Tag Archive: viveka

Two Temptations of Maya

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!


Renunciation v. Discrimination (and Celebrating the Holidays)

A fundamental precept of classical yoga is that of vairagya or renunciation.  The yogin is meant to gradually renounce all of the life of mind and body until he or she transcends them and sees only spirit.  I have been thinking about how renunciation fits in with the holidays and how we, as a society, have come to celebrate them.  As some indulge to excess and all sorts of tinsel trappings, others denounce the excess as taking away from spirit and renounce the whole thing.  A reactive renunciation of the holidays wholesale because they are so commercialized can feel just as harsh as full consumption of the holidays, as marketed on TV, can feel bloated and unhealthy.

When we approach yoga from a tantric perspective, the practice is not geared towards vairagya. We seek instead to be fully engaged in life, trying to live each moment, taste each bite, breathe each breath, take each step as a way of connecting more deeply to the spirit.  This does not mean reckless indulgence.  It does not mean heedlessly consuming and taking into ourselves that which does not nourish ourselves or which harms other beings or the earth.  Through practice and study, we develop viveka or discrimination, which informs us of what will enhance our lives and lead us towards a place of light and health.

In the context of the holidays, to make them truly holy days, the tantric observer will not reject holiday celebrations out of hand simply because they have generally become commercialized and often unhealthy.  Rather, he or she will discern ways to celebrate and honor earth, family, friends, and self that are in alignment with nature and optimize the connections among them.  This may mean picking and choosing how and with whom to celebrate, but always with honor and respect.  This is an art that I am working on personally; sometimes it is hard to know where to draw the line, especially if co-workers or family are living in ways that do not feel nourishing for us.  Then the game is to not seem Scrooge-like to those who think that the holidays are about lots of heavy food and shopping, while we are choosing to honor the season in another way.


Green advertising (and viveka)

One of the important principles of yoga practice is viveka — discrimination.  The longer and more steadily one practices, the greater ease with which one will find path that leads towards recognition and remembrance of our own light and the light in others.  In modern culture, I think one of the critical aspects of practicing viveka is having a healthy doubt and willingness to question claims that consuming certain things will make us happier, or better, or will make the world better.  Paying too much attention will probably just create a tangle of intellectual confusion that will not lead to a greater openness of spirit.  Learning to listen well to your body and mind and what and how you feel and hear on and off the mat will help you start to know better your body and mind and how they interrelate with all around you, is likely to shift your choices and actions.

It is now fashionable to be “green.”  Discerning what that means, though, is where we need to practice discrimination.  For example, claims of “natural” foods, “organic” foods, and “green” products are now ubiquitous by companies that are part of the existing Wall Street profit-driven industrial and marketing complex because they think they are money-makers and expect most consumers not to question the claims.  We are also seeing more and more articles and stories debunking these claims and calls for regulation so that consumers will understand what is bunk.  If we stop and pause, we can probably figure out some of this without reading about the pros and cons.  Do you know who is selling it to you?  Does it come in packaging with a lot of small print?  Is the packaging recyclable?  Are shareholder profits critical to the entity selling you the food or garden supplies or other consumer good?

Taking the example of the success of the big companies, small entities are using “green” in their names and advertising without discrimination.  Around town I see fairly regularly, landscaping companies with cozy-sounding “green” names.  When I watch them working, though, they are using Round-up or other chemical weedkillers, throwing into the trash compostable yard waste, and planting non-native shrubs.  They may be making a garden the color green, but they certainly aren’t doing “green” gardening.

Here’s some great information on having a “climate-friendly” garden from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  The tips are more helpful for a yard large enough to have a lawn, and do not fully apply for my small patio (though I have a tree in front, don’t leave bare soil, and do not use pesticides or chemical fertilizers.  I haven’t yet tried planting winter crops in my containers, but I’ve rearranged the patio so that I have a place for a raised bed (to sit on the brick where the table and chairs once were).  This winter, I’m hoping to add the bed and a cold frame to lengthen the growing season.


Choices, A Cardinal in the Grapes, and Viveka

This morning while I was out in the garden, I heard a chirping right above my head.  Within arm’s reach was a bright red male cardinal perched among the grapes effusively talking.  (I planted a tiny red, concord grape vine about six years ago, and it has flourished beyond my wildest dreams).

There were enough ripe grapes for me to pick a handful for myself.  I have bird netting, but I have not put it over the grapes.  They did not do so well this year, many turning brown prematurely because, I think, of the drought-ridden winter followed by the extra wet and cool spring.  I am grateful that I will not be dependent on these grapes as food for myself to survive through next winter (I’m pretty sure; if not, I have bigger things to worry about).

For the joy of having the birds come visit so fearlessly and delightedly, and because the grapes are not fantastic to eat, I leave all, but those I get by the small handful a couple of mornings a week for a few weeks, to the birds.  Maybe next year I will net the grapes, but then I’ll have to have a canning party to make jam.  In the meantime, I’ll marvel that every bird in DC seems to know when my grapes ripen.

We make decisions like this all the time.  With how we shop, what we eat, what work we choose, how we travel, we are making decisions about habitat and environment for ourselves and hosts of other beings.

In yoga, the process of ever refining our understanding so that we can be more in touch with how we act impacts our life force and our relationship with all around us, is viveka, or discrimination.   Just as the more we practice on the mat, the more we develop awareness of what leads us to feel more in tune and more celebratory of life, so too, we want to use that yoga refinement and discrimination to inform our acts off the mat.