It's January 28, 2018. I'm 35 years old, studying yoga in India for 2 months, and researching Judy Blume on the internets: We truly never know where the twists and turns of this life will take us. Ms. Blume's novels were a staple of my elementary schooling, providing the conduit to many a free pizza through the glorious Pizza Hut Book It! program. What a perfect example of humans responding to incentives.
"You need to read for 20 minutes today sweetie"
"I don't want to. I want to play Nintendo"
"But you'll get 2 gold stickers and a personal pan pizza if you read everyday this week"
"Gimme that Judy Blume book about the 6th grade girl searching for religion and chronicling her struggles of buying her first bra and having her first period! Now!"
Apparently that's what Blume's 1970 book Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret is about, according to Wikipedia. And apparently it was a bit too controversial for some conservative Christians who tried to censor the book because they didn't take much to the frank discussions of sexual and religious topics. With all due respect to the religious folk receiving my droppings, I must admit that, due in part to such attempts of control and censorship, my inner truth towards much of organized religion can be best encapsulated by the Eye-Roll, Snoozing, and Thumbs Down emojis. Apologies if I have Emojoffended you, but if I did, please know that Judy Blume and I are willing to fight you in the parking lot of a Pizza Hut at anytime. Losers pay for two personal pan pizzas for the winners, limit one topping.
So organized religion's never really been my bag, but I must admit this yoga journey over the last few years is really starting to change my perception of God from the Shruggie Shoulders emoji to the...uh...um...the...wait: There's no emoji that wholly and effectively encapsulates my evolving perceptions on the source of creation? Who's running the ship these days at the fruit company?
Whether through emoji texts, young adult novels, vibrant coffee shops, dreary bars, or the backs of rickshaws in India, religion has been discussed and debated from time immemorial. Religion, along with a myriad of other ideologies and social constructs humans subscribe to, contributes to an individual's sense of identity. Remember, humans don't like uncertainty (i.e. death), so we create things to provide meaning.
But to the yogis, identities defined by such external constructs are merely misperceptions of ourselves, they are not our Self. This is a core teaching of Yoga, and why the practice is so powerful to many. If we are open to this idea, we begin to notice that we can still experience the material world and engage in activities and beliefs that give us joy, pleasure, sadness, and meaning, but our most basic sense of identity is not attached to such things. Meaning our fears, insecurities and defense mechanisms don't manifest as quickly if a part of our "built identity" is challenged because we know our Self hasn't been threatened, rather merely a set of ideas and and social constructs that we have varying levels of belief in have.
The Diet Coke version of this teaching is wisdom most of us have heard before - basically "To thine own self be true", or "believe in yourself." But what if we don't who know our Self is? How do we know what to be true To, what to believe In? Herein lies a second powerful lesson of yoga. It is said that through the practice of yoga the Self is revealed to us by removing false perceptions of who we are from our brains that have been formed by our experiences in the world. A yogi sage named Patanjali offers this teaching in the first four aphorisms of The Yoga Sutras, his foundational text on the philosophy of yoga dating back to approximately the year 400. And the power of the practice goes one step further. Not only does the practice reveal our Self to us, it enables us to experience that with increased joy and equanimity and less suffering. Not too shabby for a bunch of stretches paired with some breath work, huh?
Ok. But what actually is this Self? And how do we know when we're being true to it? It is only through experiencing the answer to the second question that we know the Self. And the Self is of course...gasp, God.
Holy masala dosa, swan. You're in India for 1 week and you've already been brainwashed into believing in God? You know intelligent people don't believe in God anymore, right? We don't need the "the greatest lie ever told", we've got science and technology and rational thought to figure shit out. And you know how much harm and destruction the belief in God has created in the world, right?
Yes, the horrors committed in the name of God are real. But most of them seem to have also been done in the name of religion. What if we could scrape off the jelly and just enjoy a nice peanut butter sandwich? Or more powerfully, what if God is not something to believe in, but to experience? This is why the yogi sages are Jedi masterminds. According to hundreds of years of first hand accounts, the Self (God) is revealed to us through yoga because it is already within us, not somewhere out in the ether judging us. In fact, it's in everything. Thus yogis don't strive to believe, they seek awareness through experience.
Eye Roll emoji? I get it. But take a second to reflect on this question: When is the last time in your life that you had 30 days in succession with the following characteristics?
- Devoid of alcohol and drugs
- A highly rigorous physical exercise and meditation 6x per week
- Healthy, natural food on a regular basis
- Freedom from the stresses of keeping up with the Joneses, uncertainty about the future, and regret about the past
Sounds a bit utopian, right? Especially the last bullet. But this is the lifestyle that hundreds of thousands of yogis have been pursuing for centuries. This is not a moral pitch, nor a suggestion to renunciate modern society. The point is that our perceptions are based on our lifestyles and our experiences. So perhaps you can envision one's beliefs being different in a mind / body that is full of candy, alcohol and anxiety than one that's running on natural foods, reduced levels of stress hormones, and ample sleep.
So, no. I did not come to India, find God in 6 days, and rest on the 7th. From my understanding, there's actually nothing to be found, just deeper levels of Self that are revealed through the process of seeking. There aren't universal truths to believe, but rather experience. And the ultimate experience is to know Ātman, or our individual soul which is part of the universal energy found in everything in existence.
So what's the answer to that second question - how do we know when we experience Ātman? That's part II. And I'll be back with that in a bit after I get through Judy's scintillating four book Fudge-A-Mania series.