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  • Writer's picturebalrāj

Yoga & The Meaning of (Your) Life: Phenomenological Reflections

The following phenomenological reflections on yoga and meaningful living are being updated.



We spend our entire lives longing to be “at peace”, to permanently eliminate the sense of anxiety/fear/lack of being incomplete (which manifests as some version of the sense that “I’m not enough” or “there’s something missing/lacking in me, I'm incomplete/deficient”). And we assume that the anxiety/fear/lack will permanently disappear once we’ve obtained whatever we think will give us permanent emotional, psychological, material, and/or social security (i.e., financial freedom, bulletproof mental health, the undying love/loyalty of a partner, fame/recognition, enlightenment, etc.). In this way, we feel that there will be more “weight” to our existence; we will “matter”more, be more “real”. Then, we think, we will be finally “at peace”, finally “whole”/“complete”.

Your desire to find permanent security actually reinforces the basic sense of lack/anxiety that you’re trying to eliminate. In other words, striving for permanent freedom from personal suffering might be the very thing keeping you from your deepest fulfillment. Your personal suffering is a product of the habits you’ve inherited and developed in the process of avoiding (and trying to eliminate once and for all) the pervasive anxiety/lack/fear (and other attendant difficult emotions/thoughts). It is a product of the habits you’ve inherited and developed in the process of attempting to make your irrevocably independent sense of self “whole” or “complete”, reconciled in/with its world in a final way.

The practices of yoga are intended to release awareness from the compulsions and anxieties of the habitual self. These practices create the conditions for habits (or ‘karmas’ or ‘memories’) to disclose themselves, making explicit what had become implicit and habitual. These habits—which are inscribed in the body—have ancient and ancestral roots; they are memories that dwell deeper than any specific memory. In fact, these habits are expressions of ancient, ancestral, social, familial, and cultural histories, commitments, compulsions and anxieties, etc., all of which are rooted in a most primitive grasping for unconditional security. This desire for unconditioned security manifests as grasping for unlimited recognition, a bulletproof self/ego—for whatever will resolve, once and for all, every sense of lack/anxiety, of dis-ease. Ultimately, then, the habit to be addressed is the very grasping—the need—for unconditioned security, in whatever form it takes: financial freedom, unassailable mental health, unrivalled status, and even—perhaps especially—enlightenment itself.

In becoming aware of our pre-reflective, habitual modes of being—which are unavailable to simple introspection—there is opportunity for re-habituation. To do this work (of ‘undoing’ or of ‘forgetting’ our habits—of releasing and being released) requires that one actively turn to face their own experience; it requires active participation. In other words, changing your life—freeing yourself from destructive habits—requires that you confront your (habitual) self in important ways.

Freedom demands that you be unconditionally open, and openness demands (1) that you face your painful emotions, unwanted thoughts, and the various people/places/situations that you have been inclined to avoid, and (2) that you release/moderate self-interested motivations. Freedom is unavailable to those who remain imprisoned by themselves, who habitually renounce their freedom in the name of preserving it (but who are instead are preserving nothing but their habitual self).

But one must make direct contact; an intellectual understanding of the depths of your inner life is insufficient. Our attending cannot be clinical, but must be open and compassionate.


When we are less encumbered by our automatic habits and reactivity—when we are no longer compelled to escape difficult/painful thoughts/emotions/situations, when we can see that and how our subjectivity is always already wrapped up in our (material) existential situation—we are more able and willing to pursue what we experience as natural inspirations. We are more able and willing to own up to our desires and mixed motivations, embracing them just as they are. These inspirations need not be actively ‘found’ or even manufactured, but rather disclose themselves—they become clearer and louder—as we begin to release our grasping for an absolute sense of being-complete (in all of its various incarnations).​ They disclose themselves in and as a kind of inner knowing; they strike us as a kind of necessity. These deeper inspirations are those that allow us to participate inas they call us beyond our habitual self-preoccupation/obsession towardsa kind of Infinity (but are never those that simply ‘will make me in-finite’). In releasing our independent need to become Infinite, we are better able to reconcile the particularities of our individual situation with the demands of Infinity. We are able and willing to own our deeper motivations—however trite or even unwholesome they may seem—but make them about other people, too.

But this “inner knowing” is never (and can never be) clear enough. And we are left to work out what it means in terms of our own individual, singular situation. We are left to work out what exactly “Infinity” is/means, and how to confront the fact that we will never get there in a permanently satisfying way. And yet, with this knowledge, it is when we commit to acting on these inspirations anyway (for the sake of the inspirations themselves and nothing more) that we open ourselves up to a deeply meaningful life, a sense of purpose and a life worth living.

And, of course, this work—of owning up to our freedom—is not for the faint of heart. There is uncertainty in being undefined—anxiety. Transformation is not optional, but who/what we are called to become is ultimately not up to us. What is up to us is whether or not we answer the call.


Related Posts:

The Yoga of Anxiety Relief discusses the two central components of a yogic approach to addressing our personal stress and anxiety, and The Yoga of Yoga contains a more complete discussion of how releasing self-interest can connect you to your “true” self. The Anxiety of Inner Lack discusses our (foundational) desire to rid ourselves of the feeling of incompleteness. 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 The Role of Other People in Self Awareness focuses specifically on how we are inextricably entangled with other people. An article in two parts, What is Phenomenology? provides a heuristic introduction to phenomenology. Part I defines phenomenology, and Part II discusses the experience of doing phenomenology.

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