Transparency Papers: introduction, and growing up Catholic (part one)
It’s become clear in an era of lightning-fast interdisciplinary and intercultural exchange that the transparency of one’s sources can be a grounding factor in understanding why and how one does yoga philosophy. Inspired by discussions on this blog and others, I’m experimenting with creating a record of my religious and academic influences. I think the stories of how we come to yoga are an essential part of the yoga we wind up finding. This entry, which describes some of the impact and lessons of my Catholic childhood, is the first of maybe five parts. The others will follow the chronology as it happened: university influences, years in Buddhism, years in a kundalini cult, years of quieter study — alone, and with quiet mentors — and how these experiences seemed to roll together into an eclectic practice of yoga and the vedic arts, and occasionally being an adult.
The goal of transparency
In yoga philosophy, everything is on the table. We negotiate matters of history and the heart, fact and interpretation, practice and its meanings, language and translation, thought and flesh, our emotions and their repressions. It would be nice to claim objectivity: to survey the literature with the broadest lens, to evaluate teachers and teachings with impartial eyes, and even to bring our meditations to the neurology lab to generate empirical evidence. But our yearning for objectivity clashes with the raw silence of the private, indescribable sensations by which yoga actually transforms us. These privacies are not only stimulated by yoga’s techniques; they are fed by the deep roots of our unconscious lives. Our experiences of yoga and the way we study it are driven by the subjective forces of history, culture, language, family, technology, social privilege, present circumstance, and past trauma. To the extent we ignore these roots as we work with it may be the extent to which we believe we are we are communicating something whole, perfect and unchanging. But it won’t be true.
While we can always strive towards a clearer vision of what yoga is and has been, its practice —including the practice of its philosophy — will be a highly subjective experience. I believe that to do yoga philosophy with clarity and humility, we must be as transparent as we can be about this subjectivity: about how we personally and culturally come to these texts and practices, to this heritage. As best we can, we must inventory the baggage we bring with us, and how it both inspires and limits us. By being clear about our subjectivities, we can begin to dialogue openly with the subjectivities of others, fostering “intersubjectivity”. If we don’t allow ourselves to be transparent, both writers and readers of yoga philosophy can get sucked into the quagmire of projecting and assessing objective authority, rather than sharing experience. And yoga philosophy is nothing if not the language we use to share the ineffable experiences of practice, regardless of who we are, who we’ve studied with, or what our goals may be.
So I thought I’d take a stab at transparency with regard to my educational experiences both formal and informal, to endow the rest of my writing with more explicit point-of-view. I know that I won’t be able to tell the full story, the unconscious being what it is, and for brevity I’ll confine my notes to my encounters with spiritual and philosophical traditions, and their teachers, even though my other intimate relationships have been equally formative to the way I do philosophy. Because of these exclusions, and also because growth never ends, I know that this attempt will be subject to multiple revisions over however many years may follow for me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from yoga, it’s that I’m never quite the same person I think I am, from day to day. To realize that your identity is subject to constant revision as you love and work and practice provides a strange comfort in the face of mortality. “I” am not going to die, in a way. It will be yet another “I”, who no one has met, including “me”. The I’s I am most familiar with are the oldest ones, which I’ve had the most time to process in therapy and dreams.
A very long-ago “I” was raised Catholic and attended a pre-Vatican II throwback all-boys choir school where Gregorian chant, Renaissance choral music and mystical religious poetry intermingled with authoritarian discipline and psycho-sexual abuse. The school was (still is) in downtown Toronto, and was from its founding an homage to the medieval schola cantorum, or papal choir, which served the original Basilica of St. Peter in Rome until the 15th century. My years there gave me complexes I’ve struggled for decades to remove, and still haven’t completely: a burning sense of inadequacy and the hair-trigger guilt that flows from it, and the confusion of love with pain by which the crucifixion narrative filters down into emotional violence and corporal punishment. More subtle and pernicious than these, I feel, was the training I received in anti-social disembodiment, embedded through repeated teachings of bodily disgust, sexual shame, and the fantasies of saintly protection and bodiless freedom. Having spent more than two decades trying to see these influences, if not to root them out, I can smell them a mile away in non-Catholic sources, and they are a special target of mine when I encounter them in the context of yoga philosophy. Like many writers, I write to heal my own deepest wounds, especially when I see them reflected in others.
(I’m also hyper-sensitive to authoritarianism on the mat: I’ve felt glares and adjustments from prominent Iyengar-lineage teachers that reminded me of the corporal punishment of my youth. My flesh was a obstruction to somebody else’s view of order. I was a child in the way. The strange erotics of harsh adjustments and strapping felt similar: they showed me in part that I merited attention from power. I submitted to the discipline, conflicted, because I thought I would be loved if I could finally transcend myself.)
But my Catholic upbringing also trained me quietly in attitudes that I’ve come to appreciate more deeply with every passing year. For instance, the syncretism of modern Catholic culture has become a model for my understanding of yoga history, in which the texts and commentaries of wildly different periods and intentions are interwoven into the living liturgical fabric. From the age of eight I was aware of the threads that bound plainchant to plainsong and plainsong to polyphony. At some point in high school, I got an inkling of the meaning of the Renaissance and its impact upon music, and I began to understand what a radical shift the technique of counterpoint brought to these archaic forms: that voices could mirror and conflict with each other, and still seem part of a whole. When I became an organist (a job that financed my early writing) I realized that the primary task was to render each conflicting voice with equal integrity. Managing three keyboards, two foot pedal swell boxes and a full pedalboard, I had the extraordinary pleasure (for brief moments when I wasn’t terrified) of becoming a choir of one. I’m sure that around that time I read Whitman’s I contain multitudes: eclecticism became at one an experiential truth and a moral value to me. To this day, I am far less interested in what one voice (or text, or time period in yoga history) has to say than I am in how multiple voices speak to truths no single voice could contain.
I can think of three other things that keep the votive lights flickering in my heart.
Firstly, there were the bells. I was an altar boy, ringing the bells every morning after the priest said This is my body which will be given up for you, and he raised the host and paused for a moment, allowing the transubstantiation to invisibly occur. I waited for the moment, sweating coldly under my blood-red soutane and lacy white surplice, fondling the brass bells with their strikers swaying inside. The whole thing mystified me: the ritual act of transforming bread into a symbol of flesh, or was it a symbol? Did I ring the bells long and loudly enough to facilitate the change?
The gesture sticks in me to this day: This is my body, this is my body, I’ll sometimes hear myself saying under my breath as I encounter the world and feel my interdependence. When in my twenties I found myself initiated into a Tantric Buddhist ritual in India, and was given bits of meat and wine to eat and was taught to visualize it as my own flesh and blood I was consuming in an act of ego-dissolution, I shivered with recognition: to meditate on the sacrifice of identity to presence. I felt it again, years later, when I began to learn a little about homam, and the Vedic obsession with fire as sustenance and destruction. When on my mat or cushion today, or on my bicycle, I hear the words still: This is my body, which will be given up for you. It even came to me after sex one night. This is all the thises I can feel and see: each part of me, each part of the room. You is all the yous I can conceive of, known and unknown. Each movement is a holocaust (in the old Greek sense of “completely burnt”) of the mover into the general movement of life. When I encounter the texts of yoga philosophy, I know I’m looking for the arguments, or fragments of arguments, that support this echo. I have to resist my instinct to ditch almost everything else.
Secondly: essence versus existence. By the time I was eighteen I had performed as a church musician (cantor, organist, sometimes both) at close to a thousand funerals. It started when I was a ten year-old soprano, and Father Armstrong would knock on the homeroom door and read a list of fives names from a ragged piece of paper, mine included. We warmed up around the piano in the auditorium for a few minutes and then piled into his rusted baby blue K-car and drove out to the church that had hired us. We got the morning off of class, a car ride, and McDonald’s on the way back to school.
Some of the funerals for which I was the organist were large affairs, and some were for homeless war vets, at which I was alone with the priest and the coffin and the bagpiper the Royal Legion would send along with a flag to drape the coffin. The whole premise of the funeral was that the corpse, as the former container of a soul, was to be paid tribute as something not-quite-dust-yet, something sacred, something that could yet be desecrated by not following the rites. I heard a thousand eulogies praising the essence of the deceased, asserting the glory of their new home or life: a thousand emotional invocations of the soul. The repetition of it all muted the emotional consequence to me. I began to see just corpses in coffins, and coffins rolling in and out. I couldn’t detect the essence of a thing or person to which I wasn’t psychologically attached. The essential soul became for me something that we needed to survive the unacceptably inanimate corpse, rather than something we could existentially verify, and for this we pay the price of the spirit-body dualism that I knew from school to be so repressive. When I watched my own grandmother die I felt profoundly split, because part of me couldn’t understand where she had gone and wanted to insist that she still existed in some manner beyond my memory, and part of me, trained by a thousand funerals, could see that her corpse was like any other: no longer cohered by the web of energetic exchange that makes moving things move. Feeling both at the same time showed me that essentialism and existentialism seem to be codependent in the human psyche, and that the trick wasn’t to choose correctly between them, but to value each for their uses.
My decade-long meditation on death and the essences that don’t and yet do lie beyond it primed me for the key dispute at the heart of Indian philosophy and its yogas: the revolt of the Buddhist anātman against the Vedantic ātman, constituting the deconstruction of an essentialist, uncompounded, eternal self or soul. From the organ bench I had witnessed hundreds of widows and widowers and children with tears streaming down their faces I could see that there were two paths to consolation: imagining the discrete eternality of what has been lost (and what is yet to be lost), or understanding that life-force is continually exhausted and recycled into other forms we will not know.
I slowly understood that most people employ both modes at various points in their lives, and that most of us harbour essentialist attitudes towards the primary connections we hold. I have come to recognize that I am a Buddhist in contemplation, and a Vedantist in crisis. (Note for the future: look at ātman and anātman modes through the lens of Daniel Kahneman’s “fast” and “slow” thinking.) A relaxed part of me knows that essence is a psychic construction that the wandering mind grips, while the fearful/joyful part of me will never let go of who, for example, I think my baby boy is. I can feel my bond to what I imagine his essence to be surge by simply saying his name: it makes me shiver with joy and fear. I can’t imagine him not existing. Of course, if the intensity of our time together is not compounded into a single crisis of injury or death, anātman will sooth my heart more efficiently as he separates from me, makes his way, becomes as strange and familiar to me as I am to myself, and joins the river of all things that change, all things that I do not own, and never did.
There’s also something strange about repetition, just in itself. It seems that the value of religious ritual is in its oscillation between novel discovery and repetitious consolation. In this way it might ideally mimic the fascinations and biorhythms of the environment. But for the professional ritualist (priest, pujari, rabbi, roshi, imam) the sensation of novel discovery is very difficult to maintain, and over time, consolation is hollow. I shivered when I rang those bells. But the shiver wore off, especially as I watched the priests seem to affect sanctimonious boredom at the same moment.
I imagine the banality of repeated performance gnaws at the root of priesthood (and professionalized practitioners) generally: the draining work of a magic one makes empty through routine, which forces a kind of concealed cynicism expressing itself sideways in authoritarian cruelties. Pedophile and battering priests and abusive gurus would be sociopaths with or without their robes. Perhaps they are additionally provoked by the contrast between the grandiosity of their metaphysics and the vacuum they are paid to make of its meaning.
The question that for me was born in the majesty and repetitiveness of cathedral architecture remains: How do we balance newness and sameness? The direction that occurs to me for now is to emphasize method over content, which is why science perhaps offers an answer to the ritual stagnations of the past. When method rather than dogma is the constancy and consolation, it can nurture the pleasure of novelty by holding shifting content.
Third: my Catholic upbringing made me assume that mystical ritual and social justice were the same action. As I wrote in the essay that Carol Horton and Roseanne Harvey published in 21st Century Yoga, the churches I grew up in were attached to church halls that served a wide range of community needs: AA meetings, soup kitchen work, mentorship programmes, fundraising for foreign aid. One organizational problem of the Church is that its collective desire is always bigger than the dogma it employs to throttle change. Over time, the transformation of many individual churches into community centres have highlighted the political activism of the historical Jesus. It has also, I believe, slowly pushed Catholic theology towards immanence, though not fast enough for me nor the millions of others who are bitterly disgusted by the bigotry, misogyny, sanctimony, and wealth at the top.
Still, having had the mysticism of This is my body smacked up against the logistics of a canned food drive within the same building — while playing the organ for baptisms, weddings, and funerals often within the same week — gave me a very clear sense of what a culture would feel like in which the values of personal evolution and social service were coherent. After six years in Modern Postural Yoga, I remembered all of this one spring day, and looked around at the largely consumerist experience of studio culture, and thought If we actually are a community, we can sure do a better job at community service.
Lastly, I can’t forget the monastery I visited on my own for several years from about the age of fifteen. Ste Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, south of Montreal. I’d get off the bus in Magog, buy a pack of Gauloises, and hike the hour journey. Very old monks lived there, running a dairy farm and making apple brandy and chanting the Latin office eight times per day. For ten dollars a night I had a room, meals in the refectory while a monk read aloud from a natural history of Lac Memphrémagog. I read the mystics in my cell — especially Teilhard de Chardin — wrote poems, smoked defiantly behind the sugarhouse, and surrendered to the old Benedictine rhythm: eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, eight hours of study and contemplation. To this day I’m happiest when my time flows like this. When I came across the Ayurvedic theory of dinacharya (“to become a follower of the sun”), bells rang.
But things were missing at the monastery. Family. Wine. Sex. There was prayer, but prayer was mainly about behavioural modification. I hadn’t read Thomas Merton yet: I didn’t even know I was hungry for meditation. The towering vaulted ceiling above my bowed head predicted an unspoken need for emptiness.