February 28, 2011

Svadhyaya in the Jungle

An unexamined life is not worth living – Socrates

Many of us are too overwhelmed with the imperative of getting through each day to spend energy listening to news or thinking outside our personal lives but the rebellion of a few has woken us up.  In a country which has gone wild with yoga, how many of us are practicing or living yoga as it applies to our life as a member of a collective that is bigger than the yoga class? The answer may be in how well we know ourselves. If we dig deep enough to discover that, perhaps it could change the heart of a country.

This weekend there was a country wide rally organized by MoveOn. Org Political Action to protest an attempt to kill collective bargaining rights by Governor Walker of Wisconsin. Tennessee may be soon to follow. Nashville gathered about 300 folks who looked to be mostly over the age of 45 and the signs they held indicated a majority of teachers among other union workers.

The teachers in Wisconsin had already offered to take cuts in both pay and benefits to accommodate the Governor’s quest to shave money from the budget. They have thrown in a compromise on tenure, which may not be a bad thing but had nothing to do with the plan to save money. It seemed like a desperate cry for mercy.  The Governor had cut corporate taxes which increased the state’s deficit. Then he needed money. Unions needed to be destroyed to make their members easier prey.

If we acquiesce that cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthiest  among us is more essential than ensuring the wages of public servants, doesn’t it seem by logical extension that down the line we might consider abolishing public education altogether?  After all, public education is socialist. Maybe it’s time to pay attention.

If taxes pay for state services, why cut corporate taxes? Wisconsin’s recent drama tells us why. A Governor is elected thanks to the financial support of businessmen with the understanding that he will pay those businessmen back by cutting their taxes and he does. Then he makes up for the tax revenue lost by taking from another group of people who he tries to render powerless by breaking their collective bargaining rights.

Then he goes on T.V. and earnestly recites a continuous loop of nonsense that makes no sense, knowing that most of us will give up eventually. He’s not alone.  We end up with a country that has an uneasy balance and as a result we are a people who are uneasy.

Many of us have adopted the fallback position of I can only change myself which somehow brings to mind fasting to protest world hunger. Politics is just us individuals as a collective. Who we’ve chosen to do our collective bargaining for us in the House and Senate may be doing us wrong. I heard someone say today that different people just have different ideas on what works.  Is there never right or wrong? It seems like our politics are nothing but a continuous argument. I hear the political pundits’ debate, exchanging words without discussion. People don’t seem to be communicating as much as reciting.

It takes humility to listen and shift. It takes security and self awareness to speak with honesty. It takes love to look beyond personal gain. If one is fully present, it takes moral bankruptcy to do harm. First, it takes introspection.

Svadhyaya  is described in the ethical observances of yoga as self knowledge. It is a step toward psychological freedom or self realization and it may be such desire for self knowledge that attracts so many of us to yoga. Many, if not most of us, are teaching yoga before we’ve achieved that. The business of yoga is subject to the same pitfalls as any business including government.  We may not be sure of ourselves but hopefully our attention to yoga will dictate our business practice. As we work to attain or maintain self awareness we can implement the ethical restraints that describe a fair, kind, and honest relationship to the world. Yoga has the capacity to make a contribution to society as an example of ethics in business. But yogis have the same challenges that anyone running a business or the business of country have. It’s not enough to go through the motions of setting up shop. If we don’t know ourselves we run the risk of doing unconscious harm.

Patanjali says that the vitamins we need to maintain in yoga are faith, courage, boldness, absorption and tremendous memory to understand exactly what is happening in us today, what happened yesterday, the day before yesterday and many days ago, with uninterrupted awareness. I you haven’t got these five vitamins you are not doing yoga at all but only bhoga which is translated as satisfaction. This can be described as health of the body and harmony of the mind. – “The Tree of Yoga”, B.K.S. Iyengar

Perhaps we might interpret this for today as a call to look at history to gain perspective on the nature of politics.  I’ve been thinking of poets’ and writers’ calls to attention in the 19th and early 20th centuries as the industrial revolution changed the lives of a people across the Western world. The world that Charles Dickens describes in his novels was not that long ago. In the course of human evolution, we are minutes away from the world of debtor’s prisons, child labor, and a general willful ignorance of people’s needs. Upton Sinclair’s novel “The Jungle” describes the corruption of human beings that took place because the workers had no rights. I wonder if we are so much more evolved now that we don’t need laws to protect people.  Are we enlightened enough to proceed as every man for himself or would the result of that be more akin to Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities” which describes a  starving people’s revolt against disparity.

Mr. Iyengar goes on to interpret Patanjali’s teachings:

When the body , the mind and the senses are cleared by tapas ((ardor and self-discipline based on burning desire), and when understanding of the self has been attained through svadhyaya (self-study) only then is the individual fit for Isvara-pranidhana (surrender to God).  He has brought down his pride and developed humility, and that humble soul alone is fit for bhakti-marga, the path of devotion.

We are a nation whose catch phrase is “meant to be”. We are also a nation of religion. We fall back on God’s will. We are also now a nation of yoga. And that nation of yoga tends to fall all over itself to avoid negativity or avoid admitting it. While some fall over backwards to be fair and open minded, others of certainty are pushing onward. While some refuse to engage, others take what they want. The people in between are often victims of ignorance and inertia.

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity”……William Butler Yeats, “Second Coming”

In a country which stands so often on the mandate of “God” have we “given it up to God” instead of doing the work ourselves?  Certainly in Mr. Iyengar’s translation of Yoga as subscribed to Patanjali it seems fair to extrapolate that we need to get right with ourselves before turning ourselves completely over to anything else. I may be alone but I stay clear when I see a bumper sticker that says “Jesus drives this car”. How many times has God’s name been invoked for the sake of war? It is delusional. We have work to do. My mother used to say that God helps those that help themselves. It was her way of ensuring that I took charge of my own fate. There are things that are out of our control. There are times that we have to surrender and trust the universe. But first we are called to introspection.

An interviewer asked Halle Berry tonight, Oscar night, what she liked best about the Oscars. She said she liked to see what outfits people wore. She said that people’s outfits revealed how they saw themselves. If it was only that easy……..

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