Today we are going to analyze one of the most important works on yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
Written around the year 400, it is a set of aphorisms or sutras. It is a practice manual of meditation. It is not concerned with intellectual study, but instead the actual practice of yoga.
We all know in the popular sense yoga usually refers to a set of postures or asanas. Many of the popular western or modern yoga traditions reference the Yoga Sutras, yet Patanjali talks about asana (posture) as only one of the Eight Limbs or Ashtanga of yoga.
The third limb is asana, which is your posture, but it is a foundational aspect. It is only a means to reach the real power of yoga, which is meditation (represented by dhyana and samadhi).
The first chapter of the yoga sutras is about samadhi: an overview of what samadhi is and how to achieve it. Only later does Patanjali go through the 8 limbs of yoga. Today, we are going to begin where Patanjali does, directly with samadhi.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali assume you have already studied the pervading metaphysics of that time. Like I said before, it's not a book on intellectual study of metaphysics. It assumes you have already studied that from other scriptures.
So, let us give a brief metaphysical outline of what is important by looking at the question: What is the composition of self?
We can start with our physical body. It's obvious that the body is not our true or core self, it's something that we've been given. It's a vessel, a suit of flesh and fluid, organs and bone that houses more subtle aspects.
Our body is alive, and that living nature of the body is due to its energy. We can speak of the chemistry of our body, the processing within our various organ systems, different molecular processes that go on to sustain our life, as well as our electrical and neuronal activity of our brain and nervous system. Beyond this, there are subtle energies related to the fourth limb of yoga, namely pranayama, the vital winds of energy that we have.
We have our body, and we have the energy of that body. These are important aspects to consider, but they're obviously not our core self.
Then we get to the mind. In Sanskrit mind is manas. In the ordinary use of the word mind, we relate this to our thoughts and emotions. These activities in our mind are afflicted by samskaras and kleshas. Samskaras are impressions from the past that lie latent in our mind. Kleshas are attachments and aversions we have. We can collectively refer to these activities as our ego. The ego is the negative activities of our mind. The mind is so infused with these negative aspects that to refer to the mind without any qualification essentially means ‘mind infused with ego.’
The higher or more abstract aspect of manas is what we will refer to as our lower aspect of consciousness. It is from here that we possess some sense of our own individualized will, or volition. However, when the ego is active, most of our volition is trapped by the ego. We have so little willpower to meditate because most of it is trapped by the ego.
Beyond this is the superior aspect of our consciousness, buddhi. Buddhi is the manifestation of the cosmic principles of intelligence, perception, and discernment or discrimination (viveka). These superior facets of the consciousness are usually obscured from our experience. In meditation they become clear and active.
Realize that Buddhi is not the intellect; it is not thought. Intellectual reasoning is, at best, the shadow of buddhi, manifested in the lower mind, in our thoughts. Thoughts are easily wrong, corrupted by the position of the ego. True Buddhi is pristine abstract intelligence.
Buddhi is our superior consciousness, more related to perception and understanding. Manas, in its superior aspect, is our consciousness more related with our volitions and willpower – our individual will. Buddhi is more perceptive, Manas is more volitive.
Finally, we have Atman or Purusha, which is our spirit. The difference between the consciousness and Purusha depends upon your view. In the final synthesis, the consciousness emerges from and returns to the Purusha.
When we practice meditation, our viewpoint is from the consciousness, which either perceives things of the Spirit (Purusha or Atman) or things of our mind and ego.
Meditation is fundamentally centered in consciousness. Yet, the struggle to meditate occurs due to the obstructing processes of the mind.
What's most important here to understand is that mind and consciousness are separate things.
Again, our mind is related to all our thoughts and emotions. The mind is all those activities that become evident when we try to become still. When we look within, something is going on in the mind. That “something” is mental activity which occurs without us consciously wanting it to.
We have difficulty meditating because the mind is infused with the ego. It is an obstacle. It doesn't want to meditate. It’s not in a place where it wishes to do that.
It has its own activity, so you see already a division between the desire or volition to want to meditate and the actual quality of our mind that's not in alignment with the conditions for meditation.
Consciousness is different. The consciousness can work through thoughts and emotions, but it's not those things.
So, from Atman unfolds Buddhi and manas, aspects of our consciousness, which further unfolds into our thoughts and emotions. That is our mind, which is infused with desires, ignorance, past impressions of the world, etc.
With these definitions sorted, we can discuss a little bit about the first chapter.
The first chapter is called Samadhi. Here are the first four sutras:
1.1 Now, the teachings of yoga. [atha yoganusasanam]
1.2 Yoga is the dissolution of mental activity. [yogas chitta-vritti-nirodhah]
1.3 Then, the seer abides in its own true nature. [tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam]
1.4 If not, the seer identifies with mental activity. [vritti-sarupyam itaratra]
“Now, the teachings of yoga” So, right at the beginning Patanjali is defining what yoga is.
The second verse defines it: yogas chitta-vritti-nirodhah. Yoga is the dissolution of mental activity.
If there's nothing else that you get from this lecture, get that. That is the definition of yoga according to Patanjali. Everything is really summed up there. These few Sanskrit words are the essence of yoga.
What is Chitta? Chitta is the mind. The word chit you see in other types of words, such as bodhicitta. Chit means mind in its basic sense.
Chitta-vritti-nirodhah…. Vritti is literally translated as whirlpool or waves, and in this context we mean it as mental waves. What are the mental waves? Well, that is everything going on inside of our mind.
A good way to translate vritti is mental activity. You could say mental waves, but a more practical direct translation is a mental activity because any activity of the mind is vritti. If you're studying something, writing, thinking about something, that's vritti. When you sit to meditate and your mind is stubborn, that is vritti causing you to wandering away.
It's vritti you see when you observe your mind. You're observing the vritti. That's all the swirling waves, all the things that are going on inside of ourselves.
And then the final word, nirodhah means the cessation of, or the reduction of something. It's reduction of the mental waves. Therefore, yoga is often translated as the silencing of the mind.
This is a very popular translation of this verse: Yoga is the silencing of the mind. And that's a perfectly fine legitimate translation.
The word that we're using, however, is dissolution. Often, our thoughts and feelings are experienced as substantial, reified expressions. In other words, they feel like solid objects that cannot be changed. In reality, our emotions and thoughts form and dissolve as the conditions change. It is also relative to our degree of perception – more concrete mental forms and dissolve into something more subtle. As meditation deepens, the activity becomes more and more subtle, until eventually all the activity dissolves. The mind is just the culmination of all that activity, and once the activity is gone, so is the mind.
Then what is left is consciousness and spirit (Purusha). That is samadhi.
So that is at the summit of meditation – but just because that occurs, it does not mean the mind has been permanently dissolved. That is something else. When the meditation session ends, the mind reforms from latent karmic potentials that have not been annihilated. The full annihilation of karma is something you achieve through the path of self-realization, which requires meditation. It requires mediation because it is there where we develop the perfection of viveka (discernment) among other things.
When we are meditating, abiding from the nature of our consciousness, we are seeing, observing, perceiving the mind.
The next sutra:
Then, the seer abides in its own true nature. [tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam]
What is the seer? The seer is our consciousness, and the luminosity or light of our consciousness is our spirit.
The seer abides in its own true nature when the mental activity has been dissolved.
However, if we don't do that, then we have the fourth line.
If not, the seer identifies with mental activity. [vritti-sarupyam itaratra]
So, all of yoga is synthesized in these four statements.
Yoga is the dissolution of mental activity. Then, the seer abides in its own true nature, if not, the seer identifies with mental activity.
That's it. That's the core teaching. It's that simple.
Now what does it all means, of course, is where we need to explain.
When we talk about the dissolution of mental activity the first thing that is important is that you recognize and see the mental activity for what it is.
A large part of our problem is that we wish to meditate, but we have many assumptions we don’t know that we have. We are often not experienced enough to know just how ignorant we really are. Because we are not experienced, we are not knowledgeable, we sit down with an assumption that we can clearly discern between the mental activity and the consciousness already.
The ability to discern between mind and consciousness occurs through practice. In the beginning there is a naive assumption, perhaps, that the emotions and the thoughts that we're feeling is our true nature. We commonly hold this as a fact even if we don’t realize it. It is our default assumption. It usually is something we have never even contemplated before.
Again, the ability to discern or discriminate in this way is called viveka in Sanskrit.
We also often associate meditation with Nirvana or ultimate peace and happiness. We think that the point of meditation is to get there. This is wrong – let us see why.
We mistakenly try to put our mind into peace by silencing it through willpower. We don’t even realize that it is our mind which causes unhappiness – the mind does not have a nature of peace. The consciousness is the origin of peace. We don’t put our mind “into” peace – we dissolve the mental waves and then peace arrives on its own.
What does it mean to dissolve the waves? When we see the waves completely, totally, without becoming trapped by them, we stop empowering them, and then they go away.
Do we really understand what consciousness is? Do we grasp that? Because it's the consciousness that must observe the mental activity.
It’s consciousness that must see the waves.
It's so easy, at any moment, instead of perceiving mental activity for what it is, we instead immediately attach ourselves to it and mistakenly see it as our true nature. That's what is going on moment to moment, whether are attempting meditation or not.
The mental activity crystalizes into thoughts and emotions. Now where it's coming from is something we will get to, but from moment by moment the waves of the mind are there. That should be evident and obvious. You should be able to at this exact moment observe mental activity.
Observe the mental activity. There shouldn't be any question or doubt about that. It is your direct experience, right now.
The first attempts of meditation are to just see that activity. The difficulty arrives again and again, which is that we are so fascinated with our mental activity that we get sucked into it.
The words fascinated or identified are what we use to describe the experience of being sucked into that activity and becoming one with it. It's one thing to observe that you have a desire to check your phone for some notification, it's another thing to be identified with that that desire, no longer observing it.
We are normally identified, and we sit inside that that impulse or that little desire, and then we have another desire that we should be doing meditation, and we struggle. We struggle, saying “Well, I shouldn't be thinking about this thing. So, I must not think about it, I have to meditate…”
There are two mental forms at this point. A form that wants to meditate and the mental form that doesn't want to meditate. It wants to check the phone. This is what we get very, very quickly trapped in, and from there the struggle of opposites occurs.
We struggle with these mental forms. We struggle with the affirmation to want to meditate, and then the antithesis of that which is some desire which obstructs that process.
Don’t struggle. Instead recognize what is going on. See the mental activity for what it is! It is not Atman! Discern that, discriminate between mental activity and the light of your consciousness which sees the activity.
We have this difficult state of mind because we have a lot of mental habits that have been built up. These can be called samskaras – stored mental impressions. They are conditioning of our mind from previous days, from previous lives. These tendencies emerge and bubble out of the of the soup of our unconscious.
When the bubble reaches the surface it pops, that's the thought that we can perceive at any normal moment. When we begin to meditate you start looking in the internal world. Then you see more bubbles there, more waves going on than you previously saw.
This dynamic appears as soon as you want to relax and calm the mind. You see more of what is already there, so it can feel like even more of a struggle. These are the common types of obstacles and difficulties that a beginner of meditation experiences.
Again, it says:
(1.2) Yoga is the dissolution of mental activity. (1.3) Then, the seer abides in its own true nature. (1.4) If not, the seer identifies with mental activity.
The problem is, when you sit to meditate, you're already identified, so it's not as if you're starting with a clean slate. You're starting at the fourth sutra, already identified.
If we could perceive our true nature already, we wouldn’t need to practice. We must understand this is an iterative or bootstrapping type of process. This is a process of attempting, failing, and repeating practicing until we're able to recognize to some extent what the consciousness is, versus what the mental activity is.
If that statement feels extremely vague right now, that's common if you've never practiced meditation. When we're looking to meditate, we we're essentially building a foundation of how directly, how quickly, instantaneously, can we recognize the nature of our mind and our mental activity at any moment, at any instant, in any configuration whatsoever, from the nature of consciousness.
When we have even the slightest gap of recognition of all the different forms and the mental shapes that appear in the mind, we immediately confuse it for our true identity (nature), so we get trapped in it immediately and we become identified, fascinated.
Being identified with something that is not our true identity produces action which results in suffering.
Identification and fascination occur either due to basic ignorance (naivete) or complex ignorance (habits, samskaras).
Of course, whatever happens in the past tends to happen again until some new type of force is applied. So, states of mind tend to appear again and again, some seemingly not based upon immediate external events.
Additionally, mental habits do appear in relationship to exterior events that have occurred recently. Aspects of our ego resonate with this or that type of external experience, and our conditioning, habits, egos, are pulled to the surface. Suddenly we're thinking about something.
There are some things that are very obvious. When we are afraid, or worried of something, it may be obvious what we are worried about.
There are other things which are much deeper and more pervasive, very unconscious aspects of our ego, that are being pulled forward because of the way that the world is presenting itself right now. These are much more difficult to see, and we need to meditate much deeper on such things.
It is like a tuning fork. If you have two tuning forks of the same size, if you hit one, the other one begins to vibrate because there's a harmonic resonance between the two. All the impressions, all the external world, the things that we're getting through our senses, culminate and form a resonance (vibration) in our psychology. Whatever is similar to that vibration already in our psychology, that resonates at that frequency, is what's going to be pulled forth, and that becomes our surface level mental activity.
Just like that, a stream of thoughts and emotions will appear. Now it's all very confusing because it's happening very quickly, and not just one, but multiple streams of activity, multiple interdependent streams modifying each other.
This is the soup. These are the waves of our mind.
When we sit down and meditate and attempt to chitta-vritti-nirodhah, it is difficult. It's difficult because we have not attuned our consciousness to recognize its own nature.
It’s through the process of attempting to recognize the difference between one's true nature and mental activity that meditation becomes easier. And there is no shortcut to that knowledge other than practice. Intellectually understanding it is just the most superficial aspect. It's important and very helpful to have some terminology, and philosophy to assist, but it is just the first step, and it's a baby step at that.
Looking to dissolve all those waves is only possible when we can spontaneously recognize them for what they are. When we do not recognize them for what they are, we have a reflexive impulse that all our thoughts and feelings are our true nature. That in turn sustains their activity.
Embedded within all those thoughts and feelings are little bits of our willpower. It is a type of unconscious willpower, an unconscious volition, which produced the activity. The volition is trapped in its own conditioning, and only thinks and acts in accordance with it.
Those volitions are of course, us, our consciousness, but trapped and therefore referred to as un-conscious. At the same time, we have a part of our will that is trying to meditate. It is obviously a conflict. It also means our will is dispersed. It is dispersed amongst all the mental activity. It's contradicting itself, wasting energy, and dispersing the perceptive quality of the consciousness as well.
The whole reason yoga is possible is that there is a little bit of volition left that we have that's not dispersed. A little bit of light, a little bit of perception. Using that little bit of perception, you can see. At first you see whatever is most obvious: You see the activity is just a thought, is just an emotion. This is not an intellectual exercise, but a perceptive one.
We do not try to fight against the mental forms. Instead see the mental form for what it is. Then the mental activity dissolves – you forget it. It is not a battle of trying to silence it or trying to get away from it. It is a dissolution of it, and what remains the quantity of volition that was previously animating that little mental form. It is now liberated and now we have a little bit more consciousness, a little bit more perception.
This is the bootstrapping process. You now have a little bit more consciousness freed to be able to perceive deeper. As you do this, you are abiding in your true nature, you are seeing the mental activity, and you're dissolving it. This is the process of meditation.
When all the mental activity has dissolved, what is left is Atman, Buddhi and superior Manas. Recall from the beginning of the lecture that Buddhi is related to perception, intelligence, and discernment, and superior manas is relation to volition and willpower. On our way to achieving meditation, we apply the correct willpower to perceive the mental waves. Once all the mental waves are dissolved, what do we need that willpower for? Nothing anymore, the mind is gone, there is nothing left to distract us. Therefore, the full effulgence of Buddhi begins to manifest, and this is where many mystical experiences and intuitions occur. The self-will of manas must dissolve, leaving only Atman and Buddhi. What remains is the perceptions of the spirit.
All of that is very beautiful to contemplate. However, its important to know that you do not need to experience samadhi to experience the benefits of meditation practice. The benefits begin immediately. You can start healing your suffering right now, using the method we outlined here. All the use of your intelligence (buddhi) to discern (buddhi) the mental waves will help, immediately.
What we have just described throughout this lecture is the direct method, without any additional object placed into the mind, to get to the activation of buddhi.
However, there is the method that places an object of concentration into the mind. For example, to repeat a mantra, watch the breath, or visualize a deity, is to use an object of concentration. When we do this, the object becomes a support to help quiet the mind.
If you repeat a mantra, it has a great impact on the mind. By reciting a mantra, you are putting the vibration of the mantra as your primary mental wave.
If you are watching the breath, what does this do? It is taking all the interacting, overwhelming, dispersed types of mental activities and simplifies the mind to just be one primary wave.
In such a state the mind is much more reduced than what it was before. From that respect, the more that happens, the more you feel peaceful.
In technical terms, the chitta is now supported by a single vritti instead of many. This brings a peaceful and concentrated quality of the mind.
In our practice we use both types. When we perform retrospective analysis of memories or dreams, we are placing those images as the object of our concentration. Likewise, when we visualize a deity or religious symbol they are the object of concentration.
Often it is difficult to immediately place concentration upon the intended object. In this case, simpler methods of concentration are employed such as watching the breath or the recitation of a mantra. This helps calm the waves, and then the intended practice can be performed.
We consider watching the breath and counting breath to be foundational, and very good at developing basic concentration. However, they are not the full teaching. Reciting mantras are excellent. Repeating them mentally is more powerful than verbally. But the highest mantra practice is when the influence of that mantra merges with silence.
Using the direct method, we do not place anything into the mind. Instead, we simply see what is already there. This is a more powerful method but also more difficult. It can quickly dissolve all the discursive mental waves. From there, one can perform retrospective analysis, contemplate the form of a deity, etc., or simply continue the observation of what is already there, to go deeper and deeper.
We often employ the use of visualization because it acts as an object of concentration and a vessel for the activation of buddhi. The image, for example, of a deity is filled with symbols that buddhi can use as form of intuition. The image can come alive, and a spiritual experience occurs. These types of symbols are often seen in dreams because that is the same buddhi, working in a more obscured and unconscious manner. In meditation, imagery can appear and with that intuition of what it means. Sometimes, only one of them appears.
Regarding the dissolution of the mind, we also must know the difference between temporary and permanent. Temporary dissolution is accomplished when we reach samadhi. Samadhi occurs when all the consciousness is liberated in that meditation session, and it is therefore unified, and experiences its true nature, which is joy.
This is a temporary vacation. It is good in its own right, but when the meditation ends, the mind the returns. The mind is not really the problem – the problem is the conditioning the mind has. That is our source of suffering. This is the ego.
So, with meditation our ego can go away for a little bit, just on the basis of reaching samadhi. But, real liberation requires much more than that. Real liberation requires that we use meditation to penetrate into our ego, into our karma. When we are in a state of meditation, our consciousness has much more capacity to penetrate and comprehend the causes of our suffering.
There have been great masters of samadhi who did not work on their ego. They could rest in samadhi hours and then come back to their body. The confusion arises that such a person has completed the work of self-realization. That's actually not true. What they've done is become an expert at samadhi which does not automatically mean they are have eliminated their ego.
The purpose of meditation is to acquire information. If you achieve samadhi you experience the true and natural state of your consciousness. That is a type of information, and it is very good, very necessary to understand. Yet, that information alone is not sufficient for total liberation.
Temporary liberation, which is samadhi, is not final liberation.
Final liberation occurs when we cancel our karma and remove our ego. We need to meditate because our normal state of consciousness is not capable of doing this. When we meditate, we empower our consciousness with the ability to eliminate our karma and our ego. That is the whole point of yoga.