Delving into the ‘dark side of enlightenment’

This NPR interview Sunday morning caught my ear from the moment it touched on what sounds like India Syndrome:

Back in 2006, he was leading a program for American students in India. They learned about Buddhism, practiced meditation, and one day, they undertook a particularly dark exercise: It involved imagining themselves as decaying corpses.

Afterwards, one of his brightest students told him it was the most profound experience of her life. That night, she described herself in her journal as a “bodhisattva,” just before jumping to her death from the roof of the retreat center. “And this, to me, was this horrifying experience,” Carney says. “How could something that is so wonderful, how could go so terribly wrong? I spent the next six years collecting journals of other people who’d had similar experiences. And then when I found out about Ian Thorson’s death in 2012, I knew that I wanted to tell the story of spiritual sickness through his eyes.”

NPR touts this as the “dark side of enlightenment,” which is as good a way to sum it up as I can think of. I’ve heard similar stories, including ones seemingly resulting from untethered pranayama.

The interview, of course, is tied to a book, and the author Scott Carney makes one particularly valuable point:

And I believe that very intensive meditation might be able to accentuate some of these underlying proclivities in us, and push us over the edge. It’s a problem that we know about in the traditions and yet you don’t really talk about it in the community at large, because I think a lot of people feel that if you mention that there’s this dark side to meditation, that you’re undercutting the very credibility of the techniques in the first place. But I don’t understand why we can’t have both, right? Why can’t we say, these things can be wonderfully good for you, but maybe like a drug, it’s better thought of as powerful, and used in a way that is responsible.

That sounds pretty reasonable to me.

Posted by Steve

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Deciding if the atman or non-atman wins, with Richard Freeman

Noon Colorado time today (so maybe 30 or so minutes from when this posts), registration opens up for Richard Freeman’s week-long “Advanced Intensive” in June — and not at the Yoga Workshop, but in Santa Fe.

Bringing together yoga and Buddhism, it sounds… pretty mind-blowing:

Join Richard and Mary along with their dear friend and beloved teacher, Joan Halifax, at this remarkable residential retreat at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Though yoga and Buddhism have evolved into two distinct disciplines, they stem from common roots and their teachings remain some of the most accessible and profound. In this 5-day intensive we will explore differences and complementary concepts within these two classical systems as reflected in asana practice, as well as through study and chanting of traditional texts.

Historically yoga and Buddhism have opposed, stolen from and have even learned from each other. On the surface they seem to be based on conflicting axioms. Buddhists say that there is no self or atman. Hindu yogis say that the Self or atman is all that there is. Who’s right? By looking at the foundational teachings of early Buddhism, juxtaposed with the early Samkhya and Vedanta of the Upanisads, we will see if the atman or non-atman wins. Then we will consider Advaita Vedanta and the Middle Path of Mahayana Buddhism to see just how much these schools have helped each other to evolve.

Check out more information at the link above, including the prices. Exact dates are June 3-7, 2015.

This is a subject I was recently pondering. So, this is truly tempting.

Posted by Steve

The corrupting of mindfulness and yoga

A while back we posted about Google’s use of mindfulness training.

Now, as if in answer, and not in a friendly, hey that’s great kind of way, comes this essay in MacLean’s. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan’s website for the find.) You can tell that from this excerpt:

The embrace of mindfulness by a distracted, stressed, Lululemon-wearing, iPhone-addicted culture isn’t surprising: it combines Zen chic with the scientific imprimatur of the New England Journal of Medicine. Microbiologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, famed for his mindfulness meditation seminars, is credited with bringing the practice into health care: his eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction training program, established at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1995, is now taught in more than 200 hospitals. Its efficacy is supported by a growing body of scientific research, including studies that show it can alter brain patterns and behaviour, and be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild depression.

That’s pretty much the tone.

But beyond that, what’s fascinating is how it traces the history of “mindfulness training,” which the author claims doesn’t go back all that far:

Not everyone views the current path as enlightened, however. Donald Lopez, a professor of Buddhist and Tibetan studies at the University of Michigan, calls “secular Buddhism” an oxymoron: “Buddhism has always been a religion,” he says. “To see it as a way of life is a modern conceit that disparages the lives and religious practices of Buddhists over thousands of years.” The author of The Scientific Buddha, published in 2012, says belief that “mindfulness” is an ancient Buddhist practice is a fallacy: “There’s a cachet that comes from saying some ancient sage a millennium ago in India invented these things,” he says. Lopez traces mindfulness as we know it to a quest to preserve Buddhism in Burma after the British occuptation in the 19th century; they deposed the king and destroyed the hierarchical Buddhist institution: “Some monks saw the British arrival as a sign of approaching apocalypse,” he says. “So they disseminated Buddhist philosophy and practice through the population.” That included meditation, traditionally done only by monks. “It was totally about self-preservation.”

You may be on to my point at this point. That sounds like another version of the yoga-religion debate, with the nice twist of yoga’s commercialism / Western embrace thrown in for good measure along with the various notions of the origins of modern asanas as some type of reaction to British colonialism.

And we can take it one step further:

American Zen teacher, academic and author David Loy agrees. Loy recently posted online a letter he’d written to Harvard professor William George, an advocate of mindfulness in the corporate realm. Loy took issue with George sitting on the boards of Goldman Sachs, Novartis and Exxon Mobil, corporations that have been accused of ethical-practices breaches. In an interview with Maclean’s, Loy said he’s pleased mindfulness is helping so many people reduce anxiety and pain. “And if somebody wants to do better on their SATs [U.S. college-admission tests], I have no objection to that,” he says. But he sees a blurring taking place: “The real focus of Buddhism is on awakening, on coming to some insight or wisdom about our true nature. Without that, we can’t get at the real source of our dukkha, or suffering,” he says. Institutionaldukkha exists, as well. “The mindfulness movement is good for adjusting certain types of dukkha, but from the Buddhist perspective, it’s not addressing the most deep-rooted and problematical forms of dukkha. In fact, it seems to be reinforcing the kind of self-centred individualism that seems to be our more basic problem.”

Substitute the yamas and niyamas in there, and you have a way of thinking about how yoga is spreading — perhaps especially in the top yoga cities in America.

Posted by Steve

Freeman shows off his Buddhist side

Bobbie would be the better one to untangle the threads of Richard Freeman’s latest “Ask the Experts”, but I think she’s down the rabbit hole of some other writing, so I will have to try. (Think more Jon Stewart’s Moment of Zen than the Dalai Lama’s.)

Here’s Freeman (I usually try to give just a part of it, to encourage your heading to his site, but this one is hard to disentangle — see the above):

What’s the best way to dis-entangle bodily sensation from the consciousness aspect of prana-shakti — in order to avoid becoming egoically identified with the physical and/or subtle body?

– Beth

If you look at bodily sensation as being composed of separate, individual segments and things, then the vijnana will create images and stories about those bodily sensations and in that creation it is creating a theoretical observer (the ego) who is attracted to or repulsed by those sensations. This leads to identification with the body, which is a miserable state founded in confusion.

The proper practice is to watch the sensations arise and fall and to watch any tendency to wander away from those sensations in thinking. Some schools would say that bodily sensation is empty of self. Other schools would say that bodily sensation is prana, which is shakti, which is empty.

– Richard

That emphasis on “watching” is why I suggest that Richard is showing off his Buddhist side; of course, there must be some irony to “showing off” a Buddhist nature. (There’s also some irony to this feature being “Ask the Experts” for similar reasons.)

As I roll his answer around a bit, I’m finding a couple of paths out of it. One is the “simple” Buddhist line I suggest in the above paragraph: If you just watch what’s happening, you won’t get attached. (Sounds similar to Krishna’s entreaties to act without concerns for the results.) Then there’s another, which describes bodily sensation as not something from which one need not be disentangled. If it is empty of self or is prana, then what is there to avoid?

The stumbling point, the potential trouble, isn’t with the body. It’s with whatever is thinking it needs to avoid becoming entangled with the body.

Richard may have slyly answered the confusion behind the question. Maybe?

Posted by Steve

Here’s a must-read Richard Freeman interview

There’s an interview with Richard Freeman that’s up at Wild Yogi, and it is a must read.

Via Wild Yogi

Click on the link to get it all. Here’s just a taste:

And what made you change your way? Why did you change the school of yoga?
Richard: Meeting Pattabhi Jois made me change the school. He gave me more things to do internally, but I don’t think that I have left Iyengar, because my way of doing Ashtanga yoga is very internal.
This is what I do: I take two systems and put them together and so, you know, when, people think I do Ashtanga yoga, what they are thinking is not really same thing that I am doing.
[snip]
Many Western teachers start giving meditation of Vipasana, a Buddhist meditation, while traditional Indian yoga has it’s of meditation techniques. What can be the reason, when we cannot align asana, pranayama, and meditation into one lineage?
Richard: I think maybe it’s fine. Because if you are going to practice meditation in Hindu lineage you are probably going to be chanting a specific mantra that goes around a Deity, in other words you have to believe in Deity, and you would have to go very deeply into that specific technique to get to deeper stages of meditation. In Buddhist tradition they are much more skilled in teaching meditation just for what it is, so it’s much more in line with the way that Yoga Sutra teach this meditation. So, I think, the introduction of Buddhist meditation techniques into the basically Hindu yoga is cool. It’s actually good, because I think it’s like a revival or reawakening of Hindu or Indian philosophy through the Buddhist practices. I have a friend, who says that Buddhism is really Hinduism that has been simplified down so that it could be exported, so that anyone could do it because you become free, free of your religious believes. And from my experience Buddhists have practices that are really simple, very row, and it really helps. I am very grateful to my Buddhist teacher. So, if people really want to get into a deep and grounded meditation, probably the best thing for them is the Buddhist teacher, or someone that had been influenced by Indian or Hindu teachers and that have been through revivalism understanding of a Buddhist tradition.
[snip]
What are your own personal goals in yoga currently?
Richard: My goals, besides becoming a more simple teacher and more effective one, are… I am trying to refine my own pranayama practice, and my asana practice that I am working on. Because I am getting older I have to be more precise in how I do asana, and then my meditation practice is very important. And I am enthusiastic to keep meditating, that’s something that is valuable for me. And then, I’ll probably die, sooner or later. I am coming up)
Those are just a few highlights. There’s a lot more there, including examples of his dry humor that I find tremendously endearing.
Posted by Steve