Thursday, June 15, 2017

Soul Listening What Do You Hear When You Listen for You?

“When in matters of real disquiet one must turn towards the inner actor for a measure of truth.”
---Kalidasa from the Abhijñānaśakuntalam

The greatest of the Sanskrit poets, Kalidasa, makes a lovelorn prince rehearse this line aloud to himself as he confronts his conflicted thoughts and unambiguous feelings. Our prince is conflicted over propriety and decency because he has the idea --- ill-founded we later discover--- that his real feelings of affection are misguiding him. Should he act upon his understandings or his feelings?

The poet tells us to use the measures and the means we possess inside ourselves. Rather then plead to an almighty resource or diminish our human abilities, he insists that we listen more deeply to what lies at our core. Kalidasa tells us we need to be soul listening and while he doesn’t tell us exactly how to do this, it’s clear he has an idea about what we’ll need to bring along on the journey. It’s a journey we need to take now because the time will come when, like our prince here, we’re going to need to have been such pilgrims of the heart.

The “means,” the “measures” to which the poet refers are the powers of the senses, the gifts of a well-tuned mind, and the sum of our experiences. There are technical matters here for the philosophers with the Sanskrit word pramāna (“means of valid cognition”) and our poet surely has those in mind too. But he’s not asking us to rework our formal lessons so much as apply them. We need to have done some of this work if we are going to do any of it when the time comes. But the key is simple: he wants us to use all of our resources to feel, think, and remember all that we can so that we will act from that soul listening turn.

The “inner actor” he has in mind, what he calls the antahkarana, is another technical philosophical term. Once again I think it wise to ask if Kalidasa has something more in mind. Were we not rich in other vocabulary that conjures notions of soul and self, we’d translate this “inner actor” by one or the other. Listen to your soul. Go to the self. And that is exactly what the poet wants us to do. But now the philosophers help us a bit more, not for what they say about the importance of connecting to our feelings but for what they don’t.

It’s not unsurprising that most traditionalist schools of yoga philosophy teach us to be deeply suspicious of our feelings ---misled as we are by impulse and the seductions of pleasure and gratification. Katha Upanisad reminds us (2.1) that the good is one thing and the pleasurable another. This is sound enough advice: doing the right thing is not always a pleasure and certainly not all pleasures are right or encourage us to do what’s right. The task is discernment---more technical vocab could enter the picture now, but let’s demur and take a less straightforward course. Our prince is not consulting philosophers. He is trying to hear his heart. But before that, one more point.

The mind’s wandering and the ideas we have of ourselves ---usually called ego, judgment, or just mind--- are also brought under similar philosophical suspicion. India’s yoga philosophers are unambiguously mistrustful of “going with how we feel” and skeptical, leery, far more than just cautious about where our minds can take us without a great deal of courageous effort and cognizant apprehension. We’re taught to be “mindful” ---usually involving some form of witnessing, that is watching the watching and the watcher. Or we taught some or another form of quieting, silencing, or focused re-focusing without subject interference or object appropriation. These are the twin cynosure of meditation practices: mindfulness and serenity. All still quite familiar to even the most preliminary practices of yoga.

Kalidasa the poet and playwright offers something more. I don’t mean to say that he in any way disputes or diminishes the philosopher yogi’s prescriptions and strategies. I think that would rather miss his point. Rather I think he’s inviting us to a further human assignment. He wants us to do more soul-listening with our bodies, minds, and hearts gathered all at once to the great project of being more human.

Act from the inside out, surely. But bring all of yourself to bear. Go from the surfaces, go with them further and further until you cut to the core. And there in the beating of a heart, in the real pulsation of being yourself, discern and choose, contemplate as your inner actor. We need to be more whole, integrative, and willing to incorporate what we experience from outside in. Kalidasa is asking us to do something far more difficult than sort out, discriminate, and use our suspicions as wisely as we can. He’s telling us that we have to bring all we have to bear on all we are because that soul listening reveals itself when we act, when realize that what we do tells us about the work we have done.

In the scene in which this magnificent moment of self-reflection and self-care appears our heroic prince wants to know what to do and he wants to do right. He is checking his moral compass but his wisdom lies in his willingness to do that work, to make the effort to act using the sum of his experience to create choices. Whatever may be possible to do, he is looking to make the right choices. These choices are, in truth, restrictions and qualifications, reservations and circumscriptions. Whatever might be possible is not the same as the wisest choice, and we all know that. But how does our course of action tell us about the course of our innermost being?

What we decide to do will depend on how we arrive at the core of our being. When we don’t know how to get there it’s because we won’t or don’t know how take the all of us with us on that soul-listening journey. More troubling still is that so many don’t know that this journey takes effort, that it requires skills and competence and artistry with one’s self wholly committed.

You can’t do this kind of yoga unless you know that you need to, that there is such a yoga to do. And then we have to learn how, do the work, move through the layers of feeling and thought to find what lies within. What we will find is more than mere certainty or clarity or answers to our questions. What we will find is a heart beating together with other hearts.  When you bring all of yourself, when you arrive at the heart you will hear still more and know there is more yet to hear.

As we become more soul-listeners we hear more than our own self or just our own heart. We hear others listening, indeed come to recognize that there are those not listening closely enough, and that we don’t always know the difference. Most importantly, we discover how all hearts beat together whether or not we learn to take their measure. We come to realize as we journey and listen that we want to take this journey to light and shadow together, because there’s room for everyone who wants to come.

As soul-listeners we need not arrive at the same destination or claim it is same for all. The soul is too vast, too deep and complex, it harbors too many secrets and casts too many shadows to reveal its all. What we mean by soul is not a matter we will resolve ---or even if we have one. But what Kalidasa asks us to do is something we can agree is wholly human, and that invites us all.

Look with yourself and with all your effort and grace bring all of yourself along with you. Do just go with how you feel, don’t just think it all through, don’t distrust everything or believe everything because that’s not enough, that’s not what he’s asking from us. He’s asking us to include everything we can about ourselves as we choose, so that we can choose. And in the end, it’ll be in the moments, sometimes when we least expect it, when we’ll have to act that the work of this complex, often unsettling and formidable task of soul-listening will make all the difference.