What is Spiritual Yoga?
Part I: The Spiritual Purpose of Yoga & The Spiritual Meaning of Anxiety
What is the Meaning or Purpose of Yoga?
What Problem is Solved by Spiritual Practice & Cultivating Spirituality?
And Why Yoga? What Benefits Does Yoga & Yoga Practice Offer (Beyond Postures)?
Yoga & The Spiritual Meaning of Anxiety
Your (individual, independent) self craves a sense of wholeness/completeness/purity 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 (e.g., money, status, fame—recognition); it wants to be wholly self-sufficient and impervious to any and all sense of insecurity/anxiety. 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 wants something it could never achieve.
The self 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. It is this sense of weight (or real-ness) that the self pursues under the assumption that this increased weight will (permanently) eliminate its inner lack. It seeks a sense of security in this weightiness.
Of course, we can never be our own ground, and our continued (inescapable) 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: in fact, the self relies precisely on the opinions of others in order to no longer care about the opinions of others.
But we feel compelled to matter. This isn’t something we ‘learn’. Nor is it something we can ‘turn off’. Having the desire to matter in the world, to others—to have an existence that means something, as a ‘real’ thing whose will/presence has some weight—is a given.
What the self finds most troubling is that its reality—i.e., the extent to which it ‘matters’ and to which its existence/will has some weight—depends on the recognition of other people. To ‘matter’ in the real world means mattering to other people, and this means that the extent to which the self ‘matters’ depends on others and not on itself. Its existence depends on forces it could never control. It could never be ‘self-sufficient’ or ‘self-existing’. It cannot control who/what others choose to recognize. Its experience of its own sense of self rests on something it doesn’t—and could never—possess.
And so it attempts to attain what it has learned will add some weight/reality to its own existence (e.g., fame, money, status, power, etc.). The self, in other words, uses these things to command others to acknowledge the weight of its existence. And the more it feels compelled to ‘matter’—that is, the more it needs the recognition of others—the more others become a tool for or a threat to its own mattering.
But the self cannot solve this problem by acquiring things that demand recognition because no amount of recognition will be enough to solve the problem. The self’s anxiety of inner lack is not caused by inner lack itself, but rather by the self’s craving for self-existence, by its craving to be self-existing—to be something/someone that doesn’t depend on forces beyond its control, including others and their will—by its refusal to tolerate its own (permanent and non-optional) lack of self-existence.
Instead of being able to sit with the dis-ease at its core, it runs from itself as it looks to make itself matter more, become ‘more real’. As a result of this running from itself, it continues to deal with the suffering that accompanies its continued failure at filling itself up in/through the world. It becomes overprotective of itself, avoiding whatever reminds it of its vulnerabilities—people, places, situations, feelings, thoughts. It, in other words, becomes mired in self-preoccupation, trying to solidify its own ground, to accumulate a sense of wholeness for itself in order to eliminate the precariousness of its own existence.
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.
What is (spiritual) yoga? This first article describes the the problem that yoga solves. Solving this problem is the spiritual purpose of yoga (regardless of whether your quest is ending suffering or discovering the “truth”—in yoga, both quests lead you to the same place). This is the beginning of (spiritual) yoga.
In the second part of this article introducing (spiritual) yoga, we explore the yogic response to our in-disposable existential situation.
This is the first part of a three-part series answering the question, what is spiritual yoga? In this first part, we describe the spiritual problem/anxiety that yoga solves, exploring the something like “goal” or “purpose” (but rather more the “spirit” of yoga). In the second part of this series on yoga, we explore the core practice of yoga spirituality (i.e., the yogic response to the problem of inner lack). Collectively, these three articles introduce our guide to [spiritual] yoga, which contains an entire section on yoga philosophy for beginners (and other sections on yoga, including one on yoga practice and on using the wisdom of yoga for personal growth and development).
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 2008 book, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution (Wisdom Publications) is a concise introduction to his thinking (and is highly recommended). 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).
For those looking to further explore the theme of “ontological security” (i.e., our desire to feel more “real”), see R.D. Liang’s 1960 book, The Divided Self.