Om Alone


By Mark Epstein  |  

The yoga class was just beginning, and I had not been coming for very long. I was pretty much in my own world and concerned with getting myself set up properly. The class was a little late getting started, and we were all lined up expectantly on blue sticky mats, like overgrown preschoolers ready for nap time. Ready with blocks, blankets, and belts, we waited for the teacher to gather himself into his leading role.

I was fond of this before-the-beginning beginning; it was a between-state, a bardo, a passageway from one world to the next. Dressed in our yoga clothes, we could be anybody, or nobody, but we were unmistakably ourselves. I could not even see very well, having left my glasses and keys askew in my shoes at the back of the Manhattan studio. The feeling in the room was anxious but cautiously optimistic, as it is in the therapy office when a new but eager patient has just come in, before she has told me much of her story. I like this period because of how unstructured but brief it is; it never goes on long enough for me to start getting anxious but gives me a needed respite from the rest of my structured day. As when flying between cities in an airplane, I am suspended for a time. The remnants of my outside life can settle down before the tasks of this inside practice take over.

I do not intend this to be mean, but I was taken aback by what happened next. (The unconscious knows no negatives, I was taught when studying Freud. If someone tells me they don’t mean to offend me, I know they probably do.) Nothing out of the ordinary really happened. The new yoga teacher sat down in the front of the class and took a deep breath. He told us to sit up straight and close our eyes. He sang a mantra and asked us to chant it back to him. It was not an unfamiliar mantra, but something in his tone disturbed my reverie. What was it? I wondered. He was only chanting Om, for goodness sake. But something else was coming through the sound, an insistent quality, not quite a demand but an expectation.

I felt a wall going up around me and noticed that he got a tepid response from the class. “It’s not just me,” I consoled myself; other people had also contracted. He continued, bravely, but his song had more of that unrelenting tone. He wanted something from us, all right. It was there in his voice. I was reminded of visiting a friend in Minneapolis and walking around one of the lakes with her one summer afternoon. Everyone we passed was so resolutely cheerful, I had trouble believing they were real. Their greetings seemed to carry an implicit demand that I be cheerful in return. Our yoga teacher had a similar agenda for us, and the class did not appreciate it.

The teacher only repeated the mantra three times; the whole thing was not a big deal. It would have been nice if we had come around and started to sing and turned it into something positive, a big exhalation, but we did not do so. A few people ventured a response. I did not give much of one. I thought back to another teacher’s chanting, though. Her class was the first I ever attended and her singing, too, caught me off-guard; it had never occurred to me that there would be chanting during a lunch-time yoga class.


But Julie’s voice had astonished me. She sang quietly and beautifully as if to herself, very briefly at the start of class. If my mind were a candle her chanting would not have caused a flutter. Julie was pregnant, so perhaps she was not singing to herself after all. Whoever she was singing to, it did not cause waves in the class. This teacher was a different story. Were my mind a candle, it would have been blown out. His agenda filled the room, and we were all suddenly pulled inside of it, as if a big vacuum had sucked us all up.

The class improved markedly as we started to move around, but I was struck by how that brief beginning had set an uncomfortable tone. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised. As a psychotherapist, I was trained to pay particular attention to the beginnings of sessions. Whole seminars are constructed around the topic. How to position the chairs, open the conversation, maintain an expectant but noninterfering silence. Let the patient begin. They called it the “analytic attitude.”

A controversial British psychoanalyst, W.R. Bion, famously declared that the psychoanalyst must be free from memory and desire if he is to be of any use to his patients. To think about the end of a session, to wonder what time it is, even to hope for a cure is to add an agenda that becomes an interference because it is sensed as a demand. People are sensitive to each other, especially in a stripped-down relationship like a therapeutic one. The yoga student-teacher relationship seems to be similar. “If the psychoanalyst has not deliberately divested himself of memory and desire,” said Bion in his 1970 classic Attention and Interpretation, “the patient can ‘feel’ this and is dominated by the ‘feeling’ that he is possessed by and contained in the analyst’s state of mind, namely, the state represented by ‘desire.’” This is what I was experiencing in the yoga class. Like a stowaway in a packing crate in the hold of an ocean freighter, I was trapped in the bubble of another’s desire.

I thought right away of a patient of mine, a psychologist-in-training who was doing his internship while seeing me in therapy. Jim was a brilliant therapist, but all too eager to share his insights with his patients. A student of meditation, he was aware of how his eagerness interfered with his effectiveness. His patients tended to experience him as telling them what to think instead of helping them come to their senses. “I feel like I’m always trying too hard to be effective, like I’m doing some sort of a job,” he would say, well aware of the irony of his words. He was doing a job, of course, but it was not a job that required action. (A Taoist might say it was a job that required nonaction.) With his therapeutic acumen, he was able to see where his zeal came from. “I’m trying to overcome a core sense of inadequacy,” he told me recently. His enthusiasm had a compensatory quality that turned his patients off, even when what he had to say was technically correct. There was something of this in my yoga teacher. We all knew that he wanted a rousing introduction to his class, that he wanted to take us higher. But in reaching for it, he was too present, and his personality became all figure and no ground.


The Buddha once used a similar situation to make a point about spiritual striving. His student was a musician by training, a lute player named Sona, whose approach to meditation was interfering with his progress. He was trying too hard and getting in his own way. “Tell me, Sona,” said the Buddha, “when the strings of your lute were too taut, was your lute tuneful and easily playable?”

“Certainly not, Oh Lord,” Sona said.

“And when the strings of your lute were too loose, was your lute tuneful and easily playable?”

“Certainly not, Oh Lord,” the musician repeated.

“But when, Sona, the strings of your lute were neither too taut nor too loose, but adjusted to an even pitch, did your lute then have a wonderful sound and was it easily playable?”

If energy is applied too vigorously it will lead to restlessness and if it is applied too weakly it will lead to lassitude. In a foreshadowing of the “analytic attitude,” the Buddha knew that too much effort could overwhelm the wonderful sound that we are seeking.

As I continue to take classes with my yoga teacher, I can see how much he wants to create a spiritual environment for us. While his intention is noble, our yoga postures are burdened by his desire for them to be special. His class provides a special challenge, one that I did not bargain for at the beginning. It recapitulates an all-too-familiar childhood drama, in which parental expectations can overwhelm a child’s burgeoning self-expression. I have come to look forward to it as a unique form of therapy, one in which I can practice being free while imprisoned in the mind of another.

Mark Epstein, M.D., is a psychiatrist in New York and author of Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective (Basic Books, 1996) and Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart (Broadway Books, 1999). He’s been a student of Buddhist meditation for 25 years.