Philosophy, Anthropology and Yoga: rites of passage

One of my earliest teachers was an anthropologist called Professor Barbara Harrell-Bond. She introduced me to the work of Arnold van Gennep who wrote the ground-breaking book, Rites of Passage, a book about universally observed rituals in human societies.

A rite of passage is exactly that: a formal ritual, often observed by the whole community, with certain elements, including for instance the use of water (baptism), metal (marriage), fire (incense at death) or blood (ritual incisions in some cultures) to mark the change from one state to another. Philosophers of Yoga have been aware of the importance of rites of passage as processes that both recognise liminal limits, the blurred edges where one state leads to another, and the vital importance of transformation of perspective through changing how perception takes place, since records began.

Time is not a thing. It is an idea that we have developed to try to grasp what is going on when things change. Things are always changing so in a sense, a ritual, however small, is awareness of time being the key dimension for creating space. We are never not in time and in a sense we are never not here, since all that makes us up is always somewhere. Taking a moment to realise our place in infinity can help to get things in perspective.

At the beginning of any practice, I might light a candle. But in the ecological emergency, even the act of lighting a candle takes on extra meaning, depending on how deeply I reflect on what is going on.

Most candles, especially cheap ones, have their source in the petroleum industry. In becoming aware of what we engage in, we become conscious of what systems we are supporting. Do we really need to worry about such things? Not worry, exactly, no. But be aware, yes. Sometimes that’s all it takes, awareness. Some things we can change, others we can not but our work is to focus on what we are doing. So when creating a rite of passage between then, what has happened before, and now, what is happening while you are aware of it, we need to see what the gateway to our awareness holds. How can we make it good, or at least better?

Perhaps what we need to do is to use things like candles more sparingly, but see if we can source them from materials that involve less harm. Do soy candles do this? It’s not that simple, sadly. Soy farming practices have been very destructive, although primarily because the main use of soya beans has been as animal fodder. Some candle makers use beeswax which is the purest and most expensive wax. Does every decision in your yoga practice have to involve such minute attention to detail? It will! But you will also learn not to sweat the small stuff. You will learn that there is no perfect decision, there is only the best decision you can make now, with the awareness you have now. Become more aware of where things come from and find what causes the least harm, and then let it go. No judging others for doing things differently. Focus on now, with a short ritual to honour our own willingness to be aware, and with self compassion and patience, let us begin.

NOW is a really important word in yoga philosophy. It is the idea that you are now ready to begin. It imagines the student is ready, prepared for the effort of self transformation that yoga demands. Are you ready?

Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

This is the second verse of Patanjali’s Sutras, and it translates as “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind” but the third, “Tada drastuh svarupe avasthanam”, “Then, the seer dwells in his own true splendour” is what it’s all about.

Being able to see yourself in action is the key to being able to change how you interact. When you can see what you are doing while you are doing, hear your own words, notice what has prompted them, see your own actions and know what is driving them, then you have the key to freedom. Being able to notice your thoughts, words, and feelings with a little space does not mean being disconnected. You still feel pain, anger, fear, joy and rage. But you are less likely to react with violence, withdrawal, or other reactions that deepen the cycle of harm, as described in verse four. Verse four is “Vrtti sarupyam itaratra”, which means “At other times the seer identifies with the fluctuating consciousness”. This is reacting. Responding is being able to ‘see’ what is going on from a compassionate point of view, and your response will therefore come from that more reflective, kinder place.

Pause here and consider what it might mean to be steady and still in your awareness. The world turns, and you are in constant flux. What is it in you that remains aware and able to see all even as things change? Can you find a way to focus on just one thing? Your breath is a good thing to focus on because it’s always there: if you’re breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you (thank you, John Kabat Zinn).

By the way, in talking about ‘the seer’, I’m going to suggest a different way of thinking about things from what you might be used to. I am not suggesting that you have a ‘higher’ self or a soul self or anything else that is separate or apart from what you are. What I’m talking about, and will keep coming back to, is what is actually going on in this universe, in this existence, right here, right now.

Your brain can be aware of its own thought and action processes more or less at the time they are happening. It can also understand that it relies on the sense organs, on memories, and on its own reactions in the past, to create the picture it has of the present. It reacts to this picture, and not to the world itself.

Although we are never outside ourselves we have a way of realising this. When everything is relaxed and we realise this, we are less stuck on what our previous reactions have been, more open to letting our senses, muscles and organs as systems do what they do without the added burden of our rage and rejection.

Some people call this ‘being in the flow’. It is as though we can let everything happen in its own way without interference from distractions. Yet we are aware of ourselves while this flow state is going on. Imagine how much more effective we would be in tackling the huge issues we face as a species if we could all act while in this state of calm!

Sitting Bull, the Lakota chief, was called “Slow”, not as an insult, but because he was renowned for always taking a moment to reflect before replying to anyone. We have automatic reactions, and we have this capacity to reflect, and respond. It is this we need to practice. Of course there are times when we must react, like when a bus is about to run us down, but the great paradox of an emergency is two fold: one, panic doesn’t help, and two, you will react in an emergency as your brain has become accustomed to react. So practicing slowing down your reactions whenever possible to reflections, and therefore to responding instead, is the best thing you can do to prepare for being in a real emergency. You will be more useful to others. You will give yourself a better chance of survival.

Practice now, today, by noticing any time you are reacting to some speech, or story, or other activity that triggers a reaction. Practice giving yourself the length of a breath to respond instead. Now you are the seer, acting in meditative awareness. The first and most important step, and one you will need to practice as often as you can until it becomes a habit.

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