Saturday, February 12, 2011

Kino on the practice, Maya and the matrix

In response to my previous post on the Ashtanga tradition as a matrix, Grimmly has very helpfully pointed out to me the limitations of understanding the tradition and practice in these terms. But I think there is another slightly different sense of "matrix" which can still be useful in understanding what our practice is about. This other sense is the sense of "matrix" that we are all familiar with from pop culture: The matrix as an illusory world/mind-trap that we need to see through and transcend.

To begin to see how this sense of "matrix" applies here, consider the concept of Maya in yoga philosophy. According to yoga philosophy (at least as I understand it--I am no expert in Indian philosophy), the "real" world as we perceive it through our six senses (the five sensory organs plus mind, which synthesizes the sensory input from the sensory organs into coherent perceptions) has no existence independent of us. The "real" world is Maya, or existence that is conditioned upon the projections of our minds. This world, in other words, exists and is "real" to us only because of the meaning that our minds have assigned to it. We could say that Maya is a self-imposed matrix. Unlike the pop culture version, malevolent aliens are not required to imprison us within this matrix: Our sensory perceptions, and the accompanying self-limiting conceptions that we foist upon these perceptions, do a pretty good job of keeping us confined within this matrix.

In a recent article, Kino MacGregor has this to say about Maya:

'Part of the dream of reality includes the illusion of time and space, the belief in the individual ego and personality and pain, suffering, obstacles and ignorance. These are experienced as real, but in essence are not real. Empty, devoid of meaning other than which we assign to it, the world of mind and matter is merely a reflection of a deeper truth hidden from view. The only true reality is the subtle luminosity that hides under the emanations that populate the “real” world. Much effort along the path of yoga involves delineating the individual soul or “Purusha” from the manifest world of illusion, know as “Prakrti”.'

The question that naturally comes up at this point is: How do we go about identifying this Purusha or individual soul and extricating ourselves from this illusion of conditioned existence? Or, in pop culture terms, how do we get out of the matrix? One natural response might be to somehow find a way to "shut off" our sensory perceptions, which are the source of Maya. After all, if I succeed in somehow shutting off my sense perceptions, then Maya simply won't able to arise. No sense-perceptions, no Maya. Problem solved.

Well, things are not quite that simple. I mean, short of killing myself, how long can I possibly shut myself off from sense-perceptions? Even if I succeed in doing this for a time (as Descartes claims to have done in the first two Meditations), I still have to re-emerge into the world of sensory perceptions and contend with Maya sooner or later. Therefore, forcibly shutting oneself off from sensory perceptions is not a feasible solution to this problem.

Perhaps the solution lies in going in a radically different direction. Perhaps the way out of the matrix (the red pill, if you will) lies not in shutting oneself off from it, but in unflinchingly confronting and understanding the deeper nature of one of its most intense and deeply-ingrained manifestations: Pain. It is with this in mind that Kino continues,

'Suffering experienced in the world is felt as real while simultaneously there is a deeper peace within. In fact pain in the world of conditioned existence is the only way out of the false belief in its eternality. For when misery stems occurs it is essentially a key that opens a door to true heartfelt spiritual yearning. The practice of yoga asks you to take every pain and every joy that arises as a clue to help you deconstruct the code of “reality” and find the latent interface below. Once you begin to see through the illusion of Prakrtic world into the true nature of being there is a chance to gain lasting freedom. Traditional yoga philosophy postulates that we have more than one lifetime and that our patterns, both good and bad, accumulate over the transmigrations of the soul across millennia. It is this larger lifecycle pattern that we hope to transform from cycles of pain into pathways toward liberation. Painful life experiences that stem from a blockage in the subconscious mind will recreate the same unfortunate scenario until the core issues is resolved.'

Accordingly, Kino concludes,

'The first step along the path of yoga is not brilliant illumination. Instead it is a humble acceptance that our best efforts may only lead to a lessening of old painful patterns. If we are diligent, enthusiastic and committed to our practice we can reshape the habit pattern of the mind to think better feeling thoughts. By reprogramming the subconscious strata within the yogi’s mind becomes more clear, peaceful and free. The ability to live a better life, that is a life more free from suffering and more filled with love, indicates progress along the spiritual path.'

The goal of yoga practice, then, is not so much to get out of the matrix. Rather, the thing to do is to stay within the matrix, understand its workings and how they function to produce all kinds of sense-perceptions within us, and then utilize this understanding to "reprogram" the way our subconscious minds interpret these perceptions in such a way that our existence within the matrix is "more free from suffering and more filled with love."

This, at any rate, is how I understand the goal of our practice. I thought I'll share these thoughts, especially in light of the fact that quite a few yogis in the cybershala have been struggling with both physical and emotional pain recently (then again, who doesn't struggle with these things?). I hope that you will find these random thoughts illuminating in some small way.

Lokaha Samasthaha Sukhino Bhavanthu.          


  1. Thanks for these thoughts. I'm only a year into a practice, but able to connect with some of this ... have found things that used to set me off, now seem to elicit a much less emotional response. This helps a lot!

  2. About this suffering thing, isn't the moral guilt in some ways "built-in" to keep human beings in check from harming others? If we never feel bad about any of our actions (eg. psychopaths, sociopaths, political/military leaders), wouldn't we just go about harming others to achieve what we want? I haven't thought very deeply about this. I guess we harm each other anyways emotionally and physically, knowing as well as unknowingly.

  3. @sadhaka, thanks for your feedback. Happy to hear about the change you have experienced in your emotional responses. I feel the same way too, and it's always a work in progress, which can be a little frustrating, but also exciting at the same time :-)

    @Yyogini, I see what you are saying. But over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly convinced that moral guilt isn't the only or the best way to prevent us from harming others. I have discovered from examining my life that moral guilt might stop me from harming others (at least for a while), but it has limited value in getting me to genuinely do good for myself and others.

    At any rate, I really don't think that moral guilt does anything to stop psychopaths, sociopaths, political/military leaders and Wall Street bankers from doing whatever evil they have done and are still doing. They might feel a twinge of guilt sometimes, but I think they have somehow conditioned themselves (a "reverse yoga", if you will) to ignore whatever signals their moral guilt is sending them.

    Hmm... so maybe guilt isn't a totally bad thing after all. It might be a sort of feedback mechanism, i.e. it might be the universe's way of telling us that something is amiss, and we would do well to listen to it and address whatever needs to be addressed. But I still think that we can evolve to the point where we don't need this feedback mechanism anymore. Just my two cents'.

  4. This is way over my head but that has never stopped me from commenting. I'd like to recommend Richard Freeman's Mirror of Yoga for a very lucid explanation of why it is so difficult to apply analysis to Samkhaya Philosophy.

  5. @sereneflavor, thanks. I've been meaning to read Mirror of Yoga for a while, but haven't gotten around to it. I will soon.

    As a teacher, when somebody tells me that what I am saying is over their heads, I always take it as a sign that I need to do more to make my explanations and my writing more accessible. I will try harder.

    For better or for worse, I try to use whatever analytical tools I have to talk about things as clearly as I can. For better or for worse, these are the tools my training has given me, so I try to use them to do some good in the world :-)