Science and the Sacred. And the Dance of Life.
Ravi Ravindra and James Boag
In the beginning of 2017, i was blessed with the teachings of two amazing teachers. This post was originally published march 1st on Dharmas website. But as we move towards the end of the year, i feel it's appropriate for our continuing practice, to offer some inspiration from wise Yogis. Both of them will be Dharma's guests in Sweden during 2018. Keep an eye out.
Their teachings overlap. Ravi Ravindra is the scholar, the professor of physics and comparative religions with deep understanding of and love for the spiritual teachings. My favorite translation of the Yoga Sutras is written by Raviji. James Boag, a dancer of life, a tantra yogi, and like Raviji, an accomplished scholar of the exquisite Sanskrit language (as well as several others). He knows the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad-Gita resides in his heart and bones. He unpacks these texts with the skills of a true storyteller.
These two amazing teachers open the treasure chest of yoga and the teachings with reverence and passion. They offer the wisdom of Love, Beauty, and Order - Dharma. The truth of life, is that we are here to re-member who and what we Are, and to be fully present and open to all the wonders. The spiritual quest is a journey of deep inquiry and amazement. It leaves no one untouched, in fact that is the purpose of the spiritual journey - to allow ourselves to be touched to our very core by Divine Consciousness. I am so blessed, so grateful for the time spent with these two yogis and lovers of life.
At the end of this page i offer you some links for further exploration. Here my reflections, collected notes, and ponderings.
Science and the Sacred with Ravi Ravindra
Is Yoga a Science?
Science's approach to knowledge is that of the outsider, looking in, with minimal personal participation or inclusion in the gathering of data. In yoga, the fundamental requirement is participation, and the aim is a transformation of being.
In science the primary reality is (dead) matter and evolution towards complexity is considered to come out of this primary reality. In all spiritual teachings however, it's the other way around. Consciousness already Is, and moves "downwards" animating matter, permeating even the tiniest or densest form of manifestation with conscious energy. The world, so called reality as we perceive it with our ordinary senses, is a manifestation of Supreme Consciousness, or God - for those who are brave to use this wording. In an earlier post - The sacred Valley, i gathered for you som reflections on levels of reality as offered by Raviji.
Yet another difference is the collection and use of data. The sciences (that of which physics is said to be the queen), are interested in observation and results that hold over cultures, borders and beliefs, they are untouched by such things. Results are gathered objectively and are open for replication and validation by other scientists using appropriate similar instruments of observation and experimentation. Results are to be generalized and public (and hopefully win the scientist a Noble prize ; ). In yoga, we may also experiment, but unlike in the sciences we experiment with our experience. We cannot replicate results, for each moment is new and fresh and we cannot generalize or make public what we encounter during our practice of self-discovery. Of course, we might be assisted by different pointers in some direction and attempt to explain and transmit our experiences, as the sages and mystics do, to give some sort of frame of reference for our own exploration, but the descriptions are not the true findings, they are not the actual experience. The quality of being is essential, the inner work is for transformation of our being which will awaken us to deeper truths. Truths that are not quantifiable or measurable, but reside in the Heart.
Understandably then, there is a distinction in rolls played by the practitioner on each side, the practitioner in relation to the object being studied. While the scientist experiments on an external thing the experience of the scientist- what he thinks or feels- while studying the thing - has no relevance for the study. The yogi, is observing by participation. The experience is essential and the participant - the yogi- needs not only be prepared to understand that which arises, but also withstand it. This opens different attitudes towards that which is being studied. In scientific study the mind (with its limitations) sets the hypothesis that will eventually lead to a theory (and hopefully an entry into a scientific paper) after experimental trials and observations. In yoga, the major and often initial practice is to quiet the mind so that deeper understanding and clarity may emerge, from beyond the mind. We make ourselves susceptible to the unknown which cannot be experienced by the mind. The mind is the instrument of knowledge but does not experience by itself. Objectivity is about placing oneself (with all our likes, dislikes, conditionings, habits, ego and so on) out of the way of clear perception, this is much of the inner work. It sounds like scientific objectivity, getting ourselves out of the way, but the methods and objectives of study differ.
Essential to an open mind and cultivation of awareness is to not be against anything! Being against whatever it is, will bring us down to the same level of that which we are against. In our societies, in our daily lives, we are so quick at having opinions and claiming a stand against this or that. Our attention should be wide open and inclusive. This is how we learn. We are to see where all things have there place, and their root reasons for existing. Krishnamurti very much emphasizes coming to the root of things.
I feel strongly that science and the sacred can intersect and are both needed in there own right. Spiritual searchers (and the scientific community as well) may be seduced to think that one or the other is correct knowledge, creating limitations for cultivation awareness. Science and the sacred are not to be placed against each other, as if one is better or more relevant then the other. It is important to have in mind that these avenues to knowledge are both necessary and reveal to us different levels and parts of reality, or one might say the they engage us in two different but connected realms, both of which we belong to. They are two sides of the same coin. The devoted spiritual searcher is scientific at heart. And some of the greatest of scientists (Einstein, Pascal, Wittgenstein) have been in awe the all of creation.
Feelings are a means of knowledge for the spiritual searcher. Not ordinary emotions, such as envy, greed, hate and so on (although we need to acknowledge them). These are regarded as lower emotions, but being compassionate, grateful and in wonder are enhanced and refined feelings that bring us closer to divine nature. Wonder and worry cannot co-exist. Now that's something to experiment with! An advanced spiritual searcher is more frequently in these higher emotional states. For the scientist, even a really good one, being compassionate or in wonder is not necessary - the quality of being is just not important, again the personal equation is to be left out of scientific research. For the yogi, is it precisely the quality of being the determines the practice and the levels of consciousness she connects to. For each level of reality - consciousness, different laws apply. The natural laws that apply to the novice differ from those the accomplished yogi must bow to. What's natural for the yogis, or rather sages on a higher level of consciousness, may appear supernatural for the rest of us. So Superman...? Yeah, higher level of consciousness. Of course this wouldn't hold in a scientific discussion. The natural laws are as the are however accomplished one may be.
So is yoga a science? The answer (in my view) is yes and no, depending on the context the question is raised in. Why isnt't it a science? Because yoga doesn't fit into the prerequisites of scientific research (that which i've tried to convey above). And why is yoga a science? Because, like a scientist, we examine, as objectively as possible (with clear perception), ourselves - in relation to both our inner and outer world. We ask questions, and explore the consequences of behaviors and feelings so that we can re-create ourselves again and again, transform. We practice, explore, observe and repeat, hopefully, for each time we gain a little more awareness and new insights.
In the scientific community, yoga is generally not considered a science. Although the yogini or yogi is scientific in her/his search. My own reflections bring me to Prakriti and Purusha. Purusha being Spirit and prakriti, the manifested world - which is of Purusha. One cannot be without the other, however, we may become more susceptible to the Spirit, the sacred, through actions in this manifestation, through the body, mind and feelings. And we can become more scientific by cultivating curiosity and interest in inquiry and objectivity.
Our uniqueness is our avenue to the ONE. Our manifest being, our unique voice is the instrument through which the ONE may sing. Manifestation of the ONE, (the Ultimate, Supreme Consciousness, God) cannot take place without the uniqueness of you, me and everybody else. The notion that all is One and therefore everything we see in the world is maya - illusion is not helpful in our spiritual search. The manifested world is real, but not the only reality.
If one really takes a belief or an idea seriously, one must question it. This goes for both science and spiritual teachings. Yoga is not built on blind faith. This is where the science of yoga comes in. We may listen to the teachings, read the scriptures, they may gave us some frame of reference and direction, but we are also asked to seriously do the inner work and examine these truths and suggestions. The aim is self-knowledge and freedom from the self. The yogi's journey is to be on the way, but out of the way. Consistent effort is required for any discipline to become ones nature. The artist's brush may flow fluently against the canvas, effortlessly, to an observer on the outside, but the work behind this effortlessness, is nothing less then intensive work and hardship. We are asked to do our part, and allow for the divine to assist when it is time.
Vibration awareness with James Boag
You are. Already.
James lives these teachings, they are in his bloodstream, in his spine, the central channel - El Rio Grande, as he calls it. He unpacks the wisdom of yoga, through the lens of Kashmir Shivaism. He brings a sensual flavor to the words of Patanjali and gives them life. Therefore, James the Storyteller, just through his presence demands total attention. One does not want to miss a single part! To scramble together that which has been offered during these days in his class becomes practically impossible. Still, i have attempted to do so however insufficiently and inadequately. What follows below (as above) is my interpretation and reflections from the teachings. Allow it to inspire your exploration.
Starting by giving a brief definition of Tantra (tan-tra, tan-meaning to expand), he says it is the technology to yoga practice, the protector of this" frail body". Tantra engages us with all our senses. All we will ever need, to experience Divine Consciousness is already here, within us. All we have to do, is re-member ourselves as such, divine Beings. The practice is to expand beyond the body and the limiting conditions of the mind, within this manifestation. We don't have to become anything other then what we already are. This right here in front of us is Divine manifestation, we are permeated by Supreme Consciousness. Everything is as it should be. But as we practice to see more clearly and engage in Life with our whole being, through the practical wisdom of yoga, identification with anything less then Supreme Consciousness will diminish - of course, we have a long way to go, but just being on the path is a reminder of our greatness. It is our duty as human beings to nourish ourselves. Yoga offers us techniques and support to do so.
There is nothing broken, just forgotten. We came from Union, and in this divine manifestation we seek union again, mistakenly thinking we are disconnected. Unity is what the mind is constantly chasing. As i ponder this, i think of all the toys, titles and highs we seek, they are based in a longing to be one with... and to be enough.
James opens his first session by saying Yoga is harmony, vibrancy, a dynamic balance where all parts of ourselves are integrated and engaged. Our practice of yoga is to connect to all parts of ourself and bring them together. Another way of putting it is that yoga is relationship, the re-membering of our Self and in the process, unity with the whole of creation is revealed.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, chapter one, beginning the journey
Forgive me James, and all sanskrit scholars who read this, for all my inadequacy in sanskrit and the sutras. I'm just exploring.
I found it interesting to hear James explain that the Yoga Sutras, being a practical guide, should be read from a tantric perspective. There is no shortage of translations of Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, (perhaps some shortage though of really good ones - come one James, we're waiting!). But to keep in mind, as suggested by James, is that many translators have no knowledge of tantra, which creates a whole set of problems in transmitting what Patanjali is aiming to say. Also, not all commentators on the Sutras actually know sanskrit. It is practically impossible to translate such a rich multidimensional language, since much of the texture and flavor in sanskrit diminishes in transmission (which i believe to be true for any sort of translation). However, to be taught by a well learned teacher who is intimate with the teachings is the best one can do, if one doesn't intend to study sanskrit.
Practice and Meditation - (medi-) to be in the middle, centered. An accomplished yogi is one established in oneness, centered, compassionate and alert. A yogi is always the same, in all situations (what!? Boring Man! - Wait up!). That means to be fully present in whatever situation, wholeheartedly without disintegrating on the frontline. This might sound supernatural, and in a way, compared to those of us who are still struggling with our egos, our ways and our identity crises (maybe i speak only for myself), it is. However, for the accomplished yogi, this is the normal state of being. For the rest of us, it's all about training and practice. Disintegration also takes "practice", patterns require extended time to set in. Why would a change in quality of being be easy? The movement of attention goes from curiosity to a deepening of attention and exploration to a state of being seated in bliss, and surprise! i realize, i am that bliss! Enjoying that spot of total attention, samskaras rise from the deep. These are well ingrained habits, conditionings, fears and patterns. They emmerge when we're ready to listen to them and unravel them. This is when we falter or become overwhelmed, thinking that the practice is no longer working, when it actually is doing exactly what it must - bringing up the work for us. We invite what we are ready for. (Sutra 1:17 - 1:22).
Ishwara pranidhan (1:23), self-surrender to God. I need to say a couple of things about this. The usage of the word God scares many practitioners, and non-practioners might stay away from the practice of yoga, just because of God. We use all sorts of labels to get away from rigid belief systems and religions. We do not want to be limited or be in any way mistaken for a religious person (this topic will need a exclusively dedicated post, it will come!). We want to be free spiritual activists! - at least in Ojai ; ) . But what if Ishwara is more inclusive and inviting to all? James emphasizes again and again the inclusivity of Yoga, and that you are welcome to the practice with whatever and all you have, or haven't. Patanjali would not restrict Ishwara to one specific All Mighty. That is not his way. What opens your heart? What releases you from bondage? That is Ishwara. It is that which you wish to surrender yourself, your efforts to. It is that which you feel is beyond your own capacity, that holds you. It is the exhale and release. What resonates most with me is surrender to Grace -James did not use this term. But i think he would approve. So then, Ishwara pranidhan, is to open our hearts and be released beyond our boundaries. And yes, we're being brave doing so.
As you examine the sutras, after sutra 1:33 - which illustrate the state of an accomplished yogi - you will find this little word "va" in the sutras that follow. Patanjali, being the compassionate and wise sage that he is, knows that human beings are different in their level of awareness, needs and preferences, so he gives us several suggestions for focusing our attention - quieting the mind (1:34 - 1:39).
Now, i'll go back slightly. Bare with me.
The practicing Hero
The Yoga Sutras are practical and inclusive. Sutra means thread, or stitch. Patanjali weaves together a manual for us that, if practiced wholeheartedly, will also weave us into integration, the inner work might be progressive or immediate depending on the practitioner. Whoever you are, wherever you are, as long as breath, the life force, is with you (and it is as long as you are alive), you can practice. The sutras offer techniques of investigation and contemplation. You start from where you are. They are not to be read just occasionally and studied intellectually, but rather, they are to be practiced daily and know by heart, where they are closest to you.
A yogi is a Hero. As she begins her journey, she knows she needs to be close to the longing of her heart, attentive to what makes her heart beat. She is guided by courage (virya) and faith (shraddha), steadiness and a sense of wonder. The faith Patanjali mentions is not the blind faith on a belief system, but faith in the Hero's ability and powers, faith as in trust in oneself, self-confidence. The path may seem difficult and cluttered by obstacles, but the obstacles are the path. They are, figuratively speaking, the weights the yogi Hero lifts, looks at and explores, that strengthen him to boldly re-member and re-create himself again and again. In his mind he plants the memory of "I can do this, it is worth it". As the yogi Hero accepts the challenges she encounters, she understands that these are but divine gifts to help her see more clearly, as she sees more clearly, she realizes the whole Universe is within, and she is not only part of the Vastness but she Is this Vastness. Blessings are everywhere. Their rapping might not always be charming, but we know, as yogis on the path, "all that glitters is not gold", blessings may emerge from the dark. That is why we practice with such wholehearted effort and consistency to we become centered and fearless, recognizing we are held by the Divine.
The first sutra of the first chapter invites us to the study of yoga, saying: And Now - that you are here, and that all conditions are favorable - let the teachings of yoga be revealed. To become a student of yoga, (or of anything for the matter), we truly have to empty ourselves of that we think we know. Easy right?? It does not necessarily mean, starting from scratch every time we come to the classroom, but attending with wide open awareness. Making room for surprise. Simply, allowing for the Unknown to be present. I have come to realize, that i will probably never know myself that well and thoroughly. There will always be surprise around the corner. Is this the divine Unknown maybe? Imagine coming to school, knowing everything (or at least thinking you do). Where is the opportunity to learn, or be amazed?
Yoga città vrtti nirodaha (1:2) - probably the most known sutra to students of yoga (or at least to the teachers at studios, trying to introduce some depths to the practice of asana). What does it mean? Some translations, suggest it is the stopping of the fluctuations or movements of the mind. Other say it is a quieting of the mind, or establishing the mind in stillness. The translations may point in similar directions, but really, again, we need to examine what resonates with our yogi heart, what wording assists us on the path of seeing more clearly? If the yogi Hero, is to be able to integrate all parts of himself and be attentive, focus is essential. Focused centeredness is a result of, not following our thought stream. The mind will do what is in it's nature to do, move. There is no stopping of the fluctuations, but more a focused attention, bringing the mind to a still point, more often. I would think, that James would say, we are not to fight with the mind or any parts of ourself, but gather the members into unity. That will create less conflict and more freedom - which in my understanding, is what this sutra is about.
Vrttis (1:5) - We are told in many different ways that yoga is the practice of quieting the mind. The mind, despite it's limitations, is truly wild and massive. I love Erich Schiffmann's loving straightforwardness, when he says, about the chattering mind - "Just, Shut U------p" prolongating the last syllable, very laid back Californian style, like it was the most natural and easiest thing to do. James, has his own way of offering the same feeling about the mind and its vrttis. The 5 vrttis have their place, but we shouldn't confuse them with reality, and be alert to what we hold on to, and let go. A suggestion by James, is to keep asking yourself, what is the truth here really (inspired by Erich he is ; ) . Also, who am i in this? What am i being blind to? What do i not want to see? Just look at how quickly we identify with certain ideas. It's just human nature, it is our seeking for Unity. The 5 vrttis are: true knowledge, false knowledge, imagination, sleep and memory. There are three forms of true knowledge which are called pramanas (english variation of sanskrit): perception, inference, valid testimony. Lingering on that which we actually know to be true, also distances us from Reality which is the present moment. Krishnamurti says that thought has its origin in the past, all thoughts do. Even the smart ones. Only direct perception, is in the present.
Fast forward a bit more.
Abhyasa - vairagya (1:12 - 1:16) The hero of yoga, stays close to her practice. Abhyasa is the effort of being completely immersed in practice, not just for one day, or from time to time as pleasurable, but consistently, uninterrupted, wholeheartedly. The fullness of practice leads to thirst-lessness, needlessness - vairagya. I have earlier been taught, that this is a higher form of vairagya. The lower form being the more common translation, non-attachment of the worldly things, which seems to me, to be more of an active effort, the intentional letting go of the fruit of actions: guilt, shame, ego, acknowledgments, worry and so on... Those fears and anticipations of future results inhibit us from being completely in the NOW whatever the situation. We are not in our practice fully. This brings me to full circle then. Fearlessness allows us to be fully present and immersed in abhyasa. This effort of practicing being full, will put us in a state of needing nothing more, there is nothing to add. Given James is a student of Kashmir Shivaism, this understanding of abhyasa and vairagya feels natural and complete. Again the focus is on what CAN i do, how do i gather myself, in loving acceptance and allow for that to grow larger then my fears?
Shraddha, (1:20) one of my favorite sanskrit words (of the few i know ; ) Faith - not on blind belief, but brave belief in oneself, in one's abilities and actions. The self-confidence to venture onto the path and into the re-membering of Being. We need that inner reassurance that it is correct to take the leap. It may not be all pleasures all the time (the spiritual path is much about being in discomfort most of the time), but it is a feeling of the right thing to do. Faith grows like a muscle, the more we accomplish, the stronger we get, and the more interesting the challenges become. Shradda and courage go together, along with wisdom, ease and mindfulness.
Obstacles (1:30) Patanjali lists nine obstacles on the path, these obstacles get us off center, (they are not really obstacles on the path, they are the path. We all pass through them, too often perhaps, it's just life. They are not to be fought with or excluded from experience. Again, if we see them clearly, make them apparent and experience them fully, we will start seeing their roots and the lessons they have for us are revealed. In this steady examination, we gain self-knowledge and the obstacles transform, they just might even dissolve. But the more we resist them, the stronger they become, they will persist for as long as need them, until we see them. These nine obstacles are: sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, unsteadiness, and the feeling av being stuck. Anybody recognize them? In the midst of challenge, the last thing i want to hear is, what are you learning from this, this is a blessing in disguise... This is the part where i will truly, honestly and with all my heart want to say - Bull Shit! To put it mildly. And that too must be seen, and shall pass.
Sutra 133, is the last sutra i will ponder on here. "If you are accomplished in this sutra, then no need to go any further". But James and Patanjali, keep on going, knowing that we need it, because most of us mortals, are not accomplished yogis.
Sutra 1:33. Of course, the hardest one, has to be the ultimate goal. The aim of all practices. Here we have it, the supernatural ultimate challenge of the centered self. The accomplished yogi may have some super cool powers that come along with heightened awareness, but this is the main goal. Nothing else matters. If we aren't at least honestly and consistently practicing sutra 1:33, we're not practicing.
matri-karuna-mudita-upeksanam sukah-duhkha-punya-apunya-visayanam bhavanatas-citta-prasadanam.
A clear and tranquil (prasadanam) mind (citta) results from cultivating friendliness (matri) towards those who are happy (sukha), compassion (karuna) towards those who suffer (duhkha), joy (mudita) towards (visayanam) the virtuous and impartiality (upeksanam) (i prefer equanimity) towards wrong-doers. - Translation by Ravi Ravindra, italic is my comment.
At first sight, this doesn't seem so hard, Patanjali's just telling us to be nice, one might even ask where the challenge is. Look again. To actually be in this state naturally requires a radical transformation of being - to borrow a brain tattoo ingrained by Raviji. It requires a mind that doesn't ripple, much, a wide open heart, a deep self-knowldge and thereby self-love and a deep attitude (bhava) of, We are in this together. There is no room for ego here. This is where we are tested, over and over again, is my practice working? Can i stand in front of this situation, and feel genuine joy - mudita, or compassion - karuna? Am i centered and clear in a difficult situation? When the beggar outside the supermarket where i've just been, looks at me with an extended hand, palm up, what goes on within me? When my yoga student opens a yogastudio and becomes immensely successful, am i happy for her? When i see human beings hurting Mother Earth, what do i do, what do i feel towards them? When in my loneliness i see friendships and deep connection between people, can i send them my blessings and be grateful. These are situations that trigger me, and get me off balance. We are all triggered by situations that bring up feelings of inadequacy. These are the vrttis and obstacles. The worse thing we could do, is blame ourselves and feel shameful, this just strengthens the self-conscious ego even more. Instead, this is where we catch ourselves, observe and expand beyond the limitations of mind. Transformation occurs in the heat of a situation. Not before or after - that training time. Of course, it's so much easier to be happy for others and generous when we have abundance ourselves, or feeling in great mood. It seems to me that we have this very well ingrained scarcity mentality, there's not enough, for me. Enough of what? Being in this state of gentle alertness and love, is beyond having a good day.
Does it still seem easy?
After this, Patanjali goes on and suggests several methods of coming to a tranquil state of mind, that will eventually lead us to the above. He continues in chapter two, to reveal practices that will guide us deeper into transformation of being.
Although not complete, it wouldn't be correct, to at least not mention dance and movement in this context. Some years ago i studied anusara yoga, which is based on tantric philosophy, more precisely on Kashmir Shivaism. I was very much taken by its life affirming philosophy of Divine Consciousness. What's not to love? Our essence is Divine and blessed. Being in love with movement and dance myself, the idea of spanda has always resonated with me- the constant pulsation, contraction and expansion of the Universe. I can feel it's very presence. Everything is vibrating, everything has a rhythm not only beyond us, but right here, inside the body. The whole purpose of manifested creation is movement. Creation is movement. We practice listening to and absorb into our being divine rhythm so we can dance along with our unique expression. If we know this in our bones, we know that movement is essential for our wellbeing and for cultivating awareness and connection. Mother Earth has rhythm. How can we merge into Union if we don't move? And so the body with all its potential, is sacred and the portal to deeper, higher, and expanded knowledge. Since we are to enjoy ourselves, we can do this by finding our rhythm, through freedom of movement and sensation, or sensualization - i know this is not a word, i just made it up ; )
For you (and me) to explore further:
Shiva, the beloved in Kashmir Shivaism, is (perhaps falsely?) known as the lord of destruction. He is the lord of Dance and transformation. The Lord of Rhythm, he knows how to keep creation in movement, along with his beloved Shakti - Creative Energy.
Ganesha commonly recognized as remover of obstacles, more accurately is The Unifier of all the parts. Maybe then, the obstacles are more that which is brought to us to reconcile with, rather then eliminate. The illusion is that they are in our way. Ganesha unites all the parts, even the less desirable ones - in his eyes, all parts are members of the gang, and have valuable contributions to the whole. So, going back to sutra 1:30, we might ask Ganesha to help us re-member ourselves, in the face of challenges. Ong Gan Gan Ganapataye Namaha.
My two favorite quotes this time around.
"Wonder and worry cannot co-exist" - Ravi Ravindra
"The way in which we travel will determine the effect on our being upon arrival". - James Boag