What’s set me off lately began when Ed and Deborah Shapiro posted Why Your Intellect Is an Obstacle in Yoga. Next came Carol Horton’s impassioned rebuttal, Why Your Intellect Is (or Can Be!) an Integral Part of Yoga. Here were two viewpoints that couldn’t have been more contradictory.
It felt like the pendulum swung really wide first one way and then the other. Then my intuitive Scorpio Moon kicked butt, impelling me to dig deeper. That got me to thinking about how the spiritual seeker’s journey has been called “the middle path.” And about how in yogic spiritual practice there are specific uses for the intellect, which I’ll get to in a moment.
First, let me say that the Shapiros and Carol Horton are among the truly conscious writers on EJ whom I admire. (Full disclosure: I posted a comment that the Shapiros’ line, “When we’re about to die it won’t help to remember what page of a text we were meant to be on,” was absolutely classic.) Carol Horton also scores a major point in writing that “when we bring the full power of our intellect to engaging with something like the [Yoga] Sutras, it can be a vital tool in igniting our hearts – and our spirits.”
But the issue with intellect stems more from our contemporary western culture’s inherent extremes. Not to mention the psychoanalytic matrix in which those extremes are encouraged to thrive. A kind of spiritual schizophrenia results.
There’s the tendency to hypermentalize everything including our self-judgments about our Yoga and meditation practice. Or else there’s the tendency toward complete ambivalence and apathy. Spiritual teachings, such as those in the Bhagavad Gita and philosophical texts can be used to analyze and debate yogic topics. Yet they can equally become pathways to our inner divinity—the spontaneous, joyful and wondrous being we long to know.
Yoga embraces those pathways and many others, recognizing that all roads lead to Home. To keep yourself centered on whatever path you’re on, the practice of viveka can help because it employs the intellect as a spiritual tool.
Viveka means intellectual discernment, discrimination (if the latter has too much baggage, use “differentiation” as Wikipedia does). Instead of seeing only the relative truth of what we are experiencing—relative to how it’s filtered through our ego’s pinhole perception–-viveka gives us a zoom lens to the greater reality. By consciously applying viveka (ideally at all times) you can distinguish the real from the unreal, the eternal from the temporal, the infinite from the finite. In determining whether what’s happening has eternal staying power—as unconditional love does, for example—you cut through the tangle of your emotions. When there’s high power clarity, there’s more possibility for living in the state of genuine love and happiness.
Here’s a really simplistic example: I can max out my plastic buying pricey designer yoga outfits, believing that these outfits alone will make me happy because I’ll look so hot practicing in them. But my happiness is temporary, conditional. The outfits will wear out. I’ll get tired of wearing them. And I’ll be angry with myself when paying down the bill wipes out my paycheck.
Alternately, I can focus on feeling the expansion of my heart in Camel, or the inner lift of Dancer that makes my spirit soar. With my practice comes a blast of energy that gives me more time to serve those I love or the causes I care about.
By practicing viveka you’re continuously using the intellect to hear the heart’s inner wisdom and take a bigger step along the path to freedom.