Let go of I am.
Let go of I am not.
In what follows, I would like to consider the subject of Yoga in its relationship with stories. This is a personal exploration and I have no wish to take any kind of comprehensive or categorical stance on the nature or scope of either Yoga or stories. I simply want to offer a brief survey of some of my own thoughts and feelings in the area, partly as clarification for my own benefit but also to share them.
We are a storytelling and storydwelling species. Stories entertain, delight and inform us, and they are useful tools to help us to think and talk about ourselves and our experiences. They can allow us to inhabit other perspectives and broaden our horizons. But I want to suggest that stories can also fix us down and set limits on who we believe we are, and the extent of our thinking and feeling. Stories can reduce the size of our world.
Stories, their comforts, delights, uses and dangers, as well as the extent to which they are woven into our lives are not matters easily disentangled. And, as is the case with anything interesting, the whole area is contentious, complex and nuanced. I am aware of the vastness of this subject, but we do need to start somewhere so, before I consider how Yoga might relate to stories, I want to look at stories themselves.
For my purposes here, the stories I am concerned with are the ones we are told by others and that we tell to ourselves about who we are and what life is about. Like anything else in any kind of existence, these stories do not occur in stasis or in isolation from each other. Over the course of our lives, they grow, change, divide and coalesce into an infinite number of possible combinations. And evidently they are not clearly definable things at all. They are myths and rumours to be found in our cultures and deep in our psyches, half-examined and unexamined layers of impressions, understanding and misunderstanding. But they do come together to create in each of us what we might call our own unique narrative of the self, by which I mean our inner picture of who we are, where we fit and what it might mean. Despite the complexity here, perhaps it is possible to draw some loose categories of such stories into the light.
The first ‘category’ to come to my mind is the religious narrative. A near-universal feature of religious stories is that they tell us who, what and why we are, often from the perspective of established dogma. They also tend to tell us how we ought to behave by presenting us with a moral ideal, which is always somewhere ahead of us. In the case of those who subscribe to the tenets of a particular faith, the power of such narratives is obvious. But whether we are religious or not I am personally convinced that the influence of these stories in the world is incalculable. They have been with us so long and are so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives and ways of thinking that I think it would be impossible to unpick them from human cultures at large.
Similar in some ways to the religious narrative is the secular ideology. Examples of such ideologies might be Nazism, Fascism or Communism. It might be that the reason these particular examples come so readily to my mind is because they have all had so much influence in the age just before my own, so they are ideological bogeymen, which I learned at my mother’s knee. Global Capitalism, Consumerism and the pre-eminence of the Scientific Method (and its presumed appropriateness as an approach to all areas of life) are secular ideologies more deeply entrenched into the psychology of my own age.
Our national or ethnic association is certainly a powerful influence in our lives as are the capricious fads of popular culture. Career, monetary wealth and social standing have a powerful effect on who we think we are. Inherited ideas from family, local cultures, schoolyard peer pressure and personal idiosyncrasies, as well as our evolving biographical adventures, all add to the mix over the course of a human life. Although many of these stories are shared or cultural in nature, it is clear to me that the intricate nexus of narrative and unfolding experience of an individual human being is as complex and as unique as his DNA.
Two Powerful Stories
There are two particularly powerful stories, which have been turning in my mind for some time now. These are not told stories like ‘Jesus died to save me from my sins’, but rather (or so it seems to me at least) they are subconscious ideas which inform and underlie other more specific stories, but which are also fed and validated by them.
The Story of Boring
The first of my two powerful stories is the one that tells us just how boring life is. According to this story, perpetual entertainment and excitement are necessities in life. And to sit quietly doing nothing in particular is the height of tedium. Quotidian life is taken to be fundamentally dull and the only way to make it bearable is to distract ourselves from it.
To my mind, this story’s presence is revealed in the intensity of our society’s entrancement with entertainments and stories of all kinds from notions of the supernatural to the Premier League and Coronation Street. But my main reason for feeling that it holds great sway in the world is in the way people often talk and act, which seems to reveal low-level discomfort and sense of ennui as a default response to finding ourselves alive.
But how is that we get bored? How is it possible? A moment’s reflection on the position that human beings find themselves should make ennui as a default response to life seem perverted at best. We do not need any metaphysical framework, any grasp of the philosophy of East or West or any kind of scientific understanding to realise that the existence of the world, of human beings and of consciousness is something both astonishing and highly improbable. Whatever it means and however we construe it, the basic fact that the universe is extant, unimaginably vast and complex and that events have somehow unfolded in a manner that the phenomenon of consciousness has come into being is so amazing that any superlative I could find to describe it would be utterly inadequate. I would suggest that if there is an appropriate response to finding oneself alive and conscious in the world, it is the absolute opposite of ennui.
As an aside, our propensity for boredom, restlessness and disaffection with life is responsible, I would argue, for all kinds of violent and destructive behaviour, to each other, the planet and ourselves.
To my mind the story that ordinary life is boring (unless we are actively entertaining ourselves) is as far fetched as the most fantastical fairy tale. It is as preposterous a piece of unreality as any artistic imagination has ever created. Ordinary life is quite the most interesting thing imaginable!
The Story of Things
My second powerful story is the one which says that the world consists of separate things; that a human being, like everything else, is an object ‘in’ the universe. In challenging this story, I want to make it clear that I am not indulging in ontological speculation. I am not challenging the tenets of science or asking anybody to believe in the existence or non-existence of anything. I am merely suggesting that perhaps there are different ways of viewing the situation in which we, as living conscious beings, find ourselves.
Nothing in the universe is static. Everything changes all the time. And this is as true for human beings as it is for anything else. As the stars are burning with inconceivable ferocity and entire galaxies are turning, so human beings are constantly breathing, digesting food, growing hair, perspiring, shedding skin and all the rest. An atom of oxygen, which is in one moment free-floating in the atmosphere of planet earth, may be circulating in my bloodstream in the next. The cognitive processes of awareness, thought, reflection, memory and invention are also continuously unfolding. Our bodies and minds along with everything else are involved in a constant, dynamic interaction with their environments.
Human beings then, along with other ‘things’, are not in the universe but rather of it. We have not been suddenly transported to the world from elsewhere but rather have grown out of it through evolution and the wider geological processes of the Earth. These processes are themselves part of the grand cosmological dance, which unfolds on a scale unimaginable to us in space and time. Nevertheless we are ineluctably caught in this dance, which has been taking place since the big bang.
I suggest then that it is not at all unreasonable to view the world as a series of unfolding events. And if this is not unreasonable then perhaps we could even see the universe as one event, made up of countless trillions of sub-events. These sub-events are all impossible to delineate from the main event and from each other. Everything that happens is confused and inextricable.
And of course ‘everything that happens’ includes us. It includes the processes involved in me typing this, from the firing of neurons in my brain, through my nervous system and the complex contractions of the muscles in my fingers to the depressions of the keys on my laptop. It includes the unfathomable algorithms of our respective computers and the global web that connects them. And of course it includes you reading, the functions of your eyes, your brain and the mechanisms that connect them. The little part of the universe that exists in the interaction between me and you is a sub-event (or a conglomeration of innumerable sub-events) in the event we call universe.
If this is the case then what does it mean for our sense of individuality? Surely we could say that, through you and me and the interaction of our consciousness, the universe itself is thinking. It is reflecting, considering, attempting to sort out the problems of its own existence. And that really is astonishing.
The story of separateness seems to be able to convince us but should it? It ought to be immediately clear at the very least that the boundaries between objects, humans included, are not razor sharp. I would go further and say that it ought to be obvious to our minds that the world can be just as cogently described as an event as it can as a collection of objects (maybe even more cogently). But for some reason this seems to be far from obvious to our minds.
It is so firmly entrenched in our psyches and our everyday practical lives that the fundamental truth of the universe is that it consists of objects, and that we exist as individuals, separate from each other and the world at large, every inch of our beings seem to oppose any possibility of an alternative view. For even if we intellectually grasp the idea of actuality as event rather than objects, there is something in our bones that deeply resists it.
So why do we resist? Is it because our language is constructed of nouns considered as subjects and objects with verbs to describe relationships between them? If it is the case that we see ourselves as discrete lonely ‘objects’ in the world, clearly defined and separate from it, perhaps it is because the notion is deep-seated in our grammar. Perhaps the world is not pre-divided into ‘things’. Could it be that ‘Thingness’ is a neat piece of evolutionary neurology which reveals itself in grammar?
It is clear to me that people need to be able to conceptually divide the world to be able to function in it (we would not get far without the ability to recognise friend from foe, for example). But it is equally clear that we can become trapped in this view. Once again, I want to make clear that I am not suggesting that the material constituents of the universe are any different than either your common sense or the current scientific understanding takes them to be. I am not saying that the picture of the universe as an event is correct and the one where it is a collection of objects is incorrect.
I am just asking that, even if just for a moment, we can take a small turn of the head and entertain the view from a slightly different angle. Maybe that tiny change in perspective could change everything about who and what we think we are.
Stories and Yoga
What does any of this have to do with Yoga? It seems a big leap to go from to go from talking about the stories which inform our view of life itself to stretching, breathing and relaxing exercises in the local village hall or in the quiet of our own rooms.
Well of course Yoga is much more than the physical posture-based practise it is commonly held to be. Just how much more is very big subject in its own right, but suffice it to say that a central concern of Yoga is to reduce the tendency that our habits of mind (or stories) have to make us suffer, thus allowing us to flourish. For me everything that ’is’ Yoga in the popular understanding (ie the postures and other techniques) are simply tools to this end.
When we practice Yoga in the sense of ‘doing’ postures, we are drawing our attention to the experience of being alive. There is nothing sacred or even particularly special about Yoga postures except that they have been found over many years to be effective in drawing our attention this way. It is the primary task of a Yoga teacher to encourage the student’s awareness to alight upon what is happening and how it is with them, right here, right now.
This is because our lives are right here, right now. The story of who I am (even the one I tell to myself) is not who I am because I am breathing, living, thinking and feeling in this moment. To live within the confines of any story (even one of my own invention) rather than to live life fully as it is happening now, is to put limitations on myself. A story says ‘this is what I am’ and, by implication, what I am not and what I can never be; whereas the possibilities of the ever-unfolding moment are limitless.
A Yoga posture then is itself a meditation, but it also a preparation for meditation. The inward direction of awareness in posture practice enables the mind turn inward to our immediate experience more readily. In ‘formal’ meditation but also in ones orientation to life in general, posture practice can encourage a ‘habit’ of inwardness, and this is where its life-changing power really lies.
For our practice to be fruitful in this way, we need to allow ourselves to be open to it. This means going to it with a certain honesty and a willingness to explore the terrain of our own consciousness without a pre-conceived idea of what we might find there. To flourish in us Yoga needs to be free of stories of all kinds whether societal or personal.
But when Yoga is allowed to act in our lives the suffocating stories, which lead us to believe that we are less than the astonishing miracle we are, start to lose their power over us and we learn the taste of freedom.
This is Yoga.