Friday, December 13, 2019

You Don't Have to Climb the Whole Mountain

Climbing on Mount Fuji by Hokusai
by Nina Zolotow

“Can’t we just follow the first part of the path?” I asked, rather plaintively. 

After reading Edwin Bryant’s Yoga The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali cover to cover and learning what the eight-fold path really entailed, I realized that this path is not one that people like me and most of you—householders—can follow in a literal way. First of all, we would have to become renunciates because even being attached to people you love, including your family, interferes with your ability to achieve samadhi. And the path—with its intended goal of liberation from everyday life as we know it—is really quite arduous and severe as we would eventually have to let go of all connection to external reality. As Georg Feuerstein says in The Yoga Tradition

“At the peak of this ecstatic unification, yogins reach the point of no-return. They become liberated. According the dualistic model of Classical Yoga, this implies the dropping of the finite body-mind. The liberated being abides in perfect “aloneness” (kaivalya), which is a transmental state of sheer Presence and pure Awareness.” 

At that time, I decided that despite this Patanjali's Yoga Sutras contains invaluable wisdom, which can bring you a deeper understanding of human nature and help you move toward equanimity in your everyday life. So even if I didn’t commit to following the eight-fold path, I could still make use of the wisdom contained in the famous text that described it. 

But since then I’ve been wondering if there isn’t another path in another yoga text that might be more appropriate for people like me. That was why I began studying the Bhagavad Gita in depth. And, in my post Arjuna is Us: Staying Strong When You Stand Up for What's Right, I wrote about how Arjuna, the hero of the Gita, was a better role model for us because he, too, was a householder, who had a livelihood, a family, a community, and important work to do in the world. Therefore, the path Arjuna was told to follow by Krishna, karma yoga, might be more suitable for us householders than the eight-fold path. 

However, when I was talking with yoga teacher and scholar Richard Rosen about this, he mentioned something that I had already come across in my readings: some yoga scholars believe that the three paths described in the Gita, karma yoga, jnana yoga, and bhakti yoga, were not three separate paths but were three phases of a single path. Oh, no, I thought. After all, the third path in the Gita, bhakti yoga, is devotional practice directed at Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu, and I’m not a Hindu (or even religious) so it's definitely not for me.

So that’s why I plaintively said, “Even if that’s true, can’t we just follow the first part of the path?” 

After Richard and I parted, I let that thought percolate for a few days. And one morning, as I sometimes do, I had little epiphany. Was there any rule that said we had to start on every path with the intention of making it to the very end? After all, when you climb a mountain, you don’t always start at the bottom and climb all the way to the very peak. The Bootjack trail on Mount Tamalpais starts at the bottom of a valley in the Muir Woods in the shade of the towering redwoods and ends at the peak of the mountain in sunlit meadows dotted with oak trees. So far, I usually take the path only as far up as my favorite view of one of the cataracts. 

So if the peak of the yoga mountain is “liberation” from samsara—the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—and from everyday life as we know it, if that’s not what you want (or you don’t believe it’s possible), you don’t need to make that peak your goal. How high you decide to climb is up to you. However, a good destination might be completing the preparatory steps. These steps vary from path to path (as on Mount Tamalpais, there is more than one way up the yoga mountain), but basically yogis traditionally readied themselves for achieving liberation through practices intended to pacify their minds and, on some paths, strengthening and purify their bodies. These practices were intended to provide them with a satvic mind, so they could live here on earth in a state of equanimity as they dedicated themselves to achieving their ultimate goal. But equanimity here on earth as my end goal—yes, that sounds good to me. 

The next time I saw Richard Rosen I mustered courage and told him about my little epiphany. I said, “I realized that you don’t need to climb the whole mountain. You can just take the path part way up.” 

To my surprise he told me he really liked this concept. And he added, “This will reassure people about what they have accomplished so far.” 

“Hear now the wisdom of Yoga, path of the Eternal and freedom from bondage. 

No step is lost on this path, and no dangers are found. And even a little progress is freedom from fear.” 

 —Bhagavad Gita, translated by Juan Mascaro

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