In the popular magazine Psychology Today Dr. Gordon Livingston speaks of the sense of meaninglessness that is overwhelming so many people in our modern, urban societies. There is no meaning, he points out, to be found in the equation of work and consumption or, as the poet Wordsworth put it, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers”. Ancient Yoga offers an interesting perspective on this that resonates with the modern experience.
In 1942 the great neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was arrested by the Nazis along with this family, including his pregnant wife, and sent to a series of concentration camps. He was the only member of his family to survive that 20th century holocaust and, by his own admission, when the death camps were finally liberated and he discovered the extent of his loss, he went into a period of depression. It was not an unproductive depression and would lead to one of the great teachings of the 20th century which became known as Logotherapy ~ the third school of Viennese Psychology.
In his extraordinary book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl details his time in the concentration camps and the revelation that came out of this experience. That revelation was, in brief, that very few of us choose the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but all of us choose our responses to them. No one is better placed than one who has been through an experience like a concentration camp, to say that with authenticity. Life, he concluded, interrogates us to give meaning to our many experiences.
Unbeknown to the great Frankl, his revelation echoed the oldest extant teaching we have of Yoga, the Katha Upanishad. In it a young seeker (no matter our age, our seeking is always youthful), disillusioned by what he has seen of life, approaches Yama, the God of Death. He is granted three wishes and his final wish is to know the truth behind this veil of appearances into which we are born, live and die. At first, Death refuses to answer this question and offers diversions ~ but the seeker is serious, nothing else tempts him. Finally, in answer, Yama gives the seeker the teaching of Yoga. This is the oldest ‘how-to’ manual of Yoga we still have.
The very first teaching Death gives his young seeker is this:
anyat śreyo'nyad utaiva preyas te
ubhe nānārthe puruṣaṁ sinītaḥ ||
tayoḥ śreya ādadānasya sādhu
bhavati hīyate'rthād ya u preyo vṛnīte ||
There are two paths:
One leads outward and the other inward.
You can walk the way outward that leads to pleasure
Or the way inward that leads to grace.
Of these two it is the path of grace,
Though concealed, that leads to the goal. (2:1)
sreyaś ca preyaś ca manuṣyam etastau
samparītya vivinakti dhīraḥ |
śreyo hi dhīro'bhi preyaso vṛṇīte |
preyo mando yogo kṣemād vṛnīte ||
Both of these paths lie before each person eternally.
It is the way of things.
Day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment,
The wise must distinguish one from the other ~
And for the sake of Yoga choose which one to walk.
The foolish, grasping first at this and then at that,
Choose to walk the path of pleasure. (2:2)
There is always the choice between two paths: we can go with our habitual reactions ~ the reactions of our comfort zone ~ which are the path of Preyas. Preyas will hold us fast, binding us to our involvements in this world ~ whatever they are. What Yama, the Redeemer of Death*, and Viktor Frankl advised is the other path ~ the path of Shreyas, which will free us to transcend those life experiences.
We are called upon in Yoga to resist the knee-jerk reaction, to pause and focus on the quiet breath as we wait for a deeper voice that will offer a more profound truth.
It takes discipline ~ as do all things that are worth doing. We do not gain wisdom, grace or emotional equanimity without discipline. To forego the immediate reaction to any situation and allow for a deeper understanding which gives the situation or the experience, meaning, is the discipline of Yoga. The time we spend on our mats teaches how to steady the attention, how to still the body and regulate the breath so that when we step off the mat and into our lives, we know how to reach for Yama’s Shreyas or Frankl’s meaning. However, we have to keep in mind that we do not choose for all moments when we choose in one moment: both paths are always before each of us, eternally.
Yoga thus becomes the skill to recognise that while we do not always have a choice about where and in what circumstances we find ourselves, we do have choices about our responses to those circumstances. Yoga is seeing the hidden path, the path that takes us to creative, enlightened and transcendent ways of responding and living, whatever our circumstance. In those responses we find meaning.
Traditional Yoga Association
*Lord Yama was immortal and chose to die in order to create for us all a path into death that would redeem us from it.
Swami Ambikananda will be teaching at World Yoga Festival, 19th-22nd July 2018. Book tickets now to join her.