Karmageddon, the spiritual documentary by Jeff Brown about his relationship with the ever controversial Bhagavan Das, is now available for download. It’s a timely film that deals head-on with the issues of spiritual power and accountability, seekers’ responsibility and whether the disillusioned should “throw out the holy man with the bath water.”
The movie was filmed in part at the now defunct Jivamukti Yoga studio in Toronto, and many friends, past and present, walk through its frames. Seeing the studio I helped to build in this light raised some interesting questions for me about what we as yoga teachers and studio owners choose to put before our students.
A question I posed to Bhagavan Das over dinner one night made it into the film: “what is the relationship between spirituality and psychosis?” Bhagavan Das replied without a moment’s hesitation, “it’s a fine line between madness and illumination.” My teacher Sharon Gannon often jokes that yogis are not “normal people.” Do you agree that attaining higher states of consciousness implies a rejection of social norms? If so, to what degree?
This time last year I was on an extended road trip that took me through four time zones, eight cities, three national parks and countless truck stops. Truck stops are fascinating places, worlds unto themselves, really. They’re populated by road warriors who congregate there to refuel, eat, wash-up, and relax between long stints behind the wheel. The interesting thing is if you look carefully, you will see at most truck stops a video game room, and in that room you will see racing games, and at those games you will see glassy-eyed drivers seeking to alleviate the pressures of the road by getting behind a toy wheel and swearing a blue streak as they burn virtual rubber.
Strange as that may seem, I know I’ve repeatedly done the same sort of thing in my own life. Years ago when I was a junior lawyer, for example, I would relax after a tough day in court with takeout in front of the TV, and my shows of choice were, you guessed it, Ally McBeal and Law & Order. More recently, I’ve had days where I’ve practiced yoga before heading out to teach yoga and then, at the end of the day, responded to the question, “what do you want to do tonight?” with the word “yoga!” And what about this one: have you ever caught yourself taking a break from that document on your computer screen by clicking over to Facebook or pulling out your iPhone? Yeah, me too.
So what’s up with this compulsive, repetitive behavior? According to yogic philosophy we create subtle impressions, called samskaras, with each thought, word and action. These samskaras are not unlike the grooves our feet make on the earth when we walk the same path over and over again. Habitual behaviors continually reinforce our samskaras until the ruts becomes so deep and well-worn that we forget what it’s like not to be in them. The result is we become totally conditioned to continue along the same trajectory we’ve always traveled, even when the path is self-destructive or a waste of our time.
Each time we step onto the mat, we bring with us all of our samskaras, good and bad, liberating and binding. Some of us bring our perfectionist tendencies along for the ride and scrutinize each breath and movement under the microscope of self-criticism. Others push themselves to the extreme, striving to go faster, harder, better as they seek to conquer the next spectacular inversion, hand balance or backbend. Others yet hang back in their avoidance of all discomfort and physical exertion, convinced their cool disengagement is safer than actually putting themselves out there and risking failure.
Now, because our samskaras are etched into our bodies and minds, we can approach our time on the mat as an opportunity to see and work with the deeply ingrained habits and patterns of our lives— patterns that are often hidden in plain sight. This is good news for those of us who are willing to trade comfort and complacency for happiness and freedom.
In my experience, good yoga teachers do more than call poses, count breaths and give alignment cues: good yoga teachers also teach us in ways that alert us to our samskaras. They are willing to ask us to go against the grain. They might ask one student to ease up while asking another to get the lead out. Consequently, the best yoga teachers tend not to coddle their students and they may not win any popularity contests either. As my teachers like to say, the yoga practice shows us where we are tight and also where we are being uptight. This means the resistance that shows itself within the microcosm of our mats is not something to be suppressed or negated. I dare say it’s the very point of our practice.
Don’t forget that “the path of least resistance and least trouble is a mental rut already made. It requires troublesome work to undertake the alternation of old beliefs.” (John Dewey)
It was within the first year of my yoga practice that I lost the vision in my left eye. Awakening one morning to the sound of the dreaded alarm clock, I was truly alarmed to discover a dark curtain obscuring my view. “It’s a rare disease;” said the retinal specialist, “we don’t know what causes it, but it could be stress-related.” How ironic, I thought I was impervious to stress, always turning a blind eye to the pressures that came along with the life of a newly minted lawyer. Now I really had a blind eye, and that changed everything.
Feeling dejected, I left my job, apartment and life in the city, and moved-in with my parents to convalesce. There, I mostly slept my days away until my concerned mother came home with an armload of books-on-tape from the local library, including some on yoga and meditation. Not long after that, I attended my first yoga retreat with her encouragement. I went seeking stress relief, but found something much greater, in the form of a teacher who would open my eyes to the depth and beauty of this life. Lying on my mat after toppling out of headstand one day, I had a Road to Damascus moment when he said: “Sometimes it takes a good catastrophe to wake you up.” My ego was bruised but I was grateful for the wake-up call.
One model for the step-by-step awakening of human consciousness tells us the sense of sight is linked to the ego identity and the strong impulse to establish one’s name, fame and fortune. Certainly, the ego-self is very interested in appearances—constantly striving to keep up with the Jones’—and it’s all too easily seduced by the glittering surfaces of things. Just try a yoga class in a mirrored room to feel where the attention goes.
“I shut my eyes in order to see,” proclaimed visionary French painter, Paul Gauguin. Like Gauguin, us yogis understand that a conventional outlook can obscure more profound ways of seeing. Like aspirants in many spiritual traditions, we train ourselves to look beyond superficial appearances so we can access deeper insights. In other words, we actively try to cultivate an enlightened point of view. This enlightened perception is symbolized by the third eye (also called the inner eye, the eye of wisdom, ajna chakra, and the seat of the inner guru) and this perception is said to be extra-sensory because it transcends the five senses.
One of the training tools we use to refine the way we see is the technique of drishti, or yogic gazing. Students of Ashtanga Yoga are taught to direct their gaze to one of nine points in each asana: (1) third-eye; (2) tip of nose; (3) navel; (4) hand; (5) big toes; (6) thumbs; (7) far right; (8) far left; and (9) infinity. The gaze is soft—you never stare—because you’re actually looking into, or beyond, the prescribed physical points. Drishti is not only an effective way to keep the mind from wandering, but it’s also a metaphor for continually fixing your attention on the subtle inner essence that underlies all form.
Yogic gazing is a little like looking at one of those Magic Eye images. If you know how to look, you can see the three-dimensional image in the two-dimensional jumble. Sure, single-pointed concentration is required, but it’s not enough on its own; you need to relax into it and be patient while maintaining your faith that there’s more than meets the eye. In a moment, something shifts and the meaningless becomes meaningful. The funny thing is, once you’ve seen the magic it’s hard to fathom how you missed it.
In the course of every life there is a deep magic at work—call it God, call it the ancestors, call it karma or the universe, whatever you please, really. The important thing is that you care enough to look for it. After all, they say enlightenment is just a shift in perception away.
Here’s a beautiful Sanskrit chant, along with my teacher’s translation, that sheds some light on the subject:
Om, guru Brahma, guru Vishnu, guru devo Maheshvara
Guru sak shat, param brahma, tas mayi shri guruvay namaha
Our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; the trials, illnesses, calamities and the death of the body is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby, and a guru that is beyond the beyond. May I have the good sense to see and recognize the guru, the remover of darkness.
Image courtesy of MagicEye3Ds. Can you see the hidden image? Contact me if you need a hint.