Stay Grounded in This World
The "Asanas and Ayahuasca" dialogue between Daniel Pinchbeck and Sharon Gannon at the first Evolver event, Wake Up and Dream, had a personal resonance for many. Some in the audience "sided" with one speaker or another; others were disappointed with technical problems; still more were inspired to be in such a progressive environment where such a conversation could take place.
I have never tried ayahuasca. It is one of those medicines that I would like to experience on its own turf, in South America. Yet I have a 15-year history with similar substances, most notably psilocybin, LSD, peyote, mescaline, DMT and salvia divinorum. In total, I have taken these medicines roughly 150 times, and the visions and revelations encountered during such experiences continue to inform me. In some ways, you can say that the mind-altering aspect has never stopped. Put another way, I've integrated the lessons of these substances into the perceptions and psychology through which I now see the world.
Around the same time as I started eating these curious chemicals and plants, I began studying yoga. Not the asana classes that most associate the word with; that began roughly eight years ago. I attended Rutgers University in the mid-‘90s, graduating with a degree in Religion with a focus on Eastern philosophies and sacred medicines. At the same time that I was expanding into the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, my head was being broken open. Today I practice yoga, often at Jivamukti, while teaching at Equinox Fitness and East West Yoga, as well as continuing my career as a journalist, writing about subjects such as international music, mythology, religion and hallucinogens. With so many possible angles and so little space, I will entertain what I feel to be the underlying essence of both asanas and ayahuasca: focus and integration.
In yoga the term ekagrata implies the ability to focus on one thing for a sustained amount of time. It is the "one-pointed focus," that sharpens and clarifies the yogi's mind. Like all of yoga, it is a discipline developed with patience and perseverance. In four years of teaching, I've found that the most challenging asanas imaginable are not nearly as hard for people as sitting still in meditation, yet that is where focus is developed.
This does not imply that in order to focus you need to sit cross-legged, in silence, alone. The ability to focus under any circumstance is actually the second part of the equation: integration. The lessons we learn on the yoga mat are of no use if they stay inside the studio. They need to be lived every day for the philosophy to make sense. We need, in a sense, to become living mythologies, to free ideas from scriptures and books and utilize the lessons. Reading philosophy, as Alan Watts expressed it, is like eating paper currency. Money does not nourish us if ingested, but when used as a resource to purchase products that will benefit us, its value can be felt. This is true of any philosophy.
Yet some in the yoga community have fallen into the same ideological trap that Bible-wielding Americans become imprisoned by. They use scriptures as a call to arms in a righteous battle where a side (theirs) wields an alchemical formula for goodness, and all else is misguided. They are eating their currency, and wondering why we're not nourished. This happens when one gazes only through the lens of scriptures, and not the actual history of the culture that produced these writings.
Let us take two examples popular in the yoga tribe. First, this battle cry: Our original nature is peace. That is why, the sentiment goes, we need to cultivate love for all beings, as we were "originally" good and benevolent. We don't need to look at world history to recognize the illogicality in this. We need only to look at the birth of any human being. What is our true "original" nature? Helplessness and dependence. No other animal needs as long a weaning period as we require. There is poetic justice in this – it reminds us that dependence is something we always need. But to say that "goodness" or "peace" is our original nature, when every idea requires, by default, its opposite (hence evil and unrest), is to make a moral claim. The heart of jnana yoga – the yoga of discrimination – resides in moving beyond duality, into integration.
When I read comments on this site that Daniel tends to be analytical, I wondered why someone would consider that negative. One serious problem with modern yogis is that they are not analytical enough. They cut and paste Bhagavad Gita passages like megachurch superstars telling us that Jesus loves us because we found a good parking space. We have forgotten that yoga was originally-an important word here-the practice of warriors; not sage poses held in Manhattan studios, but living, breathing soldiers. This leads me into the second example.
Yoga is praised as a 5,000-year-old ancient practice, but that number comes from an excavation at Mohenjo-Daro, where an earthenware seal was found with a figure that may or may not have been a prototype of the god Shiva sitting in meditation. No other signs appear for a few millennia, and when they do, the common threads of yoga and its sister philosophy, Samkhya, are warriorship and atheism. Gods are not actual beings, but emotions and ideas being played out in the field of humanity. The intention of the practice is not to see love and bliss everywhere, but that by seeing beyond opposites an ecstatic rapture is possible, as the illusory world dissipates. The illusion, maya, is that opposites are separate. Vidya, knowledge, involves knowing that they are all part of the same process-existence.
The non-violent aspect of yoga (ahimsa) was developed as the religious rites were made available to the general populace. The common man and woman realized that they did not need clergy to worship the earth. Around the time that rituals moved from temple into living room, another peculiar practice began: vegetarianism. Yet that too was the product of the upper castes. Meat was becoming a scarce commodity, and instead of outright banning of this foodstuff, religious leaders started claiming that meat was ungodly, and not to be eaten. (The same theme can be found in the Western tradition of Lent, when winter was nearing its end and shortages in meat could mean trouble).
Want to ensure someone won't do something? Call it sacred. The lower castes bought in; Brahmans continued to eat meat for nearly 1,400 years. Widespread vegetarianism set in only when Muslims began to settle on Indian turf. The cow, today touted as the most sacred animal in India, served another purpose: clearing fields for crops, as well as the production of ghee and milk. With lower castes subdued, Brahmans had eaten all the meat they wanted, until they were in danger of losing this necessary animal.
True, ahimsa appears early in scriptures, as yogis were hip to this dietary choice long before Brahmans. Look at it this way. If I wrote a book this year on the necessity of vegetarianism, and for some reasons most books except mine disappeared in 2,000 years, then the culture that finds my book may think that what I have written is the foundational text of my time. That would not be the case, by a long shot. Why, then, do we trust past writings as the unwavering truth of civilization when the culture that birthed them was just as dynamic as we are today? Do we really think, from an evolutionary standpoint, that a few thousands years really offers that much diversity?
In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollen points out that if all humans stopped eating meat today, our ecosystems would collapse. He also shows that when animals are treated humanely on farms, their life span is actually longer than they would have been in the wild. From an evolutionary standpoint, again, these animals are doing great. What we are witnessing with the ahimsa claim is a reaction against factory farming and horribly managed nutritional guidelines put forth by greedy corporations. Being reactionary does not provide balance; it merely tips the scales to another side, which will then have to be rebalanced. I have so far spoken only of the "Asanas" side of the discussion, because this is where the dictatorial mindset bogs down an open discussion.
Life is a chemical process. Ever since water, carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia combined some 4.5 billion years ago to form, well, everything that we know, we've been dependent on chemicals because we are chemicals. Paraphrasing Watts once again, we were not born into this world, but grew out from it. The downfall of theology has been to claim that some "other" being came to create us, when we actually created the idea of that other. Whether you subscribe to this "other" on a yoga mat or reading the pages of a missal does not matter; the illusion holds its spell.
When chemicals come in the form of hallucinogens, we experience "alternative" states of consciousness – the word alternative is used only because we've become so accustomed to seeing the world in one way that we forget it is just one way to see. When opening new channels, or put another way, when reorienting our neurological circuit board via chemical means, we are offered a glimpse beyond duality, beyond theology, into the ultimate nature of things, which is union, which is, of course, yoga. People criticize these substances as being the "easy" way to a false form of enlightenment, but like yoga, their use requires discipline. Perception is not something granted to us from without; like all thing internal, it is something we develop and constantly refine.
While the forms take drastically different costumes, the essence is the same – we should not treat a hallucinogenic trip any differently than a 90-minute yoga class. Both are quick highs, just as both are disciplines that require devotion, and they remain useless if the knowledge acquired while engaged in them is not transferred and integrated into our lives. If we speak of compassion and cannot listen to another's point of view that may not gel with our own, then we are not living our philosophy – we're merely living our illusion. And if we want to unearth common ground pertaining to all the various ways to experience life, that simply will not serve the dialogue being initiated.
Karen Armstrong commented that it is our actions, and not beliefs, that are true markers of spirituality. A dialogue is only possible when we actively seek out a platform for discussion, and not a soapbox to stand upon. I was truly concerned from the outset of this talk, due to behavior, not belief.
After David Life gave a fun speech dressed as a lizard, Jonathan Phillips gave a warm and heartfelt introduction of the speakers. Daniel sat behind him, smiling and wide-eyed, with one leg crossed over another. Next to him Sharon was perched on a stuffed elephant with her eyes closed, practicing Nadi Sodhana pranayama until her time to speak came. It just reminded me once again that if we want to speak in a manner that will help everyone, we have to stay grounded in this world, and not the one in our own head. That place becomes rather cramped after a while, and our third eyes stay wide shut.
Image by cactusbones, used through a Creative Commons license.Tweet