One of my favorite fictional characters is John Oldman, from the “Man from Earth” movie series. In the second installment of the series, John is a university professor of religious studies. Having had 14 000 years of experience to hone his discernment, he makes a particularly effective and popular teacher. Some of his students discover that he 14 000 years old, a fact that he tries to keep hidden from the world. One of these students is particularly enthusiastic and frames John as the next messiah, asking him to share his message with the world. Having had plenty of opportunity in his lengthy life to experiment with different ways of sharing his massive accumulation and assimilation of knowledge and experience, John has learned from his past mistakes and he dispels his student’s hopes that he will be willing to fulfill the role she has envisioned for him by telling her: “I’m a teacher, not a preacher.”
That particular line stood out for me, as it encapsulates an important distinction between two very different ways of spreading and sharing information. This distinction is something that I have become increasingly aware of over the 20 years that I have been teaching yoga.
During the initial years of my time as a yoga teacher (and in the years before that), I had the habit of assuming that whatever “truths” I had discovered and benefited from would naturally apply to all other people in the same way they applied to me. Enthusiastic to share my insights, I was fond of doing so by telling people what they should or shouldn’t do in how they lived their lives. In other words, I had a habit of preaching.
My definition of preaching is: Giving another person instructions, based on the assumption that one understands that person better than that person understands himself, and is therefore more capable of making personal life decisions for that person than that person is himself.
Preaching is a common feature of human cultural pedagogy, and includes any solicited or unsolicited lifestyle “recommendations” that one imposes on others. Examples of this include: What religious or spiritual teaching to follow, what political beliefs to hold, what types of thoughts to think, what types of feelings to have, whom one should or shouldn’t have sex with or marry, what style of yoga to practice, what type of clothing to wear or what to eat for lunch on any particular day.
As a young adult, I frequently noted how widespread the habit of surrendering one’s autonomy and capacity to make informed personal decisions about one’s own life to an authoritarian figurehead was – whether that figurehead was a doctor, a parent, a priest, a scripture, a god, or a teacher. It perplexed and frustrated me that this habit was so widespread. I had always avoided this habit by considering the opinions and information given to me by those whom I perceived as “experts” in their particular field; but using that information as a part of my own decision making process, rather than blindly accepting the information given to me by those experts. I noted many examples of instances when authority figures had made mistakes in their analyses, and I learned to hold my own understanding of myself and my own ability to make decisions for myself as being of the highest authority. It was extremely rare that I ever made a decision or choice that could potentially affect my well-being simply because someone told me to do so, without considering how I actually felt inside, in the realm of my own embodied experience, about that decision.
I also noted the plethora of intrapersonal and interpersonal effects that resulted from the surrendering of one’s personal autonomy and authority to an external authority and I recognized this as one of the main ills of fragmented, broken people and fragmented, broken societies and cultures. This unfortunate ill runs through all major societies and cultures of our world today. In “The Guru Papers – Masks of Authoritarian Power,” Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad recognize this ill as being one of the main symptoms of our species’ failure to mature in our process of cultural evolution. They suggest that we are trapped in a state of adolescence as a species, reliant on authority figures to inform us how to live, rather than taking responsibility for our own lives and our own decisions.
By cultivating critical thinking, discernment and embodiment throughout my life, I have largely avoided falling into the trappings of this ill on an interpersonal level. Nonetheless, by engaging in preaching myself, I was spreading the same ill on a cultural level by sharing my own personal truths and understandings with others in a way that undermined their autonomy. Once I began to realize that sharing my own insights in this way was contributing to the propagation of a deeply rooted human cultural dysfunction, I began to consciously shift the methods by which I shared my knowledge and experience. This shift was gradual, but a key point in this process came when I read the aforementioned “Guru Papers”. The implications of this book on my life were profound and it initiated an immediate and drastic shift in my worldview which percolated into the embodied experience of my life and actions in the world. I can pinpoint this as the time that I clearly and unequivocally understood the dangers of preaching. This was also the point where I ceased to identify as a Buddhist, which was the worldview that I had identified with (and preached to others) for the preceding decade. I also abandoned the delusion that any person, group of people, scripture, or organization in the world had any kind of special access to an irrefutable and universal “truth”, with respect to the nature of life, existence and morality.
In the time since then, I have been increasingly careful in both my personal life relationships and in my professional life teaching Mysore style ashtanga yoga and pranayama, yoga and buddhist philosophy, and embodiment to avoid preaching. Instead, I attempt to teach and share my experience in a way that empowers others to make more informed decisions about themselves and their roles within their relationships with the world, without the need to defer to an authority figure in that decision making process. In my professional role as a teacher, I am careful to confine my teachings to technical aspects of the practices, and to avoid presenting conjectural opinions as if they were fact. I emphasize that the aspects of the practice which I teach can be used as tools to deepen one’s process of embodiment and subjective observation. This process naturally enhances one’s ability to make life decisions based on one’s own phenomenologically felt reality, rather than on the dictates of a scripture, teacher, culture, religion, etc.
My definition of teaching is: Sharing techniques or information in a way that allows and empowers a person to use those technique or information to make their own informed personal decisions about their life.
A key dimension of the difference between preaching and teaching is the effect that the method of information transmission has on the recipient’s sense of trust and confidence in himself. If the information has been transmitted through the process of teaching, the recipient’s sense of confidence in his own subjective feeling based level of experience (which I sometimes refer to as animal or intuitive intelligence) should be strengthened. If the information is transmitted through preaching, on the other hand, it can have the opposite effect.
A key element of mind control is the undermining of the confidence of the subject in the accuracy of his own subjective experience. Once the subject is trained to stop trusting his own perceptions, and therefore his own decisions, his mind is ripe for the taking. This technique has been used by leaders of all sorts for millennia. Preaching has a similar effect. If the message of a preacher is in conflict with what one experiences at the phenomenological, sensation based level in one’s intuitive animal intelligence, then one experiences an internal dissonance. In order to alleviate this dissonance, one must either reject the message of the preacher, or reject the phenomenological experience of one’s own intuitive intelligence.
A person’s subjective, internal experience can be mistrusted and rejected in favour of the message of a preacher, but it cannot be completely removed. If one chooses to reject one’s own intuitive intelligence and subjective experience, it becomes relegated to the background, where it lurks and exerts itself unconsciously. The self therefore becomes fragmented, with the conscious, adopted message of the preacher struggling continuously against the unconscious subjective intelligence of the self. This is how Jung’s “shadow self” is formed. The shadow self is sometimes mistaken to be the composed of only “negative” qualities, which one prefers not to acknowledge. In reality, the shadow self includes any aspect of the self, including positive and healthy aspects, which are not consistent with the preaching of one’s family members, teachers, peers, culture, or religion. Because these aspects of the self are not supported by the preaching of one’s greater social body, one banishes and suppresses them into a “dark” unconscious corner of one’s psyche and being.
One of the “goals” of yoga practice is to bring about a “union”, and so it must avoid any type of fragmentation or rejection of any aspects of the self. Any form of practice or preaching which promotes rejection or mistrust of some aspects of the self cannot possibly contribute to the process of union through yoga. When yoga teachers and other type of social leaders preach, rather than teach, they contribute to this process of fragmentation of the self and deepening of the shadow. This is unfortunately common in yoga and spiritual communities of today. We frequently see practitioners and teachers presenting themselves as an embodiment of a certain set of ideals which are fundamentally in opposition or conflict with what they are actually experiencing (and repressing into the shadows) inside themselves. The result of this fragmentation is inauthenticity and it leads to intrapersonal breakdown and many of the dysfunctional interpersonal dimensions that we can observe in today’s spiritual and yoga communities.
The importance of embodied, felt experience cannot be overemphasized in the process of authentically integrating and assimilating knowledge and understanding. A “truth” cannot be authentic unless we are actually feeling it in the body at the sensation based phenomenological level; and doing so without giving preferential attention to certain feelings while rejecting other feelings. Embodiment means being aware of and immersed within everything that we feel at an organic, sensation based level. Being embodied means BEING those sensations and feelings – not as an objective, disconnected observer, but as a subjective living, breathing and feeling experiencer.
One of the major fallacies of Buddhist practice is the assumption that it is possible for consciousness or awareness to remain objective and disconnected from the experience of sensation and feeling. Buddhist practice is often portrayed with the imagery of a battle, where objective awareness struggles to remain detached from the “enemy” of the subjective experience of volitional formations (sankaras/samskaras) around the field of the sensations and feelings of bodily experience. I have observed that many long-term Buddhist practitioners end up living a disembodied existence, with a deeply rooted–and sometimes carefully hidden–quality of self-loathing. The dualistic worldview of Buddhism–where the self paradoxically struggles to deny the reality of the self–ultimately produces a deeply fragmented and wounded sense of self.
Modern science falls into the same trap that Buddhism does, by working on the flawed premise of the possibility of objective, detached observation of the environment around us, without accepting that we are necessarily a subjective participant within a living, breathing, feeling environment. The result of this centuries long experiment has been to propagate a struggle against more-than-human nature–rather than accepting that we ARE a subjective participant in the whole of nature–in the same way that the Buddhist struggles against his own volitional formations around his sensation and feeling based experience–rather than accepting that he IS a subjective part of his own sensations and experiences. The fragmented self-denial of the Buddhist is not unlike the broken relationship that we have with our dying planet, which we have created through our own deluded attempts to separate ourselves from being a part of the process of nature. Preaching–which asks one to deny one’s own subjective, sensation based experience–propagates this same process of fragmentation and disconnection from the truth and authenticity of the self.
Questions are sometimes raised about horrible atrocities, such as the mass genocides which have taken place throughout the (often ugly) history of our species. People often wonder how those who committed those atrocities could have done so. Even if they were “just following orders”, how could they not have known what they were doing was wrong? How could they not have rejected the orders? The answer is that they stopped themselves from feeling. Only by cutting themselves off from being embodied and conscious in their deeper somatic feelings could they follow the orders–or preaching–of those commanding them. Interviews with those who have committed these types of crimes confirms this.
We are doing the same thing in our relationship with more-than-human world today. The murder and destruction of the living, breathing biosphere of the planet earth is no different from the horrific crimes that we have inflicted upon members of our own species. The preaching of our modern cultures, such as the primacy of economic growth at all costs, necessitates cutting ourselves off from the embodied experience of what it actually feels like to destroy and demolish everything around us as part of achieving that goal. For one who allows oneself to feel everything, the cries of pain of the embodied earth can be tangibly felt inside one’s own body as one moves through the landscape of the human induced destruction of this living planet, and participating in this destruction becomes an impossibility.
The preachers of “green technology” and “sustainable growth” also fall into the dualistic trap of separation. For these people, the more-than-human biosphere is still perceived as an objective, lifeless object which is to be integrated into the structure of our current social paradigms. To place “economic value” on forests, species or ecosystems or to refer to anything as a “resource”, does not help us to develop a connected, living, feeling embodied relationship with the more-than-human world. It is only through removing the dualistic separation of self and other, by subjectively feeling and participating in the embodied experience of the whole living earth, that true healing and union can take place.
Indigenous human societies (most of which are extinct now) cultivated intimate, feeling-based relationships with the more-than-human world around them. Those relationships were necessarily carried out at the embodied level of experience. Plundering and destroying the environment around them was unthinkable, because it would have felt as wrong as plundering or murdering their closest human relatives. If modern humans are to salvage a sustainable and respectable existence on this planet, we must reconnect to our own embodied feelings of aliveness and by extension of that, cultivate an embodied feeling based relationship with all that is around us. Only then, can we truly and authentically understand the nature of our lives and the appropriate ways to conduct ourselves within the network of relationships the constitute the living system of this breathing planet.
Embodiment avoids the fragmentation of dualistic traps. Our sensations and feelings that we experience in the embodied state of aliveness are the closest thing to “truth” that we can access. When we accept all that we feel in our own embodied experience, there is nothing to reject and an authentic process of true integration takes place. Embodied experience can only happen here and now, in the present moment. This is the place where our deepest form of intelligence–the embodied, organic animal intelligence-resides and this is the place that any teaching must be assimilated and integrated into, if it is to be fully processed into a living, breathing, authentic truth. When our knowledge and our actions are integrated at this level, we are the most whole that we can be. The true experience of union and the deepest understanding of any teaching can only happen in the subjective state of embodied aliveness.
When teaching the yama and niyama of Patanjali or the panchasila of Buddhism, I attempt to do so in a way that encourages empowered decision making based on one’s own internal experience. Most religious and spiritual teachings contain some form of a list of “dos and don’ts”, and they are often preached as a list of commandments. Telling someone “not to kill” or “not to steal” seems reasonable enough, but if we do it in a way that promotes blind acceptance, without integration of that understanding at an embodied, feeling based level, then we still fall into the traps and dangers of preaching.
Interpretations of ethical teachings vary considerably and interpretations are necessarily rooted in the cultural conditioning of the interpreter. To avoid killing or violence, for example, seems simple enough on the surface, yet when we examine it more deeply, it becomes somewhat ambiguous. The process of being alive involves the consumption of other elements of the web of life. This necessarily means that we are involved in killing and violence on a daily basis. Is it acceptable to kill animals for food? What about plants? Or fungi? Is it okay to kill trees to use as building material for a home? What about to use as toilet paper? Should we kill bacteria that thrive on our soiled dishes and would make us sick if we consumed them and allowed them to proliferate inside of our bodies? Where we draw the line to discern which forms of killing and violence are morally acceptable, and which are not, is somewhat arbitrary. Should we allow the preaching of a particular culture, scriptural interpretation or preacher dictate where this line is drawn for us? Or should we allow ourselves to be informed by our own internal sensation based intelligence in terms of which actions are appropriate or inappropriate?
The late ecophilosopher Arne Naess discussed a similar type of dilemma his book, “The Ecology of Wisdom”. He described the situation of a person struggling with the ethics of an act which is perceived to be morally wrong in the context of his cultural conditioning. This person struggles deeply against his subjective feeling based intelligence, which wants to engage in the act. He ultimately wins the struggle and stops himself from engaging in the act. He then consoles himself that he can “sleep well at night” because he “did the right thing”. But, did he really do the right thing, by suppressing some aspect of his own intuitive intelligence and wisdom so that he could remain in line with the moral preaching of his culture? Naess goes on to make a distinction between “acting ethically” and “acting beautifully”. He defines “acting ethically” as shaping one’s behaviour to be in line with the ethical standards of one’s culture, regardless of whether this honours and acknowledges the intelligence of one’s embodied subjective experience. He defines “acting beautifully” as allowing one’s own embodied feeling based intelligence to inform one’s behaviour, regardless of whether that behaviour falls within the parameters of the ethical expectations of one’s culture (I’ve paraphrased his definitions to fit into the context of this essay). The question then becomes: “Did you act ethically, and therefore preserve the preaching of your culture at the cost of repressing and denying the teaching of your own embodied intelligence? Or did you act beautifully, and follow the wisdom of your own embodied intelligence, regardless of whether you received the approval of your culture for doing so?”
Preaching prioritizes the dictates of a cultural or social entity over the subjective intelligence of the individual entity. Teaching prioritizes the subjective intelligence of the individual entity over the dictates of the cultural or social entity. Ideally, the two would be in balance, where the needs of an individual, as informed by his embodied sensation based intelligence are somewhat consistent with the needs of his culture or social body. If there is excessive dissonance between the embodied intelligence of the individual and the standards of the social organization or culture, then it is likely a sign that the individual needs to bring about some bigger life changes in his interpersonal relationships, so that he can find a situation where the truth of his own intuitive sensation based intelligence is more balanced with the standards and expectations of his culture or social body. In turn, the culture or social body can also attempt to harmonize their expectations and standards with those that are experienced at the feeling based, embodied level of its individual members. If a culture or social organization can succeed in doing this, then it can be said to be teaching its members rather than preaching to them.
I attempt to teach yama and niyama as tools of embodiment. For me, they are not a set of rules to be preached or blindly followed, based on someone else’s interpretation of how they apply to our personal life situations. In my interpretation, yama and niyama refer to potential situations in our ongoing relationships with our environment where we may need to bring more embodied awareness to how we feel inside, at the sensation based level, when considering how we should conduct ourselves within those social relationships. Rather than preaching a black and white / right or wrong approach, I suggest a process of deeper sensitization and allowing one’s felt experience to guide one’s actions in the world. In this way, we take responsibility for our actions and relationships by continuously staying in touch with how we feel inside, and we use this embodied awareness as feedback for modifying our actions and relationships. How yama and niyama apply to our personal life situations is always going to be contextual, and we should be able to make our own decisions, informed by our subjective, embodied intelligence with confidence.
Ultimately, being taught will promote a union of the layers of the self, with the new knowledge consolidated and assimilated in the subjective intelligence at the embodied, feeling level of experience. This generates empowerment and wholeness of the self and leads to healthy and functional relationships with the world. Being preached to will promote fragmentation of the self through a rejection or repression of one’s embodied, feeling based experience. This leads to disempowerment of the self and propagates the dysfunctional social structures that rule human societies today.
Thank you to Clayton Loizou for helpful editing and suggestions about the article.