The Bhagavad Gita Part 2: Fundamentalism and Dharma

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So here we are. Arjuna is about to go to war with his extended family, loses his cool and in a fit of angst drives his chariot out into the centre of the battleground between the two armies with his loyal friend Krishna, who also happens to be a god. He feels compelled to fight, but he decides that he ought not to and becomes paralyzed with uncertainty about what to do.

So what is this all about?

Like most important religious mythologies the plot and central premise of the Bhagavad Gita can be read in a multitude of ways.

One of those ways, which is to my mind the least satisfying, least compelling and least constructive way is the fundamentalist interpretation, which sees the events of the Bhagavad Gita as either a literal historical narrative or a flawless and unambiguous pronouncement direct from the mind of god not open to personal interpretation. Probably both.

To my mind, the idea that the Bhagavad Gita is meant to be read as a multi-layered allegory which need not require, and indeed suffers, a narrow fundamentalist interpretation is established literally in the second line of the text.

1.1: Dharmakshetre Kurukshetre

Now I’m not a Sanskrit scholar so take what I say on matters of translation with a grain of salt. But taken slightly out of context this sentence literally means: “On the field of Dharma. On the field of the Kurus…”

Reading multiple translations of a text is really interesting because it opens up this web of meaning and interpretation, and really reveals the layers. It also lets you peek behind the curtain and examine the personal styles, historical biases and cultural assumptions of the translators.

“The field of Dharma.” Is variously rendered in the following ways:

“The field of right”

“The field of the evolving dharma”

“The holy field”

“The place of pilgrimage”

“The field of truth”

“The field of righteousness”

You get the point. I think the varieties of interpretation that can be gleaned from this single word are illustrative. There isn’t one correct translation. On some level they’re all correct. On the one hand this is a book about justice, about political engagement. Seen another way this is a book about humanity, and mankind’s evolution towards a higher version of itself. Seen another way this is a book about the individuals search for meaning or self-realization. Seen another way this is a book about god, and mans relationship with the nebulous higher intelligence that seems to inhabit the world we perceive. This is a book about the challenges of life. About the mysteries of death. Most importantly, the statement that the following narrative takes place, firstly, on the field of Dharma, in addition to the physically concrete field of the Kurus, indicates that this is a book about you. About your unique, karmically-propelled path through the baffling melodramas of being.

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A more concrete injunction against fundamentalism is, in fact, to be found in the 2nd chapter of the Gita itself:

There are men who have no vision, and yet they speak many words. They follow the letter of the Vedas, and they say: “There is nothing but this.”
Their soul is warped with selfish desires, and their heaven is a selfish desire. They have prayers for pleasures and power, the reward of which is earthly rebirth.
Those who love pleasure and power hear and follow their words: they have not the determination ever to be one with the One.
The three qualities of nature are the world of the Vedas. Arise beyond the three qualities, Arjuna! Be in Truth eternal, beyond earthly opposites. Beyond gains and possessions, possess thine own soul.
As is the use of a well of water where water everywhere overflows, such is the use of all the Vedas to the seer of the supreme

The Vedas are the traditional religious scriptures of ancient India, but the word could also refer to any sort of codified knowledge. I think that this statement, so early in the text, serves as a warning. It’s almost as if the authors knew how important it would become and wanted to protect against its use as a tool of manipulation and oppression, encouraging the reader to always litigate the truth through the clarity of their own experience. To look through the inevitable detritus of history to the perennial messages that naturally reveal themselves to eyes unclouded by longing and are only ever imperfectly hinted at in books.

So it is disappointing, yet hardly surprising, that the Gita has indeed become a foundational text, or at least a scapegoat, for it’s own variety of fundamentalist.

The importance of understanding the nuance, context and, yes, the human fallibility of a book like the Gita and it’s translations cannot be overstated, even as we celebrate it’s wisdom. The reason I’m going through so much trouble at the outset of this little project to place such emphasis on this notion is because, at some point, if you’re following along, you will stumble onto passages like the following:

The destruction of a family destroys it’s rituals of righteousness, and when the righteous rituals are no more, unrighteousness overcomes the whole family. When unrighteous disorder prevails, the women sin and are impure; and when women are not pure, Krishna, there is disorder of castes and social confusion.

Obviously there’s a lot to unpack there. The first thing I want to point out is that this is another of countless instances where this word Dharma pops up. The concept of Dharma is central to the philosophy of The Gita so we should spend some time exploring what it means.

Dharma is a Sanskrit word with no real analogue in the English language. It is here translated as righteousness, but is often translated as law. This is imprecise in that it’s definitely more analogous to the laws of nature then the laws of civil society. We can see from the text above how this sense of the word law could colour it’s meaning. In a certain context the word implies a sense of righteousness, justice and appropriate behaviour. In another it connotes a sense of predetermined purpose, the results of the force of karma, of causality that have led you to the specific circumstances of your life. This interpretation is fair enough, but in Asian society, this understanding of the concept of Dharma has long been used to defend the rigid social hierarchies of the caste system and the patriarchy. If you are a dalit, a member of the untouchable caste, it is your dharma to be a dalit and the dharmic way to behave is to accept your station and to yield to the will of your betters. As if the concept of untouchableness is both inevitable and immutable and not a construct invented by a dominator class eager to enshrine their power with the authority of religion. In the Mahabharata, of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part, it is clear that this is part of it’s message, as evidenced by the above. Obviously, the work was written in a historical period very different then our own but it’s important to acknowledge this because it is currently being used to defend alot of terrible shit.

However, the Bhagavad Gita is not merely a piece of the Mahabharata. Its style and motives are discontinuous with the rest of the work and it stands on it’s own merits as a spiritual text. It quickly takes on a distinctly mystical position and sets out to transcend the clumsy worldliness of these narrow interpretations of Dharma that are so burdened by political context.

You see what Dharma is about, ultimately, is liberation. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with a particular method of social organization. It doesn’t have anything to say about whether one political system is better then another, and there is certainly nothing about the concept of Dharma that defends the subjugation and objectification of anyone.

Your Dharma is simply whatever it is that you’re doing, in the physical world, right now. Are you sitting in a coffee shop trying to write a blog? Guess what. That’s your Dharma. Are you a member of an anachronistic underclass fighting against a cowardly theocracy more concerned with resisting change that upsets their power then anything related to truth, justice, compassion or liberation? Well that is most definitely your Dharma. Living a life that is dharmically appropriate is not so much about the situation you find yourself in the physical world. It is about how you use whatever that situation is to awaken. It is a process that happens inside you.

So what does it mean to awaken? And how does one go about awakening?

These are really the central questions of the Gita and we’ll do our best to explore them in the forthcoming posts.

That’s enough for now.
We really didn’t dive too far into the text here so I’m going to say read up to the end of chapter 3 if you care to read along.

Peace Peace Peace

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The Bhagavad Gita: Part 1 – Quick! Summarize the longest novel ever written!

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Hello dear friends.

Well I’m back from India and am still processing and resettling and freaking out a bit and screwing my head back on straight. I’m settling in a new town; Ottawa, for a while, trying to find opportunities to teach yoga and make a little money for my next adventures. Ottawa is not without its charm though regaling you with stories of my daily trip to the coffee shop where I agonize vociferously over the particular non-dairy substitute I add to my cappuccino would make a pretty lousy travelogue. And though my spiritual life is hardly place dependent, most of my inner work for the next little while will likely be a sort of quiet integration into the vicissitudes of day to day urban life, which is interesting, but requires a bit of context in order for it to be enjoyable to write about.

So I figured I’d change my plan with this blog for the next little while. Essentially it will shift its tone to being more exclusively about the philosophy, psychology and mythology of Yoga. A subject which is very interesting to me, though it may interest some of you a great deal less then my clumsy misadventures in the Himalayas. So be it. If you’d prefer to look at pictures of a bendy dude doing fun bendy things my instagram is joelbeauchampyoga and I can promise high-quality bendiness and no philosophy of any kind!

However! Should you decide to stick it out with me here at the Supernormalblog I promise that I will keep the high falutin metaphysical abstraction to a minimum and do my best to keep things plain and relatable with maybe a pseudo-intellectual flight of fancy here and there because that’s just how I am sometimes.

I figure for each blog post I will pick either a text, or some broader body of knowledge from the yogic lexicon, and attempt to apply it’s wisdom to my own life. For me the word yoga encompasses a very broad window of definition, so it could be just about anything from the canons of philosophy, religion, psychology or latter day navel gazing woo. At the end of the post I’ll announce what I’ll be studying for the next post in case you care to read along.

Today we’re going to start at the beginning.

The Bhagavad Gita; book 1.

So this is the part where I summarize the backstory of one of the most complex and multifaceted works of human history, here goes nothing.

The Bhagavad Gita is a very small part of an absolutely gigantic hindu epic called The Mahabharata. It’s sort of like the Hindu version of The Iliad, though it’s also considered to be an important religious text. There are so many micro and meta narratives embedded into the Mahabharata and so many characters in it’s pantheon that any summary of them would (and some do) easily run the length of a short novel. Luckily for us we only really need to get to know 2 of them. Arjuna and Krishna.

Arjuna is a prince, but he’s not just any prince. Before he was born, his dad Pandu, king of the Kurus, shot a pair of deer while they were making sweet love. It turns out the deer were really a holy man called Kindama and his wife who liked to become deers when they did their thing.

Who wouldn’t.

Well, shooting a holy man with the power to transform into a deer is obvy bad news and old Kindama placed a curse on Pandu such that if he ever tried to make sweet love to his 2 wives, he would drop dead. Well it just so happens that his first wife Kunti had, as a young lady, been granted a mantra that could summon a god of her choice to conceive a child with her. After Pandu’s curse, Kunti used the mantra 3 times and Pandu’s other wife Madri used it once, but on twin gods, and Pandu wound up with 5 sons, collectively known as the Pandavas. Arjuna is the 3rd of the 5 sons. These are the good guys.

Pandu had an older brother, Dhritarashtra. Ordinarily the oldest son in a royal lineage would inherit the crown but Dhritarashtra was born blind so it was decided that Pandu would be king instead. Dhritarashtra’s wife Gandhari would eventually give birth to a superheavy greyish lump which she then divided into 100 pieces, each of which she placed in a clay pot. The little pieces incubated in the pots and grewinto Dhritarashtra’s 100 children, the Kauravas. The bad guys. After Pandu had the curse placed on him he handed the kingdom back over to Dhritarashtra and went into seclusion in the forest where he would eventually die making it with his wife.

This made the process of succession a bit confusing and it fell to Dhritarashtra to declare an heir. Under pressure from his council he chose the virtuous Yudhisthira, Pandu’s oldest son, rather then his own son, the not-so-virtuous Duryodhana. Duryodhana loses his shit over this and vows to reclaim what he sees as his rightful inheritance. After an unsuccessful attempt on their lives the Pandavas go into hiding.

While in hiding, Arjuna wins the heart of the lovely Draupadi. When he takes his bride-to-be home to meet his mother Kunti one of his brothers announces that Arjuna has brought something he’d like to show them. Without looking, Kunti shouts out that whatever he has brought he must share it with his brothers. Rather then passing it off as a hilarious misunderstanding, as you might imagine the sane thing would be, all 5 brothers marry Draupadi.

Of course, polyandry was in no way a socially accepted familial arrangement in vedic India, but I guess if you’re descended from the gods and trying to really pound out a good metaphor then the rules get a bit murky.

Shortly thereafter, the brothers return to the kingdom and Dhritarashtra decides that to squash the beef they’ll split the kingdom. The brothers graciously accept and build a glorious palace on their new land. They invite the Kauravas over for a little diplomatic housewarming, but the palace is so glorious that Duryodhana keeps mistaking the glistening, glossy floors for pools of water and refuses to step on them. When he is informed of his error he walks into an actual pond thinking it will support his weight and gets all wet. It seems to me like a bit of an interior design fail to design a public space in this way, but everyone laughs at Duryodhana for being injured by an obviously intentional optical illusion he was conveniently misinformed of while a guest in their home. He is upset by this and starts to devise a devilish scheme with which to exact his revenge.

It turns out that Yudhisthira, though otherwise a paragon of virtue, is a bit of a gambling addict. Duryodhana manages to arrange a dice game between Yudhisthira and their uncle Shakuni. The game is rigged and Yudhisthira winds up gambling away all of his wealth, his kingdom, his wife and the freedom of himself and his 5 brothers. Dhritarashtra decides to put a stop to the obviously crooked game and gives the brothers back their freedom but for some reason Yudhisthira agrees to play again. The outcome is that the brothers are sent into exile for 13 years.

While in exile Arjuna has a bunch of psychedelic adventures, meditates alot, meets Shiva on the top of a mountain, acquires a telekinetic weapon capable of destroying the whole world, and hangs out with his father, Indra, in his palace, in heaven.

They try to return after their 13 years in exile, Duryodhana refuses to allow them to, and war is declared.

At this point it is necessary to introduce our 2nd interlocutor, Lord Krishna.

Krishna is an extremely complicated figure. There are numerous differing accounts of his life, qualities and exploits in a vast canon of literature that includes, in addition to this one, the important religious texts the Bhagavata Purana, the Vishnu Purana, and the Harivamsa. On one level Krishna is god. On another he is the eighth avatar of the god Vishnu. On yet another he is a powerful prince and Arjunas closest advisor and best bud.

We can talk more about what Krishna is all about later, but at this point in the story we find Arjuna and Krishna standing at the front of an enormous army on the field of Kurukshetra, preparing to do battle with Arjuna’s estranged family. Arjuna is despondent. You see, it’s not just his devilish cousins that he is about to go to war with. Duty and propriety have led his beloved uncle Bhishma, his teacher and mentor Drona and countless other friends and family members, to side with his cousins. Yet it seems that fate has tied his hands in the matter. Duty, honor, history, even causality have led him to this place. His very karma dictates that he must fight, but he’s starting to lose his cool. He asks Krishna to rig up his chariot and together they drive it into the centre of the field of Kurukshetra, between the 2 vast armies, establishing the central metaphor of the forthcoming text and this is where The Bhagavad Gita begins.

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We’ll begin the ACTUAL text of The Bhagavad Gita in the next post. The first half of the first chapter contains alot of exposition with big lists of names like that time you tried to read the bible from the beginning and stopped after like the 3rd page. The real meat of the thing starts in the 2nd chapter. So lets say we’ll do chapters 1 – 2 next.

Hope this works! Like I said if your idea of yoga is more about bendy pics interspersed with pictures of fermented vegetables I got lots of em on instagram at joelbeauchampyoga.

Love you all.
Sorry bout the wait.

OM

Social Media

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For the last 4 months, since I left for India, I have used social media very little. To be honest I’ve always been pretty incompetent with it, and have never really seen the need to have much on the go other then Facebook to magnify my self-identity. Only using one platform for this, I’ve realized, is a double-edged sword. If your perception of the world and its inhabitants is to be mediated by physically abstract idea-spaces it’s probably a good thing not to leave it in the hands of a single one of them to cook your information for you. And if this is the world we’re headed towards, it makes sense to try and become skillful and mindful about your use of them so that you can at the same time ensure your economic well-being and the integrity of your mental health.

But I must accept myself for what I am. A defenceless social media dilettante. I am both bad at the internet, and very susceptible to its negative effects on my emotional well-being. Part of the reason why I left Toronto and went a-rambling was, at least partially, to decouple myself from my social network, both the one localized in that particular place and the abstraction of same presented by the funhouse mirror of identity and information that is Facebook. My reasons for doing so had nothing to do with the character of my friends. It’s more about my own dysfunctional relationship to cities, art, identity and ideology. Though these dysfunctions may stem from the usual human predicaments; having a body that needs to eat, wants to fuck and likes being around other bodies, they are certainly encouraged by technology.

One of the problems with social media in general, and Facebook in particular is that in a space of pure, non-localized information the human tendency to band together must, almost by necessity, manifest itself in the form of ideas, and people have started to become very concerned with coordinating themselves based on the ideas they hold. This is obviously bolstered by the categorizing impulse of modern capitalism, which needs to group people together in order to market to them. Of course, ideology is nothing new, and the dangers of untempered group ideology are obvious, but it seems like the expectation of ideological thinking has grown more encompassing with social media. Nowadays not only is it incumbent upon you to pick a side in the grand arenas of Capitalism vs. Marxism, Globalism vs. Nationalism, Theism vs. Atheism and maintain a consistency of pure opinion based on membership to whichever idea cluster you purport to belong to, you’re expected to have factional opinions about everything. Music. Food. Television. Clothes. Craft beer. Astrology. Smartphones. Kitchen Gadgets. Lawnmowers. The expectation is that your opinions on these things are stable and simple, that they say important things about your relationship to larger ideologies, which must also be stable and simple, and that it’s important that all of your opinions be subject to open scrutiny. You are at once expected to be an expert on everything you consume and expected to defend yourself in open court on matters which are usually entirely subjective.

All my life I’ve been a person who feels like it’s important to be right. To have coherent opinions and express them freely. But it feels like the more honest I am with myself, the more I try to look with clarity at the world around me and the more I look inside the less I feel like I can even claim to have opinions in a way that is concrete and unambiguous. Every issue I look at leads to different conclusions depending on which perspective you take, even those conclusions are murky and fraught with contradictions and everything I learn about the natural world and my own internal life seems to emphasize that objectivity simply doesn’t exist. Nature, whether within or without, doesn’t assign value or even definition to anything, it just is. The only objective truth is silence. This may sound like either a liberating notion, or an incitement to brutality and chaos depending on what cards your holding, and of course its probably both. In any case it’s a tough pill to swallow for that puffed up part of me which needs to present itself as an idealized image of individual power and understanding that is at once capable of manipulating it’s world with microscopic rigor and also at complete free-flowing ease with the universe. In other words, the part of me which feels most at home expressing itself on Facebook. Being sort of uncomfortably baffled by life isn’t much of a look.

This instinct to curate an image of yourself that is idealized, fantastic and self-indulgent is another problem with social media. People spend so much time in contact with these abstract idea spaces that they begin to transfer the attitudes and expectations of the image onto their real life. You see this all the time with yoga people who get so caught up in the construction of their identity that they begin to play out the artificial role in their day to day life. They walk around the world pretending to be a beacon of love and life and energy, striking conspicuously contemplative poses in the presence of others and telling people to “just breathe” when they’re feeling depressed while forcing a practiced smile. But anyone can see how dishonest it is. Telling someone “just breathe,” or some other motivational-poster slogan when they have serious and valid existential questions is not helpful. It’s neither compassionate nor skillful. When someone has serious and valid existential questions that are troubling them and you want to help you need to climb into the shit with them and either help hash it all out or, more likely, just be there with them in the shit and try to get comfortable with the mystery together. The problem is that when you do this you might get shit on your face.

Don’t get me wrong, learning how to breathe (Or move, relax, be etc.) is an enormously powerful way to understand and empower yourself. But that’s a serious lifelong process of practice and study. Slogans are insufficient.

If I was being cynical I’d accuse these people of being more concerned with marketing themselves as a yoga product rather then teaching or practicing actual yoga. This is surely a dynamic that exists out there, but it’s way too easy to be spiritually lazy and just assume that everyone’s stupid and an asshole. Things are usually deeper then that. I think people who have decided to promote or teach or publicly practice yoga or any kind of spiritual discipline are legitimately frightened by the idea that they can’t live up to the ideals that the practices represent. They’ve discovered a glimpse of the awareness and love that are real outcomes of these practices and they feel a responsibility to be impeccable, both for themselves and for others. This is then coupled with the normal anxieties of life in a market economy. The problem is that these spiritual ideals are unrealistic. It’s important that they’re unrealistic. Part of the process of liberation is the confounding of the ego and it’s necessary for the practices to be humbling if they can truly be called spiritual practices. Being honest about where you’re at is a crucial piece of the puzzle.

There’s no doubt that I see all this playing out in my own psyche first and foremost, both the cynical dynamic and the deeper one. The difference is that I don’t even have the self control to pretend to be happy all the time. It’s hard enough to be superficially polite.

Anyways, spending a minimal amount of time on social media has been helpful. These blog posts update onto my Facebook automatically though I sometimes promote them directly. I’m trying not to obsess too much about “likes” and views but that’s tough. I communicate with people directly through messenger if I want to know what they’re up to and never lurk peoples walls. I don’t even look at my newsfeed unless I’m truly bored, and I just settled into Goa, a place where there’s no excuse for a rootless yoga hippie like me to be bored unless you really want to just spend the afternoon being bored.

Things are nice.

All the best.

Shambo Shankara Namah Shivaya

Depressed In Yogaland

It’s with great embarrassment that I must announce that in the middle of my big ultraspiritual blissorama yogathon I’ve been hit with a wave of seasonal depression almost as potent as the frigid Canadian variety the escape from which was secretly one of the motives behind the timing of my trip to India.

Anxiety and depression have always been a part of my life, but they once possessed a control over my faculties of discrimination and perception that has lessened more recently. I owe this most significantly to my yoga and mindfulness practices. As my body has become a bit leaner, a bit more mobile, a bit better at processing and preserving energy many of the obstacles preventing me from acting out of my best intentions for myself have become less powerful. My body used to get stolid and hard when I needed it to move and used to quiver and tremor when I needed it to be still. It now does more or less what I ask of it, at least on a gross, superficial level. Languor, lassitude and timidity, which for a long time had seemed like permanent aspects of my personality, are now like occasional house guests, drifting by every once in a while, taking up some space, leaving a bit of a mess but then departing. In India this quality is known as Tamas, the energy of inertia, dullness and heaviness. Ultimately it is the quality of decay, the quality of destruction inherent in all life. It is necessary and essential, but if you are immersed in the qualities of decay before it is rightfully your time to decay, Tamas in your body will take on the quality of dysfunction, disease and depression.

There are many who are dismissive of Hatha Yoga as a spiritual or even a psychological discipline, particularly the vigorously physical version of it which I practice and which has become popular in the west. To many it seems worldly, competitive, even vain. Even among eastern spiritual circles it is often felt that ideally one should practice detachment from the physical body, a detachment which is most effectively realized while immobile. But vigorous physical yoga is, for me, the most important part of my spiritual practice. Ordinarily, this quality of Tamas has a great hold on me. Hatha Yoga’s ability to burn it off is what gives me the energy, focus and mental space to practice still meditation, and, ultimately, mindfulness in every day life.

The practice of mindfulness in everyday life is another remover of obstacles. If we can act with discrimination and skillfulness, without reactivity, then we can act out of our best intentions for others and for ourselves. I used to snap at people when I got depressed, I used to try to elicit guilt and sympathy from people by manufacturing catastrophes, I would puff up my own ego with arrogant assertions all the grander the less I really believed them, and if I couldn’t muster the energy for drama I would simply check out and drift into a private world of nauseous fantasy. Of course I still do all of this on occasion, but now it all feels less like a Shakespearean tragedy and more like The Comedy of Errors. My reactivity is softer, slower, a bit more honest, a bit more playful. So now, when I get depressed, I’m less likely to create additional situations which will depress me. For me this is yoga in action.

So things are better now. But de-cluttering your life of obstacles doesn’t mean you can stop the natural ebb and flow of things, the perpetual transition between states of potential and actualization that characterizes the material world on every level. Your emotional life will expand and contract as long as you have one and for me, winter has always tended to bring me into a state of contraction. My hibernating instinct kicks in and I start to feel introverted and withdrawn. I had intended to leave Canada and chase the sun this winter to avoid it, but I’ve unexpectedly found myself in Northern India for longer then intended and Northern India gets gloomy, dark and pretty darn cold in January.

So here I am, depressed in Yogaland, and it’s ok. This week I’ll be heading to the desert in Rajasthan for a bit and then eventually to Goa for some beach time. I’m excited to travel a little and then refocus my energy on my practice in a tropical place.

But I’m lazy and don’t feel like writing anymore.

So that’s it for today.

I love you all.

Namaste

Vipassana

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Vipassana.

Vipassana is really hard.

For those who don’t know what I’m referring to Vipassana is a meditation technique expounded by Siddhartha Gautama, otherwise known as The Buddha, 2500 years ago in India. It is outlined most famously in a text called the Sattipathana Sutta and lays out a rigorous, almost scientific method of self-examination in the service of the lofty ambition of eradicating human misery.

Buddhism was practically extinguished in India after the Turkish conquests of the 12th century. It was kept alive by small communities in the Himalayas and of course had by then spread all over Asia. Interest in Buddhism in India was reignited in the early 20th century by the efforts of a group called the Mahabodhi society and then by the exodus of Tibetan religious leaders from their homeland into India in the 1950’s and 60’s. Over the years Buddhism began to gain some prominence within The Dalit community, the so-called “untouchable” caste, with it’s emphasis on compassion and equality. But to this day it still remains a small minority of the overall religious picture of India.

In 1976, a man named S.N. Goenka, a Burmese-born Indian, began to set up meditation centres in India. Goenka was a longtime student of a Burmese Buddhist master named Sayagi U Ba Khin, and promoted his version of Vipassana, which he claimed was the closest surviving technique to the original teachings of the Buddha. He laid it out in a uniquely non-sectarian fashion, intended to appeal to people of all religions, as well as non-religious people, and presented it as a rational, scientific process to relieve the suffering arrived at through the processes of craving and aversion. Today there are over 300 of these Vipassana centres all over the world, including close to 100 in India and it is enjoying an unprecedented surge in popularity, with some of the centres capable of housing hundreds of meditators at a time. Most of the spots in these centres are filled well in advance, some with long waiting lists. Clearly, there is a hunger in society for what Vipassana offers, which is astonishing, because this particular version of Vipassana is really, really hard.

A Goenka-style Vipassana retreat requires all participates to undergo a 10 day course in which they are taught the technique very slowly and methodically. While undertaking the course the students are closed off from all contact with the outside world. All electronic devices are turned in. There are no books allowed. No music. No writing implements. The only things they are allowed to keep with them are basically clothes, bedding, toiletries and necessary medications.

All the students take a vow of silence for the ten days. All communication between the students is strictly forbidden including gestures and notes, even eye contact is discouraged. Only 2 real meals are served, none of them after noon. New students can have some fruit in the evening, but old students are to eat nothing after lunch. The morning bell rings at 4am and the first meditation sitting begins at 4:30. There are a total of 10 1/2 hours of the day allocated to meditation. Technically only 3 of these are strictly compulsory (as in they won’t let you leave,) but none of them really feel optional and it’s expected that you honour the schedule. The meditation itself requires a great deal of alertness, attentiveness and self-control and is both physically and mentally draining. It’s hard. But people persevere and continue coming back because of how well it works.

I completed my first 10 day course seven years ago at a time when my mental health was not in great shape. It was instrumental in my recovery. In the intervening years between then and now I have had, along with my yoga practice, a fairly consistent Buddhist meditation practice in which I’ve trained, in a casual way, with a few different disciplines. But it wasn’t until now that I decided to go back in, at one of the oldest centres, in Bodh Gaya, a couple miles from the place where the Buddha is said to have achieved enlightenment. Though I had a fairly consistent practice, I hadn’t meditated for more then an hour in a day in a long while.

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Turns out meditating for 1 hour a day is alot easier then meditating for 10 1/2 hours a day.

This sounds like an obvious statement, but part of what I mean is that it’s even easier to access a meditative state in an hour sitting then in a day of constant meditation, especially at first. If you’re meditating for an hour you set aside the time, sit down, relax, focus, try not think, do the technique, get real peaceful, or if you don’t get real peaceful you sort of sit with that and be alright with it and don’t worry too much about stuff you can deal with later, no problems.

When you’re meditating all day your mind starts to rebel almost immediately, especially if in the intervening time it has had nothing to occupy it. All of the contents of your mind immediately come to the surface and you start to become intimately aware of the way your mind extrudes thoughts. Some will come and possess your attention for a while. Some will flicker by in waves without you picking them out for analysis. Some will arise seemingly at random; an image, concept, a face or some kind of cultural icon exposed to you years ago will suddenly appear in your mind apropos of nothing. Some will present themselves as problems to be solved or puzzles to work out. Your familiar obsessions will occupy you with great presence only to suddenly be subsumed by other, more banal ones, and occasionally some voice of volitional will might appear through the murk and remind you that you’re supposed to be meditating and you’ll realize that you’ve been daydreaming, or obsessing, or immersed in nostalgia or dread for over half an hour and then you recommit to the practice for maybe 10 minutes (probably less) before your back starts to slouch and the carnival comes back to town.

For those of us who spend alot of time practicing things like yoga it can become very easy to get attached to the unusual or altered states of consciousness that occasionally arise when you commit to a deep practice. Feelings of profound peace, awareness and energy occasionally appear and they can be quite exciting, especially for those of us who were initially exposed to the possibility of altering our consciousness through the use of mind-expanding drugs. But it’s easy to become attached to these states, revelatory though they may sometimes be. The most important thing that Vipassana teaches you is that the process of awakening is not about producing peak experiences, it’s about bringing a sense of awareness, equanimity and, ultimately, acceptance to all of your experiences. The game becomes not so much to improve the short bursts of transcendence that are peppered throughout life, but to improve mundane things like standing in line at the bank, or sitting in traffic, or going to the dentist. It’s to raise our baseline awareness, so we can be calm, kind and responsible even when things are boring, or frustrating, or painful, and in a 10 day Vipassana retreat, things will often be boring, frustrating and painful. Things will also occasionally be peaceful in a way that’s hard to put into words. Your awareness will become subtle and sensitive in ways that would seem mystical if they weren’t so somehow familiar, and you will get to know the way your mind works very, very intimately.

On my retreat I had to face the fact that despite all of my progress in improving my mental health and learning about my self through yoga and philosophy I still have alot of deep rooted anger, guilt and fear that in many ways dictates the patterns of my life. I still have alot of sensual desire that, though I’ve learned to repress it in ways that are healthy in grossly physical terms, still occupies my mind far more constantly then I’m comfortable with. I learned that I pathologically interpret sensations of love as pain and that alot of my strategies to renounce attachment have merely replaced indulgence with uptightness rather then letting go. And on the deepest level I’ve had to face the reality that most of my problems emanate from a fear of death that is entirely resistant to whatever beliefs I may intellectually hold about reincarnation or consciousness because my mind is simply not identified with the part of my being that I hold to be eternal. I have alot of work to do.

And so now, this is what my yoga becomes. Because yoga is not about stretching your body. Its about stretching the boundaries of equanimity, fearlessness and compassion throughout your whole life. Of mastering what many spiritual masters have dubbed “the art of living.” To be honest I’m not sure I’m up to the task of this sort of mastery, but I’ll keep stumbling down the path in one way or another, because what else is there to do?

Bhavatu Sabba Mangalam

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Death Metal Yogi

Yoga tends to attract positive people. Or to put it more correctly, yoga tends to attract people who value the notion of positivity. I’m not sure if this has more to do with it’s relationship to physical fitness, with it’s self-improvement veneer, or its deeper relationship to spirituality. I expect it’s ultimately the former. Spirituality, framed a certain way, has a type of self-improvement as it’s goal which could be interpreted as positive, but more often then not the zealous spiritual seeker is initially driven towards that goal by deep-seated existential dread. However, it is obvious that the popular language of yoga does tend to be in the vein of “everything’s gonna be alright.”

The trouble with this is that yoga is supposed to be, if nothing else, a search for truth. A search for truth requires, by necessity, what I have referred to in the past as “the unflinching gaze,” and this unflinching gaze must include within its purview all of the blood and shit and bile of life that one normally shrinks from in order to ensure the impenetrability of ones positive worldview. For me, and this is actually slightly controversial in the literature, the practice of yoga encourages an expanded field of awareness, and not merely a redistribution of awareness. This means you need to hold within your understanding every level of your experience. This includes the more cosmic, interpenetrated, transdimensional levels where everything is indeed going to be alright, but it also includes the level of the ego and its perpetually frustrated will to power, the insatiable desires of the flesh and the intolerable sensitivity of the nervous system, a domain in which the alright-ness of a thing is completely provisional and subject to abrupt perturbation and eventual destruction. With this understanding in mind, the more yogic statement would be: “The extent to which everything’s going to be alright is the same as the extent to which one dis-identifies with the domain of awareness in which everything is not going to be alright.” It’s important to note that dis-identification is not the same as turning away from, because if one is in any way afraid of, or escaping from, a level of awareness, it is proof that they are indeed very much identified with it. In this way it is vexing that so many in the yoga community seem to be so uncomfortable with their own shadow.

Carl Jung described the shadow as “that hidden, repressed, for the most part inferior and guilt-laden personality whose ultimate ramifications reach back into the realm of our animal ancestors and so comprise the whole historical aspect of the unconscious.” It is not only an important part of our psychological make-up that we have to come to terms with in order to grow our understanding, but the awareness of it also links us to an aspect of our being that is trans-personal, collective and motivated by evolutionary paradigms. There may be some truth to the understanding that the human psychology occupies a more conscious sphere of apprehension then the animal psychology, but if a human wishes to transcend its psychology, it must connect with that part of itself that is still an animal.

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I’ve spent over 15 years of my life participating in a community that, perhaps more then any other, values its connection with the shadow; the underground Heavy Metal community. If you are at all curious about some of my own meagre contributions to said community you may indulge yourself here:
www.jugurthametal.bandcamp.com

And here are a few more examples of intelligent, imaginative and extreme Heavy Metal if you feel so inclined:

https://darkdescentrecords.bandcamp.com/album/sacred-white-noise
https://hypaethralrecords.bandcamp.com/album/burn
https://geryon.bandcamp.com/

This sort of music employs a number of rather stark aesthetic choices that will not be to everyone’s taste. It reaches out to the mind of a person coming to terms with the chaos, brutality and uncertainty of the world in which they live and invites them not to turn away from it, but to celebrate it. It invites you to turn all that blood, shit and bile into gold by consuming it, and initiates you into a practice of inversion. Through inverting the traditional values of society it asks you to face the world on your own terms, eschewing public authority as a source of knowledge. Through inverting ones ordinary reactions to qualities like harshness, dissonance and aggression it asks you to discover the beauty hidden in the dark corners of our experience that people normally hide from. Through inverting the common rules of aesthetic decency it asks you to consider the way that social conventions hijack your imagination and force you to inhabit a world not of your own making. It’s an incredible artistic discipline when its done with conviction and vision, and it’s capable of producing an experience with as much a claim to the mystical as any music traditionally associated with spirituality. This idea of consuming that which repels you as an act of reverence towards the totality of life is actually fundamental to the philosophy of Tantra, through which the practice of Hatha Yoga emerges, particularly those schools which concern themselves with worship of Kali, the blood-drenched goddess of destruction. This concept is played out metaphorically and ritually in a variety of ways, and in the more extreme sects of what is called the Vama Marga, or “Left Hand Path,” (A term most metalheads will be well-acquainted with) it is taken quite literally and can actually involve consuming things like arsenic and human remains, along with the ritual sex and intoxication that has come to define the western vision of tantra.

Kali

Because of how effective this practice of inversion can be you often find a certain amount of fanaticism and factionalism in Metal. People can become very committed to metal above all else and very purist about what constitutes good or correct metal. Many in the yoga community will recognize the parallels. Yogis will waste unbelievable amounts of energy wringing their hands over the correct interpretation of the Sutras in defense of the style of practice that they pursue: Iyengar vs. Ashtanga, Vinyasa vs. Hatha, Black Metal vs. Death Metal, Traditional Black Metal vs. Experimental Black Metal. Sometimes people who think they have nothing in common can be remarkably alike.

The metal community tends to have the opposite problem that the yoga community has. You find alot of people who are very comfortable with their shadow, but super uncomfortable with things like joy, beauty and love. This is unfortunate because if there is one thing that both yoga and metal have taught me its that the reason you come to terms with your shadow isn’t just to experience and celebrate your shadow, it’s to experience and celebrate everything. The sorrow that implies joy. The ugliness that implies beauty. The disillusionment that implies love. Destruction and creation. Light and dark. The self and the other. It’s all spun together inextricably and if you can’t hold all of it in your heart, then you’re not holding any of it. Whether you land on the side of optimism or pessimism you’re just fantasizing about a world that you wish was real but isn’t. Many spiritual people gain some comfort from the idea that the world is a creation of their mind and that this affords them some measure of control over their situation, but anyone who spends a significant period of time meditating quickly realizes that these uncomfortable dichotomies are properties of your mind first and foremost.

Unfortunately what all of this means is that a lot of people in the metal community have come, one way or another, to use this music less as a way of experiencing veneration at the astonishing absurdity, the terrible beauty, the divine awe-inspiring horror of the human condition and more to reinforce the power and presence of their own negative emotions so that now far too many of these incredibly deep, insightful and beautiful people are suffering with terrible anxiety and depression which is made worse by the economic instability that comes from being an artist in uncertain times. In many cases this is laid on top of a sense of social alienation that drew them towards metal in the first place.

Many people feel like it’s important to feel this way, like it’s the only honest way to live. Many think that misery and instability is a necessary prerequisite to create meaningful art. I think it’s important that we reject these notions.

At the end of the day it’s not appropriate to generalize too much about any group of people. Some of the most spiritually connected people I’ve ever met were die-hard metalheads, and of course everybody knows that alot of the most visible figureheads of spirituality can be the most petty, vicious and materially obsessed people on the planet. Metal has a real sense of community, friendship and support that is rare in the modern world. Ultimately I had to to take a step away from it in an attempt to reconnect with the lighter side of my being. To become more comfortable with joy, beauty and love. I decided to do this through studying yoga. But sometimes it takes leaving a thing to realize what you had right in front of you all along. I hope one day I can find the balance to play out these seemingly opposing roles as metalhead and spiritual practitioner while enjoying both and identifying with neither but I’m not quite there yet. Despite their differences I really believe that at their core metal and yoga are both after the same thing.

To see the world exactly as it is and figure out a way to love it.

metal love

Energy and the Chakras

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Most philosophies of liberation are fairly clear on one thing: The state of enlightenment, whatever it’s qualities and whatever techniques are appropriate for realizing it, is something that is already innate within each of us. However, we live in a world of physical stimuli, sensation, thought and intention that distracts us from our true nature. In yoga, these nested hierarchies of awareness are known as the koshas, or sheaths. They describe a way of deconstructing our subjective experience of the world. Our awareness comes into contact with the material world through our physical body, which vibrates in concert with the energy which stimulates it from the outside, these vibrations are transduced by our nervous system into sensations which move throughout the body forming energetic patterns which proceed a cascade of symbols, which are filtered into a series of binary decisions, which are made, reinoculated into the web of symbols and expressed as nerve signals which are transduced into mechanical energy and produce vibrations which emanate from our bodies back out into the world. Of course, this process is happening constantly and at speeds which render any linearity utterly diffuse. Energetic exchange between these various levels form the complex layers of meaning, metaphor and personality that seem to imbue the world as we experience it. But behind all of this there is a substratum of basic awareness. A consciousness that is not the physical body, not sensation, not thought, not intention.

Since we are this awareness, it doesn’t quite make sense to say that we need to become aware of it. It also doesn’t quite make sense to say that we need to experience it. We’re experiencing it all the time. It is the space between every thought, every intention, every flash of energy. The process of liberation can’t be a directing of awareness. Awareness can’t be directed. It can’t even really be said to do anything. It just is.

The point I’m trying to arrive at is that whatever spiritual awakening is, it is by necessity something that our body does. It is a process of gradually gaining control over each of these nested sheaths and relaxing their fluctuations sufficiently enough for us to abide in the ground of our own being, which is innate. This is essentially the philosophy that underlies the discipline of Hatha Yoga.

This process of relaxation, at it’s least subtle, is simple enough. Stretch and strengthen the body so that it functions efficiently, acquire a fine awareness of it’s physical mechanics so that it moves through the world with fluidity and ease, using as little energy as possible to do so, and learn how to control it so that tension can be released consciously. But as the process becomes more subtle, a more subtle domain of understanding begins to emerge, one that is concerned with the nexus between the mental and the physical, the interior and the exterior. With the body as experienced by it’s inhabitor, and the mind as propagated into the material world. This is the domain of prana, the energy body.

When you spend enough time meditating you begin to notice that certain phenomena ordinarily considered to be in the domain of the mental, our emotions in particular, actually manifest themselves mainly as sensation throughout the body. These are not quite the same as coarse physical sensations such as friction, heat or tingling. It’s experienced more like a pooling of energy in certain parts of the body. Though my awareness is not trained enough to be expert in these matters, I’ve always been struck by how undifferentiated these energetic sensations become when you focus on them attentively enough. There is very little difference, for example, between the bare sensations of fear, passion, desire, grief or fondness. The difference lies only in where in the body the sensations are experienced and in how intensely they are experienced, otherwise it’s just energy. It’s what happens when these sensations are interpreted by the brain that things get interesting. Patterns of sensation begin to be affiliated with memories, become symbolic of experiences, and a narrative is applied to them which is fed by our concepts of self-identity. Since there is a perpetual exchange between the different layers of awareness, a feedback loop is created, sensations and narratives reinforce one another and we experience it as a specific type of emotion. By quieting the fluctuations of the mind we discover that we can lessen this process of reinforcement and experience emotion simply as energy, in this way our emotions lose some of their power over us. Another thing that we discover is that with sufficient focus this energy is manipulatable, similar to the way we might redirect the coarser energy of a restless leg away from the leg and into our hands by twiddling our thumbs.

Since the most imminent process by which energy is exchanged between our body and the domains ordinarily considered to be separate from our body is that of respiration, these techniques of energy manipulation tend to begin with and focus most prominently on control of the breath. Contemplating the act of breathing invites us to consider an existential conundrum. When we breathe we allow energy from the outside world into our bodies, however, these areas into which the energy flows are cavities, the energy is gradually distributed into subsequently smaller cavities until the cavities become imperceptibly small. Even if we conceive of this energy as particles it must travel through some kind of cavity in order to distribute itself throughout the body. If the physical body that moves is made from the solid material derived from food, then we can conceive of the body as a porous structure made from food-derived solid material which is impregnated with energy which supports it and propels it throughout the world. However, the idea that this energy, by entering our body cavities has gone from being outside to inside, or from being not me, to me, is simply a semantic formality. The conundrum is this: Is your body the energy or the matter? Is your mind the energy or the matter? Is your consciousness the energy or the matter or is it the empty space that it inhabits? All of these domains are spatio-temporally co-tangential but surely what you are is not simply a spatio-temporal domain by which something can be said to become a part of you simply by crossing an arbitrary boundary, say at the opening of your mouth, or a pore, or the protein channels in a cellular membrane.

In India there is an entire science of the energy of the subjectively experienced body. It is ancient, incredibly complicated, and enjoys remarkable consensus for something so abstract. This energy we are discussing, which is distinct from the ordinary western understanding of energy because of its ability to be transduced into the realm of the subjective, is called Prana. Upon some deep analysis of the distributive patterns of Prana throughout the body it was discovered that it seemed particularly prone to pool in 7 locations throughout the body, and that these patterns of energetic pooling seemed to locate themselves according to particular types of stimuli and tended to be interpreted emotionally and symbolically in different ways according to their location. These 7 locations are called the Chakras.

The Chakras are said to arrange themselves in the centre of the body and follow roughly the path of the spinal column from its base at the sacrum to the top of the head. They correspond to specific systems of the physical body and in turn correspond to an ascending spiritual hierarchy of needs that is in many ways also symbolically related to those systems. They are as follows:

1.) Muladhara Chakra – Also known as the “root” chakra. Located at the base of the pelvic floor, upon which the seated body rests. The sensations that appear here seem to relate mainly to issues of basic survival, to the mundane checklist of ensuring the continued functioning of the body. It is said to be concerned with the physical world and not really with the abstract concepts that seem to stimulate the higher chakras.

2.) Svadisthana Chakra – The second chakra. Located behind the genitals in the lower abdomen. I think most people are fairly well acquainted with the feeling of energy pooling in this part of the body, and also fairly well acquainted with what that energy means. This is the world of desire. Sexual desire in particular, but also sensual gratification in general.

3.) Manipura Chakra – Located around the stomach, this Chakra is said to be concerned with issues of power, influence and control. The link between anxiety, stress and the health of the digestive system is well understood at this point. Most forms of anxiety manifest themselves as intense sensation in the gut and can very easy lead to physical problems like indigestion, food intolerances and ulcer.

4.) Anahata Chakra – The Heart Chakra. At this point the understanding of the energies represented begins to take on a more abstract, metaphysical quality. As we’ve moved up through the chakras we’ve moved from the purely physical, to the relational and then to the egoic. The heart chakra is said to be about love, but it’s a type of love that is quite distinct from sensual desire. Empathy is probably closer to the mark. The feeling of seeing yourself in other people, or the feeling of being connected to the world around you. When your heart stirs, it is the feeling of your separate identity dissolving for just a moment.

5.) Vissudhi Chakra – The Throat Chakra. This one has always seemed the most nebulous to me. The most difficult to pin down the ramifications of. Alot of the popular literature on the subject talks about this chakra, which is centered on the organs of vocalization, as being concerned with creativity and communication, but I think if we accept the model that the arrangement of the chakras represents an ascending spiritual hierarchy of needs, as a journey upwards towards the ultimate self, then most of the feelings associated with the dynamics of art and self-expression fall squarely in the realm of the 3rd chakra, though it seems almost common sense that an energy associated with the ability to communicate attaches itself to the throat. I think what the Vissudhi Chakra is really all about is language. If the lower chakras represent states of relationship with the perceived world, the Vissudhi Chakra represents the creation of the world that we perceive; a world that is for all intents and purposes made out of language.

6.) Ajna Chakra – The Third Eye. Once we relax ourselves past the barrier of the creation of a world of objects through language there is no more distinction between one aspect of the holarchy and any other. There is only form and emptiness staring into each other and seeing one another into being. This is the third eye.

7.) Sahasrara Chakra – Crown Chakra. This chakra is said to be located slightly above the crown of the head. The awareness represented here is one in which all forms of relationship are transcended; Dualism, the 1 that implies 2, the emptiness that implies form. It is the heart of the paradox of being. It is the incomprehensible chaos of God.

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The inward journey that the chakra system proposes is the purpose of virtually all forms of tantra. There are countless methods intended to raise the energy through them and thus achieve the goal of Samadhi. There is also a confused jumble of not-totally-coherent popular wisdom floating around most of which is only tangentially related to tradition. However, regardless of the methods and regardless of how literally you take their spatio-temporal existence it is important to remind ourselves that what the chakras represent is a process of relaxation. A process not of relaxing our body, but of relaxing our identity. The less complicated our identity is, the clearer we see the nature of the self, the nature of the world and the nature of consciousness. The higher we get, the less we know, not because we become ignorant of anything, but because we realize that there are fewer and fewer objects of knowledge to know about. Our ordinary conception of intelligence is turned on its head, the memorization of multitudes of discrete factual minutiae becomes an act of misapprehension and our task becomes remembering the one thing that is. Of course for most of us nature has predisposed us to be attached to one perceptual level or another and this is what we can think of as a blockage in our chakras, but if we are lucky enough to touch those more general echelons of perception perhaps we can conceive of our life as a dance between echelons; between flesh, beast, man, biome, mythos and god, and learn to hold each of them very lightly, secure in the knowledge that whoever we think we are at that moment, we are never merely that.

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Pilgrimage and the Miraculous

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One of the obstacles that anyone raised within a rationalist, nationalist or otherwise materialist cultural mythology inevitably faces when trying to explore the mystical is the presence of the miraculous.

I have experienced the feeling of this presence precious few times. Mostly due, not to a miraculous event, but to settling into a sense of openness and awareness that allowed me to see the miraculous as present in the minute particulars of normal life. Though every once in a while there have been small, private miracles. Strange synchronicities that seem wildly unlikely, oddly connected to the events of my life but not unexplainable in strict scientific terms. I think most people have experienced similar things. Small, forgettable miracles are common enough. It is, however, a weakness of spiritual people to aspire to witnessing the undeniable proof of a causally uncoupled divine force in the world. Some seem to have acquired this proof one way or another, most have not.

My own position is to try to remain open, to admit to uncertainty, to simply observe my subjective experience without feeling obliged to force a conclusion on anyone. For someone so disillusioned by his own deeply ingrained rationalism I think this is the best approach.

Yet in India, unlike the West, claims of the miraculous are not something relegated to dusty scriptures and forgotten legends. There are countless stories of gurus and saints performing unexplainable acts in relatively recent memory, and some are not so easy to dismiss. Neem Karoli Baba, the famous guru of Ram Das, Krishna Das, Daniel Goleman and countless other westerners who came to India in the wake of the 1960’s had hundreds of miracles attributed to him. Ramana Maharshi, Ramakrishna, Yukteshwar Giri, Shirdi Sai Baba, Anandamayi Ma, Meher Baba; these are all beings with photographs taken of them many of whom people currently living have met all of whom have legends surrounding them that are every bit as magical and seemingly impossible as Jesus Christ or Abraham or Mohammed.


Another locus of the miraculous are physical places of particularly potent spiritual energy, usually either the sites of the acts of saints or places of mythological importance, where important scriptural events are said to have occurred. These places tend to have stories of supernatural healing and spiritual awakening associated with them. These are the sites of pilgrimage and they form an important part of most religious traditions, but there is a strange abundance of them in India. One of the most significant is a place called Badrinath, way up in the desolate reaches of the Garhwal Himalayas.

I had a little break in my Yoga training so I decided to use the opportunity to get out of Rishikesh for a few days and have a little spiritual adventure. There are other significant pilgrimages much closer to Rishikesh but few were still accessible so late in the season, so I elected to rent a scooter and brave the journey to Badrinath, an estimated 12 hours away. I found out that the cook from the Yoga school, Ravi, was also planning a trip there. We decided we might as well go together.

About 5 hours outside Rishikesh, in a place called Rudraprayag, we were pulled over by the police. Unbeknownst to me, the scooter I had rented had improper paperwork and expired insurance. Ravi did his best to convince them to look the other way but the fellow in charge seemed a bit more by-the-book then your average Indian policeman. They seized the scooter and apparently slapped the owner with a 14000 rupee fine. This put a bit of a damper on the whole affair, and Ravi suggested we should head back. I told him that he was free to go if he wanted to but that I intended to finish what I started and would just flag down a bus. He thought for a moment and decided that he would continue as well, this time with both of us on the one scooter. I hopped on the back and we set off. Our spirits were a bit low and we were now WAY behind schedule but its hard to stay remorseful in a place that looks like this:

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At a little town called Chamoli the road curves north towards Tibet and you’re suddenly plunged into one of the most astonishing landscapes imaginable, surrounded on all sides by orange cliff’s rising up into the clouds and carrying on as far as you can see, with evergreen trees somehow clinging to the almost vertical planes. Every peak is a precipitous spire and the only way to navigate through is to follow the path of the river, on roads cut out of the sides and winding up and down in an agonizingly long series of switchbacks.

After Joshimath, the last village habitable year-round, the road cuts through a narrow valley and starts the climb up into the higher reaches of the Himalayas. Eventually the trees start to disappear, the temperature drops and the atmosphere takes on a stark, forbidden quality. This is no longer an earthly beauty. This is what philosophers call the sublime. The staggering, terrifying indifference of nature. People come to look for God in places like this because God is the only thing that can live here permanently.

 

Eventually the landscape opens up into a wide, stony plateau surrounded by snow capped peaks and you’re in Badrinath. A place where Narayan, an incarnation of Vishnu, is said to have performed severe penances for the benefit of all mankind.
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Unfortunately for us, a 110cc scooter with 2 grown men on it stops working properly at about 3000 metres. We completed the last 40 kilometres, a rather arduous climb, at a snails pace, no faster then a mountain bike. By the time we got there our 12 hour trip had taken a full day and a half. We couldn’t stay for long. After another day and a half retracing our steps we made it back to Rishikesh barely in one piece, our bodies in terrible pain all over from spending three days on a scooter driving over the bumpy mountain roads. After 3 days of village food and cold weather I finally succumbed to a fever and spent the next day in bed.

In hindsight there was a definitely a smarter, more expeditious and less punishing way to undertake this journey then the way we chose. But somehow our quixotic little adventure was far more potent. Not 100 years ago the journey to these pilgrimage locations would have taken weeks, not days. It would have been no small feat of outdoorsmanship to get there and I’m sure many would set out and not return home. Now there is a paved road right up to the temple with jeeps running up and down and guest houses with hot running water. There’s even a helipad a few kilometres down the mountain so you can complete your holy pilgrimage in true, dystopian luxury should you have the means. Even in so remote a location the data on my phone was working fine and I could text my friends “OMG Made it to Badrinath, very cold but super cool #India #Vishnu #Shanti.”

I think this says something important about our perception of the miraculous in the modern world. I would never dismiss the spiritual potency of the place itself, but there is also a bigger picture to consider. Nothing makes you appreciate the narrow band in which all of the drama of organic life plays out like a trip to its margins. The miracle is not that God is in Badrinath, God is everywhere. The miracle is that we are here. Somehow, against all odds, in a universe otherwise completely hostile to life, in a filmy layer on the surface of a middling planet hurtling around an unremarkable sun in a galaxy with a hundred billion more, there is this impossibly miniscule thread of time and space that nurtures us, holds us and sustains us, and when I say “us” I mean the “us” that includes every amoeba, every parasite, every moss, every mushroom. Everyone you love and every jerk on the street you, incredibly, couldn’t care less about. In a universe 90 billion light years across, ten thousand metres in either direction and we’re all dead meat.

What a fucking miracle.

Om Namo Narayanaya

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Asana and The Path Of Instagram

This is Fah. She’s a lovely young lady from Bangkok that I’ve had the good fortune to befriend while attending this yoga course in Rishikesh. She has a background in acrobatics but has only been practicing yoga for about 8 months.

The unwashed lout seated beside her is yours truly. My background before yoga was mainly in beer and deep-fried snack food. I have, however, been practicing yoga in one form or another, with varying degrees of commitment, for almost 8 years.

We are both here in India studying at a Yoga school to receive certification from a slightly problematic North American institutional body called the Yoga Alliance. The idea of becoming an expert in the physical disciplines which attend yoga after a one month intensive course is ludicrous, but the hope is that we will now be able to teach an exercise class with some spiritual assumptions attached to it without seriously hurting anybody or being a financial liability to whatever facility should play host to such an endeavor. There is sense in this. In order to receive certification one has to prove that they aren’t a health risk. The requirements beyond this are meager. There has been a great deal of criticism leveled at the Alliance because of this fact, but perhaps it’s a good thing. As I’ve tried to repeatedly assert Yoga is a spiritual discipline first and foremost and the idea that an institutional body could even make a claim to certify people as wise would be a very western type of insanity. The idea that a yoga teacher should have to subject themselves to a 4 year degree program at an educational institution mediated by a power dynamic characterized by a tension between the needs of the state, the needs of industry, the needs of deeply ingrained social hierarchies and the needs of the scientific materialist bias to assert itself, as some have suggested is appropriate, makes me deeply uncomfortable. Western society wants so badly for yoga to accept the role that uninformed people have ascribed to it; somewhere between a kind of wimpy aerobics and a not-quite-competent physiotherapy, but with incense and goofy music. I think it’s important that we push back against this tendency. Especially since there is a whole world of yoga out there that has nothing to with physical postures at all.

Anyways, enough politics. This was supposed to be my light-hearted post.

I will now show you a series of pictures of me, with my years of practice, and Fa, 8 months in, doing a few of the poses, or Asanas, from the primary series of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. By doing so I offer my pride and self-esteem up as a sacrifice unto the purifying fire of humiliation that is the internet.

Alright, in fairness to me I have a knee injury and this pose will simply make it worse if I go any deeper. It took me…way longer then it should have to swallow my pride and modify it sufficiently for it to heal.

I’ve been doing several hours of yoga a day for a while now and my hamstrings are so fucking tight. Sometimes I can get my chin to the floor in this pose but not today. Fah has also been doing several hours of yoga a day for a while now and…yeah.

Knee injury = no lotus position for Joel. How the hell am I going to get Instagram famous at this rate?

You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Allright, I’ve got a pretty flexible back and my knee injury and tight hamstrings don’t really interfere with this pose, but then there’s Fah…


Finally! A picture worthy of my closely curated and utterly fabricated online fantasy identity! Surely this will attract droves of wealthy suburbanites in designer tights to my island retreat weekend! Right now I feel pretty fucking cool…Oh…Hi Fah.

Hmmm…maybe I should just stick to my wheelhouse of being a fake know-it-all instead of a fake contortionist.

Alright that’s enough humiliation for one day.

The point that I’m trying to make here is that me and Fah come to this practice with very different bodies, very different genetic backgrounds, very different personal histories and very different challenges, both physical and mental, to overcome. Coming to terms with these challenges is the actual work of yoga, it’s how you turn the physical practice into a spiritual one. Settling into a relationship of acceptance with your bodies limitations and learning to practice anyway, safely, even when things are a bit stiff, or if you’re a bit tired, or if you need to modify things to accommodate an injury, and especially if things don’t look quite as your ego imagines that they should. It’s easy to be envious of Fah’s incredible flexibility, balance and poise. But she will have her own challenges to overcome. They might not be as obvious immediately but they’re there. The practice will continue to place physical obstacles in front of her no matter how far she gets and a good teacher will always be able to detect minor imbalances of alignment that will frustrate her no matter how perfectly she might think she’s doing a given pose. More importantly however, none of this permanent. The stronger your body gets the more it becomes necessary to accept that it will not always be this way. Every body will age, degenerate and decay. In a sense I’m lucky that I’ve been forced to accept so many frustrating truths about my asana practice relatively early on. It might make things easier later. It’s these hard truths that invite us to look inside, to a space beyond our bodies, beyond our genetics and beyond our life story.

In this space me and Fah are exactly alike.

Svasti Prajabhyah Paripalayantam
Nyayena Margena Mahim Mahishah
Gobrahmanebhyah Subhamastu Nithyam
Lokasamastha Sukhinobhavantu
Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

dav

Emptiness and God

dav

As a big city westerner who’s spent most of his life hanging out with punks, metalheads, conceptual artists and various types of moody post-marxist intellectual I think it’s a fairly safe assumption that most of my friends would identify as atheist, or perhaps the less controversial term “agnostic.” It is a community, at least in principle, committed to the unflinching gaze; to the notion that truth does not care about your feelings and that its better to come to terms with the truth then to blissfully ignore it. Often the primacy of the scientific method in determining the truth is assumed to be inviolate and if in it’s scouring of the physical world a cultural value is found to be lacking in credibility then it must be confronted and dispensed with, no matter how provisionally sacred. Many have concluded, not only that God is such a cultural value, but that all conclusions about a reality beyond the ken of our senses or the instruments we use to extend their sensitivity are to be jettisoned.

And so I have imagined this conversation between an unfair caricature of such a person and an overgeneralization of a certain type of Hindu mystic.

“My son, do you believe in God?”

“No”

“Oh, so what do you believe in?”

“I don’t know…nothing.”

“Oh, so you do believe in God”

The interlocutor could just as well have been a follower of Vedanta, Tantra, Shaivism or, indeed, of Yoga. My understanding of these concepts is incomplete and piecemeal, and it’s also important to note that the word God is an imperfect translation of numerous Sanskrit words that each have their own subtle distinctions, but I will attempt to illuminate my own understanding of the issues at hand.

Imagine being a newborn baby. Bursting out of the womb into a buzzing, blooming cacophonous smear. There is no context for any part of the smear to be differentiated from any other part of the smear, there is merely an awareness of this field of colour and sensation where once there was no colour and perhaps only a muted sensation. At this foundational stage of human incarnation there are only 2 things to know. The smear and the time when there was no smear. Almost immediately the brain begins forming boundaries around different parts of the smear that seem to interact with other parts of the smear and the physical world is conjured into being. These formal delineations are the beginnings of language. Without this function of our minds our bodies could not survive in the world but it’s important to note that much of what we take for granted as the state of the physical world, a space inhabited by objects interacting with other objects, is quite literally a figment of our imagination. It is a coping mechanism. What we are conditioned to call the material world is a linguistic construction and what the material world actually is is a single field of energy in a constant state of processional flux. If we pursue this line of reasoning to it’s conclusion then there are really only 2 final objects of knowledge: The smear and that which perceives the smear. In Yoga these 2 concepts are referred to as prakriti, the perceived, and Purusha, the perceiver. In some schools of Tantra and Shaivism they are referred to as Shiva and Shakti. We could just as easily translate it as something and nothing.

These 2 states seem inextricably linked, somehow emptiness is creative, at the very least in the sense that the substance-less thing that perceives is required to complete the relativistic gestalt in order for the physical world to be said to exist and matter seems to go about propagating loci of interaction between the void and its other. A die-hard materialist may be able to convincingly assert that the impossible miracle that is the physical world emerged as a result of random chance, but the idea that that world should then open it’s eyes and be seen by a formless identity embedded within it but clearly distinct from it doesn’t seem to equate with our concepts of causal procedure. There is a formless witness somehow sheltered from the currents of causality and the simple fact of the matter is that it is inconceivable for the physical world to exist at all without this formless witness to perceive it. This formless witness is what is staring out of your eyes right now. Emptiness is the creative force from which everything springs. A fairly fitting definition for the concept of God. And so if you are reading this then you are God.

Somehow the physical world has been compelled to organize itself towards self-apprehension. The cascade of cyclic emergence proceeds with perfect elegance towards the construction of conduits between emptiness and form. The physical world appears random when investigated based on a self-contained causality. Yet the totally absurd, impossible luck that any of this should actually occur despite an infinitude of other options seems to suggest a purpose. Since a world that isn’t perceived by it’s reciprocal is inconceivable, the purpose of any conceivable world is to create itself by creating the path to it’s opposite; a perfectly stable, eternal and omnipotently creative force of pure awareness. The process of the physical world apprehending this force of pure awareness is what enlightenment is. If we are conscious beings we are already enlightened. The formal bodily procedures by a physical being that are called enlightenment, samadhi, or God-realization are merely ways for the human body to relax into a relationship of trust and fearlessness in the face of this fact. Certain bodies are more predisposed to this process then others, and so proceeds all the sturm und drang of the human experience.

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Hinduism is an easy religion to misunderstand. For one thing it’s not really any one religion, but a patchwork of mythological and philosophical traditions that got lumped together by British bureaucrats in the 1700’s. More importantly the dizzying pantheon of gods and supernatural entities doesn’t seem to fit with the inexpressible simplicity of the above philosophy, which is essentially cribbed from various mystical Hindu traditions. It’s important to state that Hinduism has been profaned by paranoid fundamentalism just as all the other great religions have, but I think there is a subtler, more holistic understanding that explains the traditions persistence in the face of modernism, as well as it’s appeal to inquisitive spiritual minds dissatisfied by the anxious positivism of the west.

There is a problem associated with the belief that a thing’s existence is contingent upon being perceived. That problem is that our mind is the filter through which everything we perceive is passed prior to its perception, and the vast majority of what we perceive is vastly distinct from what the scientific mindset has demarcated as the material world. We’ve already discussed the world of concepts, of narratives, of linguistic objects which inform the way the vast majority of us experience the physical world the vast majority of the time. These are non-physical objects of perception. Then there are dreams and hallucinations, as well as the creative imagination which creates the mythologies, symbols and archetypes that for much of history defined the linguistic paradigms upon which the human psyche built its conception of the physical world. These are all non-physical objects of perception, and if you believe that the only meaningful test of a things existence is that it is perceived then they have just as much a claim to realness as any property of the material world. They are, in fact, themselves properties of the material world in the only sense that is meaningful. We are the builders of our world, and we can either build a world populated by lifeless particulate bumping into each other or we can build a world of gods and goddesses and elemental forces and mythological archetypes. Of Logos and Mythos and Eros. The latter seems more complete to me, but both realities are provisionally true. It is your choice whether or not you adopt an attitude of devotion and love towards your reality, whatever it is. I submit that it’s the only attitude that makes any sense.

Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what you believe, but how you approach life. An atheist is just as likely to be an ethical, introspective person as any spiritualist. Indeed, many atheists adopt their position because of the moral failings and logical contortions of religious fundamentalism. But in my view they’re missing an important part of the picture. Religious fundamentalists are atheists.

By demanding that works of deep, divine inspiration lower themselves to masquerading as mere history; By insisting that archetypal symbols of transcendence are relegated to being imprisoned by the formal boundaries of physicality, simply a more powerful version of the lowest conception of what a conscious being is; By assuming that the highest aspiration of revelation is that it should basically function like a technical manual for a complicated fridge, fundamentalism is revealed to rest on a far more entrenched materialist bias then any atheist could ever have. At least science, in its purest form, is axiomatically committed to change. As the search for the truth behind the physical world becomes murkier and more troubled by absurdity and paradox and as the transparent fraudulence of religious fundamentalism becomes less connected to the actual spiritual experience, the lines between what it means to be spiritual and what it means to be a materialist are blurring. In the most extreme cases they are all but switching roles.

At the end of the day I don’t really know any of this stuff for sure. It’s wise to be suspicious of people who claim certainty in these matters. It’s almost always a mark of dishonesty. I have attempted here to rationally explain something that is best apprehended through transcendence of the rational mind, and that thing has no doubt suffered for it. So be it. I think the best strategy for a life well lived is to simply surrender to the mystery, to understand that there are truths we are not privy to and to appreciate life for the miracle that it is.

It’s more important to be love then to be right, and you don’t need to believe anything in particular to do that.

Hare Krishna Hare Krishna
Krishna Krishna Hare Hare
Hare Rama Hare Rama
Rama Rama Hare Hare

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