Thursday, December 15, 2011

Breath, Dreams, and the Perplexed Monk

I remember witnessing a couple of old yogis before sunrise sitting in lotus position exerting themselves to rather violent extremes of breath control in order to enter into a state of bliss. They would engage in this practice while seated in this advanced yoga posture and then propel themselves into the air, landing forcefully on their perineum with the intent of generating an upward flow of kundalini energy. On the one hand, I appreciated their intensity and sincerity; however, the strain was of definite concern as I saw these men trying so hard to achieve what is in actuality an innate, inborn, experience of spiritual well being that anyone can potentially experience without implementing arduous practices. Faces painfully tightened up and turning red does not connote authentic, natural, communing with the numinous.

Wisdom writings consistently note that spirit is free and blows where it will, not able to be controlled and certainly not constrained or forced. William James wrote of “intuitively necessary truths……necessary and eternal relations….a determinate system, independent of the order of frequency in which experience may have associated their originals in time and space." Spirit, breath, and the experience of the numinous known within the body at the point of each inhalation and exhalation are archetypally charged moments, intuitively necessary truths that cultivate and constitute a natural, unforced, state of spirituality brought to the fore via awareness.
The Katha Upanishads notes, “It is the Beloved seated in the heart of all beings that directs the breath as it flows in and flows out." This ancient text refers to the innate numinous quality of efficacious breath, moving inward and outward as an expression of the ever present movement of spirit. Thus, true yogic breath flows naturally, the human psyche kindling its transformative power via attention and awareness. For example, focusing awareness and intent on the third eye helps to kindle intuitive and imaginative abilities. Just so, without horrid physical or psychic manipulations, the knowledge that the simplicity of inhalation and exhalation is itself an act of profound spirituality potentially transforms us into individuals who can continually discover inner depths.
A friend, a religious studies scholar who often commented that he could easily engage in complex scriptural exegesis but had a tough time of it trying to tie his own shoe laces, related a dream of an old befuddled and unhappy monk. The dream came on the night following his resolution to increase his practice of intensive pranayama yogic breathing and meditation. The old monk looked at him with such sadness, unhappiness, and confusion. At first my friend was stunned that a man who had devoted himself to the interior life, to consciousness, could be so ill at ease and obviously chronically unhappy. He noticed that the monk’s habit, his religious clothing, was worn from spiritual austerities and disciplines. The monk looked at him and asked, “You look so concerned. What wrong?” He answered, “You’re so happy and seem tired, depleted.” The monk appeared perplexed then a flash of knowing came across his face and he smiled. My friend awoke from the dream at first perplexed himself until he realized its meaning.
A forceful manipulation of his spiritual practice would generate psychic depletion, an alienation from self rather the deepening of psychological life which he sought. In the spiritual life more is not necessarily better. Interior development that is pressured or added to unnecessarily via a multitude of disciplines and austerities can actually generate a diminishment of self that can be felt as depletion, irritability with self and others, and perhaps even depression. The way of the soul is a natural one, unencumbered by outward contrivance, by anything that would impose itself on spontaneity and freedom associated with genuine psychic expression and development.
In depth psychology, the development of the soul or soulfulness in living is guided and nourished by symbolic dream material that leads the individual into experiences that are at once mystic and yet very natural. Depth psychologists speak of the world soul, a natural psychological phenomenon often symbolized in dreams as a spontaneous and self perpetuating cosmic wind. Many indigenous cultures teach that drawing breath rhythmically and naturally aligns us with the Great Cosmic Wind, a psychic happening that awakens in us a practical spirituality inherent in daily life, one that is transcendent yet immediate, imminent and available in the wondrous experience of each inhalation and exhalation.