Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Gratitude of Understanding a Spiritual Life: A Thanksgiving Sermon for the Choir

Happy Thanksgiving, dear pals! 
What a strange and curious holiday this is as we Americans give thanks for our blessings havingcome here as illegal immigrants greeted warmly by the native folk. It's fascinating what we have done since. The ironies can go further unnoticed, of course, but who could resist? Most of the people going to work today either perform truly important services for the public good or work in commerce for wages that they cannot afford to pass by. We have in America a "right to work" (read: can't make a living by taking a holiday) and apparently a right to shop. I preach to the choir here, which means you've already read too far for me to apologize.
Let me make a point about something that goes to the heart of yoga traditions and to our conversations that extend beyond the usual how-do-you-do-sricakra puja whatever yo. From the outset Indian philosophers and commentators on the ritual life have privileged efforts of understanding and explanation. These are understood as empowerments, not mere exercises in thinking.  When you understand and can explain, more can happen: more meaning, more progress, richer life. These are contrasted and often rejected (vilified is not too strong a word) by those who maintain there that a direct, intuitive experience that defies and does not mandate an explanation or rational portrayal of events. Yes, India has plenty of mystical anti-intellectualism, the favored position of far too many, if only because it's uninterested by definition, or to put it more bluntly, a cop out and an excuse not to think because...religion. Not that I have an opinion about such matters.
The only thing less interesting than claims of ineffability and beyond-understanding are claims to Oneness, which are really just another way of saying you don't want to talk about the world that you experience on a daily basis but prefer instead to assert an experience of exceptionalism. Checking into Oneness is, by definition, checking out of the complexities and sufferings of the conditional world. Oneness never means that we share a common humanity, which is what we might want it to mean (please oh please), rather it means we don't have to: that's precisely the gist of arguments made by the Oneness-philosophers. References abundant upon request. Please feel free however to check into the mystic Oneness that checks you out, if that's what suits you. Diversity is a good thing, unless you think it's all One. I have expressed a dim view of that but who knows, from the mystic's point of view I'm the one who is dim. My point is that we might just as well prefer the world we experience with all its glorious limitations and boundaries imposed upon our provisional knowledge, which is the one we can talk about.
Understanding experiences is not the same thing as declaring that experience is rational. Hardly. Note our efforts here and elsewhere to understand events in Ferguson, Missouri and the genuinely tragic, tortured American history of slavery and race relations. We mean to understand and even try to explain why people are acting as they are, not to endorse or condone, not to reason or explain away but rather to comprehend and to feel more. Thinking has always been a form of feeling in Indian thought, this is why the "subtle body" (manas, ahamkara, buddhi) belong to the material (prakrti) part of the equation. We feel-and-think: this is an important way to understand the word "manas," which means something like mind-and-heart. Now in Indian thought to explain and to understand is not to justify behavior. It is to fathom, to comprehend in ways that draw thought into feelings and our feelings more deeply into our thoughts. It is in fact to do yoga, to engage deeply and to integrate however it is possible the expanse of comprehensive Self that is embodied physicality into the mental autobiographical experiences of consciousness.
This task is not considered optional by the more interesting philosophers unless you are happy to buy into mystical bypassing. Yeah, I said that. Mystical bypassing is the refusal to admit that our limited process of understanding is our ultimacy.  Or to put this differently, it's the claim that we must admit more than our human limitation to find the "true" spiritual life.  It favors instead a "please pass go" and "collect on the 'pure' experience" of [fill in the blank with your favorite "spiritual" claim of beyondyness.] Don't mistake me we all loves some mystical bypassing and some folks simply need it to get through the horrors and ordinary indiginities of being human. There is also the implication that we as individuals are solely responsible for our behaviors just as we are capable of changing hearts but one at a time. But there is an alternative: creating explanations is another way you can arrive at a spiritual life---ask Krsna about this when you open the Gita and find that Arjuna is bypassing his duty, asks for renunciation, looks to abjure the world in favor of some alternative mystical plot, and can't fathom wtf he is doing. Krsna then _explains_ that he has to do far better than that. But importantly it is the explanation along with the instructions for practices that are the keys to a greater yoga, a deeper engagement. 
When you can explain something you don't reduce it to reason, rather you make it available to understanding. Could our current situation in the news provide better examples? When you can put it into a context of understanding then you can act, discern what is knowledge (and what is not), and so commit (translate that: karma, jnana, and bhakti). Without the explanation you end up in a puddle in the chariot with the bow slipping from your hand, having a meltdown. In America the effective response is to make everything we humans do an individual choice, an individual responsibility, and individual incidents, thus preventing any understanding that there are deep, ancient feelings, there are realities of society and history, there are rich fields of explanation that help us understand that we are created by worlds greater than ourselves. Without trying to understand can become the mystic (there is no need, it's all beyond) or simply one who fails to appreciate that a good explanation, however unsatisfying or even unsatisfactory, is the beginning rather than the end of a spiritual life. Happy Thanksgiving!

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