by Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie
This article is a response to Ramesh Bjonnes’ “Yoga, Truth, and Dogma: 5 Ways of Knowing What’s Real”, published on this site on 4/21. Bjonnes’ piece is itself a critical response to our recent post: “Please Steal this Post”, but it also implicates the majority of our yoga 2.0 lab work so far.
Bjonnes’ main purpose is to question the validity of our approach to issues of truth and authority. This is a key theme within the yoga 2.0 method, which we explore most fully in our piece on yoga and the religious attitude. He is concerned that the deconstructive and evidence-based bias we employ ignores the sincerity of spiritual testimony. He writes: “I … live another yoga, a yoga of open arms of bhakti and inner leaps of faith, a yoga where questions are burdens that weigh me down, that tangle the flow of the journey in brambles of confusion.” His implication seems to be that inquiry, analysis, skepticism, and cynicism can have a chilling effect upon the thrill of personal evolution. This is a very fair concern, which he seems quite capable of addressing eloquently. It speaks to the important process of disillusionment that seems to be inherent to most cognitive growth.
Unfortunately, Bjonnes’ article skims over his strongest suit, and generally avoids substantive inquiry into our method, while making little attempt to engage with the issues we are reflecting upon within contemporary yoga practice.
By failing to directly quote a single phrase of our published work (over 105 pages on EJ alone), Bjonnes simplifies and decontextualizes our ideas. His inaccurate interpretation of our findings then positions him as a false authority within a comment-thread that strays ever farther from the ideas he fails to engage.
Intentionally or not, this article accomplishes what modern news/opinion media often does systemically: distort the view, obscure the real issues, and encourage irrelevancies.
We will as best as possible address his central criticisms of the yoga 2.0 methodology. This is more important to us than addressing his rhetorical style, which some commenters found upsetting.
Yoga 2.0 claims that cynicism is the new yoga.
Bjonnes assigns this view to us in his first paragraph. Neither Scott nor I nor anyone we’re aware of who are working collectively on the 2.0 paradigm have ever said anything like this. Cynicism is not the extent of yoga, and it certainly isn’t new. However, we have suggested that sincere cynicism has always been as much of a yogic activity as faith or devotion or clean diet, and that Buddhist and Christian thought actually begins with the same creative freedom first made famous in the western canon by the heirs of Socrates, known as the “Cynics”. The Wikipedia article on Greek Cynicism is helpful here, for those who are unfamiliar with the original designation. The cynics are the literal ‘dogs’ (kynos, Gr.) of ancient philosophy: shameless, convention-free, happiest when they gnaw and growl over the raw meat of consciousness.
Today, the real cynic searches out and celebrates the shared and verifiable truths that are a part of everyone’s common experience of life, in order to free us from the inflexible power structures and social control of tradition, superstition and dogma. Yoga 2.0 aspires to this task.
Yoga 2.0 is bothered that Patanjali makes unverifiable truth claims.
Unverifiable truth claims are a very serious issue, especially in an age in which crucial facts such as global warming are being attacked. In the sphere of modern yoga, unverifiability is the groundwork for much of the devotional glow with which the Yoga Sutras are fetishized as coherent philosophy. This is also serious, as it can be disempowering to evolving thought.
But it is misleading to suggest that this is our focus. Rather, in our article on satya, we actually say something quite a bit deeper: that the numerous contradictory truth-claims of the sutras (2:22 vs. 3:3 was our prime example, although there are others) render the entire text unverifiable by any philosophical method. Having recognized this, we can then begin to look at this very interesting book much more clearly: a diplomatic collection of views from a particular slice of Indian contemplative practice. We’ll go on to develop this idea in future posts, inspired by the work of Edwin Bryant, among others, who have worked so hard as scholars and practitioners to show that yoga philosophy is always imperfect, always in perpetual development.
Why does yoga philosophy change? Because language – whether philosophical, scientific, spiritual, or aesthetic – is always playing catch-up with experience.
Deluded by material reductionism, yoga 2.0 discounts subjective experience.
Bjonnes makes the point that those of us who have a yogic interest in the scientific method and its progresses seem to be more willing to unquestioningly accept its testimony, while downplaying the testimony of the many personal experiences of mystics that seem to describe a commonly accessible truth.
The reality is that the yoga 2.0 project has never in any writing discounted subjective anecdotal descriptions of any experience. We simply point out that these are an immeasurable type of evidence, impossible to fully share, which function quite differently from the conventions that allow for general agreement on basic physics, for instance. We also point out that when powerful claims lie behind this subjectivist veil, charlatans or worse can manipulate their targeted audience.
Our main concern is that when yogis fail to recognize the difference between shareable evidence and mystical experience, we end up using them as though they were equal in form and technique. Our philosophy gets messy, and this hurts everyone, because a messy philosophy meshes with messy power structures, messy economy, messy relationships, and ineffectual politics, both personally and socially.
Quoting Bjonnes directly will help to clarify this issue:
“Matthew Remski made a big deal about scientist Jill Bolte Taylor, whose left brain stopped functioning and left her right brain spiraling her neurons into blissed-out Samadhi-land. Matthew really believes she was telling the truth, and he also said it must be true because it all came from her brain, not just her mind. Because brain is physical, so it must be true, must be science. But wait a minute! All we have to go by is her telling us what she experienced with her mind. No scientific instrument can actually verify what her brain was experiencing any more than a scientific instrument can verify what a yogi experiences during Samadhi. In other words, by the same logic, we should not just give Bolte Taylor the benefit of the doubt, but also the yogis who claim they experienced Samadhi. People like me.”
Firstly, we are misquoted here, but without the benefit of a direct quote. We did not say that the brain was the site of verifiable occurrences, as opposed to the mind. Both “brain” and “mind” are interpretative categories mediated by language: we understand this.
Secondly: “No scientific instrument can actually verify what her brain was experiencing”. This is misleading, almost to the point of untruth. The fMRI tracks neurological function in the same way that radar tracks weather, or the speedometer tracks driving speed. The instrumentation shows neurological excitement or damage quite clearly, and although brain-mapping is a baffling task, confounded by the wonderful plasticity of our neurology, there is growing consensus on where general functions tend to sit. So when the scan shows that Bolte-Taylor’s left hemisphere speech centres are catastrophically hemorrhaged or scarred, and this coincides with her not being able to speak, we have a meaningful correlation. The scan cannot show how she later describes not being able to speak, or what it meant to her at the time – in this Bjonnes has a point. But his statement obscures the power of one of the most thrilling discoveries of our time: we can now look at matter and consciousness, and begin to see where they meet, and are perhaps interdependent. It is a shame to downplay this wonderful finding.
Thirdly, Bjonnes assumes here that we think her description is similar in nature to other mystical descriptions. We don’t agree, because we have more than Bolte-Taylor’s verbal testimony. We also have her neural imaging, which specifically shows the correlation between her left-brain lesions and the losses of various consciousness-functions. We also have the ongoing imagery of her healing process, catalogued alongside her narrative of what she felt. In this case, her personal testimony is supported by a kind of tangible and shareable evidence that is rarely available to the mystic. What is most interesting about her case is that her words are supported by pictures and data that non-spiritualists can read and evaluate. This makes her a crossover heroine – much more widely compelling than the mystic who uses a spiritual language shared by a limited or denominational audience. Anybody who brings languages together is a gift to a world in which paradigms struggle to understand each other.
Bolte-Taylor’s description doesn’t discount the mystical experience, or reduce it in any way, unless one feels that a closer interrelation between matter and consciousness is reductionary. (Some do, of course.) Her story offers a level of evidence that is new to the discourse on wonderment. Our embrace of this language does nothing to detract from the personal experience of Bjonnes or anyone else. In fact, it can happily be read as a bridge between and beyond faith communities.
We hope this clarifies some issues surrounding our ideas, begins to reclaim the true value of cynicism, and encourages honest and fair exchange over the long journey ahead of us. Intellectual carelessness in criticism can only chill the emergence of fragile new thinking. Generating new perspectives is a risk that can feel even more dangerous when accompanied by the fear of being misquoted, misrepresented, or not even quoted at all.
Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie (who provided essential wing-man services for this piece) he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.
yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.