See part 1 here.
Yoga is a wonderful thing. Please disregard the fact I no longer practise it: that’s just my inertia. Soon I’ll get back to it, even if I have been saying that for 11 years – ever since the day, following lunch and a brace of stiff gin and tonics at an idyllic cottage in Wales, a group of us went out for a stroll. On a steep embankment above a stream, a rope hung from a bough. My first effort was poetry in motion. I flew through the air with the greatest of ease: looking delightedly down, at the outer limit of my arc, on a shale bedded stream twenty feet below.
It was the second go what done it. You had to leap to grab the rope and this time, flushed with success and the London Dry, and heedless of being nearer sixty than fifty, I misjudged. As in car accidents, what happened next had a balletic quality; an out-of-body experience in which I saw myself, in slo-mo, parting with rope and floating downwards. When normal time resumed I was lying on a bed of shale in a few inches of white-water, looking back up the bank at my friends. A few – too few if you ask me – wore expressions of grave anxiety. Others were in tears.
My face, the second set confided later, was a picture. In fact at least one of the fuckers snapped me as I lay dazed, wounded and wet. Our hostess, one of the gravely anxious faction – “you’re such a boy“, she’d told me as I leapt at the rope for my first and successful sally – had me take a hot bath. Later she applied soothing balm to the arms and boat race. Had it not been January, and I well wrapped, a lot more skin perforation would surely have ensued.
I thought I’d got away with the myriads of superficial cuts to said parts of the anatomy. It soon turned out I’d done something to a shoulder muscle; tiny, but with more syllables to its name than a Sri Lankan batsman. A vital cog, it took well over a year to heal, in part because I quickly abandoned the tedious physiotherapy exercises prescribed. I couldn’t continue at the gym, ditto yoga. By the time I’d mended I’d got a taste for indolence. I walk a lot these days, and of course there’s my kayak trips in summer, but that’s the extent of it. I don’t suppose I’m the first bloke to find it a lot easier to get out of the habit of exercise than to get back into it.
Still, I’ll be starting over tomorrow, you mark my words.
I spoke in part 1 of “the zealotry I unfailingly bring to bear on a new cause”. Yoga was a case in point. From first tentative steps in the autumn of 1991, to peak dedication in the late nineties, the time I gave up to it climbed steadily. Before I knew it I was rising at five-thirty for two and a half hours of the stretch-and-rubberise before breakfasting on fruit.1 I’d work my way through all the warrior poses, the backward bends, forward bends, twists, candlesticks, dog, corpse and cobra. And a bunch of other stuff I no longer remember.
Shit, I’d spend fifteen minutes on the headstand alone!
Most of this I’d be doing pretty badly. There’s a limit to how much you can pick up from books. I recall the horror of a yoga afficianado encountered in Barcelona – young, gorgeous and the first of a string of uptight prima donnas of both sexes whose paths I was to cross on the yoga scene – when she learned I was self taught. But I set aside my well honed instincts about a personality type known to me of old, took heed of her words and, back in Blighty, enrolled on a class.
The late BKS Iyengar, and doubtless others, spoke of yoga as meditation in action. This made sense. From the very beginning I’d experienced moments of profound stillness, of great inner calm; even of transcendence. I began to read: Gurdjieff and Krishnamurti, Osho, the Australian teacher Barry Long and the fourteenth century Christian mystic, Juliana of Norwich. All and a good few besides were grist to my fast accelerating mill.
What was so striking was a recurring theme, ringing down the centuries and millennia, of what we have come to call non-duality. In their different ways, and matching my fleeting experiences, all were saying – whatever else they saw fit to add or embellish – that All Is One.
And you are not who you think you are.
To those sceptical of these men and women, who dived so deep into the human experience, I’d say set aside whatever assumptions you may have – including those informed by the abuses too many of them are known to have perpetrated. Those we know most about were imperfect human beings, their most dangerous imperfection a belief they had transcended imperfection, but they were also truly remarkable, for better as well as for worse.
And those we know less about? Men to whose voices we have no direct access leave us reliant on third party, non contemporaneous accounts. These men, above all the deified Christ and the perfected Buddha, neither in any position to contest the point, have been scrubbed spotless to serve a whole raft of agendas, frequently conflictual and – see in this regard my post marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation – decidedly earthly.
But my focus was firmly on the first group, those men and women whose eloquence and, more fundamentally, literacy had – together with available technologies – allowed me to hear them at first hand, unmediated. For the first time in my life, I – a socialist since my teens, and for the past fifteen years a Marxist, which is to say a materialist – began to take seriously the notion of enlightenment in its Eastern as distinct from Cartesian sense.
This is as good a place as any to clear up an unfortunate misunderstanding. I’m still first and foremost a Marxist – which is to say, again, a materialist. Materialist is a dirty word in ‘spiritual’ circles, where it carries the same pejorative meaning – but in spades – it does in everyday life: the meaning well encapsulated in Mark: 8:36. For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?
The materialism of Marxism neither upholds nor counters that understanding, but runs parallel to it. An epistemological term rather than value judgment, Marx’s materialism (no need here to get into the dialectical part) is quite different to that targeted in Mark: 8:36. Yet it is scathing of a political economic system which must, less through human wickedness than its intrinsic laws of motion, reduce us, our yearnings for transcendence notwithstanding, to our roles in value production.2 Since Marx’s most famous words are usually encountered in truncated form, let me put some of the context back:
Religion is the sigh of the oppressed. The heart of a heartless world. The soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Why speak of heartlessness and soullessness if such things are childish fantasies? To be sure, Marx was for very good reasons an atheist. But only non Marxists and vulgar Marxists deny the ‘spiritual’ implications of this great thinker’s work. Marx’s fire was aimed at an inhumanity which denies our noblest aspirations even as those in high places, to quote from Leonard Cohen, say their prayers out loud.
(Spiritual – I don’t much care for the word. It has acquired too many insipid or downright daft connotations. That’s not the word’s fault, of course: just the clusters of meaning picked up along the way. Often, though not always, ‘spiritual’ can be replaced with ‘existential’. Meanwhile I give myself a degree of distance from the term by wrapping it in inverted commas.)
Marx’s materialism understands human society as driven at root by two self evident existential truths, and a third which has repeatedly proved its explanatory and predictive power. The first is that humans must engage with nature to produce, and daily reproduce, the material conditions of existence. The second is that unlike some species – pike, say, or tigers – we are ill equipped to do this alone. Confines of physiology and temperament oblige us to form social groupings.
The third is that the ways we come together to produce wealth, or as Marxists usually put it, the social relations of production, place an indelible stamp on every aspect of consciousness. They mark the outer limits of what is even imaginable.3 Those who would understand the past, the better to read the present and anticipate the future, do well to study the political-economic forces which shape and are shaped by the way wealth is produced. It’s fair to say that upwards of eighty percent of the posts on this site are more or less directly informed by this proposition.
This is the sense in which I am a materialist. I was one before I ever dreamed of taking up yoga, let alone meditation. And I still am one, almost two decades after leaving the ‘spiritual’ cult I’ll be speaking of in parts 3 and 4.
Meanwhile, it’s time I got back to wrapping up part 2.
I was beginning to practise meditation outside of the asanas of hatha yoga. For a while I found merit in a short book by Barry Long, with the simple and helpful title, Meditation. I’m not sure it was a lot of practical use as I sat dutifully cross-legged on the carpet, but it was an entertaining read. And I was still doing my 150 minutes a day – now further informed by a Monday evening class – of hatha yoga.
Always the junior parent, relative to my girls’ mother, I’d often pick them up from school or the houses of friends. Frances, the younger of the two, had a friend a few doors up from her mum’s, with whom she now lived full time. (The only longer chunks of time I had with the girls at this point were holiday outings and away-breaks.) It came to pass that one afternoon in the summer of 1994, I called at that house to collect that daughter. Exchanging pleasantries in the hallway with Dineke, the mother of Fran’s pal, my eyes fixed on a wall poster advertising a meditation retreat.
Our polite chat switched instantly to something more energised. When I left it was with my daughter, of course, but also two loaned items. One was a book written by a disillusioned but respectful former student of the Indian guru, Mother Meera.
The other was an audio cassette, a live ‘teaching’ by a New Yorker three years younger than me. This man, said Dineke, was the real deal. The cassette bore the title, Meditation is a Metaphor for Enlightenment.
The man it featured was one Andrew Cohen.
Continue to part 3.
* * *
- If I was having breakfast at all, that is. First Monday of the month I’d fast for thirty-six hours, eating nothing between Sunday evening and Tuesday lunchtime.
- Now is not the time to go into this but it’s worth noting, as a fact with momentous implications, that under capitalism wealth is produced in the form of [exchange] values realisable in markets which, more than any other force on earth – laws of physics excepted – shape our lives.
- One striking aspect of men and women who made great sacrifices – of family, career and much besides – to pursue a ‘spiritual path’ of piercing the veils of illusion is how thoroughly attached so many – not all but in my experience most – are to the largely unconscious illusions of bourgeois ideology, including the illusion that it is possible to be non political.
A million years ago, you pointed out to me that Marxism has nothing to say about personal contentment. I’ve spent the years since then ruminating about this. For which I’m grateful. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s no problem with embracing Marxism and some form of meditation.
Hi Doug – good to hear from you. I hope I wasn’t too lacking in nuance, the way I said that, a million years ago. It would be just like me if I was.
I believe one of the most renowned British Marxists, Terry Eagleton – academic, literary critic, scourge of postmodernism and much besides – is a Catholic. How reconcilable the two things are is a moot point. I doubt there are many points of agreement between me and the Witherspoon Institute, but its conclusion – that they can’t be squared – is likely one of them. Nevertheless, the wider point stands. Marx’s materialism is not at all antithetical to what I called our yearning for transcendance
Yeah. There is the physical, material life, in which we strive to obtain an equilibrium of the bodily needs of physical survival – food, shelter, health, sex, autonomy, ‘freedom’ etc. the intermediate needs of art, entertainment and so on, and the mental needs of the search for meaning, purpose, existential enquiry etc.
I don’t see any necessary conflict between Marxism for the former and (for example) Buddhism for the latter, and anything you choose for the in-between issues.
My youngest son, Joe, remembers the yoga years as he would sometimes stay over at yours with your youngest daughter Fran. I remember him being brought back home one following morning with what was evidently exciting news:
‘Dad, Phil can stand on his head for ages, but he has to take off his clothes to do it.’
Ha! There were occasions I did nude yoga. I’m sure I had a reason but I’m damned if I remember what it was.
Materialism elevates the practical, creative side of humanity – infused with and guided by ideas and theoretical understanding, but practical. The word “anticipation” in a Marxist sense carries the potential of human beings, in the form of those who have nothing to lose, to change the world and themselves. Religion, by its nature, alienates the active element to supernatural forces and to some form of afterlife or reincarnation. It may be the heart of a heartless world but it remains a delusion – nonsense but historically determined nonsense, the sigh of the oppressed but also in its developed form a weapon of oppression. We would not have heard of Christianity had it not been for the need of the Roman Empire to unite the subject peoples. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.”
Well I’m certainly not writing these posts to promote religion!
God forbid …..