Comfort With Ambiguity

Remember, you alone in-dwell all things always. When you say you meditate, you meditate on something other than yourself; but then, you divide the indivisible. Can you? ~ Avadhuta Gita I:12

If you know me personally, are connected with me on Facebook, or have been following my writing for a while, you are probably aware that I have changed my name several times over the past 13 years. From my legal birth name, to the pen name under which my first book was published (Nicholas Graham, if you’re curious, and God do I need to get back to writing what ought to be my second book), to my Hindu name, to now my name as an initiated Nath Yogi, I tear through monickers like a comedian through Twitter controversies. Even my girlfriend doesn’t bother keeping up anymore; she just calls me Beard, after my most prominent physical feature. I really do think that Vijnananath will stick, though, as it is not emblematic of where I am at any given moment in time but, so to say, of my spiritual career in toto. As soon as it was given to me — repeated to me five times at my initiation — it was like being struck, not by lightning but by a simple fact, like when you wake up on a Fall morning and realize, “It’s cold in here,” or like the first bite of a dessert you’ve never tried before but which is immediately comforting. Nevertheless, I do not care which of these many names (and even more nicknames which have come and gone over the years) any given person chooses to call me. One friend who knew me as Nicholas up until it was Candra told me that, as with marriage here in the US, you get one free name change, so he’s going to call me Candra until one of us dies or until I pay him to change his mental records. Fair enough. I wear all these names, but I wear them lightly.

I’ve also, like many ardent seekers in the world today who grow up in non-religious or only nominally religious households, been through a number of religious practices. Wicca, Druidry, Hermeticism, magical agnosticism, mystical Christianity, Christian Gnosticism, orthodox Saiva Hinduism, and now what I shudder to call “Nathism” but I don’t have a better word — all of these, and more tangents besides, have been spiritual stopovers on my way to “here”. I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with religion: I love the idea (ideal) of rooted traditions which can serve as home bases for deeper, more dangerous explorations, but authoritarianism and claims of both exclusivity and universality grate upon me like rubbing a cat’s fur against the grain. I’m not opposed to dogma in the classical sense of teachings passed down through time, but these teachings are only useful when they are treated as a frame for experience rather than as a completed structure.

In my practice of Yoga and Tantra, one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced has been a decreasing concern with self-identifiers. Sure, I still have my opinions (some altogether too strong for the triviality of the topic), but when I was younger I lived by the labels I applied to myself. I couldn’t just have an anti-authoritarian outlook; I was an Anarchist. I couldn’t admire the mystical and ethical teachings of Jesus; I was a Christian. And so on. I do not intend to tell anybody else what they should or should not jettison in this way, but there is a core message I think it is well worth keeping in mind — it all has to go one day, so it’s best to wear it like a scarf rather than a manacle.

Let’s be clear, of course, that this is an ongoing introspective process related, once again, to our old friends the Kleshas as well as the social conditioning which grows from and takes advantage of them. I may write more on this one day, but I am very much of the mind that social pressure, whether exerted by one person or by an entire culture, is something like the interaction of the balance of kleshas among all the people involved. The objective needn’t be — in fact, cannot be without a series of psychotic breaks — the dissolution of all self-identifiers, but the routine examination of them. When I tell myself that I am, say, an American, what does that mean? Does it close me off to certain things? Does it open me up to other things? How has any of that benefited me? Does it continue to benefit me, or is it getting in my way? Do I need to toss it entirely, or do I only need to soften the edges a bit? And so on.

The hard part is to realize that this applies to every story we tell about ourselves, no matter how justified we think it is at a glance. If I call myself traumatized, depressed, anxious, poor, weak, wrathful, a victim… These all carry a social cache, often negative but sometimes with a paradoxical “net gain”, depending on the circles in which you travel. Looking deeply into these implications and what we gain and lose by these interactions can be a multilayered lesson, but one which is extremely painful as we have to tear away and drop what does not actually serve us but which brings us some shallow sort of respectability or the sort of armor which in the short term protects us from criticism but in the long term insulates us against learning.

There is not and need not be any particular technique or procedure for navigating this labyrinth. Like any labyrinth, as opposed to maze, all you need to do is keep well in the mind the direction of movement and commit to it. In short, radical self-honesty is tool, process, and product. The technical language of Yoga does a great job of pointing out a lot of blind spots, but in some areas such as this we do better with naked simplicity.

This principle applies well beyond our own individual identities. Just as we reify our own little selves by taking too seriously our various linguistic games, we do the same with all of our experiences. Western philosophy has dead-ended itself time and again by obsessing over divisions of “object” and “subject”, of inner and outer, and so forth. It isn’t that these questions aren’t interesting, but in spite of the scientific method’s straining to the contrary there is at base no division between experiencer and experienced, only a provisional division we draw for utilitarian purposes. But here is why we emphasize the “inner” in Yoga: experience is always filtered through our own self-conception, conscious or not. In order, therefore, to obtain a clean experience, the mirror by which that experience is apprehended must also be clean. This is the real meaning of “purity” in Yoga and Tantra; it is not an abstract idea, nor merely to please a deity, but is instead a recognition of the nature of our own mind. From that place, experience is natural, spontaneous. We stop demanding a logical explanation — without being closed to one if it should prove to exist. Analysis ceases to be “cutting apart”, synthesis is no longer necessary, and pat answers reveal their emptiness. We are left with what is.

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