Monday, September 27, 2010

Involuntary Complicity vs. Voluntary Simplicity

Ever since Duane Elgin’s book Voluntary Simplicity, first published in 1981, there has been a ground swell of good-intentioned folk who, for one reason or another, seek to simplify their life. Some do it to aid the ailing environment, others do it for economic reasons, yet others because they have become tired of the rat race.

The overriding majority of the population, by contrast, is pinned on consumerism. They are engaging in what I call involuntary complicity. Their attitude is involuntary, because it is largely unconscious. It can be characerized as a form of complicity, because by buying into the economic system, they support the multinationals and the rich. Their complicity undermines everyone’s wellbeing and the future of our species and numerous others.

The reason for this devastating consequence is not far to seek, because consumerism—the more or less compulsive (and certainly mindless) acquisition and consumption of material goods—continues to devastate the environment on the one side and enrich the wealthy minority on the other. There are now 840,000 multimillionaires and over 400 billionaires in the United States alone. Twenty percent of the world’s wealthiest people own upward of 75 percent of the world’s income. By comparison, 3 billion out of 6 people live on less than $2 per day and 1.3 billion on less than $1!

Together, these two trends are bound to greatly disadvantage the middle class and significantly increase the hardship of the poor and marginal sectors of North American society, not to speak of the already underprivileged and truly poor of the so-called Third World. The greed and thoughtless consumption of the First World causes great harm in other parts of the world, and it destroys our common human heritage.

In light of this, it makes perfect sense to practice the yogic virtue of greedlessness (aparigraha). At least, I think so. Pairing back makes sense. Learning to repair things rather than buying replacements also makes sense, as does the by now old message of reusing and recycling.

As Yoga practitioners—and especially as Yoga teachers make money of Yoga—we ought to make more than token gestures and begin to live like yogins and yoginīs—as simply and as conscious of our society’s far-reaching destructive impact on the world as we can. If we can’t find compassion for the billions of fellow humans who are less, far less fortunate than we are, then let’s consider what our indifference might mean for us in karmic terms. We might find ourselves among those disadvantaged and disheartened folk whose plight we ignored in this life. Have a nice day!

Georg Feuerstein

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Future is Open

We must assume that there are many pathways into the future. At the human level, nothing is predetermined. If I show kindness toward a neighbor, I am likely to earn his or her good will. If I am mean spirited, I will very likely alienate him or her.

Thus, our actions matter. They matter more than we would like to think. Fatalism is not a valid option. The belief in fate (moira) was, I think, a weakness of the ancient Greeks despite the genius of their great ones who forayed far into the fields of philosophical and protoscientific inquiry. We need not repeat their error. We can learn from history if we care to.

We also need not repeat the erroneous belief in progress, which arose with the technological development of the eighteenth century. As we can witness all around us, progress is not inevitable. If anything, it is a slippery slope. Any astute observer of the environment will by now know beyond any shadow of a doubt that, all supposed technological progress notwithstanding, we have messed up royally.

Change is certain. Whether we can make it a positive experience for us is entirely our choice in every moment. What needs to happen, then? First, we must recognize that we can determine our future as individuals and as a species. Second, we must realize that we are capable of choosing wisely.

What is wisdom? And how do we generate it in us? Wisdom is knowledge that entails self-transcendence and aims at the good not only of the person claiming wisdom but all human beings and also all nonhuman beings as well as the natural environment. This is a very broad definition, but I can see very little wisdom, if any, in knowledge that offers less than that.

Because wisdom has a moral component, we must consciously cultivate it, which is a matter of discipline. Knowledge as information is readily available and requires no special fitness on the part of the person wanting to acquire it. Not so with wisdom. It is knowledge that grasps the whole human personality, not just the intellect. Hence we could call it “integral knowledge.” A wise individual is not merely clever, but he or she radiates good-heartedness—the kind of person whom you would seek out when you are in trouble.

Yogins and yoginīs who immerse themselves in the wisdom tradition of Yoga have an undoubted advantage over most other people. By practicing Yoga as a lifestyle, they can themselves elicit the quality of wisdom. That’s why, in contemporary parlance, Yoga is so cool.

Georg Feuerstein

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Poise, Posturing, and Posture

Let me say upfront: I am NOT against postures. I am NOT against bodily exercises. I am NOT against bodily existence.

I am asking, however, whether poise is not more important than posture and whether all too often, yogic posture ends up as posturing. What do I mean by “poise”? According to the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (that`s a mouthful!), the word “poise” has several connotations, and one meaning conveys “elegant bodily carriage.” In the 16th century, the term was associated with “weight” and “weightiness” or “importance.” Another relevant connotation is “balance” or “steadiness.” For an object (i.e., the human body) moving through space, these are obviously desirable qualities. My own definition of “poise” would be something like: The physical disposition of the body sustained by an attitude of inner (i.e., mental) balance and mindfulness.

“Posturing” is first of all not mindful, not poised. It is a false stance springing from a false inner attitude. What is false about it is that it is shot through with egocentrism. By comparison, poise has a quality of self-transcendence to it.

The Yoga-Sūtra (2.46) defines posture as a meditation seat that is “easeful” and “stable.” It involves (2.47) a measure of relaxation and (2.48) of sensory inhibition.

A properly executed yogic posture thus includes mental poise, as understood above. Posture is poised and not postured. In other words, posture serves the ultimate purpose of Yoga, which is spiritual liberation.

In contemporary Yoga practice, posture is all too often pursued in a egocentric manner and without bearing its traditional objective in mind. It resembles more posturing than poise. While a postured Yoga posture can still benefit a practitioner in terms of health and fitness, its spiritual potential remains untapped. This, I think, is unfortunate. What is your opinion?

Georg Feuerstein

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Other Side of Partner Yoga

“Partner Yoga” is a very popular feature of Modern Postural Yoga in which two people assist one another in executing postures, with an eye on the aesthetic side. This is often introduced and performed as a matter of seemingly harmless “fun.”

I want to make some comments about this approach based on years of having considered the available and expanding literature and on directly observing couples (in the generic sense of the word) performing postures conjointly.

While it could be argued that Yoga has not stopped developing, I believe that some recent innovations should be questioned. Partner Yoga is such a recent innovation. It may be ”fun,” but it is neither necessarily harmless nor in keeping with the original intent of Yoga. Some Partner Yoga enthusiasts have speculated that this method is part of Tantra and as such has been around for thousands of years. As someone who has researched traditional Yoga for several decades, I can honestly say that Partner Yoga is indeed a new concept, which entered the contemporary Yoga movement perhaps as late as 1979. Ganga White and Tracy Rich of White Lotus Yoga lay claim to being the inventors of this type of postural practice.

To speak bluntly, it would never have occurred to yogins to practice postures with someone’s assistance, never mind in order to have “fun.” Traditionally yogins have, by and large, been loners who preferred the forest or mountain cave, or the privacy of their hermitage over a village, town or noisy city, and they were eager to practice whatever postures they had adopted by themselves to ensure quiet and proper inwardness.

The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country's defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult.

The idea of “fun” is very much a product of modern culture, which places a premium on personal pleasure. The word “fun” did not exist before the 17th century, which was a time when aspiring empires colonized the world and imported luxury goods like tea and coffee, when the scientific revolution led to unbridled optimism and when—symbolic of the age—ice cream was invented.

The declared purpose of traditional Yoga is not pleasure but bliss or, more precisely, inner freedom. Its goal is spiritual liberation (moksha), which nowadays is either ignored or downplayed. But without spiritual FREEDOM, Yoga is not Yoga but, at best, a modern adaptation. As you know, movie “adaptations” of novels rarely match the quality of the original. In the case of Yoga, we have made something of a novel out of reality.

Now, I believe that Partner Yoga is a fictionalized account of the Kāma-Sūtra (main text on the erotic arts) rather than Yoga. It is not as harmless as many teachers maintain. If the partners in Partner Yoga are in a committed intimate relationship, and they practice in private, I have no objection other than: That's new-fangled stuff that does not foster the kind of inward-mindedness (pratyak-cetanā) that marks traditional Yoga. `With the emphasis being on “fun”—or pleasure—it cannot be. Fun throws one outside oneself. We must pay attention to the outside world in order to have fun. Also, if one has to be mindful of making our partner's postural performance safe, only the most advanced Yoga practitioner can stay focused on his or her own spiritual process.

If the partners in Partner Yoga are basically strangers, it seems inevitable that some of the postures would be diffused with sexual energy that invites the kind of behaviour that traditional Yoga practitioners seek carefully to avoid. In their advertising, some schools clearly play on this possibility to make their method more marketable. Partner Yoga is often presented as having a connection with Tantra, which makes the whole affair exciting rather than calming.

Those who argue that some of the partner postures are aesthetically beautiful should bear in mind that Yoga is primarily about the realization of spiritual freedom and not about any aesthetic value, though Yoga is not against aesthetics, as we know from the example of the great tenth-century Tantric master Abhinavagupta.

I have no delusion that Partner Yoga will continue as an aspect of Modern Postural Yoga for the reasons hinted at above (and others), but people need to know that it is a Western innovation and has never been part of traditional Yoga. Period.

Georg Feuerstein

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Are the Yamas (Moral Disciplines) of Yoga Unnecessary? (3)

This is the second and only surviving version of the third part. The first, better version was gobbled up with great relish by my computer due to an error on my part.

Anyway, in Part 2 of this blog, I explained that Krishna taught Karma-Yoga as the self-transcending way for busy people like Prince Arjuna. We were left with the question: What is appropriate action? I will try to answer it here.

The qualifying adjective “appropriate” is my English paraphrase of the Sanskrit term kārya, which means literally “to be done.” This term is frequently found in association of niyata, which is normally rendered as “allotted” or “necessary,” implying that everyone has obligatory work to do depending on his or her place or role in society. Arjuna had to fight because he was a warrior. Even given India’s hierarchical society, this is only conditionally true. In the Bhagavad-Gītā (18.63), Krishna said to his disciple: “Reflecting on this completely, then do as you wish.”

This is a resounding affirmation of personal free will, which Krishna made despite his earlier (18.61) insistence that he, Krishna as the Divine is “whirling all [these] beings by [His] creative-power (māyā), [as if they were] mounted on a machine.” This statement suggests that beings are involuntarily made to act in certain ways. This is also suggested by some of Krishna’s other remarks. How does this tally with the idea of free will?

Everything in the cosmos (prakriti) happens of its own accord, because everything is driven by karma. Subjectively, however, we appear to be able to choose between one thing and another. This “illusion” is important, because it allows us to grow morally and spiritually. In other words, for us as unenlightened beings, free will is very real. For Krishna, as the Divine (or, as an enlightened being), past and future are eternally present and everything has already happened—a mind-boggling and inexplicable paradox. Thus, Krishna knew in advance that the brave warriors of the Bharata war, with few exceptions, would be slain and that the Pāndavas would be victorious. He therefore had no qualms about recommending to Arjuna that he should fight.

A baker is trained to be a good baker, but he is free to refuse to get up early in the morning to bake. If a baker were to decide to behave like a tailor instead, he would not violate any inviolable law. He would, however, undermine his livelihood. Also, in Hindu India’s traditionalist society, he would break certain caste rules. If taxi drivers wanted to be lawyers, lawyers wanted to be physicians, and physicians wanted to be religious leaders, it is easy to see how a highly stratified society as Hindu India would end up in a state of confusion. But, according to Krishna, everyone is free to choose.

There is such a thing as one’s inner nature (svabhāva), which makes some people excellent sportsmen, others fine merchants, and yet others brilliant intellectuals. We ought to inspect ourselves carefully before we choose one professional path over another. This applies not only to our professional life but to all life situations, as they unfold in front of us. If we are wise, we will choose appropriately.

Hence Krishna (18.47) states: “Better is [one’s] own-law imperfectly [carried out] than another’s law well-performed.” The editors of the Bhagavad-Gītā deemed this utterance important enough to repeat it verbatim at 3.35.

Krishna’s teaching, then, champions neither mere fatalism nor pure free will. Everything depends on one’s viewpoint, which, in turn, depends on one’s state of being and consciousness. We encounter a similar paradoxical situation when contemplating quantum theory: An electron can present itself either as a particle or as a wave depending on one’s experimental apparatus (that is, the condition of the observer). This finding makes no sense in rational terms, but it is an undeniable experiential fact, which has been verified in thousands of experiments.

Georg Feuerstein

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Are the Yamas (Moral Disciplines) of Yoga Unnecessary? (2)

In my previous blog, I asked: How can we act responsibly? How can we behave with moral integrity, and why should we?

This question was foremost in Prince Arjuna’s mind when he found himself on the battlefield. His story is well known from the Bhagavad-Gītā. His royal cousins had deprived him and his four brothers of the kingdom of Hastināpura, which they had inherited from their father Pāndu. The five princes had met all the conditions imposed on them by their hundred “evil” cousins. The time had come to claim back their patrimony, even though this meant war.

Standing in his war chariot and surveying the ranks of the enemy, Arjuna dropped his bow and sat down, disheartened. The opposite lines included many family members, teachers, and respected royal sages, and Arjuna lost his taste for fighting what was lawfully his share of the kingdom.

But Krishna, the enlightened or “divine” teacher, urged him on to do the deed of a warrior. Arjuna had been trained to fight, and he was a superb archer. He was confused and feeling conflicted. On the one hand, he was taught to uphold the moral virtue of nonharming, but the situation demanded his martial intervention. The royal cousins, who had dark hearts and clouded minds, should not be allowed to rule. But could right be gained by might? Could a war truly settle matters?

There is a question about whether the war depicted in the Mahābhārata epic and its Bhagavad-Gītā episode ever happened or whether it is pure allegory. But this question is not really important here. Whether the warring forces were all decimated or not and whether the five royal sons of King Pāndu came to rule or not, the situation is primarily a moral crisis, and it is important that we should understand this and also how we should understand this today.

We know that Arjuna and his armies ended up engaging the enemy and that the five princes won this dreadful, devastating war and ended up ruling the kingdom benignly and justly. But how did Arjuna negotiate the felt dilemma between nonharming and the harm that naturally attends war? Why did Krishna, an incarnation of the Divine, support the war and encourage Arjuna to fight?

As an enlightened teacher, Krishna saw the future as clearly as the present. He knew that Arjuna would win and that the fighting armies would be obliterated to a man. From the perplexing perspective of enlightenment, the unfolding drama of the war never happened. The transcendental Self, the inmost essence of every being, cannot be slain. It was neither born, nor will it therefore die. The transcendental Self is immutable.

This is where Krishna’s gospel of Karma-Yoga—the Yoga of self-transcending action—comes in: Simply do the appropriate deed without looking for reward (the “fruit”) and without having the ego-personality (ahamkāra) involved. Should we then all act like robots? Not at all. Krishna advised Arjuna to be mindful and not merely go on automatic. Going on automatic means that the unconscious will govern our actions, and this is disastrous. But what could be more disastrous than war, an all-out war at that? Would the victor really be the winner?

I will look at this more closely next time.

Georg Feuerstein

Friday, August 20, 2010

Are the Yamas (Moral Disciplines) of Yoga Unnecessary? (1)

Traditionally, the five yamas are considered key limbs of Patanjali’s eight-limbed path, which are universally applicable. They are deemed foundational and indispensable by virtually all yogic schools.

Not so in contemporary Yoga. Several prominent Yoga teachers are on record as having dismissed the moral disciplines as old-fashioned and unnecessary. Is this a valid perspective? Or are those teachers out for lunch?

My own opinion is that they are not only out for lunch but also are irresponsible. Here is my reason: As I have explained in my book Yoga Morality (2007), which the review media have all but ignored with the notable exception of the Vancouver Sun, our modern civilization is in a moral quagmire that is the equivalent of an economic depression (not merely recession!).

In other words, we are in dire trouble. Our situation is similar to an ocean liner with a broken engine and without a working rudder. Anything goes. We are morally adrift. People pretty much make up their own convenient morality if they have—and often even if they have not—jettisoned the moralism of their theistic religion. They are holding up flash lights to guide the traffic on a stormy sea, with dark thunder clouds overhead and billowing waves beneath.

Does this sound familiar to you? Have you noticed that Yoga people, who should know better, behave as if they had no moral compass? What has been your own response to the situation? Are you confused? Please share your thoughts and feelings.

I have seen people flee into religious or secular fundamentalism just to have tentative (if dubious) guidelines. I have seen others avoid moral issues like the plague. Is this compatible with authentic Yoga? I think not. As Yoga practitioners, I suggest, we must face the question of our moral stance in the world. Should we endorse harming in deed, speech, and thought personally and culturally? Lying? Theft? Greed? Sexual exploitation (usually of women and children)? Of course not. But how can we act responsibly? How can we be true to our calling as Yoga practitioners?

Georg Feuerstein