Friday, August 13, 2010

Critical Thinking and Yoga

Don’t imagine that Yoga is for blockheads. Although most Indian sādhus are illiterate, there has been any number of literate and intellectually gifted Yoga authorities in the course of Yoga’s 5,000 years of existence. Certainly, the writers who produced the great yogic textbooks and the commentaries on them were thinkers to be reckoned with. I am saying this only because there are some contemporary followers of Yoga who like to think that it is possible to practice Yoga without engaging the mind and who are suspicious of anyone with even a modicum of intelligence and a questioning mind. This is a modern phenomenon, which does not deserve further refutation.

There are also those critics who assume that Yoga and reason don’t mix well. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I refuted this biased notion in a short article published in the German magazine Yoga (no. 5) as far back as 1967. Since then, I have championed Yoga’s “rationality” in various books and articles. Let me just state that the universally acknowledged guiding light of Yoga is buddhi, the principle of higher reason. Without buddhi, there can be no Yoga and no enlightenment.

When we read Sanskrit works like Patanjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, Tirumūlar’s Tiru-Mantiram, or Shankarācārya’s commentaries, Rāmānuja’s commentaries, Abhinavagupta’s Tantrāloka, Jnānadeva’s wonderful Gītā interpretation, and the Bhagavad-Gītā itself, we are struck by the consummate intelligence and rationality of their authors. It is obviously possible to talk about Yoga in a meaningful, lucid, and cogent way. Yoga has nothing to do with nebulous mysticism or irrational emotionalism.

Wisdom, as the word suggests, is about true knowledge and not about dullness. It is for those with a lively intelligence and not—sorry—for those who think that reason is an obstacle on the yogic path.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Compliant Yoga Movement

Some contemporary Yoga practitioners assume that Yoga means stoppage of all thought. That would make yogins and yoginīs very dull people. There is, fortunately, no sign of this happening. A little reading in the voluminous literature of Yoga would quickly dispel such an outlandish notion, which could only have been birthed in a culture that discourages critical thinking. I won’t mention names.

There are a number of excellent books on the market that address the problem of the systematic “dumbing down” of America—oops, I let it slip. This trend, which runs right through the educational system, favors the political elite and dampens the spirit of independent inquiry. The pharmaceutical industry, aided by the government and institutional organizations, feed potential troublemakers (i.e., wonderfully boisterous young children) with soporific drugs (Ritalin etc.) to make them more amenable to authoritarian manipulation. Why is this not obvious to everyone? What happened to the hippie slogan of “questioning authority?” Am I remembering too much of the bygone days?

Has the Yoga movement, which was once an important force of the counter culture, become an instrument of the unthinking, compliant and voraciously consuming mainstream majority? Once upon a time, Yoga practitioners represented the dissident voices of society. They were not victims of cultural hypnosis. Should we silently allow millions of people to succumb to the slumber of consensus trance or make an effort to wake up again? I personally think it’s time to wake up.

Georg Feuerstein

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Those Darn Philosophers! (2)

As I see it, philosophy ought to make you sane, not crazy. As the Greek-derived word suggests, it ought to bring wisdom (sophía) into your life. But who nowadays does philosophy in this old-fashioned way?

Modern academic philosophy, with its focus on hermeneutical exegesis and logical analysis, would have puzzled and perhaps saddened the ancient sages. As they would see it, philosophy is an aid to self-transformation and inner freedom. If it does not have this practical purpose, it is only an exercise in abstract conceptual thinking. With my apology to any professional philosopher who might have stumbled upon this blog, those sages have my vote of confidence. In them I see true philosophers deserving of the Greek name.

If you want to know philosophy, then, study the ancient Greek and Indian philosophers. Let a little of their wisdom rub off on you. By no means all of their ideas are convincing, or they would not contradict each other. But their wisdom will challenge your own jungle of loosely connected ideas. It’s best not to deny that you have a mostly subconscious system going. In the average person, these ideas consist principally of stereotypes, prejudices, preconceptions, and ad-hoc “theories.”

You “know” that there definitely is or definitely is not a God, and you “know” how evolution works, or doesn’t. You also “know” what men and women are like and how various ethnic groups behave. Matter rules. Mind doesn’t matter or, conversely, only mind matters. Philosophy is nonsense. Yoga is fantasy. Everybody is entitled to their opinion. And so on. It’s a useful exercise to jot down all the ideas that you entertain.

Then go ahead and read some books on philosophy—I double dare you—and see how the ideas that govern your life match up with the consciously formulated, properly inspected notions; to be sure, they might still be only half baked, but they were formulated in full consciousness. This comparison might rattle your conceptual cage a bit, but if you are into personal growth and self-transformation, this is the right sort of gorilla. The darn philosophers might spoil your comfortable life yet, which I would applaud.

The best course of action, however, is to study—and not merely read—the great masters of wisdom and open yourself up to a whole range of new ideas. Discover for yourself what makes sense and how you can apply this wisdom. That’s the beginning of a philosophical life. The rest is part of the consensus trance, otherwise called “the big snooze.”

If you are already one of the self-transcending, self-transforming minority, then congratulations. Now you can work on waking up as a fully compassionate Yoga sage! What are you waiting for?

Georg Feuerstein