Politics has been on everyone’s mind as the elections near. In such a heated climate, religion, philosophy and spirituality are often used as one of the driving forces behind political culture wars. The secular public naturally begins to get a sour taste of religion when religious groups come forward in defense or opposition of particular political candidates. Yet, what spiritual teachings offer, above and beyond their potential to drive campaigns, is their ability to help us see ourselves and see the world around us more clearly. Most every religious and spiritual tradition has attempted to give us a place in the world and method with which we can engage it.
The Republican National Convention aired last Thursday evening, and, as usual, it brings to mind what every political party promotes – ethics, morals, family values, national and financial security. Yet what we attach to these values in the current elections has taken a turn – seemingly for the worse. In a conversation with a coworker today, we both noted that the most shocking and frightening thing about the 2012 presidential election isn’t so much the candidates, but the support that the American public offers those candidates with extreme agendas. From an ethical perspective, our founding fathers appreciated and supported a moderate and tolerant agenda, especially since they came to the US as a result of English economic and religious fundamentalism and intolerance.
From a spiritual and philosophical perspective what we see is a tendency toward extremism. When one way doesn’t suit us, rather than looking for a balanced approached, we go all the way to the other extreme. Now, if this type of social engagement was approached with self-awareness, we might have a productive method toward living a balanced, mindful life. However, it seems that most of this is done without any awareness at all—each party is attached to their own agendas and viewpoints to such an extent that opposing viewpoints, even ones that are useful, are denied simply because they sprang from the lips of the opposing party.
How often does this happen, not only in politics, but in our personal lives and intimate relationships? How often are larger principles and values overshadowed by our own strongly held beliefs and attachments? Last month,we stated that yoga’s primary purpose goes beyond our mundane everyday issues. Rather, yoga, as it was written, shows us a path apart from (kaivalya) and beyond the mundane illusory world. Can we look at our lives through the lens of yogic practice and values in order to objectively deal with humanity’s larger and smaller issues?
Staying in the center is difficult, whether that center is political, social, or spiritual. Human nature drives us to extremes—usually the extreme we are most comfortable with. Yogic tradition calls these two poles raga, attachment, and dvesha,aversion. Yet, as human beings we exist between the earthly and the divine. We are not solely of the earth, like plants or other animals, yet we are not completely divine – our existence relies on our connection to the material world. What we see here is a need to create communion between and a relationship with the higher and the lower, of which we are the gateway. The question is, how do we use yoga to shed light on the material world without bringing yoga down to base level forms of self-help or even psychotherapy?
This opens us up to the second book of the yoga sutras, sadhana pada, the book on practice. The first sutra states that the “practice of yoga consists of self-discipline, self-study, and dedication to the Lord.” We see that a complete practice is three-fold, and the concept of triangulation arises once again. Within the practice of yoga exists extremes—tapas (discpline, austerity), and isvara pranidhana (surrender to god). What rectifies these two extremes is our own self-study.
For yogis, we see that if our practice is too weighted in one direction, practice becomes like ship paddling with one oar, continuously moving in circles. Some schools of yoga value discipline much more than self-reflection or the practice of letting go. This gives rise to fundamentalism, not just in contemporary yoga schools, but in religious and political groups. Other yoga schools teach an imbalanced form of devotion, without emphasizing the importance of rigor and study, resulting in ungroundedness and, eventually, disillusion.
For those of us who don’t practice yoga, the three practices can also be approached from the standpoint of intimate relationships. Duty and obligation (tapas) without devotion (isvara pranidhana) can often result in a loveless union. Marriages or unions possessing devotion without duty may burn brightly for a short time, but lack the fuel required for an enduring commitment. While there is a subtle hierarchy present in the tripartite system that Patanjali opens up Sadhana Pada with, it is important to reiterate the importance of balancing two extremes, since our connection with the higher (Isvara) is dependent on the lower (tapas)—while also keeping in mind that it is our capacity to self-observe that rectifies and relates higher and lower.
In order to contextualize these ideas, the question of levels arises. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we exist in a culture that encourages self importance and egotism to such an extent that we generally entertain the belief that we are as good as it gets. We have largely lost our ability to question ourselves and let go of our lower needs in service of something higher. Yoga practice gives us a platform and opportunity to observe ourselves within the larger whole of our sangha (spiritual community), our nation, or our families—both nuclear and universal.
Is it possible to use our intellect to mediate between these two extremes? Can we objectively observe our feelings, rather than reacting to them or repressing them? Can we begin to see our own knee-jerk reactions to the word around us so that we may begin cultivate the ability to entertain two opposing viewpoints at the same time? I ask, what would it look like if we were able to see our own opinions equally next to our partners and competitors? How would such a practice impact our marriages, families, government, and religious institutions if we were able to truly see, listen and hear the other, without our own constructed identities, opinions, fears and desires getting contaminating our perceptions?
The Gospel of Saint Thomas relates this union of higher and lower in such a way that it can be understood across many levels and many spiritual traditions:
When you are able
to make two become one,
the inside like the outside,
and the outside like the inside,
the higher like the lower,
so that a man is no longer male,
and a woman, female,
but male and female
become a single whole;
when you are able to fashion an eye,
and form a hand in place of a hand,
or a foot for a foot,
making one image supercede another
–then you will enter in.
Religious scholar Cynthia Bourgeault’s commentary of the above passage relates to this months theme quite well. She says, “…there is far more at stake here than simply integrating masculine and feminine principles within one’s finite humanity. The integration takes place on a cosmic scale and is accomplished through learning how to anchor one’s being in that underlying unitive ground: that place of oneness before opposites arise.”