Yoga and Recovery: Parallel Paths to Waking Up (2nd Installment)

roses revised

In the last blog entry it was suggested that the twelve steps of recovery and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali parallel each other as spiritual systems.   Let’s keep looking at this idea.

First, both traditions understand that healing must take place on many levels, and both support healing by proceeding gradually, in very specific stages or steps.   Second, in both traditions the first level of healing is designed to stabilize the everyday mind.

I find it extremely interesting that novice Yogis and addict/alcoholics are prescribed essentially the same regimen in the initial stages of their journey.  And though I understand that there are important differences between the average Joe and the alcoholic, let’s be honest: have you observed misperception at work in your life? How many times have you made up your mind to do x only to end up doing y?  Or, have you ever been sure that he said x, but later found out that he did not?

Given that our senses can be fooled by the cheapest of magicians, we all surely have more in common than we might at first see.   And seeing it all differently  – – especially our selves and our behaviors – – is the point.  What is the state of mind that is common to both addict and average everyday human? How do the two traditions begin the initial process of mental clarification?

The First Level of Stability:

Duhkha-daurmanasyangam-ejayatva-svasa-prasvasa viksepa saha bhuvah

Pain (suffering, frustration), dejections, trembling inhalation and exhalation accompany the distractions.

Yoga Sutra I.31 

YS – 1:31 describes the symptoms of what we will call the everyday mind, a mind that is not steady enough to look beyond moment-to-moment concerns, and is therefore in need of clarity and contentment before moving to address deeper levels of healing.  As Patanjali observes, addicts don’t corner the market on these symptoms: we can all relate to times of prolonged frustration, feelings of abandonment, and the feeling that we can’t ‘catch our breath’ amidst the flow of unexamined emotional states – whether positive or negative.

To work with this kind of mind and cultivate a state that can sustain concentration, both traditions recommend that we begin learning about ourselves through the lens of relationship, and that we open to the possibility of receiving influences from something higher than us.

For alcoholics these two things begin at meetings, and with contemplation of the concept of a higher power.  For the Yogis, they unfold as the practice of specific emotional observances when meeting anyone else in any circumstance, and by the contemplation of Ishvara.  Let’s look at the two versions of the social encounter first, and the issue of relating to a higher power in the next installment.

Meeting one’s self in the other:

Maitri – karuna-muditopeksanam sukha-duhkha-punyapunya-visayanam bhavanatas citta-prasadanam

By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are non virtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.

Yoga Sutra I:33

There are parts of each of us that we cannot begin to see without the aid of something from the outside: we need mirrors, for instance, to see the backs of our heads and so on . . . it’s like this for everyone.  Taken in this context, sutra 33 says that we need others to help us see those parts of ourselves that we cannot see.

In the mirror of relationship, the yogi gets to see the best and worst of himself – – his happy, virtuous self, and his distressed, non-virtuous self – – and with each encounter, is asked to generate constructive attitudes as a response. When this is possible concentration is within his grasp and he can move on.

For the addict/alcoholic our mirror is the twelve-step meeting.  We enter into a room of people who on the surface appear very different and diverse, some of whom we’d normally never meet, if not for our addiction.  From the very beginning we are encouraged to leave our everyday mind at the door – – to not see in our usual way – – but rather to listen and recognize the similarities between everyone.

So in the mirror of relationship I learned: Sitting and listening to others at their best and happiest (usually the old-timers who glowed real serenity) allowed me to feel that happiness myself, and I came to believe it was possible for me too.  Sitting and listening quietly to those who were obviously incapable of being honest about their situation allowed me to experience and deeply feel all of the times that I had been less than virtuous. This was most humbling.

When it comes to speaking in a meeting, we quickly discover that no one is interested in the usual ‘public relations campaign’ we all unconsciously launch in order to be liked, accepted, or whatever.   Recovery people have an uncanny ability to spot bullshit.  So the only kind of speech accepted is that of truth – – no matter how difficult.

These two experiences – – clearly seeing myself in another, and being fully seen and accepted without the aid of my usual façade – – allowed for a moment of grace to enter: Before entering that room, I had felt decidedly non-virtuous, but after the mirror teaching I experienced true compassion for myself, as if I were worthy of it, even “virtuous”.

At this level of emotional stabilization, we can begin.





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