Yoga and Bhoga

Just as my youngest daughter is about to leave home for university and I was fantasizing about retiring and going off to find a cave to meditate in, at the age of 57, I am going to become a parent again. Or rather, I will continue parenting for the next couple of decades, something I have already been doing for the last 33 years - since I was 24 years old.

Isn't life ironic? I remember clearly saying, many times, as a teenager that I would never have children. My feeling at the time was that this world was too awful to bring more souls into it.

But I have found that almost always, if I have had a strong resistance to something, instead of being able to avoid it, I would have to deal with it. Life would provide me with unavoidable opportunities to confront my aversions.

Dveṣa or "aversion" is the fourth affliction listed by Patanjali - from ignorance of our true nature (avidyā) derives ego (asmitā), from ego derives attachment (rāga) and from attachment results aversion to pain (what happens when we don't get what we want). But I have found that in each case, hidden behind that aversion, has been a blessing and a great teaching.

Becoming a parent is one of the deepest opportunities for spiritual growth. In our self-centered culture, nothing affords us a better opportunity to perform selfless service than caring for a child. A child is totally vulnerable and dependent on every word we speak or action we perform - each of which has an impact on their evolution. If we take our responsibility seriously, parenting, which, let's face it, is what we were designed to do, gives us the greatest opportunity for evolution on the path of spiritual practice.

I have often found it difficult to know what I want. As someone who has been interested in the inner path for most of my life, non-attachment has always been a guiding principle. Knowing what I don't want has usually been much easier than knowing what I want - so I always find that when life offers me no choice, I feel much more clarity! I have found that doing one's duty, or what life asks of you provides full transparency, while pursuing personal agendas and desires always results in a conflict of interests.

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prakāśakriyāsthitiśīlaṃ bhūtendriyātmakaṃ bhogāpavargārthaṃ dṛśyam - YS 2.18

Translation: the "seeable" - composed of the three gunas - prakāśa, kriyā and sthiti (sattva, rajas and tamas) - as they manifest in the material elements as well as in the organs (sense organs, organs of action and lower mind e.g. manas) - are there for the purpose of experience/pleasure (bhoga) and for the purpose of liberation (apavargārtha).

Awareness of the material nature (life) and its fluctuations, according to Patanjali, is there both for the purpose of experience - bhoga - and for the purpose of liberation - yoga.

This is meaningful both on the subtle and the gross level.

A few years after the birth of my first child, I separated from his mother and this initiated a period of deep suffering and distress for me. Soon afterwards I discovered yoga and decided to sell up all my possessions and go to India - leave my suffering behind and delve into spiritual practice in order to find release from my misery.

Needless to say, investing my efforts into spiritual liberation while running away from my suffering and giving up on my responsibilities did not work - it actually only deepened my afflictions.

There are no short cuts. We cannot avoid our responsibilities and duties. We cannot evolve spiritually without first taking care of the here and now, the tasks and duties life (karma) has presented to us.

As one of my early spiritual teachers said: for every step of progress on the inner spiritual path one has to take five steps in the external moral life!

Every person is unique. We each have a individual set of samskaras and karmas. Some are already far on the path of ennoblement - they display greater compassion, detachment and wisdom, can sit peacefully and enter meditation easily, others are clearly much less ready for spiritual practice, having deep negative samskaras - addictions, violent tendencies and small mindedness.

No amount of trying to sit will produce any result if the mind and body are plagued by the rajasic and tamasic gunas. The practitioner will either be constantly distracted or fall asleep.

A rajasic person needs to perform lots of activities (including asanas!) in order to relax the mind, while a tamasic person also needs activity to wake herself up!

Life presents many lessons. If we do not learn our lessons we have to repeat them. Eventually, hopefully we do learn, we do evolve and the lessons become more and more meaningful, until eventually we become enlightened to the true purpose and fulfillment of life.

The "seeable" - ie the mind, body and experience - are vehicles for gaining knowledge - knowledge about the material world as well as knowledge about how to become liberated from it.

But spiritual practice and extroverted activity need to be balanced: if one delves too deep into the experiences of life, one loses sense of one's true being, one becomes lost in the continuing fluctuations, the ups and downs of pleasure and pain. But equally, if one pursues spiritual practice to the exclusion of one's duties, one also becomes lost - if we do not take care of our responsibilities, they return again and again to bite us in the ass just as we prepare ourselves to sit in serene meditation.

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On the subtle level, the meaning of this sloka is as follows:

Once the external life has been brought into proper harmony and balance, once the extraverted monkey mind has been pacified and we become ready to sit and meditate, we are still, initially, in a condition of duality.

There is still an experience of the Seer as well as the seen although the two are confused and mixed with each other.

According to yoga, the Seer is pure awareness, it is non-physical in nature, while the mind (the seen) is physical, though subtle in nature.

The lower mind, manas, is extraverted, manifold and active (rajasic), while the higher mind (buddhi) is introverted, pure (sattvic) and capable of one-pointedness.

In order to enter meditation, one has to eliminate the activities of manas (the lower, extroverted, monkey mind). The external limbs of ashtanga yoga (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama and pratyahara) are targeted at achieving this.

Once achieved, one may enter, through meditation, into an awareness of the higher mind - the pure, sattvic buddhi.

The nature of the mind is mirror-like - it reflects that which is presented to it. It has an outward face and an inward face. The outward face reflects sense experience, memory, thinking, activity... the inward face reflects the Seer.

While attention is extraverted, the mirror nature of the mind, rippled by the fluctuating vrittis, distorts the inner reflection of the Self - the Self appears deformed or contorted - it appears shaped through pleasure, pain, emotion, memories etc. as ego.

When the mind is totally tranquil, it perfectly mirrors or is shaped after the inner true Self. The mind looks exactly like the Self but at this stage the experience is still one of "looking in the mirror" not of identification or union, merging or oneness with identity.

One last step has to be achieved: discrimination between buddhi - the mind shaped like puruṣa and puruṣa itself. The buddhi nature is still prakṛiti, is still material in nature, is still of the nature of the "seen" as opposed to the nature of the "Seer".

The final "apavargārtha" - liberation - is the discrimination between the two.

Although they seem identical, they are not. The mind has the nature of mutability. Even the sattvic state is unstable and eventually the mind shifts (changes into the rajasic and tamasic states) - the discrimination between the two leads to identification with the One and towards the ultimate liberation.

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Another feature of parenting that I really appreciate is spending time in the presence of a being with an unconditioned mind. It is said that in the first month or so, a child periodically remembers the pre-birth state - the state of being totally merged in the Self.

From time to time, an infant will laugh for no apparent reason and the eyes will move up to look towards the third eye. At such times, the child has entered a state of samadhi.

One of the most effective ways, perhaps pretty much the only way, to attain realization is to spend time in the presence of a realized soul. Such a personality teaches less through words and more through sheer presence.

Intellectual knowledge about the way to realization, beyond a certain point, can be more of an obstruction than a door. What a teacher can impart through resonance ends up being much more valuable.

Even after the child's samskaras start to manifest with the development of language and thought, they still remain in a state of innocence and lack the cynicism, defensiveness and other negative personality traits that develop later in life. Being around such innocence and the natural capacity for joy, fantasy and openheartedness is a further opportunity to return to the wholesome unconditioned state.

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The nature of the Self:

“The Self sees everything but is not seen by anything. It gives light to the intellect and ego but is not enlightened by them. It pervades the universe and by its light all this insentient universe is illumined, but the universe does not pervade it even to the slightest extent.

That inner Self, as the primeval spirit, eternal, ever radiant, full of infinite bliss, single, indivisible, whole and living, shines in everyone as the witnessing awareness.

That Self in its splendor, shining in the cavity of the heart as the subtle, pervasive yet un-manifest ether, illumines this universe like the sun. It is aware of the modifications of the mind and ego, of the actions of the body, sense organs and life-breath. It takes their form as fire does that of a heated ball of iron; yet it undergoes no change in doing so.

This Self is neither born nor dies, it neither grows nor decays, nor does it suffer any change. When a pot is broken the space inside it is not, and similarly, when the body dies, the Self in it remains eternal.

It is pure knowledge. It illumines Being and non-being alike and is without attributes. It is the witness of the mind in the waking, dream, and deep sleep states.”

- Sri Shankaracharya from Vivekachudamani and Drig Drishya Viveka

guy donahaye