Using the Yogic Paths During Times of Unsettlement:
Each of you, I’m sure is witnessing how fear is a daily reality right now as this in-the-face unknown looms across the globe. I suspect this unknown is also being magnified, at least in the US, by a cultural norm of focusing on the physical body. If you are uncertain what I mean by this just scroll your Instagram feed for twenty to thirty seconds; there are likely to be multiple examples of this somatic-based mentality. The modern Yoga scene tends to amplify this hyper awareness, with a greater focus on haṭha and the physical practices associated with the term Yoga. So much so that many folks, in this modern culture, associate the term Yoga only with āsana (the physical postures). I am sure, none of this is new news to many of you reading this post. We honor birth and youth as we run in fear from illness and death. We as a culture are truly challenged by the continually spinning wheel of saṁsāra, birth and death.
In this series of writings, I offer you three historical Yogic approaches to facing uncertainty and life as an embodied being. Each path (mārga) – Jñāna, Rāja and Bhakti (hyperlinks offered for further investigation) offer a different perspective in the practice of self-study, svādhyāya and the aim of Yoga’s true purpose to yoke (yuj) or unite with the divineness within and without.
We begin with Jñāna, the path of wisdom and knowledge. This Yogic lens encourages truth seeking. Who am I? What am I experiencing as I live in this body? Swami Sivananda, world renown Yoga philosopher and teacher, encourages us to identify the Truth (as he named it) by understanding it as changing phenomena. “Everything, all matter in the universe, is constantly changing, that is the only Truth there is. The baby is born and we say he or she is already one day old – not one day young.” Here his words connect to how our words come from a basis of future-based fear. “Fear comes from avidyā (ignorance),” he underlines.
In Jñāna Yoga we investigate and reflect on what is the Truth, what is really lasting. “Is it the body?,” Swami Sivananda asks. “No. It is just a beautiful instrument,” he reminds us. He points us to notice where avidyāattempts to rule our understandings of what life in this body is and means. Personally, I faced this stark realization at a very young age when doctors gave me a fifty percent chance of survival from a life-threatening illness. My “beautiful instrument” brought me to an immediate and obvious first thought, without it (the body) there is no life, a deep quick reality check for a twenty-year-old. During the endless months of chemotherapy and radiation I unsuspectingly embarked into the inner world of self. It was scary and quite disorienting. Though I had grown up with a faith in Divineness I battled often to understand it more, to have true faith in the Truth. As my flesh suit’s, one my teacher’s description of the physical body, insides burned with chemicals and the skin turned a charred black I was convinced all my chances for a “fulfilling” life in a continued career as a model was completely nixed. My ego fought hard as I accumulated scars from procedure after procedure left me marked forever; and as strand by clump of hair fell in the shower, into the sink when I would brush it, and caught in my clothing as I put them on (the prior years I had been a hair model) the only dream I had ever envisioned for myself was diminishing rapidly.
Gratefully, one day as I rummaged through the dusty bookshelves of a used bookstore a series of texts about sages living in a mountainous setting was discovered. Reading this series of books, Life and Teachings of the Masters of the Far East, became my daily sādhanā (practice). A profound inner evolution was set into motion which I continue to pursue still, over thirty years later. I came to discover, through reading the texts, how the turning of every moment comes with temptations and desire, kāma, keeping a constant motion toward a perceived fulfillment. Working, making money and buying things coo us into feeling a temporary fulfillment of these desires. When these desires are interrupted or unfulfilled the ego rears up causing a range of expressions and actions, fighting on behalf of the kāma. Some folks are crushed by these pursuits. Their thoughts turn to words like failure, others ignore the under-stirrings completely by numbing the senses – taking tablets, drinking alcohol, doing drugs, eating disagreeable foods or sleeping too much. Another may blame parents or the world in general so feelings within can be discounted.
The teachings of the ancient sages offers another choice, to surrender to wisdom, as the experience of fear attempts to overwhelm. In Yoga, as a complete life practice, one does not only invest in the body; there is also an investment in the mind. Avidyā is a real disrupter and distractor. The ego can hide behind fear, behind arrogance, behind being “the best.” It wants the power to control everything and it manifests in different ways. Fear often expresses as a very deep-rooted saṃskāra, an impression that often becomes habitual in both positive and challenging ways. I have learned from the ancient saints, sages and many teachers it is habits of the ego facing us when fear surfaces. It took me that year of deep physical pain to realize how I associated losing this body, the beautiful instrument with losing my whole identity.
When we face the egoic aspects of self an opportunity to transcend is presented. Svādhyāya, self-study, coupled with openness to the teachings of others is the Yogic mārga, Jñāna. If one has many fears, this may be a signal of a strong identification with ego and body/mind. If one chooses to investigate a saṁskāra, habitual habit, space is generated for an expansion into self-understanding. The mind makes mental modifications, cracking and making space for new conditions to exist within the mind. It is then a matter of what one fills those cracks with, such as inspiring texts, meditative contemplation or devotional practices.
The mind is where I began my Yogic path decades ago. I quickly learned, while fighting the egoic attachments fueled by a deep mind-set and societal influences, I am not just this “beautiful instrument” of flesh and bone. It has been a tough lesson for someone who banked twenty-ish years of life on her looks. Over time Yogic philosophy and daily sādhanā has also firmly taught me I am also not just a mind. The mind is also a changing phenomena, hovering around the soul, Ātman or Self – that center point which never changes. It is this aspect of the Yogic journey we will consider in the next post on the mārga of Rāja.
If you are curious about generating a Jñāna inspired practice here are a few suggestions for readings:
The Inner Tradition of Yoga by Michael Stone
Letters from the Yoga Masters by Marion Mugs McConnell
Polishing The Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart by Ram Dass
Falling into Grace: Insights on the End of Suffering by Adyashanti
WOULD YOU LIKE TO START on this mārgā now? Join the Yoga Folk Book Club.