In these two short articles, I have focused on two figures who were instrumental in the process of transmitting Hindu ideas and assumptions into the Western world in the latter half of the twentieth century. My reasons for focusing on these figures in particular are also twofold. First, these two figures have been involved in two of the most powerfully transformative cultural phenomena that the Western world has seen, certainly in the course of my lifetime: namely, the Beatles and the Star Wars franchise. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these two phenomena in recent and contemporary Western culture. Secondly, these two cultural phenomena are of particular interest to me because of the impact they have had on my own life and consciousness. Only a handful of other pop culture phenomena–Star Trek, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the lyrics of Bob Dylan, and the original role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons, spring quickly to mind–have had the kind of influence on my own life and thinking that has been exerted by the Beatles and Star Wars. I truly do not believe I would be the person I am today without these two influences in my life.
In the last two decades, the concept of mindfulness as a state, trait, process, and intervention has been successfully adapted in contexts of clinical health and psychology, especially with relation to treating stress and targeting emotion dysregulation. Operationalizing mindfulness has been somewhat challenging given the plurality of cultural traditions from which the concept originates, the difficulty with which it is measured, and its distinction from its common usage [see Baer (2003); Dimidjian and Linehan (2003); Brown and Ryan (2004); Grossman (2008); Gethin (2011)].
Generally speaking, there are two models for cultivating mindfulness in the context of meditation practice—a 2500-year old historical model that is rooted in Buddhist science and a 25-year old contemporary model that is heavily influenced by Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course, an adaptation of specific Buddhist techniques intended for general stress reduction (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). The historical model for training the mind has similar goals to the contemporary western medical model: both are interested in reducing suffering, enhancing positive emotions, and improving quality of life.
The yogic theory of saṃskāras, or subliminal impressions of past painful or pleasurable experiences, is one of India's most fascinating contributions to our understanding of human psychology. Briefly, when we experience aversion to a painful experience, or attachment to a pleasurable one, then an impression of that experience is laid down in our psyche, which is said to be a 'seed' of experience which will sprout again.
One of the chief differences between sciences and religions is that sciences cooperate with one another. Since all truth is necessarily consistent, no true statement can be a contradiction of any other. Therefore, Darwin used the work of geologists and biologists equally. Watson and Crick depended on X-ray crystallography, and Newton had recourse to optics in his work on gravity.
Religions, alas, do not have this unanimous acceptance of one another's truth. A striking example may be the three Western monotheistic religions, which define one god as the creator of the universe and thus are in total agreement. There could not be more than one such creator, so it follows that they all worship the very same being. Nevertheless, no one could mistake the historical or current situation for the unanimity that this implies. Europe was in flames for hundreds of years in the name of the Prince of Peace. This day, explosions will likely murder or maim innocent people who believe the vast majority of what their attackers do. We may ask after the basis of loyalty to a leader who revives hate based on small differences rather than use his or her life-force to lay bare our commonality.
Without resorting to physical violence, yoga is in danger of slipping into the same sort of factionalism.
So, what is mindfulness? Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as "the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment to moment." (1) Dr. Germer explains it even more simply as the "awareness of present experience with acceptance." (2)
I define mindfulness as voluntary, sustained, and presented-centered attention with an attitude of disciplined acceptance. With enough practice, it can help us naturally resist the pull of our automatic, unconscious, or conditioned patterns of thought, emotion, and action.
This article offers an overview of meditation research: its history, recent developments, and future directions. As the number and scope of studies grow, the field has converged with cognitive and affective neuroscience, and spawned many clinical applications. Recent work has shed light on the mechanisms and effects of diverse practices, and is entering a new phase where consensus and coherent paradigms are within reach. This article suggests an unusual path for future advancement: complementing conventional research with rigorous dialogue with the contemplative traditions that train expert meditators and best know the techniques. It explores the Nalanda tradition developed in India and preserved in Tibet, because its cumulative approach to contemplative methods produced a comprehensive framework that may help interpret data and guide research, and because its naturalistic theories and empirical methods may help bridge the gulf between science and other contemplative traditions. Examining recent findings and models in light of this framework, the article introduces the Indic map of the central nervous system and presents three testable predictions based on it. Finally, it reviews two studies that suggest that the multimodal Nalanda approach to contemplative learning is as well received as more familiar approaches, while showing promise of being more effective.
Although Pandit Rajmani Tigunait’s The Secret of the Yoga Sutra and David Gordon White’s The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: A Biography could not be more different in terms of core message and approach, both share the same underlying problem. Essentially, this is that each in its own way replicates the dominant paradigm that divides our studies of the Yoga Sutra (YS) between 1) practitioner-oriented studies that are reverentially devoted to explicating it as a timeless truth, and 2) narrowly empiricist academic studies that are utterly dismissive of the concerns and experiences of practitioners. This split between lived practice and scholarly inquiry is unfortunate in that it narrows the scope of ideas and information in ways that impoverish both.
Prakriti is the physical realm – the external realm of our senses. It is what we see, hear, touch, taste and feel. Everything, our nature and behavior – our very minds – are affected by the innate qualities of Prakriti. These principles are called the gunas and there are three of them: sattva, rajas and tamas.
Memory, as Proust reminds us, is not always a reflection of the way things actually were. Indeed, human memory, unlike, say, computer memory, fulfills a different function. The function of memory has been analyzed by both contemporary psychology and in the literature of classical yoga, with some interesting convergences and equally interesting divergences. Here we will examine the purpose of remembering from both the contemporary psychological perspective and the perspective of classical yoga, as exemplified by Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras. The purpose of laying out this framework is to suggest what the yogic practice of memory is, and what it can contribute to the effort toward liberation.
In the world of contemporary Western yoga, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is revered as canon, which is to say that the yoga community accepts this collection of philosophical aphorisms as fundamental to yogic practice and as significant in the process of understanding the history of our tradition. This work, the jump-off point for many yoga philosophy conversations, is written in a unique form, characteristic of its time: the sutra.
For the soul there is neither birth nor death at any time. He has not come into being, does not come into being, and will not come into being. He is unborn, eternal, ever-existing, and primeval. He is not slain when the body is slain.
Once the yogi has had an experience of pure consciousness, the mind continuously strives to attain, over and over again. Attunement to the universal energy of the gunas is only one piece. There is an internal landscape, at the depths of the human mind that must be analyzed, parsed, and deconstructed. This deep psychological work happens at the most subtle level, where thoughts originate and instigate our behaviors and emotions. This exploration is the path to freedom.
The two historical texts employed by yoga practitioners to navigate the path are the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. The former promises freedom, or “kaivalya,” from the shackles of embodied existence through the state of samadhi; the latter promises a kind of blissful transcendence of the body-mind conundrum through union with God. These two texts offer a wealth of information to all who read them and pose an important question: what kind of yoga will you practice?
“Is there therapy in the Vedas?” I was a bit taken aback by this inquiry from a young and dedicated yoga practitioner. He had been struggling for years with psychological problems. Although he had embraced a traditional path of yogic transformation, he found the help he needed in a more modern self-help process based on contemporary psychology. As I thought about his inquiry, however, the answer seemed obvious. Rich in a tradition of intact family and community support, those born in traditional India did not need to rely on specialists to sort out mental afflictions caused mostly by social dysfunction. Classical Indian philosophy, especially its traditions of yoga, does, however, have detailed information on the nature of the mind.
Delving into the ancient yogic texts requires having a strong sense of imagination and a splash—if not more—of suspended of disbelief. More than mere philosophy, these texts introduce the reader to a symbolic works in which hangs the delicate veil that separates reality from myth. In fact, many ancient yogic texts and their study depend on the very question of the existence of reality.
Leave enlightenment in the 18th century, where it belongs. The world does not need a single additional enlightened master. Rather, we need humble, compassionate interactions — and most of all, we need to be strong enough to tell the truth about our own mistakes, climb down off our high horses, and sincerely acknowledge our contribution to the mess. A little more of that, and a little less seeking after or claiming of “enlightenment,” wisdom, or spiritual depth, would go a long way to making life mutually bearable; and that is the most enlightened thing that one could wish, by any definition.
Kashmir Shaivism, a school of Tantric philosophy and technique, offers the analytical tool of the three “malas,” or impurities, to help us cognitively unveil the obstacles to the experience of our infinite nature. These malas are likened to veils obscuring the truth. If they were tangible, physical things, they would be easier to overcome, but the fact is they are ever so subtle!
The Sanskrit word vidya means wisdom or knowledge—the wisdom earned through deep practice and experience. The prefix ‘a’ indicates a lack of, or an absence of. In the yogic sense, avidya means something that goes far beyond ordinary ignorance. Avidya is a fundamental blindness about reality. The core ignorance we call avidya isn’t a lack of information, but an actual inability to experience your deep connection to others, to the source of being and to your true Self. Avidya has many layers and levels, which operate in different ways. We see it threaded through every aspect of our lives—our survival strategies, our relationships, our cultural prejudices, the things we hunger for and fear. All forms of cluelessness and fogged perception are forms of avidya But behind all of avidya’s manifestations stem from the failure to recognize that essentially you are spirit, and that you share this with every atom of the universe.
Out of Śiva’s Self-awareness and His joy in that experience, manifestation is created—including us as individuals. The power that Śiva uses to do so, kuṇḍalinī śakti, is the descent of the highest pure Consciousness into form. The practice of Kuṇḍalinī Sādhana is our pathway back to that primordial experience of non-separation. In Tantric practice and tradition, the liberation of kuṇḍalinī is the pathway not only to knowing God but to recognizing that we are God. There are three phases of that realization. The progression of Kuṇḍalinī Sādhana entails the arousal, awakening, and liberating of kuṇḍalinī śakti from our limited capacity and identity in order to realize our highest Self.
A recent article has come to my attention by Chris Wallis concerning his scholarly research into the ancient writings on the chakras, and his debunking of modern or Western writings, including my own. “The Six Most Important Things You Never Knew About the Chakras” is circulating widely among the yoga community and I am very grateful for the opportunity to open up some juicy dialogue on the subject. I hope we can all benefit from this and that the entire subject of the chakra system continues to evolve as a result.
To live a life according to the wisdom of ecology is the most urgent task for humanity today. What can the philosophy of yoga contribute to this critical challenge? How can we develop an environmental ethics according to yogic principles? What would a sustainable ethics based on yoga look like?
Ayurveda takes the philosophical outline of Sankhya and applies it to the art of living, stretching its reaches beyond the confines of ascetic practice to the real world of relationship, career, conflict and even technology. The gunas (tamas, rajas and sattwa) and the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether) converge to explain doshas, or individual constitutions. This provides a basic categorization process to everything from body type to spiritual practice, disease, human cravings and proclivities.
Rare is the yogic text or scripture that does not extoll Om as a method of Self realization. You will find there that Om is sometimes referred to with synonyms, such as “Pranava” – sound of the prana; “Udgita” – uprising song; “Shabda” – primordial word; or “Nada” – subtle sound. These readings indicate that Om itself is a universal teacher of the enlightened state.
When we’re overwhelmed by our emotions, the most important—and most difficult—thing to recognize is that we can consume the energy of whatever is gripping us. Otherwise we’re just torn apart, like a fish being mauled by sharks. What’s happening is real and painful, but if we recognize that our emotions function within a narrow level of our consciousness, we can save ourselves from being devoured. Even as we’re being bludgeoned by an experience, we can pull back and tune in to a deeper dimension in ourselves.
The human race is a single species at constant war with itself. Strange, isn’t it?
This state of affairs exists for one simple reason: the great majority of individual human beings are at war with themselves. “As inside, so outside; as here, so elsewhere.” The world is nothing but a macrocosm of the inner state of most individual human beings.
Individual human beings are at war with themselves for one simple reason: they are internally divided, and these divisions are not compatible. They do not cohere.
If the grand story of the Mahabharata is the Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, then the Bhagavad Gita is “Street Fighting Man.” It gets all the ubiquitous radio play; maybe you’ve even heard it in a commercial, definitely in a Martin Scorsese movie. You likely know the words, even the harmonies, without having had to try at all to memorize them. The story of Draupadi is one of the less played tracks, perhaps “Salt of the Earth,” tucked away on the end of the second side of the album. Let’s throw it on the turntable and take a listen...
The season of Navaratri has recently ended, and by spending nine nights with the three primary aspects of the feminine I entered into a softening in my perception of practice. It was as though the Divine Mother moved my body and sense organs for me toward the anchor points of practice that somehow I keep forgetting exist: the Sutras. Not often thought of in connection with the Divine Feminine, the Sutras suggest concrete means of active practice which are expressions of the Divine Mother’s qualities and aspects.
The feminine is revered not only in the embodied forms of Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati, but the qualities of Mahakali, Mahalakshmi and Mahasaraswati, also known as the gunas- tamas, rajas and sattwa. Her force is measurable in the inertia of our gross body: the dense, hungry, woundable layers of flesh and bone. She is also present in the agitation of prana: circulation, breath and thought waves. She is also sattwa or harmony, in the delicate balance of stability in the midst of change we call yoga.