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Yoga

Spiritual materialism

Hello. Well, this is awkward. I stopped writing this newsletter two months ago, just before travelling to the Amazon jungle for an ayahuasca ceremony. The good news, back then, was that I’d been handed a philosophy column for the New Statesman magazine – the culmination of a dream I’d had for over a decade. I first pitched a philosophy column to the editor of the Times, back in 2007. Now, finally, out of nowhere, the dream had fallen into my lap. So I bowed a gracious goodbye to my newsletter subscribers, and headed off to Peru.

I emerged from the jungle, still extremely high, and checked my emails. It was amazing how few emails of any interest I’d received while I was away. You expect the world to be as altered as you are, and to be waiting for you to climb onboard like a dragon kneeling before Daenyrys. Instead, the internet was filled with strange news – a hurricane was about to hit the UK, Theresa May had lost her voice during the Tory conference, a fish had jumped down a man’s throat. No emails about exciting new opportunities. And no emails from the editor of the New Statesman. An ominous silence, of the sort freelance journalists know only too well.

Over the next few weeks, it gradually and painfully emerged that the column was not going to happen…Either the editor had changed his mind, or there was some internal obstacle, or I’d done something wrong. I don’t know. He emailed to say he was ‘still interested’ in the idea (which, to be clear, was his idea) and hoped to find a space for it next year.

I felt pretty sad about it, but still hope it might happen. Meanwhile, there were other freelance opportunities to pursue. The New Yorker responded positively to a pitch – another long-term dream of mine. But that also faded away. The Spectator liked an idea which I pitched last Friday, and asked me to write it for this Monday. I spent the weekend writing the piece, sent it off on Monday and….ominous silence. I haven’t heard back since.

This is the freelance life. I’d forgotten how irritating it is to deal with all-powerful commissioning editors, who you want to tell to f*ck off for their cavalier treatment of you, but can’t, because there are about five intelligent magazines in the UK, so you need to keep them sweet. But at least, in this day and age, you can still blog without needing anyone else’s approval. So I’ve decided to start up my newsletter once more. I can’t do it once a week, but will try to do it once a month. Thank you to those who support the costs of the newsletter on Patreon.

This issue I want to talk about spiritual materialism, a phrase coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a mad Tibetan monk who came over to the West in the 1970s, and inspired some of the greatest western Buddhist teachers, like Pema Chodron and Tara Brach. By ‘spiritual materialism’ I think he means the way we westerners smuggle our worldly ambitions into our spiritual quest.

Whenever I’ve had dramatic spiritual awakenings, I’ve expected it to convert rapidly into some sort of worldly success. I’ve expected it to shake up my external life and lead to sudden, radical improvements – I would suddenly meet the love of my life, for example, or be offered a new job, or a book deal, or something.

When I did the Alpha course, and had a heart awakening, I expected it to transform my external life for the better. I was told by the Alpha vicar, Nicky Gumbel: ‘Jesus has amazing plans for you’, and I thought, ‘Excellent! Bring it on, Jesus’. It didn’t quite happen like that.

When we begin to pursue the spiritual life, we want all the good things of a conventional life – a rich love life, a successful career, a happy family, a lovely home, a sexy body, delicious cocktails, wonderful holidays, fabulous dinner parties, and so on. We want all of that, plus soulfulness.  Like Rod Tidwell says in Jerry Maguire, we want the kwan: ‘it means love, respect, community… and the dollars too. The package. The kwan.’

You see this a lot in soulful hipsters in London or New York in their 30s and 40s. We pride ourselves on our spirituality and on being counter-cultural, but in some ways we’re just as hung up on conventional success as everyone else – we want the prestige, the prominence, the great love-life, the sexy body, the beautiful home, the glamorous holidays, the Instagram life. Like Bwyneth Paltrow, we want the gratification of our ego desires and soulfulness – what could be more gratifying than that!

A friend posted something recently on Facebook, an advert for a meditation and yoga retreat at a place called Tres Posh in Ibiza. It says: ‘We’re back at the tres posh, swanky pants yoga villa for five glorious days of Ibiza sun and shine in September. The days will begin with meditation, yoga and nidra folllowed by a magnificent brunch made by Pete’s fair hands. There will be massage, therapies, lounging by the dreamy pool, walking, resting, reading and snoozing before thai massage or a yoga practice in the evenings and an outrageously delicious dinner.’ They are cheap compared to some of the yoga retreats out there. 

A western goddess of wealth and worldly power

I am not being scornful here. I have exactly the same aspirations. I want conventional success and comfort, plus soul. Which is why it hurt when I emerged from an ayahuasca retreat, wondering what wonderful gifts the universe had waiting for me, and I unwrapped the first package to discover – dada! your dream-job of having a column has just vanished!

I had it easy, in fact. One member of our group had to go home early, after the first two ceremonies, when his sister suddenly fell ill and was rushed to hospital. He’d travelled 48 hours to get to the retreat. Now he had to go and be in that family crisis, on an ayahuasca comedown.

The fact is, the rules of the spirit world are not the same as the rules of this world. We think they are, and we want to win at both. But they’re not the same at all. What looks like abject failure in this world might actually be incredible success in the spirit-world. And what looks like total victory in this world might actually be utter failure in the spirit-world.

We want to maintain our status as all-powerful superhero westerners who control our lives and get what we want. But that’s not surrender.

The wind bloweth where it listeth. The medicine does exactly what it wants to do. You have to trust it. It’s not predictable, and it won’t necessarily make it easy on you. But you have to trust that in every experience, however unpleasant (and losing a magazine column is not particularly unpleasant in the grand scheme of things), there is wisdom to be found in it.

We can’t necessarily tell what is good for us and what is bad for us. And perhaps we need to go beyond these instant judgements of good and bad.

One person in our random collection of ayahuasca-pilgrims, Vadim, was there partly because of a bereavement. He had a powerful awakening during the first ceremony. And he’s kept on awakening in the weeks since. Last week, he sent out emails every day to our group, with a YouTube video of him talking over some amazing graphics. He sent out nine of these videos, each around ten minutes long, in a series called Awakening. I’d wake up in the morning to find a new video from him in my inbox, and I’d watch it over breakfast, and listen to his voice.

In the third video, he says:

We constantly are judging, labelling things as good or bad, from the point of view of our personality.  In the present dream generated by our subjective consciousness, we have a tendency not to remember that everything that surrounds us physically, despite being amazingly designed, organically is made up of temporary forms. All and any of those forms at some point will change into a different form. The form will die, and be reborn, and possibly reborn into another form that may be very alien to us when we meet again, if ever. Why, one will ask. Because that is what life is made of. Life is made of constant change….How not to judge the moment of the event? Life-experiences are not given to us by the universe to make us endlessly suffer, nor to make us endlessly happy…Experiences are given to us simply to observe them. Observe the feeling, and that’s it. We should be ready to treat events that change our life-circumstances simply as epic moments of experience.

From the point of view of this world, what happened to Vadim was ‘the worst thing that can happen to someone’. That’s what we say, isn’t it? And yet even bereavement, even the loss of a child, can be a catalyst for a powerful spiritual awakening. Sharon Salzberg talks of her most important teacher (55 minutes in to the interview): ‘She’d had tremendous suffering in her life. She came to practice after losing two children and her husband, and was so struck with grief she couldn’t get out of bed. The doctor said ‘you’re going to die of a broken heart unless you learn how to meditate’. So she got up out of bed and went to learn. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and so loving. She’d found a way to translate that terrible pain into compassion.’

One of the most useful things I heard to prepare me for psychedelics was from Rick Doblin, the head of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS). He said: ‘A difficult trip is not a bad trip.’ This is certainly true on ayahuasca – the first ceremonies I had were lovely, fun, confidence-boosting. But they were just preparatory. The third and fourth ceremonies were much harder, darker, scarier. But that’s where all the healing happened – when I got the opportunity to face difficult emotions and experiences, and to react with more courage, wisdom and love than I have in the past. Difficult does not mean bad.

I can’t expect, therefore, any spiritual awakening (however small) to translate naturally into worldly success. It doesn’t work like that. The spirit-world has different rules to this world. It’s not like western yoga – you do this many sessions, you’ll definitely get a sexy bum, and probably a better sex life. 

We confuse the two worlds. We think there is a correlation between how prominent a person is in this world, and how wise and gifted they are in the spirit-world. The Pope must be the most spiritually advanced person, right? Osho must be the most spiritually gifted person – look at his spiritual empire! Sadhguru must be the incarnation of Shiva – look how many Facebook followers he has!

We mistake prominence for spiritual power. But they’re not the same. I’ve met a handful of people in my life who struck me as people of genuine spiritual power. And they were pretty much all obscure and uncelebrated. The shamans I met in the jungle, for example, have never written any books, they don’t have Facebook pages or ITunes podcasts. No one knows their names. I barely know their names. But they have huge amounts of spiritual power.

Maybe this is all an elaborate rationalization of my disappointment at not getting my magazine column. It does piss me off, and it’s OK that it pisses me off. I guess what I’m trying to say is this: when we embark on the spiritual life we think it will be more or less like the worldly life, just with a bit more soul. We’re like Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin when they’ve just left the Shire, thinking they’re on a fun little adventure. They have no idea what they’re getting in to, or what it will cost them…not less than everything.

The unpredictability of the spiritual life can scare us. We don’t want to lose what we have in this world – the success, the comfort, the status, the security. We may read articles about the risks of meditation, the dangers of psychedelics, the damage from gurus or religious communities, and think, screw that, I’ll just stay in the worldly life. But is it any safer here? Are we on solid ground? We’re still going to suffer and die, over and over and over. Why not gather up our courage, and get going?

James Mallinson, the sadhu-academic

Dr James Mallinson is unique among British academics. Not only is he a widely-respected Sansrkit scholar at the School of Oriental and Africa Studies in London, he’s also the only Westerner ever to become a mahant – a senior sadhu [ascetic holy man] in a sect of yogis, which he has spent time with since he was 18. He’s recently co-authored (with Mark Singleton) a book called The Roots of Yoga, which is the first academic book to investigate the historical roots of yoga.I met him at the Jaipur Literature Festival and asked him about his journey.

I watched the BBC documentary West Meets East, in which you and your friend the actor Dominic West went to the Kumbh Mela, the enormous gathering of sadhus that happens every three years. It was a fascinating insider look at that world – how 120 million people gather in one place and organize themselves, how the different sadhus distribute money to each other, and also the rivalry between different sects, which sometimes descends into fist-fights. Did that gang-war aspect of this huge spiritual gathering disillusion you?
I still find it hard to understand, but the sadhus don’t see it as a big deal. There’s a clear split between the yogis and the fighters. There was one incident, about 20 years ago, when my guru and another sadhu ended up fighting over me. I was lying back, having been drinking bhang [marijuana] all day, and it suddenly kicked off. It didn’t last very long, some other yogis jumped on the other guy, but some people asked me ‘why didn’t you jump in too?’ And my guru said, ‘he’s a scholar, he doesn’t fight’. I was quite relieved by that.
What have you got from your yoga practice over all these years?
A lot of it is just being part of this tradition, hanging out with the sadhus. As for the physical practices, I’ve only started practicing them more assiduously 10 years ago when I was working more as an academic and I started to get a stiff back. Since then I’ve become more religious, as it were, about doing it every day. I still sit down and meditate occasionally. It makes me feel good, happy, balanced. In this day and age, just sitting quietly and not reaching for your smartphone every minute is a good thing.
What do you like about the sadhu community in which you’ve spent so much time?
My guru never ceases to amaze me with his energy, his ability to be on it, despite hardly ever eating or sleeping, he’s always happy, never perturbed. As for the wider community, although they’re joyful and happy, deep down they see the material world as pointless. They don’t want to be a part of the world outside their religious round, their whole lives are predicated on being dissociated from it.
Do you find that detachment refreshing?
Yes. It’s got to be good for one’s mental level of happiness to completely experience a totally different way of life. You can go back to your life [working as an academic and living with his wife and two children in the UK]and realize some of the things you get wrapped up in aren’t that important.
Do you think your attraction to that world was partly a rejection of your background, growing up in England and going to a stuffy boarding-school?
It might have helped – I found myself once again in an all-male community governed by arcane rules.
Do you feel there is a lack of spiritual options in the West today, like the option to be a complete renunciate and for that to be an accepted social choice?
Yes I do. Just the other day I was speaking to a rather annoying young sadhu who was desperate for me to take him back to the UK so he could get followers. My guru has no interest in that, because he knows people just wouldn’t understand the life of renunciation. I suppose one option is to go and live in a monastery, but that’s not the same enjoyable, colourful life as at the Kumbh Mela.
But of course a lot of Indian gurus have gone to the West and become rock-star gurus. What do you think of them?
It doesn’t really rock my boat. The sadhus in the tradition I belong to explicitly shun that behavior. Some do public teachings, but I was told that if they’d done that 30 or 40 years ago they’d have been beaten up. Because it’s meant to be complete renunciation. The irony is, the more you renunciate, the more people give you material possessions. But the sadhus never build up a big storehouse of wealth, they tend to give it away. So those rock-star gurus like Osho, who accrued 95 Rolls Royces, that’s a different world.
But sadly those gurus who want to become rock-stars tend to be the most visible and famous. I suppose they’re not part of a tradition – they’re freelance gurus, with no one to answer to.
Those big-shots think they should get a big tent at the Kumbh Mela. But they can’t get a good spot, they have to camp out right at the outskirts, unless they pay a lot of money. They’re not respected by sadhus. Quite the opposite. My own guru couldn’t care less about publicity. I showed him the BBC documentary we made about my initiation at the Kumbh Mela, and after two minutes he stopped watching. He wasn’t interested at all, which is the perfect response.
What does a day at the Kumbh Mela look like in your community of sadhus?
You get up in the morning, do your ablutions, bathe – there’s a lot of bathing – then sit down and maybe start smoking, drinking chai. The ultimate behavior for a sadhu is to sit around and chat for hours and hours. Talking, chatting, gossiping, telling stories. There’s not much philosophical discussion.
Tell me about the new book, The Roots of Yoga.
It’s a relief it’s over. It was five years hard work, involving the translation of over 100 texts, in 12 different languages. It’s the book I wish existed when I started exploring yoga. Nothing like it previously existed. A few books would have translations of a handful of texts but they wouldn’t be dated correctly and there was no understanding of how texts related to each other.
How does it change our understanding of the historical roots of yoga?
The conventional history is that yoga begins with Patanjali in the fourth century CE. That’s what most practitioners of modern yoga learn. My co-author Mark Singleton has written about how 95% of modern yoga is not from that. Much of it is more recent – many popular modern postures, like the sun salute, are only around 100 years old, and grew out of a number of influences, including Swedish gymnastics. In Patanjali, there’s almost nothing on physical postures, and it’s mainly 12 sitting postures to prepare you for meditation and breathing exercises. And there’s stuff on yoga earlier than that – Buddhist texts, Jain texts, some writing in the Mahabharata which has been almost entirely ignored, and some writing in the Upanishads. Yoga was practiced in a wide range of traditions with many different viewpoints. They all agree that ‘yoga works’.
But what does that mean, ‘work’? That it makes you healthy, or brings longevity, or grants enlightenment, or magical powers?
There are different interpretations, including of the word yoga or yuj itself. It can mean to concentrate or to unite. There’s a passage I often quote from one ancient text, which says, ‘whether you are a brahman, an ascetic, a Buddhist, a Jain, or even an atheist, if you practice yoga assiduously, it will work, you will attain siddhi’ – that can be translated as success or magical powers.
What do you think of the huge popularity of yoga in the West, and increasingly in India?
From a mercenary level it’s good for me. It means it’s easier for me to get funding. It’s nice to have a wider audience for your work. Is it a good thing in general? I think it probably is. One valid criticism is that it’s quite selfish. People do it for personal reasons. But even there, it’s beginning to mature. In the US, there are people trying to bring more social awareness back into yoga. People are also becoming more critically aware, they won’t accept from their guru that the asanas they practice are 5000 years old.
But that critical awareness hasn’t undermined your enthusiasm for the practice itself?
No – I’ve come across practices from the past that I try out. And I still begin with the sun salutation, even though I know it’s a modern innovation. It still feels good.
Finally, yoga is obviously being promoted by the Indian government, which has some ties to Hindu nationalism. Has it been at all controversial for you to decide that the earliest written texts on yoga are actually Buddhist?
No one’s noticed. We were nervous. But I don’t think they’re that interested in our scholarship.

 

You can buy The Roots of Yoga here.