Sunday, February 23, 2014

The onion and the hereafter

Over the past few weeks, I have been feeling emotions in a more intense kind of way. These feelings can be described as a sort of muted melancholic feeling that originates somewhere deep in the gut. It's not the "can't get out of bed" kind of depressed feeling that some people who are depressed report feeling. Rather, it's more like a deep melancholic feeling that feels like an undercurrent that is undercurrenting everything else that I may be feeling or going through. And honestly, the feeling is not entirely unpleasant. It feels like tapping into something deeper within myself, wherever "deeper" may be. I also feel a bit like an onion whose layers have been peeled away, exposing deeper parts of myself that I may not have aware of before.

I think the occurrence of these feelings has something to do with my second series practice, but I have no objective way of proving this. It may, of course, also have something to do with the fact that I am reading existentialist writers (Sartre, Heidegger, Camus) very intensively and closely in the course of teaching my Existentialism course. But again, I also have no objective way of proving this.  

Anyway, these intense episodes usually occur off the mat and at seemingly random times. For instance, I was in a restaurant a few weeks ago, and the in-house TV was playing a documentary about the 1994 attack on the figure-skater Nancy Kerrigan. I suddenly found myself feeling very sad (and yes, I will even confess that I felt a lump in my throat...) for Kerrigan, even though I normally don't feel too much for the trials and tribulations of celebrities, being the normally cynical person that I am.

I have communicated with a couple of my teachers about this phenomenon. They have encouraged me by telling me that this is 100 percent normal, and that I should continue with my practice. They also suggested that I learn to appreciate and love these moments, and to see them as windows into a deeper place within myself (probably somewhere in the liver... just kiddin').


Recently, I have also been struggling with a very simple question: Is there life after death? Or, more specifically, do we need to believe that there is some kind of existence after death in order to be an effective Buddhist or yoga practitioner? I know that Buddhism and yoga are two very different things (whatever clever new-age-ists out there may say), but this much at least seems common to the two traditions: Both traditions seem to presuppose that this worldly existence is not all there is, that something, whatever that may be, persists after our earthly bodies have expired and decomposed.

Of course, none of this should be any concern to you if you practice yoga simply for "stretching" or to stay in shape. But if you take any of the accompanying spiritual mumbo-jumbo (karma, purusha, the five koshas, to name just a few) even a little bit seriously, I simply cannot see how you can then call yourself a yoga practitioner and not believe in some notion of an existence beyond this one.

So what's the problem here? Well, maybe there isn't a problem. One could simply accept the minimal amount of metaphysical baggage that your community deems to be kosher, and continue to merrily do one's asana practice as is. You know, maybe believe in some kind of afterlife, just don't commit yourself to too many specific details, so that when you die and go to wherever you go, and find out that the details are not quite what you thought they were, you can quickly adapt and be on the right side of the fence :-)

The problem arises if you have a slightly more rationalistic bent of mind, like me, and if you have always had the suspicion that any talk of the hereafter (even if it is packaged in cool-sounding shit like karma and purusha and emptiness and whatnot) is a kind of intellectual opium designed to pull the wool over your unsuspecting eyes and make you more likely to listen to people who want to control your life and tell you what to do. The problem is also compounded by the obvious fact that nobody (at least nobody that I know) has actually been to the other side and seen what is actually in the hereafter. So if you tell me that there is karma and purusha and a bigger purpose beyond the ken of our intellect that can guide us to a better place, my first question would be, "How do you know this? Have you been there?"

Oh well. I really don;t know what else to say at this point. This is really just me talking my head off, as you can see. If you have anything to say, feel free to comment. If not, I hope you have fun reading and thinking stuff through with me. It's all good, one way or the other.     

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