Yoga for Wholeness

June 1, 2003    BY Georg Feuerstein

Yoga is such a highly diversified tradition that it has become many things to many different people: fitness training, a system of healing, a purification program, mind training, a philosophical system, a religious practice, or a spiritually based lifestyle. Only the last-mentioned perspective is comprehensive enough to match the traditional view of Yoga. It includes the principal concerns of all the other approaches, be they physical and mental well-being or inner and outer purity, or philosophical and religious values.

As a spiritual tradition, Yoga aims at both self-transcendence and self-transformation. It is designed to help us go beyond the ego-contraction (atma-samkocha) and then gradually to replace our egoic patterns with the open flow of enlightenment, “in tune with the Infinite.”

This is true of any authentic school of Yoga. The various branches of Yoga—Hatha, Raja, Jñana, Karma, Bhakti, Tantra, and Mantra, etc.—are simply specialized approaches to the same ultimate goal of enlightenment. This supreme state is conceived differently by the diverse yogic traditions: as realization of our inner perfection, union with the transcendental Self, or perfect surrender to the Ultimate Person (the Divine).

As Albert Einstein noted, the conventional sense of feeling separate from everyone and everything else is a kind of “optical illusion.”

Each approach is complete within itself and, if practiced with integrity, will lead to wholeness. Unfortunately, “wholeness” has become a buzzword, which lends itself readily to commercial exploitation. Yet, it is an intuitive concept that still has some value. To be whole means to be real, to be immersed in the unending flux of reality without conceptual distortion. As Albert Einstein noted, the conventional sense of feeling separate from everyone and everything else is a kind of “optical illusion.” The problem is, the more separate we feel the more we are suffering. “This delusion,” Einstein wrote, “is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is, in itself, a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

We can begin to break the spell of egoic insularity by noticing and respecting how everything is in fact interconnected, as Gautama the Buddha already emphasized in his teaching of dependent origination (pratitya-samutpada) 2,500 years ago. It is the unenlightened mind that carves up reality and tries to create manageable conceptual slices. On the basis of this broken conceptual universe, we then cultivate all kinds of unwholesome (fragmented) emotions and attitudes that prompt us to take equally unwholesome actions: “I am a great guy. You’re a nobody, and I reject you.” “This is mine and not yours.” “My religion alone is true and yours is plain wrong.”

To be whole means to choose wholeness over fragmentation, to live in wholeness. This happens at various levels, depending on the degree of our inner lucidity and attunement to the flow of reality. To be whole means to be hale, healthy, sound, complete, fulfilled, and yes, holy.

At the highest level, wholeness consists in full enlightenment, when we have become completely transparent to ourselves, when there are no uninspected dark niches, or opaque aspects, to our being. We have become inwardly simple, uncomplicated, free from conflict. Our presence in the world is unambiguous and non-threatening, and our every thought, feeling, and action expresses and at the same time fosters wholeness, haleness, holiness.

om purnam adah
purnam idam
purnat purnam udacyate,
purnasya purnam adaya
purnam eva avashishyate.
om shanti shanti shantih
Om. That is the Whole.
This is the Whole.
From the Whole the Whole emerges.
Taking the Whole out of the Whole,
the Whole still remains.
Om. Peace. Peace. Peace.

In every moment, the enlightened being realizes the Whole, which is the eternal essence of all beings and things and which exceeds both unity and diversity, harmony and disharmony, transcendence and immanence. We can experience this all-comprising, whole Reality in rare moments of ecstatic self-transcendence. When this realization is permanent and irrevocable, we call it “enlightenment.” It spells the conclusion of the human adventure as we know it, and possibly it is the beginning of an entirely new and incomprehensible destiny.

We can experience this all-comprising, whole Reality in rare moments of ecstatic self-transcendence.

Evidently, comprehensive wholeness, or authentic integration, requires the inclusion of transcendence into our psychic life. More specifically, it requires the voluntary transcendence of our (whole) psychomental life in favor of the larger reality (the Whole), which is variously called “the Divine,” “God,” “Goddess,” “transcendental Self,” or “ultimate Being.”

Prior to enlightenment, we may be physically healthy and fit, and we may even be psychologically superfunctional, but we are still not whole, or hale. Being a Yoga practitioner implies that we are deeply committed to overcoming our fragmentation, our partialness. Paradoxically, to succeed in this effort, we must have ego strength. A strong ego-personality is a sign of emerging psychological wholeness, and only a strong ego-personality can complete the work of ego-transcendence. Individuals who have a weakly formed ego inevitably succumb to confusion or self-delusion on the path, because they lack the necessary vitality to face their karmic patterns squarely. The twin tasks of self-transcendence and self-transformation demand a high degree of inner strength and the capacity to persist even when we feel greatly challenged.

Thus psychological wholeness is a platform for spiritual wholeness (enlightenment)—an important point that is seldom fully understood. Even serious Yoga practitioners can “waste” years before it dawns on them that they must support their spiritual efforts by appropriate psychological work. Sometimes half a lifetime goes by before they realize the need to take a few steps back, abandon their chase for extraordinary mental states or the elusive goal of (usually instant) enlightenment, and revisit ordinary psychological problem areas they would much rather forget.

Even serious Yoga practitioners can “waste” years before it dawns on them that they must support their spiritual efforts by appropriate psychological work.

Most Yoga masters insist that the path is long and difficult, because to reach the safety of enlightenment, we cannot avoid traveling through the dense and treacherous jungle of our own mind. Chancing upon a clearing here and there is not the same as having traversed the entire jungle. Such clearings can instill hope and enthusiasm in us, and we need neither avoid nor dismiss them, but if we confuse them with the clear space of enlightenment itself, our journey is cut short and we remain caught in the world of samsara, of egoic and unhappy fragmentation. In the end, wholeness can be found in any experience, even in the most ordinary experiences that daily life offers us in abundance—if we know what to look for. The teachings of Yoga can serve us as an excellent compass in this challenging but most rewarding undertaking.

Georg Feuerstein
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.