Sunday, January 10, 2021

On Understanding Rajanaka as a Spiritual Philology

Tomorrow I'm being interviewed on a podcast about the meaning of yoga. So I offer here a few notes from my journal. I cull notes to remind myself of ideas and phrases.

It's never been terribly easy to describe Rajanaka teaching. The core of that challenge isn't about describing our methods---we use accepted, nay routine forms of critical and scientific method, we have humanist aims and goals, and we lean into Jungian interpretations of myth and ritual. We are devoted as much to the truths that science creates as genuine human achievements and mean to integrate the most contemporary understandings into our "practice" (sadhana).

Our challenges have to do with both traditionalist and modern Hindu interpretations of our common sources, i.e., a broad sense of canon. The reason is that Rajanaka has its deepest ties to the Nataraja/Tillai Kali temple myth (and ritual) tradition and the Srividya goddess Tantra. Our interpretations however take us far from the traditional goals and claims of liberation and supernormal powers---because our goal is humanist: love your life, there is no "problem" of samsara. 

Rajanaka shares the core aim of older pre-Hindu Vedic religion expressed in the phrase, "give to me, I give to you" (dehi me, dadami te), not as mere transaction but as reciprocity and care for oneself and for others. You know all of this, I think, because I never tire of telling you how the original Rajanaka mandali (circle of conversation) in India were making the same points (albeit without universal agreements, inasmuch as they were a diverse bunch). 

Once we no longer endorse any explicitly religious (or mystical) claims, we can reconsider how religious practices, like rituals, meditation, pilgrimage, myths, art, etc.) inform our humanist aims. This is important to us because our "practice" can be confused with religious goals and be confusing because we take religious "contributions" as serious data and endeavors. After all, we closely connect with many religious practices and source materials; we just don't share their traditional interpretations or meanings. Specifically, practices like pilgrimage and darshan have always been at the heart of Rajanaka. These things get you out there in the world and deeper inside yourself. 

Now if ya' think about it, one of the important things Rajanaka does might be called "spiritual philology." The problem with _that_ is that virtually no one knows the term "philology." (Disclaimer: I am by profession a comparative philologist. I made my bones reading texts and describing what they say without prejudice or preference. Trained in the comparative study of religion and philosophy, my work has been both philological and anthropological, meaning I study classical texts and languages and I study actual humans and cultures.)

So what is philology? It's not a common word.

Philology is literally "love of words." All definition, formal and more idiomatic, extend from this etymological point of departure. "Spiritual" can mean a lot of things to folks, so let's add that into our mix and sort this out a bit. Words are essential to our humanity. It is only because we have words that human beings are capable of complex tasks (wanna go to the moon?) and, more importantly, organize themselves culturally to create informed meaningful relationships with each other, with vital matters like justice, law, and the furtherance of moral life. (As an example, think of how Ramayana or even the American Constitution (presumably) uses "law" (dharma) as a way of defining our humanity, human ideals, and possibilities.) We can accomplish remarkable things because we have words and can attend to their use and meaning.

The love of words is a gateway to the soulfulness that extends into other artistic endeavors. However, Rajanaka teaches that _all_ artistry, in a far broader sense than word-love, brings us into processes of valued human investigation and expression---thus music, art, dance, craft, practices like asana, you name it, if what you do is a pilgrimage of soulfulness, a journeying into the heart, than your practice is a Rajanaka sadhana (spiritual practice). Feelin' Soulful? Caring about the world, the planet, nature, yourself, each other, people you don't even now? Exploring those experiences deeply? How do _you_ do that?

If words as such aren't your thing, share with us what you do and what it means to you. That's the idea. So "spiritual" here means "soulful" and what I mean by that is that you are moved deeply in body, heart, _and_ mind. The somatic, emotional, and intellectual are of a piece, woven into the fabric of a human life. Soulfulness is an effort to deepen sensitivities of all sorts, to reach down into our shared humanity and to extend further into our individual experience. You don't have to love James Browns' music but he taught us that soul reaches _through_ words and sounds and music. As the Boss once put it, "when I'm gone I would like to have been known as a soul man." That's it.

Are you looking for more soulfulness in your life? What are you gonna do about that? Find your artistry in the things you do, live your love life deeply and seek connection to inquire into what is important (and what is by comparison merely transactional)---that's called yoga. Now let's get back to philology because we spend a lot of time in Rajanaka with story telling and the love of wisdom (philosophy) that means to inform our psychology and every day life.

Formally, all philologists do linguistics but not all linguists are philologists. This is because philology studies languages while linguistics is the study of language. Thus linguistics tells us how languages work (this is inherently comparative) while philologists study particular languages, usually through historical study (i.e., ancient material that comes forward into more modern forms). Not all philologists are comparativists. One can be a philologist of, say, Greek or Latin with little interest in other related (or not) language and culture. (Thus all Classicists are philologists and only a few are comparative philologists who might also study Sanskrit or some other sources.)

Philology studies the history of language as a window into culture, ideas, history, and language itself. In the less formal sense, philology is the study of texts as well as oral and written records in their original form. Philology then translates and interprets those works. But for what purpose? That depends. Academically it solely for the purposes of explanation using historically sound critical methods. Rajanaka wholly endorses and plays that game. But in Rajanaka it is ALSO for our "spiritual", soulful purposes, not merely lucid understanding. We can put down that marker between academic philology (which means to understand and explain without greater personal investments) and "spiritual philology" but they are thoroughly complementary and not at all opposed. Deeper truth is our common goal.

It is from this important task of spiritual philology that we move into other realms of human inquiry, particularly philosophy and psychology. Our philosophies focus on Indian sources but are not at all limited to them because we are comparativists---we take in whatever we find, like honey bees looking for the nectar across history, continents, cultures, and traditions. Our psychological studies look to Jung and the contemporary cognitive sciences. Rajanaka loves us some science because science looks for truths (durable and shared) and everything has to do with keepin' it real. I hope this was a little helpful or clarifying about, you know, the love of words and a soulful life.

***
This footnote comes from a dear friend who has been to India with us and ridden with us on the rails for many years, with deep love and respect for his insight here: 

I was recently asked what made Rajanaka Yoga different than other yoga systems. After the initial, "A lot," I started by quoting Douglas quoting Appa, "The universe has no meaning, no purpose, and no goal." Of course that always gets the quizzical look as people do tend to expect something more seemingly "spiritual." I told them that whether sitting at the fire as the priests are chanting the Rudram or at the Met for La Boheme or at The Globe for Much Ado or walking along a path through the woods or putting the curry leaves in the oil at the right moment--not too early, not too late--Rajanaka looks at the way that meaning is constructed, particularly, but not exclusively, how it is constructed through language and then explores how those meanings, given name, become the structures of purpose and meaning that both define who we are and who we might become.

Friday, January 1, 2021

Resolutions and the Ever-New Year

New Year’s is, of course, the time of the year we focus---and usually only for a moment---on making resolutions.  We’re going to get lots of advice about making resolutions, about how to achieve our goals and why we fail, and we’re going to hear much the same next year.  If we make resolutions every year we might want to think about making them just as ever-new every day and what that might mean.  If we talk about resolutions principally in terms of success and failure, we’re going to miss what is great.  Let’s try for better.

Greatness invariably includes success and failure but it speaks more directly to values, to worth and the possible.


When something has great value, we may succeed and fail time and again.  When things are worth it, we measure success more honestly and accept failure as another inevitability.  When we take to heart what is possible, we may not have all the choices we might wish for but can receive the grace to create choices we endow with resolve. 


We have arrived again at the importance of resolutions because they give us pause.  It is in that pause we have opportunity to create further interest---and interest means acceleration and, if we are smart about that, direction.

 

The greatness of resolution is that it does not resolve so much as invite us to direct our deliberations; it prompts us to initiate design, foster purpose, and so bring us to terms with choice.  What do you want? Why do you want it? What are you willing to do to make what is possible possible?

 

Greatness, like resolve, resides in the questions we ask that will encourage, entice, and provoke us.  Greatness entreats us not to finality but to inclusion, inclusion that compels us to receive change as opportunity rather than reversal, as invention and advance drawing us more deeply towards what is light and shadow.  The more greatness, the more shadow kindles illumination---and so more shadow with which we must sooner or later contend.  That the gift of light burns is resolve.

In Sanskrit we call such resolve and the act of resolution-making vrata.   The simplest translation is “vow” and the reason that suffices is because, if you think about it, we make very few vows in life, take even fewer oaths, and likely spend far too little time thinking about what we are doing when we do.  This is where the traditions of India can help again: we must never underestimate the power of contemplation to encourage clarity even if it cannot produce certainty. 

Now one who makes a vrata is called a vrātya and that too is worth further consideration.   One old meaning of “vrātya” is a person of ordinary or low stature deciding to act in ways that propose change for the better.  However we assess our self-worth, we might arrive at the better if we begin with our ordinary self.  What is extraordinary isn’t other than that ordinariness, it is what happens when we make a vrata, ourselves vrātya.

The extent of the word “vrata” should help us further understand what is at stake.  A vrata is an inner act of the 
will, it is a soul-yearning for soulfulness; it is self-command made on the inside meant to be brought outside; it can mean laying down a law, which may in fact be the original meaning of “law”---something that is laid down so that it can be seen and considered and made known to one’s self and others.


Sometimes the vrata is the commitment, that to which we commit and our obedience, our service, and the sphere of action in which it all occurs.  In other words, a vrata is an environment, a domain for change. No one changes significantly by being coerced but rather by receiving change as an experience of choice and circumstances that will define boundaries.

A vrata then is a sphere of action, a function not of mere code and conduct but of practice and creativity.   Taking vows is a personal matter.  Turning a vow into an oath is meant to objectify, to instantiate for public or institutional purposes.  Thus we vow personally, but we make an oath with the promise of accepting public accountability.  A vrata means to connect the two, that is, it implies the yoga, the connection between our self-promise and the oath’s self-endorsing powers that apply, whether or not we can keep our promise.  To wit, the vrata binds us to freedom by inviting karma to take its proper place between what we feel inside and what we commit to doing for all to see. 

In Rajanaka tradition the making of vratas is an everyday yoga, something that prevents the ordinary from becoming anodyne and the extraordinary from becoming merely balmy.  We ask ourselves to do hard things not because they are hard but because they are worth it.  Sometimes that can be just getting out of bed and getting dressed in the 11th month of pandemic isolation.  Sometimes it involves making a plan a year, two years, ten years in advance to do something worth it, to follow up, follow through, like making again a pilgrimage that you know invites being more uncomfortable that you need to be.

Difficult things are rare because we rarely do what is difficult unless we have to.  The purpose of a vrata is not to make the difficult more easily done but rather to do what is difficult.  For that we are going to need help, no matter how much we try to help ourselves.  This is why a vrata is made personally but is expressed in virtual terms like an oath.  This is why a vrata is best made by reaching into the soul and making soulful what you claim for yourself with others.

 

A vrata can be individual---it might even have to originate there, inside you, even if it is suggested or offered or comes from circumstance rather than self-invitation.  But the soul of the vrātya belongs to the community that sees in vrata that some things are worth the trouble, worth the effort, are difficult and rare---and that our best hope lies in the ways we support one another.

However alone we are, our best self is made plural by the relationships we create to live in dignity and through resolutions.  Our vratas must be living, which means they must move, adapt, do their work with a dynamic temporality that combines the merely mortal with purpose that out outlives the moment.  We participate in something more abiding than what time can rot when we bring our vrata into time knowing that it too is like the plural self: time is not one, not two, and achieves its only form of “perfection” by replacing itself with itself, time and again.  When we cannot do that for ourselves, memory will achieve it if the resolution meets the demands of greatness head on.

 

Our recursive self brings resolution to life again and again so that little by little we can open to more selves, to deeper relationships, to the prospect that in this brief, moral life we have made promises worth keeping.  Should we succeed, we live to do it all again.  Should we fail, we live to do it again.

 

The greatness of our vow lies in how we decide for ourselves and for each other what is worth our intention and actions, what is worth loving and so with it the prospects for grief that come with true experience.


If this sounds too solemn or portentous then let us be gentle with one another, let us ask no more from ourselves than is possible and no less than we should.  How that is decided is up to you.  We will be here for you, which is why you might consider your next resolution.  Make every resolution ofand ever-new resolution.  Be that vrātya, the maker of the vow, to be more than you are right now because that is possible, again and again.

 

Monday, December 21, 2020

A Few Lines for Winter's Lila and the More Ahead

When you're in the middle of it, it's not too soon to look for a bit of horizon where lies a glint of light. Be wholly present and if you can, feel the future even if it's only in song, sing on.

"Come, my friends, 'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die..."

Not yet, I say, not yet. But I feel confident in saying that most of us could use a vacation. Yet, there is work still before us. We must act, not merely endure. We continue to rise up, do what we can, hold each other close. It's what we will do for each other and we're learning everyday how to do for others we don't even know. Who knew Dharma would be so important?

Winter is here in Bristol. It's time to light a fire. In times like this---wait, there are times like _this_?---I surely count blessings and I grieve for those less fortunate, less lucky.

Truth is, I hope you're not going too far from home just yet. I hope you're staying especially close. We've found a few other ways to create adventure during this time under the stars, east and west.

I want to say it's getting easier but I don't think that's quite yet true. Thank goodness for the technologies, at least as means, that give us that chance to talk, see each other some. And that's not a simple matter either for the challenges of goodness before us. In our "we'll have to make do" time, we've made time for one another. Let's keep doing that. We can step forward, best we can, and we will have each other. Let's do that again and again. If you need a hand, let me know.

Now, there are other things we have to receive for the lila, for better and worse. When the break goes the other way and you must feel more deeply the shadows of helplessness that follow in the light of facts. It's important to go to every place where there's soul. Even these harder truths, 'cause its personal sooner or later. Then you have to take extra care of each other.

"His soul has in its Autumn, when his wings
He furleth close; contented so to look
On mists in idleness—to let fair things
Pass by unheeded as a threshold brook.
He has his Winter too of pale misfeature,
Or else he would forego his mortal nature."

I would not forego this mortality for anything that claims better or more. No reward would be greater in heaven for me. For to know heaven, is to have had such friends. Keep looking here, and we'll find each other again soon. Stay strong in will and we will make the rest possible because we're not alone.

Have a Sunday and stay by the fire, inside and out.

Monday, November 16, 2020

A Note to the Worlds of Yoga Students About Thinking Critically


I write this morning in support of my dear friend Noah Maze and others who have raised the alarm about conspiracy theories, QAnon-like madness, and a certain lack of seriousness and judgment that we have witnessed in what might be called our "worlds of yoga."

We're not talking about Trumpists per se taking their sycophantic pledges of fealty or those stepping into the madness of denial or alternative facts led by their grievances. Few of those folks I believe I have met in my classes or among my social media friends. We are rather talking to people who we have met in our classes, people who have claimed to be students of yoga, if not our students. Yoga means to make connection; it enjoins us to take to heart our feelings, become aware in body, speech, _and_ mind. We need to know that all human beings are vulnerable to processes of learning that can confuse and even delude anyone.

Yogis like to think of themselves as freedom loving beings making deeper connections--- since yoga does fundamentally claim to further the process of connection whether that be physical, emotional, or cognitive. But there has always been in yoga worlds claims about learning, evidence, and voices of authority that we should be ever-vigilant to understand. Voices of authority can stand for truth but also for that sense of "us" that we all long to make. Yogis usually think they are leading their own way but the need to follow is just as prevalent and can be easily as misleading. How do we keep our hearts in places of concern and character? How do we engage, connect, make yoga with thinking and learning to think?

Certain tendencies of authoritarianism, particularly the foundational feature of following the leader with singleminded loyalty and confidence in whatever "facts" are presented has roots in almost every religious and spiritual tradition. Belief can be an abdication of wits, of evidence and reason, of thinking for oneself but it can also be a part of our most reliable mechanisms of self-correction and revision. We're like to believe _something_ and we need to know _why_ we do.

It's also the case that traditions that formulate authoritarian views may invite us not to follow like sheep but to use our heads and get our hearts on right. Are we really being asked to think or are we being asked to believe? If we can connect these two endeavors we stand a chance at making a more effective connection, a better yoga. That such "reasoning" for oneself might do little more than confirm an authoritarian claim is all too evident. We need to know that we are believing when we do and we need to connect what we believe to what we do, to consider the implications and consequences of our views in the world.

The world is far larger than whatever _your_ beliefs are. And while the world may give up its facts only to we mere humans, we have to know what makes our human knowledge and understanding worth its weight. We may be all we have but we are what we have. Yoga means to teach us how to make connections to ourselves and to more than ourselves and that is no easy task. But thinking is art best learned and practiced with care and skill and time and effort---that too is a connection to yoga itself. We're going to need heart---courage---and we're going to need care and take our time to learn how to learn.
More dangerous than the need to believe is the need to follow.

Our need to belong makes all of this worse because we human beings like to think that as individuals we have a measure of autonomy. Who could disagree that we are able to construct our own worlds? But we are never not social, even when pandemic keeps us apart. We are always being made by nature, history, culture, and the facts of life. It is also our current states of pandemic apartness that are exacerbating the madness that abdicates facts, latches on to conspiracy theories, and fails to do the critical work of accountability. Our circumstances for learning are never easy and now they are harder.

The most important things in life in truth are not hard to learn but they are hard to accept and to address with honestly and moral sobriety. So you got this, right? Life is hard, it's gonna hurt. Leaning about what to do about that first noble truth is no small matter because that too is going to be hard. Sticking with the unfolding of truths that are provisional, unfinished, and human complicates our desire for truths to be more than human. But we are the best we got and using the gods or the buddhas or the sages to tell us what's what is no invitation to be less capable as a critical thinker. So how to do that?

Let me suggest three strategies to help us understand when we are being less than critically adroit. Perhaps these methods can makes us bit more capable of dealing with the information that bombards us. Nothing new here because we don't need new methods: we need to get better at ones that have been proven to help. I've culled these from the basics of modern critical thinking that applies to all subjects in the arts and sciences. Whether we are studying human cultural beliefs or behaviors or the findings of science, we need the processes of thinking. How you learn to think will tell you a great deal about what you think and what others may be thinking.

(1) Are you asking every question, including the ones that are uncomfortable or may cause "trouble"? Are you asking good trouble questions? What do you want from those enquiries? AND what kinds of questions are others asking, _which_ questions? The questions we ask tell about what we want, what we need and fear and hope and believe. Study the questions and you will have a better idea about the answers being given. Are people asking the only the questions they feel permitted to ask? Do they know that they are asking questions because those are the questions they _can_ ask? If it's all answers you are getting there are still agendas, still needs and wants being met and we should ask about what we think those are.

(2) Are you following the evidence? Are you asking if your sources are reputable? What makes your evidence reliable? And are you aware enough to know that the evidence might indeed change your mind, cause you to revise and rethink? You may not be rewarded for your progress and the need to belong to the group may interfere with learning if that learning runs afoul of the group think. Know too that if you're out there all alone you may need to check in with those in groups who have their critical wits switched to the on-position. Ask where the evidence originates and then how it is being used.

(3) Everytime you think you are certain think again. Not to doubt everything---for who would hold an opinion that they don't think is true? But to recognize that clarity is not certainty, it is merely the best you have and that that is all you have. When clarity touches the facts matters are _more_ certain but be careful always with _final_ certainties that prevent the next worthwhile question.

Forgive my prosaic, college professor need to say these things but there is a lot of distressing and admittedly dispiriting discourse in my newsfeed from people I would have never expected to have become so vulnerable to thinking that fails the tests of criticality. Time to get our heads and hearts from merely spinning to moving with greater care.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Meditation For Sale

I've been party to some conversation lately about "meditation." If you are wondering those are sort of hate quotes, not because I hate meditation but to suggest that the meaning of the term is worth a chortle before we get all solemn and serious. Never pious. Piety is never a virtue but that is another matter. Meditation is both more and less than what we usually mean by the word . That's my point of departure here. What you discover looking out at the world that already might be interested in the topic is rife with irony, as we'll see.
But to keep it plain: Quietism is the order of the day. Chill. Less stress. Less anxiety. One of the big website businesses is, after all, called Calm. My problem with this is that it is only the most elementary requisite to what meditation _needs_ to become if it is to be more than a soporific stupor. Early Buddhism has provided the bulk of inspiration for these modern kinds of meditation sold to first in the yoga world and now beyond to, you know, normal people. "Mindfulness" is the big sell, of course, and you have to go only a few further steps to get to something like the loving-kindness crowd where being a good person is also the purported outcome of learning meditations. Okay, be nice and get quiet inside is great. I'm immediately bored by this. But that isn't because I couldn't be nicer or dislike calm. But you mean
that's it? A few bits of context. What's being sold as "Vipassana" however isn't vipassana (insight), it is almost only its traditional complement, samatha, (chill, serenity) and the basics for this sell are lifted almost verbatim from the Pali canon traditions of Theravada Buddhism. The mindfulness sell also is sure to leave out two more features besides any serious effort at analysis (vipassana): the deep disdain for _all_ worldliness and the goal that claims ultimate relief from the human condition itself aka buddhahood. Those Pali canon inspirations in the modern meditation sale are in it for the chill bit, a kind of first level therapeutics for dealing with a life that will continue to spin and be spun out by a relentless world of desires (samsara). That will keep you meditating the same way you keep riding your exercise bike. Do it regularly and you will get the result: more chill, less stress. Who could object? But that's it? They aren't keen either on too much ardor (tapas) much less the more rigorous ascetical values that would require disaffection coupled to dissociations from everyday concerns. Those are rooted values in early Buddhism that prompts the purpose of meditation itself. But let's not labor the details. And please, don't got right away to "higher consciousness" or "deeper states": snake oil is everywhere for sale, always has been. All of this easy to understand because most people just want a bit less stress and anxiety just to carry on with what they are already doing. Real change in personal development is not in the works because what meditation _could_ be has been reduced to quietism without much further introspection. We let stuff "come up" (because it will) but we rarely learn more about dealing with it. That would require words, concepts, analysis, and further implementations. We are being told to close our eyes but not to look within. We are not taught much of anything about how to use our powers of _critical_ introspection and imagination to illumine our shadows and go deeper into the oceans of thought and feeling. Those processes imply mind, ego, and awareness and god forbid you take those things seriously as assets to be cultivated and made further investments. We are being told how to divest rather than invest in ourselves. We're told that calming down, feeling less stress or anxiety is the goal of the investment. It's barely the beginning. To wit, there is no more "vipassana" that would break into the issues that we must address---apparently, once you are calm there is no need to do the kind of work that invites you to receive more information about yourself, the stuff that is deeply buried and is not all pleasant. You meditate to relieve strife not to realize it's potencies. There is not the slightest suggestion that the potencies of strife, like deep inner rage or desire or feelings that disturb, are potential assets and could invite further investments.
Becoming more receptive to more of what's going on inside does indeed require the power of calm. You've surmised at this point that my claim is that this is only the very beginning of the work. Let's leave aside (can I say dismiss, please?) the idea that we are waking up our "inner divinity" or illumination or liberation or any such religious assertion about what are called generally attainments. Just fergitaboutthat "spiritual" (it's really religious) bit and focus for a moment on the idea that calm is actually the prerequisite for inner study, serious introspection, and further consideration of ourselves as individuals, as human beings that have been made by forces greater than ourselves---like society, history, DNA, you name it, but all the stuff you don't actually choose. This means that analysis or introspection must begin _from_ some semblance of calm and proceeds _not_ first to personal choice, free will, or some claim about empowerment but to a critical awareness of what makes us that we do not decide or choose. This is what most traditions call karma, and I hope that is obvious enough to keep this argument moving forward. We calm to begin to deal with ourselves not as we choose but as we have been created. Just to stick with the helpful teminology of the Buddhists, the word "vipassana" is etymologically something like rendered 'discrete seeing'. (Oh and if you're not aware vipassana is Pali and vipashana is Sanskrit and that sorta' does matter (a lot) when we discuss the actual historical sources.) We must first see with perspicacity how karma---history, culture, language, family, larger systemics and structures, etc.---makes us and then move on to what is inside us as individuals that we must contend with as our _own_ experience. What lies within that experience is more than we remember just like it is more than we choose. But that we can 'go there' through the powers of meditation is what this analytical side of the methods and practices assert. This means that meditation is actually aiming towards deep introspection, critical analysis, the uncovering and unburying of the experiences and forces that make up a greater totality of our actual lives. Let me put this in a familiar metaphor. As old as the Veda is the idea that three-fourths of creation remains unseen, only one-fourth ever revealed (cf., RV 10.90). Now put this in very simple human experiential terms. We identify principally with waking consciousness and take reality to be directed from that kind of experience. But we dream and have deep sleep and then there is "the fourth", which if it is not some religious claim of liberation might well be our collective unconscious. Thus, we are waking, dreaming, dreamless, and collective-unconscious beings and only one-fourth is really given its due. We have few skills in investigation the other three-fourths and especially what is literally called the fourth---turya/turiya is what Vedantins call it but they mean it to be "beyond" and so some kind of ultimate relief. The collective unconscious offers no such reprieve from the mundane. It is the storehouse of experience that is built into each of us that informs and authorizes the other kinds of consciousness experience. Rajanaka teaching could not only care less about claims to liberation in (as) this fourth state but invites one to consider that life isn't for achieving exemptions but rather further and deeper involvements with ourselves.
Meditation is only _one_ way to break into the four kinds of human experience (waking, dreaming, dreamless, collective unconscious) and there are lots of techniques and strategies of practice. Those we can discuss at length elsewhere. My point here is to say that the purpose of all such breaking (into, through, as, with, etc.) is to _find out more_, to explore, experiment, and delve into realms that turn into more effective connections that broaden and deepen our love of life. Yoga means engagement and the idea at its heart is that we have to learn to engage if we want to engage more, if we want to live more fully, more connected to more features and selves we possess and can create. My personally favored forms of meditation have little to do with quietism and eyes shut. Mine happen to be darshan, pilgrimage, and then writing, reading poetry, mythology, studying art and literature of all sorts, philosophy and thinking. Yours likely happens with yoga mats too but me, not so much. "Meditation" does indeed mean to look inside, but it is to see and feel and think _more_, not less. It means to open up and connect to more of you so that you can figure out how to live with yourself (selves). But who wants to do the work? Business knows this and so sells you calm. Religion knows this and so sells you "states" or attainments or, worse, "liberation." Trying to sell the harder part will never be less hard because there's no requirement for we humans to become more human. The ardor it takes and whatever payoff it will relieve some anxiety and stress but it will also cause a stir, it will cause more churning, more twists and turns, more days in the maze of feelings and thoughts. Wasn't that supposed to, you know, stop? Actually, no. Connection means the tandava, the dance inside, is even a wilder ride. And who wants that? I do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

An Ayyappa Vrata to You

These are the times that try the soul. Is there any other kind of time? But you know when there is more at stake. Sometimes everything is at stake. That's what is happening right now.

There is a call for soulfulness and we need ways to talk about that. Gratefully there are ways. You may have to work for this one so be patient, read on, and think about it after you're done. Ayyappa is here to help. Ayyappa is feminine, masculine, both and neither. There are traditions of Ayyappa and there is Rajanaka Ayyappa and, honestly, that is not much like the others. That needed to be said.

On Friday night I made an Ayyappa vrata. A vrata is an ordinance of the will, you might call it simply a vow or a resolution, but its purpose is to hear your beating heart when there's noise and storm and inner restiveness. When isn't there? And who is there to listen? If you bring yourself to the task, then you are Ayyappa and the vrata sings the body electric,

You can make a vrata anytime but its contrary purpose is to bring yourself nearer your core and your boundaries. Something of an oxymoron, no? Yes. It can 'be still this beating heart' or race with it. It can be tune out the noise to hear the silence or it can be listen for all of the voices and everything else that just sounds like noise. You needn't tune out that analogue noise behind the music; you can let it do its job too. 

The aim of vrata is to withstand the storm and to enjoy it; to make restiveness a power to be garnered, like the mekhala, the belt that you see Him wearing so that he assumes a perch, a vantage point, the perspective you need, especially in the bows of toxic tillai trees. A vrata holds you together because lokasamgraha, "grasping for light" is a reason to live, as Krsna reminds when he explains why human birth is remarkable for its gainsaying and chance.

A vrata doesn't require words nor need it be declared for others. Some may notice and ask why you look the way you do or that you seem to be onto something or in the middle of something. Something is different during the vrata that has emerged from the time before and carries into the time after. Vratas need boundaries to make boundaries that can be crossed, traversed, clarified, or violated. That is because you are looking for the space in-between, the serpent's way through, which means there is a way over or into, across the parapet, the barricades of thought and feeling into the dark, towards the unconscious which is not without its own passages. Rarely straightforward and you may get lost but the journey progresses though it surely twists and turns.

Rage leads the way, not as anger but as fury and passion and tears and blood. It's Rudra's roar and Kali's feverish solitude. It is Ayyappa in the forest of feelings where he keeps the company of ghosts. We should let the lyric help us, because it's about ghosts. The ghosts you meet, the ones you love inside you, the ones you hope to meet and the ones you wish you didn't. But they are all there and vrata is to become the sovereign of those ghosts for just long enough to know that you serve them and they serve you, like it or not.

It's your ghost moving through the night
Your spirit filled with light
I need, need you by my side
Your love and I'm alive
I can feel the blood shiver in my bones
I'm alive and I'm out here on my own
I'm alive and I'm comin' home

Vrata is in the first word of Odyssey, the Greek menos. Here is the first line of the poem. Vrata needs poetry because it is the long way home.

Rage---Goddess sing in me and through me
to the story of one skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
the one who twists and turns...

So don't mistake this rage for anger alone, it is what we call in Sanskrit tandava or in Old Tamil tulannku: it is possession and being possessed, all the selves hidden are invited. You're not sure who will come into enough light to be seen but they all recognize you because you have come to sing and to listen to the Sirens and the Great Devi who has sung you into being. It is all of the personas and all of the archetypes because they are all inside you, some never realized, others familiar enough to called acquaintance.

Become Ayyappa to one another. That is something more, even more than friendship if that is possible. And it is.

We would all like to return to a womb of safety if we could but that will have to wait till this life ends. There are no safe places. There are just places where you drop, like the liquid fire---call that place bindu but don't mistake it for the destination or the escape hatch, it's more like the cliff in front of the wall that is you, like you, not you, and always more than you. More confutation to consider but not for too long, you don't have forever until it's too late. Keep going.

She will decide when it's time for Time to be all that remains. You will disappear into the darkness someday. Not today.

You're not alone, crows. You have each other because while you make the vrata alone, you travel in murders and parliaments, following the moon it's called, like wolves of the moon, lupi della luna. Watch where you walk because there are nagas, snakes beneath your feet showing you the way if you are careful to honor their danger. The road is not smooth up the mountainside, towards the boundary, into the core.
Embrace the fury---in Sanskrit, the manyu, the samrambha. (It's not that you need yet another word here but words can help. Samrambha is a commingling of vehemence, eagerness, ardor, impetuosity and care. It is rendered auspicious by choosing character in a potency of choice.)

Keep going, use intrepidity and, at the same time, try to be still as the naga who knows when to move and when to still. Instinct commingles with choice. Manifest the gift of your sarpadrshti, the serpent's vision whose light is ahi, literally made of anxiety made an asset. Everyone knows that the world is filled with terrors and all the rest of the unexpected, uncontrollable, unfinished possibilities that surely come. Most ignore this but never the Ayyappa.

Your vrata can only be a private matter because it is your resolution at work and it is your darshan because it is you doing the seeing. Darshan means to place oneself nearer the boundary to peer into the light of the heart's sanctum. That womb follows the roots of banyan that grow up and root down again. Sometimes you are pushed or you have to wait to have your chance to see. Sometimes you are invited in but you never trespass. That would be unseemly, that would not be Ayyappa.

It's personal, it's not selfish. Sometimes your darshan is help others have their darshan. And while seeing appears to be the most important operative metaphor---since darshan is the seeing that looks into the dark using the slightest flame as your guide---it is never far from all of the other senses and feelings you ordinarily possess; you come to look and hear and touch and smell and taste and in all of these ways to test the will.

Your resolution for darshan is an experiment in the making and in being made by determinations and choices, even promises, but nothing is guaranteed, and going without certainty is always best. Resolve needs no certainty because it is an experiment in virtue, not in goodness but in courage, in the heart. You may fail but you won't fail to learn something if you are willing to wait and think and fast. (Do remember Hesse's Siddhartha here, okay?)

This vrata is for Ayyappa to become Ayyappa so a word more about that. We'll keep it simple for now. In Tamil ayya is the word you use to address someone you don't know politely, kinda' like "sir"or "hey you" but in a particularly kind way. It is also the word you use to honor the ones you know and love best. Instead of using their given name you say Ayya as if to say Beloved.

Yes, with that kind of love and affection unmasked but made easy and comfortable in any situation. It is a signal of care and approbation and tribute to friendship. It is a way of deferring without submitting, of offering distinction and esteem without being maudlin or insipid. Hear here the voice of MLK, Jr. calling you "brother" or "sister" and you hear Ayya. The extra -pa on the end is still more affection and you can add that in Tamil to nearly anything you love or use it as it's own word. It's like the -ji ending that we borrow from Hindi, same same, in Tamil -pa is -ji. Got that, Ji? I hear you, Pa.

Ayyappa means bringing some decorum and decency to a world in which there may be none. It is the choice to be more than what the world made or even what it seems to demand. When you realize that the natural world has no care but provides what you need and society and culture move you but can't make you, you can become Ayyappa.

For Ayyappa is the decision to be better and more than you have to. It is to live with your wounds and cares and passions and losses and victories---all with the choice to be decorous in a world that can defile you. It is not so much rising to the occasion but the determination to respect, to love life and to love others' lives as if they do too.

To make an Ayyappa vrata you need only say Saranam Ayyappa, "Refuge is Ayyappa" as you approach your boundaries and make pilgrimage to the liquid fire that flows in your living veins. See others as Ayyappa even if they do not. Dignify this fragile humanity we share and act as if there is more in all this strife than selfish interest. Then say it again to yourself when no one is listening but you. You don't ever have to say it aloud but say it when you need to make a resolution that will not end even when the time of the vrata concludes. Then do it all again.  I am off to cast my vote, to try to help end this nightmare.
 Saranam Ayyappa.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Before the Storm: Candid and Innocent, Neither Cynical nor Optimistic

Fending off the demons will be no small matter for the coming week. The demons will be your own---the worry, the fear, the anxiety that is not unwarranted or false. They will also be real and out there doing what they can. The demons millions of minions may be delusional, defrauded, naive, it really doesn't matter but they are not going to change their stripes and suddenly be our friends once this all goes down.

I'm hoping for a victory worthy of the gods. That is, one so convincing that they must cower back into their orc dungeons thus letting us breathe and heal, even just for a moment. Even in the event of resounding, unambiguous victory---say, a Biden win in NC, AZ, maybe not in FL or OH, but then PA, WI, and MI---there will be Trump and his cult. I'm sure the lawyers are ready. There's a piece in The Atlantic about how to deal with a coup, yes, a coup, which is real enough an idea that it's neither alarmist nor mere hand-wringing. You do have smoke alarms in your house, right? (We just spent a small fortune, deeply unsatisfying as an expense because a fire _really could_ happen as much as you do all you can to never need those alarms. Same deal (<---add Joe voice here for reassurance.)

The more the cult tries to intimidate and suppress the vote, the more resolute we must become that every vote is counted. There is no time to hesitate much less cower. I am heartened by the people standing in long lines who will not be stopped. Will young people actually show up in real numbers that make a difference? Never before has a party so shamelessly attempted to defeat democracy, which means they are certainly not done when they lose. The cult will not accept defeat because they cannot deal with truth in any honest way. If they do win then we know that America is a failed state and we'll each have to make choices about what is possible.

In yesterday's Saturday Conversaton I hammered some of the binaries that make demons demons and outlined how to avoid becoming the monster we can all become if we fail to fathom what's before us. We have the tools if we know how to use them. The tools are candor and innocence. The monsters are cynicism and corruption. The impediments to understanding the differences that make the most difference are false hope and untempered optimism.

Candor is not cynicism, it is the hedge, the way to truth. We must accept that truths too are incomplete and provisional, that they are all too human is what is sparing us the delusions of certainty and the kind of righteousness that makes certainty so dangerous. But we can sure enough. We can use facts and face the music. We need not give up on truth---we must not---because it's what we have and the demons know this too. That is, they know that our candor can be turned to cynicism and that is what they have chosen to do. Their own cynicism is delusional not because it lacks candor but because it indulges in the joys that cynicism provides: certainty, incontrovertibility, the self-righteous choice to claim superiority as an entitlement. Indulged cynicism brings many favors but none favor decency or truth.

Cynicism is not only defeating the idea that we _can_ keep it real and must, it is the choice to degrade and destroy that there is anything at all that stands behind your candor, that there _can_ be truth or facts (albeit human as they always are). Demons use candor for the purposes of cynicism to degrade our humanity, to cause us to choose demon over the human divines. There are no perfect, infallible, always correct, immune to cynicism gods. There are just human gods, which means deeply flawed but resistant to cynicism---and always still vulnerable.

Choosing not to indulge the cynical may not tell you who you want to be but that is for another day: it is there to tell you who you need not be, who you can choose not to be and sometimes that is enough or it will just have to do. Can we do better and more than that? Oh yes. But it will take more time and commitment. Choosing not to starve your inner monster is a way of creating the opportunity for more. The dragons in the dungeon can create a pause in the plot line and where that plot line goes depends on what you do with the demons inside yourself. We all have them.

Staying human-divine is no small matter. There are no god-gods, no divine divines, just human gods and human divines---that means there's always imperfection, flaw, vulnerability, and possibilities for better and worse. We aren't wholly in control of these matters because demons are the first to tell you that you can be the master of the universe and master yourself. Don't buy it: the world makes you in far less commanding formats of self.

But the demons do have a point: the world taken seriously (use your candor) is a very, very dispiriting, rough ride filled with hypocrisy and failed ideals. Your ideals and aspirations and values, which are never going to be perfectly realized, are nonetheless worth having. That does not require faith in the sense of someday my prince will come or there is going to be a heaven. Rather it is a matter of deciding for better, for more than cynicism when that is what is before you. Candor doesn't allow you to make fantasies more real than they are (and neither does it deny you a fantasy, which means you can still play air guitar in the mirror if that's your thing.)

The other requirement to fend off the monsters is to cultivate an innocence that nurtures sympathy and empathy. The presumption of innocence is more than some legal posture. It is the moral hedge against the certainty of guilt that we will otherwise project and use to advantage over the innocent. We must be vigilant not to corrupt the possibility that we could be wrong or that we need to be giving benefits and doubts their productive place. You see someone or something and no matter how "deserving" they might be of the plight they are suffering, you argue their innocence before guilt.

Optimism is false innocence. It is the fantasy that they are not only not guilty but couldn't be, or they didn't do it when candor demands the otherwise possible; they could indeed be guilty or are getting what's coming to them because they brought it on themselves. We need more innocence than optimism because it provides more honest inquiry. How big your nose looks today, grandmother; how big your teeth, says Red Riding Hood. Her innocence makes for query and doubt that empowers her to act. The wolf will do anything to eat you. (Apologies to real wolves.)

Optimism isn't required for innocence to keep away the demons. What we need is to put innocence in front of guilt, not to protect us from candor but also to protect us from giving up on decency. The monsters don't care about decency or sympathy, much less empathy: their selfishness, corruption, and graft tells them that the only truth is their personal experience. This is why some monsters alter their views when it happens to them or to the people _they_ care about: then "suddenly" they see that their personal experience confirms what could have been known with a dose of sympathy and the cultivation of empathy. Alas, don't count on the demons to be less demoniacal. Chances are they will be more selfish and as corrupt than you think is possible precisely because you can't imagine that, because you're _not_ that demonic.

What the gods know is that the demons are far, far worse than your imaginings, that monsters are real, don't become one and if you think you can't become one that is no guarantee you won't. Demons are radicalized gods or at least once they were because they all started out as human. There are no gods or demons that aren't human though humanity can be forgotten, hollowed out, forsaken, and corrupted beyond reclamation in this current birth. Evil becomes real when there is no reason to think otherwise, no evidence to mitigate, no innocence left to retrieve.

What it takes to be human only begins when we know that we can fend off the monsters. We can defeat them but they will come back. We can not become them even in our efforts to defeat them and in gaining the power that we need not to grant them power. Not becoming the monster is something we really can do but it takes some understanding and practice. We have to practice not being monsters and understand what it means to be one. No small task given it can turn us into what we need not become. We can become more human divines but again, that will take some time because it demands we integrate shadows---another topic entirely.

The understandings we need defeat cynicism and wage innocence, refuse the war once the battle is won. To become better, this is just the start. We are only at the very beginnings of what we call yoga and greatness, the mahā, is still over the horizon. That greatness is possible but only when we understand that the demons are real. More soon. Because there is always more.