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Who Invited Onan? The Continental Conundrum of Brahmacharya November 3, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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While preparing his monologue for a roast of Mr. Burns, Homer Simpson writes, “Now I’m not saying Mr. Burns is incontinent…” To which Bart laughs and responds, “Incontinent. Too rich!” Ever sensible, Lisa comments from the peanut gallery, “Does either of you know what ‘incontinent’ means?” And Homer retorts, “Lisa, don’t spoil our fun.”

Most of us don’t know what ‘incontinent’ means. I know I don’t. I’m not sure where the line lies — for any activity — between continent and incontinent. For example, as disgusting as they are to the touch, smell, and taste, I love Moon Pies (chocolate- and vanilla-flavored only; no banana, please). Moon pies being as objectionable as they are, though, should a one-time indulgence be considered incontinent? Four times out of five, I’ll feel sick enough to regret having eaten the Moon Pie, so eighty percent of the time, my body tells me that, indeed, 1 Moon Pie represents incontinence. But that still implies that it’s not incontinent twenty percent of the time. Might there be a sliding scale, then, that governs the concept of continence depending on a given time and place — especially since, as far as Moon Pies are concerned, I won’t know if it’s an “eighty” or a “twenty” until after the act of potential incontinence has been perpetrated?

Patanjali’s fourth yama is brahmacharya, which is roughly interpreted as sexual continence. According to the Yoga Sutras, one who practices brahmacharya finds vitality and vigor (“By one established in continence, vigor is gained.”)

As a yama, brahmacharya isn’t parallel to the other four. It’s the only one that’s not self-evident; that is, to understand and to practice brahmacharya, one first needs to grasp the intellectual concept of “continence.” Not harming, not lying, and not stealing are simple notions to understand and behaviors to prosecute; you either engage in them or you don’t. Greedlessness, though a bit more subjective, is also a fairly straightforward idea; if you’re not using everything you have, then you have more than you need.

But continence? This one requires a very human touch, because determining when you’ve behaved incontinently is an intellectual construct. It demands that we stand in judgment, evaluating evidence in order to determine the difference between much and too much. And that adverb “too” is a tricky one. One man’s violence is every man’s violence, but incontinence varies from being to being. And sexual incontinence is even more confusing.

In the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, men are advised to conserve their semen: “A man’s semen can be controlled by the mind and control of semen is lifegiving. Therefore, his semen and mind should be controlled and conserved.” Now, in the twenty-first century, it seems quite archaic and ignorant to conflate semen with sexual energy, something along the lines of advising a man to consume milk after sex in order to “replace what he’s lost.” A man produces 1,500 spermatozoa per second. When a man ejaculates, he releases 280 million sperm, give or take — about two days’ work for the gamete manufacturers in the testes. So for most men, semen and sperm are not exactly in short supply, and one is never in danger of squandering his “seed” in the Biblical, Onan sense of the word.

While I understand the danger of interpreting yogic texts literally — indeed, Sri Swami Satchidananda advises against just that in his translation of the Yoga Sutras — the HYP’s almost mathematical connection between one’s sperm count and one’s vitality begs for scientific exegesis. It’s bizarre to use something as grossly physical as one’s semen reserves as an “index” for something so esoterically spiritual like vitality. It’s like divining one’s morality by measuring the length of his hair. Rarely is yogic philosophy so unilaterally directed towards physiology, and therefore so open to scientific skepticism. Prana, for example, is far removed from the realm of scientific inquiry; “life force” can’t be measured — unit by unit, cell by cell — in a lab. I’d accept an explanation that connected sexual energy to something intangible like prana, but that’s not the one I’m given in shastra.

So how do I practice brahmacharya? In my day-to-day life, I try to fold brahmacharya into my practice of ahimsa. In my conception of the yamas, sexual abuse and sexual assault fall under the jurisdiction of ahimsa, the salient feature of a sex crime being the sex crime itself, not its correlative ejaculation. And adultery can be seen (to the more chauvinistic among us) as an asteya issue or again, (to the more equality-oriented) a question of ahimsa.

Unlike the other yamas, I approach brahmacharya from a positive standpoint. In my practice of asteya, I choose not to steal. But for brahmacharya, since I know my sexual energy cannot be “squandered,” I strive to employ it constructively. Brahmacharya, then, encourages mindfulness, because while one can practically sleepwalk through not harming, cheating, stealing, or coveting, one must be attentive when determining where to best place his sexual energy.

Sexual energy represents our creative impulse, but that “creativity” isn’t just the capacity to reproduce. Instead, brahmacharya asks that we be creative in our application of that energy, that we don’t just “hold it in,” but rather find a constructive, beneficial outlet for it. Indeed, we can use brahmacharya not to construct things anew, but to reconstruct our actions for the better. Brahmacharya brings out our internal editor; listen to her and spread your love.

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Can samadhi be reconciled with reality? July 12, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Samadhi is a frightening concept. To the uninitiated, it hovers somewhere in the distance, tantalizing and seductive, a state of bliss and harmony so unattainable as to be cast aside and ignored. It feels trillions of miles away from jobs and paychecks, MetroCards and express trains, and even rubbery Jade Yoga mats and slick bamboo floors. In the middle of a sweaty, frustrating day, the super-consciousness promised by samadhi can seem completely alien to modern life. Moreover, as it is described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, samadhi can even seem undesirable–something, perhaps, to store away in the “maybe later” section of one’s mind. I mean, do they still stage the World Cup in samadhi? Can I still read Vanity Fair?

Volkswagen

I'm not so sure about this...

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra I.50 states, “The perception gained in nirvicara samadhi through rtam-bhara prajna or intuitive knowledge transcends all normal perception,  both in intensity and extent.” Worldy pettiness, then, and the trivial comings, goings, and fixations of life are subsumed by samadhi; they are overwhelmed by the contentment and bliss of super-consciousness and their pettiness and triviality become manifest.  Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati comments, “Experience born from the higher state, samadhi, due to intuitive knowledge, effects personality changes. These personality changes check all other habits, experiences, and impressions which lead to lower states. Impressions of samadhi stand in the way of other impressions.”

Now, for one struggling mightily to surmount the klesha of raga, attachment, the notion of destroying his attraction to worldly things can potentially seem like a contraindication of samadhi! Though a man who derives pleasure from, say, obsessively collecting antique firearms would benefit terrifically from ascending to a state of samadhi (and therefore ridding himself of his obsession with guns), he might view the loss of such a pleasure-bringing activity with fear and loathing (Much as I fear a blissful future that exists without the World Cup). He might not be able to conceive of a world in which he’s not an avid collector of Colts and Winchesters and Smith & Wessons.

How often, after all, does one hear another dreamily posit that he absolutely can’t–and won’t–live in a world in which he can’t enjoy, say, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream? Or autumn Sundays with the NFL? Or even daily asana practice? We can even perceive the potential loss of those activities and objects that distract us from the drudgery of everyday life as something to be avoided at all costs. If we don’t trust Patanjali–that is, if we value our own, perceptions and interpretations of the world over those that yoga teaches us are real and true–we won’t see the bliss of samadhi as an improvement over the “bliss” we get from material things.

Since beginning my yoga practice in 2008, I’ve struggled with the notion of super-consciousness. When I practice yoga, I don’t like to see myself as a workhorse who’s merely following the dangling carrot held by his master. And during my teacher training especially, through eighteen-hour days and interminable Sanskrit lessons, I struggled even more. If this were something I really wanted, I would think, then why am I looking forward to my day off? What if the samadhi I’m being sold isn’t the samadhi that I want to buy?

La Furia Roja

These guys seem pretty blissed out to me.

Ultimately, I’ve come to understand that the potential of super-consciousness is irrelevant to my life and to my practice. My yogic alchemy, I think, is to transform me from a driver to a passenger on the road of life (Apologies to Volkswagen, who once stressed, “Drivers Wanted.” I think the notion of “driving” one’s life is bullshit.) When I’m not so concerned with explicitly conducting the course of my life–to Whole Foods, to Rima’s 3:00 Wednesday class at Jivamukti–or to the state of samadhi–then I can appreciate the world around me. I can see others as fellow passengers and not fly into a road rage when they jostle and distract me from what I think I’m supposed to be doing.

Consciousness is as real or imagined as super-consciousness. There is fulfillment to be found in both, as long as you determine not to fixate on either. And who knows–maybe the United States has a chance of actually winning a samadhi-staged World Cup.

There are no yoga cops: coming to terms with your sadhana June 29, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m not immune to negativity and disenchantment, and if I’m not careful, I can lapse into outright cynicism. About three weeks into my Jivamukti Teacher Training in Rhinebeck, N.Y., I found myself becoming increasingly disillusioned with what I was being taught. There was too much unquestioned reverence, I thought. There wasn’t enough room for debate and dissent. There were short answers given to questions that guys like Rumi, Thomas Aquinas, and Keith Richards had spent lifetimes pondering.

Whether it was the string of 18-hour days; the never-ending kale, collard-greens, and lentils buffet at the dining hall; or the upper-respiratory bug that had been plaguing me since the second week, I’d just about had it. Maybe I’d heard the word “guru-ji” one too many times. Whatever it was, for a couple of days, I crossed over the dark side and indulged my inner cynic.

We were made to learn, for example, a list of ten ways a student can honor his teacher. It was all perfectly respectful and reasonable, but from my hole on the dark side, I saw it as Orwellian. I spitefully let my imagination carry me away to North Korea. Number 1, for example, instructs a student to use honorifics when referring to or addressing his teacher, which I took as the equivalent of referring to the long dead Kim Il-sung as “Great Leader” and to his megalomaniacal son, Kim Jong-il, as “Dear Leader.” Number 8 directs a student to ask his teacher to stay in his life, which to me sounded analogous to supporting the hereditary Stalinist dynasty that the Kims had established in Pyongyang. And number 9 charges a student to pay attention when his teacher teaches, to not let the mind wander. Admittedly, I thought USSR, not North Korea, on this one, but the enjoinment nevertheless reminded me of those apparatchiks whom Stalin had sent to the gulag for, allegedly, not laughing at his jokes or for being the first to sit down during a 30-minute standing ovation. Yes, for these and every other item on the list, I’d listed their totalitarian corollaries in my notebook.

As training crept by and my imagination ran rampant, I felt more and more like an outcast, a heterodox dissident living on borrowed time until the “Yoga Police” ferreted me out and banished me from Jivamukti. I even designed a medallion for the Yoga Police Department, which my roommate quickly christened the “Bitter Badge.”

The "Bitter Badge"

But mercifully, the truth dawned on me soon thereafter: There are no “Yoga Cops.”

My practice—and yours—are personal journeys, private experiences. One’s entire sadhana is, in effect, carried out entirely behind the closed doors of one’s body, mind, and soul. One student’s maddeningly rigorous regimen of asana is no better or worse, no more right or wrong, than another’s hours of devotional chanting. Built into yoga’s existential paradox—that it is both the end of the journey and the journey itself—is the space for you to define it how it benefits you—and the people with whom you share your life—the most, and the most joyfully.

Karma teaches us that the intention behind an action is far more resonant than is the action itself; indeed, one’s intention is a transformative agent, the reason behind one’s behavior and the mold into which the wet plaster of action hardens into result. When I set aside my cynicism—and, alas, handed in the Bitter Badge—I found my intention to be no less devotional, no less pure than my fellow trainees. After all, though we had different bodies, different expressions of different asanas,  we were all striving in Rhinebeck for the same thing; that is, the teaching tools and expertise required to instruct others onto their own paths. We were taught to respect our students’ journeys, just as our teachers respected ours. Even if the Yoga Cops had raided my room, they’d have found woefully little evidence to arrest me of any yogic “crime.”

When I was in middle school in Oregon in the early nineties, the skaters would spare no opportunity to slap a “Skateboarding is not a crime” bumper sticker on any accessible flat surface, even the backboards of basketball hoops. After my imaginary run-in with the Yoga Cops, I finally figured out what they meant: no matter what others think of it, skateboarding is definitely not a crime. Neither is your yoga practice.

Infernos & assholes: why I practice yoga June 27, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto I.

Dante was thirty-five when he went on his fact-finding mission into hell. Well, I got the jump on him by a good seven years.

I started practicing yoga a month after my twenty-eighth birthday in 2008, primarily as a way to get away from assholes. I’d encounter them every day, on the subway and the sidewalk, at the office and at parties. They were everywhere, conspiring, it seemed, to make my world a touch uglier, my life a shade less pleasant. Some people would push onto the train without waiting for alighting passengers to get off; when this happened to me, I saw it is a virtual license to throw up my elbows and deliver a few forearm shivers to the jerks who weren’t waiting their turn. My boss chain-smoked Parliament Light after Parliament Light in his office, operating under the notion that if his door was merely cracked instead of wide-open, then no one else could breath his exhaust. This I took as license slack off and stop working at 3:30 or 4, time to declare the brain too saturated with carbon monoxide to be of any further creative use.

To get through those days, I’d taken to abusing my clonazepam prescription, interpreting “one tablet as needed for anxiety” to mean “two tablets every day after lunch.” The Simon’s Little Helpers could make sixty minutes feel like forty-five (forty on an empty stomach), and they helped reinforce a general “Who gives a shit?” attitude whenever the hairs in my nostrils bristled in protest at the toxic atmosphere of that office. For anyone who hasn’t spent eight consecutive hours trapped inside a smoke-filled office, the traditional “five o’clock feeling” is quite unique, similar to the way you might feel after eating an entire jar of dill pickles–and drinking all the brine–only expansive enough to engulf the entire body and not just your stomach. It also arrives at 10:30 in the morning. Five days a week, I left work feeling pickled and poisoned, soaked in formaldehyde, cyanide, and misery.

In Spring 2008, I started going to Jivamukti Yoga Center, which was just a five minute walk from work. After my four-week Beginner Basics program, once a week became twice, and twice became four times. Practice days soon outnumbered rest days, rest days became less and less satisfying. And then, slowly, it dawned on me: I was an asshole, too! Everyone in my life was an insensitive prick because I had become one myself.

My transformation began that summer at Jivamukti. I listened to my teachers, did everything they asked (at least in class). I showed up after work every night, eager to detoxify and unpickle my physical body. After a few weeks, my psychology began to follow. Jivamukti Yoga is ardent in its belief that every soul is a holy being, and I slowly began to see myself as such. As I squeezed and sweated out the arsenic, ammonia, and soot that each day would permeate my body, I rid myself of feelings of inadequacy, of loneliness and shame. Dharma talk after dharma talk, headstand after headstand, Warrior II after Warrior II, I could understand my holiness as natural and inevitable. I could touch my toes! I could stand on my head!

Eventually, I could patiently abide subway insensitivity! And an inconsiderate smoker could be a teacher and inspiration, an opportunity to embrace as holy and valuable even the most toxic examples of foulness. Jivamukti became–and remains–my land of Katroo, Dr. Seuss’s magical birthday-land where you’re told, “Today you are You,/ That is truer than true./ There is no one alive who is Youer than You!”

The assholes disappeared from my life. Oh, inconsiderate souls still abound, and reprehensible behavior is everywhere. But the assholes, well they’ve left the building. Yoga has made me holy, and my world whole.

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