The following words are a response to a five month course taken with Shôken Michael Stone on the five yamas, (or situational ethics), of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:. Identified by Patanjali but translated in myriad ways and existing layers of subtlety, those ethical precepts are known as: ahimsa, non-harming; satya, honesty; asteya, non-stealing; brahmacharya, the wise use of sexual energy; and, aparigraha, non-greed, or generosity. Here I relate satya, or honesty, to the following words of Stephen Batchlor on the nature of intimacy.
"In letting someone else into your life, you open to the risk of being astonished. For intimacy to remain alive, the other must remain a mystery for you. To know someone intimately is to embody the unknown. ...Over time, you tend to enclose the other within limits that define them according to your own needs and desires."
~ Stephen Batchelor in Living with the Devil
How intimately my relationship with myself seems to mirror my relationship with the world. The knotting and unknotting I experience in my body and mind in meditation often takes on the same colours and contours as the tangling and untangling that occurs when I step away from formal practice and into relationships. Embracing what is unknown within and with others requires real courage: the courage to let go of my desire to have a name for experience, the courage to relax of my categories of the world, the courage to loosen my pursuit of a rigidly defined, and therefore limited, meaning for my life. The path I’m on almost necessitates I drop my definitions of what it means to be spiritual. To know myself and to know others, as Stephen Batchelor intimates, involves a kind of comfort in not knowing, in not defining, in releasing a perspective so rigidly held that it risks suffocating the breathing of the world. If I am honest with myself, if I am practicing the second yama, satya, I accept of what is arising in my mind, and with that, what is arising in the world. Not all that arises in my mind feels holy. Not everything experienced in the world feels comforting. Spiritual life may not always look how I’d like it to appear. It takes courage to embrace the world anyway.
One of the greatest hindrances in my meditation practice, (and with that it may equally act as a hindrance in relationships), has been a tendency towards judgment. I have noticed I how quickly I am to edit thoughts, feelings and impressions that arise in my mind. “This is me; this is not me. This should be here; this shouldn’t.” The more agitated I am, the greater the tendency of my mind to filter the world unremittingly according to its preferences and aversions. Practicing a deeper honesty with what is arising, relaxing in the world in a space non-judgment, I have begun to notice the vast and shameful amounts of time I spend maintaining whatever image it is I wish to present to the world, the face I wish to project onto a relationship, (or have reflected to me), and the anxiety I feel when the image I wish to uphold disintegrates. I’ve also begun to notice the intense fear at times, perhaps unconscious, of what might happen were I to stop editing the feelings, associations and thoughts arising. What would happen if I gave up my preferences and aversions? Who would I become if I stopped pushing away undesirable states of mind, uncomfortable emotions, and painful experiences? Would the pain and discomfort overwhelm me? Would undesirable thoughts define me? Would the hurt last forever? Would accepting what is unwelcome be the death of whoever it is I think I am?
Honesty with what is arising exposes me to myself in a stark nakedness, myself in all my incomprehensibility, myself in all my shadows and hidden places drawn out in the experience of living. An ocean is exposed to the shore of the breath, the depths of which at times seem unbearable. As much as the depth of the world astonishes me in its beauty at times, quite often I fear it. More than I’d like to admit, I fear my own vastness just as I fear the vastness of the other. That fear propels me to name what it is I am and what it is I am not, what the other is and what he is not. It creates a safety net around experiences. But the same net entangles an experience. Grasped and pulled, the net suffocates me from experiencing the other, the other from experiencing the real me, the world from experiencing itself. It hinders real intimacy. Life stops breathing.
The same holds true in sitting practice. The sound of a neighbour’s television spills into my room; the noise of a lorry rattles my thoughts. My mind pushes the sounds away, “I am not that noise,” it insists. When the television fades and the lorry passes, quietude returns; the scent of jasmine dissipates in the room. Relief replaces disruption. I feel comfortable again in my now relaxing experience of what is called meditation, and I judge this stillness as somehow more “spiritual” in the flow of time. In rejecting the noise as an interruption and embracing the absence of noise as spiritual, I am practicing a kind of dishonesty; I am living according to preferences and aversions rather than openness and acceptance of what is. I am choosing from the flow of time what is divine and what is profane. I am eliminating the possibility that the noise and dust are a real part of my experience on this earth, and it may be just as holy as the incense and the quietude.
Taking the next step into the world, I find myself practicing the same editing: rejecting, defining, eliminating and projecting what is desirable and undesirable in life as I experience it. I unconsciously throw nets over the world, over experiences, over myself and over others. Whilst there are times for stories, times for definitions, times for making choices based on what is best for my path, the practice of being in the world honestly asks me to be aware of how I am discriminating and for what purposes. Just as I practice mindfulness of breathing on the meditation cushion, can I practice mindfulness of what is happening in my mind and body when I am off the cushion? When I encounter others, am I judging them? Am I approaching the world without expectation of what it should be for me? How is my body positioned towards life? What are my shoulders expressing? Are they acting as a shield? Do I allow space for other people to be themselves? If I have known someone for some time, can I notice and soften around my definitions of him? Is there space for surprises, room for astonishment? Or am I holding onto resentment of past wounds, or a category of who he is for me, thereby limiting the experience of the person in the moment?
It seems so much of human behaviour actively rejects the openness Stephen Batchelor speaks of. The natural world, including the stars, is defined and categorized for human purposes. Animals are controlled and manipulated for human pleasure. To the extent that I fear intimacy with what is unnamable, I will do the same with the people in my life. I name and categorize mental states, social positions, and personality types. I often speak of wanting to be in company likeminded people, which may at times have its value, but that preference can often come at the expense of being open to experiencing a diversity of people and parts of myself yet unknown. Can I be open and loving towards someone who is not “likeminded”? And if a person is likeminded, or I have “known” him for some time, does my perspective of him act as a net on his freedom to be himself?
Not so long ago, I experienced the ending of a relationship with someone with whom I had felt quite close. It was confusing for me. At times my own longing for intimacy felt fulfilled in a way it hadn’t before; at other times, that experience seemed contingent on factors outside my control. I tell the story with some hesitation, for it feels like as I articulate what happened that I am grasping for reasons and explanations in order to hold it. Although contact with this person ended months ago, I find myself still telling and retelling the narrative as if to complete it, bind it into a framework that I can handle safely within my hands without getting burnt. I notice how I perhaps did the same during the relationship, especially towards the end, and I wonder if my need for certainty that he was there for me, my need for definitions and knowledge of outcomes in part suffocated the possibility of true intimacy. I look for answers as I contemplate regrets; I wonder what I could have done better. I chide in the other felt acts of betrayal. The emotions still confuse me, and when they come up on the cushion and into the world, I notice a tendency to edit, reject, push away and cower at their enormity. In doing so, I fear I continue to push away the intimacy for which I most long; I fear in my confusion I may cower from opening with another in the same way. Am I rejecting life in all its messy vastness? Am I seeking a safety net in a diminished exposure to my own feelings? Am I awaiting in fear as I hover over the depths of my own heart exposed to the cold and sway and the thrashing unpredictable tides of that ocean?
Perhaps the first step in managing the fear of the unknown is to take things back to basics, to integrate mindfulness more often in daily experiences, to open up to intimacy with life as it arises. In the chaotic, nauseating crowd of London’s underground rush hour traffic, can I stop rejecting what is, or at least notice the impulses of my aversion? Can I see this mess as holy? In the familiar walk through the leafy abandoned railway track, can I walk with my head raised and remain silent rather than be lost in my thoughts? In the routine stop for a coffee at the café around the corner, can I greet the attendant without expectations of her, or at least notice when expectations arise? When and where am I judging? How and why am I grasping? For what, in all of this, am I in need? How often am I trying to fit the experiences of the world into my own manageable narrative? Am I editing what I hear from a loved one so to believe in my own desired outcome? The more time I take to notice, the more editing, rejecting, refining and defining I see taking place in my mind. It happens so often, that I am embarrassed to say it nearly feels habitual at levels of subtlety.
That said, habits, even unconscious ones, with conscious effort, change. It seems my mind operates in layers. The deeper I go in the subtlety of non-judgment, openness, spaciousness of perception, the more profound the changes shift the tight places inside.