The Yoga of Nourishment
An interview with Stephen Cope
Stephen Cope is Director of the Institute for Extraordinary Living at Kripalu Center. A best-selling author, psychotherapist, and yogi, he writes and teaches about the relationship between contemporary psychology and the Eastern contemplative traditions. In an interview with Kripalu’s Senior Editor, he offers a yogic perspective on the nature of nourishment.
Editor From the point of view of the yoga traditions, what kind of nourishment do human beings most need?
Stephen Cope Yogis were extremely interested in this question. They were interested in investigating what it’s like to be a human being. And they discovered something fascinating. They discovered that most of us inhabit only a small part of our lives. Most of us blunder through life almost as if we were asleep—alienated from the deepest sources of our energy, intelligence, and creativity.
Many of us sense this, of course. We sense that we are lost. That we are somehow estranged from our true nature. That there is more possibility in this human life than we are currently living. We see this through little glimpses of "awakening."
These little moments of waking up are what bring us to yoga. Yoga begins for us when we become ready to meet ourselves, to claim our lives in their potential fullness. Yoga begins for us when we set out on our own personal journeys of discovery. In the view of the yogis, all of life is a journey back to the Source. A reunion with our true nature. A kind of Lewis and Clark expedition of the soul.
In answer to your question, then, I would say that the nourishment human beings most need is simply to take this journey. What we most need in our lives is anything that wakes us up to who we really are. Anything that calls us home. Through teaching at Kripalu for the past fifteen years, I’ve discovered that what folks want more than anything else is just to be inspired to find themselves. It doesn’t matter if we find our imagined destination, or end the journey perfectly. Just that we take it.
Editor And how do the yoga traditions suggest that we conduct this journey? Who or what are our guides? What maps do we use? Is there a reliable formula for Self-Discovery?
Stephen This is the tricky part. This voyage of Self-discovery is an interior journey. The yoga traditions have provided us with detailed maps of the "interior landscape"—which is extraordinarly helpful. But we must also rely on our own instincts, on intuition, on attunement to the still small voice inside. The signposts that lead us are subtle and ineffable, and the path can sometimes be, as C.S. Lewis said, "a slippery slope."
Yogis have sometimes called this path "the razor’s edge." Everyone’s authentic path home is different, is uniquely their own. For this reason, the tradition of yoga has always eschewed doctrine and dogma—the idea that there’s one particular way you should go. Yogis found that a rigid adherence to formulas is not helpful. Yoga is a strange kind of path in this sense. It doesn’t give us answers, but it gives us ways to find our own answers. Yoga can help us attune to our own internal guidance, which is the only way to find our own path home.
All of the practices of yoga are really ways to attune to the wisdom we already have—inside. One of the great commentaries on the Yoga Sutras (the central scripture of classical yoga) says that yoga will make us "as sensitive as an eyeball." (As we know, the eye is sensitive to the teeniest speck of dust, or teeniest hair.) Yoga actually refines our whole nervous system to be this sensitive. In yoga, we become like a big radar tracking station, attuned to the entire field of mind and matter—both the internal field and the external field (which of course turn out to be the same).
Editor What is your personal experience of attunement to this inner guidance?
Stephen My practice is simply staying attuned to what I might call "aliveness." And this, for me, involves a subtle attunement to energy. I try to pay attention to what it is that draws my attention, my interest, my fascination. When do I feel most alive? Where do I feel that aliveness in my body? What objects arouse that aliveness for me? If you pay close attention, and continually ask yourself these questions, the whole world becomes like a big Rorschach test, a big mirror that begins to show us who we really are. That begins to show us where our life really is. We feel our way from marker to marker along this path. I call this "the braille method."
Yogis felt that the whole world was created as lila, or Divine play. God created the world as a way of knowing herself—of knowing herself and also of being known. In this dance of recognition, we see ourselves in the mirror of our friends, families, enemies, playmates, animals, and nature. "Only the Divine recognizes the Divine," said the great 19th century saint, Ramakrishna. We see our own Divinity in the great mirror of the world.
Editor And what are the signposts of your own aliveness, then?
Stephen For most of us, it is impossible to see the Divine in ourselves without a mirror. Each of us will have different, idiosyncratic mirrors. Ever since I was young, I have found myself fascinated with great works of art. Looking into the mirror of these great works of art, I have found something so human, and felt called forth to discover my own deepest humanity.
I’ve been a classical pianist since I was very young. Great music has been one of my most important mirrors. For example, when I discovered the late Beethoven sonatas in high school, it was like a religious experience. Beethoven wrote these masterpieces when he was in profoundly altered states of consciousness, and all one has to do is play one of them and one is plunged into this same state. We see ourselves—we see the "better angels of our nature"—reflected right there. We find revealed in these works the deepest architecture of the human mind and the best aspects of the human heart.
I had the same experience of self-revelation when I discovered Thoreau’s journals, when I first saw the luminescent canvases of French painter Camille Corot, encountered the music of our own Aaron Copland, and the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I had it when I discovered the brilliant ardency buried at the core of Jane Austen’s novels.
You asked about nourishment. I believe that we need these mirrors of consciousness as much as we need food. Great works of art become bridges that we can cross over. For me, reading Annie Dillard, one of the greatest American writers, is like a wonderful and nutritious meal. I devour her work. To me it is scripture.
To my students, I always say, "pay attention to where you feel the aliveness—in words, music, painting, everyday art, a walk in the woods. What draws you? Pay attention to that. Follow that. Look into that. Come to know yourself by looking in the mirror." Carl Jung said a dream not investigated is like a letter left unopened. Exactly. This is the thing about the journey of yoga. You don’t have to go very far. It’s all right here. Right around us. Henry David Thoreau said, "I have travelled extensively in Concord." So, travel extensively. Right where you are.
Stephen Cope, MSW, is director of Kripalu’s Institute for Extraordinary Living and author of Yoga and the Quest for the True Self and The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary Living. A psychotherapist, scholar, and yogi, Stephen draws on Eastern and Western perspectives in his work, which explores the perennial question of what it means to be a fully alive human being.
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