This article was originally published in America: The National Catholic Review on August 8, 2008. Reprinted here with permission from the author.
Cambridge, MA. It is already nearly the middle of August, and soon the new academic year will be upon us. So it is time to finish the four-part series I began in May, based on my spring seminar at Harvard, on Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras, studied carefully but also read in light of Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. (Ardent readers can scroll down through past entries here to find the three earlier parts of the series, the recommended translations, etc.) The final question I wish to address has to do with the end of the two texts: if a person practices yoga as understood by Patañjali, or meditation as taught by Ignatius, and if she or he reaches a fairly advanced state (by effort, by grace) — then what kind of person is this, and how does she or he live? Do Ignatius and Patañjali produce very different kinds of persons?
From two perspectives, the answer is relatively easy. First, if we step away from the practices actually recommended by Ignatius and Patañjali and think about Christian theology and Yogic theology (often allied with some Hindu tradition, or Buddhist) as general worldviews, we can quickly conclude to difference: since these Jesuit and yogic practices did not begin in the same place, and are clearly about different things, they could not possibly end in the same place. So, for better or worse, a person who practices yoga should in the end be very different from a person who lives by the Exercises. A variant on this judgment-from-principle would be to conclude that since all religions flow toward the same goal, then all credible spiritual paths, such as those announced here, must form persons with the same higher moral and spiritual values. Second, though, we could just as easily conclude that almost no one, perhaps no one at all, is in a position to decide whether yogic and Ignatian practices form persons very much alike or very different: any person wishing to offer an intelligent view of the matter would have to have wholeheartedly given herself to that practice and the world it entails, over a long period of time. But no one, this theory goes, actually does this with twotraditions, and so none of us really has the insight on the basis of which to make such a decision. So the question of where these practices end up could never be answered.
I take such views seriously, and do not wish to dismiss the value of deeply rooted beliefs in how things are, or ought to be. But I do wish to suggest, in light of the plea I have made that we read the texts and study what the authors are telling us, that it may be that the Yoga Sutras and the Exercises leave us with open possibilities that practitioners of both traditions can welcome, theological differences aside.
At the end of the Exercises, Ignatius proposes to us a “contemplation to gain love,” which asks us to see the world as encompassed by God’s love. He tells the retreatant “to ask for interior knowledge of so great good received, in order that being entirely grateful, I may be able in all to love and serve His Divine Majesty.” (Mullan translation) In turn, then, the retreatant is guided to remember what God has done for her personally and in creation, to see how God dwells in all created things, how God works for us in all the things that comprise our world, and to see how everything descends into our world as a gift from God. In each of these four moments, Ignatius indicates that the retreatant should then offer herself to God in turn, with the well-known words, “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my intellect, and all my will—all that I have and possess. Thou gavest it to me: to Thee, Lord, I return it! All is Thine, dispose of it according to all Thy will. Give me Thy love and grace, for this is enough for me.” By tradition and in the experience of many, this offering is followed by a return to the world, to see God in all things, and to walk with Jesus in a life of service to our fellow sisters and brothers.
Patañjali’s Sutras, even more laconic than the Exercises, end with verses that have challenged interpreters for millennia. I give them here without footnotes, and in a slightly loose rendering that makes them a bit clearer than is the Sanskrit by itself: “For the person who no longer has interest even in clarity in meditation, there is true discernment, whence arrives the cloud of dharma that is samadhi. With that, both affliction and karmic results cease. And then, because there is infinite knowledge free from the impurity that covers all things, what still remains unknown is but a trifle. The constituents of matter have now fulfilled their purpose, and so their evolutions are done. This inverse flow of the constituents (to a steady-state condition), without any further purpose for the individual, is utter simplicity — steadfastness in one’s own self, with the power that is being-conscious.” (Sutras 4.29-34)
This is, to be sure, a very dense statement — that in many ways remains unclear to me too. But aspects stand out: advanced in yoga, this person is no longer attached even to meditation; with a clear eye, she or he sees the world as it is, and the integral state that has been sought (samadhi) comes of its own, like the gift of rain; all things are washed clean, and everything, as it were, is seen and known just as it is. Nature’s constituent elements are no longer in flux or turmoil, and so material things are no longer purposeful for this practitioner, who has everything, needs nothing. Her state is then “utter simplicity” (my latest effort to translate kaivalya), the true appropriation of self, a total awareness, consciousness.
But what does this person do at this point? One view might be that she does nothing, cares for nothing, since nothing more is needed, all that needs to be known is known, and both body and soul are at peace — no contacts, no goals, no relations. But to be a person who sees the world as a whole, as it were as God sees it, who has received all by grace, who acts only in utter freedom — such a state could actually describe both this yogic practitioner and Ignatius’ ideal retreatant: detached, free, at peace, acting without need.
But surely, one might object: Ignatius’ retreatant does not have complete awareness; Patañjali’s practitioner does not act out of love. Surely different states! This may be so, I do not dismiss the possibility. Or, the problem may be rather that since the Ignatian and yogic vocabularies are rightly and genuinely rooted in specific traditions, each fails to do just to what the other tradition is about, in its positive reality. It may be unfair to characterize the retreatant as deficient in awareness, or the practitioner as lacking in love. I suggest that we err on the side of generosity, and allow that these individuals, at this advanced stage, might recognize and welcome one another — integral persons, selfless, at peace, approaching the world without wanting something, with eyes open, in touch with Reality. Perhaps the two ideals might complement each other, as the Ignatian ideal infuses yoga with a language of love, and Patañjali’s ideal infuses the Exerciseswith a fuller sense of the utter simplicity and freedom of seeing the world serenely, all at once. (And still, a simpler possibility remains: yoga can teach a practitioner of the Exercises how to give herself in love more serenely and freely, while the Exercises can teach yoga practitioners how to imagine a person, the Person, in whom the world reaches peace and becomes a gift again.)
Were all this the case, at least possibly so, we could imagine a more constructive and friendly conversation — speaking together, practicing together, studying together — among those who have inculcated the Ignatian ideal and those who live yogic simplicity. This would not be a way to prove which view of the world is better, and the competition of religions might have to stop for a moment — but it might make for a better world.
I conclude here this set of reflections on yoga and the Exercises, my excursion into “Jesuit yoga.” I really do welcome the input of readers, regarding what I’ve written, or (even better) from your own experience of how these traditions do or don’t come together, in the end. Please comment!