joseph campbell

A Living, Breathing Practice

1462139_orig A group of friends and I have started to gather at my house monthly to take a deeper dive into Yoga than the kind we get when we go to the yoga studio or even when we do a teacher training.  The problem with teacher trainings is that there's so much to cover in terms of content, that we don't have a lot of time to linger on some of the deeper questions, like what on earth is yoga about?  Or what's yoga to me?  Or how did the ancients view yoga and spirituality?  And how does it pertain to my life?  It is my sense that we all have to ask these questions, to not just accept techniques like asanas (yoga postures) or meditation without an analytical consideration.

And because Yoga has the propensity to be embodied and non-analytical, we're not  encouraged to go here a lot.  My teacher, Pattabhi Jois,is often quoted as saying, "Yoga is 99% practice, 1% theory."  How often do we hear the instruction, "Drop the the thought and return to the body," or "Your thoughts are like passing clouds.  Notice the thought, and come back to the breath."  This is really the heart of spiritual practice, just noticing.  And most practice, if it's effective, takes us out of our thinking, comparing, and analytical mind and into a more intuitive, sensing, feeling, and non-thinking place.

But that's not to say that the spiritual experience is, strictly speaking, a non-thinking experience.  Actually, there's a lot of thought, in fact, thousands of years of thought, about the spiritual life and the spiritual experience that we can draw from.  There are a ton of maps written by those who have walked the path before us that we can use to understand and make sense of our own journey.  It is not only important but should be mandatory for all of us who are deeply seeking to understand the traditions we come from.  That way we can start to contextualize them and make sense of them.  More importantly, I think it's imperative that we develop a critical eye for our spiritual practice and the teaching associated with it, so we can choose a path that takes us to where we need to go rather than where we're told we should go by a teacher, a teaching, or a community.

The Sutras Through a Critical Eye

As I was preparing for our last gathering, I came across an interesting podcast by Matthew Remski that really had me questioning how much authority I wanted to place in The Yoga Sutras as a map for my spiritual practice.  Remski points out some of Patanjali's weird views.  Examples include:

  1. The idea that Yoga is about such a complete separation of awareness (purusa) and nature (prakriti), that it veers in the direction of disembodied, spiritual bypass.  In other words, the cessation of the fluctuations of consciousness (1:2) lead to a recognition that one's true identity is not this body; this entity I call me; or these relationships I surround myself with.  These are all fluctuations within awareness.  Through a gradual process of detachment, we see that these things are ephemeral, and thus, not eternal.  The awareness (purusa) that notices these things that arise, stay for awhile, and pass away is eternal, and, thus, our true identity.  Extreme form of non-attachment, like the one espoused in The Yoga Sutras, has the potential to validate the avoidance of practical challenges or difficult or painful feelings or memories.  This stark dualism, separating awareness and all the things within it tends to unground people and unseat them from their innate wisdom.
  2.  The fourth chapter, Kaivalya Pada, commonly translated as chapter on liberation is a mistranslation. Pada means subject.  Kaivalya actually means perfect isolation; thus, one of the end goals of a good yoga practitioner, according to Patanjali, is to detach so much from nature (prakriti) so as to separate from society, as a whole.  Yoga was heavily influenced by the monasticism of Buddhism and Jainism.  In fact, the ethical precepts, the yamas and the niyamas, come from the Jains who believed that separation was a necessary ideal to experience complete liberation, that to be in contact with others leaves the yogi vulnerable to the negative karma of another.  In our everyday language, this is another way of saying that liberation requires that we stay away from others so as not to pick up on their bad vibe.
  3. The book is chalk-full of  magical thinking.  For example, intense forms of absorption lead to one's capacity to fly or inhabit the body of another and make that body move.

Remski's analysis--which is brilliant by the way--forces us to look twice at this text that we yogis tend to hold with reverence.  Without a doubt, much of the instruction in The Sutras is erudite and brilliant.  Developing a capacity to practice anything with non-attachment (vairagya) (1.15) is a simple and brilliant instruction on how to learn anything.  The tools that the Sutras offer us on how to witness and what to witness are fabulous instruction for each of us who would like to develop greater capacity for objectivity.

But how far do we intend to take this process?  In its most extreme form, it could lead us away from our relationships, away from community, and either into monastic life or a cave in the Himlayas.  Or maybe what we're looking for is just an hour in the day "where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. (Campbell, Joseph; Bill Moyers (2011-05-18). The Power of Myth (p. 115). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.)

Bringing Old Texts to Life

As I said before, I'm not suggesting that we ignore the classic texts.  They're giving us hints that can help us immensely on the journey.  But if we are on the path, we have to take responsibility for our journey.  Doing so requires that we look with a critical eye.  When we accept these maps on faith we sometimes end up in places we never intended to be.   A lot of the orthodox approaches within the Buddhist and Yogic tradition posits the notion that because we're too rife with avidya (misunderstanding, misapprehension, or spiritual ignorance), we cannot possibly see what will help or hinder us on the journey.  That's why we need not question the authority of the teacher, the teaching, or the community but, instead to have faith in their innate validity.

There's a third approach to working with the teachings of a tradition. We don't take them at face value, and we don't ignore them.  Instead, we struggle with them.  We see them as texts written by human beings, like you and me, and who were writing for a particular audience living in a particular moment in history with a unique set of struggles.  And then we work with the text to separate that which is essential truth for us from that which is particular to the times and perspective of the writer.  And then we try to make sense of it for the current situation we find ourselves in.  This how a tradition becomes a living, breathing, and evolving thing.  And if you consider it, we are the critical link to the evolution of the tradition.  How each of us interprets and makes sense of any tradition determines how it will be carried forth from one generation to the next.  In short, to go through this process is to take responsibility not only for our spiritual path, but to create new maps, maps that one day will influence seekers, like us.

Knowing When to Let Go

rk_15.jpg

rk_15At some point, all of us face the need to evolve.  It's almost an imperative in spiritual practice that if we are to experience the aliveness of life, we must keep growing.  And sometimes that means letting go of what no longer serves us or that we serve whole heartedly.  If we don't let go, we suffer.  And yet doing so can be grueling.  I wanted to share a teaching from 'The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna' about knowing when to let go.  Ramakrishna was a 19th century, Indian mystic.

When we plant a sapling we put a fence around it so that cattle will not eat it or nobody would accidentally crush it under one's feet.  But when the plant starts growing into a large tree, the fence should be removed and taken away.  If the fence is not removed in time then it might even hinder in the growth of the tree.  The trunk of the tree may even get trapped within the fence.  Moreover, after the sapling turns into a big tree neither can cattle eat it up fully nor can people crush it under their feet accidentally.  Likewise, the tree will drop fruit that will feed the cattle and the people who once threatened its very existence.

Whenever we begin anything new, especially the discipline of spiritual practice, we need to protect the fragility of our endeavor.  When I first started my yoga practice, it took me a few years, but I had to learn the discipline needed to maintain a daily practice of yoga: going to bed early, waking early, eating properly, resting enough, getting enough mental and emotional stimulation, etc.  I needed that discipline in order to grow within my practice.  And I loved it!!!  It fed me deeply.

Spiritual Arrogance

But, after awhile, I started to feel like the fences I'd created for myself only created more rigidity.  I'd find myself judging non-practitioners as "unconscious."  The fragility I'd once felt around my practice gave way to a quality of spiritual arrogance.  A lack of curiosity is  a sure sign for each of us that either we need a new challenge or we need to find a new way into the practice we're committed to. This is where it's critical to remove the fences that once kept our fragility from being devoured.  Distinguishing when it's time to give up or alter the discipline and what exactly to give up is highly individual.  That's where having a good teacher or a community of friends on the journey with us can be extremely helpful.  What is clear, though, is that at some point aspects of the structure stop empowering transformation and, instead, only harden us.

Very few of us have the courage to let go of what no longer serves us, though.  Why?  Because our identities get wrapped up in the external recognition and kudos we receive.  These external boons can be enticing, but they can easily be traps for all of us.  When you're considered 'advanced' in a community and you're identified with your role in it, it can be a sort of identity suicide to let go.   I am not saying that we should completely stop looking to the outside for recognition.  As humans, we long for and need this recognition.  But we're all so starved for it, that we tend to forego our own authentic experience and expression of fulfillment in order to be loved, liked, wanted, admired, needed.  And then we miss the opportunity to live a rich and full life on our own terms.

Knowing When We've Deceived Ourselves

When we're attuned enough to our inner wisdom, however, we know when we're 'b.s.'-ing ourselves.  But when we're not, it can be extremely helpful to have people in our lives that offer us the space of honest communication. If  we don't have this, it can be helpful to empower our inner witnesses, the neutral part of us that is noticing all the time, noticing what we're saying, doing, and experiencing.  That part of us can notice when we're "should-ing on ourselves."  I love this expression.   When we're "should-ing," we say we do what we do not because we love it but because we "should" do it.  That's a good sign that our heart is no longer in it.

The point of all practice is to bring us to the heart of our innate wisdom.  It is not to end up more disciplined.  Paul Meuller-Ortega aptly said, "Eventually as Seekers, we must become Finders."  Knowing when you've discovered an access to your innate wisdom is not  a form of spiritual arrogance.  It's just something that's not empowered within spiritual traditions.  What is empowered is hierarchy.  Tapping into our innate wisdom does not necessarily lend one to becoming recognized in the external sense.  But that it isn't recognized by a community of seekers is not of significance.  What's important is that we not only recognize this indweller that the yogis call the purusa, but that we share it, that we have the courage to give our gift.  That's the part of Ramakrishna's story in which the tree drops fruit for everyone, even the cows and humans who previously threatened its existence.

The point of all spiritual practice is to attune us to our truth, our innate wisdom, and our joy.  This is what the yogis call, Sat-Chit-Ananda.  The point isn't to win in some hierarchical game that all traditions can't help but maintain.  The point is to find access to our inner strength, our magic, and our gifts and to trust them.  I'll end with the following quote from Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who inspired the Star Wars trilogy and who coined the term, "follow your bliss."  In this quote Campbell helps us to not mistake the trees for the forest:

What is important about a lightbulb is not the filament or the glass but the light which these bulbs are to render; and what is important about each of us is not the body and its nerves but the consciousness that shines through them.  And when one lives for that instead of the protection of the bulb, one is in Buddha consciousness. Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. 2011. The Joseph Campbell Foundation (JCF)

 

Ashtanga Yoga: The Tradition and The Dogma

A few days ago, while a student was coming up from backbends, I noticed that she was breathless and grimacing.  I asked her what was up.  She said that her previous Ashtanga teacher encouraged her to move through the series of movements quickly.  She described how the rapid movement agitated her. Dropping into a backbend and coming back to standing is traditionally taught: exhale go down, inhale come up, and the movement is repeated three times with no pauses in between. As a teacher of this tradition, I was immediately stuck with a quandary.  Do I ask her to keep the traditional vinyasa count, thus, honoring the tradition but compromising her well-being, or do I offer her an alternative route? This is a classic situation that comes up in practice, both as a student of the tradition and as a teacher.  Do I uphold the tradition or honor the well-being of my student?  I think it’s obvious that my students’ well-being has to come first over the tradition, but in honoring the tradition, it can become a very slippery slope between letting go completely and gripping with a quality of rigidity.  In many ways, as a teacher and practitioner in and from The West, the dance of honoring tradition and the individual, at the same time, can be a challenging one.  How do we not lose the essence of the tradition and, at the same time, fit the practice to the individual?

'Correct Method' / 'Incorrect Method'

I, personally, have struggled with this question for quite some time, probably since the first day I showed up in Mysore in 1993 and discovered that in order to bind my legs in a lotus posture (padmasasna), I had to dislocate the meniscus.  Each time I believe I have struck the perfect balance, I find that I have either become too rigid in a particular situation or way too ‘wishy-washy.’  Admittedly, I err on the side of ‘wishy-washy.’  Something about my personal makeup hates imposing right and wrong on my students.  And so much of following the tradition is about right and wrong.  There’s a right way to do the sequence and there’s a wrong way.  Throughout the years of being a student of Pattabhi Jois’, I heard the words “correct method” and “incorrect method.”

Yoga That Transcends Duality

And somehow, in my mind, a good and powerful system of yoga should and must transcend all duality.  Yoga is, after all, about the union of those opposing forces, masculine and feminine, right and wrong, evil and righteous.  In the language of The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, we’re balancing and harmonizing the solar and lunar energies within the left and right tubes or nadis of the subtle body that feed the energy vortexes, called chakras, in order to evoke or stimulate the sushumna, the central channel within the subtle body of the spinal column.  This is an energetic code for the experience of the transcendental experience that occurs when masculine and feminine, right and wrong, good and bad have been harmonized.  It’s a way of saying that a deeper, wider, and more profound reality exists beyond the bounds of duality.  In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says that posture should be “steady and comfortable.” (2:46) “It results with relaxation of effort and the meeting with the infinite.”

Fighting through a posture just because the tradition demands us to do it in a particular way takes us further and further away from the essence of yoga.  And I think that this is where, as teachers and practitioners of any system that comes from a different culture--whether it is yoga or Zen— we need to maintain a critical eye.  It doesn’t behoove us or our students to fall into the trap of saying, “because that’s just the way it is.”  It’s simply the way it is as determined by the elite within the system that we’re in, whether it is the charismatic teacher or the agreement of the masses within the system.

Drawing the Line: Tradition vs. Individual Needs

But here’s where the dance gets interesting.  Where do we draw the line between honoring the system our teacher shares with us and yet remain flexible enough to honor our individuality?  I remember having this same conversation with an Orthodox Jew over a meal many years ago.  I asked her why she followed all 613 commandments with such stringency.  Her deadpan response was: “What am I going to do, follow 400 and then drop the other 213?  That’s a slippery slope.  Who am I decide?  That’s in Ha Shem’s [trans. The Name, which is code for God] hands.”     If we were to follow the Ashtanga tradition with the same stringency, then  men could only have sex during the nighttime. Not only that, if “the breath is felt to be moving through the surya nadi [the right nostril], then that is to be regarded as the daytime, and during that period, copulation and the like are not to occur.” (p. 10, Yoga Mala, P. Jois)

Yoga Practice As a Metaphor

The problem, as I see it, is that we’re facing the issue of a literal reading, as opposed to a metaphorical reading of “the practice.” Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, says that myth and the ritual that accompanies it: “ denotes something transcendent…so that you always feel accord with the universal being.”  Myth uses metaphor to denote one kind of object or idea but used in place of another to suggest a likeness. When we fall into the trap of reading myth or ritual and its accompanying symbols literally, we miss the deeper, wider, and higher spiritual implications that they have the potential to put us in touch with.  All ritual--including the practice of Ashtanga Yoga with its precise vinyasas, victorious breathing (ujayi), internal locks (bandhas), and gazing points (dristis)—are pointing to an inner experience, to fields of consciousness that reflect our inner most being.  However, in the practice of Ashtanga, we often mistake the literal for the metaphorical; the form for the formless; the act for the way of being that that act is pointing to.

When I reflect on almost twenty years of practice, it seems to me that there have been periods of time when I’ve gotten stuck in the literal. I have, at times, been lured by the trajectory of progressing from the primary series, to intermediate, and then, eventually to the advanced series. Early on as a neophyte practitioner, I’d even hoped that as I advanced along the series, somehow life would take on a new shine, that samadhi was right around the corner.  But this approach led to nothing more than physical feats that contortionists from Cirque du Soleil do much better than I ever could.

The Trap of Focusing on 'Correct Method' and 'Incorrect Method'

Really, what I discovered was that “correct method” and “incorrect method” really missed the point and only calcified and petrified aspects of my psyche that needed the light of consciousness.  After all, as a young man of nineteen years old, I came to the practice with the hopes of being more connected to something greater, to overcome feelings of smallness, fear, and grief.  But as I progressed along the path laid out for me, instead of becoming more spacious, more connected, my orientation became focused on doing it “correctly.”  I got stuck in a myopic vision of the path of yoga being about attainment of some image of perfection.  In essence, my practice became another place where I had to struggle.

Oh, and what a mistake that was because it lead me away from the essence of the practice.  I mistook the tools at my disposal--like the postures (asanas) or the internal locks (bandhas)--as the path.  In other words, instead of using these points of focus as metaphors that pointed to more profound states of consciousness, I read them literally and used them to be “good,” so that my teachers and the community of yogis would recognize and like me. In addition, my practice, at times, became purely physical.

What Mula Bandha Can Show Us

If, for example, I performed the root lock (mula bandha) throughout the practice, I told myself that I would be able to jump back and jump through with greater ease. Indeed, the engagement of the core muscles does increase strength and agility.  But that literal reading kept that act of yoga simply a bodily feat.  Mula bandha, can also be read metaphorically.  Its magic isn’t just in the physical mastery of it.  Its magic also lies in where it points consciousness. Given that it is at the base of the body, it points us in the direction of the earth, the part of us that is earth element.  Engaging mula bandha might remind the yogi to be connected to the earth no matter how contorted life becomes.  In addition, mula bandha might encourage us that while consciousness has a propensity to disconnect, that the path of the yogi is to stay in form, to use the body as a tool to experience both inner and outer fields of consciousness.  Mula bandha itself might be a meditation into the root of our being, who we are at the most base level: the part of us that is simply a tube eating, digesting, and defecating.

The essence of what I am saying is that as teachers and practitioners of this method, when we get too literal with the practice, we miss the deeper inquiry that the practice offers us.  If it becomes about progressing along the series, doing it “correctly”, only doing it the way it’s done in Mysore, etc. then the depth and breadth that is the promise of yoga might never be tasted or known.  Honestly, having been down that road, I can say with certainty, there is no pot of gold at the end of the primary, intermediate or advanced series, nor is there any great boon from doing it “correctly” or even “traditionally.”

Why Do You Practice?

I like what Cambell says about what we’re after in life.  “People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances within our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” (Campbell, J, The Power of Myth, 1998, episode 2, chapter 4, PBS television series, Mystic Fire Video) Some may dispute this, but I, personally, sense that the essence of practice is to access this aliveness.  Nobody and no system has a better clue about how to do that than we, personally.  It helps to try out lots of different tools and stick to the systems and teachers that offer them, but in the end, each of us has to become the final arbiter.  We have to have the courage to ask ourselves, does this resonate?  Is it bringing me closer to truth?  Is it deepening my consciousness?  And if the answer is, “no,” and it doesn’t jibe with the tradition or the teacher, we have to be courageous enough to stand on our own and to continue to seek and discover an access points that do.