Our Mystical Nature
Our Yoga Nature | Issue #126
This week’s newsletter continues our study of the Orthodox Christian monastic tradition, how it compares to ancient Yoga, and ultimately how it can stretch and expand our view. I begin with the question, “How does the monastic lifestyle help us become better stewards of the earth?” The answer lies in the power of our mystical nature, mastered and kept alive by the nuns, monks, elders, saints and sages of old, resulting in a natural harmony with all of creation.
The term “mystical” refers to an experience of the “mystery”, of the sacred and spiritual realm beyond the mind. One of the reasons I’ve been studying nature so deeply in the past three years is the profound way in which it can provide mystical experiences without the struggle many people have with religious language. The most effective yoga practices, i.e. Tree Pose, relaxation to nature sounds, visualizations of meditation on a mountain peak, all tap into the mystical power of nature.
The sole purpose of monastic life is to cultivate a continuous mystical state, and it is this power that we have yet to recognize for humanity as well as the earth. Our modern approach to environmental concerns is so often characterized by anxiety, debate, control and a battle of egos, whereas monastic life offers us a way that begins and ends with an inner transformation of the heart. In Orthodox language, the mystical life unites us with the mind of God, the nous, also called the spiritual eye of the heart*. The inner harmony this generates causes a natural outward harmony toward all of God’s creation.
A common yoga story relates to the cave dwellers whose mastery of ahimsa or non-harm caused tigers to stay clear of their dwelling place. In my study of the monastics of Orthodoxy, the number of stories like this are too many to count. Taming of wild animals, not to mention prophetic, telepathic and healing powers are absolutely commonplace at the monasteries.
One such story, and the first I heard, was that of a Russian saint named Peter who, while being persecuted, was thrown from a train into the wilderness. Repeating the prayer “Lord have mercy” he encountered a bear and surrendered his life to God’s will by laying down on the ground. When he woke he discovered the bear had curled around him through the night, keeping him from freezing and when the bear woke up it simply wandered away**. Though difficult to believe, these stories abound, and reflect a belief on the part of the Orthodox that when we return to our divine nature, harmony results with all of creation, as in the Garden of Eden.
How do we cultivate such spiritual harmony? The answer begins with humility, a main theme of our study so far, and a virtue shared by Yoga and Orthodoxy. It bears repeating that both traditions emphasize the dangers of seeking spiritual powers and emphasize instead constant taming of the ego. Any powers that arise are attributed to the Divine. For the Orthodox, such spiritual powers come from the Holy Spirit, and only according to God’s will.
The monastic life focuses not on what one can gain but on the mystical relationship with God. Specifically, this can be understood by what is called the “three legged stool” of spiritual practice: prayer, fasting and giving to the poor***. All three disciplines help redirect any energy of the ego toward the spiritual life, which is also the goal of the yoga tradition. The result is one pointed attention to all things good, to God, and a simultaneous surrender of the ego, resulting in a simplicity that not only brings the greatest joy and freedom, but harmoniously conserves resources for the poor as well as the earth.
Next week, as we focus on spiritual practices, I will share more about the Orthodox approach to prayer, as well as some examples for the beginner looking to experience how prayer cultivates our mystical nature.
With Great Love,
*Markides, Kyriacos, The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality, NY: Doubleday, 2001, p. 172.
**Armatas, Fr. Evan, Toolkit for Spiritual Growth: A Practical Guide to Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2020
***Mancuso, T. Anne, The Sleepy Bear and the Golden Whispers, OH: St. Innocent Press, 2019
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