Psychologist: “Oh shiny yogi!! Your own bliss prevents you from ever seeing your shadow! But the rest 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?! 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, something that actually changes one’s chemistry, instead of just using the talking cure. People in trouble need strong stuff it would appear, and drugs are obviously as strong as you want them to be. 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 Psychologists are perfect, far from it, but they’ve got a leg up on us in this regard: part of their game is 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 the novelty spiritual item and actually take root as an enduring part of this 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. 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. 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 some 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 what got it onto the big stage. (Admittedly, when compared to other magazines with that much influence, 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 in that regard. 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 a hint of celebrity in it, he hobnobbed in he corridors of power at times in his life, we’re talking about something different than our present Western culture. He is 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. He 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 have received media attention.
In short, celebrity is often based on charisma and guru is based on mastery. The two can converge, but often don’t. Charisma, beauty 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 stuff inside us that we don’t see, don’t know about, don’t acknowledge, but which directs our actions anyway. 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. Anyway: resolution of chaos ultimately allows the mind successive degrees of quietude. 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 beauty behind the chaos, could hold that energy with a quiet mind, which 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 heavy fields so that they could be seen easily.
The shadow canbe 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, as systems theory tells us: 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. The title of Jack Kornfield’s book After the Ecstasy, The Laundry expresses the former: after the inspiration wears off, we find ourselves in this bigger realm, and, correct me if I’m wrong, but it would appear that you can’t go back. Evolution seems to be hardwired into the human nerves. Once we become aware of a reality, we either hold it as something we know, or we repress it, and repression is a big part of the Psychology story. Why do we repress is? Because knowing it is too scary, threatens our sense of self-organization. The shadow we carry is full of stuff that we already know but don’t really want to look at.
So, the chaos part: the bigger realm contains entities that don’t harmonize with the smaller world we used to live in. They show us contradictions that we didn’t notice before, which suddenly become unnacceptable. 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 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, 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. 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. Living fully means moving beyond what we know, the willingness to encounter what we don’t know, 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.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 30th, 2007 at 2:01 pm and is filed under Ashtanga Yoga. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.