Threatening my Yoga: Jung and Shankaracharya

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.

Obviously I’m having a polarized reaction to him. 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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007 at 12:10 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.

9 Responses to “Threatening my Yoga: Jung and Shankaracharya”

  1. JP Says:

    Do you think it is possible that you have an eastern
    soul, despite being anglo saxon? I do.

    I was thinking that the sun-moon aspect of hatha yoga,
    and the yoking of duality in asana, can work on the
    level of evening out, physically, “duality” (left
    right up down) so that we can be prepared, maybe even
    of necessity, first (prior?) on a physical level, for
    the event of experiencing the transcendant witness.

    At least. like ogres and onions, and Jung, we can peel
    away layers, which for someone (moi) who can only hope
    to remain in roga chikitsa in this lifetime, that’s
    offering PLENTY.

    I keep being drawn to Helen Lukes, who I have on tape
    & listen to on the drive (reno-crestone-reno heh heh)
    and while what i am listening to is mainly about old
    age, she has a winning way with enantiodromia,
    although i didn’t know it was called that until i read

    But off the top of my head, it seems Helen is saying
    that it is in the individual’s resolution of what
    comes up in the peeling– opposites and more– that
    liberation lies. And the emphasis is on individual.
    (And what i like about jung is — there is liberation,
    too, as a “goal”)Someone else is not going to do it
    for you.

    That said, old and delusional as i tend to be, I
    always think we can bless each other and i sure do
    miss your blessings!

    There was something that came to me when i was listening to Helen on the last leg of my drive, after reading you– it had something to do with how to really do it, the liberation thing, the ingredient that can never be left out is true humility. I have often heard that said about ashtanga, as well–strong, limber people all over the world (maybe this is from Dena?) never make it through Nadi Shodana because you will fall on your sword if not truly humble.

    Something like that!



  2. Jenny Says:

    My favorite Adya quotes:
    At each moment we are expressing what we know ourselves to be. If we know ourselves very little we will express and manifest that unconsciousness of our true nature. If we know who and what we are very thoroughly, we will express and manifest that in what we do.
    This isn’t a battle against the mind. Eventually the mind realizes that it just wants to be in adoration of a truth and a wisdom that it cannot contain.
    Total stillness of being comes when all resistance to movement is absent. When all resistance is absent,there is complte stillness, an alive stillness, a vital stillness which is pure movement without resistance.

  3. Steve Says:

    Those are great quotes. Who is Adya?

  4. Jenny Says:

    Adyashanti is a teacher and author of Emptiness Dancing, The Impact of Awakening, and My Secret is Silence. Adyashanti offers spontaneous and direct nondual teachings that have been compared to those of the early Zen masters and Advaita Vedanta sages.

  5. Katie Says:

    Interesting. I think you’re on to something regarding the deeper immersion in Eastern yoga causing clashes with the Western self (selves).

    However, regarding an individual cultural tradition – many Americans – in fact, probably most Americans – don’t have one. Not realistic to expect that, for instance, my immersion in yoga will draw me closer to my Celtic, Russian, Anglo-Saxon, Prussian, Baltic, Chinese and Jewish roots. Why not pick an Eastern one instead?

  6. guy Says:

    Hi Steve
    Interesting and profound thoughts.
    I think three things to consider:

    1. taking into consideration reincarnation, we cannot justifiably say – “my soul is American/British/Chinese”… only which ever part of my psyche is associated with my genetic make up and my cultural conditioning has this kind of identification (and this is the part which we are trying to get rid of).

    2. Yoga is a transformative tool – the process gets rid of cultural conditioning – moves one away from differences and towards similarity between individuals, ie moves one towards the Purusa which is universal in nature – so these elements are progressively shed with time and practice.

    3. As Katie points out most Americans do not have a cultural identity, and increasingly this is true for the global population which becomes increasingly part of popular culture – I wonder how Jung would have seen this. Maybe he would not have placed such emphasis on national culture and heritage in the formation of the human experience if he had been alive today.

  7. Steve Says:


    Thank you kindly for the comments, much appreciated.

    Shnakaracharya’s view on the transmigration of souls certainly does take a bite out of Jung’s challenge. But then, Jung was a good percentage Gnostic, which holds views on past lives similar to Hunduism. Not sure how he factors that one in. Also, Jung himself used yoga to get centered but apparently did not advocate it to his patients.

  8. sue Says:

    I loved this thread. I delved deeply into Jungian studies for many years. Robert Johnson was probably my favorite author in the field. He was an European who studied eastern Yogic thought and went to India for decades. I am in now in my tenth yoga of yoga. I see why I made the transition and am enjoying the intagration.

    Hey Joey, I am going to look Helen Luke and I live in Reno.

  9. pam Says:

    Check out Wilfred Bion’s ideas. He grew up in India and was obviously deeply influenced. His concept of O is unlike either Freud or Jung

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