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

Swenson on enlightenment: Leave things better than you find them

David Swenson breaks up today’s Guru Purnima theme by posting about the ever-illusive idea of enlightenment.

He begins with a joke that should be familiar to Confluence attendees (and perhaps those who have taken a workshop with him):

A student once asked me: Are you enlightened? 
My answer: If I am it is a big disappointment!

David then provides a thorough, but also simple and short, definition of “being enlightened”:

Expanding upon that definition we could say that the truly enlightened individual is one that is grossly absorbed in the activities and duties of their daily life. Living to the fullest extent their true purpose. With such enlightened activities as getting their children dressed and ready for school. Approaching their job and all actions and encounters that each day has to offer with the greatest of integrity and presence. If truly enlightened the individual does not need to disengage from apparently mundane activities but rather every action becomes an expression of a truly deep understanding of the eternal spiritual nature of all beings and the common inner-connection we all share through the thread of spirit that permeates the fabric of life.

Laying things out simply and clearly definitely is one hallmark of David’s teaching; Bobbie’s been looking through his essential instructional manual lately, and it is remarkably clear, even when describing some of the more tricky parts of the asana practice. (I.e. you get into that pose how?) He brings that same clarity to this post.

He also asks a very telling question at its end. But you’ll have to check it out to find out what it is.

Posted by Steve

Taking yoga from enlightenment to just health

A few days ago, I suggested one very good reason not to do Ashtanga: It will mess with your insides. (The “insides” you can’t really find unless you use your imagination or expand your consciousness.)

'The Beauty of Enlightenment,' via

That, of course, is the point to yoga, if you boil it down to its overly nitty-gritty.

But we all also know that a lot of the yoga classes and yoga teachers in America aren’t focused much, if at all, on the subtle body. It’s all asana, all the time. (Yes, as Tim Miller might say, that gives us plenty of times to make asanas of ourselves.) It’s about sculpted abs, a taunt butt and lean muscles.

In other words, in America yoga pretty much equals asana (stretches, poses, maybe some movement). How else would you explain what “paddleboard yoga” or “anti-gravity yoga” are? Any chance those get toward Dhyana? (Don’t believe they exist? Internet search, my friend.)

The question this focus poses is: Is yoga in America, in the West, losing part of its core?

That’s the subject of yet another Huffington Post piece (I promise we aren’t going to link to HuffPo every day, and the last one was for a good cause!), this one by Philip Goldberg, author of “America Veda.” In it, he writes:

That yoga might become permanently identified with asana alone troubles many practitioners and teachers. It concerns me too, but I think it is unlikely to happen. For one thing, yoga’s deeper, more profound purpose is so compelling, so enticing, so embedded in the core of our being, that a large percentage of practitioners find their way to it, regardless of their initial motivation. For another, leaders in the yoga community are taking steps to ensure that the full array of yogic teachings remains in the forefront, even while accommodating the immediate needs and desires of beginning students.

He goes on to suggest that some people (i.e. Yoga Alliance) are considering a two-step sort of accreditation (let’s save the argument about that subject for another day): one is for people specializing in the physical side of yoga and another for those who have a mastery of all eight limbs of yoga.

He actually writes “those with a firm grasp of all eight limbs of classical yoga.” So, quick digression. I know the intent of this. But, then I think: Wait, who is going to judge that? What’s the test for having a “firm grasp” of Samadhi, let alone Dhyana? Would some of the celebrity yogis get this, shall we say, “higher” level of accreditation? What if Seane Corn gets it, but Shiva Rea doesn’t?

And: Who judges?

OK, I know that’s not the real intent; we are talking practicality here, we’re talking capitalism. If you’ve studied Patanjali and are able to discuss the Vedas and maybe the symbolic meaning of the Ramayana, you’ll probably be eligible for the “eight-limb OK.”

My point is: Would that really address the issue? Who would the audience be for this accreditation? And would it really define “true yoga” for “asana yoga”?

Posted by Steve