Giving Yoga A New Atheism
‘Atheism is just a way of clearing the space for better conversations.’ – Sam Harris (from this 2012 lecture)
When I asked my father one day while walking in lower Manhattan why he didn’t raise me with religion, his reply was succinct and direct: “Because I was raised with too much of it.” He was the victim of that mystifying yet common parental habit of sending children to church while relaxing at home—religion by proxy.
Yet we have to live religion by proxy: that’s the very nature of a metaphysical discourse in which disembodied spirits return to earth to watch over our every move. It’s easy to fetishize an idea that has absolutely no bearing in reality; we only need to look at the type of money that Hollywood films and the pornography industry brings in to recognize that humans like getting out of their lives, not facing them directly for what they are.
As Ernest Becker well understood, our denial of death is at the root of our ability to justify our irrationality or, stated differently, why our illusions are so comforting. If we can invent the notion that this life is merely a stepping stone into eternal well-being, sign us up.
My first job after college—OK, my second, but isn’t it mandatory that all 21-year-olds with a degree in Religious Studies work at the Olive Garden?—was reporting for a local newspaper in Central Jersey. My deskmate grew up vegetarian on an organic farm in the early ‘70s and ate McDonald’s every day for lunch, super-sized and all. My course was the reverse: the product of parents who worshipped the microwave, my diet consisted of Micro Magic hamburgers, Salisbury steak TV dinners and Ellio’s Pizza. I left college a vegetarian with an affinity for garam masala and curry pastes and have never looked back.
Perhaps it was this unintended reverse psychology that my parents thrust upon me at an early age which was the true catalyst for why I devoured religious texts at Rutgers. Not having a religion allows you to be pretty open to every one of them. Growing up, the only Jesus I needed to know about was possibly Jesús Vega, who played for the Twins. Later on I would come to respect Jesus Quintana, aka ‘The Jesus’ in The Big Lebowski, drawing parallels with the carpenter from Nazareth: both are made-up figures playing a supporting role in a much larger story. (The Coen brothers, as did biblical scribes, understood this. This long line of telephone ended when 18th century Protestants helped bolster their Jesus to international stardom.)
I learned more about religion watching movies that weren’t being played during LSD outings in the midnight courtyard of the Gardner Sage Library than I did sitting inside of that library studying what the cultural significance of Cyrus the Great conquering Phoenicia was because I was having a direct experience of transformation, not reading about it after the fact. Even at that young age I understood what I was engaging with had nothing to do with the ‘Woah I’m tripping, man’ mentality and everything to do with utilizing available tools to better acquaint myself with my mind.
The philosophy that won my heart, and thus my brain, was yoga. The idea that self-realization is a step-by-step process that depends on your ethics and morals more than anything else had a strong appeal. While I spent many years chasing the metaphysics—if I squeeze my asshole tight enough, one day I’ll fly!—it slowly became clear why the first and second steps of Patanjali’s yogic ladder were the yamas and niyamas, and why traditionally a person could not formally study yoga without getting those things in line first. Transcending the body is impossible if you don’t first learn how to operate it properly first.
Yet I have no interest in transcending this body. There will be a time when I leave it, which is another way of saying I’ll be checking out then. This insistence on the persistence of self points to a deeply engrained fear, not an illustrious knowledge of a secret unproven afterlife. If I want to ‘live my yoga’ as part of today’s world, I don’t need to labor over 2,000-year-old texts; I need to keep abreast of the latest findings in neuroscience and understand why my brain operates in the way that it does. Put another way: Instead of spending time contemplating what faith is, I can research why our brains create faith in the first place. The yogic quest for self-realization implies using the best resources available to us at the moment.
What if anything happens at the moment of death does not influence why I act the way I do today. Being present in this moment, however, does. Storing karma points like coupons for cash is too tough to keep track of anyway. Having a solid ethical and moral foundation—not stealing or sleeping with a friend’s wife, acting civil in public, accepting that others have a right to the same freedoms we enjoy—serves as a perfect light to navigate this world with. Why we need more can be filed with all the other esoteric mysteries that have no bearing on leading a compassionate and understanding existence.
Image: Craig Anthony Miller