It was in my late teens, more than twenty years ago, when I found myself enthusiastically delving into foreign spiritual quests. A close friend, who I had taken care of for a year and who was only 18, had just passed away from the complications child-onset Muscular Dystrophy usually lead to. I was with him when he passed, sitting in his bedroom, holding his head in my hands and assuring him it was all going to be fine. But really, I had no clue. I was only 19. I needed to double check, just in case. So, I went looking for a road map of some sort.
In retrospect, I can say that when we proceed to explore spiritual values of other cultures, we are reminded to keep in mind that personal opinions weighted with ideas of superiority and inferiority are simply not welcome. Even if such discovered concepts, which are branded with labels such as “superior” and “inferior” present themselves in the compendium of spiritual values arising from these other cultures, we would be wise to note them rather than to adopt them as such. The true explorer notes the terrain in which she travels as accurately and objectively as possible. Firstly, noting the hills and the valleys as features of topography, and only secondly as features suitable or unsuitable to personal taste. This methodology is only fair to future travelers. I considered it personally to be the only fair way to proceed. My world had been rocked enough already.
When we seek understanding, we are faced with acknowledging the usefulness of ideas that may conflict with our own belief system. Understanding will rely on communication. An object can communicate its visual features to the eye, and so we “see” it. In this way it becomes part of us. It can communicate its auditory features to the ear and so we can “hear” it. And this is how we internalize the phenomena of the world.
A story communicates its images and meanings to the heart just as a philosophy communicates its assumptions, logic and conclusions to the mind. Our belief system encounters the information communicated through filters that are our own. Thus, it would follow; mapping the terrain of strange, or unfamiliar spiritual values is an internal process that demands introspection and reflection from us. This doesn’t necessarily come easy to everyone. It did not come easy to me. Even with a strong reason to do so, I often lost heart in my pursuit. I needed help from friends and a few “lucky” encounters.
As in the story about “Serendipity” Joseph Campbell recounts to Bill Moyers in his 6-part series before he died, we go searching for the magical city or the Holy Grail in one form or another, and end up getting side-tracked. In the end, though, with a strong intention and a clear heart, we may indeed find what we were looking for. It just might not come in the form we expected. When understanding is the desired goal, and we are good explorers, hopefully we find how such new spiritual values combine with our own philosophical theories to create a comprehensive system of answers for the many questions inherited conceptions of reality may leave grossly unanswered. We don’t throw out what we’ve already got. We add to it.
Usually, a philosophical system that offers a set of answers, whether concerning spiritual matters, moral matters or behavioral matters, comes with a set of assumptions and definitions. These assumptions create a general perspective through which general answers are deduced. In other words, for any pursuit, these assumptions create our “intention.”
Yoga is sometimes considered a teleological philosophy. That is, it has an aim. This aim is yoga’s “intention,” and is described by many practitioners and commentators as being one's achievement of the highest good. When I started practicing it, I didn’t know this. My friend, the one who eventually shed his body, suggested I take some classes because I would like what it would do for me physically. It was hard staying up through the night, keeping him alive and then going to classes the next morning. He said I needed to “chill out.” I was stressing him out and he was already stressed out enough.
So, I started the classes and they were fun. The instructor knew what I was going through and he helped me deal with those harsh circumstances. It was also my lifeline. As my friend went under, yoga kept me afloat. But, as for most practitioners, the physical aspect of yoga is just the beginning. It is a nod to something deeper. A cultural shift becomes inevitable as a new way of life becomes important. A stronger relationship to what is happening inside the skin, inside the mind and inside the heart beckons one to face the mystery of these happy accidents that call to us from the most peculiar places. Now, as I enter my forties, I can send my utmost gratitude to the invisible forces that seem to be guiding me to that magical land of Serendripa. I can only have faith in the teleology of yoga.