The hazards of seeking sage advice • 17 December 2008

Last summer I got to feeling it was time for wise feedback. For a nonpartisan perspective.

I went and found MW, Krishnamacharya’s western student. I would have sat at his feet but he’s so far beyond that nonsense. He levels comfortably, like his other teacher, U.G.

We spent some time, established something ongoing. Hilarious guy, both reverent and fully irreverent: in him, those two attitudes enclose each other multi-dimensionally, as if his personality is an optical illusion. Nothing I know is so comforting as his jokes about everyday life—this sage’s goofy impressions of Average Joe twisting up his face and saying, “Oh fuck, the economy is fucked!” In a group he is more serious: nobody walks in to a room like this his Immanence (again, not to be confused with Eminence.)

We talked about practice, that is, about life. He said this style of practice is fundamentally harmful, that its basic structure is (1) patriarchal and (2) obsessive. It makes us that much more alienated from the feminine, and that much more obsessive. He made his eyes piercing, over a cup of coffee, and told me to quit this addictive behavior and this beating myself up with vinyasas. Stop practicing this form.

I smiled. He pierced some more, drank, blinked, cleared his expression.

He was speaking truthfully in a way that added to my knowledge while also requiring that I trust (and, not so easily, assert) my own faith and intelligence over his patriarchal directive. For me this was a way of finding out how to go on; and it was exactly the bracing support I had sought out.

Later we talked about my work on global supply chains, and my ideas about fostering a sense of connectedness among consumers to the third world producers of our stuff: about the impossibility of this project, and the uselessness of it, and the lost cause aspect being that which makes the action possible. Best scholarly feedback I had received in months. You don’t save anybody (yourself included) in eastern paradigms: you recognize your task cannot be done… and thus set out to accomplish it in every detail. I suppose this form of paradox began with the whole boddhisatva thing. But it also mirrors the means-ends paradox in the Gita: one becomes absorbs in skillful means as an end in itself. The Gita is not about getting somewhere (some thing) even though it is about action. Does ashtanga get this; does it teach this?

The charges of obsessiveness and patriarchy were like little drops of dye in my bloodstream, highlighting the patterns of my days. I had to ask: are these neuroses really structured into this practice, in a way they are not in other forms? Six months on, I think the answer is sort of yes. If this practice really doesn’t work for a person—if they pretend it’s a renunciant’s cave but really just get lost in some deadend catacomb—maybe it is because one of the neurotic streams takes over.

I see now that the critiques of this practice are two aspects of a more fundamental trouble—a kind of confusion between immanence and transcendence. We tell ourselves ashtanga is immanent because it’s a “spirituality” rooted in the body, but at our worst we are still totally without what he would call Mother. Because we behave toward practice as work; we focus on doing it correctly. As if that’ll get us somewhere (even when we deny that’s part of the rationale). We believe that if we transcend, it is because we did the work correctly, in the right order, with the right teaching. And we’re really quite interested in transcendence.

Well yes. I don’t like looking at it in those words, but this is all present (sometimes unconsciously) in what I do. If that’s the core of this practice, then it actually is impoverished. Then we’re scriveners who don’t understand the practice except for with some latent work-ethic spirituality. We recite new age bullshit about being “always already perfect,” about a “sense of oneness flashing forward in moments of quiet.” But recognition of action that does nothing—or whatever archetypically immanent, grounded, “feminine” traits—I’m not sure that is necessarily built in to this practice on a macro level.

If the overall structure is oriented toward getting somewhere, toward work, toward transcendence, I think the practice survives the critique if it finds balance in the interstices. Some practitioners understand this, and have taught me this slowly, just by being near me for a time. Have taught me this by the way they act more than what they do. It’s something I’ve only found among those who have practiced for decades or are prematurely wise. Other teachers totally fail to understand this, and so do their students.

I pretty much always knew that the root paradoxes of action and introspection were also present in ashtanga. That’s why I knew what to do with the bold instruction to quit. But I couldn’t articulate it before now; and even here my writing is damn incoherent. Or maybe that’s just because my mind is at its limit. Who said mind is limitless? This mind, right here now, is toast.

Time to call it a night.