Friday, October 25, 2013

Yoga and the Quest for the True Self / Stephen Cope -- N.Y.: Bantam Books, 1999

Stephen Cope's book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self is a combination of memoir and an account of Cope's understanding of the essence of yoga, particularly the form of yoga that he experienced in his ten-year residence at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health.  The result is an idiosyncratic interpretation of yoga, shaped by Cope's history as a psychotherapist.  On the whole, the work is well-written, presenting composites of characters from his years as a therapist and yoga practitioner. 

Cope decided to take up residence at the Kripalu Center for a one year "sabbatical" shortly after his partner of fifteen years left him for a very much younger man.  It appears his own motivation was less spiritual and more psychotherapeutic.  Consequently, it is no surprise that he interprets yogic practice (his own and others) as a means to deal with personal psychological turmoil.  It is only at the end of the book that he gives any indication that the "true self" for which he is searching is without the empirical characteristics that are the objects of psychotherapy.

Much of the book describes various residents and visitors at the Kripalu Center and the psychological motives behind their yogic practice.  Cope at least initially presents yoga to be the effort to recall the self from exile and create a "royal road home."  Search for the "true self" often means coming to terms with unconscious motivations and psychic states that make one's life painful, unfulfilling, inauthentic, or simply lacking in some respect.  Among the insights that Cope finds helpful is that one's mind and body are importantly connected.  The practice of yoga allowed Cope to understand that his false constructions of his identity were reflected in how he experienced his body.  He often makes much of how yoga practitioners will find a pain or tension in some specific part of the body and draw the conclusion that it is there because of some mental or psychological unease.  Undoubtedly, there are connections between ones mental states and physical states, but the connections that Cope often asserts seem highly speculative.

Cope admirably recognizes that one should approach claims made by yogis with not only an open mind, but also with a skeptical mind, and true to a pragmatic approach to psychotherapy (and spiritual liberation), whatever succeeds for the practitioner/patient should not be denigrated; however, for anyone steeped in 20th century scientific realism or pretty much any moderately exacting criterion for the justification of beliefs, much of what is "successful" seems a bit like so much snake oil.  It's great if a placebo works, but if it involves accepting unfalsifiable claims about the empirical world, it's hard not to listen to one's skeptic mind.

Toward the end of the book, Cope provides an account of a crisis within the Kripalu Center, when the Center's spiritual leader is discovered to have been having sexual relations with some of its residents.  Cope's account of the explosive anger among the residents indicates that the submissive guru-follower relationship that often characterizes spiritual seekers could not contain the individualist, egalitarian, and free-thinking attitudes among the Center's residents and visitors.

By the end of the book, Cope comes to resolve for himself a question that he raises throughout the book.  In the face of the trials and tribulation of the world, how can the assertion by his guru that "everything is OK" be correct.  The answer comes from Cope's realization that his true self is not the empirical self that experiences trials and tribulations. It is an eternal self that embraces all the universe, or at least all consciousness.  He writes, "For several sublime moments, the boundaries that separated us [Cohen and his friends], our complicated personalities, our struggles, our tragedies, all receded into the stillness of Lake Mahkeenac.  We were together on the ladder, in the meditation hall, on the mountaintop.  We were young.  We were old.  We were successful.  We were failures.  We were at the end of our lives.  We were at the beginning of our lives. And everything was absolutely OK....In the shimmering stillness, the world of space and time became transparent, revealing a hidden world in which we were all parts of one another."  It is this identification with a transcendental self that is different from, or at least indifferent to, the self that suffers the trials and tribulation of the empirical world that offers spiritual liberation and one is pleased that Cope appears to have reached beyond his fixation with psychotherapy to understand this.

Yoga and Quest for the True Self concludes with an informative appendix on the "metaphysics of yoga" which describes a number of important ideas in various schools of the Indian philosophical tradition.  Many of these ideas are divergent, even contradictory.  Consequently, Cohen calls it a "stew."  According to Cohen, the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health synthesizes many of the elements of the stew.  He notes, however, that it is heavily influenced by the nondualism of the Vedanta and Tantric traditions, the eight-limbed path of Patanjali, and hatha yoga techniques, a raja yoga context.  Most of all, Cohen is impressed with the idea of the "sacredness of the moment."

In all, Yoga and Quest for the Ture Self is a worthwhile account of one man's experience with yoga, but the reader will need to have a high tolerance for reading about the psychological trials of Cohen's characters, not all of whom are well enough drawn to earn one's sympathy and sustain one's interest.

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