Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Is Yoga a Religion?

Xenophanes: “Ethiopians imagine their gods as black and snub-nosed; Thoracians blue-eyed and red-haired. But if horses or lions had hands, or could draw and fashion works as men do, horses would draw the gods shaped like horses and lions like lions, making the gods resemble themselves.”
What makes religion? Is it merely a system of beliefs or principles? Or is it defined by its ritual, deities and institutional structure? By the first definition, many things could be considered religion such as existentialism or humanism. However when most Westerners think of religion; organization and structure come to mind. Secondly, to group together all types of yoga from Ashtanga to Bikram is inaccurate and misleading. From these perspectives we can determine whether yoga is traditionally a religion.
Conventionally speaking, a religious practice involves ritual and ceremony. To many observers, the asanas and chants that are practiced seem suspiciously like religious ritual. It is important to clarify here that within a religion the ritual serves the purpose of worshipping or communicating with a higher being. In yoga, these practices are essentially tools to harness our own consciousness. Within most yoga practices one is not taught to offer up their practice to a particular deity, nor are we encouraged to have belief in a particular religion.
Western religionists may benefit by considering this excerpt from the Christian Bible and Jewish Torah “Be still and know that I am God. (Psalms 46:10). What is this stillness? How can it be achieved? Certainly a rational person can realize that constant distractions do not aid in the search for God. Yoga at the very least is a way to quiet the mind, so that one can hear their own personal truth. That is the key factor here, that personal truth is not determined for you. If you find Jesus, Buddha or Krishna in that ultimate stillness, that is your own intimate practice.
If one were to look at Bhakti yoga, it is clear that the Divine is celebrated and focused upon. Devotion is part of the meaning of the Sanskrit word bhakti. Or perhaps Jivamukti yoga, which advocates vegetarianism, devotion to God and Sanskrit chanting, is the yoga they refer to. Is this what so many are afraid will destroy their faith? No, because fear often does not allow people to even explore this far. The practice of yoga is lumped together as one “odd Eastern religious sort of thing”. Furthermore, it seems as though some are not afraid of lack of faith, but the “wrong” faith. Western religious leaders may be afraid of losing practitioners to the “wrong” God. If this is indeed their concern, there are several schools of yoga which will allow the practitioner to continue with their previous belief system all while reaping the rewards of this ancient tradition.
Such a complex issue deserves careful consideration. For us to draw a conclusion about anything, understanding must be strived for. Ignorance in any form will further perpetuate miscommunication and discord. Yoga, as “union” can bring us together from all walks of life and backgrounds through the commonality of the human experience. This, in part, is its beauty.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Duality of consciousness

"In it's true state consciousness is naked, immaculate, clear, vacuous, transparent, timeless, beyond all conditions. O Nobly Born, remember the pure open sky of your own true nature."-Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation

In quantum mechanics the "double-slit" experiment was revolutionary, showing that the particle and wave nature of light and energy could not be separated. Simply put, a light source is shone onto a screen through a metal plate with either one or two parallel slits. Particles were expected to behave the same as large scale matter, after being shot through the slit they would form a replicated pattern in the same shape as the slit or slits they were shot through. So for example, being shot through one slit would produce a | shape on the screen and through two slits a || pattern. Now comes the strange part... When the light was shown through the single opening, the pattern was as expected, a single line on the screen. However when the second opening was added, the screen showed about NINE lines on the screen, in what as known as an interference pattern. How could this be possible with only two openings? What were the particles "interfering" with? To remedy the possibility that the photons were bouncing off each other, they experimentors decided to shoot the photons through individually. The result? Another interference pattern. What the hell was happening? The particles were behaving as a wave, entering both slits and interfering with itself, like waves of water.
Now the strangest part came when a measuring device was added to see exactly what the intereference looked like. As soon as it was added the photons went back to acting like little particles. What showed up on the screen? ||
After the observer was added into the equation the photon "altered" it's behavior in what as known as the collapse of the wave function.
What does this have to do with our daily life? In Buddhist psychology the nature of consciousness is viewed in this same dualistic nature.
Consciousness in its wave like nature
• Open
• Transparent
• Unbounded
• Timeless
• Unborn, undying

Consciousness in its particle like nature
• Momentary
• Flavored by mental states
• Conditional
• Rapid
• Registering a sense experience
• Conditioned by the past
In the previous two descriptions from The Wise Heart, the layers of our consciousness are layed out.
The transient ever-changing experiences of emotions are like particles, and the consciousness that contains all our life experience are like waves. The ever changing flow of experiences versus that which is aware of them.
For example, how often are we absorbed in the stream of consciousness thoughts that go through our head all day? We often mistake these thoughts for our awareness, when really they are like scenes on a movie screen, when the true source is in the back of the theater. Sometimes it seems impossible to turn them off. This second part of our awareness that is so often ignored, especially in Western society, is the flowing "observer" of our lives. Neither is any better or worse than the other, but rather two parts of a whole, giving meaning to the other through their opposition.

"In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it."

Martin Rees