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Yoga Sutra I.47
In the lucidity of coalesced, reflection free contemplation, the nature of the self becomes clear.
One of the most popular themes of contemporary Western cultural criticism (i.e., sitting around talking about how it’s all going to hell) is our comforting moral disgust with self absorption and our various related squirreliness about the “me” generation.
The real and far more pervasive issue is that we’re the “they” generation – they told me I could afford it, they told me I could eat it, they said I should take this medicine. They said there’s nothing I can do about it.
Presumably we’ve come up with “them” because it works out pretty well, since nobody who reads the newspaper or listens to the radio can really argue with us. They do tell us something different every day about what it’s good to eat. It’s a totally defensible position to blame them, and that’s the problem with it. It’s self congratulatory about being lost. Regardless of how accurate it is,“Don’t look at me, it’s not my fault we’re in trouble,” doesn’t get you off a desert island. Chip Hartranft, Director of the Arlington Center calls this sort of delusion ”the stuff of self.” It’s the stuff yoga is designed to address.
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, awareness is said to be different from consciousness. Patanjali says we experience them both as the same thing unless we allow “coalescence” (samapatti) to arise: then our view changes as the turbulence of our own attempt to make sense settles down. Hartranft notes, “ Samapatti is not an altered state but a clearer more accurate view of experience.”* We get to a place where our perception of things and the way things really are, are reflected in each other without us mistaking them for the same thing.
It can be painfully funny and revelatory all at once. One of my favorite dreaded experiences in practicing yoga is the moment a bit of this mirror like stillness arises. In that split second I can see how much energy I am channeling into validating my point of view and how it’s only a point of view. There’s nothing real about it except my energy. The minute I stop feeding it it’s going to disappear.
In spite of all my protesting that I want to be “awake,” in these moments of clarity I see that I’m fronting, I’m putting myself on. Liberation appears and I greet it with an outraged, “No, but I’m right!” It turns that I like defending my limited grasp of things. I want it to be that way. I’m, as the buddhists say, attached. Chogyam Trungpa laughs, “But what am I going to do with my time if you take that away from me?”
In my late twenties I was a single mother working as an assistant to a buyer of office equipment. I’d been lucky to get the job, but I was barely able to pay for daycare and rent. When my boss left to work for a competitor, I realized that if I wanted to make a better life for myself and my child, I had to convince the director to hire me for the buyer’s job. If he hired someone else it would be years before I had another chance.
I told the director that he should hire me for the job because he’d get a lot of cheap work out of me, risk free. “We both know I’ll have to work ridiculously hard to convince you and everybody who will give you a hard time that you made the right decision. And I’ll do it for less money than someone who has experience. I’ll do it without an assistant for the first month so you can demote me again if I don’t do it well.”
“You’ve got a deal,” he answered me, turning back to his desk. “But let’s be clear. If it doesn’t work I’ll just fire you.”
In yoga, this is called “tapas” or heat. I wanted to think the director was being unfair, and I could totally have made a case for that. I might even have been able at that moment to wiggle out of the whole thing if I had caved and allowed him to call my bluff. Instead my response was, I’ll show you. (What can I say, I’ve always had a problem with authority.)
Faced with humiliation and possible homelessness, I would have done anything to succeed. I called in the sales reps of every contract we had and salespeople of every brand we didn’t use. I asked them to tell me why we did or didn’t buy things made by them, and to explain what other salespeople were lying to me about. All of the reps talked to me about the quality of their product and service; all of them tried to take me out to lunch.
One salesman a did a series of demonstrations on a single model of his line of copiers. He told me how a salesperson sized up a potential buyer, what they did when they were doing it well, and how they did it when they were green or lazy.
Demonstrating the same piece of equipment he “sold me” a copier that was easy to use, and then he started over and sold the same copier on it’s sophisticated features; the third time he talked only about copy cost and why maintaining the machine was a breeze. It was all for the same machine; the only difference was the customer, the idea the customer already had about what he or she needed and would spend money on.
“Why don’t you explain it to them?” I asked. “Why can’t you tell them when they are asking the wrong questions?”
He laughed. “Because they want the answer to the question they asked. They know the answer they are looking for. When I try to educate them about the question, I just make the other salesman’s job easier.”
Frankly, I’m uncomfortable offering a pithy description of yoga in the same breath that I’m exhorting us not to oversimplify things. I’m in the same position as the copier salesman. It’s all yoga, and it’s only one thing: paying attention without judgment. (Sutra 47’s “reflection-free contemplation”) I can talk to you about all the bells and whistles if you’re into esoteric practices; I can extoll the virtues of massaging your organs with yoga postures if you have indigestion. My grandmother would have said, “It’s good for what ails you.” The rest of it is all about the practitioner, how well we know ourselves how much we are willing to invest in our real needs, not the ones we’ve grown comfortable absolving ourselves of by blaming them.
Yoga is based on sat guru, the recognition that at all times my situation is my teacher. In religious traditions this is referred to as God’s omnipresence or omniscience. When I became an office equipment buyer, I was the one who set up the terms of my job offer. With a little svadyaya, or self observation, I’d have identified my issue with authority, my tendency toward provocation and its underlying brinksmanship. But I didn’t have to admit these things; it was just as easy to distract myself with how unfair the director was being, how hard-nosed. No one would argue with me.
If I looked closely at my situation, with stillness, I could see that with an option to fail at what was clearly a formidable task it was likely that I’d have given it my best and hoped that the director would be nice to me about it. My whole approach told the director that about me, so he sold me the job he might have given me anyway under the terms that I asked him to, because I was telling him what I needed to succeed. He could have attempted to educate me on the right questions to ask, but why make his own job harder?
When it comes to mass media reports on scientific research, they are only telling us what we want to hear. They wouldn’t keep doing it unless we put in energy that they are responding to. It’s the only way they can keep our business.
As I mentioned in Eating Having, and Wanting this month, we have a national obsession with obesity. It’s like we’re loading it up with our collective anxiety. Much of what we “discover” about obesity can be said about our understanding, or lack of understanding, of all health and disease.
This week a health blog reported on a study published in the New England Journal of medicine. “For people who are trying to lose weight, it does not matter if they are counting carbohydrates, protein or fat. All that matters is that they are counting something.” In quantum mechanics this might be filed under “observer effect.” We don’t really know why or how interacting with one quantum particle simultaneously shifts a once related quantum particle at a great distance, thereby upending everything we know about the properties of reality.
According to the blog, Dr. Frank M. Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health and the study’s lead author, thinks the “real question for researchers is what are the biological, psychological or social factors that influence whether a person can stick to any diet.” In spite of the circus and finger pointing, what influences our health is something that’s really hard to pin down. We’re going to have to accept that truth is complicated. The answers involve us. An excellent place to start is being willing to know how we set it up, each of us in the way we live our lives, and if we’re only asking questions that confirm our biases.
The biggest challenge the practice of yoga presents is the relentless investigation of our experiences and sensations, not only the bliss we are willing to surrender to, but the anger, frustration, shame, deception and misrepresentation that are part of being human, and the investigation that leads to the inevitable diamantine discovery that what we think of as something the other person is doing to us, isn’t.
In yogic practice the single rule of thumb is, it’s always you. The real question, as Dr. Sacks points out, is what will it take for you (or me) to consistently want to know that?
It doesn’t matter if you’re doing yoga postures, chanting, or meditating, as long as you’re consistently paying attention. As long as every time you look away, you get over yourself – I mean get past the fear that causes you to cling to ‘being right’ – and just bring your attention back. The best word you can add to your spiritual self talk is “oops”.
“The effect of any particular diet group is minuscule, but the effect of individual behavior is humongous,” Dr. Sacks said. “We had some people losing 50 pounds and some people gaining five pounds. That’s what we don’t have a clue about. I think in the future, researchers should focus less on the actual diet but on finding what is really the biggest governor of success in these individuals.”
It was Thomas Pynchon who famously wrote (in Gravity’s Rainbow), “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.” Our contemporary malaise isn’t all the things we have to be angry, divisive, or paranoid about, it’s that we are the they who are misleading us.
And I didn’t find this out from an existential novel. A copier salesman told me.
Chip Hartranft has written a wonderful translation and commentary on the Yoga Sutra.
You can download a free copy of the yoga sutra in English with the Sanskrit and a glossary. http://www.arlingtoncenter.org/Sanskrit-English.pdf
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© 2011, The Magazine of Yoga, LLC.