Yoga and Buddhism

Notes on a talk by Michael Stone at Centre of Gravity

Nowadays in popular magazines, Yoga and Buddhism love each other. And unfortunately, and this happens sometimes in popular magazines, Yoga is reduced to a body practice and the dharma is reduced just to a mind practice. I think this way of looking at yoga and the dharma is insufficient because it doesn’t capture the way both practices can really enter our lives. First of all, the word Buddhism is about 160 years old. It was coined by a German academic trying to capture what these teachings are. Of course if you travel, especially in Buddhist countries, what the Buddha talked about is the dharma which is not a kind of “ism,” he taught the way things are… Actually the word he often used in his teachings is tana, not to be confused with the word tana that is craving, but tana as you find in the Satipatthana Sutta. Tana means the ground or the foundation. What he was pointing to in his teachings—and if you look around at the incredible art in this room and at this centre—you often see the Buddha pointing to the ground. To this. Which is the ground that you’re sitting on, the ground that nourishes you. Not the metaphoric ground, but the literal ground of our lives. The ground of impermanence and change, the ground of conditioned existence and the ground of awakening.

The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yug which means to unite or to yoke. But the word yoga doesn’t mean to unite one thing with another, it means that one thing and another are already inherently united. Everything is already intimately connected with everything else. I like to translate the word yoga as intimacy. Yoga is the intimacy that is always present when we are not caught up in self-centered views. In fact, in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta, one of the Buddha’s earliest sermons, he talks about how what people can wake up to is this ground, tana. This ground. Except he says the reason why we don’t wake up to the reality of our lives, or if we were to use Yoga terminology, the reason why we are not intimate with how our lives really are, is because we love having a view. We love having a story. We love having a particular narrative that we plug our lives into.

In Sanskrit there is a word called ahankara which is unfortunately usually translated as the ego. The word ahankara literally mean the I-maker, and that’s the aspect in our mind, or that mechanism in the mind, that is constantly superimposing a “me” onto everything that we experience. Only seeing through a self-centered lens, and making sure that what we do fits into the viewpoint or narrative of how our lives are supposed to go. And guess what? It just doesn’t work.

So then there is a gap between the story of how we want our lives to be, and how our lives actually are. There’s a gap between how we want other people to be and how they really manifest. There’s a gap between what we think of as the body, and what the Buddha calls the body in the body. Or your marriage in your marriage. Or your life in your life.

The gap between how we want things to be, and how things really are, is called dukkha. It is usually translated as suffering. But what dukkha really means is the inability to be content. The inability to be intimately connected, or to say it another way, Dukkha

is not trusting ourselves. In this room, all the years and time that people put into sitting still, what are they doing? They’re trying to reach or realize or awaken to an unmediated experience of anger, of jealousy, of envy, of pain, of greed, of confusion, of peace, of joy, to know what it’s like to feel feelings without plugging them into a meaningful story. To experience grief. To experience apathy. To experience the nihilism that can come from realizing that this earth is in big trouble. And to not get caught in it. In other words: to become close, so close, that we become one with how our lives really are. This is yoga. When we awake to how things are we also wake up to everything being interconnected, not as a philosophy of deep ecology, but as a felt visceral sense of how our actions matter in this web of life.

My good friend David Loy has translated dukkha as lack. Of all the translations I’ve read, this one touches me the most. Dukkha is the experience of lacking something. When we look outside, at romantic love, at gaining as much capital as possible, or trying to get famous, these are ways we try and ground ourselves. But the ahankara, the storyteller, can’t ever be grounded or enlightened. Because it’s just a storyteller. You all know this when you’re meditating, especially on retreat, even if your technique sucks, eventually you’ll have a moment of stillness. And then anxiety in the I-maker arises because it’s realizing things are going along better without it, it’s going to be unemployed, so it comes in and goes, “I was just still. That was really still. I’m spiritual. I’m advanced in my practice now.” And then you have dukkha for three years because every time you sit you’re trying to get that experience again.

The I-maker, the self, is dukkha. And it will never stop. Sometimes for those of you in samadhi, there are stages where thoughts stop, and it’s temporary, and then they start again. But what happens is that when they stop and start again, you see how they’re empty, how they’re not really “me,” and then the ahankara, the I-maker keeps going, but you have a sense of humour, and you don’t take everything so seriously. So that’s how I translate dukkha. Dukkha is the self that doesn’t see, that it doesn’t have an ontological ground.

For those who really want to look deeply at the connection between yoga and the dharma, what really connects them is actually ethics. If you really want to change your life the first thing you pay attention to is what you’re committed to. First of all that your actions make a difference, in the mind, in the body, and also in the body politic. And second, that we look at our lives through the lens of non-harming, which is the first foundation of yoga, the first limb in Patanjali’s eight-limbed model. Non-harming internally and externally, with speech and mind. That heals the dukkha, the suffering that comes from being split and not being deeply connected with how things are, but rather by being caught up in who “I” think I am, and what this body looks like, and so on. And then we can enter the body in our body. Our life in our life.

Horse and Cart
Yangshen Huiji was born in 807 in China. He wrote a little passage that I’ve been contemplating a lot lately.

Officially even a needle cannot enter
Unofficially you can drive a horse and cart through it.

When we are so caught up in self-centeredness and greed and turbulent emotions we don’t have the skills to work with them, we can’t see. Officially even a needle cannot enter. When we’re official, when we know how things are… You know Dogen said this, when you go into the world and verify things, this is delusion. But unofficially you can drive a horse and cart through it. The body is like this, isn’t it? When we first start to look at the body, all we see is our story about the body. The body in relationship to advertising. The body in relationship to money. The body in relationship to all the bodies we’ve seen, the ones we want and the ones we dread becoming. And when we have a body that we’re relating to through an image then we’re suffering because we’re split. And when we’re split we feel inadequate. Dukkha also means inadequacy. The feeling that things are not okay as they are. And that dovetails beautifully into consumer culture. The more you begin to heal that split in yourself, the more your practice becomes a form of social action because then you’re not contributing to the institutionalized pattern of greed that is so prevalent in the culture.

How can we enter the body? First of all you cannot experience the world or your life independent of the body. Actually in traditional Indian psychological terms, especially with the Buddha, there wasn’t a lot of talk about the mind and the body as separate. A person was characterized as having six senses and six sense organs. The mind is just considered a sense organ. Most of the mind-body dualism we find in Buddhist teachings is a colonialist reinterpretation of original teachings. The point is that you cannot experience the world independent of the senses. It’s not like there’s a me over here and a body over there. Or a world over there and a body over here. The largest part of the world that you can ever know is the body. You can’t experience the power of light in this room, you can’t experience the sound of my voice independent of your eyes and ears. In other words, you value your subjectivity. Is this making sense? So we begin with the body, and the best way to begin with the body is with the breath. In traditional hatha yoga teachings, there are physical (yoga) postures we are all familiar with. If you look in the traditional texts, there’s not too many descriptions about the right clothes to wear or rubber yoga mats. What texts talk about is mula bandha, a strange term, it appears in every description of body movement patterns.

Mula Bandha
The word “mula” means root, and the word “bandha” means bond. It’s the root bond and it happens when you exhale. As you finish your exhale you notice that your abdominal wall turns on, but if you keep following the feeling of the breath it goes a little bit lower than the abdominal wall, and ends somewhere in front of your sacrum which is the pelvic floor. It creates some feeling, some tone, in the pelvic floor, some sense that at the end of the exhale there is a deep feeling in the core of the body.

The problem is most of us don’t want to feel the end of the exhale. For two reasons. Number one is that it actually makes us feel something in the core of the body, and for most of us our habit patterns of thought and story don’t want to be in feeling. Secondly, to really feel the end of your exhale it’s not possible if there are discursive thoughts and images, if you’re distracted. In neuropsychology this is called reciprocal inhibition. You can’t actually feel the end of your exhale, the pause there, and be wandering off at the same time. The core of all the movement patterns in yoga is to wake up to mula bandha.

I would add one more thing. At the end of the exhale there’s a pause, and in that pause there’s also a little bit of anxiety. I once asked one of my teachers, Pattabhi Jois, “Why do people get so anxious at the end of the exhale?” and he said, “Mula bhanda.” I asked, “What’s that?” He replied, “Little bit dying.”

When you finish your exhale, it’s a visceral experience of mourning, that moment is over. You can’t go back somehow. I had a garage sale recently and my son helped me get things out. As soon as people start coming you see things you are kind of attached to and you start taking them away. “Don’t let anyone touch that!” We say this a lot when we haven’t grieved. When we can’t fully say, “Oh, I’ve let go of that.” Then in your dreams, or in your projections on other peopl,e you see that you’re still acting out old losses.

So at the end of the exhale, to really wake up and see that this is a moment of passing, is to bond at the root. What are you bonding? Your citta, your attention span, and the prana, the feeling of the energy of your breath. You’re bonding them with the pelvic floor. But I don’t want to say just “the energy of your breath.” Right now you’re breathing and so is the earth, so are the fish a thousand miles from here in the ocean, or a few miles away in the rivers. Every sentient being is breathing while you’re breathing. This is also intimacy, isn’t it? But when we’re distracted, self-centered, we can’t see this intimacy. We forget. We just get caught up in the story of our life.

Without formal practice, I don’t know if it’s possible to see that we’re part of this intimacy. Each and every moment. Through the body. There’s no vehicle other than this body, which is sacred. The Yoga Sutra is one of the most well known (yoga) texts, and it’s written by a sage named Patanjali that we know nothing about. I like to call Patanjali a she, just so you can’t get fundamentalist. We don’t have a “thus I have heard” in yoga. Patanjali says that yoga is when you’re not identified with everything that moves through the body or awareness. The next sentence simply states: tada. If you can see that those stories are not your life, then: tada.

Our culture is criticized for being materialistic, but it’s not true. We don’t really love the material. To love something is to really appreciate it, to be deeply engaged in it, and to be able to let it go. This is not how we relate to the material world. I would say that the yogic path, and the dharma, is a path of materialism. But not in the way we ordinarily think of it. It’s a path that values all sentient beings. In the Buddhist world a sentient being is any being that has a sense organ. I think it’s safe to say in this room that we could also include architecture and trees, and wild flowers and honey and the senate and Canada and this floor. In other words, we’re not waking up to something that is a divinity underneath this floor, or that God is in the rafters, or that somehow in the core of me there is something greater. Rather: this is it, as Dogen would say. It’s what he said to the cook. This is it! What do we wake up to? This. And isn’t the punch line of every dharma teaching and koan and yoga posture, to be able to trust yourself? To see that what obscures waking up is thinking that something outside of you is going to complete you. Or to think there’s a you that is separate from what’s outside of you. Or that by becoming more of an individual is going to make you whole. In fact, the more people start becoming individuals the more they start looking the same. So tada, therefore, you’re free to be nobody. In other words, you’re free to be yourself.

When I studied psychology, I studied with a maverick psychologist named James Hillman. I was studying the dharma and I was so critical sometimes of psychology and one day I asked, “Well what’s the goal of this? Where are we trying to get people?” He said, “The goal is eccentricity.”

Listen to what Patanjali is saying When you’re not identified with the way you think things should be, then you can be yourself. Not the self you think is yourself. This is how we wake up. And what do we wake up to? This. Sangha. In its widest sense. The sangha of the intestine. You have a garden in there. There’s probably more flora and fauna in a human being than outside. I don’t know if that’s true, I just made that up. But when I close my eyes I picture a jungle and it’s all inside. We actually chant before we practice asana yoga, which acknowledges that inside this jungle is a physician. In every corner of the jungle there’s a physician. This is our path.

Yoga postures are designed to wake up the intelligence of the body. And to see where the prana is flowing too much and where it’s not flowing. To start to balance the pranic patterns in the body because working with the body is working with your mind. Going deep into the body is a psychological practice, although if you’re not understanding the banda, the yoking, the rooting, the bonding of your attention with what’s going on, then you miss it, then you’re not in your body. Meditators can do the same thing. They can meditate in a totally disembodied way. I’ve tried it. It works really well for a few years. I think one of the reasons why I started meditating was so that I didn’t have to feel anything. But it only lasts for a little while and then your body will start to yell at you, until you listen, and then you start bonding your attention so that when you inhale you’re fully there, for the beginning, the middle and the end of your inhale. And when you exhale, you’re fully there, for the beginning, the middle, and the end of your exhale.

When you’re born, you’re born on an inhale. And when you die, you die in that pause at the end of the exhale. The yogis job is to keep them balanced. The birth and the death. The inhale and the exhale. This is the core of our practice, and different yoga poses create different patterns of sensation. As the sequences of yoga poses become deeper, they start waking us up to different potentials of feeling. Different patterns of feeling. Usually as the poses get deeper, they don’t necessarily mature by being able to put both feet behind your head or standing upside down. There is some therapeutic benefit in some of those poses, but really what they’re designed to do is to wake you up to deeper levels of feeling this body here. Yoga practice asks for greater levels of attentiveness. The attentiveness and patience that you bring to your practice of the body, then becomes a tool that you can use in your neighborhood with your family, your parents, your children, with all creatures. Attentiveness creates the conditions for situational ethics. For a creative response to each moment, so that ethics is not so much rules one follows, but how you respond through attentiveness to each and every moment. Ethics are actually an expression of samadhi. Ethics are an expression of oneness.  Of integration. Of non-duality. You can’t live non-duality. You can have insight in it, but then you participate in duality, no problem. For those who study koans, most koans are divided half and half. Some koans are trying to push you to see the non-dual, and some are trying to push you to see the dual. We need both in order to effect real change, in order to wake up to the intimacy that is possible despite the habit momentum in our minds and bodies that comes from our culture. This is how we get motivated to practice.

Situational Ethics
To sum up so far, Yoga is the realization of the inherent intimacy of all things, which is identical to the Buddha’s description of tana and dharma. Of this ground, of this life. Secondly, you can’t wake up independent of this body. The way you treat this body is the way you treat the earth, and how you treat the earth is how you treat this body. We’re made of 75 percent water. What you put into the water is what you put into your body because all water systems meet. OK BP? They have these new chemicals now in the Gulf so there’s no more oil spill on the surface. All that is also this body. To see and to act on that is yoga. It’s samadhi, situational ethics, an expression of interdependence.

Officially, even a needle cannot enter.
Unofficially you can drive a horse and cart through it.

When we are all caught up in our troubles and emotions, small details we can’t manage or prioritize, seized by entertainment and shopping, these are false forms of nourishment. When we’re doing that over a long time we forget what’s meaningful and then we get jobs that are not meaningful and we forget intimacy, we forget what nourishes us. To wake up is also to really know what nourishes you. This is intimacy. To really know what nourishes you, just like the sky nourishes a bird, and water nourishes a fish. Have you ever seen a fish trying to be a bird? There’s a few fish that try. Are you trying to be someone other than who you are? Are you trying to make your body into something other than what it is? Are you trying to follow a life that’s an image of a life, even an image of a dharma life? Sometimes we have to look at that too.

The last point I made is that waking up means to value the material, to love the material, to be so deeply engaged that we’re not attached to it. Just like we love our children or dogs or cats or land so much but they change, and so what we love at the beginning is not the same as what we grow to love. This is how intimacy matures over time. My son is seven, I’ve only been with him for seven years, and he’s not the guy who was born seven years ago at all. It’s the first time where he actually doesn’t feel like I’m the best. Sometimes he really gets mad at me and I look at his little body getting frustrated and think, “But I’m supposed to be the best.” Or we look at our bodies, but you’re supposed to be the best. You’re supposed to look 16. Or we look at our bodies that have healed from pain and grief and we don’t see it, we’re still clinging to old loss and traumas, and we don’t actually see lightness in the body, the gentleness in the breath. And again, we’re separate.

The last thing I’ll say is that the core of this practice is waking up to interdependence through the body, and then to find what we find there, and then to wait. Let’s bear witness until we can take loving action, until we can really meet what we see and feel creatively. So that compassion has an action component, because intimacy is nothing without action, just like a piece of art isn’t finished until someone sees it, a book is not finished until someone reads it. And if you can do that, you can drive a horse and cart right through it.

How is it possible to feel all the turbulence in our emotional lives from a place of stillness. Over time it can be possible, emotions become less dramatic. Perhaps you could make a distinction between emotions and feelings. Emotions tend to be reactions to feelings. For example: anger. Anger is a good emotion and it’s righteous. But when I’m really angry… has anyone here been angry before? When I’m really raging I don’t feel anything. I’m not in my body. I’m in a singular viewpoint. Mine. I’m right and they’re wrong. So actually, the practice, and sitting does this, community does this, it brings us down from our anger, and when your anger calms down you start feeling more, and the more you feel, the more you can see other viewpoints. So once we can watch emotions without acting on it, and really feel, to feel anger selflessly, to really feel an anger without a “me,” just pure anger, those kinds of emotions tend to move a bit quicker through us.

The same is true of depression, which is a lot like anger, clinically speaking. They look almost identical. What we think of as emotions are sometimes just reactions to feelings. I thought I was angry, but now I realize I was just hurt by what you said. Or actually I’m feeling lonely, and that was expressed as anger, but now I’m back in touch with how I feel. That’s a first step in working with emotions. Emotions have a valued place in this practice because they’re so physical. Like anxiety. What could be more physical than anxiety? Let your emotions into your practice. If you practice on a square or a rectangle, let them in, make sure there’s something real going on in your asana practice, so that when emotions show up you have the skills to work with them. So that you can develop this skill in your daily life when emotions show up. It’s a lot easier to work with them on the mat, but when real people are involved…

Sometimes when I’m in an asana I start crying. I didn’t know a moment before that this experience was in me, and then it is. And I understand

We have samskaras or grooves caused by nature and nurture. The key is to be able to open to the pattern without necessarily explaining it. This is one of the biggest differences between yoga/dharma and psychoanalysis. When content arises, we open to it, but we don’t analyze it. There is a time to really look at content. But the first technique is to be feel feelings, and watch them come and go without making sense of them. It’s so hard to do. As soon as something arises, one way to make sense of it is by going, “This is happening to me.” As opposed to: “Here is sadness.” One of the biggest differences between asana practice and meditation is that it’s much more difficult to see the I-maker, the me-making-mechanism, during movement, than when the breath and body are very still. You need both.

Because the other side of it is that in stillness you may not wake up to patterns that are really close because you can be a little bit disembodied. I think a physical practice without a still practice is imbalanced. I think a stillness practice, without a physical practice is imbalanced. I think both practices without a foundation in ethics is useless. Sorry, did I just say that? Because otherwise what are we practicing for?

These days the word “mindfulness” is so popular and we’ve reduced it in medical language to “paying attention.” But what’s mindfulness? It’s actually the cultivation of generosity. The cultivation of compassion. It’s being attentive in a way that recognizes intimacy. That’s what I mean by ethics. The early teachings of the Buddha and the first teachings of Patanjali are grounded in ethics. Let’s not forget that.