A recent tandem read of Aldous Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy and the Isherwood/Prabhavananda translation of the Bhagavad Gita (Huxley wrote the preface to this version) prompted me to draw what I consider some evolutionary lessons from the conversation between the warrior Arjuna and the deity Krishna on the battlefield at Kurukshetra; small teachings that for some may weave together a tapestry of potential growth and change in the coming year.
Long before Fechner's Law, the writings of William James or the contributions of Freud, Adler and Jung, there was Aristotle's Psychologia, a subset of his De Anima. Predating this, although without direct reference to the marriage of psyche (soul or spirit) and logos (study), was the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali (the Isherwood/ Prabhavananda translation of this text, although difficult to find, is my personal favorite), which, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradapika are consider the three central texts within the Yoga tradition.
Unlike most other writings within that tradition, the Yoga Sutra references the teachings of the Mahayana school of Buddhist thought that preceded it Both the Mahayana teachings and those of the Yoga Sutra draw upon the Sankyha philosophy as described by the sage Kapila, which is itself derived from the Upanishads, Vedanta and the Vedas themselves.
Psychology as a construct, then, -- if not necessarily represented as a definitive paradigm within the wisdom teachings -- is clearly more than simply the product of modern and post-modern thought. It is a living tradition that can be traced back to roots that pre-date those of recorded philosophy - to a time even before we, as a species and a culture, started thinking about thinking.
The Bhagavad Gita is a metaphorical discourse on the interior psychological processes that both accompany and inform what constitutes a deep spiritual practice based on the notion of the Perennial Philosophy - that we are an immanent manifestation of divine essence, and our singular task is to return ourselves to that realization through both thought and action. The Perennial Philosophy is universal and not confined to the Yoga tradition, described by contemplatives ranging from Plotinus to Martin Luther, Kapila to St. Francois de Sales, and Kabir to Camus; basically it intones, "thou art that."
The Yoga Sutra is kind of a "How To..." manual of Yoga - how to be "in the world, but not of the world", quoting Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospel of Thomas - as well as the co-occurring tenets of Buddhism, Judaism and Gnostic Christianity. It is a guide to action. Yoga, as a vehicle of self-realization, is the complementary imperative that binds the teachings of any tradition, whether secular or spiritual, to the concrete actions that make that tradition a living, breathing force in the world - our world and, by association, our personal experience.
The conversation that takes place between Arjuna and Krishna on the field at Kurukshetra as described in the Gita focuses on and describes this process. While the lessons to be learned from that interchange are far more expansive and complex than the small threads woven together here, these few may provide some small structure for a more conscious and evolutionary experience of the life that each of us lead as we press forward into the coming decade.
Seeking your balance
The complementary opposite of balance is chaos. While there are some things over which we have no direct control - the global economic downturn, the loss of a loved one, climate change, etc. - when we do have the ability to impose ourselves upon a situation, that situation is architected and impacted by the choices that we make.
What prompts the initial conversation between Arjuna and Krishna is Arjuna's realization that he is about to engage in a fratricidal conflict that will lead him to kill many of his own relatives for a gain, ultimately, of no real consequence.
In considering our choices and their consequences, we can thus choose to eschew chaos and seek balance. We do this by carefully considering not only the choices that we make, but the consequences of those choices, and recognizing that at the core of everything is action. We can act - or not act, which, itself, is an action - but, in the end, it is we and we alone who both create and propagate the circumstances of our lives.
Finding your center
When we are at our center we are in a place of power. We are able to stand still and see all that lies before us with clear vision and precise understanding. When we are off our center, we can easily fall into the chaos of imbalance.
The battle field of Kurukshetra where Arjuna and Krishna are standing is the center point. It is the place between the two armies - the Pandavas, who represent the higher self and the Kauravas, who represent the lower self. Plainly put, it is the choice point between the high road and the low road.
To be in center, we need to find our center. To find our center, we need to understand what it is that brings us - and keeps us -- there. Is it our work, our faith, our family? Is it exercise, study, meditation? Or is it some combination of those things that keeps us in balance? In seeking our center we find our balance, keeping chaos at bay.
Opening your eyes
What gets in your way? Is it a narrow vision of the world? Maybe it's an abiding impatience, an addiction or some other self-destructive, or just non-constructive, distraction. Maybe it's just you who, without a clear sense of center or balance, unwittingly invite, engender or even create chaos in your life.
At one point during their conversation, Arjuna asks to see Krishna's true face. He is treated to a vision of the myriad forms of the deity, from the average-ish (albeit beatific and bright blue) form of Krishna, to the thousand faced god who is creator, sustainer and destroyer, amongst other things. Arjuna becomes terrified at this and pleads with Krishna to return to what is Arjuna's "normal".
This moment is a metaphor for the experience of looking inside ourselves. Remember the Perennial Philosophy -- Arjuna is, in part, looking at his own reflection. Looking inside ourselves we are able to see with clear vision all that we are, for good or ill, and, by contrast and reflection, all that we can be. This is the setting aside of self-deception to see our own personal truth.
While indeed sometimes terrifying, this is also liberating because, as in the case of Arjuna, although he was returned to his "normal", that normal was for him now different and could no longer hold those same patterns of thought and behavior that brought him to the state of his current crisis. Witnessing the truth of the self is a doorway to freedom.
Listening to yourself
We are all subject to the voices in our head. Those inner voices tend to be an audient amplification of our programming - the old tapes that keep us stuck and repeating both conscious and unconscious patterns of behavior.
In the Gita, the conversation between Arjuna and Krishna is narrated by Sanjaya, who is charioteer to the blind king Dhritarashtra and gifted with clairaudience; this is the ability to see and hear the occurrence of events at great distance. Sanjaya, in some ways, represents our intuition. He is the voice that informs the metaphorical blind of the truth as it is, rather than as it might be interpreted or distorted.
By listening to ourselves, rather than reading from a script - especially an old one, or, worse yet, someone else's - we enter into a more authentic experience of our lives. Truly listening, and recognizing our value as people, fosters a sense of trust in ourselves that can vanquish those old distorted self-perceptions, prompting us to learn ourselves anew.
Speaking your truth
The greatest of all post-modern afflictions is political correctness, which is really a fancy way of saying passive aggression and/or passive avoidance. We have become so self-conscious that we no longer speak our minds. Rather, we dance and spin and obfuscate what are often very obvious truths about ourselves, our fellows and the world around us.
When the truth of his situation began to dawn on him, Arjuna sought out Krishna's counsel to help him deeper fathom the reality with which he was confronted, and to find a different path through his sorrow. In simply asking the question, Arjuna began to speak his truth, setting the stage for an even clearer and more authentic vision of himself and his circumstances.
To be true to ourselves we must speak our truth and own it. We do this by opening our eyes, asking ourselves the hard questions and listening to our hearts. In this way, we will not get lost, fall off our center or lose our way because we will be connected to the reality of our own context. Again, it is a path to a more authentic experience - and expression -- of both ourselves and our lives.
Revealing your path
We find balance and center. We open our eyes, listen to our hearts and speak our truths out loud. These truths are a compass leading us along the path of our lives.
Once we find our true path and own it, then we can set about creating a definitive experience of our sense of place, our sense of personal identity and our purpose in the world. With purpose, we find identity. With identity, we find purpose.
Setting your intention
Being mindful is being in the moment, putting aside attachments to past and future. Setting an intention is something like living backwards in time. It suggests that we envision a reality and begin living in that reality immediately, rather than waiting for it to happen to or for us.
The alternate approach - the waiting -- can only engender suffering - the suffering of longing and grasping. Setting an intention is an ethos that demands that we live in a way that prompts an "as if...", rather than a "what if...", approach to living.
Doubt - it is one of our greatest perils and that which leaves us paralyzed. It arises when we see two roads in front of us and, become confounded. Rather than making a decision and acting from a place of center, we stand still in fear.
Arjuna, mired in his doubt, asks Krishna to help him understand the paradox with which he was confronted - love and duty. In doing so, he seeks a way out of his paralysis, finding it first through an understanding, and then an acceptance, of the paradox of his circumstance, recognizing them as two parts of a whole.
The way through doubt is through understanding the paradox of complementary opposites. Every situation has two complementary aspects, not a single side. When we come to a fork in the road, there aren't suddenly two roads - there is one road split in two. These two roads each may lead somewhere completely different, but they exist as a part of a whole. No matter the turnings, the road will always lead you somewhere.
Staying true to your path
Once we chose a road, there can be no second guessing. The Zen master Taishen Deshimura Roshi was fond of saying, "We must live our lives as if walking on the razor edge of a knife - no hesitation, no missteps!"
If we listen to those old tapes, or read from that script, if we become mired in doubt by failing to see the balance in every choice, we are doomed to fail. We will not only fail in our task, but we will fail ourselves. Getting out of our own way - setting aside distractions, self-destructive or non-constructive attitudes and behavior - keeps us true to our path, clear in our purpose and authentic in ourselves.
Letting go is the release of our attachment to outcomes, leading us to discover true freedom by gaining insight into the nature of a thing, or a person, or a situation.
This is true Bhakti Yoga, for, in this, we act for the sake of acting, not for the sake of outcome. This is something that we can bring to anything that we do. It is an ethic that says, with good intention, "I will, just because I can, and because I can, I will..."
© 2010 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved
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