“Meditation does not involve discontinuing one’s relationship with oneself and looking for a better person or searching for possibilities of reforming oneself and becoming a better person. The practice of meditation is a way of continuing one’s confusion, chaos, aggression, and passion—but working with it, seeing it from the enlightened point of view. That is the basic purpose of meditation practice as far as this approach is concerned.”
Never before has something so subversive and antiestablishment as yoga become so mainstream. It’s ironic that a practice intended to bring us into deep communion with our authentic nature is being represented with images in magazines, clothing brands, and fad foods and diets. Unfortunately, when we do this, the intrinsic value of yoga is stripped away. Much of what draws people to yoga today is based on what-it-looks-like. Now, that’s one of the reasons why teachers like Neem Karoli Baba never hit the mainstream. He’s not very marketable with his large frame and unmanicured feet. Equinox yoga’s new commercial with an attractive woman displaying her acrobatic excellence calls us to do yoga now. We can be beautiful, peaceful, and even rich (implied by her pricey Upper West Side apartment). Or from a marketing perspective, we can infer that the message is that if you are beautiful, peaceful, and rich, then you too should do yoga.
Admittedly, when I first started practicing yoga over a decade ago, these things enticed me. I knew that I wasn’t peaceful. Images of beautiful, flexible men and women in pristine yoga clothing evoked in me a desire to become more than I thought I was. I lacked therefore I wanted more. I began a moderate bi-weekly practice, which then led to a more elaborate daily practice. I bought mala beads, wore the sparkly clothes, and lived on sprouted grains and green juice for a while. When that didn’t work, I transferred my spiritual materialism, as Chögyam Trungpa coined it, towards being more austere. I refused to eat anything 12 hours before my next practice. Practice must be done everyday at 6 am or enlightenment was just a pipe dream. I judged myself, and I judged others, for not stridently following the rules of spiritual attainment.
Every once in a great while, however, I am struck with an experience that undercuts all of the outward actions. Moments arise in practice where there is no agent, no doer, there is only the experience of the breath, the body, and of something greater. I try to pinpoint where this experience arises from. Was it the 12 hour fast? Was it the 28th repetition of the Gayatri Mantra? Was it the perfect execution of supta kurmasana (the supine tortoise)? Was it everything rolled into one?
To assume that any of our doing brings about deep inner experience is what is referred to as spiritual materialism. Contemporary culture, by reducing yoga down to its most external aspects, ignores a fundamental element – the presence of the eternal. When moments of openness and presence come through us, they are but windows to something higher than our normal state of consciousness.
The question arises: why engage in a spiritual practice? Any ritual practice can be performed with the intent of somehow procuring enlightenment—the thought is that yoga, meditation, and prayer can be done to achieve a certain state of being. However, if we wish to cultivate the realization of who we are and a real connection to the divine, we see that these rituals are the fertilizer for the seeds of our awakening. Anyone can perform an asana, or sit for several hours, or say a million mantras, but if the seeds of consciousness are not cultivated, then nothing will grow.
“Although Logos [divine reason] is common to all, most people live as if they had a wisdom all their own.”
Yet, how is it possible to cultivate awareness of something so alien to our normal, unrefined selves? We can only start the process through the fragmented lenses of our egos. With disciplined practice, we may begin to develop compassion rather than criticism of who and where we are. We make the best efforts to unite our disciplined efforts with our sincere intentions towards wholeness. Weeks, months, and maybe years later this combination of effort and compassionate seeing may open us to moments of insight and to a deeper awareness that is not influenced by our ego’s self involvement. Ego and conscious initiative begin to find their place as servants of a greater whole.
(Note to attendees: We will be revisiting sutras I.1-I.5 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra. You are welcome and encouraged to bring your questions and thoughts regarding the readings.)