Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Off the Mat -- Oughts

As I’ve been thinking the past several weeks about the Yoga-Sutra’s recitation of the yamas – the ethical principles for interacting with others – I find myself remembering a statement by a psychiatrist I was almost acquainted with: “I don’t do oughts.”

When my family first moved to our neighborhood, we began attending a church there. Shortly before we arrived, a member of the congregation had died, a psychiatrist I wish I’d had a chance to meet. But his influence was far from gone. Mormons – like members of other faiths – tend to get bound up in ideas of right and wrong, good and bad, righteousness and wickedness. That tendency sometimes manifests as lots and lots of “oughts”: We “ought” to love our neighbors. We “ought” to pray. We “ought” to support charities. We “ought” to…

Once you get started with such a list, stopping is nearly impossible.

So one day at church, I found myself in a discussion with another member of the congregation about various responsibilities we had, and he reported that Gary (the recently deceased psychiatrist) had responded to such situations by announcing that “I don’t do ‘oughts.’” Though I can’t for the life of me remember what specific responsibilities we were discussing, I remember very clearly that statement. It was an approach that contrasted sharply with the culture I thought I’d been raised in, and with my own mindset at the time.

While my views on many things have changed over the past fifteen years or so, Gary’s statement, “I don’t do ‘oughts,’” has stayed with me and continued to grow in significance.

As we think about the yamas, it is very easy – for me, at any rate – to fall back into the usual ought way of thinking: “I ought to tell the truth,” “I ought to avoid causing harm to other sentient beings,” “I ought to avoid taking things not offered to me.”

You get the picture.

But all of those thoughts depend pretty heavily on notions of self and judgment and – here’s the interesting part – I think they also depend a little bit on harming. Not flashy and dramatic violence of the Quentin Tarantino sort, but harming, nonetheless – forcing something to fit a pattern that it might not yet fit. Spiritually, that can be as painful as trying to force myself to fit into Lotus Pose before I’m ready to fit into Lotus Pose.

So with that in mind, I’m beginning to think of the yamas more like maps, than like “oughts.” An “ought” is the imposition of judgment with all the elements of disapproval and aspiration and striving and failure implied in that process. A map, on the other hand, just shows the way to a particular place. The Yoga-Sutra’s yamas are just maps to particular experiences. They show paths we can walk to make the journey easier, if we’re interested in traveling. They show us the obstacles between ourselves and those other places. They don't tell us whether we should go down the path, but they show the way if we decide to do so.

For me, at any rate, that’s a profoundly different way of thinking than “I ought to move further down the path of non-harming.” The pure seeing that yoga fosters is nearly the opposite of imposing judgment. The two practices don’t mesh very well at all.

Mary Oliver, an amazing poet, wrote the following, which expresses the idea better than I can:

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver. Online Source

Finally, this morning, I listened to a podcast of a dharma talk by a favorite Zen teacher. He talked of setting aside ideals of what we should or “ought” to be, and thinking of various ethical or behavioral instructions as practices that remove obstacles that otherwise would inhibit or distort our natural growth.

So long as obstacles to growth are removed, acorns grow into oak trees, all without oughts.

In thinking about the yamas we’ve already discussed, as well as those we’ll discuss in the future, it might be useful to think of them less as “oughts” and more as practices, maps around obstacles to our growth.

Your thoughts?