Parliament of World Religions: Celebration of Diverse Faiths or Progressive Superforce?

Nothing gives me hope for the future of humanity and our beleaguered planet like the Parliament of World Religions. Nowhere else have I seen such good will, such passion for change, and such profound willingness to listen and dialog with those who see the world differently.

The mainstream stereotype that the world’s religions are somehow fundamentally opposed to each other – and opposed to science – is something of a modern myth. What is true is that the conservative-fundamentalist pole of the religious spectrum has been making the most noise in recent decades.  This is made worse by a news media that hunts incessantly for bad news, for conflict and disagreement. The good works and progressive advocacy done by religious groups rarely makes it into our newsfeeds, and the result is that many secular Americans have a warped view of what religion is and what it can be.

And yet the stated goal of the Parliament of World Religions is thus: bringing the world’s religious traditions together to build a peaceful, just, and sustainable world. Day after day, session after session, from small meetings of a dozen attendees to enormous plenaries of thousands – the parliament has made a call to action on women’s rights, combating climate change, ending war, poverty, and income inequality, and empowering the indigenous peoples of the planet.

No doubt many readers inundated with mainstream media will find this description reminiscent of a fairy tale. After all, isn’t religion inherently dogmatic, sexist, homophobic, apocalyptic, and anti-environment? Actually, no – it is inherently none of those things. You’re thinking of fundamentalism.

Now, I don’t mean to deny for a moment the terrible damage that has been done by fundamentalist and patriarchal religion to our world. From burning witches at the stake to bans on gay marriage, from religious wars to rape of the natural world – the fundamentalists have much to answer for. It might also be argued that the progressive wing of the world’s religions have some responsibility for reigning in their fanatic brethren. It’s a fair point. But those who make this argument may still be lost in the fog of assuming all members of a particular faith are somehow the same.

Realistically, progressive believers don’t have control or influence over the fundamentalists any more than the Democratic Party has power to control or influence the Republican Party. There is tremendous segregation with most of the major belief systems in our world. While Christians fighting for LGBT rights may have some inroads to their conservative counterpoints, the fundamentalists are just as likely to consider the progressives traitors to the faith.

But times are changing. The Public Religion Research Institute has suggested that the “moral majority” of religious believers is trending increasingly toward progressive values.   In the 21st century, religion may well become one of the most powerful forces for progressive change on planet Earth.

Of course, the fundamentalists aren’t going anywhere, and will likely only get louder as they become increasingly marginalized. But the progressive element of world’s religions have an ace in the hole that the fundamentalists lack: while fundamentalist traditions tend to attack and condemn each other, progressive faiths are willing to work together. Because progressive religion is more willing to accept a plurality of faith traditions, and more eager to tolerate differences, it is much easier for Hindu and Christian, Muslim and Jew, Buddhist and Pagan and Sikh, to form alliances and take action on the terrible plight of our planet. Furthermore, these believers are motivated to do so as an ethical injunction from a higher power. Peaceful resolution to conflict, fighting poverty and hunger, caring for the environment, empowering women and indigenous peoples – these are the values of a life lived from the heart of compassion, and these are the values of the Parliament of World Religions.

There is tremendous energy here, and tremendous potential for good.

10,000 participants means there is something interesting happening all the time.

10,000 participants means there is always something interesting happening somewhere.

     Building Bridges or Taking Action?

Lest this seem like a one-sided endorsement, I want to acknowledge some of difficulties already being navigated by the Parliament. The original emphasis of the interfaith movement was on listening and dialog – building bridges and peaceful alliances with those who see the world very differently. The idea was to create a space for safe, respectful dialog where people could openly state their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and thus learn about each other rather than cast judgments from afar.

When done properly, this practice has a world-expanding effect for everyone involved. Whole new cultures and possibilities come alive. And because nobody is proselytizing or making exclusive claims to the truth, the entire world grows richer, and individuals come to appreciate the unique beauty of their own tradition all the more.

Just one example of this mindset at the 2015 parliament was demonstrated during a panel discussion on accepting and affirming the LGBT community in the evangelical church. The panelists were all young evangelical Christians, all gay or bisexual, and all deeply committed both to their church, and to the fight for LGBT rights. As these brave young men have worked with churches around the country struggling to reform, they have found that the only way a congregation comes through such a process without dividing is when emphasis is placed on actual human-to-human contact and listening. Everybody has to have their say – even the ones whose hearts are full of anger and fear. Only when everyone has a voice can everyone be listened to, and only when everyone is listened to do bridges begin to form from one heart to another. And indeed, the LGBT community is gaining ground, slowly but surely, as the evangelical church evolves.

At the same time, we must acknowledge that there will always be churches and religious believers that will not evolve – they will remain stubbornly stuck in their rigid dogmas, anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, anti-interfaith. Other than tough love, I’m not sure what’s to be done about that situation.   We can extend olive branches, we can listen, we can hold them in our hearts with compassion, and all the while stay true to our principles of what we know to be right. We continue to do the difficult work of building bridges, knowing that some individuals and groups will never cross.

So what are the difficulties I alluded to? This year the parliament convened in Salt Lake City after a 6 year break, and what appeared to my eyes to be a marked shift in emphasis. While the 2009 Parliament in Melbourne Australia did not shy away from issues of climate change, war, and gender equality, the main purpose was dialog, listening and bridge building among diverse faiths. At that parliament we were addressed by the Dalai Lama, who admonished us for too much talk and too little action. The organizers of the event, it seems, took that to heart, and in 2015 the call to action went through the roof. As a progressive, I was thrilled and moved to tears on more than one occasion.   For the first time in a long time, I saw that humanity’s future could be bright.

But it can be hard to take decisive action and build bridges at the same time. On the morning of the first day, I was walking with my father to the convention center and we were joined by a young Mormon republican. My father cracked a light-hearted joke that she would be the only republican at the conference, and she quickly moved away from us. My heart goes out to that young woman – she was showing up to have the conversation, and felt alienated before she even walked in the door.

I have no doubt that similar scenarios played out a thousand times over the course of the convention. When the Parliament leadership takes the position that climate change is real and deadly and we must act on it immediately, it is great for motivating the progressive base – and instantly alienating to those attendees who have been taught that climate change is a liberal hoax. My fear is that those people will slip quietly out the back door – the opportunity for dialog is lost, and with it, the bridge collapses and the tent grows smaller.

This is one small example, but it is not hard to imagine the plethora of issues where an assumption of uniform shared values could begin to drive away diverse (if difficult) perspectives. The Parliament risks becoming less pluralistic and less inclusive the more it takes a firm progressive stance. It becomes not the Parliament of World Religions so much as the Parliament of Progressive Religions. Given the critical state of our planet, that might well be a worthwhile trade.

But even in making this move, we must be mindful that we do not give up too much – that we still hold firm to the principle of listening to the other side. That even in our call to action, we allow our world and our hearts to expand as we listen deeply to challenging perspectives that we have trouble understanding. Heart-centered action is crucial – the world needs it now like never before. But action without listening is folly. The more we act, the more  deeply we must listen.

Tibet Monks from Daramsala creating a compassion mandala one grain of sand at a time.

Tibetan Buddhist Monks crafting a mandala of compassion, a few grains of sand at a time…

     A Bigger World

Ideology and politics aside, I am filled to the brim with gratitude for the experience. It is not hyperbole when I claim that these kinds of dialogs between diverse cultures and faiths expand the world – it is a joyful, existential reality. Perhaps because the stories and ideas and beliefs range from the aesthetic and cultural to cosmic and philosophical, the whole of reality seems to open just a bit, to breathe in the cool invigorating air of possibility.

But even moreso, it is the experience of being among a massive throng of people who do not see their differences in belief as an excuse for divisiveness and hatred. To see so many humans sharing and listening, learning and growing, and agreeing that above all, we must care for each other and for the earth – this is our species at its best. None of us are perfect – we are all evolving, and there is great work yet to be done. But here, at the Parliament, I see just how bright the future might be.

The Parliament of World Religions convenes again in just two years, somewhere on planet Earth. May it continue to grow.

Questions?  Concerns?  Disagreements?  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below!

priests

I hope to see women ordained in the Catholic Church in the next ten years.

Can Belief in the Supernatural Heal?

I recently had a very good conversation with a leader from the local atheist movement.  He told me that a primary concern of his tribe is to expose and prevent the harm that comes about from belief in the ‘supernatural.’  He regaled a story of a married couple at the emergency room who refused to allow their dying child to have a blood transfusion, because it interfered with their religious beliefs.  The child was saved only because the physician on duty invoked the law to make the transfusion take place.  This is a useful example – it is an instance of faith, religion, and spirituality taken to a dangerous extreme, and how those extremes may harm innocents who have not chosen such extremism for themselves.

There is a shadow here that we must contend with:  in its darkest aspects, religion becomes dogmatic, legalistic, ideological; faith becomes an excuse to abandon ethics, and spirituality can be dissociative and downright delusional.  Every organization, philosophical system, lifestyle, group, and individual has a shadow, and it is worthy work indeed to bring it to light, and guard against its mischief.

So I’ll be the first to admit that belief in the ‘supernatural’ has a shadow, and that countless lives have been damaged and destroyed as the result.

But, my friends, what about the light?

One of the foundational courses in my Somatic Psychology PhD program is a course on the healing traditions of ancient Greece.  We are reading not only the original Hippocratic writings, which detail the sloppy beginnings of Western medicine – we are also looking in detail at the healing that took place at the temples of physician-god Asklepios.   For centuries, the sickest of the sick, those whom the physicians could not help, took pilgrimages to these temples, to seek direct healing from Asklepios himself.  Once arrived, they would go through ritual purification, and then descend into the abaton, an underground sacred chamber, and await a healing dream from the Divine Physician.

Although any healing was understood to come at the discretion of Asklepios, and never guaranteed, the surviving accounts of miracle cures at these temples are too numerous to dismiss out of hand.  At a time when belief in the mythic gods was waning and rationality was on the rise, Asklepios remained widely beloved.  Indeed, as our understanding of neuroscience slowly blossoms in the 21st century, many scholars are now considering whether the dream healing that took place in the ancient Asklepieia might not best be understood as the earliest working model for integrative medicine.

In deference to the skeptics, let us evaluate the temple medicine in terms of what we now know about human health:  first, exercise, diet, and stress reduction were prominent aspects of temple medicine, and modern medical research increasingly corroborates how essential these factors are to good health.  But more important, let us consider the psychological aspects of this cure: it represented a retreat from the mundane world into psychologically sacred space, it represented a culturally acceptable healing method, and it operated through accessing the deepest levels of the personality – an encounter with the unconscious mind that invites a direct imaginal experience of a divine, healing presence.

The words “psychosomatic” and “placebo” have been unfortunately somewhat dragged through the mud in previous decades – we often take these words to connote imagined illness, false cures, and hypochondria.  But on the frontiers of neuroscience and integrative medicine, these concepts have transformed into a cornucopia of information about where healing comes from – how the mind can be harnessed to heal the body, and the body harnessed to heal the mind.  There is something deep within the mind-body connection – a place we have not learned to access consciously, where powerful healing can take place.  With this in mind, we can use models from somatic psychology and placebo research to explain the miracle cures at the temples, and still recognize those cures as legitimate medicine.  After all, what could be more real to an individual than being given another 20 years of life, when all the doctors of his age have given him up for dead?

It’s important to note that during the time of Asklepios, there was almost none of our modern contention that somehow science and spirituality should be at odds.  Those early greek physicians and the temple healers of Asklepios (called therapuetes, from which we derive our modern word therapist) were allies in the art of healing!  What the doctors could not cure, they sent to the priests.  In fact, the original Hippocratic Oath is sworn in part to Asklepios, who represented to these early doctors the pinnacle of medical practice.

Now, I’ll be honest:  I’m not ruling out some sort of ‘supernatural’ phenomena at work in the temples of Asklepios.  My personal understanding of the word ‘supernatural’ is that it references anything that is outside of our understanding of ‘nature.”  One piece of data clearly evidenced by the history of science is that science itself is always revising itself with better information, better theories, whole new paradigms for understanding the universe (one brief example: according to science, bisexual attraction didn’t exist in human males prior to last year when someone at Northwestern University finally devised a study that could measure it – tell that to bisexual men! – one of thousands of examples of the dangers inherent in treating science as gospel!).  Thus, the word ‘nature’ is best apprehended as something that changes its meaning over time.  Our understanding of ‘nature’ 200 years ago is radically different from what it is today, and we have every reason to believe that in another 200 years our understanding of ‘nature’ will change even more dramatically.  So in speaking of the existence of the ‘supernatural’ I am merely acknowledging that human knowledge is limited, that there are things outside of it, beyond our understanding, things that don’t fit inside our language now, and might not fit for hundreds or even thousands of years to come.  I see this as a matter of common sense.  Science must remain extremely conservative to maintain its integrity, but common sense, I think, must remain firmly moderate if it is to be of any use at all.

In the meantime, let us leave speculation aside, and look at the psychological, and yes, somatic benefits that supernatural belief may engender.   For this is not a tale of sick people learning how to “think positive” and miraculously cure themselves in the comfort of their own homes, during their spare time, by simply wishing it so.  The story of the Asklepieia represents an intensive journey of psychological transformation.  These terribly sick and impaired individuals of yore took a pilgrimage across vast distances, in an era without motor engines, to surrender themselves before a psychologically sacred image, an image that was culturally reinforced as a divine source of healing, and on this foundation they were invited to engage directly and deeply with the most primal, and perhaps most powerful, forces of their own unconscious minds – they met Asklepios in the realm of dreams.

My point in rendering this dramatic portrait is that for the asklepieian model to work, belief in the ‘supernatural’ is an essential factor in affecting a cure.  This goes deeper than conscious belief and cognitive processing – this is healing that engages the core of the psyche.  One must believe and believe deeply, believing in the bones, in the nervous system, in the cells themselves, or the cure would surely fail.

Asklepios may be lost to us, but the potential for this deep healing is not.  And indeed, those who have studied these matters scientifically have had to admit an astonishing truth – that deeply held beliefs are a very real factor in health.  Harold Koenig of Duke University has found in large epidemiological studies that religious observance is associated with less medical illness and lower rates of hospital admission.  Frontier science is largely corroborating that, whether objectively true or false, beliefs, spiritual practices, and alternative healing methods seem to have a tangible, measurable impact on health outcomes.  This is one of the primary reasons that integrative medicine has exploded in the united states – and with great results.

Given this evidence, are we not bound to question the ethics of not only religious extremism that denies western medicine – but also materialist extremism which attempts to eradicate all belief in the supernatural?  If holding a space for the divine has even a small chance of effecting psychological and physiological healing and transformation, are we not doing violence to humanity by attacking such beliefs ubiquitously?  Nor can we expect the same degree of healing and transformation once we have disemboweled these beliefs by insisting they are a purely imaginary affair  (i.e. it’s all in your head) – one did not go to the Asklepieia to think about pleasant concepts and dialog with inner figures – one went to have a direct encounter with the living God!  As we move deeply into the mysterious contents of the subjective psyche, we by nature come into a realm that science cannot exactly measure, and scientific language can only partially describe.  This is a realm of uncertainties – that life should be uncertain is a difficult truth that we all must face at some point in our lives – but in uncertainty also lies extraordinary potentials, to which our rote ideological certainties may blind us.

I began by acknowledging the shadows of supernatural beliefs, and it is only fair to point out that the shadows of conventional medicine are also considerable.  According to Barbara Starfield, MD, writing on data gathered by the American Medical Association, over 225,000 deaths  every year are due to iatrogenic causes –i.e. deaths caused by medical treatment.  By this account, medical treatment is arguably the third leading cause of death in America, and others have placed that number much higher.  These figures are truly shocking!  But in contemplating the shadow of the medical establishment, let us here too not forget the light: how many dear loved ones have been saved by traditional medical intervention?

As always, my plea is for balance and integration.  I do not mean to endorse spiritual healing over Western Medicine, but rather to suggest that the two must find a way to coexist.  If we are going to heal ourselves, not just as individuals but as a species and as a planet, we owe it to ourselves – and each other – to accept all the help we can get.

*For more information on Asklepios, frontier science of the placebo effect, the role of belief in health and the role of spiritual healing in integrative medicine, I recommend the wonderful book Imagination and Medicine: The Future of Healing in an Age of Neuroscience, a collection of  scholarly & scientific papers presented at the conference of the same name, edited by Stephen Aisenstat and Robert Bosnak.

The Science of Yoga and the Joy of Bhakti

“All that I am, I offer on the altar of love”

Six days in the desert under the stars, surrounded by the haunting, sometimes comical postures of Joshua trees, a celebration ensues; a panoply of music and devotion, community and spirituality, yoga in its grounded, mystical and myriad forms – this is Bhakti Fest.  In a recent article on the Huffington Post, Philip Goldberg described it as the “garden” for yogis – and I wholeheartedly agree.  A garden is a place for cultivation, growth, nourishment, and beauty – and in this desert oasis we tend our souls and hearts, cultivating not only strong bodies and clear minds, but also love, joy, friendship, gratitude, and “god” – the direct experience of the divine.

I find myself writing in grand, poetic tones, and yet such is precisely where this wonderful gathering took me – to a grand and poetic place, to a taste of life not described by poetry, but life experienced as a divine poem.  As I passed from one extraordinary teacher to another, practicing physical yoga, partner yoga, breathwork, meditation, attended spiritual and historical lectures, met the shining eyes of yet another fellow bhakta, and sang and danced like a maniac to the ceaseless stream of intoxicating music, something hard inside me began to soften, what was rigid began to melt.   Places in my heart that had been cold and heavy for months and years suddenly surged with new life.  It was my own personal resurrection of the soul; my body felt radiant.

 

Photo by Michael Schennum

Bhakti is a Sanskrit word meaning devotion or worship of the divine.  One of the beautiful things about the festival is that there was no necessary agreement on what “divine” meant – each teacher had their own interpretation, and each individual had their own path.  Divinity could mean a personal God such as Christ or Krishna, a tantric path of immanence in every moment and every breath, an abstract concept of unity, a deep perception of mystery, or a felt sense or relationship, such as love or gratitude.  We weren’t there to fight each other over whose spiritual system was right – we were there to celebrate it, whatever it was!  As renowned teacher Shiva Rea whimsically put it at the end of a sunrise meditation,  “Crazy-God-People Unite!”

If it sounds a little absurd and over-the-top, that’s because it is!  That’s what makes it so much fun.

The experience left me pondering the way we view yoga here in the west.  There are many popular misconceptions, chief among them that yoga is about physical stretching and is only meant for flexible people.  Nothing could be further from the truth – in my opinion, yoga is about developing a more intimate relationship with yourself, and with the vast reality in which your self is interwoven.  Far from being a hobby for the physically flexible, true yoga is available even to those whose bodies are fully disabled.  Traditionally, yoga is an eightfold path, with the physical practice (Asana) being only one of the eight limbs.  The other branches include systems for meditation, contemplation, conscious breathwork, ethics, purification, and devotional union with the divine.  It is this last one, with its air of the mystical and the ecstatic, which perhaps feels most foreign and threatening to an American culture so sadly resigned to unexamined scientific materialism.

I mean no disrespect to science, of course.  Science, properly practiced, is at least as important as everything I’ve described above.  In fact, I see true science as being largely at odds with the philosophy of scientific materialism:  true science is a powerful method of humble inquiry and discovery, while scientific materialism is an unverifiable belief system inspired by incomplete scientific data.  (In forthcoming essays, I will argue that scientific materialism is best understood as a kind of religion).  Ken Wilber put it well when he said the attempts of science to colonize and control the realms of the ethical and the spiritual was a “total disaster”, a movement in the 19th and 20th centuries which led to a kind of flattening of reality in the collective psyche, a deadening of life.

Science and yoga have begun an uneasy dance in the last decade, riding the coattails of the longer history of neuroscience studying and ultimately affirming the benefits of Buddhist meditation.  It’s a project ripe with possibility and danger.  How wonderful to know that yoga can help to manage stress, balance the autonomic nervous system, ease anxiety & depression.  And insofar as yoga practice is undertaken as an embodied meditation, it should offer many of the benefits of meditation that neuroscience has already corroborated.  From the psychological perspective, it is increasingly clear that a safe, gentle yoga practice can be a therapeutic path towards a more fulfilled and wholly embodied sense of self.  Neuroscience tells us again and again that any neural pathways we consciously engage grow stronger – thus the more deeply and intimately we consciously engage with our own physiology, the more harmony between mind and body will be cultivated.  On the other hand, it’s also helpful to be reminded that a yoga practice undertaken for the wrong reasons, with the wrong teacher, and without mindfulness and compassion about the limits of the human body – can and does lead to injury.

And yet any devoted yogi will tell you that to truly study yoga – to truly understand it – one must practice.  For a comprehensive scientific study of yoga, we will need scientists who are also yogis – lest how will they know which hypotheses to pursue, how best to design experiments, how to sort and meaningfully interpret the data?  It’s the difference between studying your child through one-way mirror in a laboratory – or coming to know that child by being in relationship with it.  The latter way of knowing – the relational way – is the deeper and more meaningful way of understanding.   We love and marry our romantic partners, we don’t study them at a distance in laboratories.   And yoga, which means “union,” is in its most intimate nature and experience of relationship – relationship with body, self, and universe.  No matter how many miracles science produces, it will never be able to cross the boundary of objective study to subjective understanding without giving up a part of itself, and becoming something else, something pseudo-scientific, something vaguely spiritual – and this is no crime!  It is merely a recognition that the human condition must encompass more than the merely rational, valuable though the rational must be.  No matter how many chemical processes science can point to in trying to describe love – none will change the fact that the deepest meaning of love lies in its direct experience.  So it must be with experience of the divine, the “beloved” to which Rumi wrote his verse; it is a relationship first, and a concept at distant second.

One of the things I discovered at the festival is that my own yoga practice has become too scientific, too rational, and as a consequence, my world had become a little smaller, a little darker.  The yoga classes I teach are very grounded in physiology and neuroscience – I’m not one to ask my students to chant or dance.  And I imagine it will be so for some time, as this grounded approach is what I naturally have to teach:  tangible methods for integrating the physical, the emotional, and the mental aspects of being.  I personally believe that in this integration, the spiritual emerges, but I don’t talk about it much in class.  I leave it to my students to experience and explore for themselves.

But Bhakti fest showed me how many inner doors I’ve left closed of late.  Just as relaxation and mindfulness can be cultivated, so too can we cultivate in ourselves unconditional love, joy, gratitude, compassion and even the most terrifying one of all, spiritual ecstasy.  In a world so full of suffering, disappointment, anxiety, and pain, it seems the bhakti path is one which should be embraced as a resource for good, for healing and inspiration, rather than casually mocked and dismissed as a gathering of blissed-out hippies (which is, in a sense, also true).  I have no doubt that in the next few decades, astonished neuroscientists will publish papers corroborating all of this, “the health benefits of yogic cultivation of ecstatic states” and whatnot – but we don’t need to wait for them.  Spirituality can be strengthened by support  from science, but any spirituality completely beholden to scientific verification is a spirituality that has been eviscerated and enslaved.   Bhuddist meditation benefited mankind for thousands of years before neuroscience gave it permission to do so, and so it is with yoga.  If we are to truly integrate science and spirituality, it means fully respecting each on its own terms, and disavowing any attempt of either one to colonize and control the other.

As for the abuses of spirituality – or for that matter, the abuses of science – I humbly suggest that the question of ethics is another conversation entirely, albeit a vital one.  Science & spirituality both have tremendous potential for unethical behavior, as Nazi doctors and the Spanish Inquisition attest.  Neither can be reliably depended upon to provide unerring ethical systems of their own accord, and so we must honor ethics as a realm unto itself.  True, ethics can be strengthened by support from science and spirituality (this is what we mean by “integration”), but barring that support it must retain its own sovereignty.   We must stop insisting, as both religious and atheist fundamentalists do, that morality can somehow derive solely from religious or scientific systems.  Such claims are too often an attempt at colonization and control by one sphere over the other – they are an act of aggression and will only lead to further conflict.  It’s time to grow up as a species and move beyond these grasping power games.

How ironic, to make an admonition of growing up in the same essay in which I extol the virtues of exuberant dancing in the desert!  Have I painted a too-bright a picture of this jubilant garden of spiritual seekers?  Make no mistake, it has a shadow too.  Every person, every organization, has a shadow, and sometimes the brightest lights are trailed by the deepest darkness.  I write my praise of bhakti from a grounded place of balance and hard-won equanimity, accepting both the pleasure and pain in life, the good and the bad, as part of the “union” which yoga implies.  But certainly there were teachers at Bhakti Fest who were ungrounded, scattered, a bit lost in fantasies of the spirit, and perhaps more  often, a bit lost in the fantasy of celebrity.  (One doesn’t put on a festival two hours out of Los Angeles without inviting the phantoms of celebrity and commercialism to work their mischief!).  And for every bright eyed yogi genuinely practicing the devotion of their path, there was certainly a dabbler far more interested in the appearance and image of yoga than in its deeper meaning.  Nor are we unaware of these elements; shadow is inevitable, and many of the best teachers work to bring it into consciousness.  I was struck when celebrated teacher Saul David Raye – a mystic if ever there was one – warned his students of the danger of “spiritual bypass” – that is, the cultivation of spiritual states as a way of dissociating and escaping from the pain in life, instead of facing reality.  On the contrary, yoga asks us to be present to life when it is difficult – perhaps especially when it is difficult.

Life is vast and complex and often hard, and yoga is best understood as a practice of integrating it all – one cannot have “union” with the self – much less with the divine – while locking our pain and hardship in the cellars of the unconscious.  The key, it seems, is balance.  Bhakti to balance the excess of the rational, rationality to balance the excess of bhakti.  Science and spirit, light and shadow, material and transcendental.  Wisdom is cultivated in discovering, from one moment to the next, which way of knowing to pick up –  and recognizing when to put it down.