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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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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.

Yoga and Politics: It’s the Reality, Stupid September 19, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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Well, this is a bit much, but it's still a hopeful thought...

I would have liked for Monsta Yoga to stay above the political fray — in my experience, a rather nasty place where both civility and rationality are in short supply — but after watching more than a little coverage of the recent GOP presidential debates, I just can’t do it. So we’ll proceed into the Red-and-Blue, then, but armed with an open mind, some Patanjali, and an absolute refusal to take anything that anyone says — right or left — too seriously.

Yoga Sutra IV.15 informs us that, “Due to the differences in various minds, perception of even the same object may vary.” Well, this is one of those axioms that at first blush sounds kinda deep, kinda profound, but after a little critical thought becomes one of those “no shit, Sherlock” no-brainers. Because of course everyone is going to perceive an object differently, and not just in the man-sees-pile-of-trash, goat-sees-pile-of-food kind of way. Some regard paying their federal income tax to be a patriotic duty; others consider their 1040s to be unholy tributes to Lucifer himself. With my 20/god-knows-how-bad vision, I perceive billboards and buildings a bit hazier than my 20/20 best friend.

Now, variance in perceptions is a good thing. The world operates on perceptions of differences between things, and not on the actual things themselves (This is why a busy signal is more interesting to listen to than a dial tone). And indeed, politics (as an institution) works best when many different ideas and perceptions are brought to the table, examined, then reconciled.

The Three Bears

"But I'm hungry!"

But while these differences are the most appreciable aspects of the maelstrom of human activity that makes the world go round, they’re also, ironically, the least important. Nobody lives inside of a difference. Yes, variance in porridge-temperature and bed-softness provide the literary fuel for the “Goldilocks” story, but when all is said and done, the trespassing little brat still eats a real bowl of porridge, still goes to sleep in a real bed. Upon returning home, the Three Bears don’t fret over Golidlocks’s examinations of food and bed; rather, they’re upset because the food is gone and the bed occupied. While Goldilocks demonstrates that the perceivable differences between objects are excellent fodder for analysis, debate, and experimentation, the Three Bears show that the buck stops with reality — in this case the actually-missing food and the actually-unusable bed.

In yoga, we practice non-attachment, which means we don’t identify with these differences. We eliminate the word “too” from our daily evaluations, accepting bad weather as rainy, but not too rainy, scalding porridge as hot, but not too hot. What is, is. In a sense, yoga allows us to transcend fluctuations in perception, and we strive to envision a unified, whole planet in which the one-ness of all is recognized and made manifest.

While I’d never expect, or even want, American politics to “ascend” to a yogic level of unity and harmony — dissent is vital to democracy and is, appropriately, Constitutionally enshrined and protected — it would be refreshing if politicians regarded policy differences more like the Three Bears and less like Goldilocks. That is, while the salient actions of Goldilocks are tasting and testing, those of the Bears are eating and sleeping (or not, as is the case in the story). GOP presidential front-runners Mitt Romney and Rick Perry highlight the differences between their own candidacies and between their potential presidencies with that of Barack Obama, but these differences are not what feed and shelter a nation.

I expect Republicans to offer strategies and policies that run counter to those of Democrats. But too often these days, the offering trumps the actual problem-solving that these policies are intended to facilitate. Now, elections are all about deciphering difference, but we mustn’t let our country identify solely with these “political” chitta-vrittis (fluctuations of thought) that our politicians are wont to promote as their actual identities and actual personalities. Instead, we must recognize these margins without institutionalizing them. It’s fine to espouse “smaller government,” quite another to then determine what, outside of the fact that it’s not “big government,” that smaller government will actually be and actually do.

Politicians are canny and savvy (perhaps too much so). If we demand reality from them, they’ll provide it, and we can see differing perceptions for what they really are: invaluable tools that help us construct a better reality.

How the ‘what’ of yoga can trump the ‘why’ August 8, 2011

Posted by Simon Maxwell Apter in Essays.
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I worry, from time to time, that I approach yoga with improper motives.

When I was nine, I first encountered “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” a novella by Roald Dahl. In the story, Henry, a wealthy English playboy, discovers a so-called yogic technique that, if mastered, will allow him to identify playing cards by “seeing through” their backs. Immediately grasping the financial implications of such an aptitude, Henry dedicates himself to perfecting the practice, assuming that it will one day allow him to earn millions at casinos. And so he practices, honing his concentration and harnessing his consciousness for years, until he finally deems himself ready to take down the world’s blackjack tables.

But yoga, of course, is not a get-rich-quick practice! Quite the opposite, rather, and when hatha yoga is practiced with dedication and vigor, it renders such material motivations irrelevant and vulgar. As Swami Muktibodhananda writes in her commentaries on the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, “Hatha yoga is not being taught for its own sake, for therapeutic purposes, or for gaining worldly or psychic powers, and this is something the hatha yoga practitioner should always keep in mind.” And in his explication of the siddhis in Book III of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says, “These powers are uplifting and encouraging when the mind is turned outward, but they are obstacles to samadhi.” (III.38).

Henry Sugar is a selfish and worldly man, though, and it is the decidedly worldly inspiration of personal enrichment that leads him to yoga. But at the casino, on Henry’s path to the bank, something funny happens:

Well-fed women stood around the roulette wheel like plump hens around a feeding hopper. Jewels and gold were dripping over their bosoms and from their wrists. Many of them had blue hair. The men were in dinner jackets and there wasn’t a tall one among them. Why, Henry wondered, did this particular kind of rich man always have short legs? Their legs all seemed to stop at the knees with no thighs above. Most of them had bellies coming out a long way, and crimson faces and cigars between their lips. Their eyes glittered with greed. All this Henry noticed. It was the first time in his life that he had looked with distaste upon this type of wealthy gambling-casino person. Up until now, he had always regarded them as companions, as members of the same group and class as himself. Tonight they seemed vulgar. Could it be, he wondered, that the yoga powers he had acquired over the last three years had altered him just a little bit?

Henry manages to set his distaste aside for an hour or two, and he neatly pockets £6,600 before leaving. Yet upon waking the next morning, he finds the wad of bills revolting. Climbing onto his Mayfair balcony, he showers the streets and people below with twenty-pound notes, delightfully giving away the riches he’d won the night before. And after a stern rebuke from a policeman (The money drop had caused a riot of sorts), Henry decides that he must find a more meaningful way of sharing his wealth. He embarks upon a twenty-year mission of winning millions at casinos and then using that money to build and finance orphanages all over the world. And when it’s over, after he dies, we’re told, “He never kept a penny of the money he won, except what he needed to travel and eat.”

Though it’s flawed and somewhat skewed in its representation of yoga, the story of Henry Sugar nevertheless underlines the potency of the practice; that is, it illustrates the importance of sadhana as well as samadhi. Swami Muktibodhananda writes, “[H]atha yoga is to be practised for the sole purpose of preparing oneself for the highest state of raja yoga, i.e., samadhi.” Most of us, though, come to yoga for other reasons–“to improve or restore health, to reduce stress, to prevent the body from ageing, to build up the body or to beautify it,” suggests Swami Muktibodhananda. But even if we begin our spiritual journeys with these different–perhaps less-pure–motives, through conscientious and enthusiastic practice we ultimately find our motivation elevated to the ideal whether we want it to be or not. We may begin our practice with a fitter body (or pile of money) in mind, but honest diligence will replace that material goal with a spiritual one.

The practice does indeed prepare one for the sublime, but perhaps more importantly, it also prepares one for the mundane. And perhaps even more importantly, for the rotten. Whether or not a yogi actually achieves nirvikalpa samadhi in his lifetime, he will still find his relationship to the temporal world permanently shifted by his practice. Like Henry Sugar, an initiated yogi will eventually find himself unwilling and unable to savor material pettiness and worldly desires, even if they are what brought him to the practice in the first place.

If one has a wholesome desire to make yoga his life’s work, then the practice will see to it that one’s life’s work becomes yoga.

Unlike Monopoly, there are no losers in life July 18, 2011

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When I was a kid, my older brother and I played Monopoly at least once a week. He was always the car token; I always took the horse or wheelbarrow. We had a huge stack of board games—Go For It and Go For Broke (which my brother steadfastly refused to play for our entire childhood, a prohibition that’s probably served him well in his present-day business dealings); The Game of Life and Stratego; and Sorry! and Aggravation when our mom wanted to join us (She loved the games where the goal was to get your family of colored tokens “home”).  It was Monopoly, though, that probably accounted for about half of the games I played against my brother.

Kleshas are just another kind of jail.Monopoly’s skeletal rules and regulations left vast procedural voids into which my brother could finagle subtle aspects of the game into his favor. Rather than end the game as soon as I went bankrupt, for example, which is how Monopoly is supposed to be played, my brother would extend usurious loans to me to keep things going. One time, he even let me buy “stocks” from the NYSE quotes and–for a Monopoly-money fee–he’d track them for me in the local paper’s business section and let me know how much I’d get if I sold off any given day. I usually bought stocks for companies I thought were cool, like Boeing and United Airlines (As a seven-year-old, I thought flying was awesome). Whatever his motives were for the financial engineering, I was happy that he’d deigned to play with his younger brother in the first place. Slowly having my ass handed to me over a few hours, then, always seemed like less of a disaster than having to abruptly put the entire game away with the commandment, “Loser cleans up.”

Though I beat him at Monopoly more times than I beat him at chess (once) or Stratego (zero times), I was very much the underdog every time we chose our tokens and prepared to pass GO.  Really, my badness at Monopoly was a perfect storm of my business ineptitude, my brother’s corresponding acumen, and–or so I’d like to believe, since it lets me off the hook of being a completely hopeless player–a younger sibling’s subconscious fear of prematurely of superseding his elder and thus finding himself in the uncharted territory of being number one.

Rich Uncle Pennybags

It's hard to practice asana in white tie and tails.

Today I’m at T-minus seven weeks till my brother’s wedding in Seattle. I haven’t started writing the Best Man’s toast yet–these tend to come together at the last minute for me–but I have my plane ticket purchased and wedding outfit chosen. Since my brother’s getting married the same month he turns 35, we’ve–mostly I’ve–been able to maintain an extended sibling rivalry longer than most sets of brothers. Like our board game contests of yore, though, it’s been fairly one-sided, with perhaps a few victories snatched from the jaws of defeat on my part. For the most part, though, my brother’s “won” them all.

Because as ridiculous as it seems (to everyone other than me), I had, at some point, extrapolated his victories at The Game of Life into a victory over me at Life Itself, a personal manifestation of abhinivesha–attachment or clinging to life. I’d lost sight of my true sadhana and found it easier to define myself as little-cum-inferior brother. Coming in second, I realized, had been hardwired into my identity. I was clinging to the old life I knew because it was easier than trying to win at one that was unknown and new.

I don’t remember the day it dawned on me that, well, we weren’t actually competing against each other. But I think I was upside down, wobbly, in a headstand for the very first time. It was something, I knew, that my brother couldn’t do. When I got down–light years away from holding it for five seconds, let alone five minutes–I wiped clean a little bit of my imaginary win/loss, brother/brother scoreboard. Since then, slowly, achingly, and frustratingly, I’ve begun to forget about the win/loss figures altogether. My “victory” in headstand showed me who I’d really been competing with all along. It freed me from the life I’d assumed I was living.

In headstand–and eventually forearm-stand, and Warrior I, and Triangle, and even Child’s Pose–I’m only second-best to myself. Paging Dr. Seuss–you’re needed in the asana room. And no “loser” will ever have to clean up my life.

Can samadhi be reconciled with reality? July 12, 2011

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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.

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