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.


The cathedral

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.


  • “Method over content,” what a provocative theme. Lately my own practice lately has yielded some interesting content, which I know from experience is unlikely to endure. Or at least, whatever content does endure will change as the method drones persistently on. To reuse your priestly image, pose are pranayama are the chalice, not the wine. And the internal wine they hold, besides being incredibly tasty, is fluid and can evaporate. I like the way this theme of method and content resonates through the memories you’ve laid out here – and I read “content” as the substance of the chain of “you’s” you talk about. I find it interesting to ponder whether the content manifesting in the experiences you describe is particular to the method. Do priestly rituals and instructions evoke different parts of the “self” than the performance of music, or soup kitchen service, or Benedictine farming, yogasana? Or are they all paths up the same mountain, different escalators toward the executive suites of the same building?

  • I’m struck by the word ‘drones’ (above in Mid Walsh’s comment).

    I see this hive of activity.
    The queen in her lair.
    The honeycomb as ‘chalice’, and the ‘wine’ as sweet honey.

    The worker bee humms along -doing the waggle dance, farming for pollen and bringing home the soup-makings, heading into the kitchen, executive suites –as required.

    The honey as the ‘light source’ inside that octagonal framework. Honey as the blood that flows, (and leaves residue?).

    Social animals.
    Making music -Hummm (whistling while working), the ‘asana’ of the waggle dance, Then heading home to the chalice -with our endeavors clinging to us, -ready for a shower/pollen-debriefing -and some rest.

  • Very interesting, and particularly absorbing for someone who also grew up ultra-traditional Catholic, like I did. I was having in-depth discussions about this during my early debates with Buddhist writers on elephant journal, which led to one of my very favorite lines I’ve ever written:

    Furthermore, most of the austere, life-sucking, desire-suppressing, human-nature-denying recommendations of the Dhammapada are identical to those taught to us by the nuns in face-squeezing habits and broad starched-white collars who were my teachers through 8th grade.

    Perhaps you need to see this in context. I was actually defending Catholicism against the general claim of the superiority of Buddhism in the first comment to this elephant article: Original Sin vs. Original Perfection. Here’s my entire comment:

    Original sin is only one of many ridiculous required beliefs (on the threat of going to hell) that caused me to abandon Catholicism in high school, after being the most devout of little altar boys growing up. So, at first I read your excellent article and said to myself yeah, Bill’s right on.

    But then I gave it a little more thought. It feels strange to be be defending Catholicism here. But it seems that your article is a set-up, comparing the most irrational indefensible dogma of Catholicism against the most rational aspects of Buddhism. In reality there are highly rational Catholic writers who can reasonably metaphorize even original sin, and Buddhism has its own set of unlikely dogma, like reincarnation and divine succession of lamas, etc.

    If I ever chose to be part of an organized religion again (following deep life experiences with both Catholicism and Judaism) I would probably feel more comfortable with Buddhism than Catholicism. So in that way I’m with you. But if you avoid the easy device of comparing the worst of Catholicism to the best of Buddhism, it’s not as cut and dry as you’re making it out to be. From what I read, Buddhist temples are not exactly bastions of pure rationality either.

    Furthermore, most of the austere, life-sucking, desire-suppressing, human-nature-denying recommendations of the Dhammapada are identical to those taught to us by the nuns in face-squeezing habits and broad starched-white collars who were my teachers through 8th grade.

    You’ll enjoy the entire rambunctious irreverent conversation that ensued.

    Bob W. Editor
    Best of Yoga Philosophy

  • So this is what came. Thanks for putting it up. I also see where are confusions arise a little more clearly. I find the more people are traumatized in their life the harder time they have getting to the deeper stuff in Yoga. Yoga picks up where neuroscience and trauma stops. You need to get through it before you can even start to approach the subject properly. Yoga is not really a substitute or even an adjunct to therapy classically. I wish the best for you.

    • I don’t know. The history of yoga is littered with innovations arising out of traumatic situations, whether it’s the simple gore of the Iron Age, rejecting the repressions of priestly castes, or Siddhartha surviving the psychotic overprotection of his father. So I don’t see any hard line between therapy/recovery and yoga, and I don’t know what the use of such a line would be, except to establish some kind of entrance/authenticity threshold, or to pretend one can judge who’s doing what properly.

      Regarding the word “classically”, I just finished an astonishing article by Mark Singleton in Yoga in the Modern World, called “The Classical Reveries of Modern Yoga”. It might be of interest in the ongoing discussion of who is calling what “classical”, and why.

      • Well trauma can start an interest and stir things up – a good and necessary beginning for most, but like I said – the deeper practices of yoga (i.e. meditation and all its complexity). Siddhartha’s realization and his father are very different things. No logic there. And by meditation I don’t mean just sitting there and closing your eyes for a couple minutes or an hour while thoughts buzz around your head. But real meditation where things go quiet and you have actual experience in the meditative state which is what all these ancient texts are commenting on but is beyond the scope of most modern practitioners for a variety of reasons. Do you have any facility with this?
        In your logic without an entrance/ authenticity threshold than anyone can say anything they want about yoga and it has to be taken as valid. This suits your aims quite well but once again, no logic there. Every discipline needs some barometer of what’s what, and yes it can be debated but it is necessary. This is what we have nowadays though. Even huge teachers like Iynegar or Jois make up all sorts of stuff about things they have no clue about and their students eat it up without question. It is unfortunate.
        As for Mark Singleton, I am well aware of his work and enjoy reading his scholarly looks at the history. Well done. However you’ll never understand any of this by just looking at ancient texts and all their minutia, western or eastern scholars alike. It might serve a scholarly purpose but is pretty much a waste of time of you want to actually practice and experience anything real. It’s a severely limited approach and doesn’t speak to experience or real teachers. In the article you quoted he comments on Vivekananda but doesn’t even mention his guru, kali worshiping, or a host of other aspects of his life that would be necessary to understand the weight his commentary might hold. You know, like real experience. It is also very different when you are just looking at all sorts of texts about the situation, and when your teacher’s teacher had actual contact with Vivekananda. Makes all the difference. Once again it boils down to experience versus philosophical mental games about ego and identity, which we hold different views on and I can accept.

        • Yes: it’s all about experience. Yes: meditation is vital. Yes: there’s a difference between scholarship and practice. Yes: my logic is sometimes wanting. Anything else, Bryan, or did you get the grumps out for the day? 🙂

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