St Patrick and the Trinity


We have been speaking about Lent and in the middle of Lent comes St. Patrick’s day which is tomorrow. I was just reading that either St. Patrick died on march 17 or that the Irish Catholics decided they needed one day when they could drink during Lent, so they claimed this day as his feast day. He is of course the patron saint of Ireland.

The cool thing about St. Patrick is he was a yogi, a Bhakti yogi and a Dhyana yogi (the yogas of devotion and meditation). He was actually a Roman citizen born in England. When he was sixteen, minding his own business, he was in the country house – beach house – of one of his uncles on the Welsh coast apparently. This was sometime in the 300s. He was a rich kid, a patrician, and these Celts used to come by boat over from Ireland and steal people and bring them back home to be slaves. So there you go: he was abducted and sold as a slave. In fact, in his writing he’s very anti-slavery and it’s considered that he is one of history’s earliest outspoken abolitionists. Anyway, the poor kid doesn’t speak the language and he’s sold into the kingdom of this druid, a clan chieftain of these barbaric people and they forced him to be a shepherd. It’s interesting that some of the great spiritual adepts were shepherds; looking after domesticated animals seems to be a spiritually enriching activity. Moses was a shepherd when he came upon the Burning Bush. David was a shepherd; Satyakama, in the Chandogya Upanishad, became enlightened while minding his cows. Krishna was a cowherd.

So Patrick is marooned on a hill somewhere looking at a herd of sheep for six years. In his own telling of it, he wasn’t very religious or anything but he had nothing to do and no one to talk to, so he prayed constantly. He had been raised as a Christian. And it was freezing cold as only Ireland can be (the coldest I’ve ever been in my life was a springtime in Ireland – it’s 40 degrees and you’ve never been so cold in your life).

In yoga the term for austerities and ascetic practices is “tapas.” Tapas means heat or fire and it refers to the spiritual fire that is sparked by discipline and restraint, deprivation. It’s the friction which is a psycho-spiritual friction between taking it easy and forcing yourself to rise to a discipline. Yogis seek to do ‘tapasya’ – we seek to do austerities, because austerities can develop us spiritually. They don’t always do so unless they are done with the right attitude and the right understanding.

Anyway, Patrick, spends 6 years of being freezing cold and constantly praying and meditating on his Guru, who is Christ. He is speaking to God all day long. He is doing Bhakti yoga- the yoga of devotion, and Dhyan yoga – the yoga of meditation, and no doubt also Karma yoga, the yoga of selfless service, and he has become a spiritual giant, a real powerhouse. And he gets a dream that tells him to go back to England; an angel came to him and said, you can go – there’s a ship waiting for you!

Though it’s a 200 mile journey, he gets to the ship, escapes, goes home and is embraced by his overjoyed family – they were so glad to see him. The story goes that he slept in a feather bed and he wasn’t used to it anymore – he was used to tapas – he was used to sleeping on the ground. He ended up wanting to go back to Ireland. He has these visions telling him that his destiny lay in returning to the Irish people and evangelizing them- conveying the teachings of Christ.

Celtic paganism was a very deep and highly developed mystical tradition and the mystical tendency is still prevalent in the Irish blood. The druidic adepts were a people who had achieved spiritual mastery but at that point it had gotten lost. And lest we over romanticize the culture, there were some pretty horrific practices going on, including human sacrifice. The Irish Celts were ripe for a spiritual transformation, and they caught on to the essence of the Christian way like wildfire.

Patrick’s use of the shamrock to illustrate the triadic Divinity – in Christianity known as the Trinity – was something that was already familiar in Druidic religion. They had already been worshiping God as a Trinity for centuries.

The idea that the Totality can be described as a triad or a trinity is very ancient and very new too. We understand the threefold constituents of the atom to be electrons, protons and neutrons. The mystical triangle is found in the world’s major mystic traditions. There is the Magen David – the star of David, there is the Shri Yantra – the Tantric symbol of the Divine as a series of intersecting triangles, and there are triadic deities everywhere you look. In Hinduism, God is Brahma – the creator, Vishnu – the sustainer, and Shiva – the destroyer. The Tantric path especially has a proclivity for drawing on the power of the the triangle, and we use this frequently in the practice of asana. Hatha yoga practice can be seen as a series of body movements describing Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis. The poses are an exploration of the full range of motion forward, back, left, right, by which the sense of our own center, our heart, is expanded.

I like to remind the class that a Tantric story we all know is the story of the Three Bears: Papa Bear’s chair is too hard, Mama Bear’s chair is too soft, but Baby Bear’s chair is Just Right. Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis. When we put our bodies into the postures of yoga we are acting out this statement about the nature of reality. The poses are done with the utmost care to express the body’s bilateral symmetry, and in doing this, the point of balance where the two are united is magnified.

Not to get too arcane, but the energetic currents that are unified in Hatha Yoga are called the Ida and the Pingala, which entwine the central channel, the Sushumna. When the Ida and Pingala are balanced, the Kundalini within the Sushumna awakens.

The ultimate experience in yoga is a feeling of unity that may be expressed as the feeling that the knower, the known and the uniting awareness between them is truly one thing, a continuum.

Aum, (or OM) enfolds and symbolizes the tripartite Reality. It is said that A is Brahma; U is Vishnu; and then M Shiva. So when we chant AUM we are actually chanting about the three kinds of powers in the one—we’re also chanting about the three “gunas,” which are the three qualities, but we’re going to put those aside right now. One more thing, you’ve heard about the third eye? The spiritual center here above the bridge of the nose? The postures and pranayama we do in Hatha yoga open this center. Know that when you do yoga you’re experiencing the opening of your third eye. You can think of this as the wholistic vision that occurs when the right and left hemispheres of the brain are in perfect accord.

So here’s to St Patrick and to the shamrock!

Mar 16, 2010

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