Once in a yoga class the teacher had us doing some complicated mudra (A gesture or position, usually of the hands, that locks and guides energy flow and reflexes to the brain). I asked the teacher why we were doing this mudra. What was the purpose? What was the desired effect? - her answer was "I don't really know. It's one that my teacher uses." I respect the fact that she was honest and didn't try to give me some stupid yoga babble but I still wanted to know. All I could do at that point was to turn my awareness inward and witness the effect the mudra had on me. (a side note: I later did a google search, and a search in my library of yoga books and couldn't find the mudra so it's yet another yoga mystery)
If there's one thing I've learned is that the only way to know anything for sure is to experience it for yourself. You can know something in your head but until you feel it and experience it you don't really know it. It all comes back to this one truth. This month my Upanishad study group is reading and discussing the Mundaka Upanishad, two modes of knowing. Here again, I can study the scriptures and know it in my head but until I experience the teachings and how they play out in my daily life I can't really know it.
"The illumined sages say knowledge is twofold, higher and lower. The study of the Vedas, linguistics, rituals, astronomy, and all the arts can be called lower knowledge. The higher is that which leads to Self-realization"
What that means to me is this: By reading the scriptures I can understand them intellectually. Performing rituals like practicing yoga is good. Knowing what planets and stars were where at the time of my birth may explain why certain things happen. All this knowledge is good but it may not lead to Self-realization. Perhaps it's the questions - the why and how that leads to Self-realization.
Okay, I've learned the sun salutation. I've probably done thousands of them over the years but now I want to understand why? Why do we salute the sun? Why are these particular postures part of that salutation? Why does the sequence create heat in the body? Why? Why? Why? Will the effect of the ritual of Surya Namaskar be different once I understand the meaning behind it? Will answering these questions lead to Self-realization?
What does Self-realization mean? What does it mean to you? I can tell you what it means to me. It means realizing that aspect of myself which is pure love and truth. It's that aspect of myself that is unchanging. My true nature. Don't get me wrong, it's elusive and hard to abide in but it's there. It's in the lotus of our hearts. When we're there - in the Self, the lotus of our hearts, we'll know. That's when we'll really know. This state of Self-realization is "far beyond the reach of words and thoughts". The sages tell us that once we reach that state all doubts will be gone and all questions will be answered. (Then maybe my crazy monkey mind will give it a rest!)
All these scriptures, rituals, techniques and questions are the road maps and vehicles. The destination is the Self (the Atman) It's that aspect of God/Divine that is within us. Everything we do either leads us closer to or away from the Self. Just reading the map won't get you to your destination, you need to walk towards it if you ever hope to reach it.
Maybe the why doesn't really matter. Maybe the more important question should be, does this bring me closer to Self-realization or further away?
In the book, Autobiography of a Yogi, Sri Yukteswar told Yogananda to leave some questions to be answered in the astral plan. I am trying to take that advice myself. Trying to find contentment in not knowing. After all, what would there to strive for if I already knew everything?
asato ma sadgamaya
tamaso ma jyotirgamaya
mrtyorma amrtam gamaya
Lead me from the unreal to the real.
Lead me from darkness to light.
Lead me from death to immortality.