Students in yoga sometimes get the idea that there is some such neat way of solving all their difficulties4 min read

We come across such things in life. Suppose for instance that there is a long list of Chinese and Japanese delegates, experts, reporters and so on to a big international conference. There are thousands of the names, and it is desired to put the Chinese all together in some hotels, and the Japanese in others. The computer list, however, has mixed the names together, putting them in alphabetical order, beginning AN, then ANDO, then ARAKAWA, and so onward.

The organisers will have to look up each name in various passenger lists; it is expected that the Chinese will have travelled on the national airline where they will get a discount, and the Japanese similarly. The job is going to take a good many people a good time. But they happen to mention the matter to an orientalist. He says: “You need not do all that. It’s quite easy. Chinese names are always of one syllable; Japanese names only rarely. So AN is probably Chinese, but could just possibly be a Japanese; ANDO and ARAKAWA are certainly Japanese. So with names of one syllable, try the Chinese passenger lists first; with more than one syllable, you need not look up at all – it is certainly a Japanese.” Armed with this little , secret’ , the organisers sort the names quickly.

Students in yoga training sometimes get the idea that there is some such neat way of solving all their own difficulties. Keywords circulate: “The whole secret is detachment, detachment, detachment. Nothing else really matters”. Mysterious slogans are coined: “there’s a tradition that if one can make one complete bow on entering the meditation hall, a bow with the whole heart, that’s all that is needed for instant Realization. All the rest is secondary, for people who can’t whole-heartedly bow”.

These things are not necessarily wrong, but the idea is to bring them so far into the foreground that they shut out everything else. When this happens, the actions themselves become thinner and mechanical; little remains of their inner life, because the other elements of the training have been largely dropped. They form little schools of practice – one cannot call them schools of thought – which drain away the life of their followers.

The tendency takes various forms, supported sometimes by spurious reasoning, sometimes by spurious authority. “It is no use attempting meditation till you have a perfectly clear knowledge of the Truth. If you meditate without that, you will bemeditating on untruth, and reinforcing it. You will be practising error.” These people would presumably say that a novice attempting to skate, and falling over repeatedly, is practising falling over.

Others say: “The teacher gives exercises in mental control, but this is really to convince ourselves of our helplessness, and bring us to depend wholly on him, and on God speaking through him.” In such ways the teacher’s direct instructions are nullified. Again it is a spurious spiritual attitude masking a failure of vitality. Yet such secrets are passed round as hidden truths.

It is never clearly stated why the teacher is supposed to withhold them. In the background there is some dim idea of a Hundredth Trick, with all its associations of a fundamental conflict  mind, may go very deep. In Saa’di’s original Persian story, there is a chilling couplet which points the moral:

I never taught archery to anyone
Who did not end up making me the target.

This is the bitter wisdom of an ancient civilization, which has seen centuries, even millennia, of strokes and counter-strokes, plots and counterplots. They have been in all fields: personal, political, and intellectual. What has it all amounted to in the end? One of their great mystic poets summed it up: “children squabbling over walnuts as counters; shouts and tears over … nothing.” The spiritual course must not become infected with these worldly associations. It is passing on a light, not walnuts. The teacher loses nothing when he gives the light to the pupil, and the pupil is not in competition with the teacher. In one the light may be great, in the other small, but it is the same thing. between pupil and teacher. The semi-instinctive attitude, though concealed from the conscious.

© Trevor Leggett