Monday, October 03, 2022

Different Paths

The Yoga Centre I went to had an American Swami leading it. A tall guy who was full of life and joy. On a weekend retreat I joined, I had a conversation with him about my path and where I had gone, which was towards atheism, and away from religion. I moved to the UK for two gap years between school and university, and was introduced to a much more secular society. When I got back to Cape Town, it was the other extreme. A lot of my fellow students were both very religious, and very evangelical, and I found that difficult in terms of tolerance and allowing for other people’s ways of thinking. It pushed me away and toward a (watered down) Richard Dawkins's “God Delusion” view. 

I did a lot of reading and had to unpack my own relationship and history with religion. By the time I got to Yoga, I was resistant to things like singing. I didn’t do the chants. I had stopped saying the Lord’s Prayer and no longer resonated with the church songs I had grown up singing. It was hard to sing words I didn’t literally believe in. 

In the conversation with the Swami, he explained the philosophy around different paths. His was a non-combative approach that didn’t claim to understand everything. It is not some truth you are wrestling with, that someone else knows. You are grappling with the vastness. There was a recognition of the human limits of ability to deal with the unfathomable. There were four different paths. 

Karma Yoga is the path of action. Where you are able to park your anxiety and focus on contribution through getting stuff that needs doing done. A Bahkti Yogi may find stillness in art, music, creativity, love, relationships and worship. A Raja Yogi targets stilling the waves directly through mental exercises, meditation, and breathwork. The Jnana Yogi is more intellectual with stillness as a cognitive journey coming through study, philosophy, and knowledge. Searching for and finding moments of stillness through and within discussion and reading, in a similar way to what I had been doing in a Christian setting, but without my internal antagonism. 

Interestingly, that conversation with the Swami helped me both make peace with my lack of belief, and to re-engage constructively with the Christianity and the community that I had largely walked away from. One with whom I was not in conflict with, but merely using different tools from.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Changing to Accommodate

I had obstacles to overcome with the Yoga Centre I joined. The style did make a few minor adaptations for Western tastes. Like moving breathing exercises to the start of classes, so people didn’t just leave after the “exercise”. And charging, because there weren’t enough people from the community willing to finance the centre. 

The school was conservative, and on the surface seemed religious. I was told Yoga was not religious, but it looks, swims, and quacks like a duck? There are people who treat it like a religion, and the Vendantic philosophy has big overlaps with Hinduism. Again, there are many who will argue that Hinduism and Buddhism were philosophies, not religions. That is not something I understood. I am from a Christian background, which despite the multiple and expanding versions (with a long history of schisms) still (as I understood it) argues that there is one fundamental truth... even if there is disagreement about what that is, you have to wrestle with it. 

That always worried me. If we can’t come to an agreement, we have to go our separate ways. Fortunately, the yoga centre was “holistic”. I could ignore lots of the pageantry, and focus on the practical bits. Proper breathing, diet, exercise, relaxation and mental health. Five basic points to return to whatever you are struggling with.

Monday, September 26, 2022

Creativity and Learning

One of my frustrations with my religious roots was when I was having a conversation with someone, and the tone of their voice changed. Ken Robinson, who passed away in 2020, was one of my favourite presenters. It sounded like he was having a conversation with you. You get the feeling it is two-way, even when it is just him talking. It felt like he was also listening. 

I got really frustrated when people I was opening up to put on their “lecture voice” (it's not unique to religious conversations) or what I called the “Bible voice”. If I was talking to someone about one of the issues that I was facing, and suddenly I realised from their tone of voice, they were not listening anymore. They were telling me a story. The issue I mentioned triggered a story I had probably heard multiple times before. I was a regular once-on-Friday, twice-on-Sunday church attendee. I knew the Bible stories. 

It was difficult for me when someone stopped listening, and went onto what felt like automatic pilot. It was also difficult when I reached some kind of impasse, where the answer wasn't satisfactory, and I was still struggling. The philosophy, as I experienced it, was also antagonistic towards other world views. You do not need to explore widely, as the truth is in the Bible. I went to lots of churches, while I was growing up in Westville, although the Methodist Church and the Baptist Church were the main ones. I did not go to the Temples or Mosques. I did not even go to the Catholic Church. I did read “The Life of Pi”, and felt a kinship for his search where he did end up exploring all these various religions. I read “Sophie's World” which opened up this idea of Philosophy. Of exploring widely around the meaning of life. I loved the name Sophie. The idea of a Goddess of knowledge. At a later stage, when in the yoga world, with a new understanding or perception of what a deity is, or what imagination of god was useful for me, I chose Saraswathi. Saraswathi is the goddess of creativity and learning.

Wrestling the Truth

Friday, September 23, 2022

Culture of Critique

I had some obstacles to overcome to do yoga. The centre I went to taught very traditional Sivananda Yoga. Sivananda himself was a medical doctor who lived in India. Then when he moved on to his yogic path, he spent a few years doing Tapas. Living a simple life off the generosity of strangers, while wandering and thinking. He then he started an Ashram and mixed his medical life with yoga. He took on some disciples and started a community called the Divine Life Society. 

Now growing up, I had my own experiences with what we called the Hari Krishnas. I remembered people wearing orange who kind of give you a flower or a book ”for free”. Then you feel reciprocal obligation to give them some money in return. I honestly didn't know a lot about the Hari Krishna movements. But what I did know came from a place of fear. The belief that it was almost culty. 

I grew up in a religious Christian environment and I mainly went to the Methodist and Baptist Church. I had a difficult relationship with religion, because it was very much a part of my life growing up. It was my received truth, but received truth with a culture of critique. You can see how the philosophy of western science developed out of a belief in a single truth, because it meant that you could go quite hard at it. It meant that if you did not understand, the fault lay with you. That the truth was true. It does not matter how hard you go because you are not going to dislodge it. And I did go hard.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Bite Size

In the first-ever introductory yoga class I attended, the intention was just to allow you relax. They did not teach a lot. It was just a taste. 

As a Marketing Actuary, I also learned that you don't try and give people too much information in one session. You can't dump knowledge. The way we learn is in small bites. We adapt slowly in successive approximation. Learning little bits, and gradually connecting everything. Good teachers don’t correct all your mistakes every time. 

The main aim of that first session, with a yogi named Bhima, was to feel relaxed. The default in learning is often to move on from simple things. To feel like we know how to relax, walk, breathe, swim, and run. Mastering something that is simple on the surface requires unlearning a lot of bad habits. With a little bit of guidance. In that first session, I walked away feeling a connection to that stillness. 

The first question we were asked is "how do you relax?" The most sophisticated yoga posture is called Savasana. Also known as the Corpse Pose. Like in investing, one of the most sophisticated responses is "doing nothing". Physical yoga is mostly about learning to relax the body. Investing is also about learning to let money do the work for you.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Through and Towards

Eternity is a concept that is hard to wrap our heads around. We think in contrast and action, and stories. Stories of change and growth. It’s the only way we can think. It can be hard to focus on life... the pulse, the signal within the noise, the process, the questions, the connection. 

There are ideas we can’t grasp and fully conquer, and questions that we will not find the answer to in any book or any particular conversation. There is a lot of uncertainty. 

As you get older, you realise that there are no real adults in the room. Even 70, 80, or 90-year-olds are just big children that experience the world in a particular way. No one's experience is the same as yours and we are all just doing our best. 

Holding Space is the idea of non-interventional listening. You aren’t listening TO construct a response. Their story doesn’t trigger recognition of their story in your story, and anecdotes from you. You allow them to tell their story without claiming it. You don’t respond to someone’s story about their cancer with a story about a family member of yours with cancer. 

Stilling your own waves, and stilling the waves of money anxiety, doesn’t always mean solving problems directly for someone. There are also challenges around empowerment and allowing people to solve their own problems. If people are best placed to make their own decisions, you want them to make those decisions. 

There will always be waves. Stilling the waves is how you experience those waves. Financial Stillness holds space for you to make connected decisions through the waves. To build through things that pass, towards what truly matters to you.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Gentle Unpacking

How do you tolerate intolerance? One of the idea-tools I find useful from Yogic philosophy is Ishwara. It roughly translates as “God understood as a person” in contrast to an impersonal, impossible to reduce to words, transcendent “explanation”. Your Ishwara then becomes the closest you can possibly come to an explanation. Your Ishwara and mine can co-exist because they are imperfect and thus compatible. 

Unless of course you insist that mine can’t exist, and your way is the correct way, and I am not willing to accept the binary you are imposing. If me not saying you are wrong or I am wrong, is seen by you as saying you are wrong! I am not allowed to have a “believe what you want as long as it doesn’t impose on me” view. 

There are some impositions we can’t avoid. Some joint decisions we must make. Sometimes you have to come up with pragmatic hacks. “I am going to be as tolerant as possible, but I am going to have boundaries”. 

I like the idea of unconditional love, for example. But what can happen if you gift someone that love, is they come at you hard to test those boundaries. Holding space for someone still needs to include the paradoxic condition of them being loved but no longer involved. 

That is hard when you have a story you tell about yourself. Reality seldom permits completely consistent stories. Real life is a messy combination of learning and unlearning. Everything that happens challenges our story. We have to hold and release to create. We look for answers, while needing to make peace with constantly improving our questions. 

Gently unpacking issues that may never reach resolution.

Monday, September 05, 2022

Action and Consequence

As our decision-making scales, it also has consequences that ripple. I find it incredibly disheartening when I have done a lot of work, and then a decision gets made that means none of that work is used. Scale also means disconnection between where the work is done, and where the consequences are felt. If the decision maker is doing the work, they can be doing constant triage on marginal effort. Once outsourced, if the work goes done a different path, you need to wait till check-in points to find that out. 

Outsourcing work without outsourcing decision-making requires very clear questions. For anything to actually happen, late-stage decision-making often involves closing down options. Accepting constraints and shipping. Making choices in the face of ambiguity. Reducing the number of things that will make you change your mind. In a world of practical decisions, you can never make the perfect choice. There are always trade-offs. 

“An ounce of practice beats a ton of theory” requires loops of action and consequence. Consequence that can be felt in a reality that is complex, ambiguous, and uncertain. We have to engage with the world. Learning to build consensus is how the interconnected scale works. Unstated rules that allow us to go deeper, but when those rules break... require engaging in difficult unlearning and relearning. 

There are very few areas where we can be the only decision maker. Where it doesn’t matter what other people think. In most cases, we are forced to engage in the messy process of joint decision-making. That requires skills like social, cultural, and emotional intelligence and an awareness of, and interest in, other people’s stories. It requires acknowledging the challenge we face by only being able to judge from our context, and our need to expand our context to see and resee.