The Journal of
Cognitive Liberties

This article is from Vol. 3, No. 2 pages 43-56
All rights reserved worldwide.  ISSN: 1527-3946





Yogic Technique,
Religious Freedom
and Cognitive Liberty

Jason Mierek

Centuries of Protestant Christian hegemony within the US have left subtle ideological traces in the modern Usan [“Usan”---having to do with the United States of America, here contrasted with “American,” a term properly referring to that which pertains to the American continents of both hemispheres and to all their citizens.] conception of what it means to be religious, traces that have serious implications for the free practice of religion and cognitive liberty. While the explicit Usan cultural understanding of religion has gradually expanded to include non-Christian traditions, as encounters with different religions increase religion and religiosity are still implicitly understood in normative Christian, particularly Protestant, terms. In other words, religion equals faith, and to be religious is to hold to (privately, for the most part) particular tenets concerning the Deity and salvation. Contrast this with certain other spiritual traditions, specifically those with roots in the yogic techniques of India, wherein the sine qua non of the religious life is understood as more than faith. Within these yogic traditions, modern teachers, many of whose students come from Christian backgrounds, often discourage or even refuse the label “religion,” recognizing the problematic implications of a term mired in an implicit normative Christian context. This is because, while yogic traditions include faith in, and devotion to, various deities and/or spiritual heroes, they recognize that an equally normative aspect of what it means to be religious is the presence of myriad contemplative/meditative exercises through which the religious practitioner may pursue inner exploration and experimentation with consciousness.

I argue that these yogic traditions are separated from faith-centered traditions by a deep divide in what they consider to be essential to the religious life. Further, recognition of, and respect for, this divide has serious implications for our exercise of free religion in the US. Such recognition profoundly impacts personal religious freedom and cognitive liberty, and should increase respect for spiritual discovery through investigation into, and transformation of, the self or the mind by whatever means necessary. If we recognize the exploration of consciousness according to yogic technique as a valid way of being religious, then it would seem that we must also agree that the free practice of one’s religion in these terms mandates unrestricted access to all alternative states of consciousness and techniques of consciousness modulation. With this alternate understanding comes the concomitant awareness that one must possess cognitive liberty, i.e. the ability to experiment with the form and contents of one’s consciousness without fear of government interference and/or reprisal, if one is to enjoy free practice of one’s religion.

This essay is an attempt to establish philosophical grounds for a different way of understanding religion and religiosity and to undermine a monolithic understanding of what it means to be religious. I argue that there is more than one way to be religious, and look to the yogic traditions of India for a different normative religious modality. I hope this model will encourage novel directions of scholarship and activism by those interested in history and/or jurisprudence also sharing my desire to promote cognitive, religious and civil liberty. That religious liberty is quite precarious is evident when one considers the blaze of recent anti-Islamic, Sikh, etc. sentiments and actions across the United States, sparked by the events of 11 September and fueled by decades of media misrepresentation. For many others who have explored and altered their own consciousnesses for purposes of spiritual discovery, the War on (Some) Drugs has resulted in imprisonment, injury and even death. Religious liberty can have truly life and death consequences for us all.

A Christian Legacy: Belief as a Synonym for Religion

A bit of historical background is in order: Political documents antedating the Bill of Rights reflect the early Usan cultural conception of religion as belief. The Maryland Toleration Act of 1649 expressly prohibited the molestation of anyone “professing to believe in Jesus Christ,” while the Massachusetts Body of Liberties (1647) similarly protected anybody “professing the true Christian Religion.” While the emphasis on the “true Christian Religion” is interesting, it is not what I wish to discuss here. Instead, I would point out the weight that both documents place upon the act of “professing to believe.” It is belief, the profession of faith, which the liberal authors of these documents understood as the sine qua non of the religious life. Although heirs to the Usan cultural and legal legacies may not (all) be Christian, they have nonetheless inherited this implicit understanding of religion and its free practice as belief and professing to believe.

This understanding of religion as belief (or “belief in”) is clearly evident in the Christian scriptures. An example can be seen on signs waving behind home plate at Wrigley Field or in the stands at college football games: There, ubiquitous banners read simply, “John 3:16.” This code, cryptic perhaps to non-Christians, is immediately decipherable to the bible-read Catholic or Methodist: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (emphasis mine).1 This verse was affectionately described to those in my Lutheran catechism class as “the gospel in a nutshell,” underscoring that it is belief in Christ as the savior that is the necessary condition for salvation. The three synoptic Gospels emphasize faith’s curative power, while according to John, the theological importance of faith, wherein belief in Christ is the key to eternal life, cannot be stressed enough.2 “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved,” explain Paul and Silas to their inquisitive jailer, who stands amazed at seeing his locked jail doors flung wide.3 Likewise, the Letter of Paul to the Romans proclaims that the Christian is “justified by faith,”4 a proclamation that stands at the heart of the doctrine of God’s grace and forgiveness. Belief in Christ is the crux of the Christian faith as rendered by the authors of the New Testament.

With belief understood as the necessary condition for salvation, it was critical for the early Christian to discern what was to be believed from what was not, and so the early Christian church, in order to separate “the wheat from the chaff,” developed doctrinal formulations of faith, or creeds. From the Latin credo, meaning “I believe,” the creeds outlined not only the tenets in which the true Christian must believe, but also served to highlight those doctrines which the Church deemed heretical. The first, the Apostles’ Creed, was compiled around the year AD 150, and “was a means whereby Christians could distinguish true believers from those who followed the various heresies circulating at the time.”5 The scriptures alone were ambiguous on many doctrinal issues; the creeds helped to “fix” these doctrines and to dispense with any troublesome ambivalence. (And once the creeds had dispensed with any troublesome ambivalence, the Church could dispense with the troublesome heretics.) In 325, responding to the Arian heresy, the First Ecumenical Council formulated the Nicene Creed. After “it soon became evident that by limiting itself to biblical texts the Council would find it very difficult to express its rejection of Arianism [a then-popular heresy] in unmistakable terms,” the Council “decided to agree on a creed that would express the faith of the church in such a way that Arianism was clearly excluded.”6 Creeds were the means for squashing dissent in the Christian ranks, for maintaining control of what followers thought and believed. The last of the creeds (and coincidentally the longest) is the Athanasian Creed, formulated in the late 4th or early 5th century. In its opening passage—“whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he holds the catholic [universal] faith”—the Athanasian Creed mandates faith in its own particular doctrinal formulation of the meaning of Christ’s life and death as the necessary condition for salvation.

If the Christian scriptures promoted faith as a necessary condition for salvation, with the creeds establishing exactly what one was to have faith in if one was to be considered a Christian, then the theologians of the Protestant Reformation asserted that faith, and only faith, was sufficient for redemption from sin. Protestant reformers throughout Europe took very seriously Paul’s aforementioned Letter to the Romans, with its doctrine of justification through faith in Christ, in their reformulations of Christian dogma. To many, including John Calvin and Martin Luther, faith was not merely the assertion of a particular formulation of tenets but also the heartfelt experience of God’s transforming grace through Christ: Belief in Christ and his redemptive grace is affirmed as the core of the Protestant Christian life. If such faith is lacking, all other facets of the Christian life (e.g. good works, participation in the sacraments and religious rituals, contemplation and mystical experience, etc.) are understood as insufficient for salvation. We hear echoes of this affirmation in a question from the Lutherans’ Augsburg Confession (IV.52): “For why did Christ have to be offered for our sins if our own merits make satisfaction for them?” Luther’s answer, of course, is that our own merits don’t “make satisfaction”—only faith matters.

This normative Protestant Christian notion of religion equaling “belief in,” with short shrift given to other aspects of religion such as mystical experience or praxis, is the Usan cultural legacy. We are told from an early age of our “forefathers” sailing to these shores to escape from religious persecution, the usual fate of those relatively new Protestants in a theocratic world devoid of even the most meager notions of religious liberty or tolerance. I now recognize those Pilgrims, from my childhood images of early Usans feasting on turkey, corn and squash with native peoples, as Protestants—Puritans to be precise. Protestant Christianity, if not explicitly named as the predominant religious tradition of our progenitors, is implicitly infused in our folk stories and popular culture.

Protestant ascendancy within Usan civic and political culture has been encouraged, in the last century or so, through internal liberalization and interaction with different faiths, to relinquish its overt authority. The result is, or at least seems, more secular and pluralistic in character. Yet even in this post-modern consumer culture, the deep traces of the Protestant Christian ideological heritage are apparent. We need look no further than the dictionary to find that old equation of religion and belief, that definition of “religion” as “the expression of belief in, and reverence for, a superhuman power recognized as the governor and creator of the universe.”7

Not all religious people believe in a superhuman creator or governor. In fact, some who consider themselves religious may not even consider “belief in” as a factor at all in defining their understanding of religiosity. The Protestant Christian understanding of religion as “belief in” is simply not adequate for describing many spiritual traditions. As a case in point, we need look no further than the yogic traditions borne of India.

Yoga, Liberation, and the Mind:
Religion understood as Internal Exploration

Belief is understood as an important and necessary ingredient in many of the yogic conceptions of religiosity, though not necessarily understood in the same way to a Hindu or Buddhist as it is to a Lutheran or Baptist. Nor is religion universally understood as synonymous with belief. The Dalai Lama locates the freedom to explore, experiment, and analyze at the center of the Buddhist conception of religiosity:

Buddhist thinkers take the Buddha’s words not so much as an ultimate authority, but as a key to assist their own insight; for the ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis (emphasis added).8

The theory and practice of yoga for internal exploration (and, according to the yogic traditions, ultimate liberation) provide variegated systematic methodologies by means of which one may realize this “ultimate authority.” Historian of religion Mircea Eliade evinced the central position of yoga in his outline of the four “kinetic ideas” in Indian religion and cosmology. As a point of departure for his groundbreaking study Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, Eliade delineates “four basic and interdependent concepts, four ‘kinetic ideas,’ [that] bring us directly to the core of Indian spirituality.”9 Briefly, these four “kinetic ideas” are: 1) karma—the law of universal causality that condemns humans to ceaseless rebirth, and worse, re-death; 2) maya—the veil of illusion which is accorded validity by a humanity mired in ignorance and delusion; 3) nirvana—the unconditioned Truth, inseparable from the here and now but (seemingly) hidden behind the veil of illusion; and 4) yoga—various means of gaining knowledge and understanding of Truth. In general, the Indian cosmos is conceived of as a ceaselessly spinning wheel to which almost all are bound solely by their ignorance of their own true freedom. All individuals’ actions and their effects keep them bound or help them attain liberation, ergo if someone seeks freedom, she must cultivate the means by which she can penetrate the veil to encounter the truth behind. In Indian religion, if the knowledge of the truth will set us free, then the internal explorations of yoga are the means to achieve this knowledge. In this context religion is not just belief.

Hindu teacher Sri Yukteswar (perhaps best known as the guru to Paramahansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi) describes his “holy science” in terms consonant with Eliade’s “kinetic ideas.” According to Swami, the noumenal Reality behind the phenomenal, created world is separated from an ignorant humanity, obscured by the shadow of maya, yet all is not lost. One can enlighten this darkness and reveal the truth, obtaining emancipation, “when one realizes the oneness of his Self with the Universal Self, the Supreme Reality.”10 In order to attain liberation through the “holy science” of yoga one cultivates an alternative mode of consciousness until the identity of one’s Self with the Supreme Reality is made an actuality (“realized”).

Alternately, through the practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM), the “science of living” taught by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, one modulates one’s consciousness states using a particular meditation technique. Maharishi asserts that absolute, unbounded, pure Being underlies the existence of manifold phenomena, and exhorts his students to transcend these phenomena and contact the field of Being directly through the regular practice of TM.11 Proponents hold that when one regularly practices the technique, sitting quietly with eyes closed and repeating a silent mantra, then the mind’s attention is gradually drawn away from the transient waves of thought to profound depths of oceanic awareness.

Buddhism, too, holds liberation from ceaseless suffering and re-death as its ultimate aim. As with the Hindu and neo-Hindu traditions above, the various schools of Buddhism provide a multitude of meditative disciplines to achieve this goal. The Twelfth Tai Situpa, in his discussion of “tantric science,” asserts that within Buddhist practice, “[n]othing is to be taken on faith. There is a valid and complete connection with reality, the truth of which can be tested” (emphasis added).12

The samatha and vipassana meditation practices of Theravada Buddhism (and their counterparts shamatha and vipashyana in the Tibetan schools) allow the meditator to calm the body and mind and to pay attention to whatever arises, without judgment. This technique is said to develop two mental faculties—the capacity to attend, and the capacity to know when you are no longer attending. More techniques for exploring the nooks and crannies of our inner workings include ngöndro, or the preliminaries to tantric initiation that can consist of intense prostration and visualization practices intended to purify and redirect the mind, the full-sensorium tantric sadhanas that combine mantras, postures, devotions, and visualizations, and zazen, the serene and austere Zen sitting meditation practice. All are techniques for transforming the quality of one’s consciousness, to make oneself more compassionate and wise, so that one may achieve liberation from suffering (and, it is argued, assist others in doing the same).

In the words of technophile Pönlop Rinpoche, “we are holding the keyboard; we ourselves are the programmer.”13 These various yogic and meditative techniques allow us to debug and reprogram ourselves. Arguably, with yogic techniques as with computer programming, one doesn’t necessarily need to commit to any particular metaphysical doctrines (which is, I submit, what we all mean by “believing in”) to affect change. One just needs to be willing to sit at the “keyboard” of one’s inner CPU and try it out. This is the divide I mentioned earlier—exploration and modulation and modification of our consciousness is essential to the yogic approach to being religious. Any definition of religion that is to be meaningful to many Buddhists and Hindus, among others, must come to terms with these aspects of yogic religion and spirituality.

According to yogic traditions, belief in liberation is impotent without the means to catalyze this necessary transformation, and the explorations of yoga, whatever form, provide this catalyst. As each person is unique, it is argued that so too must be the yoga that he/she practices, hence the variety of yogas for attaining liberation. Ancient Vedic scholars recognized jnana “wisdom” yoga (the recognition of one’s ultimate nature), karma “self-less action” yoga, bhakti “devotional” yoga and mantra “sacred sound” yoga. Later Hindu and Buddhist scholars acknowledged still more, and other Indian traditions, such as Jainism, also developed a wealth of distinctive spiritual technologies. It must be said that though specific yogic techniques are not necessarily similar in form, and not all are intended to modulate consciousness and manifest transformation in the same way, the goals of these manifold practices are similar—the achievement of liberation or transformation through internal exploration. All yogic techniques had, and have, as their goal some sort of wholeness (hence the term yoga, which means “union” or “yoke”) and through that a sense of completeness, liberation.

Our cultural and legal definitions of religiosity must expand to encompass the paradigms of religion as belief and of religion as internal exploration (as well as other religious paradigms). With this expanded understanding must come a concomitant, comprehensive definition of what it means to have free exercise of religion. In short, just as religious freedom must be guaranteed to people of all beliefs, regardless of how different those beliefs may be from established doctrines, so too religious freedom must be guaranteed to any and all who would practice techniques of spiritual exploration and transformation, whether or not a particular technique is accepted by many within established religious institutions. We must possess the freedom to experiment with the form and contents of our consciousnesses without fear of the government, if we who explore our inner landscapes are to enjoy free practice of our religions.


1. John 3:16 NRSV.

2. John 3:18, 3:36, 5:24, 6:35, 7:38 NRSV.

3. Acts 16:31 NRSV

4. Romans 5:1 NRSV

5. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1984) 63.

6. Gonzalez, 165.

7. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, s.v. “religion.”

8. H.H. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, MindScience: An East-West Dialogue, ed. Daniel Goleman and Robert A.F. Thurman (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1991) 14.

9. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, trans. Willard R. Trask, 2 ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969) 3.

10. Jnanavatar Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri, Kaivalya Darsanam: The Holy Science, 8 ed. (Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship, 1990) 41.

11. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Science of Being and Art of Living: Transcendental Meditation (1963; reprint, New York: Meridian, 1995).

12. The Twelfth Tai Situpa, Awakening the Sleeping Buddha (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996) 110.

13. The Dzogchen Pönlop Rinpoche, “Khe-juk Teachings” (in Nova Scotia, 1992) [cited 16 May 2002]. Available at; INTERNET.

14. Georg Feuerstein, The Shambhala Guide to Yoga: An Essential Introduction to the Principles and Practice of an Ancient Tradition (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996).



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Jason Mierek has an M.A. in Asian Religion and Philosophy, and is an American Philosophical Practitioners Association Board-certified Philosophical Practitioner.


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