Pleasure & Pattern Recognition • 8 November 2016


Shame has a scent. Shame has a body hexis. (Soap and slouch, specifically.)

Inside, shame sends bitterness down the back of your throat and coils up the ends of your nerves like little sea creatures that hate to be touched. Shame blocks your life force and your pleasure. It’s a direct hit of worthlessness.

In the world, shame shows up as apologizing. Not taking up space. Having your work and feelings under-valued by self and others.

Shame teaches a person to FEAR pleasure. To experience it as pain. To feel absolutely disgusting – shame tornado – when some of it manifests visibly in our bodies. Shame teaches us to know our place. This inner block on pleasure means that the taste in the food is not for you. The ecstasy in the climax is not for you. Meaning in your work is not for you. No, you exist to enrich others, or to please them. Your worth is conditional.

Shame is what keeps the lower groups in a social order in “their place.” There are many forms of social violence. And much of it produces an emotional tone of shame in the collective, mostly unconscious mind. The exact structures of discrimination are hard to see because they’re a product of history and subconscious belief. Moreover, shame paralyzes. You feel so bad it’s hard to act. That’s why shame works so well for social control. Individually, you can spot an insecure leader because they dominate through shame. Narcissistic parents do the same thing to kids with big spirits. They don’t listen, and they don’t ask questions because your interior doesn’t matter. Shame is a source of social power. Historically, it has been damn effective.

But wow. Shame burning off smells like the sweet overripe adrenaline. And it looks like new light in the eyes. There’s been a lot of dark violent stuff in the world the last 2 years, but also what has happened is that a lot of shame has started to burn.

For those who have been shamed in a fundamental way, shamed as part of a collective, yoga offers this tool for reorganizing the energy. You’re not going to believe what it is.


Not literal, behavioral celibacy. Not even the sublimated ecstasies of tantra. I mean the most subtle renunciation: of the drivenness we have around pleasure and pain.

Moment by moment, in every more-or-less conscious corner of our being, most humans are fighting with sense experience. The senses are scanning for reasons to do attraction or repulsion, clicking on each input. Dislike. Dislike. Like. Dislike.

That’s what suffering is. The constant, granular, almost imperceptible reacting – reacting to the world, and to the mind. The drivenness.

What I’m saying is that brachmacharya is dropping the drivenness. Getting some equanimity on the pleasure-pain drive train. It’s a habit of mind. You scale beyond the small self and see how the drivenness operates. It starts to chill out. Pain is still there. Pleasure is still there. Ok. You start to accept it.

So there is the brutal brachmacharya – learning to relax the compulsion toward climax, and the flight from discomfort. Important.

But then – for the people who have been conditioned to hate pleasure – there is the sweet brachmacharya. Equanimity with pleasure. Food is not about what it’ll make you look like as an object, it’s about what it feels like to eat. Eroticism is not about meeting expectations, and it’s no longer a consolation to enjoy another’s objectification of you. It’s spontaneous uncensored expression and connection. The joy of good work is emphatically not about your use value to the boss or the machine, nor the fake security you get from your position. Your work is about the intrinsic, present-moment pleasure YOU find in being useful. Dear god, you get to be a species being. More aliveness floods in. The pleasure of taking rest. Of human touch. Being somebody’s neighbor. Rain. Animal consciousness. Trees. The sun. That’s just sense experience. It’s not a problem. So you let it move through, the same as pain.

This is peacemaking for those who have been taught that the meaning in life is to make yourself small. Trained that it matters what it (the it that is your body) looks like, not what it feels like. Trained to recoil from sense pleasure, or apologize for taking it, or to split off the part of the personality that can stay conscious for it. This how domination works inside the dominated. And it’s why equanimity with sense pleasure could destroy an entire social order.

Someone is going to shame me for saying this. Ok, I feel that. Shame me for disrespecting the surface interpretation of the holy books. For my arrogance in imagining I have a right to know the hidden teachings with my body.

But is this arrogance… or is it just a grounded mind?

(P.S. Shame can be healthy. There’s a kind that happens internally when you mess up. Great. That’s moral intelligence. Noticing mistakes and correcting = learning. Trying to banish all shame, a project I’ve seen New Age sects carry out, leads into repression and censoring. This is shame about shame. But remorse for a specific mistake is good. It is the first step in forgiveness, which may be the most intriguing spiritual skill….)


Slide brachmarcharya up alongside aparigraha and you’ve got radical acceptance of sensory experience coupled with a recognition that yoga doesn’t work if you are clingy. Experience don’t satisfy; and it don’t last.

The term “take pleasure” says a lot. The thing with equanimity is that you don’t get to take it home. Compulsion and hoarding subtly HURT. On the granular level, they generate suffering. It’s just fear and capitalism that say we can put the good stuff in the bank.

Another weird, weird thing. I learned about pleasure and power from nerds. Book people have this reputation for being disembodied and abstract, but those who really understand power are some of the most alive and embodied people I know. They have worked a commitment to human equality deeply in to their cells. They have worked on the shame. This makes them easy to be around.

I’m a Mysore teacher, so I have no social life. (Reason #458 you don’t want to teach ashtanga.) I go to bed at 7, need hours of quiet time every day, and reserve most inter-personal energy for students. But, this year I’m trying to set apart Friday dinner for friends. Friday dinner is both rare and regular enough that I can see exactly what it does to my emotions and energy: when I eat with a friend who stays awake to and accepts pleasure in their body, who doesn’t worry what the food will make them look like – when I eat with someone walks me home with a happy belly – the whole night is alive. The energy in them is strongly felt as energy in me.

What I’m saying is that radical, non-clinging, acceptance of pleasure makes relationship. Not only in an erotic sense, but in any primal domain. Food, movement, breathing night air. Pleasure’s not so personal.


Mystery is the whole mythic function of November. It’s when get to talk about the dead, and your worst nightmares, and generally say the things you otherwise wouldn’t dare put in to words.

The psycho-emotional weather would wrong to talk panopticons at any other time.

Besides there is so much in the yoga that is hidden. Gupta. It’s hard to make a thing of that which is hidden, and that helps one not get so stuck.

So. Does yoga reveal truth… or conceal it? The same question goes for any initiation, or method, or technique. Does this stuff get you somewhere, or is it just a stopping point for the mind? Posture, for example. What if that’s just bait? Or worse, what if it’s a cover, there to stand in for something else?

These are just the questions the wisdom traditions themselves SAY to ask. Somewhere they all contain the seeds of their own deconstruction and renewal, and that’s why they don’t go out of style.

There is a western writer whose work is like that too. The sweetest, darkest, most bullet-proof modern mind I can find. Michele Foucault. (Crazy image search, right?) He’s a slightly terrifying figure, an irrational one. Yet he’s also vulnerable, and has very little to prove. I often want to stop and offer something about him, but the time is never right. Today it is.

Philosophers don’t often matter– they talk to each other, and then their conversations go out of style. But Foucault talks almost from outside of time, and outside his own context. He sees power, and belief, and fear, and shame, and the ways society is built up from THOSE materials. And how hard it is for a human mind to get free.

Foucault’s stuff is dense but simple. You don’t need to know metaphysics or epistemology to understand it, because he didn’t much bother with his colleagues’ side-conversations about the nature of reality. That said, the stories he tells are so detailed that you have to concentrate hard to get in.

Foucault would admit that he had no big claim on truth. (Implicitly, neither does anyone else.) At the same time he’d easily root out the hidden assumptions of any interlocutor. (His famous TV debate with Chomsky demonstrates. Spoiler: Chomsky loses.) I read him as relentless and tender, in what he cared to write about, in his lack of a need to be Right, in his passion, and the sadness and horror he experienced in his life. Anyway, these are reasons I love Foucault.

I’m not the only person who sees yoga in Foucault. Have you ever tried to have a conversation with Stuart Sovatsky? I mean the subversive old yoga teacher who trolls internet conversations on 20th century yoga. Engage Sovatsky in dialogue, and it will be annoying. He is actively resisting your logic, actively deconstructing your frameworks, for as long as you’ll bother to stay in conversation. Most people check out as soon as he link-dumps his scholarly papers. But here is the secret. Sovatsky is sees right through you, and is just scrambling your mental constructs in the off-chance that the delayed effects might let your mind see a new way. The guy is a long-time initiate in some tantric lineage and an effective teacher in many domains. His devotion? It’s for the ghost of Michele Foucault.

Reasons Foucault matters: he writes “genealogies” of ideas – the history of sexuality, the prison, the state’s control of the life force. The work shows how power gets in people’s heads, how it totally structures and controls the life force. He demonstrates how it’s nearly impossible to get (mentally) free unless you’ve got the viveka to perceive both the internal/ subconscious beliefs and the unspoken agendas of the social institutions that otherwise control you.

Foucualt’s ability to minimize assumptions means he doesn’t have much of an ideology. He doesn’t hold to some comforting liberalism, or humanism, or a belief that ultimately individuals can get free. No. He diagrams somewhat literal structures of power and thinks it’s really, really hard to get free of internalized social order.

Here’s a trick I used in school to test big ideas. It’s not especially generous in the way I was taught to be with others’ ideas, but it helps you feel out the motivations of someone’s work. What you do is scan for the performative contradiction. So, for example, the moral relativist is non-judging of all manner of terrible behaviors, to the point of being absolutistic in her relativism. Cute. The crusading anti-guru extols empowerment of women, specifically by editing the voices of women and becoming a charismatic guru. Hmmm. The “logical” materialist insists that all claims about the way reality works be scientifically verified – a criterion which itself is not verifiable but simply an aesthetic choice. Foucault’s was the first critical mind I found that didn’t rest in a root contradiction of this sort. He doesn’t think he’s solved anything. He thinks his own research is arbitrary and culturally bound.

No wonder people get depressed reading Foucault. By contrast, Sovatsky loves him because they share a shuddering recognition of the life force that’s in the world. Eros. To me, he just feels tender and honest, because he constantly gestures towards emptiness. You read him and feel there is a secretly empty center in every belief structure that posits an absolute truth or a leader to stand in that space. History and culture are human efforts to organize within the emptiness, and not really look at it. This isn’t an argument so much as a way seeing. It is the spacious, weirdly Zen place from which he wrote and made history.

Anyway. Yoga is the study of conditioned mind. For that, we have both old tools and new ones.

For particularly modern kinds of suffering – the inner critic, environmental destruction, the national security state – sometimes it takes a particularly futuristic tool.

Yes the Vedas are from the future. So is Michele Foucault.

Foucault mined the panopticon out of Jeremy Bentham’s social treatise of 1789, and he turned it in to a sharp edged tool for cutting through modern conditioned mind. The panopticon is a picture of the conditioning. Cells are arrayed around an empty center, which the residents of the cells imagine is occupied by a watcher they cannot see. But there is no one in the tower. The inner conditioning to see oneself as if through the watcher’s eyes causes the occupants to act as if they are on display. They do what is expected. They think what is expected. They become objects to themselves. This is the prison of modern mind.

One conditioned mind is a prison. Collective conditioned mind is full-on Alcatraz. Samsara halala. The thing with Foucault is that if you can see the conditioned mind clearly, you can start to get a little free. Yes there is an unseen thought/shame/fear structure. Yes it has an empty center. No, most people are not seeing it from the outside. That is why we internalize it and reproduce harmful beliefs. However, if you can see this, you can start to deconstruct the shame and fear the structure uses for glue.

So the panopticon is what is hidden. Until you step back and see it. Then it becomes the knowledge that looks back.

Thoughts are tools, not truths.

If you can see the tool, you don’t have to be it.


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