Memory is the not slipping
away of experienced impressions.
The class again
amazed me. I thought this would be a boring, throwaway session, yet we quickly
unearthed some very important instructions. Granted, we infringed on territory
of the next couple of verses, when Patanjali instructs on what to do about
memory, but there is still plenty more digging to be done on the subject.
One problem with the
commentary is that most of it would probably have been better as part of an
introduction. Nitya mainly gives an overview of the yogic scheme of
consciousness, and this is something we have been over many times before. It
makes sense, of course, because he wanted to place memory in its proper context
for readers of this book. Memory’s significance comes home at last at the
bottom of page 51:
new experience] presents an occasion to look into previous experiences and
assemble before our mind all relevant memories. Before the focusing of our
attention on what is presented, an uncritical flash of judgment comes from the
frozen past held together by tamas. Consequently, the first phase of cognition
is bound to be prejudicial.
John got us off to a
fast start by asking, “Okay, so our whole mental outlook is shaped by memory.
What can we do about it?”
The most important
thing is to recognize that what we’re seeing is compromised by our prejudices.
As Nancy said, this should make us all very tolerant of others, more
open-minded and less judgmental. Ordinary, uninstructed people cherish their
prejudices. They feel their identity as human beings is a direct result of
their beliefs and opinions. Thus they are ready to do battle with those who
have different ideas. The yogi, on the other hand, intelligently countermands
the conditioned associations that automatically arise in the brain end of the
body. In order to be free to meet the present moment fully, we must shrug off
the “first phase of cognition” by actively balancing each snap judgment with a
dialectical complement. This is hard work, which may account for the widespread
popularity of untempered prejudice in the world. Memories aren’t simply
dissociated thoughts, they are wired into our emotional realm of semiconscious
fears and attractions. They are precisely calibrated to affect us viscerally. Thus it is much easier to go along with them than to
actively neutralize them.
from realizing that our initial impulse is at best only part of the story, and at worst completely erroneous. We have to
overcome our emotional reaction to be available to assimilate any new
information, so we can meet the actual situation correctly. This is why
Narayana Guru famously advised that “Ours is not to argue and win, but to know
and let know.” A prejudiced person seeks the triumph of their opinions; a wise
person is eager to incorporate new insights, and is happy to share them with
those who are of a similarly open mindset.
Anne and I related
some of the many psychological studies that demonstrate how little we
truthfully perceive the world, and how much is projection and wishful thinking.
It’s somewhat frightening to contemplate, and as Nancy said, it makes you
wonder how our world can even function to the extent that it does. One
experiment that stands out is performed annually by a psychology professor. He
stages his own murder by a knife-wielding assailant in plain sight in the front
of the classroom. The killer then stands for ten seconds facing the class,
before running off. A few days later, the students are asked to pick the
murderer out of a police-type lineup, the classic method of identifying
suspects, where the guilty one is mixed into a line of eight or ten loosely
matched people. The average success rate of identification in the experiment is
14 percent. And this is with a full view in broad daylight. Many people have
been given capital punishment based on the testimony of witnesses that caught a
brief glimpse of them running away down a dark alley at night. No wonder
victims of prejudice such as those with darker skins are found guilty more
often. Such “unbiased” testimony causes disasters great and small day in and
day out. Few are those willing to admit that they aren’t sure: our minds are
highly trained to give the “right” answer to every question posed to them. If
we aren’t yogis, we may insist on our rightness even against common sense and
good judgment, in matters of politics or religion as well as jurisprudence.
interesting studies have shown that we recall as true things that we have heard
or read in the past, even if those were patently false, and even if they were
claimed to be false at the time. We have a vague conscious memory of something,
and since we remember it we give it the sanction of truth. Propaganda thus has
an easy time of propagation in uncritical thinkers. Needless to say, this can
lead us far afield. Unchallenged propaganda can “allure us and lead us off to
kill,” as Thomas Merton puts it in Faith and Violence. A yogi or critical thinker would insist on doubting
the very notions that enjoy social encomium.
Anita asked about
the claims of many religions that there is a pool of collective memory
somewhere that can be accessed by astral travelers. These have fascinated the
curious over the millennia, and there is probably some basis for the idea, like
an akashic field or the quantum vacuum as storehouses of information. But most
of it turns out to be fantasy, or at best a symbolic representation of our own
incredibly complex memory banks projected into the outside world.
Edgar Cayce was
perhaps the most famous partisan of the akashic field, claiming to go into the
sky to a library full of file cabinets where he could select whatever
information he desired. Most of his predictions turned out to be false,
however. This is a gray area where charlatans thrive, although Cayce himself
appears to have been an altruistic soul. I was once fascinated by him, and read
several of his books, but it boiled down to an empty fascination with
arbitrarily mysterious flights of fancy. Many who took psychedelic trips were
prone to such leaps of imagination, but they didn’t lead us anywhere. So for
Gurukula students, the call is to break free of memory bondage to discover the
part of our nature that is beyond its influence, not to go in search of more
memory, or a putative memory pool of future events.
Folks who have been
misled by their blind spots in the past and want to avoid such tragedies in the
future are perfect candidates for yoga instruction. Nitya concludes his
is the cause for bondage, and avoidance of relativistic memory brings freedom
from the phenomenality of life. In short, the bulk of the content of mind is
memory. And memory persuades a person to live obligatorily. The final goal of
Yoga is transcendence, kaivalya, and hence smriti or memory is considered a major obstacle or
obstruction in the path of freedom.
As Deb pointed out,
there is a conundrum here. Memory is essential to our existence. It makes us
who we are, and allows us to live coherently. We think of those who have lost their
memories as being in a kind of living death, a nightmare existence. But memory
is also bondage. If we break away from it, will we become enlightened yogis or
There are many
different types of memory. It’s important to notice that Nitya specifically
exhorts us to avoid relativistic
memory. The class noted that modern neuroscience has shown that apparently
every shred of our experience is recorded somehow in our brains, even in
greater detail than we are consciously aware of at the time it happened. This
does comprise our personality, with all its quirks and charms, and it cannot be
subtracted from consciousness short of massive brain death. But we have
(hopefully) gone beyond the purely conditioned behavior of wild animals, for whom
caution is paramount for survival. We can now safely penetrate into areas of
freedom, called samadhi in the present study. To do so we must transcend the
bondage of our still small outlook based as it is on socially approved fairy
tales. Yoga teaches us how to accomplish this.
Please share an
experience where you (or someone you know) realized at some point that your
expectations had blinded you to what was really going on, and how you adjusted
to the new awareness.
They are restrained by
repetitive practice and detachment.
“They” of course are
memories. It would probably be helpful to gather all the sutras of this section
together, since each alone is but a fragment:
11) Memory is the not
slipping away of experienced impressions.
12) They are restrained by
repetitive practice and detachment.
13) Of these, repetitive
practice is the effort to maintain steadiness.
14) And this is firmly
grounded, being well-attended to for a long time without interruption and with
15) Detachment is the
consciousness of mastery in one who is free from thirst for seen and heard of
16) That is the highest vairågya: through awareness of the Self, there is freedom from
the least desire for the three qualities of nature.
John wanted to know
what the difference was between detachment and non-attachment. In one sense
they are the same, but detachment can also refer (as it does here) to the
process of breaking free of something, while being unattached means the freedom
is already accomplished. As Nancy mentioned, this is a very important
distinction. Detachment can be and often is a cloak for aversion, leading to
avoidance: you don’t want to face some unpleasant situation or truth, and so
you actively ignore it. Once it is deep enough in the unconscious to be
invisible, you take pride that you have achieved detachment. It’s a relief to
feel that the unpleasantness is gone. But as any psychologist knows, it will
just sit there and motivate you all the more and in bizarre if not downright
psychotic ways, depending on how important it is.
Paul assured us that
this study was not about repressing unpleasantness to escape from the impact of
the world, but to free us to participate in the world unencumbered by the
colorations of our conditioning. As we free ourselves, we become more present,
not less. It is essential to keep this in mind as we proceed, because as mature
adults we have dealt with the easy stuff, but as we go deeper into the Yoga
Sutras we will be meeting some of the better-hidden “monsters from the id.” It
can get pretty intense if you aren’t taking it as seriously as Patajali
We read only half of
the long commentary on this sutra. There is a minor error in the first part,
where Nitya compares the Indian and Western models of vasana and genetic
instinct. He says that the Indian model is vertical and the Western is
horizontal, but in fact both are vertical. Both relate to progression over
time, to the effects of the past on the present, to its impact on the
horizontal world in the present. The difference is more about materialism
versus consciousness, or physics versus metaphysics. The Westerner is always
looking for a material cause, while the rishi traces the source to the atma,
the self. Once you investigate either of these far enough, they begin to look
very similar, and Nitya himself bridges the arbitrary gap he made:
Western and Indian views can be profitably combined into a complementary whole.
Whether taken genetically or as a psychic continuance, we come to the
conclusion that every thought in us is deeply engrained. Our fear and hope are
not surface manifestations. In that case, the problem of erasing a
conditioning, changing a habit, and reorganizing our mind cannot be easily
This assumption is
really the starting point of our journey. We admit to ourselves that our
surface life is an echo of something deeper, and we dedicate ourselves to
discovering what that is. We know it will not be easy, that we can’t simply
change ourselves through wishful thinking and false claims. We have to really
learn to see our true nature, unadorned by the constructs we have built up to
conceal it. When Patanjali speaks of freeing ourselves of memories, he means
these attachments and prejudices that veil the world and our nature in an
imaginative gauzy spider web of illusions.
Nitya then goes on
to describe the fourfold color grades or varnas that these conditionings sort
us into. Sanskrit scholars resemble Aristotle more than a little in their urge
to classify and categorize, and the first broad distinction of types is found
here. The Bhagavad Gita goes into this matter in great depth, for those who
want to pursue it further. We concluded our reading with an overview of the
work we do by living as yogis:
your actualization, you require appropriate instruments, congenial
environments, and the will to actualize. Thus it is up to you to live in an
environment that is not conducive for drawing out the potentials of any evil
disposition with which you are genetically endowed. Again it is up to you not
to will an action that can strengthen an evil samskara, a malignant disposition. It is again in your power to
nullify the potentiality of a negative force by accentuating the positive
thrust of a benevolent disposition.
At the moment we are
employing the instrument of Nitya’s commentary and the congenial environment of
the study group. Our success depends on our will to actualize what we learn. We
know that part of us resists the teaching, and is very clever about it, so we
have to boldly press ahead. We should not allow ourselves to be put off by
puerile deterrences and distractions. We need to take a firm resolve.
Otherwise, a wishy-washy approach may get us into deep water before we learn
how to swim. We would be better off to stay on the shore, lounging on the beach
and telling stories about what we imagine might be out there.
assignment is intended to bring up deep-seated conditioning so we can actualize
our detachment, become steady, and attain real freedom. It will continue
throughout the study. For now there was such a high level of participation that
it will have to be presented in a second installment.
I’m very happy that
everyone took the homework seriously. I even got a couple of emails, which are
pretty rare these days.
Deb started us off
by telling us how when she met new people as a child, she sometimes would hate
them, but the ones she hated became best friends later. On quizzing her, the feeling
wasn’t hatred exactly, but more like disdain or derision: “What an idiot!” She
now felt that the person must’ve touched something in her that initially
reacted negatively, but then she learned it was actually in accord with
was experienced by many people, though perhaps not to such an extreme. I know
I’m always amazed by how my initial assessment of people is modified by getting
to know them. It’s really fun to see how the criticism and caution are replaced
by amity, as the cardboard cutout of the first impression is fleshed out.
Scotty related a
story in the same vein, about when he was 9 or so. There was another kid who
lived nearby, and whenever they ran into each other he would be wracked with a
strong negative emotion, so strong it was an actual physical reaction. He
wondered if he was doomed to fight the kid, so they’d pass each other on
opposite sides of the street. This happened frequently for a couple of years.
Then one day they came face to face, and they stood there trembling with that
same almost magnetic enmity. Then Scotty wrestled out, “I.. think… we’re…
supposed… to… be… friends.” It broke the ice, and everything normalized after
How terrific for a
youngster to be able to turn that situation into a positive one! Eugene said he
definitely would’ve fought the guy, and I think most boys would have, or at
least run away and taunted from behind a tree. The word ‘friend’ can be a
peacemaker by itself. I was once in a very dangerous situation with a hoodlum bent
on killing me. I said, “Hey, let’s be friends!” He was so stupefied and
surprised to not be confronted that he drove away as fast as he could.
Scotty also talked
about his time as a teacher at Head Start, which here in Portland is almost
exclusively attended by African American kids. He was comfortable with the
kids, but when graduation day came he was conscious that the parents were
hostile toward him. Suddenly he felt what it was like to be in a minority, the
embarrassment and exposed feeling, if not the danger. Undoubtedly in that
position whatever hostility was present would be exaggerated in his
imagination, and having been to a couple of those graduations myself I can
attest that Albina Head Start is not a hothouse of racial tension. But our
minds have quite properly evolved to acutely tune in to danger and ignore
nonthreatening situations. If one or two people are hostile and everyone else
friendly, we will focus on the ones that represent a threat.
repetitive practice comes in. We react due to our conditioning-—much of it
genetic—-in ways that we can recognize as inappropriate. We can gently remind
ourselves of the logic of the situation, and eventually get over it. Probably
we will always react to being outsiders with some degree of alarm. It’s
natural, and even healthy. But the yogi makes friends, overcomes the prejudice,
quells the fears. An undisciplined person amplifies and exaggerates the fears,
reinforces the prejudice, and makes enemies.
Teaching was another
main theme of our discussion. Eugene had taught high school for a half dozen
years. Each year he became intimate with his students, and then they would go
away for the summer and come back distant and cool. Or he would never see them
again, because they’d graduate or drop out. He found this very hard, and
realized it was due to some need for connection on his part. The class’s
solution was to recommend repetition, that after a few more years he would be
okay with the inevitable turnover of students.
Like most of us,
Eugene early in life had been afraid of meeting new people, and eventually
realized it was of way of protecting his own sensitivity. We fear being judged,
and even if we aren’t, the fear itself makes us miserable. But often we are
judged, in this crazy world, and it reinforces our defensiveness. Identity
politics at its best is a way to gain confidence about yourself despite being
marginalized by the social mainstream. A happy and fulfilling life proceeds
from inner self-confidence, and is not supplied from without, although it is
almost always beneficially engaged with its surroundings.
This led Eugene to
reintroduce a theme he has been struggling with as an adult, related to the
detachment/avoidance issues we talked about earlier. He believes that we are
ratified as valuable individuals by the energy we give to others, but at the
same time the giving can seem arbitrary and egotistical. So should we give up
or keep pressing? This is a difficult conundrum, and a good example of how
important our beliefs are. We will choose to do what we think is best.
Different religions span the spectrum on this matter from recommending intense
workaholism to abject idleness. Plus, rude opposition can make us want to give
up our idealism, as can our association with less motivated friends. There are
many factors to consider in choosing one’s optimal place on this spectrum, and
it helps to know that none is absolutely right or wrong. You have to find what
suits you, according to your innate predilections. There will be a lot of pondering
about this very question throughout the yoga study.
example was about when he coached groups of kids in a competition called
Odyssey of the Mind. The coach is not allowed to make any suggestion, but is
reduced to “herding cats” as he put it. Bill is someone who usually likes to be
in charge, so it was a perfect antidote to his normal inclinations. There are
times that by holding yourself in check, you let other people flower, and this
was a particularly good example.
Paul talked about a
couple of ideas. He tends to be shy and uncomfortable around groups of people,
and has examined why, and that has helped. He had an epiphany lately where he
was in a public place feeling a measure of self-pity, and then he saw a child
bend down and look at a blade of grass in rapt wonderment. He instantly
identified with that state, and knew that the wonder lifted you out of
self-absorption automatically. If we try to push away our misery it grows
bigger, so instead we must turn to the light. Light banishes darkness. As the
Gita (II, 59) claims, “The residual relish disappears on the One Beyond being
sighted.” Paul has also noticed how many of us learn to defer responsibility to
others. In a way we are trained to abdicate our sovereignty, leaving us at the
mercy of our conditioning and the whims of strangers. This is one of the most
far-reaching effects of memory. We “remember ourselves” right out of touch with
As I thought about
the homework assignment, I realized that pretty much every situation in life is
tainted by our expectations and learned limitations. I wanted to select a few
that had the most impact on our peace of mind. I brought some outside examples,
but felt I should start with something personal.
As a child I had
been carefully instructed that in any dispute I should consider that everybody
else was right and I was wrong. In other words, the world is perfect and
well-adjusted, and only I am somehow screwed up. It took a long time for me to
realize that this was not the case, and the world was a madhouse that sometimes
functioned adequately in spite of itself. Recovering from that false belief was
an immensely long learning curve for me. For years I internalized every angry
outburst, accident, mistake and act of meanness around me. It caused an immense
amount of pain and self-doubt. Pain and doubt do have their uses, and it may be
that my vasana to become a yogi was responsible. Who knows? But I began to have
doubts about the belief itself when I was accused of things I definitely knew I
At around 13 years
of age a neighbor kid who had been caught smoking a cigarette told his parents
that I had taught him how. I was a sworn enemy of tobacco and knew it was a
lie, but I went through a third degree grilling over it. The experience opened
my eyes to a more realistic view of the world. Still, my initial impulse is to
take the blame for every ill.
Interestingly, in my
early work with him Nitya pushed those same buttons. He was trying to smash my
ego, and it was an ace technique. We had some difficulties, and I went to his
room to try to clear them up. He wouldn’t accept any explanation. I became more
and more upset from my inability to convince him of my innocence and good
intentions. At one point he actually said, “If other people think you are wrong
and only you think you are right, then you are certainly wrong.” It hit right
in the center of my self-respect, and I was devastated. Later he told me, a
lifetime pacifist, “If I try to correct you, you will go and get a gun and come
back and shoot me.” It was too much. I loved him desperately, but he saw me as
a hate filled killer. I had no option but to back away. It precipitated five
years of extreme doubt and self-examination. Only some thirty years later, reading
Love and Blessings, did I see that Nataraja Guru had used a similar technique
on him, leading to his “first serious break with the Gurukula.” I tell this
tale as an example of how a guru works with conditionings to cure a disciple of
them. Nataraja Guru used to say that a drastic disease needs a drastic cure.
While we may be talking gently about cures in our study group, at some point
there has to be a strong personal confrontation with our hangups or we may not
be able to wholly break free of them.
I also did a lot of
musing about the Santa Claus syndrome, when we discover our belief in something
sweet and beautiful turns out to be baseless, or at least very different from
what we originally thought. I still remember the sense of betrayal in finding
out dear Santa was a myth, and it was hard taking my children through the same
transition. Recently a friend sent a hilarious video of Bruce Lee playing
impossible ping-pong with a numchuck. I already knew the video was a fake, and
that pretty much anything can be done with visual images these days. But my
friend was crushed. It makes a huge difference if you believe something or if
you think it’s a lie. The film is the same, but in one instance you get joy and
amazement, and in the other it may still be amusing but it’s a pale imitation
of what you felt before you were disillusioned.
So should we
disillusion ourselves, or try for better and better illusions? Does wonder and
delight depend on illusion, and are we better or worse off after
disillusionment? Should we leave it to someone else to destroy their own
illusions, or is it fair to help them out? These are legitimate questions at
the heart of what we’re looking into right now. The questions are bigger than a
Bruce Lee video. Think of the 911 cover story and other false flag operations
used to paint Muslims as evil and worthy of destruction, the JFK assassination,
the financial meltdown occasioned by smoke and mirrors. We believe in
falsehoods all over the place, and we don’t like it when they fall apart. We
may well be marginalized in society if we do pierce the illusion. Illusion is
I brought up the
example of Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan series. The books were a sensation in
the late 1960s and early 1970s. I myself was a big fan, along with several
others in the class. After awhile I began to notice that each new book was more
and more outlandish, like a little kid seeing how far he could push his luck.
We’ve seen that
syndrome with the Bush administration, too. Once they realized no one would
stop them, they went as far as they could wielding the lies, to the sorrow of
the whole world. In that case it meant disaster; with Castaneda, it meant
beauty and even a transmission of wisdom.
I read the first
book of criticism on Castaneda to come out, and it plainly exploded any
pretense to factuality. Since then I cannot read those books anymore. I want
to. I have nice copies of all of them, but if I pick one up I can’t get excited
about it. But they once made an impact on millions of readers, and there was
even a Castaneda cult for his whole life. There is probably still something
going on. That’s how religions get started.
Anyway, growing up
means dispensing with illusions to gain freedom, but we want it to be a gain
and not a loss. The process should make us happier, and yet it can make us
cynical and miserable. The latter tragedy happens because most people don’t
look for the reality behind the veil. They strip away the veil and find
Nothingness. But tearing away the veil is only part of the game, albeit an
ongoing, lifelong process. We aim to find the underlying reality clothed in
Nothingness that is the true source of joy, amusement, happiness, and yes, even
That’s the gist of
our class discussion. The rest are appended as further examples that arrived
via email and literature. Please share your own examples at any time during the
study as they are revealed to you. I think people are eager to hear about them,
as they are eminently practical. I also solicit feedback on whether we should
cherish or disdain our illusions. Or is there a third way?
In class, Anne
synthesized a lot of our talk by noting that our expectations are based on
memory and conditioning, and the Gita urges us to give up expectations. A
couple of emails underscored this important concept.
Jean Norrby wrote of
her shattered expectations about teaching. She was hired as an English teacher
in rural Oregon, and took the job filled with optimism and high ideals. These
crashed on the shoals of disastrous reality. She had a horrible time, and if
you write her I’m sure she would share her story with you. I’ll paste in just
two sentences: “While people in Portland were going through 100 verses of
self-instruction, I was going through more than 100 days of self-destruction.
So many bad things happened that at one point I was weeping hysterically in a
corner, being comforted by some nice girls.” This is an example of being
disillusioned as painfully as possible. Friends feel free to talk up a certain
vocation, or marriage, or fifty-mile hikes, but they don’t dare tell you the
downside, and let’s face it, we don’t like to listen to naysayers ourselves. We
prefer to find out the hard way.
Anita wrote about a friend
who had just died, and the difference a change in attitude about death can
produce. She concluded by saying:
suppose in some way, this experience is like the homework assignment you gave.
Where in the past my beliefs would have had me “up against the ropes‚” filled
with anguish over Ed’s death, the wisdom teachings that I have been exposed to
helped me to open my eyes and come closer to understanding the beauty of the
passage from this life beyond.
On a lighter note,
Anita also told me of a surprising event that revealed her inner transformation
to her. Like Bill, she learned that by holding yourself back from interfering
it allows others to gain independence. Briefly, her cat Leo got out of the
house while she was feeding a wild cat by the back door. She has been dreading
this, expecting them to fight, so she had a momentary freakout. But then she
thought that she should just let it be, that the situation would take care of
itself. Sure enough, the cats gently touched noses and then her indoor kitty
stood quietly while the wild one finished her meal. Anita recognized that this
was an example of a real change in how she relates to the world. She no longer
feels she has to control everything in order to protect it from harm, she is
confident that events will take their course as they are meant to. It takes
quite a load off one’s mind when you feel you can trust the Absolute, and thus
The book Everyday
Survival, by Laurence Gonzales,
filled with interesting examples of what we’re talking about here. The subtitle
is Why Smart People Do Stupid Things, and the reason we do is the damping down
of our intelligence due to conditioning. The book inevitably has a somewhat
negative slant, since survival is linked up with threats to survival, but the
aim is positive, and it brings home the importance of the type of study that
yoga represents. Life isn’t solely a matter of adjusting to little
inconveniences. Sometimes it really packs a wallop. But we practice for the big
ones by paying attention to the ordinary ones. I thought the following example
was symbolic as well as very actual.
In the aftermath of
the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, animals fled to high ground, and all the native
Andaman Islanders also survived. Only those who weren’t as alert or were very unfortunate
died. Gonzales describes what happens when we are held captive in our memory
banks and unable to process a new situation, what he politely calls a vacation
state of mind:
video… shows a lone man facing the sea as the wave approaches. He doesn’t move.
He just stares at it until it sweeps him away. Other videos show crowds of
people on the beach, watching the wave but doing nothing to escape. One of the
most haunting videos shows people on the beach at Penang, milling about,
walking casually, or standing in relaxed attitudes, hands on hips, as the great
wave approaches in the background. They seem completely unaware. One of them is
obviously recording the video. They all see the wave but do not move away. When
the wave reaches them at last, they laugh as it gathers around their feet and
ankles and begins to rise. Only when the wave knocks them off their feet and
starts to sweep them away do they scream, as they comprehend the grave
miscalculation they have made….
Educated and sophisticated as those
people may have been, their mental models and behavioral scripts were useless
when their environment underwent a completely predictable change. They had
created a stable mental model of their world and an indelible script for what
they were doing. They were on vacation in the benign sunshine of a happy beach.
Only at the last, as they were knocked over, did the wave sweep away that model
and rewrite that script, in many cases too late to do them any good in the
Those of us who
witnessed the Mt. St. Helens eruption of 1980 may remember an old and cheerful
character, Harry Truman, who had lived at the base of the volcano all his life.
Despite numerous warnings by scientists that the mountain’s eruption was
immanent, he didn’t believe it. “I’ve lived here for 80 years and it’s never
done that before!” he would say. He was almost certainly the first to die as
the largest landslide of recorded history roared down on him.
Both these example
shows that what Gonzales calls mental models and behavioral scripts, and
Vedantins call vasanas and samskaras, can paralyze us or make us stupid. Sure,
they have their good points, but unless we manage them with alert intelligence
we run the risk of being victimized by their bad side.
Baird sent the
following by Inayat Khan, apropos of nothing
and everything, but it fits well with our discussion. Despite outward
differences, Sufism and Vedanta are very similar at heart:
When an ordinary
or an illiterate person meets a poet, he sees the man-part and not the
poet-part. But if he is told that this person is a poet he may see the
poet-part when he meets him. He now sees that he is a poet in his actions and
in his words; in everything about him he sees the poet, whereas otherwise he
would not have been able to see this. Thus a great poet may go among a crowd
and the people will only see the man in him; they do not see the poet, and they
do not know how profound his thoughts are. So once a person begins to recognize
God in man he does not see the man any more but God. The man is the surface,
while God is deep within him. Such recognition brings a person into touch with
everyone's innermost being, and then he knows more about people than they know
Ah! how desirous
I was to see the divine Beloved!
It is not the
fault of the Beloved that you do not see;
He is before you!
It is the fault
of you who recognize Him not.
whatever you see is nothing else but
The Presence of
Finally, for those few still with me, economist David Korten
explains how our economic system exploits our illusory beliefs (tamasic mental
models) to divert wealth into the hands of the few. From the excellent and
positive Yes Magazine:
Don't Fix Wall Street,
by David Korten
Why not an economy of real
The current economic debate
centers on how best to revive our existing economic system through some
combination of a Wall Street bailout and a job-creating economic stimulus
package. That amounts to trying to revive an economic system that has failed in
every dimension: financial, social, and environmental. Rather than prop up a
failed system, we should use the current financial crisis as the opportunity to
create a system that works. Trying to solve the crisis with the same tools that
caused it is the definition of insanity.
As individuals, we humans
appear to be an intelligent species. Collectively, however, our behavior ranges
from supremely wise to suicidal. Our current collective economic insanity is
the product of an illusion-a belief, cultivated by the prevailing economic
orthodoxy, that money is wealth and that making money is the equivalent of
Money is merely an accounting
chit with no intrinsic value-it is useless until we exchange it for something
of real value. Wall Street's specialty is creating money for rich people
without the exertion of producing anything of corresponding real value. They
increase their claims against real wealth without increasing the supply of
goods, making it harder for the rest of us to meet our needs.
Real wealth is, first of all,
the tangible things that support life-food, shelter, clothing. Of course, the
most valuable forms of real wealth are those that are beyond price: love; a
healthy, happy child; a job that provides a sense of self-worth and
contribution; membership in a strong, caring community; a healthy vibrant
natural environment; peace. Our Wall-Street-driven economic system makes
fantastic amounts of money and actively destroys all these many forms of real
We have been in thrall to a
pervasive cultural story, continuously reinforced by academics, government
officials, and corporate media, which led us to believe our economy was
functioning splendidly even when it was quite literally killing us. You have
heard this story many times:
"Economic growth, as
measured by Gross Domestic Product, creates the wealth needed to provide
material abundance for all, increase human happiness, end poverty, and heal the
environment. The faster we consume, the faster the economy grows and the
wealthier we become as the rising tide lifts all boats."
The logical conclusion from
this story is that the faster we convert useful resources to toxic garbage, the
richer we are. The only true beneficiaries of this obviously stupid idea are a
few very rich people who reap financial gains from every economic
transaction—whether the transaction cures a disease or clearcuts a rainforest.
It is a system that deifies money and dilutes wealth.
In contrast, the Main Street
economy is comprised of local businesses and working people who produce real
goods and services to meet the real wealth needs of their communities. It has
been battered and tattered by the predatory intrusions of Wall Street
corporations, but it is the logical foundation on which to build a new, real
wealth economy of green jobs and green manufacturing, responsible
community-oriented businesses, and sound environmental practices.
Let Wall Street corporations
and their phantom wealth machine slip into the abyss of their own making.
Devote our public resources to building and strengthening Main Street
businesses and financial institutions devoted to creating real wealth in
service to their local communities.
A picture with us in it is
more interesting than one without. An old photo of family members we don’t know
is more interesting than one of an unknown group.
Sutra I: 12 Part II
Memory is restrained by
abhyasa and vairagya (repetitive practice and detachment).
Deb started us off
by expanding on a lovely idea of Nitya’s, that the collective memory of the
community is like a tapestry. Each of us contributes a small part of the whole
fabric, which is transmuted over time by our individual participation. Thus the
very thing that binds us is seen to be beautiful and inevitable. It is more
like a magic carpet that swishes us through space and time, following our
collective will, shaped by who we are.
Inevitable though it
is, the yogi intends to evade the limitations of the tapestry at least momentarily.
The web of collective samskaras is our fallback position, but we are striving
to step outside the woven, familiar part to discover new territory. It is
possible that the thread (sutra) that each of us represent links us to the
tapestry no matter what, but at least we will have stretched the tapestry into
a new, improved form. As Nitya tells us,
uncoil our personal consciousness, which is interwoven with the collective
unconscious, is not as easy as we might imagine. In certain cases there has to
be an abrupt breaking or the burning of bridges. This process is called tapas. Tapas is
the general name for the cultivation of detachment and the repetition of
Nitya goes on to note that
even in those who imagine themselves rational and unaffected by the collective
paradigm, archetypal imagery colors the mind. One example is the angry God and
the rebellious Satan that became converted to the superego and the id of Freud.
A yogi is expected to abandon worship of deities and instead see them as
“poetic fancies, metaphorically referring to deeper psychic realities.” Which
they are, they are.
This insight was
part of what Scotty found “spine tingling” about the study. He has only
recently discovered Gurukula philosophy, and is finding it exciting and
stimulating, revelatory even. He has been reading ahead with delight. So last
week he pitied me for my belief that Carlos Castaneda had his adventures in a
library basement instead of the Barranca del Cobre, but this week it’s okay.
While there is a certain value in worshipping hypostatic notions, for the yogi
the value is much greater to delve into their psychological meaning. We can doubt the factuality and still benefit from
whatever truths may be found, anywhere.
In any case, it’s
heart warming when a new participant clicks with the ideas and is uplifted by
them. Scotty was already walking on the ceiling before we met him, so the
uplift is pretty impressive. He has been painting like a man possessed, as the
This led John to add
that he didn’t pay much attention to the philosophy, but whenever he left after
class he felt very good. He would come with several problems and a measure of
sadness, but they would be eased by his time in the class. He thought there was
something more than philosophy going on.
That’s right. We are
all in a situation where we feel safe, so we can let down our inner fortress
walls. When we do, the natural magnetism, the “vibes” freely intermingle, in a
soothing, energizing collectivity. In other words, we are not just studying, we
are practicing what we preach. We are opening our hearts to the onrushing wave,
expanding the circle of our definition of self as wide as we can. It is a balm,
and a tangible one, to bathe in such an environment, and to relax our eternal
Anita had some
incisive questions. One was about how we relate to beauty. She understands that
it is a personal experience, but here Nitya says, “Theoretical knowledge of the
truthful, the good, and the beautiful is to be obtained from a bonafide teacher
or the source books of recorded wisdom.” We assured her that this did not mean
there were absolute lists of good and bad things, true and untrue things, and
pretty and ugly things that we should mold ourselves around. Yes, some scriptures
do spell out such matters, but they are to be taken as a guide, not as
unbreakable rules. What the teacher should be doing, and what the scriptures
should be teaching us, is how to uncover goodness, truth and beauty in
ourselves. There is a vast amount of inspiring
experiences all around us, and yet if we
cling to our petty preferences
we will miss almost all of them. The idea of stepping off the carpet or outside
the tapestry is to relate to the source of these higher values.
Nitya describes a
dichotomy in life: either we live according to our unrefined urges and our
conditioned responses, or we make an intentional break from them and seek an
unconditional state of freedom. The former is known as the descending tendency,
and the latter the ascending. Nitya doesn’t call them paths, because we are
free to change direction at any time. Tendencies is what they are. Remember,
from last week he instructed us:
is up to you not to will an action that can strengthen an evil samskara, a malignant disposition.
It is again in your power to
nullify the potentiality of a negative force by accentuating the positive
thrust of a benevolent disposition. This freedom of the individual to change
himself or herself, to reorganize the psyche, is given in the present sutra as
the cultivation of detachment and repeated exercise in the building up of
benevolent dispositions as well as the eradication of malevolent dispositions.
Nitya elaborates this very
important idea later:
an aspirant yogi you have to take initiative with unflagging interest, to have
a critical examination of your preformed habits, and then scrape or modify the
behavioral pattern in such a manner that it is cleansed of ignorant adherence
to evil or superficial modes. Instead of a static view of an effect or a cause,
you are expected to develop a transparency of vision by which you can clearly
see the manifested effect and the entire process through which, from the
primeval cause to the present effect, the manifestation came. You should also
have the sagacity to unhook all expectations of the future from the
performances in which you are presently engaged.
whether a transparency of vision was possible that could reveal everything
about a subject, from the original cause to the present. It is possibly a case
of hyperbole the way Nitya put it, but we certainly can see beneath the surface
to get a clearer view of what is causing the phenomena that we meet, once we
are able to set aside our colorations and conditionings. The very term revelation
means that the inner workings are revealed. I'll give
an example at the end of the notes.
Susan brought up a
great question about this. It seems contradictory that we are supposed to be
ourselves, free of all conditioning, and yet we are simultaneously supposed to
use our best intentions to direct ourselves to a specific goal. Deb noted that
paradoxes only existed when we drew a thick boundary line between aspects that
from a unitive perspective were not different. Yet this is one of the essential
dilemmas of yoga study. We have to be able to trust the teacher, because plenty
of effort is wrongly applied in this world. Hitler was ostensibly trying to fix
things, which shows how far off the mark we can go. But non-effort does not get
us anywhere. It takes effort to sink into
nothingness, and without proper instruction and assistance we may get lost.
Patanjali here describes the effort as bringing ourselves back to detachment
even as our mind slides willingly into attachment. Noting that by eliminating
projections we automatically obtain the requisite transparency of vision, Nitya
is said to have two inverse impacts on our minds. One is the concealing of
truth and the other is the precipitating of imaginary pictures that are easily
taken for true…. Every moment is thus a moment of challenge to decipher the
mystery of life presented in the form of enigmas, paradoxes, and conundrums.
That is why it is said that there is no holiday in spirituality and no one can
act as a proxy.
To close, I offered
another example of our homework assignment. On my recent India trip I had a
revelation of a conditioning factor that had a significant impact on my life.
As a child I was alternately welcomed and loved and coldly pushed away by my
parents. Often I would run up to them full of love and excitement, wanting to
share something with them, and they would say, “Children should be seen and not
heard,” which meant I was supposed to go away. I can still feel the surge of
painful chemicals in the heart region occasioned by the rejections. Sure, it’s
selfish of the child to always want to interrupt, but I wasn’t thinking. I was
just loving and then being rejected, so I worked very hard to suppress my
lighthearted urges to go to my loved ones. Over time and without realizing it,
I internalized the feeling of being very careful to not bother others. Whenever
I would see a group of people talking together and hanging out, I would get an
echo of that painful adrenaline rush and slink away. It grew into a wall of
certainty that it would be rude for me to interrupt something that was already
While I was in India
I spent quite a bit of time reflecting on memories of childhood, and this is
one that came up. I recalled what I could about it,
repetitively dipping back into it. Then
at the Somanahalli Gurukula I
passed by a group of good friends, and was trying to remain invisible until I
got out of sight, but they called me over. I apologized for bothering them, but
they welcomed me and said they wanted me to join them. Suddenly I was able to
literally see the dark colored emotion that had closed me off from any number
of happy occasions. Some people might welcome me and some not, but I would
never have a chance to find out because my outdated but still vivid memories
blocked the opportunity. While this may seem like a trivial example, I think it
shows the principle rather well of how digging down to the cause behind the
veil is liberating. It took effort, and a willingness to slide out of the box
of “normality” to make the breakthrough. When I was
ready, life itself provided the breakthrough opportunity.
Of these, repetitive practice
is the effort to maintain steadiness.
are extremely terse and condensed, koans for meditation. On their face they
tell us very little, serving mainly as a skeletal structure for us to hang our
own insights on. Patanjali’s own meditations must have been to find the gist of
every term or idea, and he was very good at it.
In his comments
Nitya addresses how strongly our sensory input distracts us from the steady,
detached state of advanced meditation. Deb liked the idea that we learn to
look, not at the object, but at the light that illuminates the object. We learn
to listen, not to the sound, but to the vibration that carries the sounds. We
learn to feel, not the touch, but the neural system that transmits the touch.
And likewise with taste, smell, temperature, and all the other senses. In this
way seemingly exterior factors are gradually sublimated into being treated as
aspects of consciousness.
We have to take care
that our meditation practice remains lighthearted and nonjudgmental, in other
words sattvic. We seek to break our habitual chains of associations to sit in
the peace of emptiness for a time, and as we are repetitively brought out by
our thoughts, we gently discard them over and over. When this process becomes a
chore, rajas kicks in with lots of drive, and eventually we become tired out.
At that point tamas reigns, and we shut down until we are revived by sleep.
Nitya puts it this way:
exercise is kept going by simply not feeding any memory with another associated
memory. As a result, cognizing consciousness turns on itself to cognize
cognition. Even that can be tiring because attention is also associated with an
activation of the mind supported by rajas. Rajas can corrode into the serenity
of sattva and the yogi can consequently become exhausted. Where there is a
depletion of mental energy caused by the over-activation of rajas, tamas sets
in with its benumbing inertia, and the attention lapses into fatigue and sleep.
Thus rajas and tamas are two cardinal enemies of meditation.
Susan was not in
class, but she confessed to me the day before that after seven years of study
she still wasn’t very good at meditation. She could sit quietly for at most a
minute before intrusive thoughts would grab her attention. This is actually
since most of us are rajasic types.
The important thing is that, after having budgeted a little time for the
exercise, you don’t just leap up and obey your thoughts, but set them aside and
recapture a moment of serenity, however brief. In a busy life even a few
minutes of this can be transformative.
Her honesty is
refreshing, and when I related it to the class, many agreed that this was not
unlike their experience. We are for the most part active people who want to
become freer in our actions rather than simply inactive, and yoga is admirably
suited to our type. Yet even a little effort to maintain steadiness can
dislodge impacted “poisoned arrows” in the psyche. It is remarkably
efficacious. This not widely known because few people even spend the minute
Susan could muster once in awhile. For instance, yoga as practiced in the US is
primarily a series of calisthenics. Practitioners imitate a leader or count a
duration, all the time concentrating on the body. At the end they may pat
themselves on the back for being healthy and zip off to their next appointment.
It does produce a feeling of peace and calm for awhile as the stretched muscles
relax. But real abhyasa, repetitive practice, is not about physical exercises.
It proceeds from the calm afterglow of the exercises to examine our mental
makeup fearlessly and directly.
When we bring
attention to bear on our veiled psychic landscape, a habitual defense mechanism
repulses our attention. It is like the Biblical sword guarding the gates of
heaven, warding us off from every angle of approach. This means that the lack
of peace in meditation is an indication we are honing in on something
important. If we continue to bring or attention back to these “heavenly gates,”
the ferocity of the defense will slowly dissipate. Ere long our consciousness
will expand and begin to topple the boulders massed at the entrance, or dull
Then we can sit still a little longer.
Anita had just such
an experience to report. She couched it in terms of memory, how memories can
help us regain our freedom. Because she remembered a previous situation, she
was able to see it in a new light. But without the recall of it, it would have
continued to languish in her unconscious.
That’s right. The way she used memory was different from what
Nitya means by “not feeding any memory with another associated memory.” The
kind of memories we have been decrying are the habitual behaviors and mental
scripts that keep us frozen in the past, and that we shore up by repeating
clichés. Anita was bringing her present consciousness to bear on an aspect of
the frozen past, and by so doing dislodging it from the barricade surrounding
her, as it surrounds each of us. Plus, she should recall this a few more times
to ensure it doesn’t grow back. All the way through memory is used to loosen
the habit. The overall scheme is that the unconscious is brought into consciousness,
and then released to blow away in the wind.
remembered when she had been made president of the Relief Society at her
church. Looking back she realized her pride in the post had colored her
attitude a bit, and made her somewhat jealous of the contributions of other
people. She went so far as to quote the adage that "“Power corrupts;
absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Luckily she wasn’t tempted with absolute
power, but she could see that even a minor position of superiority unleashed
some pent up feelings. To her credit, Anita did not beat up on herself for
swaggering a bit in the past; she saw that being young and insecure, the
presidency gave her a chance to be admired and appreciated by others. And now
she knows that we have to supply that sense of being loved and admired we so
crave from within ourselves. If that becomes an accomplished fact, we never
have to worry about our secret needs twisting our actions to selfish ends. We
become free to give in the pure sense, and our actions are commensurately
benign. It’s too bad more people in positions of power are ignorant of the
truth Anita is exploring.
The transition from
childhood to adulthood includes going from being the center of attention to
being on the periphery, or even outside the periphery. What’s worse, few of us
are taught that we are always the center of our own attention, and that if this
is linked to a grasp of the unity of all life, we never have to feel lonely or
marginalized again. Most people go through life bemoaning the loss of being
appreciated by their parents, trying to reclaim a substitute for that attention
through ridiculous antics, or smothered in despair that it cannot be found. If
they had more faith in themselves, all that misery would be unnecessary. This
is the secret that Anita was applying in a practical fashion.
Anita also recounted
a recent instance of getting angry when her cat broke something. She quickly
went and sat on the side of her bed and meditated about it. And so the anger
passed quickly. She didn’t castigate herself for the anger, which would only
have prolonged it, but forgave both the cat and herself. After all, she had
good reason to get upset, and the cat was only being a cat. In a few minutes
the cat came and curled up in her lap. For the most
part, animals don't hold grudges, and we shouldn’t either.
Paul confessed that
it’s very difficult to not beat up on ourself and run ourself down when we
become aware of our faults. This stems from childhood training via punishment.
We take on the role of punishing ourself for our mistakes from absent authority
figures. This is the great triumph of authority, but it is the curtailing of
our independent life that we are now struggling to reclaim. We very much need
to see that we will learn and grow more if we are kind and supportive of
ourself than if we are hostile about our faults. As the Gita tells us in
By the Self the Self must be upheld; the
Self should not be let down; the Self indeed is its own dear relative; the Self
indeed is the enemy of the Self.
The Self is dear to one (possessed) of Self,
by whom even the Self by the Self has been won; for one not (possessed) of
Self, the Self would be in conflict with the very Self, as if an enemy.
Borrowing from my own
comments on verse 5:
the Gita is recommending here is that when events send you reeling, instead of
running yourself down or becoming furious with some bystander, you should
support yourself with kind and understanding words in your inner voice. This is
a technique that can be easily learned. Watch how you carry on after you are
stung by a chance remark or accidental occurrence. When you begin to criticize
yourself and magnify what happened, spending lots of time on it and making
yourself depressed, switch over instead to a consoling voice, assess the
situation clearly, tie it up with a bow and drop it in the nearest garbage can.
Then forget about it. If your grievance needs to be redressed, you can now take
calmly considered steps to respond appropriately. In this way the self has
become your greatest helpmate, like a supporting relative or lover.
This is exactly how Anita
dealt with her anger.
The same idea
presented by Patanjali in a few sutras here is covered in more detail in
several chapters of the Gita. Highlights include:
60) Even with a man of wisdom, Arjuna, in spite of his
effort, excited sense interests can forcibly distract the mind.
61) Restraining every one of them, he should rest unitively
established, having Me for his Supreme ideal. He in whom sense interests are
subdued—his reason is well founded.
67) Still moving amid sense interests,
that item to which the mind submits draws away the reasoning as the wind does a
ship on the waters.
68) Therefore, Arjuna, he whose senses have been in every
way withdrawn from sense interests—his reason is well founded.
26) Whatever causes the changeful, unsteady mind to go out
(again and again), from each such, restraining it (again and again), it should
ever be led to the side of the Self.
27) Such a yogi, verily, of calmed mind, of pacified
passion, who has become the Absolute, free from all dross, comes to supreme
33) Arjuna said:
That yoga you have
outlined as consisting of sameness, O Krishna, I do not see for this any stable
foundation, owing to changefulness.
34) The mind is changeful indeed; it is agitated, forceful,
and imperative (in character); like the wind, I consider its control difficult.
35) Krishna said:
Doubtless the mind
is difficult to control and changeful. By practice and by dispassion it can be
36) By a Self uncontrolled yoga is hard to attain; such is
my opinion; but by a Self which is its own support, endeavoring, it is possible
to reach through the means (indicated).
When Krishna speaks of
practice and dispassion in verse 35, he is referring to the same abhyasa and
vairagya we are addressing with Patanjali. There is much to be gained by
reading the Gita in concert with our present study.
Led by Anita’s
courage, the class shared several practical examples, and hinted at several
more, of how they were able to recast old habits in new light. This
demonstrates that the “homework” of our study is still being pursued. I hope
that this will continue. It’s quite evident that bringing these insights into
group awareness reinforces them, and instantly makes them seem less egregious.
Working on my Gita
commentary, I stumbled on this relevant bit from VI, 7, where we are exhorted
to remain steady in both honor and disgrace:
It is a
contemplative art form to progress from needing external assurance to having
self-respect. Learning to love yourself unconditionally is a necessary
prerequisite for wisdom acquisition. Clinging to honor or rejection from
without merely postpones the date of reckoning with your own sense of self.
Because we want very much to be loved, and strive hard to be lovable, we are
easily beguiled by praises. At other times, false accusations resonate with our
own degraded sense of self-respect, and we allow ourselves to be brought down
by them. In both situations we are drawn out of our grounding in the truth of
who we are by external influences.
It is especially
artistic to be able to honor yourself when those around you despise you for who
or what they think you are. Minorities in every context—racial, sexual,
religious and all the rest—have had to struggle to maintain their dignity in
the face of persecutions, ranging from mere contempt to outright genocide.
There is nothing simple about dealing with disgrace, be it earned or unearned.
The least we can do is stop persecuting people for being different than
ourselves. Knowing that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve
been given, and that they too are filled with the Absolute to the very tips of
their fingers, we should ever be prepared to help, not hinder, our fellow
Sutra I: 14
And this [steadiness] is
firmly grounded, being well-attended to for a long time without interruption
and with devotion.
There was something
in the air last night. The dogs were barking furiously at the slightest noise,
and everyone was as chatty as can be, both before and during the class. Perhaps
it is the tidal swell of Spring, but the weather outside belied that gracious
season with a bitter chill and blowing rain. Luckily our “cave” featured a cozy
fire that enveloped us in a welcome womb.
is short but potent. In it he talks about how, as the sutra advertises,
steadiness is achieved by repetitive correction. Addictions are behaviors we
love to repeat, but if we decide to throw them off we can slowly adjust to
alternative behaviors. The book Deb and I have just finished reading, The
Brain That Changes Itself,
Doidge (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), presents recent findings on how the
brain works, and the new neuroscience confirms that our brains are amazingly
alterable. When we do things a certain way, our neurons set up in definite
patterns that facilitate repetition of the behaviors. As these are reinforced,
they add brain terrain, crowding out other possibilities. This makes fixed
habits easier, in a way, since they become the default setting of the neural
structure. Yet if we take a decision to change our ways, and begin to
substitute different sources of pleasure, eventually the brain maps are
redrawn. The new connections capture territory from the old, weakening their
hold as the new are strengthened.
From this it is
apparent that we shouldn’t try to replace addictions and habits with nothing,
because the habitual connections won’t diminish. We have to supply a new focus
to take over the areas previously devoted to the habits. This explains in part
the torture addicts undergo when they just try to quit “cold turkey,” by merely
stopping a behavior. The neural connections all remain in place, so each day is
the same battle to not submit. Often the battle is lost when the addict gives
in and does the behavior “just one more time.” Such a plan almost never
succeeds, and if it does the price is the endless frustration and misery of
struggling against an implacable foe.
Probably this is the
idea behind Alcoholics Anonymous: you replace your addiction with a love of and
surrender to God. Sometimes it works, but it seems to me that something more
tangible would be more helpful. When you are in a pitched battle with your
demons, something simple and in plain sight is easier to practice. Whatever it is has to provide some of the rewarding
chemicals that the addiction supplied, too.
This means that less
abstract is good. Music, art, human interaction and contact, all grow new
neurons rapidly. Walking is especially good at fostering new brain growth, and
with bare feet it’s even better. As time goes on and freedom is established
through new networks, more abstract sources of joy can be introduced if you are
so inclined. The Gita also teaches us to work hard on
changing, but then the last release only comes from “the One Beyond being
The new brain scan
studies demonstrate what Patanjali taught some time back: we are capable of
change if we put our minds to it and reinforce the desired changes regularly.
Timothy Leary once released a song that repeated his mantra, “You can be
anything you want to be—this time around.” And to quote from Robert Anton
and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer, Dr. John Lilly points out in three sentences something that is
totally obvious once stated, and yet will totally revolutionize your world once
you begin to really understand it:
the Province of the mind, what is believed true is true or becomes true, within
limits to be found experimentally and experientially. These limits are further
beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits.
And as John said, even though
genetic makeup has an undeniable impact,
we should never presume that we are genetically determined and unable to
change. We are not solely victims of inflexible natural laws or fate. There is
a tremendous amount we can accomplish if we put our mind to it.
Nitya’s own Puritanical
streak made his commentary a little confusing. He talks about social
conditioning, but then seems to agree that those who don’t succumb to it are
doing “shameful” things. Some of us thought that the “crude urges” he mentions
are about sex, but this is not necessarily true. The crude urges we should
sublimate for our spiritual growth include selfishness, boorishness, cruelty,
acquisitiveness, callousness, and many more. His essential point is that life
is short and we should put our energy into valuable arenas, withdrawing time
and effort from futile or stupid activities.
To make it clearer,
I sketched the history of consciousness on the planet as we currently
understand it. The gist is that until very recently all life was spent getting
and eating food, staying warm and reproducing. These are all good things that
we love, but in the last few thousand years we have added some beautiful
nuances to life in the form of arts and sciences. We have added free choices to
the mandates of necessity. The ancient rishis felt, like Henri Bergson, that
the universe was a machine for making gods. (The machine part is a petite joke
of Bergson’s.) They believed we had infinite potentials that we were only just
beginning to express and explore, and that doing so was what made life exciting
and interesting. So Nitya and Patanjali are asking us to minimize the
repetitions of old habits and reactions, and forge new ways of seeing as fast
as we can. Nitya says:
have already mentioned that practicing discipline is like climbing a mountain
with a heavy load on your back. An aspirant should have a lot of energy
resources to tap; in the pursuit of perfection a lot of energy is consumed. To
facilitate this you have to economically portion out as little energy as
possible for carrying out the daily vocation of life. The remainder of your
energy is to be entirely used for advancing toward your goal. In youthful
folly, much energy is wasted on programs that are specially conceived for the
vain display of the ego and for the temporary gratification of sensuous craving
and sexual infatuation.
Most of the
discussion was around how our attitudes have changed in response to advancing
toward our chosen goals. I solicited accounts of things that had once seemed
important to us, but had lost their value as we matured. The invitation was
suggested by Susan, who had just found and read her twenty-year-old diaries.
What was of burning importance to her back then looked like an ocean of misery
from her present perspective. Some of it was still valid or unresolved, but so
much of the angst and confusion had receded that she felt much better about
herself now. She promised to possibly give us examples next week, but the
principle is the most valuable part. We are changing, and we are capable of letting
go of our obsessions, given enough
time and good instruction. Or good luck.
Because of the
pervasive chatty mood, lots of people opened up about their transformations.
Jan remembered how important her social standing used to be. Because of the way
she was raised, she was oppressed by imagining how other people would see and
judge her. Now she can laugh a lot of it off, though traces remain. Those
traces may be a good thing, so long as the oppressive aspects have been
ameliorated. It’s good to care, just not to be driven
to care by our conditioning. There is a difference.
Most of the examples
were of things that used to drive us but for which we had lost interest
naturally, without any struggle. These are great to notice, but I was looking
more for examples of how we had intentionally changed. I offered my own
experience that for ten or fifteen years as a young adult, my most important
consideration was how to find and buy and smoke pot. Gradually, though, the
urge was replaced by more lasting interests: coherent relationships with other
people, including family, and music. I didn’t want to
miss a minute of my children's lives if I could help it. And not being a
natural musician, I couldn’t play a note if I was high. My love for learning to
play the piano trumped my enjoyment of smoking pot, and soon my love of
philosophy and (relatively) unclouded thinking finished it off. If I got high,
all I would do was wait for the effects to wear off so I could get on with
something much more interesting and, yes, fun. At that point, pot’s days were
numbered for me.
Deb gave the example
of her career as a dancer. It was now clear that the impetus came from her
mother, who was a gifted dancer who tragically was asked to give it up by her
father on his deathbed. Without going into what a horrible curse this was to
levy on your own child, she passed her frustrated svadharma on to her daughter.
It wasn’t necessarily Deb’s thing, but she learned to love it and it is still a
treasured and essential part of who she is. Sometimes—often?—we are driven by
outside forces that are benign. They aren’t all bad. Our lives are a confection
of our own proclivities and what we have been bequeathed by our surroundings.
Deb told me another
example this morning, closer to the original idea. She used to be driven by the
thought of what if she got to the end of her life and looked back and hadn’t
done anything of value. I myself was inspired by this inspiration
of hers to consciously seek out value in
my life, and I always assumed
that was her take too. But now she sees that there was a dark underside to it.
Having been raised a Christian with associated guilt and Day of Judgment
paranoia, she was worried that she would be judged a failure in the ultimate
analysis. Undoubtedly parental pressure, subtle but inexorable, is a subtext
here. Happily, Deb has relinquished the obsessive aspect. She feels that being fully present no matter how
“excellent” your life is, is the way to live well. There is no longer any
accomplishment that she considers necessary. As
for me, I still like to
use her idea as an example in teaching: ask yourself, what will your life look
like to you when you look back over it from the end? An endless series of beer
or wine glasses? Toilet paper rolls laid end to end? Or with Paul Simon, “Every
day is an endless stream/of cigarettes and magazines.” Meeting basic needs, a
little trite entertainment, a trashy addiction, and
precious little more? I for one want to feel like I gave more than I got, and I
have gotten a lot from this generous world and its citizens and denizens. This
parallels Nitya’s conclusion of why we study and practice yoga, transforming
the base metal of our undeveloped self into valuable gold:
have to isolate yourself from the mad rush of competitive life to give your
mind a sense of stability. After a long period of sublimating your crude urges,
you come to the gathering of the cream of your spiritual life. You can then
return to society and assume the position of a therapist or an educator. All such
self-training needs time and devotion.
Detachment is the
consciousness of mastery in one who is free from thirst for seen and heard of
The translation is
inevitably a little bit clunky, Sanskrit being as dense as it is. The idea here
is that detachment is the mastery of consciousness that comes from being free
of perceived (seen) and promised (heard of) attractions. When I first read this
sutra, I missed the second, all-important ‘of’, and just took it as seen and
heard enjoyments. But Patanjali is referring to what
we hear about from others: the lures that religion and other advertising
schemes offer to suck people in. The promises
of heaven, wealth, and a
carefree retirement supply virtually all the motivation of ordinary folks, and
the rest is made up of the seeking out and satisfying of sensory hungers.
Detachment is a way of breaking out of these motivations to assess life from a
neutral and unconditioned state of mind.
Nitya relates a
range of states of detachment reminiscent of Narayana Guru’s Nirvana Darsana of
Darsanamala. Anita was suitably
horrified by the extreme examples. Nitya relates an even more extreme example
in Love and Blessings (p. 157), where he visits a saint who is to all
my travels I went to see Siddharudha Swami in Hassan. The Swami’s ashram was a
traditional old institution where many ochre robed swamis were living. Many
were coming as well to pay homage to him. Nobody knew the swami’s age, maybe
100, maybe 200, or even 300. It varied according to the informant’s
credibility. He looked for all the world like a living corpse.
five o’clock in the morning, ten disciples ceremonially came to him, prostrated
at his feet, and pulled him out of bed for a hot water wash. Before the bath
his body was smeared with turmeric paste, and afterwards he was painted with
sandal paste and clothed with a T-string, a dhoti, a shirt and a turban. Then
he was decorated with a rudraksha
garland and several flower garlands. In the main hall of the ashram he was
seated on a throne-like chair, where he sat cross-legged in padmasana. Then there was a ceremonial feeding. He did not open
his eyes or mouth, but some milk was smeared on his lips and wiped off. I was
told the swami had not taken any food or drink for twelve years.
ritual had been going on every day for a very long time. He did not pass urine
or stools. I was also told he did not perspire. There was no evidence he was
breathing. If he was dead, why wasn’t he decomposing? It was all a mystery. If
I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed the possibility of
anyone living without food, drink or breath.
the Swami’s face looked like a corpse, it gave me an eerie feeling to sit and
watch him all day. The swamis there were very hospitable, and there was nothing
lacking for a visit of any length of time, but I only stayed for three days.
For some reason we
imagine that the extreme is what we are supposed to accomplish. If it happens
to us we won’t care anyway, but until it does we can aim for a more engaged
expression of detachment. Narayana Guru did this, praying to not merge totally
so he could minister to the needs of humanity. The Buddhist boddhisattva has
the same ideal, and Nitya mentions Janaka, the ancient king who continued to
fill his role even after becoming fully enlightened. Nitya gives the Gurukula
ideal in respect to Janaka: “To be absolutely normal in transactions and never
to exaggerate anything on the basis of physical obsession or inhibition.”
This also answers
Anita’s question of what exactly is liberation anyway? Obsessions or
inhibitions—attractions and repulsions—are the twin exaggerations that throw us
off balance. While we may be drawn into spiritual life by our obsessions, we
have to pacify these in order to become truly spiritual. We want to replace an
immature conception with a mature one. The obsessed continue to do mental
cartwheels, like standing on street corners spewing saliva at passersby or
privately mortifying their flesh, if they fail to become detached from their
The class mainly
focused on practical examples of detachment in the normal range, and we solicit
more in the upcoming weeks from everyone reading this. It’s all well and good
to relate extreme examples, but the more important thing is to put these
principles into practice in ways that benefit us and are in tune with our
Scotty, an artist,
got us going in earnest by relating how he hears many people insist that they
“don’t do art.” He says they invariably look down when they say this, as if
they are unconsciously aware of the failure it represents. If he presses them,
they all mention that someone made a comment when they were young that hurt
their feelings, and so they withdrew from expressing themselves in that way.
This is exactly the point. We have infinite potentials, yet we inhibit them so
that we won’t suffer public humiliation. We learn to hide out in dark corners,
safe, as it seems to us. But as Jesus puts it in Mark 8:36, “what shall it profit
a man, if
he shall gain the whole world, and lose his
own soul?” We force ourselves into the Procrustean bed of social approval so
that we can “fit in,” and in the process sacrifice our own dharma, our very
lifeblood. Patanjali is radical enough to urge us to abandon this terrible
sacrifice we’ve made and regain the light of our own souls. There will be a lot
more of this to come. Please, give it some thought and share what you can with
your fellow travelers.
clicked with Scotty’s perception. She told us how she used to do tons of art
projects, but for some reason in the fifth grade she stopped and never went
back to it. She couldn’t remember why. The same thing happened with her
singing, and she does remember the exact comment that drove her away. Happily,
thanks to Eugene’s inspiration she has taken up singing again, after a lifetime
of secretly longing for it, and it’s as if a weight has been lifted. Our souls
want to express themselves, and they should. Detachment is to bring out this
kind of freedom, not to suppress it.
gave a trivial and a more profound example from recent experience. I was just
down in Reno visiting friends, whose boy had a Little League baseball game we
attended. We sat right behind the umpire, who was terrible—it’s actually
surprisingly difficult to be a consistent, unbiased referee—but at least he was
uniformly awful. There was an element of fairness in his umpiring, because it
was off the same amount for both teams. If the ump has a secret preference,
like knowing the coach or having a child on the team, the neutrality gets
disrupted. That’s why in professional sports the referees are kept totally
isolated from the teams they will judge. Sitting in the stands, I noticed that
the parents who were fervently involved got upset by the bad calls that went
against their kids but not against the other team. As a neutral observer, it
was easy for me to see how everyone’s perceptions were influenced by their
relationship to the situation. Again, this is Patanjali’s teaching, that we are
most clear-headed when we observe from a neutral standpoint, free of obsessions
and inhibitions, such as living vicariously through our children and their
difficulty of being a wise judge like Janaka or Solomon is humorously presented
in a wonderful fairy story called Queen Zixi of Ix, by Oz author L. Frank Baum. In it a young
boy becomes king, and he is asked to render judgments on several matters
brought to him by the people. In one, two women insist they own a cow, and he
is required to decide who to give it to. He pleads that he can’t decide. Then
his very wise sister whispers an idea to him. He sends one woman out of the
room and asks the other to milk the cow. She walks up and gets kicked head over
heels. The other woman is brought in and easily milks the cow, and the king
awards it to her. Everyone applauds the wisdom of the boy. As she leads the cow
out the door, he asks her where she got such a nice cow. She reluctantly asks
if she must tell the truth, and he says of course. “I stole it from that other
woman. But no one can take it from me now, for the king has given it to me.”
(Does this remind you of the CEO bailout bonuses in 2009 current events?) The
courtiers all are shocked into silence. “How can that be?” “Because I understand
cows, and she doesn’t.” And off she goes with the stolen cow. But King Bud
restores a measure of justice by giving one of his own royal cows to the
wronged woman. The point of this is that even if we want very much to be
neutral and just, it is no simple matter, because much of the world is bent on
obfuscation, and there are no end to factors to be taken into account.
up in impact, I watched the movie Under Our Skin this past week, about Lyme
disease and the suppression of care by insurance companies who want to maximize
profits at the expense of patients’ needs. Conflict of interest turns neutral
doctors and review boards into political activists that in essence are
committing murder and consigning thousands of other patients to lives of misery
and destitution. How the profit motive warps medicine is subtly yet clearly
demonstrated by this excellent documentary.
course, government in general has been warped in the same way, corrupted by the
selfish interests of lobbyists and their purchase of the decision makers. Free
markets are the code name for rampant greed and the deification of selfishness.
The absolute operative principle is that if you have perfect selfishness
operating ubiquitously, you have an ideal society. The poverty of this political
religion is rapidly becoming evident. To counter its “death spiral” we hereby
embrace a philosophy that intentionally casts off selfishness. Patanjali
doesn’t come right out and say it—the sutras are too terse—but unselfishness is
precisely what makes for a just and humane and ecologically balanced society.
We add our vote for unselfishness one human at a time: ourself.
this even further, I offer this excerpt from one of the stalwarts of the
Gurukula’s past, Harry Jakobsen.
from his articleWisdom, Eros and the Bomb, from the very first issue of Values, September, 1955,
reprinted in the Spring 2009 Gurukulam:
policeman and the criminal are two counterparts whose existence depends the one
on the others. When people cease to want policemen they will cease to have
when people cease to want hospitals they will cease to feel diseased. We have
an increase in diseases and a desire for more hospitals because both diseases
and hospitals belong to the same pair of wants.
is there any real need for poverty or for the feeling of poverty. Many poor
people don’t feel poor. But we must have it to enjoy wealth and of course to do
good to the poor.
is never spoken out. It is submerged and is the will of a subconscious
collective mind. Anybody who exposes this contradiction meets with violent
opposition and denial. That itself is symptomatic. He is held to be wicked and
antisocial and by common agreement outlawed by respectable society. Prostitutes
are condemned and vice trials are held in the name of what is moral, completely
confusing and mixing up Eros with greed on both sides of the law. The hidden
desires of repressed people are encouraged and capitalized on for money making.
Can such confused societies have much of positive value to offer humanity? The
prospect is dismal indeed.
So you can see the scope of
the Yoga Sutras is as wide as the whole world. We are called to regain our true
nature, and in the process heal our own wounds and cast a healing balm about us
that can repair the devastation of our previous obsessions with what we think
offered much in the way of specific techniques yet, but Nitya mentions a few in
his commentary. First he distinguishes between experience and imperience. Paul
wanted us to make the distinction clear, because we usually take imperience to
be the mental component of experience. But here it is used differently.
Experience includes the external object or situation as well as the mental perception
of it. Imperience means establishing an inner connection with the Absolute. It
is “an identification that comes through the establishment of an inner unity
aided by intuition.” Detachment is essentially the process by which we move
from experience to imperience.
As a kind of
technique, Nitya delineates three aspects of detachment. First is the
consistent practice of self-control or restraint, like staying home from the
bars to read and ponder Living the Science of Harmonious Union, for instance. Meditative pursuits get easier after
live a wild life for a stretch. As Scotty said, it is easier to meditate on
silence after we chant or blow our trumpet. Like that, we stretch our muscles
with hatha yoga so we can sit relaxed afterwards. It is good to have
experimented with your desires so they don’t pester you as much when you’re
sitting quietly. I have always advocated not having a baby until you no longer
want to spend the evening partying. If you’ve partied enough in your daze of
youth, you are much happier staying home and changing diapers. You don’t envy
your “carefree” friends, because you love and enjoy what you are caring for.
Then you must
practice discrimination. Nitya says, “When two values are before you, a
discriminative judgment should be applied to see which is conducive to your
liberation and which leads to bondage. In life, you have to turn away from many
things that are likely to have miserable consequences.” If your life isn’t full
of examples, you are a very fortune or a very sequestered individual.
The third aspect
comes closest to what we think of as a technique of yoga: to concentrate on a
single sense to the exclusion of the others. Instead of remaining in what Nitya
calls the mental state dampened by the cumulative effect of sensory overload,
we screen out all but one sense. Classically, people meditate on a candle flame
or a mandala or a landscape, using the visual input to negate other stimuli.
Many of us are fond of listening to music or birdsong or the wind or a stream. We
have all had the experience (imperience?) of listening hard to something
beautiful, and it becoming a profoundly moving event. The music or the rush of
water changes from a simple sound into one full of meaning, something that
allows your spirit to soar. You get high on it. Or we snuggle down with a
friend and concentrate on the amazing sensations we can feel through our skin,
that screen out all mundane thoughts for awhile. Yogic eating means we taste
our food fully, instead of mechanically and distractedly munching it. And when
we smell a flower, the one-pointedness of it lifts us off our feet, so to
Scotty has invented
his own way of practicing this ekendriya (single sensory stimulus) meditation,
by initiating a dialogue with his aches and pains. He talks with the balky limb
or organ, and has found that they heal up or relax quickly. Unlike the average
person who wants to flee from their body when it is uncomfortable or diseased,
which undoubtedly aggravates the problem, he turns directly toward it and
attends it. He has found this version of one-pointed concentration to be quite
All these things can
be practiced at any time in any place. We can use the varying conditions in
which we find ourselves to detach from those very conditionings. The impact of
this type of yoga is practically unlimited, and tremendously freeing, when
brought to bear on life.
That is the highest vairagya
[detachment]: through awareness of the Self, there is freedom from the least
desire for the three qualities of nature.
This time through
Patanjali, I’m seeing the correspondences with the Bhagavad Gita. This sutra is
the same as the oft-quoted II, 59: “Objective interests revert without the
relish for them on starving the embodied of them. Even the residual relish
reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.” Relish is all about our attachment to
the gunas, the three qualities of nature. The One Beyond being sighted is
identical with awareness of the Self. When we attune with the Absolute, superficial
matters lose their attractiveness, because the Absolute is blissful through and
through, and not just a promise of future bliss.
Nitya spends a lot
of time denigrating the trashy beliefs that many people grasp to try and cobble
together a feeling of worthwhileness. We are taught that we are incapable of
accomplishing anything of value without the intercession of divine power. We
are lost souls, in need of a savior and salvation, and we need to follow
certain rules to ensure that salvation.
The alternative is
what yoga proclaims: that we are not lost, not losable, in fact. “Your choices
should be based on right knowledge, which you can find manifesting in your own
innermost soul…. [recognizing] that the brightest light you can have to guide a
harmonious life that blossoms with higher values is already your heritage.” The
Self, the One Beyond, is our own guiding light within. Only it is capable of
being dynamic, while external directives are static and therefore poorly
coordinated with actual situations.
We are trained to
remain simpletons, dependent on authority figures for direction. Yoga seeks to
counteract this lethal form of bondage by liberating individuals to become
self-empowered. It takes determination and a willingness to think for yourself
in the face of daunting disincentives. We are taught that we will go to hell if
we think for ourselves, and gangs of thugs will deliver that hell state right
to our faces if we openly dare to do it.
Deb mentioned how
when she had her first baby, she had these instinctual ideas about how to care
for her, but there was this little imaginary figure sitting on her shoulder
that kept saying, “No, you can’t do that. No, that’s not right. Do it this way.”
Very often our own innate sense of truth finds
itself derailed by the superego, the epitome of social opinion that sits
metaphorically on our shoulder and issues orders.
Jan led us into a
discussion of just how self-knowledge brings light to life. She has faced many
terrible problems with the medical community, trying to have her son’s illness
diagnosed and treated correctly. In such a trial, we begin with pure ignorance,
which we are trying to overcome with knowledge. The vertical aspects of the
problem can be illuminated by attaining equipoise in consciousness. But the
horizontal aspects are only resolved by the kind of linear struggle we are more
familiar with: adding together bits and pieces of information until a critical
mass is reached that throws light on the problem and allows it to be solved.
The illness won’t go away if Jan just grins and bears it, but her unhappiness
can be managed with some kind of mental or spiritual exercise. The distinction
between horizontal and vertical factors needs to be clearly kept in mind.
Many people imagine
that horizontal problems can be dealt with spiritually, and they delude
themselves to their cost. As Nitya says, “Hope in life should not be the false
hope of a fool.” There is a related belief that if someone is ill they have
brought it on themselves. At the very least this reveals a lack of
understanding of germ theory, substituting it with superstition. Then instead
of offering succor, we ostracize sick people along with other “evil” types who
have succumbed to diabolical influences.
very deep in our supposedly scientific society. The fairy tales of religion are
drilled into us from early in life, and our social viewpoint is a veiled echo
of those fairy tales. We literally endure a lifetime of saturation in official
lies. The core belief in an implacable enemy “out there” trying to “get us”
stems from the Christian fantasy of a satanic force dedicated to poisoning the
souls of the Elect. We are the good and They are the evil ones. Round and round
spins the wheel of karma, trying to disguise such false projections as real
truths, and many innocents are crushed in the process. The Pentagon alone spent
over a billion dollars last year (2008) on propaganda, not counting the
purchasing of politicians (euphemistically called lobbying), to ensure that war
hysteria doesn’t go away.
Even Nitya’s vision
is sometimes colored by this ubiquitous propaganda, which we can see in his
sentence, “Having a proper perspective on the horizontal principles of the
phenomenal world and the vertical unfoldment of the spirit helps a person to
pursue the path of righteousness with all earnestness and to eschew the path of
evil with determination.” As Deb pointed out, the real dichotomy is between
knowledge and ignorance, which are only metaphorically symbolized by the path
of righteousness and the path of evil. Because of the lifelong brainwashing we
have been exposed to, these latter terms are very hazardous and should be
avoided. Nitya was right to have exposed such thinking as venal at the
beginning of his comments, but because of its ubiquity it can creep up on us
without our realizing it.
So there is a mass
of disinformation enforcing willful ignorance both within and without us. The
yogi strives to break through this sedimentary crust to achieve enlightened
knowledge. It takes bravery and intensity. We must be willing to question our
assumptions. Jan’s quest has been to not only break through medical conformity
and stasis, but to also overcome her own mental indoctrination to accept what
those “authorities” were falsely alleging. We should all take heart from her
outwardly looks similar to duplicitous action. As Anita said, why do we have to
have a selfish reason for doing what we do, like getting into heaven? Why can’t
we simply act because it’s the beautiful thing to do? Our actions should make
life beautiful and enjoyable, and that is a good enough motivation for any
yogi. Only children need the added incentive of black and white choices between
good and evil, heaven and hell.
Susan related a
recent opportunity to put yoga, or “reason in action,” into practice. Briefly,
an old friend pulled her aside one day and accused her of betraying their
friendship. She was furious with Susan. Like Arjuna, or most of us for that
matter, Susan’s initial impulse was to recoil in horror and prepare to flee.
She first figured she was guilty as charged, and she began to give herself a
lecture about how horrible a person she was. Then she thought, wait a minute, I
don’t think I betrayed anyone. She mastered her reaction and stood her ground.
First she asked if their friendship could be salvaged. Her friend said she
didn’t think so. Then Susan asked her to explain what was the matter. All the
time she was struggling to calm herself down. As she became calmer, she began
to be able to respond in helpful ways and to explain clearly her side of the
story, not to mention to see her friend’s point of view dispassionately. Her
friend has some personality quirks that were exaggerating the problem, and
Susan didn’t feel she needed to take responsibility for those. But she did take
cognizance of them and worked with and around them. After a difficult half
hour, Susan was able to restore peace and her friend’s trust.
This is exactly how
to put yoga into daily practice. An uninstructed person might have started a
war by hurling back defensive accusations, or else retreated with hurt
The friendship might well have been broken.
Susan had what she described as a rare opportunity to make peace by uniting
their two sides of the story. Right in the midst of “ordinary” life, such a
rare opportunity had unexpectedly appeared. Those who become skilled in yoga
will find their talents at resolving problematic situations called upon more
and more, and in the bargain they can turn what might be a miserable event into
a happy one.
It has been very
gratifying to hear several stories recently of how the Gurukula studies have
made a real positive impact on people’s lives. This is a long, slow,
unglamorous, sometimes tedious process, but the hard work pays off eventually.
The successes open the floodgates of mutual joy for all to experience.
Salvaging a friendship is deeply satisfying, and no scorecard can measure its
value. We are proving ourselves to no one but ourselves, and that is the best
thing we can do.
Cognitive absorption is
accompanied by the appearance of perceptual confrontation, presentation of an
idea, experience of value, or identification with the center of one’s
A chaotic class,
simmered in a warm spring evening and seasoned with black bottom cupcakes,
looking for all the world like a herding of cats, wound up reaffirming some
basic truths of Vedanta.
The verse itself is
fairly straightforward, presenting Patanjali’s terminology for the fourfold
function of consciousness and implying a preliminary practice. Whereas the
ordinary person cycles through perception, access of matching memories,
identification of value, and ego assessment, the yogi can examine each of these
functions in isolation, becoming “cognitively absorbed” in them for a period of
time. As we well know, pondering aspects of mind makes them emerge out of the
shadows and come into our conscious awareness, mitigating their impact as
Moreover, we all
know people who have become stuck on one aspect, who would benefit from having
an overall scheme. Here an intelligent understanding can break us free from
stasis with minimal effort. First we should examine each of the four aspects of
mind one at a time, to try and discern possible hangups.
Younger people tend
to be more obsessed with perceptual confrontation, since their experience is
more likely to be new. They are driven to question everything to try to
ascertain its importance to them. A few decide to question everything as a
permanent technique, and this prevents them from developing a dharma, a
satisfying means of expression. Doubting becomes an end in itself. It is
possible to become obsessed with doubt.
Older people can
become snagged in the memory recall, or what’s called here the presentation of
an idea. Memories overwhelm consciousness to the point where there is almost no
new experience possible. A tiny amount of input touches off a storm of
associations, obliterating the self beneath them. Those who like to believe
that they are their memories often abet this process.
to live in the third aspect of mind, the analysis of the amalgam of sensory
input and linked memory tags. Experience becomes immediately abstracted and
“pinned to a board” for study. Fresh input is blocked so that thoughts can be
care most about how everything affects them. They want to register their
opinion on everything, and may have a hard time accepting alternative notions
to their own.
I have provided only
the barest sketch here, because the class didn’t discuss it. Hopefully these matters will be addressed at home, in our
spare time. Obviously, though, all four
aspects of the mental process
are essential, and when our mind is functioning well there is a sense of
well-being and easy expertise. But as Adam and others pointed out, identifying
with our mind is a limiting condition. In our yoga study we intend to drop our
identifications to try to sit in the emptiness of our true unconditioned
nature. The first technique Patanjali offers for our repetitive practice is to
examine each aspect in isolation, to get a little distance on them. Early
samadhis are absorption in aspects of our world; later on we become
increasingly absorbed in unmanifest aspects.
Jan talked about how
she liked to meditate on specific items of beauty, like a candle flame or
bright colors, even though her yoga teacher insisted she meditate on
nothingness. The Gita assures us that meditating on either somethingness or
nothingness takes us to the same place, but the first is easier. The gist is that we practice yoga to stabilize our
awareness, and however that comes about is just fine. A yoga teacher is
not necessarily a guru, and their prescriptions may not be appropriate to
anyone’s particular predilections. It’s too bad that confusion can be sown with
the best of intentions. But even with the advice of a wise guru, each of us has
to decide for ourselves where our path lies.
The Yoga Sutras are
a “how to” manual for bringing about union with the Absolute. There is nothing
slipshod or accidental about them. Like taming a wild horse, one must first
rope the mind, speak to it soothingly, stroke it and feed it, make friends with
it before climbing aboard for a ride. As such it is not like Christianity that
defers all possible benefits to an unpredictable grace, or Buddhism that
insists on the supremacy of nothingness. It is eminently practical and
level-headed. The only indisputable certainty is that we exist, and all else is
build upon that firm foundation. As was mentioned, we meditate on doubt not to
exalt it but to tame it and allow it its proper dimension. We meditate on the
ego not to crush it but to harmonize it in the proper balance of a healthy,
happy and intrepid individual.
In the matter of
grace, I always remember Nitya’s response to a fellow who was upset that he
wasn’t getting any. He told him, you are crying and holding out your cup to
catch the grace, but you’re holding it upside down. Grace is pouring down all
the time. All you have to do is turn your cup right side up.
So don’t make the
mistake of imagining that someone or something outside is supposed to turn the
cup over for you. That’s our role, and it isn’t too much to ask. Similarly,
don’t imagine that there is no cup, and then wonder why it isn’t filled. Both
these are failures of the buddhi, the intellect, and Patanjali and Nitya are
offering us correction for it.
Anita brought us
another example of yoga in action. She recently paid in advance for a promised
service, but then was riddled with doubts about it. She
really felt bad. Instead of prolonging her
anxiety, she decided to get
to the bottom of why she felt the way she did. First she thought it was about
the money, but she realized she didn’t care about that too much. Money was a
means to an end, not an end in itself. Then she thought it might be about
social disapproval, especially from her adult children, but she was old enough
to not worry about that either. So what was it? As she dug deeper, she began to
realize that it was about trust. She had trusted someone, and now was worried
that her trust might be betrayed. She realized that past violations of trust
were coloring her feelings about the present instance, and she strove to separate
the one from the other. She wound up having a fine meditation on trust issues,
and in the bargain relieved her anxiety about the specific trigger in the
While excellent in
every respect, this shows the importance of making a well-directed effort. If
Anita had just waited for grace or tried to convince herself that her feelings
weren’t real, they would have continued to bother her for her whole life,
cropping up when similar circumstances called them forth. Unconscious
motivators don’t go away of their own accord, they have to be rooted out,
brought into the light. Because she made an examination, Anita has taken the
edge off this particular vestige of her past. The
feelings will undoubtedly come up again, but she will recognize them sooner and
they will have less sting each time.
We don’t have to
identify with our accumulated garbage, we can compost it or burn it up. But
just because we no longer think of ourselves as garbage doesn’t mean we don’t
exist. In essence we are the Absolute. We can throw everything away but that
core truth. It’s wonderful that some who have dedicated themselves to this
learning process are coming to see that that is an enlightening, uplifting,
freeing way of life, not an erasure. Initially there
are always fears that discarding the
rubbish is discarding ourselves, but with time the confidence grows that our
central reality is undiscardable. What remains after the cleanup process is the
supreme beauty of existence for its own sake.
The cessation of cognition
preceded by repetitive practice is the other (asamprajñåta samådhi)
in which the residue of registered
first rhubarb pie of the season, several weeks late due to our cold spring,
contributed to happy taste buds, and armed us to try to brainstorm a difficult
and elusive verse, which is to be paired with the previous one.
relating what I can recall of our discussion, I want to pass on a trio of pithy
sentences from Eknath Easwaran describing the Yoga Sutras. He writes (Gita Vol.
II, p. 22):
The heart of this program is meditation, which Patanjali, a great
spiritual teacher in ancient India, divides conveniently into three stages, dharana,
dhyana and samadhi. Patanjali’s exposition is so precise and
so free of dogma that I don’t think it can ever be improved on in these
qualities. But it is written in a kind of lecture note style, in the
expectation that other teachers will elaborate on these notes in their own way
on the basis of their experience.
Perfect. The sutras are more
dense than koans even, often being simply a list of terms organized to remind
the “lecturer” what to cover and when. Some of Easvaran’s Gita commentary is
not to my taste, but he gets off some great stuff here and there. This comes
from his commentary on VII, 1, which is a really commendable one.
Okay, so on to the
verse. I can’t put it off any longer.
The gist of what
Nitya teaches is that, whereas in the last verse we were sustaining our
contemplation of the four stages of mental modification, one at a time, here we
are watching them vanish. By doing so we are meditating on their absence
instead of their presence. Our united attempts to do it together as a class were
continually deflected into tangential issues, demonstrating the difficulty of
dealing with “nothingness.” We slide off into something we can grasp, something
tangible or conceivable. This is where the repetitive practice comes in. We
have to bring ourselves back over and over to the vanishing point of our mental
modifications and hold tight for as long as we can. The torrential blast of all
creation is trying to sweep us back into the flow, and we struggle to buck the
tide for even a moment. We all agreed this is hard work, and success is
ephemeral at best.
The closest we came
in our grappling started with classic beginning meditation techniques, which
employ “a positive experience as a plank for yogic discipline and consequent
achievement of contemplative balance.” Last week Jan mentioned her favorites of
gazing at a candle flame or some brilliantly colored jewel. Bill mentioned
watching a sunset, and I held out for listening to music. As focuses for
meditation, we are naturally drawn to such experiences, in which the
beauty temporarily arrests our descriptive narrative of mental modifications,
or vritti. In our one-pointed concentration, thoughts like, “What a beautiful
sunset!” “I am watching a sunset,” “That’s orange,” “Here we are,” etc. are
readily seen to interfere with the pure experience, to be one step removed from
a perfect esthetic appreciation. They are the experience of the critic, the
judge, and we must push them aside to try to remain in the pure, unmediated
experience as long as possible. In this way we occasionally achieve
contemplative balance. The secondary pleasures of describing the event to our
friends or recalling the beauty afterwards are of a different order, though not
without value as well.
Next we are asked to
shift our attention to the vanishing point. Nitya sums up the meaning of the
verse in his final paragraph:
the same manner the yogi can use the negative counterpart, the cessation of an
experience, for another discipline. Where a cognition disappears into a state
of oblivion, the entire stream of consciousness can also vanish. Perception,
recall of conception, and affectivity are all transcended and the yogi remains
in a state of absorption. For such absorption there can be four leads:
absorption into the vanishing point of a perceptual encounter, absorption into
the vanishing point of a conceptual or intuitive insight, absorption into the
vanishing point of the cessation of pleasure or affectivity, and finally,
absorption into the vanishing point of the conscious self merging into the
cosmic or universal self. While such absorptions hold fresh conditionings at
bay, they do not terminate any experience that has already been registered.
Registered experiences still remain as potentials for future life. They are
technically called samskaras, processed and conditioned experiences.
Susan definitely wanted us to
acknowledge the difference between watching a perception vanish and trying
valiantly to make conceptions vanish. The vanishing of the former seems
inevitable, the latter almost impossible. She is often up at night unable to
get back to sleep as she battles her powerful stream of mental modifications.
Scotty had a number of cogent suggestions of how to quiet the mind using
mantras and mental imagery, which are very helpful at inducing the vanishing of
anxiety and obsessive complexes. The old saw of counting sheep is one pagan
version, though a bit prosaic for modern tastes.
A parallel of this
all-too common tale of woe appears in Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal:
I was around six I heard something about flies which sting you when you’re
asleep. And naturally someone dragged in the old joke: “when you wake up you’re
dead.” The words haunted me. That evening in bed with the light out, I tried to
picture death, the “no more of anything”. In my imagination I did away with all
the outward circumstances of my life and felt myself confined in ever
tightening circles of anguish: there was no longer any “I”… What does it mean,
“I”? I couldn’t succeed in grasping it. “I” slipped out of my thoughts like a
fish out of the hands of a blind man, and I couldn’t sleep. For three years
these nights of questioning in the dark recurred fairly frequently. Then, one
particular night, a marvelous idea came to me: instead of just enduring this
agony, try to observe it, to see where it comes from and what it is. I perceived that it all seemed to come
from a tightening of something in my stomach, as well as under my ribs and in
my throat. I remembered that I was subject to angina and forced myself to
relax, especially in my abdomen. The anguish disappeared. When I tried again in
this new condition to think about death, instead of being clawed by anxiety, I
was filled with an entirely new feeling. I knew no name for it—a feeling
between mystery and hope.
The key is to use
some technique, any technique, to try to build a small shelter from the storm
of synaptical firings by which our brains are regularly wracked. Imagine
sending loving or compassionate thoughts to someone in need, or watching your
breathing, playing mental chess, anything to anchor the chaos. As you are swept
away, bring yourself back to the anchor time and time again. Eventually the
storm will relent at least a little bit, and your incremental gains from the
practice are cumulative, as Susan admitted.
Precisely here is a
significant difference between Advaita Vedanta and the yoga of the Yoga Sutras.
What we’re doing now admits of incremental growth stages, while in Advaita it’s
all or nothing. In Advaita you have to accept the storm as your present
reality, as one aspect of the Absolute. In Yoga you can push it out of the way.
It’s good exercise for your brain muscle, and much easier to understand for us
modern souls conditioned to dualism.
Jan related an
experience of esthetic arrest she had recently. She was doing some spring
planting, and looking inside a pot with three withered old leaves, when her
mental associations were interrupted by the beauty of the moment. Well, beauty
might be overstating it. The scene itself was totally prosaic, and yet
circumstances came together to sweep Jan into a moment of ecstasy. Somehow
these moments emerge from a combination of effort and non-effort, stress and
release, that for an instant find a point of balance.
Scotty gave a great
example of where all this is headed. He was talking with his therapist about
why he couldn’t get in to his favorite gallery to display his very excellent
paintings. The therapist had him sit in a different chair and play the role of
the gallery owner, and it took two tries to produce a
revelation. “Her” verdict was,
“I need you to be more confident about
your ability.” Then he returned to his original seat and took in the advice. He
felt something shift inside, and realized that he had been unconsciously
casting himself in a negative light, feeling that he really wasn’t quite good enough. A cascade of release accompanied
the realization, which brought Scotty up to a much more neutral, and thus
positive and supportive, self-assessment. He felt empowered and encouraged.
doesn’t cure old habits overnight, but it goes a long way toward it by bringing
the syndrome into awareness and beginning the correction process. It will need
to be revisited occasionally to reinforce it, through abhyasa or repetitive
Krippner’s dream workshop that some of us attended uses a similar gestalt
therapy type of yoga exercise. He had us stand up and move around a bit, then
take one step back into each of our parents in turn, followed by two steps back
into two of our grandparents, and lastly one step back into imagining ourselves
as someone of inordinate importance in our life. (In the no-brainer of the
year, Bill, Deb and I all chose Nitya for this last person. Who else could it
have been?) As each “alter ego” we gave advice to ourself, and then stepped
back into our former place and thought about how that advice had affected our
lives for good or ill. Somehow the physical movement in tandem with the mental
shift helped a lot of memories and fixations break loose. And it revealed what
we already knew but didn’t really fully appreciate, that there is a vast amount
driving us from the past that we have habituated to and so fail to notice in
If we imagine that
we are nothing or that we know it all already, those poisoned arrows will not
be removed. We have to be brave enough to admit they are there, to ourselves at
least, and then suffer the agony of pulling them out. The wounds will heal,
leaving only a scar of greater wisdom, and we will be much freer in our
movements after the therapy.
Before signing off,
I want to take a stab at what Nitya’s invitation would look like in practice.
First we are asked to watch as our need to identify an object or concept goes
away. In one exercise in art classes “back in my day” the teacher would have
the students pair up. One person would be blindfolded, and their partner would
lead them around and have them touch different surfaces. The idea wasn’t to try
to identify what you were touching, but to have a direct experience of touch
unmediated by the identifying faculty, which in most of us is closely wired up
with visual perception. In other words, we practiced dropping the “What is
this?” aspect of our minds to simply feel pure sensation, and it was
dramatically different from our usual experience, like being a child again
without a huge stockpile of identity tags. This is
something that is worth trying for real, as its very different from anything
The second faculty
of mind is memory association. When we name something, we have gone into our
“archive stacks” to compare the present experience with previous ones, and
chosen the (hopefully) correct name, at the same time warping the present
experience to conform to the Procrustean requirements of our past compilation.
In the case of watching a sunset, we can be entranced by the beauty of it, but
then we allow descriptive words to intervene such as those mentioned earlier.
When we allow the memory mechanism to vanish, we can bring ourselves back to a
pure appreciation of the esthetic. It’s a subtle process, all of it taking
place in the transparent clarity of mental modifications, with no bugaboo
standing out we can identify as our albatross.
In the third
instance we add a value assessment with our judicial faculty. “Isn’t this
great!” “I love sunsets,” and so on. Again, we can practice dispassion by
allowing ourselves to be reabsorbed into the experience every time we tilt
ourselves out with such sentiments. Its another abhyasa, where we have to
repeatedly re-center ourselves every time we feel compelled to issue a judgment
on the situation.
Watching the ego,
the fourth faculty of mind, vanish is a good exercise too. Pure esthetics
probably doesn’t give us an adequate opportunity to do much; I’m not sure. For
me, the easiest (and most ready to hand) is to endure criticism without
reacting in my own favor. There is nothing like criticism to bring the ego into
full flower. You can feel it surge up in your own defense, ready to combat the
attack by any means possible. Even truth, though that can languish a ways
down the line sometimes. Anyway, I’ve had hundreds if not thousands of
opportunities to sit still while being called to task for my failings, and I
have learned a little to accept it and not mount a defense, especially immediately, in the heat of reactivity.
The ego is at least more visible than the judging faculty, at times like those.
It usually gushes in bright colors, like the red of embarrassment. Anyway,
allowing it to vanish unsupported by self defense is tough but rewarding. You
are much better able to handle the situation calmly and judiciously. The Gita
recommends such an attitude too, as in Chapter XIV, where he “who regards his
being blamed or praised equally, the same in honor and disgrace, taking no
sides as between friends or foes,” is extolled.
Needless to say, the
ego will be back, along with the rest. These preliminary exercises disrupt and
highlight but do not break the association with samskaras, conditioned memory
I invite you to submit other suggestions as
they occur to you.
I well remember in
Roger Shattuck’s fabulous introduction to Mount Analogue, by Rene Daumal, that Daumal experimented with
observing the disappearance of consciousness. Elsewhere I read that he and his
school friends would hold mock funerals for each other, complete with coffin.
They were fascinated with the transition from consciousness to unconsciousness,
like the vanishing of modulations we have been observing in class, though they
were younger and thus more careless of health hazards.
The introduction is
nearly as fine a gem as the book it graces. An average reader could finish the
book in an hour or two at the most, and the intro in a half. See if you can
find it. It packs a lifetime of wisdom. The “new, improved edition” is far
inferior to the original Shattuck translation, with numerous mistakes,
including the horrendous omission of one of the illuminative illustrations by
the author. Don’t bother with that one, except to see how much difference a
good translation can make.
Here are some excerpts from
Shattuck’s introduction that make you wish Daumal was in our class. I have
often wondered if he was a reincarnation of Shankara, with his almost inhuman
ability to translate the entire Indian oeuvre, among
many other things, before dying young (of
In 1941 the editor
of Les Cahiers de la Pleiade asked
a number of writers to describe the most significant and crucial experience in
their life. Most of the others agreed and then begged off; Daumal, spurred by
the example of Milosz’ Epistle to Sorge, produced one of the most authentic and influential
extra-rational experience written in this century. In a bare dozen pages
[titled A Fundamental Experiment] Daumal struggles to describe and analyze in
rational terms sensations and reflections on the brink of unconsciousness and
even death. His youthful experiments with carbon tetrachloride, whose results
he has corroborated from other sources, furnish his direct evidence. For nearly
twenty years this evidence has left him with the absolute certainty (he repeats and underlines the word) of having
entered another world. It is not, he insists, the passive backward-looking
world of dreams to which he attained, but a realm of superior awareness, which
he describes in visual, mathematical, and acoustic detail.
[Daumal] was one of the
sanest and most wide-awake of men. A letter he addressed at twenty-four to Jean
Paulhan makes this declaration: ‘I ASSURE YOU THERE WAS FIRE AROUND US IN THE
AIR.’ Yet two pages later he writes with equal vehemence, ‘we must first become
human before seeking anything superior’….
He continued his
education in Reims, but with less and less respect for the conventional
frontiers of learning and experience. He later described these years to his
15 to 17, at Reims. I began to have doubts, to question the basis of
everything. Without giving up my naturally healthy liking for nature, the open
air, etc., I began to perform all kinds of experiments ‘in order to see’. Along
with a few friends (some of the brightest pupils in the lycee but all a little wild) I tried alcohol, tobacco,
night life, etc. I tried knocking myself out (with Cl4 or benzene) in order to
study just how consciousness disappears and what power I had over it. I became
interested in poetry… and philosophy…. At 17 1/2, for lack of any good reason
to go on living, I attempted suicide. Immediately I felt the ties to my family
and my responsibility toward my younger brother.
Unsatisfied by his
regular studies, Daumal now began learning Sanskrit by himself. Within a few
years he had mastered the language and much of its literature, composed a
Sanskrit grammar as he went along, and begun a series of translations and
revaluations of original texts that he would continue right up to his death. In
Paris, where he pushed his studies further into mathematics, science, medicine
and philosophy, a bad fall while doing gymnastics deprived him of his memory
the first day of competitive examinations for the Ecole Normale Superieure. He
grew to consider this abrupt diversion from a career in ‘higher learning’ as a
fortunate accident. In spite of precarious health and signs of fatigue, he
began to experiment with hashish and other drugs in his search for direct
experience of truth, and at the same time increased his literary activity.
discipline [of Sanskrit] prevented his early attraction to Oriental religions
from degenerating into a misinformed cultism. Daumal is one of the few men in
this century to have combined Eastern and Western thought into something more valuable
that a set of personal eccentricities. [This introduction was published in
1959—hopefully we’ve added a few more men (and some women) in the intervening
half century.] When he was twenty, he opened a review of a book on the Vedanta
by stating: ‘The essential weave and texture of my thinking, of our thinking,
of all thinking, is written—as I have known for years—in the sacred books of
India.’ When the Orientalist, Jacques Masui, met Daumal in Marseille a few
years before his death, he had this impression: ‘I can only say that I have
never seen a Westerner live Indian culture to such a point, so completely that
its archetypes must have been there from the beginning.’ But what does it mean?
What does this orientalism add up to beyond a collection of esoteric texts? The
Westerner tends by tradition to think of grasping the meaning of life through
certain crucial experiences—death, grief, danger, passionate love, sudden
success, catastrophe. Existentialism has aptly termed them ‘extreme
situations’, in reference to which we discover ourselves—whence our attraction
to the adventurous life, war, scientific progress, romantic love. Having cast
his mind deep into Indian philosophy, Daumal senses that the reality and
meaning of the world can come to us at every moment without our having to rely
wholly on extreme situations to wrench us into awareness. Action, as has been
pointed out many times, is for Westerners both stimulant and drug. The four
stages of Hindu initiation, from the Vedas to the Upanishads, and the
complementary disciplines of Yoga and Zen, prepare us not for a career of great
exploits to be recalled in old age, but for a life increasingly dedicated to
‘the teaching which cuts through illusion.’
Through these stages
of inner struggle, Daumal became increasingly aware of a mode of mental
operations which is not new with him of with the age, but which has remained
foreign to our activist way of life. He understood very early that the basic
act of consciousness is a negation, a dissociation of the I from the exterior world of not-I.
Meaningful perception reduces or refines the I, withdraws it from the world into an increasingly
strict identity or subjectivity. Then, however, beginning a vibratory rhythm
which must follow if self-annihilation is not to result, the pure consciousness
expands again into all things, experiences the world subjectively once more,
loses itself in the mystery of creation. Baudelaire describes this rhythm of
consciousness in the terse words that open Mon Coeur mis a nu: ‘De la vaporisation et de la centralisation
du Moi. Tout est la.’ Daumal would accept the terms and
reverse the order. Centralization or concentration: elimination of everything
exterior in order to arrive at the intensity of self-awareness. Vaporization:
reassimilation of all the universe in the amplitude of sympathy and action. The
alternation of contraction and expansion gives human consciousness its rest and
motion, its inner time and space, its own East and West. In contrast to
Bergson’s intuitive surrender to the object of knowledge, Daumal asserts over
and over again in poetry and in discourse the essentially masculine, creative,
and revelatory act of negation, of dissociating the world from ourselves and
from itself in a meaningful dialectic, as when God divided light from darkness,
the firmament from the waters. This initial stage of consciousness Daumal
called ‘asceticism’; only if this ascetic discipline has been achieved can one
attempt the opposite and more tempting movement of fusion with all things.
From his unflinching
investigations of the nature of thought and consciousness, Daumal extracted
very early the unshakable premises of his philosophy. He rejected any dualistic
conception of the universe in favor of a unity of meaning, of existence, and of
thought. ‘Dialectic materialism, carried to its limit, is not essentially
different from absolute idealism or from the Vedanta carried to their limits.’
Without being a sociologist or a psychologist, Daumal, aged twenty, saw through
and attacked Levy-Bruhl’s widely accepted thesis that the primitive mind is
different in its operation from the civilized mind—a theory Levy-Bruhl himself
finally had to recant. And the principle on which Daumal and his friends based
the entire effort of [their magazine] Le Grand Jeu asserted the convergence of the three great
approaches to truth: philosophy (especially Plato’s dialectic), the
‘initiation’ of the occult tradition properly understood, and poetry (‘a means
of achieving sacred knowledge’).
This is the heart of
Daumal’s thinking, the result of experiments performed back and forth across
the threshold of consciousness, of a wide-ranging knowledge, and of a
discipline of mind which usually comes with age and not with youth. Nowhere in
his writings does Daumal invoke the doctrines of grace and prayer. He worships
no benevolent or anthropomorphic god, nor does he speak of any deity in the
Western sense…. Man achieves inner spiritual progress by his own efforts, by a
human discipline that is not a gift of god and can be learned from other men
further advanced on the path of knowledge. Teaching and initiation are central
to all religions and cultures. Within a system where no truth comes by divine
revelation but only by human attainment, the sense of a tradition of knowledge
comes to support the entire structure of life. And thus Daumal spoke
unflinchingly of a Doctrine, meaning not a narrow set of rituals or dogmas, not
art for art’s sake in aesthetics, not a fixed philosophical position, but a
number of paths leading to the same goal: a higher form of life.
the process of putting so much pressure on language, thought ceases to be
satisfied with the support of words; it bursts away from them in order to seek
its resolution elsewhere. This ‘elsewhere’ should not be understood as a
transcendent realm, a mysterious metaphysical domain. This ‘elsewhere’ is
‘here’, in the immediacy of real life. It is from right
here that our thoughts rise
up, and it is here that they
must come back. But after what travels! Live first; then turn to philosophy;
but, in the third place, live again. The man in Plato’s cave has to go out and
contemplate the light of the sun; then, strengthened by this light which he
keeps in his memory, he has to return to the cave. Verbal philosophy is only a
necessary stage in this voyage.
Jean sent the following in
tightening of stomach, ribs and throat, and troubles sleeping, also the idea of
physical movement leading to mental shift, memories and fixations breaking
loose--- made me think of what I read about last night on Internet, about
bio-typing, how memories sit in muscles (Johnny Seitz, autistic coach)... and
EDMR (Eye Desensitivity Movement Reprocessiong), and how it, like cognitive
behavioral therapy, can help unravel post traumatic stress.
Scotty had also mentioned the
value of a physical component to one’s meditation, during class. The concept of
sitting still and doing nothing is quaint but not very suitable to most of us.
We need to have purged at least the major traumas before we can be still.
Probably the reason Euro-Americans are so busy all the time is the unaddressed
trauma we carry, much of it caused by our draconian theories of child-rearing.
Many psychological techniques include physical release in greater or lesser
degrees. Most of them are easy and even fun.
The cognition of being for
those who are bereft of body identification and those who are merged with
My grammar check
underlines this sutra, because it seems to be all subject without a predicate.
It does not stand alone, but must be grasped in context. Last night our
month-long break was quite apparent, as we had to search through some cobwebs
to reclaim the train of Patanjali’s thought. This morning I seem to have
collected all the cobwebs and stored them in my own brain.
The context here is
a presentation of detachment. “Those who are bereft of body identification” are
called videhi-s, and “those who
are merged with nature” are known as prakritilaya-s. Nitya introduced them to us back in sutra 15. Here
he tells us, “To those who are in these categories, there is no special
discipline to undergo. They are real in themselves and there is nothing new to
realize.” Patanjali merely mentions “the cognition of being” for those like
them. What’s he getting at?
An important paradox
in spiritual life is whether to try or not try. Efforts made in ignorance are
often inimical to spiritual flowering. Jesus gives the examples of birds and
flowers that naturally and without premeditation express harmony and beauty.
Buddhist “no mind” and “emptiness” also have the appearance of effortlessness.
We like to imagine wise yogis sitting quietly in repose on a distant
mountaintop, fully satisfied with inactivity. Meditation
includes seeking surcease of linear thinking.
And busy people have no
time for spiritual pursuits, at least if they are busy for the sake of busyness
(more often spelled business).
We discussed the
burgeoning awareness that all life is sentient, that it cognizes its beingness.
The conceit that humans are the only intelligent life form was invented fairly
recently as a way of permitting the abuse and slaughter of animals and the
destruction of the environment without any twinge of conscience. We dehumanize
our human enemies for the same purposes. Now, to the dismay of many, everywhere
we look we see intelligence, right down to single-celled creatures, and even
some inorganic substances. It appears that all life is expressive of profound
beauty and meaningfulness, and it appears to be naturally evolving toward
greater and greater complexity. So what can humans add to this unfoldment other
than disruption and short-sighted manipulation?
Perhaps it's time to give that up.
On the other hand,
if we do nothing, we will get nowhere, both pragmatically and spiritually. The
next sutra complements this one with what works for those of us who are not
birds, flowers, or prakritilayas, to whit, effort. Preferably well-directed
effort, which is necessarily guided by a wise teacher, a group consensus, or a
scripture like the Yoga Sutras. Otherwise there would be no point in
Patanjali’s book, for one thing. Those cobwebs that gathered in my mind over
the past month of vacationing won’t go away on their own. I have to press
forward with vigor, and only then will they gradually give way.
The Gita says, in
VIII, 8: “Meditating, with
mind engaged in the yoga involving positive effort, undistracted by anything
else, he goes to the supreme divine Person.” Positive effort is a translation of
abhyasa, repetitive practice, that
is paired with vairagya,
detachment in this series of sutras. Speaking of the Gita, I coincidentally
wrote the following just yesterday in respect to VIII, 9, where we are directed
to meditate on the unthinkable nature of the Absolute:
has been written about the incomprehensible nature of the godhead, Absolute, or
Whole Shebang, and no one wants to argue with that. Yet this assertion of
impossibility is not meant to dissuade us from thinking, at least from the Gita’s
standpoint. We have just had two verses, 5 and 7, where we are directed to put
our best effort into thinking about Krishna’s nature, which is the same as the
Absolute. Now Krishna provides dialectic balance so we know we both can and
cannot think our way to realization.
are always eager to embrace an idea that lets them off the hook, allowing them
to defer to someone else to pull their load. Nataraja Guru called those who
waited around for spiritual experience to be handed to them on a plate, hobos.
Lazy brahmacharis are on the lookout for any excuse to doze at their ease.
Mellifluous, isn’t it? Hobos dozing at their ease…. Spiritual experience that
comes from magical drug use, which delivers a temporary “free ride,” plays into
such misconceptions. Our mind is like a vast castle, full of exotic rooms and
secret passages to new wings. Staying in our favorite room watching TV will
never lead us to the high tower with the stupendous view. We have to actually
find our way there, or all our vaunted experiences will be necessarily
imaginary. So don’t let the adjective “unthinkable” trick you into abandoning
Great Mystery simultaneously encompasses and transcends our efforts. A
scientist does not surrender her search, but takes a specific interest and
begins to expand her knowledge of it. As she learns more, doors begin to open
onto previously undreamed of fields of possibility. This is the best model for
a seeker of truth.
To sum up, we have
to make a dialectical synthesis of striving and letting go. Both are important,
and both have their season. We will explore this matter in more depth in the
Another thing to
remember: we have solicited practical examples of detachment to share in class
or via email, to help demystify the subject. We have already received a few,
but most are still pending—with you. So let’s revive that exercise. Refer to
the sutra 15 notes if you need to refresh your memory.
quickly with the following excellent take on detachment, focusing on a
physiological aspect she teaches. Why do we assume detachment means detachment
from everything? Why not simply detachment from inimical forces? Be sure to
note her use of dialectic wording in the first sentence:
Your request for practical examples of
detachment brought the attached document to mind. Not sure if this is in the
realm within which you're fishing, but interesting nonetheless.
Essentially I think of the seat of
detachment within the body as resting within the ParaSympathetic Nervous
System, and this document I wrote describes this process in detail, how this
vital aspect of our nervous system functions, and how we can consciously
develop a PSNS dominance. This is just another way to describe 'the elephant',
another vocabulary that is neuro-anatomically based...practical.
Many of my clients are Olympic
athletes, professional dancers, musicians, and other high-performers in
creative fields. Those without this skill development hit a neurological
ceiling in their ability to optimally express themselves and live fully. This
is a relatively new way to think about and consciously train to use one's
Autonomic Nervous System, typically inaccurately described as
describe my personal practices as
being based on PSNS Dominance, and I utilize these techniques when I need
help righting my ship when life's inevitable startling winds blow and
knock my body into "Threat Alert!" and out of an alert,
joyous, flowing, safe detachment.
To be deeply INVOLVED and yet simultaneously
DETACHED requires a PSNS dominance, and this is a 'being' realm we all can
learn and manifest, along with the trained stars and high-performers among us.
This does not imply that by having a PSNS dominance that all cognitive and
spiritual development is automatically present and sublime, but it is stating
that to live within sublimity, one needs to be foundationally anchored within
PSNS. Sending love to you and all our other spiritual gym rats!
“attachment” is rather long to reprint in its entirety, but I’m sure if you
write her she would share it with you (email@example.com). It’s titled
Transforming Anxiety, Fear and Trauma. You can see she likes the word ‘optimal’
even more than I do! Hers is a very good way of describing the “elephant” we’ve
all been talking about. Here are some excerpts with as much of the gist as I
can squeeze into them:
(ANS) is part of our body’s Peripheral
Nervous System which is responsible for communicating with our Central Nervous
System (brain, spinal cord). The ANS has two sub-systems: the Sympathetic
Nervous System (SNS), and the Parasympathetic
(PSNS). A key to healthy optimal
functioning is found within these two sub-systems and how they’re used. You can
retrain your body’s responses to perceived threat and stress by learning to
quickly access your PSNS and develop a PSNS dominance: aka Self Regulation. The
following Self-Regulation Skills are simple, but not easy, because they take lots
practice. But once you’ve mastered these skills, you’ll wonder how you lived
any other way! But first, more
Recent brain imaging research
has demonstrated that the more fear and
anxiety a person experiences, the less effectively their brain operates. When
we perceive a threat (real or imagined, major or minor, criticism or predatory
animal), our SNS
is triggered, giving our body a quick rush of stress reactive chemicals. These
chemicals serve the purpose of enabling us to bolt away from the hungry tiger,
or to take quick strong action… survival!
However, when remaining
in the SNS longer than the 3-5 second rush, the following
impact occurs (the longer we’re there, the greater the impact):
*Decreased cognitive/neocortical function up to 60-70%
*ELOC (External Locus of Control) which results
vulnerable and unsafe; sense of worth and well-being is externally dependent on
and controlled by others or environment
*Increased threat perception (hypervigilance)
*Reactive; loss of intentional thought, language/speech,
*Increased physical and mental tension which constricts
*Decreased immune function; increased destructive coping
*Decreased intimacy tolerance, interest and function
impulsive anger, moodiness, irritation,
anxiety, irrationality, acting out
*Increased risk of compromising values, integrity, goals,
*Most vulnerable to being controlled by others when
feeling fearful, dependent, heightened perceived threat level; less able to
think logically, problem solve or reason
a person can develop SNS dominance, which is far too common in our modern world
filled with 24 hour news cycles reporting crises/war/threats, overwhelming
loads of information and achievement expectations, domestic violence, financial
insecurity, global climate change and pollution, illness/disease, rapid change,
stress, stress, on and on and on.
My SNS is triggered
right now just writing all of this stuff! And those who have developed
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from traumas such as combat, violence,
natural disasters, abuse, loss, childhood trauma, or extreme challenges, can
often function from a chronic state of SNS dominance, living with a constant sense
of threat, regardless of external circumstances or safety. Further, even if your childhood was
pretty good, if you were raised with really stressed-out parents who functioned
with a lot of anxiety (SNS), then chances are that you have been trained to function
with SNS dominance. Help!
resides in the other ANS sub-system called the Parasympathetic Nervous
You can train your
body to quickly shift from the SNS back
to PSNS so that optimal functioning is restored; and, in fact, you can actually
retrain your body to operate from PSNS dominance. World-class athletes, top
performers, trauma survivors, martial artists, fire fighters, military
personnel, and police officers are now learning and using these training
skills, and so can you. The advantages of developing PSNS dominance are great and many:
*You function from a foundational
sense of safety and
security, feeling alert and relaxed
*Body is comfortable, relaxed and motor coordination is
*Optimal cognitive/neocortical functioning
*Mental and physical peak performance, “The Zone”
(Internal Locus of Control) where your sense of
self-worth and well-being is independent of external circumstances/others; you
are in control of yourself
*Optimal functioning of speech, language, logical
reasoning, problem solving, compassion
*Thoughts and behaviors are intentional rather than
*Increased immune function; decreased coping habits (PSNS=Calm/Capable)
*Increased intimacy tolerance,
interest and function
*Best able to live life aligned with your values,
integrity, goals, mission, principles
*Decreased risk of others controlling or manipulating you
For others absorption is preceded by faith, energy, memory,
Sutra 20 is paired
with 19 as the dialectic of trying/not trying. Patanjali’s point is that either
we are enlightened already, or we must make efforts. But it isn’t a monochrome
process: somehow trying and not trying are both important. Interestingly, last
week almost no one came to class, and this week almost everybody tried and
succeeded, so the overall tone mirrored the import of the two sutras.
The class focused
immediately on the first aspect of making an effort, which is faith. Indeed, we
may have to repeat this sutra so we can deal with the other aspects before we
move on. But there was plenty to talk about with just the one. First, let’s
review what Nitya tells us about faith, sraddha:
Corresponding to the inner cohesion and
harmony of the body, the mind can have a well-settled inner cohesion based on a
sense of security. From that sense arises both hope for the future and
stabilization of the present. This inner stabilization is induced by a deep
faith in your basic stand and understanding. Such a stabilizing disposition is
called sraddha, faith.
When you have faith and a will to
achieve, all the dormant sources of physical and mental energy are unlocked.
They are automatically channeled into your best effort for the achievement of
whatever is programmed. (p. 86)
Because we tend to have
cheesy notions about faith, I’d like to reprint the introductory paragraph of
my commentary on Gita Chapter XVII, regarding sraddha:
Sraddha is inadequately translated as
faith, for lack of a better English word. It means giving full attention to the
Absolute. In his Gita commentary, Guru Nitya says, “What is prized most highly
in the Gita is an unfailing attention to the Absolute, which runs through every
moment of life like a golden thread, giving unity to life and order to the
world. This is called sraddha.”
(p. 342) He adds later, “Sraddha means one-pointed attention, perfect
bipolarity, total acceptance, pure devotion, ardent faith, full sympathy,
unconditional appreciation, and an attitude of loving regard which is
continuous and consistent, like the unbroken flow of oil.” (p. 373)
Radhakrishnan (p. 343) says “Faith is the inward sense of truth.” They are
speaking of the ideal sraddha, but in this chapter the Gita is dealing with how
it plays out in the world, so sraddha includes what you give your attention to
as the vestments of the Absolute from your own personal perspective. In other
words, it addresses faith in the largest possible sense.
Paul started us off
with a very good metaphor. He once took a tour of the zoo, where he learned
that impalas can jump thirty or forty feet, but they are easily kept in their
enclosure with a retaining wall slightly higher than their eyes. Because they
evolved on flat plains, they will only go where they can see, and they don’t
even try to leap over the wall, which they could easily do. Paul’s point was
that if they had faith that it was safe to take the plunge, they could
instantly break free. Like that, we have learned to be afraid of leaping out of
the enclosure built around us by our social zoo keepers. Wisdom teachers try to
impart the faith in us to dare to escape, but we are naturally timid about it.
Anita continued the
animal metaphors with a story from Ram Dass about the famous monkey trap. His
version had a glass jar with a small neck, filled with nuts. The monkey reaches
in and grabs the nuts, but then its fist is too big to pass back through the
narrow opening of the jar. It tugs and tugs, but never thinks to let go of the
coveted prize so it can be free. Anita’s point was that detachment was like letting
go of the nuts so we can extricate ourselves from our traps.
Deb told me later of
a similar observation Jane Goodall had working with Chimpanzees. To draw them
near she would put lots of bananas out. They would load up with as many as they
could carry, and then struggle mightily to pick up the rest too. As they
started to walk away, some would drop. They would pick them up, and more would
drop. They never were able to be content with just what they could carry—-they wanted
the whole pile. Desire alone kept them captive. It isn’t too surprising that
they are our closest relatives.
Anita had some good
practical examples of detachment too. As a young mother she was more or less
forced into suing for divorce. She didn’t want to have to deal with it, and the
practicalities were daunting and highly unpleasant. But she persevered, and the
result was a freeing of her psyche to grow into who she really was, instead of
continuing in an ill-fitting role with an abusive husband. As the I Ching would
put it, “Difficulty at the Beginning” was followed by “Pushing Upward.” This is
the admirable course. Too many people endure dreadful circumstances because
they have been trained to put up and shut up. Our innate ability to express
ourselves has been severely truncated, and our present course of study is one
way of repairing the damage.
Anita has just been
on an arduous trip to Boston to see her son and his family, including a baby
almost a year old. Of course she was so excited about her new grandchild, but
when she arrived he had entered the stage where he noticed and feared strangers,
and she was a stranger to him. During her entire five day stay he refused to be
cuddled and instead would cry and carry on. Anita’s first impulse was to feel
rejected and sorry about it, but then she took herself in hand and reminded
herself that this was an important developmental stage he was going through. So
she mentally changed a negative into a positive, and didn’t allow it to spoil
her visit. There were a couple of other factors too where she initially was
upset but then substituted an improved description, thereby turning a sow’s ear
into a silk purse, as the saying goes. Last night she was glowing with
happiness over the success of her visit. The “old” Anita might have tempered
her joy with a measure of resentfulness and bitterness, but she has grown to
take charge of her life in ways that have opened doors to happiness and wisdom.
These examples demonstrate
the value of letting go of past conditionings, but the letting go is active. It
requires intention and energy. The truth is, we are like monkeys with our hand
already clinging to nuts inside the jar. We imagine we should just stop trying
and that will solve our problems, but we are already caught. It would be a wise
course if we were still pure as the driven snow, if we were prakritilayas or
videhis, naturally realized. But for us, not trying means staying stuck. The
efforts we are called upon to make are designed to undo the chains and padlocks
that hold us fast in the cramped zoo enclosure we have reluctantly come to
think of as home.
with her sick child highlights the importance of trying, and trying hard
against all odds. When we are well we don’t notice our gradual physical
decline, so we believe we can just bop along, careless and carefree. But real
illness requires immediate and continuous action. Jan has been heroic in
seeking ways to help her son. Last night she told us of how she was relating to
him psychologically. Knowing how important belief is, and following up on the
part of last week’s class where we discussed placebos, how they activate actual
chemical changes in the brain that can promote healing and pain reduction and
so on, she has been conversing with him about his beliefs around the treatments
he is undergoing. She is struggling to find the kind of language that will convince
his brain to switch on the healing process. Listening to her son’s thoughts
helps him to get in touch with his vague and terrifying emotions, that
inevitably are being suppressed as hard as he can suppress them. Instead of
telling him things, she is stepping back and letting him tell her, which is a
way of combining trying and not trying that opens new terrain.
John has also had
some difficult issues with his children’s health. He mentioned how we want very
much to control their lives, because we can see so much more than they do when
they are young. But we have to pull back and let them have room to learn on
their own. Parenting is a long process of letting go, and fighting the urge to
control and direct, which becomes especially intense when there are problems.
He also mentioned that we may try very hard to solve problems, but it is usually
after we give up that a solution comes to us. The wrestling with our problems
is important, and then the letting go is equally or more important. As we have
often noted, many scientific discoveries came about through pondering and then “sleeping
on it,” which leaves room for the subconscious to work outside its accustomed
boundaries and then present its findings. As Bill said, our subconsciouses are
geniuses, if we can give them room to inform us. The principle even has a name
now: the Eureka! phenomenon, after Archimedes.
We did touch on
memory a little. Bill reread for us the important part of Nitya’s commentary on
how it provides motivation, in association with our energy, virya, the source of the word virile, though in English it
come to mean only male energy. (Does anyone know a female counterpart for
virility?) Anyway, in Sanskrit it lacks the gender bias:
when you have inner nourishment and a lot of energy to spend, you can sink into
an inertial or lethargic state if your mind has no promise of the future to
look into. It is like the chemical components of the nerves which, on
interaction, produce an electrical impulse. Interest has to stimulate the fount
of energy to make virya leap into action. The catalyst to rouse virya is always
a preconditioned state that comes in the form of a recall of memory. Memories
never come as singular gestalts. It is like pulling a string from a thread
ball: several associations come one after another, presenting pictures of hope
or disgust. Virya is utilized either to get into an aggressive action of
acquisition or for the purpose of fleeing from fearsome situations. Memory need
not necessarily always be your personal acquisition. A master's mind can infuse
into a closely related, intimate mind a picture of his or her own memory, which
in turn acts like a postulation that guides the neophyte to imitate the master.
The last two sentences
highlight the importance of a guru or some outside factor to our evolution. Our
egos are very clever to undermine our efforts and divert attention from what
will have an impact on our lives. It is important to open ourselves to a
therapist, teacher, or sympathetic study group, who can tell us what we would
rather not hear. We can easily have faith in notions that insulate us from
freedom. Ideas that “nothing has any meaning” or “everything is lies” merely
play to an attitude of complacency. Charles offered that there are different
types, active and passive, which is quite true. But there is a tragic side, in
that most people live passive lives of resignation and don’t express their
potential because they have been crushed by the steamroller of actuality. The
hostility of an apparent outside world drives them into hiding. A healthy
spiritual investigation can free them to live full lives again. But we glumly accept
the belief that we aren’t meant to matter, that we aren’t important, and we
should just slog through life and get it over with.
Deb told us that
when she was once struggling with some of these issues, she got a letter from
Nitya. Thanks to the miracle of computers, I can reproduce it for the notes. It’s
in Love and Blessings Part III, November of 1972:
write this a beautiful butterfly is struggling to find its way out through the
transparency of a curtain that is fixed around my window. It almost reaches a
point from which it can easily fly out. Before that, it loses patience,
flutters and brings itself again against the curtain. I don’t know whether this
is necessary for its growth—-obviously not. The butterfly does not
philosophize. It struggles until it is worn out. Just now I walked over and
lifted the curtain. It saw its chance and flew away. What is the use of
relating ourselves to a butterfly when we are so deeply ingrained in the world
of logic and rhetoric?
The letter communicated the
right words at the right time. Deb alternated between anger, confusion and
despair. She cried for a long time after receiving it. It made a permanent
impact, and she still holds it in her heart. It helped shake her out of a rut
she was in.
Memory shapes what
we do almost completely; if it didn’t we would just act randomly all the time.
We follow our programs because we remember them. Thus, memory works in concert
with the will, which utilizes our energy in the scheme of this sutra. Drugs and
other diversionary schemes and beliefs interrupt the memory and sabotage the
will, so while a person’s faith may remain intact, little or no progress is
made. It’s too comfortable for us to replay a single step over and over. Plus,
it is way too easy to mistake stupor for absorption, and our egos are very proud
to pass off the former as the latter. These are crucial issues that we could
benefit from spending more time on.