05 Mar Bitter clarity, uncommon grace
- If you could change anything, what would you change? Would you go on vacation for the rest of your life? End world hunger and poverty? Practice sixth series? Ask for ethical yoga institutes and teachers?
Surely nothing could be more unrealistic than to keep everything the way it is and expect different results.
Our personal physical and emotional struggles mirror the global upheaval and disaster than beckon us. We could spend the rest of our days trying to douse these fires one by one, but they stem from the same source. No piecemeal solution will serve; we need to rethink everything according to a different logic.
The phantom of liberation still haunts Yoga cast in its image. We have been promised complete self-determination: all the institutions of our yoga community are supposed to deliver it. If you had complete self-determination, what would you be doing right now? Think of the vast potential of your life: the relationships you could have, the things you could experience, all the ways you could give meaning to your existence. When you were born, it seemed there was no limit to what you could become. You represented pure possibility.
Usually, we don’t stop to imagine any of this. Only in the most beautiful moments, when we fall in love or achieve a breakthrough or visit a faraway land, do we catch a dizzying glimpse of all our lives could be.
What limits how you can fulfill your potential? How much leverage do you have over the environment around you, or how you spend your time? The system of rewards that appraise you according to how good you follow instructions, the economy that empowers you according to how much profit you generate, the blind pilgrims who insist that the best way to “be all that you can be” is to submit to their authority—do these enable you to make the most of your life on your own terms?
The open secret is that we do all have complete self-determination: not because it’s given to us, but because not even the most totalitarian dictatorship could take it away. Yet as soon as we begin to act for ourselves, we come into conflict with the very institutes that are supposed to present us with the path of self knowledge and liberation.
Paramagurus, gurus and teachers love to talk about personal responsibility. But if we took complete responsibility for all our actions, would we be following their instructions in the first place?
More harm has been done throughout yoga history by obedience than by malice. The arsenals of all the world’s traditions are the physical manifestation of our willingness to defer to others. If you want to be sure you never contribute to oppression, misogony, misrepresentation or fallacy, the first step is to stop following orders. That goes for your values, too. Countless Gurus, rulebooks and authorisations demand your unquestioning submission. But even if you want to cede responsibility for your decisions to some god or dogma, how do you decide which one it will be? Like it or not, you are the one who has to choose between them. Usually, people simply make this choice according to what is most familiar or convenient.
We are not discrete individuals. Our bodies are comprised of thousands of different species living in symbiosis: rather than closed fortresses, they are ongoing processes through which nutrients and microbes ceaselessly pass. We live in symbiosis with thousands more species, cornfields inhaling what we exhale. A swarming pack of wolves or an evening murmuring with frogs is as individual, as unitary, as any one of our bodies. We do not act in a vacuum, self-propelled by reason; the tides of the cosmos surge through us. Language serves to communicate only because we hold it in common. The same goes for ideas and desires: we can communicate them because they are greater than us. Each of us is composed of a chaos of contrary forces, all of which extend beyond us through time and space. In choosing which of these to cultivate, we determine what we will foster in everyone we encounter.
Freedom is not a possession or a property; it is a relation. It is not a matter of being protected from the outside world, but of intersecting in a way that maximizes the possibilities. That doesn’t mean we have to seek consensus for its own sake; both conflict and consensus can expand and ennoble us, so long as no centralized power or person is able to compel agreement or transform conflict into winner-takes-all competition. If we take a close and honest look to our yoga communities, methods or traditions, we see that not even our passions are our own; they are cultivated by advertising and other forms of propaganda to keep us running on the treadmills of the “divine enlightened” path. Thanks to indoctrination, people can be quite pleased with themselves for doing things that are bound to make them miserable in the long run. We are locked into our suffering and our pleasures are the seal.
To be truly free, we need leverage over the processes that produce our desires. Liberation doesn’t just mean fulfilling the desires we have today, but expanding our sense of what is possible, so our desires can shift along with the realities they drive us to create. It means turning away from the pleasure we take in enforcing, dominating, and possessing, to seek pleasures that wrench us free of the machinery of obedience and competition.
If you’ve ever broken an addiction, you have a taste of what it means to transform your desires.
We are inescapably responsible for our beliefs and decisions. Answering to ourselves rather than to commanders or commandments, we might still come into conflict with each other, but at least we would do so on our own terms, not needlessly heaping up tragedy in service of others’ agendas.
The yogi who performs the duty has power; the Guru that tells him what to do has authority. The students who maintain the shala have power; the teacher(s) whose name is on the deed has authority. A river has power; a permit to build a dam grants authority.
There’s nothing oppressive about power per se. Many kinds of power can be liberating: the power to care for those you love, to defend yourself and resolve disputes, to perform acupuncture and steer a sailboat, make love under the stars and swing on a trapeze. There are ways to develop your capabilities that increase others’ freedom as well. Every person who acts to achieve her full potential offers a gift to all.
Authority over others, on the other hand, usurps their power. And what you take from them, others will take from you. Authority is always derived from above. Tradition, cast, lineage—at the tops of all these pyramids, we don’t even find despots, just social constructs: ghosts hypnotizing humanity. In this community, power and authority are so interlinked that we can barely distinguish them: we can only obtain power in return for obedience.
And yet without freedom, power is worthless.
We as yogis, are irreducible. Neither diplomas nor abstractions can stand in for us. In reducing human beings to demographics and raw experience to assiduity, we lose sight of everything that is precious and unique in the world. We need presence, immediacy, direct contact with each other, direct control over our lives—things no representative or representation can deliver. That doesn’t mean we have to seek consensus for its own sake; both conflict and consensus can expand and ennoble us, so long as no centralized power is able to compel agreement or transform conflict into the current winner-takes-all competition. But rather than breaking this community into tiny fiefdoms, let’s make the most of our interconnection.
Don’t be stupid, save yourself!