From Chapter 1: The Path Unfolds
Distracted By “I,” “Me,” and “Mine”
All things exist from moment to moment. In the moment that something comes to be, it is as it is. Then it passes away. When we pay attention to the birth, aging, and death of life, we come to see that there is no thing we can hold on to anyway. How many thoughts have you had today? How many feelings have you had this week? How many sensations have you felt this hour? And where do they go? Where do thoughts and feelings come from?
We have no answers for these questions, because the sheer truth of change is stunning. It may be easy to let go of our contraction around some light thoughts or simple feelings, yet something seems to remain that is most difficult to release, namely, the ongoing, felt sense of a separate “me.” “Clinging to self is habitual,” says Patañjali in the third chapter of the Yoga-Sūtra, “even for the wise.”
In this way Patañjali clears the way for a profound path of awakening based on insight into the nature of self and eventually allowing that self to dissolve in the midst of the greater world since the self is the world and not apart from it. It’s the entanglement in our stories of “I,” “me,” and “mine” that keep us alienated from the flow of life, from ease, from intimacy. Spiritual practice is one of opening to something greater than the world of “me” and, as such, requires practices, guidelines, and encouragement for living a life beyond habits and personal preferences. As such, psychological change, for Patañjali, is inextricably tied with relationship and ethics. In fact, the eight limbs of yoga, for which he is so famous, always return the practitioner to a life grounded in action and relationship. The student on the path of yoga begins moving through life with greater care and decisiveness, growing into the world like countless buds on a branch, ordinary yet singular.
How you treat animals, how you grow your food, how you manage your resources internally and externally—these are all valid aspects of your yoga path because such actions form your very self. In fact, the choices you make in decisions that range from abortion to same-sex marriage, eating fish or growing corn, paving new highways or determining foreign policy, all form the basis of the yamas, the first limb of Patañjali’s path of yoga. The first limb of yoga is your very own limb, your small intestine, your lungs, your very air.
From Chapter 2: Restraint in Times of Unrestraint
The world does not exist for us; the world just exists. To say that it is for us or not for us creates a fragmentation from the outset that obscures the deep continuity of all life-forms and gives us a false sense of separateness—an artificial division that yoga teachings try to break through. The inherent union of all life—what we have defined as “yoga”—is never beyond morality, because it’s up to each of us to express this union through all of our actions of body, speech, and mind. We don’t practice nonviolence as much as we are nonviolence; we don’t try to act compassionately—we actually become compassion. Whatever is happening in the hearts and mind of others is also happening to us. Whatever harm we cause to the rivers and rain clouds we also bring upon ourselves; or are we defining our “selves” too narrowly? Reverence for life begins when we realize that we are a microcosm of this vast continuity we call existence.
Human beings are not the most important life-form in the ecological matrix, but surely we have caused the most devastation to our known ecological world. The richest 20 percent of the world’s population now receives 150 times the income of the poorest 20 percent. The richest one-fifth of the world
• consumes 45 percent of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5 percent.
• consumes 58 percent of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4 percent.
• has 74 percent of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5 percent.
• consumes 84 percent of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1 percent.
• owns 87 percent of the world’s vehicles, the poorest fifth less than 1 percent.
Almost 800 million people—about one-sixth of the population of the world’s developing nations—are malnourished. Two hundred million of them are children. It is estimated that 880 million people lack access to basic health care and 1.3 billion lack access to safe drinking water. Seventeen million people die each year from curable diseases, including diarrhea, malaria, and tuberculosis. Five million of these people die due to water contamination.
We live in times of unrestraint. Within a one-mile radius of my home in a Canadian city, I can purchase, even in the middle of a snowy winter, olives from Crete, organic spinach from California, garlic from China, a cashmere scarf from India, and a bottle of wine from just about anywhere; I can order products through the Internet or listen to radio on any international bandwidth. Our neighbors, refugees from Tibet, can hardly afford any of the aforementioned items, although their family dinner tonight, the gas that runs through their stove, the entertainment on the television that’s playing as they cook, and the bottled water on the table will not be sourced locally. It’s hard to wrap our minds around the way transportation patterns, digestion patterns, pollution, consumption, even the dinner table itself, impact the web we call life. Without attention to such connections, choices become life-destroying rather than life-affirming.
My bicycle was built in Sweden, our son’s toys in Germany, our maple kitchen counter in Michigan, and I have no idea where our cat was born. Although much of our contemporary progress and change offers us significant improvement in the quality of our lives, that progress also hides a shadow. Karma reveals that shadow: the effects of our actions internally and externally. We most often think of karma as personal or something “spiritual” and not of the “material.” Although the root kr of the word “karma” means “to do” or “to create,” karma is not something you do or try to manipulate—it is something you are in every mode of your being. You are the choices you make.
Our dominant philosophy is one of unlimited material growth in all its manifestations: economic, industrial, reproductive. Even personal forms of growth like self-improvement projects and self-help groups are manifestations of individual and collective discontent that seeks to find happiness in anthropocentric ways. In this context, restraint seems, on the surface anyway, illogical: If we can have whatever we want whenever we want, why would we contemplate or even investigate the notion of restraint? If we can’t have what we want, we at least have the means to overproduce. We are a culture caught in a cycle of overconsumption and overproduction to meet our exponentially rising desire for more. If we don’t have enough electricity to meet our needs, we can build another power plant. In fact, since our family lives on the lower end of the income scale, our federal government recently sent us a cheque to cover the costs of rising electricity bills. Although we receive money to pay our bills, the government doesn’t ask us to restrain from using as much power as we do, nor do we hear from the government about limiting the ways we use electricity; instead we use the taxpayers’ money to maintain a lifestyle so rarely questioned. Yet the economy, the environment, the mind, and the family must all be healthy for the others to survive—there is no dichotomy in such an equation. If we only think in terms of economic growth and if we are always motivated by the insatiable ghosts of endless desire, how do we measure the end point?
The course of spiritual practice found in the nondualistic traditions of Yoga, Buddhism, and Taoism offers us an understanding of and insight into the relational nature of reality and the interconnectedness of all things. Like many traditions, the Yoga tradition of Patañjali, a system known for its meditative practices, begins with a sophisticated understanding of relationship, interconnectedness, personal transformation, and ethics. Or, we might say the system is so very simple and basic to our nature. Even though the body is supported by and created of the natural world, the distracted and overly conceptual mind might be operating in an entirely different metaphor that is totally disembodied, heads and shoulders away from soil and rivers and rich night skies. In Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, there seems little or no difference between personal and collective transformation; as one deeply penetrates the first step of practice, the yamas—ethical principles that help guide us in our actions of body, speech, and mind—we have some guidelines as to how we can gear our choices to be in line with the wisdom that everything is interwoven.
A common question along these lines becomes, Why not just pay attention to our activities on the meditation cushion? Won’t that bring about necessary changes? If I find stillness in my mind, doesn’t that offer a positive contribution to the world at large? A good question to be certain, but such formal activities are only a part of practice, because eventually you will have to defecate, change your socks, source buckwheat for that little cushion, and the cushion may not help when you need to find firewood. Yoga is always a practice that takes place in the world, and so it makes no sense to deny your activities in the world, because that is the fabric of practice, the warp and weave of your life.
This valid and challenging question is actually a reminder that we need to meditate on the effect of our actions both individually and collectively and on the psychology behind our intentions and habits. While it’s certainly true that intentions can be preconceptions that might be distracting at times, intentions are a tool we use to reorient the mind when we are caught in distracted or greedy states of mind. No matter, there is no escape from decision making and action. No book, system, or theory is ever going to offer us a specific guideline for what to do or how to live that will magically cut through the complexity of our unique situations. As I write these words from a deck in Los Angeles, I overhear news reports describing how the city water supply is full of pharmaceuticals that treatment plants have no way of breaking down. Viagra, Prozac, and numerous antibiotics do not break down after being evacuated from the human body. These chemicals and microorganisms move through the waterways with effects researchers are only beginning to study. All water comes together.
What kind of actions should one take in this situation? Obviously these kinds of decisions, which lie at the heart of our ideas about ourselves and nature, cannot be explored simply with Ten Commandments. Nor can any theory claim to be a universal canopy that covers all of the different norms and values across cultures, because doing good is always relative. Intentions and precepts, like any vow or commitment, can be broken a thousand times a day, but if you didn’t set them out if the first place, you would never be able to imagine the better world they imply. While we cannot create an everlasting, universal theory of action or ethics, what we can do is offer an outline of the psychology of ethics. This is not to say that there is one universal psychology—because of course psychology always includes culture—but rather to begin to understand how most of our personal, ecological, and cultural ills are, at the base, problems of perception. The wise elder Bhisma instructs his younger nephew Yudhishthira on how to become peace:
Even the gods are bewildered at the path
Of the one who seeks the abode of no abode,
Who sees all beings
With the being of oneself
And the being of oneself
as that of all beings
From not holding to the other
As opposite from oneself
There is the essence of dharma