5.25.2009

Wisdom Literature -- for Initiates only

Background: For the past couple of years, I've been drawn to a certain kind of literature that is -- for good reason -- taboo in respectable academic circles. It goes by some strange names: "esoterism," "wisdom literature," "for initiates," etc. Very undemocratic. Its the stuff that intentionally forgoes a universal audience in an effort to speak to those who have already had a certain kind of experience -- usually for the sake of reinforcing in this audience the significance of the event and encouraging a certain kind of ethical responsibility. Examples include the Gnostic gospels, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, some of Philip K. Dick's novels and essays, and like... Madame Blavatsky and stuff.

One thing appears and reappears in this literature, and it is the rhetorical assumption that the audience believes in, and has experienced already, a very particular kind of... ineffably "psychological" change. Or at least: that the audience believes in the possibility of such a transformation.


So take "enlightenment," for example. The Buddha takes for granted that his listeners either have experienced samadhi or that they believe it is possible for a human being to experience such a state.

Body: My sister-in-law wants to start a Yoga studio. And she told me something this weekend really interesting... she's studying to get certified under the tutelage of a certain yogi who has broken tradition quite a bit. "She's almost revolutionizing Yoga," my sis said.

For example, during "up-dog," this instructor likes to wiggle her shoulders in ways that are not prescribed by the ancient traditions of Yoga.

Two views:

1) Great, that sounds fun. Yoga needs an update anyway.

2) Well, that sounds fine -- but it doesn't sound like Yoga. Yoga is an ancient precise method for bringing about enlightenment and healing, and it activates the chakras in very specific ways by using techniques that have been perfected over the millenia. "Wiggle your shoulders" all you want -- that's good exercise. But it's not Yoga.
I certainly understand both arguments. My sister-in-law obviously sympathizes with the first view. I can see that. But I also wonder about the second view, the more "conservative" view.

It seems to me that anyone who believes in the possibility of enlightenment will tend toward view #2, and anyone who doesn't believe in anything called "enlightenment" will probably find view #1 exhilirating.

Synthesis & Conclusion:

All of this reminded me of our conversation last week about the purpose of the liberal arts. One bunch saying "Let's change it all -- there's no such thing as enlightenment; or if there is, this method isn't working anymore (and it hurts our shoulders anyway)." And the other person saying, "This method does work, and the part where it hurts your shoulders is part of the method. Stick to it!"

So when I asked my sister-in-law, "Yeah, but... then... what makes a given series of movements 'Yoga,' if not the accordance with prescribed Yogic tradition," and she replied, "Technically, if you're not breathing, it's not Yoga," and I thought to myself, "I'm always breathing," -- well, that was interesting. Because when I asked, "What's Yoga," I thought a lot was at stake. I'm not sure that question meant as much to her.

Incidentally (?): here's a picture of a pit-viper. I took this picture this weekend. I had seen a Carolina water snake about a month ago (pictured below), and I thought it was the same. It wasn't. The top one here is a copperhead -- not deadly, but painfully poisonous. The bottom one's harmless. Obviously, sometimes definitions are really important. But of course, I wouldn't have this picture if I knew my definitions. Hey, isn't a snake a classic figure for wisdom? Of course.

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