In the very first conversation I had with my teacher, I didn’t know what to ask for. He had sat silently, perhaps waiting for me to be done being busy.
It’s easy to be busy; it’s far more challenging to be engaged.
Finally, he said:
“What would you like from me?”
I paused, not sure what to say, and then without much calculation replied.
“I want to know everything you know.”
“That could take some time.”
This summer, it will be 35 years since we had that conversation. When I asked later that day what he meant by “yoga,” Appa said to me,
“Yoga is virtuosity in becoming yourself.”
I may have been only 20 years old when we had this conversation, but I realized I had a choice. If I was in this conversation, it was for a lifetime of learning.
I still awake everyday with this first teaching:
this will take some time.
Buddhist tradition invites us to Beginner’s Mind, that deep sense of openness and vulnerability that empowers us to welcome our unknowing, to release ourselves from the tyrannies of certainty. Rajanaka Tantra, Appa’s teaching, doesn’t presume to improve upon such a sublime Zen axiom—but we’re not too shy to add to it. Seeking “mastery” requires, at once, a beginner’s mind and a process of evolving growth in self-recognition. With the continuance of learning, we can stand in our accomplishments even as we recognize our business remains unfinished. Growth is not the opposite of Beginner’s Mind; it is the next beginning of Beginner’s Mind.
Accepting that productive human work comes through the processes of learning, we can accept the invitation to grow with unknowing and decide how we will assimilate what is valuable from the past.
Without traditions we reinvent the wheel; with them, we get to change the wheel. The closer we get to the sources, the more we realize our part in creating rather than merely adopting traditions. That too takes time. It’s about our commitment to our selves. What’s at stake is how we decide to learn, to evolve, to participate with time.
My teacher called this process “the fullness of time.” He meant that we create a powerful vision for the future when we have done the work of looking through the processes of history, receiving from the past rather than living in the past. Sometimes we discover less than we hoped to find; sometimes there is more than we could have dreamt possible. But look we must with eyes as wide open as our hearts.
For each of us, our own past must play a critical role in our evolution even as we learn from the critical process that invokes tradition as ligature of contiguous consciousness. Remaking yourself in every moment—being here only now—may sound swell, but it’s one short step from senility.
I am not motivated by the anti-present anymore than I feel compelled to deny that the moment invites our fullness in participation. Time needn’t be unwanted baggage; rather we can allow it to become a portal through which we find more.
As Appa put it,
“We don’t study traditions, even our own, so that we might only continue the past but so that we will change the future.”
I can hear him saying that in every now. But what of “timeless truths?”
The idea of participating in some form of “eternal truth” or “original” tradition complicates matters. Folks with such predilections must hold fast that the principles and ideas have proven their efficacy not only in time, but also without it. Anyone who claims a timeless revelation, truth that doesn’t change, or an enlightenment that relinquishes all attachments to the conditions of humanity is in the same soup here.
The matter is no different even if the claim is politically rooted. If we say, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” it means that such concepts or values are understood by a given community first to be true and then examined further for their implementation so that such truths (or practices deemed as timelessly efficacious) can be brought into currency. Human beings assert their timeless truths because they need them, and the further test of our mettle is to ask how every kind of engagement that broadens possibilities also serves us. How do the things we like so little about life keep their spiritual promise?
The peril, of course, is that the very idea of questioning assumptions, much less confronting structures of power, may put the questioner in danger of life or livelihood or exile from the community. Even when we are encouraged to doubt or to question authority, are there not always undercurrents to conform when there’s a final destination? And what happens when we find out that the universe may not be really offering what we want from it?
Are we prepared to express our doubts? Surely there’s a difference between feeling vulnerable—the experience of learning when it is wisdom to defer—and feeling threatened, which causes us to default to more secure territory, like submission to another’s will.
There is such a fine line between vulnerability and intimidation,
between invitation and threat.
My own teacher used his considerable powers of persuasion to their utmost, to the very limits of my understanding. Of course, he wanted to persuade me because he believed that this was the very reason to engage in the conversation. What opinion is worth sharing that is not worth its weight in persuasion? At the same time, Appa spent as much time insisting that I find every vulnerability in his views, never submit my will, and never relent in practicing the arts of engagement.
Teaching me more meant I had to cultivate my own abilities to ask the next question, allowing uncertainty to become an ally as well as a motivation, and thereby enter the deeper values of conversation. Was this intimidating? Not on his part. His was an invitation, not a threat. This conversation, he said, was how we create more virtuosity in becoming ourselves; this is how we do yoga.
There are so many perils to doubting truths or questioning the authority of tradition if one wants to hold a place for oneself in community, no? We can’t learn without the past even as we must continue to learn from it, but perhaps even more: we must acknowledge that it will be just as difficult to learn with it. We will have to yoke ourselves to those perils rather than claim the safe harbors of an enlightenment that solves all our problems and culminates in perfection.
If yoga practice means to refer to more than the physical benefits of asana and other very recent innovations, we must become bent upon an authentic provenance. Become an archive for yourself and take the time to create a reservoir of memories worth sharing. Experiences don’t become experience without honoring Time, for this goddess asks from you more than you’ve yet considered. It’s always that way because She is also More.
So long as we are authentic to that determination to move forward, we’ll gather the past rather than steal from it, we’ll remain authentic to our vision because we have not forgotten how we got here.
As Appa said,
this will take some time.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.
Douglas Brooks is a scholar of Hinduism, south Asian languages, and the comparative study of religions. He lived in India with his teacher, Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy, studying and practicing Srividya, Auspicious Wisdom, and the modern traditions of goddess-centered Rajanaka Tantra. A graduate of Harvard University, he has been Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester in New York for the past 25 years.