Monday, March 21, 2011

Practice report, and a few thoughts on the measure of enlightenment

First, a little practice report. I did full primary and second up to Ardha Matsyendrasana this morning. This being my first full practice in two days (Saturday was a Moon Day, and Sunday is my designated rest day from practice), it was refreshing and harder at the same time. Some postures (in particular, the forward bends and arm balances) felt very fresh after two days of rest; others, especially kapotasana, felt harder. This brings to mind something that my teacher once said: The hamstrings have much longer muscle memory than whatever the muscles are (the psoas, perhaps) that are used in deep backbending. I can go for a few days without doing forward bends or hip-openers, and still feel quite open in those areas. With deep backbends.... well, it's a different story.

I read with great interest Claudia's recent post about the measure of enlightenment. Claudia quotes Deepak Chopra's latest tweet,

"The measure of your enlightenment is the degree to which you are comfortable with paradox, contradiction and ambiguity"

I know nothing about Chopra's teachings, so I'm going to take the liberty of understanding this particular quote purely at face-value apart from its original context, and stick out my neck to say a couple of things about this business of enlightenment. 

I don't have a handy definition of what enlightenment is, but I have a strong feeling that, whatever it is, it must involve being effective in the world. What do I mean by this? Being effective in the world means being able to respond to anything that life throws at you in a way that is appropriate and which creates the greatest value for all parties concerned. Sometimes this involves standing back, observing and taking a receptive attitude in order to learn more about what's going on. At other times, what is called for is the ability to understand the situation from as many points of view as possible, and to respond in such a way as to accommodate everyone's diverse interests. At yet other times, being effective in the world demands that we be able to perceive injustice or inequity, whether to ourselves or to others, and to speak up or take decisive action to protect ourselves and others. 

If I am correct in thinking that enlightenment, whatever it is, involves being effective in the world in the ways mentioned above, then I'm not sure if simply being comfortable with paradox, contradiction and ambiguity is sufficient to make one an enlightened being. It seems to me that one can be so comfortable with the sense of paradox and contradiction that often accompanies great injustice and inequity that one fails to speak up or take action at the decisive moment. Think, for instance, of the sense of contradiction that occurs when one sees somebody being persecuted politically or at the workplace, or on account of race, gender, or sexual orientation. It seems to me that throughout history, the people who have stood up against persecution are precisely those who felt really uncomfortable with the sense of contradiction or cognitive dissonance that is stirred up by such injustices or inequities. This sense of being uncomfortable makes them feel that it is wrong to stand around and say or do nothing when others are being persecuted or are undergoing great suffering. 

Of course, as I said, I don't have a definition of enlightenment. Maybe, for all I know, enlightenment has absolutely nothing to do with being effective in this world. Maybe when one is enlightened, one becomes some kind of otherworldly being, so that the injustices of this world do not matter any more. But if this is true, what value is there to being enlightened? What good is being enlightened if one ceases to be an effective human being? 

I'm just thinking aloud here, as usual. I don't have any conclusions one way or the other. If you have anything to share, I'll love to hear from you.       


  1. Hi Nobel, I appreciate your exposition here, and I think that being effective in the world is a part of enlightenment, as far as we know, those we consider, let me re-phrase, I, consider enlightened beings Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, had a tremendous effect on the world. One could argue that what we less enlightened people did with the teachers... but that is another post.

    Lately I have been wondering about this "effective" term. I think it is very relevant, I think that is what mula bandha is all about, about stopping the leaks, and focusing the energy to where it can be used most effectively.

  2. Not sure what enlightenment really means either but I would guess that one's comfort level with contradiction and change does go a long way in sustaining happiness.

    Interesting remark from your teacher about the hamstrings and back bending muscles. I took the whole weekend off as well and felt very strong in my arm balances and great in forward bends. My back was a different story....

  3. Hello Claudia, yes, I agree that this whole business with being effective definitely has something to do with mula bandha. But I think that although mula bandha may help one to be more effective, it does not ensure such effectiveness; it is quite possible for somebody to abuse or misuse the powers he or she gains as a result of mula bandha. I think Mr Iyengar talks about this in the bandhas section of Light on Yoga.

    Kristen, interesting that you have the same experience as I did with hamstrings and backbending muscles. I wonder if this is intrinsic to the nature of the muscles themselves, or if this is due to our daily lifestyle habits?

  4. Enlightenment itself is a very ambiguous term, but I'd like to quote Yagui Munenori in his writings on the Normal Mind from the section "The Killing Sword" from "The Book of Family Traditions"(Translated by Thomas Cleary)

    "A monk asked an ancient worthy,'What is the Way?'
    The ancient worthy replied,'The normal mind is the Way.'

    This story contains a principle that applies to all arts. Asked what the Way is, the ancient worthy replied that the normal mind is the Way. This is indeed supreme. This is the state where the sicknesses of the mind (fixation) are all gone and one has become normal in mind, free from sickness even in the midst of sickness

    To apply this to worldly matters, suppose you are shooting with a bow and you think you are shooting while you are shooting; then the aim of your bow will be inconsistent, unsteady...

    ...When an archer forgets (self-)consciousness of shooting (is no longer fixated on shooting) and shoots in a normal frame of mind, as if unoccupied, the bow will be steady...

    ...Whatever you do as your Way, if you keep it in your heart as the only thing of importance, then it is not the Way. When you have nothing in your heart, then you are on the Way. Whatever you do, if you do it with nothing in your heart, it works out easily...

    ...This is like the way everything is reflected in a mirror clearly precisely because of the constant formless clarity of the mirror's reflectivity..."

    Reading this passage and comparing it to the quote above, I can understand how enlightenment can be somewhat of an understanding of ambiguity and contradiction. Enlightenment isn't ignorance which is where we start, and I can understand how this can be confused.

    I might suggest an expanded example of an archer shooting a bow.

    I am looking to become an archer. I have little to no enlightened knowledge of archery, I may know a few facts here and there, but overall I do not understand the form, or how to draw the bow properly. I also have many questions about it.

    I seek a master archer, and she teaches me the basics. I ask,"Why I must know the basics." She tells me,"It is the foundation." I ask,"Why do I need a good foundation, why can't I just skip the basics?" She replies,"Then you don't want to learn archery, thus you don't want to become an archer, but you just WISH to be an archer, hence you will forever be stuck in that wishful stage."

    I learn the basics, and I'm ready to advance to the next stage. However, I'm unable to advance to the next stage because I'm too fixated on drawing the bow and my posture. I can't fire the arrow with accuracy because I'm not looking at the target, but am still fixated on my basics. It is only until my mind has forgotten the basics as objects of the mind, not letting them go from my self, but letting them be integrated into my very being that I can advance to the next stage.

    In short what I was trying to say with that example is that enlightenment isn't necessarily a state of knowing or a state of action, but a state of being. Being encompasses both the state of being and state of action.

    Maybe, enlightenment isn't just being uncomfortable with social injustices but being comfortable enough (not comfortable in the sense that a cushioned chair is comfortable, but being able to bypass their own suffering and ego.) to have the courage to be able to do something about it.

    Many people ask themselves, "what can I do? I'm just one person." Then they would just accept what has happened to them.

    The enlightened person would ask," What can I do?" Then they would have courage and act.

  5. Hello Chris,
    I like your learning archery example, especially the line, "It is only until my mind has forgotten the basics as objects of the mind, not letting them go from my self, but letting them be integrated into my very being that I can advance to the next stage."

    I think this has a lot in common with what I think of as being effective in the world.

    This is an interesting comment. You might want to expand on it and post it on your blog.

  6. 'Comfort with paradox' reminds me of Orwell's doublethink. Not too enlightened!

  7. Yes, Stephanie, I think this notion of doublethink is what made me uncomfortable with this idea of 'comfort with paradox'.