Tag Archive: dharma

Another Encroachment on Individual Liberties (and Arjuna’s dilemma)

When I was waiting for the metro to go to Willow Street Yoga this Saturday morning to offer a free gentle/therapeutics class (new session starts for the class next Saturday, January 15th–all welcome), I heard a very disturbing announcement on Metro.  I only take Metro once or twice a week.  I am pretty certain I would have noticed it if I had heard it before; in rush hour, of course, it is hard to hear the announcements when the platforms are full.  What I heard was this:  “Metro police have advised that all passengers are subject to random searches of their carry ons.”  A reasonable person might want to know what is a “carry on” for these purposes.  My first question to myself was “don’t random searches of this type violate the Constitution?”  (Yes, the American Civil Liberties Union is actively engaged in the issue).

I find random searches just for boarding the metro with a carry on an unfortunately not particularly shocking example of how far we have allowed the “war on terror” to be waged against all of us.  Perhaps there are readers of this blog who are not shocked or perhaps believe that these searches are warranted; I am open to listening to why.  I know that it was not front page news, and my friends have not been talking about it.  This was just another one of those awful things we have started taking for granted, which is something that I hope is getting progressively harder to do.

My biggest question for myself was what I would do if the police asked to search my handbag.  The odds are slim to none that “random” would in practice include a reasonably well-dressed, clean, small, middle-aged, middle class, fairly evidently American-born, white woman.  But what if random was really random and I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?  Would I refuse to let my bag be searched on principle?  Would I be willing to lose my job and possibly go to jail for my conviction that such a practice misses the mark completely for its intended purposes and tears at the very fabric of a free society and our individual liberties?  I find that I do not know the answer.  Partly it is attachment to my own security.  Partly it is that I do not know whether it would be better just to allow my bag to be searched and not engender conflict than to engage in conflict that will certainly harm me, severely limit my ability to give financial support for important fights and causes, and potentially could harm others around me, even if ultimately, with the help of many I am sure, I were to be a participant in reason prevailing and the practice ceasing.

In thinking about how unsure I was of my ability to act if I were to be put to the test, I was reminded of the situation at the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, where Arjuna is paralyzed by inability to act in the face of the hideous spector of violent death and destruction that would result from going to battle even to rectify an injustice.  Arjuna looks out on the battlefield where battle is enjoined because of the injustices that have been done (we’ll leave it for another day as to whether the violations of law in the Mahabharata are ones that a modern thinker might agree should give rise to the epic battle in the Bhagavad Gita.)  Krishna explains to Arjuna that it is his dharma to go to battle; he is a warrior and these wrongs must be rectified.  The general day to day principle that governs the life of a yogi — ahimsa or non-harming — is trumped by the greater need to rectify the societal injustice.  Arjuna must join in battle because leaving the injustice uncorrected will in result in greater harm to the order of society, even the cosmological order itself.  See Stephen Phillips, “Yoga, Karma, and Rebirth” (discussing the interrelationship between the individual practice of ahimsa and the need for cosmological order in Indian philosophy).

I am not likely to be put to the test here, but that is part of the evil of the practice.  What can I do?  What should I be doing in the face of a direction in society that gives rise to policies like these and the gunning in Arizona yesterday?  It takes great discrimination (viveka), more perhaps than I have, to know how and when to act.  I do know that it is not right for me as a citizen or a yogi to stand aside.  I offer this very public statement of my beliefs and I gave a generous donation to the ACLU yesterday.  I am sure that is not enough, but it is a start.  As our society moves in the direction it is moving, more and more of us must contemplate, evaluate, and begin to expand how we act and participate to see a world where ahimsa is not just personal, but all persons and beings have the possibility of being free from suffering.

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What Does It Mean to Be Yogic? (and “The New York Times Article”)

This weekend, a friend whose marriage of decades is precipitating towards dissolution, said to me, “I am having trouble reconciling being yogic and still needing to do what I need to do in connection with divorce.  How do I deal with that?”  I told her about a yoga principle I learned at the first Inner Harmony Retreat I attended with John Friend in the summer of 2003.  He had asked a student a question that yielded as the answer the four yoga principles of ardha (physical and material well-being), kama (relationship, including intimate and love relationships), dharma (life path or work), and moksha (liberation or freedom).  The fellow student answering the question, who was also my teacher, gave the classic yoga explanation that we try to do the first three elements in alignment so that we can then transcend and go beyond them to become free (enlightened).  John replied that was the traditionally correct answer in dualist, classical yoga, but that from the tantric perspective of a person living in the world as a yogi, we look apply the principles differently.  By living in a way that we have taken care of our physical and material well-being, have happy and loving relationships, and work with delight and passion that we will be embodying a life of the spirit; we will then be living and embodying freedom (jivanmukti).  That encapsulation of tantric yoga resonated deeply and is a significant part of why I have chosen a path of tantric yoga rather than one that preaches renouncing the body and mind (which I think is impossible for one staying in the world).

My friend’s question seemed especially significant to me in light of the dialogue that has ensued following the publication of the New York Times article on John Friend, John’s blog in response, and the Elephant Journal interview.  The essence of the article and the reactions, to me, seem to be about the intersection of our “outer” notions of societal success–fame and fortune–and yoga and whether the two can be reconciled.  The New York Times article is obviously intended to be sensational and to create controversy; that is what makes a journalist who gets fame and fortune.  But the alleged tension highlighted in the article is indicative of a bigger societal confusion of how and whether we can be spiritual or religious beings and also have human needs and wants.  Ours is a society that hungers for panaceas and palliatives.  In “discovering” yoga and its benefits in the late 20th century, far too many have put onto it expectations that have no basis in what is yoga and how it is supposed to aid us.

There is no word in yoga philosophy or in India for “yogic.”  The word “yogic” is a western creation of relatively recent vintage.  Webster’s dictionary does not have it as a separate word, but just has it at the end of the definition of “yoga” as “adj, often capitalized.” What do we mean by being “yogic?”  It seems that we have gotten this notion that if we practice yoga seriously or teach it, that means we must be perfectly pure and good.  We will need only light and air to nourish our bodies (and maybe a little local raw food in season); we will have neither needs nor desires; we will be so suffused with peace, compassion, and equanimity, that we never feel or show anger or grief, even in the face of injustice, violence, pain, or outrageous behavior.  We expect that somehow we will be a perfect monk while still living with family and going to work.

We expect this not only of ourselves, but even more so of our teachers.  In essence, we somehow expect yoga to release us from the realities of being human.  To have such expectations inevitably will lead to disappointment in ourselves and our teachers (for being unable to reach this impossible ideal) or in the practice (both for not yielding this ideal and for, in our delusion, creating this expectation in the first place).  My meditation and philosophy teacher Paul Muller-Ortega would say that to have such expectations is “adolescent” spirituality.  When we practice “adult” spirituality, we take responsibility for ourselves and our own practice.  We expect our teachers to offer us the teachings, but we honor and recognize them as human beings.

To practice yoga sincerely while still living in the world should make us more humane to ourselves and to all around us, not beyond being human.  This is the true essence of Anusara yoga.  To be richly and freely and wonderfully human and feel great love and compassion for that, even as we balance the realities of life with attempts to live in greater alignment.   I am incredibly grateful for the teachings and the community that John Friend has created and the offering to study and get as deeply into the yoga as makes sense for me.  Whether there are things I might do differently in the realm of ardha, kama, or dharma if I were “the yoga mogul” is of little moment because to find moksha we all strive to do our best in our own way (and one thing I know of John is that he always strives to do his best).

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Ecstatic Serenity

When I was eight or nine, a teacher asked everyone in my class to say what they wanted to be when they grew up.  The other children named the various jobs or professions that appealed to them at the time.  I responded that I wanted to be independently wealthy.  At that age, I was expressing something I already knew from family issues.  Though I did not have the words for it or a clear understanding, what I was saying was not just false precocity.  I knew at a basic level what is taught in yoga:  I would need enough material support (ardha) to follow my heart in love (kama) and work (dharma); then my life could be free (moksha).

When I was 22 and visiting my friend Dan, he asked me what I really wanted to do with my life.  We had just graduated from college.  Dan was working for a sculptor who was a professor in the art department; I had just moved back to New York, had just gotten over a failed attempt to serve as an office manager for an off-off Broadway theater, was in a place of deep emotional and financial struggle, and was trying to determine what work and corresponding further education I wanted.  “I want to be content,” I said.  “That’s too passive,” he replied.  “No, that’s not what I mean,” I tried to explain.  “For me being content being satisfied and engaged with my work and life, but still working hard and having goals.  It’s not just hanging out.”  I had all sorts of things that I found interesting and possibilities for a life path, but I didn’t have one specific career or life plan that I was certain would be more fulfilling than any of the others.  They just would have satisfied me in different ways.  Because of the dilemma of too many choices, I wanted to be able happy with whatever choice I made, even if it seemed like a compromise.  I was conscious that once I picked, because of the inherent limitations of time and space, that I would either have to be content with my choice or be unhappy.  I have since learned to think of contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of the path of yoga expounded by Patanjali, as a practice rather than a goal (and it is a very important and continuing practice for me).  Contentment is not an end, as I had thought when I was 22; it is just one part of the path to a goal of living liberated (jivanmukti), experiencing self as spirit in all that one does.

On a recent telephone seminar, Paul Muller-Ortega, my meditation and philosophy teacher, in the midst of a broad dialogue regarding various studies and practices, spoke a little of ecstatic serenity.  Memories of the discussions I had had long ago about what I wanted welled up in the forefront of my thoughts.  In thinking about what is my intention now, especially with regard to my practice (sadhana), I witnessed my previously stated intentions as just stages on the path to this discovery.  As soon as I heard Paul say the phrase, I thought, “that’s what I want; I want to be ecstatically serene.”   I seek to be always in some part of my conscious being still and peaceful, while simultaneously being passionately engaged in what life brings to me and I bring to life.

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