Saying “Yes” to Life: Yoga, Love, & Light

“By a Candle’s Light” – by akikorye on DeviantArt

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly . . .. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answers to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual. – Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning” (1946)

2017 has been a brutal year for many of us. Recently, I’ve found myself drawn to the work of those who have reflected deeply on human suffering, and found ways to navigate a course through it to love and light, to a renewed faith in their deepest knowing and a rekindled commitment to the goodness of their world.

I just recently finished reading Viktor Frankl’s classic Man’s Search for Meaning, from which the above quote is drawn. Its original German title was Trotzdem Ja Zum Leben Sagen: Ein Psychologe erlebt das Konzentrationslager, which translates as: Say “Yes” to Life: A Psychologist Experiences the Concentration Camp.

Frankl was an accomplished Austrian doctor, psychologist, and scholar who worked with suicidal women and impoverished youth. He was writing a book on the centrality of meaning in human life when the Nazis seized him, his pregnant wife, and his aging parents. They were first sent to a Jewish ghetto north of Prague, where his father died of exhaustion. Then they were sent to Auschwitz. After being liberated by U.S. troops in 1945, Frankl learned that his mother, brother, wife, and unborn child had not survived.

In 1946, Frankl published Say “Yes” to Life, which recounted his experience in the concentration camps and explained how his commitment to finding meaning in life had deepened during that unimaginably horrific time. He wrote the entire book in nine days.

Frankl passed away in 1997. By that time, Man’s Search for Meaning had sold over 10 million copies and had been translated into 24 languages.

 

Say “Yes” to Life

Way back when I was a teenager, I read and re-read Lennon Remembers, a book of interviews with John Lennon conducted by Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner. Although I was too young to have experienced Beatlemania first hand, I was fascinated by John Lennon. In only 10 years (1960-70), he had evolved from being a punk kid playing seedy clubs in Cold War Berlin, to a world famous “mop top” Fab Four-ster, to a psychedelic leader of “Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” to a solo artist who wrote powerfully raw songs like “Working Class Hero” and “God.”

I’ve remembered the following anecdote from Lennon Remembers ever since I first read it at 15. Here, Lennon recounts how he first met and fell in love with Yoko Ono while he was in London, checking out the then-burgeoning underground art scene:

I got the word that this amazing woman was putting on a show the next week, something about people in bags, in black bags, and it was going to be a bit of a happening and all that. So I went to a preview the night before it opened. I went in – she didn’t know who I was or anything – and I was wandering around . . . There was an apple on sale there for two hundred quid; I thought it was fantastic – I got the humor in her work immediately.

. . . But there was another piece that really decided me for-or-against the artist: a ladder which led to a painting which was hung on the ceiling. It looked like a black canvas with a chain with a spyglass hanging on the end of it. This was near the door when you went in. I climbed the ladder, you look through the spyglass and in tiny little letters it says ‘yes.’ So it was positive. I felt relieved. It’s a great relief when you get up the ladder and you look through the spyglass and it doesn’t say ‘no’ or ‘fuck you’ or something, it said ‘yes.’

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was deeply unhappy as a teenager. Back then, I didn’t have a clue why this story felt so important to me. I just knew that it did.

This image of climbing up on a ladder and expecting something edgy and most likely disturbing, but really not knowing at all what you might see, and then looking through a telescope on a chain and seeing only the word “yes” . . . it moved me. It was some sort of touchstone; a pop culture incarnation of the sort of mythology that used to guide people towards finding meaning in life.

 

Yoga as Connection

 Yoga has been central both to my everyday life and deeper processes of spiritual exploration for many years now. So, when I read something like Frankl’s insight that “it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way . . . No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response,” I immediately connect it with what I’ve learned through practicing yoga.

I think of “burning off Karma” and developing the capacity to act in the world in what the Yoga Sutra calls a “colorless” way. Or of Karma Yoga more generally: Practicing right action in response to whatever the world presents and your Dharma asks of you, and letting go of ego-driven expectations and demands.

A Buddhist teacher who’s not engaged in today’s yoga world but is curious about it recently asked me how I personally understand yoga. Often, this is the sort of question that launches me into a long explanation of how I’ve come to think of yoga in ways that are different from what we normally do today . . . that it’s really much more than stretching, and so on and so forth.

But perhaps because I knew that was someone who didn’t need all the preliminaries, and was ready for a deeper answer, I surprised myself by spontaneously answering: “To me, yoga is about connection: Connecting to my deeper self, to others, to the world, and to that which is greater than all that in ways that feel deeply meaningful to me.”

She said, “hmmmm,” and seemed satisfied. I thought, “wow, that really is how I think about it, and it’s so simple . . . yet, I was never able to state it so clearly before.” That seemed sort of strange. But it felt right, nonetheless.

 

Yoga Culture in Crisis

Meanwhile, North American yoga culture is in the midst of what I could call a full-blown Kuhnian “paradigm crisis.” What were only recently widely taken-for-granted ways of understanding the practice have broken down. Among more serious students and experienced teachers, this process has sparked a lot of serious, and often painful and contentious questioning.

It’s not news to anyone who’s followed these developments for the past few years that the most challenging issues center around the fact that so many prominent teachers abused their power and hurt students who had placed their faith and trust in them. The list of notorious cases has grown long. Some are horrific.

Even for those of us who never came anywhere near the worst cases, learning about them can be deeply disturbing. More than once, after reading about some terrible events that I’d previously been happily unaware of, I’ve felt so repulsed that I started questioning whether I should continue to have anything to do with yoga at all. The whole scene can feel so embarrassingly, even shamefully polluted and wrong.

For me, such moments have passed relatively quickly and easily. That’s no particular credit to me, as I haven’t had any yoga-related traumas to process. I’ve been through some disillusioning experiences with a few of my former yoga teachers, to be sure. But nothing ever rose anywhere near the level of headline-worthy abuse.

Plus, I’ve reminded myself that most human organizations and cultures generate similar problems. The dynamics are particularly parallel in politics and religion, which often involve similarly volatile mixes of idealism and aspiration, on the one hand, and power and empire-building, on the other.

But that’s me. What about the countless others who’ve been directly involved with some of the worst aspects of yoga culture? How can they heal? What is the best way forward?

I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. But I do believe that the question of how best to respond to the inevitable suffering that life brings us is a timeless and universal one.

 

Love and Light

A lot of people in the yoga world and beyond have more than had it with sunny affirmations of “love and light.” This is totally understandable. Such stock phrases easily become empty platitudes. Even worse, they are often used to shut down needed critiques, and silence and shame those who want and need to voice them.

Yet at the end of the day, what better words are there to point toward the lived experience of connecting with a sense of deep inner peace and profound goodness, of a meaningful knowing that goes beyond words and concepts? Carl Jung called it “the numinous,” but that seems too fancy for everyday use.

Why not keep it simple? Say “yes” to life. Affirm love and light. What this means concretely varies from person to person, moment to moment.

What’s important to know is that healing is possible. Renewal is possible. People like Viktor Frankl show us that the human spirit can be infinitely resilient.

Like the mythological Phoenix, we can burn down to ashes and still tap a mysterious force that eventually enables us to regenerate, and fly again.

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.  Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Bluejay, Cyanocitta cristata, flying through the trees by Mother-Daughter Press

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