Nurturing Nature

A perennial issue that often resurfaces in the on going, centuries old dialogue between the head and the heart is that of the nature and nurture question. Often, it has been termed a “nature versus nurture” question, but here we will deal with it as a “both/and” issue. The head, backed by thousands of years of the development of rational discourse and science, says one thing; and the heart, that guiding light which shines a little more brightly for those inclined towards having faith in intuition and inspiration tends to lean a different way.

Currently, in science for example, the debate has adopted the form of genes (DNA) “versus” the environment. What determines the etiology as well as the patho-physiology of such things as mental disorders, physical ailments and other physiological forms of expression? One side, the nature side in this case, tends to lean towards the genes as the primary causal factors. The “nurture as cause” stance tends to lean towards our environment. I tend to lean towards the stance that says, “We make do with what we’ve got. We play the hand that is dealt in the way only we would know how.” Experience has brought me to the notion that nature may dish up the circumstance we find ourselves in, but what we nurture, i.e., how we have been nurtured, how we are being nurtured and how we choose to nurture ourselves as well as our situation, will lead us through to the other side.

Swami Vivekananda, the chief disciple of the 19th century mystic Ramakrishna Paramahansa, is considered a key figure in bringing the philosophies of Yoga and Vedanta to the “western” world. His discourses on Advaita Vedanta explore the various “schools” of yoga. Whether by work, worship, psychic control or philosophical pursuit, one strives to manifest a divinity within one’s soul.

Kriya yoga, the yoga of “working your stuff out,” as one friend put it, is also known as ashtanga yoga. I am referring to ashtanga yoga in the classical tradition, not to “ashtanga yoga”-- the currently popular brand of yoga, which I do believe can be a very effective method employed for “working one’s stuff” out. “Stuff” in this sense is what I am calling karma. Kriya yoga is a method, a practical form of karma yoga, which is the path of work, or service. The classical term refers to the practice that is made up of the eight practical disciplines, called angani "limbs," or "members" in Sanskrit. In a sense, this practice is designed to target the environment in which one finds one’s life unfolding. In other words, one develops the art of choosing one’s condition. And then, turns one’s gaze back on oneself to find out what condition that condition is in. For yogis, the answer to the question: "What is the one to be liberated (from conditioning)?" is what a yogic practice is designed to answer. In its essence, I see the destiny yoga invites one to achieve is what allows for the union between the individual soul and the awareness that emanates out from the absolute. This attainment is the divine union Vivekananda talked about in his lectures. But, that is down the road. Today, let’s imagine that we are just beginning.

My first teacher was my 18 years old friend with MD. Sundance Golden was his given name, and I could not have wished for a better first teacher with a better name for this path into divinity. Such a path requires the head to trust the heart. He was frail, bed-ridden and physically dependent 24/7. I began working with him as an extra body doing for him what he could not do.

His circumstance was a little heavy, to say the least, but how he nurtured his and others’ spiritual bodies was magnanimously and nobly. From his bed he created a structured routine of distinct spiritual practices including yoga, meditation, contemplative writing and relationship counseling. He guided me through some very difficult private decisions, as well as led me to practice yoga, massage therapy and Ayurvedic cooking. He even went so far as making me read sections of The Autobiography of a Yogi (1946) aloud to him. He was a celibate ascetic who kept his room at 98 degrees and drank only water. In the twenty years since his passing, I have yet to encounter a form of Kriya yoga as strict as his. In return, his optimism, even during the last week of his life when the turtle shell would not fit around his scoliotic rib cage, and we, as his personal care attendants, had to press his ribs for each exhalation through the night, outshone his dire circumstance and led him to think about our well being before his own.

In the classical commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, the yogi is depicted as seeking such a path because liberation from the mutable reality entails liberation from suffering. A technique has little value save in the measure to which it ultimately frees one from suffering. Suffering is only a condition although seemingly ubiquitous and definitely nasty. It is not absolute. Nor is it necessary. But, rather, for the timeless soul, it is only a temporary experience. Through a practice of various techniques, the practitioner learns to discern that which is transient -- hunger, thirst, pain and pleasure, from that which is enduring -- the source of consciousness within. Once this distinction is clear, the yogi can then work on freeing Jiva’s (the individual soul’s) consciousness from the illusion that the soul is subject to the laws of the phenomenal reality. As Vivekananda put it “Jiva is Shiva.” So we might as well behave that way.

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