What is needed now is not any kind of spacing out or trance, any kind of sedation no matter how pleasant. No wishful thinking or lotus-eating oblivion ever was helpful. Rather, eyes-wide-open focus, determination, patience, compassion, and cultivation of a stronger life-force, a deep inner vitality, are what are required today. Only these will lead to sureness in these perilous times. Here I mean merely the individual’s inner sureness of purpose and clarity of intent, no outer sureness, no sure-fire fix for the illness and insanity of today’s culture. There never was, never has been any such remedy, at least not for very long. Today this is abundantly clear—which makes seeing and choosing easier. May this be our good fortune.
So if you are engaged in a “practice”—and there are many—Buddhist meditation, Christian contemplative prayer, good psychotherapy, chi gong, yoga—how can you best use your practice to enhance those qualities of heart and mind so necessary in these times?
I have a passing acquaintance with several of these practices, but a deep understanding of only one: hatha yoga, which has been my devotion and art for the last 35 years. Like many millions of Americans I practice hatha yoga, the by-now-familiar postures (asanas) and measured breathing techniques (pranayama). Traditionally it was supposed that these practices led naturally and almost inevitably to a meditative state where the true nature of the mind revealed itself to study. And then, as Zen master Dogen says, “We study the self in order to forget the self, and in forgetting the self we come to know all things.”
“We study the self in order to forget the self.” In America today this is a radical proposition. In our consumer culture we are instead seduced —bullied, really—to indulge the self, to engorge the self, to enlarge the self at the expense of our neighbors and fellow-creatures.
How then as an everyday mundane matter can we best practice our yoga? For starters, I am suspicious of any way of practicing which leads towards ecstasy—to “stand outside oneself”. Historically, this has been the proper business of, for example, shamanic healers. Their job was to leave the body, travel to the world of the gods, or the animal or vegetative powers, to steal (usually) some magical knowledge or talisman, and bring it back to the village in order to heal or safeguard the people, or sometimes only to cure a single patient. So here we have a carefully-crafted kind of “out-of-body” experience with a specific intention.
But as yogins we are not shamanic healers.
Yoga has always had other, more inward aims: that we should come to know ourselves authentically and wholly, and thereby to pass beyond our egoic boundaries. Not getting more of, but rather getting rid of, the small narcissistic self, in order to live in the world at large.
Practice as if you remembered.