In the latest episode of our “triyoga talks” podcast series, Richard Rosen spoke to Genny Wilkinson Priest on themes such as authenticity, yoga’s evolution and the practice in today’s modern world. With a rich tapestry of topics to cover, he has followed up with his further thoughts, below, which add clarity and depth. We hope you enjoy reading his expert commentary on such a diverse subject.
Some people are good speakers and good writers, and some people are better in one arena than the other. I’m a pretty good writer but not (I feel) a particularly effective speaker. One contributing factor is my PD, which oftentimes fuzzes my brain, causing the things I say to be incomplete or one-sided. I would very much like to clarify a few things I say in this podcast.
Let me first say that the questions were stellar, I’ve been interviewed many times over the years but never as deeply and intelligently as Genny has done.
About Vedic secrecy. I think I was too cynical in this answer as I usually am about any organised religion. Certainly the Veda represented to its culture the source of enormous power for the Brahmin priests, bordering on the magical and yes the conduct of the rituals/sacrifices were a source of increasingly lucrative income for the Brahmin priests. But the rituals/sacrifices (as in all cultures) were also a kind of glue that held the culture together, no matter what our modern ideal of egalitarianism feels about the purposeful exclusion of a large percentage of the population from receiving the “spiritual” benefits of those rituals/sacrifices.
I also want to make clear that holding secret knowledge tends to separate the initiate from all the non-secret holders, but I don’t think I should have used the word “special.” Being different from the others in their culture gave the initiates a feeling of distance from the usual cultural influences, and allowed them to more easily cast off the obstacles to self-realisation.
This is one reason the old yogis headed to the forest, to get away from those physical/psychological influences that affected them both consciously and unconsciously.
We might also speculate on how these closely held secrets became public. I have three theories
- Hand-me-down theory. Human consciousness, like the human body, has evolved over time (see Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin, or Ken Wilbur, Up From Eden). As new mutations emerge into consciousness, the old ones are discarded or relegated to the background. The “secrets” we believe we have now are no longer “fashionable.” They’ve been outdated by new “secrets” we know nothing about. Thus, the “worn-out” secrets have (possibly with some editing) been “handed down” by the yogis to the mass of humanity like an older sibling hand’s down second-hand clothes to a younger.
- Red Herring theory. The “secrets” in our possession are not really secrets at all, or rather they’re “unimportant” secrets given out to satisfy the curiosity of spiritual dilettantes. But serious “seekers” won’t be satisfied with superficial knowledge and will press on looking for the “real” secrets. This process winnows the wheat from the chaff so to speak, and serves as a kind of test for the seriousness of the student, which if passed, is then a prelude to initiation.
- Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Since the secret is often dangerous to the untutored, much was kept out of the hands of average people, just as we’re likely to keep sharp scissors out of the hands of children. The yogis first tested these methods on themselves, adjusting them to suit the capacities of less spiritually advanced people. So when deemed relatively “safe and sane” by the yogi-testers, they were set loose for the benefit they would bring to the world.
I mentioned that we accepted yoga and its theoretical bases without question, but I should have added “until recently.” Researcher/writers like Mark Singleton and James Mallinson, Elizabeth de Michlis, Jason Birch and others have provided the yoga community today with an excellent view of the origins of modern yoga.
I don’t feel it’s viable to distinguish between a physical practice and a “spiritual” one.
This is a subtle dualism; rather, the body inhabits the “spirit” and vice versa. Working on either in isolation isn’t possible, doing what you feel to be a strictly physical practice nonetheless inevitably includes the “spirit.”
We shouldn’t run after suffering, but when it arises it’s our role to accept and inhabit it fully. I’m not saying to simply suffer, but as we’re doing something to naturally alleviate the suffering you don’t simply push it away. Such a strategy often intensifies the suffering.
About the Yoga Sutra. I probably shouldn’t have said it’s no longer relevant, that was a bit overboard. We could point to certain exercises and techniques that might interest and be of use to a modern practitioner. What I object to with this system is its dead-end dualism and its insistence that “all is suffering.” I fully expect many responses here explaining to me why I don’t know what I’m talking about. That’s OK, I’m already well adjusted to that opinion from my dealings with my daughter. What I also object to is modern commentators interpreting the sutras to appeal to a modern audience, and failing to acknowledge their comments aren’t based on tradition.
Take satya for example, the second yama. We’re given the impression by many modern commentators that the YS represents a guide to daily living, and by following the injunctions of the yamas and niyamas we’ll become better citizens. This may be true as a side effect, but the real reason for these behavioural rules was to clear a person’s “underbrush” and get him ready for meditation. Satya, truthfulness, is indeed an important rule for everyone in a culture to honour, not just yogis (of course for this and many of the other injunctions, we don’t need Patanjali, we have the ten commandments, which caution us not to kill, lie, steal, etc). But satya for the yogis is mostly a warning to avoid falsehoods, simply because they run counter to the search for the truth about yourself.
We could settle this controversy over the YS once and for all with what I call the Patanjali Project (PatPro). We ask for about 20 volunteers to spend five to eight years doing nothing but practising classical Yoga. They would be supported with contributions from yoga schools and organisations, and housed at our larger retreat centres. Half the group would lead a relatively modern life, though mostly isolated from the general culture, the other half would be sequestered in complete isolation, recreating as much as possible the conditions of fifth century CE India, “Patanjali’s” supposed time. The programme would be supervised by our most complete modern yogis; my nomination to head the programme would be James Mallinson. And I would hope that triyoga would take the lead, considering the wealth of yoga experience the school has at its fingertips. Let’s see what we have at the end of this five- year “intensive.” Does the classical method truly create the kind of individuals we imagine it would … or not.
About pranayama/Witness. I wanted to emphasise here that the “pause” I take after the exhale in pranayama brings me to a silent/still condition that represents my “deepest” being (I’m aware “deep” is an unconscious dualist idea) and is the foundation of my active breathing.
Here I can contact and develop the Witness, my constant companion who helps me keep tabs on myself without an agenda or recrimination. The transformation is in itself the observation, which Krishnamurti calls “choiceless awareness.”
Fear arising from pranayama. I should have been more detailed about this. The encounter with fear is a likely result of the practice, since the practice is likely threatening to our ego. It’s a bit of a mistake in modern yoga to think simple breathing has no effect on us. It has a potentially earth-shaking effect on the ego, threatening its hold on the psyche and, like every living thing, fights back to save its existence. This creates both fear and resistance, which is why it’s so rare that nowadays anyone has a breathing practice. If fear arises in your practice, STOP immediately, turn the page and start again the next day, dropped back a notch.
God, soul, “Enlightenment.” The Universe in yoga terms is “cit,” pure consciousness or, as Franklin Merrill-Wolff calls it, “consciousness-without-an-object” (in Pathways Through to Space). It’s a vast mind who expresses itself in and through our universe, including each one of us. Turning it into a God is generally asking for trouble, since humans tend to anthropomorcise “their” god according to their culturally approved ideals and reject all others. This inevitably gives rise to conflict, pitting my all-powerful god against yours. The natural accompaniment to God is the soul, and no matter how strongly you emphasise tat tvam asi, the monistic “I am That,” with two words—God and soul — we can’t help thinking they are two separate principles; once again a source of potential conflict. This also possibly sets up the untenable belief that the “soul” is in “me,” and all else is out there, which is often bad news for the natural world. In fact, “we” are embedded in the cit-consciousness; it surrounds us, permeates us, and links all together.
Finally, there are then humans who imagine they have “realised” the soul and call themselves “enlightened.” What’s actually happened is that these individuals’ consciousness has “mutated” or “graduated” to the next grade level, so that while most of us for the time being are in, say, third grade getting our p’s and q’s straightened out, our “enlightened” brethren have gone on to the fourth grade. And while they seem to us god-like, they still have many grades to go to finish elementary, middle, and high school, then undergrad, graduate, and post-doctoral.
We might ask one more question here: why is consciousness so hard to figure out? Humans have been trying to define it for thousands of years. I believe the answer is that it DOESN’T WANT US TO FIGURE IT OUT, that it’s purposely playing hide-and-seek with itself and has no intention of revealing itself till the “last syllable of recorded time.”
“…we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and thus in such a way as to be able to see itself. This is indeed amazing. Not so much in view of what it sees … but in respect of the fact that it CAN see at ALL. But in order to do so, evidently it must first cut itself up into at least one state which sees, and at least one other which is seen. In this severed and mutilated condition, whatever it sees is ONLY PARTIALLY ITSELF … In this condition it will always partially elude itself.” G. Spencer-Brown, Laws of Form (p. 105, first published 1969).