President’s Message: Is It All About the Finger?
published in the Autumn 2017 Yoga Bridge
by David McAmmond, YAA President
Confusing the messenger with the message is as old as the Buddha.
“It is like the finger pointing to the moon … ” This metaphor can be found in the Shurangama Sutra referring to the occasion when the Buddha wanted to emphasize the difference between these concepts to his cousin Ananda.
Because the pointing finger is so obvious and useful for many things other than directing our attention in the right direction, it is easy to make the mistake of staying focused on it — the messenger — rather than on the object we are pursuing — the moon or “message”.
Following the same metaphor, yogic techniques, philosophies and rituals are the messengers pointing towards our consciousness or the “True Self.” Often, just as with “the finger pointing to the moon,” we get confused, lose sight and stop short of continuing the search for the “message.”
I did a web search on the benefits of yoga to see what people were looking at and got 43,800,000 references. Here are some typical titles for some of the pages found:
- “38 Health benefits of yoga”
- “8 Amazing Benefits of Doing Pranayama”
- “Scientific Benefits of Meditation – 76 things you might be missing out on”
All of the sites have great information about physical, mental and emotional health. But reference to the “True Self,” universal consciousness or liberation, the original reason for doing the practices, is strikingly absent.
It is true that concepts like the “True Self,” fundamental reality, universal consciousness or liberation are rather obscure and not common in our culture. For the most part, we don’t even know what they mean and therefore why would they be something we might want to pursue?
As a Wikipedia search amply illustrates:
While there is agreement that there must be some fundamental reality, there is disagreement as to what exactly that might be. For example, some theist philosophers argue that the most real being is a personal God. Some pantheist philosophers argue that the most real being is an impersonal existence, such as reality or awareness. Others (such as perennial philosophers) argue that various similar terms and concepts designate the same Absolute entity. Atheist, agnostic and scientific pantheist philosophers might argue that some mathematical property or natural law, such as gravity or simply nature itself, is the most real being.
For complete references, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Absolute_(philosophy).
Perhaps the concepts will be less confusing if we direct our attention to the yogic viewpoint. Various practices such as āsana, meditation or prānāyāma may be associated with “mystical experiences.” To explain such experiences, a philosophy was developed.
An accepted view at the time of Patañjali considered the world as made up of two realities whose interaction formed the foundation of the entire universe. There was a material reality referred to as prakrti and an underlying non-material reality or purusa. According to this philosophy, purusa is the source of consciousness and life itself. It was by dissolving oneself through spiritual practice into purusa that liberation – the freedom from the wheel of birth and death – was obtained.
Patañjali’s definition of yoga “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha” (Sutra I.2) alludes to stilling the prakrti mind to enable the mystical realization of the “True Self” or purusa to be experienced.
There is a pathway that Patañjali outlines for such realization: It is the practice of an eightfold path yama, niyama, āsana, prānāyāma, pratyāhāra, dhāranā, dhyāna and samādhi. Returning to the definition given in Sutra I.2, the first seven limbs are not actually yoga per se, according to Patañjali. Rather, they are a preparation or perhaps “fingers” pointing to “Yogas chitta vritti nirodha,” the stillness of the mind where purusa and liberation would eventually be realized.
It may be useful to consider these ideas as we continue our practices, enjoying the tremendous benefits they offer us, but remembering to explore further, looking beyond the fingers to catch sight of the moon.
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