Ruins of Cambodia: From Angkor Wat to the Killing Fields

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      How do I reconcile the breathtaking beauty of Angkor with the sprawling mass graves of the Khmer Rouge? Perhaps the greatest complex of spiritual architecture in the world, contrasted against horrific, too-recent genocide. This tension of opposites tears my heart –

I was already in ethically complex territory.   I had conducted a fundraiser for this trip, to do pediatric massage with HIV/AIDS orphans in Vietnam, and the donations had poured in; The trip was fully funded! Now here I was in Southeast Asia well in advance of the volunteer program, leaving Vietnam on a bus to Cambodia. Of course all the donor money had gones towards covering the program costs, and I was traveling on my own dime.  Nevertheless it begged the question – was I doing the right thing?

First, I argued to my stringent inner critic, travel in Cambodia is dirt cheap once you get there. If you want to spend 1st world prices, there are many Cambodians who will gladly oblige. But for those who understand the economic state of the country, it’s little effort to find private air-conditioned rooms with wi-fi for under $12 a night. Meals, transportation, entertainment & commodities – the American dollar goes far in the Kingdom of Cambodia. Truth be told, once you’re in the region, the cost of shoestring travel in Cambodia is well below the cost of living in Los Angeles.  It would have been more expensive to spend these days back home.

Second, and more important, I believe that travel is an end in itself. I once went to an Ani DiFranco concert in which she sang this about the USA:

          Myopia is strong here, and the mind control deep.

While I don’t really know exactly what she’s talking about, spending some time in a third world country certainly opens the mind to a broader reality of what it means to be human. Different language, different culture, fundamentally different quality of life – suddenly the petty concerns of the affluent westerner (like which character just died a shocking brutal death on Game of Thrones) take on an almost comical quality. I’ve written recently of my personal distinction between tourism and traveling, the former amounting to superficial entertainment, the latter suggesting a deeper engagement with the reality of an “other” culture or ecosystem.

Traveling is an end in itself because travel is essentially a process of education and growth. We encounter what is different and difficult, and in the process gain insight into ourselves and the familiar places and cultures we come from. The deeper human condition stands out in greater relief, and our values are re-evaluated. If America still presumes to lead the free world, it is vital for Americans to seek a deeper understanding of that world, and the ethical injunction it places upon us. My prescription for a better planet: the wealthy need to vacation less, and travel more.

Cambodia challenges on many levels. What are we to make of a culture where people live in tin shacks but communicate and track popular trends on their 3-year-old-model smartphones? Their bedrooms may contain multiple family members sleeping together on a crowded floor, but they have a flatscreen TV on proud display in their livingroom/storefront. The intersections between tribal life, modern poverty, and global economy are bizarre, confounding the mind and making it difficult to draw conclusions, much less suss out values. Regardless, the people of Cambodia are scrambling to catch up, positioning themselves to receive maximum tourist dollars, recent genocide or no. I have never felt so surrounded by repressed, unacknowledged trauma as I did in Cambodia – yet the tourist industry is booming.

Why did I come here?

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Ruins of Angkor

 

I came to Cambodia for the Temples of Angkor. I had been hearing talk of Angkor Wat, the largest religious structure in the world, since studying abroad in Singapore in 2003. But as Angkor Wat finally appeared on my horizon, I learned that it was only the largest of an astounding temple complex (the largest complex of temples in the world), that covers a region the size of Manhattan.

The Kingdom of Angkor flourished from roughly the 9th to the 15th century CE. No only stone ruins remain of what was once a magnificent civilization. Over the course of its history, Angkor was unique in its fusion of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism – two spiritual traditions which have meant a great deal to me. The fusion of expansive pantheism with the mindful compassion of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition is an extraordinary, early example of interfaith spirituality.

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Angkor Wat

Angkor Wat is the biggest structure, but not the greatest. Sprawling temples adorned in gorgeous eastern iconography literally litter the landscape. Wandering through some of the ruins, one finds the most extraordinary sculptures lying in piles of rubble – such sculptures are so plentiful that there is no point in trying to restore all of them, and the rubble takes on a beauty of its own. Among the most striking sites is Ta Prohm, an enormous monastery slowly being eaten by the jungle. In Ta Prohm, archeology meets echopsychology, as the natural world slowly invades and invites the architecture of mankind back into its earthy womb.

Ta Prahm

Ta Prohm

I neither mince words nor court superlatives when I say that the temples of Angkor are among the most extraordinary sights on this planet. As far as I can tell, the only reason they are not listed among the “seven wonders of the world” is that these ruins were not uncovered and made available to the general global community until the final years of the 20th century, long after such lists had already been settled.

Angkor Wat itself is impressive, but so crawling with tourists that a sensitive soul may have trouble fully appreciating its majesty. On my third day in the complex, I made a second visit to Angkor Wat just before sunrise, and managed to bribe a guard to let me into the inner, upper sanctum for $5 (it’s amazing how far $5 goes in Cambodia!) – there I meditated alone, at a site of historical spiritual pilgrimage to rival Mecca and the Pyramids of Giza. It was a once in a life time opportunity and an uncharacteristically thrilling meditation. Nevertheless, I kept an eye on the clock and quickly took my leave before the throngs of tourists arrived.

Tourists choke the temples...

Tourists choke the temples…

Much of my three days exploring the temples was organized around avoiding the crowds. I came to love best the most obscure temples that lay off the beaten path. A short distance from its giant cousin, Ta Keo is described by Lonely Planet as “not cutting it” after seeing Angkor Wat – but I heartily disagree! Ta Keo sports a steep climb to the small high sanctum, which opens to the four cardinal directions. I had just purchased a tiny statue of Brahma, the oft-ignored creator-god of the Hindu Pantheon, whose four faces look out across the four cardinal directions. This motif ties into the four-directional cosmology of many indigenous peoples, as well as the psychological “quaternary” that so fascinated depth psychologist Carl Jung, who used intricate mandalas to map the human Psyche. Ta Keo embodied these ideas in stone and open sky.

 

Ta Keo

Ta Keo

Preah Palilay

Preah Palilay

Another secret treasure is Preah Palilay, a small, almost Celtic temple in the Mahayana tradition, rising out of the forest apace from the paved roads. Miles to the East. I had to argue my driver into taking me to Phom Bok – a hill temple off the beaten path. He insisted there was nothing there, but after an arduous climb, I came upon a tranquil set of ruins dedicated to the Hindu Trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva (creator, destroyer, and preserver), along with two libraries and an enormous Shiva Lingam tragically shattered by the Khmer Rouge, all sitting silent on a high hill overlooking the rice paddies of the region. I loved it because I was alone – a perfect spot for unmolested meditation as a tropical monsoon broke across the complex, hammering ruins and tourists alike with rain.

Phnom Bok

Phnom Bok

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa...

local Buddhist children offered me shelter from the monsoon in their modern stupa…

The descendents of the Angkor empire still live here, growing rice in fields around the temple. In one back-road trip by bicycle, I passed through a village that was alarmingly littered with trash. I wondered if through the process of colonization by the west, these people have completely lost touch with the needs of their land, throwing piles of plastic and metal upon it as though those materials would biodegrade as quickly as coconut shells. The dissociation is disturbing.

But the dissociation of modern Angkor is disturbing in more ways than one. These temples represent one of the greatest ancient spiritual sites on Earth – and modern Cambodia would turn it into Disneyland, thirsty for tourist dollars. These incredible sacred sites are choked with tourists who have no respect for sacred space – they are much more concerned with posing for pictures in front of the ruins. A place where people might find their deeper selves and touch their deeper truths has been transformed instead into a Hollywood-style spectacle. Opportunistic clerics encourage tourists to kneel, bow three times with incense, and leave money at a plethora of temple shrines under the auspices of courting “good luck” – and given their economy, who can blame them? Nevertheless, it is capitalism blaspheming as spirituality – deeply disturbing to one who comes to this sacred place as a spiritual pilgrim.

Meanwhile, just a few miles south in the bustling tourist hub of Siem Reap, the notion of sacred space seems nonexistent. I couldn’t go for a walk at night without being offered drugs or prostitutes a dozen times. It seemed like every taxi-driver was also a drug dealer, and my hotel manager offered to “bring me girls” before I had even seen the room.   The one time I allowed myself to get roped into a “massage” ($3 for thirty minutes) I literally found myself fighting to get the poor girl to stop molesting me. When I tipped her $2 anyway, her eyes lit up with surprise and gratitude – that a man would actually give her such a big tip without sexual services! It was heartbreaking. I bowed to her, honoring the Tradition of Thai massage in which I  trained, and walked out into the night fighting back my tears.

It still fills me with rage, just thinking about it – the way these women are disrespected.

Siem Reap

Siem Reap

On my third and final day in the ruins of Angkor, I made pilgrimage to the shrines: kneeling, praying, and meditating at one site after another. Some of the priests and nuns were genuine, others opportunistic – but I knelt and prayed and mediated and made my donations regardless. Each time, I was given a prayer bracelet, until by the end of the day my wrist was covered. The tourists might think me crazy, but I would give these temples their due – I would honor them for what they are.

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I needed to experience the ancient history first, before turning to face the modern atrocity. On my way back to Vietnam, I stopped to see the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh. It was only one of many genocidal sites where the Khmer Rouge brutally slaughtered their victims. Because they didn’t want to waste bullets, most who died at the Killing Fields perished by blunt trauma, puncture wounds, blades, or other creative means. Men and women, babies killed by having their brains dashed against a tree, in an ideological “purification of the populace”. The Khmer Rouge didn’t just kill those it suspected of dissent – it killed their families.

How did this happen?

That is a question worthy of a lifetime of study. I’ll tell what little I know.   From 1975-1979, communist radical Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge in a radical cleansing and restructuring of Cambodia. Pol Pot was born in Cambodia but educated in Europe. Upon return, he “liberated” the capital of Phnom Penh and forced the entire population into slave labor under the rhetoric of building a better country. Anyone who opposed the new regime, and anyone who was suspected of opposing it, including peaceful Buddhist orders of monks and nuns – were confined, interrogated, and slaughtered.

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I wept at the Killing Fields, walking among mass graves, distributing my prayer bracelets from Angkor amongst thousands of similar colorful offerings. At the site in Phnom Penh, there is a beautiful memorial stupa which houses the skulls and bones of some of the victims who have been exhumed. How could this happen? What force could compel human beings to put ideology before the value of human life? What can we do, I asked myself over and over again – How do we fix this?

I was haunted for days – I’m still haunted now. My first glimmer of an answer emerged when I arrived in Vietnam, and finally began my volunteer work with AIDS orphans.  What a gift and reflief it was, to be of service!

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Memorial Stupa at the Killing Fields

Memorial Stupa

Memorial Stupa

The sorrow of the Cambodian genocide hit me much deeper at Tuol Sleng, a school turned detention center for the Khmer Rouge. Now a genocidal museum, Tuol Sleng displays the spare rooms where captives were kept and tortured before being sent to die. In other rooms are pictures – walls upon walls of photographs – of the thousands of men and women who were arrested and condemned to death. I don’t know if it was the third wall of pictures of or the fifth, but suddenly the sorrow struck me fully. I had seen their bones at the killing fields, but here I could see their faces.

These were people.

I found myself standing alone in the central courtyard of Tuol Sleng, wondering why I was the only one who couldn’t stop crying. There have been a few times in my life when I have truly and deeply understood what is important in life, and this was one of them.

This is what matters: that people should be free to live and love, to live their own lives unmolested by ideology, oppression, and violence. What matters is that this atrocity that ariose in Cambodia not 4 decades ago must never happen again.

It is an uncomfortable truth that Pol Pot’s ideology was a Western import – a consequence of colonialism. I studied the works of Karl Marx in depth as part of my coursework at UC Berkeley, and I cannot imagine a greater twisting of Marxist ideals than what the Khmer Rouge did “for the people” in Cambodia. Nevertheless, it was education and ideology from the ‘’advanced’ western civilization that decimated this land. If the Cambodian people had been left to their own devices and development, rather than being colonized by a western culture that insists on its own superiority, it is hard to imagine this atrocity occurring. What happened in Cambodia is part of our Western shadow – the great mistake we have made in believing our intellectual rationalism to be superior to all other forms of human being.

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I spent a bit of time in the south, around the beach and island communities of Sihanoukville, before returning to Vietnam. Idyllic at first glance, this region is a haven for international criminals and has a strong mafia present beneath the idealistic white sand beaches that draw ever larger crowds of tourists.

I know quite a bit about trauma from my doctoral studies in depth psychology. I know how trauma can fester like poison when it isn’t worked through and released. The trauma in Cambodia is unimaginable, and the white-washed gloss of attractive tourist destinations only makes it worse.   Shadows are shoved out of sight in an understandable bid for tourist dollars – meanwhile, one of the largest child prostitution markets on earth blossoms in the dark.

In sunny Sihanoukville, I got entangled with a pair of local expats – a former American and a young French existentialist – who tried to convince me of the fundamental darkness of human nature, the meaninglessness of life. They offered me stories (and one disturbing photo) of bodies washed up on the pristine white sand beaches. The Frenchman (who was appropriately obsessed with the barbaric Game of Thrones series) insisted that religion was the cause of all the evil in the world, and that Hitler had been a “Proper Christian” – perhaps he hadn’t been to Tuol Sleng to see the faces of the dead – and he had no answer for the difficult truth that the Khmer Rouge was a secular organization that murdered people for having spiritual beliefs.

The difficult truth, I insisted to this Frenchman, is that the scapegoating of religion only makes things worse, cultivating more resentment and misunderstanding rather than doing the hard work of healing. It is not (and has never been) religion in itself that harms and oppresses, but rather ideology – any ideology, secular or spiritual, that is devoid of heart. Wherever ideas, religious or “rational”, become more important than people – be it the Spanish Inquisition, Nazi Holocaust, or the Khmer Rouge – it is the desecration of the human heart that is the ruin of humanity.

This is the lesson Cambodia whispers, under its breezy gloss of exotic vacation packages. Cambodia offers one of humanity’s greatest spiritual treasures, which we squander in the name of tourism, and one of our greatest human tragedies, which we too-often would rather ignore. Depth psychology has long suggested that it is the repressed, unconscious aspects of being that haunt drive our lives. James Hillman in particular has suggested that it is the unheard voices of the dead that must be listened to, if we are to survive and thrive as a species and a planet. But most of us cannot bear the pain and sorrow and mystery of the past – the weight of history – so we entertain ourselves into a stupor instead,  We feed on the barbarism of media products like Game of Thrones, which reminds us of the darkness for an hour, but also slyly suggests that it isn’t really real, that it’s only entertainment. That we don’t have to do anything about it.

If we would find the courage to face the darkness, to listen to the voices of the dead – we might find those voices are trying to tell us what we need to know, to overcome our troubled past, to build a better world.

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            A month back in the United States, re-adjusting to the requirements of marketing and first world capitalism, I go to Trader Joe’s wearing my $3 “I [heart] Cambodia” T-shirt. I wear it not because I love Cambodia the way I love New York or Los Angeles, but because I recognize that even more than our tourist dollars, Cambodia desperately needs and deserves our love.

A fat man with an eye patch notices my shirt in the vegetable isle. He approaches me and begins to talk about being stationed in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. When the conversation turns to genocide, he shakes his head and says, “Human begins are just horrible, aren’t they? Just horrible!”

I look him squarely in his one good eye and calmly reply:

“We have a lot of work to do.”

It is too easy to fall into cynicism – that the world is broken and there is nothing to be done.   I say that is defeatist at best, and lazy at worst. This is a choice, that every day each of us is asked to make. If you choose to believe there is nothing to be done, you will do nothing.

In fact, there is everything to be done. That is why we are here, now, alive in this time. The challenges now facing each of us, as individuals and a species, are immense. But I say, look around you:

There is a great work to be done, to heal this world.

We are doing it.

 

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Here are 4 minutes of edited footage from my three days at the Temples of Angkor:

 

 

Dancing for Love in the Desert

“We’re never gonna survive unless we get a little crazy”

A few weeks ago I went to Shakti Fest in Joshua Tree – the smaller, sister festival to the big bhakti yoga celebration in September.  I showed up thinking I would practice a little yoga, make some new friends.  Like most of us embarking on a new adventure, I secretly longed for some kind of transformation.  And I knew better than to expect it.

The first thing I did upon arriving in the dry, windy desert, was to sit at the main stage and listen to the music.  It takes guts to show up to a festival all alone: all the old demons from middle school come out to play: do I belong?  Am I likeable?  Attractive?  Will I find people here that I really connect with?  I know these demons well enough to keep them at bay most of the time, and also well enough to know that they were going to have a field day at this festival.

A group of strangers next to me were chatting idely.  The musicians on the stage looked vaguely familiar.  Then I heard them sing:

All that I am

I offer on the Altar of Love

And suddenly I, and the strangers around me, were singing in unison with the musicians

In sweet surrender

This is Kirtan – call and response devotional music – so it’s no surprise that we were singing from the audience.  The surprise was that we weren’t repeating the song back, we were singing along spontaneously.  We knew this song, and it had caught us like a wayward spirit, rousing us into a synchronous harmony, a momentary “higher order” if you will, that hadn’t existed moments before.

I remembered why I had come.

In time, the strangers around me return to their chatting, and I move closer to the musicians.  I’m shocked at how quickly I’m shifting paradigms.  Now I’m not only singing, I’m meditating, swaying – I’m crying. How could I have forgotten this?  A vision is taking hold – not just a vision in the mind, but a vision in the body, an ecstatic state of embodiment, feels like shifting vibrations on a cellular level.  My heart opens.  And my heart opening is like light and love pouring out of me and into me simultaneously.  Somehow the best within me and the best within the universe are the same thing.  I am crying because I am experiencing a solution to human suffering.

And then at some point my rational mind comes back online and says, oh shit, how am I supposed to integrate THIS?

Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion – perhaps to a higher power or principle, to a God, within or without – or perhaps just devotion to love.  For me, and I think for many who attend Bhakti/Shakti fest, that latter concept, love, is somehow able to contain the ones that came before it.  It’s not about getting anybody to believe anything – it’s not about dogma or creed.  In fact, one of the great strengths of these festivals is that they draw in many, many diverse teachers, none of whom necessarily agree with each others regarding spiritual doctrine.  Love isn’t a doctrine or a belief – it’s an experience.  In fact, it is the one experience I know of that can dissolve the strife of warring beliefs and philosophies.

If it sounds a little over the top or crazy – well it is.  It’s crazy in the best possible way.  It’s permission to be just a little crazy, in service to a higher good: happiness, fulfillment, community, connection, and service.  Because love, when it’s really love, isn’t just something you have – it’s something you give.

Easier said than done right?  You might imagine that I spent the rest of the festival as a blessed-out hippy, escaping into a spiritual trance to forget the evils of the world.  On the contrary, do you remember those demons I mentioned earlier?  Well, they absolutely threw a fit – I mean, they declared war.  You will never be able to integrate this into actual human relationships, they told me.  You are going to spend this festival alone and miserable.  These demons are assholes, but I believe we’re all stuck with them for life – the questions is, how do we deal with them when they show up?

Truth be told, it was hard.  Just because you have a vision of a better world doesn’t mean you know how to bring it into material reality.  For the next day and a half, I really struggled.  I wanted to connect to the human beings around me, but I didn’t always know how.  Many times I would smile at a stranger and they would turn away.  And I understand why, because sometimes strangers would smile at me, and in spite of myself, I would turn away.  It’s a natural response, to protect ourselves from the unknown, even when (perhaps especially when) it smiles sweetly.  In most places, and in most communities, there’s good reason to think twice about trusting a smiling stranger.  And yet, as Brene Brown has so beautifully demonstrated – there is no connection without vulnerability.

In the meantime, I did yoga.  All kinds of yoga.  Slow, meditative hatha yoga.  Fast, hard, sweaty, acrobatic vinyasa yoga.  Chanting-and-dancing-like-a-madman bhakti yoga.  Centering or ecstatic, consciousness-altering pranayama (breath) yoga.  They are all practices for healing, growth, and transformation, and it was the breathwork in particular that rattled me to the core, and laid bare what I had buried there.  In one ecstatic breathing practice, my whole body trembled and I felt as though I were enveloped in light.  I felt – for the first time in my life – I actually felt the chronic contraction in my diaphragm; as the lifelong tension in that muscle began to soften, it felt like a miracle.  Neuroscience has confirmed again and again that the body is integral to our emotional experience, and here the tentative partial release in this rigid core musculature pointed to a new way of being in the world.  It is something I still don’t have adequate words for.  I went to three breath workshops that weekend, by three different teachers, and each time I heard the pained and grateful sobs of my fellow human beings around me, as they let something heavy go.

The battle with the demons finally began to turn on Saturday night.  One of the festival volunteers, a sweet guy named Oliver, approached and asked me how I was doing.  I lamented that because this festival was so much smaller than Bhakti Fest (1000 vs 5000 people), it felt as though the energetic shift toward heart-centered consciousness that I remembered was severely diminished.  I theorized that with more people at the festival, practicing more yoga, making more connections, a kind of increased connectivity takes place, an acceleration of transmission that leads to a tipping point.  It seemed to me that at Shakti Fest, that process was dampened.  “Well then you have to do it,” he said.  I squirmed.  That felt like too much responsibility – not to mentioned setting myself up for failure and humiliation, when my love consciousness was rejected.

And then he hugged me, and I understood.

One connection begets another.  Laura Lalita from my PhD cohort arrived, eager to dance.  I connected with Billy, whom I had trained with in Thai massage a few years back.  Sky from the UC Berkeley days was selling art in a stall.  Even my mom showed up.   Each connection made the next one a little easier.  Every teacher or musician who talked about opening the heart brought us a little further.  Dancing madly in the desert by starlight doesn’t hurt either.

By Sunday, the connectivity seemed to be in full swing.  I smiled at strangers and they smiled back.  I struck up conversations with random people wandering the festival grounds.  There were ample hugs to go around.  48 hours after arriving, this was actually happening.  I was elated, grateful.

And sad, that it was suddenly over, having only just begun.

To say that I was transformed by this experience is no small thing.  I don’t use that word lightly, and I wouldn’t use it if I had a more honest word.  Nor do I mean to imply some sort of total transformation – only that something deep with me shifted, and is now making its way forward in time.  There is no easy way to carry such an experience out into the world.   Out here, trust isn’t always safe, love is guarded against, or else sought after and grasped hungrily as though it were a scarce commodity, a mere object to possesses.   I would like to believe that heart-centered consciousness is the direction the whole planet is evolving toward, but we won’t get there until we get there.  That connectivity is building slowly, over time, disrupted by war and famine, by bigotry and fundamentalism (both religious and scientistic) – and yet somehow, from the ashes, the connections resume.  Like the human brain, it’s in our nature, and our best interest, to connect, and then to connect more.

It’s not a matter of idealism or wishful thinking.  The pain and suffering and rage on this planet is immense.  The fact remains, we can do something about it.

It’s up to us.

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.