind integration, an alluring beacon for sure. It is at the heart of the hatha yoga mystery: the relation between the deeply somatic and the spiritual. If cultivated, yogamind has the capacity to unleash potent psychosomatic energies which can have immense positive effects on physical and mental health. And it makes possible a sufficient carrying ability in the bodymind of the individual toward sustaining the states of higher spiritual realization promised to us by the yogis and sages throughout history.
What level of discursive mind is required before we can enact yogamind? Many people get beyond the need to explain reality through mythic stories; they question the myths, and allow a rational outlook to emerge. When such rationality prevails, one can turn his attention to many more things, including finer assessments of the thought-process itself, objectifying it, and instead of just thinking, recognizing the option of not-thinking. But below the rational outlook, I hold discursive intrusions to be too mighty for the ego to actually silence for more than momentary flashes of freedom, see below.
There is an essential step in yogic development covered in the Yoga Sutras, the progression from 1:42 to 1:43, which highlights this thinking/not-thinking distinction; a subtler version of what I am calling discursive mind is referred to by Patanjali as savitarka samadhi “concentration mixed with awareness of name, quality and knowledge”, and since this is a kind of samadhi, it must be taken to imply cognition in its finer states, not just sloppy monkey mind, nor a typical rational person’s typical rational discursive mind. And an accomplished version of that which I am calling Yogamind or Alchemical Mind is nirvitarka samadhi, “concentration so that the object alone remains”. (Both translations by Swami Prabhavananda.) Also, I’m taking the various possible levels of these two states and placing them in a Hatha Yoga context, whereby the object of meditation becomes bodily sensations and states, or Vedana, either purely sensed or mixed with discursive commentary and unrelated chatter. Vedana is a field, which like all fields, is in constant flux; the act which focuses on the field also changes the field; attention upon it will also organize it eventually into something higher, thus the term Alchemical Mind, more below.
Stable, deliberate yogamind is born from the state of a mature discursive mind that has learned to value the benefits of yogamind but, paradoxically, has a terrible time getting out of the way; too much of a klutz. Discursive mind periodically even engages in heated debates with the ego, attempting to talk it out of practicing yogamind; jilted former favorite son. The practitioner has to fight through all this just to get yogamind established. And I want to note here that many people reach the level where this could happen but do not pursue deliberate yogamind, rather simply continuing development of the complexity and scope of their discursive mind; this latter is the typical way a Westerner’s mind has developed in history.
Before going further, let me characterize my understanding of these two minds, discursive mind and yogamind. Within discursive mind itself, there are different types of thought paths, from the highly structured mechanizations of logic, to poetic/associative flights of fancy. Mathematics is pure logical structure at its root, but higher math gets into more poetic pathways of mind without losing the foundations of its structure, and the same with physics; Einstein mastered large amounts of precision calculation capacities before he got wild with them. And in those fields, if the calculations ultimately don’t work, the wildness is considered pointless frittering; Einstein got wild not entirely because he was following his soul over to the right side of his brain but because the disconcerting data demanded it. Great poets often never get good at math, and make a career out of such frittering, but may have a large command of the palette of multiple languages with all their left-brain grammatical structuring, or even language sum-total, the ur-language itself (Joyce), as a means of expressing the vast vision they perceive, or the vast sound they hear, touch, taste, smell. So, both the scientist and the poet here begin from a mental disposition which tends “left brain” or “right brain” but (hopefully) eventually think and experience their way toward integration of the opposite pole.
All of these are discursive mind. None of these are yogamind. Yogamind, as I see it, is the great OTHER to discursive mind, to language and logic mind, to both associative and mathematic mind. This post that you are reading is not yogamind, although it is attempting to point it out. As such, yogamind, specifically isolated and cultivated, is a great OTHER to almost all of that which has been generated by Western culture. It can be seen as the often ignored ground of both minds. Some cloistered monks, dancers, atheletes, musicians, manual laborers and alchemists have gotten close, but their expressions of it haven’t been as clear as those that have come from the East, although the final highest stages of realization may have been equally realized. (Complicating matters somewhat, from the sixties onward, the East grew from being a marginal influence toward becoming a significant part of the story of the West, and cultural productions have never been the same since, especially in therapeutic circles. Also, many pot smokers have gotten a strong taste of yogamind; Eastern yogic cultural items have had a funny way of popping up in stoner circles of the West, tracing from the advent of the hippies. Undoubtedly, this is because pot and other psychotropics can open the door to yogamind, briefly generating it. The problem is that psychotropics’ fundamental contribution is exceptionally unstable and temporary, once the drug is metabolized out, the wire to nirvana is gone, whereas the yogamind I’m trying to convey here, the kind that comes with strong arduous practice, is as stable and enduring a bodymind state as one can have; wake up the next morning and those nerve connections are still there.) As a basic human capacity, yogamind isn’t something all that strange to Westerners so much as it never really had the discursive and outward sensate (ie: outward vision, outward hearing, etc.) aspect truly teased out of it so that its own intelligence could be seen in its purity.
So, although the spiritual life is often associated with right brain poetic/associative mind, the yogamind I’m getting at is closer to non-discursive mind, which is less about right or left brain and more towards a mind learning to differentiate somatic information from the other data streams processed by the brain. A move away from thinking toward feeling, or a kind of thinking which uses somatic data as its primary material, not words, not images. The one tendency that is almost universal in spiritual literature of higher states is that we must feel our way into the higher state of being; thinking about it is not going to cut it. And by feeling I’m not talking about “feelings”, ie: emotions, but rather data from somatic nerves, of which emotions could be considered a corollary.
The term “yoga” has been used for many different types of practices which develop an individual spiritually as well as at grosser levels. The yogamind in this post is my expression of a matrix of techniques that I believe central and essential to yogic tradition. And like other yogas, it can be seen as an evolutionary engine which can work at both gross material levels as well as along the path towards subtle and causal reality. The tapas and teasing apart efforts mentioned above, and the separating of discursive mind from quiet mind, can move one toward greater gross development as well as toward greater spiritual development.
At first, yogamind is a state of focused attention to the experience in the present moment, as close to the root of our perceptual capacities as we can get. For example: seeing the field in front of us as it is, just looking with a minimum degree of interpretation; this can also apply toward hearing or touching or tasting or smelling. But at a certain point, these outward senses are folded into an inner sensing which is based on internal sensation, (pratyahara, the fifth limb of Ashtanga: taking outward senses and turning them inward), based on the data that the nerves take in from inside. Crude forms of internal sensation are, for instance, the feeling that we feel in our belly when it is full of food, or the stretch sensation in our hamstring as we do forward fold, two examples of the most rudimentary forms of internal somatic sensing. Not outward touch, like running fingers along a textured surface, but inward feeling. This makes the somatosensory cortex the part of the brain that is the ground for yogamind.
Raw sensation such as full belly or stretching muscles, or simple nerve discomfort or delight, is the predominant form of cognition in infancy. Needless to say, cognition steadily gains in sophistication, as the individual grows and develops, eventually moving beyond mere sensation, (and often negating the sensation process itself unfortunately) giving rise to an intellectual way of viewing the self and the world, which includes internal sensate data among other kinds of information in the calculations it makes. We could call this a mature adult cognitive capacity, an ability to turn attention to various fields and begin to work them out using different kinds of data and thinking. Some people at this level are heavily reliant on bodily sensate data, some less, some are highly aware of the sensate parts of their cognition, others less. These different strands of mind are woven together by the conceptual power of language and become our internal voice, discursive mind.
But the essence here is that the stuff of yogamind is somatic data, represented by the somatic cortex, data directly gathered from what we feel inside, without discursive interruption. Mature yogamind “thinks” by constructing complex sensation representations, based in feeling but containing inner senses, inner seeing, inner hearing etc., in response to perceived fields, and “crunches” such data in processes of integration and resolution that can be felt. One implication here is that the mind is a sense organ, and the fields it can sense go way beyond the business of the basic mechanical functions of our own body, although it begins with that. What does yogamind sense? This I’ll reserve for another time, but my basic answer: psychic fields, received in ever increasing scope, strength and collectivity as yogamind matures. (Briefly: Those within our circle of acquaintance, relation and love have exchanged receivers and transmitters with us, whether we have ever physically met them or not. This appears to transcend time and space limitations. They receive what we transmit and vice-versa, like radios, the greater the love and intimacy the greater the exchange, of which dreams at night are one fairly apparent revelation thereof. This field of exchange can be accessed consistently through accomplishment in yogamind. The field uses as its medium what may be another force in addition to the basic physics four of electromagnetic, gravitational, strong and weak nuclear; we can call this the pranic force. Yogamind accesses and develops a sensory faculty within us which receives information through this force, just like eyes receive theirs through light. Practicing yogamind brings us into the inner koshas or layers of being, where we find the sukshma deha, the subtle body, with its sukshma indriyas, subtle sense organs, which go beyond mere subtle feeling and into…great mysteries. Before dismissing this out of hand, one must attain a degree of competency in yogamind, otherwise the relevant data won’t enact itself into one’s lab as it were. A percentage of people in the West in sports, business and politics take basic psychic communication as a given, usually putting it in the arena of “prayer” and often centering it in a Judeo-Christian matrix which unfortunately has provided us with limited tools for deliberately developing it .) We can also call this the heart (the place where yogis have often situated the mind, “the mind which is in the heart”), as it has been referred to in various globalwide spiritual treatises and which appears to be an unavoidable stepping stone from which to access the highest states of Samadhi (which drop all cognitions, heart and mind). This spiritual heart is part individual, part collective, and it is a felt entity, with exceptionally subtle dimensions.
Yogamind relies on the emergence of the independent inner witness that was born with the maturity of discursive mind. This witness can put its attention capacity wherever it chooses, although total freedom as such is quite an accomplishment; most common is a witness that is free on surface levels, (ie: I can read this if I will it), but is often riding larger waves of primarily self-inflicted karma over which it has little control. If this less mature witness were to turn its attention away from discursive noticings about events and gross satisfaction of needs and urges, and actually hold in attention the deeper movements of the psyche which supports that witness itself, it may very well begin to get a bit shaky; this is material that discursive mind can take notes on, point out logical processes about, recognize images and themes, refer to what came before and predict what will come next, and so on. But these deeper aspects of the self have such a strong psychic charge that discursive mind is nearly helpless to take them and transform them. For this, the ego needs a mind which can contact felt reality itself, learn its valence in a wordless manner, and build the strength to begin the work of transforming it.
And here we come to the next step, and a radical move it is, and apparently not for everyone at this point in time. It involves the psychological concept of fusion which I was getting at earlier in this post: fusion is a condition that is necessary and unavoidable at each point in development and is only viewed as fusion when seen from a higher state of development. So, if you never tried to do Spock fingers, you would never wonder about your inability to do it. But the moment someone shows it to you, you become aware of a fusion of muscle groups as you take a moment to tease them apart. Only when you began reaching for the greater differentiation of hand muscles did anything like a fusion become apparent. Before that you were simply happily (or not so happily) fused. Let’s draw the concept into finer material: as a two year old, it was entirely appropriate to scream out “MOMMY!!”. As an adult, if you get off the phone with her and aspects of yourself are still screaming this at some level, you may well get curious about it; you recognize that some parts of your personality are still fused with Mom. A little fusion item is noticed, drawn into awareness as a result of the basic psychological urge to individuate from our parents, a process that many people never get very far with.
And here is my claim for the teasing apart of yogamind from discursive mind: having arrived at the state of mature adult mind which is mature rational discursive mind, we remain there for a while before we begin to get itchy for something more. One process that may present itself as a solution to this crisis is the act of existing simply in the present moment and letting go of the mind that needs to think and plan and remember and desire its way through everything. This strikes us as somehow a higher way of being, partly because we begin to get a glimmer of how such a way of being allows a bit of traction towards being able to move the deeper material in our psyche; and indeed, this is getting at the ways of being that the spiritual traditions of the East overtly advocate and those from the West obscurely so. Having spent some time just being, and recognizing the benefits, we suddenly begin to perceive intrusions of discursive or analytic mind as fusions, as something we would rather not have during meditative moments but can’t control…yet. And so the urge, when we are inspired, is to lean into the tapas field of mind control, and to seek tools and teachers who can help us with this. I see the Western movement toward yoga as a way of addressing this emergent developmental thrust.
What form does it take? Mature adult discursive mind, now seen as a state of fusion, gives way to the work of separating itself from yogamind. Yogamind here can be understood as the feeling substrate which gets marked up, affected, determined, by thoughts. (I’ve gone into this heavily in previous posts on this blog). Free it from discursive mind, then it soars. It engages felt objects directly, receives a trace from them, and it transmutes that trace, the greater the focus, the faster and more complete the transmutation into something more integrated, more evolved. Focus can be intensified with practice over time and the great yogis attest to how far this can go. Again, analysis and poetry can express all this, it can paint it or compose it in sound, but such representations aren’t actually doing it as yogamind can do it, just as this piece I’m writing can’t. Great art can inspire us to… engage reality directly.
How does this transmutation work? Well, if we see an outward visual field, that tree over there, we can’t really do much to it, without picking up a real chainsaw and going mad with ancient antagonisms toward the great mother; or better, going over and hugging it, that might do something. But, following the fifth limb of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, Pratyahara, which tells us to take outward vision and turn it inward, then we can begin to work on the fields that present themselves. The Tibetans would have us establish inner mandala-like visions, and then begin manipulating them. Acute outward vision can help put this in place, but it is the inward theater where the work happens. So, yogamind is inner work. Likewise with sensation, which is closer to the Hatha Yoga way (I’ve called this radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence, and it is a state of higher and deeper feeling. It is not a negation of the Tibetan tantra which relies heavily on the visual cortex, or nad yogis who go with the auditory cortex; for those ways, look up one of those teachers): the capacity to feel a full belly matures into the capacity to feel subtle emotions, matures into the capacity to feel the feeling substrates to intellectual work, on up to highly subtle and powerful perceptions of cosmic processes, etc. These sensings begin to move beyond merely the somatic cortex and begin to manifest in the cerebral-spinal circuit, and into the life in the cells themselves, and project from there into the larger cosmic bodymind, the big collective mind outside of ourselves, of which we are a part. Each soul is a neuron in the larger collective nervous system.
Such collective yogic work typically manifests as concrete samskara fields of varying density and quality which can be transformed with yogic focus. Here is where the alchemical roots of Hatha yoga assert themselves: samskaras become seen as fusion items and yogamind can sense them in their elemental form, and like the complexities of chemistry, many forms begin to emerge along with a qualitative aspect, ie: this here samskara is definitely not gold, but a little bit more like shit, or static, or the crud in the drain of my kitchen sink. But, I clearly sense it, and I’m willing to bear attention into it, I’m willing to work with my body in the recognition that the body is the theater in which this transformation process must happen. (Thus asana, mula bandha, pranayama, energy of teacher, energy of a community of at least a few others doing the same, etc: various methods to get the energy level up so that we can do the work of yogamind). The samskara undergoes the alchemical process of purification, of teasing apart the strands that are mushed together, of feeling the greater energy that emerges from it as it becomes a finer substance, of feeling the energy that is released as that which was locked up in the crud is revealed and goes to work, of noticing how the other senses begin to merge with inner feeling begetting seeing-feeling, hearing-feeling, etc., of feeling the cosmos come in as another doorway of perception is opened, of feeling the heart quicken and come to life as it instinctively senses something exciting happening which opens its desire to love and feel.
This is the kind of thing going on inside the life of actual sages who are sitting there “doing nothing”. Such work can go on into evermore subtle sheaths infinitely, and it may altogether cease at times as the realm of Vedanta’s Brahman is entered (a state of apparent nothingness recognized by many traditions by many names as the creative matrix itself). Of course, those who come near such a sage (either materially or psychically) will feel something, because intense inner work like this registers in the energy fields of various material locations as it flows through subtle channels, frequently including the general vicinity of the sage’s own physical body.
A couple notes here: the yogamind I’m referring to here is not absence of cognition. It is rather yoga cognition, or alchemical cognition (alchemical implying precise inner experience of elemental interactions without utilizing outward measuring devices; alchemical writings and art is always poetic, free flowing, associative, dream-like, but C.G. Jung and others insisted that the alchemist’s experience itself, before artful expression, was one of a stably centered presence in the psychic realms where dream-like things actually exist, where deliberate sensing of these things, as opposed to merely being swept along by them, is an accomplished task of bodymind). Also, pure awareness divorced of cognition, discursive or alchemical, as mentioned in the yoga sutras above, comes later. When Patanjali delineates yoga in the almighty second verse of the first part of the Yoga Sutras: “Yogas Chitta Vrtti Nirodhaha”, (“yoga is the cessation of fluctuations in the consciousness”) we can see this at three levels at least: 1. freedom from distraction, 2. freedom from discursive analytic mind, 3. freedom from any manifestation at all: realization of Brahman (if we follow the thread through to its Advaita conclusion).
Yogamind and discursive mind are not enemies, although, as we pick sides in a sports contest just to have fun in that realm of entertainment, so we can pick sides between the two minds as we go through the arduous winnowing of coming to higher awareness. The bodymind seeks to move fusion towards differentiation, and such a need will continue to assert itself until purified elements can stand on their own and both minds get a chance to do their work, which eventually will give way to a higher integration. Once yogamind has been established to a degree, has wrestled itself free from the matrix of discursive mind, the correspondences between the two minds remains intimate. Busy intellect makes yogamind’s work much more complicated- the play in which discursive mind may take delight can result in long hard labor for yogamind as it tries to sort out the vibrational chaos left by addictive impulse gratification, or even intellectual experimentation or fantasy play. Habitual emotional-mental patterns can be rough on yogamind; if the psyche is in the grip of an old negative piece of history, discursive mind may be playing archaic ridiculous tape loops, secretly fueled by invisible unmet needs, while yogamind desperately digs down into the psychic dirt endeavoring to root up the mess once and for all by actually trying to learn to contain the psychic charge. If yogamind succeeds in its adventure, typically by activating sleeping monsters down there, so they can be allowed to grow and become civilized, discursive mind will be free to engage more integrated forms; at a certain point in development, discursive mind needs yogamind.
Going the other way, a more sophisticated intellect will allow the potential for a more sophisticated yogmind, though it makes yogaminds’ work more daunting. And so a deep masterful yogamind will make for truly compelling discursive expressions should the individual choose to make them. And there is no need to get ahead of ourselves and worry about whether to integrate mindstyles or tease them apart because the direction will present itself as a compelling urge when the time is right. How do we know which urge is compelling and which is not? Discernment of this kind I see as a great labor, but it’s again essentially alchemic: learn to determine the quality of the combination of elements which make up the urge, or even look for the pure element itself, which is gold. Because there is such a thing. Hopefully it can come to life between us in the hatha yoga room.
February 4th, 2008
The world does not need one single person more stuck at the fundamentalist level. A job of the yogi is to help people get beyond this state. This is urgent.
A disclaimer right at the outset of this: I’m directing the following challenge, ironically, toward those yoga teachers who are, for the most part, members of a hatha yoga lineage, such as Ashtanga or Iyengar, traditions which, as their basic premise, reach towards imparting spiritual development in their practitioners. Unfortunately, many yoga classes in the market today aren’t even in this class, don’t go far beyond the sweaty mass experience of sexy fitness; they’ve never honestly had a strong spiritual tradition anywhere near their radar. The irony here is that it is the teachers who are attempting to interpret the real deal, ie: the actual lineages, that often get caught in the fundamentalist tangles. I believe this stems from the daunting task of channeling the wisdom of tradition- and bearing the strength of its voice- into contemporary real-person-in-front-of-you situations.
How can we characterize fundamentalism in a yoga class? To me, one basic indicator is this: I, the teacher, state what I want you to do. You, the student, respond with a reason why you want to do it differently. And here’s the true test: at that point I, the teacher, either hear what you say and take a pause to consider it, or I don’t and rather simply insist that you do it my way. The difference between a dialogue and a dictation. (See note 1 below).
Joel Kramer, an old-timer yoga teacher in Northern California, co-wrote the book The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power. From what I know of Joel, I have some reservations about his capacity to surrender to tradition and teacher, but much of that book is an illuminating application of post-modernist power critique to Gurus and Yoga. And, to put it mildly, the power plays in our field are typically far more crude, naive and easier to spot than much of what the humanities in academia began deconstructing in the sixties.
In an intelligent, sensitive and exacting dialogue, traditional Ashtanga Yoga will not wilt: there are many very very good reasons for doing it traditionally. Here’s a metaphor which has helped me: when I have traveled around parts of Tamil-Nadu, for the most part I have been allowed into the outer sanctums of a Shaivite temple, but denied access to the inner sanctum. I’m not a converted Hindu, or a wanna-be Hindu, but at first I was irked by this. I was thinking about Joseph Campbell, who wrote that this is the era where the secrets of the inner temples must be opened for humanity. I was thinking about the Dalai Lama, who in centuries past was completely sequestered, his Buddhism only for the select; then the Chinese came in and smashed everything up, which forced our current Dalai Lama onto the world stage, where he now is one of the most readily recognized humans on the planet; he is with his people, and he’s with us, and Tibetan Buddhism is for the world, and the world is better for it.
But inside the inner sanctum of a Shiva temple is a Lingam: a penis in a vagina, with milk poured over it. Draw the parallel to a woman’s vagina: she doesn’t just let anybody in now, does she? Why? There must be something to be protected, something dear and intimate and vulnerable, the matrix for the profound beauty of life itself, a field of subtle particles that can be disturbed, something to be treated with care by only those who know how to do so and have passed the series of tests and challenges.
When I first got into yoga, early nineties, Southern California was the land of Vinyasa flow (still is really), and most teachers had never been to India. I found this yoga culture appealing, helpful. But when I began to do traditional Ashtanga, first with Chuck Miller and then in Mysore, something much bigger happened, much more powerful, the depth was so compelling. Something quite amazing in terms of its transformational potential had been cultivated and allowed to mature over time, had been protected and preserved. Adherence to a tradition had made possible the proliferation of a subtle particle field. I was astounded and in awe to recognize these qualities.
But here’s the paradox: the intelligent engagement with what is arising now, and an openness to its suggestions and influence, this is what keeps the subtle field alive. Frozen dogma, applied with the hand of subtle violence in a conscious or unconscious attempt to maintain control or power kills spiritual life, and simply attracts students who are engaging a doomed attempt at solace and security and need someone to tell them what to do. The subtle Ashtanga spirit lives in brightly both the rooms of Tim Miller and Richard Freeman, two teachers who have gone into deliberate variation on the stated traditional themes. Ashtanga needs to be more than just a reaction to shallow professional yoga, but rather the clear statement of the strength of a lineage preserved and enacted in the now.
September 11, 2001, and aspects of the American response to it, now stand pretty clearly in the light of their actual motivations: blatant attempts at power and revenge, and the willingness to kill thousands of people to get it. In such a climate as this, what do we make of individuals from generous Western homes arriving at a true-believer version of Yoga, taught without tolerance for variation, and offered in a mean-spirited militant manner, replete with abuse and humiliation tactics? After coming so far, the Western seeker of truth and evolution arrives at this?
Ashtangis themselves would do well to recognize the Krishnamacharya strain weaving itself around the perimeters of what happens in Mysore. If Krishnamacharya created and taught the (then) four series of Ashtanga during the Mysore palace days, he later would evolve it into the precursers of Viniyoga. Guruji’s book Yoga Mala offers several practice variations for people in different walks of life. Guruji himself has offered variations, such as Ardha Matsyendrasana for those who have knee trouble in Marichyasana D; and he showed me a work-up pose for Pashasana, not in class but later as several of us sat on his porch in Luxshmipuram: go against a wall and walk back slowly with your hands. A look at how the form of the practice has changed in Mysore over the years, from drishtis, to subtle vinyasa details, shows us that Guruji is actually not anal about some impossible ideal of the perfect form, but rather has been moving his way along, allowing things to evolve, wise and patient with both paradoxes and apparent unclarities.
This is called the dialogical process, the journey of coming to knowledge, the willingness to look at what you do, to receive and integrate energy and information from others, and to refine your approach. The disinclination to this, the desperate grab for dogma as an attempt to avoid the existential discomforts of life, is also a way to obliterate the uncertainty that comes from evolving past what you knew: the urge to not evolve. The USA was gripped by such a seizure following 9-11, and the results were a commendable showing for the prize of the ugliest batch of Americans ever. So what do we do with The Ugly Yogi?
I would advise students of Ashtanga and yoga this: you are the final word on what you do, any Guru’s job is finally to help you find your own inner Guru. If you feel something to be a truth, and your teacher negates it, the final word rests with you. This is not to say that a teacher cannot be further along the path than you are, or that holding onto our little ego is the right thing to do in yoga. Also, it may bring up a conflict of uncertainty about what is the right way to proceed; as uncomfortable as it may be, such struggles are really good for development and far better than unconsidered surrender. And this is also to say that in order to get to the stated purposes of yoga, we must go way beyond any petty insistence on form or the power-over-others assertions of a teacher. Before a teacher is entrusted with any kind of transference, which I hold to be the higher possibilities of what a good teacher can offer, you need to decide whether you want to let this teacher into your inner sanctum. You don’t want your teacher to be a fundamentalist.
Note 1: This doesn’t mean that the teacher agrees with what the student says, or views it as wise. It doesn’t mean that I give her the OK to do it that way in my class. It just means that I take the information in, and respond to it, as opposed to simply ignoring it or basically stating that this isn’t a place where we do dialogue. Also: implicit here is the recognition that each person passes through the phase we can associate with fundamentalist thinking as he or she develops; everybody starts at step one. Understanding where a person is and offering skilled compassion is a more effective way of helping him get to step two, as it were.
Threatening my Yoga: Jung and Shankaracharya
October 3rd, 2007
Carl Jung is the mosquito buzzing around the ears of the Western yogi. I find myself returning to him again and again, occasionally putting the book down with the conclusion that Jung is ridiculous and absurd. But then he seeps in again, and I pick him back up. He is a pest that won’t go away. Why does he bug me so? Well, a big reason is that several of his ideas are somewhat threatening to Westerners who have taken up yoga. Those threats got my attention. And the fact is, he’s not ridiculous, not absurd, and therefore cannot be merely dismissed. In the Jungian world, if an idea comes in and bothers us, and we blow it off for that very reason, it will come back demanding justice with a vengeance. Fortunately, I am now firmly grounded in why I believe he was wrong about yoga. And I had to go through a transcendent function struggle to arrive at this happy news, just what the good Swiss doctor ordered, more on that below.
He stated that the West will eventually build its own yoga, based on Christianity. This involves a few astute recognitions on his part, one being that, in yoga, India has developed a “system of hygiene” as he put it, which he saw as superior to anything comparable developed in the West. Actually, he spoke of yoga in the highest possible praise numerous times. However, he saw an elemental incompatibility when an Eastern cultural item is used to unveil the depths of a Western character formed with Western cultural items; the Westerner will begin to diverge from the kinds of developmental traces that informed the Eastern teacher and teaching, and the depth of the unveiling will stop right there, it won’t go any deeper. In his book Psychology and Religion, he asked: “What is the use of imitating yoga if your dark side remains as good a medieval Christian as ever?”
First, in his experience, Westerners adopted the forms of yoga but remained clueless about the real intents of it, they imitated it but didn’t really do it. Obviously, even now in America, there is a huge amount of shallow yoga out there. But of course, for many of us, it has gone far deeper. Second, by dark side, Jung meant the unconscious, the part of us that remains unknown and submerged. He believed that there will always be a dark side in our psyche and that it will stubbornly resist any attempts at control; it may yield its contents to the light but there will always be a part of it that remains dark (although he did make a concession on this for fully realized yogis).
For example, a person of Anglo-Saxon descent who allows her personality to develop and mature will begin to reach deeper realms of character which will be Anglo-Saxon in quality: the themes given up by her imaginations and dreams, her deeper motivations, her worries and concerns, her style of approaching reality, that to which she is unconsciously drawn, all of these will begin to cluster around certain traits which can be traced to the specific cultural heritage of the individual, which Jung dredged many generations back. These various ways of being may not be revealed or well served by yogic techniques beyond just the shallow levels, in which case it’s better to pursue techniques based on what Anglo-Saxons did, or Russian things (if I’m Russian), or Hopi things if I’m Hopi, etc.
Does this mean that Jung didn’t grasp the now basic operational premise of pluralism, which is the honoring and valuing of individual differences and the non-marginalising acceptance of multiple points of view? His commentators are divided on this issue. I think he did pretty well for his time and place, but is far behind, for example, most American kids today. However, his insistence on honoring differences at our depths does not negate a pluralistic view.
Anyway, Jung believed that Westerners have a relationship between consciousness and unconsciousness that subsumes large percentages of their personality into the unconscious. He stressed that this personality needs to be revealed to the Westerner through methods that are less like yoga and more like free-flowing art and dialogue processes, organized to a degree by empiricism. These methods will allow the unconscious aspects of the European to be revealed, develop and unfold. To my mind, in this Western realm of healing through talking, thinking, creative expression, deep research, Jung is a daunting and inspirationally overflowing giant. He found fabulous timeless wells of resonant compelling “medicine by which one needs no medicine”, and in terms of shadow work he’s the original guru. But he got yoga wrong.
He felt that his contemporaries needed to do vast amounts of personal integration and revelation/transmutation of unconscious contents before they could get anywhere with yoga. Until then it would hold them back because through a process of unconscious compensation, their unconscious character would resist the conscious statement of yogi-bliss, rumbling around down there instead like old Continental barbarians, subverting the shiny yogis on top at every turn.
My response to all that is this: the basic yogic act of citta vrtti nirodah: i.e.: bare attention, quieting the mind, focusing on sensation in the moment, labeling thoughts as “thinking” and returning to the object of focus, etc., this act will eventually take the practitioner along the yogic pathway, which is really the pathway of the perenniel philosophy recognized by all cultures: it takes the practitioner into the psychic and subtle realms of existence. These are the same places where dreams happen at night, and the same places Jung was trying to tap into with his techniques. In these realms, the unconscious psyche gives forth its contents, called samskaras in yoga, and they become revealed to the waking conscious and can thereby be integrated. Go to sleep at night and the dreamstates will introduce unconscious stuff to the light; meditate successfully and the subtle state attained will do the same; the dreamstate and the subtle state is the same general area of being.
And the conclusion I reached through years of glorious struggle: the yogic path is a way more stable, efficient, predictable, daily and repeatable way to get there than ways advocated by Jung. Having said that, I recognize that when the content does comes through from the unconscious, a debate should arise as to how exactly to let it unfold, more on that below. But the techniques of yoga themselves, when applied earnestly and passionately, not only bring personal darkness into the light, but also strengthen the subtle body such that it can manage the charge of what comes up.
My struggle to get to this position on yoga followed the patterns of Jung’s transcendent function, which he described like this:
The shuttling to and fro of arguments and affects represents the transcendent function of opposites. The confrontation of the two positions generates a tension charged with energy and creates a living third thing…a living birth that leads to a new level of being, a new situation. (1958)
Betsy Perluss, on her website, describes the process of the emergence of the living third thing:
If the tension between the opposites can be held long enough without succumbing to the urge to identify with one side or the other, the third, completely unexpected image, one that unites the two in a creative new way, comes into view.
I learned yoga from a traditional Indian teacher, Pattabhi Jois. My experience as a Westerner was that the yoga path involved at times unbearable tension, and an urgent call for its resolution, between attempting to maintain silent focused yogamind and its disruption by discursive/flowing mind. And I came to a the belief that yoga practice, as it has developed in the East over millennia, is the great global resource for strengthening the subtle body such that it can learn to bear that which used to be unbearable. It is the best way to build up the strength for bearing the tension between the opposites. And my conclusion, which arrived with the coming-into-being of the emergent third: do both, think and don’t think, focus and flow freely. Do one and then do the other. Get good at both. And for most of us, certainly Westerners, that means we will have to work hard at the yoga part, just to get it established.
The next bothersome idea I wanted to introduce from Jung is that of enantiodromia, which basically says that whatever position or state that the consciousness of the individual achieves, this will eventually become subject to a counter-position developed by the unconscious. So again, if we achieve a blissful state of yogic serenity, it won’t be long before grunting caveman shows up with his club. This idea seems immensely unpalatable, but pose a question to yourself: hasn’t this happened to you everytime you have achieved inner peace, meaning: was that inner peace permanent? Jung would say that one of the upheavals of that peaceful character will be a demonstration by the psyche that another aspect of existence also needs to be considered. The qualities that contributed to that feeling of peace will find themselves confronted by qualities that do not feel like peace. For example, most yogas use variants on what zen calls bare awareness to get us into the “yoga zone”, but Jung would say that this is the sensation function at work, and there are three other main functions in the psyche which will rise up in opposition to this if it is stated too one-sidedly, (ie: doing yoga for too long) including the function of thinking. So, again, supposedly, the more yoga a Westerner does, the more he’s going to have to negotiate with the non-yogis within himself.
But I see the limit to these dynamics: Shankaracharya is considered an essential teacher in Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga yoga tradition. (Which incidentally signals Pattabhi’s move from Patanjali’s dualism into an acceptance of the non-dual Advaita position; the Ashtanga path to the highest aims of yoga goes beyond Patanjali and also includes the Upanishads and Vedanta with some Bhagavad Gita thrown in.) Shankaracharya endlessly belabors different angles into the way in which he sees ultimate reality as being other than anything that has qualities. Until causal emptiness has been realized, this distinction must continue. After the casual realm has been experienced, it will clearly cast relative existence in such a way that the two are obviously distinct, and the yogi no longer confuses relative things with the causal matrix. At this point, the non-dual sage chooses to join the material fray, as it were, of his own desire, and thus it all becomes Lila, play, as opposed to grim drama, dreadful comedy of errors, etc., (where the relative drama is taken to be the ultimate drama.)
So, in simple terms: the highest goals of yoga are cross-cultural, period; they transcend yogi/caveman paradoxes; they take us out of the relative, with all its variations and differences, and into the causal matrix from which the relative emanates, which is one and without distinctions. Humanity’s innermost self is the same regardless of individuality and culture.
Only one problem with this however: the depths of culture and tradition will be plumbed and ultimately transcended by almost none of us; only the really serious and talented yogis ever achieve it. So, since almost all of us will while away our days in the grip of the relative, we need to recognize that this is the realm where cultural and individual differences must be recognized and honored. All of the mature global paths toward enlightenment: Vedanta, Tibetan, Chan, Zen: they all culminate in a state called “non-dual”, which implies a sage who has recognized the nature of the dualistic material world and has embraced it as the only realm in which we can live our physical existence in this lifetime. But she also knows of the causal matrix, the Brahman, the emptiness behind the relative: she does both.
So, this part of us which is relative, even if we reach the highest states of yoga, will always be subject to the cultural and interpersonal dynamics from which we have arisen. And the highest point of yoga is not really inner peace at all. It is full identity with the witness which sees existence. The yogi who sits in Samadhi may well be psychicly in tune with a pure emptiness without movement or any qualities. But his body which supports him while he does this will still be doing many of the things that it usually does, for example: fighting off harmful microorganisms, viz: warfare. Shankaracharya’s main point is that the body and psyche all live in the relative and that the witness state is something other than the relative. And the relative is a zone of tension/release, peace/conflict, hard/soft, easy/difficult, nice/not nice, etc. That’s just the way it is. That’s the way of the world. What most of us will experience as a sense of inner peace is really just a temporary moment where our bedeviling conflicts have been brought to a degree of resolve. But this state is still something material: perhaps a fabulous mix of elements of the highest degree of refinement, but still elements, still relative, still subject to a set of different elements which can confront it and question it as the final word. And Jung says, they will.
But Shankaracharya claims that there is a final word and that he knows what it is- following after Nagarjuna, Patanjali, Buddha and all the other sages through Indian history who fully recognized and grappled with this drama of opposites- he claims to have found the “positive entity” which transcends all this. And with intense practice and proper guidance, he claims we can get there in this lifetime.
Several years ago I attended a seminar by post-Jungian James Hillman, who at one point bellowed out “Don’t Go East!!” Well, why does he yell something like this? Because the Jungians/ Joseph Campbell people/ Archetypalists, hold that the Greek/Latin/Germanic tribes/Jewish tribes/Celtic tribes thing is to participate in myth and story and philosophical and alchemical analysis of various aspects of existence and to find those constellations of elements and plots which our soul is drawn towards, and to follow that draw, to bring the old stories to life in a new way. An Anglo-Saxon who reads Beowulf may feel something deep and murky stir down there. A Jew who has never read the Bible will read the book of Exodus and have vivid dreams that night. Good movies stir up deep old archetypal gunk. Certainly this is a compelling approach to life. (For more on this, go to the 2nd entry under August 2006)
One problem: I, Steve Dwelley, am one example among now millions of Westerners who are compelled in this same archetypal kind of way to practice yoga from India (or Tibet, China, Southeast Asia, Japan: these are the places on the planet where yoga has played itself out in the past; the story is now underway throughout the world). Lots of Westerners just do yoga to feel good or get sexy, but many of us are allured by a sense of purpose, a way of unraveling the mysteries of the mind, of gleaning some of the meaning of life. We are compelled by this Asian myth: the yogi fights through the “dragons” of the body and mind and attains degrees of “the maiden”: enlightenment. The world and its world-wide-web is so interconnected now that I believe the souls of those of us living now (and the next generations will go even further) have the entire cultural and lived offering of the history of life on Earth in all its parts open to us, and we may be drawn to any part of it, and in an unconscious manner, we will be. And the West and East are drawing toward one another irresistibly.
So, to return to the above example of Jung and the Anglo-Saxon character: I hold that such revelations of our deeper self, and their peculiar nature, which may be other than want we thought we wanted for ourselves in life, these must be honored and integrated. As we get higher in consciousness, we simultaneously go deeper into who were were, into that which has formed us. We can transform who we really are now only after we have found out something about it. So, if a Westerner is using yoga, she may need to keep returning from the spaces aroused by revelations of her old self to the yogic technique which is catalyzing the revelation process itself. Honoring this, we can certainly return to yoga, again and again, in each moment if so desired, but we negate this dialogical, cross-cultural process at our own peril. There are deep Western vibrations that don’t quickly fit with Eastern vibrations and the synthesis act needs some tending, it will take some psychic time in each individual for this synthesis to happen. For yoga to work, we need to feel these differences deeper than just cursory acquaintance, otherwise Jung was right: there will be no actual psychic traction for change.
To make some blatant, broad generalizations about historical differences: the classic Western view of India is that they just stand around doing nothing, praying to God while their buildings collapse and their buses fly off bridges, while Indians (at least those in touch with their authentic Indian heritage- many of them lost touch with that in modern times) often get a belly laugh at how helplessly Westerners flail and thrash against the emptiness and despair in their materialistic lives. The other side: Westerners have made the manifest world their God, and such a view has provided them a profound intensity and motivation to the way they pursue material development, and they have created apparent miracles. And the counterpoint: Indians have understood causal psychic existence and their great sages have offered it to their people at large, providing mass realizations of acceptance, contentment and meaning among a populous who haven’t a fraction of the material advantage of Westerners; and what they have done with psychic energy has produced apparent miracles. Putting these two together seems so natural. So, I’m not letting Jung have the final word on this. I’m sure he’d be delighted.
Mata Amritanandamayi: Up and Down
August 7th, 2007
I went with Michele and the boys to a hotel in Los Angeles where Mata Amritanandamayi (hugging Mama) was making a stop on her tour. When she sat down, she beckoned our children and others to come sit on her lap for a fifteen minute meditation. I noticed several things immediately- I hadn’t seen her in 9 years, and in the time between she had obviously gone through the divine wringer- Amma was fairly beat up, and yet beautiful and at peace. At that moment I confirmed what I had been sensing since I walked in the door of that hotel: in the presence of this woman, as she is right now, 2007, I could weep intensely, possibly forever.
In 1998, in India, at an event near Mysore, she was a hoot, undoubtedly profound but with joy and evident delight: that darshan was not sexual but it was erotic to the core, in the sense of eros, cosmic love in full pleasure of the human form. The utter relish she takes in pulling us towards her is no secret. For that first hug she was hilarious and wild, a warrior determined to smack her love straight into the deepest part of my heart, the cosmic heart, no nibbling around, direct at the bulls-eye, and then lean back and go “Whoaaa!!!!” She stared straight into my eyes, conveying the most impossibly exciting journey one could envision, the mad ride she was on and had no intention of ever getting off. I’d never seen anybody so deep in Lila (the divine play), not high jazz guys, not my own Guru, nobody.
This time, 2007, a darker world stage, and if anything, she was far more deadly accurate, discarding most of the playful part, but willing to go to the grimmest, most horrifying pit, utterly regardless of the ravages on her own body, she’s sobbing and shaking in my ear. The sorrow she knows, the pain she carries, this is unreal. And then a beautific, young-girl-in-delight smile, chocolate kisses, we stagger off, she goes onto the next. A little research and I discover that she basically took the misery of that 2005 tsunami- which actually hit her ashram- straight in the face, an unspeakable amount of agony, right there with the people and their tears and tatters and microorganisms and psychic drag. And her charity network is gigantic, she is attracting political leaders, she’s on a very large stage and yet still taking, as Timothy Conway put it, “tidal waves of negative energy” into her own body, on a person to person level, and carrying it. I looked at ravaged beautiful Amma up there, holding my son while he sucked on his sleeve, and could weep forever. In the following two weeks, I was astonished by the way she still lived in me and the kinds of assistance she was providing, deep psychic restructuring, dream presence: I recognized the signs of a Shaktipat of the highest order. I could barely believe that there is someone out there with the strength and courage to do such a thing, let alone on such a grand stage. Who is this Ammachi?
Why is she so great? One way of expressing it would be: she is so high but so willing to get down. Up and Down: two cosmic directions. I’ll start with Up or ascension and with an example. Let’s say that you are involved in a relationship which began for you as true love, and, of course, as it progressed, began to reveal various limitations within yourself which played out as less than perfect interpersonal dynamics. In the beginning you were happy to engage the relationship, and part of what compelled you was very likely the urge to address these limitations. As time goes by, you also begin to get fairly clear about the limitations of your partner. At a certain point, you believe that you can honestly say to yourself that you have made evolutionary steps and that your partner has not. You make the decision that you are going to force a change in this relationship, either confront it or discontinue it. You then proceed to go about doing just that.
This process can be seen in terms of ascension, up: a planet (the relationship) whose gravitational forces once held you in thrall are now an orbit from which you can break free, and you want to break free because there is something amiss, or incomplete, or simply because the evolutionary urge becomes irresistible. Maybe it took four years, maybe it took twenty, it required that much learning before you could transcend the gravitational pull of the system: finally you are able to ascend out of it into a larger system. The impressions left by the relationship no longer compel you to pursue them. (I’m not getting down on loyalty and faith here, but rather I’m using relationship as a model to illustrate the evolutionary process. So, it could be a dysfunctional relationship where one person refuses to respond or is not up to the attempts by the other to address the dysfunction or lack of development. Or it could apply to working at a job that begins to get extremely boring. Or it could be a guru. Or a video game. Or, closer to the point, an entire level of cognitive/emotional being.)
Of course, this is different than bailing out on a situation because it brings up too much of your own stuff. In such a case, you have not left the planet behind, but rather, you are still sucked in, have not learned the code which breaks the gravitational spell. Which is to say, you can’t bail on it. When we have not yet differentiated from a planet (or a stage in development), we will just carry on with the same patterns in a different situation on the same planet, and run into the same stuff. We need to keep gathering and crunching data at that level until the magic combination shows up for the lock, and we can open it. Also, when we’re still tangled up with a level, discerning between that which is your own stuff and that which is your partner’s is a major accomplishment in itself.
Anyway, I’ve mentioned the cave yogi before, and he could be seen as a pure ascender: with ever increasing intensity of yogic focus, he breaks out of orbit after orbit, attempting to transcend his conditioning in its entirety. He lives in such a way that minimizes new impressions from outward experience, and also keeps inward discursive activity to a minimum. He breaks away from his immediate society, then gets into Mom, Dad, keeps going through archetypes, large regions of the collective, and eventually, his need to hang around the body itself. Patanjali’s classic yogi looks like this.
What does a pure descender look like? One who goes from experience to experience, accumulating one after another, and never allowing reflection to occur, living to satisfy basic drives. This isn’t actually the easiest thing to achieve. In past posts, I’ve remarked that there is really no such thing as a pure descender because the human organism learns from experience despite worst intentions, is a profound theater of eros even in the most degraded individuals. We are hardwired to ascend. I also hold the position that drive satisfaction eventually leads to moral and spiritual evolutionary urges. But we could say that a descended person is one with little inclination to reflection or focus at all.
Now, traces from experience become the fuel for transformational inner process. Let’s say you go to a yoga class and it makes a nice impression. Continuing the yogic act after you leave the class, you would let the impression work through you until the subtle structure has been created which is an expression of the process of metabolizing the impression. Easier to read: as we “digest” the initial impression from the experience, subtle , more permanent background structure is put into place. This is an ascension, and it transforms the impression-from-the-experience into something more mature and integrated than it was. It happens to those who aren’t focused, or get busy with something else, but it happens faster and better with those who take meditative/reflective moments- or actually apply themselves to meditation/contemplation- throughout the day. Also, research has confirmed that for those who apply themselves to sedentary pursuits, such as writing, exercise will offer similar value in terms of impression-organization force. Hatha yoga is good because it offers both meditation and exercise.
There are obviously many ways for a person to develop. So, our degenerate couch potato is likely very good at the line of development which…appreciates television. If he transformed himself into an articulate television critic blogger, he would benefit greatly from yoga, not just spiritually, but to push his television data crunching capacity up to the next orbit. However, in this post about Amma, I am placing emphasis on spiritual development, which is a different animal, albeit one which shares anatomical features with intellectual, aesthetic and other kinds of development.
On the yogic path in particular, we want to free ourselves from traces that have us in their grip, this is a basic human drive. If you stop reading this for a moment, close your eyes, and feel whatever it is that you feel right now, you will get in touch with the traces that are in play for you now. Yogic practices are designed to move those very traces, to move them toward…something less dense, something that feels like delight, or doesn’t feel like anything at all. The delight is usually experienced as the trace is in the process of transmutation. This process often trips off the heart, opening it. Also, the nerves appear wired to say a gigantic YES to this transmutation, and send out messages from happiness to deep rapture. Once the transmutation is relatively complete, we are left with integrated knowledge with a more neutral charge than the initial trace, or typically, the next, deeper samskara/impression fund comes into play. As we get through inward traces, we begin instituting outward changes in our lives.
There are many resistances to evolutionary ascension, which make people not want to develop spiritually. One is the fear of loneliness, that one will leave one’s friends or loved ones behind. This is because the orbits we inhabit are sources of love, some of which is nourishing and helpful. Other things in our orbits are less useful and we hold onto them as habits, partly for security because the longer we spend in an orbit, the more we sense the bigger picture and it makes us insecure, because we don’t know what to do out there. There can be good habits and bad habits, but habits themselves are not emergents, they are older structures which allow us to cope with our current situation. They are not necessarily jettisoned when we reach higher levels, but they are not the things to which our nerves and heart give the big excited YES. The great sages throughout history all share a pioneer mentality, and they invariably followed that YES with burning passion.
So, having hung around an orbit for a while, two things happen. One: we get bugged more and more by the parts that we don’t want, we feel the need to resolve these into something higher inwardly and outwardly. And two: we develop a taste for higher love, a higher frequency, a larger view. This draws us up. But it also takes us into a realm whose love may not come in as clearly, or as supportively, or as comfortably as before. And to that I would add, it’s not coming in like that yet. But the record left by the sages suggests that however high you get, it will come in. In fact, it appears to come in far stronger the higher one gets, far more real, although it may illuminate different regions of one’s being than the stuff one was into twenty years ago. And on the spiritual path, the adventure will be real and actually lived, which is different than reading an adventure novel, and there will be trials.
The souls recognized as High Ones in the spiritual world have largely struck a balance between ascension and descension. Take the Buddha as an example. A burning young man, well provided for, chooses to undergo years of asceticism, has the will to keep going for quite a while. Eventually, he reaches a crisis point, and vows that this time he will either resolve the overwhelming conundrum that compels his being or he will sit working at it until his bones scatter across the field in which he is sitting. As one version of the story goes, it takes him seven days of strong determination to attain the desired resolution, which becomes one of the great achievements of human spiritual endeavor. So far, Buddha is basically a pure ascender. He then begins the second part of his life where he works to share his realization with the world, a mission in which he succeeds. In this teaching phase he advocates the middle way, which does not promote severe asceticism, but rather a mixture of practice which takes us up and participations in life which take us down. It’s important to note here, however, that the reason Buddha is compelling to us is that he got so high with his ascension before he brought it back to the lower realms, and the same is true of Ammachi (she was never a normal child and in her late teens/early twenties self-administered a lifestyle of severe austerities). When the high chooses to engage the low, something beautiful and alluring happens.
What is Ammachi’s delight in hugging? The passion of a high soul bringing love to lower regions: the love of God for creation. The delight of the gods for Lila, cosmic play. And Ammachi has loved the lowest of the low, just as Buddha was humane to those who tried to kill him, just as Christ managed to love those who did kill him. I have noticed and admired Pattabhi Jois’ willingness to continually engage new relationships which, sure enough, involved the reception on his part of basic crude negative projections: when a student is caught up in his own junk, he will project it anywhere, including onto the master who has taught for sixty years, forget about respect. Guruji takes it; a higher soul in contact with those who may not be so high will result in unconscious transference processes on the part of the student. (This gets into hierarchies and may rub you the wrong way. My response is: all are ultimately equal, but some have developed certain regions further than you have. Go stand in the batter’s box with Barry Bonds facing Major League pitching and see who is higher in that realm. Go get hugged by Amma and experience a heart like that. For more on hierarchies, I believe that Ken Wilber, ironically using systems theory, has put in the final word on the debate: hierarchies are unavoidable.) And I will add: there are characters out there who are higher than you are.
Actually, from the perspective of some seated meditation practices, Hatha Yoga itself is a descended form because it goes so deep into the body. I won’t get too far into it here, but my response to this claim is that although Hatha Yoga may get the soul free a little slower, it gets it up in a very stable manner, and the tortoise may eventually pass the hare. For example, Mula Bhanda appears to be a practice which sublimates the most dense energy in our psychic system. Undertaking such an endeavor may bog one down at first, but eventually it provides a way for the deepest, lowliest, earliest stuff in us to get smart.
So, the typical way here is to work to free oneself through ascension practice such as yoga, to break through the numerous orbits which hold us in their sway. At various stages in this work, we are compelled to act creatively in the world, to descend, receive impressions, sublimate them. Get up, dip back down, get it back up, go back down. Of course, most of us need to work a job, are required to create regularly, with deadlines, etc., and we are somewhat smothered with impressions. In that case, yoga can help us rise above some of it, maybe all of it, so that we want to get back into the mess that is this world, so we can love it. Go get as high as you can , and then go walking in the world and see what happens…
The Shadow of the Yogi
May 30th, 2007
Psychologist: “Oh shiny yogi!! Your own bliss prevents you from ever seeing your shadow! But some of us can see it quite easily.”
Yogi: “Why are you scientists and mytho/poetics hanging around in the muck when the light is so exciting, and feels so good?! I know! It’s because you have no way of getting out of the muck!”
I got a degree in Counseling Psychology but wrote my thesis on yoga for this reason: it seemed psychotherapy worked quite well for relationships but I noticed a gap in effectiveness around actually helping individuals transform themselves. Indeed, the field of psychology seems to rely more and more heavily on pharmaceuticals to help in that regard, a treatment that directly changes one’s chemistry, instead of just using the talking cure. People in trouble need strong stuff it would appear, and drugs can be dosed up as strong as one could want. But as I was practicing ashtanga, especially the backbends, I noticed that this was strong stuff, was altering my chemistry, blowing junk out, far superior to any drug I’ve ever taken. Of course, in the short-term, it doesn’t appear as easy as drugs…
But the undoubted challenge that Western Psychology has to offer yoga is that of the shadow, and shadow work. I’ve been belaboring the point lately that yoga in the West does not feel all that mature, that it’s often like a bunch of bees (save the bees!) chasing after some special buzz, it’s all tied in with the celebrity paradigm (high flying characters with raging shadows and egos, highly disinclined to look at either), or popularity contests, it becomes a haven for behavior that wouldn’t last a minute in psychology circles (including verbal abusiveness). Not that psychotherapists are perfect, far from it, but they’ve got a leg up on us in this regard: part of their game is supposedly a willingness to face the shadow.
Easy indicator of a New Age flake: as soon as the going gets challenging on the “self-improvement” quest, an easier or different path is sought, i.e.: one who is allergic to looking at his own shadow. “This hurts and is unpleasant, God must be wanting me to do something different.” Why? Because the shadow is not always such a nice thing to look at. And for yoga to exit the shallow realms of sweaty workout with the tunes cranked, or the novelty spiritual item, and actually take root as a possible and durable path to self-realization within Western culture, it needs to go through a winnowing, and a trial of the shadow, and survive.
Much of this flighty approach to spirituality can be seen as a wholesale swallowing of the media culture’s promise of unending delights surrounded by beautiful people, a topic well covered by George Leonard in his book Mastery. Leonard cautions that any actual mastery path will hit what he calls the plateau. The plateau is where much of the student’s development will actually happen, quietly, behind the scenes, and where unending delights and beautiful people may become scarce. There has also been a confusion of celebrity with guru. Celebrities often get highly rewarded with massive attention for immature behavior; it is built into that system to never need to mature as a person; in fact, a celebrity matures at her own hazard. And contemporary Western culture is beyond gaa-gaa for famous people, notice how much importance people place on a simple celebrity sighting, as if they were Gods who could confer a massive blessing and seeing them is a mega-darshan.
Yoga Journal has propagated this in the yoga world, with their elite stable of special photo-op teachers who have at times dominated their pages to a ludicrous degree. The divergence between actual creative power and celebrity has always been quite wide and in yoga it amounts to the difference between those who have slowly cultivated a special kind of presence and those who have had the spotlight placed upon them with little connection to yogic capacity. The sad part is that Yoga Journal was a fairly interesting magazine, when for example Rick Fields (author of “Fuck You Cancer!”) was the editor, over ten years ago. Rick’s dead now (of cancer), and the magazine has migrated towards Cosmopolitan with a green bent, which admittedly serves an important role out there in the mainstream media; it’s slickification is unfortunately what got it onto the big stage. (Admittedly, when compared to other magazines that have made it to the grocery store check-out line, Yoga Journal seems positive and spiritual).
A widely accepted critique of our current society is that of Flatland, (a subject in which I’ve found Ken Wilber to be helpful.) This is entirely apart from celebrity-addicted shallow culture, but rather a lamenting of the lack of value that is allowed in materialistic discourse, which in this setting translates to: there can be nobody who has a higher state of consciousness than you, and the idea of spiritual depth is a dangerous elitist illusion. So, one who has steeped herself in alchemical yogic processes over the period of a long life has nothing to offer of value. And in turn, without depth we get narcissism and nihilism: there is no depth or such a thing as spiritual development, so the only thing left is to find the instrumental means to storm the gates of popularity, celebrity, power, materialistic knowledge and wealth, to ease my pain and gratify my own ego.
Krishnamacharya is the elder behind most of the yoga in the West, and, although his life had a hint of celebrity in it- he hobnobbed in the corridors of power at times in his life- we’re talking about something different than our present Western culture. He was the essence of long slow patient intense labor, of great material sacrifice in order to follow a deep sense of his calling in alignment with a profound art and to properly develop it. Of perseverence in the face of unpopularity and material insecurity (he raised five children as perhaps the first professional yogi once his royal patronage dissolved). Of a person who still developed in his fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties, hundreds. His mingling with the “illuminatti” of his time and society was based on recognition of value in his achievement. His students BKS Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois also embody beautiful fruits of long patient labor, and have also become famous in a different way, as a recognition of the value of mastery: not as celebrities, but rather as accomplished teachers who happened to have received media attention.
In short, celebrity is often based on charisma (and luck) and guru is based on mastery. The two can converge, but often don’t. Charisma, beauty, luckiness and popularity can be wonderful, but mastery is a different beast. It is also something very real, and there are individuals walking in the world now who embody it (i.e.: Mata Amritananadamayi: Ammachi the hugging mother). Personally, I try to support yoga at whatever level it is operating, but at the same time, depth is real, and I want to be a voice for the possibility of mature spiritual development in a shallow materialistic culture.
So, what happens if we persevere with this, continue practicing and living yogically, spiritually? Does it bring us straight to the light? Well, yes, but I would say it needs to go through the shadow to get there. What is the shadow? The Jung/Freud tradition has characterized it in two ways: 1. the repressed shadow, which had aspects of our personality that are disturbing to us and of which we are vaguely aware but have pushed down to protect our ideal of who we are and 2. the total content of the unconscious, where the personal connects with the collective, including the vast as yet undiscovered regions down deep. Either way, steady yoga practice will get us into the bliss zone one day, but the psyche responds to bliss by initiating a release of a deeper layer of stuff, as if it senses that everything is ready. And the stuff: some of it ain’t fun, won’t look good on the cover of Yoga Journal, advertisers aren’t flocking to it. (Actually, there is a shadow side to media-frenzy culture: the love of the scandal, and the sheer delight of malicious gossip.) Anyway, here’s an excerpt from a response to a comment I left to the March 2007 entry :
Depth sounds nice but the reality is a bit different than “nice”: there’s chaos down there: worms, bugs, grim dark dangerous warriors on strange murky quests; the little blessings that we’ve relied upon may get snuffed out, our good luck may turn bad, our antanae get confused and receive strange unwanted songs, etc.
Why go deep at all?
Because we have to if we want to be free. Resolution of chaos ultimately allows the mind successive degrees of quietude. And my claim is this: the great sages didn’t know everything, ie: they can’t sit down and speak Icelandic, but, they had resolved their internal history into a state of beautitude, saw the bigger picture which rendered the chaos into aspects of a great order, could hold that energy with a quiet mind. Such a mind is closer to the anabolic state, the healing state. The sages dropped deep into the heavies and resolved it for themselves, and for humanity. They weren’t air-heads: they had mastered strong fields such that they could move among them with ease.
The shadow can be dark scary stuff which, if subjected to practice over time,will transmute into something we understand, into something we can accept and love, where it becomes the fuel for brilliance. We pull old stuff out of the ocean and lift it up to the heavens. In alchemy this is the “long slow opus”. Basically, we can be comfortable in a limited setting for a while, but eventually there is an urge to break through to a deeper level. This urge can either be the result of a stretch of inspiration or a need that arises in the wake of a crisis, or simply a necessity that arises from the demands of daily life. The title of Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, The Laundry expresses the inspiration part: after the delight and excitement wears off, we find ourselves in this bigger realm, outwardly and inwardly, and,correct if I’m wrong, it appears that you can’t go back without regressing. Evolution seems to be hardwired into the human nerves. Once we become aware of a reality, we either hold it as something we know and engage, or we repress it. This a normal occurrence and therefore repression is a big part of the psychology story, the disassociated material contributing to the fund of the repressed shadow. Why do we repress it? Because knowing it is too scary, we’re not big enough to hold its charge.
So, the chaos part: the bigger realm, in addition to containing psychic voltage beyond what we knew, also contains entities that don’t harmonize with the meaning of the smaller world we used to live in. They show us contradictions within the smaller world that we didn’t notice before, which suddenly become unacceptable. The new system is not worked out yet, but we are living in it anyway: chaos. That’s the alive anxious side of it. The other side is the drudge part: massive immovable objects that we now can no longer ignore, and act like black holes in the psyche. The laundry, the chaos, these come forth because going higher also means going deeper, and in the depths is our personal and collective shadow. It needs to be worked with or it will eventually drag us down, regardless of how cloistered we try to remain, and we won’t be able to move beyond.
The has been likened to the alchemical lead or base metal, a long ways from gold, but which will transform in that direction with, for example, focused sustained learning yogic attention. So, as the theory goes, chaos or sludge slowly gets organized in the auto-poietic system, reaches a state of some degree of competency, becoming finer material, and then the evolutionary urge thrusts the system into the next level of inclusiveness, the next unknown realm, process begins again. This goes until the individual runs out of evolutionary fuel.
The personal experience of this: the chaos phase has moments of great excitement and highs, and rather intense bummers, the latter of which can be seen as a grappling with something about which we have no clue. So, to return to that yogi-psychologist dialogue at the top of this piece: yoga is fabulous technology for getting things well organized, and it also reveals deep shadows to put into that work. But psychology, in my view, has come up with interpersonal dialogical methods which point out shadow with greater effectiveness, in large part because so much of our shadow is bound up in our relations with other. The two together is a good combination.
Finally, yoga will get us high, but the bliss of the yogi doesn’t care if it’s high or low. True bliss is OK, period, although such residence in the unaffected witness is admittedly a major achievement. Living fully means moving beyond what we know, the willingness to encounter what we don’t know, and is not addicted to being high, even the most natural pure healthy high. And what Jung calls a moral response beyond the ordinary is the willingness to engage the darkness, and not just flit back to the light we know. And I would add: if you go into the shadow, you better bring your yoga with you, because you want a chance to get back out.
Thomas Merton, Kanchenjunga, Mysore
May 2nd, 2007
Why do you do Ashtanga? What brought you to the practice? This post will be my story, but I would love to hear from any of you. Tales of bodily and mental transformation, maniacal obsession, intimidation overcome (or not), gentle delight, whatever. I welcome any replies to this: a story, impressions, what drew you in and what it was like at first, what it became over time, anything. Just leave a reply at the bottom of this post.
My story: I was raised in Santa Barbara and went to college in LA. It usually felt like a gigantic morass of very weird madness down there, and I engaged my share. But in my studies at Occidental College, I gravitated toward Comparative Religions, seeking meaning and solace. The on-campus evangelical Christians actively attempted to draw me in, and I learned quite a bit from them but didn’t buy the party line. One Christian thinker who compelled me however was Thomas Merton and my Bachelor’s thesis drew heavily from his writings. The one that really hit me was his Asian Journal, which captures his thoughts and acts leading up to his death.
He was an unusal combination of monk and popular writer. His writings were subject to the Catholic censors and much of them feel stifled by an authoritarian tone, although his profound spiritual realization is unmistakable. But the Asian Journal and his posthumously published journals reveal a different voice, at times in clear conflict with the Church, very human, funny, delighted, anguished. Nonetheless, the substantial royalties he earned through his writing all went to his monastery in the woods of Kentucky, and he remained a monk in poverty, praying for the rest of the world.
He deeply understood and appreciated yoga from Asia in its various forms. Year after year of arduous practice in the Catholic monastic tradition transformed him into an awesome yogi indeed, and an accomplished Tibetan roshi recognized him as such. He used mountains as a metaphor for stages of spiritual development, and his final mountain was Kanchenjunga, the Himalayan peak on the border between Nepal and India. He photographed it obsessively on the journey on which he would die in 1968.
It would become my first mountain. I was 22, it was 1989, and yoga was just beginning its transition from curiosity to actual cultural force in the West. I met a great man in his late fifties, Virgil Day, therapist, buddhist, mountaineer, the father of my girlfriend Jessica at the time, who was planning an extensive trek through the wilds all around…Kanchenjunga. I came up with the $2000, quit my job, vacated my apartment, and joined him.
We spent 34 days out on the Nepali trails in the most stunning country I have ever seen, bar none. Rivers, mountains, leeches, all larger than life. Kanchenjunga was mysterious. On the first few days, from a distance, she showed her hulking face through the clouds. We then dropped into the deep valleys and worked our way through them for two weeks, walking closer. She stayed hidden, though I could feel her radiant presence. Her proud consort, Kumbhakarna, a massiff like the Matterhorn but on a much larger scale, made a dramatic appearance, out of the clouds suddenly, straight above us and way up there, Virgil on a distant terrace shouting and waving his arms wildly, the wind blowing, a moment which stained my mind forever.
We finally made it to a sheepherding region called Pangpema, the main vantage point to see Kanchenjunga’s incredible north face. But she was hidden. Our Sherpa, Ram, was scratching his head as we walked along: where was the great mountain? A huge rock face eventually showed from behind a shoulder and he announced, “There is Kanchenjunga.” It was big for sure, but we remained quiet, trying not to be disappointed. He muttered, “It doesn’t seem right”. We continued, and a bigger massiff appeared. Still we walked. Another massiff, an impressive one indeed, much the biggest of the three, but this time Ram said nothing and kept going.
His genetics were part mountain goat, and he was far ahead of us at this point, I had spots in front of my eyes from the altititude. We turned a bend to see him sitting with a serious look, and there she was, immeasurably larger than the prevous three, a radiant wall of gold and blue, an experience akin to Krishna’s presentation to Arjuna of the true face of God, completely overwhelming. We’d been hiking for two weeks, courting her, and only in the last four minutes of that part of the trek did she finally reveal herself. Her naked beauty was beyond…
I was dunked into the Nepal/Tibet/India matrix and romance, and to this day I have not recovered. The next two months were spent wandering India, including encounters with sadhus, the poor of Calcutta, the beaches of Kerala. I came home from that trip looking like a sadhu, and fairly skinny from several micro-organisms. My family was a bit shocked.
We had a copy of Iyengar’s Light on Yoga on the shelf and, inspired, I went to work. Four years later, March 1994, I found myself again in India, amazed. This time it was the city of Mysore and I was preparing to meet Pattabhi Jois. I had only been doing Ashtanga for two months, and had some major thresholds to cross in the pelvis and hamstrings, was a little concerned that he’d give me a bodyslam in these regions. I was part way through the first year of getting a master’s degree in counseling psychology, and was planning on pursuing the career, and here I was in India again, recognizing with trepidation a rapidly approaching huge dark cloud of a major internal crisis.
It went like this: Jessica had already been there for two months, and as I lay down next to her that first night I dimly sensed that there was another man in the picture. What the heck was this? As we talked, I recognized this presence was Guruji himself, and that her time here alone had awoken all kinds of life in her, I was a classic lumbering threatened boyfriend. I intellectualized it: this is an evolutionary engagement she has with a helper (albeit a fairly potent one), and I support this. So that left it in my court: what was my problem? Could it be all the monsterously bendy yogis everywhere, when I was stiff and initimidated? No, that wasn’t really it. I lay there awake all night from the timezone shift and considered this.
Next morning I went to the Nilayam to watch, planning on paying that afternoon. This was during the slow period of growth in the community that preceded what was to become an explosion. The old Shala used to have eight students at a time, eventually that grew to 12, which filled the little room. Guruji would periodically settle onto his creaky stool in the corner, and then get up and adjust students. His grandson, Sharath, would sit at his feet by the wall, also getting up to help.
We walked in, he burst through the door of a prana-packed room like a demon with a fiery sword in a mandala, confronted me, demanded to know where I was from. He then turned and went back at it. I noticed that he was totally stoked, in and among his intensely focused yogis. He was manly, radically receptive, very deliberate, commanding, I couldn’t believe he was completely lying on top of people. Not your typical 80 year old. He would bark an order at someone and then turn to us with a sly smile, deconstructing himself with hilarious twinkly eyes. He would go on for hours. He was chanting something under his breath which I later discovered to be the Isa Upanishad. Somebody was cooking a delicious curry in the room next door.
I was thoroughly alarmed. Here was a legitimate Hatha Yoga master in full flight. He didn’t correspond or act according to the protocol of the Psychology Board. Some of his students seemed like masters themselves. I was also struck by Sharath’s calm simplicity, and his complete absence of any egoic caricature. I could tell that there were lots of rules lying around but that they were operating from pure intuition. There was a strict code and it was open to revision, something so much more than fundamentalism, yet so grounded in tradition.
We went back to our little flat and I spontaneously flung a bag of coins against the wall, which smashed into Jessica’s shrine, blowing it apart. Needless to say, she was perturbed. What was going on?! A little later I was subdued and decided to work a bit on the sequence which I hadn’t memorized yet. As soon as I began practicing, my head became dramatic theater for dialogue akin to a combat scene from one of the epics, and during a particularly heated exchange I dragged my toe on a jump through and broke it good and proper with a big POP. It soon swelled to the shape and color of a plum. Thus culminated my first trip to Mysore.
I staggered home and got back to my life and plans. It was during this time that I felt Guruji offering a valid response to the anxious rumination that always seemed to accompany my triumphs and travails in the Western world. Something like “Do this and you will grow steady, strong and true, like a great Holy Tree.” Was it a psychic emanation? Was it just the mature flowering of the strong impressions left by my journey to Mysore? My answer now: it was both, I’d received a tumultuous darshan from someone who was up to the task, and it was working in me now. Regardless, my confusion in India was an early radioactive expression of a deep calling to undertake Yoga as a vocation, which was not in my picture at the time. Deeply laid plans leave blood on the psychic floor as they get ripped apart. But the exhilaration…I chose to go with that instead of the dread. (For more ideas on this, go here, scroll down to Global Heart.)
Back in California I did a teacher’s training, began teaching yoga at gyms, the little crumbs at the perimeters of the schedule doled out to new teachers at The Yoga Center, anywhere. I taught so many classes that first year, took anything and everything. One weekend I took a workshop with Chuck Miller, one of the founders of Yoga Works, an ashtangi who went on quite a wild ride during that Santa Monica institution’s incomparable heyday (the first half of the nineties). Shiva Rae was assisting. It was at the White Lotus, in the mountains of Santa Barbara. One night, we watched the video of Iyengar doing Ashtanga with Krishnamacharya on Chamundi Hill. I was struck by Krishnamacharya’s demeanor and the radical bandhas and kriyas he was engaging. That night he came to me in a dream, covered with a thin layer of fur, holding an ancient staff, beckoning. I woke up with chills. Before long, I left for Mysore and stayed nearly a year. I existed in and around Guruji’s psychic space, lived across the street from him. One day near the end, Michele came walking in, and the rest is, as they say…
I would take two more treks with Virgil: First was 24 days out in the Dolpo region of northern Nepal, a close recreation of Peter Matthiessen’s journey told in one of my all-time favorite books The Snow Leopard, an incredible tour to the Crystal Mountain and the monastery there, Shey Gompa. A strong impression from that trek was a fist fight between our cook and one of our guides.
Next was a tour of Holy Mount Kailash and the surrounding region, in Tibet. Michele went on that one and jumped naked into sacred Lake Manasorover, madwoman! …and now forever blessed by the icy water. She also saved the life of a 60 year old psychologist who was on the trek with us, charging to his aid, screaming, just in time to prevent a truck from crushing his skull, he stumbled up from his nap, the truck roared off, he dramatically collapsed in her lap, she held him in that little field by a stream, weeping. He regarded her as the All-giving Great Mother for the remainder of the journey, which got a bit weird up there. The night before we began our circumambulation of Kailash, drunk Chinese soldiers broke into our little room, rifles pointed at us. Quite a way to wake up. We struggled to get the candle lit, yelled at them, inexplicably they left. Just a little demon trying to scare us off before we could take darshan from the Holy Mountain. Can’t let that stop you…
Thanks for your indulgence, namaste,
From your Yogamat to God
April 6th, 2007
….well, you’re always with God, the yogi just tries to realize this consciously…
Ashtanga means eight limbs. Ashtau: eight, anga: limbs. I know, this is probably review, but:
limb1: yamas: things not to do , 2. niyamas: things to do, 3. asana: focusing on physical processes, 4. pranayama: focusing on breathing and energy movement processes, 5. pratyahara: taking the outward senses and turning them inward, 6. dharana: focusing the inward senses/mind, 7. dhyana: attaining lengthy periods of such focus, and progressively increasing its concentration, 8. samadhi: transforming the object upon which concentration rests into the subject which does the meditating, where all objects dissolve, and all that remains is the pure subject. In this post I’ll tease the gobbledegook in that last one apart.
We’ll start somewhere simple, on our yoga mat. We come to Ashtanga practice, in class, on our own, whatever. We find ourselves in triangle pose. We know that the final form of the pose, as taught, has us keep that front leg straight, holding onto the big toe with thumb and first two fingers, with shoulders over the leg, upper shoulder lined up right on top of the lower one. Iyengar could go further in that direction, but you get the picture.
Let’s take the front leg. Say I’m a tight guy and if I keep the leg straight, I can’t get to the toe yet. If I keep my shoulders over the leg, the furthest I can get is about half way down my shin. The question becomes: what is it between where I am now, and the finished form of the asana? My answer to that: stuff. What happens if I practice regularly and eventually get down to that toe? The stuff goes away, it dissolves as it were.
Physiologically what happens? Well, the fascia, muscles, and tendons in the leg, and probably a few ligaments in the foot, lengthen. A physical density has been cleared. Yogically we could say that a dark area has been put into the light, an unknown region has been presented to awareness. Mentally: we go down into the stretch until we can feel a field of resistance, and then we have something into which we can “deploy our attention”, a place where focus can rest. As Hatha Yogis, we bear our minds into the fields of physical sensation generated by the act of the asana. In Pattabhi Jois’ Ashtanga, the physical body is systematically cleared this way, each asana presenting a different set of regions of the body, a different set of fields to perceive. Incidentally, injury has little to do with this: we work the fields presented by the body we have today, injury is a fabulous somatic field upon which to meditate. Also, it’s not about getting to the finished form of the asana, so much as working the fields presented by the asana, which we might get all the way through in this lifetime, might not; it’s about working the region, not about perfecting the asana. Agree or disagree, at least we’re clear so far?
Next: at some point in doing this, we begin to make the connection between proceedings in physical processes such as this and those in our psychic life. This is the jump from the fourth limb to the fifth, taking “low” operations and letting them grow “high”. Physical yogic work begins to operate at the psychic level. Pattabhi Jois says: “When the body is strong, the mind becomes quiet.”
Once we have some degree of peace of mind, we begin to notice the traces left by the thoughts that pass through us. (For my understanding of the basics of this, please see the October 2006 post “Sublimation of Impressions”.) Basically, our thoughts leave an impression, lay down a trace that can be somatically perceived, and a yogic act is to take attention away from the thought and turn it to perception of the trace itself. Basically, instead of thinking, feel the traces left by thought. This is a way to move into deeper states of consciousness.
And the great hatha yoga move: just as bearing force into our leg in Trikonasana will clear the densities in the leg, bearing attention into the traces left by thought will clear the densities left by the trace, a process that eventually spiritually evolves the bodymind. A cleared trace is essentially the refinement of the contents of the trace, where the conscious and unconscious mind has cracked the trace’s code. Every trace cleared in the mind makes the heart a little bigger. Attention, if cultivated, gathers power over time, gains potency with practice. The stronger it gets, the heavier and deeper the stuff it can engage and transcend.
So, what next? We’ve covered the physical and the psychic. Vedanta has one more primary division of being: the causal. Here’s how I see it: as the bodymind begins to clear/transcend, we get to deeper subtler layers. As those layers clear, deeper subtler ones appear successively. Now, there is no end to the layers, because once we get through the personal we begin hitting the collective, in fact the collective and the personal get cleared together, infinitely. But, at some point here, spaces open out and offer themselves between the spheres of stuff, and reports from this journey claim that when we identify with this space instead of with the person viewing the stuff – no matter how subtle the stuff- it is experienced as more real than the stuff which gives way to reveal it. This is claimed to be the clearing in and from which manifestation appears. Patanjali calls this place the seer, which implies the person who sees, minus the personality part. Our own personality who experiences the world has been progressively winnowed away, but of our own choosing, because…we get this compelling sense that there is something really important and utterly fascinating in there behind our little self. We just can’t help but want to know what it is.
Now, Yoga offers essentially two views about what this is, this causal space. One is that it is nothing at all, merely the space from which things arise: nothingness, emptiness, the void, the abyss, Brahman. But terms like these can’t really capture this place, no word can really be used to describe it. Vedanta and much of Buddhism holds this view. (If you want a real headache, try Nagarjuna’s sure-to-dismay Buddhist dialectics, guaranteed to induce rapid true delta sleep- he gives us a sense of the causal realm from this perspective by showing everything that it isn’t).
The other view is that this is Godhead, and in this space we will find the personality of God, such as Krishna, an active living being from which humans are modeled, much like the God of the Bible. This is known as the impersonalist versus personalist debate, a long term ruckus in India. On one side the Shakaracharya monks, on the other the Bhaktis, flinging ghee at each other.
Those who conduct alter puja to Ganesh, Vishnu, whoever, can fall into either camp. Meaning, some would hold the view that the causal is absolute nothingness at all, and place Ganesh or any other diety clearly within the realm of manifestation, although truly deep, at archetypal levels, an energy manifestation to which one attempts to become harmonious through regular and often incredibly complex ritual.
Anyway, whether we’ve hit Krishna or the void, this is the place that Patanjali talks about when he says “Yoga is the cessation of conscious fluctuation, at which time the true seer arises standing within itself. At times we identify with the seer, at others times we identify with the fluctuations.” I hold that quote to be the essence of Ashtanga. But its a bit of a journey from our practice on the mat to these higher spheres, and yet it is a very clear and well walked path, a very real, robustly experienced and thoroughly confirmed possibility. This is not mumbo-jumbo or wishful thinking, this really is the way it goes: the physical body gets clear, the psychic body gets clear, and we begin to get glimpses of that which throughout history has been called God.
Big issues arise for those of us doing this, and I’ll get into those next time: basically, once we start getting high into the subtle realm, we hit a realm of both delights and perils. Hitting the perils, it is not uncommon for practitioners to give up on their path and try a different one, which really isn’t a solution, since all legitimate paths will lead to this place. This approach really just becomes avoidance of the subtle altogether. The perils include hitting big deep difficult internal stuff that many people would never bother with in this lifetime, and with good reason: they’re nasty, and can just completely mess things up. People living the unexamined life just go along sort of bugged by stuff but never really addressing it. That doesn’t seem to be an option with intentional spritual life, which sooner or later leads us into our deepest complexes, ie: Mom, Dad etc.
Another issue is the growth of sensitivity and the carrying of other’s pain, so that you really do begin to feel the explosions in Iraq, or the struggle of the person on the mat next to you in class, you may have a hard time differentiating between what is hers and what is yours. (The good side of this is the possibility of blissful communion with others, the greater the sensitivity, the greater the bliss.)
Another is what I call the activator field: this is when you’ve undertaken the spiritual process and it begins to become very real, such that you simply come to class and all kinds of internal process becomes quite active, you have no choice, it doesn’t just shut off. If a yoga class is conducted well, with a community of people intentionally practicing, this is what should be happening, although it may seem like a long way from this nice little class where you thought you were coming just to stretch out a bit and walk out feeling happy. True psychosomatic fulfillment is a different animal than that altogether.
Healing the Hurts: Yoga and Injury
March 5th, 2007
Just about everybody runs into physical pain and injury at some point in their lives, especially those of us who exercise regularly. If you move your body actively, it will occasionally hurt. For some of us, it frequently hurts. We choose to get fit, tolerating aches and pains, because the alternative is…slow murky creep towards dark dreadful sluggish inertia and death…or something like that.
In all honesty, Ashtanga will initiate more aches and pains than gentler yoga. On the other hand, the potential for bodily transformation and psycho-somatic purification is far greater. Those who do the practice typically find the periodic aches and pains worth it in exchange for bodily vitality, improved postural disposition, a general feeling of well-being, healthy appropriate appetite and digestion, improved sleep, insight into relaxation and stress management, mental clarity, the capacity for delight in the present mundane moment due to happy body chemistry, surfing around in the higher spheres, occasional mystic glimpses into the bigger picture (or permanent ecstatic residence up there).
Occasionally, in Ashtanga, as in other forms of athleticism, actual injury happens. I will make the claim here that, if approached intelligently, Ashtanga is one of the safest ways to get highly fit. However, hurts happen sometimes. Most people who sustain practice over time, will eventually run into something. I’ve run into many snags, but I can attribute that to the fact that I went at this like a madman when I was in my twenties. Also, I’ve had a heavy teaching load for 10 years, and teaching Ashtanga, especially doing the backbends with people, is notoriously rough on the teacher. But I love it so much, what to do? Now, at the ripe age of 39, and with two dependents, I’m a bit more measured, as those of you who practice with me have probably noticed, the jackrabbit evolved into a tortoise. Anyway, there are many ways to address such an incident, many professions devoted to helping people heal. In this post, I would like to offer a way to approach injury from a yogic perspective.
Vedanta, the mature Hindu system of philosophy and practice, has placed great importance on the three major states of human consciousness. Existence was basically divided into three categories. The great sage Ramana Maharshi expressed these as:
1. The Open Courtyard: the physical body, the gross waking state, matter;
2. The Middle Chamber: the subtle body, the dreaming state, psychic stuff;
3. The Inner Chamber: the causal body, deep sleep, the void, nothing at all, but the matrix from which the others originate.
The accomplished yogic sages , certainly Maharshi himself, were able to realize the second and third states, dreaming and deep sleep, while fully awake. The completion of yoga is to pass through the third stage, the causal body, which leads to a recognition of the way in which the things of life, material, psychic, everything, arise from the void of that cosmic causal body. This is non-dual awakening, the capacity to simultaneously hold the emptiness of the casual body with the all the stuff in the other two bodies. It’s a mega-paradox, a monster polarity, for the few and the brave. Fear of wearing the wrong thing to that party, financial hardship, failure, pain, existential dread, old age, death…gotta get over all of that stuff. But in non-duality, we can participate in all of this- going to parties, whatever- with what could be called the ultimate perspective.
To get anywhere near this kind of realization, one must learn to bear that which was unbearable; that which is unbearable now, may become manageable with practice over time. If you are dealing with something difficult right now, it could be seen as preparation for much higher states of awareness. That’s no platitute; the only way to reach the higher states charted by the yogis is to get a handle on strong stuff which may be terrifying or deranging the first few times you touch it. The degree of difficulty of a challenge, that is exactly the degree of freedom one can gain from it, once the trace left by the challenge is accepted and metabolized. This is the case both for getting better at, for example, challenging asanas, as well gaining access to higher/deeper states of awareness.
Okay, so, the causal body: all of us hopefully pass through this every 24 hours or so, sleep research calls it Stage 3 or slow wave sleep. Adults fall into it rather quickly upon falling asleep, and usually stay there for less than an hour. There are few dreams during this state. This is the hardest state from which to wake somebody, and she may feel disoriented upon waking from it. The body needs it to survive. The consciousness of the most non-yogic person in the world, our archetypal couch potato, goes there every day.
The science of Physiology describes two important states: anabolic, the synthesis/growth of cell structures, and catabolic, the breakdown of cell structures. Anabolic steroids will help one’s muscles grow into the size of balloons, a very polluted way for the weight lifter to maximize his residence in the anabolic state. Catabolism: imagine you’ve had a long day, with not enough to eat, and your kids keep you up all night, (have twins like me and you can stagger through a phenomenological thesis on this state.)
Sleep research indicates that stage 3 sleep appears to be the maximum anabolic state, the time when you heal the fastest, when the breakdown from your day becomes the stimulus for growth and development. Physical exercise and work stresses the gross body, which with rest, allows it to grow stronger. Typical family and job stress works the psychic body, which includes the higher part of the emotional body, and with rest it also gets stronger. Without rest…well, both bodies slowly or quickly get worn down. (Yoga also has a term for too much rest: tamas, which means dark sluggishness).
I’ll introduce a final element here: Patanjali’s main sutras, 1:2 and 3: “Yoga is the ability to cease fluctuations in the consciousness. At which time, the seer shines in its own true brilliance.” I’ll offer a physiologic reduction of this: “when the busy mind is quieted, the anabolic state can happen.” Busy mind, worry mind, becomes catabolic relatively quickly. Essentially, steady yoga practice will bring us closer to Patanjali’s yogic state, which is certainly a close match to Maharshi’s inner chamber, or the causal state. It will allow us the choice of quieting our minds when we so choose. If we do this over time, we will gain some understanding of the subtle and causal realms of existence, little glimpses here and there. Not everybody will be able to maintain the witness state while in the causal realm- in fact, very few- but every inch towards this capacity, through the phases of the subtle body, is healing. The great spiritual traditions of the world tell us that the causal state is the creative matrix from which all form arises, including the forms of your own body and mind.
In last month’s post, I posed the question of why the yogis in the Ashtanga lineage have lived long lives, (Krishnamacharya 100, Indra Devi nearly 103, Pattabhi Jois still active and strong at 92, BKS Iyengar, still active and strong at 89) and my response today is that the ability to remain close to these higher states and to choose to invest such energy back into the body, this will make the body very happy. Yogis will gradually work their way closer to maintaining degrees of the anabolic state at all times, and to turn it on at will, and we could even pose the possibility of some individuals developing the ability to stoke it way up through long-term focus development. Which is to say: to heal injury and disease at will.
Practical application: (this is how I’ve healed from multiple, occasionally scary injuries incurred from being an Ashtanga teacher): when you retire in the evening, begin your rest lying flat on your back and quiet your mind by feeling your body. Stay with this night after night and you will begin to feel your way deeply into the inner psychosomatic sheaths of your being and the mind will begin to quiet. Next: feel the area that hurts or is hurt- if given attention, an injury should begin to reveal itself, it may throb or hurt, or it may just be something you can feel down there. “If you feel it you can heal it”. Notice the qualities of the sensation of the injury, keep noticing over time. Relax tensions in the area as they become apparent. Breathe steadily and direct the energy in your breath into the sensation. Practice Pratyahara, which takes outward vision and turns it inward: see your injury, which I hold to be the visual part of your brain redirected to give qualities and features to felt sensation. The same for hearing, tasting, smelling. This will set the stage for the anabolic state soon to follow: true delta sleep, the “medicine by which you need no medicine”.
My point here is that besides all the outward modalities of healing- acupuncture, physical therapy, all that good stuff- there is also the option of developing a way of being that promotes healing, entirely apart from diet and nutrition, ingestion of drugs or outward manipulation: the way of the yogis: life as a path into the inner chamber, direct knowledge of the place from which all life forms originate.
Thanks for reading,
Sorry about the Hi5 Scam
March 5th, 2007
There was a batch of emails sent out under our name that invite you to join hi5 Network.
First of all, we’re really sorry if you trusted us and chose to join this hi5 thing- Michele made the mistake of doing the same from someone we trust and this is what happened:
they actually tagged our entire address book and sent out invitations to everybody, almost like a worm. First of all, how the heck did they get all those addresses? Our address book is on Yahoo, what does Yahoo have to do with this? I do NOT suggest you join hi5, or anybody who conducts business like that- if you did sign up I strongly suggest you cancel, easy enough to do. It is NOT a virus, it’s a business using borderline virus techiniques, some precarious combination of virus and legitimate business. They seem like a normal enough networking service, but if you sign up they will take your entire address book and send out emails that give the appearance that you stand behind what they do. They do this unless you carefully tell them not to. Who knows what else they will do unless you carefully tell them not to. Amazingly, they actually have a shingle on the street:
455 Market Street suite 910
San Francisco, CA, 94105
I called them and demanded that they delete every address they took from me, I’ll do what I can to see that they do that. And I let them know I was not pleased. They didn’t get back to me. They’re a faux business, with no accountability, getting away with it for as long as they can. They trash my business in order to propogate their own.
If you haven’t opened it yet, it says “Hey Steve Dwelley ;)” ( or whatever your name is) and then has a link with either Michele’s name or the Ashtanga Yoga Shala. I suggest you press the delete button firmly. Again, we’re really sorry if this got you, cyberspace is fairly intense these days and we were caught sleeping at the joystick.
We didn’t collect all your emails to send out stuff like that, and it won’t happen again.
Our humble apologies,
Steve and Michele
Ashtanga Yoga Shala Santa Barbara
Heady Intellectualism: Pattabhi Jois and Deep Vibration
February 1st, 2007
There can be a tension among Ashtanga practitioners between the body and the mind. Specifically, several prominent teachers in the lineage are explicit that heady intellectualism is not the way, including Pattabhi Jois himself. Here’s an example from his book Yoga Mala:
Great scholars and intellectuals who attract attention by using
pedantic Vedantic terms which mean that all things are transitory
and that only the supreme self is real, are only impressing themselves
and their listeners for the moment. But soon, the net of delusion is
sure to bind them. (p 31)
His cure for this, of course, is honest yoga practice. I’ve personally seen him accosted by eager students who pepper him with complex yoga concepts, and his response has been to walk away, leaving a trail of perplexed aspiring yogis. Indeed, the tension in this issue has bedeviled me for years.
I’ll attempt to describe my understanding of the deep yogic way as presented by the gurus in this lineage. We could call it radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence, a wonderful state to be in and not terribly common. And it gets most interesting when offered in receptive exchange with others. In keeping with the fundamental hatha yoga maxim that health is the real wealth, this state, or approximations of it, are highly conducive to radiant health and freedom from injury. How do we account for the long active lives of the yogis in Krishnmacharya’s lineage? Did they all have good genes, or did they live in a way that cleaned the roots of disease in their bodies? Also, the feeling of being in this state is incredible- joyous bodily existence, where the horrid dramas of life seem kind of overblown, and psychic disturbance resolves itself, a joy that even the eventual destruction of the body itself doesn’t seem to dampen, sometimes right up to the very end.
A brief diatribe: I would like to qualify that last sentence. I dislike trite yogic aphorisms such as “Come to the place where all is light and free forever”. Yeah, right. I absolutely believe in states of enlightenment, in the reality of successive levels of permanent attainment of the radiant state, but the truth is, life sends us endless lessons, there is always the next moment and the morning after, and the month after, and the next decade. By choosing life on Earth, we have all signed up for endless incoming experience, and new challenging experiences are a threat to the radiant state until the traces from those new challenges are integrated such that they are no longer THE OTHER but are now part of ME. (This integration definitely needs to happen within the bodyminds of even those who are well grounded with their identity in the witness. Serious challenges can drag even great sages down from the witness.) Creative active evolutionary life is an endless expansion of identity into everything that comes my way. Also, when we are inspired, we quickly push ourselves right to our growth edge- that is the place to be. But in so doing, we are asking life to come in- and it will. And the state of inspiration won’t last forever, so we will sometimes find ourselves in situations where we’ve taken in lots of new impact combined with a less than stellar outlook. Of course, this will eventually rise back up to the integrated zone again, but we don’t always know that at the time. But, what, shy away from inspiration? Unfortunately, I believe a large percentage of humanity has chosen just that, has chosen not to spiritually evolve, is not up to the adventure which requires deeply feeling that which has happened, and willing to be with that which comes up as a result. It appears that it requires the second half of life, where death begins knocking, to wake most people out of relative static cruise, or to shift their thinking away from the way it has always been, or beyond the merely gross waking state and towards the subtler realms.
Anyway, first of all, how to we get to radiant heartfelt somatic vibrational presence? Pattabhi Jois says, basically, a heck of a lot of sincere practice, sustained over time. This changes our neurology into a system that is able to connect the open feeling heart with the traces left by experience, gets better and more sophisticated at doing just that. The traces from challenging experiences will close the heart at first, but may be the source of greater opening later. Neurologic change is a very real possibility, but it requires a certain attitude, the willingness to be with the evolutionary edge. Try writing with your non-dominant hand, feel that field of resistance which only slowly yields. That is the feeling of nerves growing new connections, and, as neurology recently concluded, new nerves growing. That is the place sincere yoga practice asks you to make your home, which may in the short term contract the heart but over time will build a great heart.
So, I’ve just flung a succession of thoughts your way. Are these thoughts themselves part of the problem, distractions from the deep vibrational place where thoughts become less important? Here’s my take on it:
a. The thoughts that are the greatest threat to yoga are negative thoughts, ie: “this is really bad, and basically I’m failing, and I’m not good enough, and that person is laughing inwardly at the way I look, and this can never succeed”. All of us have lots of these, and they reveal themselves in layers of a hidden psychic plate tectonics process as we go through life. Continuing with the yoga practice, even if the negativity has dragged us far from radiance, is the way to push these plates out from under water and hopefully allow them to transform into glorious mountains.
b. Pattabhi Jois himself is a life-long scholar, and his guru Krishnmamacharya had the equivalent of 6 Doctorates, so the position here is not anti-thought. Rather, I believe Pattabhi has a deep grounding in heartfelt vibrational experience and can clearly sense when this is completely absent in a conversation, and often has little interest in such exchange. And I would add that adding heart to mind gives the mind purpose and meaning.
c. Frequently in life, thoughts require attention right now, and the realities they propel us into may not be conducive in the least to deep vibrational presence. However, we set aside time to do regular yoga practice to learn how to connect the various life-states in which we find ourselves with the deep conscious vibrational place. Do this for years and the two begin to merge. Or, I’d say, life begins to migrate into the deep heartfelt presence. But the greatest challenge to this is the taming of a mind which may simply mope its way along, or flit around like a butterfly, or is disinclined to break through habitual vestigial unhelpful thinking.
The way in Ashtanga appears to be this: the heart is the cure for the lost mind. Noticing unhelpful mentation and feeling its trace as opposed to running with its thought is a way to eventually get higher heart into the picture. For more on traces or imprints, or in Sanskrit, vasanas, see my blog, July 1 and October 3, 2006 entries. Basically: stay with the trace from the experience, practice focus, work the body, and eventually the trace will integrate itself into the ways of the heart, making the world new in the process. A very smart way to go. And it feels good.
January 1st, 2007
There are many systems of yoga, and not all of them affirm the act of using the body as the object of yogic focus. Some yogis, such as Ramana Maharshi, went further and actually advised practitioners to turn focus away from the body, lest we be attached to it when we die. Despite this, asana is the most popular yoga practice on the planet. Many would say that much of this is not serious yoga, but rather, people simply enjoying asana’s benefits towards health and feeling good. Of course, there are lines of asana practice which would fit under the category of serious authentic yoga, and ashtanga is one of them. What do I mean by serious authentic yoga?
1. It has as it’s underlying purpose a clear expression of the possibility of self-transcendence in this lifetime, and
2. it is undertaken with a rigorousness that offers the chance of this self-overcoming actually happening.
Historically, India has offered several serious views of self-transcendence, two of which are especially relevant for ashtanga:
a. The old Brahmin themes which I’ll lump under “neti-neti” which means, “No, not that, and no not that, and no not that either, etc”. Anything that expresses itself as an object which can be perceived by our awareness cannot be the goal to which we are striving, because God has no qualities. The God of our own innermost self is entirely free of any features at all. An essential aspect is contained in this neti-neti view that no yoga, or no deeper system of self-development, can ignore . I’ll try to explain my understanding of this as clearly as possible:
The self that views things “out there”, the person you are right now who sees and experiences your outer and inner world, has plenty of stuff tied in with it; you are not aware of much of this stuff, it is beneath your level of awareness. (If you are already enlightened and free, please forgive my condescendence). Your eyes are not the eyes of the pure witness (although you may achieve this at times) but rather, eyes which ride on the contours of your personality and see things in a way which includes these contours. These contours can be completely dominant, as in children, or quite subtle, as in certain mature wise people. But for the neti-neti yogi, none of those contours, no matter how subtle, are the goal, all of them are illusion. These lenses which alter the perception of the pure witness are still within the realm of things, and the witness is not a thing at all. The Brahmins were trying to get us straight into the witness, and damn anything that has any kind of manifestation.
Shankaracharya, in his little book Aporakshanubhuti, says “The yogi is indifferent to both the highest emanation from heaven and the shit of a crow.” But, being an Advaitan, he then tempers that with a view that values both the intensity of the quest to get to the causal realm but also affirms manifest creation; in his Brahma Sutra Bhasya, he says that higher things have more value than lower things, but that none of them are Brahman.
One value of this view is that it puts the practitioner on a truly steep and fast learning curve. One way we humans develop over time is like this: the eyes by which we saw in the previous moment become the stuff that we see in the next; the subject of this moment becomes the object of the next; when our person is revealed over time, its elements can become things we consider; aspects of who we were yesterday become things we can consider today. Before that, we had no choice, these elements were fused into our personality and not available to the light of our awareness. We acted from them but we could not see them; they unconsciously drove us. Now, with this in mind, notice that the neti-neti yogi immediately disidentifies with the elements of his own personhood as soon as he recognizes them. Any element that he can perceive is not God, and he knows or has faith that in his innermost self he is God, so he lets go of any identification with the phenomena he sees or hears or feels or thinks or imagines. This is the process of maturity that we all go through at some pace, but the old Advaitans explicitly stated a method which works quickly, and doesn’t dawdle. The upshot: fast track to freedom from the limitations of himself. The bummer: possible pathology, as he loses track of who he was and has only dim and devalued structure from which to operate in this world.
b. So, in response, around the eighth century, in good old India, emerges tantra, the path by which one can lose her ego but strengthen her nerves, where the personality dies to the larger universe but the body radiates happy health. (Advaita also came up with a response to dualism, but in a different way.) Freedom in this body, through this body. Ashtanga yoga is a tantra. Essentially, tantra introduced the view that self-development is not just a process of disidentification, but also that of building internal structure: the mature tantric has robust subtle-physiology. The psychologists Blanck and Blanck tell us that the self “metabolizes experience” to “build structure”, and I think this view well-describes what we do in Ashtanga; building structure in this same manner, but up past where the psychologists tend to stop and into subtle realms- where even further reaches can be realized- and doing so without negating or denying the lower levels. Also, intense focus as delineated in yoga, I believe, speeds up the structure building . I’ll get into my understanding of these things next month.
Exercise, the Teacher, the Collective: What Ashtanga Does
December 1st, 2006
1. I did a podcast for yogapeeps. Interesting little website.
2. I’ve been sending out these posts, thoughts about yoga and such, and the question may arise, what do all these things have to do with the daily physical practice that I teach, that we do? I’ll make a stab at addressing that here.
The Ashtanga system is based on Tantric techniques of arousing successively subtle internal energy processes in the bodymind. This is achieved in three primary ways in the Ashtanga room, 1. through the process of exercise, basically comprised of stretching, strengthening, balance and coordination, all of it done with full active breath. 2. the guidance and physical touch of the teacher, 3. the energy of the collective, that which happens when people practice in a room together. I’ll take these one at a time.
1. Exercise: in Ashtanga, we all start with Primary Series. The first half of primary is a thorough excavation of the pelvis: multiple angles into the hips and a deep clearing of hamstring tension. This essentially addresses the first two chakras, the root and the genital, clears out space for them to exist energetically in ways other than their overt function, i.e.: elimination and sex. This seats the practitioner deep in her pelvis and builds an energetic foundation for what is to follow, basically getting her grounded. The second half of primary emphasizes pure strength and coordination, as well as inversion (upside-down), and there’s also more pelvic stuff. We finish with backbends and then lots of upside-down. This is a steady building and lifting of energy, culminating with the backbends. Second series and beyond is about nerve purification and progressively rigorous strength and balance development and energy uplift.
Essentially, the tantrics who gave rise to Hatha yoga began to discover what can happen when we exercise, the kind of energy that can be awakened through the process of becoming physically fit. In short: seated yogic techniques, such as meditation, bring us into the subtle realms which ironically are not easier to hold but rather, the opposite. Subtle yogic realms are actually more real and less easy to manage than gross realms; the poor yogi who just sits there while flying around in the subtle spheres can get overwhelmed; strengthening the physical body can help him contain the beauty and volatility of the deeper dimensions of life.
2. Contact with the teacher: try this: sit at home for a while and get as centered and calm as possible, keeping the mind clear. Next, from this place, go get physically close to someone, your wife, friend, whomever. Go up to her, or pull him down to you, something like that. Notice what happens. If possible, notice this very precisely.
Physical contact with another person is strong stuff, again, primarily on the more subtle levels, and will awaken energy processes. Many of these processes may be shrouded, and will only register as confusion or some kind of variant on uncertainty. Others will be easy to discern, can go all the way to unbearably strong. Now I know what some of you are thinking, but it’s important to note that sexual arousal is just one of many kinds of phenomena available here. Sex can be volatile and unpredictable in its effects, even in committed intentional settings. That said, sacred sex is unparalleled in its capacity to free up and make available certain aspects of our developmental being, a fiery crucible that can be potentially used for good.
Contact with a teacher can be intimate but, hopefully, is of a different kind than sex. What are the avenues pursued with intimate, sensual but non-sexual touch? Essentially, it is the recognition of the special opportunity for energy movement when two dynamic systems merge for a moment. Of course, this can happen from across a room (possibly from across the planet), but when bodies actually physically collide, a deeper kind of “hook-up” becomes possible. This is transcendent to gender difference.
A skilled toucher does some version of the following: he is centered and sensitive, so when the hands go on, he feels a field of activity which is the interaction of his energy with yours. In Ashtanga, we follow the overt needs of the pose: teacher puts the student into, or moves him towards, the proper position of the pose. This is simple mechanics and it is a huge set of skills in itself. Simultaneously, an energy exchange is happening, the basis for what in yogic circles is termed Shaktipat, which means “descent of power”. I prefer to see this as the power possible when two people touch, as opposed to the teacher subjecting the poor student to his power. (See the post for August 2007: Mata Amritanandamayi: Up and Down)
I have found Pattabhi Jois remarkably synergistic on this issue. He is famous for that last push, where he climbs on your back after backbends, gives you a squash. I was fortunate enough to have this experience six days a week for nearly an entire year, at the time I associate with his energetic peak, the last year before beloved Ammachi, his wife, died. This was 1997, he was 83. At that age, he wasn’t an elite asana practitioner anymore, but his internal energy mastery was incredible. He would give a push, and it would be a strong statement, but I could feel his receptivity- actually, it was the fact that I sensed this receptivity that awakened a willingness in me to participate fully in the exchange.
A person will allow herself to be dictated to for only so long before she needs to have a voice in the exchange. If her voice is denied, it becomes a domination thing, which some people like, to their detriment. This is fundamentalism: personal oblivion in the face of the utterly dominant “God”, an expression of the need to master others, and to be mastered by another. There have been many problem gurus on this issue, Pattabhi Jois isn’t one of them. (See February 2008: Yoga Fundamentalism)
3. The collective: as we do asana over time, and we follow the promptings of our own practice, we begin to transcend the grossly physical, we begin to register subtle energy events of whose existence we were previously ignorant. In asana class, the character of the group of people in class with us will become more prominent. It may even be a disturbing force while we are still gaining strength in this realm. Also, as we grow into the energetic realm, which again, is exactly where yoga practice is taking us, we will project more of ourselves “out there”, and this requires increasing degrees of responsibility. There is the story of a well-known contemporary guru who was going to come back as a rock in his next life because he had gained extreme levels of energy mastery and was messing around with it in uncouth ways.
For the highly evolved, much is expected. But what’s the alternative, go backwards?
Do Yoga, Get a Reward
November 1st, 2006
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, one among many, operating now in your brain. It has multiple functions- the reason I’m bringing it into this story is because it is often seen as the central biochemical involved in an organism’s reward system. If a process is accomplished which satisfies criteria developed over millenia in the human neurologic system, dopamine is released into the neurotransmitter cocktail of the moment and it’s effects are experienced, which can range from mildly pleasant to overwhelmingly euphoric. Food and sex are seen by evolutionary biologists as the two biggies for dopamine-reward release: they serve basic functions for survival of the organism and the species. Connoisseurs of food and sex have focused on the various delights of anticipation and pleasure involved in the build-up and consummation of these arts.
Another way to get at dopamine is through certain drugs, especially cocaine, speed and heroin. These substances have been described as hijacking the neurological reward system, and if used extensively, seriously deranging it. All you have to do is take the drug, it’s a way of cheating the reward system, and it obviously wreaks havoc on the user. A true perversion: trash yourself, get a reward.
So, yoga: various processes of meditative focus can also tap into the reward system, but in ways that get at the essence of health as opposed to destruction. In last month’s post, I wrote about the sublimation of impressions. In short: we receive impressions from outward and inward experience, they both leave a mark on the psyche/soma, joining the cumulative fund of impressions that began from the moment we were conceived and possibly before. If we have spent some time practicing yoga and have learned to value and realize a mind relatively quiet of discursive thought when we so choose to quiet it, we find that when the discursive mind is quiet, a felt sense of impressions left from experience comes to the fore. This felt sense can then become the object that we focus upon, and that very act of focusing does something to the impression- if we can feel an impression, and focus on it, it will begin to transform into a higher version of itself, wherein it will also begin to integrate itself with the rest of our experience, becoming a more harmonious component of the whole which is our self.
The testimony of countless yogis reports that at a certain point in this sublimation-of-impression process, the heart begins to awaken- basically, a surge of energy begins to accompany the yogic act, and it registers prominently in the heart, ie: it begins to beat bigger or faster, or skip a few beats and then find a deeper kind of synchronization with surrounding energy fields, maybe it feels incredible pleasure or excitement. One claim I am clearly making here: the heart is a sense organ and it senses energy fields, both our own and others.
Another claim: our nerves are wired to reward evolutionary activity, and if impressions are sublimated sufficiently, the nerves will send their reward. Why? Well, a sublimated impression is one that has been mastered to a degree, and no longer holds us in its thrall, ie: the social trauma you received in high school. Evolutionary science may say that the trauma no longer slows us down, and this has life-value because the slow will perish. So, evolutionary activity is rewarded. Not just that yoga takes us into the dopamine zone but that dopamine is released to reward yoga. Interestingly, dopamine can initiate the release of adrenaline which stimulates the heart. This isn’t hijacking the system, so much as it is tapping into a higher realization of legitimate reward, the bliss of successive yogic realization. And if a group of people do this together in a room, they have access to each other’s delight (or grim drama, but we all have to start somewhere)- this is a not a small matter and I’ll address it again later.
Last part of this: the legitimate reward cannot be faked, which means that we must be actively applying ourselves to real impressions, which is very different than wanting or praying for yogic bliss to happen. It is actually doing yoga, an arduous, at times chaotic inner learning curve, and we need to stay on it for actual reward. When I said “the essence of health” above, I’m getting at a concept of health which implies an honest, courageous facing of developmental urges more than lack of a dripping nose and a good tan.
Sublimation of Impressions
October 3rd, 2006
My basic premise here will be that thought, in whatever form, leaves an impression on our subtle physiology. What do I mean by subtle physiology? That could be answered both objectively and experientially. First, objectively, it refers roughly to the nervous system, and within that, the limbic system and outwards to the cortex of the brain, in particular the somatic region of the cortex. It also refers to the yogic concept of nadis, which are subtle energy channels throughout the body. Contrast this to gross physiology: bones, heart muscle, pancreas, pinky finger. Second, experientially: when you have a thought, whether intentional, or far more commonly, unintentional- the thought being something offered to you by your nerves whether you want it or not- when you have this thought, it has a feeling aspect, comparable to fingers touching skin, it makes a mark, like a stick in wet cement, which can be perceived at varying levels. For instance, a major thought, such as “the woman I love just left me and she’s never coming back”, will leave a powerful imprint, may even elicit temporarily debilitating responses like sobbing, shaking, etc. When Einstein connected his way to e=mc squared, we can assume that this thought, in its original revelation, had a host of feeling toned accompaniments for him. Now, most thoughts that most of us have most of the time are smaller, ie: “I’ll get lunch together for the kids”. Nonetheless, these leave an imprint too, just a milder and smaller one: all thoughts leave an imprint.
What is an imprint? The yogic traditions speak of external and internal experience as leaving a trace upon us. My point in the previous paragraph is that internal events, like thoughts, leave an impression on our being, just as outward experiences do. Thought processes are the nervous system in action, often rewiring itself as it thinks, the rewiring process a product of the thought. The imprint would be the change in our gross and subtle physiology after the thought (inwardly) or the frisbee that jammed our pinky (outwardly).
So, the jammed pinky slowly heals, and becomes a slightly beaten down version of our original pinky. And what happens to the imprint left by thoughts? My response: it changes over time too, in a manner similar to gross level pinky healing. So, for example, our poor sad fellow who lost his love has received a large impact on his subtle physiology, an impact he may be increasing with ongoing negative thinking. Well, as time passes, his psyche begins to mend, despite him, and one way to see this process is through the idea of sublimation: the low becomes high in the living organism. The eros of life will take the psychic wound and reorganize it, the unbearable will become comfortable with time, and the wound will actually become the Darwinian imprint from the environment which can initiate new capacities.
This eros process happens even in the lowliest smirking couch potato (sorry to all the low smirking couch potatoes out there, don’t mean to marginalize you), he is a theater of eros occurring right now, until the day he dies. Viz: the neurologists used to think that our numbers of brain cells died off from age 3, and no new ones could be grown. All downhill from age 3. This has now been debunked and the elderly have been confirmed to grow new brain cells which make new connections in the areas of life in which they participate. Anyway, our couch potato’s psychosomatic being is taking the imprints from his outward and inward experience and gradually, inevitable bringing them to a higher level of organization. The thing is, he’s just mucking through this life, doesn’t care at all, and profound amounts of eros are happening anyway, it’s what keeps him there.
But the yogi: yoga tells us that if we deliberately put our attention on the imprints left by inner and outer experience, evolution will happen faster and much much better. This is why yoga places such value on a mind that can free itself of chatter when it so chooses: the eros, the organizing healing evolutionary force, can get stronger when it receives deliberate attention. How strong can it get? It would seem that God is the limit and God, by definition, has no limit. And when thoughts are mucking up the works, leaving constantly new impressions, an essential part of the process never gets a chance to really concentrate. It still happens, but in couch potato form, or like it does for the always-thinking intellectual, who knows so much but can never really realize it in terms of energetic liberation or happiness. And yoga is pointing us to that place in our being which is beneath discursive thought, telling us to put our attention there, to experience our subtle physiology directly.
So, what happens if a yogi focuses on a feeling and stays with it? My answer: the feeling begins to feel better (although initially it may have to dump out Pandora’s Box, which may very well include getting through the dreaded feelings that he didn’t want to have to feel). It feels better, and if he stays with it, it will reach sublimated form, which will trigger off an awakening of the heart, which I hope in my next post to connect with dopamine and the novelty edge, the rewiring of the brain for constant access to bliss. (Hint: you have to stay on the chaotic inner edge or bliss will never happen.)
Until next time, happy channel surfing.
Krishnamacharya, Pattabhi Jois: The Mind in the Heart
August 30th, 2006
Pattabhi Jois speaks of “the mind in the heart”. When he says it, he puts his hand on his heart (which is also what he often does when people bow to him in respect). What can be said about this?
One amazing fact: Krishnamacharya- the modern father of the lineage, whom I consider the primary inspiration behind perhaps 75 per cent of the asana practice on the planet- could stop his heart at will and suppress it for two minutes. He had incredible control of his own physiology, a control that went deep into his autonomic nervous system, generally considered beneath the level of will. (Check the book Sri Krishnamacharya the Purnacharya, available through the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, www.kym.org, the school established by his son Desikachar, for testimony by Western scientists who were seeking valid verification of supposed yogic tall-tales.)
We can use the term “liminal line” for the transition zone between that which is conscious and that which isn’t. Above the liminal line is everything of which we are aware. Even if we don’t understand it, we can still have some grasp of its existence and can to some degree manipulate it with our will, for example, raising your arm. Beneath the liminal line…this is where it gets interesting. Looking at the body itself, biologists have explained countless physiologic processes operating with astounding complexity, which almost always work perfectly, in our own bodies, over which we have next to no conscious awareness or control. The forward thinking biologists Maturana and Varela have refined this understanding in an inspirational way under the concept of autopoiesis which means: organization or self-renewal which happens by itself, exchanging elements but maintaining the same basic underlying order. Incredible.
The basic access tool for experiencing these underlying physiologic processes is felt internal sensation, including but not limited to kinesthetic sensation: the muscle sense and proprioception: the stretch and bodily positioning sense. Both of these are processed in the somatic cortex of the brain. Basically, this is the act of feeling that which is going on inside our skin, which is related to but different from touch of the skin with outward objects. This internal sensing can be summed up under the Sanskrit term: vedana.
I previously belabored the process indicated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras about quieting the chatter mind, the thinking mind. (Check July 2006). When this is successful, vedana is revealed. When the thinking mind gets quiet, a field of internal feeling presents itself to conscious awareness. It was there all along, underlying the thoughts; when the thoughts are quieted, it remains. In turn, anything in this somatic field may become the object upon which the yogi can choose to focus. If she chooses to focus on the sensations of the heart, as it beats, as it responds to life events such as romance or fear, she will begin to get a little smarter about the heart. If she keeps this focus up, “over a long period of time without interruption, earnestly” (that’s yoga sutra 1:14) what can happen?
My answer to that is that the liminal line will begin to drop, and she will slowly get a degree of control over the actions of the heart. Actually stopping the heart is intimidatingly deep yoga, but it operates at the same level as simple asana practice: the first time you tried handstand, what happened? Chaos theory. But, if you apply yourself over time, order begins to emerge from within the chaos, as strength is built and nerve circuits created. The potential was there all along, you just couldn’t contain the needed parts yet, your physiology just wasn’t ready, just like a child’s physiology is not yet ready to walk.
Controlling the mind is harder than handstand. And it doesn’t just happen because we want it to, we have to apply ourselves just as we do in handstand. Over time, psychic strength is built, nerve circuits created, we can gradually quiet thoughts when we want to. And one of yoga’s great tools to achieve this is to focus on vedana, the sensations in the body, as a place to redirect conscious attention away from the chatter in the mind and toward a perception of the profound intelligence of autopoiesis happening in our own bodies at all times. Asanas are an excellent means for this because they make physical sensation obvious in an orderly, progressive manner, presenting blatant stable sensation fields. Focus on the body and the mind will discharge its uncontrolled load and get out of its own way.
So, the mind in the heart: if and when we fall in love, (to use one of the great dopamine drenched passages of life as an example) we find that the heart responds vividly to that which passes through our minds, and often responds to things of which the mind in our head knows nothing. But, to put it philosophically, there is a referent to that heart experience, there is something real out there to which it is responding: the heart knows things the intellectual mind does not: the heart is often that which introduces these things to the intellect.
As the story circulates in Mysore, Pattabhi Jois was learning to stop his heart and Krishnamacharya eventually instructed his pupil to forgo that quest and have a family, which has been known to do a thing or two to the hearts of the parents. The teaching here seems to be: use yogic techniques to gain access to that which others may not have access, this yogic attention will begin to alter and mature and gain control over the internal phenomena which it pays attention to. And these yogic techniques include that of living a “normal” life and observing what this does to the heart. And through the heart, sharing life with others.
August 2nd, 2006
Last month I wrote and spoke about the difficult practice of clearing the mind of thoughts to allow a bit of the stuff represented by Soma into the stream of consciousness. Allow me to offer a short autobiographical account:
In 1995 I completed my Master’s Degree in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. If you haven’t heard of it, take a look at www.pacifica.edu, one of the great centers on the planet for depth psychology and mytho-poetic thought. Joseph Campbell sensed this early on and left them his library, significantly furthering their cause. They draw strong influence from C.G. Jung, and in turn James Hillman and Marija Gimbutas, as well as most of the other luminaries in that field.
To survive the rigors of grad school, I discovered I wasn’t turning to the medicine I was learning to use, i.e.: psychology, but rather, found incredible help through yoga. I finished the degree, embarked upon my third trip to India, undertook my first serious surrender to Pattabhi Jois and the Ashtanga lineage, came back and began to teach yoga full-time. I was compelled by yoga, and enough of our society shared this feeling to allow me to make a living doing it.
I consider Jung’s and Pacifica’s world to be that part of our being which responds when we are deeply stirred by a movie, a novel, heroism, romance, visual art, a dream, conflict in relationship, crisis in ourselves. Jung traced this response down, seeking the roots of the psyche and unearthed and beautifully expressed essential interpersonal dynamics such as archetype, shadow and projection.
A common criticism of Jung however, as Aurobindo noted, is that he hung around in the mud of existence and didn’t know much about how high we can rise. Jung’s archetypes draw us down, (closer to amoebas) whereas he was wary of the other end of the spectrum, such as Shankaracharya’s archetypes which compel us up (toward higher evolutionary forms) and in (closer to Spirit, by whatever name). Getting down has great value, doubtless, but it is not the whole story by a long shot. (Maybe you agree with this, maybe you don’t, comments and challenges are welcome. Ken Wilber at www.integralinstitute.org is the great resource for this dialogue in my experience.) To that I would also add that Jung knew the unconscious mind but was less astute about the experienced body which involves cultivating somatic awareness.
Long story short, by the time I was 22 I was swimming in the mind and the archetypes from who knows which direction, and craved clarity and strength. I was in Darjeeling that year, in the mountains above Calcutta in India, marveling at the wonder which is Mount Kanchenjunga. We had recently completed a 34 day trek on foot, circumambulating about 2/3rds of this majestic peak, third tallest in the world. In Darjeeling, I would awaken in my hotel room and look at it out the window. Walking along an alley on the terraced steep hillside, musing, I peered in the open door of a small house to see a man practicing dhanurasana, a backbend. I hate to admit that my first response was envy, but that soon gave way to an urgent desire to undertake a serious Hatha Yoga practice, to use the body as a means of controlling the mind, to learn to articulate and mediate my reactions to the stuff emerging from below: my past, and that of the collective. And I had intuitions of various kinds of furniture coming in from above, those were interesting: a sense of what was coming.
So to finish here, I would like to offer the position that a focused yoga practice can bring the deep stuff of the psyche to a fuller and higher expression than Jung’s alchemy alone, and, by extension, western psychology alone. Granted, the “nonsense” and paradox of alchemy appears to generate a kind of psychic tension and clearing similar to that which appears through Asian yoga practice. Also, novels, music, movies, performance and ritual that deeply affect us are unequaled in the capacity to loosen stuff up in the first place; India has great epics but they have not pursued story and symbol like the West. Their music is equal to ours, as is their ritual and performance. However, I hold Asian yoga to go much further and to get much higher in terms of its clarity about the possibilities of higher consciousness and its ability to help us sustain such a state; in general, the methods for how to realize and maintain higher consciousness through practice which have come from the West are hapless compared to those from the East. (As a rebuttal, one may claim that Jung’s intent wasn’t so much to get us “high” as it was to be therapeutic and healing, partly by helping to provide meaning.) Regardless, Jung viewed Western alchemy as being about the closest the West has gotten to the yoga of the East and he felt that Westerners should build on that instead of pursuing yogas developed through Eastern cultural environments. As the world has become more global, that concern of his becomes more and more moot (see October 2007 for more).
So, it has emerged that the Eastern ways, of which Ashtanga is one, need to be combined now with the Western ways, of which Jung is one. In support of such a strong statement, it can be noted that every Guru from the East who has touched our Western lives is currently in an active engagement with the West. The ones who haven’t , we in the West don’t know about. Indeed, a huge aspect of India’s history since the 1500’s is its engagement with the West. Krishnmacharya attempted to become pure East, a master linguist who purposely avoided learning English even though he was surrounded by it. His students, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, however are not East so much as East/ West; the engagement with the West is a huge part of their story. The same can be said of the Dalai Lama.
The West says, “Think and you shall Be”, the East says, “Wake up from the dream which is the movie of your mind.” The complete picture is to do both. Depth psychology’s heartmind just never gets high enough. But quitting life to do full-time yoga in a cave with eyes rolled back may never allow large portions of our psyche to get into play at all. The thing which is bigger than mind and fuller than no-mind is global Heart. Let’s do that.
July 1st, 2006
My teacher in India, Pattabhi Jois, says “Ashtanga Yoga is Patanjali Yoga.” As I see it, the basic thing Patanjali is asking us to practice, at least at the outset, is the act of quieting the discursive mind, the thinking mind. I’m a lover of unbearable paradoxes and there is a good one here: Patanjali’s sutras are all thoughts, every last one of them. Here is a supposedly profound thought that tells us not to think. What’s left? Where did Patanjali get his thoughts from? Did he download them straight from heaven without a thought on his part?
The emerging answer seems to have become: do both, think and don’t think. And I believe the crux of the matter, especially for Westerners, is that we can’t not think. We try to quiet our minds and it doesn’t happen. We spend our days working through all the issues within thought, such as: replace bad thought with good thoughts, try to replace kookoo mind with intelligent orderly practical mind, replace mind altogether by drinking beer and watching TV.
We do the dishes and conclude that President George Bush has subjected his unresolved father complex on the entire world, at horrible cost, without a lick of self-reflection on his part. But the inner yogi asks: can you just do the dishes, just this once, without thinking about him? Or yourself? Or anybody or anything? Just being with hands, water, dishes, soap, bits of food, your own body, feeling your brain instead of living in it? Returning to these concrete realities when thoughts do come. Can you do that?
Why? One reason: there is a whole realm of bodily feeling, emotion, sensing, intuition, instinct, deep knowing, meaningful suffering, purposeful process, wounds waiting for attention, heart-centered delight, self-organizing vital energy, all of which I put under the heading of Soma, which is often partially or totally masked and obscured by the thought train. Worse, it is susceptible and radically manipulated by a mind often ignorant of the havoc it can wreak on its own vessel. If I could, just this once, just for this hour and a half while I practice, live deeply in the soma, the heart mind, which opens the possibility of a psychosomatic process purified and sublimated by sustained yogic and meditative attention, which may eventually reach up to the level of Shakti and cosmic experience, and beyond, not analyzed but directly and immediately known- and then enter that data into my thoughts…