The Yoga of Yoga
What is yoga? The following phenomenological reflections on yoga and its purpose/benefits are being updated.
DESIRE, LACK, SELF-INTEREST: THE PROBLEM OF SUFFERING
Your (individual, independent) self craves a sense of wholeness/completeness that would permanently eliminate its inner sense of lack, so it can (finally) be “at peace”, never compelled to strive for anything ever again. The separate self wants to rid itself of the feeling that “something is missing in me” or “I’m incomplete”. It is always searching for ground—something stable and permanent—upon which it can secure itself (money, status, fame—recognition); it wants to be wholly self-sufficient and impervious to any and all sense of insecurity. It wants to be its own ground; it wants to be able to determine/control the forces—internal and external—that determine it. In short, it pursues something it can never achieve.
To achieve this, it seeks to resolve or complete itself by accumulating things in the “external” world (e.g., money, fame, love, etc.) that will give its own individual existence more weight, earn it more recognition, allow it to feel more real and less incomplete/lacking. There is a noticeable weight to the presence of a billionaire or an A-list celebrity; attention tends to gravitate towards them. This is the sense of weight (or real-ness) that the self pursues under the assumption that it will (permanently) eliminate its inner lack. And there is a sense of security in this weightiness.
Of course, we can never be our own ground, and our continued (non-optional) reliance on others (either on their direct recognition or their recognition inscribed in symbols like money) means that this pursuit—no matter how successful—will never satisfy the separate self: the separate self relies precisely on the opinions of others in order to no longer care about the opinions of others.
There is a noticeable weight to the presence of a billionaire or an A-list celebrity; attention tends to gravitate towards them. This is the sense of weight or real-ness that the self thinks will (permanently) eliminate it inner lack.
The self’s craving to be more substantial only reinforces its lack; it can never achieve the substantiality it desires. The craving reinforces its sense of separateness. This separate self inherits and develops a range of habits to manage the discomfort of being incomplete. It feels vulnerable and in constant need of protection, and this motivates particular ways—self-interested ways—of being in the world, ways that keep us ‘stuck’ in identities/situations/habits that produce and re-produce suffering.
AWARENESS & MOTIVATIONS: RELEASING SELF-INTEREST
Many of these self-interested ways of being have been identified as hindrances by religious/spiritual traditions, including greed, lust, various forms of aversion, cruelty, anger/rage, pride/arrogance, jealousy, delusion/ignorance, etc. Notice that the self-interest that concerns us is that which operates below the level of reflective awareness. This is the self-interest that is automatically motivating our ways of perceiving, acting, thinking, and feeling. In other words, what we perceive/do/think/feel is always already conditioned by self-interest. In fact, you may even notice that your efforts to try to “turn off” self-interest using your conscious will is an act itself motivated by self interest. This self-interested craving is a habit that runs deeper than any individual habit.
Moderating this self-interest requires re-habituation. And this re-habituation can take two general forms: we can engage in other-focused activities in the world (we’ll call this “outer” work) or we can engage in some form(s) of contemplative practice(s) that encourage—directly or indirectly—less self-interest (we’ll call this “inner” work). And though either can be effective, it is also true that either can be infected with self-interest (and thus re-enforce our existing motivations); even a martyr may be motivated by self-interest. Self-interested motivation will often infect our willful attempts at being less self-interested. We then wonder why our efforts to engage in other-focused or meditative activities haven’t returned happiness.
To clearly see how and when self-interest is operational requires stability in our paying attention; in short, it requires the cultivation of an open awareness—awareness that isn’t clinical and that doesn’t turn away from (its own) discomfort (and yet isn’t pursued for some personal gain). In being able to withstand the compulsion to run from (its own) discomfort, it is able to bear witness to how (its) attention is moved by (its) self-interest. This alone will help releasing self-interest, and releasing our self-interest will deepen our capacity for this “equanimitous” awareness.
Whatever our methods (“outer” or “inner”), what is required is re-habituation at the level of our (habitual, automatic) motivations, so that self-interested motivations no longer (automatically) pre-determine (and over-determine) our ways of perceiving, acting, feeling, and thinking. The process of releasing self-interest reduces the grip of these self-interested motivations in our lived experiencing. In this way, our perceiving, acting, feeling, and thinking become less motivated by self-interest, and our experience of ourselves and our world is transformed. Interpretation was never optional, but now our interpretation is guided by different motivations unencumbered by self. This newfound openness may also obviate the need for establishing the “boundaries” that were felt necessary but motivated by an unwillingness to tolerate our own difficult experiences connected with certain people/situations.
TRUTH, REALITY, & PARTICIPATING IN WHOLENESS: THE YOGA OF YOGA
Self-interested motivations—which are based on trying to secure a vulnerable, wounded, individual self—further reinforce the individual self’s sense of separateness, which further removes it from experiencing the sense of wholeness that it craves. This is precisely because the wholeness it pursues is purely personal—it is my wholeness, what will make me In-finite, myself bulletproof, fill my wounded/empty heart.
The yogin, on the other hand, recognizes that it can never be “whole” or “complete” (on its own) but rather must become a participant in wholeness that precedes and exceeds itself and its personal will. The yogin participates in wholeness.
To be sure, as a habit that runs deeper than any other habit, self-interest is not something that you will turn off once and for all; in fact, trying to accomplish this is precisely a manifestation of our original problem, our quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness. Instead, self-interest is released, gradually, through the “purification” our motivations of the (ultimately “toxic”) self-interest that wants personal wholeness. In other words, we can’t “turn off” self interest, but we can moderate it.
...as a habit that runs deeper than any other habit, self-interest is not something that you will turn off once and for all; in fact, trying to accomplish this is precisely a manifestation of our original problem, our quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness.
As a participant in wholeness, the yogin is more connected (but didn’t seek connectedness in order to fill its personal void). As a participant in wholeness, the yogin is more open (but didn’t seek “openness” in order to remedy its sense of being “closed”). As a participant in wholeness, the yogin directly feels/experiences wholeness/completeness (and doesn’t seek a purely intellectual/abstract accomplishment). As it deepens its participation in wholeness, the yogin realizes how it itself is an expression of wholeness (that had previously been attempting to make wholeness its own, and experienced suffering as a result). This is the irony of self-awareness, self-realisation, self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-love: it is the result of releasing self-interested motivations. It is not the result of acting on self-interest, but rather the result of purifying our motivations of the self-interest that wants a permanent sense of personal completeness.
In this sense, it might be more useful to think about self-awareness, self-realisation, self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-love not as something that you do, but rather as something that happens as a result of purifying motivations (and releasing or purifying “toxic” self-interest). They are the results of the cultivation of such qualities as generosity, loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and a more accepting, non-clinical, equanimitous awareness that allows you to sit with your inner life rather than remain firmly in the grip of its anxieties, compulsions, rumination, and self-interest. (This approach is also helpful in helping us “detach” from a particular expected outcome of our self-interested efforts to develop these qualities.) This allows you to directly see the ways in which our minds are always already (and irremediably) wrapped up in our material existential situation.
It is in releasing self-interest that we open to our wholeness and to being fulfilled, to making direct contact with our ‘self’, to experiencing self-connection, and to experiencing what our ‘self’ is, to seeing directly—to knowing or even “realizing”—our self (and all that this contains/entails).
This is yoga. Yoga is what remains when we’ve abandoned the impossible quest for permanent personal wholeness/completeness, when we relinquish self-interest, and when—unencumbered by self-interested motivations—we make contact with Reality itself. Yoga is when we make contact with Reality, the singular reality that does not conform to our individual will, the singular—absolute—reality that gives me my will, of which me and my will are but an expression. Yoga is realizing this, my whole Self, the Self of which I am a part. It is fulfilling the Self. Yoga is being the Self, myself.
There are many paths to being what/where you are. Regardless of our path, we do not—and cannot—know beforehand what our lives (and ourselves) will look/feel/be like as we do this.
Desire, Self-Consciousness, and Ahaṃkāra: Phenomenological Reflections focuses on the problem of desire and ego in spirituality. Prakṛti & Puruṣa: Phenomenological Reflections further discusses our (inextricably “entangled”) existential situation, and Self-Awareness & Other People focuses specifically on how we are inextricably entangled with other people. Yoga & The Meaning of (Your) Life discusses what it a “meaningful” life might look like from a yogic perspective. What is Phenomenology? (Part 1: Defining Phenomenology) provides a heuristic introduction to phenomenology.
For those looking to further explore the themes in this article, see the work of philosopher and Zen teacher, David R. Loy. Few have been able to articulate the basic problem of suffering in phenomenological-existential terms as clearly as Loy. His book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (2008, Wisdom Publications) is an excellent introduction to Loy’s thinking. For those with some background in Continental philosophy and psychotherapy, consider his book, Lack & Transcendence: The Problem of Death and Life in Psychotherapy, Existentialism, and Buddhism (2018 , Wisdom). On the topic of “ontological security” (i.e., our desire to feel more “real”), see R.D. Liang’s 1960 classic, The Divided Self.