My Quest

For as long as I can remember I’ve been consumed by the question: what does it mean to be an integrated self? Since childhood I’ve wondered: what is this ‘I-ness’ that persists through time, that unifies my experience? Although I spent a lot of time thinking about these issues, I didn’t talk about them much with my childhood peers, as doing so produced a feeling of alienation.

When I began studying philosophy as a seventeen-year old freshman at University College Dublin I found myself among kindred spirits. Questions about personal identity and the constitution of selves were the stuff of coffee-break conversations among philosophers. Eleven years later, having spent a year studying in Amsterdam, worked in the travel industry, traveled a lot, and earned an M.A. in philosophy at University College Dublin, I set off for graduate school in Chicago.

As a Ph.D student in philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago I devoted a lot of my time to trying to come up with a robust description of what it is to have a self-conception. To my frustration I found that the parameters of analytic philosophy prevented me from articulating a satisfying description of selfhood. The problem was yoga!

The language of analytic philosophy was unable to accommodate the experiences I had as a student of yoga. I had a very visceral realization of this one morning after a meditation session during a discussion of Zen with my meditation teacher. In an instant I grasped that what I was learning about myself on the yoga mat, during meditation and asana practice, was exactly what the content of analytic philosophy, to which I was supposedly devoting my life, could not provide. Everything I learned at graduate school about having a self-conception and being an integrated self was merely a metaphor for what I learned experientially on the yoga mat. The knowledge I sought was to be found by enquiring into myself, rather than reading books.

Although my experiences as a student of yoga and a student of philosophy have been very different in many respects, in one deeply important way there has been a common thread through both, the feeling of coming home. The first time I attended a yoga class I knew that I had come home to myself. The relief was enormous. As a young student of philosophy I realized that I was at home among a community of like-minded people who cared more about the questions than the answers. But there have been some important differences also.

Yoga has allowed me to connect to myself on a level that the introspective, contemplative method of philosophy never has. In asana practice soma replaces text, breath replaces eyes, and feeling replaces the analytic mind. Using my body as a vehicle for exploration has allowed me to go deep inside, to penetrate realms that I was otherwise unable to access. The feeling of being at home was the feeling of being at one with myself. Practicing asana, meditating and chanting kirtan have allowed me to experience myself as an integrated self, and in so doing gain a deeper understanding of myself, in a way that doing analytic philosophy never did.

The yoga of kirtan (chanting Sanskrit mantras call and response style) has connected me to a deep wellspring of joy inside myself. The first time I heard kirtan I was instantly pulled to a source I couldn’t name but intuitively recognized. The first time I participated in a chant my heart and mind came to rest in a field of ecstatic embodiment and bliss. The chant quiets the mind and sets the heart free. As a lifelong music fanatic discovering a path called ‘bhakti yoga’ that uses music and song as a way of connecting to the source of love was a thing of beauty and grace.

For me yoga has been the journey home to my self, a journey towards wholeness and away from separation and alienation. Yoga informs my life and has given me a happiness I didn’t know was possible and, unexpectedly, it has led me to a field of robust intellectual inquiry, namely the neuroscience of ecstatic experiences. Embracing the spiritual has led me deeper down the path of intellectual enquiry and has given me an outlet for my cerebral side as I continue to explore the fertile area of intersection between the scientific, the philosophical and the spiritual in my writing and teaching.

Photos by Robert Sturman