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Yoga Sutras II: 33-39

4/5/11

Sutra II:33

When disturbed by confrontation, cultivate the opposites.

 

         There are days in high summer when you can hear the corn grow, and almost see it zoom up toward the sun. Life bursts forth in rampant exuberance. Last night’s class was an indoor analogue, where our hard labors of psychologically tilling the soil, pulling weeds, and fertilizing and watering have produced strong, healthy plants, primed to grow with all due speed.

         Gentle teasing combined with intent listening made for a happy atmosphere, where the teaching could instantaneously be put into practice. Amicably we prodded each other to cultivate the opposites and much was accomplished on the spot. The class was one of the rare ones where the group’s potential was optimized. To even have such a session is an impressive achievement.

         Nitya’s very moving commentary focused primarily on opposition from outside, though there are plenty of hints as to how to apply the principles of yoga within the mind as well. It has been made clear by now that these are not really two separate categories. Our inner attitudes and changes both mirror and impel outer situations, and vice versa.

         Several people pointed out that we most definitely grow through conflict, and so we should welcome challenges rather than flee them, as our ego would usually prefer to do. As Nitya says, “Our personalities unfold in our life situations.” Our task is to resolve the conflict or cure the ailment, and then prepare ourselves for the next one, rather than find a means of avoidance. Good stories and fine music, among other art forms, depend on some kind of tension in which the suspense is maintained and only resolved after much drama. Like art, life without conflict or tension tends to be insipid and boring. But we don't have to go out of our way to create conflict: there's plenty enough around already. All we have to do is pay attention.

         Nitya tells us how to make this real in our lives:

 

Krishna asked Arjuna to be of his mind—not the social mind of an individual in confrontation—but the mind of all. In that, friends and foes are all merged into the one fantasy of a universal dream. There is no anger or attachment there. When we are identified with this universal mind, God's mind, the person who is spitting venom or kicking at us is seen only as a patient with a malady.

 

He continues:

 

Suppose a mother is watching over her child who has a high fever. If, in his delirium, he speaks evil words and curses his mother, she doesn't react. Her compassion only increases and she gives even greater care to her child to bring him to normalcy. This is how we can change the world by changing ourselves. You change yourself by establishing yourself in a spiritual position and becoming equipped with God's vision. The yogi who is ever engaged in isvara pranidhana (contemplating the Absolute) has no other identity and thus transforms himself or herself to transform the world.

 

As we know, continuous contemplation of Isvara doesn’t mean that we are always in perfect balance. Events throw us off balance, because we have to react to them. But the non-yogi continues to react, whereas the yogi reestablishes balance as quickly as possible. Cultivating opposites is a dynamic, active process to regain balance, and the more we are familiar with our own balance the easier it is to regain it. In this, physical balancing is almost identical with mental balancing. When we move through our day we are constantly in different positions, and we intuitively maintain our balance with little effort. We could sit all day in one place, if that was our true nature, but many of us prefer to walk, swim, ski or ride a bike, because it’s so much fun to lose our balance and then regain it, over and over. The state that is so exalted in flowery language is actually one we regularly experience as perfectly ordinary or normal.

         Nataraja Guru, in his Bhagavad Gita commentary, spells out the gist of yoga:

 

Yoga implies a certain method of equalization or cancellation of counterparts which we have tried to explain. It is as when two factors are cancelled one against the other, that we come to something which is unitive. Whether in the world of values that might belong to the field of necessary action or of rational life, or of Self-realization, the unitive value which results from the cancellation of counterparts is the same. Thus it is stated here that some attain to the supreme value of the Absolute Self by cancelling the subjective aspect of the Self against the objective aspect of the same. In other words, as in verse 17, there is an all-inclusive wisdom representing both these aspects. (563)

 

The “supreme value of the Absolute” thus includes our state of mind when we are awake but poised.

         Paul said that we use templates in our relations with other people, and those templates are the cause of conflicts, because each person’s is tailored to their limited understanding. People thrust their template onto friends and family, while the other person parries with their template, and there is inevitably a clash. Paul is experimenting with setting aside his template, allowing the other person to be just as they like, and permitting many new possibilities to arise. In using this approach with his kids, he sees that it has encouraged their independence and mature decision making.

         Scotty countered that you can err both ways, by being too rigid or too lenient, and kids especially need guidance. Again, this is a balancing act where getting it just right is a dance, a high art form.

         Bill added that the word translated as cultivate also means to ponder. We should ponder the opposites. Without pondering we miss so much.

         We practiced opposition all through the class. There was a lot of contrarianism, presenting the opposite idea to what someone had just said, but it was done in a loving, supportive way, so no one took offense. Instead we laughed. Here was where you could sense the crackle of growth, with everyone feeling confident that there were no hidden knives being flexed. More like hidden hugs.

         We also opposed the widespread tendency to begin a statement with an apology or some other self-denigrating remark. A yogi should catch themselves thinking those things and cancel them out in advance. We often hear, “This is probably stupid, but….” “I know this is a dumb question, but….” “I don’t know if this has anything to do with what we are talking about, but….” Let it be stipulated once and for all that no honest question is stupid, and everything is related to what we are talking about, even if the connection isn’t obvious. So relax and be confident, please!

         I am asking for all you experienced yogis to write or bring to class one or more stories of how you have practiced the equalization or cultivation of opposites in your life. We want to share as many real-life examples as we can, because this is one of the most essential secrets of the whole study. Please, take some time to recall a teaching story to share with us. Everyone who has come this far in the Patanjali study must have several good ones at least. We have already printed a number in the past, inspiring examples of triumphs in compassion and conflict resolution.

         Not waiting for next week but wading right in, Deb offered an account of how she once failed utterly to cultivate a healthy opposition, and missed a series of golden opportunities to improve a difficult situation. It happened nearly forty years ago, so hopefully she will have a success story for the upcoming classes, because she has learned a fair amount in the interim…. She was a new teacher in a new school outside Denver, Colorado, teaming with another woman in the third grade. 1973 was a high point of the laissez faire teaching style: give kids free rein and see where they go. A total lack of materials in the new school abetted the theory. The other teacher, however, was of the older, very rigid persuasion, where you made kids sit still and be quiet, line up in straight rows to go anywhere, and bribed them to do what you couldn't outright force them to do. Deb was so stunned that she completely shut out the other teacher, and had nothing to do with her. All those third graders have probably become great yogis, because they had the most polarized education imaginable, half the time running wild and the other half in a straitjacket. Deb could not even remember the other teacher's name, or what she looked like, or if she ever even spoke to her. Now she suspects that if she had transcended her shock and hostility and actually communicated with her, they probably would have come to a healthier compromise where each mitigated their extreme positions, and everyone would have been better off.

         Happily, Brenda had a success story to end with. Yogically cultivating opposites will almost always bring a happy, or at least improved, outcome. She was at an athletic club and ran into a neighbor she recognized. After her pilates class, as she was heading for the door, the woman came angrily toward her, pointing her finger and saying “I know you! I know you! You lived with the woman who stole my husband!” Brenda confessed that, with her fundamentalist upbringing, in the past she would have felt a stab of pain and guilt, hung her head, and allowed the woman to harangue her. But this is the yogi Brenda now. She stood her ground and the shame and guilt didn't surface at all. Boldly she stood in opposition to the unjust attack and replied, “No, you don't know me. You don't know me at all.” The woman stopped in surprise, and they began to talk about the event in question, which had happened fifteen years before, and which Brenda was a casual witness of. All those years the woman had blamed her and held a serious grudge about it. Brenda's strong stand finally allowed the true story to come out, and permitted the woman to relinquish her hostility. They became friends right there and then, and as they live a block apart now, they see each other occasionally, and hugs have replaced resentment. If Brenda had shot back an angry reply instead, or seized up in shock, the pain would have continued. Instead a wound was healed. So cultivating the opposites is not the same as simply opposing, it is a way to resolve opposition. Brenda had put into practice what Nitya describes here in this way:

 

If you put yourself in the position of Isvara and look at things with a neutral mind and no vested interest, you will perceive them from a catholic, altruistic, and compassionate ground. As you then have no ego, your counterpart can also loosen their grip on the ego. This is just like disarming a rival. The Zen Buddhists call this “listening to the clap of one hand.”

 

         You don’t have to have been raised fundamentalist to have damaged responses to conflict. I was raised agnostic, for which I’m eternally grateful, but I was similarly inculcated with the idea that if someone accused me or was angry about something, it was my fault. Like any fundamentalist child, I was a born sinner. I learned to take responsibility for everything bad that happened in my vicinity, which was incredibly damaging. Kids have a much more nuanced sense of justice than that, and that kind of blanket condemnation teaches them to be devious and defensive in the face of injustice instead of becoming fearless champions of the truth. Yes, we should take responsibility if we are in fact the perpetrator, but we should also know that people carry their own miseries and blindnesses, and their past burdens are the most likely cause of any psychic indigestion they have. Thanks to an amazing bouquet of guru, wife and friends, I got over that particular toxic part of my upbringing in only about forty years. By upholding positive values of respect and justice, and cultivating opposites as they appear, we can help ourselves and others make a much more rapid transition.

 

4/12/11

Sutra II: 34

Confrontations such as violence, whether done by oneself, instigated, or abetted, whether precipitated by greed, anger, or delusion, whether mild, medium, or intense, result in endless misery and ignorance; thus, cultivate the opposites.

 

         One of the strongest attractions Guru Nitya has for me is his unflinching attitude toward the problems of society. His comments level a blast at what he called the “stupids,” which includes all of us to a greater or lesser extent. He well knew how we are individually stupid, collectively stupid, and cosmically stupid. His last sentence sums up the import this has: “If we do not reform ourselves, ignorance will precipitate more and more darkness and we will suffer endlessly.” It is to end suffering that we join him in trying to pry our eyes open.

         Patanjali teaches that the counterposing of opposites is a central technique for overcoming ignorance, and last night we shared a festival of practical examples. Opposites can be offset in any number of ways: horizontally, vertically, three-dimensionally, sequentially; they can be aggregations, one-to-one, qualitative or quantitative. The proof is in the pudding, meaning that if we can make a quantum leap to a greater awareness, our assessment has in some way united the opposing elements. No mechanical rule of thumb is possible.

         A lot of our practice comes in our relationships with intimate friends and family. Jan gave us a terrific example, speaking only in general terms. She and her husband Larry had had a disagreement and she was quite upset. She went to her writing class, where the first thing is just to write something, and she decided she would write about the incident. Because of the Yoga Shastra class, she decided to write it from Larry’s perspective. To her surprise and horror it revealed how awful she had been, and that from his perspective she was aggravating the situation much more than she had realized. It brought a real change of heart and she went home and made amends. Larry appreciated her new attitude to a degree, but she herself felt released and much freer because of it. One of the paradoxical aspects of yoga is that by changing our attitude about the other we are doing ourselves the best possible favor. We make more room for the other person, but they may or may not respond—it’s up to them. But we have helped ourself regardless. You could see Jan flush with relief even as she retold the tale.

         The odd thing is that, even knowing about this technique, we continue to cling to our side of the story, fearful of risking our social image by admitting some culpability. Jan was brave to make the leap, and found it isn’t so hard once you take resolve to do it. We have to learn how to overcome our ego’s defenses, that wily ego that doesn’t want to take responsibility for any part of any problem, and will twist the facts to suit its dastardly schemes. But it’s such a great feeling to put it in its place! It will inevitably sneak back into the picture, but curbing it definitely becomes easier very quickly as we get the hang of doing it.

         Deb pointed out that Fritz Perls’ gestalt therapy used a similar concept. He had two chairs, and the complainant would sit in one and present their case as if the antagonist was sitting in the other chair. Then they would switch chairs and respond back as if they were the other person, bringing insight and often allowing them to break through their blockages.

         Scotty told us of a Buddhist order that does something like that. When there is a dispute, those involved are brought together in the whole community and made to face each other. The first thing they are asked to talk about is the very beginning of the conflict. It turns out that major schisms sometimes blow up out of very minor irritations, and seeing how trivial those are can defuse the situation. Of course, the trivial trigger may have nothing to do with the underlying resentments boiling below the surface, but it is still a way to access them.

         After class I thanked Jan for her perfect example, one that we can use a thousand times with almost certain success, and told her of a variant. In a very important incident in my life, with a tremendous lot of misery and psychic rupture, I knew perfectly well that I was right and the other person was way off base. Still, I put myself in their shoes and I suddenly saw how I looked to them, and it was a stunning revelation. From their perspective, and with what they knew, I appeared to be a monster. Although I was confident in how honorable my actions were, the other person saw them differently, and the entire misunderstanding grew very logically out of it. It was a profound lesson, and allowed me to forgive even as I knew I would never be forgiven myself. It was okay. And over a very long period of time, my changing my stand affected the relationship positively. The point is that determining whether we are right or wrong is not the ultimate goal, as if life was a glorified courtroom. We all share rightness and wrongness. The goal is coming to accord, and that starts with coming to accord in ourselves first and foremost. As Nitya concluded in the last sutra:

 

[We] change the world by changing ourselves. You change yourself by establishing yourself in a spiritual position and becoming equipped with God's vision. The yogi who is ever engaged in Isvara pranidhana has no other identity and thus transforms himself or herself to transform the world.

 

This is the key to the whole business. Time after time we want to blame the other, reform the other, prove that they are wrong and we are right. None of that is a successful strategy, however. It simply pushes the other into greater and greater opposition, and as we push them away there is an equal and opposite reaction that pushes us away too. We see this in modern diplomacy also, and the result is war, economic destitution, or frequently both. We have to turn the heat of focus back toward ourself. When we reform ourself, or even see ourself more accurately, we give our opponent room to take a similar step. Unfortunately, such an enlightened approach is not considered politically expedient or egotistically permissible.

         Deb gave us a sweet example from a different angle. She and my mother had a period when they were on each other's nerves. My mother was very prickly for many years after my father died. Deb remembers going to bed really angry after a very unpleasant evening, and waking up the next morning still fuming. But our daughter Emily, who was around ten years old, awoke fresh and clear, as if the night before had never happened. Deb took it as a lesson to let go of her resentments and try to start fresh herself. She was holding on where the little girl could more easily move on.

         Deb also gave an example of Nitya’s, from Love and Blessings, page 163, showing how life itself has an inherent balance and compensating propensity. Nataraja Guru was a master of opposition, and the book is filled with great examples. Nitya had just attended his sister’s wedding, solemnized by Nataraja Guru, and then right after he was with his father when he died. He concludes:

 

Within twenty-four hours there was a happy wedding and a not so happy death in the same family. Guru read of my father’s death in the paper the next day. He sent me a card saying, “This is typical of the incidents in the life of an absolutist, to have the plus and minus aspects balancing and canceling each other out, leaving the absolutist in the silence of a neutral zero.”

 

         Michael spoke of how personal and private his sketchbook is. He doesn't show it to anyone. Last week, though, he sent me a few pictures from it, and I immediately asked if I could share them with the group. Even via email I could hear Michael's reluctance! But then he thought, well, this is about Isvara, the Absolute, and so what could there possibly be to hide? He brought in a handout of the humorous sketches to give to everyone, and explained all about them. This is another direction of opposition: we have a private self that is screened off from the world, but not everything benefits from being sequestered. It is very freeing to permit friends a glimpse behind our walls. It can be overdone—some people become addicted to the process and want to pour out their guts—but it is wonderful to feel enough trust in your fellows to open up, and then learn how it was okay all along. It's an important spiritual step, and it was not coincidental that Michael was wearing a t-shirt with an image of his first guru, Kendrick Perala, on it. It's helpful to have a stalwart friend at our backs when we take a new step.

         I added a highly practical and simple example. Ann was facing a very serious operation, and came home from a trip to two phone messages after hours on Friday, from her cardiologist and oncologist, asked her to call right away because they had important reassessments of her previous lab reports. Of course, she feared the worst, and there would be no contact until Monday morning. She was imagining all sort of terrible news. Strictly as a contrarian, I suggested that it could well be good news, and she shouldn’t worry until she heard what it was. I hope she took the advice, because it was in fact good news, that her condition had improved enough for her to undergo the operation, which had been in doubt.

         We all have these challenges frequently. We worry and fuss over what will happen, but we don’t have any idea, really. If we can take ourselves in hand and let it be, we will save ourselves a lot of grief. This is in part what is meant by not having expectations.

 

Part II

Susan did her homework! This came in the mail:

 

Lucky me, I have had so many conflicting situations this week to think about. Most of them, however, have been internal and not external. The following example is dedicated to Anita Carpenter because it’s a driving example and she has had so many great ones over the years. I always think of Anita during driving epiphanies. So anyway, I was driving to an appointment. It was a beautiful morning and I admired the blossoms as I went down the hill and the little green leaves coming out on the tree branches. I wasn’t late but I wasn’t early. I turned into a line of cars at that awful 6th Avenue/I-405 overpass and we were all waiting to turn left. My world suddenly narrowed down to the line of cars. I started obsessing about the fact that the car in front of me had an entire car length in front of it and I was thinking that if it had just pulled up, I would be that much closer to the turn and also this would allow more cars to get in line behind me. My body started tensing — especially my shoulders and my colon. I tried to breathe through it. Minutes passed like molasses. I moved up a bit further, the car in front of me still leaving a football field between it and the next car! Then I was within three cars of the left turn and the cars were taking their time about turning or they weren’t turning on a red light when there was plenty of room to do so! I was talking quietly but adamantly under my breath to the drivers — turn! turn! turn! (not like the song but with growing anxiety). Then suddenly, I caught myself. I witnessed almost a POOF! as the lens of my awareness went from very small to the whole wide world. It was amazing. I suddenly thought, “Wow! I am just this tiny speck on the earth and everything is going along just fine and why am I so fixated on this little thing over which I have no control?” In that moment I felt connected to everything and everyone, and my stress and anxieties disappeared. That was a great feeling. From this I take away the realization (and this isn’t the first time, alas) that it is so easy to get sucked into reacting to a situation very narrowly — from the kind of visceral floods that happen inside me. I seem to sense that I have an outer conflict (the driver in front of me) and my imagination takes off and acts it out. So I guess one could think of this as an inner and (perceived) outer conflict. It seems a very good balance to let go and relax into a much larger sphere which is free of conflict, judgment, and myopia.

 

 

Charles sent this today:

 

 

Marriage is the living embodiment of the Absolute. It has unitive and separative aspects which in classical times were imagined as Venus and Mars, Love and Strife.

 

 For it to work at all long term, love must include strife. The war between the sexes has been going on down through the ages.

THE LOVE MUST BE STRONG ENOUGH TO NURTURE THE STRUGGLE.

Both love and strife are given by God or Mother Nature.

 

In our times we participate in the struggle of feminism with patriarchy. A couple (unitive aspect) is made up of two individuals (separative aspects).

 

Brenda and I will celebrate ten years of marriage this Friday, April the fifteenth. I have been living with her as she evolves as a creative individual. As we individuate, we separate, we struggle. We participate ontologically as opposites contending within the Unity of opposites. As dialectical counterparts, we are thesis and antithesis developing through struggle and strife into the evolutionary synthesis of these, our historical efforts on the intimate level of domestic partnership.

 

More specifically, she and I are of different temperaments, complementary and sometime's opposed. In addition, she is a woman in her prime and I am an old man. These differences are included under the separative aspect, contained within the unity.

 

I offer my experience of honoring the separative tendency as my wife's own individual destiny. She is who she is, a mystery. She is becoming who it is her destiny to become, in a life time that will probably extend beyond my own. At least in my imagination, my death is included in her life, that separation included within that greater union.

 

4/19/11

Sutra II:35

In the presence of one firmly established in nonviolence, hostility ceases.

 

         Just one week after successful kidney surgery, Ann bounced in to class, rarin’ to go. Very impressive!

         This sutra is the dialectic opposite of the previous one, in which external provocations are neutralized. Here an internal groundedness is intentionally established and radiates outward to pacify the environment. A yogi needs to employ both techniques, often simultaneously, depending on the situation.

         Although we tend to picture them two-dimensionally—that is, flat and side by side—opposites may occur in all directions and permutations. They are like mathematical equations, which are true when each side is equivalent to the other even when their expression is utterly different. We may prefer the simpler A = A or A = B, but X - Y = r(t + q) – (3y x 74) may be true as well. Also as in math, the equation is untrue if the sides don’t match, and is only true when they do. Most of the time in life the sides are unequal, though this is often disguised by their complexity. The subtle art of the yogi is to operate on one side or the other to bring truth to every equation. On top of that challenge, there are very often more than two sides. One for each person, even.

         I can’t help but reprise the opening of Nitya’s commentary, partly because I know that some of you only read the class notes and not the original. This is too important to pass over:

 

In this sutra we are led to the very source of our actions and thoughts. As we go closer and closer to the Self, the homogeneity of selves becomes clearer and more evident. The ego of a person is one of the four inner organs. It can have two identifications, one with the individuated social member of a community and the other with the inner organ (intellect) that is receiving the light of the Self.

  The social factor manifests when you take upon yourself the agency of action or of a person who intends to prevail upon others with your words. If you withdraw from the sense of agency, both of action and speech, then your I-consciousness remains only as a recipient of the light of the Self. If that state of consciousness is maintained for a long time, you will come to stay more in unity with the Self, which by nature is pure existence, subsistence, and bliss.

  You can go to a still deeper anchoring of contemplative at-one-ment when you recognize your absolute union with the life of all, especially through Isvara pranidhana. There is no question of wanting to show any violence to anyone because there is no one apart from yourself. A person who has cultivated a positive attitude of union with others—not only humans but all sentient beings—affects others just like a magnet affects a piece of iron by magnetizing it. The peaceful silence of a yogi will affect the entire atmosphere around him or her with a unifying and pacifying magnetism. In the yogi's silence everyone is disarmed. If you walk into a room and find a person sitting there in a state of meditation, you will immediately experience an aura of serenity. It can have such a telling effect on you that you feel spellbound and wouldn't dare to cause that person any disturbance. Just as anger and madness are contagious, peace and silence are also.

 

To paraphrase, our egos either identify with our social milieu or with our intellect, while only the latter is in tune with the inner light of the Self. To cope with society we usually rely on conscious manipulations. After all, the Self tends to be socially inept, and that’s a good thing, because society is relativistic. If we imagine we are in charge, though, we have to try to affect the world through our words and actions, and this adds considerably to the chaos. On the other hand, if we are able to relinquish the sense of agency, it allows us to receive and be guided by the light from within. The more time we spend in that state, the more we grow grounded in an unshakable unity. Tending to the demands of our life while incorporating useful inner guidance from our unconscious is a high art form.

         Nitya adds that to further develop our sense of unity we can nurture our identity with other people and other forms of life. When we have achieved a real sympathetic resonance with the whole, the peace it engenders not only affects our life but can spread to receptive beings around us as well.

         Moni cited a passage from Love and Blessings where Nitya as a young man became extremely conscious of the silence and peace of Dr. Mees’ Kanva Ashram and tried to merge himself in it. It’s also a beautiful example of Nitya’s poetic expression, an inspiring verbal rhapsody:

 

Towards the close of evening on my first day, I noticed something that had earlier escaped my attention. As a small boy I used to sit with my father near the creek flowing next to our rice fields, where I listened to the several natural sounds: the gurgling of water, the rustling of rice sheaves in the gentle breeze, the hum of the cicadas and the croaking of frogs. All through my life I had been listening to different sounds. But the Kanva Ashram was quiet and still. The expectant hush of silence grew deeper and deeper as day passed into night. It was by no means the sheer absence of sound. Rather, I experienced it as if listening to a divine choir. I began to realize for the first time how truly vibrant silence is.

Then I started noticing many sounds that had always been drowned out before, like the soft pad of my footsteps, the creaking of doors, and the din created by turning the pages of a book. Even my breathing began to seem loud.

  I wanted to merge into the silence, and I became more and more ashamed of my awkwardness whenever I caused a disruption of the total tranquility that prevailed in the ashram. I decided to discipline myself step by step so that my personality would merge into the background. This attempt to resonate with the flowing patterns of Nature’s silent articulation made me very self-conscious for about a week. After that it was as if the inner flow of silence suffused my very breath and circulated as the lifeblood in my veins and arteries.

 

         The class focused on how other animals sense our state of mind and respond to it. Horses are especially sensitive to the slightest agitation, and cowboys practice yoga when they approach one with a bridle in hand: if you want too catch her, she will run away, but if you suspend your hopes and act as unconcerned as possible she will let you come near enough to put your arm around her neck.

         I retold a familiar story of when I was deep in the Olympic Mountains of Washington where I intuitively used that type of “cowboy yoga.” It was fall, a time when blue skies and orange and crimson leaves provide a dazzling counterpoint to the craggy, snow-dappled peaks of that spectacular wilderness. As I came around a sharp bend in the trail, I found myself not more than ten feet from a huge brown bear, who reared up on her hind legs and confronted me. She stood almost as tall as me. Before hibernating, bears are especially grouchy, so I had a flash of fear but instantly realized I had to be absolutely cool, calm and collected. I didn’t dare move a muscle, and struggled to discard the fear, which all animals sense with absolute clarity. Fear makes animals do desperate and lethal things, and so they are super-sensitive to it in others.

         We stood looking into each other’s eyes, and I tried to send a telepathic message that I meant no harm. As I looked at her, I began to realize she was as unsure and fearful as I was. Gathering all my shreds of courage I took a small step backward. The bear very carefully took one step backward. I stood for a moment processing the significance of her mirroring my action, and then took one more step back. She took one more step back also. The ice in my veins began to melt—a feeling I’m sure everyone is familiar with. True relief. Gingerly I took two steps back. The bear took two steps back. Now we were maybe twenty feet apart, a much safer distance. I began to feel a kind of ecstasy, that we really were working together to solve our shared problem satisfactorily.

         Keeping my eyes locked with the bear’s, I half turned around and took another step. The bear did exactly the same thing. We both knew we had the other’s respect now. I half turned again and took two more steps, and watched the bear do it too. Then, almost like two samurai, we stood still for a moment, gave an inward bow to each other, and headed off in opposite directions. From a safe distance I watched the bear scramble with amazing agility over the rocks until she was out of sight.

         The event is still vivid in my mind after nearly 40 years, partly because of the life-threatening aspect and partly because of its allegorical value. Regardless, the kind of inner poise we need to not frighten animals is closely related to the yogic equipoise we can call on in human confrontations. Body and mind are not two separate things, but closely related aspects of one state of being. It is much more efficacious to viscerally feel our intentions and not just think them at the top of our heads.

         Brenda talked about her fear of spiders that was severely aggravated while in India, and others chimed in about various other bugs along with snakes, which Nitya talked about last week. Billions of years of vasanas have lodged fearful reactions deep in our brains, and those can’t be easily eradicated. What we can do is recognize that the innocent snake or bug we encounter will almost certainly activate an instinctual reaction, but we don’t have to follow up on it by freaking out and smashing the incidental cause. We can use our light-inspired intellect to tell ourselves “It’s okay. The spider won’t hurt you. It wants to be left alone.” As in so many cases, we can either aggravate or ameliorate our gut reactions. Yoga isn’t so much about never having any reactions, as is often mistakenly believed, it is about minimizing the unnecessary baggage we add to situations, which allows us to return to a balanced state as efficiently as possible.

         Before we leave the cancellation of opposites, I want to add possibly the most important version of all. Narayana Guru, in verses 23 and 24 of Atmopadesa Satakam, asserts that selfish actions are futile and misery-making, while generous and selfless acts benefit everyone, including you. This is paradoxical but easily verifiable by testing it yourself, and on top of that Nitya's explication of those two verses in That Alone is superb. We need look no farther than the economic and moral collapse centered in American capitalism for stark proof. Societies that donate a significant part of their energies to the common good produce a sense of security that supports mental and physical well-being and a healthy environment, while the opposite effect comes from sequestering those energies in wealthy enclaves. Thus what looks on the surface like sacrifice is actually more beneficial to each individual than sweeping every crumb into private pockets. The latter course presages a return to monarchy and feudalism, which has already proved itself to be a superb engine for generating dissatisfaction and destitution.

         The paradox is this: if you want to benefit yourself, be generous and unselfish, within reason. Grasping and clinging to what you want causes just your world to shrink and become mean and ugly. So to outsmart the paradox, open up your heart and let go.

         Nitya concludes with something he himself experienced, which is the inverse of the original proposition in a way. By identifying ourselves with Isvara or the whole of life we not only quell fears and reduce violence, we actually promote positive feelings:

 

It is a common experience of many yogis that they become a center of attraction for others. People are drawn to them with great love and affection. This is especially so when they are wandering in lands where they have not gone before and where people are total strangers to them.

 

Wherever he traveled Nitya was met by crowds of eager students who loved him dearly and appreciated his poetically expressed wisdom. Back in Kerala though, he was just another disciple of Nataraja Guru, against whom many secretly competed for “top dog” billing in the theater of their minds. People are attracted to mystery and the unknown, and the attraction can be undermined by the certainty that so-and-so is just a regular human being. Too bad we don’t always recognize that a “regular human being” is a representative sample of the Absolute sitting right next to us. Once we do, all hostility ceases, to be replaced by understanding and compassion.

 

Part II

Charles sent this in this morning:

 

 Thomas the Rhymer

 

This is a quote from Guru Nitya, "The social factor manifests when you take upon yourself the agency or action or of a person who tends to prevail upon others with your words. If you withdraw from the sense of agency, both of action and of speech, then your I-consciousness remains only as a recipient of the light of the self."

 

These words apply to the story of Thomas the Rhymer, a thirteenth century Scottish poet. As the story goes, he was reclining on Huntley bank, near to the Mystic Eldil tree, when he saw approaching a beautiful woman dressed in green and riding a milk white steed. He saluted her as the Queen of Heaven. She said, "Oh no Thomas, that name is not mine. I am the Queen of Fair Elfland.

 

At the time of his death, Ralph Vaughn Williams was working on an opera based on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer.

 

Stories of a lady on a white horse who spirits away the hero to an alternate universe are also found in Irish and Welsh mythology. Wendy Donniger O'Flaherty has done a comparative study of Vedic and Celtic horse and lady myths in her 'Women Androgynes and other Mythical Beasts'.

 

'The Ballad of Thomas the Rhymer' performed in concert by Steeleye Span can be found on You Tube.

 

Thomas the Rhymer was seven years in Elfland without speaking a word. When he returned he had the gift of inspired speech. His Nostradamus-like prophecies were remembered and pondered in the Scottish countryside well into the nineteenth century.

 

For me, personally, this has been one of those 'myths to live by'. Brenda and I celebrated our tenth anniversary last Friday, April 15th. In my inner vision, the Willamette Valley is Fair Elfland and Brenda the Queen of it.

 

This is a case of someone withdrawing from the sense of agency, both of action and of speech and of the I-consciousness transferring over to the intuitive faculty.

 

Part III

Vedanta for children

 

This came yesterday from Michael:

 

Are there any Gurukulam “approved” Vedantic materials for

children? A brief Google search doesn't give much to go on

AND a little too much of what I see is associated with

Sri Ramakrishna & Vivekananda, neither of whom I've

ever managed to “resonate” with. I have a niece who is

about to turn 2, and a nephew who is now 6.

 

Thoughts?

 

I can hear Kendrick telling me that I probably wouldn't be

fully satisfied unless I developed them myself. Devil!

 

I sure love being a part of the class,

Thanks so much to you and Deb for being glorious hosts

and patient guides.

 

Namaste,

Michael

 

         My short answer to Michael was “No, there aren’t any.” I have added a longer answer below, and am sharing it with everyone because this is a worthy subject for discussion. Why not weigh in on it yourself? I know there is much more that could be said.

         The adult/child polarity is one we have covered occasionally here and there in class, but it should be recognized as one of the most essential dualities of all, and thus a fitting paradox for yogic resolution. Several of the class members have significantly improved their relationship with their children after adopting a unitive attitude. I can’t think of anything that has a greater import for our world.

 

*         *         *

 

         I was raised agnostic, and am extremely grateful for it. Not that I didn’t have a strong moral education, I most certainly did; only there were no religious compulsions and threats of hellfire to cope with. Mostly my Sundays were free for play, play, play, which is the real “church” for kids! Vedanta is not a religion—or shouldn’t be—but it does cover the same, mostly adult, territory.

         The best thing for newcomers to life is to have a lot of love. They need a trusting, supportive, safe environment to explore through play and daydreaming for as long as possible, and from that solid ground they gradually grow strong enough to cope with flavors that are less than sweet: the sour, salty and bitter tastes of the world outside the family womb. Kids who are old enough can begin to learn that all is not sweetness and light in their world, but it should never be brought in too early in their development if it can be helped. Start with the sweetness, then add the rest gingerly. Instruction for the young should be gentle and positive. Unfortunately, it is often brutal and fear-based, with adults convinced by tradition that the harshness is “for their own good.” That’s a highly debatable proposition, to say the least.

         While Vedanta can help us learn to relate to everyone, including kids, on an appropriate level, Vedanta itself is mainly suitable for adults who have outgrown their youthful need to cling to fantasies and simplistic answers, which do serve a purpose for the very young.

         The age that a thirst for spiritual truth kicks in can vary from the early teens to old age to never, depending on several factors, including how much the psyche has been terrorized in its tender years. It appears sporadically in small children as a desire for justice and fair play, which does manifest very early. Most commonly it is precipitated by the so-called midlife crisis, which is the age when a person begins to realize they have been sleepwalking through an imaginary substitute for whatever reality might actually be. Early on we learn to acquiesce to others and build defenses, and only later does a drive to express our innate abilities pressure us to emerge from our shell. When we begin to throw off socially supplied beliefs and look around on our own, intelligent philosophies can serve us well. Prior to that time, beliefs mainly—but not entirely—add to the crust of oppressive dogmatism that will have to be broken through later by a spiritual struggle.

         Because of this, I advocate that religion should be officially X rated, meaning no one under 18 admitted. But I’m a liberal, and am not opposed to the under-aged sneaking in to a place of worship (just like a movie theater) if they are curious enough. Philosophy and morality should be doled out in small doses and be as open-ended as possible, with no whiff of institutionalism. Passing on wisdom at its best is a direct heart to heart matter.

         The Gurukula has published a book entitled Children’s Narayana Guru, guaranteed to baffle even the most precocious child. It actually has some merit, but it mixes a tone of addressing very small children with ideas suitable for teenagers. It might possibly serve as a basis for an oral story that could be told to a child, leaving out the complexities and digressions. In writing for kids it’s good to have spent a lot of time listening to them (which is not the same as instructing or managing them) in order to understand their needs and mode of thinking, so sannyasins should be automatically disqualified unless they have a special flair for that type of communication.

         I well remember Penelope, pregnant at the first Portland Gurukula, crooning how she would never read fairy tales to her children; she would only read them scriptures so they would grow up to be soooo spiritual. Debbie Twombly was shocked to hear her, and angrily told me, “I will never read anything but fairy tales to my kids!” Notwithstanding the fuzzy line between fairy tales and scriptures, I had to agree with Debbie. The sense of wonder, awe and excitement are what motivate kids, and nothing stifles their imagination better than preaching coupled with incomprehensible mountains of verbiage. Most scriptures should receive the X rating also, in my book.

         All sorts of wild tales are fine for kids: scientific, mythical, fiction, nonfiction, even religious. Our daughter Emily loved the Indian comic books we picked up, with vivid depictions of the wonder tales of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Gods and goddesses riding golden chariots through the sky and shooting flaming arrows at evil demons, plenty of cartoon bloodshed, but most importantly the triumph of good over evil. Very satisfying to children. Tales like these inflame the imagination, and we never pretended to Emily that they were “real” in any ordinary sense. But they are explosively imaginative, and stimulating. Since they are full of terrible events and barbaric morality, there were times when we had to talk about their faults with her. Myths of other cultures can be even more deranged, filled with injustice and cruelty, none more so than the beloved Bible. What we shared with our kids was that, in spite of widespread superstition, there is no evil deity anywhere to pass judgment on their innocence. We did everything in our power to nurture our kids’ innocence rather than suppress it, as paranoid parents are wont to do.

         I can’t even bear to think about modern movies and video games, with their casual and extreme violence, vividly thrusting the lowest human values straight into the subconscious. These have to be causing serious mental problems in children, bequeathing them a lifelong burden of pain in exchange for momentary pleasures. There is no better advertisement for books and homemade amusements than those highly popular and soul killing consumer products. They need an X rating even more than religion does!

         Kids do have an amazing capacity to process whatever they are exposed to, especially when they can discuss it with a sane adult. If you are sensitive to any child, you find they are all unique and have their own needs in communication. Their capacity for abstract thinking begins at zero in the first year or two and slowly grows as long as their curiosity persists. Meanwhile, they are in an alpha state for many years, which means they are essentially “stoned” for perhaps six to ten years. You have to be really careful what you say to a stoned person, because they are likely to believe it much more than they should. Words go very deep into their psyches, and images pack an even greater wallop.

         The best way of all to nurture the budding wisdom of children is to be available to talk with them when they have questions. Always encourage questions! And be interested in them. Play with them. Treat them as equals. They love it when adults honor them as the immense beings they know themselves to be, and don’t treat them like dumb brutes. If you ask what they are thinking or doing, they will be delighted and happy to tell you, and if they aren’t there is something amiss. There is no need to supply them with absolute answers unless it’s a matter of life and death. Monolithic opinions are repulsive to secure children, though in small doses they do sometimes help with insecurity. Absolutism and the Absolute are in fact diametrically opposed. The Absolute is perfectly flexible while absolutism is utterly rigid. So share your own flexibility and openness as your own legacy to the next generation. And dare to be silly. It’ll be good for you both.

 

Part IV

         Just came across a couple of real keys to promoting an intelligent and creative child, and the resultant adult. In Uncle Tungsten, Oliver Sacks’ delicious memoir, Sacks writes, “The thousand and one questions I asked as a child were seldom met by impatient of peremptory answers, but careful ones that enthralled me (though they were often above my head). I was encouraged from the start to interrogate, to investigate.”

         The quote below is from Inner Sparks by Charles J. Limb (Scientific American Magazine, May 2011). Limb, a big admirer of John Coltrane, has been studying improvising musicians via fMRI, and writes:

 

  As far as my studies have revealed, creativity is a whole-brain activity. When you’re doing something that’s creative, you’re engaging all aspects of your brain. During improvisation, the prefrontal cortex of the brain undergoes an interesting shift in activity, in which a broad area called the lateral prefrontal region shuts down, essentially so you have a significant inhibition of your prefrontal cortex. These areas are involved in conscious self-monitoring, self-inhibition, and evaluation of the rightness and wrongness of actions you’re about to implement. In the meantime, we saw another area of the prefrontal cortex—the medial prefrontal cortex—turn on. This is the focal area of the brain that’s involved in self-expression and autobiographical narrative. It’s part of what is known as a default network. It has to do with sense of self.

  If we can understand what actually changes in the brain to perhaps reduce conscious self-monitoring—what a lot of expert musicians are doing and what amateur musicians are unable to do—that’s a pretty interesting target for someone to consider when trying to learn to become an improviser. I think that has implications for describing what gives rise to excellent improvisation and what experts do naturally. How a teacher can take that and utilize it in a lesson is another thing entirely, but I think there’s food for thought.

 

         There is an obvious connection here with yoga, another way to maximize our whole-brain coordination and liberate our abilities. When we have talked in class about not being overly self-critical, it is to free ourselves to be more expressive and creative in just the way these musicians are able to.

         The recently discovered “default networks” Limb mentions are a leap forward in our understanding of the mind and the role of meditation. Recent fMRI studies were done of people doing tasks, the kinds of things that have been studied a million times, only in these studies the focus was on what the brain was up to in between the tasks. The question was, when “nothing” is happening, what is actually going on in the brain? It turns out there are some very fascinating areas that light up at such times, and we’ll pursue this more in upcoming classes. My take on this discovery is that meditation is a way for us to spend quality time in these in-between or default areas of the brain. They appear to overlap in a vertical hierarchy very similar to stages of spiritual enlightenment.

         The bottom line here is that, once you have learned the basics of social interaction and balanced your ego, hopefully by early adulthood, you can free yourself by letting go of the tight grip everyone feels they have to maintain all the time, and which is reinforced by subconsciously retained threats of punishment. By relaxing our self-criticism, not to mention criticism of others, we permit ourselves to automatically rise to the next level of spiritual functioning. We also see that Oliver Sacks’ genius was fostered by parents who did not make him feel guilty or intrusive for asking questions and following his curiosity. Let us all emulate this example, inwardly and outwardly.

 

4/26/11

Sutra II:36

For one firmly established in truth, the fruits of action rest on truth.

 

         I forgot to mention last week that we have begun a section where each of the yamas and niyamas (restraints and observances) is reprised once, with Patanjali presenting the outcome of practicing each of them. After that there is a brief survey of the remaining six of the eight limbs of yoga, which brings our part of the study to a close. Why go beyond samadhi?

         The second yama is satya, truth. We talked a lot about the important difference between absolute and relative truth. Absolute truth is what allows everything to exist, as well as the existence of everything, while relative truth pertains to the accuracy with which we perceive and conceive what exists—or doesn’t, for that matter. One of the pillars of spiritual life is that the more we associate ourselves with absolute truth, the more accurately we will appraise relative truth. But there is never a moment (religious beliefs notwithstanding) when our unitive attitude allows us to imagine we are all-knowing about relative matters. Even the most enlightened person has a limited perspective, only much less limited than someone who clings to their cherished interpretations. Nitya reminds us of the value of humility regarding our grasp of truth:

 

Persons who enter into the path of truth will initially only become conversant with the relativistic aspects of truth. Soon they will find out that there is a degree of untruth that enters into both the perceptual and conceptual comprehension of truth. Then they do not fight in the name of relativistic truth.

 

         David Eagleman is doing some fascinating research on time. In the article about him called The Possibilian (The New Yorker, April 25, 2011), Francis Crick (the man who visualized DNA on LSD and shared the Nobel prize for its discovery) told him “The dangerous man is the one who has only one idea, because then he’ll fight and die for it. The way real science goes is that you come up with lots of ideas, and most of them will be wrong.”

         Eagleman is also featured in Discover Magazine’s special issue on the brain, in which the newly certified sixth, seventh and eighth senses are time, rhythm and echolocation. Guy Murchie, in The Seven Mysteries of Life, lists 32 senses, which include time but not the other two, so the list could now be 34. I bring all this up because the way our brains manipulate time can teach us about how they manipulate all sorts of data, ostensibly, but not always, for our benefit. We are privy to a performance staged by our minds that is an interpretation of our environment, not the environment itself. Yoga and science are ways to fine-tune our minds so that they delude us less and less. Doggedly believing our unquestioned sense data, on the other hand, keeps us tightly bound in a mental straitjacket.

         Eagleman suggests a simple experiment you can try at home. Stand in front of a mirror and look alternately at one eye and then the other. You can feel your eyes moving, but the image you will see is of your eyes staring straight ahead. Our brain has edited out the motions and given us the “approved version.” While this may be very handy in terms of survival or simply convenience, in terms of liberation it is a disaster.

         The Discovery Time article includes:

 

Neurobiologists are slowly coming to realize that “real time” is just a convention foisted upon us by our brains. In any given millisecond, all manner of information—sight, sound, touch—pours into our brains at different speeds and is reprocessed as hearing, speech, and action. Our perception of time can be manipulated in ways that researchers have already begun to exploit.

  To understand how your brain bends time, try this trick: Tap your finger on the table once. Because light outraces sound, the audio tap should register a few milliseconds after the sight of it; yet your brain synchronizes the two to make them seem simultaneous. A similar process occurs when you see someone speak to you from several feet away—thankfully so, or our days would unravel like a badly dubbed movie. Your mind is messing with the time, editing out the parts that distract you. Woody Allen [among others – ed.] once said, Time is nature’s way of keeping everything from happening at once.” He was right.

  “The brain lives just a little bit in the past,” says David Eagleman, a neurobiologist at Baylor College of Medicine. “The brain collects a lot of information, waits, and then stitches a story together. ‘Now’ actually happened a little while ago.”

  Or rather, our brains live in the now, and we live in the future, without even knowing it. What we call causal reality is like one of those live television shows with a built-in delay for the censors.

 

If this doesn’t verify the keen observations of the ancient rishis, I’ll eat my hat. Science is indeed catching on! And for the curious, the point at which the brain synchronizes sight and sound is 110 feet. Beyond that we observe them as arriving separately, closer in our brain unifies them, without even asking permission.

         So it would seem that truth is a very slippery commodity. At least knowing that it is reduces our urge to fight. In that excellent New Yorker article, Eagleman quotes Voltaire: “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” Nataraja Guru famously said, “Science seeks certitude.” But it’s the seeking that matters. The minute you rest on certitude, you lose the game.

         Before we quit we should examine Patanjali’s assertion here, that a life based on truth brings true fruits. Implied, obviously, is that a life based on deception brings deceptive fruits. If a builder erects a house, it should have a proper structure to support it. If an essential part is left out, the structure may collapse. It’s the same with our psyche as well.

         The story that often comes to mind is of a friend’s grandmother, an old hard-bitten Texan fundamentalist who lived her whole life in absolute certainty about JEEsus and where she was headed after death. You know the type: bitter, suspicious, anger and hatred boiling out all the time, her only pleasure picturing you burning in hell. An obvious defensive shield to everyone outside that particular behavioral sink. But a couple of weeks before her death, as it loomed up, all her false beliefs evaporated and she was left totally unprepared and terrified. She finished her life bemoaning her fate, with no truth anywhere to hold on to.

         Patanjali is telling us that now (or whatever we perceive as now) is the time to investigate our false beliefs and discard them. Truth will lead us, not to escape death, but to our dharma, the expression of our inner capabilities, and these are what confer real satisfaction and solidity to our rather fuzzy existence.

         Nitya elaborates on this, honoring the mahatmas of history who held firmly to truth and whose example became a beacon of light to millions. He concludes, possibly somewhat hyperbolically, “All great reformers and all who are the saviors and prophets of the world first speak the truth. In the course of time, what they have said comes to be true. This is the mark of a person being established on truth.” Not all of it comes true, of course, but this is the way of at least making true things possible.

         John gave an example that Paul and I, as former firefighters, could relate to. There is an incident, say a car crash. The crash itself is a true event, and the way it unfolds is its truth. Rescuers arrive and provide aid. After the injured are packed up and sent to the hospital, we emergency personnel would try to determine exactly what happened. We could observe the position of the vehicles, marks on the ground, and talk to witnesses. The more information we gathered, the more likely that we could recreate accurately what had actually taken place. But no matter how well done, it was always an approximation. Even those who were directly involved with the incident would have only a partial grasp of it.

         A million psychological experiments have been performed to demonstrate how limited our perception is in the best of circumstances. Relative truth is never perfect even when all involved are trying their best. In real life, people’s self-interest muddies the waters considerably. Only yogis and those like them place truth above personal gain. The rest project degrees of deception wherever they go, sometimes consciously, most often unconsciously. Because of the impossibility of determining relative truth with absolute certainty, the wise often recommend retiring to a calm, quiet place where you can digest untruth one serving at a time. Only when we begin to know truth a little bit can we then take it with us into the marketplace.

         One more important idea that caused a bit of an uproar was this of Nitya:

        

Truth has a value dimension as well as an existential dimension. However true a thing is, if an exposition of it is detrimental to the common good, then priority is given to the collective value rather than to the existential factor. One is not deemed a liar for not revealing to the world a socially detrimental truth.

 

It brings up the question, how do we criticize or interact with the untruth we perceive? It isn’t that we should just shut our mouths and ignore injustice. As Deb put it, it means that there is a higher truth that trumps relative truths. I used a famous scene in Huckleberry Finn as the perfect example. Huck and the escaped slave Jim are rafting down the Mississippi River, when they see another boat approaching. Jim hides under a tarp. When the boat comes near enough, two men hail that they are looking for a slave, is he there? Huck is in a dilemma. He has been taught to always tell the truth or he will go to hell. The relative truth is yes, the slave is right here. But he knows that his dear friend will lose his freedom if he tells that truth. In one of the high points in all of literature, Huck wrestles with the problem, and finally decides, “I’ll go to hell!” He calls back, “No, I haven’t seen him.” On the relative level Huck has indeed lied, but he has held to a higher truth, an absolute truth if you will, that makes his the right choice beyond a shadow of a doubt. Patanjali wants us to make such life-affirming choices as a regular part of our yogic dedication, fully convinced that this is the way to bring about the results that are optimal for everyone.

 

Part II

         It is critical to distinguish between absolute and relative truth: we bristle for war precisely when relative truth is imagined to be absolute.

 

Part III

         I found this on one of my draft pages for my Gita commentary. It hasn’t found a home there yet, but it’s relevant to the present sutra for sure:

 

         Most religions try to build up a belief system, creating a certain world view. Beliefs are necessarily partial and limited, and to the extent they are, they are false. By contrast, yoga, which is more aligned with psychotherapy and scientific methodology, works to strip away falsehood. The idea is that when everything false is removed, what remains is truth. Truth is the undeniable core at the heart of maya, falsehood or ignorance. If we build our castles on heaps of sand, death will wash them away and we will lose everything we have vested our faith in.

         Because death will inevitably strip away all false accumulations as our being is returned to its essence, yoga is sometimes thought of as a preparation for death, or as a consciously chosen way of death. The idea is that if we have pared our psyche down to its essence of truth, when we die we won’t have to contend with the painful bursting of all our mental bubbles, and we can concentrate solely on what is taking place right then. Whatever decisions we need to make can be our best efforts, instead of being clouded with regret and desperation. Even if death is the grand finale of our conscious life, as some speculate, we can still drink its beauty to the dregs. Sadly, many people are so swathed in the cotton batting of superstitious beliefs that they will even miss the drama of their own deaths.

         Another implication which is often overlooked is that basing a life on wishful thinking cheapens it, while honing one’s attitude on the grinding wheel of critical self-examination not only strengthens it but beautifies it, because it reveals what is actually there, or at least tends in that direction. When the glories of existence are subsumed in a fog of mythmaking—however clever and attractive—they are in effect being brushed aside in favor of a less than adequate mental picture. This may be seen as one of the tragic flaws of the human race at this admittedly early stage of its development. Conscious evolution should entail the gradual replacement of formerly plausible hypotheses with verified truths.

 

Part IV

Mike from the US Georgia sent this regarding improvisation, arguing that we are all master improvisers in thinking and speech, and reinforcing the idea that we make the most progress when we are unselfconscious. Take a bow!

Hey, T

 

Consider this in regards to improvisation:  We learn to speak, spell, use grammar, etc. and this is imprinted  so well that it is not even conscious anymore.  We just speak our mind, incessantly.  This is improvisation at its highest level and all of us do it all the time.  I don't think there is any difference in improvising with speech or music.  It is something that comes natural once all of the elements are in place.  

 

In music, we learn scales, scale patterns, music theory, chord progressions, etc. and then apply this to creating motifs which eventually come together as spontaneous improvisation in the same way one speaks in a conversation with someone.  All of the technical elements that have been studied and mastered integrate into a whole process that manifest spontaneously when applied.  

 

In both cases our imaginations and preconceptions can be expressed fluently without self-conscious monitoring.  The main difference in the two is that speech is developed most effortlessly at a very early age, whereas music improvisation comes much later (as a student of music) when one has already lost most of the spontaneous and impressionistic characteristics of the learning process.  

 

In fact, to teach an adult how to improvise music is a very difficult task for most of these students.  There are a very few that can take the risks so to speak to allow themselves to make the same mistakes that a child experiences when learning to speak.  Most refuse to let themselves sound bad or make errors.  Whereas, a child when learning to speak is constantly making mistakes and falters many times.  The difference is that the child is not so self-conscious of the effort as an adult would be and the innocence allows for greater margins of error and experimentation.  

 

Just some thoughts.

 

Mike...

 

5/3/11

Sutra II:37

For one firmly established in honesty, all precious things present themselves.

 

         The proximity of honesty to truth was the keynote of our evening’s discussion. Without a bedrock of truth, honesty is, well, somewhat dishonest.

         Because of the elusive nature of truth, a whole genre of superficial honesty has taken center stage, where we are out front about our ignorance. After all, snuggling up to our ignorance is much less work than driving it away. This trend has now progressed to the next logical step of undermining truth completely by making it a pragmatic tool of commercial exploitation, both personal and corporate. In other words, if what we wish to have happen is the only truth of any value, and if deception is the means to that end, it's just fine. No problem. Needless to say, an honest person cannot accept such a travesty. As we have so often maintained, the primary task of a yogi is to discard whatever is false and deceptive to arrive at the underlying truth that is always present. The "precious things" of this sutra are the truths brought to the surface as we dig deeply into our essence. In comparison, the diamonds and rubies of ostentatious success are little more than baubles, mere frippery. Window dressing.

         If I may quote myself—how does that work? Do I still have to cite it?—I’ll reiterate the loose excerpt I floated recently:

 

Basing a life on wishful thinking cheapens it, while honing one’s attitude on the grinding wheel of critical self-examination not only strengthens it but beautifies it, because it reveals what is actually there, or at least tends in that direction. When the glories of existence are subsumed in a fog of mythmaking—however clever and attractive—they are in effect being brushed aside in favor of a less than adequate mental picture. This may be seen as one of the tragic flaws of the human race at this admittedly early stage of its development. Conscious evolution should entail the gradual replacement of formerly plausible hypotheses with verified truths.

 

         The problem is that there is not only no instant karma from deception: it often produces temporary success, and it's highly addictive. The swagger of a politician is the body language of a successful deceiver, giddy from getting away with murder. Remember the rush when you were four, stealing a cookie and not getting caught. It was intense! But the class shared several examples where the easy, dishonest way out actually led into a locked room with no escape. War, for example, always seems so tantalizingly simple, a quick sortie and it will be over, but then the consequent disasters, as Carl Sandburg put it, “pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.”

         As always, though, we want to apply these principles primarily to ourselves. If we pin our hopes on reforming politicians, for instance, we’ll have to think in terms of millions of lives to get it done. Instead, we want to focus on what we can accomplish now, which means waking ourselves up to truth. We may hope that this will catch on in the larger world, but we aren’t holding our breaths.

         Nitya focused on how we “steal” the light of other great souls and try to pawn it off as our own. While this is ubiquitous to some degree, Susan pointed out that sometimes it was simply sharing the wonderful highlights of the human race with our friends. How else would we know of these things? Deb remembered that Nataraja Guru praised Catholicism, with all its obvious faults, for preserving the teachings of Jesus down through the centuries. I play Beethoven’s soaring insights on the piano not only for my own joy but to share it with others who may seldom hear it. It doesn't strike me as craven behavior.

         There is nothing wrong with quoting the wisdom that has been discovered by other dedicated seekers, so long as we don’t use it as a substitute persona for ourselves. I think that is the gist of the present sutra: if we discard our persona through an honest probe of ourselves, we will restore our identity with our true inner nature, which is precious beyond price. The wisdom of the ages helps us to do this, so long as we don’t hide behind it. The devil quotes scripture, it is said, because it makes him look pious. But if the quoting is done to enlighten, that’s a whole different ballgame.

         Persona is the deception we adopted at the very outset of our life, as a way to wheedle love and support from the often-preoccupied giants we were surrounded with, and it stuck. Recall the quote from Neal Goldsmith, “It is crucially important to remember that personality is a strategy devised by a baby!” As infants we tinkered with our persona until it worked well, or seemed to, and now it’s so much a part of us we don’t even realize it is only a deceptive mask, a cardboard cutout we hold out to the world, imagining it is more lovable than we could ever be. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Let’s recall what Nitya first said about this yama earlier:

 

In steya (misappropriativeness) two grave epistemological violations are made in understanding the whole truth to which you belong. First is that of thinking that you are the possessor of things. If the entire universe is an expression of the Supreme Self, the Absolute, nothing belongs to any private person because persons also belong to the Absolute. Secondly, if you think that you are void of any value that belongs to yourself, that is a blindness of truth from which you suffer. You feel envious of another's possession and want to grab it from them only when a value manifestation is considered as belonging to them and not to yourself. If you do not separate yourself from the totality of being, then there is no room to feel that you are an unfortunate wretch who lacks something that is cherished.

A holistic vision makes a double correction so that you neither feel alienated from a wealth of values that you see manifested elsewhere nor do you feel the internal hankering to possess what is wrongly identified as an external factor. (243-244)

 

This is a dignified description of the shortcomings of our persona. The universal feelings of alienation from ourselves are the reflection of our inner certainty that we are playing a game of charades. We know in our hearts that we are not totally honest. The practice of yoga is aimed at sweeping away the garbage we have bolstered our self-image with so that we can reacquaint ourselves with our true nature, which is identical with the Absolute. In the process, the ‘I’ that is a projection melts away. Whatever fear we feel which holds us back from making a sincere effort is due to our false identification with the persona at the expense of our real self. We need to change our alliance. Patanjali wants us to know it’s worth it, because what we are is the most precious thing, far more valuable than jewels or security or fame, or even an exalted ego.

         We had several exceptionally good examples offered up, of which I’ll relate two. Susan told us of her friend who was recently divorced. She resolved to plainly be herself, to break free of all labels. Most particularly she wanted to avoid the identity tag of “divorced woman” that erects impermeable barriers around so many in her position. She quite naturally wanted to be free of a stigma that is an impossible burden in most societies. That’s the quest of the yogi, whereas the ordinary person (a word derived from persona, obviously) would spend her time calculating how to optimize her position as a divorced woman.

         In Greek mythology, Heracles was killed by a poisoned cloak, the Shirt of Nessus, which was accidentally presented to him by his wife. The cloak burned so painfully it caused Heracles to cast himself on a funeral pyre and die. There are a number of folktales from all over the globe in which a “robe of honor” presented to someone is actually a poisoned gift that cannot be removed and kills the one who puts it on. These stories symbolize the dishonesty at the core of our egoistic desires that the present sutra urges us to cure. What looks so attractive on the surface will actually destroy our spirit if we get wrapped up in it, because it is foreign to us.

         Deb’s lifelong friend Jane used to say it was like we were all wearing nametags that proclaimed who we wanted to be to everyone we met. “I am so-and-so, and I do this. Here’s my role.” Could we dare to discard our nametags? Wouldn’t it be better to not consider ourselves as describable in a few words? The search for honesty is the perfect place for meditating on neti neti: “I am not this, and not this.” “I am not a divorced woman” is a higher form of honesty than the socially accurate “I am a divorced woman.”

         Susan and Michael teamed up on another highly relevant example. Susan began by talking about a friend who came out to her as being gay last year. He was so happy and relieved to have found an identity he felt was “him.” More recently though, the glow has faded, and he is more equivocal about it. Among other things, being open has invited more flack than he bargained for.

         Michael knew exactly how he felt. Many years ago he came out, which really is a breakthrough, and a tough one in a world filled with all manner of prejudice, especially virulent about homosexuality. But soon Michael found that while he was warmly welcomed into the gay community, its members had their own expectations of how he was supposed to be and act, just like any other “identity group.” But Michael didn’t buy into it. He came out to find his freedom to be himself, and refused to put on the burning cloak of prescribed “gayness.” He soon found that some within the community considered such independence threatening and even subversive. And it is, it is! We have to be careful with sharing our liberated mentality only with those who care to listen. As the Buddha is said to have said, “Don’t teach those who don’t want to learn.” Our job is to free one person only: ourself. If anyone else is similarly inclined, we’ll find out soon enough.

         So Michael is acting as a yogi and not as a lost sheep seeking a friendly fold. Those holding out the poisoned cloak to wrap him in may have perfectly honorable intentions, but they have not examined their own limitations. Typically, they mistake the form for the content. This type of snare is always waiting to gobble us up, whether it’s the church, the workplace, the identity group, or simply even the family. We can participate in all these things, but a yogi does it as a free spirit and not as a dutiful member interested in preserving a fiction. Any fixed posture we become enamored with exerts a powerful tamasic pull to keep us mired in place. Patanjali is our cheerleader to always break the chains.

         Narayana Guru, in Atmopadesa Satakam, pictured a contemplative sitting calmly under a great tree. He is peaceful but exceedingly careful to avoid the clinging vines that grow there, that reach out their tendrils and try to bind him fast. Like him, we are called to “come out” of our false identities through contemplation, and not merely substitute a new form of bondage for the old, but break free and remain free. In this eternal quest we have the good company of wise seers from near and far. Because we so easily forget ourselves, they help us remember. We bow our heads in appreciation. Aum.

 

Part II

 

         Susan sent some good thoughts of her own, and a reprint of one of the most searingly wonderful of Nitya’s many exhortations, from the original talk on Atmo 8 that was unfortunately left out of the print version. (I trust you all have the Original 8 as companions to That Alone. If you don’t, you can request it from me.)

 

Dear Scott,

 

Thanks for the class notes. I really liked how you brought Heracles’ cloak into it. Great way to look at it. It reminds me of my time in the Catholic world. After converting to Catholicism about 11 years ago, I was reluctant to take on the Catholic label because of course it comes with so much baggage. My reasons for becoming Catholic had more to do with deepening my spiritual understanding than finding a flock. But being part of the flock is so huge in Catholicism. Back then, I would go to church every Sunday and mostly enjoyed it because of the music and the rituals. I could even relate so much of it to Vedanta which made it feel more palatable. But then I began to feel less and less free in my Catholicism. The expectations of the Catholic label are heavy indeed — not only required attendance at nearly two masses a week (if you include all the holy days), but also an acceptance of all sorts of mystical mysterious ideas about hierarchies, rules of conduct, and biblical interpretations. What finally really got to me (aside from the sermons about abortion) was the idea that one needs to be on good behavior in this life if one wants to get to the really good life that comes after this life. The younger Catholics are more in tune with the idea that heaven and hell are right here, right now, but the word from the top is very traditional. In addition, one is not encouraged to look deep inside oneself for answers but always to consult with Jesus for answers through a devoted practice of prayer. Along the way, I did feel there were many people standing with cloaks, ready to wrap me in them and although going to church did feel very wonderful sometimes, the consequences of settling into the cloaks and the label seemed too great. I know that Catholicism was very meaningful to a number of people at my church but it sometimes felt as though another, greater number were just following the herd without the questioning and digging (that even Christians say they encourage). That was hard to see week after week. Finally, I stopped going to church three or four years ago and I can’t say I’ve had any twinges to return, though I respect much of the teaching of Christianity still. There is much truth in it, just buried by structures upon structures and a good many cobwebs.

 

I read again Atmo 8 in the original version. It’s so sweet compared to the one we were discussing on Monday. Here’s the last bit for your evening reading pleasure:

 

So, be rich. Instead of haggling after the little investments outside, find your Self to be the greatest investment. It is in-vested, invested inside. The supreme Investment. Let this be our meditation for today. Feel rich, not beggarly. Don’t stretch your hand and say “Will you give me a little love?” What a terrible state, hankering after a little love. Just open the floodgate. Love is everywhere. “Will you look at me? Will you pay me a little attention? Otherwise I will cry.” What terrible poverty of mind. Be possessed by and possess all. This is so simple and so truthful. Just decide “I don’t lack anything. The three worlds are mine. The past, present and future; the sky above, the atmosphere and the earth; everything in the wakeful, the dream and deep sleep, is mine.”

            Without this knowledge, when you sip a cup of coffee or tea or something, it is only a cup of tea. With this knowledge, it is not just a cup of tea, it contains the elixir of your very Self. The little joy that is manifested in the cup of tea is the ananda of the Self. It is a value of the supreme Self that is manifested there. When you hold your friend, your lover, to your bosom, you are not embracing a man or a woman. In that joy is the joy of the Self, the ananda of the Supreme. This is not a kill-joy. This is a magical way of changing everything transient into the eternal.

 

Aum,

Susan

 

Part III

         People keep reminding me I should have included what Moni said about honesty, because it was spot on. Her point was that honesty isn’t so much about being true to the facts as being open to what comes along. She gave two great examples. When she first traveled with Nitya as a young woman, she felt she had to be perfectly agreeable to whatever he wanted. One day he stormed at her: “Moni, you aren’t being honest!” She was confused. What did he mean? She was doing her best and trying so hard to please him. He answered her thoughts, “You always say yes to everything. That means you aren’t being honest about what you really feel. Sometimes you should say no. Don’t just say what you think the other person wants to hear.”

         It’s true that a goodly part of our ego’s defensive shield is to agree with other people and not let them see what we really are thinking, mainly because we have learned to fear conflict. It can hurt! Better to go along and keep the peace. We don’t realize how dishonest it is. Early in life we learn that if we don’t disagree, the other person will soon move on to something else and leave us to our private thoughts. As children we are afraid they won’t love us if we don’t comply with every demand. If we speak our mind, we might get embroiled in an argument or a fight, which would be uncomfortable. It might even include a smack. With all these pressures we quickly adopt a dishonest program without realizing it, imagining it is the height of honesty. Before long what we think we feel is only the agreeableness, and we are no longer consciously aware we have sold out our true feelings. The damage done is to ourselves; the other person is usually perfectly satisfied to have their way, unless they happen to be a guru.

         Moni’s second example. kind of related, was that honesty means being open to new circumstances. When she moved back to the US some ten years ago, she was a person with a tremendous breadth of experience, holding a legal degree, and with all sorts of abilities. But to find a job, she had to stop thinking of herself as any of these familiar features and simply be open to whatever possibilities came along. This attitude allowed her the flexibility to find employment where it was available, and she wound up with a good posting. This relates to much more than jobs. We close ourselves off to myriad opportunities because we have a static view of who we are, but if we can break out of our self-made mold we will discover a world brimming with possibilities. That’s the kind of honesty Patanjali is advocating.

 

5/10/11

Sutra II:38

One firmly established in walking the path of the Absolute gains energy.

 

         Nitya’s commentary mostly reprises the traditional dualistic scheme of four stages of life, of which brahmacharya is the first. The class, led by Deb’s introduction, was intent on viewing brahmacharya—walking in the light of the Absolute—as a unitive feature of a life lived in honesty and attending to its underlying significance, present in all stages of life.

         Deb noted that the mark of brahmacharya was not the rote following of a fixed path, but the ecstasy of being in tune with your innate interests. When we are tuned into our loves, time flies, and when we are trying to adapt ourselves to a poorly fitting format, time drags. Narayana Guru makes the same point in Atmo, verse 15: “To those fortunate ones who are enjoying the cream of absolute wisdom, ten thousand years appears no more than a fleeting instant. But to those who are caught in the snare of relativism, even a split second can seem an eternity,” in Nitya’s free translation in the appendix of That Alone.

         Paradoxically though, being energized isn’t simply a matter of always doing what we want on the spur of the moment. Doing so embroils us more and more in prakriti, in the obligatory tentacles of nature. Until we are well trained as guides for our own scouting expeditions, we sometimes have to follow a prescribed path to lead us out of the tangle of undergrowth in which we wake up to find ourselves. But it’s still important to not mistake the temporary guidance for a narrow-minded program set in stone. As Paul pointed out, pretty soon we'll be worshipping the stones instead of the freedom, the pointing finger instead of the moon.

         All the so-called “true paths” were once plausible suggestions made by wise seers, but over time superstitious followers replaced the living teaching embodied in them with rote memorization. The further they got from the meaning, the more doctrinaire they became about adhering exactly to the suggested steps they were supposed to take to get there. Which is the opposite of the intent, obviously. You can stick with a program for awhile, but the intention is to be free, not to fall in love with the program.

         I see fixed paths as being like the old dance training programs where there were feet painted on the floor with numbers on them, and you stepped on them in sequence to get the idea of the requisite movements. But only a deranged person would insist that you always use the painted footsteps. Once you learn the dance, you are meant to express it freely all over the floor, totally discarding the training aids.

         Patanjali tells us the benefit that comes from always seeing the Absolute in everything, which is the gist of brahmacharya, is that it gives us energy. It's really astonishing not only how energetic but how efficient and effective tuned in people are.

         Deb well remembers meeting Nataraja Guru at the World Parliament of Religions in Shastamkodha in 1971. It was a very intense, bustling time, and she would be exhausted by midday. The Guru got up at five every morning to give his talk, then supervised the whole gathering all day long. In the evening he would be sitting and conversing with groups of interested attendees. The last thing Deb saw as she headed for bed was his holding court in the dark, and the first thing she saw as she stumbled out of bed bleary-eyed was Nataraja Guru admiring the dawn while preparing to give his morning class. Her feeling was that he was never a social entity, he was always exactly himself, and so there was no strain on him at any time. We get tired because we are trying to manage our life, which is intrinsically unmanageable. If we can tap into the vast reservoir of energy that resides in our core, our energy supply is endless. In at least one sense brahmacharya is learning how to access our own inner solar fusion explosion.

         Gandhi might take the cake, or one of them. Easvaran summarizes a typical day when Gandhi was in his sixties:

 

He gets up at three in the morning to start answering correspondence; he confers with Indian leaders through the day, gives press interviews, has his prayer meeting and walk after dinner, and then goes at eight in the evening for another four-hour session with the English Viceroy of India. The fate of our country depended on the outcome of those talks; he should have been bowed under the burden. Instead, at midnight, he walks home discussing the meeting with colleagues, lies down to sleep at one, and gets his secretary up at three to start the next day! This kind of life went on for months at a time, and it is a thrilling confession when he tells us that he throve on it. A life without challenges, he said—a life where you are not being stretched to the utmost—simply is not worth living. It shows what capacities we all have, if we can only remove the crust of self-centered living what prevents them from coming into play. (Gita, Vol III, 421)

 

I have now entered my sixties too, and if I can get in two effective hours in a day I feel I have overextended myself, and have to take a few days off to recover…. Apparently it’s a major high to have your finger on the pulse of a whole nation. But my humble life is also worth living, at least for me if not for the multitudes it has no impact on whatsoever. Or does it?

         John brought up a seemingly tangential issue that turned out to be central, mentioning the recent eruption of freedom in several Middle East countries previously dominated by dictators. The energy of the Absolute, within communal groups as much as within individuals, periodically finds a way to burst through the tamasic crust that keeps it bottled up much of the time. Just as dictators are the human superego writ large, controlling the entire populace, our conscious mind suppresses our inner exuberance, and converts it into a docile servant. The wild horse of our psyche is tamed and made into a beast of burden. As we have been discussing for many weeks if not months now, creativity emerges of its own accord when our controlling cortex is suppressed. Our life could exhibit a dynamic tension between an inner fountain source and a guiding intelligence, but all too often we overdo the controlling part and shut off the flow. Yoga is not simply executing the dictator and letting the masses run wild with their guillotines, it is making peace between the government and the people, between the cortex and the rest of the brain.

         This is particularly exciting because knowing there is a homogeneity between the macrocosm and the microcosm means that by changing ourselves we really may change the world. Very few of us have what it takes to restructure Tunisia or Egypt, but we do have access to our own self. If we learn to make peace and promote the energy lying latent within us, perhaps the macrocosm will reflect it. Perhaps that’s what’s happening now. And perhaps we can attribute the widespread dictatorships and unheeding government bureaucracies at all levels to our own obliviousness to our legitimate inner demands….

         Revolutions traditionally fail because the pure energy pouring out is perverted into being a counterforce against the existing suppressive elements. The top dogs always want to sabotage the blooming of freedom-loving people, and the pitched battle between them destroys the core vision and converts it into a dualistic conflict, us against them, good against evil. That way, either the old forces of stasis win or the revolution becomes a new stasis, and begins repressing the next upwelling. The yogic way is to throw light on the whole situation so that the opposing sides can see how they are inextricably entwined, and that if they can learn to tolerate each other they will mutually benefit. Okay, sure, revolutions in the political sphere only happen rarely and with tremendous disruption, so in the meantime we need to discover how our own delicately poised presiding consciousness can make peace with our furiously suppressed unconscious bliss. When we do it will release tremendous energy, and we will have the joyous task of harmoniously directing it into appropriate channels.

 

5/17/11

Sutra II: 39

Non-possessiveness being confirmed, knowledge of the “how” and “wherefore” of existence arises.

 

         Only twenty classes remain in our detailed study of Patanjali, which is now finishing its third year. The general trend toward deepening, serious consideration of the subject took a minor detour last night, with the combination of birthday cake, full moon and a rare sunny evening making more for lighthearted chatting than pointed self-examination reinforced by respectful listening. That’s why this is a study and not a fait accompli: it’s not easy to get to the bottom of things. There is a lot that can distract us, and we need to make an effort to force it into the background, at least during class.

         Nitya’s comments are somewhat scattered too, which probably didn’t help, but he is angling toward what matters here. He underscores the radical interpretation of the Gurukula that aparigraha, non-possessiveness, is not about whether or not we have possessions and how many, but about being free in our psyche of the need to possess. The two are only tangentially related. Needing to possess is a cheap substitute for being ourselves. Nitya’s thrust is that we seek to possess our very aliveness, and that’s what we unconsciously cling to, to our eternal detriment. It breeds in us a sense of impoverishment. Being alive isn’t going to last, so we should learn to not take it for granted. If we can dare to do this, we become rich with the endless bounty of a universe that belongs to everyone. Possessing means we cling to a tiny bit; non-possessiveness means there are no limits.

         Patanjali’s point, also somewhat obscurely stated, is that by letting go of the need to ratify our identity through external factors, we obtain a vast, open vision of the meaning of existence. Nitya suggests that it’s more likely to be the other way round: when we embrace the true infinitude of the universe, we quite naturally cease to need to cling to any little sliver of it.

         Pointing out how attached other people are to possessions is the flip side of being attached to possessions ourselves. The gurus are inviting us to move entirely out of that limited and limiting context, to embrace the whole miraculous universe. The subtle way we are hooked easily eludes us unless we seriously confront it, however.

         It’s too easy to look at the sad cases of those who desperately try to hold on to their possessions in order to nail down their imaginary persona, which often progresses into a mania because the soul is never satisfied. Since possessions don’t cure the craving but inflame it, many become obsessed with getting More. And yes, you can interpret a lot of human folly in those terms. But we know that already. What we don’t know is how we ourselves are attached to life. Nitya suggests that if we can surrender that, we will truly learn how to laugh and be joyful.

         Ann had a question about Nitya’s comment: “It is ridiculous that people go so far as to think of another person as theirs: ‘my daughter,’ ‘my son,’ ‘my wife,’ ‘my husband.’” His proposition is that if you truly understand, you cannot think of possessing anyone. Sure, if you are using “my” only as a point of reference, then it is a helpful term. But behind that pronoun there can be many degrees of possessiveness. In extreme cases, people think of their children or their spouse as their chattel, utterly subject to their domination. Some scriptures even make that explicit. The yogi’s challenge is to remove all the chains of bondage associated with the sense of “my” or “mine.” Like the Canadian Mounties, we have to always be on guard to see what hopes and other pressures are lurking within what we imagine to be a simple word referring to ourselves, but which is likely to be a cover for a snake pit of unmet needs.

         The class did have a good discussion of the delicate balance between not caring at all and caring too much about our dear family. All agreed that it’s nearly impossible to remain philosophical about losing a child, and if you could it would indicate you had a serious problem. The pain of loved ones dying is one of the main reasons for seekers traditionally omitting having a family at all: since the pain of separation is inevitable, avoid the family and you can avoid the attendant complications. But here again, most of us are willing to risk that pain for the tremendous gain of intimate relationships. We just have to be prepared for them to end, one way or another.

         Paul gave a great example. His uncle developed Alzheimer’s disease, with its typical gradual deterioration. For a long time the family made efforts to remind him of who they were: “I’m your son,” “I’m your niece,” “I’m your wife,” and so on. It became extremely frustrating that he couldn’t remember, as everyone kept trying harder and harder to remind him of who they were. But these identities are forms of possession, and fictitious to our inner being. When the family finally let go of trying to maintain their identities with him, it was a great relief. They just related to him directly, heart to heart, and it was okay. Of course, watching someone fade away is wrenching, but when they gave up trying to maintain their superficial nomenclature it was easier to appreciate what was left.

         Michael talked about how his possessions, mostly books and other media, are his friends. He knows and loves them. So-called possessions can be terrific in that way. You aren’t always starting from scratch, you have your friends right there with you. The problem is not the possessions, it’s the possessiveness. If Michael was obsessed with guarding his books, and didn’t feel whole without them, that would require correction. But loving them while knowing in the back of your mind that they are not eternal is a beautiful thing.

         So the real question is, what “stuff” do we believe makes us who we are? Are we anything without our stuff? What is it that we are, then? This is the meditation that takes us into uncharted territory and helps us to lighten our load.

         Near death experiences give us a preview of what we truly are without any adjuncts: a spirit divested of nature, purusha distinct from prakriti. We are That. Our souls have become manifested to play in nature for awhile, and then we will have it all stripped away again. We need to play as sentient creatures, never forgetting that what we do is not who we are in essence. It’s only a game, a lila. But nature is very sticky to catch us and convince us we are nothing more than our name and form and reputation. Reputation can easily include “I'm not into possessions.” These figments are like twining vines that can wrap around us and hold us fast. So yogis regularly remind themselves that they are much more than what they appear to be, and then they remain free.

 

Part II

         I’m afraid I had to run outside for awhile, because there is not a cloud in the sky today, and it might be the only day this year. So I needed to go out for a bit, not so much to possess it as to be possessed by it. But there are a couple of very important issues still to set down.

         Brenda hit on a very important aspect of aparigraha. She knows a number of 20-somethings, many of whom share the feelings of her 27-year-old friend who was complaining to her about the “cruelty of aging.” Keep in mind this is a woman who has dropped down to around 98% of her peak. But her attitude is tragic. She is fairly typical—we all feel immortal in our teens and twenties, and figure it is just stupidity that makes other people grow old. We certainly aren’t going to! And then when the fading begins, we are horrified. We take increasingly desperate measures to try to preserve our physical glory: cosmetic surgery, lotions and creams, diet and exercise, you name it. All because we identify with a temporary image instead of our real self. There is a lot of despair over our withering. I realize now that it isn’t just mental realignment that brings on the midlife crisis around age 40, it’s also the undeniable fact of our corpuscular disintegration.

         The Gita, in IX, 26, tells us that we should be content with ourselves at any age: “He who offers to Me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, that do I accept as being offered with devotion by one who makes the right effort.” Even Nataraja Guru took this as referring to a physical offering on an actual shrine, but what it really means is that at every stage of life and every stage of our spiritual development, our being is just right. We aren’t just moving toward some peak value, we are always the peak value. The leaf is the childhood, the flower those eternally young boys and girls in the full flush of life, the fruit a sign of maturity and success, and the water is the juice squeezed out of the fruit: the essence, which is all we have left when we are old and beginning to go bad. Instead of trying to buck the one way treadmill to dust we are on, we could appreciate every nuance of the journey. It requires an unpossessive attitude about our body.

         Even more than our physical form, our mental orientation is the thing we most possess, and which keeps us most tightly bound. When we arrive at class we are carrying our mindset with us. All of us have worked very hard to make it excellent, and we treasure it very much. We want it to be admired. Still, this is a moment when we have an opportunity to set it aside and sit in freedom. It can be a great relief to abstain from even the most excellent mindset! And doing so makes room for new information to come in. Sometimes we do it well, and then sometimes we are so busy holding fast to it that we remain in our fastnesses for the whole evening. Respectful listening to others, and responding to them before bringing the discussion back to where we want it to be, is a technique to wriggle out from the grip of our own mental baggage (pun intended). Otherwise we sit biding our time, waiting for our chance, and hearing very little.

         We don't have to say anything about how firm beliefs wrap us into a straitjacket. That's been a theme all along in this study. Rigid beliefs can make us give up even the pretense of listening, of being open.

         So these are a few of the more subtle aspects of possessiveness, our body, mind, our expectations and hopes, our beliefs. These are much harder to let go of than taking some old toys to the recycling center. Aparigraha means being confident enough that we are who we are to not need to pad ourselves out with extra decorations. Taken that way, it is one of the most central aspects of a happy life.

 

Scott Teitsworth

rsteitsworth(at)yahoo.com