On Pantanjali, the Self, and why I practice and teach yoga

The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe.  In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says.  This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.

The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning.  In other words, the “I” is the sum  of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be.  One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken.  Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”

To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya.  But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization.  Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go.  It leads into more suffering, not away from it.

In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while.  A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body.  Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.

Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being.  Some days I am strong.  Some days I am weak.   Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing.   When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable.   Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.

The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.”  Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings.  My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.

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Gelek Rimpoche

Tibetan Buddhist lama Rimpoche Nawang Gehlek relates a wisdom from seventh-century Indian pundits:

You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not.  If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it.  If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy?  The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.

Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him,  Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable.  Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean?  Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”

The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.

The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about.  We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma.  We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow.   If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.

We don’t have to do this.  Why do we do it?  Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity.   If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.

The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.

I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence.  My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).

No.  For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.

As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,

The Buddha was not a mystic.  His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God.  He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.”  Buddha did not found a religion.  He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.

This is how I understand yoga.  Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.

My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.

Jimmy Carter is My Hero

I have always loved and respected President Carter.  My admiration for him increases every year.  If Protestants had saints, he’d be a good candidate.

Losing my religion for equality…by Jimmy Carter

25 JANUARY 2013

Women and girls have been discriminated against for too long in a twisted interpretation of the word of God.

I HAVE been a practicing Christian all my life and a deacon and Bible teacher for many years. My faith is a source of strength and comfort to me, as religious beliefs are to hundreds of millions of people around the world. So my decision to sever my ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after six decades, was painful and difficult. It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

At its most repugnant, the belief that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime. But it also costs many millions of girls and women control over their own bodies and lives, and continues to deny them fair access to education, health, employment and influence within their own communities.

The impact of these religious beliefs touches every aspect of our lives. They help explain why in many countries boys are educated before girls; why girls are told when and whom they must marry; and why many face enormous and unacceptable risks in pregnancy and childbirth because their basic health needs are not met.

In some Islamic nations, women are restricted in their movements, punished for permitting the exposure of an arm or ankle, deprived of education, prohibited from driving a car or competing with men for a job. If a woman is raped, she is often most severely punished as the guilty party in the crime.

The same discriminatory thinking lies behind the continuing gender gap in pay and why there are still so few women in office in the West. The root of this prejudice lies deep in our histories, but its impact is felt every day. It is not women and girls alone who suffer. It damages all of us. The evidence shows that investing in women and girls delivers major benefits for society. An educated woman has healthier children. She is more likely to send them to school. She earns more and invests what she earns in her family.

It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and outdated attitudes and practices – as we are seeing in Iran where women are at the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom.

I understand, however, why many political leaders can be reluctant about stepping into this minefield. Religion, and tradition, are powerful and sensitive areas to challenge. But my fellow Elders and I, who come from many faiths and backgrounds, no longer need to worry about winning votes or avoiding controversy – and we are deeply committed to challenging injustice wherever we see it.

The Elders are an independent group of eminent global leaders, brought together by former South African president Nelson Mandela, who offer their influence and experience to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity. We have decided to draw particular attention to the responsibility of religious and traditional leaders in ensuring equality and human rights and have recently published a statement that declares: “The justification of discrimination against women and girls on grounds of religion or tradition, as if it were prescribed by a Higher Authority, is unacceptable.”

We are calling on all leaders to challenge and change the harmful teachings and practices, no matter how ingrained, which justify discrimination against women. We ask, in particular, that leaders of all religions have the courage to acknowledge and emphasize the positive messages of dignity and equality that all the world’s major faiths share.

The carefully selected verses found in the Holy Scriptures to justify the superiority of men owe more to time and place – and the determination of male leaders to hold onto their influence – than eternal truths. Similar biblical excerpts could be found to support the approval of slavery and the timid acquiescence to oppressive rulers.

I am also familiar with vivid descriptions in the same Scriptures in which women are revered as pre-eminent leaders. During the years of the early Christian church women served as deacons, priests, bishops, apostles, teachers and prophets. It wasn’t until the fourth century that dominant Christian leaders, all men, twisted and distorted Holy Scriptures to perpetuate their ascendant positions within the religious hierarchy.

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter. Their continuing choice provides the foundation or justification for much of the pervasive persecution and abuse of women throughout the world. This is in clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions – all of whom have called for proper and equitable treatment of all the children of God. It is time we had the courage to challenge these views.

OBSERVER

Jimmy Carter was president of the United States from 1977 to 1981.

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