Perhaps no word causes us modern Western free thinking individualists to shudder more than “structure,” especially in the context of religion or spirituality. Even those of us who have gotten past our doubt and cynicism in relation to the vast and charged world of the religious and agree to call ourselves “spiritual” still tend to want our spirituality on our terms and in as loosely structured a package as possible. The word structure reminds us of our jobs. It reminds us of the cops who used to bust up our high school parties, of principals we despised, of pissed off sports coaches and churches that we used to be forced to go to that later were revealed to not be the wholesome places our parents thought they were. There is in our culture — and has been since the enlightenment — a conscious and intentional movement away from the word structure.
Yet the physical reality of the manifest universe (shakti in the shiv/shakti cosmology of Northern Tantra) is one of deep and profound structure. One need look no deeper than within our own bodies to see the overlapping and interplay of thousands upon thousands of delicate, angelic structures. Animals and human beings alike live, love, and experience reality within the framework of their biological architecture, and even the freest of free thinkers in human history is subject to that great order. Noam Chomsky — an even greater linguistics scholar than he is political grouch — proposed that the underlying hardware of the human structure itself determines the parameters of all language, from which there is no deviation. Even without correction, human children will independently arrive at the same fundamental grammar structure by age 5, simply because the architecture of physical reality determines it.
Mystic traditions throughout the ages have recognized and practiced within this order and a major emphasis of mystic practice is on honoring and aligning with the physical structure of the universe. From the sacred geometry of the Sufis to the overlapping Yantras of northern Hinduism to the mandala visualizations of the Tibetan Vajrayana in which elaborately constructed palaces of the mind are built slowly over time — the practice of spiritual structuralism sets the human organism in its proper context amidst the mosaic of a profound and wondrous universe. Structure — and the honoring thereof — is sacred. It’s no accident that the mystic societies that were closest aligned with understanding the principles of structure — for example, the masons — achieved such standing in the ancient world.
Our current fear of spiritual structure grows from the fact that we rightly see it manifest as an external set of rules imposed on masses who are not privy to the rationale behind those rules, and on top of it we often see those who preach the rules not following them. But true structure within spirituality has nothing to do with imposed external rules. The “rules,” at their essence, are merely expressions of the innate underlying spiritual structure. True adherence to the spiritual path grows from living in alignment with the natural order of the manifest universe. Simply put, how we work with the structure of our bodies and minds and spirits, the structure of our breath, the structure of our lives, of our communities, how we architect our time on earth and how that architecture aligns with the larger architecture of the Divine — this is the essence of what spiritual practice is.
In the tradition that is Hatha Yoga, we start with the physical structure of the human being as mirror of and lens into the spiritual reality of the universe. And what we find is the expression of Divine structure in all its glory. It is the profound beauty of Hatha Yoga practice that the journey of the body through the poses both mirrors and embodies the entire spiritual journey of human beings. Everything about how we hold a pose, breathe in to a pose, lift out of a pose and transition to the next pose is both vital insight into how we live our lives and immanent opportunity to transform ourselves.
In physical yoga practice, we align ourselves to a center that is both fixed and true, as true as our planet’s alignment to the North Star that allows us to navigate the turbulent waters of the world. There is a true center to the human organism, a point at which the least amount of weight is unnecessarily imposed on the structure, a point where our hearts are neither dramatically or impulsively reaching forward or are retreating and cowering too far back — a place where we are not leaning too much towards others nor are we pulling too far away from them. This place, the place of our True Alignment, is where we seek to dwell, on the mat, off the mat. Every breath we take can lead us back to it. Every interaction we have in our day can come from this place or take us back to this place.
When we find this place of True Alignment, we begin to know the yamas and the niyamas — the ethical framework of yoga practice — from an entirely different perspective. They cease to become rules that are being imposed on us and we see them for what they are — the inherent way that a person who is in True Alignment with the natural structure of the Divine carries themselves with every breath. Yoking ourselves fully to the True Alignment, the yamas and niyamas become both the foundation of our practice and the flowering of it.
So we do not practice ahimsa, for example, simply because the yogic higher ups tell us that we should. We practice ahimsa because as we develop the awareness of True Alignment and the sensitivity to how we carry ourselves in this world, we start to become aware of all the ways in which we harm ourselves and harm others every day through our word and our deeds and through what we take into our bodies and what we put forth. We start to see what even small acts of harm do to our alignment and to our hearts. We feel, with a far deeper sensitivity than before, what the ripples that stem from harm do to the still waters of our being — that day, the next day, two months, ten years down the line.
Slowly, over time as we practice ahimsa, we start to build beautiful structures of non-harm within us. We take care of our physical hearts. We take care of our spiritual hearts. We tend to the heart every single morning and every single evening as we would a carefully watered and weeded garden. So that eventually the structural citadel of our physical and spiritual beings is unassailable, nourished, and luminous, and from that foundation the harming of ourselves or of others is not even a remote possibility. This is ahimsa. Not ‘I’m going to try my best not to hurt people because that’s one of the rules.’
Likewise, with the practice of santosha — we don’t just instruct ourselves to be content and expect that to bring contentment. This puts the burden of contentment squarely on our shoulders and makes us feel like we are somehow lacking when we’re not content. Fundamental to the true practice of contentment is the understanding of the place of the human organism in the larger structure and what we as spirituo-physical organisms truly require structurally for contentment to be possible.
First and foremost, to fulfill the contented promise of the human being, we have to MOVE. The human structure is meant to move continually. We are animate creatures, designed to continually explore this world whose beautiful fabric we are woven from. Our ancestors — who literally moved all day, every day — would barely recognize the sedentary lives we live today as being human. They also might pity us our maladies of modern life — anxiety, depression — while being mystified that we wonder at cures when the most obvious one is right in front of us. Move! Do what we’re designed to do! However much we move in life — hiking, practicing, running, dancing — commit to moving more. When the body is still, the mind moves, restlessly and actively seeking discontentment. So we spend more time in nature, feeling the extremes of wind and cold and sun and warm on our resilient skin. Our bodies do not want stasis, they want change. We breathe deeply of fresh clear air. We sweat, shedding the old waters of held memory and replacing them with the clear new waters of mountain springs.
We also work to extend the structures of contentment outside of us. We build a strong community of friends. We spend long hours with them — not quick, once a month visits — long hours. We cook nourishing food. Maybe we garden, enjoying the thrum of bees and the nectar scent and the magnificence of the Divine Structure in full flowering.
One of the reasons that we put these structures of contentment in place is because we want our contentment to shine through to the times in our lives when things are difficult. Its an easy and all too common fallback to feel content when things are going well, forget about practicing contentment, assume that we’ll cope with loss when we have to, and not build any structural foundation that crosses from the peaceful waters to the turbulent. But when we inevitably go through hard times we want to have constructed a support system both inside and outside of us that we can draw upon.
Times of loss and grief are where we can reap the benefits and sip on the nourishment and support of a structurally sound practice. A very common question posed to spiritual teachers is “How do I cope with loss?” And while of course there are individual practices and techniques around our own energetics of grieving, the structural practice of contentment changes the fundamental question, which becomes: “Do I have the structures in place inside and outside myself so that when loss occurs I will be supported and aided and loved my friends, my community, and the Divine?
We put structures of contentment in place so that when we grieve, we grieve, but we do not drown in an ocean of grief. The grief is a sudden flood; but the overall ocean that floats us and sustains us is one of peace and of joy.
The defining quality of practicing like this is that it takes time and care. We work to build a nourishing, supportive bed upon which we can take rest. We take our whole lives to construct a golden well, straight to our source, brick by brick by brick. Treating our practice as a physical reality that needs structure and needs care is the way that we start to actually see spiritual progress and transformation. So we look at where our practice is now. Is our practice a palace or a shack? Is it a place where light can pass freely, or is it cluttered and run down? If our practice were a friend, would that friend still speak to us?
The Tantric spiritual cosmology of the physical universe teaches us that our practice in actuality is a structure — not in metaphor, in reality. Our practice is a palace we are building. It is a prism of multiple pathways and reflective surfaces. It is a mandala, with sides and curves and edges. It is a realm that is governed, preferably wisely. It is a garden that lives in the open space of our hearts. Through this beautiful truth, we can gain great insight into the state of our practice, and we start to work with the structure of ourselves — like the great yogi Milarepa purifying his past deeds by building great geometric structures of stone, or the humble carpenter Jesus, whose work on this earth was to measure and cut and hammer, to build sound and firm structures to give shelter for his fellow human beings.
May the structure of our practice keep us safe, and nourished. May it be a home for light.