Theory+practice

April 21, 2012 in buddhism, dharma, theory

krishna arjuna bhagavad gita visionI’ve been loving my Sweat and Study classes lately, and the discussions we’ve been having, ranging from formal meditation to how to bring wisdom to conflicts in everyday life. At the heart of these conversations is a desire, expressed by many of the participants, to integrate our practice of yoga and mindfulness into all our activities, work, and relationships. It is the application of the teachings to our lives that makes the performance of exercises (postures, concentration, breath work, inquiry) worthwhile.

I was discussing European philosophy with a friend recently, and we came upon a common question: “The western inquiry into experience and reality is just as deep and sincere as the Asian one we study in the yogic texts, but doesn’t seem to lead to liberation. Why not?” It’s a complex and unfair question for lots of reasons, but one simple answer is about practice. The Asian traditions embed philosophical inquiry in religious and social structures that enable millions of people to do the yogic exercises that lead to realization. The Christian tradition once emphasized these kind of exercises, mostly in monastic practice, but modern humanistic philosophy has largely let go of them.

Liberation, in Buddhist and Hindu yogas, hinges on training the mind. We hone our attention so that we can observe our experience more precisely. We cultivate energy that can soften or cut through obstructions in the body and psyche. We lean into the emotions of love, gratitude, and generosity that help us let go of harmful habits and views. And we inquire into reality as we know it, deconstructing the familiar personality to reveal the grasping, pushing away, and confusion that so often define us.

It is tempting to get inspired by ideas and descriptions about the world. Philosophy tells us what the world means, science tells us how it works, affirmations tell us who we are… and religions do all of these. But what the yogas offer us is different: practice. In Buddhism, one of the words used to describe Dharma (the teachings, and the truth they point to) is ehipassiko – to be seen for oneself. “Come and see,” the texts say, “and find out for yourself”. We learn practices from our teachers, from texts, in class, and they start out as theories. Pretty soon we have a sense of whether they are “working” or not, and whether it seems like they lead to greater happiness, freedom, and ease.

But the unfolding of a life of practice is challenging, and it is often helpful to have guidance in how to interpret our experience. This is where theory comes back in. The texts are valuable because they both seed our inquiry and provide a map to help us navigate. The most useful ancient texts are practical: exercises, models, warnings, and reassurances of where the path leads. In the mature practitioner, the texts can function as a GPS in unknown territory – showing us where we are – and guiding our next steps. But without embodiment, they remain intellectual, largely unable to open the heart. When you’re out hiking, it’s great to have a map. But it mostly stays in your pocket.

Martin Heidegger, a German 20th century philosopher whose work is very Buddhist-like, identifies some subtle truths about reality – truths that the yogic sages had written of millennia before. But he also had a nervous breakdown, and a teacher of mine suggests that it was exactly because he was able to think his way to a profound (and alarming) truth, but had no way to embody it, to REAL-ize it. (Of course, the Nazi thing probably didn’t help, either…) That realization is our task as yogis, and our practice is both what will take us there, and the protection we need along the way. Trust your practice. Dig in. Work with good teachers. And keep going.