The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker's Guide to Extraordinary Living
by Stephen Cope
In his book The Wisdom of Yoga, Stephen Cope investigates the sophisticated wisdom tradition of yoga from the point of view of six contemporary characters—modern yogis struggling with issues of love, work, addictions, careers, and unfulfilled longings of many varieties. Each chapter weaves together narrative story and expository teachings to bring alive the rich, and very relevant, applications of yoga’s ancient teachings. The following is excerpted from Chapter 6, "The Roots of Suffering." You can read the entire chapter and other excerpts by clicking here.
The phone had rung just as I was getting ready for my early morning walk to the cemetery to meet Jack. It was Susan. She sounded out of control.
"Can you come to the house?"
I was not prepared for the scene I found at Susan’s house. Phillip, Susan’s husband, had taken their daughter, Monica, to Belize on a birding trip, and had left Susan at home. The place was a mess—and this was utterly out of character for Susan, whose interior worlds were so well-ordered. I wondered: was Susan eating compulsively again?
I found Susan on the sunporch in her oversized terrycloth bathrobe. She was sitting in fetal position on a corner of the porch swing in a pool of sunshine with Boots the cat curled up next to her. She lifted her head and looked at me, then covered her head with her arms. "Oh God. I cannot believe you’re seeing me like this. Such a pretty picture."
I sat next to her, picked up Boots and put him in my lap.
"The hair. The bathrobe," said Susan, wincing.
"OK, Susan. Forget about that. I’ve seen it before."
"Oh, it’s just so pathetic," she said, drawing a deep breath.
"I was in the parking lot of the Stop and Shop with a goddamned cart full of pastries. Last night. About eleven." Susan looked up. "Tried to call you on my cell. Tried to call my OA sponsor. Nobody home. Finally I just sat in my car and prayed."
After praying, Susan had found the strength to start the car and drive away. She had slept poorly. She’d just spoken with her OA sponsor when I arrived. "I left the goddamned cart full of food right in the middle of the parking lot."
We looked at each other for a moment, and something between a grimace and a smile began to flicker across her face. The image was irresistible: A lonely shopping cart filled with Sara Lee cheesecakes and chocolate truffles. Fully paid for. Adrift in a sea of empty parking spaces. Susan got up and walked to the window, looking out on her manicured garden.
"Just before I got into the car to drive to the Stop and Shop, I was standing right here. It was like standing on a bridge deciding whether or not to jump."
She turned back to me. "You know what I wanted? I just wanted complete oblivion. I wanted to get totally lost. In chocolate cake. To bury my face in it. To devour about ten of the fucking things."
Susan had been shaky for weeks. I had seen it. She had been distracted. Uncharacteristically irritable, and barely present. We had all noticed it at yoga the previous Saturday morning, when she had snapped angrily at Jack, and then at Maggie.
Susan was pacing now, rolling up the wide terrycloth collar to cradle her face. "There’s something going on here that I just can’t bear. Just can’t bear."
Slowly the story spilled out. Susan had been home to spend some time with her parents in New York City. "I had another huge scene with them.
"I swear to God, Steve," she began, shaking her head. "We went out to eat. First of all, my mother showed up looking like Astor’s pet horse. Ridiculously overdressed. Then it started. They’re in my food. She’s got her fork in my Cornish hen. He’s got his fork in her profiteroles. She’s criticizing my weight. They’re all over Monica for not visiting them." Shaking her head now, as if in astonishment, she says, "I got up and stormed out.
"Shit. And I said some very nasty things."
She picked up Boots. "Steve, this is pathetic. They’re old people now. But I just cannot bear who they are. Jesus, they’re completely enmeshed."
Susan gave me a slightly desperate look and walked back to the window.
I understood exactly how Susan felt standing on that imaginary bridge: The aversion to being present with the moment. The craving for a different moment, a different mind-state.
Susan’s voice began to shake. "I thought I was beginning to set better boundaries. To take better care of myself. All that yoga. Oh, Steve, I just feel so discouraged. I’m so fucked up."
She sat back down on the swing. "I hate my life. This is hell.
"And now I’m a middle-aged fat person. Just like them."
She flung herself back on the porch swing dramatically. "Shit. They won."
Susan was having a "multiple affliction attack": craving, aversion, and delusion all at the same time. Talk about the War With Reality. Susan was at war with everything. Her parents. Her career. (She confessed that she’d been refusing to return phone calls from clients for weeks.) She was at war with her own moment-to-moment experience of life. With pain. With sensation. She couldn’t get comfortable in her own body.
The Chaining of Thoughts, Feelings, Impulses, and Actions
Each of us has had an experience like Susan’s—hijacked by a state of craving or aversion that we did not understand. These experiences can be bewildering. Susan felt captive—bound to an invisible chain of events which she could not fathom, much less control. She could see the pattern in this chain of events. She had lived it out over and over again. But she felt powerless over it. Alas, a good deal of human life is characterized by this sense of loss of control to patterns driven by inscrutable motivations. All systems of human transformation are compelled to notice this problem. St. Paul noticed it in his own life: "The good I would do I do not; the evil I would not do, I do." Freud spent his life studying it, and postulated an unconscious which is the repository of these hidden motivations.
How do yogis understand these unseen forces at work in the human experience? I had a personal reason for wanting to know. Not long before Susan’s meltdown, I had had a food hijacking myself. It came with the same feelings of powerlessness as Susan’s had. Since that event, I had begun to study precisely how these unconscious reactive dramas unfold—and particularly how Patanjali might work with such a situation. How would his view differ, say, from St. Paul’s or Freud’s—or Susan’s OA sponsor’s?
I had been teaching a morning seminar in the Sunset Room at Kripalu—which is located just adjacent to the bakery. Almost every day the Kripalu bakery produces fresh bread, along with a steady stream of scones, muffins, and cookies. I was teaching a seminar on yoga philosophy when I became mildly aware of the scent of freshly baked banana muffins, wafting through the open windows of the room. "Banana muffins," I thought vaguely when I smelled them.
At the mid-morning break, I found myself in the bakery eating banana muffins. As we all stood around the bakery table and gnoshed on muffins, I said to myself, "How did I get here?" How did I end up in the bakery eating a muffin at ten thirty am? For the previous three months, as an experiment, I had been observing a diet with no wheat or sweeteners. These muffins were loaded with both. At what point did I decide to ditch my diet? When was the moment of choice? Or was I choiceless in the matter? Am I powerless over muffins? Am I powerless over these dense states of craving and aversion? Do we have free will, or don’t we?
It turns out that yogis adopted these hijackings—and the allied questions about will, power, and choice—as a central object of their intensive meditative scrutiny. They were compelled to. After all, these dense experiences of craving and aversion seem to be a universal part of human experience. The good I would do, I do not. The evil I would not do, I do. These moments of hijacking by afflictive forces seem to be central stumbling blocks to happiness.
The first response of the yogis was, as always, Stop the world! Stop the world. Quiet down. Investigate. Look closely. How, precisely, have we created this particular knot in our experience? This theme of self-investigation, self-scrutiny, self-study is perhaps the central theme in the great symphony of yoga. Patanjali and his peers were interested in investigating these states closely in their meditation laboratories—using themselves as the objects of their scrutiny. Quite by accident, they found that investigation itself is the first part of a highly effective strategy to attenuate these densely afflicted states. As we shall see, the power of investigation to expose and end suffering will become another major theme in Patanjali’s work.
In the Yoga-Sutra, Patanjali recommends the strategy of observing these afflicted states so closely that the hidden volitions that drive them are fully exposed.
In their subtle form, these causes of suffering are subdued by seeing where they come from. (2.10)
When foiled by afflictive patterns, says Patanjali, trace them back to their source. Expose their roots! So, yogis investigated. They looked carefully at the chain of events that leads to these dense states of craving and aversion. They saw precisely how craving and aversion first emerge in the stream of consciousness, and how they influence behavior. And finally, as Patanjali suggests, they were successful in tracing these tendencies in the mind back to their origins.
[Here follows a longer, more technical description of the precise chaining of events that leads to our sense of being "hijacked" by unconscious motivations and patterns. Interestingly, both ancient yogis and contemporary scientists have described a similar series of highly patterned mental and physical events that lead to these hijackings. These can be described, in shorthand, as "appraisal, impulse, and action." Yogis, in their "meditation laboratories," studied this chaining of events and discovered precisely where the links between appraisal, impulse, and action can be broken, so that we might be free to make discerning choices—and not feel entirely bound to our own hidden motivations.]
Pain or Suffering?
Several days after her near slip, Susan and I were investigating her experience together, looking at each moment in the chain of events that had led to the parking lot.
"Go back to the moment just before you left for Stop and Shop," I suggested. "You were standing by the window in your sunroom. You wanted to jump off the bridge. What were you feeling?"
"I wanted oblivion. I just wanted to get lost."
She looked up for a moment and studied my face. "And, actually, I still do. Right this minute."
There was a moment of quiet. It had begun to rain, and the only sound now was a steady plinking of drops on the metal roof of Susan’s sunporch.
Susan was breathing fast, almost panting. For a moment she seemed overwhelmed by feelings. But she was staying with them—not moving away from the feelings, but toward them. Into them. Investigating them. The chain was breaking apart.
Finally, Susan took a deep breath and settled back into her chair. She sat staring out at the birdfeeder. "You know," she said finally, "no matter how painful it is, it’s a relief just to feel it."
Yogis discovered that the possibility of freedom from impulsive, driven behavior exists in every single mind moment—but only through the practice of being present for experience. This requires that we familiarize ourselves with precisely how thoughts, feelings, and impulses arise in the stream of experience. This is, indeed, precisely what meditation is for. In fact, one word for meditation in Tibetan means familiarization. Meditation is a process of getting to know the mind. It turns out, as we shall see, that this "knowing" itself interrupts these chains of reactive thoughts and feelings.
We are freed from the prison of reactivity only when we can begin to be present for the sensations in the body that result from the stimulus of thoughts or senses. And in order to know the sensation before the whole chain of reaction and action has started, we must hone a subtle awareness at the level of the body.
Mere presence interrupts the "chaining" of thoughts and feelings as they tumble toward action. If, for example, as I was teaching my class that morning, I had noticed, "Ah, pleasurable sensation in the body—muffin," and felt that sensation fully, observed, allowed it to be present—the attraction would have passed away eventually. The chain would have been broken right there. And I could have chosen more consciously. The stage would have been set for me to explore my reality. How is it, really, right now, in my body? What are these sensations like? What does this craving feel like? I could then have asked the all-important question: Do I want to choose the muffin? Or not?
Stephen Cope, MSW, LICSW, is Senior Scholar-in-Residence at Kripalu and director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living. A psychotherapist and yogi, he writes and teaches on the relationship between contemporary psychology and Eastern contemplative traditions. He is author of the best-selling Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and creator of the Gentle Yoga Kit.
Reprinted with permission. This excerpt was published in the Summer 2006 issue of the Kripalu catalog.