Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Some thoughts on faith and the practice

"The faith waiting in the heart of a seed
promises a miracle of life
which it cannot prove at once."

Rabindranath Tagore

In my previous post, Megan left a very thought-provoking comment about the relationship between faith and the practice. I think her comment brings up some interesting issues that are worth pondering a little about. Megan writes:

"It seems to me that faith would be detrimental to the yoga practitioner who seeks truth. Faith is a reason to stop asking questions. Faith is an easy way out. Why have faith in a method of practice that is wholly, by its very nature, experiential? My practice is an experiment, both in daily application and in the grander scale. I do this practice and, more specifically, follow THIS method because I am curious, not faithful, about its effects."

I responded by saying that it is quite possible that Megan and I understand very different things by the word "faith". My understanding of faith is based on the Sanskrit word Shraddha, which is usually translated as "faith." B.K.S. Iyengar defines Shraddha as

"trust which comes from revelation, faith, confidence, reverence."

More recently, Kino, in the video above, defines Shraddha more colorfully as "faith to believe in yourself as a divine spark held in the world."

On either definition, faith as shraddha does not preclude inquiry or asking questions. Quite the opposite, in fact: Shraddha encourages active questioning and experimentation based on a spirit of love and trust in the practice, serving as a firm foundation upon which we can freely explore the many joys (and pains) that the practice has to offer. 

On a somewhat different note, Megan's comment has also caused me to wonder if many yogis and yoginis in the west are somewhat apprehensive and hesitant about embracing the concept of faith in the practice, because of the connotations with organized religion and its excesses that the word often conjures up (Note to Megan: I'm not saying this is where you are coming from. I'm just using your comments as a starting point for my neither-here-nor-there musings...). Perhaps the hesitancy has something to do with associating faith with unquestioning belief in a greater power or authority. But I do not think that faith as Shraddha asks us to believe unquestioningly. Rather, my sense is that Shraddha acts as a sort of counterweight to the natural human impulse to explore, expand and experiment; by grounding our minds and spirits in an attitude of love and trust for the process, it protects us from the excesses of ego, which often rears its ugly head when we are preoccupied only with acquiring more knowledge and things. 

These are my two cents', as always. If you have any thoughts on any of this, I'll love to hear them.


  1. I saw Megan's comment on faith and wanted to comment then but was short of time., still am need to practice.
    Perhaps there is a different experience of Christianity on either side of the pond, the bible, scripture christians on the US side and the European side. Protestantism was a result of questioning of course and within the Catholic church, in the Seminary's the questioning is such that most priests are expected to undergo a 'crisis of faith'... it's almost encouraged.
    For some reason the idea has come about that one should not question one's faith, quite the opposite.
    Theology is perhaps the only department that Philosophers respect as equals (or at least don't look down our noses at), in that they, like Philosophy, question thoroughly the ground of their own discipline, we're even perhaps intimidated by them, those boys know how to question ... and with rigour ( I studied philosophy at Canterbury, wall to wall theologians).
    Quite wonderfully of course Kierkegaard questioned the question of the question of faith.
    Me, I'm not sure I have faith in anything (and aren't searching for any), which I find a little sad, certainly not in the practice, I just get up every morning and do it anyway ...out of stubbornness perhaps.
    I wouldn't say I love it either, though enjoy it on the whole. Now there's something to question Love, being blind and all.
    But I agree with Megan that Yoga is about questioning, everything and especially all that you hold most comfortably to be true, even a questioning of questioning and with rigour.

    i shouldn't comment though as I haven't watched Kino's video, too many videos recently no, overexposure?

    1. The Kino and Tina Turner videos are really just a means to reach out to more people, who may not otherwise bother to read my random musings ;-)

      Very interesting, Grimmly. I can't say much about questioning within Catholicism and Protestantism, since I have limited experience with both (although I do know that Protestantism was born out of questioning Catholic doctrine).

      "Theology is perhaps the only department that Philosophers respect as equals (or at least don't look down our noses at), in that they, like Philosophy, question thoroughly the ground of their own discipline, we're even perhaps intimidated by them..."

      Hmm... I'm not quite sure whether I agree with this; my general experience with philosophers in the analytic tradition is of a general atmosphere of distrust of anything religious or faith-based. In fact, many analytic philosophers I know will be the first ones to look down their noses at theologians; they especially scorn Aquinas's view that "Philosophy is the handmaiden of Theology."

      But I would like to stress that all this is only my experience; I move only within analytic circles (and even then, only within a rather small subset of these circles). I certainly know little about what Continental folks are thinking today. And actually, even within analytic philosophy, there are the folks at Notre Dame (Alvin Plantinga, et al) who try to explain religious experience in analytic terms. Plantinga, for instance, champions the view that religious knowledge is basic, non-inferential knowledge. I have no idea how plausible his view actually is.

      So I guess what I'm trying to say is that the truth as to the attitude of philosophers about theology is a rather complicated matter, one which I don't feel qualified to say anything definitive about (which, of course, doesn't prevent me from saying a lot ;-)).

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  3. Respect, there you go, wouldn't say I love the practice or necessarily have faith in it but I do respect it...and enough to question it.

    1. Respect is a nice word choice :-) Actually, it brings to mind the Kantian notion of Achtung, which is usually translated either as "Respect" or "Reverence"... I actually wrote my MA thesis on Achtung way back.

      Could it be that the "correct" or appropriate attitude to approach practice is with an attitude of Achtung? Just as we should respect the Moral Law within (as Kant would say), we should also respect the practice as an embodiment of something that is both within ourselves yet at the same time bigger than our egos?

      Something to think about, don't you think? :-)

    2. I would be using respect here in the sense of 'worthy of consideration' to see (spec) again (re ) or worthy of investigation. to pick up serene's comment don't we commit ourself to investigation putting our convictions under erasure, to one side in the inquiry. I like the sense of presence too with commitment as opposed to conviction, which we carry over from the past and faith a projection towards future.
      Achtung as Reverence in the Kantian sense would leave me with a moral surrender too, no Nobel ( you'll know better than I) and you know how I feel about surrender so i'll stick with respect.

      Perhaps my experience was a result of being on the continental side of the fence rather tan the analytical and being in a few Heidegger reading groups with some very very sharp, forward thinking, theologians.

  4. The Faith section outlines the basic belief systems from both an historical and contemporary view point. The Practice section attempts to explain the organizational structure. Practice arise from faith that which forms the basis of practice is faith. Thanks a lot.

  5. But perhaps not always RN, isn't it the case that it's often switched around that faith arises out of the ground of practice, a religious background your born into, practices and rituals you grow up with , just growing through the motions and yet faith may evolve almost despite your inclinations, I wonder.

    What I find most interesting is how one goes about questioning faith, to apply the rational to something that perhaps lies outside the rational, through the practice itself perhaps, the practice becoming a form of inquiry.
    Fascinating topic Noble/Megan.

  6. Thanks for expanding on this, Nobel. My practical understanding of shradda is to be anchored in the absence of fear -- less of a "belief" and more of a state of mind.

    1. Yes, I think freedom from fear is very key. Could it be that faith/shradda and freedom from fear are two sides of the same coin? In the sense that having a deep belief that the practice works for you frees you from fear... Just wondering.

  7. I am going to stay in the shallow end of this pool and go ahead and say that every time that you make a choice (in asana or in any other circumstance requiring action), you need a certain amount of conviction that it is going to work out. Otherwise you lacked what we all call commitment, and doubt kind of distracts and compromises the "experiment",no? What is that fuel we use when we decide we are going for it called?

    1. "I am going to stay in the shallow end of this pool..."

      There is no "shallow", only different kinds of "deep" :-)

      'Otherwise you lacked what we all call commitment, and doubt kind of distracts and compromises the "experiment",no?'

      Actually, from listening to the experiences of many yogis and yoginis who have worked through difficulties in the practice, I get the sense that doubt is very much a part of the questioning and experimenting process. Perhaps the challenge lies in finding a way to be with the doubts, and work with them productively to move you towards a place of greater knowledge and freedom, rather than the opposite. And faith/sraddha/whatever-one-chooses to call-this-container serves as a sort of controlled laboratory environment within which to carry out one's experimentations...