Four Paths, Four Yogas, One Church

The Hindu faith, recognizing that different people processes information—including “spiritual” information—differently, recognize four different yogas (jnana, bhakti, karma, raja) for the four different types of people (reflective, heart centered, work centered, and body centered) *Please note, we return to two services this week, at 9:00 & 11:00 a.m.*

“Four Paths, Four Yogas, One Church”

September 22, 2019 

This morning I want to talk about yoga. Yoga is associated with the religion of Hinduism. If we think of Hinduism as a philosophy, then yoga is its practice. The word “yoga” has the same root as the word “yoke” and carries connotations of both uniting (yoking together) and of placing under discipline (take my yoke upon you). In short: yoga is a method of training promising spiritual enlightenment, which is further understood as integration and union.

“The aim of life,” wrote the Unitarian Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is to get as far as possible from imperfection.” This is what the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Ellery Channing meant by self-culture: the continual effort to improve oneself, to grow. And from Emerson and Channing on through today, our movement has always affirmed this idea: the great value of evolving and growing ethically and psycho-emotionally or spiritually; indeed, it’s what most Unitarian Universalists think religion should be all about. And on this the Hindus agree. In fact, they go even further. Hindus believe that overcoming human limitations is the one and only goal of life. And, moreover: they believe, that it’s possible to transcend human limitations completely.

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Hindu anthropology maintains that underlying the human personality, and animating it, is a reservoir of being that never dies and is never exhausted. They believe, too, that if one goes deep enough into their heart of hearts, known as Atman, what is discovered there is none other than Brahman, the great creator of the Universe: God Itself.

Westerners sometimes find these ideas astonishing, but they’re not all that different from some Western ideas. Most of us are familiar in a general sort of way with the theories of Sigmund Freud. Writing about 100 years ago, Freud was the first Western, scientifically trained physician to propose the idea of unconscious motivation; that people’s behavior is often determined by repressed and unconscious factors, buried deeply within their psyche. As Freud understood it, the human mind was two-tiered: one’s conscious mind (their ego), and beneath that, one’s Unconscious mind. Carl Jung, an early disciple of Freud’s, theorized a three-tiered model of the mind. Like Freud, his earlier mentor, Jung believed that beneath the ego was the personal unconscious. But he also believed that beneath the personal unconscious laid the Collective Unconscious. According to Jung individual personalities are like islands: all connected under the sea. We’re interconnected so extensively, help Jung, that we can never extract ourselves; indeed, the Universe and the psyche, according to Carl Jung, are actually two sides of the same coin, one viewed from within and one from outside. It’s kind of like reality is a cosmic four, five—who knows how many dimensional Mobius strip running up and down your, and everyone’s, spinal column. Psyche and Universe are one: inextricable reflections one of the other, Atman equaling Brahman. But my point is: here we have two languages—one Western and empirical, the other Eastern and mystical—both describing humanity’s intimate internal connection to the forces that create and uphold life. Right here and right now.

Hindu literature is replete with images depicting this state of affairs: that we are all like lions separated at birth from our pride and raised by sheep, until now we bleat and graze like little lambs unaware that we are rightfully Kings and Queens of the Beasts. Or we’re like heartbroken lovers searching the world over for a lost companion, unaware that they are beside us all along. My favorite such image is the Sufi Myth of the Mad King, wherein a young prince is called to his father’s court one day and sent on an important mission. Go to Egypt and mingle with the people, he is told, and wait for further instructions. He leaves immediately and, some weeks later, arrives in Egypt and proceeds to do as he was told. He learns the language, acquires a skill and quickly blends in quite unobtrusively. In time he takes a wife and has a family. All is going along nicely until one day a messenger arrives with a message from the man’s nearly forgotten far away father. Startled and confused, the prince sends him away. That night, however, he has a dream reminding him of his earlier life and mission. He wakes up and has the messenger sent for. Alas, it’s too late. He cannot be found. All that remains is an enigmatic note for the Prince: “Your heart knows the way; follow it home.”

We’re all in this predicament, according to Hinduism. However, despite all of us being in the same existential situation, each person’s way to freedom and reconciliation is unique and theirs alone. Unlike Fundamentalist Christians who maintain that there is only “One Way” to God—the Fundamentalist way—Hindus believe that everyone’s path to enlightenment is unique and completely their own.

The religious scholar Huston Smith points out while all religions “recognize different spiritual personality types…Hinduism is exceptional in the attention it has given the matter; it identifies…[four] principle types and delineates the programs that are suited to each.”[1]

We’re all unique, says Hinduism; unique though everyone may be, however, we’re all psychologically constellated in one of only four ways; we’re either reflective, emotional, energetic, or what Huston Smith calls “experimental,” but I’d call trippy—enchanted with inner states, and not infrequently, altered states. These types aren’t absolutely rigid; indeed, everyone’s all a little bit of each. Nevertheless, everyone is constellated, primarily, as one type or another, and Hinduism prescribes a distinct yoga for each type.

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I want to go off on a tangent here, for just a moment. I’ll come back to the four yogas shortly, but I want to focus for a moment on our own tradition, Unitarian Universalism, and about the growing embrace we’ve made of pluralism over the last twenty-five years. Hinduism does a good job of accepting all kinds of people, but this wasn’t always so among Unitarian Universalists. I think especially of the 60’s and 70’s, when, all too often, a kind of fundamentalism of the left prevailed in some of our congregations: if one wasn’t a certain type of person, they might well not be all that welcome. In our large congregations the operative theology tended to be the Minister’s theology—sometimes not all that clearly articulated to begin with. Meantime, too many of our fellowships came off as cleansed-of-all-mystery left-wing left-lobed debating clubs. Heaven help somebody who walked in anxious about an impending pink slip, an uncertain diagnosis, or a period four days overdue! Not all congregations were equally rigid about such things, of course, and there have always been open and welcoming souls among us—people like Dorothy Hopper—who know how to warmly receive guests and make them feel at home. But—my point—we’re more welcoming nowadays to people with a variety of theologies than we used to be, far more welcoming.

What changed things? What was it that made our congregations more open to pagans and neo-Transcendentalists and other “right-lobed” people? I believe it was the adoption, in 1985, of our current UUA Purposes and Principles covenant. On most Sundays we have these same UU Principles printed in the Sunday Bulletin. The third principle of which is: Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. People talk a lot about the first principal and the seventh principle, but it’s the third principle and only the third principle that distinguishes Unitarian Universalism as a religious organization; the other six, though laudable in every way, could just as easily be guiding principles for Rotary, or the Elks Club. My point is: things have changed. Unitarian Universalist congregations are more pluralistic than they used to be twenty-five or thirty years ago, and more explicitly spiritual. Perhaps it’s attributable to the adoption of the Purposes and Principles, but whatever the cause, I’ve got to tell you, nowadays UUs everywhere welcome more kinds of people than we once did. And our ministers are asked to reach out to more kinds of people using various languages of faith, including world religions… as I’m doing—or trying to do—this morning. And I’m doing all this because Hinduism—it seems to me—has something very important to teach us when it comes to welcoming a diverse community reflective of ESUC’s increasingly diverse neighborhood.

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So… back to yoga. Unitarian Universalists may welcome more diverse types of people than we once did, but still, the largest numbers of UUs, I think, are essentially reflective. In the language of Hinduism, such people are jnana yogis: folks whose “path to enlightenment,” such as it is, is through the rational mind; that is through understanding: “getting it” in their heads.

Essentially, there are three stages on this path: insight, meditation and morality:

  • insight into the infinite mind of wisdom and clarity that lies beneath one’s ego-driven anxieties and neuroses;
  • meditation (reflection, contemplation) wherein one visits that mind again and again, until it becomes the mind she or he lives in and identifies with; and finality,
  • morality, whereby one brings this deeper expanded sense of identity out in the way they live their life and in exemplification of the inner truths they’ve come to understand and integrate.

It’s all about coming to identify with the supreme identity, with the Atman that is Brahman, instead of with one’s ego; and then coming out of that Supreme Identity more and more.

In his autobiography Alan Watts refers to Joseph Campbell as a jnana yogi. Campbell “is an example,” writes Watts, “although such examples are rare, of the fact that one can understand certain deep matters of the spirit simply by understanding them. To see it ‘intellectually’ is to see it all the way through.”[2]

And while such profound understanding may be true of Joseph Campbell or Alan Watts, most people, I am quite sure, are less intellectual and reflective than the two of them. I sure am. I know how to think, all right, and I’m thankful that I do. But according to the Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory Exam I’m more of a feeling type than a thinking type. And so, I strongly suspect, are most people. Which is why in India most Hindus follow Bhakti yoga: the path to enlightenment through love. The aim of bhakti is to direct toward God the love that lies in one’s heart of hearts. One key difference between jnana and bhakti yoga is that the bhakti strives not to identify with God but to adore God. Thus, it’s more devotional than conceptual.

Hinduism has thousands of gods and goddesses—a cornucopia of spiritual images. This led many early scholars to presume that Hinduism was pantheistic when, in fact, the many spirits are understood by the Hindus to be but multiple faces of the One Life behind all life. In its practice, Bhakti invites its devotees to immerse themselves in Hinduism’s many rituals and ceremonies. And to think of its many images as “springboards” to deeper understanding. Bkaktas are encouraged to recite mantras (a kind of repetitive prayer) and to meditate on ishtas: saints who represent one’s chosen ideal. I suspect that a lot of social activists are essentially Bhakti yogis; that their response to injustice is primarily an emotional response; it’s not the latest statistics from the US Dept. of Labor that inform most activist politics. It’s simpler than that: Bhaktis hearts hurt when they see suffering and they feel called to help alleviate it. Period.

Karma yoga is the third type of yoga: the path to enlightenment through work. Our culture here in America is so focused on work that I suspect a lot of us are karma yogis or strive to be. It’s not true elsewhere, but in the United States the second question people ask of one another, after inquiring of another’s name, is “what do you do.” By which they mean, “what work do you do?” This is understandable. After all, work is life’s staple. We must work to survive. But that’s hardly the whole of it—for, indeed, most people find work satisfying, and important to their sense of value and meaning in life. And for such people, Hinduism says, you don’t have to retire to a cloister to realize God; enlightenment can be found in everyday affairs as readily as anywhere. But, to do so, one needs to find work that carries them toward God, not away. This is connected to the idea of right livelihood: the recognition that some occupations are more conducive to spiritual growth than others. You can’t be an armaments manufacturer if you want to become enlightened, say the Hindis, or a drug dealer. But while you can’t be an armaments manufacturer, you can be a warrior; indeed, the Samurai tradition and the Arthurian tradition are both about exactly that: finding one’s way, with honor and integrity, as a warrior. Many Unitarian Universalists self-identify as artists. There are artists among our membership here. Most artists are karma yogis. By which I mean do-ers, people of action. Such women and men are kinetic and energetic, constantly engaged and moving from one thing on to the next. Like my brother-in-law, Bob. He never slows down. He’s just constantly moving and busy with some project. Board Presidents are often kind’a like that: always active. Healthy churches have some reflective types, for sure; but they also have some active types to make sure that the nuts and bolts get attended to, as well as the philosophical concerns.

Energetic souls like my brother-in-law, Bob, are good to have around, writes the late University of California religious scholar Huston Smith, but they have to be careful because “according to Hindu doctrine, every action directed toward the external world reacts on the doer. Everything I do for my private benefit adds another layer to my ego, and in thus thickening, it separates me further from God. Conversely, every act that is done without thought for myself diminishes my self-centeredness until nothing separates me from the divine.”[3] Thus Karma yogis focus on ways to—paradoxically—make their egos skilled at diminishing ego. For example: being controlling is egocentric and contrary to the spirit of enlightenment, but using one’s controlling impulses to create films or music or art that enables others to let go of control and grow in faith—such that the total equation burns off more karma than it creates: this is a good thing. Back-to-back [2014 and ‘15] Oscar winner for Best Director, Alejandro González Iñárritu [ih-nyar-ee-too] said as much in his acceptance speech, thanking his creative team for their collective support of what was essentially, for all of them but clearly for Iñárritu, a spiritual effort. Karma yoga.

Lastly, there’s Raja yoga: the way to enlightenment through psychophysical exercises. This is the kind of yoga that most of us probably think of first: yoga practiced in leotard and tights and sitting in a lotus position, cross-legged on the floor. Raja hypothesizes four levels of the human self: one’s body, one’s conscious mind, one’s individual unconscious, and beneath it all Being Itself: The Atman that is simultaneously Brahman. The Raja yogi struggles to concentrate her or his ever distractible “monkey mind.” They learn how to sit barely moving for long stretches of time, how to breathe in one nostril and out the other, and how to faithfully perform many other exercises all designed to activate the mystical Kundalini serpent lying coiled at the base of one’s spine, who in turn opens up one’s seven chakras, ushering in enlightenment. Mystical anatomy.

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OK… in conclusion: Despite what some of our congregations looked like in the 60’s and 70’s, no healthy group is composed of people who are all alike. Or dominated by those who insist that newcomers behave just as they once did. Maybe a club works like that, and clubs can be good places—for golf or tennis or sailing. But not for the practice of religion. To practice religion, we need communities. Beloved communities (to use the term first coined by Harvard philosopher and Western mountain native Josiah Royce—and later picked up by Martin Luther King, Jr.) wherein everyone is honored for their unique gifts, iconoclastic as some of those may at first glance appear to be.

Just as no healthy, beloved community is composed of all similar people, no individual is solely reflective, or emotional, activist or experimental. Moreover, different life situations call for different resources to be brought into play. Most of us, naturally, will find that we make better time on one path than on the others—and so we will keep close to it. Hinduism, however, encourages people to test all four yogas and combine them in ways they find most productive.

Our Unitarian Universalist churches must do the same, it seems to me: find ways to welcome and (as it says in our third UU principle) to accept all kinds of people. And to offer one another a variety of ways to nurture spiritual growth among us. If we are to be a truly welcoming and beloved community, then we not only have to welcome different types of people, we have to offer them practices that support and encourage their quests. Which we are doing. More and more. Better and better. Let us keep it up!  So, may it Be.       Amen.     Namaste.


[1] Smith, Huston, The Illustrated World’s Religions (HarperCollins, New York, 1994) p. 26.

[2] Watts, Alan, In My Own Way (Vintage Books, New York, 1973) p. 265.

[3] Smith, ibid. p. 32.