Yoga, Meditation, and Psychotherapy – Karma, Guru, and Liberation – II

For the patient, psychotherapy may be seen as an attempt to improve Karma in this life. In part, the therapist offers this in the role of the guru who shows the patient ways to unhook from old patterns by the liberation of self from attachment to the neurotic past, opines Prof. Ashoka, in this erudite final part of the two-part article, exclusively in Different Truths.

The goal is no less than total deliverance from needless struggle through the nonattachment of knowing that concern with making things happen is meaningless. The acquisition of knowledge and power in the absence of the benign detachment that comes with spiritual maturity is a hazardous stage in any path of self-development. The hazards are most vivid in those paths that involve the mastery of violence. Here are some instructive words from the pen of a black belt adept in the Japanese martial art of Karate: I think that the most dangerous time for most Karateka [students of Karate] is when they have reached the brown belt level. At this grade, they are strong and fast, and notoriously rough in free fighting. They are accurate with their blows and deliver them with power, certainly enough to maim or kill. They have learned to focus, and they have begun to learn fighting spirit. All of this they have learned, but they have not learned calmness and tolerance and the state of empty-mind that is brought about by further intensive practice.

The cautions offered by this master of “the gentle art” of Karate hold for the practices of Yoga and psychotherapy as well. Once young therapists gain an understanding of personality dynamics and a repertoire of disarming therapeutic ploys, they enter a dangerous phase. Their focused need to change the patient takes precedence over an unattached readiness to offer the excellent expert techniques which provide an accepting atmosphere within which the patient might grow at his or her own pace. It is a time of struggle between therapist and patient, of therapeutic impasses, and of needless suffering for both. Understanding the discrediting of such powers in the context of Yoga begins with the Indian conception of life as a “wheel of sorrows” turning from birth through the suffering of this life to death and rebirth into yet another round of pain.

As Buddha proclaimed: “All is anguish, all is ephemeral.” The misery of human life is due to the ignorance that attributes substance to the illusion that is this life, and to that attachment which leads us to try to hold onto the impermanent things of this life. To whatever extent we focus our longing on getting our own way, on doing in order to achieve results, on holding on to things beyond our control, to that extent we are trapped in needless suffering. 

Paradoxically, the Indian conception of universal suffering does not lead to a pessimistic philosophy founded on despair. Suffering is not a tragedy. It is a cosmic necessity. Yet each person has a chance to become free of it. For each individual, Karma is the crucial pivot. Karma is the conception that each act has consequences. Our circumstances in this life are the consequences of actions in earlier lives. How we live in this life will determine what our next life will hold in store.

It is not necessary to believe in Reincarnation to apply this view to our own lives. Even if we have only one life, we create our Karma as we live it. We can gradually liberate ourselves from needless suffering. It is possible to affect future Karma by doing the Work on my Self of raising my consciousness beyond the ignorance of attachment to the results of my efforts. I only get to keep that which I am prepared to give up. In Western terms, Virtue is its own reward. There is no hope of redemption in doing Good in order to be saved. Only by doing Good for its own sake, without seeking reward, can I attain Salvation. 

For the patient, psychotherapy may be seen as an attempt to improve Karma in this life. The therapist helps the patient to heighten awareness of the consequences of actions and of the price of willful attachment to getting one’s own way. In part, the therapist offers this in the role of the guru who shows the patient ways to unhook from old patterns by the liberation of self from attachment to the neurotic past. The therapist offers not only the enabling practices of treatment techniques but the model of non-attachment to the results of his or her own therapeutic efforts as well. Both the practices and the non-attachment are crucial to the process. Baba Ram Dass describes the Karma Yoga of such offerings by  saying: …the only thing you have to offer another human being, ever, is your own state of being … everything, whether you’re cooking food or doing therapy or being a student or being a lover, you are only doing, you’re only manifesting how evolved a consciousness you are. That’s what you’re doing with another human being. That’s the only dance there is! …Consciousness … means freedom from attachment… You realize that the only thing you have to do for another human being is to keep yourself really straight, and then do whatever it is you do.

How can Yoga help us to find deliverance? Indian philosophy provides two avenues. The earlier pathway of self-development is called Samkhya which means “discrimination” or liberation through knowledge. Samkhya provides a basic theoretical exposition of human nature. If a person is devoted in good faith to the acquiring of this metaphysical knowledge, he or she may become liberated. But Samkhya serves as a pathway to release from spiritual bondage only a few rare individuals. For most of us, it serves as a preliminary preparation for the real Work of the practice of Yoga itself. Classical Yoga begins where Samkhya ends. It stands as practice to theory, as an act to thought, as reality to fantasy. 

The term “Yoga” derives etymologically from a root meaning “to bring under the yoke.” Yoga offers the seeker the opportunity to unify his or her spirit with the universal soul, to become one with the Way of life by experiencing an arranged curriculum of self-training in ascetic and meditational practices. It is at the same time both a discipline of austerities and a path of liberation. So it is that Yoga is the yoke that frees. There are two primary divisions of these practices, Raja Yoga, the royal path of cultivating the mind and the personality, and Hatha Yoga, the mastery of breathing and other physiological functions which aims at liberation through purification and development of mastery over the body.

In attempting to develop a metaphor for the non-attached practice of psychotherapy, I have focused almost exclusively on Raja Yoga, the Yoga of the will, particularly on the practices of meditation, and on Karma Yoga, the way of action and loving work.  Meditation begins with concentration. At first, this sounds simple enough. All that you have to do is to fix your attention on a single point. It might be on the tip of the nose, on a thought or an action, on a holy saying, or on an image of God. This simple exercise turns out to be enlightening in its unexpected difficulty. …it’s like trying to take an elephant that has been wild in the jungle and putting one of those iron bands around its leg and then sticking a post in the ground to tame it. When the elephant (like your wandering mind) realizes that you are trying to tame it, it gets wilder than it ever was at its wildest in the jungle.… It pulls and it pulls and it can hurt its leg. It would break its leg, it starts to bleed, it does all kinds of things before it finally gives in and becomes tame. And this roughly is the tradition of meditation. It is not possible to pursue the meditational path of liberation without straying. Concentration in the practice of Yoga, psychotherapy, or any other spiritual folk art is a matter of developing the ability to do one thing at a time. In the practice of meditation, straying from this goal has been characterized as “itching, twitching, and bitching.”

Because most psychotherapy lacks the physical demands of yoga, and because it is interpersonal, the distractions with which therapists must struggle are more focused on needless evaluative comparisons between how the therapist is doing and how he or she should be doing, or on the reciprocal point of how the patient is progressing and how the therapist thinks the patient should be progressing. Nonetheless, the problems are fundamentally the same. It is easy for the practitioner of Yoga or psychotherapy to think of other things, to become distracted with remembrances of times past and of other places. Or concentration may be lost by straying into future concerns about how this is all going to turn out.

Again, the required correction is back to one. Even seemingly present-oriented self-consciousness serves as a distraction if there is any element of comparison embedded within it. Comparisons are always deadly, whether they pivot around how I am different or the same as another, or merely around how I am different now than I was or will be at another time. The Law of the Good Moment holds for the practices of both meditation and psychotherapy. In either case, the danger of distracting myself from concentration in the moment is best expressed by the self-competitive thought: “Here I am, wasn’t I!” The goal is to have your whole being concentrated in what you are doing at the moment.

Saint Anthony said it well: The prayer of the monk is not perfect until he no longer realizes himself or the fact that he is praying. So it is that when the therapist does the best work, he or she does not experience trying to change the patient, or even experience doing psychotherapy. The therapist becomes the Work. The therapist is the psychotherapy and it all just seems to flow. The irony is that when the work goes this well, it is difficult to recapture in retrospect just what it was you did right. 

A parable of Sri Ramakrishna demonstrates that first we must learn to concentrate and only then may we gain a sense of what it feels like to be doing impeccable work: A disciple once came to a teacher to learn to meditate on God. The teacher gave him instructions, but the disciple soon returned and said that he could not carry them out; every time he tried to meditate, he found himself thinking about his pet buffalo. “Well then,” said the teacher, “you meditate on that buffalo you’re so fond of.” The disciple shut himself up in a room and began to concentrate on the buffalo. After some days, the teacher knocked at his door and the disciple answered: “Sir, I am sorry I can’t come out to greet you. This door is too small. My horns will be in the way.” Then the teacher smiled and said: “Splendid! You have become identified with the object of your concentration. Now fix that concentration upon God and you will easily succeed.

For most of us, just one lifetime does not seem long enough to attain a state of perfect concentration. In our work as psychotherapists, as in our personal lives, we will get distracted, make mistakes, and lose our way again and again. We must learn to give ourselves permission to blunder, to fail, and to make fools of ourselves every day for the rest of our lives. We will do so in any case. Scolding and self-recrimination are no more than further errors.

Instead, we can turn toward the unconditional self-acceptance of one of India’s greatest discoveries:  consciousness as a witness. To do this you must simply try to: treat yourself as if you were a much-loved child that an adult was trying to keep walking on a narrow sidewalk. The child is full of energy and keeps running off to the fields on each side to pick flowers, feel the grass, and climb a tree. Each time you are aware of the child leaving the path, you say in effect, “Oh, that’s how children are. Okay, honey, back to the sidewalk,” and bring yourself gently but firmly and alertly back to just looking.… “Oh, that’s where I am now; back to work.”

Le Shan’s “back to work” is my “back to one.” His “just looking” is a reminder that if we are to tame the wild elephant of the mind, we must not beat it. We recognize that at first, it is not easy to get used to staying in one spot. Wildly resisting by struggling to be somewhere else is painful and self-destructive. But wilfully trying to force the elephant or the mind or the patient to stay calmly in a place in which any of these are not yet ready to stay is also an exercise in futility and needless suffering. Instead, we must learn to witness the discomforting interruption and the tendency to stray, without longing, with our coercion, and without blame. …when it comes up—it’s like somebody who drops by for tea when you are trying to work on a manuscript. You say, “Hello, it’s great to have you. Why don’t you go into the kitchen and have tea with my wife (if she’s not busy, too), and I’ll be along later. I’m working on this manuscript.” And then you go back to the manuscript. Whether it’s the manuscript or the meditation or the work of psychotherapy, at such times you simply go back to one.


 ©Prof. Ashoka Jahnavi Prasad

 Photos from the Internet

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