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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

The Buddha as an ascetic. Gandhara, 2-3rd cent...
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One shorthand way I’ve come to think about yoga and other eastern religions is that its practitioners become adept at turning their attention away from stress, conflict, tragedy, etc. of mortal life and towards inner sources of tranquility and peace.  Basically, the meditative training helps one to experience a less conflicted and stressed-out life.

With this in mind,  I started Mircea Eliade‘s tome Yoga: Immortality and Freedom where,  in Chapter 1, Eliade – an academic authority on the topic – gets right to THE main point of Yoga and its historical antecedents found in the writings of ancient mystics, ascetics and Samkhya philosophy that sought to understand mortal and immortal components of man:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit”  – that is, confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation [from suffering] can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished.

OK, so Yoga will help emancipate me from suffering.  In plain-speak,  I will become (with practice) less stressed by the aches and pains and viscisitudes of life, which, in turn, yields a great many health benefits.  Sounds reasonable from a pure science point of view.  Nevertheless, Eliade emphasizes:

From the time of the Upanishads India rejects the world as it is and devaluates life as it reveals itself to the eyes of the sage – ephemeral, painful, illusory.  Such a conception leads neither to nihilism nor to pessimism.  This world is rejected, this life depreciated, because it is known that something else exists, beyond becoming, beyond temporality, beyond suffering.

Reject this world?  Really?  Is it so horrible?  If this life is so ridden with “universal suffering”, then why do yoga teachers always remind us to, “live in the moment”?  In the past months, I’ve been trying to embrace these passing moments … the rays of sun falling through the branches, the sound of the breeze, a momentary expression on my child’s face … you know … the moment.  I was really digging this aspect of yoga and its emphasis on the here and now and embracing the myriad small pleasures in life.  This effort has made my life more peaceful and full.  Eliade pops my yoga bubble further:

Intrinsically, then, this universal suffering has a positive, stimulating value.  It perpetually reminds the sage and the ascetic that but one way remains for him to attain freedom and bliss – withdrawal from the world, detachment from possessions and ambitions, radical isolation.

Is this where a yoga practice leads?  Radical isolation?  Avoiding all these precious so-called “painful” moments (children laughing, birds singing, waves splashing, etc. etc.).  Say it aint so Mircea!  I was really enjoying these moments.  The meditative practice of yoga has brought joy and calm to my everyday experience – an experience of a hundred passing, ordinary moments.

Hope to come to a deeper understanding of this central “Doctrine of Yoga” in the chapters to come.  I suspect that the purpose of Yoga is (from the philosophical point of view) somewhat loftier than to simply make its practitioners more joyful and calmer.  The super hard-core yogis of the past were probably seeking something more profound – full freedom, emancipation, immortality, samadhi etc.

Worthwhile to be sure, but, for me, for now, not at the expense of all the ordinary passing moments in life.

Post script: A closer look at the word “suffering” shows that it is translated from the sanskrit “dukha” which really just means discomfort or tension.  From wikipedia:

“It is perhaps amusing to note the etymology of the words sukha (pleasure, comfort, bliss) and duḥkha (misery, unhappiness, pain). The ancient Aryans who brought the Sanskrit language to India were a nomadic, horse- and cattle-breeding people who travelled in horse- or ox-drawn vehicles. Su and dus are prefixes indicating good or bad. The word kha, in later Sanskrit meaning “sky,” “ether,” or “space,” was originally the word for “hole,” particularly an axle hole of one of the Aryan’s vehicles. Thus sukha … meant, originally, “having a good axle hole,” while duhkha meant “having a poor axle hole,” leading to discomfort.”

So I need not remain hung-up on a tradition that tells me to both “live in the moment” and also “that these precious moments are chock full of suffering”.  Even happy experiences come with some underlying tension and uncertainty.  Indeed, the mind can easily wander its way from a happy to a troubled state in a few seconds.  Yes, there is constant tension to varying degrees in life.  How is it that yoga can help a person minimize their experience of this tension?

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animated Young experiment demonstration, animo...
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A few weeks ago my guru passed along a video entitled, “What the BLEEP Do We Know” / “Down the Rabbit Hole” which explores the so-called Double-slit experiments.  In these experiments, it was found that single photons were able to travel through 2 separate slits simultaneously – thus violating all manner of physical laws (how the heck can an object be in two places at the same time?).  Furthermore, it was found that whenever the experimenters (reviewed here) were able to observe, detect, or deduce, which slit a photon travelled through, the typical “dual slit” interference pattern (shown here) instantly disappeared.

Strangely, it seems that interference patterns seem to appear only when a photon’s path is unknown.  Even weirder is that when 2 photons are sent to separate detectors, they seem to “know” whether one-another will generate a specific interference pattern.  This so-called phenomena of “quantum entanglement” and other such examples of spooky action-at-a-distance where 2 separate “widely separated objects share the same existence”  have spawned all manner of new-agey and spiritual endeavors to link these quantum-level phenomena with human spirituality.  Here’s just one example.

A recently published research article entitled, “How much free will is needed to demonstrate nonlocality?” explores the relationship between quantum entanglement and human thought.  According to Technology Review,

“if an experimenter lacks even a single bit of free will then quantum mechanics can be explained in terms of hidden variables. Conversely, if we accept the veracity of quantum mechanics, then we are able to place a bound on the nature of free will.”

Bounds on free will?  Apparently so – if you follow the quantum physics.  Is this a way to think about, or perhaps scientifically validate, the notion of karma?  Perhaps only in a general way – that our thoughts and actions are somehow bounded by the consequences of our choices and experiences as well as the choices and experiences of others in the present and past.

I’m not  free, but happily inter-connected.

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This picture depicts the seven major Chakras w...
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Am really enjoying reading  Carl Jung‘s 1932 lectures on The Psychology of Kundalini Yoga edited by Sonu Shamdasani.

Jung focuses on the chakra symbols – which have many different biological, physiological and psychological interpretations.  To Jung, the chakra symbols reflect a natural psychological process of self-awareness and spiritual development.  In the Kundalini Yoga tradition, there begins a “natural awakening” that occurs in life that motivates a person to pursue endeavors that have some sort of personal “meaning” rather than be content with just the basic ordinary existence.  I guess we all get tired of just payin’-the-bills, so to speak?

According to the ancient vedic texts, the “Kundalini” refers to a symbolic female serpent that awakens and starts to rise up inside of us.  In the very earliest stages of this awakening one goes from the low self-awareness of ordinary day-to-day life to a higher state of self-awareness – a more personal inner-awareness of our devotions, purpose or motivations.  His words from lecture 1:

Some strange urge underneath forces them to do something which is not just the ordinary thing.

This is a common, wonderful aspect of our lives right?  Don’t we all hit a point where we want to do something “special” with our lives?  I can’t help but think of all the coaches, music teachers, artists, etc. etc., that I’ve met in my life who weren’t happy just payin-the-bills and opted to do something “special” with their time.

But there lies some danger in trying to do something “special” !

If we step off the path of the ordinary, practical concerns of daily life to do something unconventional or “for the love of it”, we risk losing the safety and stability of our everyday life.  The banker who leaves work early to coach a little league team may put his career at risk.  The kid who chooses music as a major instead of accounting similarly trades a staid (boring) future for a more impoverished (but perhaps fulfilling) future.  And so on and so on.  We’ve all been there.

In terms of the chakra symbols, the shift from this lowest, ordinary, root, muladhara stage to the next swadhisthana stage involves a symbolic shift from earth to waterThis can be seen in the images on the chakra symbols:  a stable elephant in the root chakra and the sea with a leviathan as depicted in the next higher level chakra symbol (shown here).  Jung says the shift from “ordinary life” to the pursuit of a “meaningful life” is naturally fraught with psychological fear given the inherent risks, uncertainty and possibility of failure.

This very normal and common human psychological transition, he points out, has long been recognized by other ancient cultures.  Similarly, they characterized this very common psychological shift as one from earth to water.  I guess its not all that surprising if you think of the fear you’d have if thrown in the water and unable to swim (no such thing as swim lessons back in the day).  Jung opines:

The way into any higher development leads through water, with the danger of being swallowed by the monster.  If you study the beautiful mosaic pictures in the Baptistry of the Orthodox in Ravenna … you see four scenes depicted on the wall: two describe the baptism of Christ in the Jordan; and the fourth is St. Peter drowning in a lake during a storm …  Baptism is a symbolic drowning.

So perhaps the very first steps in taking on a new “meaningful” direction in life – from simply payin’ the bills to doing something personally fulfilling – is to face the inherent uncertainties and fears.  To move into the murky depths and confront the possibility of failure and loss.

OK.  I will try and ground my sit bones into the water – rather than the earth!

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The Monkey Baba
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Is there such a thing as a “true” guru?   A gentle sage atop a mountain who lives only to practice and nurture the spiritual growth of students? Like many students, I’ve always carried this idealized and universal notion close to my heart.  Back in school, my favorite professors were the genuine, off-beat ones who really lived for their work.  Today, as a new yoga student, I feel the same way about the teachers who genuinely seem to live and breathe yoga.

Nevertheless, in the real world, this ideal can, understandably, be hard to live up to.  Ask Jews, Catholics and Protestants as to which group is more “true” or follows the “real”, “orthodox” or idealized tradition.  Better yet – don’t go there.  Nor Sikh, Hindu, Shia or Sunni, etc. etc.  Since their dawn, spiritual pursuits have had a natural tendency to splinter and sub-divide as zealous followers strive to maintain the “pure”, “true”, “uncorrupted” ideals of their faith – hence, thousand years of religious war.  Indeed, the desire for spiritual purity is a powerful force.

Recently, the blogospere was buzzing about John Friend, a well-liked and highly regarded teacher and founder of Anusara yoga (nicely summarized here).  Some of the buzz centered on the age-old question of whether the new tradition of Anusara yoga is really, truly valid and also whether Friend is a “true” guru or more of a (now rather wealthy) profit-seeking entrepreneur.

True or phoney.  Its an age-old, passion-inflaming topic to be sure – great for driving blogosphere traffic!  Even for yoga, its an issue that is thousands of years old (see David Gordon-White‘s “Sinister Yogis“).  From his book page:

Combing through millennia of South Asia’s vast and diverse literature, he discovers that yogis are usually portrayed as wonder-workers or sorcerers who use their dangerous supernatural abilities—which can include raising the dead, possession, and levitation—to acquire power, money, and sexual gratification. As White shows, even those yogis who aren’t downright villainous bear little resemblance to Western assumptions about them. At turns rollicking and sophisticated, Sinister Yogis tears down the image of yogis as detached, contemplative teachers, finally placing them in their proper context.

Of course, the recent blogosphere buzz about John Friend is nothing of this sort – its just a few impassioned blog posts here and there (watch Yoga Inc. for a more intense debate).

Perhaps this reflects one of the great things about yoga.  Even with its own age-old debate of “true guru vs. showman”, it remains so uniquely free of the epic strife and hard feelings associated with other spiritual traditions.  Its bare-bones, bare-foot simplicity offers little for debate and intellectual hang-ups and makes it easy to accommodate its many splintered traditions within any given yoga shala.

I came across these remarks by Carl Jung made in 1936 in his work, “Yoga and the West” – who seemed to parse the issues quite handily and foresee the over-hyping to come:

“Yoga was originally a natural process of introversion. … Such introversions lead to characteristic inner processes of personality changes.  In the course of several thousand years these introversions became gradually organized as methods, and along widely different ways.”

“I can, however say something about what it [yoga] means for the West.  Our lack of direction borders on psychic anarchy.  Therefore any religious or philosophical practice amounts to a psychological discipline, and therefore a method of psychic hygiene.”

“Yoga is mainly found in India now as a business proposition and woe to us when it reaches Europe.”

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Synthetic made gold crystals by the chemical t...
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As I mentioned earlier (here), I really enjoyed David Gordon White‘s  The Alchemical Body – an in-depth exploration into the interplay of yoga with spiritualityalchemy and the local political economics of India from 1,500 years ago and even earlier.

Before science and spirituality became dis-integrated, separate explorations (in the past 200 years), they were tightly intertwined and integrated for thousands of years in the practice of ALCHEMY.  Just as alchemists (yogis were among the first and best alchemists!) tried to transmutate lesser metals into gold, they also sought to improve and perfect their bodies and minds.  Eventually, the process became quite standardized across cultures along both chemical and psychological dimensions.

Here is an awesome blog post from Modus Vivendi entitled, “What I learned as a scientist from the 7 steps in alchemical transformation“.  I love the first of 7 steps:

Calcination – Basically this means to destroy the substance.  Normally by burning it to ashes. Mentally it is the destruction of the ego.

Yoga postures can be so darn difficult.  Practice certainly has a way of crushing the ego.  Much to explore here as modern science increasingly seeks to re-integrate science and spirituality.

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Shakti
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Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV.  One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the  University of California, Los Angeles.  [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010].  Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions.  More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen.  Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use.  It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use.  That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.

Very neat indeed!  although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical.  This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough.  In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds).  Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).

The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present.  As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”

Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions?  This research makes it seem possible.  Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators?  Who knows.  As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity.  One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,

“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.

Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it.  Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!

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Mood Broadcasting
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Like many folks, I generally feel better ever since I started practicing yoga.  Outwardly, my body is (slowly) growing stronger and more flexible and perhaps (hopefully) soon, I’ll even lose a few pounds.  However, even if I was to convince myself that looked slimmer (skinny mirrors?), the only way to really know if I’ve lost weight, is to stand on a scale and record my weight each day (darn! no fatness lost so far).

That takes care of the body right – but what about the inner, emotional improvements I might be experiencing?  How to measure these?

Here are some mobile- and web-based tools to help one track one’s emotions.  Most of these websites, like Moodstats, Track Your Happiness, MoodJam, MoodMill, Finding Optimism and MoodLog seem to function as online diaries which keep a running tab on aspects of ones moods and emotions.  Perhaps such tools – if used over long durations – would enable one to verify a shift toward a less anxious and more contented inner feeling?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the real proof of “inner” progress would be that I had closed my computer and put away my mobile device and, rather, was outside enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.  Perhaps best to avoid mixing yoga and digital distractions.

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