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?