Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Creating Collisions of Value

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie.

—-W.H. Auden


W. H. Auden discovered his calling when, at the age of 15, a classmate asked him if he’d considered writing poetry. By the age of 23 his Poems had won him acclaim well-deserved. I first came upon Auden’s work as a young man when in India I encountered the translations and interpretations of the sage Ramakrishna Paramahamsa through the work of Christopher Isherwood. I was not only looking for sagely wisdom from the modern Bengali sant, I was in search of searchers.


I needed to know who had come before me, what they had found, and how they’d brought their encounters with India into their personal lives. Isherwood, I soon discovered, was a complicated person and when I found out a bit about his relationship with Auden, well, one thing led to another. Auden was not interested in India’s spiritualities but his voice pierced my soul.

During the time Auden collaborated on plays with Isherwood in the 1930s, the young poet began a complex journey involving politics, love, and a relentless pursuit of the soul. When in 1947 he won the Pulitzer for his long form poem The Age of Anxiety, Auden established himself as a voice of the age. The war was over but the depths of anxiety were only beginning to emerge in a world threatened by the price of nuclear victory and harrowing revelations of the evil made manifest during the Holocaust. What human beings could do to one another brought into painful focus the deep conflicts that reside in every soul. Anxiety might not be only another feature of our experience: it is the soul’s light casting shadow as a constant companion. And what might we do about that?


During this same time in my own India journey reading about Ramakrishna ad then Isherwood and Auden, my studies of Jung were deeply connecting, I felt like what these sages, storytellers, and poets were offering was the primary resource, the well-spring from which Jung was developing his theories of analysis. This provided my first collision with Jung’s notion of colliding.


What makes us grow, Jung says, is bringing our ego in collisions, that is, into troubles, anxiety, sorrow, even suffering. Now it’s important to understand that the ego is not itself a problem, at least not necessarily. In contrast to some readings in India where ego is nothing less than the problem to be solved or even eliminated, for Jung the ego focuses human consciousness and is rooted in the unconcious.


Without a strong ego we cannot obtain or transform the content of our inner experience and a weak ego will succumb to mere impulse and reaction. Thus while the ego can be selfishness, it can also be the source of altruism—ego as such is morally neutral and is better construed in terms of how we create agency. Engaging ego-consciousness is a key to creating purpose and direction and, importantly, we are free to choose and make choices because our ego can learn and we can move with, through, even past the powers of mere impulse and emotional reaction.

Sometimes we need to hold our egos in check because it’s freedom is limited, we’re so eaily and profoundly moved both by internal events and what the world is offering up. In his Aion, Jung told us that the ego “is not a simple or elementary factor, but a complex one…which cannot be described exhaustively.” He is telling us here that we are somatic, physical beings and psychic ones and that these are commingled, integrated complexities: what we feel in our bodies and conjure in our minds are coextensive. The ego is body-based insofar as it experiences itself through the body but it is as much the case that the body that the ego expriences is psychic: we are body imagers, not just bodies.


To develop a closer and more empowering connection with our selves we are going to have to learn how to engage with our ego collisions. Those experiences are going to happen, there’s no avoiding our inner conflicts, anxieties, and sorrows. But we’re going to have to take great care because the word is collision and that can be problematic, even catastrophic in terms of inner turmoil. An important strategy is to invest in creative potential, taking up modalities of inner expression that give us purpose and meaning. You might paint, do your yoga practice, write in a journal but you gotta get in to get out.


When we study mythologies together we enter into cultural virtuosities creating structures, symbols, and modalities of self reflection that can give voice and invite participation—-the collisions we are experiencing can be brought into images and framed in ways that allow us to deal with the difficult work. Myths are hard to understand but one of their great purposes is to soften the blow, make accessible the harder truths despite the fact that they themselves can be difficult to penetrate. When we can dismiss as so much fairy tale or flummery we are using it to protect us from its more challenging messages. But when we take the time, learn together, and put the myth into a context of healthy conversation, then the collisions become opportunities, we deflect less and engage more.


It can feel “demanding” when we try to make meaning out of mythology but what we now know is that we are dealing with collisions. How could it be otherwise? Best not to go it alone, like I said. Best to bring along sages and storytellers and poets who can provide the resource and the insight. To develop our own, best to make the effort in safe company.

Here’s a bit more from what I wrote about this morning.

We must not lose our voices, resign or relinquish, forsake or surrender. Stay in the conversation and allow, even create what Jung called “collisions.” We collide when the world and our inner self find incongruity, discomfort, impediments or vexations. Our natural tendency is to retreat, allow the withdrawal to bury the experience.


When we can’t “collide” then our circumvention turns this shadow experiences into latent resentments and painful, undisclosed feelings. We usually try to camoufloge and disguise further, dissemble, stifle, and duck. Next thing you know we’re acting out and we don’t know why and it all compiles. So what can we do? We have to unfold the folded lie, as Auden puts it. We have to give permission for the collision and be kind enough, gentle enough, committed enough not wreck ourselves.

There isn’t only one way to lift those shrouded curtains of the soul but it’s not going to be easy because seeing yourself isn’t easy. The power of storytelling, mythic symbolism, and thoughtful contemplation can shelter and at the same time encourage disclosure.


We don’t have to lay ourselves bear, exposed and unprotected to address the inner collisions. But when we commit to the endowments of human genius in the cultural grace of the story, we can learn how to release and unwrap the inner narratives. Myths conceal themselves behind veils of truth so that the anxious unknown becomes less daunting, so we can enter into a more delivering, exonerating conversation with the self. The undiscovered territory is you.


This week we begin again our studies of the mythic possibilities: Thursday with poems and songs to Goddess Kali, Saturday with a fresh, innovative look at Krsna stories, and Sunday in the greatest tale ever told again and again: Mahabharata. You can find the Zoom links in your Newsletters But I’ll put them here too. Come if you can. We’ll make some safe collision, play inner bumper cars with the self in the cherished company of friends. Don’t try too many collisions all by your lonesome. Best to keep good company because you will become the company you keep. See you soon.


Tuesday, January 3, 2023

A Story in the News, Rajanaka, the Past and Future of Yoga

"I read the news today, oh boy...and... the news was rather sad..."

As you know I've only had a peripheral connection over these many years with the "yoga world." The person mentioned in this NPR story cited below was not known to me, personally or otherwise. I am sad for her family, her friends, her students, for her. She died of a pulmonary embolism. I know that can happen to anyone because I too have lost friends suddenly this way. I have nothing more to say about this particular case and person. In a world in which love can be measured in grief, the depths of grief are unfathomable. 
May love find more to measure even if it too is unfathomable.

My reason to write is to comment about this well-known yoga teacher's involvement in conspiracy theories, QAnon, vaccine-denial, and the rest that has caused us all so much pain and confusion.

I have heard, again all second hand, that the conspirators are rampant in the yoga world.  In the article Matthew Remski makes the point that it's not uncommon with the "find your own truth" crowd. (For the record I have always had a wonderful, genial relationship with Matthew who came once to a seminar.  I hold his work in warm regard.)

Ironically, historical yoga philosophers (at least the ones writing in Sanskrit) have never been about finding "your own" truth. That would be a terrible misreading of their claims. Rather, their aim is usually about bringing you to experience *their* versions of truth, especially their conclusions (siddhanta) and dogmas. This is true of Hindus and Buddhists (and Jainas, etc) alike. The goals are undoubtedly personal and experiential but they are decidedly not yours---these are constructed as arguments of persuasion "verified" personally in experience.

This is an important distinction becasue this renders Rajanaka (n.b., Rajanaka simply means what Appa taught me) once again entirely outside the mainstream of these traditions.  Rajanaka is obliged to yoga traditions by sharing resources---mythologies, queries and questions, ideas and values along with practices.  But Rajanaka has no siddhanta as such, it is more method than goal, and I suppose we should say that it aligns itself more closely with the methods of scientific truth-seeking and tasks rooted in shared, empircal learning aka academics.

A Rajanaka critic once said to me that "this makes Rajanaka just another strategy of secular humanism." I offer no objection to this characterization. Rajanaka loves Hindu lore, the history of religions, the artistry and passion of the Indian tradition in all its forms---and all forms of serious learning and artistry, in all culture and history. We are seekers of a shared humanity, of human achievements, the imagination and the power of creativity in fostering a life of values, tolerance, integrity. We're here to learn and converse about things we think are compelling and important because they contribute to shared concerns.

Appa made this point with me on day one: we are here to learn, to take processes of inquiry seriously, to ask better questions and understand how "truth" is a process, provisional, empirical, experimenting with facts. We are learning about ourselves, about the world as we have been made and as we make it.  It's called a Vidya---the word is cognate to the English "verify" or "verification"---he said, because Rajanaka really is like science, knowledge refers to  hat we verify using our senses and minds, in reason and in shared empirical studies: our learning is not perfect, just the best we can do in learning.

As most academics would likely put it the problem with conspiracies is not unlike the problem with "finding your own truth." This is not a serious way to learn. "Seriousness" is something of a technical term to us: it implies methodologies and the pursuit of shared learning. Those not trained academically, skeptical or hostile to academic methods may not fully appreciate the effort placed on "seriousness."

But let me be clear with you good folks: Rajanaka loves seriousness and has little use for conspiracies or the nonsense that passes these days as "truth." Reducing to "your own truth" is a slippery slope to foolish solipsism and, worse, a kind of stochastic nihilism. That's a fancy way of saying that you think your own opinions (whenever you are thinking or feeling them) are not merely valid but sound, important, true because you say or believe them to be. This is a kind of subjectivism that can be dangerous but it is certainly the opposite of "serious."   All experience claims made in good faith are valid but not all qualify as sound.  We observe this important distinction.

I would be happy to explain the distinction further but I think this can suffice for now. The link between Trumpist conspiracy/QAnon nonsense and yoga worlds in this "personal truth" creates a swift path to stochastic nihilism. In no time things are true because you say them, feel them, believe them---and more likely because you hear them and follow along.

The whole point of "seriousness" as the alternative is to learn how to think critically, read closely, and write argumentatively. This is my mantra to undergraduates; this is what we are learning to do. It is precisely the same in Rajanaka. I am not here to teach you what to think. I am here to help you learn how to think.

Thinking is no small matter. It requires information and methods to sort out misinformation and disinformation. When Rajanaka disagrees or rejects or criticizes yoga traditions (or religions) it does so using historical facts and sources. Our aim to point out the process of argument that is implied or stated. "Argument" is another misunderstood term (like "seriousness"). 

Argument is how we conduct rational discourse, it is not a quarrel as such. We ask what are the assumptions, evidence, reasons, and conclusions drawn. It is the very process of learning itself. Rajanaka makes no religious arguments because religions begin with the notion that their conclusions, like their assumptions, are beyond disproof. More correctly, there are matters we believe withstand the critical method and so deem true and thus what remains isn't skepticism but the persistence of method. What could be disproven remains even if we are reasonably sure we have arrived at a fair and honest provision, a truth as such. 

Rajanaka takes this stance common to scientific and indeed to all historical critical method: we are vigilant in the pursuit of facts sharable because we share methods. Some religions, like certain elements of modern Buddhism, claim not to function like religions (where assumptions and conclusions are theoretically disprovable). But I've yet to find such a Buddhist like our pal the Dalai Lama who didn't subscribe to non-empirical, non-verifiable (by method) claims.

Some such claims are clearly not in the least dangerous to the common wield. In other words, there's lots about religious claims that don't do damage, even things that are downright helpful. Like "be a good person" or "be compassionate" for which there may be little argument to sustain the case. We're not reducing the world to argument, only looking for ways to have a sensible conversation about what makes us human.

I study religions professionally not because what they teach is "true" but because I seek truths. Truth is what happens when you share in a conversation that takes facts seriously, that enjoins human achievement to human fallibility and flaw. Truth depends on asking better questions, learning to formulate argument and attend to what is serious--and that too is a learning process.

Conspiracy is hearsay, gossip, nonsense, repeated as if it were true but without the processes of serious or honest learning. That's where Rajanaka stands, if you wanted to know. We are serious about learning and we mean to study yoga to engage life as fully engaged human beings. Serious learning can be soulful though it need not be, it doesn't have to be. What I mean by that is we can ask "how does this really matter to me or change the world or effect life." How does what I learn create purpose, meaning, and value in my life?

Truth isn't necessarily about relevance or application but it can be. Art can move us and shape us and change us and reveal things in our hearts we know, we feel, that are true. Sometimes the facts alone don't suffice. But they are never not the facts. So it's no small matter. The "what" is not the "so what." Understanding that distinction is helpful to having further serious conversations. "Serious" doesn't mean un-fun or boring. But it does ask more from you than your "own truth."

Cited article: