Yoga and Lent V: Ten Lenten Commandments

Cambridge, MA. The world around me is uneasy, and in dire straits; the Pope resigns; Congress remains dysfunctional; the environment is increasingly out of balance; and so many people live in situations of terrible deprivation. And still I persist in blogging through Lent not on these timely issues, but on the Second Book of the Yoga Sutras, the “Yoga of Action.” My conviction, manifest in the previous entries, is that we are far too preoccupied with things that are important and compelling. Lent is in part about stepping away from those ordinary concerns. Jesus said, “There is need of only one thing” (Luke 10.41), and these Lenten reflections are dedicated to that proposition. Even if it takes a year or two to elect a new pope — emptiness can be good — we can progress spiritually, and in doing so change ourselves and change the Church. And for this, yoga is a needed friend. This is the fifth in a series of about eight. (Here is the fourth, which contains links to the first three.)

My admission of stubborn uselessness aside, today’s section of the Sutras of Patanjali is actually useful. One might say that we have before us, finally, the “ten commandments” or (better) “ten recommendations” that lie at the heart of Patanjali’s Sutras, at the start of the famous “eight limbs (components) of yoga.” It is as if he wanted to put these recommendations in context since, as we should know too, it is a wonderful thing to be truthful and nonviolent, etc., but it is not enough to stop with these virtues and practices, if we are seeking that “one needed thing.”

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“The limbs of yoga” - its integral components - are eight: “restraint, observance, posture, control of breath, withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and indrawing.” (II.29) When we get to the last three in the list, we are at the heart of yoga, but Patanjali wants us first to build our base, with the five “restraints” (yama): “non-intention to harm, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint, and non-grasping” (30), and five “observances” (niyama): “purity, contentment, austerity, personal study, and dedication to the master.” (II.32)

Patanjali notes, with respect to both sets of five, as we Jesuits used to say, agendo contra: go against the grain; strive to deflect those fixed activities of the mind that distract from the goal; cultivate what leads us to our goal (33). How do we reorient our lives that we can actually pray, with intensity?

The restraints are five:

“When there is establishment in non-intention to harm, in proximity to such a one, there will be an abandonment of hostility.” (35) That is, when you are truly dedicated to non-violence and no longer intend harm to any being, the level of hostility around you decreases exponentially. Be the peace you talk about.

“When there is establishment in truthfulness, there is a base for the fruits of action.” (36) For if we speak the truth, and mean what we say, we are free to do exactly as we know and speak. Gandhi made a life of this.

“When there is establishment in non-stealing, there is the arrival of all treasures.” (37) Perhaps this is the message of the Sermon: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6.33)

“When there is establishment in sexual restraint, an obtaining of vigor.” (38) Brahmacarya, sexual restraint, amounts, most of the time, to celibacy, though the yogis are reputed to go very deeply into internalizing sexuality potency, not merely stopping sexual practices, but turning the desire into a spiritual power. I gestured in this direction in my recent rejoinder to Frank Bruni’s heartfelt but nevertheless condescending piece on celibacy in the New York Times. The world needs more celibates, not fewer, if they are of this yogic type, not compelled, not in disguise, not angling for power.

“When there is stability in non-possession, realization of how things are born.” (39) This somewhat obscure sutra is a plea that we let go, stop clinging. How “things are born” might refer to matters as large as birth and rebirth, or as small as how it is that holding onto even one thing leads to a whole series of greater attachments. The point of radical poverty – says this professor surrounded with his books – is that if we do not let go of possessions in some fundamental, radical way, we will start of accumulate lots of things, over and over. Owning one thing leads to owning many. See Graham Hill's reflections on this theme, how some possessions lead to many possessions, in the March 10 New York Times.

The observances too are five:

“From purity arise disgust for one’s own limbs and noncontact with others.” (40) I would like this sutra to have been phrased otherwise, more positively. But before we rush to a hymn in praise of the special Christian affirmation of the world, think for a moment of the value of this close up look at how dangerous and dirty our bodies and world are — after all, we all die in the end — and how paying attention entirely will deromanticize what we see when we look in the mirror. Other days, sure, we can praise the beauty of the world around us and love what the Incarnation says about this world, but today this observance invites us to see the dirty and dark side of life.

“From contentment, the unsurpassed obtaining of satisfaction.” (42) Enough is enough, after all, and craving is never satisfied. Again, that yogi Jesus seems to have gotten the point: “‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6.34)

The last three observances we saw at the start of the Second Book of the Sutras and in my first blog in this series, and so we can abbreviate here:

“From austerity, from the destruction of impurity, there is perfection of body and senses.” (43) This is oddly out of place, it would seem — didn’t we handle purity above? — but perhaps that is the point: if we learn to see ourselves with a terrible honesty, and then a courageous contentment, we then can afford to be austere: not because we think that grim asceticism will make us better, but because “less is more,” “small is beautiful,” and what I’ve already received is enough for a lifetime: austerity not as “giving up,” but as intensifying, focusing, making best out of the opportunities and bodies we happen to have right now.

“From personal study, close connection with one’s chosen deity.” (44) This may have various meanings in Patanjali’s world, but the easiest meaning seems so very helpful to us: study the scriptures, devote yourself to the lectio divina, allow the words to come alive in your imaginations, and you will find God as you seek God. (For Lent: study the Song of Songs.)

“From dedication to the lord, perfection in deep inwardness.” (45) It should surprise no Christian that in turning to God we find what we seek; is not Lent simply about that return to the Lord so movingly exemplified in the Gospel for the fourth Sunday of Lent, that of the Prodigal Son? Yes, Lent is the time to return to God.

But Patanjali is advising us, by putting this tenth and not first, that there is a lot of pious rhetoric (in the Church too, I would add) that makes it seem that talking a lot - about God and feeling superior because our God is the Best God - is somehow the same as receiving a spiritual identity. Patanjali in a sense urges us to delay turning to God, talking to God: rebalance your life, put it back in order, and later on, when you’ve cleaned up and cooled down, talk about God again. Again, the master speaks: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you? I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, hears my words, and acts on them” (Luke 6.46-47) and “‘Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7.27)

Lent is more than half over. But it takes no time to get started on our Lenten yoga, seeking first God's kingdom - and knowing with detachment what that means.

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