Knowing the Elephant

We all know that there are things we “know”; but of what we “know,” what do we really know? People used to “know” that the earth was flat, and that if you sailed too far you’d fall off the edge. The Church used to “know” that the earth was the center of the universe, and Galileo paid for his audacity when he tried to convince them otherwise. Some people still claim to “know” that whites are genetically superior to blacks, others that blacks are superior to whites. Creationists “know” that God fashioned the world over the space of six human days (after which He rested); the Creationism museum in Kansas shares this “knowledge” with the world. Materialists “know” that there is no God, and that consciousness arose from matter (even though they cannot explain just how such a marvelously immaterial phenomenon might arise from such dense substance).

We all like to think that we “know” something, but however much we in fact know, we generally know less than we think we do. Very few of us have much of a clue as to what we don’t, or can’t, know. Sadly, not knowing what we can’t know will but rarely prevent us from attempting to know. Remember the parable of the blind men? Each touched a different part of an elephant: one the ears, another the trunk, a third the tail, yet another the flanks. Each provided a sufficiently different description of the animal that all began to dispute with one another over who was right and who wrong; yet none were entirely right, none entirely wrong. All experienced some portion of the pachyderm, but none could perceive its “wholeness.” Had they been sighted, they would have seen how all points on the elephant converge into its “elephantness,” and how with this knowledge one could begin from any point on that behemoth and expand that point into the whole, as we today can do with holograms.

Like the elephant, any person, place, thing, notion or situation has holographic tendencies. Holograms are created from and can be seen from an unlimited number of perspectives, from myriad intersecting points in space and time, each perception varying infinitesimally or dramatically according to the spot in space-time from which it is viewed. Though each of these standpoints differs in angle and degree from every other, and though none of them is the “one true” point of view, the entire hologram can be generated from any of them. Perhaps the most important variable in a holographic system is the perceiver, whose sense organs and internal ‘climate’ influence any object’s perception. When this “perceiver” variable fails to vary, when it refuses to respond to fluctuations in the environment that demand a response, the hologram warps; then the perceiver sees the limited world of belief that s/he wants to see, rather than the living, pulsating, untidy reality of the world of verity.

We gain our most accurate knowledge of realities, inner or outer, when we create “holograms” within us, by grasping, even feebly, how the “totality” of the parts of a concept, article, or entity fit together to form a whole. When we fail to thus expand our understanding into a holistic outlook, and instead cling tenaciously to our originating convictions, we doom ourselves first to clutch ineffectually at inaccuracies, then to vehemently justify our clutching. Thus we the people were assured that our military’s stay in first Afghanistan and then Iraq would be short and nearly painless.

It is blind faith in our patriotic egregore that drives our leaders to persist in so believing. “Egregore” is a marvelous Old English word for the “spirit of a thing.” An egregore is born anytime any project “takes on a life of its own”; once created an egregore can endure for centuries. Corporations, clubs, religions, cities, stereotypes, even feuds all have egregores. Every major sports team creates an egregore; national egregores parade before us on an international scale every four years during the World Cup of football. The New York Yankees enjoy a powerful egregore, generally positive, while the egregore of the Chicago Cubs encourages that ball club’s fans to view them as lovable losers.

Egregores evolve; that very Boston Red Sox team that suffered under the Curse of the Bambino has now had the curse lifted, and their old egregore is now mutating into something new. When generally positive, and evolving in generally positive direction, an egregore can strongly underpin its associated enterprise. The accelerating awareness of yoga in communities and societies worldwide is creating a global “yoga egregore,” which itself promotes the further expansion of that awareness. Like everything else in our world, this is both good, and not so good; good when it opens people to the possibilities for personal development that yoga offers, and not so good when it produces in them fixed, inaccurate ideas of what yoga actually “is.”

An egregore’s source of strength – the power generated by many individuals contributing some portion of their awareness to a common belief and purpose – is also the root of its weakness, when that purpose is flawed; consult Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds for reports on multiple past mass debacles. In an essay posted on provocatively entitled “Digital Maoism” Jaron Lanier argues forcefully that the “hive mind” created by the Internet is not the unalloyed good that many “netizens” are claiming, and that in fact all too often the “hive mind” merely reflects the participants’ “least common denominator,” the sum of their samenesses rather than the peaks of their distinctions. Citing an “alarming rise in the fallacy of the infallible collective,” even while acknowledging the frequent utility of consensus, Lanier ends his article by noting that “the best guiding principle is to always cherish individuals first.”

Human civilization is undeniably impossible without collaborative effort, and also collaborative thinking; and civilizations decline when the commune seeks to extirpate all individuality. A hive is only as intelligent as its queen; cacophonous is the orchestra that lacks a conductor. Tribes survive but briefly without a chief, whose task, like that of the director of a chorus or the chief of a state, is to unite the many into one (“e pluribus unum”).

In Argentina in 2006 a niece & nephew & I met Roberto, the leader of a band of Guaraní, who are native to the neighborhood of the mighty Iguaçu Falls. Roberto has to try to keep his group’s 800+ members reasonably unified as he and they interact with an outside world that sees them at best as amusing anachronisms; he seemed to have both a reasonable awareness of the difficulty of his task and genuine faith in the merit to be had if it can be achieved. Without such an intelligent, responsible leader his group could not long endure; with one, their egregore has a reasonable chance of surviving yet another generation.

Roberto’s faith supports him because he is not blind to the difficulties he and his people face. Faith goes “blind” whenever we demand that reality conform to our conviction of how it should be; shift the angles from which we habitually identify our selves and our environments, and we see things in a different way. Move around on the hologram of self or troop, and you may find hitherto unsuspected exits from past trauma, bigotry, fear, illness, and similar painful limitations. Enlightening vistas open as we peel away the onion-layers of our fondly-held delusions to confront the indisputable. As you navigate, each perspective shift alters the total picture, you the viewer are shifting as well, as you dissolve your knots of “stuckness.” Persist, and you will find yourself looking at the same old things, places, and people with a new eye, an eye that is less likely to get you “stuck” elsewhere.

Parables can provide perspective shifts. The words parable and parabola both literally mean “comparison.” A parabola is a curve generated by a moving point that “compares” a fixed point and a fixed line by maintaining an equal distance between them. A parable “compares” a usually inexpressible reality with a far more accessible image, typically from everyday human experience, to create a “curvature of consciousness” within the awareness fields of “those that have ears to hear.” This curvature offers a path along which “stuckness” can disentangle.

Anything can get “stuck”, even Patanjali’s most famous of phrases: yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. This sutra has been so often translated “yoga is restraint of the fluctuations of awareness” that we, like the blind men, “know” this to be true. A reexamination, though, discloses how blind we are to the curve that Patanjali is trying to trace.

Nirodha can mean “confinement, imprisonment, enclosing, covering up, restraint, suppression, or hindrance.” Vrtti’s wide variety of meanings include: mode of life or conduct, course of action, behavior; general usage, common practice; character, disposition, state, condition; practice, business, profession, maintenance, subsistence, livelihood; the function or force of a word; the mode or measure of pronunciation or recitation; any complex grammatical formation; a style of composition; alliteration; a commentary, comment, gloss, or explanation; and the rolling down of tears.

To translate vrtti as “fluctuation” is clearly a gross misstatement of that word’s reality. More accurate it would be to think of vrtti as the limitations we accept or invite into our lives, restrictions that govern our participation in the consensus reality of whatever egregore we sign onto. The tears in “the rolling down of tears” imply (unless we have been chopping onions) the manifestation of emotion.

One possible indication of vrtti nirodha could thus be “the suppression of emotion,” and so some “yogis” interpret it; but emotion cannot be smothered without inviting disease. Ayurveda mandates that no physical urge should be restrained once it has been triggered, and that stifling the urge to cry is as detrimental to health as is bottling up the urge to pee. What we can control is the movement of the mind that leads to the activation of any emotion and its accompanying externalizations, including tears.

Citta, a past participle masquerading as a noun, literally means “noticed,” and by extension, “appeared, visible, attending, observing, reflecting, thinking, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, reason.” Though citta does for some people represent unfettered awareness, for most of us it indicates the conditioned awareness that arises in the context of the knower, conditioning that often is steered by the egregores that drive us.

We can now re-translate this sutra in more creative ways; for example, “yoga is the restraint of the limitations imposed upon our perceptions,” or, “yoga is management of conceptual constraints.” The sutra seeks to free us from “hive mind” impressions of what yoga “is,” to liberate us from confinement within our familiar mental boxes, especially those imposed upon us by the “fallible collectives” that surround us. Thus freed from our blindness, we can finally integrate our conflicting perceptions of the elephant of yoga into a holographic awareness of its reality.

Copyright © 2006 – All Rights Reserved

Robert Edwin Svoboda