Looking around the world today it is not difficult to see the crashing of cultures tearing civilizations apart. It could be said that endless war is the rule and not the exception for the human species. As I write, there are over 40 different major conflicts taking place that killed 150,000 people last year alone. Conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and even drug cartel wars in Mexico all have no end in sight. Homicide deaths in the USA were 16,000 people last year, with 762 coming from Chicago alone. Mass migrations from war-torn countries are challenging societies in Western Europe and North America with questions of how we might best respond to the human tragedy of these conflicts.
One hundred years ago the German scholar Oswald Spengler wrote “The Decline of the West”, in which he described the evolution of societies throughout time as being organic life forms with a predictable birth, adolescence, maturity, decline and death. This is a concept very foreign to the psyches of most Americans.
For most of its history, the United States has enjoyed a relative stability. As the preeminent world power since World War II, the thought that our civilization could fall is something that has crossed the minds of very few. However, we now are witnessing dramatic changes that are shaking our very foundations. Massive increases in the human population over the last 50 years; constant wars over resources and boundaries; environmental degradation of our water and air are just a few of the facts that threatens our very existence.
Human beings have never in their history been faced with the exponential rate of change in the catastrophes that we face. Some even question the ability of the human species to be able to successfully adapt to the magnitude of the challenge.
An even deeper issue is the breakdown of myth. Societies must have fully functioning mythologies in order to survive and flourish, and as I have pointed out, the old myths are broken. In 5000 BCE in Iraq, where the first cities on the planet were born, a new problem emerged; how does the culture integrate all of its people into a functioning whole? Hunter-gathering societies were small tribes sharing a unified connection with each other and their experience of Life; all members of these communities had a basic equivalence in their functions.
But inhabitants of the fertile crescent lived in a relatively large city, and each class was separate and specialized in its own way. There were merchants and priests, laborers and teachers and governors who each were part of the whole. So too, in today’s world we are faced with the daunting task of how to integrate the countless disparate individuals and classes into a functioning whole, with the added challenge of having multiple racial and religious cultures to consider. No longer can we pit one group against the other, as the horizons have all been shattered. The problem is how to integrate the planet and all its inhabitants, not just one small part of the whole.
With these upheavals as a backdrop, let us now examine the Myth of Yoga in terms of a way forward to our creation of a new, Creative Mythology. Can our modern practice of yoga offer a light of hope amidst the crises we face? As a reassurance, I would say that in times such as these, it is first necessary for systems to break apart when their foundations have crumbled. Our current chaos is to be expected and welcomed. It could be no other way, and we will undoubtedly emerge from the experience reborn.
The Curious Case of Truth Revealed, Authority and Dependency.
What is it about the human psyche that in matters of faith and belief, we seem to hold in high esteem those authorities that are deemed ‘original sources’? We give this special status as authentic and pure. Regardless of country and culture, humans often point to the oldest and ‘most pure’ sources as infallible and ones we would best follow. We strive to find the oldest manuscript of the Bible as the most legitimate. Even in political matters and points of law, we in the United States seek to interpret the U.S. Constitution and to divine the true intent of our Founding Fathers, as if there were something sacred and infallible about a document and philosophy crafted over 200 years ago. I am not denying the special nature of our Constitution and its wisdom; it is the oldest living Constitution on Earth. The question here is why people look at these texts as absolute truth.
lineal descent from an ancestor; ancestry or pedigree.
The term lineage is also a very interesting idea that appears in most cultures. From the creative efforts of Old Testament authors to document the exact lineage from Adam to Jesus, to the claims of yoga masters tracing their traditions to Krishna of Mahabharata fame, we should wonder why this fascination with lineage?
Observing children, it is easy to see the importance of the behavior of imitation in the development of human beings. Young children routinely imitate the actions of older playmates and adults as a central part of their growth and learning. As a part of our natural evolution as humans, there is embedded in our psyches a deep structure that conditions us to observe the immediate conditions in our external environment and to respond to them accordingly. There was a certain survival wisdom that developed from primitive cultures as we learned how to survive as a species. Some of this wisdom was practical skills, i.e., which berries to eat and which to avoid. As tribal societies became more complex, a shift occurred with survival skills transforming into ever more complex ritual activity.
In prehistoric societies, there was a serious attention to detail in the replication and transmission of ritual elements. Even the slightest variation in a ceremonial form or the shape of a tool was forbidden, as the exact duplication of the rite was imperative for the continuation of the cult. Or consider the importance of the exact repetition of the oral traditions passed from one generation to the next in the pre-literate societies. Before the development of writing these oral testimonies were the only way to preserve and pass down the wisdom of the culture.
In fact, one of the functions of a properly operating mythology is pedagogical, namely, teaching the individual members of the culture how to live within the group so that each member of the society is a functioning and contributing member of the tribe. What starts as imitation often becomes a behavior of survival. Each culture has created rules about what is right, wrong, acceptable or punishable, and to participate in a society one must adhere to at least some of the important ‘laws’; or face expulsion from the community. Diverse societies in different times and locales have defined these rules in antithetical ways, leading to conflicts between cultures.
Consider the deep internal conflict within the individual psyche, as we each try to reconcile our spontaneous impulses and desires with the rules of the group. It is the function of every culture to condition the individual members so that the group continues to survive and flourish. Thus, we see there are forces at play in the development of the individual that spring from the psyche itself as well as from the external society.
If one studies the development of world cultures with this view in mind, one can discern several distinct themes that have emerged over time. In primitive societies, authorities are the wielders of power. The visions of the shamans were often the creative spark of new ritual forms which were then enacted and followed by the tribe.
A new epoch dawned with the invention of the arts of food-cultivation, agriculture and animal husbandry, in the nuclear Near East, between c. 7500 and 3550 BCE. Recall the first cities on earth in ancient Mesopotamia, which developed specialized labor resulting in the creation of the priestly class. Here was an entirely different experience of the role of the individual, and in fact people found meaning only in relation to the overall group mind. Our modern western psyches revolt at the thought of the ritual suicide of the royal participants in the tombs of Ur, but here is a vivid example of the power of the authority of the group myth which validated these early agricultural societies. Human beings are surprisingly bound by the local customs and culture-forms of their tribes. The environments of our upbringing dictate not only our different world views, but also our understanding of ‘reality’ and our place within it.
As these early societies evolved over the millennia, the authority of the priestly class grew, as did the authority of the power of the state. This continued all over the globe until pivotal transformations occurred with the waning of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Reformation. The history of myth in this period can be generally classified as the decline of ecclesiastical authority and the rise of the principle of individual conscience.
It is helpful to see that adherence to the beliefs, morality and reality constructs of the culture is an expected outgrowth from both our genetic heritage as well as the environments in which we are placed. However, cultures and beliefs are not fixed stars, but rather they evolve over time. What is today’s deep insight being yesteryear’s heresy. The problem is how do we recognize the essential truth from within the maze of ethnic customs that blinds our clear insights.
Here is an example of what I consider to be a point of view not constructive to our developing a new Creative Mythology.
I recently saw a video by a Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya (Dr. Frank Morales, Ph.D.), who is apparently of the orthodox Hindu persuasion although born in NYC of Italian and Spanish descent, and who espouses his revelations quite excessively at dharmacentral.com. Dr. Morales holds the opinion that Sanskrit is “The Language of the Gods”.
He states that “Sanskrit is the world’s most ancient, most logically structured, and most beautiful language. In addition to being a language with one of the most extensive literary traditions known to world culture, Sanskrit is the basis of all classical languages, such as Greek and Latin. More importantly, Sanskrit has been known universally to be the world’s foremost spiritual language. It is the language of Yoga, of meditation, of Hinduism, and of Dharma. Sanskrit is a language that has been specially designed by its creators to most perfectly convey the myriad of subtle sounds, vibrational frequencies and sonic sequences necessary to the proper use of mantras.
I will not debate the beauty of Sanskrit as it is indeed a wonderful language, but this illustrates the problem of attributing Sanskrit as being the product of ‘divine revelation’, created by God and delivered by the Rishis. Not only does this view of infinitely ancient origins contradict the empirical evidence of linguistic scholars, but it leads Dr. Morales to ridiculous exhortations such as his saying that the devas in the heavens will only speak Sanskrit, and that if a person traveling to the higher realms does not address these advanced beings in the tongue of Sanskrit, then the devas will simply ignore you. The heavenly realms, you see, are apparently racially divided and caste exclusive, having the air of a Hollywood night club.
Fortunately for myself, although I am uncertain as to my caste, this will not present a problem, as I can wing a few ‘namastes’ in a pinch…
Seriously however, the important point is that when we focus upon and objectify our local customs (Vedic Devas in Heaven) and transform the belief into a universal law that all humans should be subject to, we confuse the essential truth with the local rite.
Indeed, the divine authority and infallibility of the Vedas is a central pillar of orthodox Hinduism. As Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh has said:
“The Vedas are the eternal truths revealed by God to the great ancient Rishis of India. The Rishis saw the truths or heard them. Therefore, the Vedas are what are heard (Sruti). The Rishi did not write. He did not create it out of his mind. He was the seer of thought which existed already. He is not the inventor of the Veda. The Rishi is only a medium or an agent to transmit to people the intuitional experiences which he received. The truths of the Vedas are revelations. All the other religions of the world claim their authority as being delivered by special messengers of God to certain persons, but the Vedas do not owe their authority to anyone. They are themselves the authority as they are eternal, as they are the Knowledge of the Lord.
This viewpoint is problematic. Whenever you define a scripture as ‘divine revelation’ in this way, you have removed the ability to have constructive dialogue or debate. If the Vedas “are themselves the authority as they are eternal” as Sivananda says, then that tends to shut the door to open discussion. There are many religions with the same claim of pompous divine truth revealed to humanity directly from God. Unfortunately, the different world scriptures contain different and contradictory statements as to what Truth is, and universally have errors of fact within each of the traditions themselves.
Additionally, different world scriptures have varying rules of conduct and moralities, and the question of how to reconcile conflicts within the texts of the religion in question, or to that of another religion, arises with no easy answers. For instance, the Vedic era Laws of Manu contain some particularly cruel and offensive punishments for lower castes and women, such as “a sudra who insults a twice-born man shall have his tongue cut out”, or consider the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy’s pronouncement and punishment to kill everyone in a town including animals if most people in a town come to believe in a different god.
There is a huge temptation to just blindly follow a seductive, exotic teaching. Incense, candles, Sanskrit sounding words. What is more challenging is to see the elementary idea that lies within the local costume.
If we look at the practices of yoga over the centuries, it is not difficult to observe an evolution of postures and forms. I would also note that there is another evolution in modern yoga, and that is from the authoritative to the creative. Just as we can see the hierarchical power structures of the major religious traditions break down, our practice of yoga is revitalized as we turn from following strict rules, and instead listen to the guidance from within. Once you realize that the mystery is about something that is within YOU, and not something or someone you are going to find outside of yourself, the whole game changes.
Troubadours, Love & The Holy Grail
A pivotal time in this transformation and evolution from state authority to the individual conscience is during the 12th century in Europe.
The songs of the troubadours beginning in the 12th century ushered in a new creativity in literature and the arts, and culminated in a breakthrough of the individual against the authority of church and state. The classic works of Tristan and Isolde, and Gottfried’s Grail Romances resonate with the power of love. As Joseph Campbell writes in his essay “The Mythology of Love”;
“Marriage in the Middle Ages was almost exclusively a social, family concern—as it has been forever, of course, in Asia, and is to this day for many in the West. One was married according to family arrangements. Particularly in aristocratic circles, young women hardly out of girlhood were married off as political pawns. And the Church, meanwhile, was sacramentalizing such unions with its inappropriately mystical language about the two that were now to be of one flesh, united through love and by God; and let no man put asunder what god hath joined. Any actual experience of love could enter into such a system only as a harbinger of disaster. For not only could one be burned at the stake in punishment for adultery, but, according to current belief, one would also burn forever in Hell. And yet love came, even so, to such noble hearts as were celebrated by Gottfried; not only came, but was invited in. And it was the word of the troubadours to celebrate this passion, which in their view was of a divine grace altogether higher in dignity than the sacraments of the Church, higher than the sacrament of marriage, and, if excluded from Heaven then sanctified in Hell.”
We are transitioning from archaic rules based mythological forms to a period of creative myth. Whether one speaks of primitive rites of old aboriginal cultures north or south, or examines the great high culture systems of the Near East, or their later variants in Asia or the West, what is pronounced is the importance of the group. While it is true that the visions of the Shamans were inspired by the experiences springing from within themselves, these are altogether a different orientation from the rules of a priesthood which controlled the actions and behaviors of people during the Middle Ages. Regardless of whether you focus upon Indian gurus and parampara traditions, or Christianity in Europe under the Holy Roman Empire, the basic thought is that someone other than you knows the answer and you best submit to an authority greater than yourself.
In our modern practice of yoga, we have a similar situation; many of us had our first hatha experience in the hot studios of Bikram Choudhary. While it is clear that Bikram’s 26 posture series was transformative for many, over time the dogmatic insistence upon exact imitation with no room for variations did not feel authentic. While it is proper for a student to first learn from the teacher, at some point the student must transcend the teacher. Blind adherence in the beginning of one’s journey might be justified, but at some point, we must trust our own inward guidance.
Considering that the love calls of the troubadours began almost a thousand years ago, and with it the march toward an authentic expression of human marriage, it is poignant that while many do not look to the church for marriage sanctity, the power of the state has never been stronger in controlling our lives. In summary, we see a historical evolution from the authority of the group to the power of the individual conscience in societies around the world. Imitation and lineages are natural expressions of survival tactics for our species, but with the rise of science we are witnessing a tremendous transformation in all areas of our modern lives.
Creative Yoga…A New Beginning
We are finally at a point in our story where we can now focus on our original question: “Does the modern practice of yoga have the potential to exist as a fully developed myth?” We have thoughtfully considered what a mythic structure is, and we can best move forward by asking; how does yoga integrate the four functions of myth?: mystical, cosmological, sociological and psychological.
Our explorations of the history of yoga shows that yoga is not a fixed orthodoxy that came from a set of divine revelations. Instead, we know that yoga, its practices and forms, has been in a state of continual evolution, and has both fixed and variable components.
The Mystical Function: Awakening in the mind a sense of AWE before the mystery of being.
Mystical: The first function of mythology is the mystical, so that the rites convey an actual experience of Awe in contemplation of the Mystery. Just as a 12th century pilgrim to Chartres Cathedral would enter a ritual space filled with images and sounds which were preparatory to the mass, most yoga studios today arrange the elements within the ritual space to create a similar groundwork. Shoes are removed just as in any Hindu temple. As mats are placed, a hushed silence ensues and oftentimes soft music is played as the practitioners settle in. Some studios include an opening invocation or chant which further establishes the ambiance, similar to an opening hymn sung before communion. Mythology without a grounding in the Mystical becomes just political ideology. There is a fundamental difference between the two, and I would argue that today’s Yoga is grounded in the Mystical.
Breath and body focus quiets the mind. Alignment releases stress and the experience of stillness results.
How does the yoga studio function specifically as a mythic space? As the yogis engage in ritual practice, with a shared experience of movement and breath, they realize an experiential connection with something greater than themselves.
In my view, the mystical connection is really the heart of the matter, so let’s delve a bit deeper here. I had a teacher years ago who liked to speak of “the trick”. This resonated with my own experiences on the mat, so I’ll elaborate. In the beginning of our practices, we come for many different reasons. Our fears and desires all lead us in different ways to take that first step into the yoga studio. Perhaps you want to exercise and reduce your weight; get ripped or cardio care; your friend says that’s where the girls like to go; you need more flexibility; you heard it is a cool place to be; there is a great teacher there; pressure from your girlfriend(s)… So, you go into the room and it happens to be a hot class. My first class was a Bikram class in San Diego. I would swear it was 108 degrees and led by a very fierce “Bikram Nazi”. I made the mistake of asking a question about a pose we were doing and heard a sharp “NO QUESTIONS!” barked in reply. The experience of unfamiliar postures, extreme heat and military style energy created an experience where eventually your mind stops thinking and you are just in survival mode. You are not worrying about the past, nor planning what you will have for dinner; you are in the present.
The trick is simply this: You enter into an environment for one reason, and what you get is something entirely different from what you planned. In the case of yoga, what you get is a taste of ‘Now’. Eckhart Tolle speaks eloquently about this in his writings:
“The reason why some people love to engage in dangerous activities, such as mountain climbing, car racing, and so on, although they may not be aware of it, is that it forces them into the Now—that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality. Slipping away from the present moment even for a second may mean death. Unfortunately, they come to depend on a particular activity to be in that state. But you don’t need to climb the north face of the Eiger. You can enter that state now.”
Humans are so very attached to using their thoughts as the primary way of perceiving and structuring the universe and their reality, that we forget that there is another avenue of awareness at our disposal.Looking back to the beginnings of life on our planet, we see a timeline of life and the evolution of the human species that gives great perspective to our place. The current cosmology as formulated by our respected scientists goes something like this:
4.6 billion years ago: Our solar system begins; Earth collision with planetoid forms the Moon.
3.9 billion years ago: Meteorites bombarded Earth bringing along water and other elements.
3.8 billion years ago: Surface of Earth changed from molten to solid rock.
3.6 billion years ago: The first simple cells, oxygen producing bacteria.
3.4 billion years ago: Stromatolites demonstrated photosynthesis.
1.5 billion years ago: Organisms with complex cells containing nucleus appeared.
650 million years ago: Mass extinction of 70% of dominant sea plants.
580 million years ago: Simple soft-bodied organisms developed, i.e. Jellyfish.
4.4 million years ago: Early hominid genus Ardipithecus appears.
From this timeline, we see that for around 99.9% of Earth’s existence, the planet Earth has been free of human life and our powers of thought. Life seems to get along just fine without people having to think about it. Worries about the past, the importance of planning for the future seems rather unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Not to say that humans can only exist with thought as our only source of awareness. Perhaps one of our gifts is the ability to turn thought on and off as we need it. Perhaps by focusing our attention upon the breath and simple sensation we can explore and experience our connection with life other than thought.
The point is that if we examine the history of life in the universe, we see that rational thought (or irrational thought for that matter) is entirely absent from ‘that which is’. The power of thought is remarkable in its technological achievements, but humans are hard-wired with other ways of experiencing life and the universe. Thought keeps us in the experience of separateness and isolation.
So, we have the trickster…The myths do not arise from someone thinking a new thought and planning a new mythic system for all to follow. Myths spring from the depths of the psyche and as they blossom they put on the raiment’s of various rituals and practices. In the case of modern yoga, we have practitioners originally coming for one reason or another, and then as an experience of ‘being’ occurs; their practice deepens and evolves as they find themselves nurtured and fulfilled in a deep and connected way.
This experience of the ‘Now’ which so many us can relate to is just the beginning of a practice of yoga. The wisdom of Yoga and its survival for thousands of years is due to its understanding of the relationship between breath and awareness. As our practice deepens, there are many more ‘tricks’ to come!
The Cosmological Function: Explaining the shape of the universe.
When Columbus sailed on his fourth voyage, he wrote a letter to Ferdinand and Isabella in which he stated his belief about the location of the Mount of Purgatory, as described in Dante’s Divina Comedia. We now know that this mountain is not a physical reality in the Pacific Ocean, nor is the world flat.
The rise of science has propelled humanity to continually revise and alter our explanations about the nature and shape of the universe. Fast forward 500 years from the time of Columbus and we see that, except for the isolated primitive societies spotted around the globe, humanity generally embraces the dominant scientific theories which explain our current understandings. The cosmological function presents a map or picture of the order of the cosmos and our relationship to it. Our modern cosmology in the yoga room, (at least in those rare times when it is articulated) is generally a marriage of Hindu Philosophy with Quantum Physics. While it is not the subject of our discourse, there are growing numbers in the scientific community in support of the view that the fundamental basis of the universe is not matter, but rather consciousness.
The second function of mythology and religion is to present an image and understanding of the universe that will support our experience of the mystery. In our time, we have relegated this cosmological function to science, but as you realize, over the course of the ages, man’s understanding and man’s image of the universe, has greatly changed along with science.
While it is true that Aristotle is recognized as giving the earliest systematic treatise on the nature of scientific inquiry in the western tradition, one which embraced observation and reasoning about the natural world, it was during the medieval period, with figures such as Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) and Roger Bacon (1214/1220–1292), who worked to clarify the kind of knowledge which could be obtained by observation and induction. Bacon described a cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimentation and verification. He precisely recorded his so that others could independently test his results. It is interesting to note that this is the same century during which the Grail Romances and the new expressions of Amor gained popularity. It is not hard to see that in both science and culture a new flowering of knowledge is taking place. As superstition and outdated beliefs are dissolved, the force of the individual conscience and knowledge gains strength.
For our concerns here, it would be fair to say that the yogic community is aligned with a current cosmology of the universe, and it both speaks to and is informed by the Mystical dimension.
The Sociological Function: Validate and support the existing social order.
The sociological function changes dramatically from time and place, driven by exponential technological change and the rise of the individual. The world is slowly emerging from a regional tribal view of ‘my group vs. the other’ to an understanding that all humans share a common nature. This is not a call for ‘open borders’ nor the end of the sovereign state. It is just a recognition that human beings are all living on one planet, and that we all share a common heritage. Myth supports and validates the specific moral order of the society out of which it arose. Life-customs of this social dimension, such as ethical laws and social roles, are evolving rapidly. However, it seems that yogis and yoginis generally share some common sociological traits.
- Central to yoga is the world view that all is one. God is immanent and humans share the same ontological nature as the creator.
- The rapidity with which social institutions are breaking down creates a psychic dis-harmony which causes us to seek out experiences of peace and connection.
- Yoga practitioners seem to have an inquiry-based outlook that questions establishment authority and embraces exploration of alternative cultures.
- Yogis acknowledge that environmental crises are compelling us to take a global perspective. What happens in one continent effects the whole planet.
Yoga studios provide a sense of community and connection with shared ritual activity, in a small local environment, while at the same time a vast global network has developed whereby a traveler to any city in the world can now share the same ritual experience, which is what myth is all about. There are classes and workshops on every continent where you can participate in rituals forms amongst the countless independent yoga studios that exist. Similar to a church or temple denomination, the liturgical forms might be varied depending upon the local custom and culture, however, Bastian’s Elementary Idea remains.
The Psychological Function: Guide the individual through the stages of life.
This 4th function of mythology is constant within the human species, regardless of time and space. This psychological or pedagogical function carries the individual through the various stages and crises of life, from childhood dependency, to the responsibilities of maturity, to the reflection of old age, and finally, to death. It helps people grasp the unfolding of life with integrity. It initiates individuals into the order of realities in their own psyches, guiding them toward enrichment and realization. We all face the problems of how to navigate ourselves through the stages of life. Our yoga communities provide a needed physical and psychic location which binds us together as we pass through life’s turnings.
We often gather together in celebration as we commemorate the significant passages of birth, coming of age, marriage and death. Gathering friends and family with others in small community settings provides opportunities for ritual healing.
In the Introduction to his book “Ritual & Healing”, my old friend Don Eulert summarizes what ritual is for:
“When ritual attention is paid, something creative happens. Ritual:
- Provides meaning, order, purpose, relationship.
- Helps with life-stage passages, transformation.
- Gives solidarity to cultural world-view and membership.
- Brings into life those things in our unconscious we do not ordinarily access.
- Re-minds that we belong to a supra-rational field of biological, cultural, psychological, and cosmological relationships.”
Myths serve primarily to relate man to his environment, and so the myth of yoga.
Perhaps what is happening in our yoga classes today can be illumined by a story from Japan. During my travels there I have been fortunate to explore not only the Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples of Kyoto and Nara, but also to participate in Shugendo rituals in the forests of the sacred Kumano Kodo, where practitioners perform ritual actions during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Shugendo is a blend of Shamanism, Shintō, Taoism, and Tantric Buddhism in which the experience is that of the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings.
Joseph Campbell tells a story which was circulating during the 1958 Congress for the History of Religions in Tokyo, a dialogue between a delegate from New York City and a Shinto priest. Both had presented papers during the meetings, and their conversation illustrates a key difference in the “myth-understandings” of religious experience.
The Western sociologist had visited a number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples, and had participated in a few Shinto rituals. As Campbell relates:
“Such a place of worship is without images, simple in form, wonderfully roofed, and often painted a nice clear red. The priests, immaculate in white vesture, black headdress, and large black wooden shoes, move about in files with stately mien. An eerie music rises, reedy, curiously spirit like, punctuated by controlled heavy and light drumbeats and great gongs; threaded with the picked, harp like sounds of a spirit-summoning koto. And then noble, imposing, heavily garbed dancers silently appear, either masked or un-masked, male or female. These move in slow, somewhat dream-like or trancelike, shamanizing measure; stay for a time before the eyes, and retire, while utterances are intoned. One is thrown back two thousand years. The pines, rocks, forests, mountains, air, and Sea of Japan awake and send out spirits on those sounds. They can be heard and felt all about. And when the dancers have retired and the music has stopped, the ritual is done. One turns and looks again at the rocks, the pines, the air and sea, and they are as silent as before. Only now they are inhabited, and one is aware anew of the wonder of the universe.
It is naturally difficult for some types of people, particularly logical, Western types, to have an experience of what is evoked by the art of the Shinto ritual. And so, to continue our story, the NYC sociologist remarked to the Shinto priest, “You know, I have now been to a number of these Shinto shrines, and I’ve seen quite a few rites, and I’ve read about it, thought about it; but you know, I don’t get the ideology. I don’t get your theology.”
“And that Japanese gentleman, polite, as though respecting the foreign scholar’s profound question, paused a while as though in thought. Then he looked, smiling, at his friend. “We do not have ideology,” he said. “We do not have theology. We dance.”
Which, precisely, is the point. For Shinto, at root, is a religion not of sermons but of awe: which is a sentiment that may or may not produce words, but in either case goes beyond them. Not a “grasp of the conception of spirit,” but a sense of its ubiquity, is the proper end of Shinto.”
A Shinto rite, then, can be defined as an occasion for the recognition and evocation of an awe that inspires gratitude to the source and nature of being. And as such, it is addressed as art to the sensibilities(awareness) not to the faculties of definition. So that living Shinto is not the following of some set-down moral code, but a living in gratitude and awe amid the mystery of things.
So, to put Shinto in context for our purposes here, I would suggest that the potential for modern yoga to emerge as a source of mythic significance lies in experiencing our yoga practices in much the same way as this ancient Japanese rite. The depth of yoga is not ‘addressed to the faculties of thought’, but rather to an experience of the awe and mystery of life. Yogis properly have no ideology…We Breathe!
As we draw to a close, let me conclude with a discussion of the “Five Koshas”, which are part of Vedanta philosophy. A Kosha is a sheath or covering of the Atman or Self, which can be understood for our purposes as the Transcendent Mystery or Soul. In Vedanta, the Koshas are oftentimes depicted as the various skin layers of an onion, so that we get the basic concept that there are five energetic layers which make up the human being.
The first of these coverings is Annamaya Kosha, which is the physical body. Anna means food, and our bodies are both sustained by food, and also become food for some other organism at the end of our life. The Lion King got it right with the “Circle of Life”. Or as I like to say, the nature of life is that life eats life.
The next is Pranamaya Kosha, or energy sheath. Prana is the energy that vitalizes the body, giving it life. The pranic sheath pervades the whole body and mind and is associated with the breath.
The 3rd Kosha is Manomaya, namely the manas or mind. This mental sheath and its thoughts create identity and the illusion of ego and separateness. As Annamaya Kosha is related to and animated by Pranamaya Kosha, similarly Manomaya Kosha is connected to both the food and energy koshas. When the foodsheath is in pain, so too the mindsheath; it thinks “All life is sorrowful”. If the body is happy, so too the mind. Manomaya Kosha is oriented towards the food and energy sheaths.
The next sheath is known as Vijnanamaya Kosha; the sheath of wisdom. This is the wisdom of the body, the wisdom that shaped you in the mother’s womb, the wisdom that clots your blood, the wisdom that grows the grass, the wisdom that informs the trees, the forests, the universe. This is the wisdom of spontaneous life, which is independent of thought and mind, the wisdom that Manomaya Kosha rides upon.
You scrape your knee and the red blood flows then stops. Can your mind understand and direct this process and know the chemistry of the affair? The mind and ego become infantile amateurs when faced with the mysterious natural order of things. But who is it that is clotting your blood. It’s you! Not your mentality, but your wisdom body.
So, what is at the center of the sheaths? Just like the layers of an onion, beneath the wisdom body we have Anandamaya Kosha, the sheath of bliss. Life is the manifestation of rapture. Our poor mental sheath gets all engrossed in what’s happening with the food body, and it thinks “oh dear, oh dear!” Growing up in New Orleans, the summer ritual of mowing the lawn every week was part of my DNA. It seemed that just after I’d cut the grass it needed another trimming. Now suppose the grass said, “oh what’s the use, he’s just going to cut me again” and stopped growing. We can laugh at the obvious absurdity, but according to Vedanta, our identification with our thoughts and the superficial Koshas is equally absurd, albeit less obvious.
This highlights two different orientations. The mentality of thought has to do with the dualities of morality and ethics, good and evil, pain and pleasure; all the categories of thought. The rational mind exists by making comparisons. There are Creation Myths in many lands that all share a similar story about the nature of the primordial being; it is said that the first thoughts were fear and desire. Our thoughts are either attracted to something or repelled against it. The other orientation is towards the powers within you that your mind can’t begin to understand. Your wisdom body knows that there is more to life. What is it? Bliss! That’s what you are, really. You are rooted in rapture, and even in your pain, your anguish, your great sorrow, if you know where the secret door of rapture lies within you, that will be your rock and salvation.