I was in a swaying crowd at a yoga retreat, grooving to an evening of call-and-response chanting, or Kirtan. All was peace and love and namaste. The band sang Sanskrit devotional lines and we sang them back, no doubt mangling plenty. Beyond names of yoga poses, how much Sanskrit did any of us know? Precious little. For all we knew, they might have been calling out ingredients for a good cucumber Raita.
Some of us quietly danced, while others seemed to dive deep into what looked like ecstatic trance. But were they really in a deep, spacious mind state- or merely mimicking a learned behavior in the subculture of yoga retreats, I wondered.
I noticed a heavily tattooed guy in his early 20’s, writhing passionately with eyes closed. Way into it. Spontaneously he called out, “Shiva, Shiva, Shiiivvaaaaa!” naming a prominent Hindu deity. The cultural juxtaposition screamed at me. We were in Massachusetts, circa 2015. I wondered how an ancient god-figure could inspire so much passion in him. As a psychotherapist, I wondered how devotion to Shiva would guide this young seeker, given how far removed modern American life is from Hindu culture. Yet the commercial yoga world often encourages practitioners to romance these cultural touchpoints that are perhaps not well understood.
In our transactional culture, modeled on acquiring things, it’s easy to confuse getting what looks like a yogic or meditative way of being with actual balance, clarity, inner freedom and well-being. Yoga master Swami Kripalu called this ‘polishing doorknobs’. He taught that a yoga posture is a spiritual doorway- an entry point into a deeper knowing of self, experience and awareness. But precisely aligned yoga postures can become a kind of fetish- a badge of achievement. While it’s wonderful to enjoy the joy of the body coming into balance and harmony, don’t get overly focused on polishing the doorknob, he warned. Walk through the doorway, into a new quality of presence and attunement. That’s what it’s for. Other than as a means to inner transformation, the posture itself has limited value.
From a research perspective, the past decade has produced impressive results regarding the remarkable benefits of Mindfulness and meditation for brain functioning, life and relationship satisfaction, empathy for others and compassion for oneself, emotional resilience and a growing list of boons. Yoga research is more limited, but also shows promising results in the areas of self-regulation, self-attunement, resilience and other markers of wellness.
As a yoga and meditation teacher, I have much anecdotal observation of how these practices create beneficial changes in students and clients. People routinely report experiences of wholeness, calm and being “centered” after a 75-minute Kripalu yoga class. Likewise, in my office after a 10 or 15 minutes of mindfulness and chair yoga, roughly 8 to 9 times out of 10, people report remarkable, new states of presence, calm, well-being and mental clarity. For many, these states have largely been elusive, despite years of psychotherapy and other efforts to ‘feel better’. It’s obvious the practices work, at least in certain conditions.
So it’s hard to argue with the efficacy of these methodologies for mental and overall health. But over the years in the yoga and meditation world, I’ve observed an unfortunate phenomenon. These traditions can be misused by a vulnerable ego (i.e., any of us) as misguided evidence of self-importance and achievement; or mistaken belief in bulletproof protection from pain, vulnerability, and life’s unsettling ambiguities. Meditation, mindfulness and yoga can become as neurotic as chasing money, sex or social status.
I’ve seen it play out in my own head. Early on my yoga and meditation path, I wanted to become the accomplished yogi. Convinced that advanced postures would bring the status I craved, I forced my body to do the undoable. Knee surgery was the result. It was a lesson I was slow to absorb: The way cannot be forced. The meditative teachings have a word for this insecurity-driven self-improvement: Becoming. It speaks to the grasping to become something we believe will bring us happiness or relief.
Over this roughly first decade of yoga and meditation practice, I experienced mental narratives that told me I was an important person, that I Get It (and that few others do), and perhaps most poignantly, that I’m Cool– evidenced by my mala beads, prayer flags, advanced yoga postures and far-out breath control practices (not to mention 25+ years of not owning a television, my mind reasoned). According to these mental stories, I was (Becoming) Yogier Than Thou.
At times I believed it. Fortunately, I slowly came to see the mind’s narrative-making as an attempt to prop up the inherently vulnerable self. The Yogi identity was a buttress against the “stomach churning insecurity of being alive,” as Stephen Batchelor writes in Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Especially during a divorce, clinging to these self-views of status helped me weather storms of self-doubt, when it seemed like there was little to hold on to.
But the cost of the narrative is high, as it’s founded in toxic notions of Us and Them. If we believe we’re more important, it separates us from others. It builds a fragile and false self, which moves us away from accurate self-assessment, and away from compassion for flaws and scars. It constructs a superficially strong and shiny ego structure that teeters on an unstable foundation because the ‘better than’ can quickly switch to ‘worse than’ when conditions change. This fabricated identity is stressful to maintain because of its fragile nature. It doesn’t help one meet life challenges from a solid footing. Efforts to convince ourselves, and the world, how grounded we are can actually leave us ungrounded.
It’s often been observed that this subtle intoxicant of spiritual ego inflation has been a central factor in the corruption of many sincere yoga and meditation sanghas. Unquestioned belief in the teacher’s transcendence brought the Kripalu Center, now the largest yoga center in the U.S., to a wrenching conflagration of sexual and financial impropriety (and happily, to later rebirth). So many other groups have disintegrated from guru elevation and abuse that it’s a sad and poignant cliché. The infallible guru often commits financial, sexual and other ethical violations. Often the all-too-willing-to-believe students have unwittingly colluded in the process.
Yet the drive to seek the extraordinary doesn’t equal delusion. In a consumer culture short on deeper meaning, ritual and spirituality, many crave it. One of the challenges in walking the path is finding a healthy, balanced relationship to the practices, ideas, symbols and rituals. We can seek experiences of transcendence, while keeping one foot on the ground in common sense. As Michael Carroll, the dean of the Kripalu school of yoga has said, ‘Truth will support you. A fantasy will not.’ We can transcend the mundane, neurotic mind by concentrating on the “truth” of sensations in the body or the movement of the breath- while remaining appropriately skeptical of ideas about spirituality. Ideas are inherently less real, and truth in ideas harder to know, than in body sensations. To paraphrase Ram Dass, we can explore dissolving the ego, but we still need to remember our social security number.
Most yoga and meditation traditions teach practitioners to beware ego-making because of its distorting, life-diminishing effects. After all it’s the ego that judges, and tells us things aren’t possible for us. But construct an ego we will, nevertheless. The yogic teachings in particular recognize the human drive to create a self out of the fleeting, constantly changing moments of life experience. Although we do our best to push it out of awareness, we can never forget we are going to die. In a reflexive effort to counter the ultimate dissolving, Abinavesha, the drive to be real, solid, and significant, kicks in. If I own two houses, a boat and three cars, I’m pretty established as a thing. We seek this ‘realness’ by accumulating accomplishments, possessions and other irrefutable evidence of our existence. Finding his name listed in the phone book for the first time, Steve Martin’s character in the movie The Jerk exclaims, “The new phone book’s here. I’m somebody now!”
Ironically, even in the good yogic work of dissolving ego, ego can take pride. On retreat, I once heard Joseph Goldstein, the renowned dharma teacher, recount a joke about two arguing Buddhist seekers tangled in just such a mind-trap. Finally, one angrily tells the other: “You’re not really selfless- I am!”