My attachment to drugs had been replaced by spiritual highs but Ram Das reminded me to stay grounded. “Just because you are seeing divine light, experiencing waves of bliss, or conversing with Gods and Goddesses is no reason to not know your zip code.”
At this time in my life, I was not grounded. I was very restless chasing meaning through people, places, things and my inner self. Shifts had happened but restlessness remained. I had become a “spiritual butterfly” trying lots of practices and investigating different churches and religions. For me exploring was helpful in the beginning and Huston Smith was a role model integrating practices from various religions and wisdom traditions in his daily sadhana (spiritual practices).
He once said, “I began [the day] with the Islamic morning prayer to Allah. That was followed by India’s hatha yoga, and after that a chapter from the Bible — this morning it was the Gospel of John — which I tried to read reflectively, opening myself to such insights that might enter. Then I was ready for coffee.” As part of his daily spiritual ritual, he would include meditation and composting. Why composting? He said philosophers tend to walk around with their heads in the clouds and that composting helped to “ground” him.
Smith also said, “The goal of spiritual life is not altered states, but altered traits.” I wanted the goal of becoming free from the traits, tendencies or samskaras that were blocking the experience of a peaceful mind and loving heart.
My exploration was also tempered by Ramakrishna’s advice that digging lots of shallow wells will only take one so far. Eventually, we need to choose one and go deep. However, Smith was able to integrate spiritual resources from several religions and find depth with a daily practice. The ideas of integration, being grounded and regularity would guide me the rest of my life. Patanjali said, “Practice becomes firmly grounded when well attended to for a long time, without break and in all earnestness.” – Yoga Sutras, 1:14
In the years ahead, I would meet many people who were chasing the light, pursuing what became known as the spiritual bypass meaning they wanted to avoid the wounds and traumas of the past and focus on the spiritual highs. They didn’t want to do the deep work of therapy or meditation. They were digging lots of shallow wells to feel temporarily good like crystal bowl meditations, chakra balancing massage, chakra balancing with gemstones and essential oils, gong baths, Guru Blessings, metaphysical readings, numerology, astrology, “energy work” and drum circles.
I was one of these people holding an open curiosity to biologically implausible strategies but with an analytical and scientific mindset. I would check out these “New Age” practices but I always returned to the Zen idea of before enlightenment I chopped wood and carried water and after enlightenment, I chopped wood and carried water. I noticed some of these folks were neglecting their kids, their careers and even paying their bills as they embraced “feel good” practices.
What worked for me was doing the work to stay grounded. The work was meditation and eventually seeing several therapists over the years. I wanted to sit like the yogi’s did in the few pictures I had seen in Encyclopedias at the library. I only had Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Be Here Now and How to Know God: The Aphorisms of Patanjali for very basic instructions. There were no Apps like Insight timer.
At that time for me and some others, Yoga meant meditation or devotional practices. For others, it was Hatha Yoga or postural yoga. Today many think of it as only Hatha Yoga or the many styles of postural yoga due to mass media. I started as a meditator which has informed how I teach postural yoga to this day. Today some teachers discover postural yoga within the context of America’s fitness culture which might influence their approach in very different ways like embracing the physical part of yoga instead of the philosophical, psychological and spiritual aspects of it.
Patanjali gave me several techniques for meditation. See Sutras 1:32-40. The challenge was finding a meditative posture that was steady and comfortable (Sutra 2:46). I was meditating for 30 minutes a day usually by just crossing my ankles – sukasana. My hips were too tight for full lotus but sukasana did not support my back enough. The only prop I knew to use was a wall. I usually meditated on my back pain!
There were no books on asana in Erie at that time. A trip to Pittsburgh in 72 to see the Steve Miller band and Fleetwood Mac led me to an alternative bookstore. I found several books and bought them all including Yoga for Americans by Indra Devi, The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnudevananda and Light on Yoga by BKS Iyengar. This was the start of a library that has now over 400 books. I loved Part One in Light on Yoga on “What is Yoga?”, because it had little to do with postures.
I began to practice postures to open my tight hips and strengthen my weak back. It took years before I could sit in full lotus but my back pain was released in a few weeks. I began to sit more comfortably. A pleasant surprise was the information in all of the books about all things yoga and not just the postures. There were references to the Sutras, and to several new discoveries for me: The Bhagavad Gita, The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, and the Upanishads.
I was so excited to eventually find copies of them. I was reassured to know that the traditional approach to asana was to prepare the mind and body for meditation. In the Pradipika (written about 1350) verse two says, “the knowledge of Hatha Yoga is only for Raja Yoga the highest state of yoga.” Raja Yoga means the royal path or the Yoga of meditation, psychology, philosophy and spirituality and includes an eightfold method conceived by Patanjali. There are 196 sutras or aphorisms and only three are about posture.
The Pradipika describes 15 postures and 6 are for meditation. There are many more verses on cleansing and advanced energy and meditative practices than on postures.
Not being an athlete, the athleticism of the asanas did not appeal to me. I felt like I had found the support I needed. I felt like I was on the right path.
To Be Continued…