Friday, February 10, 2012

Does yoga really work, or is Self-realization genetically determined?

The answer to this question is quite complicated. But in order to make sense of what I am talking about, I have to start from the beginning. So please bear with me.

So, let's start from the beginning. Earlier today, I read with great interest Claudia's recent post about her recent trip to Mysore, and the comment thread that follows it. Claudia writes about how she has come to terms with the need for certification or external validation of one's "yogic status". She writes:

"Wanting some validation, or some external certificate, is a way of filling an emptiness or insecurity that perhaps we didn't realize we had. The true yogi is overflowing with a happiness generated by every limb of the yoga sutras working in conjunction.

Nobody can give me a certificate for this. Nobody might even know it but me. And once that certificate is hanging on the wall, will the emptiness that desperately requires it truly be filled?"

I think these are very wise and beautiful words. At the same time, Claudia also observes certain displays of seemingly not-so-evolved behavior among supposedly advanced students:

"I was shocked to see some advanced students screaming at the coconut guy, one of the coconut guys, the details do not matter, it may not have even been a coconut guy, the point is there was rudness, yelling.  I was shocked to see advanced students gossiping, or advanced students resenting the levels reached by others.

The point I am trying to make is that I am surprised to see many people calling themselves yogis of a certain level who cannot, will not, be kind, be honest, be happy.  Of course this includes me too, I am not perfect, and I make mistakes."

Claudia's observation seems to have struck a sympathetic chord among her readers. For instance, one of the commenters on her post writes:

"Here's what I struggle with--situations like those advanced yogis, or even John Friend, who has done yoga for years. It seems like the yoga doesn't work at all--that the system is just like any human system--terribly terribly flawed. You do seem true and real and like you are working with integrity to try to be your best and to be honest when you are not. But that may be you--something you have become unrelated to yoga. It may be who you are. Maybe it's not the yoga, not the yoga at all. That is my worry. And if you are who you write, you are a true yogi--it has nothing to do w/ the poses. So why should we put ourselves into all of these shapes? Or perhaps, it's the surrender that does it--to something greater, and that can come by giving yourself over to the poses, or to prayer, or to a higher source. Perhaps it's surrender to what is good and true more than anything.

Tara"

Tara's dilemma (if I may call it that) seems to be this: If the yoga practice is such a great system for achieving self-transformation/self-realization, then how come we still see all these supposedly advanced yogis engage in behavior that is, well, unbecoming of an advanced yogi? Does this mean that ultimately, what determines whether or not you become a self-realized person has nothing to do with the yoga, but with what you already are or have become? Or, as Tara puts it, "that may be you--something you have become unrelated to yoga. It may be who you are."

If this is the case--if becoming self-realized is more a matter of who we already are rather than what the yoga practice does for us--does this mean that yoga ultimately cannot help us to attain self-realization? Maybe some of us are born with a Self-realization Gene (Claudia appears to be one of these people :-)), and some of us aren't. If you have this Gene, then all you need is a little work and voila!, you are then Self-realized! If you don't happen to have this Gene, well, you're out of luck. No amount of yoga (or whatever) is going to turn you into a Self-realized person. At least not in this lifetime. May you have better genetic luck next time.

Is this what the deal is? Is the potential for Self-realization genetically determined? Is Genetic Determinism with regard to Self-realization (GDS) true? Are those of us who don't happen to have this Self-realization Gene condemned to be jerks/assholes/douchebags for the rest of this life?

Hmm.... I don't know. With my practice being as superficial as it is, I really am in no position to answer this question. Or maybe my practice is so superficial because I don't possess the Self-realization Gene. Which means that Genetic Determinism with regard to Self-realization is true, and I am condemned to lifelong jerkhood/assholism. Ha! Takes one to know one, don't you think?

But I have a hunch that, as with most big questions, the answer to this question is a little bit more complicated than a simple yes or no. Let's begin with that Holy Grail of yogic practices: Samadhi. According to the Yoga Sutra (or at least, according to my superficial understanding of it), the highest level of samadhi is objectless or nirbijah samadhi (YS 1.51).

Does attaining objectless samadhi guarantee that one will attain non-attachment (vairagya) and, along with it, Self-realization? According to anecdotal accounts I have heard, the answer seems to be no: Attaining objectless samadhi is a useful tool that one can use to attain self-realization. However, as with all tools (including, as we all know, the asana practice), one can become overly attached to the attainment of objectless samadhi, and be distracted from the path, in much the same way in which one can be distracted from the path by one's asana achievements. My friend Tom attests to this in a comment on an earlier post on this blog:

"Samadhi is simply a tool that can help us get to realization. We still must use that tool regularly and allow purification to happen on deeper and deeper levels. And without the foundation of purity of intent (like if we are still striving after experiences, energetic openings, or mystical phenomena) the tool is useless and eventually can be self destructive.

I once worked with a teacher, quite an adept who could abide in samadhi state and who could and did demonstrate some pretty fantastical attainments (siddhis/psychic powers). Despite his fantastical displays of knowledge and abilities, the striving in his heart (and suffering that goes with it) was still rather obvious. His workshops were like a 3 ring spiritual circus! I used to think anyone of his level of accomplishment must have done the work, must be on he right path, but after a while it became very clear what the yoga sutras say about attainments possibly indicating progress on the path but also being a big distraction and trap..."

So even abiding in samadhi can become a circus act! Well, now I don't feel so bad about my own circus acts (see this post)... But I guess what Tom's comment shows is this: Yoga is a powerful system or set of tools that can enable one to attain Self-realization. But tools--especially powerful ones--can always be misused, and become self-destructive to the user whose intention is not pure. And it is ultimately our intentions that will determine whether we use these tools to become self-realized beings, or whether we use them to become samadhied assholes. 


So, to come back to my original question: Is Self-realization genetically determined? Well, I think it would have to depend on whether our intentions are genetically determined, since it is ultimately our intentions that decide whether or not we become self-realized. Well, are our intentions genetically determined? Uh, I don't know... I don't even know how to begin to try to answer this question. Gosh, being a philosopher really sucks! You answer one question, and then a bigger question comes tumbling down the hill at you! There's something very Sisyphean about all this, don't you think? :-)

31 comments:

  1. Hi Nobel, thanks for the mention and for getting me started on the lines of thinking about Tara's comment, it also caused quite an impression on me, and has left me wondering... it is a difficult question and I wonder if there might even be an answer... which is the usual yoga paradox, or life paradox.... as per me appearing to be one of those people, my ego seriously wants to believe it ! :-) thanks for the compliment she says

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    1. Great to hear from you again, Claudia! I was starting to think the last few days that maybe you have become a self-realized being and have moved to another dimension! Or maybe you do live in another dimension: After all, I have never met you in person!

      But yes, Tara's comment seems to bring up a chicken-and-egg type of question. I'm guess I'm trying my best to separate the chicken from the egg! :-)

      "as per me appearing to be one of those people, my ego seriously wants to believe it ! :-)"

      Well, this may just be one of those times when your ego is right :-)

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    2. I'm just a yoga newbie myself but was struck by your post. I recently read Baba RamPuri's "Autobiography of A Sadhu" and he talked about what it has been like to discover/lose himself. It seemed that his meditations and mental stillness made it so much easier to listen and connect with others ... that he sort of became dissolved into nature and all the people and life around him. His "ego" just seemed to dissolve away as he became more adept at paying attention to others and the nature around him. It seems he really became connected to others and their stories and sufferings and as a Sadhu (in India) is able to play a vital cultural role. So perhaps culture matters a lot, but it also seems like his experience could occur here in the US ... with yoga and a lot of meditation. I dunno, but his story inspired me. Good luck with your practice!! Namste.

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    3. It appears that Baba RamPuri attained objectless samadhi. Very beautiful story... thanks for sharing :-)

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  2. Interesting post, Nobel. Lets say there is a "self realization gene". We can already figure some of the people who had it: ramakrishna, ramana maharshi, maybe krishnamurti, maybe socrates, maybe even an eckhart tolle (who knows?) and of course many people we have never heard of.

    I wonder if they are so removed from the concerns of the average person (ramana maharshi's lectures are a great example) that is hard for them to communicate what needs to be done. Again, Ramana Maharshi saying something like, "don't ask HOW to get liberated. You are ALREADY liberated" almost means nothing to the average layman.

    Its like George Soros saying something like, "oh, just go ahead and buy that yacht. No big deal."

    And yet, here we are, the great unwashed masses, striving for either yachts or enlightenment with both forever out of our reach.

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    1. Ah, James, how depressing! I was hoping you would be able to give me some evidence that GDS is not true! :-)

      Well, yeah, if GDS is true, then of course it is all too easy for Ramana Maharshi to say "You are ALREADY liberated", because that is simply an honest description of his own state of life, and he is projecting that upon other less well-endowed beings! Talk about projection...

      Same goes with Soros.

      I have recently become less desirous of either yachts or enlightenment (I wonder why that is?).

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  3. All forms of nourishment are Sisyphean Nobel. :) We all ask ourselves why we get sick or injured when we are being "good" and dutiful, doing healthy things on a physical and a spiritual level. We ask ourselves why do we still lie or exaggerate. Why do we loose our temper, our resolve, our courage. Things get tattered and dirty in this existence and we have to mend them and clean them constantly.there! I wrote a post on your blog,

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    1. Thanks for writing a post on my blog :-) Yes, I see your point, that all good things are Sisyphean--and that is also a good thing! Thanks for the insight.

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  4. I think there is a common flaw in this argument is that presupposing that only asana is yoga – and the external form of asana does not reflect the greater picture. So when people talk about advanced yogis not being yogic – it doesn’t mean that yoga doesn’t ‘work’ for that person. It simply means that in all likelihood that person is just really good at stretching. For me the method – the breath/bandhas/driste is a tool to see the world and myself as it is - we are all capable of seeing this, we are all capable of yoga. In my opinion, to deny this is itself unyogic.

    J

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    1. Hello J,
      Thanks for sharing. I am not presupposing that only asana is yoga. In fact, I am presupposing the opposite: Which is why I say that my practice is quite superficial, given that it is primarily asana.

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  5. If we are talking of ‘advanced students’ at the coconut stand, I think it would be logical to conclude that Claudia is referring to people practicing 2nd and 3rd and beyond i.e. advanced asana students. Also don’t be so harsh on your own practice, it sounds from your blog (which I enjoy reading) that you have a committed asana practice and endeavor to operate on the principle of the 1st two limbs – what is superficial about that 

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    1. Thanks for thinking that my practice is not so superficial ;-)

      Yes, it does appear from Claudia's description that she is speaking of advanced asana students.

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  6. To talk about genetic determinism is....I don't know, a little simplistic to me. But that's probably because I believe that all humans have the potential within them to achieve self-realization/samadhi, it's about working with the circumstances of their life to create the right conditions for samadhi to happen. There are always choices to make on this path that will either take you towards self-realization or away from it: To scream at the coconut man or not, to help a stranger or not, etc...

    I don't know, is that too naive a perspective?

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    1. No, I don't think this is too naive a perspective.

      "To talk about genetic determinism is....I don't know, a little simplistic to me."

      Correct me if I'm wrong here, but I have the feeling that you meant to say that to talk about genetic determinism with regard to Self-realization is too mechanistic (and therefore "simplistic"). From your writings (both here and on your blog), I get the sense that you think that something as ineffable as Self-realization should not (and probably cannot) be reduced to something so cold and mechanistic as genetic determinism.

      You may be right--actually, I hope you are, because this would give me more hope :-)

      On a different note, something else just struck me: Maybe the advanced students who screamed at the coconut man had their own Self-realized reasons for doing so. Unlikely, but possible. After all, if one is Self-realized, one would be able to see reasons for doing things that non-Self-realized beings (like me) are not able to, right?

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  7. Yes, your elaboration of my point is spot-on - this is why you're a philosopher and I'm not, ha! ;)

    Your point about advanced asana students having self-realized reasons for their behavior is entirely plausible, but unlikely, I feel. Experts on self-realization (like the Dalai Lama, for eg) talk about feeling a sense of oneness with all things when self-realization is achieved (or close to being achieved), and this sense of unity is what motivates kindness and compassion for all beings. To rant at someone (justified or not) runs contrary to the notion of kindness, which is to not cause any hurt through one's words, deeds or actions. You may be right that self-realized people can probably see reasons for and against a particular course of action that non-self-realized people can't, which gives them less justification for hollering at a poor coconut man. In other words, they should know better!

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    1. Yes, it does make sense that if one is self-realized, one would feel a sense of unity with all things (including coconut men) that would inspire kindness and compassion for all beings (again, including coconut men). So yes, you are probably right that they should know better :-)

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  8. well in my opinion Nobel, maybe not genetics per se but an innate awareness? Like if one is aware enough to have the inclination to go deeper than just asana. If one really walks the path and embodies the eight limbs then I believe that yes, all is coming including self-realisation, however, if one is just going through the moves as it were then, it's all for naught. You had a post a while back about being an asshole even if you've been practicing for some time, maybe this is the continuation of that....a real yogi walks the talk and an asshole just talks:)

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    1. Yes, perhaps it is true that what makes the difference is whether one possesses innate awareness and inclination to go deeper. But, to press the question still further: Are some people more genetically predisposed to manifest this innate awareness and inclination than others?

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    2. I am open to that possibility:)

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  9. I just wrote 2 comments at the end of claudia's comment chain (signed "s"/anonymous)but here's a thought on your excellent question too. I don't think it's an issue of genetic predisposition but whether some people's problems are simply too big, or their abilities to limited, to rely on yoga alone to get to self-realization. Some people may need many tools. Relationships (love, friendship, teacher-student, reader/writer) are always an important part of the equation; we need to live in this world to understand it and ourselves a little better. We need to put our hearts as well as our bodies out there every day.

    S

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    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, S. I just read your thoughtful comments over at Claudia's too. I'm also not sure if yoga alone is a complete system to get at whatever issues we need to get at; we also need to remember that the system itself is designed to function within life and its complexities, not outside of it.

      I guess the people who were yelling at the coconut men are, like us, also working through stuff. They may not be more or less self-realized than we are; although their stuff may be more visible, at least in part because of the intensity of the asana practice.

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  10. thanks for the response nobel. I too was thinking about the intensity of the practice. I think that sometimes when I overextend myself (don't eat enough, don't sleep enough, work too hard, otherwise push beyond my comfort zone too much) I lose it a lot more easily. An intense asana practice (and maybe being overhungry, not practicing at the usual time, waiting at the coconut stand for food, being hypoglycemic) makes people a bit less in control. You're right that these people may not be any less self-realized overall. But maybe feeling out of control should teach them to back off of something a little. But my thinking is that some people sometimes can get to selfrealization through yoga, others may not be able to at certain moments. I often think that I might not have been as open to yoga if I had found it many years earlier. (Though sometimes i think that if I had found my balance a little better through yoga I might have made some better choices). Oh well, just carrying on for now. I enjoy your blog, keep writing.

    S

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  11. last comment a bit incoherent, sorry, and I didn't read your reply carefully enough as I was kind of falling asleep then got up to say more. But re discussion on confluence countdown re broad, please note:

    no one should get all news from one source. As a yogi and former journalist I say this independent of broad. Each news source has its blind spots and limitations. Not every live interviewer can control an interview subject who WANTs to be unresponsive and go off the rails in the name of self-promotion. That takes practice. The interview may not have been edited either. I am inclined to agree that we have to worry most about the NYT here. How can they keep employing this irresponsible self-aggrandizing guy? But they have have had other health/science writers in the past with credibility issues--Gina Kolata comes to mind.

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    1. Actually, I thought your response was perfectly coherent :-) I'm kind of speaking from experience here; although I may not qualify as an "advanced asana student" (I do second series up to Ardha Matsyendrasana), I have had days when all of the above factors (an intense asana practice plus being overhungry, being low on caffeine, etc.) make me rather irritable; fortunately or unfortunately, this usually happens when I am at work, so I have to be professional and not yell at anyone, even if I want very much to...

      Moreover, we also have to remember that there is no rule that says you have to look or act self-realized if you practice, say, second series or beyond. We know where that leads...

      I have also heard, for instance, that Krishnamacharya had a really bad temper for much of his life. I recall reading this interview somewhere where B.K.S. Iyengar remarked that, given his talents and abilities, Krishnamacharya would easily have been a saint if he weren't so short tempered!

      So maybe being self-realized doesn't mean one cannot be an asshole? Maybe there is such a thing as a self-realized asshole? Aw well, what do I know?...

      Yes, I do agree that one should get one's news from diverse sources. And yes, the self-aggrandizing shenanigans of the man are really getting on my nerves... Shows what a little bit of fame can do to some people. Scary, no?

      Gina Kolata... hmm... rhymes with "Pina Colada". Or maybe it's just me...

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  12. Hi Nobel! I cracked up to see my comment here! Ha! Good discussion though--and thinking and wondering. It's all good I think. Happy Sunday!

    Tara

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    1. I'm happy you enjoyed the discussion, Tara :-)

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  13. Rather than genetic determinism I would point to the role of Karma, what we carry into this incarnation from previous births and what we have created for ourselves thus far in this birth. The science of yoga and the science of genetics, well not to judge one over the other, but maybe best not to mix metaphors.

    As for Karma, with practice and non-attachment it can be changed. And if we can change our karma, we can change our lives, our bodies, our minds, even our environment.

    I think yoga works, you just have to do the whole practice. I think Pattabhi Jois' statement, "just practice, and all is coming" is often mis-understood. I think the idea he was getting at was to get people to stop trying to be scholars and start being practitioners. To be successful at the practice of yoga takes more than understanding, you have to go beyond the mind. Jois wasn't saying that if you just show up on the mat everyday and move like this and that you will be transformed. Yogasana is not some magic potion, sweat and pain does not transform a person, or Karma, on its own. There must be constant effort, constant vigilance. The mind must be mastered, free of attachment, free of affliction. Postures alone will not do this, they just help build the strength of body and will of mind to carry the practice to the next level. Only then does yoga actually work.

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    1. Yes, Tom, I definitely agree that Karma can be changed. I think you are right that sweat and pain alone does not transform a person; at any rate, they probably don't transform a person sufficiently to bring about self-realization.

      Thanks for your very thoughtful comments again. Now I have more things to think and post about :-)

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  14. tuning back into to he discussion after a few days. agree with the idea that practice doesn't just mean asana, of course. But consider this also: A person with a temper may not be just missing sainthood because of the temper, but might be much, much better than the complete jerk s/he might be without yoga. In other words, the yoga might be working--you just don't know where the starting point is.

    S

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    1. "A person with a temper may not be just missing sainthood because of the temper, but might be much, much better than the complete jerk s/he might be without yoga."

      Yes, this is true. Sometimes people around me ask me, "How come you are such a mess even though you do yoga?" I often feel like telling them, "Well, wait till you see me when I am not practicing..."

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