Intro to Month 6: Hinduism – Understanding the Self through…Yoga?

Happy Ganesh Chaturthi

I took my first Myers-Briggs personality test in college for a class on leadership and management. The test is supposed to determine what your psychological preferences are: whether you are introverted or extroverted, whether you follow your hunches or prefer to look at details and facts, or make decisions based on logic and reason or based on emotions and consideration of the feelings of others.

I found my personality type, INTJ, to be fairly accurate, and I found the test to be useful in helping me communicate and get along with others. For example, my company has all employees take the test, and then they publish the results. Once I know someone prefers details over big ideas when talking about a project, I can start with evidence and details first and then show how those play into a big idea. Or if someone is more “feeling” oriented, I focus on talking about client relationships rather than the work.

However, there is a downside to the test (at least in my experience): I find myself self-stereotyping. For example, the test tells me that I prefer big ideas over details. This is true, but I now find myself ignoring details, even when they are important, because I’m just not the “detail-oriented type.”

Another example: I am definitely an introvert. No question about it. Except, I often use this knowledge about my personality to avoid social engagements that I would probably enjoy and benefit from.

This small bit of knowledge about my personality, while useful in some cases, can also have some harmful side effects.

Introducing Moksha: Understanding the True Self

Hindus believe in the concept of Brahman, which is the “unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world.”

Confused?

Me too.

But the concept hints that much of what we experience while we are alive, isn’t “real,” or rather, we misunderstand the nature of our experiences.

Perhaps then, what I am experiencing through the lens of my personality type, is a misunderstanding.

The ultimate goal for Hindus is to gain a understanding of the true self, which means, if one believes in Brahman, that the true self is not separate from Brahman. This ultimate goal is called Moksha.

Still confused?

Me too.

But if a simple personality test can give me some useful insights and tools for interacting with others, what can a religion that has survived thousands of years tell me about my true self, and how would that impact the way I interact with the world?

I hope to find out.

The Three Yogas

I suspect that when you think of yoga, the first that comes into mind is the form of exercise pursued by hip, young urbanite women.

While this is one form yoga, the term can refer to any sort of disciplined pursuit of Moksha. Hatha Yoga (the Yoga exercise we are most familiar with), is a way to physically prepare the body for this pursuit.

However, there are other forms of Yoga that are equally valid for pursuing Moksha, or understanding of the true self.

Karma Yoga

Karma Yoga, or the Yoga of Action, involves selfless action to serve others. This yoga says that by fulfilling our duty in whatever role we are placed in, we can make progress towards Moksha.

Jnana Yoga

Jnana Yoga is the Yoga of Knowledge, or intellectual pursuit of Moksha. It combines activities like meditation with the study of philosophical and religious texts.

Bhakti Yoga

Bhakti Yoga is the Yoga of Devotion. This devotional path to attaining Moksha involves surrender to God, usually through deity worship. Activities may include building and praying to a shrine at home, taking part in temple worship, etc.

These are not the only yoga paths that can help the individual attain Moksha, but they are three of the most important ones.

My Yoga Plan

I had a hard time figuring out how I wanted to practice Hinduism. Because there are so many different ways to practice Hinduism (which confuses even Hindus), I felt stuck and have been procrastinating on starting.

However, after reviewing the three yogas I mentioned above, I decided to do something for each yoga.

For Karma Yoga, I will attempt to bring an attitude of selfless action to my work. I know this will be difficult, and I haven’t worked out exactly how I can do this, but I’ll make a good-faith effort to embrace this attitude.

For Jnana Yoga, I plan on studying two major Hindu texts, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. The Upanishads is a collection of spiritual and philosophical commentary and stories that compose the foundations of Hinduism. The Gita is a Hindu epic that tells the story of a young warrior named Arjuna who must go to war with his relatives. The story is a dialogue between Arjuna and the god Krishna, who provides counsel as Arjuna undergoes a spiritual crisis. The three yogas actually come from this story.

For Bhakti Yoga, I will set up a home shrine and offer a morning prayer to a god of my choosing. From my initial research, a formal ritual looks quite complicated, so I may simplify it for my purposes.

I may also throw in a few Hatha Yoga classes for good measure, as it is possible the key to attaining understanding lies in yoga pants and uncomfortable stretching positions.

What I hope to gain

While I doubt that I can attain Moksha in 30-days (though that would be pretty awesome), I want to see how my perception of the self changes by performing these yogas. I’m fascinated by this concept of the “true self” because we spend a lot of time obsessing over things like personality tests. We try to use the results of these personality tests to inform decisions in various aspects of our lives (career is a major one), but I think personality tests can only get us so far.

What would happen if we dive deeper than introversion vs. extroversion, or idea-centric vs. detail-centric? What if we felt that, instead of being a unique individual that is separate from others, we have a deep connection to them and a sense of solidarity? Would it cure my cynicism? Would I feel more calm, more at peace with the way things are?

I’ll let you know.

 

Ganesh photo from Prasanth Chandram

  • Sameer

    Hey Dale,

    I was really excited to read that you are exploring the Hindu tradition, partly because it’s my own ancestral tradition (which I’ve never really engaged much with) and partly because in encountering various texts which encourage an unbounded concept of the Self (that’s not the most elegant term, but you get what I’m referring to) I’ve always found it really unclear and disconcerting to play with living life as if everything were part of my self. So I’m interested to hear how the latter goes for you.

    I’d highly recommend the book Essence of the Bhagavad Gita by Eknath Easwaran. I’ve never read the Gita itself, but that book did a great job, in my experience, of distilling the key concepts (many of which you refer to above) in an engaging and applicable way. I’d even venture the guess that you’d get more out of reading that book than reading the source texts, though having never done the latter, I can’t say for sure. (After all that, I feel like I should include an affiliate link here, haha.)

    Good luck, and look forward to reading your upcoming posts! What type of grad school are you applying to?

    • Hey Sameer!

      Good to hear from you. I actually like the “unbounded Self” term you used.

      I actually used Eknath Easwaran’s translation of the Gita for this month, which includes his summary and analysis of each chapter. It was very good.

      I’m applying to Harvard Divinity School for their Masters in Theological Studies program. Also applied to their PhD in Religion program, though the probability of getting accepted to that is very low.

      I look forward to reading your comments on future posts.

      -Dale

      • Sameer

        Cool.

        And, wow! What inspired you to go that route? (You obviously have a strong interest in… ancient wisdom, but what’s your gameplan in pursuing Divinity School? Do you want to become a full-time Religious Studies scholar?)

        • Just seems like the most interesting thing I can do at the moment. If the financials don’t work out I won’t go; no sense going into debt for an impractical degree.

          • OTL

            No offence, but aren’t all courses to do with religion or philosophy impractical? Unless you want to become a full-time academic, a school teacher, or a cleric of some kind.

          • From a career standpoint, probably.

          • OTL

            Of course. Education should be about improving the individual not getting into debt so that you can get a piece of paper so that you can get a job.

            I’ve always wanted to study history (in a formal institution, I mean) but have yet to find someone to pay me to do that!

          • Yes, it will be interesting to analyze my own thoughts and emotions if I get into a program and would have to go into a debt. At this point, I am saying I won’t do it if that is the case, but I imagine at that point I will whine and say “but I really want to gooooo!”

  • OTL

    Lol, we had to do this test at work and, being all lawyers, we all got the extroverted and detail orientated results.

    Will you be going vegetarian for this month?

    • Oh man you are my nemesis personality-wise.

      And no, not going vegetarian. I think I would end up starving after throwing all my crappy vegetarian meals in the garbarge.

      • OTL

        Ha! With Christmas coming up, I don’t blame you.

        Frankly I’m just surprised that both our companies thought this was a good use of money. We even missed a whole day of work, not that I’m complaining.