The Path of Urban Mystic. ~ Darren Main

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(From Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers

children of the light

Those who aspire to the state of yoga should seek the self in inner solitude.

— The Bhagavad Gita, 6:10

At 5:30 each morning, my stereo is programmed to wake me up.

This morning I woke up to the soft sound of Krishna Das chanting his “Devi Puja.” As the deep, rich sound of Krishna Das’ voice coaxed me out of a dream I can’t quite remember and into a waking state, I considered going back to sleep and skipping my morning practice altogether.

Yet something deep within pulled me out of bed.

This morning was not much different from other mornings. I put on some water for tea, then lit a few candles and an aromatherapy lamp. My small bedroom was magically transformed into a sacred temple. It was chilly, so I turned on the heat and sipped on some hot herbal tea while I washed my face, brushed my teeth and slipped into the loose-fitting, white cotton clothes that I reserve for my spiritual practice.

Finally, I rolled out my yoga mat and began.

I started my practice by bowing my head to the earth in surrender and chanting a devotional prayer, followed by the sound of Om. I then began some pranayama.

My mind and body began to wake up and before long I was in downward-dog. I have done this pose a few thousand times, yet still my body resisted. I considered going back to bed, but instead chose to breathe deeply.

After a few more poses, my body and mind began to melt into the practice.

My resistance faded, and I felt my whole being entering into an effortless rhythm, holding some poses and flowing through others—each pose bringing me deeper and deeper into the practice. I moved from downward-dog to upward-dog and then hopped through to assume triangle pose.

My breath was shallow at times, and when I realized this I allowed it to deepen, filling my entire body. I finished my asana practice by moving through a series of floor poses that included camel, cobra and the posterior stretch. After several rounds of “breath of fire,” I took a seat on my meditation cushion, wrapped myself in a white blanket and closed my eyes.

My breath was deep, but unregulated. I felt my mind resting on the breath, but often drifting into plans for my day. Each time I noticed myself playing this familiar game, I smiled and returned my mind to the gentle flow the inhale and exhale.

I sat for what felt like both an eternity and a few short moments. I opened my eyes softly and concluded my morning practice with a brief reading from the Upanishads and then chanted the sound of “Om.”

(Photo: Alice Popkorn)

As I rose from my meditation cushion I could feel a quiet calm.

I showered, dressed and walked down to Courtney’s, a small corner market that is famous in San Francisco. My goal was simple, to buy some fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast. As I waited for the light to change, I took a few deep breaths. Children were showing up at the school across from my home.

I felt as though nothing could shake my peace of mind, but in the moment that followed that thought, I stepped out into the street, only to hear the blare of a car horn. A woman in a tiny car ran the red light and nearly knocked me over. To add insult to injury, she gave me the finger.

I was flustered, but continued across the street to the market, only to find that they were out of yogurt. I begrudgingly settled for some granola and rice milk. On the way home I picked up the morning paper and began to read the headlines as I walked. I read that the economy was still showing signs of slowing, and that another teen had shot his classmates somewhere near San Diego.

By the time I got home again, less than one city block, I could feel stress consuming my body and mind. I walked by my bedroom door and caught the scent of lavender from my aromatherapy lamp. I had to laugh.

Not more than an hour earlier, I was sitting in peace, and here I was now, in the middle of a drama that my ego and the environment had conspired to create.

This, of course, is the difficulty in trying to live a deeply spiritual and centered life.

It is why most people who want to cultivate a life that is devoted to and guided by spirit consider renouncing the world to find a quiet little cave or monastery. The world we have created is not one that encourages a spiritual life. Therefore, it is challenging to try to live as an urban mystic. Nothing short of a deeply held commitment will suffice.

I use the term urban mystic because it describes a great many of us.

A mystic is a person, from any spiritual tradition, who seeks an intimate relationship with spirit. A mystic may or not be a religious person, but he or she is committed to turning his or her mind over to the guidance of spirit. A mystic seeks a direct experience of the divine, but mysticism is not to be confused with religion, for religions seek to explain what cannot be explained, and a mystic seeks to know through experience.

In the past, people who wanted to practice mysticism would go to a hermitage or join a religious order. Some were revered, others seen as fools. In either case they did not fit into worldly life. They saw things through very different eyes, and as a result they did not have a home in the urban world.

This is all starting to change.

People from all walks of life are developing a deeper connection to spirit and living in the world at the same time. They are meditating on their lunch breaks and practicing Tai Chi before the kids get up. These urban mystics are filling yoga classes and studying Kabbalah. There is a movement underway, and it is much more than a flaky new age fad.

People are looking for something more than a good job, a sexy spouse and over-inflated stock options.

Sitting next to my computer is a statue of the Buddha. He has a shaved head and is wrapped in a saffron robe. His legs wind gently into a lotus pose and his eyes are softly closed in meditation. In one hand he holds a cellular phone and in the other a cup of coffee.

I keep this little statue because it reminds me of the spiritual path I’m on. Like many others, I am called, or so it would seem, to walk between two worlds. I am torn between living a deeply contemplative life and being a full-fledged member of my secular community.

There are a growing number of people in our western culture and around the globe who are torn between two worlds. On the one hand, we strive to grow spiritually and seek the deeper meaning of life. We yearn to know the secrets of spirit, and we know what needs to be done to make the earth a peaceful place. On the other hand, we feel a need to live in communities and contribute to society.

The problem is not in our commitment, that is very strong. The problem is that we are torn.

Many spiritual techniques, yoga included, were developed by and for people who had renounced the world. Rather than form families, build homes and live in the community, the mystics responsible for such techniques as yoga and Kabbalah left the material world and went to live as monks or nuns.

There are great spiritual lessons to be learned from living in a cloistered setting and stepping outside the basic chores of day-to-day life. Yet there are an equal number, and some would argue more, spiritual benefits and lessons to be gleaned from a secular life.

As we begin to walk with one foot on the path of the renunciate and the other on the path of the householder, difficulties arise, and there are not, as yet, mechanisms in place to guide us along.

Humanity is evolving into a new level of spiritual awareness, and we are blazing new trails even as I write these words.

Darren Main is a yoga and meditation instructor and author. His books include Yoga and the Path of the Urban Mystic, Spiritual Journeys along the Yellow Brick Road, Inner Tranquility, The Yogi Entrepreneur and Hearts and Minds: Talking to Christians about Homosexuality.

He facilitates workshops and gives talks on yoga and modern spirituality throughout the United States and abroad and is the host of the internationally syndicated podcast Inquire Within. He currently resides in San Francisco.


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Yoga in America:
In the Words of Some of its Most Ardent Teachers


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11 Responses to “The Path of Urban Mystic. ~ Darren Main”

  1. Hi, Darren. Love seeing this on elephant! And isn't it wonderful how the illustrations and you bio photo help bring it alive?

    Great stuff. Thanks for being here. And I hope to see a lot more of your writing here in the future.

    Bob W. elephant journal
    facebook, twitter, linkedIn
    Yoga Demystified, Gita in a Nutshell

  2. I added links to all your books in your bio and to the Yoga in America homepage.

    Excerpts from your far-reaching books, tailored for elephant and enhanced by photos, are also excellent material for elephant, and hopefully might help attract more book readers, too.


  3. […] The Ancient Wisdom of Kriya Yoga is Alive & Well in America ~ Camella Nair The Path of Urban Mystic. ~ Darren Main […]

  4. Thaddeus1 says:

    "As we begin to walk with one foot on the path of the renunciate and the other on the path of the householder, difficulties arise, and there are not, as yet, mechanisms in place to guide us along."

    I must beg to differ with this statement. There are any number of lineages and traditions which accord themselves and provide instructions to the householder. For instance, the ashtanga tradition promoted by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois is composed almost entirely of householders to point where Guruji often encouraged his students to marry and was known to say that "family life is the seventh series, the really tough one."

    Also in the bhakti tradition one of the principle instructions of Rupa Goswami regards the principle of "yukta vairagya," which is commonly understood as detachment through appropriate use and orientation. Thus, you are free (and in fact encouraged) to use things like computers and what have you in the service of spreading and propagating the message of yoga.

    Thus, there really isn't any need to "blaze" new trails if we take the time to learn and appreciate the depth of yoga and mysticism's history and tradition.

  5. ilona says:

    "the mystics responsible for such techniques as yoga and Kabbalah left the material world and went to live as monks or nuns"

    Kabbalah is Jewish mysticism, and Judaism does not have a monastic tradition. Indeed, traditionally, men weren't supposed to study Kabbalah until they reached the age of 40 or so, typically after they already had families.

  6. Leah says:

    Energetic NLP is something I have found that helps balance both worlds.

  7. oz_ says:

    There's a lack of a sense of history evident here on one hand, and evidence of a fair amount of self-absorption, on the other.

    The 'ancient' householders had just as many pressures and distractions as we 'moderns' do, the pace of technology notwithstanding – this notion that it's so much harder today to follow the paths of renunciate and householder is simply not factual – I believe it is a skewed viewpoint that derives from our own insistence of how 'special' we are, compared to past peoples. As such, it is an artifact of the contemporary 'myth of progress' (the one that posits a simplistic and inaccurate history of humankind starting in the caves and leading to the stars). But it is primarily in this area – our levels of self-absorption and narcissism – that we differ from the ancients.

    I mean – that which upset the psychic balance above, which threatened the inner peace cultivated through yoga and meditation was – what? A store ran out of yogurt? The predictable consequences of failing to physically check for oncoming traffic? A newspaper that offered some bad news? Seriously?

    There is a story of a Buddhist monk who escaped captivity in Tibet, walked across the mountains (the *Himalaya* mountains) to Dharamsala, and when the Dalai Lama asked him 'brother, what did you fear during your captivity?' answered 'I feared that I would lose compassion for my torturers.'

    But when American 'urban mystics' run out of yogurt and hear the economy is slowing, it's enough to cause our spiritual foundations to come tumbling down?

    I'm not casting stones here – really I'm not. I know how easy it is to be captured by these things – been there often enough myself. I'm simply trying to point out that our threshold of spiritual courage, or our level of 'spiritual endurance', is virtually non-existent if it can be shattered so easily. And there is a reason for that.

    I think the author here is unwittingly telling us why that is the case – it is due to striving to be "a full-fledged member of my secular community" (note: a secular culture which is wholly antithetical to contemplative spirituality aka mysticism). This form of culture disallows the depth of contemplative practice which bestows such endurance (how many employers will allow their workers to take off for a 3 month silent retreat – let alone pay them for the time off?). And what is it that causes us to need to be a member of such a community, while simultaneously (and, perhaps, oxymoronically) striving to be a contemplative? The notion that both are possible – which seems likely to me to be a product of our cultural narcissism. We wish to eat our cake and to have it, too. We demand that reality conform to what we want it to look like – an essential feature of our narcissism. I'm sorry, but The Secret can't stop a bullet.

    So we insist (like toddlers threatening a tantrum) that we're 'special' – whereas former cultures recognized that certain ways of being in the world were inherently incompatible, we insist we can have it all – but then we wind up having to dilute our spirituality to the point of near-meaninglessness in order to accomodate the overwhelming secular. And it shows in the fact that our 'urban mysticism' is so easily shattered by the truly trivial distractions cited above. And this shows where our core allegiance lies – to the secular and not the spiritual. Or to put it another way, it is the secular aspects of life that truly bind us (this is ego) – the spiritual aspects that we cultivate therefore become (regrettably, to be sure) rather ephemeral or diaphanous.

    In other words, it's not a coupling of the roles of renunciate and householder that is especially difficult these days – but rather trying to do so without abandoning the essential but run-of-the-mill narcissism that characterizes our age. IMO, until one has found a way to abandon that narcissism (hint: the first step would be to acknowledge its presence and its power), then any practice of spirituality is likely to remain primarily a pretense.

    • Thaddeus1 says:

      Right on oz_.

      You said it way better than I did. I'm wondering if you've written any books?

      • CowsAreGreat says:

        However oz_, all enlightened masters are by nature full of humour and I find your post very very serious!! And a bit critical. There is a Buddhist saying, "we dont' see the world as it is we see it as we are". So maybe the obsession with narcissism in the post is in itself a form of narcissism?? Eckhart Tolle lives in a secular world from a point of total renunciation of it and abiding only in Presence. You can go about the world and still have renounced it. It is a state of Being not where we go to sit. Therefore the goal really is to use all tools available to touch our Source. To see ourselves or "know" ourselves only as Presence and then nothing of the world can take hold of you. Regardless where you live and what you do! Peaceful salutations.

  8. CowsAreGreat says:

    "There are great spiritual lessons to be learned from living in a cloistered setting and stepping outside the basic chores of day-to-day life. Yet there are an equal number, and some would argue more, spiritual benefits and lessons to be gleaned from a secular life." I would argue why does it have to be one or the other… it is possible to leave the secular life and immerse oneself in spiritual life to the point of being cloistered or in an ashram and then when the time is ripe and after being churned in the belly of the Divine to be spit out and back into the world to do the work that is the building and blazing of this new reality on planet Earth. We can make that journey and come back to where we had begun only to find we know it for the first time (to paraphrase "We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. … Ralph Waldo Emerson. I would argue as well that that is karmic and destined and a matter of ripeness if you are to be able to make that full journey and still have enough lifetime to bring it back into the world. Those that have already walked the path in many lifetimes are often drawn to that life and then have the hard adjustment to secular life however it is their Divine purpose to do so to bring that Light to the world. Amen. Thank you for a wonderful post.

  9. […] known as contemplative prayer, it was developed by Christian mystics in the earliest days of the Catholic church and widely practiced. But by the 15th century, due in […]

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