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.

Fasting to protest the Imprisonment of Human Rights Lawyer #Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh

That’s funny.  I already wrote a blog and thought I had posted it, but for some reason it didn’t go through.  So, the last post won’t make any sense.  Here’s what should have come first.

I’m fasting today to honor Nasrin Sotoudeh, the heroic human rights lawyer imprisoned by the Iranian government for her willingness to take on human rights and political cases, ended a life-threatening hunger strike.  The authorities finally capitulated to international demands that the government stop punishing her family, specifically, in this case, her 12 year-old daughter, who had been prohibited from traveling until today.

Sotoudeh is a prisoner of conscience, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran considers Sotoudeh a prisoner of conscience.  The European Union this year awarded her the prestitious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.  Numerous organizations have called for her release.

Today Nasrin will begin to take sustenance again, and she will live.  But she still remains unjustly and inhumanely imprisoned.  I will deny myself food today, as she has done for the past 49 days, in personal protest against the Iranian government’s cruel treatment of this noble hero.  Won’t you join me and fast to demonstrate your solidarity with Nasrin?

What I love here:

The comforting croak of the frogs at night.

The sound of rain on a tin roof.

Women walking in kurtas, veils trailing.

Hennaed hands on the first of Saun.

Temples like mushrooms in the unlikeliest of places.

Mild-mannered dogs, neither tame nor wild, sleeping in intersections.

Ducklings waddling down the center of the street.

Chicks milling about the gate.

Spindly legged men herding cows.

Bamboo ladders and scaffolding.

Color.

Rice fields in terraces, corn everywhere else.

Squash vines climbing house and garden walls.

Flowers from my homeland by the side of the road.

The rare glimpse of the god-mountains overlooking the valley.

Women driving trucks and buses.

Men balancing wares on bicycles.

Giant metal baskets of mangos.

Fortune-tellers lounging on the sidewalks at Ratna Park.

Women fanning roasted corn at corners.

Goats.

Weed(s).

The red- and the orange-robed.

The dark, dirty, and ragged, red-robed monk who lives at Boudha.

Walking slowly.

Bare feet.

Ankle bracelets and toe-rings.

Saying Namaste.

 

Writing and Pontificating

I woke up a lot earlier than I had meant to this morning and was driven out of bed by remorse and anxiety.  I knew that I had not quite gotten out what I had meant to say in my previous post, and wanted to address it.  It took me all day to figure out how to do it.

I simply deleted everything that I didn’t want to say, or, rather, that I didn’t want to be recorded as having written.

This must be a disease peculiar to writers and politicians and members of the clergy: the compulsion to pontificate and the equally powerful anxiety about being held to one’s utterances.   This is a desire to be seen and heard that ceaselessly fights with the worry that you will be seen and heard and everyone will see that you are imperfect.   And then there is the fear that they will stop listening to, or reading you, and you will no longer be able to pay the bills, and then they will think bad thoughts about you.   Sometimes there is the fear, for example, that they will  think that you are not a nice person.  Or  that your readers or auditors might find you  rude, or unkind, or uncouth, or clumsy, or left-handed, or insane.  But if you are an academic writer, especially,  the worst thing that they could possibly think about you is that you are not smart.

For two reasons:

Either:

Because smart is what you are selling in this business.  Smart characterizes the commodity. And certain of your colleagues in this business will no longer associate with you because your lack of smartness might make them look less smart.  Smart defined,  of course, not as “really well turned out” or “put together,” but rather as “hyper-intelligent,” “brilliant,” “creative,” “uniquely productive of intellectual commodities.”

Or:

Because you yourself are really invested in being perceived as smart due to some terrible insecurity.  I think it is called imposter syndrome.  It is the fear that they will see through the pose, the mask, the pretence of knowledge, scientia, truth,  revelation, salvation.  You don’t actually know what salvation or sapientia, sophia, wisdom, is, and you have a sneaking suspicion that you have been faking it all this time and they will find you out at last.  And then they will stop liking you.  And then you will be alone.

And then? And then you will have to find different friends, and these friends could be human or animal or plant or mineral.

I don’t know why I always end up careening into saccharine preachiness and the pedagogical mode.  I’m not really that comfortable with it.  I doubt myself all the time, and wish that I were more certain about things than I am.

Like most people, I want to come to a quick conclusion, a moral of the story, because I  am attached to binary oppositions: dumb and smart, black and white, male and female, right and wrong, sane and crazy, rational and emotional, right and left, conservatives and radicals, sacred and  profane, sight and blindness, sun and moon, light and darkness, up and down, west and east, north and south, climbing and falling, dry and wet, hot and cold, salty and sweet, outside and inside.  These are the coordinates with which we map our universe, our experience of reality.  I know in my heart that they are both against and for one another, that they are together, not really separate.  The truth is far more complicated, far muddier.

I know this because I feel it but can’t quite articulate what It is.

Well, some of us can, or pretend do.  I think the job, the duty that one takes on when one signs up to be a minister of the word in a church or a university is to pretend to know the truth.  Popular preachers and professors are good at explaining everything they know and how all of it all hangs together, and passing this off as CORRECT.  For they know as well as I do that we need to make a profit in order to survive in this particular economic system, and that therefore it pays to be the person who can deliver the package, THE TRUTH,  in easily digestible chunks.

Sometimes I don’t know what  I’m thinking or doing.  I don’t always take responsibility for my mistakes, and I should.  Look.  I’m trying.  Seriously.  But it is not clear to me than an apology is what is needed here, but rather something more like a tirade.  But I can’t really work myself up into the lather of it all, because I never quite believe what I’m saying. And, yes,  I find this smug posture of ambivalence and fascination with ambiguity and “greyness” and fuzziness incredibly annoying, too.

So, fine! Grand denial, radical refusal to get carried away, big deal.  Haven’t we seen this all before in Hamlet?  And Hamlet is an idiot.  And so is Romeo, and lots of the handsome, dashing types in Shakespeare.   The handsome, dashing type is usually an asshole, so pleased with himself.  But you can find the exact same attitude of superior put-upon-ness in the working classes, or in among any oppressed group.  They can display the same dramatic self-indulgence and refusal to take responsibility for the mess that we have all, together, gotten into. All this posturing, by women, by men…

I’m starting to pontificate again, and so it’s best to stop.