Until yesterday, I had entirely avoided entering into the fray around Canadian Psychologist Jordan Peterson, nor had I really subjected myself to much of his online content. He speaks about hot-button topics that I don’t always feel inclined — or qualified — to comment on. I know a lot of people have already put him through the shredder, probably more articulately than I can.
I also generally try to avoid the ‘left/right’ polarity as much as possible. I don’t see it as truly relevant political terminology anymore, and it’s so charged and polarized that I think ultimately this terminology is going to have to be discarded if political progress is going to be made. With regards to Peterson, there are people I respect who can’t stand the guy. And there are people I respect who find his ideas interesting. I was content to simply be neutral on the topic, and I did that mostly by avoiding him.
Until yesterday, when I saw a clip of him speaking about the Indian goddess Kālī.
It gave me pause, because one thing that people on all sides of the opinions-on-Jordan-Peterson spectrum can usually agree on — even if they don’t agree with his conclusions — is that if nothing else he is well-studied and smart.
I may not feel it’s my place to enter into a debate about his position on the use of trans pronouns and whether or not that should be legislated. However, I do feel qualified to take a position on what he has to say about Kālī. I’ve studied her for many years, I’ve read her relevant texts, I’ve been to her major and minor temples across the Indian subcontinent, I have had dialogues with temple priests and householders, and conducted podcast interviews with PhDs who’ve written entire books on her.
And there’s no getting around the fact that 99% of what Jordan Peterson said about Kālī — in two lectures — was wrong. And I mean just plain wrong, from a factual perspective.
I’ll explain how in just a moment, but what inspired me to look a little deeper into Jordan Peterson after this was not so much that he was wrong, it was that while he was in the process of being wrong he was conveying, through voice and gesture, an absolute certainty that he was right. Like for him the permutations of the goddess Kālī were child’s play and anyone within earshot should be wowed by his knowledge of obscure Indian goddesses. It’s nice I guess to have a captive audience of mostly 18-year-olds. Raise your voice, wear a tie, and make a few bold gestures, and suddenly whatever you say is right.
Well if the guy was capable of exuding such certainty when speaking about something that he had no idea about, how did that translate into other areas of his work, I wondered? How did this type of myopia color a worldview that he presents — often and vigorously — as absolute truth with that type of professorial certainty that shuts down question or dissent.
Let’s start with Kālī. You know her, right? The mother goddess with the protruding tongue, wreathed in heads, wearing a skirt of limbs? The swallower of time, she is sometimes called. For Tantric practitioners she is the absolute reality itself, that force which transcends life and death, space and time, the supreme consciousness. Her form challenges her devotees to see all of this wheel of life and death, all of it, even the uncomfortable stuff, as sacred. She is adored by millions of people. In Kerala, her rituals involve trance-mediumship, dance, and music. For those in Bengal, she is right at the center of their spiritual and material life. They see her intimately, as a mother who is always present, both fierce and tender at once.
I’m going to talk about her a lot more in future episodes of this podcast, so I’m not going to go into too much detail now.
First of all, Peterson doesn’t know how to pronounce her name. He calls her Callie, which rhymes with Sally. In this day and age, if you’re going to be a Western professor purporting to expound the mysteries of a goddess who is actively worshipped by millions of people, who is studied by academics, who is sung to by devotees, who is written about by scholars, you should probably start by knowing how to say her name.
In one lecture, he compares an eight-legged version of her to a “spider” a fairy-tale vision of evil as she “traps the unwary.”
She dwells in a “web of fire,” he says, and represents the “sum total of all fears.” Which sounds like a great Jungian interpretation, until you realize that it bears no resemblance to how Kālī is actually viewed or described in India.
Kālī is all about “how to deal with threat,” Peterson goes on, about humans “trying to come to terms with the category of all awful things.”
And yet, the Bengali poet Ramprasad sang hymns of love to her, and the saint Ramakrishna would go into ecstatic trance merely at the mention of her name. How can this be? When devotees sing to her, she is called “the oceanic nectar of compassion” and “full of grace,” “whose mercy is without end,” the “vessel of mercy” herself.
Yet for Peterson, she’s an “embodied representation of the category of frightening things. Some poor artist was thinking of ‘how do I represent destruction…’” he surmises, when speaking of her origins.
The central image that Peterson references in both of his lectures is not a standard vision of Kālī at all. It is a Tantric statue, perhaps even Buddhist, almost definitely Nepali or Tibetan (it is difficult to see in the video). Yet Peterson skips the entire foundational introduction to Tantric iconography and the fact that Tantra is a major world religious tradition and that its challenging iconography is a vehicle through which the individual meditator can access certain states of consciousness and files the whole thing under one moniker — fear.
Then he says one accurate thing. That there is in fact ritual sacrifice that takes place in honor of Kālī.
He goes on to talk about sacrifice, in a pre-Joseph Campbell colonial-era anthropologist kind of way. He speaks of the human realization that we could bargain with the future, which he extols as a “major development” for human beings, but in doing so he also wittingly or unwittingly categorizes sacrifice and ritual — and all things Kālī — squarely in the realm of the primitive. The implication being that yes, that was a step along the way (what “way?”) but we’ve grown a lot since then.
People “sacrifice to what [they’re] afraid of in hopes that good things may happen,” he says. This skips, of course, the centuries of high meditative texts to Kālī, the vision of her as twelve vibrational aspects of consciousness, each of which can be accessed and refined over time, it skips the entire corpus of devotional literature to her. It skips all this in favor of a particular vision, which is central to Peterson’s worldview. A neat polarized version of reality in which the old trope of male/light/order and female/dark/chaos is actually — in his mind — hardwired into human behavior and therefore male societal dominance is a natural expression of male “competence.”
Kālī, of course, smashes this vision in half. She is order itself. She “dwells within the order” and is “at home in the yantra”. She is not evil, she “destroys evil.” Yet Peterson’s descriptions ignore all this and sound a lot like the accounts of British colonists who first encountered Kālī in 18th century Bengal.
The fact that Peterson, like many early anthropologists, is incapable of seeing ritual as anything beyond “transaction” because he comes from a culture that centers transaction above all else is indicative of the core problem with Peterson’s worldview. It’s late capitalist thinking, presented as hard human truth.
Material transaction — “I’ll give the gods this corn if they make it rain”— is one small aspect of ritual, but it is not in any way the only or most important aspect. One could say it’s possibly the least interesting aspect of ritual, and for those who actually understand ritual and its permutations, this is a western dumbing down that has far more to do with the detached scientists that were viewing the ritual than the ritual itself in context.
For example, the gaining of a transcendent state of consciousness — in which the practitioner is privy to intuitive vision — is far more interesting and important. That ritual could actually be advanced technology for propelling human beings into the trance state so that they can see reality more clearly eludes most anthropologists because to understand this one would have to understand why a society would want to center the trance state. We’re not a society that values meditative states. We’re a society that values material transaction.
This is just one example — the inability to see outside of the prism of modern western capitalist culture leads Peterson to make vast assumptions about human nature and present them as static, in the process ignoring history.
What Peterson presents as inherent to the human being — male dominance and a success hierarchy based on who’s better at making money — is not in fact inherent at all and is a symptom of modern culture. Every good anthropologist should know this. While I agree with him that hierarchies present naturally within social structures, and that hierarchy is not inherently a bad word, what and who those hierarchies center is not in fact written in stone. Many of the agricultural empires that have come to dominate the world over the past several thousand years have indeed centered men, conquest, and stuff, with women falling unfortunately under the category of property. This centering of material domination as the primary human purpose has also led human beings to the verge of environmental collapse within just 1% of our history.
This calls into question Peterson’s entire vision of competence. To buy that men are in charge of the world today because they’re inherently competent you have to buy that the current global culture reflects anything akin to competence. To call a society that has no idea what to do with its own trash and that hasn’t even factored its own environment into the equation for success ‘competent’ is, shall we say, inaccurate. Stand four of the world’s top leaders in a row — Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un — and I guarantee the first word that comes to mind is not ‘competence.’ So no, Jordan, the top of the hierarchy is not dominated by the ‘competent.’ The Mongols raped their way to the top of the hierarchy, and so did countless others before and after them.
I’m not going to use the P word. I agree with Peterson that the word ‘patriarchy’ is vastly overused by the left and has strayed far beyond its actual definition to somehow encompass ‘all bad things.’ But it is difficult to argue against the fact that the culture of conquest and material accumulation at all costs has led human beings into a very serious situation, and therefore when forging a vision for what defines human success we may want to look more at what actually lasts than what has gotten us into the mess we’re currently in.
Not all societies have centered male forcefulness and material accumulation. I have said before on this podcast that it is more and more important for us to remember that there are other models of human behavior and to look at societies that have centered very different things than us. Or, as I heard a Czech Member of Parliament once eloquently express, there is nothing inherent to the human experience or makeup that dictates that late-stage capitalism is the only vision of how we can be.
Australian Aboriginal culture has lasted for 60,000 years (15 times longer than large-scale human civilization and 2,000 times longer than the United States) and centers, as Ethnobotanist Wade Davis reports, accessing the dreamtime and preserving rather than changing the surrounding environment. The San people of the Kalahari similarly center the trance state, in which they access n/um — the vital lifeforce which is used in intricate and effective healing ritual. The San have lived mostly uninterrupted for 50,000 years. One could easily say that — given the timeframe — these peoples’ measurements of societal success are ultimately more relevant than ours.
This isn’t to idealize hunter-gatherer culture, to attempt to ‘go back to how it was’ or to say — as some agenda-driven scholars have claimed — that the 300,000-year history of homo sapiens is a history of peace-loving matriarchs that were then crushed by the invading patriarchs. This is a view lacking evidence and nuance. It is rather to say that for the vast majority of human history, the accumulation of capital was not centered as the sole purpose of human existence. In many societies, there were other more transcendent and more intuitive success metrics.
So why are these other visions of human success important in the context of Jordan Peterson? Because Peterson’s entire vision of humanity is based on the success metrics of late-stage capitalism. Powerful men who dominate and rise in the hierarchy are ‘successful’ because of their ‘competence’.
His definition of Right and Left — in which Right is hierarchy and Left are those who are dispossessed by it — is driven by this limited vision. It’s a definition that is antiquated to say the least — Donald Trump was elected by the dispossessed, and they weren’t leftists. There are plenty on the political right who are dispossessed by the current order. And in fact, there are arguably more on the right who despise authority and big government and favor ‘rebellion’ than on the left. Meanwhile, there are plenty on the left who organize into “successful” hierarchies of their own.
So why would Peterson stick to such a limited vision? Because it fits into his narrative of Right/Male/Successful/Hierarchical vs Left/Female (or at least female driven)/Dispossessed/Chaotic. And he bends all things to fit his model.
So — artists have a hard time making money, he tells Russell Brand in an interview, because of their brains. Yeah, or — artists have a hard time not because of inherent brain chemistry, but because our society doesn’t center art. The artists of the Chauvet caves probably found themselves right at the center of society 35,000 years ago. The Vedic vision of the cosmos was that art, order and ritual were three organic aspects of one universal whole and artists (and visionaries) were right at the center of that. In our culture, anything that is not specifically intended for the generation of capital is not centered and therefore those who do not center their lives around generating capital are not ‘successful.’
But that is our culture, and the truth is that our culture is very young— what Peterson deems as inherent is in fact not inherent at all. There is nothing about human wiring that says that this is the only way.
I think there is value to having someone as intelligent as Peterson in on these types of conversations. I also think it is good to challenge the increasingly static vernacular that the left presumes the whole world should unquestioningly adopt, immediately. Therefore, if he were just a little different in focus, I could see having Jordan Peterson around as a really good thing.
You see, he positions himself as the guy who’s actually talking about these issues whereas — in his view — the left is just shutting down conversations. He’s willing to say what a lot of people are thinking but won’t say (Really? Laws around words?) If he were truly the bridge-builder he says he is, that could be a real positive.
But he’s not — and this is what Russell Brand picked up on when he labeled the ‘mischief’ he saw on display in Peterson. Peterson likes poking at the left, he likes painting the left as unsuccessful misfits. He likes bolstering the egos of his right-wing fan base. He likes tapping into certainty, and rightness, and maleness, and the perceived power that comes with all that.
And — probably of most relevance — he’s smart enough to know that there’s more money to be made in jabbing the left than in truly being a bridge builder. He’s making a (good) living taking the low hanging fruit that the extreme left offers him and spinning it into some kind of global crisis, when the real crisis is the very polarization that he — quite knowingly — promotes.
By the time I got to his ‘white privilege doesn’t exist’ talk — in which he engages the most insipid of academic tactics to bring the conversation entirely into the realm of theory rather than paying one drop of attention to 500 years of brutal history, he had completely lost me. He is married to a vision, and will bend worlds to promote it, but the vision isn’t based in reality. It’s based in politicized machismo.
Which brings us back to Kālī, who is also the unfathomable, that which has not been defined or written or is even perceivable. The passage of time that her very name invokes will see which ideas for human success last and which are crushed under her feet. The Petersons (and Schreis) will come and go, and how humans will shift and adapt to urgent necessities in environment and society remains to be seen. Many isms and modalities will doubtlessly be left aside along the way. Kālī is known as the one who “smashes opposites,” who destroys polarities. This, more than anything else may be what we need right now. My view is that left and right will come to be definitions of the past. My view is that there is a place for the artist, and the visionary, and for the dreamer, and for those dispossessed across the political spectrum to come together in shaping the future. Ultimately, the barometer for success that a divine mother like Kālī — mother nature herself — might appreciate, isn’t how ‘competent’ we were along capitalist lines, but how we were in relation to one another and to her — how well, in the end, did we love.
This 2-month journey was about bearing witness to and immersing in the profound living goddess traditions of India — traditions that are dynamic and still growing, and that have influenced every aspect of Indian thought on the subcontinent and beyond. In two months we visited 41 major goddess temples, dozens of ancillary temples, and countless village shrines, each of which has a place within the cosmological framework of Indian tradition, each of which rings with a particular vibration. Each of these places are not just places on the external map. They are places within us. They have a sound and a location within the sacred geography of the body. The ‘pilgrimage’ is then ultimately the act of going inward and finding her there, in the heart, in the eyes, in the hidden hollows and springs, in the gentle white slopes of the sacrum, where she’s been sleeping all along.
This trip felt timely. At a time when women around the world are raising their voices and speaking the truth about sexual abuse and oppression at the hands of men and simultaneously the ugliness that women have always faced is on full display from those in the highest positions of power, it felt fitting to do a goddess pilgrimage. It felt fitting to infuse the internet with images of wild-haired yoginis and Kālī’s protruding tongue. The Tantric temples of Orissa are adorned with images of women — how shall we say — unashamed, fierce-eyed, squatting, unabashed, unshaved. The village goddesses in rural India are sometimes no more than primal heaps of red mud swathed in flowers, slathered in butter. I’d like to take that mud, those flowers, that butter, and dump it all over the current social media diatribe. Somehow, I feel that means something.
We live, in many ways, in a culture of boxes. We inhabit boxes. We wake up and drive in smaller boxes — on square and empty streets — to another box where we work. Usually our work involves staring at a square screen in a box within a box.
This cultural geography effects all of us, left or right. It effects the words we use, the thoughts we have, the boundaries of our consciousness.
When our cultural discourse gets so boxed, polarized, riddled in repetitive vernacular, it is powerful to remember other shapes, patterns, movements, sounds, stories, whispers, hums. The goddess traditions hit at colors and currents that offer a different artistic, social, and cosmic geography. Heaps of mud. Piercing eyes within golden eggs. Bleeding fissures in ancient stones. Flames and yellow oil. Ululating cries.
As much as the goddess traditions of India honor the maternal aspects of the universe, it is important to remember that goddess worship within a culture does not in any way ensure or equal gender equality. Paradoxically India — with its vibrant traditions that offer such detailed depictions of feminine power — also faces tremendous issues around gender inequality, sexual abuse, and spousal abuse. Feminist scholars have written about this paradox at length.
This too, is part of her story and part of her relevance. We don’t know how the village goddess cultures of the subcontinent used to be, back before they were absorbed and reshaped by larger empires. We do know that within the history of the mother goddess traditions in India we see women’s uprisings, social justice movements, ancient offshoot sects that were clear attempts to correct the place of women within Indian society. We can also see how these attempts were re-appropriated back into the male-dominated fold, time and time again. We see the larger horrors of the caste system, and we see goddess traditions that re-recognized and sought to treat all people within society as sacred. 1,600 years ago the Devi Mahatmya offers a clinic on how men objectify, vilify, patronize, and underestimate women. The Tantric movement to re-include widows and street-sweepers and chalk dealers and butchers and low-caste tribal girls was nothing short of a revolution. Until the revolution itself was co-opted, yet again.
On a socio-cultural level, the types of issues addressed in the ancient goddess tales have timeless relevance. She’s been equally shunned and objectified, vilified and glamorized, outcaste and worshipped, all of it, over thousands upon thousands of years.
Within the larger sacred landscape, the goddess traditions offer ways to better understand the vibrational energetics of nature, the artistry of the cosmos, and the nature of consciousness. Although her story is deeply tied with gender, she is beyond gender. Ultimately, when we speak of the goddess we are speaking of the vibrational power of the universe, of consciousness itself. Nothing short of this. It has been a gift over the last 2 months to be able to visit such sacred places, inside and out. Hopefully it provides inspiration and benefit. Hopefully it helps us remember that there are different archetypes available to us. Streams and rocks and trees are to be honored. Make a pile of mud and light a candle to it. Touch dirt. Why not? Sing hymns to black holes and gravitational waves. Sound is a gateway. Candle flame can help us. Vibration surrounds us. Honoring nature matters. She is art. She is alive.
She has, of course, thousands upon thousands of names. I close this in gratitude, by invoking one of them. It’s a rare one. It makes an appearance in a very old story — a story that recounts her journey, her separation from herself, and her pilgrimage of reunification, which is the pilgrimage each of us take, every day, with each breath.
To you, the tamarind tree in the center of the moon.
You are the bend in the breeze.
All that I sought, all that I longed for, all those days.
It was always you.
The Napali Coast is an awe-inspiring 16-mile roadless stretch of nature’s grandeur along the northwest coast of Kauai, the oldest inhabited Hawaiian island. Sheer, verdant cliffs plunge thousands of feet into aquamarine waters teeming with sea turtles and dolphins. The Kalalau Trail snakes along the cliff’s edge from Ke’e beach to Kalalau Valley and can be backpacked, but if you you really want to explore all the hidden beaches and coves and inlets of this spectacular coastline, and you’re up for a challenge, you can sea kayak the whole thing in a day. Seventeen miles of sea kayaking makes it the longest single day commercial sea kayaking run anywhere in the world.
We put in at Haena Beach at 7:00am on the calmest day of the year. The downside to such calm waters was that we didn’t get a push from the current and ended up having to paddle about 1,000 more strokes. The plus was that the waters were so clear we could see the bottom 80 feet down and the whole experience became like 6 hours of paddling through liquid crystal.
Definitely on my top 10 list of spectacular nature adventures. Join me next time — look for more upcoming Kauai retreats in the fall of 2016!
The Brokpa people live on the border of India and Pakistan in a steep, hidden valley above the Indus River. They’ve been farming in this inhospitable climate at 9,000 feet in the lower himalayas for over 2,000 years. Considered by some to be descendants of Alexander the Great’s army and others to be directly related to the earliest Indo-European peoples, they are ethnically caucasian, religiously Buddhist, and their language is written in both Tibeto-Burman and Arabic script. Truly a fascinating cultural crossroads. But most impressive to me were the gardens — grape vines over a foot in diameter, golden apple orchards, stone villages set amid a sea of apricots and wildflowers in one of the driest climates on the planet.
Five of us from our August 2013 Ladakh yoga retreat visited the Brokpa in Dha Hanu Valley. All I could think about after we left was coming back. Look for this enchanting destination on future retreats from Tapta Marg.
That time when I did 3,000 sun salutes around Arunachala Mountain to raise funds for clean water charities in India…
When the early Vedic peoples of India observed the world around them, they saw certain fundamental truths reflected throughout all levels of nature. The most fundamental of these truths is that we live in a universe of motion and transformation. Things change. The stuff of the cosmos changes into other stuff. Everything that we see, in its current form, was — not so long ago — in a very different form. Not so long from now, everything will be in a very different form again.
This is true for our physical bodies, for the body of this planet with its ever-shifting canyons and mountain ranges and volcanoes and sea beds, it is true for the entire physical universe, which was born from a single point and will return again to that primal singularity.
The Vedic people associated this dance of energy, this kinesis, this eternal process of change and transformation with the principle of heat, or ‘tapas.’
In Vedic understanding, it was tapas that created the universe. A primal impulse, a first loving desire transformed the inert potentiality of limitless space-consciousness into the bright, hot, spinning universe of transformation that we know and see and hear and feel around us.
“Verily in the beginning, Prajapati [God] alone existed here. He thought within Himself, “How can I be propagated? He longed to become many. He practiced tapas and created living things.”
This primal heat of transformation is responsible for the entire manifest universe. Everything we see, feel, touch, hear and, taste in this universe has ‘been through the fire’ and everything reflects the fundamental transformative, luminous, and kinetic qualities of tapas.
The very atomic fabric of creation – in its luminosity, motility, and its endless variegated forms — is tapas itself. Tapas is synonymous with creation, and is itself the source of creation’s fundamental natural laws. As it says in the earliest Vedic writings:
Order and truth were born from heat as it blazed up.
Just as the elements of the periodic table were born through the initial cosmic boiler-room temperatures of the big bang and subsequent supernovas, so the fundamental building blocks of this universe – and the laws that govern it – are born from heat.
The Vedic people saw this heat reflected on all levels of creation. Tapas blazed above them, in the form of the sun:
The sun fills the world with his tapas. He looks downward on us, heating all created things.
And tapas was within them as well:
His is that shining form which gives heat in yonder sun and is the brilliant light in a smokeless fire, the same fire that cooks the food in men’s stomachs. He who is in the fire, and he who is in the heart, and he who is in the sun – he is One.
In fact, tapas connects the whole of the Vedic universe.
To early humans, the heat generated by the campfire, or the sexual act, by the effort of hunt or battle, by dance or hard work was the expression of one and the same source, the cosmic fire.
-Wolf-Deiter Storl, Shiva, the Wild God of Power and Ecstasy
All processes of the natural world were thought to be contained in this heat. This lifetime itself was a tapas. We were born out of the heated womb, we physically grew and were sustained as beings through the heat of metabolic process, along the way we suffered the heat of pain and experienced the heat of joy. At the end of our lives, having burned through this lifetime, we returned once more to ash. Ashes to ashes. Tapas.
Tapas was at once the heat of gestation, incubation, birth, growth, creation, passion. But it was also the friction of restraint, the fire we feel when something is lacking, the primal longing, the struggle for transformation.
Tapas was both pain and joy, and pain and joy shared a common heat:
“For the first time he witnessed a birth. With astonished burning eyes he gazed at the face of the woman in labor…the expression of her face seemed most remarkable to him…the lines of the screaming woman’s face were little different from those he had seen in other women’s faces during the moment of love’s ecstasy…He was surprised by the realization that pain and joy could resemble each other so closely.”
— Herman Hesse, Narcissus and Goldmund
This primal recognition of the heat of existence formed the foundation for all of the spiritual traditions of India.
In honor of the radiant heat of tapas, and to connect to its transformative energy, the early Vedic people used fire as their main form of worship.
The fire ceremony – called yajna – dates back thousands upon thousands of years. Yajna – which involves chanting sacred mantras and pouring substances such as butter and milk and grain into a fire — was a vehicle through which Vedic people could connect to the larger natural transformative forces around them, the great order of the universe – the rta.
Rta means order, and also relates directly to the word ‘ritual.’
All human ritual seeks, in some way, to reestablish connection to an underlying natural order – and most ritual involves a connection to the transformative power of heat.
In the Native American sweat lodge, seekers enter a womb of tapas – primal fire and water — in order to reconnect to spirit though their own experience of tapas. They emerge from that gestation period like newborns, clearer and more attuned as a result of the purifying quality of heat.
All across the globe, we find the use of heat in ritual that serves to connect us to the primal heat of tapas.
Every time we enter the space of yoga practice, we are connecting to this primal fire and water. In our movement through the asanas, we are heating ourselves in order to open, and in that openness we are in a better place to receive – to receive breath, to receive illumination into our lives. It’s no coincidence that one feels clearer and cleaner and ‘reborn’ after the practice of heating through asana. This is tapas.
Through this heating process, we work to burn off that which stands in the way of us and our connection to the great transformative force of this universe, the light that some people call the Divine.
If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred
— Walt Whitman
The Universe is one body, and it is many bodies.
It is, at its heart, one – one energy that is constant, unchanging in quantity or essential quality. And it is also many, it comes in myriad forms, it is the many galaxies, the great nebulae and star clusters that are themselves called ‘bodies,’ it is the many planets and oceans and beings that inhabit those oceans, and the beings that, like us humans, carry a piece of the ocean with us wherever we go.
Some of the earliest human visions of the universe describe one giant body, split into many. In the Vedas – the ancient scriptures of India – the giant being known as Purusha is dismembered into five parts that become the five directions and the five elements, the basic building blocks of reality. To the Norse people, this cosmic giant was known as Ymir. To the ancient Egyptians, it was Osiris. Whatever the name, the story is the same – one great being split apart becomes the many beings, and the many beings all contain within them the same essence of the one.
The gods fashioned the Earth from his flesh, the oceans from his blood, from his hair the trees, from his brains the clouds, from his skull the heavens, and [in the space between his eyebrows] the middle realm in which mankind lives.
–The Eddas, Ancient Norse Creation story
EMBODIMENT & YOGA
Embodiment is the defining characteristic of our human existence. We inhabit bodies and we are bodies – our entire experience of the universe and of our selves happens through our own bodies. Indeed, our lifetimes are marked by changes in our bodies, and it is through our bodies that we shape a collection of experiences, perceptions, and impulses into our sense of who we are, why we are here, and why this universe exists at all.
Through this individual body, we have a unique set of eyes to perceive the great body, the universe all around us.
When we gaze upon the stars whose light comes to us from millions of years ago, or consider the ground beneath us and sense the billion-year story of ancient forests and sea-beds long past, we often feel two things at once: we feel ourselves as distinct beings and we simultaneously feel ourselves as part of a great whole. This union and separation is part of our somatic story just as it is the story of the universe itself.
The question of what of this physical form is ‘us’ and what is not ‘us’ is with us right from the start. We begin this somatic journey when two people – our parents – come together as one. We start as one cell and then quickly divide to become two, doubling in size every eight hours in the earlier phases of embryonic development. Those first cells not only form our bodies (what we define as ‘us’) but also form the supportive structures around us that will eventually be discarded, no longer ‘us’ but once integrally part of us.
We grow within our mother’s wombs, one with her but also separate. Every bit of matter (note that ‘matter’ comes from the root word ‘mother’) that comprises our bodies until we stop nursing comes from food that she eats and water she drinks. What she feels, we feel. We are part of her, yet we are distinct.
We are born in a physical act of separating ourselves from our mothers. We live as distinct beings and, when we die, we return to the earth – ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The separate becomes united once again.
Along the journey of this lifetime, we long for wholeness. We long to feel part of the greater universe, part of that great night sky above us and the ground beneath us. We long to feel held by this universe the way we were once held in the waters of our mother’s belly.
From the yogic perspective, the purpose of our distinctness as beings is to feel wholeness again – so that we can move beyond the feelings of isolation and separation that this embodied existence can sometimes bring and feel ourselves again as one with the universal body. In fact, the very word yoga means union, wholeness, joining together. This wholeness, this union, has many names in the yogic tradition. It is called samadhi – sameness. It is called kaivalya, oneness or singleness. It is even called nirvana, or extinction – the extinction of the separated individual in the realization of the greater consciousness. Yoga teaches that the body is a vehicle to attain this wholeness.
PRECIOUS BODY, TOOL AND OBSTACLE
Along this journey to wholeness, the body can be our greatest ally and can also present great challenges for us. Its vulnerabilities can prevent us from feeling anything beyond our immediate woes; for this reason, early Hatha Yoga texts describe sickness as one of the primary obstacles to practice and outline freedom from sickness as a central goal of Hatha Yoga practice.
Yet injuries can also be great teachers. Our physical struggles can serve as invitations to let go of limited, isolated perspectives and follow the deeper, greater rhythm of wholeness that exists beyond our control.
This paradox of the body – that it at once can be our greatest tool and our greatest obstacle, is fundamental in understanding yoga.
The impulses of the body have governed human behavior since human beings first walked the earth, with profoundly mixed result. For people throughout history, the pursuit of material and physical satisfactions has been construed – or misconstrued – as the fundamental purpose of human existence. The old joke ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’ has been an unfortunate guiding principle for much of humanity, and along the way bodies have slain other bodies by the millions, claimed other bodies as property, and mined the riches of this earth-body without thought for the greater balance of the whole.
This relentless pursuit of the body’s material satisfaction is seen in the yogic tradition as an imbalance, one that results in sickness and is an impediment to finding wholeness – for no healthy system, be it a single cell or human being or whole society, exists naturally in a state of continual acquisition.
In the face of thousands of years of imbalanced, body-driven impulse causing much suffering in the world, some spiritual traditions saw the danger of being too wrapped up in the satisfactions of the body and went to the other extreme, steering people away from the pleasures of the body entirely.
Early Hinayana Buddhist texts such as the Patikulamanasikara, or ‘Reflections on Repulsiveness,’ encourage meditation on the body as impure, unappealing, and transitory, and instead urge detachment and dis-identification with the body.
“It would seem that this human body is little more than a factory for excrement and pain,” said Nagarjuna, one of the foremost early Buddhist scholars.
Other traditions spoke of the body and the material world as illusions to be transcended. According to these traditions, the body’s primal impulses were to be overcome; therefore, practitioners withdrew from the world and refrained from all material pleasures.
In some cases, this self-denial was taken to the extreme as practitioners undertook severe austerities – intentionally causing themselves pain by sleeping on nails, holding yoga poses for years at a time, denying themselves food, and sometimes even piercing their flesh with hooks and wires.
Of course, viewing the body as solely an obstacle to be transcended can lead us away from wholeness. If oneness is what we seek, then this body is part of the oneness, and surely its experiences are a doorway to that oneness. To deny the body, to detach from it entirely is to close our primary portal to union.
The middle way – that the impulses of this body are not to be dwelled upon or addicted to, but neither are we to deny this body, but to celebrate it and use it as a tool in our own search for union – is at the heart of much of the yogic tradition, and this balanced view is the foundation upon which modern yoga is built.
Physical yoga as we know it arose with the growth of the Tantric schools of thought around the 7th century CE. Tantra means ‘loom’ and Tantric philosophy offers a united worldview in which all things are woven together in a tapestry of universal sacredness. The body is reflective of the whole universe, and the whole universe is the body of the divine itself, and therefore this body is divine as well.
One’s mind is the Wisdom Body of a Buddha, one’s speech is the Beatific Body, one’s form is the Perfect Emanation Body, and the world and its inhabitants are… a mandala inhabited by deities.
— His Holiness the Dalai Lama (from the Tibetan Tantric tradition)
One should meditate upon the Supreme – the limitless, the unchanging, the cause of all the happiness of the world, dwelling in the sea of one’s own heart. The place for meditation on this Supreme Light is the heart-space, the place of the inverted red lotus bud. It should be known that the heart, that very place that lies one finger below the throat and one finger above the navel, is the great abode of the universe.
Rather than showing us visions of repulsive beings tormented by the fire of their own greed, the Tantric texts began to show us a very different vision – of a body inhabited by divine and angelic forces that ride on winds of breath, forces that can be nourished and cultivated through practice in service to our journey towards union. The Tantric yogic texts show us that the same essential energies and forces that comprise the body of the universe are alive and active within us: that we are a reflection of the great body, and that sacredness is to be found everywhere in existence. Thus, the ancients pointed to a fundamental sameness between these bodies we inhabit and the divine body of the universe.
And modern science agrees.
“We are star-stuff,” said Astronomer Carl Sagan, and it is so. The iron in our blood comes from the furnaces at the center of stars, the salt in our body is the same salt that permeates the oceans. So delicate is the balance of minerals in our being that if our potassium levels change by the slightest of percentages, our entire homeostatic balance is thrown off and our body cannot function.
Time and time again, the body exhibits a grandeur and intricate design reflective of the cosmos themselves, woven from the same primordial fire and water and kinetic energy, our bones and muscles spiraling around implied centerlines the same way that vines coil towards sunrays.
Though the body exists in a world of ever-fluctuating temperatures, its internal temperature stays almost exactly the same, a remarkable feat that happens through the innate intelligence of every skin and muscle cell and every minute capillary as they become more or less permeable based on external and internal temperature.
We are, as the yogic texts tell us, furnaces. In the course of the time it takes to read this essay, you will have generated enough heat to boil a gallon of water. We are burning through this lifetime, and through that heat of this metabolic process, the body is in a constant state of transformation – consuming, assimilating, and reshaping. Yoga awakens our awareness to the inner landscape and connects us to this primal heat, this tapas, harnessing it in service of our transformation.
Just as there is a fire to this somatic existence, so there is water. The body is 70% water – certain organs, like the brain, are 80%. Through the delicate chemical gateways of kidney function, the water and mineral levels in our bodies stay precisely balanced. All of the major functions of the body happen in a matrix of water. Nerve cells fire through water, optic signals transmit through water, the bones of the ear vibrate through a pool of water that the water of the brain interprets as sound, and each joint of the body moves in a capsule of water.
It is no coincidence that the word for energy channels in yoga – nadis – means ‘streams,’ for we are literally a river-course in which our hearts pump our blood 50 miles per day through a network of capillaries that, were they to be lined up end to end, would wrap around the earth three times!
When the ancients said that this body is a universe, they were not simply using metaphor. It is easy to look at the early Tantric view of angelic forces within the body as symbolic, yet we have to look no further than T-cells – graceful and ethereal in form, sublime in function – to see angels. The T-cell takes a meticulous inventory of every single substance it encounters in our bodies – measuring it against an archive of hundreds of thousands of known substances – and makes crucial decisions about what is safe for us and what is not. Guardian angels or ‘just’ little blobs of plasma? You decide.
Modern scientific exploration of the body has taught us more about the specific function of this living, breathing organism in the last 100 years than we had discovered in the previous 100,000. Yet yoga, and our combined human experience, reminds us that the body is more than a collection of tubes and valves that can be simply likened to a machine. The body is a mystery and an evolving story. It is the cosmic playing field, where lila, the divine play, the dance of worlds, takes place. It is the cosmic battleground, upon which our struggles and triumphs and tribulations happen daily. The pains and joys of our lives echo through our body tissues like ripples in water; each body has stories to tell and every body has the potential to transform those stories.
THE FIRST STEP ON THE PATH OF YOGA: WHAT WE DO WITH OUR BODIES
In the yogic tradition, the practice of calming our consciousness is observed through our bodies, which is why the first steps on the path of yoga all relate to how we use our bodies in this world – what we eat, what we drink, what we say, what we do, how we choose to conduct ourselves sexually, what we keep and what we let go, how intensely we practice, and how well we are able to relax that intensity and surrender to the greater body of rhythms and cycles all around us.
In our modern world, we too often treat the body as a neglectful and stressed out boss would treat an employee. We ignore it, then respond to its calls hurriedly by feeding its most basic, addictive impulses. When it feels sluggish, we pump it full of stimulants; when it is anxious, we switch to depressants. We get mad at the body for not looking the way we want it to and so we force ourselves to the gym, often with no other intent than to shape ourselves into something that a retouched magazine cover has told us is the way a body ‘should’ look.
This approach to the body is rooted in stress and feelings of separateness; from the yogic perspective, it is a recipe for disease.
Lost in this treatment of the body is the recognition of the wisdom and intelligence of the body itself – that bodies have a deeper rhythm of health connected to the living intelligence of the universe. The body is inviting us to that place of conscious embodiment; it is asking us to deeply feel what it is to be human.
“I sing the body electric!” exclaimed Walt Whitman, in a great invitation for all of us to find the exuberance in our own somatic experience. This somatic exploration of aliveness, if we accept the invitation, can serve as a precious portal to universal oneness.