February 9, 2011

The Three Most Liberating Things I Have Learned From Yoga (Part 1)

The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration…are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. But we are not the weather. We are the mountain. ­–Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land

“Thank you very much for coming today.”

“My pleasure, Bobbi. Would you like to stay here in your room, or shall I wheel you back into the common room?”

(Long pause)

“I don’t know what the difference is.”

* * *

Fred lays inert with eyes closed in the reclining hospital chair that takes up about half the available floor space in his retirement-home room. I have gone through the Administration of Communion service without any idea if he has heard anything. Because he is incapable of receiving the bread, I wet his lips with a few drops of the wine.

Although I cherish the belief that his spirit has benefited from the ritual even if his mind is unaware of it, I do not know exactly what I mean by that; in fact, I fear just the opposite. If a person’s mind is gone, isn’t that person gone, too?

If emotions, cognition and memory are all at the mercy of events, liable to physical insult and vulnerable to disease, what does it mean to say that the soul is immortal? When the personality is lost or damaged, what becomes of the person?

Science tells us that the mind is physically determined, a machine made of chemicals and neurons. This is science’s rationale, for instance, for allowing a person in a persistent vegetative state to die: if all that makes a person a person is broken, what remains is just an empty shell.

Was Terri Schiavo’s soul imprisoned in her irretrievably damaged body during her last fifteen years, or did it flee when everything identifiable as “Terri Schiavo” was destroyed?  Judging by the hysteria among conservative Christians over her fate, Terri was still “in there,” and allowing her to die amounted to murder.

But interestingly, the furor didn’t center around there being more to a person than the cognitive faculties–rather, the opposition focused on arguing that those faculties were, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, still intact. In effect, the conservatives validated the assumptions of science by arguing that Schiavo ought to be kept alive, not because brainstuff isn’t all there is to a human being, but because Schiavo’s brainstuff was still working.  Even when the autopsy showed a brain shrunken to half its normal size, and proved that the eyes that had supposedly followed moving objects were in fact blind, the conservatives continued to assert that the facts had been distorted by the shadowy agents of our alleged “culture of death.”

Foolish and deluded? Arguably. And yet, most of us find it difficult to believe that our thoughts and emotions are not our essential selves, but simply a function of our physical bodies.

In Yogic thought, both the intellect and our emotions a part of our physical equipment, and neither has any effect whatever on our essential selves. The Purusha, or “indweller,” is unchanging, and only appears to take on our mental states as a clear crystal seems to take on the color of objects close by. While the “mind is an instrument, as it were, in the hands of the Soul, through which the Soul perceives external objects,”[i] the Purusha/Soul itself is unaffected by the experiences of the mind.

Swami Vivekananda

The Purusha does not love; It is love itself. It does not exist; It is existence itself. The Soul does not know; It is knowledge itself. It is a mistake to say that the Soul loves, exists, or knows. Love, existence, and knowledge are not the qualities of the Purusha, but Its essence. When they are reflected upon something, you may call them the qualities of that thing. They are not the qualities but the essence of the Purusha, the great Atman, the Infinite Being, without birth or death, established in Its own glory.[ii]

While it may seem radical for a Christian to speak of the Atman, the “universal soul” which is identical both with the individual purusha and Brahman/God, other Christians have gone there–or at least nearby–before. Thomas Aquinas (who was considered a radical–even a heretic–in his day, but quickly became the go-to guy for the institutional church) believed that the soul survives the body as an individual personality, but that it doesn’t start out that way.

The soul is capable of surviving on its own, but it does not inhabit the body like a “ghost in the machine.” On the contrary, it is only by uniting with a human body that it becomes individualized, obtaining an identity that persists even after the body dies.  Imagine some material, like molten metal, poured into a mold to make a sculpture. When the mold is broken, the metal survives, but it owes it permanent shape to the experience of being in the mold. What survives, in the case of human beings, is not some abstract, depersonalized soul, but the form of a real individual person.[iii]

This model is similar to the Yogic doctrine that the samskaras, or “impressions” imposed upon the mind by our actions, survive the body and persist into subsequent incarnations. But Yoga also posits that the “mind” is part of the physical body, and dies with it, while the samskaras remain as the “seeds” of future karma.

And while the Schiavo protesters may have been unaware of it, Christian as well as Yogic thought has long urged against identifying ourselves with our thoughts, feelings and memories. Martin Laird, a Christian contemplative, suggests that these things play out above our essential selves without making any real difference to who we are, as Mt. Zion is unaffected by the weather.

…if we think we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured and our sense of painful alienation heightened…We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mt. Zion.[iv]

That “fundamental truth of our union with God” is the first liberating truth I learned from Yoga–for while the principle has been present in Christian thought from the beginning, it is not emphasized in practice, so I had to hear of it in the “foreign language” of Yoga in order to recognize it in my own tradition.

The idea that we are already one with God would scandalize many contemporary Christians, especially in the evangelical churches, which tend to regard humanity as fundamentally estranged from God in our “total depravity.”[v] What they think Jesus meant when He said, “I am the Vine, you are the branches[vi]” is beyond me; it’s not like the two are made of different stuff.  But it took the Yogic principle that our job is not to effect our union with God, but to realize it, to make me see that.

In his letter to the Christians in Thessalonika, the Apostle Paul seems to distinguish between our physical, mental/emotional, and essential selves:

May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.[vii]

While the meaning of this passage has been disputed for centuries, I subscribe to the theory that Paul’s word psychi (Ψυχη), translated as “soul”, refers to the transient stuff of which our individual personalities are constituted, while pneuma (Πνευμα), or “spirit,” refers to the imperishable, essential nature.

The fact that “soul” is almost always used in reference to mortals and not to God, for Whom the word “spirit” is always used, confirms me in this belief.  But what really brought this realization home to me was the Yogic doctrine of the “Self”, or Divine essence at our core, and the “self”, or the “small” identity made up of our thoughts, feelings and memories.

I believe that when Jesus described Himself as “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He referred not to incidentals–the name and form of a carpenter from Nazareth–but to essentials: the Divine Being that transcends all autobiography.  Not the weather, but the mountain; not His self, but HimSelf.

And I believe that when I give Communion to someone no longer able to receive it under their own power, that it bypasses the defunct self and goes straight for the immortal Self of that person. And that while the death of the body means the end of the self, it is merely a new beginning for the Self.

There is a Zen Buddhist exercise in which one repeatedly asks, “Who am I?”, and then replies, to each answer that presents itself, “That is not who I am.” All those answers have to do with what the Yogis call nama and rupa–”name” and “form,” not essential reality. I believe nama and rupa are the “life in this world” that Jesus calls us to hold lightly, so that the eternal life can live itself in us now.

Those who love their life in this world will lose it. Those who care nothing for their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.[viii]

[i] Vivekananda, Raja Yoga, pg. 19.  Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

[ii] Vivekananda, Raja Yoga, pg. 159. Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center.

[iii] Rubinstein, Richard. Aristotle’s Children: How Christians, Muslims and Jews Rediscovered the Ancient Wisdom and Illuminated the Middle Ages. Mariner, 2004.

[iv] Laird, Martin. Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. OUP 2006.

[v] A key doctrine of Calvinism.

[vi] John 15:5

[vii] 1 Thessalonians 5:23

[viii] John 12:25

Read 24 Comments and Reply

Read 24 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Scott Robinson  |  Contribution: 9,315