Saturday, November 20, 2010

More ruminations/follow-up from my last post

Many thanks to all of you who took the time to offer your insightful thoughts and comments on my previous post. I don't know if I can respond to all of your comments in a way that does justice to their insightfulness, but I'll try.

Fran, I like the distinction that you make between the 2 questions. In writing the post, I was probably being insensitive to the fact that torture commonly refers to the kind of unspeakable physical and mental suffering that, unfortunately, still occurs daily in this world, and which, unfortunately, is often perpetrated by people who claim to be fighting for freedom and good. My apologies for this insensitivity, although there is actually still a part of me that continues to wonder whether what we call physical discomfort/effort and what we commonly refer to as torture might not be different points on the same spectrum. (Perhaps there is only one way to find out: Get somebody to water-board me! But I'll pass on that...) So I'll have to leave my wondering at this.    

But fortunately, I don't have to settle the "what exactly is torture" question in order to ask my question. I can easily rephrase my question in my previous post as: Why on earth are we subjecting ourselves on a daily basis to something that is so difficult and challenging, and which, for many of us, causes so much physical and mental discomfort, and possibly even pain? (Hmm... I think you can already see that this way of putting the question simply doesn't have the in-your-face provocative quality of my orginal question :-))

Cathrine, I like your answer to the question, which is that we do this in order to achieve greatness, however that might be construed among different practitioners.

Another possible answer, inspired by OvO's comments, is that the practice gives us a safe space in which to allow our self-loathing and other negativities (or the Dark Side, if you are a Star Wars geek) to surface, and to examine these negativities without necessarily acting upon them (in Star Wars parlance: To experience what it is like to be a Sith Lord without actually morphing into a Sith Lord). So in this sense (if I understand you correctly, OvO), the practice acts as a sort of mental/emotional elimination process: Just as physical waste that is not eliminated from our bodies will fester and make us sick, mental/emotional baggage that is not discharged from our lives will also "fester" and hinder us from becoming fully realized human beings.

But we also know that the mental/emotional elimination process is by no means easy and smooth sailing. Sometimes, it may be that the particular method of practice that we choose to engage in (ashtanga, zen meditation, bikram, or whatever your chosen method is) is working on us so intensely that we have to put the brakes on it, so to speak, and re-engage the process at a later time, when we feel more ready. Or we might have to re-evaluate, and decide whether this particular process/method is the right process/method for us. All of which brings up another question: How do we know when it is time to (1) keep working with the process, or (2) put on the brakes for a little bit, and come back to it later, or (3) change to a totally different method/process altogether?


  1. To the idea in the previous post's comments that it's the NATURE of all practice to make one uncomfortable, ok. The the "ashtanga is a mirror" metaphor. Side one.

    Side two, practice being. Just be. Drop all the neurotic striving to be something else. This is the side of SKPJ slamming the walls with an open palm and shouting "THIS is god." Here is Barry Silver's recent version of side 2:

    So yeah, let's own it and make it ALIVE in terms of our language. But that can be a quiet, razor's edge project. To the use of Star Wars metaphors, yes, I totally get that this will come up for people. It's part of a hero narrative, and insofar as the practice is Side 1 - radically self-purifying, okay. But it's ok to hold that hero narrative lightly. It doesn't always serve. George Lucas was really in to the human potential movment (see Jeffrey Kripal's book on Esalen and last week's review of his new agenda in the NYT). I am obsessed with Star Wars and will re-watch the trilogy yet again this x-mas eve. But that's a lotta baggage to put on a practice of focusing the mind, knowing the self, and moving the energy around the central channel. Maybe there's more space and simplicity, and less generation-specific self-mythologizing, in the sutra that says it all comes down to tapas, surrender, and devotion to God.

    I'm not saying Side 1 and Side 2 hold together rationally. It's really philosophically unsatisfying to work with a vision of practice that is all about action and all about inaction, equally invested in transcendence and immanence, metaphysically insideout and backwards. One part "practice" (here now for all collapsable time and space); one part "all is coming." Well... I guess if you're one of the Hegelians hiding out in the liberal, in that case the paradoxical stuff can be satisfying. :-)

    With love,

  2. Oh, to clarify.... that was just my silly attempt to reiterate that "we" are not necessarily suffering in practice. "I" suffer at times, but, again, sometimes languaging that with some ownership rather than outwards attribution is awesomely clarifying.

    What is going on for others? I dunno. Let's listen.

    FWIW, it seems that many are tapped in to immanence and surrender on a deep level. Sometimes right from the start. Not good or bad. Just natural. Being.... and... doing. That's having a body for you. :-)

  3. When we are willing to explore what is unknown about our bodies' ability to perform the unexpected... Is that what we constantly seek? Too bad we cant remember getting up and walking for the first time. But I bet some of us can remember not knowing if we were going to survive diving into the water head first, but it was just more painful just to wonder instead of just going for it.

  4. Dear Nobel
    hmm. i aim to practice two of the things in the list, ashtanga and zen. i would not associate pain with the second, but yes with the first- both physical and psychological - the ruminations i write about my practice show that. my pain includes all the things you pointed to.

    regarding your followup questions, it's always time to keep working with the system, but if our bodies or life require that we approach it differently, such as slower (because our bodies are hurting), or self guided (because you can't get to the shala or can't afford the classes), then it might evolve by itself to something else.


  5. OvO, I like your side one and side two imagery. I think it goes a long way towards explaining how many of us (myself included) are able to reconcile a practice that seems to be at the same time all about action and also all about inaction, as you so aptly put it. It may be true that the two sides do not hold together rationally, and that this way of seeing what the practice is about is, in this sense, philosophically unsatisfactory. But I feel that very often, what we need in order to be able to move forward (or even to stay sane) at a particular moment in time may not necessarily be that which is philosophically satisfactory, at least if we define philosophically satisfactory to involve something along the lines of being rationally coherent (This coming from somebody who is supposed to be a philosophy teacher... talk about ironic!).

    So, if I may extend the side one and side two imagery, perhaps we use side one and side two at different periods of our life/practice. There are times in our life/practice when we need to summon the fire of tapas to break through deadlocks or obstacles. This is when side one (seeing oneself as being at the center of a hero narrative) gives us the motivational kick needed to do the work that needs to be done. But there are also times when one needs to be passive, to perceive and to understand rather than jump into the fray of action. This is when side two ("Just be", "let go of the need to be anything else") comes into play.

  6. Interesting observation, fft. I think there's definitely a reasonance between particular experiences in the practice and particular experiences of trying to do something for the first time (such as diving head-first into the water). But I also can't help feeling that the similarity/reasonance ends at a certain point. If nothing else, the practice demands a certain persevering faith in ourselves, and in our mind/body's ability to adapt and change constructively in the face of discomfort and challenge, which goes beyond the experience of confronting and overcoming something once and for all.

  7. Thanks for your observations, Arturo. I definitely agree that there are natural evolving points in our practice/life that will happen, whether or not we want them to. I think I'm at one such point now.

  8. Not sure if it helps, but yes, the dynamic you describe is pretty accurate for me so far! And it seems to leave a lot of space for uncertainty... :-)

  9. No wonder some teachers encourage us to think of each practice session as unique and new, Sort of a fresh start to every time. No baggage no preconceptions. Hard to pull off though....

  10. Hi Nobel, I've been reading your blog for awhile. It's really interesting to get perspective of yoga from a philosophy professor.

    I'm kind of shocked that your last paragraph describes exactly what I went through the past year! I started feeling my chosen method of practice wasn't agreeing with me any more a few years ago, but I kept going, thinking I could work through it, but mentally it never settled. Looking back, I totally acted out due to this mental conflict, but at the time I didn't realize my negative behavior/attitude and wondered why my friends seemed to be distancing themselves from me. Then I stumbled upon yoga, and spent months carefully evaluating this new practice, at first trying to juggle both concurrently, then finally just dropped my previous activity completely, fully immersing myself in the yoga practice.

    Right now physically my body is still trying to get used to yoga, but mentally the philosophy of yoga feels really right (why haven't I come across this years ago?) I don't know if I'll keep practicing Ashtanga yoga forever, but thankfully a yoga teacher pointed out the nature and inevitability of impermanence, and that we should learn to be okay with it. Just realizing this fact helps me calm down whenever I get anxious nowadays.

  11. Hello Yyogini,
    I'm happy and humbled (and also a bit flattered, to be honest...) to hear that what I am writing about is useful to you and describes your experience well.

    I'm probably flattering myself when I say this, but Socrates once said that he saw himself not as somebody who knows anything, but as a "midwife" who helps people give birth to new insights and knowledge about themselves. So I like to think that perhaps I am also helping others around me give birth to new knowledge through my writing!

    Keep working on the practice. Nobody can tell if they will practice Ashtanga forever, but that's probably not the most important thing. The most important thing, in my opinion, is to take everything breath by breath, as my teacher always says, and allow the practice to transform you.