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Satya: The Inherent Truth of Existence October 25, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Satya – truthfulness – is the second of the five yamas, or restrictions, outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. Shri Brahmananda Saraswati translates, “When the yogi is firmly established in satya… he or she obtains the fruit of actions without effort” (2.36).

New Mexicans call places the darndest things.

Patanjali seems to define truth-telling as some kind of get-rich-quick scheme: accomplishment without effort. It’s a couch potato’s – or stoner’s — greatest dream. Telling the truth, after all, isn’t really all that difficult – it requires much more energy to invent and perpetuate a lie than it does to report that which you’ve observed as truth – and if the end result is satisfaction without effort, well, how is that not a practical no-brainer? Yet still, people lie and cheat, fabricate and obfuscate. So it can’t really be that simple.

For an explanation, I turned (as I have before) to Walt Whitman. “Great is the quality of truth in man;” he writes.

The quality of truth in man supports itself through all changes,
It is inevitably in the man – he and it are in love, and never leave each other.

The truth in man is no dictum, it is vital as eyesight;
If there be any Soul, there is truth – if there be man or woman there is truth – if there be physical or moral, there is truth;
If there be equilibrium or volition, there is truth – if there be things at all upon the earth, there is truth

O truth of the earth! I am determin’d to press my way toward you;
Sound your voice! I scale mountains, or dive in the sea after you.

Whitman doesn’t even conceive of a universe in which nontruth exists. After all, how could it? How could something be – and not be truthful? A lying politician is still, by nature and by definition, a politician. He is still alive, still human, still practicing politics; his words and actions cannot change the true fundamentality of what he is. It’s on this point that nineteenth century American poet and 2,000-year-old Indian sage intersect.

For Patanjali and Whitman, language doesn’t represent an act separate from existing; that is, saying and being are the same thing. I may be spouting a lie with my lips, but I – as a human being, as an object on this planet – still exist as me in my most fundamental state. I’m saying words that don’t represent the temporal reality of things, but the collection of cells and molecules and atoms that form my (lying) being still represent the reality of me. The “truth” of Simon at the moment during which I lie is that I’m a person who happens to be lying. In other words, the fact that I am a liar is just that – a fact, regardless of what I happen to actually be lying about.

Satya, then, is inescapable. You can’t lie your way out of truth. Short of suicide, it’s impossible to choose to not exist. And since one’s existence is inherently truthful, then the only effort one should ever expend while existing occurs when one is not being truthful to himself, or to his fundamental nature. Work, or effort, enters the equation not when we tell lies, then, but when we stray from our true identities.

So if you believe the yogic teaching, then, that divinity comprises all beings, then you’re only untruthful when you’re not divine. Since yoga teaches that the identities of all things are interwoven together into one divine essence, then it is only when one turns his back on this essence that one actually expends any effort in his existence. The pursuit of yoga – union – is thus a divine, effortless existence; and when one reaches samadhi, of course, everything – the fruits of existence — becomes available. You find your truth within your practice.

Your sadhana will, as Patanjali promises, bear you fruit without effort.

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Fighting U.S. Reality with American Rhetoric October 10, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I’m not proud to be from the United States. The geographical accident that was my Corvallis, Oregon, birth, I feel, is nothing to brag about; historical happenstance rarely is. But I’m proud to be a part of “America,” the idealistic, non-existent place that we conjure up when we read, “We the People”; when we say, “That all men are created equal.” I believe in the promise of America; it’s the real-world manifestation of the United States that’s problematic.

It often saddens me that in yoga circles, “American” is seen as pejorative. It is, in fact, a quite neutral adjective, and it’s too frequently been my experience in yoga studios that ahimsic tolerance, acceptance, and amity extend only as far as the foothills of the Caucasus (or occasionally to the westernmost shores of the Atlantic). We forget that “America” stands for beliefs and principles as noble and virtuous as those of yoga. Admittedly, our political entity called the “United States” falls woefully short when it comes to putting these American principles into practice but, then, how many practicing yogis can actually claim to adhere to Patanjali’s sutras at all times, in all places?

In Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman writes,

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day — at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman proposes a very yogic vision for “America.” Each American’s small self — the wood-cutter, the ploughboy; the mason, mechanic, and carpenter — exists as part of the larger Self that is America. Expressed completely, our nation’s realized potential is not the “United States,” but it is America. Importantly, we are not “Americans.” Instead, we constitute “America.” When we strive to express our greatest selves; when we “om” together; or help someone up the stairs of the subway, we are singing our “American-ness” with full throats. This America is the unfulfilled promise of the United States.

In Spanish, American citizens are called estadounidenses, a word with no equivalent in English. Hypothetically translated, estadounidense, then, would be something along the lines of “United States-ian,”—an associate of this nation-state, a person bearing the temporal political classification that we assign to people depending on where they happen to have been born (or “naturalized”). It’s important to realize that “United States-ian” is not the same as “American.”  The Western Hemisphere is, of course, populated by North, Central, and South Americans alike, and the term “American” isn’t solely the province of the those of us who happen to live south of Canada and north of everyone else (With apologies to residents of Windsor, Ontario—you know what I mean here).

Martin Luther King Jr. implied this disconnect between America and the United States in his “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963. King opened his oration by discussing the idealistic potential of America. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, he said, were but a

promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’ It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Aug. 28, 1963

By invoking the language of finance and credit, King refuses to deny American ideals of liberty and freedom their intrinsic righteousness. His “insufficient funds” trope implies that, were those American ideals metaphorically paid to its citizens in cash money, and not in flimsy checks, then they would actually be present in contemporary society, expressed and enjoyed by the people to whom they’d been given. It is, then, the United States’ callously expedient method of issuing “credit” instead of actual “funds” that leads to the corruption and collapse of American idealism.

Indeed, before he rolls into perhaps the greatest five minutes of rhetoric in American history, King states, “And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” It’s noteworthy that Dr. King’s vision for the United States has as its foundation the “American dream.” He doesn’t seek a new promise, a new idealism for this nation; rather, he wants only for our present to parallel our potential. He doesn’t ask us to gaze across the ocean and replace American ideals with those of France, or China, or Russia, or India. Instead he asks us to work to turn the United States into America.

We can make Dr. King’s dream a reality, but we must remember that upon which the dream is based. It’s not radical, and it’s not new. It’s American, and it’s something in which we can all find hope, promise, and harmony.

Exile on Yoga Street: Sadhana and the Stones July 25, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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This past spring, I closed every evening of Teacher Training with a good half-hour of reading from Keith Richards’s Life. Believe me, nothing washes down bandha and kriya like a solid helping of heroin addiction and Goats Head Soup, and if absorbing Keith’s decidedly un-yogic habits seems to you like a medicine counterproductive to discovering pure and good Samkhya philosophy, just remember that “Paint It, Black” was the first #1 hit in the UK and US to feature a sitar. Sure, it was Swami Vivekananda who brought Yoga and Vedanta philosophies to America in 1893, but it was Keith, Mick, Brian, Charlie, Bill and Jack Nitzsche who really made it rock. (Richards’s initials are also, incidentally, kr, the Sanskrit root for “action,” but let’s not get too philologically carried away here.

Most people love Keith Richards, if only for the fact that he’s so easy to make fun of. After all, who—besides Johnny Depp, of course, whose Pirates of the Caribbean character Jack Sparrow is an amalgam of Richards and Looney Tunes skunk Pepe Le Pew—knew that the only thing separating the Rolling Stones legend from a ridiculously lampoonable pirate was a small dose of cartoon polecat?

But in Life, I find enough high-brow and low-brow wisdom to complement and supplement anything I read in Hindu scriptures. Many of us, for example—myself included—initially approach yoga as a way to flee frustration and disappointment. Many of us feel trapped or indentured to what we’ve been told is conventional, expected, or normal.

My first yoga teacher was a successful journalist who tired of Fourth Estate politics and found rejuvenation in her practice and study. And as I’ve written before, I found yoga to be an antidote to the back-biting and imperious literary world in which I was grudgingly striving and competing as a young writer and editor.

So at Teacher Training at Rhinebeck, it was quite refreshing to hear Richards’s willful dismissal of a mundane career at an ad agency in favor of—at that time, at least—a low-security, one-in-a-million shot at becoming a professional musician:

“I left art school around this time,” he writes.

At the end your teacher says, “Well I think this is pretty good,” and they send you off to J. Walter Thompson and you have an appointment, and by then, in a way you know what’s coming—three or four real smarty-pants, with the usual bow ties. “Keith, is it? Nice to see you. Show us what you’ve got.” And you lay the old folder out. “Hmmmm. I say, we’ve had a good look at this, Keith, and it does show some promise. By the way, do make a good cup of tea? I said yes, but not for you. I walked off with my folio—it was green, I remember—and I dumped in the garbage can when I got downstairs. That was my final attempt to join society on their terms.

Granted, most of us who choose to make at least a partial living by teaching yoga won’t come anywhere near to sniffing the galactic success of the Stones. But as I progress in my practice and come across more and more opportunities to share what I’ve been taught, I recognize in myself the courage and conviction it took for Richards to not “join society on their terms.”

On our spiritual paths, we strive for non-attachment, to somehow emulate the life of a renunciate saddhu who has abandoned more “traditional” pursuits and dedicated his life to the practice and achievement of yoga. Yes, we’re more likely to belt out lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu in a small gathering of fellow sadhakas than we are, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” in front of 40,000 screaming fans but still, like young Mr. Richards, we are making a good cup of tea—just not for “you.” As yogis, we recognize the imperative of liberation—of freedom—in our lives. We recognize that our lifestyle does indeed produce a damn good cup of tea, and we’ll happily share it with you if you ask. And we must always acknowledge, no matter how financially or politically or materially frustrated that we get, that our commitment to yoga is really the most liberating thing we’ve got going.

Writes Walt Whitman,

More precious than all worldly riches is Freedom—freedom from the painful constipation and poor narrowness of ecclesiasticism—freedom in manners, habiliments, furniture, from the silliness and tyranny of local fashions—entire freedom from party rings and mere conventions in Politics—and better than all, a general freedom of One’s-Self from the tyrannic domination of vices, habits, appetites, under which nearly every man of us, (often the greatest brawler for freedom,) is enslaved.

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