December 14, 2010

Alka-Seltzer for the Primal Abyss

To be prevented by my own stuff from doing the only thing that could help me get rid of that very “stuff” was horrible.  –Krishna Das[i]

According to legend, the altar in the Jerusalem Temple concealed a shaft that led all the way down into the Primal Abyss.  When the primordial chaos bubbled up through the shaft periodically and threatened to engulf the world, the high priest would write the Tetragrammaton– —the four-letter Unpronounceable Name of God—onto a pottery shard and drop it down the shaft.  The chaos would then subside.

In a sense, the Four Yogas have become the four letters of my personal Tetragrammaton–though I usually do more or less the opposite of what the high priest did. When my inner abyss begins to bubble up, I stow the shards and bury the brush, instead fighting the chaos with the very things of which it is made: frantic efforting, dispersed energies, guilt, shame and “the conscious fret and fume of resolutions and clenched teeth.”[ii] Like the woodsman in Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits, I exhaust myself trying to cut down a tree with a dull saw, because I’m too busy to stop and sharpen the saw.

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.

I began asana practice several years ago for three very specific physical reasons:

1)   to enable me to sit comfortably cross-legged on the floor while playing the tabla,

2)   to enable me to heft an infant and a toddler around without my back seizing up, and

3)   to enable me to clean up after my children and dogs without having to either squat or lean forward over a bent knee, thus grinding the knee joint.

When I began doing the physical exercises, I consciously intended to confine myself to them, not delving into yoga philosophy at all.  I wasn’t one of those Christians who thought yoga was dangerous–in fact, the evangelical university at which I taught offered a yoga class–I simply figured my plate was full, thank you.

I did come into contact with Christians with a much more conservative worldview than my own, of course–people who believed that meditation opens one up to the influence of evil spirits, that yoga asanas are inherently Hinduistic (and therefore demonic,) that namajapa—the repetitive chanting of the name of a deity–was un-Christian even if the deity were Jesus, because it violates St. Paul’s principle of praying “in the Spirit, but…with the mind also.”[iii]

As a longtime practitioner of Christian meditation, I didn’t take these people too seriously, but I also never considered the implications of their being wrong.  I later realized that, if they were mistaken, my worldview would have to change drastically, because either you make exclusive truth claims for your own tradition or you don’t.

The ironic thing, of course, is that the yoga-at-arm’s-length folks were absolutely right­­­–yoga is dangerous! As I became more comfortable in my body, lost weight, grew stronger and more limber, took more notice of what I ate and became more confident, I developed a curiosity for the philosophical underpinnings of this transformative practice.  I devoured Swami Vivekananda’s Four Yogas, and quickly moved on to the Katha Upanishad, Vedanta philosophy and the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna.  After that, there was no going back.

I am still a follower of Jesus–I still do my spiritual spade-work within the Episcopal Church and the Third Order of St. Francis– but God is much bigger now than before I found yoga. I have learned that one can indeed be both a Christian and a Yogi, and the discovery has radically changed my outlook and practice.  I am now able to honor the Divine in many forms, while still being devoted to Jesus as my ishta, or chosen ideal.  “There is only one Rama,” said Sri Ramakrishna, “and He has a thousand names.”[iv]

It was the writings of Ramakrishna’s disciple Vivekananda that introduced me to the Four Yogas–a slightly arbitrary, but nonetheless useful way of thinking about spiritual discipline.  They overlap with each other to some extent, and many activities could be classified under more than one. While most people will favor one type over the others (I am more a jnana yogi than anything else), every yogi’s personal sadhana, or spiritual practice, should include all four.  They are:

Karma Yoga, the purification of action through selfless work,

Bhakti Yoga, the purification of emotion through devotional practices,

Jnana Yoga, the purification of the intellect through knowledge and understanding, and

Raja Yoga, the purification of concentration through meditation. (Some people consider Hatha Yoga, the physical asana practice, as a separate fifth discipline, but I regard it as part of Raja Yoga, since its original purpose was to prepare the body to be still and comfortable in meditation.)

These four disciplines, taken together, act as a daily Alka Seltzer for my personal abyss. Daily application “stills the fluctuations of the mind,”[v] and keeps me sane, healthy, and aware of the Divine presence in my life.

But when an occasional eruption sends up a flood of bubbling chaos, instead of increasing my yogic dosage, for some reason I back off. I become much too “busy” for asana practice, meditation, prayer, study, or healthy eating and sleeping. And of course, the more I neglect those things, the less able I am to accomplish the tasks that somehow seem more urgent.

I end up physically debilitated and emotionally depressed.  Nothing seems meaningful or worth the effort, and the very sky overhead feels like a suffocating leaden dome.  I understand why Sylvia Plath likened her episodes of depression to a bell jar coming down over her.

When I found myself sitting in a coffee shop, trying to write an article while hunched over my laptop like Snoopy pretending to be a vulture because my back was painfully seized up, with a whole autumn’s worth of unraked leaves in the back yard and a house cluttered enough to get lost in, I finally woke up and realized that trying to stuff the chaos back down the shaft on my own wasn’t working any better this time than it had the previous times. Slowly, with the help of a loving spouse, medical intervention, and a renewed sadhana, I began digging out from under the debris.

After months away from it, asana practice was difficult at first, but it is coming back to me more quickly than I feared. My ability to concentrate in meditation has eroded also, but it, too, is slowly returning to pre-chaos levels.  I am working again with renewed vigor.

The challenge, of course, is to remember to do what is necessary for well-being when the mind is telling you to put those things on hold.  You don’t have time to sharpen that saw, the mind will tell you–keep sawing, because this tree needs to come down right now! But of course, it is precisely when you think you have more urgent things to attend to than your spiritual practice that your personal sadhana becomes so vitally important.  Which is probably why, even when “many were coming and going” till He “had no time even to eat,”[vi] Jesus still made time to “withdraw into a lonely place” to pray.

(A version of this post appeared previously at Lexi’s Yoga Journal.)

[i] Chants of a Lifetime:  Searching for a Heart of Gold

[ii] Lewis, C. S.  The Screwtape Letters

[iii] 1 Corinthians 14:15

[iv] The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna

[v]Patanjali, Yoga Sutras, second aphorism

[vi] Mark 6:31

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