2019 Postscript: This is a copy of the 2010 PRINCIPLES update for the yoga book I wrote in 1979. At that time, I was focused on the problems that arise out of a belief in free will. In 2017, I finally realized the natural roots of this belief and most everything else that haunted me up until then. This realization ended up being the last Centertao observation’s post I made. It truly settled the dust for me. It is the end story in this book, see The Tradeoff, p.549. The Tradeoff hits closer to the core of yoga so I replaced this PRINCIPLES update in my yoga book with The Tradeoff. That said, these PRINCIPLES still hold some water.
Ideal Free Will
In my initial yoga manual (1979), I vigorously touted free will. I was a firm believer! In the mid 80’s I began to seriously question this belief, and began earnestly searching for evidence of free will. To date, I find nothing in human behavior that cannot be explained by the simple biological push / pull forces of fear and need; fear pushes us away, need pulls us toward. I suspect free will is more wishful thinking than fact. It seems that I just needed to believe in free will. Why?
Conflicting needs or fears were the problem, and free will promised a solution. If, as it now appears, free will is no more than a promise, what can I do? Ironically, I’ve find hope lies in knowing that the strongest need or fear I feel at any given moment determines what I do, or don’t do. Paradoxically, this makes free will, need, and fear almost synonymous. In short, need and fear determine what I want, and what I worry about in life, and which then drive the free choices I make in life.
Actual Free Will
Happily, the resolution of conflicting needs or fears depends largely upon me being mindful of what I truly want out of life. And what is that? Honestly, I’ve always known what I want deep down. We all have, intuitively anyway. It is just that short-term desires and worries keep distracting us. We forget again and again, turning over one new leaf after another as we wander and stumble down life’s very short road.
Prioritizing desires counteracts this distraction by diminishing desire’s and worry’s impact on us. In doing this, we are effectively desiring not to desire. As chapter 64 puts it, Therefore the sage desires not to desire, and does not value goods which are hard to come by. Buddha said much the same in his Fourth Noble Truth, There is salvation for him whose self disappears before truth, whose will is bent on what he ought to do, whose sole desire is the performance of his duty.
Watch Your Self
If I had to sum up the secret of yoga, I’d say it all comes down to being watchful, mindful of what I truly want out of life. In a yoga posture, this means watching your body, mind, and emotion moment to moment. Are you pushing too hard, (too ‘ha’), or taking it too easy (too ‘tha’)? All you need do is watch for this imbalance, and lean the other way to rebalance, i.e., achieve equal parts of ‘ha’ and ‘tha’, i.e., hatha yoga.
Watching oneself honestly couldn’t be easier or more straightforward. This is a level playing field, perhaps the only one in life… No knowledge, skill, teaching, or innate talent is required. Yet, as chapter 70 says, Our words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice. Okay, that may be an over-statement, but not by much. Living in watchful self-honesty is most difficult.
Why? Because every innate advantage we have has its downside. I can’t emphasize this enough; every plus we enjoy has a minus we suffer. Worse, what we think is true obstructs seeing what is actually so. We fool ourselves. As chapter 71 advises, To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.
Individually, we are on both sides of balance’s happy medium — over-doing some areas, under-doing other areas. Clearly, balance lies in under-doing the former and over-doing the latter. Fortunately, despite fears to the contrary, there’s little chance of overcompensating in either direction. Why?
The areas where we tend to under-do or over-do are actually symptomatic of our deep innate nature. That means, unlike the tip of an iceberg, it changes little. Sure, we may think we can change, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg speaking. Like free will, the ideal of true change is more likely a case of wishful thinking.
Is it Karma?
Our innate nature is like an iceberg below the water line, massive and unseen. As it bobs and tilts one direction, we react by over-doing or under-doing in the opposite direction to counterbalance. Deeper down our primal nature may itself be counterbalancing still deeper currents. Who knows? It’s a little murky down there.
This whole balancing process may represent a kernel of truth in the myth of Karma — not a cause and effect chain of Karmic past and future, but of karmic layers of cause and effect… moment to moment. Another kernel of truth here is that this myth may be a consequence of people noticing the effects of genetics over time. Karma was a story that explained things at the time.
One practical consequence of seeing life this way is that you soon realize all your perceptions and actions are merely reflections of yourself — your genetics and circumstances. In other words, what you perceive or do ‘out there’ is actually symptomatic of your own needs and fears, loves and hates, deep down ‘in here’, right now.
Self-honesty floods awareness; the judge becomes the judged. Judging books by their covers becomes increasingly difficult when you realize that you are just perceiving symptoms of a deep, less definable other side. Such a blurring of distinction — mysterious sameness as the Tao Te Ching #56 puts it — can really help you avoid being knocked off balance by self-serving judgments and biases.
Thinking beats the drum
Of human emotions, desire is the one with which all religions take issue. As chapter 46 has it, “There is no crime greater than having too many desires; There is no disaster greater than not being content.
However, I say desire is not the real problem by itself. Viewed more closely, desire seems to be an amalgamation of thinking and innate emotion, i.e., gut need and fear. Absent thought, only our innate emotion, the need and fear, would move us just as it does for all other animals. Need, and its source spring fear, is the driving force behind all action. Without this, we’re dead — literally. It is desire, the cognitive veneer of need, about which we could and should have misgivings. Thinking beats the drum of emotion, easily making neurotic mountains out of the healthy molehills of need and fear.
Just look at the world, from political and religious extremists at one end, to the neurotic quirks, opinions, and biases that are common to everyone at the other end. All illustrate the consequences of trusting that our thoughts truly reflect reality. Conversely, when we take our thoughts with a grain of salt, it becomes easier to calm down and preserve emotional equilibrium.
Certainly, this is a tough nut to crack. Those primal emotions of need and fear drive thinking. To make matters worse, thinking feeds back into and reinforces emotion. It is a vicious cycle. Nonetheless, knowing this occurs concurrently and constantly as I’m thinking, helps me distrust thinking, even as I’m thinking. This lack of faith in thought weakens its ability to feed into and re-enforce my emotion.
Civilization’s price tag
Civilization succeeds because it provides the means to achieve our goals and satisfy our desires. To meet this end, civilization must side-step Nature’s wild ruthless side — a side which happens to help keep life in balance. As chapter 5 admits, Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs. It is not surprising that our nearly obsessive avoidance of Nature’s uncomfortable side increases our difficulty maintaining balance. No wonder we easily swing from one extreme to the other. Civilization’s continual one-sided pursuit of safety and comfort comes with unforeseen and sorrowful consequences. We only think we’ve conquered nature; the negative consequences of civilization prove otherwise. We must pay Mother Nature’s price one way or the other.
I have a motto to help me counteract civilization’s bias toward safety and comfort and keep me more grounded: “Short term pain; [leads to] long term pleasure. Short term pleasure; [leads to] long term pain”. Civilization biases towards the latter. Balance lies in accepting the former. Striving for a better balance between pleasure and pain is a cornerstone of yoga.
What is the Spirit of Yoga?
Chapter 1 hints at how we should explore any final answer to questions about the spirit of yoga. To paraphrase, The yoga possible to think, runs counter to the constant yoga. I hope the issues I’ve raised here give some clues about the spirit of yoga. Now, back to the practical side of yoga.
When you do yoga postures with the issues of balance I raise above in mind, you will be doing authentic yoga no matter how stiff, weak, or far from the ideal form, you may be. Conversely, doing yoga without that balance intention is not yoga, no matter how much it looks like yoga. It is merely exercise, which isn’t bad — it’s just not yoga. Naturally, no one else will know. Only you can know when you are too ‘ha’, or too ‘tha’. Only you can fear your imbalance and feel the need to tilt yourself in the other direction towards balance and what you truly want.
Note: If you are doing or would like to do yoga, Google Hatha Yoga The Essential Dynamics or see https://www.centertao.org/yoga/ for links to the book and links to download FREE sections of the book covering the first few dozen beginning yoga postures.