October 11, 2011

Becoming the Mountain: The Mountain Origins of Yoga, Part II.

This is Part II of a three part series posted in a 3-week period. Here is Part I.


Karma and the Sacred Science of Selfless Giving

As the milieu of contemporary yoga has becoming increasingly dominated by professionalized, manage-your-personal-brand pseudoentrepreneurial economicism, it is perhaps time that we revisit the religious concept of Dana, or making offerings.

In Hindu and Buddhist philosophy, making offerings with unconditional generosity is generally thought to bring a state of well-being to the benefactor, as well as to bring them wealth and abundance. The Buddhist belief in the benefits of supporting the meditative and yogic practices of full time monks, nuns and hermit yogis and yoginis (generally all those who are seen to be on the path to Sainthood) is widespread throughout Asia. What is described as the accumulation of merit (Sanskrit punya, Tibetan sonam) refers to the karmic ripples or results generated through virtuous deeds and aspirations such as ritual offerings, recitation of prayers, chanting, meditation, etc. Within this framework of karmic reciprocity and retribution, those who have devoted themselves to the contemplative life of the renunciate make a vital contribution to the individuals and societies that support them.

In the West, with its positivist-monistic method of scientific inquiry, there is little room for the contributions of those who would be viewed as drop-outs or non-participants in the prevailing socio-economic paradigm. Although limited in their methodology by extraneous variables, numerous controlled studies on the efficacy of intercessory prayer on medical conditions have been generally inconclusive and in some cases contradictory. It should also be kept in mind that the phenomena that such studies attempt to quantify may be beyond the demarcation of scientific inquiry. The notion of the accumulation and sharing of a non-material currency of virtue or merit by professional mystic outsiders in the sense described above has no place in the modern scientific worldview. As a part of its underlying assumptions, the prevailing methodological materialism of modern science does not admit for the principle of karma, or that of any other immeasurable force that escapes the quantifiable categories registered through the instrumentation of the human senses. While the forces purported by karma theory may be beyond the ken of empirical rationality, some of today’s most outspoken atheists are practitioners of meditation and yoga, (Harris) though it is for tangible neurobiological and physiological health benefits of those discipline’s and not for absolution of misdeeds or the attainment of supernatural abilities.

Some scientific analogues or variations upon karma theory have been hypothesized and studied by various scientists. British biologist Rupert Sheldrake describes a controversial theory of formative causation, which he termed the morphogenetic field. This term which was borrowed from a term another biologist named C.H. Waddington, refers to a phenomena observed in developmental biology; that the material parts of an organism’s composition are not adequate to account for that organism’s particular unified form or coherence. Sheldrake’s theory broadly describes how the “presence of the past” influences processes and behaviors in both the present and the future through the existence of a force he calls morphic resonance. According to the theory of morphic resonance, as unique forms emerge, they will exert a causal influence on all succeeding forms of a like nature. Hence, the replication of specific forms increases the likelihood of their subsequent replication in the future. Sheldrake gives diverse examples of this, from the learning patterns of laboratory rats, to the crystallization of complex organic compounds.

Philosopher of science Ervin Lazslo has offered a similar theory that invokes the zero-point-field of quantum mechanics to suggest an information conserving and sharing force, which he labels the “akasha.” “Akasha” is a Sanskrit term for the “ether,” the most spirituous of the five elements that were historically believed to comprise the universe. The  term “akasha” was first popularized in the late 19th century by the writings of the Theosophists, who can be credited in many ways with the popularization of modern yoga in the west. (DeMichelis, 2004:118-119) The “akasha” as described by Lazslo is the vacuum-based energy of the unified field that exists as record of all events, which both acts upon and is acted upon by human behavior. Lazslo then attempts to support his theory of the “Akashic field” on the basis of the much-disputed findings of Russian scientists in the speculative field of “torsion physics.”

All such scientific attempts to circumscribe the religious and philosophical premise of prayer and karmic reciprocation aside, we can demonstrate the power of contemplative prayer in catalyzing dispositional change within individuals and societies. Prayer, meditation and other contemplative practices have been demonstrated to not only enhance physical and psychological well-being, but also to catalyze distinct shifts in the quality of individual awareness. The methodology and techniques of the various contemplative disciplines often have an influence on the outcomes associated with the practice.

These practices also involve experiences that require responsible interpretation. There has been much discussion in the field of the philosophy of religion on the topic of frameworks for the interpretation of religious experiences. Ken Wilber has devoted of his writing to the interpretation of experience and knowledge acquired via meditative practices through the prevailing modes of scientific thought in the present era. (Wilber 1998) Wilber sees the reconciliation of the insights of both science and religion, within a unified or integral framework, as a potential source of solutions to the world’s most pressing social and ecological dilemmas. Thomas Merton once expressed a similar sentiment regarding the social responsibility of prayer and its awareness-enhancing effects:

Prayers and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and against war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign, but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident. It is the great Christian task of our time. Everything else is secondary, for the survival of the human race itself depends upon it. We must at least face this responsibility and do something about it. And the first job of all is to understand the psychological forces at work in ourselves and in society. (Merton, 2002)

Throughout his monastic career, Merton, like many other great mystics, espoused the possibility of a transformation of individual consciousness in the contemplative life that would be the herald of peace through corresponding social change. Merton, like Milarepa and others before him saw the ways in which our self-understanding is deeply embedded in the natural world.  Merton who stated his wish to “live this hermit life in simple and direct contact with nature,” also wrote of the necessity of the immersion in nature for the contemplative life, saying:

How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the rain, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice-masters. They form our contemplation. They instill us with virtue. They make us as stable as the land we live in. (Merton)

The contemplative engagement with nature has long been understood as one of the most effective catalysts for the fundamental shift in perception that can dramatically alter an individual’s sense of self-awareness and reciprocity with the natural world. Again, in the history of yoga in particular, we find the quintessential yogi, Milarepa, singing of his blissful meditation of existing harmoniously with his mountain environment, which supports his practice. Here we find Milarepa as a medieval predecessor to the modern ecologist:

The deer, the argali, and the antelope—
These three are Mila’s cattle;
If you they safisfy,
You may come with me.

The lynx, the wild dog, and the wolf—
These are Mila’s watchdogs;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

The sun, the moon, and the stars—
These three are Mila’s pictures;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

The gods, the ghosts, and the sages—
These three are Mila neighbor’s
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

The hyena, the ape, and the monkey—
These three are Mila’s playmates;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

Bliss, Illumination, and Non-thought—
These three are my companion;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

Porridge, roots, and nettles—
These three are Mila’s food;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

Water from snow, and spring, and brook—
These three are Mila’s drink;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.

The Nadis, Breaths, and Bindus—
These three are Mila’s clothing;
If you they satisfy,
You may come with me.[i]

Solitude in the wilderness affords us a particular kind of experience that plunges us into nature, while elevating us into a state that surpasses the ordinary reality of our egoic mind. The beauty and isolation of wilderness environments provide the hermit renunciate with a unique source of solitude that is necessary to advanced practices of the states of meditative absorption. In the true quiet in the undisturbed hermitage of the remote wilderness, the practitioner overcomes and confronts the ego’s myriad forms, steadfast in the resolve of meditation.

Meditation comes with ease, without the disturbances of friends and relatives or the enticements and entertainments of the cities. With the determination to remain in retreat, the mind of the practitioner becomes calm and yields to a special rapport with the environment that allows the visionary states of consciousness to arise. In the natural world, the contemplative more easily settles into the radical subjectivity of the non-dual state of absorption beyond the ego’s attempt to identify itself as distinct and separate from the world. Arthur Schopenhauer describes this kind of apotheosis:

When one is no longer concerned with the Where, the When, and the Why and the What-for of things, but only and alone with the What, and lets go even of all abstract thoughts about them, intellectual concepts and consciousness, but instead of all that, gives over the whole force of one’s spirit to the act of perceiving, becomes absorbed in it and lets every bit of one’s consciousness be filled in the quiet contemplation of the natural object immediately present— be it landscape, a tree, a rock, a building, or anything else at all actually and fully losing oneself in the object: forgetting one’s individuality, one’s will, and remaining there only as a pure subject, a clear mirror to the object- so that it is as though the object alone were there, without anyone regarding it, and to such a degree that one might no longer distinguish the beholder from the act of beholding, the two have become one.[ii]

Contemporary yoga practice, with its emphasis on postural practice brings us back to the sensual embodiment and the ecstatic pulse of our corporeal nature. As our practice renews our senses, it opens us to the sensoriality of our bodies’ own complex interplay with the earth.  Similarly, the contemplative retreat to nature reacquaints us with our “carnally embedded” existence in the living matrix of the world, with which our own pulsating bodies are enmeshed in reciprocity with the environment (Abram, 2010:6). Taking nature as our object of contemplation, as Gautama Buddha said in the moment of his conquest of the demon lord Mara and his attainment of enlightenment, “With the earth as my witness,” we call upon the fertile ground beneath us to support our practice. Seeking solitude in nature, far from the civilized impulses that command our highly mediated lives, we come back to our senses. Ecologist David Abram writes of the shift in consciousness that this immersion produces:

As we reacquaint ourselves with our breathing bodies, then the perceived world itself begins to shift and transform. When we begin to consciously frequent the wordless dimension of our sensory participations, certain phenomena that have habitually commanded our focus begin to lose their distinctive fascination and to slip toward the background, while hitherto unnoticed or overlooked presences begin to stand forth from the periphery and to engage our awareness…In contact with the earth, one’s senses are slowly energized and awakened, combining and recombining in ever-shifting patterns.

Bringing our practice into the wilderness setting accelerates this fundamental shift in the degree and quality of our consciousness. The venue of the wilderness solitude plunges us into a confrontational re-evaluation of our underlying assumptions about ourselves and the world. As the senses are enhanced and heightened, we become profoundly consonant with the environs within which we settle into the immediacy of our own bodily sensitivity and innate intelligence. It is by periodically reestablishing this rapport with the harmony of the wilderness in retreat that we seek to integrate the lessons that we have learned there in our own regular livelihoods. Seeking the wilderness as a refuge, we learn again to listen to the myriad voices that beckon to us from the natural world. In retreat, we stand on that precarious threshold that circumscribes the chaos of nature, delineating it from the civilizing impulse of the ordered world that we regularly inhabit.

Similarly, through supporting the retreat-based practices of those who are teachers and practitioners of the contemplative life, we indirectly participate in their practice by supporting a model for enlightened activity in the world. If we are unable to enter retreat ourselves due to our commitments and obligations to family and vocation, we can still contribute to the establishment of an infrastructure that supports the solitary contemplative as a part of the value system in the cultural mainstream. By providing the simple and basic necessities required to support the lifestyles of hermit yogis and yoginis, we transform the cultural landscape by making a commitment to the values that are associated with the profound insights consistently generated from the wisdom path of the contemplative life. Those insights resonate with powerful implications for the balance of material and ecological variables that are of immediate concern to our species. A culture that preserves the solitary nature-contemplative’s unique place as an extraordinary resource for wisdom and as a wellspring of divine inspiration is more disposed to survival in the face of the catastrophic upheaval of the 21st century.

[i] (Milarepa, “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, vol. I”, trans. by Garma C. C. Chang, Boulder, 1962)

[ii](Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York, 1969)

Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York, 1996; DeMichelis, Elizabeth; Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane. San Diego, 1987; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Website: http://www.fao.org/forestry/mountains/en/); Harris, Samhttp://www.samharris.org/blog/item/how-to-meditate/; Merton, Thomas. Seeds. Boston, 2002; Merton, Thomas. When the Trees Say Nothing, Writings on Nature. ed. with an introduction by Kathleen Deignan, 2003; Milarepa, “The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, vol. I”, trans. by Garma C. C. Chang, Boulder, 1962; Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. New York, 1969; Trimondi, Victor and Victoria. The Shadow of the Dalai Lama. Düsseldorf and Zurich 1999; White, David Gordon. Alchemical Body. Chicago, 1996; Wilber, Ken. The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion. New York, 199; Phüntsog, Rinchen. Source of Auspicious Good Fortune.trns. by Ari-ma, 2003

Read 5 Comments and Reply

Read 5 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

John Allen Gibel  |  Contribution: 300