Pain, despair, shakiness, and
hard breathing are the companions of distraction.
In ancient India you
were supposed to cure yourself. The world was not teeming with peddlers of
nostrums and quackery who have a stake in prolonging illness, the way it is
today. Therefore Patanjali does not coddle us in our unease, but shows us the
way out. We are passing through the portals of the preliminary material and
into the serious business of effecting our own cure, and as Nataraja Guru used
to say, “A drastic disease needs a drastic cure.”
As promised, Ann
brought a healthy stack of literature on depression. Almost any type of unhappy
state of mind can be linked to it, with the basic determinant for clinical
depression being its persistence. Environmental and biological factors are very
important. The main thrust seems to be that the attitude that depressed people
just bring it on themselves and then refuse to deal with it is unhelpful and
even dangerous. Such attitudes are a reflection of not caring, and the
depressed person desperately needs to feel that someone cares about their
situation. Not surprisingly, the bottom line with depression, as with many
problems, is a lack of love.
Once we “grow up” we
don’t remember what love is. We don’t know how to recognize it within
ourselves; we don’t know how to give it; we don’t know how to welcome it when
offered; it isn’t portrayed in the movies. When people speak of it they are
usually talking of something far removed from it. No wonder we can easily become
depressed and wonder despondently what the point of even being alive is. What’s
worse, we are surrounded by people in more or less the same condition as we
are, struggling with their own issues, and only able to offer love sporadically
if at all. Disappointed and threatened, we build defenses to guard against
incursions, and then are desolated when no one comes over the wall.
We, all of us,
have had the love squeezed out of our world
and even out of our world view. No wonder everyone is unhappy! And once
everyone is closed off from each other, living in monk’s cells of quiet
desperation, all we can offer or receive is palliative medicine to ease the
This is a fair
estimate of what the Buddha meant by universal suffering. It’s what Vedantins
speak of as ignorance. I can guess it’s what the Semitic religions mean by sin,
with its pejorative overtones. Those pejorative overtones are a particularly
nasty addition to the misery already prevailing, but they’re kind of catching,
like swine flu. One measure of disdain feeds on the next, with rapid
escalation, until the whole point of getting back to a state of Edenic love is
Patanjali should not
be looked upon as an uncaring tough guy who thinks you are screwed up. Nor is
he a boot camp sergeant pushing you to the limit. He is (we can imagine) a
gentle soul who is reaching out in the best way he can devise to bring us all
into a state of happiness, or love if you will. If he didn’t care he wouldn’t
have bothered to leave us his lecture notes. He doesn’t think that there are a
few sick people in the world set off from a bunch of uncaring well people. We
are all in the same boat. We are all traumatized and seriously—-often
clinically—-confused. We need to help each other, to the best of our ability,
and it’s a crying shame that instead we have an abundance of the most seriously
disturbed and misanthropic people being promoted in the media, thrown in
everyone’s face. They only make matters worse, by gleefully taking all the fun
out of life. But that sells a lot of pills.
It’s paradoxical to
try to reach out to depressed friends, because almost anything might reinforce
their unhappiness if offered at the wrong moment. It’s possible for them to
view a helper and even a lover from a cynical standpoint, that they’re just
doing it for their own lousy reasons and not because they really care. Any
attempt to lift someone out of depression can engender resistance. But giving
up in frustration proves that you really didn’t care to begin with. So you’re
damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Is there anything that will work
under these constraints?
Our motivation in
the Gurukula, at its best, is the same as Patanjali’s. We try to walk a razor’s
edge of sympathetic caring and encouragement in self-help. Like most people, we
aren’t very good at it, but I’ve always figured that doing our best, flawed as
it might be, is at least better than nothing. The Gurukula should also
symbolize the possibility that we can eventually emerge from our depressed
state, that recovery is possible. That recovery is difficult is evidenced by
the mediocre abilities of the Gurukula caretakers themselves. But that is also
evidence of our humanity. We don’t peddle miracle cures, unlike certain other
religions that shall remain nameless. We offer hard work by the seeker of love
combined with (hopefully) intelligent feedback by their associates. We try to
foster a loving and supportive community atmosphere as a background to
everyone’s diligent efforts.
The goal of
realization is not some airy-fairy, far-off heavenly state, but happiness here
and now. Sometimes the terminology seems a little too poetic. In Nitya’s
present commentary he speaks of transcending time and space, and Paul admitted
he didn’t know what that meant. Basically, it refers to mitigating the ups and
downs of life to be on an even keel, which is what we call true happiness. When
we’re unhappy, every second can seem like an age, but when we’re happy the
hours fly by without our even noticing them. Likewise, misery makes us feel
cramped, tightly constrained, but happiness gives us an expansive feeling of
immense relief. So Nitya isn’t speaking of some rare achievement of Himalayan
yogis muttering in caves for twenty years. Transcending time and space is an
achievement we all have many times, but then it slips from our grasp. We are
striving to realign our psyches to stay longer in the wide open spaces and
minimize our prison time.
Since in this sutra
Patanjali is citing the physical aftereffects of being stuck, of being held
back by obstacles, much of the class was spent discussing one particular
version: panic attacks. They often come out of nowhere and make a person feel
like they are having a heart attack or otherwise dying. Interestingly, most of
the class was familiar with them, and it’s helpful to realize that you aren’t
the only one having them. With a smaller than usual class, everyone felt
comfortable enough to eagerly discuss their experiences. It felt like we were
slowly letting some air out of over-inflated tires.
had somehow gotten on the same subject with our friend the doctor, who was
staying with us last week. Synchronicity strikes again. He told us that panic
attacks were quite common, especially among teenagers, and that they usually
declined with age. They are often accompanied by suicidal impulses, probably by
exacerbating pre-existing thoughts. To me it looks like repressed material is
surfacing without warning, with such a strong impact that it’s like a physical
body blow. Many sufferers do in fact wind up in the hospital emergency room.
The teen years are when we are making the transition from dependent children to
independent adults, usually without much practical instruction. We struggle to
craft an acceptable persona, but that requires us to suppress important aspects
of our self. When these break free, it terrifies us, exposes us to ridicule and
censorship. I would say it is a sign of deep inner integrity that we aren’t
able to successfully turn ourselves into robotic cardboard cutouts to please
John felt that we
older people are more familiar with life’s ups and downs, and so we don’t freak
out as much as younger people when hit by a moment of panic. That first plunge,
especially, into the depths is a terrifying thing. It really helps to know that
you will cycle back up again.
And while you can
abet the process with your own intelligence, we don’t usually receive much
useful instruction until after the fact. Moni talked about her inner voice that
helped pull her out of her depressive episodes, by urging her to take a shower
and go back to work, or to get out and see people. We should be trained to have
that inner advice waiting, because doing things physically can really help lift
a person’s spirits. One diabolical aspect of
depression is that it takes away the ability to even hear any inner or outer
suggestion like that, and so all you can do is “stew in your own juices” as my
mother used to call it. Or you come to believe
you don’t even deserve to get better. There is scientific as well as lots of
vernacular evidence that activity is very helpful in combating a negative
state. If nothing else, increasing the blood flow will wash out stagnant toxins
much more quickly.
Another thing to
know is that it’s okay to reach out to your friends. People present a façade of
stoicism, so it looks like they don’t want to help, yet some at least are
longing to be enlisted as allies, but afraid to say anything. The “wounded
animal” urge to retreat into a hidden nest when suffering is natural but very
dangerous. So friends should tactfully communicate that they are available to
their friends, by demonstrating that they value love and friendship over
appearances. We can eschew our roles as well-behaved actors on a stage, and
instead go to the post-performance party to mingle with our fellows, careless
of how we look to the audience. We can consciously throw off the delusion that
a frowning God is watching our every move with his hand on the lever that opens
the trapdoor to hell.
Okay, that’s enough
for now. We have one more class directly related to these issues, and then a
gradual transition toward even more intense practices. But these ideas underlie
the whole field we are exploring, and we need to have them well established
before we can expect to go farther. Obstacles are like lions guarding the
gates. They keep out the causal gawkers and only admit those who have a serious
determination to get past them.
One additional point
for clarification: Vedanta considers consciousness as primary, and our classes
are based on that theory. The materialist view is that our state of mind is a
byproduct of our electrochemistry. Vedantins believe that while we may be
temporarily constrained by our electrical wiring, the chemicals are released by
our emotions as communication devices, and so are more of an effect than a
cause, though everything evinces an admixture of both
principles. Chronic chemical releases can
reinforce habitual states of
mind that we may not like, but these can be altered by working on our state of
mind. This approach offers a sound basis for self-improvement, whereas the idea
of “consciousness as epiphenomenon” requires outside intervention. Of course,
anyone is welcome to whatever works for them, because these are just ideas, and
not necessarily right or wrong per se. Vedanta is very much against the tide at
present, though the tide is beginning to turn. The hardest part, no matter how
you look at it, is to believe you can change and to decide to make it happen,
even if that merely means finding the right medication.
Finally, Rumi bridges all
Come, come, whoever you are--
wanderer, worshiper, lover of
what does it matter?
Ours is not a caravan of
Come, even if you have broken
a hundred times--
come, come again, come.
What a wonderful
set of readings and contemplations.
I so value your
ideas and experiences. Gratitude.
As you know, I've
recently been exploring aspects of the body's role in optimal development,
particularly relating to “distractions”, trauma and blocks.
I notice very
interesting and helpful interrelationships among the various
spiritual/consciousness approaches and various body/psychological
Csikszentmihalyi suggests a process to consider that I find very
useful and seems quite sensible when considering how to re-establish
differentiating experience occurs, whether external or internal, we basically
have two paths before us:
--> Integration --> Complexity --> Harmony
--> No Integration --> Complicated --> Disharmony
An experience may
be sufficiently impactful or overwhelming that we may not be ready to or
know how to integrate this for years (trauma, holocaust, loss of child, etc.,
or other depending on age/skill).
However, often we
may neglect to integrate more common experiences for various
reasons, lack of priority/time, lack of understanding/skill.
Neurologically, this lack of integration leaves a very complicated ”highway”
in our brains, a bunch of extra parts rattling around in our engine which
disrupts our smooth harmonious ride.
By choosing to
integrate our experiences, both the present and the lingering backlog, the
complicated extra parts find their place in our engine and we not only lose the
rattles, but our engine increases in complexity and fuel efficiency, and runs
at a new harmonious hum.
actually builds a more complex neural network, increasingly able to leap tall
buildings with a single bound....
How do we
Just as the body
knows how to heal a small scrape on our finger, the brain has an
equally natural process and is integrating experiences all the time. But often
our body needs our help to heal so the broken bones come together, just as our
psyche needs our focus so we don't rattle around.
integration system is somewhat unique, some more developed and efficient than
others, but we all can become more fluid. Transforming experiences into
language is common to most integrative processes, with “language” meaning
words, sound, movement, visual...talk, write, journal, dance, paint.
Plus contemplation, meditation, long walks, watching the beach sunset,
ceremony, therapy, 12 Steps, The Understanding and Forgiveness Journey,
supportive groups/friends, and more.
group was a band, I'd name it “The Integrators”.
Sutras I:32 & 33:
For removing these
obstacles: repetitive practice of one truth or principle.
The mind is
clarified by cultivating friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward
misery, gladness toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice.
Okay, we’re into the
meat of the study now in earnest. We have pried out the gross blockages of our
lives, the things that trip us up, our obstacles, and we can move on to
clarifying the mind. Sutra 32 wraps up the obstacle section, and sutras 33-39
suggest different techniques to accomplish this primary thrust of yoga. As we
will see there is nothing arcane or bizarre about yogic techniques.
Patanjali starts us
off with the assurance that we can overcome our difficulties if we dedicate
ourselves to success. We have to stick to it. One drawback to a world lacking
focus and saturated with entertainment is the rapid rise in Attention Deficit
Disorders (ADD), either clinical or mundane. Rising to a state of
equal-mindedness requires adherence to a master interest, in other words
“repetitive practice of one truth or principle.” Having some program, mental or
otherwise, to return to on a daily or even hourly basis leads to one-pointed
concentration, with its clarity of mind.
There is nothing
particularly mystical in this assertion. We’ve already discussed how musicians
and other artists, businesspeople, sports stars, teachers, and all the rest put
cumulative energy into their favorite forms of expression in order develop
their expertise. Patanjali will now give a handful of suggestions for training
in the art of contemplation. These should be very familiar to anyone who has
hung around the Gurukula for any length of time.
In his commentary on
sutra 33, Nitya addresses only the first of the four templates, “friendliness
toward happiness,” leaving the others for us to ponder on our own. There is a
lot of amplitude here, and the class took delight in digging into its purport.
One thing we realized toward the end of class is that these four categories of
discipline can be applied both to outside contacts and our own mental
processes, though not necessarily in the same way. For instance, gladness toward
virtue might mean you support and praise good behavior in others, but to do the
same toward your own strengths might be egotistical. A sense of gratitude or
relief that you didn’t screw up this time would be preferable.
originals make it clear that happiness and misery are two sides of the same
coin, as also virtue and vice. Therefore it’s worth pondering how friendliness
and compassion, as also gladness and equanimity, are symmetrical as well.
Patanjali is so
upbeat it almost makes you sick! Just kidding—but he may not have too much
appeal for anyone attached to negativity, which of
course is a major obstacle in its own right.
Deb talked a lot
about her favorite negative reactions to the vices of certain family members
(not me this time!), and how quickly they can get her goat. Once recently the
claim was so absurd that she was able to laugh instead of boil in a fury, so
that’s progress. But what does the opinion of a distant cousin matter anyway?
If their attitude can ruin part of our day, they have defeated us. Retaining a
neutral attitude about their vice, their viciousness (same root), means their
gas is wasted on us.
A lot of people
agreed that neutral and neutrality are weak words in their common usage,
indicating retreat and cowardliness. This is far from our intent! Neutrality
within the Gurukula is very dynamic: steady, but with an intensity at its
heart. It means being poised on the razor’s edge between fight and flight. The
term razor’s edge gives some indication of the sharp challenge of finding the
exact neutral balance point in any situation. The extremely short Nataraja Guru
humorously presented the same spiritual challenge as how to mount a horse: if
you don’t jump far enough you fall back, but if you jump too far you go over
the other side. You have to do it just right to land in the saddle. Needless to
say, neutrality does not mean ignoring the horse and leaving the barn, but climbing into the driver's seat.
So, back to Nitya’s
presentation of friendliness. What an under-appreciated quality! Chogyam
Trungpa said that the spiritual journey begins with befriending yourself. And after that you are able to befriend others. If
you have a hidden agenda, it perverts plain old friendship and spoils it. If
you need a friend, or are after
something, you will drive people away. So learn to be content in yourself, and
then all else will follow. It struck me that Nitya’s advice about friendliness
gave a good general description of the role, such as it is, of the Narayana
The person who is bracketed with you in
social life may seem uncouth or overbearing. If you cultivate your identity
with that person, then it becomes your duty to transform them into a very
likeable person. You can accomplish this not by aggressively intruding into the
lives of others but by helping them to understand themselves and making common
programs with them so that no one need feel that they are alone in this world
without a comrade to assist.
When you adopt such an attitude of
active interest in sharing all your good moments of friendliness with another
person, they gain a more and more sympathetic understanding. You are not only
making a friend but helping them to be an adorable friend.
My career in the
fire service was excellent training for learning how to get along with people
who were initially despised. There was a lot of latent animosity beneath our
veneer of camaraderie, but we also had a need to work together as a team.
Living in close quarters with those you looked down on previously, you begin to
see their well-guarded humanity and find
common ground with them. It’s not always possible, but it frequently is. Now I
use the slogan from an antiquated concept of justice as a mantra: people are
innocent until prove guilty.
Moni talked about
her suspicious feelings towards people she meets on the street, how she knows
it is a negative attitude, but it leaps up, like the startle reflex from seeing
a snake. She is trying to master it so she can connect with others, but it
takes a lot of repetitive practice. So far she has worked up to being able to
smile at people.
Anita cautioned us
that in psychology a negative instruction was less effective than a positive
one. For instance, telling yourself not to smoke when you decide to quit
compounds the difficulty, by focusing on what you are trying to leave behind,
so instead you should resolve to breathe pure fresh air, for instance.
Patanjali may be seen to follow this sensible attitude with plenty of positive
recommendations throughout the book. Spiritual life often bogs down when it is
treated as “withdrawal from” instead of “moving toward.”
This reminded Deb
and me that we resolved to phrase everything positively with our children for
as long as we could. We had a “no on no” campaign. It worked well, especially
since we treated the kids as wise sentient beings who wanted to please, rather
than born sinners in need of simplistic correction. It was a very good ongoing
meditation to catch ourselves before the habitual “no!” escaped our lips.
Negativity may be
said to be a mania in our modern culture, and the class discussed how corrosive
it was on civil society. People in the US at least are terrified of one
another, with their natural paranoia inflamed to bursting by a media playing on
their prurient interests for disasters. Class members began to get agitated
about this, because blaming others is so much fun, but we reined it in under
the aegis of “equanimity toward vice.” The solution is not to get upset about
vice, but to intelligently foster virtue as a replacement. And how you frame it mentally makes a huge difference as
This led to a
lengthy discussion about how to combat vice. Does equanimity mean ignoring
evil? Hardly. Being of calm mind allows you to be much more effective in
upholding justice. I recall many times that Nitya provided a terrific role
model in this. One occasion in particular stands out. We were at an “Interfaith
Gathering” in Ooty, with government officials and leaders from the Muslim,
Hindu and Christian faiths trying to bridge their differences. There was a lot
of self-serving dissimulation going on. At one point, Nitya got up and blasted
everyone, calling them vipers and telling them that he was personally going to
report their backstabbing manipulations to God. The air was fairly singed, and
I was very happy to be sitting slightly behind him. Peeking
around his robes, I got a great look at a welter of stunned reactions.
Everyone in the room felt personally chastened. Afterwards there was a sincere
call for everyone to work together for a better local environment. Some
concrete proposals were adopted and later acted upon. Throughout the whole
performance Nitya never was angry, though he might have looked it. He didn’t
turn red, his breathing never sped up, and as we left he was as cheerful as
ever, already on to the next subject.
I also have a number
of rather rueful memories when Nitya blasted me face to face for my failings.
Only one of us ever got bent out of shape, and it wasn’t him. If he had
appeared upset I could have thought he was off the mark too, but his calm and
collected delivery gave him 100% of the high ground. He was simultaneously
fully present and yet detached. Believe me, it's a
devastatingly powerful strategy.
Even with all these
many paragraphs, we have barely scratched the surface of this sutra, so
pregnant with potential. More will undoubtedly be worked into the next series
of classes, so the case is not closed. Nor will it ever be.
Before I even started writing
this morning I received this from Suzen:
I had a razor's edge dream
last night -- something about balance -- but, alas, I can't retrieve it. I just
remember that I woke up in a half waking kind of way and said to myself,
"Wow, that dream is all about the razor's edge!" Cool, eh? I like it
when class rolls right into my nights.
Also, on the way home last
night I brought up that one part of the Sutra about “gladness toward virtue”
because I just hadn't figured it out. Now my inclination is to think that
“virtue” is an extreme in opposition to vice. So when someone seems perfect in
every way, we will be more centered if we are glad about this rather than
jealous or hostile.
I guess I get tripped up
because I think of virtue in a more neutral way, somewhat like this snipped
from the Wikipedia page on Virtue:
In the Nicomachean Ethics ,
Aristotle defined a virtue as a balance point between a deficiency and an
excess of a trait. The point of greatest virtue lies not in the exact middle,
but at a golden mean sometimes closer to one extreme than the other. For
example, courage is the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness, confidence
the mean between self-deprecation and vanity, and generosity the mean between
miserliness and extravagance.
If that is the meaning of
virtue, then of course we would be glad, right? So I think Patanjali’s virtue
is more like good fortune or bravado? What do you think?
Thanks for class. It was such
a pleasure and a comfort and most appreciated.
We also discussed
the recent neurology discoveries that accord with abhyasa, repetitive practice.
We now know the brain is capable of growing new neurons at any age, though the
process is very slow relative to other cells of the body. Much more quickly,
though, we can forge new connections between neurons, which basically have the
same effect, namely to permit learning. Daniel Tammet, in his new book Embracing
the Wide Sky, (Free Press,
reports on the results of MRI studies:
practice falls short in its proverbial claim to make us perfect, it is
necessary if we want to obtain long-term or permanent results from our study….
The learning curve shows us that, while practice will always help improve
performance, the most dramatic improvements happen first, with diminishing
returns thereafter. It also implies that with sufficient practice individuals
can achieve comparable levels of performance in a wide range of tasks, but only
if the learner does not relax as soon as an acceptable performance is reached.
Rather, expertise comes solely from a continuous process of structured,
diligent study. (34)
In response to the
undercurrent belief that you have to combat evil head on in order to defeat it,
calling into question Patanjali’s recommendation to keep cool in the face of
vice, I read out the following beautiful story from That Alone, pp 314-15:
is an Indian myth that a certain demon came and challenged Balarama, the
brother of Sri Krishna. Balarama accepted the challenge. He went, raising his
fist to smash its head. Then the demon became twice the size of Balarama.
Seeing this, Balarama, who had psychic powers, grew double the size of the
demon. The demon doubled in size again, and started lifting hills to throw at
him. Then Balarama realized he could not overpower the demon. He turned to Sri
Krishna and asked for help. Krishna smiled and said, “Brother, leave him to me.
I’ll deal with him.”
demon turned to Krishna and found that in his hand there was no weapon. Krishna
stood with his hands open and smiled. Then the demon became the size of an
average human being. Krishna still stood there with his bewitching smile and
said, “Come on friend.” He came close and became smaller than Krishna. Krishna
patted him. He became very small. Then Krishna took him in his hand and stroked
him. He became so tiny.
Balarama came and said, “Brother, I don’t understand this. How did he become so
small? How did you tame him?” He replied, “Brother, don’t you know this demon’s
name?” “No.” “This demon’s name is Krodha, anger. When you become angry, you
are only feeding him. He thrives on somebody else’s anger. When you take away
your anger, there is nothing to nourish him. He becomes less and less. So when
I give him love, there is nothing on which he can feed himself and he becomes
is also the central teaching of Buddha: with hatred you never appease hatred,
but with love you win all.
Or, [the mind is clarified]
by the expiration and retention of breath.
A plenitude of
fellow seekers filled our living room beneath a similarly nearly full moon to
share the joys of impending fall and to breathe quietly together. In addition
to most of the regulars, we welcomed Jean on her visit from Sweden, her sister
Cathy, and Scotty’s friend Daniella.
Of all the suggestions
for how to calm and focus the mind in this section, the present sutra on
watching the breath is the only one with a physical component. Breath control
has even been linked to mechanical programs by some yogis. As Nitya points out,
breathing lies at the border between voluntary and involuntary action, so it
can be used as an entrée into the unconscious. A substantial number of
techniques of breath control (pranayama) have been developed over the
millennia, but Patanjali does not endorse anything specific. In Nitya’s words,
it is a mistake to imagine that hatha yoga exercises and pranayama are ends in
themselves. They are simply means to get comfortable and regularize the chaotic
state of a typical busy life: “All that is aspired for is a steady and cheerful
state of mind.”
that it isn’t easy to shrug off the negative impact of other people’s
hostilities and stupidities and just remain cheerful all the time. Sometimes we
have to struggle for it, which is why Patanjali offers breath work as the first
alternative. Breath is very efficient at normalizing our state of mind.
released in any stressful situation, and it makes you become highly agitated
and breathe furiously. As I have related before, at many of the hundreds of
road accident scenes I attended in my career as a firefighter I was able to
help crash victims use their breath to calm themselves down. Those people who
had only minor injuries were often very upset, more by the strange
circumstances than any actual problem. So I would ask them to take deep, slow
breaths. Those who were enough in control of themselves to do it could calm
down very quickly, sometimes in less than a minute. This simple technique also
works for anger and some other emotionally charged states.
philosophy characterizes strenuous breathing techniques as a form of
self-torture, but they are widely practiced elsewhere. I once took courses from
Paramahansa Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship, which included typical
pranayama exercises. The Fellowship’s claim was that when you had performed the
exercises one million times you would automatically attain enlightenment. Such
notions square with a mechanistic world view and a linear education, so they
may seem highly attractive and not at all as stupid as they are. Yet they
direct the focus toward counting and imaginary relative stages of progress
instead of anything contemplative. The kind of enlightenment achieved by such
pastimes is more due to the suppression of contemplation than its release. One
should not be surprised to discover a moneymaking business as the core
motivation for that sort of game.
There are plenty of
non-patented ways to watch the breath, and these are all that’s needed. For
instance, meditate on the ocean of energized air we all swim around in all the
time, imbibing just what we need for our well being. The fresher the air, the
more energy it contains. Inhale this energized, sweet nothingness, visualizing
it as reaching different depths or chakras in the body. Hold briefly, and then
exhale all the accumulated waste products.
Scotty reported that
chi gong also has a non-mechanical orientation to breathing, in which the
breath is taken consciously but without any rigidity. Prana and chi are the
same thing under different names. The goal in both pranayama and chi work is to
fill the body with energy so it can be healthy, happy and efficient.
shares the rhythms of breathing in its very structure, not just singing but
instrumental music as well. Staying in the flow means keeping the breath
flowing. Those of us who struggle with music or any endeavor for that matter
will find ourselves also struggling to breathe, and occasionally holding our
breath. Consciously restoring proper breathing helps us return to the flow.
Indian rishis of
ancient times believed in a close intimacy of life with breath. To them, life
begins with the first breath and ends with the final exhalation. This
simplifies a plethora of ideas about when life begins and when it ends, which
are scientifically murky. More importantly, it leads
us to consciously appreciate perhaps the most crucial thing that we often take
Air is an excellent
analogy for spirit, or the noosphere for that matter. It is a sea in which we
all have our being and without which we could not exist. It is freely available
to all without regard for their relative righteousness or abasement. The class
visualized how in every breath are at least a few atoms breathed by all the
other beings who have ever lived on this planet. Not feeling overly poetic this
morning, I offer the following from Guy Murchie’s Seven Mysteries
of Life as an excellent meditation:
I tried to define the physical
boundaries of the body and began to realize they are virtually indefinable, for
the air around any air-breathing creature from a weed to a whale is obviously a
vital part of it even while it is also part of other creatures. The atmosphere
in fact binds together all life on Earth, including life in the deep sea, which
“breathes” oxygen (and some air) constantly. And the water of the sea is
another of life’s common denominators noticeable in the salty flavor of our
blood, sweat and tears, as are the solid Earth and its molecules present in our
as a whole breathes and owns
the common sky and drinks the mutual rain and we are all embodied in the sea
and the clouds and in fire and forest and earth alike. As the God of Egypt was
quoted as saying about the year 2000 BC, “I made the four winds that every man
might breathe thereof like his fellow in his time….” And thus, He might have
added, I made sure that all life mingles and shares the most vital elements.
Indeed oxygen (then unknowable to man) is the leading substance of life as it
is presently known, making up some 60 percent of the weight of the human body,
surging and blowing through it in the rhythmic torrent that Sir Charles
Sherrington called “a draft of something invisible” to fuel life’s flame. It is
plain to see that we all breathe the same sky and we are becoming aware that it
pours through our lungs and blood in a few minutes, then out again to mix and
refresh itself in the world. But it is still easy to overlook the completeness
of airy suffusion throughout the planet, so easy in fact that I would like to
offer a few quantitative statistics to point up some of the significances.
Did you know the average breath you
breathe contains about 10 sextillion atoms…? And, since the entire atmosphere
of Earth is voluminous enough to hold about the same number of breaths, each
breath turns out, like man himself, to be about midway in size between an atom
and the world…. This means of course that each time you inhale you are drawing
into yourself an average of about one atom from each of the breaths contained
in the whole sky. Also every time you exhale you are sending back the same
average of an atom to each of these breaths, as is every other living person,
and this exchange, repeated twenty thousand times a day by some four billion
people, has the surprising consequence that each breath you breathe must
contain a quadrillion atoms breathed by the rest of mankind within the past few
weeks and more than a million atoms breathed personally sometime by each and
any person on Earth. (319-320)
Since oxygen atoms persist,
the million atoms figure includes those breathed by Jesus, Buddha, Galileo,
Lucy, and any other of your favorite historical characters.
If I’m not mistaken,
this sutra is about as close as Patanjali comes to any mention of the chakras,
the energy centers of the body. The same type of meditation counterposing inner
and outer factors can be salubriously applied
to all the chakras as well.
The class finished
up by sitting quietly in our mutual ocean of air for a little while. In a tight
house like ours, the air had been breathed many times over by all our friends,
and yet it remained fresh and clean. Such a magic! The thought that we all
participated in the same subtle sea, perennially renewed, and were wholly
dependent on it for our very existence, bound us together in a blissful sense
of oneness. When we opened the front door to head for home, our well-respired
air molecules poured out and rose into the cool night air, to be wafted by the
wind to every corner of the planet and partaken of by our brothers and sisters
As an example of how
breathing can get you high, this just arrived from Susan. Her experience marks
a transition from knowing a thing intellectually to transforming that knowledge
into a living understanding, which is exactly what meditation is supposed to
for a great class. I’ve been thinking about breathing ever since and I’m
finding it more and more miraculous. Though I’ve known logically for many years
that we take in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, it wasn’t until last
night that I really had the epiphany that air is not just making a circuit
through our lungs, but rather spending time in and affecting our bodies. When
we eat, the food not only travels though our digestive system but it goes into
our cells and blood and is transformed and then comes out as waste. Likewise,
when we breathe, the air not only travels through our sinuses and lungs but it
also goes into our cells and blood and is transformed. Wow! I’ve always known
it was powerful and healing to breathe in and think of white light (or some
such) and then breathe out and think that you are exhaling waste, garbage,
blackness (or some such). This was mentioned in class. But now I understand
better why this is such a good visualization. I have a whole new respect for
pranayama torture, I once owned a curious book about an Indian postman whose
kundalini spontaneously erupted, bringing him “enlightenment.” Most of the book
was filled with descriptions of the ghastly pain and suffering he underwent for
the rest of his life. Scotty described some problems he has personally observed
from people practicing kundalini yoga, which is an intense form of yoga that
could definitely be classed as self-torture. Many of the people who do a
certain forced-breathing exercise release a lot of energy into their systems,
but don’t know how to handle it. It becomes trapped in their brains or other
parts of the body, causing intense pain. Because of his calm demeanor and peaceful
personal energy, Scotty has been able to help some of them to release the
blockage and return to stability. His chi gong-inspired outlook agrees with
Vedanta: since we are already the Absolute, there is nothing we need to change
ourselves into. Being who we are is as good as it gets, and our search is to
find out exactly what that means. Rather than being a path to glory, forcing
ourselves into painful postures is more likely to be a reaction to our personal
dissatisfaction, a way of punishing ourself for our perceived faults. There are
other, gentler ways to correct those distortions.
I chanced across
this beautiful meditation of Nitya’s while working on his new Wikipedia page,
and thought many of you would like to read it. I’ve made a document with a
brief index of the three volumes of Nitya’s Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
commentary, with a few favorite excerpts typed in and my favorite sections
starred, and anyone is welcome to a copy. Nitya writes:
the Upanishad tells us that we should listen to the mantra, make manana, and then live it, we should understand that “live
it” means to live the normalization. If you go out of your room and walk, the
first thing you experience is the air that you breathe, which is continuously
flowing to you from far-off time and space. It comes free to all of us and
waits to be breathed in by us. This is the first benevolence a person
experiences in this world. If you are not cognizant of that factor, something
in you is dead, benumbed. You should see how the air that you breathe brings
life-giving energy to every cell, how it fills your lungs. Your respiratory
system is like a tree with millions of branches on it. When breath comes it is
like when the wind blows: every tree sways in the wind which flutters every
leaf. The same happens in our respiratory system where the innumerable little
leaf-like things that make up our respiratory tree all tremble with life. When
you are aware of that, you are not a dead person; you are not in the dark; you
have a sensibility to know the breath around and within you.
you see the sunlight coming and fondling every leaf, every blade of grass. It
fills the atmosphere with a very special texture. When you notice such things,
the demon in you is raised to a state of compassion. The world is always
passionately hugging you. You become com-passionate to the world when you
recognize the beauty of it.
morning we saw the wonderful changes in the eastern sky—-how the color was
changing, how brightness was coming into the dark, and finally how the sun made
its appearance behind a cloud. This evening we saw the same sun behind clouds
in the western sky, making the same kind of picture with the illumination of
the clouds. You need to cultivate your sensibility to notice that the whole
world is helping you to make yourself beautiful, to feel beautiful, to see
beauty, and to resonate with the spirit that is embracing the whole world.
we stand on the green lawn, some of us do not even notice that there is grass
under our feet. If somebody stands on our toes, it hurts, but this tenacious
grass is such that even when we stand on it, it is as if nothing is happening
to the very gentle leaves. They continue to be fresh and green. It’s a wonder.
But to see it, you should have a heart which is mellowed with your humanity.
More spirit needs to be put into the darkened aspect of your cognition. Every
cognition is followed by a connation and then affection. If you are not
affected by what you see, what you touch, what you feel, what you notice, what
is the difference between you and a stone? (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Vol. III,
When absolute interest is
shown to a sensory experience or activity, that will bring the mind to a steady
Once again I sit
before the eye of the computer, trying to conjure up the vastness of our class
experience, and hoping for a thread to lead us in to at least a few of the
significant moments we shared. We had our largest group in decades, and unlike
most big groups, which tend to be inhibitory, everyone contributed
substantially in one of our most democratic discussions ever.
in a most practical and unsuperstitious vein, assuring us that we don’t have to
do anything exotic, or change into someone else in any misguided striving for
holiness. All we have to do is follow our interests, using them to ratchet up
our attention. Because the Absolute is omnipresent, attending to whatever is
presented to our senses is a perfectly good way to begin the transcendence of
obstacles that leads to clarity and steadiness of mind. The interest can be
supported by an awareness of calm, deep breathing, and the two together form a
powerful tool of orientation.
So what does
this mean in practice? We all know
friends who are struggling with addiction. They painfully extricate themselves
for a short while, only to slip back time and time again. Unfortunately,
addiction is usually addressed as something to escape from, but without a strong interest to aim toward
the effort is almost always in vain. We all crave
interest and excitement, and cannot bear to sit in limbo for very long. So in
the absence of a creative interest the attraction of the addictive activity
seeps in to fill the vacuum, and away we go.
of our being is the summum bonum of interests, one which demands all our
attention and expertise at every moment. Philosophies that posit humans as
hopeless sinners transfer this expertise to a hypothetical other, and we are
left as beggars crying out for salvation. There is no expertise of our own to
develop. These techniques will either fail or reduce the practitioner to a
vestigial state from which the lure of addiction is never far off. Not only
certain religions, but pharmaceutical and other industries thrive on such
unhealthy beliefs. As we have noted before, the huge upswing in sales of
medications has been fueled by “scientific” studies proving we are helpless
victims of our chemistry. Happily for them, drug companies can now play God,
and bestow salvation in the form of expensive pills.
When children are
excited to grow up as fast as possible, what can they be thinking? They imagine
they will be able to make their own choices and have as much fun as possible.
How sad that those interests are beaten out of us long before we attain
practical implications of this sutra, I gave the example of having a struggle
with a family member, a loved one who is pitted against you in some fashion. We
all have these experiences, and they hurt a lot. When we’re hurt we want to run
away and hide or else fight back with accentuated viciousness, but these are
merely gut reactions. Patanjali encourages us to use our powerful interest in
making peace with our friend as a means to shrug off our personal reactions and
stand our ground. We will likely have to regulate our breath, along with
actively restraining our hardwired reactions. But when we make this kind of
effort, we can view the situation more or less dispassionately, and gauge the
feelings and desires behind the anger, jealousy or what have you, on both
sides. Doing so offers us the best chance to resolve the situation to
Needless to say,
Patanjali’s advice works for large-scale conflicts as well as the local ones we
typically find ourselves in. Governments
have ostensibly been instituted to bring this kind of wisdom to international
relations, and obviate the urge to fight that surges in patriotic breasts in
response to every provocation. The UN certainly has that mandate. It’s too bad
that fighting and dominating are still prominent interests that often subvert
the civilizing trend.
We also used the
example of the class itself to demonstrate the practicality of the present
sutra. Those in attendance often have various inhibitions and projections that
block their participation. It is less a factor without a guru physically
present in the house, but it is still an important consideration. Those who
succumb to such feelings don’t stay involved long. But when the value of the material
catches their imagination, it is much easier to let go of the negative feelings
and listen to the message within the message. Gradually a sense of comfort and
acceptance spreads in to dispel the resistance, and a
great deal may be gained.
So the bottom line
is: engage with the Absolute at every moment. Yoga is not about trying to go
elsewhere. It means being present and available to every situation. What we
have to work on is delivered to our senses regularly and without fail, so long
as we are alert. This is the entry point of the universe, guarded by the demons
of our own obstacles with frustrating efficiency, but standing wide open if we
can but find our way past them.
Carleen steered us
into a discussion of sacrifice, which relates to the sutra in being a kind of
interest that takes many forms, from the crudest animal sacrifice to the most
sublime wisdom sacrifice. The Upanishads put an end to animal sacrifice 3000
years ago, just as Buddha and others made warfare obsolete 2500 years ago. That
both continue to be practiced is a testament to the human resistance to change
via intelligence. One interest many of us in fact share is how to try to
implement these improvements against entrenched resistance, both internal and
It’s not that religious
be considered wrong, and
religion is out of the purview of Vedanta anyway, but when a spiritual practice
is substituted for an appropriate physical one the mixing of frameworks can be
disastrous. Cathy and Deb had read the book The Spirit Catches
You and You
Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman,
portraying the conflict between Hmong immigrants to Los Angeles and the medical
establishment. Oregon just had another case of parents using prayer instead of
medicine for their child, who subsequently died. There are many ways that
wishful thinking trumps rationality, often with tragic results. Vedanta does
not endorse it, except to recognize that the placebo effect is still the most
powerful medical force, much more powerful than most medicines. Unfortunately
it doesn’t work very predictably in reference to a third party who may not
share the belief as thoroughly as the parent would want. It remains mysterious
exactly how the magic of placebo is activated, so sometimes it works like magic
and sometimes it fails to work at all.
Animal sacrifice as
a religious practice is relatively rare these days, but if you include backyard
barbecues as a modern religion it is quite common. There the religious aspect
is toned down in favor of the social aspect, but on examination they aren’t so
very different. Consumption of food is the first principle of religion, after
all. Only a hundred years ago, as Moni pointed out, Narayana Guru revised the
widespread practice of animal sacrifice in South India. He told people if they
had to do it, they should sacrifice a watermelon. He also revised the fire
sacrifice to a symbolic version using grains and flowers in place of goats and
We recalled that
sacrifice means “to make sacred,” which can take place at any level of
consciousness. Sometimes it is simply called “doing good.” Deb generalized the
idea, saying that whenever we substitute a higher vision for a lesser one we
are performing a sacrifice. Overcoming our desire to fight or flee to stand
firm is a type of sacrifice. The Gita lists the main categories of sacrifice in
Chapter VII, verses 16-18:
doers of the good, four kinds are intent on Me: the distressed, the seeker of
knowledge, the seeker of the goods of life, and the wise.
these, the wise man, forever united and unitively affiliated with the Absolute,
excels, for dear to the utmost limit am I to the wise one, and he is dear to
are all these, but My firm opinion is that the wise one is the Self itself. He
of unitively established Self indeed remains in My path, which has nothing
When we are sick or
miserable, we try all sorts of strategies to get well, as is only natural. It
is impossible to predict what will work until we know what the disease is.
Moreover, the cure will very likely have to be related to the awareness of the
sufferer. Krishna calls this perfectly honorable. The second and third types,
also honorable, are struggling to understand their place in space, and may pore
over books or take classes in an effort to become sufficiently expert in some
field so that they can be employed. They hope that living a comfortable life
will bring them happiness. Various rituals may or may not have any impact,
again depending on the person in question and their beliefs. Most people fall
under these first three categories. The last type includes those who seek
wisdom for it’s own sake, without any ulterior motive. They want to know life
directly, and seek to cast away interpreted versions in favor of reality,
whatever that might turn out to be.
There is no reason
that a person wouldn’t fall under multiple categories in the course of a life,
or even simultaneously.
After surveying a
wide range of then-current sacrificial practices, and giving passing approval
to them all, the Gita summarizes its conclusion in Chapter IV, verses 32-34:
many and varied are the sacrifices spread in front of the Absolute. Know them
all as originating in action. Thus understanding them, you shall gain release.
to any sacrifice with (valuable) objects is the wisdom sacrifice; all actions
have their culmination in wisdom, Arjuna.
this by prostration, by searching questioning, and by service; they will
instruct you (duly) in wisdom—-those wise ones who can see the basic
There was so much more to our
class that I’m embarrassed to even send out these notes. Yet it will have to do
for now. We enjoyed some good laughs and an overarching sense of community;
there was some very intense opening up; even a bit of secret communication that
transpired without the communicators even being aware of it. Our closing
meditation resembled pressing the lid onto a boiling pot of delicious soup,
more than letting the air out of a tire. It seemed that everyone passed back
out into the dark and rain afterwards possessed with an inner assurance, a
gentle inner flame that will staunchly resist going out.
Also by meditating on the
sorrowless state of inner joy one can attain luminosity of intelligence.
Once again a
seemingly simple sutra supplied several searing suppositions. It is most
delightful to sit at the inception of a class and have little or no idea what
will come up, but to feel confident based on experience that some real insights
will blossom forth. This is a far cry from many years ago, when the comments
made were all over the map, and it was an art form to decipher how they were in
any way related to the subject at hand. Nowadays our focus is excellent.
emphasizes that our depressed states are very real and painful, but that
meditating on a joyful idea is an effective technique for extricating ourselves
and bringing ourselves back to a happy state of mind. We don’t have to supply
joy itself, but only counteract our negativity with a positive idea, and we
will float back to the surface to rejoin our real joy.
Deb started us off
by reprising a favorite image in her mind, of the two Upanishadic birds sitting
on a tree branch in the jungle, one avidly eating fruits while the other looks
on dispassionately. She likened the witnessing bird to the sorrowless state of
inner joy, which is always present even as we gobble the fruits and nuts of our
worldly experience. A number of these fruits give us a tummy ache or leave us
with a hangover, but we don’t seem to remember this when they are temptingly
hanging on a bush right in front of us. The bird analogy reminds us that we
always have the option of returning to our core, because it is always a part of
us. We don’t have to attain any mystical state to find happiness.
Later Deb reminded
us of the similarity of the two birds to our left and right brain. Jill
Taylor’s advice is when we become bogged down in misery, we should just “step
to the right,” and readjust into our right brains. This should never be taken
as political advice, by the way! Because the brain controls the opposite side
of the body, our left arm or wing is connected to the inclusive right brain,
while our right wing is directed by the discriminatory and calculating left
brain. And as we have often noted, you need both aspects working in concert for
optimum health and expertise. We can’t fly with only one wing.
In any case, we
study and practice Patanjali’s advice because we agree that we are capable of
having an impact on our state of mind. We are not merely helpless victims of
fate and chemistry, we embody some measure of freedom, and we are experimenting
with yoga to see just how much freedom we can obtain. So the question arises,
why do we fail? Why do we give up? From where does the certainty come that we
are ineffectual at running our own lives?
Anita mentioned the
fact that drug companies have managed to convince whole segments of the
populace that we are at the mercy of our chemistry, and only they can offer us
adjustments via oral medication. But there is no money in promoting
self-healing through mental exercises. Yoga is based on the premise that
consciousness is primary, and science is beginning to agree. The brain
determines what chemicals are manufactured and when. Sure, you can tinker with them using drugs, but you can also alter
them using the intellect, and the side effects are much less. The key is that
you have to sustain your intention through both the good times and the bad. The
norm is to be content when times are good and seek medication when times are
bad. Too bad the meds are engineered to have unpleasant aftereffects so that
you wind up taking them as a matter of course.
We talked about how
as children we learn to make excuses as a protective shield against the
incursions of adult authority. While these may start out as guarding our sense
of personal integrity, they can become chronic, and before too long they will
be enlisted in the defense of the ego in its willful resistance to anything
outside itself. The inner voice of most people is a litany of lame excuses and
pretentious self-ratification, because contact with the sorrowless state of
inner joy has been lost.
I know I for one
make excuses to myself all day long. At least I have learned not to use them to
delude others or myself. I shrug them off. But even after a lifetime of yoga
apprenticeship, I can still hear that inner voice explaining everything I do in
public to some imaginary outside authority. It’s a very debilitating frame of
mind. I would like to dare to be myself, but with all the resistance afforded
by the world around, it is much easier to have a cover story. I don’t use these
prevarications, but the habit of such insane chatter still persists even
without my active support.
Paul summed it up
psychologically by noting that we make excuses based on the perceived gap
between our superego and ego, in other words, between what we think we should
be and what we recognize ourselves to be. The sorrowless state of inner joy
isn’t dependent on any kind of adjustment between these factors.
Because we come to
live in a world of make-believe, we imagine that pretending to be something is
the same as being it. Unfortunately we are often unable to hypnotize ourselves
into ignoring the gap. Then we look for a way to make ourselves real once
again. Those who study yoga see it as a sound and sober way to effect
meaningful positive changes in their lives. Since it is a “fringe” activity
(except for hatha yoga exercises) it is not performed to impress other people
and throw them off the scent of how lost we are. It’s done by us simply to
rectify our state of mind, which turns out to be beneficial to our environment
as well as to us.
Ann told several
stories about how she decided to not indulge in harmful attitudes, because she
realized they were all in her mind. When her troubled son went away to Spain
she would worry about him all day long. Then she determined the time difference
so she only had to worry at certain hours. She honed it down to a single hour
when he was most likely to be out on the town, and she concentrated all her
crying into that hour. Then she thought, this is ridiculous! Her state of mind
was based on nothing at all, and had no possible influence on what her son was
doing. So she quit worrying. Once she decided to stop, she just stopped. It
wasn’t an agonizing process, just a simple decision.
Another time a
friend of hers was entertaining a person who had had a very tough life, and
that person turned on the radio to a right wing rant station. She could see her
friend getting more and more depressed, struggling to think of ways to fix the
problems the “pundit” was raving about. So she told her, “Just change the
channel.” There was no need to filter all that crap through her psyche. Just
change the channel. That’s what Patanjali is offering here, too.
We forget that
we started life as neutral, blissful beings,
and it took many years of meditating on a series of depressing thoughts before
we got to the miserable state that passes for normal. The depression we
would like to overcome is the end product of a lot of effort on our part, aided
and abetted by social pressures. If we put even a modicum of energy into going
the other way, we will begin to recover. So what is holding us back? Why do we
think that depression is our birthright and that joy is an impossible dream?
It does take serious
determination to counteract the normal mendaciousness of our ego, which has a
lot of inertia behind it. When we take a determination to change for the
better, it whispers in our ear that we aren’t capable of lifting ourselves,
we’re not worthy, we are valueless. Materialistic science, at its zenith during
the first half of the twentieth century, imparted the conviction that we are
machines run by our physiology and chemistry, and that these are fixed for all
time in early childhood. Such a castrating philosophy! Under it’s quasi-logical
spell we learned to live as eunuchs, quietly attending to the throne and being
no threat whatsoever to either the king’s power or the queen’s virginity. We
missed the boat before we even graduated from diapers.
As we have often
pointed out, modern religions have also striven to emasculate and effeminate
their proponents. The idea of salvation by God or a stand-in for Him means we
are helpless of our own accord. Our only task is to step out of the way so He
can work without interference. As long as such beliefs trump reality, they can
sustain a complaisant ego. But we see how the illusions can lose their grip and
the votaries descend into hatred and hostility, becoming swamped in despair as
ever greater injections of raw faith are required to paper over their aching
Happily, more recent
science based on actual observation accords with yoga in demonstrating the
plasticity of the human brain, meaning we are capable of changing for the
better at any age and in great measure. As I told my friend who is attending
college after several years off due to illness, and who is struggling to get
his mind back into gear, it’s like sliding a cement block across the floor. At
first there is so much friction that it takes a huge amount of force to start
it moving, but then it gains momentum and becomes easier the faster you can
push it. It’s easier still if a friend or friends chip in and help, which they
will be happy to do once they see you making the effort. Every success
contributes to heighten our confidence too.
homework is to examine all the ways we sabotage our own potential for
happiness. Why is it so hard to keep our minds focused on bright and beautiful
aspects of life, and so much easier to dwell on the downside? We’re not after
any Pollyannaish superficiality that ignores half of the coin. We already suffer from its opposite that only embraces
unhappiness. Inner joy is neutrally poised
between good and bad, after
all. It doesn’t require us to grasp just half of the picture. We want to use
specific examples of goodness to counterbalance the darkness, and so achieve
transcendent equipoise. But we have decided in advance that we can’t do it,
that it’s too hard, that only special people succeed. So what is it that is
holding us back? By seeing that we can free ourselves to make genuine progress.
Sutra I: 37
Also the mind fixed on
freedom from attachment to sense experience acquires steadiness.
In the last couple
of days I’ve received several heartfelt expressions of appreciation for the
class notes from widely divergent sources. Coupled with the trickle that come
in throughout the year, this is very gratifying. It means that we are a part of
an invisible net of beings dedicated to a similar vision. Our small class is a
first impulse, and the electronic salon is a much larger second pulsation, of what we like to think of as "good vibes."
The notes currently are mailed to about eighty addresses, mainly in India and
the US, but with a smattering elsewhere. Sometimes they are shared with
friends. I believe there is a beneficial effect to the feeling of being part of
a larger entity dedicated to wisdom and its application within the world we
find ourselves inhabiting.
Last night’s class
actually contained an idea very like this. Nitya talked about how we are
inspired and taught by the example of a guru:
person who lives constantly in transcendence, such as one’s guru, is also a
human being. We are encouraged to watch how such a person overcomes situations
that should cause agitation. Although in the beginning it may look as if we are
only imitating our model, in the course of time our choices become habitual.
Then it is no longer imitation but a spontaneous adherence to higher ideals and
we also become established in the tranquility of a yogi.
While some of us have many
cherished memories of how Nitya himself handled agitating situations, to me
there was always an air around him that challenged us to hold our reactions in
abeyance all the time. We didn’t have to crudely imitate any behaviors, there
was such a sense of beauty and perfection in the air that we were called to it
as a matter of course. In a roughly parallel sense, it seems the Gurukula class
is a symbol of our highest ideals, that we can measure ourselves against and
also simply feel connected to.
This is not to rule
out the thoughtful application of the ideas Nitya and Patanjali are offering
us. Nitya was frequently astonishing in the way he neutralized opposition and
hostility. This could make an interesting essay in its own right.
Paul wondered if
Nitya was always unassailably transcendent. Sometimes he was, and at those
times he overcame obstacles like a warm sun evaporating the dew. But there were
plenty of times when you could see he was affected by some rude blast. Instead
of leaping into a confrontation, he would sit and (figuratively) hold tight to
his seat, gathering himself for a measured response. He could be polite and yet
devastating, all the more so since he would be at least outwardly calm. He only
employed anger when he coolly thought it was his best gambit.
One prime example we
talked about at length was after Nataraja Guru’s death, when his Western
disciples made power plays to try to take over control of the Gurukula. There
was a lot of serious animosity, up to the point where they accused Nitya of
poisoning his beloved guru so he could take charge. It’s a long story, and one
that will mostly disappear in the mists of time, unrecorded. I have compiled a
rough history that runs to fifteen pages that anyone can have if they wish.
Much of it was culled from Love and Blessings.
Deb mentioned one of
those letters in L&B as an example of how Nitya handled opposition. It was
to Peter O. on December 7, 1973, less than a year after Nataraja Guru’s
mahasamadhi: “Overriding my rights the
Curran-Patrick-Freddy group printed 5,000 copies of [Nataraja Guru’s] Gita with
the hope that I will see them in a court of law. I found the Gita teaching of
treating profit and loss the same as a better answer to their challenge.
Instead of calling in the lawyers, I am offering a special prayer for the easy
sale of the books.”
point is that it is very helpful to have an absolutist hub on which to balance
our lives, and the Absolute is a principle, not a Thing. In the absence of a
personal guru, we can have a group or a tribe or a mountain stream to inspire
us and help us hold our ground. For humans, with our active intellects, there
is a lot that can be done, and we spent most of the class time offering
the idea of freedom from attachment (i.e. detachment) from sense experience is
taken to mean suppressing our contact with the outside world. This is an unfortunate
misinterpretation, and our examples helped us to see positive ways to
simultaneously engage life and remain steady. Earlier in the day I had read
this from Eknath Easvaran, on a pair of verses in the Gita. It could as well
apply to our sutra:
sense, the words of an inspirational passage like this are not just words. They
are more like depth charges, which are set to go off when they reach a certain
level of consciousness. In meditation, by the concentration we give, we drive
each word deep into consciousness so that it can release its potential. But
when these words explode, instead of causing damage, they heal. Internal
conflicts are resolved, doubts and reservations fall away, and we get the
certitude that we are equal to challenges from which we used to run away. (Vol.
Nitya challenges us
to go beyond all relativistic clichés in becoming grounded in our own nature,
which is after all the Absolute. This is particularly important because the
human mind seems to enjoy turning living reality into slogans and maxims, and
dealing with them through fantasies. Relativistic clichés paradoxically set us
apart from our nature, by creating dualistic versions of our unitive status.
One example that
keeps coming up in class is the fantasy that enlightenment comes from spending
thirty years in a Himalayan cave. It’s a wonderfully romantic notion, but at
heart it is an excuse to imagine that we can’t be enlightened unless we do
something incredibly boring and strenuous for a whole lifetime. I always
wonder, “What are those poor people running away from?” And yet, as Deb pointed
out, sometimes it’s just the right thing to run away to a peaceful place. Then
it isn’t relativistic at all. But spiritual life is filled with images of
imagined special states that amount to wishful thinking. We use wishful
thinking to push those states away, at least as much as to move toward them.
plays up a classic Indian romantic notion in his commentary, that of the
transcendent being who is unmoved by events. Sure, every century there are a
handful of Narayana Gurus and Ramana Maharshis who truly are transcendent. One
reason they are is that they have left their families and friends behind. This
is essential, because unless you are dead you will always care for your loved
ones. That’s why they call them loved ones in the first place. Yet for the
remaining billions and billions of us, there is no point in struggling to
suppress our feelings about those close to us. We are trying to retain our balance
so we can be more available to them, not less.
and they are sad and unsettling. Plus, there
are very few humans who don’t have at least one friend who is seriously ill,
crazy, addicted, deranged or what have you. If you don’t, you are either very
lucky or very cloistered. Or maybe you're the one
who's nuts! Some of us have whole galleries
of them, to the point where
I think we are all in some unusual category or two. Anyway, these are people we
love and care about, and it would be very selfish for us to turn our backs on
them. Patanjali is not suggesting we build thick walls around our delicate
psyches. Instead, we are to tune in to a solid state in our core, from which we
can withstand the agitations that life is filled with. The wording of the sutra
itself shows that this is a process, and not usually a fait accompli. When we
stay fixed on freedom we acquire
steadiness. That’s very different from saying we’re either steady or we’re
Paul brought up
something Moni said in the last class that had made a strong impression on him.
She had talked about realizing that no one is better than anyone else, that God
loves us and he also loves the person we are having trouble getting along with.
Paul related this to work, where we are thrown together with a wide variety of
people who we ostensibly either like or don’t like. He found that if he let go
of those divisive categories, he found that he could begin to see the other
person’s reasons for being who they were, and so develop sympathy. There isn't
really a class system or a hierarchy of spiritual versus unspiritual people. We
are all equal. The Absolute doesn't distinguish between us in the way that our
emotional attachments incline us to do. A guru doesn't separate agitated from pleasant
interactions, but takes them all as they come.
In my reading of
Easwaran yesterday, he put this very well. There are some very good stretches
in his Gita commentary, offset by some really tedious “Lord Lordism,” as
Nataraja Guru liked to call it. But the good parts are quite excellent. He was
speaking of XII, 16, for which I’ll use Nataraja Guru’s much preferable
translation: “He who expects no favors, who is clean, expert, who sits
unconcerned, carefree, who has relinquished all undertakings—-he, My devotee,
is dear to Me.” Easwaran writes:
once knew a chap who was expert at card games, who had a quiet way of making
the most of every hand. “A good player,” he explained, “can’t afford to depend
on chance. He’s got to be able to play whatever he’s dealt.” Then he would add,
with understandable pride, “Let anybody you like set up the cards—-some good,
all bad, I don’t care. At the end of the evening, I’ll still come out on top.”
He was talking about cards, but I was
thinking, “That’s the way to live in freedom too.” The word the Gita uses here
is anapekshah, for which
“detached” is a very pale translation. Literally, anapekshah means ‘without expectation.’ It sounds
passive, but it is just the opposite. Anapekshah means always ready for the unexpected—-in other
words, ready for anything. It is a very daring attitude, because it means
telling life, “I’m not concerned with what you send me. Good or bad, pleasant
or unpleasant, it doesn’t matter; I can make the best of whatever comes.”
The opposite of this is not preparedness; it is rigidity.
Most of us are subject to this, and it comes to the surface when we have to
deal with unexpected problems…. In other words, to live without expectations is
the secret of freedom, especially in personal relationships. (Vol. II, 391-92)
Once again, random readings
and encounters turned out to be directly related to our Yoga Shastra study.
Life is like that.
We’ll close with
Susan’s wonderful example. Her husband is Korean, and her teenage son was having
a spat with her. He spat out, “You’re the only one in our family who’s a
Caucasian!” She shot back, “At least I’m not a cocky Asian.” It made him laugh. He had to concede, “That’s a
good one, mom.” Friends again. As Deb said, maybe we should add a sutra that
recommends humor as a way of breaking the ice. Patanjali seems to be lacking in
that category, but many of the Indian classics abound in it. Nitya and Easwaran
are full of it. As long as the humor isn’t at someone’s expense, as it so often
is in the modern vein, it can be freeing and enlightening. We can only laugh
when we’re not rigidly doctrinaire, and we should be
able to laugh at ourselves first of all.
Thanks to Susan, we ended the
upbeat evening on an even more upbeat note.
So many examples!
One I’ll relate is when Vicente Richards and I went into a bar in our early
twenties, probably 1972. He lived next door to us at the Overton Street
Gurukula, and we had become good friends. Vicente was a black Cuban who had
moved to Portland a couple of years earlier, and probably growing up with less
racism than the American norm helped him to have a more equal-minded attitude
toward racial hostility. Anyway, we went into some seedy joint, and pretty soon
a dude sitting at the bar started giving Vicente a hard time. It was
unabashedly racist, and had nothing at all to do with our behavior. He was
simply painting all blacks as fitting his stupid and negative stereotype. I
started think, “Oh boy, we’d better get outta here, there’s going to be a fight.”
Vicente was proud as well as highly intelligent, and he carried a knife.
Then Vicente stood
up to the guy and boldly told him, “You know, what you’re saying doesn’t have
anything to do with me—-it’s about you. You ought to be careful what you say,
because you’re just showing everybody who you are.” He appeared unruffled by
the insults, and calmly turned back to me. But the other guy, drunk as he was,
had been stopped in his tracks. He never said another word, but retreated back
into his haze. I have recalled this incident throughout my life as a great
example of how to meet hostility with calm strength and good sense. It struck
me Vicente was putting Nitya’s philosophy into practice without ever having
come to his classes.
And this just came
from Lila, one of the new members of our electronic salon. She offers a good
tip for anyone struggling with the tough early part of the book:
All day I have been in
wonder. I started to read Nitya's commentary on the Patanjali Sutras. It was
tough going at first. I got as far as the sutra you just wrote about when I
remembered what I used to do in graduate school. I started with the last
page and worked forward. The good stuff is like desert, at the end. I read the
letters, moving forward to the last sutras. Recently, I had been to a
reading of Rumi by a Sufi who read and sang Rumi's poems in Farsi. He
explained the language spiritual literature is written in by great saints
is imbued with the “Absolute” (the Beloved, the transcendent). Reading the sutras, I
found myself in deep meditation which slipped into another state
where intense light took my heart and made me soar. I awakened with
the book tucked into my arms.
Thank you for bringing me
into this circle of Light.
[The mind is stabilized] also
by contemplating on the knowledge derived from the dream state and the
dreamless sleep state.
I’ve been going
through life under the happy illusion that everybody works with their dreams at
least at some point in life. Last night’s class disabused me of that notion.
Dream work was treated as a novel concept by a significant chunk of us. Freud,
for all his limitations, knew it as “the royal road to the unconscious.”
Likewise, the interpretation of dreams was central to Carl Jung’s psychological
insights. Patanjali isn’t giving us any specific suggestions, but only showing
that these ideas existed at least 2000 years before Freud and Jung. And it was
all the rage during my formative years, which I’m afraid are beginning to
approach Patanjali in antiquity.
All of us admitted
to being generally ignorant of any MRI studies of the brain during dream sleep
and deep sleep. At least in relation to wakeful
consciousness, those have turned earlier
science on its head, so to
speak. Any readers who have some knowledge in this area, please write to the
class and bring us up to speed. Also, since Patanjali closes this section on
stabilizing the mind with the next sutra, where he says “Those are my
suggestions, but you’re welcome to use anything that suits you,” we thought we
would try to recall a dream during the week we could present in the next class.
We’re looking for transformative dreams, ones that taught you or your friend
something significant, and that you aren’t embarrassed to share. You can also
tell us what Patanjali left out of his list: techniques that you have heard
about or invented yourself that offer a rock to cling to in the wild rapids of
the stream of consciousness. Surely there must have been new ways to stabilize the mind developed since Patanjali’s
One suggestion I had
is to not use published lists of dream symbols. You can read them to see what
other people think, but every one of them is different, so don’t apply them
rigidly to your own dreams. Each brain employs it’s own mysterious language
concocted from its storehouse of unique experiences, and the same symbol might
mean a vast panoply of different things to different people. To decode your
dreams, you have to study them closely and learn their language. It’s a huge
and fascinating field, one that can teach us much about what we overlook during
our wakeful periods. Our investigations can even help us to realize that the
phrase “life is but a dream,” is more than a nursery rhyme. When we speak of
colorations and projections of the psyche, those mental superimpositions are
like dreams impinging on what we take to be reality. The apparent solidity of
the wakeful state turns out to be largely an illusion.
John pointed out
that dreams are very chaotic and seemingly random. Their imagery is bizarre and
even psychotic, so a lot of folks just shrug them off as weird and meaningless.
But it is widely held by psychologists that dreams are a primary way for the
depths of the mind to be communicated to our surface awareness. Take pity on
your brain! It is trying hard, sometimes desperately, to make you aware of
important facets of your life, aspects you are suppressing, intentionally or
not. It doesn’t speak English or Malayalam. Well, actually it’s kind of close
to Malayalam…. In any case, if we pay attention and make a concerted effort to
hear the message, we can learn a lot. The subtext of much of Vedanta is that we
have buried in our minds important aspects of a whole life, and we are not
fully alive until we bring them out. It’s our “true nature” that’s trying to
speak to us through both sleeping and waking dreams.
As I said, we didn’t
get overly hot about dream revelations in the class. One type that several
people did mention was being pursued by a terrifying figure. You run like mad
away, but every time you turn back, there it is! Since it is part of your
psyche, you can’t escape from it, no matter what tricks you pull. This is a
classic, because we all have a smorgasbord of nasty traumas cooking inside us
that turn our lives into a banquet of fearful reactions. Our subconscious is
trying to alert us to a suppressed factor that is controlling our life. What
that is will be difficult to determine, but it’s certain that as long as we are
running away we will never find out. We have to turn and face the music
squarely, and do some serious digging, but the fear impels us to do exactly the
A lot of traumas
turn out to be not so frightening once we understand them. They draw much of
their power from our ignorance. Like when we’re lying in bed drifting off to
sleep and we hear a bump and experience a thrill of terror. In our imagination
it’s a murderer with an axe, waiting to break in the door! And then we hear it
again, and it’s someone in the next apartment dropping the other shoe. Whew!
Stabilizing the mind
is something like mental chiropractic: painful at the instant of adjustment,
but followed by a rush of relief as normal balance is regained.
dream we talked about was being naked in public or in school. I remember standing naked on a table in second grade,
embarrassed and humiliated, while the rest of the class, normally dressed, held
hands in a circle around me. John’s
version included going into a
classroom and learning there was going to be a test for which he wasn’t
prepared. These are quite universal. My sense is that clothes represent
socialized behavior, the persona, and our inner innocence is either not covered
by them or wishes to remain uncovered. We dream about
being naked a lot early in the socialization period of childhood, while the
unexpected test dreams are a later version. The
nakedness or lack of preparation is thus
very healthy and honest.
The lesson of the dream would depend on how we feel about it, whether exposed,
embarrassed, defiant, relaxed, prurient, or what have you.
Bill is our
acknowledged expert on dreams, having worked with Stanley Krippner in the early
1970s in the Dream Lab in New York. He told us that all of us cycle through
deep sleep to dream and back again several times during the night. We start
with the more restful deep sleep, and then dream more after we become better
rested. Barring damage or interference by drugs, everyone dreams every night. Deb once had a friend who claimed that because he had
become enlightened by meditation, he never dreamed. Yet another example of
self-delusion and pretension. As Anne said, some of this sounds like it's
advocating brain death. But what we're really trying to do is bring the brain
more to life.
Bill’s dream friend
Dr. Krippner still holds group meetings to unearth revelations through dream
analysis. There are any number of ways to recall and study dreams. For
instance, we should fall asleep with the affirmation that we want to remember
our dreams, and keep a pencil and paper handy to write them down the minute we
Jan, an adept
dreamer, wanted to know how we were supposed to meditate on the deep sleep
state. That’s a less studied area, and we wondered what the MRI studies have
revealed about it. But there are several ways to look at it that could be
you have to be particularly
careful not to fall asleep while meditating on anything so formless! But it is
good for us to contemplate something so mysterious that we cannot grasp it, and
we never will. Grasping belongs to the wakeful and dream states, and it is not
available in deep sleep. Meditating on the immense
depth of deep sleep teaches us that our conscious life floats on a profound
ignorance that is absolute. Knowing this, we can't help being more humble.
Secondly, if we
dissolve into nothingness every night, why do we feel
we have to reassemble ourselves into exactly
the same being every
morning? What’s to prevent us from rebuilding ourselves as less oppressed, less
addicted, less intolerant, and so on, and adding more compassion, insight,
openness, and whatever else we want? Sure, there are neurological bonds, called
samskaras, that pressure us to stay stuck in the same ruts all the time, but
every morning offers us a fresh opportunity to pry ourselves out of them.
A really fine
meditation is to picture deep sleep as a seed state. Like a plant seed, all
that we are is compacted for a time into a dimensionless point, from which a
new being will blossom forth in the light of the new day. A seed is a true miracle!
The plant is nowhere in evidence, and yet it is fully present as a potential,
and given the right environment it will spout and grow. We are filled with
millions of seeds, waiting their turn to express themselves in our life. Are we
going to keep them waiting forever? Shouldn’t we be
promoting some of them? It is quite a paradox
that something as abstract
and abysmal as the deep sleep state can be the womb of everything we know and
According to Bill,
when Buddhists meditate on emptiness, it is an emptiness that is full of
everything. This is very like a seed, or what we are here calling the deep
Patanjali’s point with this sutra is that we are prejudiced in favor of the
wakeful state, which is a tiny pinprick of awareness afloat on a sea of
infinite potential. We should invite the rest in, and do some exploring. And,
as Bill agreed, the turiya or the infinite absolute ground of all, is the light
that sustains the other three states. When we meditate on it, it throws light
onto all the states. Wherever we go, the Absolute is there with us, and this
realization should make us bold explorers indeed.
It seems that dreams
are more popular than I was led to believe the other night. Of the sharable
responses, Beverley sent two paintings and a funny cartoon that I’ll have to
include as attachments. Charles and Brenda pioneered an excellent technique
that others who don’t live in our area might try also. Without having read the
notes I send out, they had a meditation on the sutra together at home, and then
wrote their impressions. They both felt it was a wonderful way to participate,
and then when they read my notes they were happy to see the connections. The
best part is the feeling of evoking your own understanding without being in any
way dependent on a class setting, with its multiple influences. This would in
fact be an ideal way for actual class participants to prepare for our sessions
too. We get a lot more out of a class like this when we’ve thought about the subject
Brenda wrote: I
refer to ‘the light of consciousness prevailing during dream hours.’
Not every dream is an inspired vision, and tejas doesn’t
always mean prophetic inspiration. I am thinking of tejas as light of wisdom,
and in the deep sleep that follows there can be clarity and resolution.
i.e. often times I will
practice musical passages that I find difficult, then I will sleep and upon
waking I will know these passages better.
As dreams representing ones own personal mythology, pertinent
case in point regarding my mother.
I dreamt that I was carrying her out into a wide fertile
plain, to her Swedish grandparents homestead, her body light in my arms, her
head resting on my left shoulder, she was weary from the psycho-pharmaceutical
damage that she had endured for decades. In this dream I was sheltering her,
beneath the tall locust trees that my Great Grandmother Hilda had planted. As I
held my mother’s fragile body, I walked assuredly, saying softly over and over
again, ‘You can depend on me, you can depend on me’. She was trusting me to
take her home.
Upon waking, I shot out of bed and immediately began the
process of bringing her home, to be embraced, nurtured and to recover a sense
of belonging, wholeness and completion. This was manifested because I ‘heeded
the call’ through the dream state. Even though the dream was the flame of the
candle reflected in the mirror, what was in my unconscious mind arose in my
dream, consequently my mother became a part of the dream in my waking state.
All in all, it was a deeply enriching spiritual ordeal, full of joy and
despair, all brought to the fore, spurred on by a dream.
Charles wrote: Reverie is a
state between waking and dream. I can’t remember dreams but when I lie half
awake before dawn, geometrical ideas sometimes appear to me which involve
number and proportion. If I don’t write these down they fade in the full day of
the waking state. Reverie is like the part of the ocean near the surface where
reds, oranges and yellows are visible. The dream state is like the deeper parts
where blues, violets and greens are visible. Deep sleep is like the deep where
there is no light.
know, but we discussed the so-called hypnogogic and hypnopompic states, those
that occur in the reverie between waking and sleeping, in class as well. This is an especially fertile area for creative
breakthroughs, including a number of quite famous ones. We also talked a bit
about Brenda’s closely related idea, that our mental
impressions are consolidated during sleep,
and so we process and learn a
lot, in addition to fixing our memories, when we withdraw waking consciousness
from the field. This is amply supported by new scientific findings. It makes
you feel like the subconscious is your dear friend and helpmate.
Deb sent this along. The
“you” is Nitya:
Here is a poem of a dream I
STEP FORWARD STEP BACK
In an open space
a thin line
You walk towards me,
we recognize each other,
smile, look into the other’s
then with deft movement
you reach across your chest
and open it to me
a corporeal door swung ajar.
Nothing bloody, nothing
as I look inside, nothing.
I am you, you say,
your smile covering distance,
As our eyes continue to hold
you step closer and
with the same suppleness
open my torso: chest,
fluttering breath. You are
Still we watch, space
streaming around us.
A chirrup from the birds
in an unseen tree.
We are nothing, you say,
We are transparent.
Transparent the line of my
Nothing the shape of your
Nothing the touch on my arm.
Transparent my fingers to
your lips evanescent in the
Or by contemplation as
desired by oneself.
One of our liveliest
classes ever seemed to send everyone home in an ebullient mood. It’s funny how
sometimes the sharing is as reluctant as trying to coax a badger out of its
burrow and at other times it’s like a river in flood. The prevailing state
tends to be roughly similar for everybody present, which is lucky, because
badgers don’t like to listen to prattle. There is definitely a tone to each
gathering that we all partake in.
One of the most
germane discussions was touched off by John reiterating the classic objection
to Patanjali’s assertion in this sutra, that each of us is the best judge of
our own right activity. Nitya puts the idea succinctly in his brief commentary:
is not to be imparted like a collective drill
that is given to squadrons or battalions of soldiers…. Recognizing the
uniqueness of each individual, Patanjali states that the most suitable
discipline for each person is that which they can wholeheartedly accept.
the Bhagavad Gita… Krishna [tells Arjuna] “After critically examining all my
instructions, you choose to act exactly as you desire.” Krishna does not hold
his beloved disciple at the leash of any obligation. The disciple is fully free
to choose what is most appropriate to him. Here Patanjali also emphasizes this
supreme teaching in Yoga, which offers absolute freedom to its votary, making
it clear that, ultimately, everyone has to help himself or herself. Thus this
sutra is very significant.
John thought that, while
admirable, this idea empowered bad people to do whatever they want, too. Moni
responded that it doesn’t ratify just any action indiscriminately. It’s for
those who have already been fully instructed.
Bad people have
never had any inhibitions about doing what they want anyway. It’s the good ones
who seek to model their behavior on ethical norms. The norms are certainly part
of the scrutiny of all aspects of a situation that we are asked to perform
prior to acting as we see fit. The key, though, is that unitive action springs
from the heart and soul of each person, and following rules, guidelines, and
the like is not unitive, it is mediated activity. A long discussion brought us
to see the wisdom of first being carefully instructed and only after that
expansion of awareness has become an integral part of us can we safely renounce
outside influences. Outside influence will always be valuable for learning, but
we have to learn how to act independently also. The freedom to act as our own
sovereign is actually a rare and complex accomplishment, having little or
nothing to do with instinctual behavior.
Susan told us how
she grew up with so many rules and laws to follow that she arrived at adulthood
without a clue how to be on her own. She had to start learning that new set of
skills from scratch. The adult children the world is filled with are still
waiting for someone to tell them what to do.
Anita talked about
her long association and then break with the Mormon Church, the fastest growing
religion on earth. A good part of its success comes from its role in doing people’s
thinking for them. A lot of folks are afraid of freedom, because it’s so
foreign to them and so demanding of their attention, and so they look for a
safe haven that promises to care for them, here and hereafter. It’s very
attractive, really. A devil’s bargain: “Sign here and I’ll take care of all
your wishes.” The small print at the bottom reads: “In the end, I get your
soul.” Anita was brave enough to strike off on her own, because something in
her needed to find it’s own way. But the church members still reach out and try
to gather her back in, partly to ratify their own decision, but also because
they are so happy and want to share their happiness. They don’t understand why
Anita can’t be satisfied with their ersatz paradise. Their god doesn’t want
them to be independent and think for themselves. Anyone who does is doomed. As
John pointed out, the Gita and the Yoga Sastra are quite unusual in advocating
personal freedom. Most scriptures tilt heavily in the opposite direction, as do
state constitutions, business plans, schools, and pretty much every other social
institution as well.
My head is nearly
bursting trying to do justice to our long and lively discussion of this crucial
issue. I wish I could just fling it all onto the page! Readers are going to
have to fill in a lot of the blanks for themselves, I’m afraid. Otherwise,
we’ll have a book on our hands.
Anita noted how
young children, like John’s criminals, just take what they want and use
violence to get their way. It’s true there is a similar condition at work here.
Criminals never had the social development to help them grow out of those early
simplistic attitudes natural to children. Either wise guidance was absent, or
sometimes parents intentionally insulate their kids from the natural
consequences of their actions, and this is almost as debilitating. They feel
they are protecting them, but instead they are cutting them off from learning
what they need, and usually want, to know.
parents also make all their kids’ decisions for them, and then wonder why as
adults they don’t seem to be able to make good choices. They never had any
practice, that’s why! Making wise decisions is an advanced skill that is best
perfected under the care of a guru or parent or other loved one. Most American
parents these days are hyper-overprotective. We now have a whole series of
generations of kids who are dependent to an unhealthy degree on someone else
running their lives. Unfortunately, those someone elses aren’t always Good
Samaritans. It’s no wonder the cults are full, not to mention the prisons!
Susan shared a revelatory dream she had last summer on this very subject, which
for space considerations I’ll add as Part II.
Narayana Guru put
his finger on the crux of the matter in Atmo verses 23 and 24, where he
instructs us that selfish actions are doomed to disaster while altruistic ones
promote general welfare. We start life naturally ignorant, with very limited
awareness outside our self, and grow to embrace more and more of the rest of
the world. When a child bites and then is bitten back, they learn how it feels
to the other person when they bite, and next time they will think twice about
their urge to hurt. An alert parent will underline the lesson by saying, “There!
See how it feels?” By contrast, an overprotective parent will offer solace and
put the blame on the other child, thereby erasing the lesson and empowering the
child to continue to cause injuries.
in the Gita, before he is turned loose on his own recognizance, is to move from
a selfish perspective to a universal one. Krishna carefully instructs him how
he, the Absolute, is in every bit of the universe and in every person. The
critical examination he is to perform before acting is to take a global
perspective so that his choice is optimal. The young child or criminal is
acting on limited information, only seeing things from a selfish point of view.
The parent’s job is to teach the child to think of others too. Yet thinking of
others to the exclusion of our own needs is one of the errors often made. The
global situation includes us too. We should not be asked for self-abnegation,
but only to treat other’s needs as equal to our own. We are struggling to grasp
the whole story, and only if we come close can we act with confidence that the
best interests of the most participants will be well served.
As we talked about
how we can inculcate unselfish values in a world that worships self-interest, at
one point Paul mentioned the “Hundredth Monkey” hypothesis. His version was an
island (actually Great Britain) where a few birds had learned how to open milk
bottles sitting on doorsteps and sip the cream off the top. A few learned by
observation, but once a critical mass was reached, they all began doing it, all
over the British Isles. Actually, the spread, carefully documented, was rapid
but not instantaneous, as it was with the hundred monkeys learning to wash
their sweet potatoes in Japan. (That was also on an island—could that be a
decisive factor??) Paul brought the premise up in the hope that, rather than
making direct efforts to teach others spiritual values, which seems to always
backfire, if we exemplify them in ourselves that might be a more successful
strategy. There are many pockets of spiritually dedicated souls scattered about
the globe, and perhaps their efforts will produce a sudden flowering of
enlightenment throughout the species.
Of course, there are
a lot of folks meditating on stupid ideas too, so we have to hope they don’t
suddenly burst forth in all of us as well. It’s important to keep our eyes
We held a review of
the section of the Yoga Sastra we are hereby concluding, on how to stabilize
the mind. We did it partly to fix in our minds what Patanjali covered, and also
with an eye to adding what he didn’t, including things that hadn’t been
invented yet. When you scan his list it’s obvious that there is no physical
component whatsoever, at least to this part of the yoga program. The only thing
that even comes close to physical activity is watching our breathing. These are
strictly mental exercises done by a lone recluse, or for that matter, anyone
home alone. Patanjali’s suggestions for stabilizing the mind are:
33: The mind is clarified by
cultivating friendliness toward happiness, compassion toward misery, gladness
toward virtue, and equanimity toward vice.
34: Or, by the expiration and
retention of breath.
35: When absolute interest is
shown to a sensory experience or activity, that will bring the mind to a steady
36: Also by meditating on the
sorrowless state of inner joy one can attain luminosity of intelligence.
37: Also the mind fixed on
freedom from attachment to sense experience acquires steadiness.
38: Also by contemplating on
the knowledge derived from the dream state and the dreamless sleep state.
39: Or by contemplation as
desired by oneself.
Anita added music
and companionship with animals. Music has become very important to spirituality
since the old days. Chanting and mantras were mentioned as a way of overcoming
obstacles in the previous section, and really, overcoming obstacles and
stabilizing the mind are closely related. Having used music as my primary
meditation technique for almost 40 years, I can only concur. Stray thoughts
immediately produce “mistakes” in musical performance, so the main thrust is
toward one-pointed concentration, with ample negative feedback. Even listening
to music requires concentration and focus, which with music we love usually
comes quite easily. Music is a perfect example of why we are instructed to
gravitate to what we love or what holds our interest. Music we don’t like makes
us turn it off right away. If we’re not interested, our mind wanders all over
the place. But when our interest is captured we are instantly in the flow, effortlessly
lifted to a higher state.
The class agreed
that companionship with pets and young children was blissful in a number of
ways, one of which is their living in the present moment at all times. They
help bring us into the here and now. And they love to play, so they remind us
that life is supposed to be a divine sport, a lila. I added companionship with
peers too. Patanjali was clearly not a sociable fellow. But we learn a lot and
are at our best sometimes when we are having a good conversation. One of my
favorite activities in the last decade has been simply talking with friends
about issues that matter to both of us. Of course, personal interactions can be
confusing and problematic too, but the potential is there for genuine
stabilization of the psyche through joy.
One pretty hip thing
Patanjali did mention was the contemplation of dreams. Happily, quite a few
people shared interesting dreams in the class. Pradeep emailed that the science
show Nova is screening a program on dreams on November 24th
television. Nova is broadcast at the same time as our class (are they copycats,
or just competing for ratings?), and the sense I got from our class was Who
wants to watch TV? Maybe someone from the outside can send us a recap of the
Also, Peg sent a
link to a New York Times article from the day before: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/10/health/10mind.html?_r=1&emc=eta1
. The article shared several new theories. One that caught the class’s
imagination was the idea that we dream all the time, that it’s the way the mind
operates on its own, until it is “corrected” by sensory input. The corrected
dream is what we call the waking state, which floats like an empty plastic
water bottle on the stream of dream consciousness (I made up this analogy).
This helps explain why “life is but a dream,” and why we color so much of the
wakeful state with our projections. It may also help explain schizophrenia, conceived
as the inability to handle the infringement of dreams on the wakeful state.
Most people feel they are in control in the wakeful state, which may be
strictly an illusion, but without that comfortable illusion we can lose our
ground and feel overwhelmed by chaos.
Another theory in
the article is that dreaming is how our mind prepares for the new day, like a
computer booting up. A lot of REM sleep, the dreaming part, occurs right before
we awaken. One aspect of this theory is to assert that some dreams, at least,
don’t mean anything. They’re just us getting ready for the new day’s challenges
as we anticipate them.
The class spent a
lot of time discussing dreaming, and it was clear that some dreams do have the
ability to crystallize ideas we have suppressed but really should be facing, as
with Susan’s dream that follows. They are how our brain communicates with us, though
doing so is a tough job, identified as we are primarily with surface awareness.
There was so much
more, but my brain hurts. It was a wonderful evening. Apparently everyone went
home feeling tremendously enriched by the class. In the pulsing, invisible,
electromagnetic noosphere, we contributed our part, one pretty hip monkey to
help some day maybe add up to a hundred and permit a quantum leap for the
dawdling human race. Though we probably shouldn’t hold our breaths on that,
sincere thanks to everyone in the primary class and the secondary class notes
crowd for doing your bit!
Susan shared a recap
of the following during the exploration of dreams part of the class. He
daughter Sarah had just gotten her drivers’ license and was starting to go out
on her own. Susan has deep, well-founded issues with protecting her children
from harm. This dream complex helped her to break out of one of the toughest
about the very real dangers of driving.
We’d talked about gradually letting go of parental control for years, really,
but it was the dream that provided, or at any rate signaled, her actual
breakthrough. After the dream, Susan immediately felt vastly relieved of her
persistent anxiety. Now she inwardly cheers as Sarah drives off to school with
Peter, while she stays home to follow her freedom. You can’t find a better
example of how meditating on dreams can help stabilize and clarify the mind:
I just had these two dreams
this morning and the poem came to me as I was thinking about them. This has
been a hard week. I have been sick and mostly out of my mind, struggling with
Sarah about where to drive next. I let her drive to the store and then she
wants to drive to school and she doesn’t even know how to keep her room clean.
I let her drive to a friend’s house and then she wants to drive into the morass
of 23rd Ave and she doesn’t know how to parallel park and half the time she
doesn’t clear her dishes from the table. I’ve been trying to remind her that
driving is a privilege and that she needs to show that she is responsible. Oh
my god, it’s been a scene and [husband] Rick has been gone so he just gets an earful
over the phone.
The dreams put it all in
perspective, I think.
The first scene I’m in the
country somewhere and I am with a group of women. At one point there is a tiger
that fixates on one of the women in our group and eventually is kind of
stalking her because he wants to be with her so much. We start having to
protect her from the tiger.
Small town. I am in a small
bookshop with a Japanese feeling to it. I have seen a film or video that shows
that the tiger is going to come after the woman/girl at this book shop and I am
really terrified for her. She is in a box for protection. A big long sort of
box, inside the store. [Interestingly, in her recap last night the coffin had
become a cage.] I am barricading the flimsy windows and doors of the store so
that when the tiger comes he will not be able to get to her. I am putting
boards across openings and shoving heavy pieces of furniture up against doors
except that there isn’t too much that is heavy in the shop so I feel as though
it is inadequate and that makes me even more worried about the tiger. Then a
big truck pulls up in front of the shop (as the film that I saw showed) and the
tiger is in a big long box on this truck (kind of like the box that the woman
is in). There are several teachers unloading books to bring into the store. I
tell them about the tiger and how it is going to try to get to the girl/woman
and that they need to be careful about opening doors to the book store because
we can’t let the tiger get to her. They look at me with interest but I can tell
that they don’t really believe me. They are kind of humoring me. But I know I’m
right because I saw the film and tigers are really dangerous and this one wants
to get to this girl and hurt her and then she will be destroyed. But I’m
not sure that the film showed all that happens when the tiger gets to the girl.
Maybe I just filled in the blanks. During this time of my utter panic and my
walking around, trying to anticipate any move by the tiger, I notice a tall
doll house in one part of the shop. It is Japanese style and with a roof that
slants down in front. [Son] Peter is there replacing tiny shells that keep
falling off the roof, but they are supposed to be there. Some of them break
when they fall. We notice together how the lighter ones tend to make the big
drop and don’t break but the heavier ones break in half or in pieces when they
hit the hard floor. Peter is very calm and is enjoying playing with the house.
Sarah is there too, bustling around but more as a shadow. The teachers are
talking amongst themselves. I like them. I admire them. I like to hear them
talk about things. But I can’t understand why they aren’t as worried as I am
about the tiger getting the woman.
There is a tiger
Who is after my daughter.
He stalks her day and night
I watched the scenes on
Of him running after her
With huge teeth and sharp
He is coming to get her and
tear her apart
The small baby that I have
nursed and loved
She is 16 and she doesn’t
realize about the tiger
She doesn’t even
Think he’s a tiger
Happily would she walk into a
whole street full of tigers
To be free
To be who she is
Part III – Bergson weighs in
I must’ve typed these
year or two ago and forgotten them. They waved at me this morning, and they are
exactly on the subject from our discussion of freedom this week. Synchronicity
(1859-1941) was an important influence on Nataraja Guru, and source of one of
our favorite quotes: “The true mystic just opens his heart to the onrushing
Bergson bits, from the
Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Vol I, article by T.A. Goudge:
Freedom of action, according to Bergson, is something
directly experienced. Man feels himself to be free as he acts, even though he
may be unable to explain the nature of his freedom. However, we are free only
when our act springs spontaneously from our whole personality as it has evolved up to the moment of
action. If this spontaneity is absent, our actions will be simply stereotyped
or mechanical responses. In such cases we behave like automata. Hence, freedom
is far from being absolute. Indeed, for most people free acts are the
exception, not the rule. (p.288)
Since man is a social animal, his future evolution will be accelerated
or retarded by the sort of group in which he lives. Bergson discussed this
question in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, where he drew a
distinction between a society that is “closed” and one that is “open,”
describing in each case corresponding types of religion and of morality.
A closed society is one dominated by the routine and
mechanical. It is resistant to change, conservative, and authoritarian. Its
stability is achieved by increasing its self-centeredness. Hence, conflict with
other self-centered groups, often involving war, is a condition of its
preservation. Internal cohesiveness is secured by a closed morality and a
closed religion…. Closed morality is static and absolutistic; closed religion
is ritualistic and dogmatic. Both institutions exert pressure on individuals to
accept the standard practices of the community. Spontaneity and freedom are
reduced to a minimum. Conformity becomes the prime duty of the citizen. There
is an obvious analogy between such a society and the repetitive mechanisms
dealt with by the intellect. Indeed, Bergson regarded closed societies as in
large measure the intellect’s products.
The existence of a multiplicity of closed societies on the
earth is an obstacle to human evolution. Accordingly, the next development in
man requires the establishment of an open society. Instead of being limited, it
will embrace all mankind; instead of being static, it will be progressive;
instead of demanding conformity, it will encourage the maximum diversity among
individuals. Its moral and religious beliefs will be equally flexible and subject
to growth. Religion will replace the stereotyped dogmas elaborated by the
intellect with the intuition and illumination now achieved by the mystics. The
spread of the mystical spirit must ultimately create an open society whose
freedom and spontaneity will express the divine elan which pervades the universe. (p.294)
The yogi's mastery extends
from the finest atom to the greatest infinity.
After passing through
a section on overcoming obstacles, and another one dealing with stabilizing the
mind, we have properly prepared ourselves to participate in the graded forms of
samadhi soon to be elucidated. Obviously Patanjali intended his students to do
more than quickly read through and have brief discussions of this preliminary
material. Each sutra stands for a major stage of learning, with repetitive
practice a must. This is the part that a sincere student of yoga should be
excited about, and lacking which yoga becomes a mere dilettantish indulgence.
neuroscience concurs that changes in the brain are possible, but require
considerable effort to establish as permanent. Because of the inescapable
inertia of its physical makeup, toying with ideas offers the brain a glimpse of
what is possible, but it quickly returns to its accustomed state of
conditioning in the absence of reinforcement of the vision. In this study we
are striving to decondition our attachments so that we can live up to the idea
attributed to Bergson in the previous note, that “we are free only when our act
springs spontaneously from our whole
personality as it has evolved up to the moment of action. If this spontaneity
is absent, our actions will be simply stereotyped or mechanical responses.” So
it’s very important to revisit these radically transformative ideas regularly,
more often than once a week.
Most of our class
was focused on ideas covered in previous sessions, including dreams, birth
trauma and prenatal bliss, rebirthing, and psychedelic experience, all ways to
try to have unconditioned experiences. While interesting, their essence has
already been recorded in earlier notes.
The main idea that I
think is implied in the sutra got short shrift, probably because it is so
radical: that consciousness is primary and what is perceived is secondary. Our ordinary
delusion is to imagine we are a byproduct of material forces, when in truth
they are a product of our awareness. Or better yet, that both are a product of
a vast mystery we call the Absolute in lieu of a better term. The yogi achieves
mastery not by learning how to tinker with the world, but by inverting habitual
perception and realizing they themselves are the fulcrum on which everything
turns. We are being instructed to withdraw from the play of lights and sit
firmly established in our Self. It won’t hurt to recall a few related verses
from Narayana Guru’s Darsanamala, from the Yoga Darsana:
All this name and form is Brahma indeed. Thus, in the Absolute, mind always
merges well. This is ascertained as yoga.
To whichever mind goes, from all that this should always be restrained, and
should be united in the Self—this is yoga. In this should remain united.
& 7. Sankalpa—the cause of all disasters of mankind—along with projections,
should be uprooted and incipient memories be restrained in the Self. What is
seen has not the perceived reality, because what is seen is the seer itself.
Who is thus united in the seer, he is the best among yoga knowers.
It’s valuable to revisit a
paragraph from Nitya exceptional commentary on Darsanamala, from the same
after receiving the secret instruction tat tvam asi, “That thou art,” from one’s teacher,
one may not
become a yogi unless this consciousness of the union of the subject and object
is continuously realized by perpetuating the retentive idea “That thou art.” This
is not possible unless one empties oneself of one’s ego. Personal ego is an
aggregate of memories called vasana, and it is always active to produce
volitional imagery. This is called sankalpa. Sankalpa is the root cause of all human miseries. An effective
step in withholding from being influenced by the vasana is returning again and
again to the true nature of the Self. This withdrawal is called pratyahara. When once the Self is seen through an act of samyam, the Self can be seen in all and as all. When there is
nothing extraneous to attract or distract, consciousness becomes steady and
samadhi is achieved. Thereafter one does not experience the duality of the
subject and the object. Such a state is praised as yoga. (417)
So the mastery of
the universe, from microcosm to macrocosm, does not involve doing,
experiencing, or even knowing. It is our native state, and it is dissipated by
our projection of it out into a putative external world. In yoga, the world (“all
this name and form”) we see is treated as the Absolute. We also learn that we
are the Absolute. That means all that is, is us, and we are all that. In this
way we realize a unitive attitude, giving us the ability to act without a
memory lag, which is a time delay occasioned by associative linking and
We briefly discussed
artistic creativity in this light. Most of our artists receive a vision from
their unconscious memory storage in the form of an insight and then try to
replicate it on canvas. The closer they can get to a Zen-like blast of instantaneous
expression, the more joyful the process. By perfecting their art they can bring
their vision and expression ever closer together, in an asymptotic approach. It
doesn’t seem to matter whether they treat the vision as an external divine gift
or as a gift from their own unconscious. Either way it’s wonderful and
inspiring, and yet there remains a gap between the vision and the expression no
matter how close the approximation, and this is true of other types of activity
as well as visual artistry.
By relinquishing the
outward impulse altogether, it is possible to eradicate the gap between limit
and asymptote. They are the postulation of calculus, in other words, of a
calculating attitude toward the world. Mostly we live
carefully calculated lives. Calculus marks
the substitution of a scheme
onto reality. It “works” because schemes work, but they are also substitute
realities. If we can restrain our calculating tendencies, against all our
training and previous experiences, we are already masters of the universe. This
is precisely the direction the Yoga Sutras will now be taking us. In our own
disparate and personalized ways we are already masters of calculation, but the
Absolute is not a product of calculation, nor is it affected by it. As Nitya
will tell us in the very next verse, “When this exercise [of restraint] is done
several times, your identity with the inner reality becomes more stable and
more easily recognized.” That’s all we’re trying to add to the picture.