Why Did Ancient Yogis Sit on Corpses All Night Long?

Danny is Dr. Dirt

The end of modern yoga class typically ends in shivasana, or “corpse” pose; this is the moment when you just lay down and let everything go.  Back in the day, and I mean way back in the yoga day, young yogis who were being initiated into the spiritual path underwent ordeals and initiations similar to those of ancient shamans who, for example, might undergo ritual death and dismemberment as emblematic of his or her complete transformation.

The original concept of yoga was not a class where you did a little stretching, kicked back on the matt at the end, chanted an “Om,” and then grabbed a smoothie or some organic veggies and considered oneself “spiritual.”  Yoga, which means “binding,” (as in binding body, mind and spirit to higher forces) was a way of speeding the plow on the ten-thousand life cycle of death and reincarnation it was said that it took to burn off one’s karma and eventually wake up—at which point one was freed from having to come back to our world, yet again, a world of attachment and loss… a world of suffering.

So… to avoid the drudgery of ten-thousand spins on the life and death wheel, one embraced a little suffering in a stitch-in-time to be excused from the trap of time paradigm.  But as young people would inevitably be tempted by drink and the ways of the flesh, it was seen as constructive that the initiates should spend evenings sitting on rotting corpses at the cemetery—direct confrontation with mortality and the ultimate way of all flesh.  Fun!  And apparently somewhat effective at clueing yogis into the truths about life and death—a real buzz-kill to the yogi-party animal, but a sobering aid on the path toward enlightenment.

Now, why would we want to think about gross, dark and disturbing things in a parenting blog?  Aren’t colic, and mental issues and learning differences enough?  Well, yes and no.  I notice that one of the big problems facing both my clients and my non-clients is that we want at the same time to be comfortable and “happy,” and we thirst for meaning, purpose, spirit and connection (which often demand that we take risks, confront fears and endure discomfort).  So, what’s a parent to do?

Parenting is a spiritual path par excellence not because it is always fun or beatific, but precisely because it is so filled with pain, suffering, indignation, sacrifice, loss and all that other sublime “good” stuff.  To the extent that we are made to think of parenting as a Hallmark card, we are left feeling secretly ashamed at all the moments that look more like a TV crime drama (hopefully not too much like a crime drama).  Still, if we are to manage to be our best Selves as parents, we must “suck up” and contain a lot of difficult feelings and awful moments.  This process of authentic, in the flux of it all parenting is like yoga, and it too potentially liberates us from the emptiness of merely seeking more comfort and more empty objects in order to distract us from our fleeting mortality.  Attachment, love and loss are the heart and soul of parenting—and of spiritual development.

Nietzsche thought that trying to get rid of suffering was an idiotic idea, and he believed that the very strength of the soul, its profundity, spirit and greatness were all granted “through the discipline of great suffering.”  Parenting is soul-making activity, and while we would not care to sit literally on rotting corpses, contemplating the bigger picture of what lasts and what does not may help us tame our anger and harness our baser impulses in the service of good feelings that might truly last—and last because we have made them solid by also incorporating bad feelings into the mix, like straw and blood along with the mud used to make the bricks of the old missions in California.

The prize we are after, that of being present to what is, may look like nothing but fool’s gold to those who’ve never even metaphorically sat on corpses and who still chase the sparkling lie of a life free of all suffering.  Confront impermanence, then we get back to what matters.  The real transcendent love is to be found in the just-so-ness of what is, in our lives, as they stand—and in the recognition that we are all kindred spirits on a common journey, whether or not we consciously realize this.  For this reason I believe that parenting itself may be our best, most collective and most ecumenical and inclusive path to some sort of common recognition of the collective consciousness we share… our one world which we risk blowing up if too many of us remain in denial and keep putting off individual soul-suffering in favor of global catastrophes that seem to “just happen,” with no single anyone being responsible.  The failure of any child is a collective, and soul-killing, catastrophe—while getting it right, suffering productively in the service of love for all our children is like suicide prevention:  when it goes well, nobody hears about it.

So, to the readers I haven’t lost by this point in a rambling post, thanks for sticking with me; let’s make our inevitable and inescapable suffering at least be productive suffering—and let’s dedicate that productive suffering to the benefit of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Why Did Ancient Yogis Sit on Corpses All Night Long?”

  1. Mwa Says:

    Yes. I agree.

    I also think that children should not be shielded from suffering and pain always. Some parents seem to see it as their task to always “make their children happy”, and understandable objective, but I believe not all that good for the children in the long run.

    Children should not be shielded from sadness (when someone dies, for example) or a bit of discomfort (for example if they refuse to eat consistently at the dinner table, it’s ok to let them go hungry until the next meal occasionally).

  2. Mwa Says:

    By the way,

    a real buzz-kill to the yogi-party animal

    – very funny.

  3. Katrina Says:

    Thank you, Bruce. This speaks to me. I have been burying the “not so Hallmark card” emotions of parenting. Even though I understand the implications of turning my back to the dark and angry feelings related to parenting, it is so my nature to reject those emotions as “unmotherly”. I experience those emotions, but then feel “wrong” for having felt them. I believe that very deep down, I fear losing my temper and emotionally wounding my daughter, something I promised myself as a little girl that I would never ever do if I had children of my own one day. I need to face those emotions and contain them as legitimately and authentically me, without feeling like a “bad mommy” for doing so. As my dreams have been telling me, I can’t contain my angry tiger emotions in their appropriate holding place if I don’t acknowledge that they have a right to exist, too.

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