yoga and critical thought

After some discussion with my co-teacher A, we’ve decided that the topic for next month’s dharma discussion will be yoga and critical thought.

Like one of our last formal topics (the klesas – causes of suffering), this is something that’s been percolating through my mind for quite a while, and delves quite deep into the question of what yoga is and isn’t.

It will surprise no one to read that I am a very methodical, scientific thinker; at least for the most part.  My day job is all about number crunching and finding patterns in chaos, and my undergraduate studies were chiefly in the hard sciences and math.  When pressed, order and predictability are how I default to seeing the world.  I’ll freely admit that this is a major bias of mine.  So when Patañjali says in book three of the Yoga Sutras that serious students of yoga may discover at some point that they’ve developed super powers (vibhutis) like levitation, flight, astral projection, reading minds, and invisibility, well, it gives me pause.  This just does not cohere well with my understanding of how shit works in the real world.  (And we can sing the praises of open-mindedness and not-assuming-we-understand-the-world till the cows come home, but at the end of the day we all have some sort of underlying belief structure about what is and isn’t reasonable to expect in the world; this is part and parcel of being a thinking being.)  I can’t bring myself to throw out what Patañjali says on this topic entirely because the rest of the sutras strike such a chord with me, so I struggle to find some way of making peace with his claims of extraordinary powers.

You’ll note that I said “making peace,” not “making sense.”  At first I did try to make some sense of the vibhutis, but quickly realised that these powers do not make sense to me, and that, perhaps, is the whole point.  Sense is a human construct.  The practice of yoga is in part about getting beyond human constructs and appreciating the raw, unknowable quality of the world.  Thus, Patañjali’s definition of yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.  These fluctuations encompass everything we know, think we know, or think we don’t know; everything we perceive or expect or assume.  William Blake wrote about this, too:  “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”  Both Patañjali and Blake are making the point that the cost of being a thinking, critical being is that we miss out on some of what’s going on because it doesn’t fit into our mental map of reality.  (That doesn’t mean that we don’t see what’s going on; it just means we don’t attend to it.  There’s a world of difference.  If this brings to mind the apocryphal story about Indians and European explorer’s ships from the movie What the Bleep Do We Know, then please read this article; the last paragraph is especially insightful.)

So I’ve made some peace with Patañjali’s list of super powers by recognising that they’re not supposed to be logical; they represent yoga’s ability to take us past human understanding.  The critical part of my mind keeps poking at this, though; if the meaning here is purely symbolic, why does he give us such a long and detailed list?  It sure seems like he wants us to take him at his word.  Otherwise, why not just say “Crazy shit will happen if you stick with this path?”  So I guess I’m still not totally at peace with this.  I really don’t know what Patañjali is trying to say here.  I can’t bring myself to believe that he thinks I’m going to learn how to fly.

Like everything else in yoga, there’s a balance that needs to be struck here.  We need to use our critical minds, especially when it comes to extraordinary claims.  But we also have to acknowledge that critical thinking is just a tool, and no tool is appropriate in every situation.  There is a numinous quality to existence; we can’t understand it all.  Thinking that we can means we miss out on a lot of the wonder and awe.


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