Friday, March 15, 2013

The Meaning Of Life and Everything

Years ago, my brother told me a story he loved from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  The story goes like this:  A computer was built that could compute bigger and better than any computer.  It was a super computer.  Everyone was very excited.  They sat down and gave the computer their most important question:  ‘What is the meaning of life and everything?’  The computer said it would take 100 years to answer their question.  A generation passed and finally, on the appointed day 100 years later, they sat down with much anticipation for the long awaited answer.  The computer made some grinding and gurgling sounds and then the answer was spit out: 56.[1]

After my brother died and I finally read the whole book, the story delighted me yet again. It still does. I love the irreverence.  I love that a powerful computer, after all that time, could not adequately answer the question of what is the meaning of life and everything. I love that it was the first question they asked the new powerful computer.  I love that the answer answers nothing. 

When I lived in the Philippines we said that you could tell how long someone had lived there by how much they knew about the country. Those who had been there one year, knew everything.  Those who had been there two years knew significantly less.  Those who had been there three years or more knew almost nothing. 

I have to confess that I began attending yoga classes for the exercise alone.  A year later I was teaching and those first years I thought I knew something, at least about asana.  Now, as I continue to probe into this tradition, its history, and it’s philosophical understanding of existence and consciousness, I know less and less.   I am not terribly troubled by knowing less though at times I question what then I presume to teach.  And yes, I know all the answers to that one: “teach what you know, teach from your experience…” Alas, I am never quite satisfied with such answers. 

I hear the phrase often repeated: “Yoga is the union of body and mind.”  This statement tends to make me squirm. It seems neat and tidy but inadequate in the way the answer 56 fails to actually answer anything. In his book, Original Yoga, Richard Rosen gives a comprehensive discussion of the term yoga and the variety of ways the term union or yoking was used.  He suggests the term yoga properly translated and understood means “union-method.”  The analogy is the charioteer and his or her uncooperative horses.  The uncooperative horses are our own consciousness.  We need some method or technique to yoke (yoga) these unruly horses.  But there is one more step.  The actual union is between our individual or “living self” with its source, the “great self.”[2] 

Richard goes on to discuss the term hatha (pronounced hat-ha).  Surprising to some, one understanding of the term hatha is forceful. Many of the older practices would seem bizarre and extreme to us now and far from what we know as asana (postural) practice. Richard’s suggested translation of hatha yoga is “forceful union-method.” Hatha yoga is the school or set of practices where we in the world of modern postural yoga[3], might find a small sense of lineage to our yoga ancestors although the directness of this lineage is uncertain at best.

Then there are the various schools of yoga other than hatha.  Jnana yoga focuses on intelligence and the wisdom that comes from inquiry into one’s own experience.  Karma yoga is embodied in the life of Mahatma Gandhi, a life of commitment to service and action.  Bhakti yoga centers on devotion and the love of God.  Chanting is part of the bhakti yoga path. These are only a few examples.  There are more.

The plurality of yoga’s is evident with any perusal of books on history and philosophy.  One can get lost in the myriad of ways of understandings what this path or tradition is and what it once was and how any of this informs our modern practice, if it does at all.  Richard Freeman (not to be confused with Richard Rosen) uses the plural form, yogic traditions.  He describes classical yogic traditions as the “result of hundreds of thousands of people over many generations reflecting on the way their minds work as they investigate their own experience of reality.”[4]

Traveling through the stories and the definitions and the ways of practicing is an experience not to be missed.  It is fascinating to consider the multitude of ways we as humans have investigated our mind, bodies and consciousness interwoven with our spiritual experiences.  In our modern world, we have the luxury of access to information through books and the internet, making such travel easier but potentially overwhelming in the sheer abundance of information.

In my own travels around this galaxy, hitchhiker or not, I eventually find myself yearning for the simplicity of Patanjali’s initial description of what yoga is: 

Sutra 1.2:  yoga citta vrtti nirodha
Edwin Bryant:  Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind. 

Patanjali may or may not have existed.  His history is obscure.  He may have been more than one person. I would love to speculate that if he was more than one person, maybe one of him was a she. I hone in to the simplicity of this statement - yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind - like a moth to a light.  I think it is the portal to something sacred, or, to everything being sacred. 

I remember a Biblical verse from my childhood.  I always loved it. The verse goes like this: “Be still and know that I am God.”  Be still:  Still the fluctuations of the mind.  There are moments when my mind and body do feel still and in those moments I experience a spaciousness that is nearly indescribable.  With my yogi ancestors, whoever they were and however they practiced, I too investigate my experience of reality.

An informant tells me the Biblical verse I am remembering is Psalm 46.10.  She then notes that if you add those two together you get…..

Perhaps the number 56 was the best answer after all.

[1] I am not sure if this is the actual number used in the book but I don’t think it matters very much.
[2] Rosen, Richard, Original Yoga, 2012 (Shambala: Boston and London) p. 6.
[3] This term is used by Elizabeth de Michelis in her book, A History of Modern Yoga.
[4] Freeman, Richard, The Mirror of Yoga, 2010 (Shambala; Boston and London) p. 8.