The Wisdom of Yoga: The Spirit of the Strivers

In his book, The Wisdom of Yoga: A Seeker’s Guide to Extraordinary WisdomStephen Cope investigates the wisdom tradition of yoga from the point of view of six contemporary characters—modern yogis struggling with issues of love, work, addictions, careers, and unfulfilled longings of many varieties. Weaving together narrative story and expository teachings, the book brings alive the rich, and very relevant, applications of yoga’s ancient teachings. The following piece, "The Spirit of the Strivers," is excerpted from the prologue. 

The wisdom of classical yoga has its roots in the social and spiritual crucible of what is now India, during the sixth, fifth, and fourth centuries BCE. During these centuries, the traditional social and religious hierarchies of parts of the Indian subcontinent were being transformed. Village structure was challenged by the increasing social and economic importance of cities. The rigidities of the ancient caste system were increasingly interrupted by independent thinkers and seekers.

It was a time of questioning, and the ferment of the age gave rise to some of the world’s greatest spiritual teachers—including Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (563–483 BCE), and Mahavira, a founder of the Jains (599–527 BCE). It was the time of some of the most brilliant mystical writing of the Upanishads. Thousands of seekers and wandering philosophers and ascetics examined the meaning of life, and the possibilities of being human.

As early as the sixth century BCE, the spiritual inquiries of these lively seekers began to take place outside established religious hierarchies in an unruly tradition scholars now call the sramanic stream. Sramana means, literally, "striver." Indian sramanas were practical mystics who had become disillusioned with the ritual practices of the Vedic religion. They renounced the complex hierarchies of priests, rituals, and castes and became dropouts from the mainstream religious culture. They were seeking the state of "living liberation" or "the soul awake in this lifetime," and in order to find it, they turned to a series of brilliant teachers who insisted that realization of the true Self could be developed, not through external religious ritual, but through direct and persistent inner investigation of the body and mind. The best of these teachers insisted upon the power of self-reliance, self-examination, and self-development.

"Strivers" dedicated their lives to spiritual and psychological experimentation—practicing both in small groups and in solitude, living quietly at the edge of mainstream society, in caves or in forests. They investigated diet, breath control, physical exercises, ethical behavior, sense restraint, prayer, meditation, magic, chanting, and worship of every conceivable god and goddess. Their lives were almost always characterized by asceticism, renunciation, and internal sacrifice.

These seekers rejected doctrine and dogma, and did not particularly favor codification of their ideas and practices. For this reason the results of their personal investigations went largely unrecorded. Their growing body of wisdom was passed along primarily by word of mouth. In its earliest stages, much of the strivers’ experimentation was probably highly shamanistic, concerned with what we might even call magic—black, white, and otherwise. Some of their work, of course, led to dead ends—endless metaphysical speculation, or practices that were downright harmful. But over the course of hundreds of years, and with the efforts of thousands of highly motivated seekers, some headway was made in discovering a reliable path to the fully alive human being. A loose tradition was born—an esoteric tradition that combined the best powers of shamanism with some remarkably sophisticated psychological discoveries. A set of reliable principles and practices emerged. At some point, this tradition became known as yoga—a word that means literally "to yoke" or to bring into union—and its practitioners as "yogis."

Yogis used their own minds and bodies as laboratories for experiments in living. They arrived over and over again at a series of stunning insights into the human condition:

  • The ordinary reality in which most human beings live is merely an elaborate construction based on subtle but important errors in perception.
  • These chronic errors and inadequacies in perception become "fetters" that obscure a clear view of reality, and lead us to act in ways which are counterproductive. The unskillful actions that result from a fettered mind create suffering for ourselves and others.
  • The fetters become learning disabilities which make it impossible for us to bring to fruition the deepest capacities of the body, mind, and heart—capacities that lie within the reach of all human beings, but are beyond the comprehension of the ordinary mind.
  • It is possible to become gradually disentangled from these unskillful habits of body and mind, and as we do, to see more clearly, and to experience less suffering.
  • The process of disentanglement is not easy. It requires a considerable amount of effort, and the cultivation of insight and subtle mental and physical skillfulness. It is, nonetheless, within the reach of virtually every human being.
  • As we become disentangled from unskillful habits, we discover that the mind at its subtlest levels—what yogis called illumined mind—follows different laws than the ordinary mind out of which we routinely function.
  • When the fetters have been attenuated, only the deepest, most illumined functioning of the mind remains. Freed from the fetters, we learn to be guided by the luminous wisdom of awakened mind, making choices that create happiness for ourselves, others, and the world.

These are radical views, to be sure. Strivers found the human being to be caught in a subtle web of delusion. Their investigations revealed this web to be tenacious in its grasp. And yogis found the process of extracting ourselves from this mesh an extraordinarily complex one.

The extraction process (which yogis came to call "introversion") is difficult for us because the skills we rely upon to do the job simply do not work. Throughout history we human beings (always and everywhere encountering this same set of problems) have tried to think our way out of the fetters. Or fight our way, or will our way, or power our way. Yogis found that none of these strategies can succeed. More often than not, in fact, thinking ensnares us more deeply. Willpower, too, is of limited value. And force is positively counterproductive.

How, then, shall we confront the tangle? This was the principal question of the sramanas. Whereas Western cultures from early on became obsessed with knowledge and philosophy as forms of transcendence and mastery, the sramanas found knowledge for its own sake to be of limited value. As the Buddha, one of the most famous of these sramanas, said about metaphysics, "These philosophical conversations do not lead to edification!"

Sramanas became more concerned with what we might call wisdom. Wisdom is a knowledge or understanding that we gain as a result of having seen or perceived the world directly. It is understanding gained through careful examination of direct experience. Above all, wisdom is a practical knowledge about how things work—how life works. It is the kind of knowledge that makes us more skillful in living.

(This view of wisdom seems universal. The Indo-European root of the word "wisdom" is ueid, which means "perceiving" or "seeing." In Latin, the root is videre, "to see." The ancient Akkadian word for a wise person—borrowed from Sumerian—meant "master craftsman." Wisdom is the kind of knowledge that makes us master craftspersons at life.)

In the final analysis, then, strivers found that it is not what you know, but how you live that counts. Strivers might have been the world’s first existentialists.

At some point during the second or third century CE, a great yogi philosopher-practitioner (probably named Patanjali) wrote down the central principles of this evolving wisdom tradition. The text produced by this mysterious sage—called the Yoga-Sutra—has stood for almost two thousand years as the definitive statement of the philosophy and practice of the yogis. It brilliantly captured the core discoveries of many centuries of experimentation.

Patanjali’s treatise is written in an elegant and highly condensed literary form called sutra—which means, literally, "thread." His writing is lean and compact. In his text, there is no compelling development of a central spiritual character—no Moses, Buddha, Mohammed, or Christ. Rather, in the course of 196 sutras, Patanjali gives us a spare but brilliant description of the traps into which we have become ensnared, and the path out of the snares.

The author of the Yoga-Sutra makes no claim to be undertaking ordinary spiritual writing. He is not interested in founding a new religion. He is not interested in entertaining us, or drawing on the deepest archetypes of the human religious imagination. Patanjali seems to say that what mature human beings require is not another religion. What we require is not more theology, but a reliable practice: a training program that may help the highly motivated student to realize the full potential of being human.

Stephen Cope, MSW, Kripalu's Scholar Emeritus, is the best-selling author of The Great Work of Your Life and Yoga and the Quest for the True Self.

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