Is Looking Inward the Same as Naval Gazing?

Just recently, I went to a talk by Hugh Mackay on “community”. I was nodding my head as he talked about rampant consumerism and how it doesn’t make us happy. He talked also about the “merchants of happiness” and how the whole happiness industry has led us to believe that we have an entitlement to be happy - happy being a never wavering, smiling state - which is not just unrealistic but not even desirable, since it limits us to a narrow range of human emotions. And I was with him till there.


But then the discussion took a subtle turn. “Don’t look inward to find happiness.” We exist in relationship with others, and we are essentially social beings. At that point I was still nodding my head, though I was a little unsure about the idea that I wouldn’t find happiness by looking inward, having spent a lifetime practising yoga and finding that I had indeed found a peacefulness and contentment in life, by doing just that - looking inward. Hugh then seemed to say (and it’s possible I misunderstood) that concepts like self-realisation and self-actualisation were synonymous with naval gazing. Compassion, he said, was a much better skill to cultivate.


And here I got my yoga hackles up. (If it’s possible to have yoga hackles.) I would say that in yoga, we look inward and inward and inward until we find the part of ourselves that is most basic, most fundamental. And it is from there that we can see that same “essence” in others. And this is the basis of compassion. The greeting “Namaste” acknowledges this. There are many ways to define “Namaste” but the one I like is simply “I recognise the essence within you”.


I’m mindful too, of the quote from BKS Iyengar that was used at the recent Adelaide Yoga Convention:

“It is through your body that you discover you are a spark of divinity”


So was Hugh Mackay advocating that I should ditch my yoga practice, get off the mat and out into the real world? Well no, not at all actually. He went on to say that that word “compassion” is often misunderstood. Rather than being an emotion, (like, for instance, loving or liking someone) compassion is a mental discipline. And here I found common ground with him again - in yoga we are developing that mental discipline. By gaining control of our own (first physical, then) mental and emotional state, we are then able to develop our skills of compassion.


Let’s let Hugh have the last word, from his book “Beyond Belief”:

“A spiritual experience is usually described as being mystical, transcendental, sublime or revelatory in some way. It is often associated with a feeling of great calm, peace and tranquility, a shedding of stress and anxiety. Such experiences appear to yield something more than heightened awareness of the self; they are typically associated with an intense awareness of the human story and our place in it.”

Isn't that just what we do in yoga?

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