In classical yoga, maya is the illusion that the tangible world is what is real. Only atman is real; the world we experience through our senses (and our senses them selves) as reality is an illusion. We renounce the world to escape the temptation of being drawn into it as reality. In so doing, though, we ineluctably must come to the conclusion that all that is ill with the world is as much an illusion as that which is tempting. In turning away from the world we would be also turning away from the pain of seeing inequity and suffering and the desire to seek change in the tangible, sense-experienced world.
As I was walking around New York City, ankle-deep in slush and being hyper-stimulated by the lights and the noise and the smells and the bustle and the choices, I found myself thinking about maya and that in its classical sense has two surface temptations for me. The first is the temptation to turn away from the stimulation, to reject consumption of more than needed to exist. In the face of such excessive stimulation, the idea of nothing, of utter simplicity, of quiet seems desirable. If the turning away is another form of seeking pleasure or escaping pain, though, it is still in the trap of maya — the worldly illusion that binds us in the pair of opposites–pleasure and pain. The second temptation, the temptation to withdraw from everything except seeking the light within, is more subtle. If we truly are to turn away from the world of the senses, we turn away from notions of justice and equality and freedom that are based how we live in the material world as much as we turn away from consumption.
The true path of renunciation, of pure meditation, is a rare and beautiful path, but to stay in the world and to withdraw ineffectually in such a way might earn the hackneyed epithet “navel gazing.” My path is not that of the renunciate yogin, nor do I have the fortitude to live a life of Christian poverty, which would reject riches and live for service. Where can we find the support in the yoga path to stay engaged and yet still live mindfully, fostering the expression and recognition of spirit in ourselves and others?
In tantric philosophy, maya is understood somewhat differently than in classical yoga. The maya is not the world itself. When we think that getting and having and avoiding is all that there is and that it is separate from spirit, then our lives are cloaked by maya, and we are ignorant (avidya) of the true bliss of spirit (satcitananda). To know spirit, we must see through maya. To do that requires discrimination (viveka) in what we take into our senses and ethically responsible action in the tangible world to align our lives in a way that expands the opportunity to recognize spirit, which in my mind includes having less material disparity in society, which disparity most assuredly makes the essential truth of blissful consciousness more opaque (due to the play of maya) for both the haves and the have nots. While we make our attempt to live with more discrimination and grace and with less cause of conflict or suffering (doing better some times than others), we still try to recognize and savor the exquisite divine in each sight and taste and sound and creation. How extraordinary always is New York in all its wild manifestation!
In classical yoga, the term maya, one of the meanings of which is “illusion,” refers to all of our embodied being — the physical, mental, and emotional. The perceptible world is not real; only spirit is real. In the tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, maya tattva means something different. Kashmir Shaivism does not hold that the perceptible world is unreal, but rather that it is a more concrete form of spirit and that its very manifestness gives rise to the illusion that it is other than spirit. Maya, as such, is the beginning of the measurable world of intellect and perception. In this sense, it does not mean that any aspect of being of either ourselves or the very whole of being is more real than any other. As maya tattva, it denotes the conceptual bridge between the unknowable idea of spirit and the manifest world of our day to day. As we think and perceive the world in progressively more concrete terms, we tend to see difference, division, and diversity. When we see only difference and not the pervading unity of spirit, it is maya, illusion.
Yesterday, following the election in Massachusetts, the headlines screamed that the Democrats had lost control of the Senate and that health care reform was in jeopardy. Perhaps the simple arithmetic and vocabulary I learned in elementary school has changed, but last time I checked, 41 out of 100 is not a majority. It is as though we are hunting for division, for us v. them. We are looking for ways to create difference and divisiveness. Would we be more likely to fund health care for all instead of two wars, if we could stop being so bound in the maya that we are not all equally of spirit? I think so. In this, I am divided from millions of my fellow voters, who prefer waterboarding to health care, war to building an environmentally sustainable infrastructure, etc. or at least vote that way In thinking this way, I too am caught up in the web of difference. How then do I see spirit in all people (regardless of how they vote and what they believe) when I feel so passionately about this divisiveness and all the conflict, destruction, and misery it engenders? How do I personally (as my own yoga) create less conflict, even while working for what I believe?
In classical yoga systems, we are taught that all the world is an illusion (maya) and the only thing that is “real” is Atman (spirit, the One). I do not subscribe to that belief, but I do believe in the principle that is espoused in the Bhagavad Gita of actionless action — working because it is my nature to work, but accepting that I ultimately am not in charge of the results. I thus can be fully engaged in my work, but be freer of anxiety, disappointment, and frustration or overcharged attachment to pleasure and success. From a tantric perspective, I believe it is all real and full and something to be experienced as part of the marvelous complexity of being.
This principle carries over into my relationship to my dreams. I have always had extremely vivid and present dreams most nights. Sometimes, like last night, my dreams are full of convoluted challenges and difficulties that could be filled with anxiety. I used to chew on dreams like that through the day. Now I wake up and think: what an amazingly inventive mind I have. Isn’t the subconscious fascinating? I pay attention to what lessons might be in the dream and let them release the dreams from holding on to my day. As I get more skilled with meditation and yoga, I often can find this place of simultaneous engagement/non-engagement even while I am still dreaming. This makes it so the dreams have no more hold on my ability to sleep or act than would watching a movie that raises challenging issues.
I have been thinking about perception and how as soon as we have more than one person looking at the same thing, each person has a different story, a different truth, a different explanation. Add to that the mysterious systems humans have created: information technology, cyberspace, monetary system. All of these are energy fields. We can only perceive small pieces of them, and we have varying degrees of skepticism about the reality of what we get from them. It is not a hard leap from that to understand what the yogis are saying when they say what we receive through the senses is illusory (maya).
We read news articles about the fact that Yo-Yo Ma was not playing at the Inauguration, but just moving his hands over the instrument to a recorded tape. Why would I believe the news stories more than I would believe what was on the “jumbo-trons” — or if I had been one of the few close in, what I’d thought I’d seen and heard? Why would I be more likely to believe the Inauguration of President Obama if I saw it on TV than I would the story line of a movie? How is it that we distinguish between news and fiction, our side of the story v. the other person’s side?
When we emphasize the “reality” of our own perception, we bring ourselves to schisms, disputes, and hurt feelings. When we let ourselves be skeptical about our own perceptions and know that they are only one aspect of a unity (like the blind men and the elephant), then we can be softer, more open, and less divisive. I am working on this; it is a challenging aspect of my yoga practice. What do you think?