I’d like to begin with a little story – something that happened last week in my son’s first grade class. I’ve been teaching yoga to them on Tuesday afternoons about once a month. And when you teach children (and actually this is true for grown-ups too) one of the best things you can do is tell them stories. So all year I had been making up these little silly stories about animals taking journeys and the different positions they get into and sounds they make and doing that with the kids. But then I noticed that as more of them started to turn seven, they were getting a little bored and finding it a little baby-ish. So I needed to figure out a way to switch it up a little.
My son loves Star Wars and so does my husband and so do I really although it would be nice if there were more strong female characters in less revealing outfits. But the kids are into it. So I decided to start doing Star Wars yoga with them, at first we would assume different shapes, like we were fighting with light sabers or jumping over canyons or riding flying speeder bikes (I had to spend a bit of time getting ideas from Wookiepedia by the way).
But then I hit on something that really connected with the kids. I told them that we would divide the class in half and have a tree pose competition. Two of the kids from each team would try to hold tree pose as long as they could and whoever won got a point, then we’d revolve through the other kids and whichever team had the most points in the end won. But here’s the catch, the other team members would also have to participate while this contest was going on – and I was partly doing this to help them develop concentration skills but also to keep them quiet so we didn’t bother the other class that shares the room. And the way that they would participate is that it would be their job to hold up their hands and use the Force to keep their teammates from falling down out of tree pose.
It was a huge hit. We did that for a few weeks and then eventually we added a bit of Harry Potter so then they could either use their magic wands if they wanted to, or they could use the Force if they were more Star Wars inclined. So we had 16 little Jedi padawans or underaged wizard concentrating their teammates to victory.
I always did my best to make it a tie.
The point here is that there is an inherent understanding, an inherent urge, even in these little children, toward mysticism, toward seeking the mysterious of life, toward the realization of human potential.
What is behind the curtain of this reality? I want to embark on this journey, this adventure of the Jedi. And in my journeying, I want to use what I’ve learned, what I’ve mastered. I want to use the Force to create something for the good, for righteousness. I want to use it to heal myself and to set things right in the world. I want to move toward Oneness not just for myself, but for the benefit of all living beings.
So the question is: how do you embark on this spiritual journey? What is the process? And how do you take what you learn and then bring it back into the world in the form of self-expression to make a meaningful contribution with your life?
Much of the archetypal imagery in Star Wars comes from Eastern philosophies of course, zen and yoga or Tantra. Tantra means the journey, the process that stretches and expands us into liberation. Today I’m going to speak about how these ideas of tantra and yoga do that. And we will also practice the basic technique of the spiritual journey which is mantra meditation.
First I want to say that when I use the word “yoga” what I’m not confining that term to is lithe women in flow-y clothing doing dance-like exercises – although that can certainly be a part of yoga and many people find great health and peace through the exercises of asanas, but yoga is not confined to that definition. What I mean by yoga is the whole, philosophically sophisticated, extremely broad system, the core of which is meditation practice – what I would like to call the technology of mysticism.
First I’d like to frame the challenges at hand. And what I’m about to talk about is our thinking problems. Now the problem with even talking about this is that for human beings to talk about their thinking is kind of like fish talking about the water they swim in. It’s not something we typically have any awareness of. But the problem is that the water is really polluted, and that’s when us fish need to start paying attention.
So for the past 400 years or so in the west, our thinking structures were confined to the hubris of Western Scientific Reductionism that sees reality as distinct and separate. That sees life as physical. And in this closed scientific system, all knowing is derived from thinking and experiencing. We have come into being from the matter of the earth and we are ultimately separate beings. In this system spirituality is cut off from scientific knowing and really relegated to a lesser position, or even patronized as mythic and anachronistic. You get one hour on Sunday for it before brunch, the rest of the week, well, try to keep it under wraps, cause it doesn’t make you look very intelligent.
What this scientific worldview has provided us with is modern life. Lots of good things. And also lots of things that have caused monumental challenges and brought into question the future of our very existence. We are really good in the west at the technology of external, of material development. We’re great at it – it’s completely trashing the planet, but we’re really good at it.
I even have had a student say to me, oh meditation, yeah, I think I saw an ap for that. Meditation Aps – we even want to use technology for meditation, because that’s the way our thinking works. I heard that meditation is good for me, it will help me relax, be less stressed out, and have better concentration so there must be a way I can just buy it, right? I’m sure I’ve got enough in my iTunes account for a 2.99 meditation ap.
The yogis had a different perspective on reality. We can start with their model of beingness –The five koshas – or layers of self. They were first detailed in one of the earlier Upanishads: Taittiriya Upanishad and then again later in Mandukya Upanishad. In this model the Source of human existence is the atman – which is usually translated as soul or spirit, and importantly it is the part of ourselves that is (excuse my technology metaphor) plugged into Oneness. Out of Oneness comes the first layer of individual self – Bliss. Yes, bliss is the primary aspect of being from the yogic perspective and the cause of the other layers. Isn’t that nice? It is the first thing that we are. Bliss devolves to witness-ship or pure awareness out of which the mind and all its creativity, rationality and machinations, comes into being. Then the energy body comes out of the mind. The physical body, the last layer, devolves from the energy structure.
So from a yogic perspective our bodies are reflections of our energy and our minds and our being-ness comes from a single Source. You can see that this consideration of human being-ness is quite inverted from the western scientific model which takes us up from the material, not down from the spiritual.
Then there’s the idea of technology. One of the translations for the Sanskrit word Tantra is actually technology – again, that which stretches and expands us. In India there are these institutes of computer science and they actually have the word “tantra” in their names. Because it is the ancient word for technology. And in the ancient world, internal technology was the practice of yoga or tantra.
So what the west sees as technology is confined to the objective and scientific, but the Indian culture has long understood that technology also goes within to the subjective. The technology, the process or journey of the Jedi, the yogis called “tantra,” – which I use brazenly use interchangeably with “yoga” and, again, to define my terms here, it has little or nothing to do with California hot tubs.
When the 60s came along cracks began to appear in the Age of Reason paradigm. The forces of evolution or culture or life, pushed us beyond the limits of this thinking and what we have seen for the past 40 years or so is the wild fire spread of an understanding that this scientific paradigm is necessary, but insufficient.
It can’t take us on that inner journey that so many of us want, that the yogis would say is inherent to our very being, and that ultimately holds the key to our survival. And also in the past 40 years or so we’ve seen the massive rejection and/or transformation of traditional religions because knowing doesn’t want to be circumscribed by dogmas. The spiritual warrior wants to know through inner experience, through his or her own journey.
It is this spiritual journey, the quest of the spiritual warrior that we are currently being called to undertake. It is ultimately through the development of our consciousness, the development of our inner, more than our outer, technology, that we can pull us out of the messes we’re in personally, socially, environmentally.
In 1982, David Bohm, a physicist who was dancing on the edges of the scientific paradigm, had a shift. Through his research and understanding of Quantum physics, he saw that the cause of our global crisis is our thinking – specifically our insistence on seeing things as separate.
“The notion that all these fragments are separately existent is evidently an illusion, and this illusion cannot do other than lead to endless conflict and confusion. Indeed, the attempt to live according to the notion that the fragments are really separate is, in essence, what has led to the growing series of extremely urgent crises that are confronting us today.”
So what does yoga offer to this conundrum?
The technology of yoga offers a complement to western technological development. Yoga is the technology of the internal, the technology of the subjective, the technology of movement toward Oneness, the technology of bliss, the technology of love.
And the yogis laid it out in various texts – specifically the Yoga Sutra. It starts with getting your ethical house in order and paying attention to your relationships and then proceeds to physical and then intuitional practices, which are the technology of internal development and expansion. And like external technology, if you want to learn it you have to study it. But it doesn’t come from books or anything else the senses can touch or the mind can rationalize, it comes from practice. Practice here equates with an internal study.
Yoga postures and breathing practices help to prepare the mind, and then the meditation practices, which differ slightly depending on lineage, essentially surround ways to corral the wayward thoughts of the mind and use that energy, that force, for leaping out of old thought structures and unveiling deeper awareness.
And this is why there is not a conflict between yoga and religion. If you use the word yoga really loosely, if I really expand the definition, then what I mean by yoga is the attempt to link the finite to the infinite. In this case, yoga is the mystical practice, the contemplative practice, of any religion. St. Theresa was essentially a yogi, certainly St. Francis. Hafiz was basically a yogi, so was Lao Tsu and the Buddha and Mohamed and Jesus.
Meditation, according to the tradition, has two essential elements: concentration and contemplation. And today we will do some simple yogic meditation using the technology of the secret word, mantra. Mantra means – that which liberates the mind and it has two functions – one to corral the thoughts and focus that energy – concentration, and the other to contemplate the beauty and essence of wholeness – contemplation. The yogis called these practices dharana and dhyana.
Mantras were traditionally kept unrevealed – they’re magic words that can unlock the secrets of the internal universe. If you’re interested in delving deeper into the tradition, I suggest finding a yogi to give you a mantra. If you just want to experiment with it and you want to keep it in the framework of your own belief system, then using the name of the deity you connect with or a very expansive ideal is useful. Today I would like to suggest that we use the word “Shanti” it simply means “peace.” And we’ll preface the practice with kirtan, which traditionally has been used to prepare the mind for silence, for the inward journey.
And what is the result of the practice – what is the product of this technology? The ultimate product is love. Being present, so you can feel love – through the people and animals around you, through the earth you see or touch, in the wind you feel on your face when you’re looking out over the mountains. And that in turn allows you to radiate love, to the people and animals and plants and mountains around you. It allows you to radiate love through your work, and through your desire to help all that are suffering and need to be rescued with the fearlessness of your heart and the surety of your lightsaber.
Once when my son Bhaerava was five, we were driving quickly through town, late for a playdate and Bhaerava was feeling concerned. But then in a stroke of insight he came up with a solution: “Mommy,” he said, “Can I use the Force to turn all the traffic lights green.”
“No,” I told him, “the Force is not for tricks, you can only use it to help other people.”
The practices of meditation give us the strength, fortitude and inner security necessary to combat the Dark side – within as well as without. Perhaps we’ll never be able to use a magical Force to change matter, but we certainly, through practice, will find that we can harness the energy of our minds and use it to transform our world.
I’d like to finish with a poem by Rabindrath Tagore, an artist and yogi with a western education who seemed to be able to reconcile the internal and external worldview.
The significance which is in
Unity is an eternal wonder.
We try to realise the essential unity of the world
with the conscious soul of man;
we learn to perceive the unity held together
by the one Eternal Spirit,
whose power creates the earth,
the sky, and the stars,
and at the same time irradiates our minds with
the light of a consciousness
that moves and exits in unbroken continuity with the outer world.