Orientation Along the Way
Four Paradoxes on the Path of Yoga
by Philip Goldberg
This essay forms the basis for one of 12 sessions in the online course “Living La Vida Yoga,” created by Philip Goldberg and produced and hosted by Spirituality & Practice, a multifaith website presenting resources for people on spiritual journeys. Though the course is currently being taught, you can take it on-demand now or in the future at Spirituality and Practice.
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Adapting the perennial wisdom of the Yoga tradition to contemporary life and a diversity of religious and spiritual perspectives is, and always will be, a work in progress. It is also a highly individual project, with few one-size-fits-all answers to the conundrums and challenges that arise. That’s why the Upanishads call the spiritual path a razor’s edge: You have to tread carefully, with keen vision, intellectual discernment, acute intuition, and a really good sense of balance.
When I was researching the book Roadsigns on the Spiritual Path (2006), I interviewed people about their own journeys and came to realize that 1) everyone, regardless of path, bucks up against similar challenges, and 2) many of those challenges are marked by contradiction, ambiguity, and paradox (which is why the book’s subtitle, borrowing from Rumi, is Living at the Heart of Paradox). To a certain extent, this is inevitable: The created universe itself is paradoxical, whether you look at it scientifically (waves/particles) or spiritually (eternal/ever-changing, One/Many). And also because spiritual teachers – including venerated yogis – disagree, contradict one another (and sometimes themselves), and offer different insights in different circumstances for different people.
We run into those paradoxes from time to time as we come to decision points along our paths. Sometimes those moments trigger feelings of confusion or ambivalence, like coming to a fork in the road without a GPS or a map. Hence, the need to cultivate our own internal SPS – Spiritual Positioning System – with software made of both astute intellect and reliable intuition.
I found that the invariable bumps in the road fit into four basic categories of paradox.
Paradox 1: You’re on your own ... and you can’t do it alone.
On the spiritual path, we are alone and we are together. Ultimately, the buck stops with each of us. No matter how scrupulously we follow a teacher or a tradition; no matter how excellent our resources; no matter how attuned we may feel to Spirit; no matter how much faith and trust we have in the wisdom of the ages, we are, in the final analysis, the deciders. But, of course, to read the maps well and tiptoe through the minefields of uncertainty, we need reliable mapmakers and trustworthy guides. We need wise teachers; experts who know things we don’t; resources that suit our current needs; and good companions – fellow travelers to share what they’ve learned and serve as a check on our own foibles. We need to think hard ... and also not overthink. We have to use our heads ... and also follow our hearts.
Paradox 2: Lose yourself ... and improve yourself.
We are taught by parents, teachers, coaches and the like to stand up tall and be proud of ourselves – to declare, in so many words, “I am somebody!” On the other hand, we are taught by spiritual traditions to bow our heads in humility, to kneel or prostrate before the Great Mystery and whisper, “I am nothing.” One corner of Yoga, like almost every other tradition, tells us to surrender our will to the superior wisdom of guru or God ... and in the other corner we are urged to empower ourselves and be our own gurus. Yield to authority on the one hand, wield authority on the other. Yogic texts tell us to stop identifying with our body-encased personalities – the small self – and awaken to the truth of the boundless, imperishable Self beyond all “I” and “me.” They also tell us to honor our individuality and to work on our minds, emotions, and behavior to become better little selves. Obviously, the message is to honor both self and Self – not always a simple or obvious task.
Paradox 3: Embrace the world ... and escape the world.
Very few serious spiritual seekers go through life without at least sometimes feeling the urge to escape the crazy, demanding, superficial, spiritually decadent material world. We think that we would advance a whole lot faster toward ceaseless peace and union with the Divine if only we could move to a monastery or an ashram or a cabin in the woods, or maybe even a cave in the Himalayas – anywhere that’s not so noisy and materialistic and complicated.
We can easily find spiritual teachings that encourage such renunciation, particularly in the yogic domain. But many are called and few are chosen for that level of simplicity; and as many have discovered, even renunciates have to eat, drink, find shelter, and deal with annoying human beings. Like it or not, most of us are here, now, in the 21st century, with jobs, families, neighbors, and responsibilities. We can love the attractions of the so-called “real world” and tolerate the aversions, but we can’t escape it all. How can we be in it but not of it? How can we use it to our spiritual advantage? How can we find our way to the realization that it’s all Sacred?
Paradox 4: You’re already there ... and there’s a long way to go.
In most mystical traditions – and we can place Yoga in that category – there are versions of the insight expressed by the Sufi master Bawa Muhaiyadeen: “The car is going down the road but the road is inside the car.” (Try picturing that: it’s like an M.C. Escher drawing of a Zen koan.) We are told that there is no path because there’s really nowhere to get to; that there is no goal because what we’re looking for is already here; that there is nothing to aspire to because what we are trying to become we already are. “Thou art That,” say the Upanishads, meaning our true identity is and always was and always will be the eternal, imperishable Self of all selves. And yet ... and yet ... it doesn’t quite feel that way, does it? We feel we are moving, progressing, growing in a certain direction (and sometimes taking a step or two backward). That is also true, the teachings make clear, so we should pursue the pathless path with diligence and determination, onward to the gateless gate. Only not too much, because overdoing it can set us back and slow us down. When do we put our spiritual right foot on the accelerator and when on the brake?
Try to identify moments in your spiritual history when you may have run up against some variation of one or the other of these paradoxes. How would you describe the situation? How did it feel? What did you do? How was it resolved? Are you dealing with any of those paradoxes now, and is it expressed in a specific dilemma?
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