Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980)
"One always dies too soon--or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are--your life, and nothing else."
Jean-Paul Sartre, No Exit
I have been reading Sartre in preparation for my fall classes. In the course of my reading, I vaguely felt that some of the themes that come up in Sartre's writings resonate with some of the things that I have been writing about on this blog the last few days. So I'm going to use this post as a testing ground of sorts, and try to see if I can bring these two things--Sartre and yoga--together.
In my previous post about teaching yoga and yoga teacher trainings, I said a few things about the motivations that led people who are relatively new to yoga to enroll in teacher trainings and become yoga teachers, even if they might not have gone through the amount of personal practice needed in order to be teachers who can teach classes with great depth and skill.
As with many other things in life, the motives that people have for wanting to become famous yoga teachers, yoga rock stars, self-made gurus, etc, are many and varied. They range from well-intentioned and lofty (wanting to share yoga with others, wanting to deepen one's practice) to petty (wanting to make some extra cash) to somewhat misguided (wanting to escape from a boring and unsatisfying day job) to outright megalomaniacal (wanting to feel important and be adored by large groups of people). Indeed, it is quite possible for one person to be motivated to varying degrees by several or even all of these motives at the same time. I am not pointing this out to pass judgment on anybody. I am only saying this because I know that this happens as a matter of fact; I, for one, had all of these motives at the same time during my short tenure as a yoga teaching charlatan :-). But of course, it is also possible that I may be the only person who acts from such base motives in wanting to be a yoga teacher; maybe every other aspiring yoga teacher out there is all noble and such. Fine... I'll live with that.
But I didn't write this post as an exercise in condemnation (least of all self-condemnation). What I'm really interested in is the question of why these aspiring yoga teachers have the motives they do. And I propose to analyze this question from an existentialist angle; specifically, from the perspective of the work of Jean-Paul Sartre.
In order to do this, I need to say a few things about Sartre's view of the human condition. If we were to try to deliver the gist of Sartre's view in a punchline, it would be: "Existence comes before essence." What does this mean? To put it very simply, this means that unlike artifacts and other man-made objects, which are explicitly designed and brought into existence with a very specific purpose in mind, human beings do not come into this world with any such purpose; there is no "instruction manual" telling us what we should do or how we should go about leading our lives. In his essay Existentialism as a Humanism, Sartre puts it this way:
"What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world--and defines himself afterwards... there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is... Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism... we mean to say that man primarily exists--that man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so. Man is, indeed, a project which possesses a subjective life, instead of being a kind of moss, or a fungus or a cauliflower. Before that projection of the self nothing exists..."
What has any of this to do with people doing yoga teacher trainings and becoming yoga teachers? Well, I'm getting there: Bear with me for a little more. Let me just start by talking about what follows from Sartre's words above: Because there is no single thing (or things) that define human beings qua human beings, human beings are perpetually free to redefine and reinvent themselves, whether or not they are always aware of this possibility. I am not fully defined by what I was or have done in the past; nor can I be fully identified with the various roles that I play right now in my personal and professional lives. This is true, even if others around me identify me with what I was or have done, or with the various social and personal roles.that I play at the moment. All these facts about my life do not fully define me, because there is always the possibility that I may do something in the next moment that refutes these things. For instance, I may have been a very timid and introverted person up to this point, and my friends may find themselves thinking of me as a timid person whenever they think or speak of me. But it is always possible that in the next moment, I may do something or undergo a personality change that shatters this conception of myself as a timid person, transcending this conception of myself. Or, as Sartre would say, we cannot be wholly defined by our facticity, or the facts that have been true of us up to this point, because we possess the potential to transcend this facticity.
Perhaps Sartre would say that a new yoga student who had been going to yoga classes for a few weeks, and who decides to enroll in teacher training and become a yoga teacher, is attempting to transcend her facticity. She deeply feels a powerful connection to yoga, and wants very much to share this with others around her (she may, of course, also be motivated by all those less noble motives that I mentioned above). At the same time, she also feels that everything else that has been in her life up to this point, and that has defined her as a person both to herself and in the eyes of her friends and family, are no longer adequate for the new conception of herself that has emerged in her mind's eye, and which she seeks to grow into. Thus, to use a rather tired metaphor, she is shedding the cocoon of her old self-conception, transcending it in order to make way for the new conception that she aspires towards.
But things are a little more complicated than that. Sartre observes that in attempting to transcend their facticity, people often deliberately choose not to acknowledge things about themselves that are quite obviously true of them at that particular point in time. They see these things as awkward or inconvenient truths to be swept under the rug in order to make room for the new self-conception that they are anxiously trying to usher in; they either deny these things outright, or try to rationalize them away, downplaying their significance. In Sartre's terminology, such individuals are in bad faith. Thus, it may very well be that in trying to convince others and herself that she has it in her to become a great yoga teacher in the very near future (i.e. however long it takes to complete the teacher training), the yoga neophyte/aspiring teacher is aware at some level of her lack of practice experience and perspective; however, she either denies this fact ("experience doesn't really matter; in fact, students will probably be able to relate better to me, who, like them, is also new to the practice, than to some dinosaur who has been practicing for, like, a million years...") or downplays its significance ("there are so many others in the teacher training who either have been practicing as long as I have, or are even newer to the practice...").
Thus, if this picture I have painted of what is going on in a yoga neophyte/aspiring teacher's mind is in any way representative of what is going on with many new yoga students in such a position, it may very well be that many yoga neophytes/aspiring teachers are in Sartrean bad faith. I would like to emphasize that in postulating this, I am not casting any kind of judgment on anybody: Sartre's intention in carrying out such an existentialist analysis (and, humbly following in his footsteps, mine as well) is to gain a better understanding of the human condition by taking a disinterested yet brutally honest look at ourselves as humans who are trying to make sense of this apparently senseless condition into which we find ourselves thrown into. Nor am I saying that any new yoga student who wants to teach yoga must be in bad faith. After all, there are at least a few great teachers in the history of yoga who started teaching after having studied with their gurus for a relatively short time (B.K.S. Iyengar comes to mind). But I do hope that the above analysis would be of some interest to you, and would thus contribute to the ongoing conversation about this topic in some small way.