Nitya Teachings

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Yoga Sutras II: 30 - 32 (yamas and niyamas)

1/11/11

Sutra II:30

The self-restraints are nonviolence, truthfulness, non-misappropriativeness, adhering to uprightness in life, and non-acquisitiveness.

 

         The class was actually moved to the next day, due to snow and ice, but you don’t get a chance to immortalize 1/11/11 very often, so I’ve kept the original date.

         We will take a separate session for each of the five restraints and five observances, since they are all vitally important. I will be gone for the next four classes to India, but have hopes of finding notes to read when I return that I can use to reconstruct the brainstorming sessions. Online readers are invited to send in their stories too. There is a lot of food for thought here!

         It is interesting that yama, restraint, is the first of the eight limbs, and while it sounds negative, it is expressed as a positive quality. The second limb, the observances, niyama, are expressed as “not restrained.” Holding back, then, is positive, and going forward is negative. There is a dialectic structure right off the bat that gives us some insight as to what these mean.

         Part of our makeup is a kind of primitive mentality lodged in the limbic system of the brain, the legacy of billions of years of nothing beyond considerations of survival. We have aspects in us that are brutal, unfeeling, selfish and well, stupid. The very first thing for us to learn, therefore, is to restrain these negative factors. At the same time we have innate capacities to be kind, generous, caring and intelligent. Recent archeological discoveries have shown that even dinosaurs were communal and nurturing, and it is now accepted that mutual support within groups is an important factor in the evolution of complex species. When we hold back our faults, it gives room for the positive qualities to flourish. This means we have to start with a penetrating self-examination to highlight our faults and then discard or deemphasize them. Without that first step, everything that follows is built on shaky ground.

         The first category of yama is ahimsa, nonviolence or non-hurting. Nitya additionally defines it as “observing compassion in love and serenity.” Most of his commentary relates to food, which was always an important issue for him. It makes a very good example, in that it is fairly simple to pretend there isn’t any hurting involved, even when there is a lot. I have had several friends say to me over the years, “If I had to kill animals for food I wouldn’t eat them” as they dove into a plate of pork chops or chicken. Killing aside, modern factory farming of animals means nothing but a brief lifetime of pure torture for those creatures. I don’t know at what point mindfulness kicks in, so that you can no longer ignore that that inert object on the plate has once been alive, but sometimes it does. Nitya excuses such behavior to a degree by singling out humans as the only creatures who associate morality with their food habits. We have to kill to live, and that’s the bottom line. If we don’t kill we die. Barbara Kingsolver included a similar eloquent revelation in her book The Poisonwood Bible. For this reason, most people think moral food choices and the people who make them are ridiculous. And maybe we are.

         In many of his classes Nitya used to teach a continuum of values, drawing a line and marking each end with the extreme polarities of the subject, and then marking off varying stages as one extreme transformed into the other. With food he might have cannibalism at one end and frutarian at the other; in between would be stages of progression like vegan, vegetarian, lacto-ovo vegetarian, invertebrates, fish, birds, mammals. He was often derided by meat eaters who claimed that he was killing vegetables as surely as they killed animals. His response was that if you couldn’t distinguish between a little lamb who looked up at you with pleading eyes and a carrot when you took a knife to them, there was no point in talking about it. Anyway, the continuum of values was what he had in mind when he said, “A widening circle of empathy brings more and more discrimination in the selection of foods. That means love and caring for other living beings are placed higher in the hierarchy of values than the satiation of hunger.” And yes, you can rate values vertically as better and worse, for instance with maximum misery at the low end and minimal harm at the top. That’s totally legitimate, yogically speaking.

         A continuum can most definitely include overlapping categories, and on many of them Nitya drew the middle was the goal, and not some extreme form of either asceticism or indulgence. It all depends.

         We went around the room and each person in turn described how they practiced ahimsa in their life. This turned out to be a lot of fun, with plenty of banter back and forth. Obviously, non-hurting is something every child learns, and you don’t have to study Patanjali or become a Buddhist to have wrestled with it. A full accounting of last night’s class would make a small book, and when we were done Brenda suggested that we go around again. We’d barely scratched the surface, yet it was our longest class in well over a year.

         There’s no way I can relate everything we talked about, so I’ll just touch on a couple of highlights. There was a general consensus around taking a moment before reacting to provocation in anger, and everyone was then able to substitute reasoning for confrontation. Additionally, there were several examples where a small hurt or modicum of resistance warded off much greater future difficulties, and so it could still be considered ahimsa. There are precious few black and white situations where one choice is absolutely free of negative elements. It becomes a matter of minimizing the negativity, not eliminating it. When Narayana Guru in Atmopadesa Satakam recommends taking a global perspective and acting on the basis of the greatest good, he is taking cognizance of the fact that virtually every course of action has some justification, but some are nonetheless much better than others.

         Because of this relativity, I take umbrage over the assertion that abortion and the management of pests are contrary to ahimsa. Abortion was instigated as a compassionate solution to a perennial problem, and while it does involve killing a fetus, it protects the mother in many cases from serious injury or death, not to mention sparing an unwanted child a lifetime of misery in some cases. Doctors who perform abortions are motivated by compassion, as well as brave enough to operate under threats of their own death. And if dogs and cats weren’t neutered and sometimes euthanized, they would infest the whole world, wiping out many species and spreading disease. So their management is a way to make their lives more positive in many respects. Human intervention is certainly flawed, but nature’s methods are also cruel and capricious at times. What makes the discussion of ahimsa so interesting is all the nuances and exceptions it involves. There is no monolithic absolute called ahimsa, any more than there is unalloyed truth in the next yama.

         Brenda’s ahimsa was of a type that is often overlooked: compassion for herself. We should learn how not to hurt ourself, even if it is socially sanctioned. Recently Brenda has been taken advantage of by some of her friends, and she has decided to stand up to them. She has been perhaps overly generous with her time and energy in the past, but now is going to reserve more for her own needs. She has learned she should care for herself, too. It is important to remember that we are also part of everything, and so should not sacrifice our own happiness solely for the benefit of others, particularly if they are black holes of psychic need, only taking in and never emitting any light. It is often the case that standing up to friends who take too much can teach them to rethink their position as well, benefitting them in the long run.

         Eugene shared a great example of ahimsa. Over Christmas he visited his mother, with whom he has had a challenging relationship since early adolescence. But now he is solid enough in himself to not feel so threatened, and instead of cloaking himself in defensive armor he was able to make genuine contact with her. As is so often the case, she responded positively, and the two had a great time together, which is a major milestone. Further, when Eugene went to church with her, instead of sneering at the whole schtick as he used to do, he looked for the common ground beneath the Christian symbolism, and found lots of it. You could see what a relief it was in his smiles as he told the tale. A heavy weight had been lifted.

         So ahimsa isn’t only about not making war; it has an interpersonal level that is a most fertile ground for us to till, and the benefits accrue to everyone.

         One of my major leaps toward vegetarianism and pacifism happened I was about 11. I was given a slingshot for my birthday by my father. I'd been raised with the typical attitude that saturates American culture exalting gunslingers as upholders of law and justice, as well as being great white hunters, so I eagerly went out hunting rabbits in the woods behind our house one day. Damned if I didn't hit one in the head with a rock! He was kinda dazed, so I crept closer and got him again! He moved off, but was wobbly, and I followed him. He was bleeding and panting hard. Finally he lay down, exhausted. I walked up to him. He was looking right at me, resignedly. We spoke to each other through our eyes. He was of course a dear cute little bunny, a young one, and I was the agent of his death. The awesome horror of killing a fellow creature was rising in my stomach, rocking my whole being. Desperate with remorse, I knew I had to put him out of his misery. I fired another rock point blank at his head. He thrashed a little, and lay still, panting harder than ever. It took four or five more direct hits before he finally stopped breathing and was quiet.

         Through a cascade of tears I walked slowly back to the house and put the slingshot away forever. I spent that day and the next in self recrimination but mostly sheer sadness and misery for the beautiful life I had terminated for no reason whatsoever. I dedicated myself with intense passion to nurturing and kindness. I vowed to strive to never cause harm to anyone, anywhere, any time, and I have to say that resolve has stayed with me through my whole life. My failures all hang in my conscience even decades after they happened. The rabbit incident wasn't my first and certainly not my last connection with ahimsa (non-hurting), but it may have been the most profound of all.

         As I began to get my boyish spirits back the next day, I forced the incident out of my mind. I was ready to get on with being a blissfully unaware kid again. Looking out the glass back door, I saw our dog Bridget coming out of the woods with the dead rabbit in her mouth. Its skin was hanging loose off its paws, and it's raw, naked little body was covered with tooth marks. My ordeal wasn't over yet! Bridget faithfully walked up to the door and dropped the half-chewed, rotting mess on the step right in front of me. Then she looked up and wagged her tail sweetly and proudly, expecting me to come and take the treasure in to the table. In a state of near delirium I had to go for the shovel, dig a deep hole, and push the limp carcass onto the shovel for transport to the burial site. Forgetting was clearly not going to be an option. And I have never forgotten. I still cry when I retell this story.

         So there you go: one of the many reasons I was a very strange character as a kid, and probably still am. But my philosophy is to try to always err on the side of kindness, so there are far worse ways to be weird.

         Narayana Guru was passionate about vegetarianism, and as Moni said he was instrumental in doing away with animal sacrifices in the temples of South India. He told worshippers that sacrificing a melon instead of a chicken was perfectly acceptable to the gods, and such was his influence that the whole paradigm rapidly changed. As promised, here are a few excerpts of his poetry, translated by M.N. Prasad:

 

All are of one self-fraternity

Such being the dictum to avow

How could we kill living beings

And eat them without any mercy?

 

Non-killing vow is great indeed

But greater still is not-eating to observe….

(from Five Verses of Kindness to Life)

 

He who kills harmless creatures

For his own pleasure

Will have no well-being

While living or after death.

 

Thinking of how meat is made

Of killing living beings,

And of ill-treating them,

Give up totally meat-eating.

(verses 1 and 5 of Ahimsa, Non-Hurting)

 

Narayana Guru’s Ten Verses on Compassion, which include his famous dictum, “He who loves is he who really lives,” begins:

 

Such compassion that

Even to an ant

Would brook to befall

Not the least of harms,

Confer on me

O Mercy-maker

Along with the thought

That from your sacred presence

Never go astray.

 

He who loves is he who really lives. Wiser words were never spoken. Aum.

 

Part II

         On a walk today I was recalling that day when the rabbit taught me the preciousness of life, and I realized I was born in the Chinese Year of the Rabbit. Not only that, but if I was twelve or the last third of eleven when it happened, it would have been the Year of the Rabbit come round again. Curious….

         Eugene wrote a very nice note back after the class notes, with some personal comments, plus these words of wisdom:

 

Brenda reminded me to be kind to this dude, Eugene. Practicing ahimsa is about allowing "space" in every situation.  We want to cram solutions, dictum, mantras, or everything else into every uncomfortable situation. Ahimsa is allowing the situation to heal itself according to what the Source recommends. We have to ALLOW this medicine to manifest.

 

I watched the film GANDHI with Ben Kingsley again last night. I was reminded that the healing waters of the Source are always available to us. If we could just sit back and commune with the Source for just a few seconds, Divine guidance is readily accessible.

 

1/18/11

A retroactive class on the second restraint: satya, truth.

 

         Nitya encapsulates satyam in a nutshell with a perfect short summary. In a world where truth is being willfully undermined on all sides, manipulated for personal and collective gain, it would seem that not much should have a higher priority. Yet all too often truth’s features have become matters of argument where the loudest or most persistent faction wins. The losing sides are often willing to give up because they are reluctantly aware of the elusiveness of truth. As Nitya says, “There are subtle situations where the pros and cons of everything involved or implied cannot be easily traced. Then it is possible to hoodwink another or tell blatant lies, pretending one is more in the know than others. This is a clear case of deception. Untruth is passed on for truth in many situations that are elusive and subtle.”

         In a global world we are dependent on distant voices to supply us with much of our information, and so we have to gauge who to trust using a combination of wishful thinking and blind faith. We no longer live in extended families where everything can be more or less verified in person. Yet as parents of teenagers in particular are unable to deny, even our nearest relatives can remain an impenetrable mystery to us.

         The faith we cultivate in our sources of information and their validity is similar to much religious belief in being unverifiable. While frustrating, the alternative is to live in an infinitesimal world shrunken down to include only our immediate surroundings, with even those in constant doubt. It seems that something in our nature calls for more than this: we want to know, and we want to be sure. Nitya reminds us of the bottom line in our relation to truth:

 

To compensate for [the elusiveness of truth], the yogi is not expected to learn the intricacies of physics and mathematical logic. You are simply advised not to distort the truth for convenience. Throughout the religious world of belief and dogma, uncouth lies are precipitated and perpetuated by people for vested interests. Hence this warning that, even unintentionally, out of sheer ignorance, you may lead another to wrong consequences by distorting truth. The yogi makes every effort not to be a howler telling untruth or a simpleton believing in something because somebody said it or it is written somewhere.

 

Yoga study differs from most religious practice in accepting that ignorance is an unavoidable part of our lives. In place of accepting the “word of God,” as it is interpreted by powerful figures, we are called upon to dig down and discover it for ourselves. Blasphemy to a yogi is not the refusal to accept the common wisdom and kowtow to its imaginary tenets but the insistence on the validity of false assumptions.

         While in Ooty I read through some of the amazing and voluminous correspondence between Edda Walker and Nitya. One bit I copied out bears on our exploration of satyam, of which “innocence and honesty” are important features:

 

July 8, 1974:

 

  Dear Edda,

  Today I was narrating to my students the generous hospitality of Emma when she invited me to eat mud pies, made specially for me and served in the garden. The most important lesson I learned from her is that I had the freedom to pretend to be eating rather than actually eating the mud pie. When spiritual children play the same game of baking pretentious “spiritual pies” in the garden of make-believe, they insist we should eat their pies. I wish we all had the innocence and honesty of Emma.

 

  Nitya

 

July 16, 1974:

 

  Dear Swamiji,

  Thank you for hushing your VOICE low enough to send me your July 8th lesson. It arrived just as the pretentious spiritual pies I had been baking lately started weighing me down. I found your letter in the mail box when I came home from picking up the girls at school. I started reading it, and as I was trying to concentrate on it, Kathryn started annoying me. I told her to go away and leave me in peace. She looked at me and asked, “Is Swamiji's letter stirring you up, Mummy?” I too wish I had Emma's and Kathryn's honesty and innocence, and no doubt I once had it, but a large amount of garbage has piled up from then to now, and the trouble is that instead of unloading that garbage in the open sea, I have been spreading it around right under people's noses and have expected people to say, “What a beautiful smell!” One strange thing is that some people actually like the smell!

 

  With my love,

  Edda

 

         As requested, Deb made some notes for me from the actual classes I missed. She felt they had gone very well. “We started off with talking of the meaning of restraint and observance in relation to all the specific characteristics, especially ahimsa and truthfulness... what is being restrained? what is observed? Our conclusion was that it is the smaller, ego assertion that is being restrained… and the existence of a larger unity that is being observed.”

         The class appreciated Nitya’s final paragraph in particular:

 

In the last days of Lord Buddha, he told his disciples: “Do not believe in a statement because it came from an ancient tradition. Do not believe because many believe. Do not believe because it is said by someone far more aged than you. Do not believe because somebody is threatening to kill you unless you believe. Diligently inquire, deeply ponder, and, if after careful examination, you are convinced of the irrefutability of the truth before you, accept it and stand by it.” This is probably what Patañjali also means: that you should adhere to truth at all costs.

 

Bill commented that Nitya's quote of the Buddha's last instructions are a kind of restraint/observance which direct all of us to become/be aware of truth in our lives. Mindfulness is a way to be open to truth, a practice where we are exposed to a larger view than merely our egoistic projections.

         Paul noted that there was a problem with the “apparent” duality between irrefutable existential truth of concrete aspects of our world, and the much less obvious absolute truth. Don’t we all wish that metaphysical truths were as plain as the berry sitting in the palm of our hand, about to be eaten? The rishis used just that analogy to highlight the bedrock certainty we are taught to uncover beneath the garbage strewn about on the surface of things.

         In the same vein, Eugene talked about his sister who is focused on “getting things done,” but “for Jesus.” In such situations there is a practical, existential aspect being directed by fantasies, though perhaps healthy ones in this case. This is extremely dangerous ground, however, wide open to manipulation by demagogues or our own half-baked thinking. Nitya’s advice to make “every effort” to penetrate potential falsehoods is especially critical in these cases, but doing so is contrary to religious convention, which insists on unquestioning acceptance. Because of the monumental pressures on us to conform, typically little or no effort is made to sift out the real pearls amid the muddy swill, and the results can be disastrous. I’m speaking in general, as I don’t know Eugene’s sister and I don’t know what more he said about her. Knowing him, we can guess she is likewise bright enough to not be easily fooled.

         The class agreed that our daily, transactional life is where we can realize and express truth, but the catch is we can get so caught up in doing we lose sight of truth. We need to be at a place of receptivity and openness, so that truth is visible to us and we are open to its reality, not just our personal, petty desires. Deb brought in Nataraja Guru's frames of reference: there is a smaller “truth” in many daily aspects of our lives, but there is a deeper, more encompassing absolute truth that is important to also be aware of, that is more unifying.

         I’ll close with one of the haikus I wrote in Nancy’s class in Ooty last week. Truth is not existence (sat or satyam) alone; we also have to be aware of it (chit) and it has to have some significance or value (ananda). So here is that classic definition in the shape of a haiku:

 

Something exists, you know

that it does, it has meaning—

saccidananda!

 

1/25/11

A retroactive class on the third restraint: asteya, non-misappropriativeness or not stealing.

 

         Steya not only means stealing, but can also refer to something clandestine or private. Nitya attributes the former fault to the latter mindset in his brief but pithy comments on asteya, non-stealing. We disrupt the prevailing harmony in various ways because we have learned to see ourselves as separate, broken off, and therefore adrift in a private shell.

         Here the translation of asteya is rendered as non-misappropriativeness, which seems to have raised the ire of the class, Deb in particular. Clunky as it is, it does have a valid reason for being. Stealing is far too limited a context, one that converts a spiritual instruction into a moral exhortation. The real sense is that you shouldn’t feel alienated from the totality, and if you do you will feel impelled to redistribute the part you are in contact with in your behalf. In that case you are wrongfully appropriating what rightfully belongs to a larger context. It is appropriate to not appropriate pieces of the universe, but simply to appreciate it.

         Asteya, then, is viewing everything as naturally in accord with the Absolute, and realizing we “have” it even when it is someone else’s. By being aware of it we are sharing in it too. In that sense everything is “ours” and so we are rich beyond anything we can imagine; rich “beyond the dreams of avarice” because we are liberated from the very attitude that produces avarice.

         I had never thought about the two shades of meaning in the word ‘appropriate’ before. As an adjective it means a thing is in its rightful place, but as a verb it means almost the opposite, that something is being taken, commandeered. And misappropriation and appropriation are essentially the same thing. Curious. So we are trying to come to an appropriate state by not coveting—not appropriating—anything that appears to be outside of us.

         I’ve mentioned before how Nitya would look at a flower or a sunset sometimes and say, “Aren’t I beautiful?” Usually we would be shocked and confused, wondering if he wasn’t an egomaniac in disguise. It turns out he was practicing asteya. Saying “Isn’t it beautiful?” subtly reinforces the assumption that the object in question is separate from us. Instead he was intentionally including it in his definition of himself. Asteya is a very practical yama, then. We can continually correct our separatist fantasies by adding unitive thoughts, reminding ourselves that all our universe is a play in our consciousness, and making every bit of it dear to our heart. It is an uplifting corrective to expand our psyche to include everything instead of shrinking back behind an entrenched line of defenses.

         The class used music as an example. When you hear someone play beautifully, you can be jealous and want to possess their talent, or you can simply appreciate what they do as part of your world, something that enriches and inspires you. You are grateful that they are providing you with something you would not have had otherwise.

         A complicating factor here is that in one sense we are possessed of everything, and in another sense we cannot subsist on someone else’s eating or breathing for us, for example. Nataraja Guru counseled us to keep our frames of reference straight, in particular not confusing the horizontal with the vertical. Universal participation is a vertical truth; individual needs lie in the horizontal parameter. If we mix them up we get in trouble.

         Deb recalled a humorous remark Peter O. made in 1971 about this. He and Deb had been listening to Nitya wax rhapsodic about how everyone is everything. This was in Varkala in 1971, which was a Spartan place indeed. The hard wooden beds were especially uncomfortable, not to mention the survivalist cuisine. Longing for a soft bed, Peter asked Deb after the talk, “Do you really think you are a comfortable mattress?” Poor Peter was trying to get over the feeling that he didn’t have something, but still found himself very much wanting the comfort, which was painfully absent. The horizontal can definitely pinch us hard, and it hurts. It is constantly drawing our attention away from universal truths and into painful, or pleasurable, immanent events.

         There is a famous Arab proverb regarding the frames of reference: “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel.” You are going to need it to carry you to the next oasis, no matter how much you love God.

         Susan wrote a bit about the class in a note to me, which I gratefully share:

 

We talked about how a person disturbs the balance of nature (in the words of the sutra: does violence to the harmonious setting of the world order) when they covet something that another has or can do. They also disturb this harmony when they do not realize that they already possess what another has because we are all one. It’s great when Nitya says, “if you think that you are void of any value that belongs to yourself that is a blindness of truth from which you suffer.” I didn’t understand this sentence at first and asked about it in class but now it seems a very important one. When you feel sad or mad or frustrated that you can’t do or have something, actually it is a blindness to truth. When I sit at the piano and feel frustrated that I can’t play like Angela Hewitt and why am I even bothering, this is looking at things in a very contorted way. But it is a way that our culture encourages. When a child sees something that his sister has, he wants that thing, even if it isn’t pleasant. How do you teach children about non-misappropriating? Or I guess it is unteaching them what they knew when they were born. In the womb children feel one with everything of course. Another way to think about a person’s putting up walls and being blind to truth is when they are very humble or self-deprecating. We have talked about this before. When I say that my piano playing is very bad or that I’m not doing anything with my life, I am not seeing the truth of being exactly where I am. Putting oneself down or wishing to be someone or something else is denying the divine in oneself. It is a self-consciousness that seems stuck once again in the ego.

 

So true! Our deferential attitudes are just as egotistical as those of the swaggering buffoons among us, only quieter and more socially acceptable. We need to “uphold the self by the self” by realizing our unitive nature, by not always trying to be someone or something else, greater or lesser. Becoming and being ourselves is a triumph of spiritual development. It means finding the balance between aggressively pushing out or self-effacingly pulling back. Such a neutral state is perfectly appropriate.

 

2/1/11

A retroactive class on the fourth restraint: brahmacharya, walking in the path of the Absolute.

 

         Brahmacharya means “walking the path of the Absolute.” Over the years it has taken on many stereotyped connotations as a kind of monkish life, but in the Gurukula we have a more open interpretation. To us, a life lived in reference to a central normative principle, a.k.a. the Absolute, is the real idea of the term.

         This led the class to the notion of dharma, which we also take in the original, uncorrupted sense. Where it has come to mean duty, the glorified following of rules, the Gurukula treats it as the “living and expression of our innate nature,” as Deb put it in her note to me. She goes on, “Our nature is that of the Absolute, but for each of us the manifestation is different. The tree's dharma is to grow like a tree. Each of us ‘flowers’ in our own beautiful, particular way to express the ultimate universality. Dharma is the structure, the law, the unfolding of each of us.”

         Elsewhere Nitya speaks of brahmacharya as chastity, in the sense of purity of intent. Its opposite, vyabhicharya, prostitution, we may take in the way we say “selling out,” or trading in your ideals for practicalities. Chastity and prostitution are to be understood in a much larger sense than merely referring to sex, more in relation to truth or honesty. That’s why Deb said, “Brahmacharya is an attitude and practice for everyone, throughout our entire lives. A constant practice of recognition and rededication.”

         Nitya describes our lives as beginning with immediate concerns and gradually evolving to a cosmic perspective: “As years pass, the horizon of value interests expands from the here and now consideration to the eternal. The expansion intends to bring within it the good of all.” If there is such a thing as a path in spirituality, it is by no means linear. The “path” is a multidimensional one of evolution in many directions at once.

         One thing that is often overlooked in relation to brahmacharya is the idea that spiritual “failure,” if such is even conceivable, means prostituting your inner self. Or say, failing to remain in tune with your inner self, and so allowing it to wither from disuse. This happens when we are drawn away from it by superficial attractions. As Nitya says, “The restraints given by Patanjali include brahmacharya to caution the aspirant that there are false paths and temptations from which you should recoil.”

         I don’t know if the class explored this, but it’s worth a look now. If we visualize life as a continuous expansion to the infinite, whatever causes us to stop growing, or worse yet shrink, is vyabhicharya. I’m not talking about plateaus or minor dips, where we consolidate a growth spurt and prepare for the next ascent, but real dead ends and retreats that don’t further our development at all. We could provide thousands of examples, but the essential exercise is for each yogi to examine their own life and figure out which impediments they are giving in to. Freeing ourselves from impediments is what makes the yogi’s life worth living.

         As we grow, we are surrounded with a cloud of unknowing. Unless we have full faith in some enlightened teacher or viable system—and that is rare enough in the modern world, with most of them falling into the category of “false paths and temptations”—we have to admit that we are unsure of our way forward. If we are fearful in our uncertainty, we will quite naturally hold back and keep up our guard. Instead we have to develop a cheerful bravery that dares to go forward into the unknown, so that we won’t be afraid to question and learn. That’s the practical meaning of brahmacharya.

         Vyabhicharya, then, covers our juvenile needs to be protected and guided by someone else. Adulthood is only achieved when we take over the reins of our life and step out on our own. As Nitya suggests, there are many, many forms of continuing bondage, many of them masquerading as tools of liberation, that we cling to in our insecurity. The yogi is advised to see them as traps. Snares. Snares and delusions, even.

 

         Nitya likens brahmacharya to the chant from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that we now use in the Portland Gurukula: “Lead me from untruth to truth, from darkness to light, and from death to immortality.” What we are calling on for this transformation is unspecified, so as not to be limited in any way. It is both an inner resourcefulness and an invitation to whatever external influences are available to us. Having fixed notions invariably excludes more than it includes. The outside of any circle or sphere is infinite, while the inside must be finite. Our sphere should continually pulsate from finite to infinite and back again. We use the term 'Absolute' precisely because it is not limited. "Walking in the way of the Absolute" or brahmacharya is an unlimited proposition.

 

         For anyone interested in more on the subject of brahmacharya, you can go to my Gita commentary, VI, 14.

 

2/8/11

The fifth restraint: aparigraha – non-acquisitiveness.

 

         Bodily back from India, but not yet mentally, I joined a lovely class featuring everyone who’s still on board—a rarity!—plus Eugene’s friend Elliot. The best part of many good parts was the ease with which most everyone offered their thoughts. Because of the efforts we have made over the years, “inhibitions to creative catharsis” are less pronounced than ever.

         Due to my fuzzy-mindedness, I can only present a vague recapitulation of our dialogue. An important aspect was that we become acquisitive because our egos take on the role of protector and supplier of our bodily needs. In the process we lose sight of the benign nurturing of the universe. The competitive stress of society further undermines our faith in a sustaining harmony, and impels us to join in a bitter struggle for existence.

         Non-acquisitiveness, then, is the letting go of our anxiety about, and nervous planning for, the future. We replace the fear with a confidence grounded in our personal experience and our connection with the Absolute. As Narayana Guru assures us in his Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction, verse 66: “Food and all such [necessities] always come again as a matter of course.” Hasn’t it been true for our whole lives so far?

         Jan hit the nail right on the head, wondering how this fits in with striving. Does it mean we shouldn’t try, or what? Not at all, but this is truly a subtle aspect of yoga study. I can’t do better than pull out a few paragraphs from That Alone, Nitya’s commentary on the selfsame verse 66:

 

We have to keep in mind the imperativeness of the need for food. There is no concession made here. Whether it is the little ant, the bird, the fisherman or the executive of a big industry, the imperative is the same for all. Each needs its own daily nourishment. We also have to take into account the chance factor governing the fulfillment of that need. The necessity which initiates action is almost mechanically rigid, and we cannot bargain with it. The world where fulfillment is to be found is very unpredictable. No one can say exactly where the ant will find the crumb of bread, where the bird will find the worm or where the fisherman will catch his fish. Yet while these are all unpredictable, the net result is that every day nearly everyone is eating three, four or even more times a day.

There are three elements here for us to take into consideration. One is the area of absolute necessity, where there is no concession. The second is the field of the operation of chance, and the third is the fulfillment that needs to be attained. A chance has to come in a way that is favorable for a link with another chance and then another and another, until fulfillment is reached. The net result of the fulfillment is satisfaction, but in between is panic and anguish—the pain and frustration of the search. Here Narayana Guru uses the term ira, which conveys the idea that one has the dire necessity to eat and then finds the counterpart: whatever is to be eaten….

The paradox or dichotomy involved only comes up when we conceive of transcendence as separate from phenomenal existence, but he doesn’t see it that way. In the third verse he showed us that we have to conceive of the whole thing as a treasury of oceanic depth from which waves of phenomenality arise. The waves are not different from the ocean. In this verse he says the world of necessity that makes you pass through all these phenomenal bumps—the imperative need, the search and the fulfillment—is an eternal game that goes on and on. It has always been like that, and it will always be like that. But there is also a changeless reality which does not come and go, and it is the same as the knowledge in which the whole game takes place. They are not in any way separate things. It is within your knowledge you feel a need, within it you make your calculations as you go in search. The knowledge itself makes you gamble, take risks and have faith that what you seek will be provided and that somehow you will find it. The whole process, including its fulfillment, is all happening within knowledge.

The Guru says that that which is constant in all moods and changes is knowledge, arivu. The variables are the need, the search and the fulfillment; the constant is knowledge. He has already described knowledge as the Self: that knowledge which resides in the dark and knows by its own light is the Self, and not anything other than that. This is the constant, arivu.

He goes on to say we are That. He maintains we don’t have to draw a line between ourselves and someone else, carefully delineating each one’s territory….

How does this verse help us? We are subjected to various kinds of necessities in life. When we focus our attention on the world of necessity, there is a time factor which comes in between the beginning of our search and the moment of its fulfillment. The interim period is filled with a lot of effort and anticipation. Anticipation is not lived in a vacuum, it is filled with anxiety since we are not sure of the results. We are uncertain of the possibility, because probability and improbability are always vying with each other.

All our living moments are crowded with the intentionality of our consciousness. If we are always attached to intentionality, the peace, serenity and joy we look for are constantly being pushed away. In a sense, then, meaning is being transferred from the present to the future. We often speak of living here and now, but we don’t realize the almost impossible pressure on us to not live in the present. We are always being made to wait, to look for, to expect, to anticipate. Half the time of our life is wasted in looking for and waiting for something to happen. If we can only establish a firm stand on the constant ground the Guru speaks of—the arivu or knowledge—our attachment and intentionality regarding the phenomenal world becomes a secondary interest. Our primary interest then becomes witnessing the game of life in the present moment.

To enjoy the game of life we don’t just have to act out plans…. This is a very subtle thing. If you understand it, it makes a real difference in your life. You do and you do not do. You perform everything you are doing now and yet, at the same time, you do not do anything.

 

Having already written about non-possessiveness in my Gita commentary (IV, 21), I boldly reproduce it here:

 

One of the key points that makes Nataraja Guru’s translation superior to all others is found in this verse. The word aparigraha is universally translated as giving up all possessions, but he translates it as giving up all possessiveness. What a world of difference in that slight alteration! For thousands of years sincere seekers have been giving up their possessions, imagining it opened some magical doorway to realization. But the possessions themselves are by and large irrelevant. It’s the sense of wanting to possess that needs to be overcome, which is a far more profound and complex matter.

Aparigraha is an interesting word. A means not. Pari means universally, round, about (in space and time), in the direction of. Graha means to seize or grasp for. So aparigraha means non-grasping, not always trying to seize everything around in the space-time continuum. Not trying to make everything your own. As the Isa Upanishad says, “Whose is wealth? Renounce and enjoy.” We participate even in the enjoyment of our neighbors having something we might otherwise covet. If we’re all in this together, why not?

Nataraja Guru calls practices like giving up possessions to achieve a nongrasping mentality “opening the door from the hinge side,” in other words, using physical means to bring about psychological changes. It is nearly impossible to do away with possessiveness by merely giving up possessions, many of which might even make the process simpler. Religious cults often collect all the material (and monetary) goods of their participants, using this (mis)translation as their scriptural justification. Refugees from these cults frequently discover that the poverty they have embraced has thrown them into a basic struggle for existence that makes finding peace much more difficult.

On page 403 of Love and Blessings, Nitya Chaitanya Yati offers guidelines for living in an ashram as a dedicated seeker. The last entry gives a clear sense of the meaning of aparigraha: “Let one have no material possession which is too dear to part with, especially in a situation where sharing is more beautiful than possessing. However, let one not be deprived of anything for which one has a natural right simply because one is weak or insensitive to its value.”

Taking scriptures literally is perilous. Words take on different meanings over time, and there are often many ways to translate the same word. One needs to dig down to the meaning the words are attempting to convey. This is one of the valuable aspects of “searching questioning,” as recommended in verse 34 below. By contrast, many religions consider questioning to be a sign of loss of faith and a threat to their domination.

Possessiveness is an extension of wanting to manipulate circumstances for one’s own benefit. When the advice of this section is put into practice, when we aim for the good of the whole world rather than exclusively our own, the pressure eases off of its own accord, nearly effortlessly, like opening a door by the handle in Nataraja Guru’s analogy.

 

Coincidentally, I finish this verse commentary with some relevant advice about striving:

 

Lastly, this verse suggests we should engage “merely bodily” in actions. It’s easy to take this wrong and think we should act mindlessly, like automatons, and all the time no less. A recipe for God’s Zombie Army. What the Gita is trying to say in its cryptic language is that our minds and hearts should be directed toward contemplative matters, and that action is primarily used to support the needs of the body. The body is viewed as a platform for meditation and union with the divine, and as such it should be maintained in good order. But it is not to be considered an end in itself, since that draws energy away from more subtle and rewarding pursuits.

Again, this advice is best applied to periods of contemplation. There is no reason to hold back on artistic engagement with mundane matters, which beautifies and embroiders life. Delicate cooking, decorative environments, spine-tingling lovemaking, and enlightening conversation, among many other things, are not to be ruled out. A very few people are happiest with fulltime contemplation, but for most of us it is just one part of a well-rounded life. Engagement with the divine infuses our everyday activities with intensity and expertise, while in turn horizontal activities provide the field of expression for those very qualities. Arjuna is a case in point. When he wanted to chuck it all and become a hermit, Krishna called him back to his life, in which he is a stalwart upholder of solid, everyday values.

 

Deb looked for a poem which she couldn’t find, tackling the same subtle sense of our motivations. Here it is:

 

AN HORATIAN NOTION - Thomas Lux

 

The thing gets made, gets built, and you're the slave

who rolls the log beneath the block, then another,

then pushes the block, then pulls a log

from the rear back to the front

again and then again it goes beneath the block,

and so on. It's how a thing gets made — not

because you're sensitive, or you get genetic-lucky,

or God says: Here's a nice family,

seven children, let's see: this one in charge

of the village dunghill, these two die of buboes, this one

Kierkegaard, this one a drooling

 

nincompoop, this one clerk, this one cooper.

You need to love the thing you do — birdhouse building,

painting tulips exclusively, whatever — and then

you do it

so consciously driven

by your unconscious

that the thing becomes a wedge

that splits a stone and between the halves

the wedge then grows, i.e., the thing

is solid but with a soul,

a life of its own. Inspiration, the donnée,

 

the gift, the bolt of fire

down the arm that makes the art?

Grow up! Give me, please, a break!

You make the thing because you love the thing

and you love the thing because someone else loved it

enough to make you love it.

And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

toward the earth's core.

And with that your heart on a beam burns

through the ionosphere.

And with that you go to work.

 

I do apologize for not including more of our discussions, though they ran parallel to what I’ve pasted in here. In my mind I can see everyone talking, but I’m not confident I could reproduce their words with any accuracy. It is very gratifying to take these seedlike Sanskrit terms and flesh them out with real understanding, for which I extend to everyone my heartfelt appreciation. Aum.

 

2/15/11

Sutra II:31

Not conditioned by class, place, time, or occasion, the universal restraints constitute the great vow.

 

         Here we have yet another sutra that looks like an unimportant link between two sections, something to read quickly and pass on. But Nitya’s comments fling these words across the stars, converting them into a major teaching expression with incredibly uplifting implications. Without the connections he makes the individual yamas would be much less significant. The principle Nitya reveals in this sutra is the uniting link between the five distinct restraints, which can then be read as covering every possibility of outwardly directed spirituality.

         I get the sense that the entire book is building to a climax. It started with some difficult and even daunting chapters, leaving many of us wondering what the point was. Now our hard work is coming to fruition. Not only is the subject matter more accessible, Nitya’s interpretations are attaining a high level of sublimity. The excitement it engenders was throbbing through the class, with terrific insights offered by many participants, while the quiet ones were drinking in the atmosphere, unwilling to break the spell by opening their mouths.

         We began by pondering the difference between restraints and observances, which on close inspection overlap considerably. In a sense Nitya’s commentary reveals the synthesis of their dialectic. If we treat them as religious or philosophical injunctions they become a form of closed spirituality, whereas if they spring from a natural appreciation of the oneness of everything, their expression is spontaneous and joyful. Nitya makes it clear that following rules makes for a hodgepodge of minor vows, but acting from a state of realization of unity is the great vow, however it may be enunciated by wise preceptors.

         An example of what this means is that it is one thing to not hurt another because of fear of punishment by legal authorities in the present or eternal damnation in a religious future, and it is another to sincerely not want to cause pain regardless of the rules. The yogi does not hurt, or tries hard not to hurt, because they know that the other is just like them. They have empathy for others’ feelings. Of course, unless you live in a vacuum you will cause hurts as the normal consequence of bumping up against your neighbor. Some bumps are even justified.

         Even the best of gurus sometimes cause pain. John Spiers in Guru the Unknown notes of the guru-disciple relationship: “The situation is entirely free; there is no taint of blind belief on one side or autocratic tyranny on the other. Indeed a certain outspokenness, which does not mince words, and which may even transgress the bounds of what is “respectable” usage, in the hypocrisy of the relativist, may also be present. Clearcut truth may shock the conditioning of the disciple.” As we have often pointed out, the physician may have to inflict discomfort to ward off even greater problems in the long run. Or as Nataraja Guru put it in his Gita introduction, “a bad disease needs a drastic remedy.”

         Nitya shares with us the absolute principle at the core of Vedanta: “the unity of the one Self that is in the heart of all.” When you are conscious of oneness, all the other virtues rise to the surface as a natural consequence. The Semitic religions that form the basis of Western civilization treat individuals as born sinners who have to be pounded into proper shape by severe handling. Diametrically opposed to it is the Oriental vision that we are all the Absolute in essence. In that there is no need to alter the person, rather the impetus is to remove the stumbling blocks which hinder the free expression of each person’s innate beauty. The first and most direct result is overwhelming kindness, which is the motivation for ahimsa.

         Paul made several very thoughtful contributions, including one in particular that really sparked some reflection. This past week he read the Spiers book, where the Swami insists that all consciousness is conditioned. This invited the question, if this is true, how can we ever know unity, which is by definition unconditioned? Does this throw us into inescapable morass of multiplicity? If not, how do we access that core awareness, and since most of us already accept it, how did we come to it? This is a very important issue, because a clichéd concept of oneness not only leads to spiritual egotism, it pollutes the entire field. Walk into any New Age bookstore and the pollution chokes you. Peddling spiritual clichés may be good business, but it is very poor at promoting psychological progress. We learn far more by doubting and questioning than by curling up in a comfortable and familiar lap. Spiers writes, in the same paragraph quoted above, “Self-realization and wisdom come through the direct intuitional awareness of the prepared and serious student-seeker who is capable of following the model way set by the Guru, after long and serious discussion—like the questions and answers in the Upanishads or in the Bhagavad Gita.”

         We invited everyone to share why they held the core belief of the unity of all things, and what shape it took. As with all questions that go to the heart of the matter, there were few ready answers. Each was busy pondering why indeed that was the case. Could this whole study be just a charade, a fool’s detour into tangential indulgences? Or does it evince something real.

         Those of us who have had successful psychedelic experiences can remember the moment when our brains lit up with the realization that we are all one, because it is an irrefutable fact of that state. I vividly recall even after four decades my doubts circling out and back like boomerangs, utterly defeated by the soaring certitude of universal connectedness on all sides. Later I came to see oneness as a scientific and philosophical truth as well, but the basis of the whole edifice stems from those glorious moments when the entire brain was firing harmoniously.

         Several people talked about the proof in the pudding: that by accepting the testimony of a wise seer, usually Nitya in many of our cases, their lives changed gradually yet dramatically for the better. Oneness was accepted initially as a hypothesis, which then proved itself to be valid by its efficacy to convert a frazzled soul into a coherent witness with a measure of self-control. As Nitya understated at the very beginning of his comments, “A life without adherence to law and discipline can be very chaotic.” Many of us know very well how that chaos feels. Let's not forget that he is talking about inner laws, not externally imposed ones, either.

         Charles made the excellent point that while we insist on this “great vow” arising from our inner certitude, we often have to have some external inspiration to come to it. For most it isn’t available through popping a pill. We are taught by something “beyond” us how to see, and then we practice what we’ve learned until our eyes begin to open. Hopefully we keep going until they are wide open, but I’m afraid that a glimpse of the light is usually sufficient. Mostly we take little peeks on rare occasions, but even these can have a positive impact. As Paul said, we pulsate from stupid to awake and back to stupid, and that seems to be how we learn in actuality. This is a more realistic view than the one from the best-loved stories, where a seer bursts into full awareness and remains there forever. The game of life is to dress ourselves in veils and experience the relief of pulling them off every so often. And isn’t that what the Absolute itself is doing, eon after eon?

         John was put off by all our glowing accounts of how uplifting the infusion of oneness has been for us. He wanted us to remember that there was plenty of pain in life too, and obviously he’s right. We are not Pollyannas with our head in the sand; we are people who have suffered tremendously. Usually though, we have a harder time accepting that upside of life than the downside. We either fasten onto misery or find ways to blot it out with distractions. Neither of these is the yogic way. The rare state is to minimize the suffering while not simply closing the mind to it. For the most part, yoga does not eliminate problems; it teaches us how to stop compounding them with our own exaggerations, and that can make a lot of difference all by itself.

         John said he hadn’t found prayer to be of any use, except maybe to make him feel better. There didn’t seem to be any divine being interested in the outcome of anything. That’s right. Since we are the Absolute, we are the ones who care, who are interested, and all the rest. Who suffer. Who are filled with love. There isn’t anything else. We are it. So we shouldn’t imagine that what we do doesn’t matter. Everything that matters is what we do, and everyone who cares is us too. This is one of the key implications of tat tvam asi, the assertion that you are the Absolute. We shouldn’t abnegate our lives in the misguided notion that some glowing being presiding over a remote heaven remains unaffected. Every life is crucially important, because it touches all of us.

         The Bible has these same truths, but as Paul said it has been twisted around until they have been forgotten. Nowhere more than in respect to the oneness of all. Take for instance Matt. 25: 40 and 45, where our interconnectedness is presented dialectically. Jesus said, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” And “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.”

         Thanks to Susan, we will close with a relevant excerpt from Nitya’s original That Alone 5 meditation, the one that isn’t in the book but you get when you ask me to send it to you. It elaborates Charles’ idea that our concepts are symbols that we use for guidance; that we don’t just pull this stuff out of our innards, but can be led to it by our feelings, or say our intuition:

 

         Today’s meditation is to seek to go back to this light, which is always shining within. Become constantly aware of that, and see that it has no beginning and no end. It is witnessing, the witness within you. There is a great discipline lying in it. You need only your peripheral mind to tend to all the external functions. The core can go on continuously shining as the unchanging cause. Notice, watch and witness all the changes going on and also remain as the unchanging.

         I don’t know how God thinks, how God sees, but I’m very familiar with how my Guru looked at things and how he evaluated them. When I think, do, behave, I see his watchful eye over me. I can hear within me his whisperings of caution. I know what he approves of and does not approve of. This is what happens when one intensely accepts within oneself the dharma of the Buddha, the way of the living Christ, the all-seeing eye of Allah. You are here in reciprocation with the powerful director of your life. You have an owner to your life, a Lord. You are no more an orphan, you are properly parented. Let us become rich with this feeling today, and let the whole day be a coming back to your center again and again, and relating that center to all that you deal with.

 

This does not have to be read as calling us to make ourselves small, but is a time-honored technique for making us appreciative and brave enough to truly be ourselves.

 

Part II

Brenda wrote a lovely appreciation of oneness, including what makes it slip from our attention, something we touched upon in class but didn’t make the earlier notes. Thanks, Brenda! And let this stand as an invitation to all you spectators, to look into your own motivations and share what you can with the rest of us.

 

For me the One is represented by selfless service. When one gets out of the way and allows for an expansive process to unfold. This can be experienced during any activity. When one takes the ego out of the process without fanfare it leaves one with the delightful awareness of all as the One.

 

Whether one engages in meditation in sitting, or through activity in assisting others in need, the awareness I bring to my activities is that I am a conduit, and through me divine energy flows, which connects me to the One.

 

I embrace that this process of life is a natural one, and that a connectivity to the One is always palpable. I too look to Nature, in that I am a part of Nature and my small life reflects the cycle of Nature, and that I too have a Spring, Sumer, Fall and then Winter which leads me inevitably to a death of the body, in that also, is the One.

 

I find it harder to have compassion for the rude, sensation driven motley minded miscreants who have an overdeveloped sense of self importance, without thinking of others, those who have an inflated sense of entitlement, and who work themselves up into a froth of negation. This weakness in myself separates me from the One, and my prejudices separate me from the One. In my reaction to others, or tolerance of unpleasant manifestations in others, there is a shrinking of that expansive feeling and an unwillingness to share, in other words, I am aware of the work I have to do so that I have an even mindedness. This awareness in myself calls me to a clear, honest and benevolent look within myself. Perhaps my judgments are what separate me and create that withholding, even though I am aware of this tendency in myself. The fear of being judged creates a shrinking feeling, and the expansive mind and heart seem to be obscured.

 

Part III

         I’m reminded of Peter M’s experience giving a talk in Kerala one time. As he enthusiastically elucidated sublime point after point, he began to wonder how much of it his Malayalam-speaking audience was really getting. So he chose a universal experience and asked, “How many of you have ever ridden on a bus? Please raise your hand if you have ever ridden on a bus.” Not a single hand went up, so he realized he was performing a pantomime rather than a disquisition. Similarly, I expected some rebuttals of John Spiers’ assertion that all consciousness is conditioned, but my mailbox is empty this morning. I talked about the idea in class, and in the interest of completeness I wish to add something here too.

         Probably the wording should be, “all ordinary consciousness is conditioned.” But how is the Absolute attained if not in an unconditioned state of consciousness, in which even the word ‘state’ is out of place? As Bill reminded us, the cessation of mental modifications, the initial proposition of Patanjali’s Yoga, brings about samadhi, the sameness that transcends conditioning. In the Gita, ordinary consciousness is seen to be subject to the three conditioning gunas, but Arjuna is advised to be free of all of them. In Mount Analogue, Rene Daumal proposes that the spiritual mountain must rise above conditioning to pierce the sky. He writes, “‘For a mountain to play the role of Mount Analogue,’ I concluded, ‘its summit must be inaccessible, but its base accessible to human beings as nature has made them. It must be unique, and it must exist geographically. The door to the invisible must be visible.’” (34)

         Without some kind of continuum linking us to the Absolute, the spiritual search would be a fool’s game. That is why we are clearly instructed at the beginning that we are the Absolute, tat tvam asi. Within all our conditioning—good and bad—is a core or kernel of unconditioned truth.

         Paul’s point is nonetheless very well taken, because we are easily fooled by conditioned versions of the Absolute. The Upanishads compare these ubiquitous tawdry imitations to a cheesy sun-image that floats in front of the sun and is worshipped as though it were the actual sun itself. We have to ruthlessly cut such things down to reveal the unconditioned version they conceal. What is left when all conditionings have been discarded is the Absolute we seek.

         If we resign ourselves to the plausible falsehood that the unconditioned state is not accessible to us, we will accept all kinds of claptrap with a temporary, superficial appeal. And that’s what we see on all sides. It is a real challenge to accept that we are imprisoned in a sea of conditioned perception and not lose heart. It often seems there is no escape, so we grasp at the straws of sun-images instead of holding out for the real deal.

         Within the maelstrom of widespread conditioning, the message and example of the truly unconditioned are there to console us. And we don’t have to go far to find them. The Spiers book Paul was reading reveals how amazing our own Narayana Guru was, for instance. Though still underappreciated by the greater world, and even within the Gurukula itself, he was one of the giants of human history. Reading about his achievements as an unconditioned human being, it is impossible not to be inspired. He has been turned into a golden sun disk all over South India, his picture beaming out from every altar and advertising poster, but we honor him truly when we take his teachings to heart and learn how to slough off our own limitations.

 

2/22/11

Sutra II:32

Purity, contentment, self-purification, self-study, and continuous contemplation on Isvara are the observances (niyama).

 

         A rollicking class fueled by three delicious desserts launched us into the first of the niyamas, sauca or purity, though we remain hazy on the difference between restraints and observances. Our conclusion is that the exact classification is not particularly important, since every one of the ten categories has both an inwardly-directed aspect and an outwardly-directed one, and both should be contemplated on.

         Suiting action to the word, we followed Nitya’s example and first talked about the external side of purity. My feeling was that in this commentary Nitya was talking to a roomful of young men, and laying down the basics of hygiene for those who felt that the Gurukula atmosphere was a great excuse to ignore cleanliness. Most of us in the class, being older, have for a long time been scrupulous in cleaning up, so this was old hat. Still, we unearthed some revelations.

         Jan related how in her family the kitchen was considered sterile and off-limits except for strictly regimented occasions. This may explain why as an adult she has been leery of kitchen cleanup, treating it almost as a kind of punishment. It isn’t so much the tasks as the hangover of dread about the place. As I think it was Susan pointed out, her childhood kitchen was treated as though it was unclean, even though it was sterile and immaculate, since it was forbidden territory.

         Some of us remembered that because of our upbringing, we had deep-seated beliefs that cleaning up, folding our laundry and so on, was almost like a technique for salvation. We were endlessly praised for doing cleanup jobs and scolded for messiness, and so as adults we unconsciously feel like we are being spiritual by doing our mundane chores. Actually, those feelings do make the work more pleasant, and shouldn’t be considered faults, unless (and this does often happen) they become compulsive. If we are anxious or neurotic we may feel that keeping things clean is the high road to happiness, and we set ourselves an endless series of tasks to try to produce an exalted state of mind. The class admitted that cleaning and straightening did have a small but noticeably positive effect on our state of mind. There is certainly some satisfaction in a job well done. But Patanjali must have had something more profound in mind when he included sauca as one of the observances, in the rarified company of tapas and continuous contemplation on Isvara!

         Patanjali calls us to look to our inner impurities and see how we can purify them. But before presenting examples, I want to repeat Deb’s important caveat. An excessive attention to purity can easily become a “holier than thou” attitude, one more excuse to separate and divide, and a prime example of spiritual snobbery. There is little that is more off-putting in spiritual life than someone who has withdrawn into isolation because contact with the outside world would pollute their delicate mental state, but then who is willing to come out of isolation to point out your failings. Sure, we want to arrange our lives to allow quiet, peaceful stretches for contemplation, but we also have to be able to thrive in what Nitya always called the marketplace. Too much sterility makes us vulnerable to infections we haven’t developed immunities to.

         The height of the folly of excessive purity—well, one of the heights anyway—is the longstanding brahminic separation from other castes in India, where non-brahmins are treated as unclean, and therefore untouchable. Such segregation happens under many guises all over the world, and is a tremendous source of pain and misery. And of course it cuts both ways. So like pretty much everything, moderation in respect to purity is what is called for. If we see our fellow beings as a threat or even simply as foreign to us, that is an impurity we should deal with immediately. Sequestering ourselves is not a form of purity, it is a symptom of impurity.

         So some examples. When we started to look into sauca as an intellectual observance, it began to look a lot like satya, truth. It turns out impurity and falsehood are pretty much the same thing.

         As with all of this study, we welcome examples sent in by anyone at any time. The class itself was just warming to the idea when we brought it to a close, so I'm sure there are more out there.

         I started off borrowing the example I use in my Gita commentary, where purity is an aspect of wisdom listed in XIII, 7. Elaine Pagels was part of a team studying the unorthodox Nag Hammadi scrolls found in Egypt. Discoveries like the scrolls were often hushed up or quietly shelved by those with a stake in Christianity as they imagine it to be. In other words, religious beliefs are an impurity that can block scholarship. But Pagels was pure enough, unattached enough, to recognize and promote the finds, with the result that a vast field of new appreciation has opened up. To quote myself, “Her work has led to an avalanche of fresh and valuable perspectives on the human history of the planet.”

         Another example is, you go to a therapist for help with a problem. If the therapist is pure, they will be fully present to listen to your complaints and offer advice based on your needs. But therapists have impurities, like everyone else. They may be thinking of an argument they had with their spouse earlier, or an issue with their teenage son or daughter. They could be inwardly fuming, or conversely, they may want very much to save the world one patient at a time. They undoubtedly have training that places different kinds of people in distinct categories, that may or may not match anyone exactly. All those “impurities” have an effect on how accurately they address your complaint.

         Therapists, like scientists and religious people, and I suppose all of us, have our accustomed perspectives and beliefs, and these are all forms of impurity to a yogi. Because we are accustomed to them, we don’t even notice them unless we stop and do a careful self-assessment.

         Charles talked about James Joyce’s idea of pure and impure art. Joyce felt that art should be neutral, above being used to manipulate people. He divided impure art into two, propaganda and pornography. The first attempts to manipulate the intellect and the second the emotions. Charles added in a note today, “In the classic German film from the Weimar Republic era, The Blue Angel, the professor and the show girl personify the two types of impure art: the didactic and the pornographic.”

         Of course, the notion of “pure art,” like pure anything, is fraught with serious problems, unless we think of it as a goal rather than a fait accompli. Everything manifested is ineluctably impure to some extent. Even Ivory Soap is only 99 44/100 percent pure. One of the paradoxes here, at least as far as advaita (nondualism) is concerned is that trying to be pure is an impure motivation. Yes, we can try to keep our car repaired and our house clean, but in the more subtle realms there has to be a different approach. Art is the perfect example: whatever you try for pollutes the project, by interposing an abstract idea into the middle of the pure act, and yet without some motivation nothing will happen. There won’t even be any bad art. Art is a case where our knowledge and state of mind naturally infuse what we do, and all the more so if we don't add any intentional pressure to it one way or another.

         One more very important thing to remember is that purity is a process. It is how we clear the junk out of our way on a regular basis. We should never imagine that we have become pure and that’s the end of it. That would be a perfect example of the pride that cometh before a fall. Nothing could be less pure than imagining that we are pure, unless it’s being satisfied with or proud of our impurities. Anne recalled the Isa Upanishad’s teaching that ignorant people live in darkness, but knowledgeable people live in even greater darkness. That’s because if you think you already know, your mind will be closed to new input. If you think you're pure, you won't bother to scrub off your impurities.

         We get stuck in attitudes like that because we unconsciously believe that we have to be perfect in order to be acceptable to our parents or our gods. This is again a hangover from childhood: the only safe place is to not screw up, else we’ll be punished. So we desperately want to be pure, to be above criticism. And pretty soon we define ourselves that way, regardless of the facts.

         Which brings up the last example, for now anyway. As parents we have certain fixed notions on how to raise our kids. For most of recent history it has been “spare the rod and spoil the child,” in other words, whack 'em for their own good. Then there was “kids can do no wrong,” so indulge their every whim. Neither of these covers all the possibilities, and they are impure to the extent that they place a framework over a situation instead of seeing it for what it is. I well remember being shocked that my darling girls had actually been horrible in school, so my attitude that all faults belonged to someone else turned out to have been impure. I learned to accept that even my little angels could be devils. And I definitely recall the flip side, when I was beaten for things I had not done, because my father was programmed to hit instead of investigate. Or I was severely chastised when a gentle word of correction would have been enough. Every incidence, positive or negative, leaves a wound.

         We live in an impure world where we know only a little about the events that engulf us, and even less about events on the periphery. The yogi acknowledges that there is always more to know, that our program of life is never a finished product. And Vedanta dares to admit that this is not only okay, it is essential. There is no cowering before an angry god, intolerant of our impurity. Instead we laugh at the cosmic joke of being partially aware beings in an unknowable universe. Then we can help each other make our way instead of helping an imaginary angry god inflict actual punishment.

 

 

3/8/11

The second niyama is santosha, contentment.

 

         At first blush, simple contentment seems a rather trivial observance next to the other four, all of which are much more “yoga-like,” but as we delved into its implications the class began to appreciate its importance, raising its status to a full partnership with the rest. Spiritual contentment goes far beyond mere creature comfortableness.

         Right off the bat several of us intuitively compared contentment with balanced weighing scales, which turned out to be the perfect analogy. Nitya uses one of the favorite Gurukula terms in his commentary, equipoise, and a scale in balance is the protolinguistic symbol for it.

         The process of weighing, which until very recently was performed exclusively on a balance scale, is at the root of equipoise, poise, and ponder, among other words, and our conclusions miss the mark precisely to the degree that two sides of any equation are out of balance. The image is an excellent one for any meditation in which we weigh our options.

         The efficiency with which the group honed in on scales as a defining image was reminiscent of the democratic decision-making championed in the book The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki, where he amply demonstrates the ability of a diverse group to arrive at an insight collectively, where each individual in the group is far less able to. (Also ruled out are groups where the herd instinct prevails, in which the members are subject to manipulation by a leader; and also groups of “experts,” who tend to clump together around a particular preselected viewpoint. The evidence Surowiecki presents against experts ratifies the Isha Upanishad’s claim that those who worship knowledge live in the greatest darkness.) The book’s conclusion supports the Bhagavad Gita’s emphasis on becoming independent in order to be optimally beneficial to both yourself and others:

 

Diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus and compromise. An intelligent group, especially when confronted with cognition problems, does not ask its members to modify their positions in order to let the group reach a decision everyone can be happy with. Instead, it figures out how to use mechanisms—like market prices, or intelligent voting systems—to aggregate and produce collective judgments that represent not what any one person in the group thinks but rather, in some sense, what they all think. Paradoxically, the best way for a group to be smart is for each person in it to think and act as independently as possible. (xix-xx) (emphasis mine)

 

To a yogi this isn’t as paradoxical as it might appear to someone conditioned to conformity. The more independent of conditioning we are, the more we are alive to our inner vision or our ability to comprehend. And when we try to please others through imitation, we are loading up on a form of conditioning, training ourselves to be obedient rather than creative.

         So, back to our balance scales. Yogic contentment is resistant to the battering of outer and inner turmoil alike. Not that the scales don’t ever tip, but that they are brought back as quickly as possible into equipoise. The Gurus and Patanjali agree that equalizing opposites mentally brings a steady state, samadhi. Nataraja Guru goes so far as to claim that doing so “reveals the Absolute.” Contentment occurs when the scales are balanced, and discontent or dissatisfaction is an indicator of imbalance or injustice. Santosha is thus a result of a dynamic synthesis, and is not a mere pose. Posing is usually fake, forced; and false cheerfulness is readily detected by others, especially those who are suffering. What’s worse, our hearts can easily distinguish between true contentment and a hopeful veneer of it. What we long for is genuine contentment, true balance.

         Several people argued, however, that by adopting and radiating an attitude of contentment it not only was nice for other people, but it helped you to learn it yourself, and this is true. Most of the related psychological experiments have been done with smiling and frowning, but they aren’t too far from contentment and discontent. Smiling has been shown to produce a state of happiness, and frowning the reverse, as if our bodies were the causal origin and the emotion merely the effect. Some recent studies used botox to temporarily paralyze the forehead muscles that are activated by frowning, and the subjects then literally could not comprehend negative ideas. Being unable to frown made them much less capable of negative thinking. So sure, you can adopt a pose of contentment and it will have many benefits. But yoga is something else again. It aims for a relation to truth that is wholly satisfying, and so produces contentment almost as a byproduct. There is no reason we can’t use both approaches, either, as long as we keep them separate and don’t mistake the false projection for the real. In any case, our primary aim is not for contentment by itself, it is for realization of the Absolute, Isvara. In the meantime, smile a lot and be kind.

         Modern societies cultivate discontent as everyone’s baseline attitude, and again this has some benefits. When we are discontented we seek ways to move toward contentment, and that can be very constructive. And yet, as Paul said, we can easily become permanently discontented and then we will no longer see the beauty around us. Or we explore one way after another to stimulate a temporary contentment, and accept that as good enough. As Nitya says, “Santosha requires moderation in accepting the pleasures of the world so that they are not followed by the hangover or aftermath of hedonistic indulgence.” And he’s not just talking about the DTs. Deb mentioned the general case: actions that embroil us in further karmic bondage produce “hangovers” of obligation that take a lot more than a morning to recover from. Yogic contentment, then, does not rely on externals but goes to the root of the issue, and thus does not produce any negative after-effect, either.

         Discontent, while central to modern society, has its pitfalls. Conversely, if we force ourselves to be content all the time, there is a tendency to remain static. Change and newness challenge us to relinquish our comfortable contentment in favor of our own development, and we need to be brave enough to meet such challenges. We need to be grounded enough to take risks; otherwise we might just as well hide in a cave all our life.

         The notion of contentment, then, begins to take on a dialectical structure, reminiscent of the Gita’s IV, 18: “One who is able to see action in inaction and inaction in action—he among men is intelligent; he is one of unitive attitude, while still engaged in every (possible) kind of work.” We can apply this principle anywhere. How about, “The one who is able to see contentment in discontent, and discontent in contentment, is especially intelligent, and will be able to maintain a unitive attitude in all things.” Bringing the thesis and antithesis together dynamically is yoga.

         Yoga is primarily a mental practice. I have given a favorite practical example of Nitya’s before, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it. If someone praised him—which they often did—he would simultaneously remind himself of his faults, and remember that the person doing the praising didn’t know him very well anyway. Or if someone criticized him—also not uncommon for an outspoken and unorthodox guru like he was—he would remind himself that he had many good qualities too. Supplying the opposite side of any situation allows you to remain in a balanced state of neutrality, without exaggeration positively or negatively. The synthesis of the dialectic is that we are always vastly more than any of our partial assessments, and that that kind of “beyondness” is our true nature. Nitya even used the technique, spelled out as “neither this nor that but… aum,” for one of his book titles.

         Deb made an excellent point about a central truth of the Gita, which occurs (among other places) right next to the previously cited one: “Relinquishing attachment for the benefit of works, ever happy and independent, though such a man be engaged in work, (in principle) he does nothing at all.” (IV, 20) She realized that attachment to results is the basis for discontent, and so letting go of results-oriented action allows us to relax into our natural state of contentment. I suppose that is why discontent is ubiquitous in any society that bases its assessment of human value not on happiness but on successful accomplishments, even though it is common knowledge that worldly success does not lead to happiness.

         I again mentioned the many exceptional people I know who are chronically dissatisfied with themselves. Surely dissatisfaction has had a role in pushing them to be exceptional, but they often get caught in a permanent state of unhappiness because they can never satisfy themselves. Patanjali and Nitya are counseling us that while we pressure ourselves and work hard to become wise or whatever, we should be sure to enjoy ourselves while we are doing it. We are so fortunate to have a million opportunities to grow and learn, more than ever in planetary history! A modicum of gratitude for our infinite potentials, and guiding ourselves to appreciate life now instead of postponing our contentment to the distant future—even to the afterlife for many people—could make life much more fun. The rishis have finally been caught up by today’s scientists, who can now measure the electromagnetic field we each generate, and speculate about how it affects those around us. We contribute to world peace and universal fellowship by learning how to be content, deep down in our core, because we are all intimately connected there.

 

Part II

         Pondering and investigating the relation of scales to yoga, I found a fascinating history of weighing at this site:

http://www.averyweigh-tronix.com/main.aspx?p=1.1.3.4

         Indeed, balance scales of one kind or another have a 6000 year history, and only began to be replaced with electronic devices beginning in the mid-twentieth century. A couple of clips from the essay:

 

Weights and measures are undoubtedly one of man's greatest and most important inventions, ranking alongside the wheel in the evolution of civilisation. Commerce would not have progressed beyond the barter system without the invention of a system of weights and measures.

 

Accuracy in the electronic age means time and distance can now be measured by light, but weight still has to be measured against a known or reference weight, or mass.

 

My favorite example of “souls hanging in the balance” is from ancient Egypt, where Anubis weighs the dead person’s heart on a scale, with a feather on the other side. Only if the heart was lighter than the feather was the soul promoted to the afterlife. And in at least one account the feather stands for truth.

         Of course, a yogi would opt for a heart that is exactly balanced with the feather of truth, neither lighter or heavier….

 

3/15/11

The third niyama is tapas, self-purification.

 

         Tapas is usually translated as religious asceticism, with the aim of self-purification. But we’ve already had sauca, purification as the first of the niyamas. It really means heating up, and refers to the heat generated when what we are supposed to do—as enjoined by the words and examples of our preceptors—is pitted against our habitual behavior. The pressure to change the course of our life produces heat as a byproduct of redirecting our inertia. As any physics student knows, pressure produces heat, and the more pressure, the more heat generated. But most of the heat is a waste product, little more than an external indication that something else is going on. This tells us that there has to be more to the story, something central.

         Most of us in the class come under the category of the marvelous word tapastanka, “afraid of austerities.” And while the word may have been coined as a derogatory term, I take it as a compliment. Sure, you can make your mind do weird things by torturing yourself and starving yourself and denying your normal inclinations, but I think it’s absurd to classify those manifestations of stress or injury as spiritual. Krishna rants about them in the Gita’s Chapter XVI, calling those who deny the Absolute within themselves “cruel haters in the world, worst of men,” in verse 19. So our view, one that makes the Gurukula especially excellent, in principle at least, is that we are actually the Absolute, it is in our core, and therefore we should attend to that part of ourselves with kindness. Our Absolute core is pouring its loving support into us at every moment, so why adopt a practice that shuts off the flow? Traditional tapas theory is that like a dam accumulating water, tapas holds back our thwarted life energy, which can then burst forth when the floodgates are opened. But what happens if the water is never released? The pressure builds up to an explosive level. Nitya often described such practices as recipes for insanity. The Gita repeatedly describes attaining the Absolute as easy, yoga as the free and easy way. Take VIII, 14 for example: “One without extraneous relational mental interests, remembering Me day in and day out—to such an ever unitively affiliated man of contemplation I am easy of attainment.”

         The dictionary provides a number of meanings for tapas based on its root of fire or heat, ranging from the pain and suffering caused by severe ascetic practices to self study and service. Honestly, I’m bored with the whole austerity business as it’s traditionally presented, and I had planned to bring a more modern interpretation to supplant the medieval one that so many find so perversely attractive. Happily, Deb started off by saying almost exactly what I had in mind, that the psychic warmth we bring to our endeavors is an essential part of how meaningful and excellent they are. I immediately felt gratitude that I didn’t have to be the primary iconoclast for one night, at least!

         Patanjali gives us a tip in the right direction by including tapas as an observance and not as a restraint, and Nitya’s commentary amplifies that angle. Nitya gives examples of how all our faculties are confronted with good and bad options, or options that can be handled well or poorly, and tapas is the discipline by which we consistently choose the better or best alternative. It is a positive, inclusive process, not a negative shutting off; an observance and not a restraint. Deb really brought home the point that we can easily get caught in repressing negative aspects of ourselves, but the better strategy is to move toward the positives, allowing the negatives to wither away naturally.

         When we love someone or something, we feel warmth toward them. Even English terms contain the same concept as tapas: we get “fired up,” are “on fire,” or “have fire in our eyes.” We are “hot” for something. Surfers and other exhilarators are “stoked,” like a locomotive boiler stuffed full of coal blazing along at full speed. Lukewarm, on the other hand, indicates a middling interest level that will never be sufficient to bake any bread. When I put in this week’s class invitation that tapas is “that which separates the vigorous aspirant from the dilettante,” this is what I meant. Only a few people are so turned on by spirituality that they become passionate about it; most are moderately interested and throw it a bone occasionally, and then take it as proof that the whole thing is a waste of time because nothing much came of it. For them it’s just another sit-com, another show on TV.

         Then there are those who cannot be held back. More than half the days before class I get calls from Scotty letting me know that he’d really like to come out but he’s painting right now, and it’s going really well, so he just can’t break it off. He’s in a unitive place expressing his artistic nature, and disrupting the flow would be a mistake. Or Jan or Susan will call to say they have some program with their kids so they can’t come to class. Instead of chastising them for not caring enough about our “spiritual” study, I praise them for putting their energy into what matters most in their lives. That is real tapasya. We teach people to love their lives and everyone in it, and if they skip class because they are living the teaching, so much the better. And of course that’s very different from those who just aren’t interested, who can’t keep their boilers heated up. They don’t come because tamas has a good grip on them, and it keeps them “chilled out.”

         This brings up a good way to look at our subject: the difference you feel in how you relate to your own child compared with how you relate to some other child you might meet in the course of your day is an indicator of true tapas. Certainly the love of your child (mother, friend, favorite pastime) compared to the dull moments where they are absent. That warm, loving, genuine feeling is what we are trying to tap into as a permanent state of mind. It comes naturally to us in certain areas, but then we can extend it to include more and more territory. First we have to cherish it where we can find it.

         Charles wondered about charisma, the ability to inspire enthusiasm. When we are in the presence of someone who has dedicated their life to truth, it inspires us, fires us up. If we have laid some psychological dry wood in the proper configuration, sparks from the charismatic person can ignite our own passion. If our psyche consists of a pile of soggy sticks, though, the sparks just go out with a hiss. So keep your tinder dry! Which means supplying your own heat to drive out the damp, so that you’re properly prepared when inspiration strikes. Rajas produces heat; tamas dissipates it. Sattva is already cooking.

         Summing up, Deb likened tapas to a laser light beam. Ordinary light is chaotic and omnidirectional, but in a laser it is disciplined to all go in one line. The harmonious concentration of the chaos produces stunning and unexpected power. Deb said that what we are to treat negatively are the distractions that interrupt our focus on what we love, and as we hold them in abeyance we enter an increasingly intense merger with our chosen subject. We generalize the state by calling it union with the Absolute, but it doesn’t have to be as vague and immaterial as that. The object of out focus can be our art, our business, our friendship, our life. Whatever it is, we are supposed to learn how to become absorbed in what we do. In the Gita’s twelfth chapter, Krishna recommends Arjuna select a specific form to worship, if nothing else because loving the formless is much more difficult. I say, why not love both, since they are essentially the same anyway? Love the numinous and love the actual things you do, the actual people you know, and don’t even consider them as separate things. They are one and the same.

 

         The class assignment was to examine where tapas comes from in our own lives. For instance, everyone who takes the trouble to drive out in the pouring rain to the Portland Gurukula—or who even just reads the notes off the internet—cares enough about what they find there to make a significant effort. What exactly is that motivating factor? If we can identify it, it will help us to nurture it and foster it. I hope the assignment doesn’t turn out like so many others, quickly displaced by the demands of everyday life. What you discover doesn’t have to be shared, but you will learn a lot from peering into what it is that turns you on.

 

Part II

         Michael wrote a fine response to the class assignment that arrived in the email just before I went to bed; here is his plus something I just sent in for my own Yoga Shastra study with Nancy. There is a wonderful excerpt from Love and Blessings (149-150) relating to keeping up a head of steam in our boilers. Last (and best) of all is Nitya’s page 147 of That Alone, suggested by Wendy for other reasons, but which perfectly expresses the updated definition of tapas as enthusiasm.

 

from Michael:

 

Thanks again for a swell class. I'll be mindful of my tapas and keep the metaphorical home fire burning.

 

In class you asked us why we choose this Unitive Way. For me it was rooted in the loss of my biological father to suicide a few days before Xmas when I was 9 years old and dealing with the subsequent existential vacuum in my psyche. The impetus was therefore to improve my Human Operating System and hopefully to achieve some equipoise, to use last week's buzzword. I confess it was my first Acid trip at 18 that got me over the emotional hump of my father's absence. Although- except for perhaps one experience with Saliva Divinorum, no psychedelic trip has EVER touched the acme(s) the wisdom traditions have opened for me over the past 28 years.

 

Returning to the Gurukulam has gently restoked the smoldering embers of my dormant practice. I have studied the wisdom traditions since I was about 17 years old and given the Tao De Ching to read. Stories by J.D. Salinger, not to mention comic books, also pointed the way as well. Next on to Zen via both D.T. & Shunryu Suzuki, Reps, a dash of Watts, in no time I found Jung and through him Ramana Maharshi, Alchemy, and the I-Ching. By that point I met our pal Kendrick, he blew my fuses with the Gnostics, the Christian Mystics and introduced me to you and the gurus of your Vedantist lineage. After the passing of our mutual friend I again retreated, and like Cthulhu I slumbered in my house at R'lyeh, torpid but still dreaming of something more:  the ineffable One Taste of the Absolute. I am glad to reawaken my practice and moreover in a welcoming group of fellow travelers.

 

Namaste.

 

Michael.

 

With apologies to Nancy for borrowing my own response to last weeks exercise, which had to do with what inspired and motivated us:

 

Of course, my most “famous” inspiration was the breakthrough LSD trip I took in spring of 1970, while attending Stanford University. I really got a good education there! Launched inwardly far into “outer” space, I realized that the ecstatic state I was in was what the wise seers of all ages were talking about, more or less, and trying to communicate to the rest of us, raving or otherwise. I immediately resolved to seek that blissful condition without the assistance of any magical substances, and within a few months had lodged myself at the feet of Nitya Chaitanya Yati. The rest is history, as they say.

  More philosophically interesting to me, though, is that from very early in childhood I have had a powerful urge to figure out what’s going on, like Rene Daumal’s “incurable need to understand.” Also like him, “I don’t want to die without having understood why I lived.” Some of my motivation must have come from being punished as a young child, both justly and unjustly, and trying to trace back the cause so I could avoid it in the future. Whether or not that was the sole motivation at the outset, it grew into a strong desire to look into the meaning of everything. No wonder Nitya was such a fantastic discovery! Finally, here was someone who actually knew what he was talking about, after a lifetime (19 years by then) of being surrounded by people who were equally or more baffled than I was. And he wasn’t dishing out simplistic answers, where I could just be satisfied and go about my business unaffected, but instead he immeasurably augmented my thirst for knowledge and comprehension. And over the years, like altering the course of a gigantic battleship, he turned me away from “neurological agitations” to (semi) serene contemplation.

  I have written about a few of those guru blessings in Gee, You Are You, and Flip Flop, articles now posted on my website, so I won’t be any more tedious about that here. But yes, sure, my motivations are significantly based on memories, particularly positive ones. Memories are critically important. We might imagine we can be motivated by something so pure it transcends memories—and we may well be, at some level—but our conscious mind sits on top of a treasure trove of memories, not unlike the proverbial iceberg with 9/10 below the surface, and without them it would sink in the sea, unsupported. Memory is us, as much as consciousness is, and it is to be embraced even as we try to insure that it will not cloud our vision.

 

A touching moment from Love and Blessings (149-150):

 

When I arrived at Fernhill Gurukula, it was four in the afternoon. Mangalananda Swami was gone. Only Nataraja Guru was there. He was all alone in the kitchen. Seeing me walking in, he poured out a cup of tea for me. He held out the teacup and a biscuit. When I relieved him of both the items, he abruptly asked me if I came prepared to join him as his disciple, to which he added, “You have been preparing yourself to be a sannyasi all these years. Are you ready now?”

  This was a moment I had long been dreading. I was not at all prepared. Nataraja Guru was ferocious and uncompromising, and I had always had a horror of him. My powerful attraction to his wisdom was counterbalanced by my repulsion of his personal idiosyncrasies. The way he had always thought of me as his disciple was very irritating. In every way he was an absolute contrast to Dr. Mees, who was an ideal, loving Guru. With hesitation I said, “I have to think.”

  Nataraja Guru looked very offended. Shaking with anger, he said, “I knew this. I knew this. Narayana Guru told me he would have nobody and I would have nobody. So all the enthusiasm you showed these several years was only a bluff. You have no pressure. Your engine is at Runneymede.”

  It was an insult. Runneymede is a station on the steep mountain railway up into the Nilgiris. Engines usually stop there for an hour to get up a head of steam. So I understood the sarcasm in the analogy. I was furious. In the white heat of anger I slammed the cup and saucer down on the table. Instead of running out of the kitchen, though, I bent down and touched both his feet and said, “Take me. I am giving myself to the Guru for whatever it’s worth.”

  He laughed uproariously. Then he became suddenly calm and said, “That is right.” Thus my surrender to the Guru’s cause and my initiation all happened in a comic manner. Now many years later I understand that the gravity of my gesture and all its implications were a million times greater and more profound than I realized.

 

Lastly, the final page of Nitya’s verse 20 commentary from That Alone, as Wendy says, “Whenever I get stuck, Atmo always brings answers, as if Guru is whispering in my ear. I am overflowing with gratitude for all the beauty and understandings which rest quietly in the form of these pages, until opened, when the true values become the focus.”

 

  The passing moments of our lives are to be made lively and rich. One thing I have learned in my life is that the moment that comes will not come again. It’s gone. You can see the moment approaching. Receive it with open arms. Glorify it by enriching it with your joy, finding a new value, a new sense of direction in life. Have a renewed sense of wonder. Thus, that moment becomes eternalized in your life, it is a moment to be remembered and to be proud that you could live it so well. Then you can move on to the next moment; this one has already been immortalized in you. What you have achieved in that moment is your eternal repository. Wonderful! You feel fulfilled. You are filled with gratitude: “Oh, I lived this moment so wonderfully!” This is your own life, in this very world, with all these amenities given to you in the here and now.

  With this understanding you are eager to race to the next moment because it is going to be wonderful, going to be beautiful. It will yield so much. You see the promise of the future already in it. It is going to be still more wonderful than what you have already lived. Then you pass on to the next with joy and grace. The day opens up with such beauty, such promise. There is nothing like life, nothing like this world, a world where you can make friends, a world where you can create beautiful things, a world where you can share beauty with others and where you can make others part of your own self. A world where there is such an abundance of love and sharing.

  The only thing is that you shouldn’t drift into darkness. Don’t look at the world as something horrid, but as beautiful, divine. Every bit of it. Then we know we are the creators of our own fate. Not through this individual ego with all its vagaries, but through a full affiliation with the eternal, supernatural light that enriches everything. Only then will we have the strength to become masters of the situation, the whole beauty of creation, the beauty that has painted the petals of the flowers, which has given shape to the butterflies and birds, which makes the mountains look awe-inspiring and the oceans look vast, which makes the clouds float so gracefully overhead. This is where we find our true freedom.

  You belong to the same overmind of beauty. Not with your ego but with your spirit. Participation in it will reveal to you the divine artist in you, the divine musician in you, the divine intelligence, the divine creator, the divine lover, the divine unifier, the divine peacemaker within you. It’s such a blessing to be in this world, to be born here and to live here. This body of ours will fall away just like a candle burning out. But before it burns out the candle gives off a lot of light. What does it matter that it is eventually extinguished? It has lived its moment of light. We live surrounded by smoke and darkness. Make up your mind that you will live this day, each coming moment, in all its worth and beauty, and that you will share it with all. This is the great teaching the Guru offers us.

 

3/22/11

The fourth niyama is svadhyaya, self study.

 

         For the first gathering of spring we had half a dozen absences due to illness and travel, but a welcome compensation in the shape of Anita, Cathy and Jean, old hands yet rare attendees who do not suffer from the inhibitions that often bother newcomers.

         Nitya relates svadhyaya to the instruction to penetrate deeply into the question “Who am I?” He describes it as a horizontal activity, but Deb pointed out that there is a vertical aspect also. The horizontal examination of our temporary identifications, our wants and needs, and all the things we do, is valuable enough, because mostly we take those I-identifications for granted. As beginners we are sure that we are what we do, where we work, what we wear, how we play, what we eat. When we start to meditate on these things, we begin to see that we are much more than just a compilation of horizontal involvements. The additional element is our vertical nature. Just like the letter I, our inner ‘I’ can be represented as a vertical line.

         When we meditate on our most essential sense of self, we discover a state that remains as a stable witness through all the changes that unfold in our outer life. Our horizontal identity oscillates between the extremes of great beauty and stark terror, although most of it is much more bland. Our vertical experience cannot be so easily categorized, but is generally described as being filled with ananda. Distinguishing the two aspects of our self isn’t hard. If it changes, it is horizontal; if it naturally stands firm, it is vertical.

         There is a widespread and unfortunate belief that we should vacate the ‘I’, crush the ego and throw it away. No matter how much we honor the ego in our classes, there remains a persistent notion that the ego is bad and needs to be eradicated. Vedanta counsels keeping the ego in balance, neither too strong or too weak. The more you try to crush it the stronger it grows; likewise, the more you pander to it the stronger it grows. It becomes, like Goldilocks’ oatmeal, just right, when it is not exaggerated either way. We are trying to straighten out the kinks and heal the wounds in the ego, reduce the swelling, not do away with it. Meditating on ‘I’ as a core value accomplishes exactly this. When it is healed, our sense of self is no longer bound in a morbid preoccupation with itself, it can expand into its full connectivity with the rest of the universe.

         The class shared a number of examples of how this plays out in real life. Jean talked about her brother, who she interviewed forty years ago, as a sixteen-year-old. Recently she remembered the interview, and realized that he had lived his whole life in accord with his youthful vision. She also wondered if her own children would ever attain that kind of conviction. She knows they are trying to figure out who they are, but they lack at least some of whatever her brother is blessed with. While it would be wonderful for everyone to be as confident as Jean's brother, truly knowing who we are is a real challenge and a rare accomplishment.

         What this tells us is that most people try to define themselves in terms of the world around them, the horizontal world, and as it continually changes shape it is impossible to attain stability that way. The old world of steady employment sometimes gave a credible imitation of spiritual samadhi, but the current political paradigm has smashed all that. Now we can either become wise yogis or confront unending uncertainty served up by the obsession with profits and battles for increasingly scarce resources. “What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36) is the Christian version of the same idea. We must not preen ourselves in the cracked mirror of the world around us, but first know who we truly are, and then “all these things shall be added unto” us. (Matt. 6:33) Much easier said than done, but nonetheless doable.

         Brenda related a recent night when she awoke and felt herself dissolving. All of her body was expanding, letting go, floating away. It felt ecstatic, uplifting. After awhile she drifted back to sleep. The phone rang early and she answered it definitively, “It was Aunt Jeanne!” Her cousin confirmed that yes, Aunt Jeanne, who was very close to Brenda, died at exactly the time when Brenda was having her amazing sensations.

         It seems that many people have some kind of transcendent, connective experience like Brenda’s at some point in their lives. Deb told of a time when she had a similar experience when my mother died, only more involving cherished thoughts than a physical sensation. Jean talked about walking down to her little town and feeling detached from her body, as if it was merely a vehicle for her soul to ride around in. Deb later told about how thinking of other people as divine beings instead of ordinary ones helped her bring her high blood pressure under control.

         Anita related being at her mother’s funeral. The minister said that while he had prepared a reading, he felt compelled to read something different. The “compelled” reading included her mother’s secret name, an obscure one that nobody else knew. Anita had a strong conviction that her mother had commanded the reading to let Anita know that she was still present, for which she has been eternally grateful.

         The point of all this is that the answer to who we are is “everything.” At least it is far greater than our limited identification with a body and a personality. After class I was reading a new psychology book, Psychedelic Healing, by Neal M. Goldsmith, who said “It is crucially important to remember that personality is a strategy devised by a baby!” It’s true. We revise our personality mask as we grow up, but the original need for it is to accommodate social demands, and it begins in infancy. To really know who we are, we have to jettison all such superficial identifications. Yes, identity is important up to a point, especially for those whose identities are beaten down with hostility. But then to go beyond that to our true identity is even more important. Otherwise, the hostility will have won: it will have forced us to shrink into our limited identity as a person of a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or what have you. We are so much more than any of those! And svadhyaya, self study, is the process by which we discover just how tremendous we actually are.

         Nitya concludes his talk by reviewing the standard ideas about svadhyaya, that we are supposed to listen to the words and silences of wise teachers, study their behavior, and read wise words in scriptures. Where sudden big breakthroughs make for exciting stories, Nitya tells us that wisdom comes incrementally, a little bit at a time. It is a long, slow process. Maybe it was those amazing psychedelic pills that made us believe that enlightenment was an instantaneous happening. But the real deal is slow and steady.

         The advent of wisdom is not unlike a subduction zone earthquake, where two of the earth’s tectonic plates are sliding one over the other. Their actual movement is glacially slow, but if the plates stick together, the pressure builds up and up, to be finally released in a huge blast. Less devastating shakeups occur if the pressure is released regularly in smaller shocks. The resulting configuration is the same, but the path leading to it is very different. Detailed self-examination lets off the pressure frequently, while ignoring who we are allows the pressure to build to explosive levels.

         Nitya sums up the standard model of svadhyaya:

 

When what you experience, what you hear from great people, and what is recorded in the scriptures from time immemorial all come in one line, then you can be sure that your svadhyaya has been profitable. Such is the royal path in which you are confirmed that whatever you have been doing as sadhana (practice) is ultimately successful.

 

The line in question is a vertical, I-shaped line, with our individual experience in the middle, written words at the bottom, and the living transmissions of the wise at the top. It's a very beautiful image, and if we are out of line with what the world is telling us, we'd better check up on ourselves pretty quickly. But even if we are well aligned, we still have to be careful. Our own common sense must be located right in the middle of the line, because there are shockingly insane scriptures and other self-ratifying arguments, and plenty of deranged but charismatic demagogues to tout those dangerous assertions. A great many people feel obliged to align themselves with these deadly yet popular belief systems. If we know who we are, however, we won't fall for any of it. We have to be confident in ourselves and dedicated to standing behind who we are, resistive of all the social pressures on us, and then the input from above and below will not grind us down but open us up further.

 

3/29/11

The fifth niyama is isvara pranidhana, continuous contemplation on the Absolute.

 

         A delicious potluck dinner to celebrate the Absolute in several of its endless unique expressions (namely Jean, Cathy, Scotty, Michael, Linda, Debbie, Bill, Susan, Nancy, Jan, Paul, Moni, Brenda and Scott) set a cheerful mood for the gathering. A few regulars and irregulars (Charles, Eugene, Ann, John, and Anita) were absent, but we felt they were with us in spirit, wherever they may have been physically.

         Isvara (pronounced EESH-warah) is Patanjali’s term for the Absolute. He reminds us once again to see the connection of all with all, to lift our eyes from the appearance of separateness to its underlying unity. This is of course very familiar territory, but that in no way denigrates the pleasure of revisiting it in the company of friends, and of sharing the insights and resolution it provides. Which was just what we did.

         The only caveat necessary to continuous contemplation of the Self (Isvara, Absolute, God) is that the continuous part sounds daunting, because we tend to assume it means we should do nothing else but contemplate the Absolute as a distinctly separate entity. Not at all! We are invited to contemplate our world as the perfect and enjoyable ongoing expression of the Absolute, dealing with it in whatever guise it appears to us. The Absolute is not other than what there is, and we only become strained when we think of it that way. Such a dualistic attitude actually enhances the very schism we are trying to ameliorate.

         In practice, contemplation of the Absolute follows a sine wave curve, oscillating between rarified abstractions and solid practicalities. The continuous part is not an eternal struggle to eliminate all distractions to remain at the very top of the curve, but remaining aware of the entire figure as an endless series of expressions of the Absolute’s infinite potential. The real effort we are called upon to make is to resist getting caught in the lowest, most concrete part of the curve, where tamas can catch us and freeze us in place. When we find ourselves mired in the thick of some muddle, working to see that this too is the Absolute helps get us unstuck, freeing us to continue along life’s path as it unreels beneath our feet. Or better yet, ride the rollercoaster.

         Regularly we forget that all this is the Absolute, and take it as what it appears to be. This has its own validity, certainly, because (after subtracting our misapprehensions) everything is what it is, but we overreact precisely to the degree that we are sucked into seeing the environment as consisting only of objects. Then we scheme and struggle and manipulate, and get nowhere.

         Speaking of paths, Scotty mentioned Joseph Campbell’s admonition that when you clearly see your life’s path laid out before you, rest assured that it is not your path.

         Scotty related the fifth niyama to his Aikido practice, where instead of seeing the objects you encounter as separate from you, you bring them into yourself and dance with them. That’s a perfect way to put it, because this is all about lightening up, not being so heavy about the comedies and tragedies we move through. Whenever you can, dance, don’t crawl! Shake off the death rattle. Seeing the Absolute in everything should bring us great joy and relief, and if it doesn’t it is a tip off that we are actually perceiving falsely, tripping on our own projections instead.

         Scotty has put this into practice recently by transcending his previous hostile attitude about his father, who he once blamed for being the cause of all his problems. He decided to discard his negative fixation and instead appreciate and love his father for whatever time they had left together. It turns out his dad is pretty cool! There has been a palpable lifting of Scotty's spirits, and their relationship has experienced a true resurrection. It was mainly a matter of letting go of his resentments. Even if all those terrible things we remember are true, we keep them alive by holding onto them, but they blow away in the wind when we release them. Learning how to let go and fully live in the present is isvara pranidhana at its best.

         Susan offered a more modest example, which was just as important in its own way. We can’t always make epochal decisions; sometimes the little things are almost as profound. Susan sometimes in the past got upset when her breakfast was disrupted, which it often was with two teenagers and a husband sharing her morning kitchen with her. The other day before anyone else was around she made a delicious bowl of oatmeal for herself, adding lots of fresh nuts from the farmer’s market, some maple syrup, everything just as she likes. This time she added one more ingredient: she told herself that it would be okay if she was interrupted, that she would still get to eat her food eventually. Shortly after, her son came downstairs and asked for his breakfast, her husband returned with wet dogs she had to dry off, one things after another happened to keep her from her own breakfast for a half hour. But because she had prepared herself in advance to accept it, instead of being frustrated and having her resentment and anger build, it was all okay. She stayed serene, and when everyone had been taken care of, she still had her delicious oatmeal waiting for her. This is actually a first rate allegory.

         I mentioned that both our girls had had amazing transformative moments in the last twenty-four hours, thousands of miles apart. There is an inexplicable connection between them. As Harmony said, “We are really one person.” Here’s a dab of what she wrote to us about her revelation:

 

It literally changed my life and helped cure the depressed mood I've been in since starting work. It made me happy and see the good in everything, it took every negative feeling out of my life, made me think clearly and helped me evaluate what was important to me in my life…. It reminded me how important it is to do things you love and do things in your life - I could even see the good in my job now - and that there is nothing more important than family and friends. And instead of anger towards people who are mean (like the woman I work with), it helped me feel compassionate and understand that people are only like that because they are unhappy, whether they realize it or not. These insights seem so small, and yet it is so easy to get caught up in negativity these felt like huge realizations for me, or more like "remembering" what it's like to really live, without the added mental "baggage" life can bring.

 

This from a girl who made a career out of ridiculing her parents’ Vedanta studies and our suggestions to her about those very ideas. It proves that wonders never do cease. Harmony's “small insights” are some of the logical corollaries of perceiving the unity within the world.

         So the class examples ranged from the most profound to the most seemingly trivial, but any breakthrough in relation to family members is very important, and each one opens the doors to more progress. Once we encounter the Absolute in one place, we can’t help but see it everywhere. Continuous contemplation teaches us that the small things are just as valuable as the grand ones.

         The recognition that Isvara, the Absolute, is in everything is not just an intellectual understanding, though that’s where it usually begins. Gathering together reveals at least one more dimension. We arrive at class as ostensibly separate individuals, coming from every direction, and as we sit together and contemplate the mysteries around us, without any conscious effort we merge together into a harmonious group entity. The inner experience of oneness is responsible for the inexplicable feeling of contentment we take home with us. Regular renewal of that condition helps us to extend it to every aspect of our lives. It’s a blissful feeling, and wonderful to solidify into a familiar state. We are yanked out of it now and then by our acquired sense of separation, but we are gradually becoming able to treat that as the anomaly, and the unified condition as the norm. Aum.

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com