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Yoga Sutras I: 1-10

Sutras I: 1-10





         The commentary on Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is the last major work of Guru Nitya Chaitanya Yati to appear in book form. Our appetite whetted by the Yoga Letters from the Appendix, a quietly eager group assembled on a lovely Fall evening to begin the study.

         Despite private doubts about whether the Preface would inspire much discussion, being basically an exposition of the parameters, it transpired that parameters can be quite inspiring indeed. This was one of our most animated and intelligent classes ever, with incisive questions and astute comments all around. The participants never drifted off the subject, but proceeded like sculptors carefully paring away the dross from the image it obscures.

         One problem that is the dark shadow of so much enthusiasm bears mention. When a group is excited and new ideas are bursting out in everyone’s mind, it produces a kind of impatience. Often someone will present a very good idea or personal epiphany, and after giving it a quick hearing we zoom on to another, somewhat discontinuous idea. I can’t help feeling we should be a little more respectful of how important each person’s presentation is, and what we are dying to say can wait a bit longer while we attend to the current subject. If it’s important enough we won’t forget what we’re thinking, and if we try too hard to hold onto it, we really aren’t listening as well as we might be to the other person. Though we are much better than we used to be about this, there is still room for improvement in our listening to and responding to the other participants. Setting our thoughts aside to attend fully to something is a yogic exercise in itself.

         Jan, who has been working her way through the One Hundred Verses, got to the gist by asking the simple question, “What’s the difference between this and Atmo?” Both are ways to reorient one’s whole being to incorporate unity into the seeming duality of life. Both use succinct aphorisms to convey worlds of meaning, aphorisms that are succinct to the point of incomprehensibility without expert elaboration. The expert elaboration can come through penetrating meditation as well as helpful explication by a wise teacher.

         Due to historical trends, the thrust of most teaching about the Yoga Sutras is much more dualistic than Atmo, the Hundred Verses of Self-Instruction. The former is popular precisely because it can be treated as discreet steps to a specific result: samadhi, or psychic equipoise. Westerners in particular love action programs with detailed directions. Yet focusing on the duality has the paradoxical effect of pushing samadhi away into a remote distance. Part of the genius of Nitya’s commentary is a highly unitive approach, where each “step” is an integral part of a natural flow that accompanies the reorientation of our attention from the disparate parts to the all-encompassing whole.

         Eugene mentioned that this paradox was confusing to him. He believes deeply in transformation and efforts that bring improvement, but unitive philosophy seemed to imply letting all that be. When he lets go of his striving, he feels like he isn’t doing anything, and he isn’t quite sure whether this is a good thing or a waste of time. If transformation happens outside of our intention and willing, how do we know what it is? When is No Path a path?

         These are excellent questions at the heart of our study. Many of us have (or recall) a similar kind of youthful impatience to get fast results. We are taught as children that we are imperfect, and we long to improve ourselves so we will obtain approval from the adult world. Self-improvement becomes an obsession, but it springs from an incorrect premise. It is a classic castle built on sand, and it falls when its foundation is washed away by close examination. We are in fact perfect from the start, though we undoubtedly have miles to go before we sleep. Every step on our journey we continue to be perfect, and as Paul pointed out, even our dualistic assessment of the world as imperfect has a kind of perfection.

         Eugene’s dilemma is most commonly resolved by selling the agonizing person on some program. By putting energy into the program, doubts can be temporarily allayed. It’s good when the program is long and complex, with many steps. If you drop out or lose heart, you can always blame yourself for not doing it right or trying hard enough. In this way the nagging feeling of inadequacy gets permanently enshrined in our self-image, and it provides the impetus for becoming an enthusiastic partisan of whatever particular system is being followed at the moment.

         Life turns into an endless treadmill of one program after another, with the imaginary goal of converting the inadequate to the adequate. But since we are already a spark of divinity, what we need is to realize our innate perfection and express it in our life. The “goal” if you will of yoga is the cessation of mental modifications, the cessation of sequential imaginations about who we are and what we should be doing and so on. When we sit empty of self-descriptions for however briefly, we reconnect automatically with our true nature. Actually, we realize that we were always connected, so reconnection is a slight misnomer.

         In any case, we will be exploring this paradox extensively in the upcoming classes. If it still seems confusing, that’s all to the good. We want to “get” this in our core, not simply in our conceptualization.

         The ego is deputized by our inner child to address perceptions of inadequacy, to try to convince the world that we are adequate. In this it will always fail, because it is properly one aspect of the total being, inadequate itself in isolation. It bemoans the divide between the inner beauty it knows and the seeming unimportance the outside world assigns it. The solution is to relieve our ego of this impossible task. Instead of convincing the world of our wonderfulness, its job becomes to convince us of our wonderfulness. This wonderfulness is found both within and without—in fact it permeates everything. Discovering it as the very air we breathe and the ground we walk upon makes the journey a joy and a delight. Even our failings can be cherished, as manure for the garden we pass through.

         Susan described an odd turn of mind that everyone could relate to. One day she was feeling fine, but she had a vague intimation that something was bothering her, only she couldn’t remember what it was. She sat down and thought hard, and soon she was able to dredge up the painful memory. Then she thought, “That was stupid! I could have just left it alone and been fine.” Many of us have done the same thing. We are so used to feeling unhappy that when we aren’t we wonder what’s the matter. We usually don’t have to look very far to find a good reason for unhappiness, and then we’re satisfied. “What fools these mortals be!”

         Anne wondered what Nitya meant in his caveat about siddhis, psychic powers, here referred to as vibhutis. Some people study yoga in hopes of attaining these sidelights to realization. Nitya calls them distractions from the goal, and warns of hazardous results from their pursuit. One thinks of the Ramtha followers, who spend their time in trying to levitate. Possibly, illusory pursuits are no different from useful ones, but I’m not so sure. It’s nice to feel you are doing something worthwhile, giving back some of the manifold blessings you naturally enjoy to the surrounding territory.

         The key is that a limited intent will have a limited result. Therefore we prefer an unlimited intent with unlimited results. I thought of an example, but the class had moved on before I actually said it. Telepathy or mind-reading is a typical siddhi. So, what if you could read other peoples’ minds? You could listen to their endless chatter, or their ugly thoughts about what a jerk you are, or follow their fantasies into the clouds. What good is that? Could you trick them better, or manipulate them? Aren’t your own thoughts entertaining enough? They are certainly more relevant to your own circumstances. I think it’s a lucky thing that we are screened off from all that drivel that plagues other people. Our own pile of drivel is more than enough. In our yoga study we are trying to put it on hold, not get more of it.

         So, when examined, such abilities are irrelevant or even injurious, and they can be traced back to the ego wanting desperately to be admired. If they come as a natural consequence of your focus on the Absolute, fine. Then they will only be available when they are beneficial. Otherwise they lead you into quicksand.

         Nitya leaves us with an inclusive invitation: “Yoga is not meant to be the pursuit of any cult or creed anywhere in the world. It is a common path for all human beings, irrespective of their cultural, geographic, and religious affiliations.” We dedicate ourselves to such an open and honorable endeavor at the very outset. Aum.


Part II

         Mr. Roby Rajan, a professor from the University of Wisconsin, Kenosha, came for a visit over the weekend. He left off a recent article he wrote for a magazine entitled Third World Resurgence, about Kerala and its relatively excellent livability ratings. Kerala has always surprised and baffled pundits trapped in economic dogma. Roby’s thesis is that ordinary development models of growth are not responsible for Kerala’s important achievements, that the unitive influence of Narayana Guru is the underlying cause. He makes an interesting comparison between the linear development favored by political theorists and the spontaneous transformation that can ensue from enlightened spiritual awareness. The theorists have watered down the Guru’s value vision by demoting him from a mystic to a mere social reformer, thereby missing a crucial lesson.

         It struck me that Roby’s thesis is a political version of exactly what we talked about last night in class, whether transformation is a result of step by step implementation of fixed plans, or whether it springs from a mysterious core that we participate in but are not managers of. In both political economics and personal sadhana we can conceive of a dual situation moving toward unity as a solution or resolution. Linear or dual stages aimed at the Absolute have a significant impact, while if they are aimed only at hypotheticals like “progress,” “enlightenment,” “development,” or worse, “capitalism,” “communism,” or “socialism,” and the like they can go off on tangents. Vaporous entities are forced into hard and fast categories and lose their character. Yoga reverses that reduction to achieve creative construction.

         So in both outer or inner striving, how do we come to an optimal state of being? We find it within, and then share its bounty with all and sundry. It is not the product of long and agonizing search. It already is. Narayana Guru further distinguishes selfish actions that double negativity from altruistic actions, which are doubly affirmative. At times when inspiration is lacking, the default setting is to actions that benefit the greatest congregation possible.

         To affirm the Absolute within, we need to relinquish much of our intentionality and expectations. Narayana Guru was effective, unmoved mover as he was, because he activated a reservoir of dammed up energy in the populace for bringing light to life. So there is an intimate linkage between inspiration and expression, between knowing and doing, between thinking and implementing. Both aspects need to be present for there to be an impact.

         It’s a very interesting subject and a brain stretcher to boot!

         By another coincidence I recently read an article in a medical magazine about dealing with angry outbursts in children. Studies have shown the popular authoritarian approach to have very limited success: kids reluctantly follow the rules, but as soon as they are out from under them, they revert to the chaotic behavior. This is basically suppression of traumatic material. A new model is being tried with much greater long term success, called CPS, short for creative problem solving. It essentially codifies a civilized dialogue, putting parent and child or caregiver and child on a par instead of the old fashioned top dog/underdog relation. It teaches kids how to solve their own problems intelligently, without recourse to fear of punishment, because it recognizes that they want to do well and be happy, they just don’t know how. Although the parallel is subtle, I see this as also related to our central enigma in the yoga class. Following steps is the clumsy, dissociated path, relying on external or internal authority to force us to go the right way. It erects boundaries and forces its votaries to stay within them. Creative problem solving, on the other hand, means bringing our buddhi, our awakened intelligence, to bear in an amicable setting of learning and sharing. This is the path we plan to take in the Patanjali study as well.


Part III

         Deb added this:

Here is my reply to Jan's question, What is the difference between Atmopadesa Satakam [Atmo] and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras? In Atmopadesa Satakam, Narayana Guru is examining different facets of the Self, how we see it, experience it, how we relate to it, how we are IT--highlighting one aspect, one experience in each verse, until at the very end there are no more aspects, simply that experience without words that we sink into and ARE. In the Yoga Sutras it is as if Patanjali is excising all the accretions we have on top of the unity of our being, each sutra being one less something, until we arrive at the core unity of all/nothing. So in the end we are at the same place/no place, just that the paths there are somewhat different.



NOT Sutra 1


Few class members showed up, so we decided to wait for one more week to begin the Yoga Sutras. The first sutra is “Now, Yoga study.” That ‘now’ is full of purport. One of the implications is that now we have properly prepared ourselves by clearing away all obstacles and misconceptions, while sincerely dedicating ourselves in our hearts, we can begin. Somehow it seemed that for everyone to miss that moment would be unfortunate, particularly since there was such a high degree of intention when the vote was taken to dive in. Of course, we aren’t completely dedicated in the classic sense, but sutra 1 helps reinforce our desire to take the whole thing seriously.

         As an alternative, we read out “The Neurotic in the Basement and the Freak in the Attic,” from Nitya’s In The Stream of Consciousness. While visiting a friend in a city apartment, Nitya is settling in for a quiet evening, when his mood is interrupted by shrieks from the basement. His friend apologizes, and assures Nitya that if they go check on the young lady down there, she will greet them with a calm and demure visage.

         Suddenly, music at top volume erupts from upstairs. Nitya’s friend assures him that there is no chance of getting his neighbor to turn it down. It will blast until he falls asleep and resume the moment he awakens.

         We have often heard the recommendation to use painful situations as a lever for contemplation. Most of the time we simply change our circumstances. In the story, Nitya demonstrates—probably better than anywhere else in his entire oeuvre—how to transform a problem into an insightful meditation. He wonders, “Don’t we all resemble this apartment building, lodged in egos on the ground floor, with our own id filled with neurotic vasanas below and an endless stream of superego commentary above? No wonder it’s difficult to have a quiet evening!”

         Nitya then muses about where his own share of these aspects of mind comes from. He likens going to check on the neurotic with a thorough self-examination, in the sense that if we really look into what is making us scream it will probably turn out to be harmless, timid and ordinary. He doesn’t say it in the story, but yoga study is like learning how to turn off the endless playback of recorded “music” that fills our awareness. As he looks into himself, he sees that he is made up of so many thoughts of the great teachers and philosophers of history. These insights allow him to wax poetic and end his tale on an upbeat note:


How many minds are behind this expression of the present, to weave such a pattern of thought, of mood, of emotion, of poetic fancy? I can clearly see in the crowd of people helping me with shades of suggestions and alternative visionary images…. Taking this into account, the singularity and compactness of my personality ceases to be real. Instead I become a small piece of reed fashioned by Nature to pipe through its holes the song of mankind. Instead of the individual in me, I now see an infinite range of minds belonging to many different ages and ethnic backgrounds within me. (15)


         Happily, Anita had had her own version of sincere self-examination to relate. After a tiff at work, she sat herself down that evening and asked herself if what the other person had accused her of had any validity. She had to admit that it did. The hard part had been overcoming inertia and the ego’s natural pride to ask the question; once Anita admitted to herself that she was indeed over-sensitive about the issue, it ceased to bother her. In fact she felt great! The next day she was easily able to make peace with her coworker, and that felt good too. Although the situation was outwardly fairly minor, the principle involved is major, and it’s an excellent achievement to “face the music” in this way. When you do, the shrieking neurotic becomes meek and mild once again.

         Our pride is a defense against incursions, but at the same time we want incursions. We want to make peace, and invite the ‘other’ in. Overcoming our habitual resistance makes the breakthrough feel even better.

         The class talked about all the ways that our days are filled with idle chatter and background music, and how these wall us off from any inner quiet. The modern world seems obsessed with not allowing peace and quiet to upset the apple cart. Paul astutely pointed out that we blast ourselves with those familiar recordings with the implicit intent of drowning out the neurotic in the basement. And it works up to a point. Unfortunately the neurotic screams all the louder because it can’t be heard, so there is an escalation of noise on both sides. The solution is not to drown out or ignore the problem, but to open the door and look into it.

         Anne told us how her long battle with a potentially fatal cancer allowed her to reassess her life. When she looked at who she was, stripped of all pretense by her illness, she didn’t like what she saw. She made a decision to change fundamentally, and she has been living it ever since. Her reminiscences unearthed some similar memories in me that I hadn’t ever quite brought to the surface. At the end of a couple of serious illnesses, and also after a few bad acid trips, I was able to really see how heavy and oppressive negative my thoughts and attitudes were. The added pain they caused in my receptive state gave me added resolve to throw them off and live differently. It’s true that sarcasm, wittiness, sharp barbs, desires, pontification and so many other heavy gambits, while they begin as glorified defenses for our shy inner self against a hostile world, soon morph into prisons. After all, there is little difference between a fortress and a prison. But until we feel the pinch we imagine we are free within our bastions. The pinch is thus a great blessing, without which we are content to remain mediocre.

         Interestingly, a theme for the week as well as the class is anger. Anger is a last ditch defense that emerges after lesser walls are overcome. The country we live in is currently filled to the brim with fear, intentionally fueled by those who make money and political capital from it. Here is the US, the anger is brought to a fever pitch by fear, and it is approaching warlike levels. I’ve had several good conversations with people who are trying to get a handle on their personal anger issues. As in Nitya’s and Anita’s examples, ameliorating anger requires looking with clarity into the heart of the fire. It requires admitting to the screaming, neurotic feelings we’d rather put a bland face on. And this requires—justly or unjustly—that we admit that we are the source of our own bad feelings, no matter what the ‘other’ has said or done. As Deb put it, we have a range of possible responses, each of which casts the situation in a particular light. Anger, while occasionally justified as a way to dislodge a friend from being stuck, is generally too one-sided to be fair. All doors of communication remain closed. We need to move toward amity and mutual agreement, which begins with an honest self-appraisal.



Sutra 1:1

Now, yoga instruction; or, more poetically.

Now, the instruction for contemplative union in harmony.


         Much of the evening’s discussion centered on the word ‘now’. Atha has a similar range of meanings as the English word now, including ‘then’ and ‘moreover’. Most importantly, since it implies a time sequence, it indicates that we are at last properly prepared to begin our study. In our case, that means having contemplated and discussed the Gita, That Alone, Darsanamala, and most recently the Yoga Letters that form the appendix to the present book by Nitya Chaitanya Yati. We have dismissed many false notions and reoriented our awareness holistically. We have learned how to sit quietly and allow our deepest wisdom to bubble to the surface. We are patient enough to bring our wandering mind back to a subject repeatedly, shrugging off sabotaging imaginations. We are even familiar with many of the terms we will encounter. Now we are primed to get the most we can out of what the Guru is going to say to us.

         MRI studies show that the more effort we make, the more the brain comes alive. Thus, study that demands our complete attention and commitment energizes that organ, among other benefits. Yoga study is not about going to sleep as the preacher drones on with comforting platitudes, it’s about waking up. Nor should we be daunted by any initial failure to understand. Deb told us last week how her college philosophy professor directed his classes to read everything five times: only then would it begin to make sense. Paul admitted to reading this sutra three times already. Our mind processes its input unconsciously for a long time, so any such preparation will be very helpful in getting the most out of the class.

         The pith of Nitya’s commentary is the Samkhyan series of kshipta, vikshipta, mudha, nirodha and ekagra, another thing we are ‘now’ supposed to know. The first two are descriptions of the scattered mind, kshipta indicating a single attraction of consciousness and vikshipta a series of attractions. The root here means thrown, tossed around. Our untrained mind is often “tempest-tossed.” We are bouncing from idea to idea, at the mercy of the impressions each one makes on us. We get “strung out” when we identify who we are with these transient impressions, forgetting our core nature. The definition of vikshipta takes us all the way to “bewildered, distraught.”

         In between each momentary arrangement of awareness is a transition through a period of non-awareness, called mudha. Although mudha, forgetfulness, can be pathological when excessive, in proper measure it allows us to move on through our life. If vikshipta is like a sine wave, the highs are the kshiptas and the lows are the mudhas. They really go together. Nitya has highlighted the positive side of mudha, but the word generally refers to the dissociation caused by not having or remembering the connection between one thing and the next, what we tend to call insanity. MW describes mudha as “stupefied, bewildered, confused,” etc. It is extremely important that this veiling aspect of mind be balanced, and even more important that we retain our self-awareness at the level below or beyond the sine wave function of consciousness. This core, being invisible and intangible, is given short shrift by current attitudes. If we believe the popular version of who we are and identify only with our superficial aspect, its chaotic, mercurial character can be totally disorienting. The practice of Yoga a la Patanjali is primarily aimed at detaching ourselves from this surface identity so we can come to know our core reality.

         Diving into our core can provide a real break in continuity. Mudha is a hiatus within a patterned flow, and it doesn’t usually bring dramatic differences, but samadhi, the merger with the emptiness of our true nature, can impel explosive change. If for even a single instant you could be without any conditioning at all, the next instant could be anything. It would not be dependent on the previous compilation of impressions in any way. History records occasional examples of such far-reaching transformative events. Professor Rajan has written a lengthy article linking the rapid evolution of Kerala society in the past century to Narayana Guru’s attainment of emptiness, and envisions a point-source at a specific time and place. The Guru’s impact is wholly disproportional to any actual act or event, yet because he was able to step out of time and space and into Nothing, he became the hub of a vast new spinning wheel of dharma. The door is open to any and all who are brave enough to “stop the world” for a moment. Short of such a wholesale dedication, we are merely tinkering with our personal rocket’s guidance system, fine tuning the direction we are already flying in. Samadhi is like Douglas Adams’ infinite improbability drive, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where after you switch it on you could pop up absolutely anywhere in the universe. I must add that the discussion of the reasons for Kerala's uniqueness has been immensely enriched by Prof. Rajan's contribution, not to mention his valuable insights into philosophy in general.

         We are familiar with the idea of vasanas, the genetic seeds that continually effervesce into kshiptas. Undisciplined humans experience a continual series of quasi-random expressions of their previous impressions, both genetic and experiential, and believe that’s all there is to life. Disciplined ones concentrate their attention and direct their energies into consciously chosen areas of interest. One-pointed attention or concentration on an item of interest is ekagra, and the pruning back of irrelevant or interfering factors is called nirodha. Nitya notes that ekagra is the most powerful and useful role of consciousness, and its exercise brings a sense of deep satisfaction. Anita noted that some of her most enchanting moments came when she was able to step out of her habitual state of mind to look on the world with fresh eyes.

         A concentered mind is the prerequisite for samadhi, the “goal” of Yoga, if you will. Samadhi is sameness or equipoise, the part outside or beyond the sine waves. Nitya cautions us that it is by no means a state of stagnation, “but the continuous rebalancing of a poise that is kept up in and through the flux of a cosmic order of continuous transformation and transvaluation.”

         Eugene was happy to know that others had observed and named the nirodha aspect, which he was personally aware of but didn’t think anyone else had the concept. It is indeed delightful to discover tracks in the snow: that other intrepid travelers have been this way before. It encourages us to walk confidently where once we tiptoed ahead with caution. Nirodha covers a range of inhibitions, the most positive being the selective process already described that allows us to concentrate on our favorite subject. When we are absorbed in a book, nirodha blocks outside interference from disturbing us. When we are acting in a play or other performance, it pushes our bodily needs into the background so the show can go on. Nitya describes it as an undetectable aspect of consciousness that restrains irrelevant urges, but this doesn’t mean that it is totally beyond conscious direction. True, in the gifted it functions effortlessly and harmoniously, but in those of us with, shall we say, lesser gifts, it can be trained and fine tuned. The best way to do this is to heighten the ekagra, the concentration on our chosen activity, because if we focus directly on the disruptive factors in order to suppress them we are asking for trouble. It’s better to screen them out by default through greater concentration. Nirodha can be very negative when we actively repress our true nature in favor of socially selected “proper” vasanas. As the Gita puts it: “Objective interests revert without the relish for them on starving the embodied of them. Even the residual relish reverts on the One Beyond being sighted.” (II, 59)

         Ann insisted that she loved to get fully into a subject, learn it to the full, but then leave it and go on to something else. She was talking about years of involvement, not minutes, but somehow she thought that ekagra meant you had to stick to one thing forever. Yoga is not meant to encourage stasis, by any means. Remaining poised is a dynamic, living experience, calling for our best efforts whenever we can give them. Of course we should evolve and change. We cannot allow ourselves be dictated to by the past, and we should break free when its chains become a drag on our psyche. But as Deb pointed out, the Now is in one sense an extension of the past, otherwise it would be completely dissociated. It moves ahead but doesn’t lose anything it has ever been.

         In any case, I’d like to reiterate what I say to Gita students. If something strikes you as binding, restrictive or otherwise confusing, you have to reassess the meaning you are drawing from it. Yoga study is about becoming free, so ask yourself how this will free you. Give the sutras the benefit of the doubt, since they’ve held up for a long time. Don’t presume you will be losing any freedom. Instead bring your best vision of freedom to bear on these roughly translated approximations of extremely concentrated language. This is for liberation from oppression. But that doesn’t mean it is effortless. Effortless moments for most of us come out of a lot of hard work. Again, gifted people sometimes have the knack of being effortlessly in samadhi most of the time. Great for them, and probably they don’t need to study Yoga at all, except for the fun of it. Not everything in the science will apply to everybody, but sometimes it’s nice to know the whole picture even if it extends beyond who you are. It might help you to understand your friend (or foe) better. The rishis who conceived this didn’t know who might be the beneficiaries, so they put it all in just in case.

         Now, I think we are ready to begin.



Sutra 1:2 – beginning


Yoga is the restraint of mental modifications (citta vritti nirodha)


         In our meditation after the reading, our group consciousness became very intense and peaceful, drawing us in easily to a dynamic stillness. For a time it was enough. Just right.

         Anita said later that it felt like being back in the womb. With a cozy fire pushing the temperature toward 98.6, torrents of rain and wind pulsing outside, sunk in comfortable chairs, the silence was deafening. If our room was a womb, we were yet early in the gestation period, when there is still plenty of space in which to grow.

         Nitya begins with reminding us of the fourfold process of mentation, manas, citta, buddhi and ahamkara. These are the questioning aspect, the dredging up of memory associations, the assessment of meaning, and the identification that produces our ego sense. Of these, citta is “considered to be the main body of consciousness,” being the “repository of all the colorations and conditionings that happen to a person during their lifetime. Hence all conditional reactions throughout life stem from this faculty.” When these memories are objectified by the vibratory process known as vritti, it produces our perception of the present, the here and now. Underneath is the eternal omnipresence of consciousness, but it becomes focused on the pinhole of citta vritti, the process of creating the world out of our expectations and limited comprehension. Obviously, if we can step back from our mesmerization by the mental modifications, we are already in an unmodified state. This simple and simultaneously impossible practice is called yoga.

         Vritti implies a cyclical or feedback system. It is wonderful when healthy: in fact it is the very basis of our existence. But it can also become static. Once it is cut off from what we call the Absolute, the imperishable source of renewal, it tends to become fixed and dead. We get caught in vicious cycles of habit. Trapped by our conditionings, we blame aspects of our projections for our oppression instead of turning the searchlight on our unquestioned habits of mind. With the Yoga Sutra classes, we initiate a strenuous effort to break out of this ubiquitous and self-reinforcing straitjacket.


         We have divided the long commentary on this sutra into three parts. This first mainly continued last week’s presentation of the five factors that produce one-pointed concentration. These are generally regarded negatively, but Nitya wants to emphasize that:


In spite of these four aspects of citta having a tendency in the long run to cause psychological dysfunctions, in the normal working of the mind, they all fall in their rightful place for consciousness to flow as a well-regulated stream. The five limbs of consciousness aid each other, especially arresting the flow of the stream meaningfully to make citta concenter in a specific value admission and appreciation. Patañjali wants us to know that this natural mechanism of consciousness is a rich phenomenon that can be employed to arrive at a supernatural glimpse of the noumenon.


         We discussed how beneficial it is that the mind unconsciously screens out so much excess baggage, permitting us to concentrate on a subject of interest. Happily, we no longer have to struggle like a toddler in order to walk around, since the very complex coordinations it involves have become “second nature.” Likewise, driving a car is mostly automatic, leaving us free to gawk at the scenery or chat with our friends. I remember after spending some time in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter during a series of excellent psychedelic adventures, when I next drove a car I was overwhelmed with tons of unfamiliar sensory input. For the first hour I had to creep along at little more than a walking pace, reassessing a stream of unfamiliar stimuli, until gradually the nirodhas and mudhas restored me to “normalcy.” Luckily I was in the wilds of Wisconsin at the time, so no other humans were threatened by my condition.

         At best, the natural limitations of our mind bring us to a clear-eyed state of focused awareness. Buddhists call this mindfulness, while Vedantins call it consciousness of pure existence, since mind is considered a superficial aspect of the total being. Either way the subject is the same: a state in which the noumenon is glimpsed, which leads progressively to states of samadhi or realization in which the noumenon is experienced.

         Nancy wondered if all our talk and study weren’t just mental modifications to be dismissed out of hand, and Anita wondered what exactly mind was, anyway. Certainly, modern science often takes a materialist approach to mind, treating it as an epiphenomenon of the brain. Many links have been established between our thinking and particular regions in our biocomputer. Yet consciousness per se remains a mystery that is too profound to be explained by material complexity alone. So too, the ancients distinguished consciousness from mental modifications or mental processes. The premise of the Yoga Sutras is that we can attain a state or states of consciousness below or beyond the mind, and that these samadhis are particularly excellent places to hang out. The closer we get to unalloyed purity of consciousness, the closer we are to the fountain source of both thought and action, where transformation originates. So instead of wrestling with fully formed masses of consciousness and their endless ramifications, we can go to the nub of the situation, where a tiny amount of input creates vast effects as it snowballs into existence.

         If we go into samadhi with any kind of fixed intentions, these being forms of mental modifications, they not only bar the door to samadhi, so to speak, they pollute the purity of any state that might be attained. Thus, in meditation—and optimally in our whole life—we continually let go of our expectations, prejudices, desires, hopes, dreams, all of it. We are buoyed by an inner conviction that the Void or the Absolute itself is Good Enough, so we don’t need to cling to our provisional beliefs. We can let it all go. Only then can we pass through the eye of the needle, as the saying goes. This is the source of the instruction to give it all up in order to get it all. Or the myths about trying to enter the castle with something in your pocket and being caught and turned away—that kind of stuff. Even “Abandon hope all ye who enter” at Dante’s doorway to hell, purgatory and paradise. We have to stand naked before the Lord, etc.

         Because even our best thoughts get in the way. We want to save the world. We insist on keeping our hopes alive. We must be good in order to please God. We don't want to offend our neighbor. So many illusory footholds on this mountain! The true voidness beyond every one of our mental modifications is daunting and even terrifying. We instinctively recoil from it and grasp at our favorite straws. But for now we have barely begun to approach it. When we get serious, we’ll probably lose everyone in the class. It’s a solitary venture, when all is said and done….

         The Patanjali study is not about getting the “right” mental modifications, like being holy or wise or kind or anything. It’s about taking a break from all of them, good, bad and indifferent. When we attain that state, other people can call us what they want, saintly or wise, but if we think of ourself in those terms we are simply a hypocrite and an egotist to boot.

         Anita was reminded of a vision she once had during her first Gita class. She was high in the sky looking down on a solid layer of clouds. A bit of fluffy cloudstuff was lifted up and wrapped with string, and that was a person. More cloud, bound, became another person. Another handful was tied into a table. And so on, endlessly. The clouds stand for what Spinoza called Substance, the immaterial material essence from which everything is made, and into which everything returns at the end of its separate existence. We will be striving to untie the knots that bind us as our limited selves, to experience the freedom of unshaped substance in life. Death will do that automatically for us, but we don’t want to wait that long. Anita’s vision is much less terrifying than the empty dark void, and might make it easier to approach the reality beneath the image.

         Here in the beginning we can at least abandon our attachment to the really heavy negative elements implied in kshipta, vikshipta, mudha and nirodha. Yet when I asked for examples, the class immediately veered away and stayed away. Perhaps we can think about it and get back to it later, since it is crucial to our study. This is not a Sunday School social. It’s about tearing away our mask to become real.

         I offered one example to try to leaven the whole loaf, one fresh in the minds of Americans who have just been through an ugly election campaign in which mob mentality was blatantly exposed. People, even God-fearing religious people, have been taught to hate liberals and think of them as terrorists, deserving of torture. Once that belief is in place, any kind and gentle soul can be instantly demonized, and no contradictory input that might lessen the hatred is allowed in. Paranoia explodes: the grandmother who wants to bring her child home from an unjust war is working with the devil! She hates our country! Her candidate is the devil himself! The hallucinatory beliefs feed off and reinforce each other, building to a paranoid psychosis. No matter what you say, you cannot disprove someone else’s prejudice if they are determined to keep it. Facts are adroitly twisted to reconfirm the prejudice. There’s no getting around it.

         Flagrant examples like this can teach us a lot about ourselves. Probably we’ve all tried to explain something we are certain of to a doubting friend, and seen their resistance to a reasonable argument up close and personal. We have to use the example to examine how we cling to our habitual reactions and opinions and deflect outside input. Paul called these our defense mechanisms, and that’s exactly what they are. First we have to be convinced we don’t need them as badly as we imagine we do, and then we have to pry our minds open and find a way to keep them open. In this it helps greatly to at least acknowledge the existence of mental factors that wall out almost everything that doesn’t jibe with our beliefs. Once we overcome our native reluctance to admit our failings, if only to ourself, it actually becomes enjoyable to jettison our hangups.

         Deb didn’t like my use of the term ‘jettison’, because she remembered Nitya telling her how by simply attuning to the inner truth the citta vritti fell away of its own accord. Attacking it head on only increased its power. It came as a revelation to her that she could stop fiercely trying in the old head-butting fashion. But it doesn’t do anything to simply stop trying, either. Both effort and non-effort have to be artfully employed. It takes effort to be effortless, because we are already addicted to efforts. Using the mind to transcend the mind is like using a thorn as a tool to remove a thorn from your foot. If we don’t try, we will remain complacently following our habitual responses. If we become addicted to trying, we will press forward with technique after technique, to no avail. Once again we have to mount the razor’s edge to strike a happy medium.

         If samadhi was simply a matter of not making any effort, we would expect to see millions of enlightened beings all around us. Since this doesn’t seem to be the case, there is some work to be done. We concluded the class with another analogy to the current President-elect. The government is like a tamasicly hogtied human being writ large. Obama doesn’t have to worry much about where to begin his efforts. His predecessors destroyed virtually everything and stole the rest, so everything needs fixing. He can start anywhere. We also can start with what we have right here and now. We don’t have to search far away for an exotic path, it’s already under our feet. Deferring our efforts until later is a particularly insidious defense mechanism.

         Yet the effort involved is easy. You don’t have to learn a bunch of obscure Sanskrit terms, or understand everything the teacher says. When you sit, you dismiss all the thoughts that distract you from simply being still. “No effort” here doesn’t mean following your thoughts out the door. When you finally come to a moment of stillness, free of distracting thoughts, then you can be effortless. In the artistic state all efforts are distractions. If you attend to any thought in that state you reactivate the citta vritti, and you get evicted from “heaven”. So it’s really a very simple business.



Sutra 1:2 - Part II


         In the middle third of the exposition on citta vritti nirodha, the restraint of mental modifications, Nitya surveys some of the primary pillars of Indian psychology, including purusha and prakriti and the three gunas or nature modalities, sattva, rajas and tamas. Although we are familiar with these already, there is always a new light in which to view them.

         The main idea is that while there is some value in adhering to sattva, to a clear grasp of reality, as much as possible, the modalities are simply how Nature operates. Our awareness repeatedly fluctuates from clear to colored to muddy and back again. Yoga calls on us to transcend the dominating influence of Nature and its modalities to re-attain our innate freedom. This is not “mirror polishing Zen” or any incremental, puzzle-solving kind of path, but a total and absolute break with conditioned modes of thought. As such it is truly radical, going to the root of our mediocrity and hacking it off. We can give indications about this in the class, but it is up to the individual to bring the requisite intensity of purpose to the endeavor, lest it be trivialized beyond hope of resurrection.

         Our surface personality is likened in the Gita to a holy fig tree, because we consider it sacred and worship it. The Gita has another recommendation, similar to citta vritti nirodha, in XV, 1-4:


  They speak of an unexpended holy fig tree, with roots above and branches below, whose leaves are sacred verses; he who knows it is a Veda knower.

  Below and above spread its branches, nourished by the modalities of nature, sense values its buds, and downward also there are ramified roots which bind to action in the world of men.

  Nor is its form here comprehended thus (as stated), nor its end, nor its beginning, nor its foundation. Having sundered this holy fig tree, with strongly fixed roots, with the weapon of decisive nonattachment,

  then alone that path is to be sought, treading which they do not return again, thinking: “I seek refuge in that Primordial Man from whom of old streamed forth active relativist manifestation.”


         The Gita shares Patanjali’s ferocity regarding the modalities of Nature, so I’ll pull up a few helpful examples of its philosophy:


II, 45)         The Vedas treat of matters related to the three gunas; you should be free from these three modalities, Arjuna, free from (relative) pairs of opposites, established ever in pure being, without alternately striving and resting, (unitively) Self-possessed.


III, 5)         Not even for a single instant can one ever remain engaged in no action at all. By virtue of modalities born from nature, all are made to engage in action helplessly.


III, 29)         Those confounded by the modalities of nature become attached to objective modalities existing in works. Such men who are not all-wise, and are dull, should not be unsettled by those who are all-wise.


XIV, 19)         When the seer beholds no other agent than the modalities of nature, and knows that which lies beyond the modalities, he attains My state of being [what Patanjali calls samadhi].


XIV, 20)         The embodied, having transcended these three modalities of nature, originating in the body, is freed from the sufferings of birth, death and old age, and enjoys immortality [more samadhi].


         Nitya uses the analogy of light for consciousness. Light is invisible until it contacts an object, whereupon the reflection gives it a semblance of visibility through the distortion caused by the object. Just as the eye cannot see itself, consciousness is not aware of its own nature but only knows itself via a series of reflections from without. Outer space looks dark even though it is filled with light. A spacecraft looming into our field of vision absorbs some of the light and allows certain wavelengths to bounce off. What we actually see is what the craft is not, the light that doesn’t stick to it. While we are confident that we are seeing a true image of a thing, any number of distortions are possible.

         Some years ago I had a similar revelation while gazing at a full moon over the Pacific Ocean. A wavering line of glorious brightness spewed directly from the moon to where I was standing, while everywhere else the ocean was black as pitch. Suddenly I realized that for anyone else out moon gazing there would be a similar bright streak. The ocean was in fact brightly lit at every point; the limitation was my own particular angle of vision. The light of consciousness is the same: each person has their own unique angle and can only presume that others can see as well, since their view is dark to us. Seeing a brightly lit ocean as dark due to personal constraints is what is called ignorance in Vedanta.

         In either case, the idea is to spend some time basking in the invisible light of unmodified consciousness instead of always seeing partial versions bounced off objects and ideas. We are highly addicted to our intelligently selected partial visions, and impatient with and even fearful of unmodified states. That’s why we need to make an initial effort to get on with yoga. Our minds are easily caught by each fleeting event or idea and are helplessly drawn along by them. When we try to meditate or contemplate challenging ideas, such as nothingness, we may do it for a short time but then our minds are deflected back onto the familiar territory of somethingness. It’s embarrassing how easy it is for our egos to deflect our dedication and keep us running around in our circular squirrel cages. But with dedication and a devoted effort to return to the subject again and again, it becomes progressively easier to sit in emptiness for awhile. The Gita describes this in XIV, 26:


He who also serves Me with a yoga of devotion, never deviating from the proper path, transcending these modalities of nature, is considered fit for becoming the Absolute.


We can amend ‘never’ to ‘occasionally’ for us dilettantes. The whole process is described in VI, 24-27:


  Abandoning completely all desires originating in the will for particularized ends, curbing the collection of sense-functionings on every side

  —slowly, slowly, activities should be brought to a standstill by reason steadily applied, establishing the mind reflexively in the Self, without thinking of anything whatever.

  Whatever causes the changeful, unsteady mind to go out (again and again), from each such, restraining it (again and again), it should ever be led to the side of the Self.

  Such a yogi, verily, of calmed mind, of pacified passion, who has become the Absolute, free from all dross, comes to supreme happiness.


Lest we become unnerved by this process, Nitya assures us here that cognitive consciousness continues even when the vritti is restrained. In other words, we don't disappear when our mental buzz disappears. Although we have become identified with our surface modulations, our true self is ever present beneath and beyond them. That’s why discarding superficial attachments is like coming home to a place we have never really left. Moreover, making efforts is a paradoxical business. At some stage they become counterproductive, despite being essential at the outset. Nitya mentions the term dharmamegha, the gentle raining down of righteousness, in this context. He says:


A cloud is taken to its destination by wind. Similarly, the physical and subjective effort of the yogi can take the discipline only to a certain extent. Thereafter—like a cloud being wafted by the wind—the disciplined mind of the yogi transverses in the spiritual realm without any ego-oriented effort.


         Lastly, I want to make one more attempt to bring the negative side of the citta vritti business into the vernacular. The vritti itself indicates the simultaneous appearance of a subject and an object as a vibratory phenomenon. An event is somewhat like throwing a rock into a pond, with an initial splash followed by symmetrically expanding ripples. The ripples, as a whole are the kshipta, the aftereffects or afterimages of the event—memory sequences and real-world repercussions. If you let go of the event, the ripples eventually die down and the pond becomes quiescent again.

         Vikshipta happens when you don’t let it go. Something in you wants to prolong or reproduce the event, but it is more like wishful thinking than true focus, ekagra. Nitya merely describes this as a deflection, and I wish he’d elaborated what he meant. My grasp of it is that the wishing colors the situation and begins to shape it as something different than what it actually is. The text accidentally calls vikshipta a specific occurrence, which it is not. It is both a prolongation and a warping of an occurrence, the beginning of what R.D. Laing calls the mystification of experience. We mystify events by overlaying them with our stock of prejudices and ignorance, so that they become transformed in a most dangerous and delusory way. Instead of a specific occurrence, we are presented with a series of events with little coherence, hence the idea of distraction associated with vikshipta.

         Mudha is an intensification of the process, where your imposed false version of reality begins to elbow truth aside. What was once only a colored interpretation now becomes set in stone. Nirodha aids the solidification of the false knowledge by warding off any and all conflicting information. The feeling of satisfaction we get from our vision of reality matching our prejudices (a circular argument if ever there was one!) makes it very difficult to combat this highly effective mental snare. We become smug and complacent about our beliefs. The ekagra that results is a fixation on arbitrary falsehood with little or no potential for samadhi in it.

         Distinguishing between a false fixation and a valid samadhi is not easy, and we need to be alert and awake so as to not fall into any easy traps here.

         Now for a very practical example. I hope you are thinking of others. Several technological inventions have improved human life, so once upon a time there began the belief that technology was innately good. A corollary belief arose that simply because something could be made it should be made. A particular invention is a material version of kshipta, and the belief that repeating the production of material inventions would prolong the good is vikshipta. Of course, every invention has a downside as well as an upside, and some of them have a much larger downside than upside, but the prevailing belief in the inherent goodness of technology sweeps aside the doubts. If it can be made it should be made, period. This mudha—stupidity in bald terms—has led to whole regions of the planet becoming unfit for higher life forms due to pollution of one kind or another or increased bloodshed or overuse or overpopulation or what have you. Nirodha guarantees that we will ignore the consequences or attribute them to our favorite demons, such as the very people who want to stop unbridled technology from destroying the planet. The resulting ekagra is a belief system that expects new technological improvements to cure every ill and right every wrong, so the faster we invent new things the better off we are. There is no limit to this folly no matter how lethal the materials, as with radioactivity, biological warfare, toxic chemicals and even genetic manipulation, because we already “know for certain” that technology is innately good. Actually, we are certain only of the assumption we started with, even though many facts testify eloquently to a contrary position. Citta vritti nirodha means, among other things, resisting the crowd mentality that can convince us of the inviolability of partial truths, and instead daring to think for ourselves.



Sutra I:2 - Part III


         Nitya puts his finger squarely on the chief difference between Patanjali’s Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, a distinction it will be helpful to keep in mind through this study. In a nutshell (and who other than a nut would want to know?) Yoga admits a graded path of progressive attainments, while Vedanta insists that all steps are equally irrelevant. You either get it or your don’t. The Self cannot be known in parts.

         Alternatively, Patanjali’s Yoga, which I will most of the time simply call Yoga in these notes, teaches graded perfection through sadhana or practice. Both standpoints have merit and are not as mutually exclusive as they seem on the face of it. Life itself is a sadhana to every caring person. As the class explored, there are many states of consciousness and many degrees of perception, and all of them are worthy of our attention when we’re in them. We don’t just discard everything that isn’t total realization; in nondual vision we are learning to see the Absolute within the ordinary. “Ordinary reality” thus stands revealed for the astounding, miraculous occurrence that it is. We aren't going to throw it out.

         Moreover, we want to minimize the dichotomy that creeps into Vedanta as much as other places between us “normal folks” and the rare beings who are enlightened. There is a streak of hero worship in us, and we find the stories of great sages and saints exciting and stimulating. As we go deeper into Yoga, though, we have to set aside all forms of defense that the ego uses to keep itself separate from what Anita called oneness with all. We lament our separateness because it makes us feel lonely, and yet we cling to it with a vengeance. Thinking of the great saints, poets and scientists as special, heightens the gulf between our conception of ourself and our conception of what enlightenment is. We unconsciously demean ourselves by projecting enlightenment and brilliance onto the other.

         It doesn’t matter what we think we will be like as an enlightened being before enlightenment. That’s like charting a course through unknown territory before we know what the territory is. We will find our way as we go along, and each decision will open up numerous undreamed of possibilities. One joy of life is in being free to make good decisions as we go along. Thus the Gita concludes by setting us free to scrutinize every encounter and then make the best decision we can about it.

         Patanjali will soon make a distinction between being in the groove and being with the vritti, the modulations. He knows we become somewhat centered in meditation and then are more horizontalized in our everyday activities. In the horizontal we can admire the (mostly fictitious or at least highly embroidered) stories of great men and women, but when we sit in the class to focus our consciousness or take time out for meditation at home, all that is extraneous. The sadhana is a gradual process of bringing the unitive awareness into the horizontal, of verticalizing it to the point where the horizontal and the vertical are fused.

         Deb told an important story about an instruction Nitya gave to Peter O. When you’re sitting at ease in meditation, you can pass off some of the urges that come along and remain there. But sooner or later one comes that makes you get up and start some program, even if it begins with only making tea. We should look closely at where that motivation comes from.

         Our egos are masters of disguise. We think to ourselves, “I want to make tea or have lunch,” or “time to clean the apartment,” or “I’ve got to call my friend,” and all these are true to an extent. But below the surface disturbance, the real disquiet that propels us is hiding. We can learn a lot by peering down into ourselves to try to see what urges are masquerading as simple bodily needs. We are in fact addicted to habitual responses to maintain the disguises we clothe ourselves in.

         The idea of addiction struck a nerve, and the class explored it further. Our Puritanical society is horrified by addiction and tries to smash it wherever it rears its head, not realizing it is a symptom of the underlying dissatisfaction and not the primary problem. Because of this, the cause is not addressed, and the addict will be driven from one craving to another. The only real cure is happiness or satisfaction, which comes from connection to the Absolute. Not a theoretical connection or any hypothetical belief, but a real soul-stirring merger. Puritans believe that unhappiness is Godly, and it blossoms under their touch. They want to spread it to everyone. The repression of happiness becomes an art form, with pleasure deferred to a putative afterlife and thus permanently out of reach. So we experience a profound disconnect between our true nature as blissful beings and the cold, harsh world in which we marinate.

         In some sense we are all addicts. Whether or not we have a drug habit, we all have habitual behaviors that keep us bound. So the example of the addict can be taken to heart by everyone. The game isn’t about crafting a persona to keep life at bay, but about quitting the charade once and for all, because that is exactly what is keeping us from our native joy. Breaking our habit calls for a measure of seriousness that we are reluctant to exercise, because we are also hiding from ourselves. Citta vritti nirodha means stopping the flow of associations we are addicted to, first with the surface mind, and as we progress in our meditative skills, quelling the tidal urges erupting from our vasanas.

         As Paul reminded us, we can’t simply repress the eruptions. We have to find the bliss, and then the vasanas don’t have as much hold on us. We dispel darkness by bringing in light, not by trying valiantly to push it into a corner. Or as Nitya once said, we can't hold back the ocean with our fingers.

         Most of the rest of Nitya’s commentary is a progressive list of samadhis, or depths of unified consciousness that are consequent to the progressive stilling of mental modifications. The primary distinction is between the seeded and unseeded states. The urges we’re speaking of come from the seeds of unsatisfied desires in the psyche. These underlie four stages of restraint or nirodha.

         A preliminary restraint is to focus on a single item, as in the classic meditation on a flower or a flame. This brings us to an identification with the Self, but the effect is temporary. Next is to focus on an idea, which is similar but more difficult. Beyond that we begin to experience a core identification with the Self and its bliss, true dhyana or contemplation, at which point the seeds start to die off. The fourth nirodha is to hold on to the core identification so that the identity of self and Self can become more and more total. Minimizing the impact of rajas and tamas and allowing sattva to predominate helps the psyche to remain in this pure state of samadhi.

         The first two nirodhas may sound exotic—wow, meditating on a candle!—but they don’t have to be. When we are absorbed in watching a sports event or a simple task like washing dishes, we are experiencing nirodha naturally. The act of reading is taken for granted, but it is in fact very complicated. Most people in Patanjali’s day couldn’t do it, but we’ve all had the absorbing experience of struggling to “get into” a book and then suddenly being actually in it, undistracted, fighting the battle or raising the deer or trekking the Gobi or whatever. This is a tremendous meditative achievement. Maryanne Wolf, in Proust and the Squid, describes what MRI studies are revealing about the reading mind, and what an amazing, coordinated achievement it is. She details several stages in learning to read as an expert that are reminiscent of Patanjali. One key difference is that we have no reading vasanas, no genetic predilection for it. It is too new a skill. Wolf includes a quote from Sir Edmund Huey, calling reading “the most remarkable specific performance that civilization has learned in all its history.” So in some respects we are all yogis already, and when we understand what that means it will demystify our study to a significant degree. If we don't add stumbling blocks or waste our time in self-sabotage, we are naturally evolving into wise mystics.



Sutra 1:3

Then the seer remains in its own essential nature.


         When the mental modifications cease, we may be afraid that we are gone, dead, or otherwise absent. Patanjali wants to assure us that it is our own essence we reenter when we sink into our core. We do not have to fear that there is a loss of soul involved.

         Nitya’s commentary recalls the image of a movie theater, where light passing through a colored film throws images on a screen. Our essential nature is the light (consciousness), our activities along with our samskaras and vasanas (memories and genetic predilections) provide the film, and the world is the screen. We have become completely mesmerized by the action being played out in the movie 24/7, and have forgotten the complex apparatus that makes it happen. We want to have an impact on the movie, but find it almost impossible to alter the set patterns on the screen. That’s because the film is not being addressed; it is “behind” us in a manner of speaking, and what’s in front of us is foreordained, predestined. If we can sink into our light source, we can see that the more essential cause of action is our mental film unreeling.

         This aspect of ourselves is available for us to work on. We can wipe away some of the darkness of the film so that more light can shine through. We can see how certain conditionings are warping how the light passes through them. And we can become humble that we are a small part of a magnificent situation so that we don’t strut around on screen like a peacock.

         Brain imaging studies demonstrate the Vedantic wisdom that our conscious awareness comes at the tail end of a long process. In an article about the placebo effect, which has recently been demonstrated to produce real chemical and physiological changes, the Utne Reader reports: “Our brains are up and running even before we’re consciously aware of the activity, according to Science-NOW Daily News (April 14, 2008). Ten seconds before you think you’ve made a choice, your brain already has the answer.”

         The Yoga Sutra study is all about reestablishing ourselves in our core by restraining our projections. From there we can clean up our film so that the maximum of light floods the theater of our consciousness.

         Paul wondered if it wasn’t tragic that we aren’t content to remain grounded in ourselves, but seek to relate to the world through its vibrations. Shouldn’t there be only light and not darkness or coloration?

         For some people, leaving the world and disappearing is a very appealing option. But most of us in the class want to live our lives to the fullest possible measure. We seek the light of our essential nature to enrich ourselves and those we come in contact with, by adding depth to the two-dimensional play on the surface. Looking at a brightly lit blank screen gets boring pretty quickly. We want to see a plot with some action and wise insights emerging on it. We union projectionists will be gone from this place for a long time after we die, so let’s do what we can to make it a beautiful and delightful experience for everyone who passes through by running great films.

         We want to emphasize again that this isn’t a question of choosing between on or off, we want to know both on and off together. Because we have gotten so caught up in the vibrational aspect of the world, we have forgotten our true nature as “emptiness” beyond vibrations. Oddly, remembering our core makes relating to the vibrations better in any number of ways. In social interactions, for example, people are more likely to listen to us if we aren’t trying to tinker with their world by giving unsolicited advice. Outwardly forcing the issue is therefore counterproductive. It tends to strike people as phony, because it is.

         Another way of looking at the on/off question is that our core reality is the Void or the Absolute, a reality of Nothingness. It is rare and difficult to dispense with everything that is Something in order to gain entry to the Void. And as Narayana Guru said, we shouldn’t waste time trying to wash the lather out of soap. You can wash it forever and it will still produce lather. Yoga instead seeks to balance our exaggerated aspects, by intelligently juxtaposing and demystifying them. Once things are in balance a perception of the void emerges as an integral part of the total situation. This lends an intellectual aspect to our comprehension without erasing us from existence. Nature is filled with galaxies, each with billions of complex star systems rotating around a hub that is suspected to be a black hole or holes. This is our personal vision as well: the Absolute as the theoretical hub of a rotating galaxy of wondrous expressions of actualized potential.

         So we gather together to get real. We sat quietly and concentrated on feeling who we actually are. What do we experience as us? With eyes closed, the visible boundary of our skin disappears. We can sense something that we identify as ourselves radiating out some distance. Within it are all our perceptions and conceptions. They are not outside. There is no outside. All of us are included in the awareness of each one. It is amazing we feel as separate as we do, since our essences overlap like a roomful of electromagnets. When we stop holding ourselves apart, we can expand that feeling much more.

         Jan and I talked the day before about body language, how it often reflects the blocks we put up to keep others at a distance. We cross our arms to hold in our feelings and resist those of others. Or we tense up, twist or otherwise throw up psychic barriers. It can be very freeing to notice the tensions and awkward body language and make simple adjustments to relax ourselves. In most cases we don’t need to wall out the other, it’s a habitual response and unhelpful. Remember Frost: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know / What I was walling in or walling out.” When we build a fortress to keep out intruders we are shutting ourselves in. The so-called intruders are free to go their own way, but we are stuck inside.

         Both at the beginning and the end of class, we had some very sweet group meditations where we discarded everything to sit in our own nature. Somehow there is an invisible resonance that draws us all into an intense peace. We will foster that more in the weeks to come.


Part II

         Here’s one way citta vrtti can work. There has just been an attack on Americans in Mumbai, India. The “talking heads” are busy spinning it for all it’s worth: Pakistan is attacking India, Muslims are murderers, we have to build up our armies and wipe them out, etc. Very one-sided and specious. If you only listen to the propaganda, you will be drawn into some very dangerous attitudes, full of fear and hostility, where it becomes easy to think of genocidal solutions. But if you step back and look at the overarching situation, you get a whole different take. First of all, India isn’t being attacked, it is the Americans and their allies in their war of crusade against Islam. They are being attacked wherever they may be found. It isn’t very far-fetched to imagine that whatever country or religion was under concerted attack, including annihilating wedding parties regularly to symbolize the genocidal intent, they would be justified in mounting a counter-offensive of their own. It’s all very logical. Therefore, the spiritual thinker supports reducing offensive hostilities rather than an all-out effort to squelch a large portion of the globe. When people are left in peace they are much less likely to resort to organized violence. Narayana Guru underlined this idea in Atmopadesa Satakam, verse 46:


         By fighting it is impossible to win;

         by fighting one another no faith is destroyed;

         one who argues against another’s faith, not recognizing                                          this,

         fights in vain and perishes; this should be understood.


         Another way of putting it is expressed in a quote by Nitya provided by Nancy Yeilding, found on page 30 of Gurukulam Magazine (1987 first quarter), part of a terrific series entitled Wonder Journey with a Wandering Guru:


Do not look into the social mirror and then think that is what you are. You should have an inner estimation of yourself and the value of what you are doing. Of course, it is possible to be self-deluded and make mistaken judgments. In order to avoid that, you need a confidante who is detached. If you learn to strike a root in the universal order, that gives you stability…. When you sit firm on your own truthfulness, your own trust, you can face any encounter.


Part III


Dear Scott,

Really I should commit my heartfelt gratitude for your emails to a reply every time I get them but I don't. I feel the impulse and think....well...later. I appreciate what you have to say very much. Thank you dozens of times this year so far!!

I particularly empathised with what you wrote about seeing things clearly in your email today. All my life I have found it impossible to be completely committed to any political party or idea or anything really and tended to envy people I knew who seemed so sure. I called it sitting on the fence but perhaps it has always been an attempt to see into the heart of things and realising that in the end all decisions (rajistic ones at least) are at best 55% the right answer. The thing is that life makes decisions necessary a lot of the time, so I have acted and often got it wrong of course.... got it right too now and then!

I am finding Guru Nitya the very best person I have come across after Jung and look forward to his company for the rest of my life. What you and Nancy have to say feels so good too as I go along.

I will send you my latest graphic for the Atmo verse 28. I find myself wanting to symbolise each verse as we go along. In this instance the vertical and the horizontal represent space and time.

with love



[graphic not included]



Sutra 1:4 Part I

At other times, the identification is with the modifications.


         First off, word is that the book has gone to the printer today, so it won’t be long before we can hold it in our hands. That’s the kind of modification we really want to identify with!

         With this verse we meet the lions guarding the gates, so to speak. There was some complaining and grousing from an unexpected source about all the verbiage and the excessive amount of Sanskrit terminology, and a general flagging of intent. Class size is already dwindling. The bottom line is, each person has to make a decision whether they are content to dither along or whether it’s worthwhile to get serious. Better to settle that right off the bat. Nitya very subtly and gently challenges us to take a decision.

         It’s true that Nitya’s Yoga Sutras is to some degree a reference text, presented in the traditional manner with lots of unfamiliar terms. We will have to struggle to extract the essential meaning from the forest of information. Happily, the group did exactly that. With a slow start, partly affected by the states of mind brought to the class, we honed in on the meaning and ended up considerably lighter in spirit. This is a beautiful process to witness. Unlike church or a guru darshan where your comprehension is handed to you already packaged, this is a living process of tender shoots pushing up through the cement pavement to grow into the light of day.

         The I Ching commented on by Richard Wilhelm says of Difficulty at the Beginning (p. 16-17):


Times of growth are beset with difficulties. They resemble a first birth. But these difficulties arise from the very profusion of all that is struggling to attain form. Everything is in motion: therefore if one perseveres there is a prospect of great success, in spite of the existing danger…. It is important not to remain alone; in order to overcome the chaos he needs helpers. This is not to say, however, that he himself should look on passively at what is happening. He must lend his hand and participate with inspiration and guidance.

         If a person encounters a hindrance at the beginning of an enterprise, he must not try to force advance but must pause and take thought. However, nothing should put him off his course; he must persevere and constantly keep the goal in sight.


         “Perseverance furthers.” ‘Nuff said. There are a million mythological stories where the fool is questioned at the gate or has to prove herself worthy of a quest by overcoming obstacles. Our class is a non-mythological example. The good feelings at the end were in part a product of the effort we put in to grasp the Guru’s meaning.

         Okay, enough of that. What was the meaning we had to grasp?

         The Gurukula is very supportive of “being with the modifications.” They are what manifested life is all about. But there is a dark side to them, hinted at by two phrases in the commentary. Nitya tells us, “The Self hides behind its own light and projects its false identification with the ego.” Furthermore, “Thus instrumental consciousness becomes by and large a defense measure of consciousness.” Moni asked us to explain this.

         Deb related how we craft a persona, a social mask, to interact with the world, and become identified with it, forgetting our true self. We’ve heard these words before, but we have become complacent about them. Our egos are clever enough to adopt a “spiritual” guise about the social mask so that we will stop trying to tear it off. Then the spiritual search becomes a pretense and a charade. We are up to our necks in such games on all hands, to mix an anatomic metaphor. Putative spirituality is in fact the ideal guise for a persona mask: Look how good I am! I worship God and follow his every suggestion. Anyone who doubts me must then doubt God, so they deserve to be killed. They must be terrorists, because they terrify me. I’m terrified of being exposed as a faker, returned to my rejected state of the unloved child. So make those threats go away at all cost. Bomb them! Jail them! Annihilate them! No wonder humans love war.

         It doesn't always get so violent, of course, only when there's a threat to our complacency. Mostly we've adjusted our lives to screen out the threats in advance. So we can dither instead of fighting tooth and nail. As Deb said, when we're sitting in meditation we have these strong urges to get up and do the dishes or vacuum the carpets or go run errands. Bill noted that our heads are so full of thoughts that we almost never get a break from them. That’s about as much of the titanic battle of life and death as we consciously perceive. Our egos have very effectively screened us off from knowing who we are.

         If we are lucky, as children we lived an undisturbed period as emissaries of the Absolute. But without exception we came to a point quite early on when we were no longer acceptable as miniature yogis. Our love was rejected; we encountered painful situations; society demanded we “grow up.” With the best of intentions we set out to craft a being that would be lovable to the world. We scavenge decayiung parts from the morgues and graveyards around us. At first we remembered our inner nature as distinct from the “Frankenstein’s monster” we were cobbling together, but sooner or later we converted to thinking of it as “me” and even joined in the hostile attitude about our peaceful inner being. We became socialized in opposition to our very self, and in the process ended up totally conflicted about who we are. The monster took on a life of its own and ran amok. As adults, the false image has become true, and the truth has been nailed to a cross, bled to death, and thrown into a tomb with a huge stone placed over the entrance. We lie in the dark, dreaming we are free and parrying all assertions otherwise.

         Our task is nothing less than our own resurrection. We must cast off our dreams and awaken. Is it worth the effort? You decide for yourself. If your answer is yes, be prepared to hold tight to your decision when "the devil" tempts you with frittering, the golden disc of your social mask reasserts its allure, or it simply seems like too much trouble to make that weekly support group meeting. Which it most definitely will!


Part II

         Anita told me the other day that the previous week’s Part II was helpful to her, because she translated the terms to her personal life. There I wrote of the prejudiced attitude toward Muslims that is building tension and launching conflicts. In some quarters they are treated as unsullied evil that should be wiped out en masse. She thought, I have the same feelings towards my ex-husband, and I have been culturing them for many years. Just seeing that, she had already made a change of heart.

         This is most excellent. We speak hypothetically about the relationship between the political and personal spheres, but we should really see how the attitude invested in one is not in any way different from the attitude invested in the other. They are the same psychic trap, merely expressed on different levels. The solution is likewise the same: a unilateral reduction of hostilities, both over and covert. The effect is immediate, even if substantive change takes a long time, and it must not be dependent on reciprocity. We begin the process and keep it up, because it is the right thing to do even in the midst of the storm. How other people respond is their problem, but they are more likely to follow suit if they are not being threatened or enticed in any way.

         Narayana Guru addresses this issue particularly in Atmo 36-42, the section on sama and anya, but his whole life was an example of how curing your own ailments leavens the whole loaf. Thanks, Anita, for reminding us to bring the teachings home, every time!


Part III

         A former class member who still reads the notes called this morning to offer some suggestions. He was concerned that my mention of “dwindling class size” was an indication of something amiss with the classes, and suggested doing hatha yoga beforehand as a curative. In the past he has complained about the Sanskrit terminology being a barrier.

         I didn’t mean anything drastic by that statement, though the purport of the notes was intense enough. Classes wax and wane, and this is a busy time of year. Plus, I’m waiting to see if the economic depression makes people more or less inclined to seek philosophical wisdom. Possibly it will seem like a luxury to many, and a necessity of life to even fewer than usual.

         I appreciate my friend’s sentiments, but we are not a commercial enterprise that needs to trade off authenticity for popularity. My guru prayed and strove to be unpopular, and it saved us a million headaches. We represent a rare but not quite unique perspective that we need to adhere to through thick or thin, or else we’ll become something we’re not. It will never be popular, nor should it be. It exists for those few who wish to make a breakthrough from the ordinary state of human bondage, and not just adjust the bonds so they are a bit more comfortable. This being the case, it would be a sellout of our authenticity to compromise by coddling to the desire to be comfortable.

         I am frequently amazed at how a very radical teaching often gets translated into a familiar adage and smilingly tucked away. Where does it go? In any case, it only occasionally has even a small part of the impact it would if it was completely taken to heart. This is a perennial situation. What it means is that there is plenty there if we are interested enough to take a peek.

         Recently a number of Christian churches have encountered a similar challenge and are splitting in two in consequence. The rift is between those who favor the ordination or even simple acceptance of gays as a clear mandate of the Christian creed, and those who fear a loss of membership because of it. Should they do the right thing and lose their bigoted followers to evangelical churches, or hold off and retain that lucrative membership? In the end, no compromise seems possible. Gays have been ordained, and openly anti-gay factions have formed. Gayness is just downright terrifying to some who associate spirituality with a certain conservative morality, and they refuse to tolerate it.

         Luckily, we don’t have such decisions to make, because we are not in it for the money or to become a powerhouse of wisdom or anything. Morality is at best a secondary issue. We are in it because it is the best approximation of truth we have ever encountered. Coincidentally, we represent a vision of truth that comes from India and has foreign words and challenging ideals in it. All humans are free to take it or leave it, but we aren’t going to alter it to capture anyone’s attention. It has always been baffling to most observers, and suitable mainly to unusual types, to put it politely.

         I tried to make it clear in the earlier notes that our egos are the real problem here, not the value of the classes per se. When what is learned is put into practice and starts to have an impact, it can be unsettling. Humans dislike change. You have to have a certain dedication or it is all too easy just to walk away. Nor is it the job of the teachers to force anyone to stick to it. This has to come from the seeker alone. If a firm decision is taken, then there will be plenty of support, but the decision itself is wholly personal.

         There are many popular ways of presenting similar ideas to the Gurukula’s. They are popular either because they suit people better or they are well advertised or because they don’t actually challenge people on a fundamental level. They pay lip service to change, by rearranging the furniture so to speak, but don’t rock the boat, not really. If that satisfies someone, fine. For others it isn’t enough. Those who want to dig deeper are often grateful for the Gurukula’s help in finding a happier state of mind to live with, but if it makes anyone uneasy, there is no compunction. It is worthwhile, though, to ask yourself why you’re walking away, because there may be more to it than meets the eye.



Sutra 1:4 Part II

At other times, the identification is with the modifications.


What a delight to meet once again for our humble class, after two weeks wrapped in the womb of deep snow. It was evident that the hiatus had contributed positively, with everyone rested and ready to take up the challenge with renewed energy. And by some odd coincidence, we find we are already past the lions guarding the gateway of our study.

         Nitya muses here about a perennial issue. Life and its expression is an evolving flow with a vast momentum, part and parcel of the expansion of the universe as a whole, and reflected in the development of each individual sentient being. On a personal level, we cherish our little likes and dislikes, our opinions and our self-image, yet these have no impact on the unfolding of the overall scheme. Are we irrelevant? Or just what is our relevance? How do we become contributors to a world in which we seem to be outsiders?

         The Vedantic idea is that by shrugging off the claims of our egotistical preferences—which really are irrelevant in the greater picture—and turning to our true inner nature (as we’re currently calling it), we become active participants in the tone if not the direction of the flow. As Bill noted, we have already discussed the new analysis of the Framingham heart study, which discovered that the state of mind of your neighbors is an important influence on your own state of mind, even more than your family members are, on average. Which implies that your state of mind influences others as well. Scotty talked about how he washed his mental tensions off in the shower, and then as he went through his day with a smile he was greeted with reciprocal beams on all hands. It calls to mind the old adage, “Smile and the world smiles with you—cry, and you cry alone.” But now we should amend it to “cry, and the world cries along too.”

         Therefore, working on ourselves really IS the best contribution we can make to world peace, short of being a Gandhi or a Narayana Guru, in the right place at the right time, well-known, and with all our ducks in a row. Of course, our study is all about converting tears to smiles within our psyches. How that can happen is implied in two time-honored images of Indian wisdom.

         One is, when a transparent crystal is placed on a red carpet, it looks red. It is still exactly the same as it was, but it looks different. In the dualism of the present form of yoga, the crystal is the purusha or spirit-self, and the source of color is the prakriti or world. Because the spirit has become associated with nature, it has become colored, even though in essence it is still colorless. This is the more unitive of the two examples, because there is no thought that the crystal can be taken away from the sources of color, or that these are somehow bad or evil. They are just what is.

         The second image, more dualistic, is widely known and widely misunderstood. We are said to be looking into a mirror that is cracked and stained with various kinds of dirt. It has become very hard to make out the image in the mirror, requiring all kinds of reverse calculations and interpolations. Here the purusha is the entity who looks into the mirror, and prakriti is the imperfect reflector of the original. The mirror of prakriti ranges from clear through various gradations of obscuration to opaque, called sattva, rajas and tamas in Sanskrit. A guru is one who can be a clear mirror for us to get a good look at ourselves. This can naturally lead to the belief that cleaning the mirror is the spiritual task set before us. Once it is clean, we can have a good look. Unfortunately this idea has led many people to waste their lives in fruitless “mirror-polishing” or else give up the effort as too time consuming. The mirror cannot be polished the way we do it in the bathroom. It is only cleaned by relinquishing it entirely.

         Narayana Guru put it this way: you cannot wash the lather out of soap. The more you wash the more it lathers. He meant that it is the nature of prakriti to be an imperfect mirror. Prakriti cannot be reformed. Well, as Bill said, we can do mirror cleaning as a contribution to the welfare of the world, by aiding something or someone within our reach. But this is a social, not a spiritual pursuit. The meaning of the analogy is that we are to examine ourselves without recourse to any mirror. This is hard to grasp as an abstract idea, but when you make it concrete it is much easier.

         The mirror is the world, in which we strive to see our image. This means that we look to others, our friends and relations, to tell us who we are. But they only know our exterior, and they are flawed by their own prejudices. Their description of us is bound to be faulty. We are the only ones privy to our inner self. Despite this fact, we are taught—and have a natural proclivity—to look outward for our ratification. Very early in life we abandon our self-confidence and begin to build an image based on what other people perceive about us. So, for instance, the tint of our skin or the size of our nose becomes a defining characteristic, instead of our inner worth. This is the primary tragedy of the human race! We might have a chance to remain ourselves if there was only a little idiotic feedback, but it is wholesale and goes on for our entire life. By the time we reach what passes for adulthood, we have been mesmerized by tens of millions of false impressions from the mirrors around us. Our core is almost certain to be totally inaccessible to us. We wander in an amusement park hall of distorted mirrors. The stuff of nightmares.

         The cure is not to clean the mirror. That would mean reforming our associates so they can give a perfect reflection of us. The very attempt breeds the spiritual ego, the desire to be seen by others as we wish them to see us. Many are full of guile here, and they go on to become top dog gurus, because they show people what they want to see. It’s a performance, a sham. The real cure is to realize the mirror is always going to distort who we are, and to instead turn and face ourselves directly. This is why some prefer to withdraw from society, trying to escape from its ubiquitous mirrors. But such extreme measures aren’t necessary. Once we realize we are getting prejudiced feedback, we can start immediately to resurrect our inner self from its tomb. We can become our own best friend. We can take the inspiring examples of the great teachers of history (or next door) and raise ourselves up from the dead by our own efforts.

         We will always care what others think of us, but it no longer has to define us. We alone know if we are true, good, honest; or false, bad and deceitful. Everyone else can only wonder, or accuse. We can be amused at how much of what other people see in us is their own projection, and we can stop projecting our expectations onto others. This allows us at least a chance to come to know people for who they truly are, and it gives them the leeway to liberate themselves if they are so inclined. This is yet another way we can contribute to the welfare of the world. It is a win-win, a double affirmation, because by liberating ourselves we offer that possibility to others, and vice versa. As our world becomes less imprisoning, our own liberation becomes easier of attainment. It is even nearer than the mirror surrounding us.


Part II

         My old friend Jim, who is now James, shared an exciting new book with me by Laurence Gonzales, called Everyday Survival (New York: Norton, 2008). Without any knowledge of Vedanta, and coming from a strict scientific viewpoint, it dovetails wonderfully with our Gurukula studies. It’s a quick read with lots of good stories to illustrate the ideas, and I’m sure you’d all get a lot out of it. Because of the earlier hue and cry about whether Yoga study is worth the effort, I’d like to quote Gonzales’ last page, and call it a sufficient answer:


As I grew up and into the world where I now live, I saw more and more people who seemed to be missing their own lives while hoping to catch the reruns. The sort of paying attention that children engage in naturally, and which was essential for survival in traditional societies, seemed to be disappearing. Against this tendency I struggled to keep my eyes open, to stay awake for the ride, fighting this induced sleep as if against the effects of a drug. How, I wondered can we wake up for this amazing journey that is so quickly ended? How can we experience the live performance of our own lives? To be in the moment is the ultimate act of redemption. To live with an unquenchable curiosity that sweeps away our mental models and makes everything new is the ultimate triumph we can experience as humans before inexorable forces pull us apart. And it also seems to offer the hope that we might grow up and out of our ape ancestry and into a state where we can live truly examined lives. A truly examined life would be one that gives a gift to the future. It would create the possibility, if not the certainty, that my grandchildren and yours might live as well as we have lived. As matters stand on the earth today, I cannot be sure that even my children will live that well. And the problem isn’t that we don’t know how to fix the mess we’re in. It’s that we don’t yet believe we need to.

         Although it’s easy to pass through life as if in a waking dream, we can enrich our lives, make ourselves more effective, and sometimes even cast a protective web around ourselves and our children, by a habit of knowing—and craving to know—our world and ourselves and by the simple act of consciously paying attention.


Part III


         This bit didn’t fit into the flow of the earlier notes, but is worthy of inclusion:

         Deb and others felt that we should emphasize the positive while we investigate the stumbling blocks to samadhi. It is an interesting paradox that studying the negative can have a very positive impact on one’s spiritual path. Negative potentials when ignored go underground, where they can influence our behavior without our even noticing. Brought to light, they gradually lose their grip on us. But of course we never want to lose sight of the point, which is release from suffering, ignorance or what have you: the damage we incur by falling asleep or simply being uninformed.

         Anita was happy to comply with Deb’s request, relating her first experience the other day performing with her new choir, the Oh! Roar-A-Chorus. Nervous ahead of time despite the requisite hard practice, she experienced exactly what we had been describing, the artistic merger of individual and group, and found it highly uplifting. She was consciously “a piece of the continent, a part of the main,” swept along in the flow of the music, which was 100 times as great as she (the total number of singers), and yet hinged on her (and everyone’s) contribution. Her individuality was expressed in little mistakes, nuances of expression, her personal inward reactions, and so on, and she most definitely could not step outside the flow. Her full participation was crucial. The result was blissful, both to performer and audience. As Anita said, “It was even better than chocolate, and that’s saying something!”

         This is the kind of total involvement that a spiritual search seeks to unleash as a daily way of life. We have to find a group or an individual place in space that permits us to express ourselves to the best of our ability. When we find such a nurturing place, we can give ourselves fully to it, and the result is often beautiful, sonorous, enchanting. There is an osmotic interchange between seer and seen, artist and canvas, knower and knowledge, and the rest, that enriches everyone who comes in contact with an artist or yogi. And the choir is a different music from a solo voice. There is synergy at work here, the unpredictable higher value that emerges from its separate parts. Well, at least the first time it is unpredictable, and for the participant it is almost always a surprise as well. Anita said she could see how performers become addicted to the experience, it is so much fun and so fulfilling.

         We aren’t being metaphorical when we speak of the joy of yoga. It’s a living reality.



Sutra 1:5

  The modifications are fivefold, some labored (painful) and others spontaneous (not painful).


         We begin to dive into the “meaty” part of the study with a preliminary division, after which the five types of modification will be examined one by one. Nitya explains the division in a couple of ways. The easy or spontaneous modulations are the simple registration of sensory input, while the labored ones are efforts of volition associated with action. In other words, afferent and efferent impulses, or incoming and outgoing. He also likens the difference to that between looking and seeing, again referencing passive and active aspects of modulation. Lastly he adds a vertical element, the witness, the minimally modulated state of ease that dispassionately observes the turmoil of the active subject.

         We must remember that there is no right or wrong in this division, only what is. Many spiritual theories emphasize the easy (New Age) or the difficult (Semitic) paths. In Yoga, both have their place, and can be very helpful to temper each other’s extremes. The class talked about this at length. When your life is well-adjusted it has an ease that is a ratification of its harmonious functioning. On the other hand, hard struggles are necessary to break free of conditioning, and to attain complex achievements. Gandhi didn’t lead India out of serfdom by quietly contemplating his navel, but by using his contemplative insights to energize an intelligent action program that was supremely complex and strenuous.

         It remains a surpassing paradox that examining the blocks to samadhi allows us to wean ourselves away from them, as Nitya puts it here. Simply attending to the “groovy” side of life often produces a saccharine superficiality, behind which thinly veiled egoistic forces run rampant. By facing the darkness we allow the light to shine ever more brightly.

         Susan gave an example of a favorite Medieval Italian painting of hers, showing the Angel Gabriel whispering in Mary’s ear that she has been impregnated by God. Contrary to our expectations, Mary is not amused. The painting depicts a thousand words’ worth of struggling with doubt, humiliation, even violation. Her carefully laid plans and sense of propriety have just been wiped out. Giving birth to a “savior” is not all fun and games. This struck me as the beautiful symbol it must have been intended to be once upon a time. Each of us goes about our life with a set of programs, duties, plans, but if we are blessed enough to be touched by the divine, it impregnates us with a tiny seed that begins to grow within us, mostly out of our awareness, but with a swelling sense of something supremely important going on. After a suitable gestation period, a new life bursts forth in all its radiance. When we first hear the call of spirit, the word of the guru, our superficial self is likely to rebel, to resent its loss of ego autonomy, but that too will pass.

         Speaking of children, Nancy put the situation very clearly and simply. When we are young we all know the state of the neutral witness perfectly well, so when we get carried away our parent or caretaker can hug us or chide us or whatever, and quickly redirect our attention back to our native neutrality. We return to it as a matter of course, even on our own sometimes. She wanted us to know we aren’t speaking of some obscure state here, but of our natural ground, something very familiar. We can reaccess it any time by stopping our headlong plunge into modulations.

         Nancy’s idea incidentally reminds us of the value of a wise teacher. When we are embroiled in the thick of action it is not easy to find our way back to neutrality on our own. That’s what ‘coloration’ means: that we tint our environment with our state of mind, but we have a tough time realizing we’re doing it. Everything looks perfectly clear to us because the tint is in us. Dick Cheney and Charles Manson and all those crazy people firmly believe they are perfectly sane. An outside observer, especially one who knows us well, a guru, can help turn us back to our witnessing state that is the source of true clarity. If we trust them as we once trusted our parents, we will listen when they tell us we are going wrong. Which brings us back to the original message: we have to admit we are off the mark before we can get back on the mark. We must examine the chains to learn how to free ourselves. Even if we’ve already done a lot of that in the past.

         Scotty wondered aloud if there wasn’t a way to burn karma wholesale, all at once. Yes, lots of people get impatient with the seemingly plodding pace of Vedanta. We are being weaned away, not yanked away, from our foibles. Many paths that promise quick results are a snare and a delusion. But many are fine. Chanting, painting, dancing, worshipping, all those kinds of things provide surcease from sorrow, though often temporary. When the chanting is over, are you still the same? Between the bursts of artistic expression, who and where are you? Yoga is especially suited to those who prize the intellect highly, but it also imparts permanent psychic upgrades, so it is well suited to serious seekers of lasting value. The idea is that once you recognize a detrimental state, it loses its grip on you. The next time it comes along you will say Aha! I’m not submitting to you this time! So this way is indeed deliberate, but sure. Slow and steady wins the race. There is a cumulative aspect here that Advaita Vedanta denies and transcends, but which has its place as a valuable adjunct nonetheless. Talk about paradox!

         Our egos are clever to co-opt virtually every spiritual path, turning it from a technique for liberation into a conditioned habitual program. Or worse, a snug buffer for our complacency. The artist must walk the razor’s edge between a new vision and its repetition as a commercial entity. Curiously, even the striving for newness can become habitual. It’s how our brains have evolved. Habits are useful to free our attention to keep an eye on the underbrush, where lurks the tiger. An unfortunate side effect is that spiritual aliveness quickly dulls down to a formula if we don’t intentionally challenge ourselves with contradictory information. The Patanjali Yoga class is replete with challenging contradictions that can shake us out of our stupor if we so desire. It is a powerful call to come awake once again.



Sutras 1:6 and 1:7

They [the modifications] are: real cognition, unreal cognition, imaginary cognition, deep sleep, and memory.


Direct perception, inference, and authoritative verbal testimony are the valid means of real cognition.


         Patanjali now examines each of the five main categories of vritti one at a time.

         First off is real cognition. Cognition means to perceive or know, and comes from the same root as know or gnosis. Recognition is when we have a previously established image in our mind and what we perceive roughly matches it, permitting identification. We are cognizing again, or re-cognizing. It's the primary function of mind.

         We have wrestled before with the vagaries of cognition, of how we can find certitude amidst a welter of chaotic input. The Western model is to work hard to pin down the facts “out there” and then adjust our ideas to fit. The Indian notion is that our ideas or even our pre-ideas are central. They determine what we comprehend of the situation in which we find ourselves.

         Modern science is tilting strongly toward the latter model, though centuries of prejudice coupled with the lure of appearances make acceptance problematic. MRI brain imaging demonstrates that there is a significant lead time before a thought surfaces and then the corresponding words are spoken, pointing to action. The outmoded rational paradigm imagines it is making up the thoughts and directing the actions. What is really going on is that deep-seated urges—very intelligent urges—are bubbling up from the unconscious depths and passing through our conscious awareness into actuality. We are cognizant of only a late stage of the sequence, but mistake it for the whole ballgame. Instead of chest-poundingly taking credit for what we do, we could instead be grateful to the invisible fountain source that we are so fortunate to be drenched in.

         Anita reminded us that what we perceive is often not accurate cognition at all. Coincidentally I had just discovered the so-called McGurk phenomenon on the internet this week, and sent an example to the class members ( In it, a brief video shows a man distinctly saying ba, da, va, tha. However, when you close your eyes, you hear only ba, ba, ba, ba. The shape of the mouth has caused you to actually hear the sounds differently. Even knowing this, you cannot prevent yourself from hearing different sounds while watching the mouth.

         A myriad of similar psychological experiments have clearly demonstrated the precedence of mindset to perception. This tells us that when we want to change the world we should change our mind, and yet we persist in tilting at windmills of sensory input. We see our faults projected out into the environment and attack them there, superimposed on more or less innocent bystanders. Who quite naturally resist, and the battle is on.

         In his commentary, Nitya artfully takes us through the fourfold stages of mind without using the Gurukula clichés of horizontal and vertical. In their place he uses empirical and ultimate, but the idea is the same. Empirical salt is what flavors our food and we keep in a shaker on the table. Ultimate salt is sodium chloride, an arrangement of atoms into a particular molecule. It’s more a scientific description, quite tasteless. Yet each has its value. Table salt makes food delicious, but it can’t be used to identify other types of salt elsewhere, such as in a cave, the ocean, or in tiny amounts catalyzing cell metabolism. For that we need the ultimate, vertical truth of it.

         Needless to say, this has far-reaching implications. Each human being is an empirical reality, seemingly disjunct from the rest. Yet from a scientific point of view, we are all of a single species and are extremely closely related. If we focus only on the empirical aspect, it heightens our sense of separation, but if we turn to the ultimate factors it brings the endearment of unity. Both are important. Paul reminded us that we aren’t trying to make the empirical disappear into the ultimate, but to harmonize each with the other. We still have to avoid empirical dangers. Yet, due to the projective nature of reality, bringing unity into the picture is a healing art. We must heal through unity, and not by throwing our weight behind a particular aspect, however much "better" it appears.

         Visitor Vasiliki wondered how we are to stay centered when things like the Gaza slaughter are taking place. We can’t just callously shut out the awareness, but that awareness makes us miserable. And yet we’re helpless to alter the situation even a little bit. She wondered further that if we were living there whether we could find peace at all, ever.

         I’m sure all of us have felt the same frustration. Vedanta is not a Pollyanna exercise of screening out unpleasant facts. That would be in the Western model, of trying to alter the world so that it suited our hopes and desires, after which we could then have peace. Security is the basis of sane living, no question. But the Indian model is that the world will always have tragedies to match its comedies, and thus it is futile to strive for a world of only comedies. By turning to our universal core, we can know peace, and then we can share our peace with those around us if it so happens. From that perspective, instead of fighting back in a rage, we can quote Jesus: “Forgive them, Lord, for they know not what they do.” This technique is more efficacious than it might at first appear.

         Laurence Gonzales cites a number of experiments in Everyday Survival that demonstrate that we as ape-descendents are prone to exceedingly aggressive behavior in the absence of restraining guidance. Our proclivity is to fight, to see the other as an enemy, which allowed us to survive in the dog-eat-dog days before civilization dawned. Now we are attempting to transition to a kinder, gentler paradigm, but we are bedeviled by continual setbacks. Many clever experiments have divided up identical types of people and put them in various circumstances, after which they selected opposing features of identity around which to attack each other. It takes intelligent directing of our mind and body to overcome the genetic urge to kill first and negotiate afterwards.

         The genome project has proved we are a single race of people who, before mass communication, wandered apart to live in isolated groups. Now our isolation has been swept away by mass communication, global travel, and sheer population density. Tribal identities like Jew, Arab, black, white, Hindu, Muslim, and all the rest are glorified gangbangs, extrapolations of blue bandanas vs. red bandanas. Excuses to hate, and sometimes to kill. It was less crucial to cure this ignorance when conflict was limited. Now that we have the power to commit mass suicide, we have to get over it, one way or another. Once again, it’s not that we need to choose the “right” faction, it’s that factions themselves precipitate our problems.

         The first chakra, the one we sit on, stands for security, basic physical security of safety and bread. Without our basic needs being met, all else is empty of meaning, pie in the sky. Once we have such a solid grounding, we can go on to build the emotional, intellectual, loving, intuitive, spiritual, and liberating chakras that depend on it. No yogi worth their salt would wish for their own security at the expense of someone else’s. Peace in the global world is for everyone or no one.


         The class was at its best last night, with trenchant comments from a large section of the group, and silent communion from the rest. I have barely scratched the surface of our discussion, but that will have to do. Together we learned how a single word in the ancient Yoga Sutras could easily expand into a world of meaning and instruction. In fact, the most important half of the present commentary awaits us next week.


mid-January to mid-February

I have been in India for a month, but I want to jot some notes anyway about the three classes I’ve missed, to keep up the continuity of these notes. Now that we’ve cleared the preliminaries and gotten to the meat, I don’t want to let any of it go by the board. It seems that no one took notes at the classes, so I will just have to give my own impressions. It’s too bad, since one main value of the class is the transcendence of any single perspective through mutual interaction and intercourse. Yet I am persuaded by the same rationale that must have created the universe: something is usually better than nothing.


Sutras I:6 & 7

Part II


         I’ll make this brief, as I’m sure we’ll cover these issues again in due time. Direct perception becomes less and less important as we age, until as adults we fill in whole worlds from a tiny sliver of actual input. We infer a lot from a smidgen of perception. Nitya says:


The certitude of what is experienced is not limited to the physical or physiochemical source of the energy that is highlighted in an act of perception. It always has reference to the total need of the person, which is a historical summation of all the evolutionary processes involved in the formation of each individual. That is why a return to the source is the most important theme to study in Yoga…. Every perception is a challenge. At most what comes from the external world is a quantum of energy that tickles a few receptors. The mind is required to interpret the source of that energy and formulate a meaningful picture.


Nitya humorously asserts that the intangible mind we postulate to account for this vast inflation of sensory input is of the same order as God. If we believe in one we might as well believe in the other. That is, if we believe in the mind we might as well believe in God. Since our mind is filling in the context—converting a sketch into a masterpiece, so to speak—we want very much to be certain that we are doing this with as much accuracy as possible. We enlist the aid of wise seers to verify our thinking. Nowadays that means psychologists, scientists, “experts” in a particular field. Study groups are excellent ways to normalize ourselves, so long as they are dedicated to avoiding being led astray by some vested interest. We can notice in ours, however, which has been running for over 30 years, that there is a powerful resistance to normalization in all of us. People gravitate back to their habitual stance even after any number of epiphanies or adjustments. Our world view is frozen from some time in adolescence or shortly thereafter. There has to be a firm determination to break free and take new information to heart. We must thaw ourselves out and let the stream of consciousness flow again.

         Caution is in order here, because there are also many false witnesses that pass for wise seers. Television and radio lend a veneer of believability to propagandists of all stripes. The classic example is the fatherly actor who puts on a white coat and looks so much like the family doctor that he can sell you almost any prescription medicine. Nitya notes that the mind is untrustworthy because we can plainly see how it can be tampered with by mindblowing drugs, not to mention its disruption in mental illness. These caveats lead us naturally to the next sutra.


Sutra I:8

Unreal cognition is misconception, not established on essential nature.


         Sutra 8 is a fecund ground for self-exploration. Yogis should pretty much always assess and reassess where their ideas have gestated, and take great care to not become deluded by their previously held notions. A group setting is especially valuable for sharing insights on these matters.

         Nitya lists some handy touchstones to get us into the practice, including the venerable rope/snake adrenaline rush. Then there is the child who is taught to never talk to strangers. Since I love to talk to children, I have watched the conflict they feel when they very much want to communicate with this friendly person right under their nose, but the superego voice is barring it absolutely. I am seen as a threat instead of a friend. For what it’s worth, the improved version is to teach kids to never go anywhere with strangers. Friendliness is okay though. That way they can grow up to be more relaxed, instead of guarded and suspicious. Anyway the point is that because of a blanket teaching, people are not free to follow their intuition in relating to the world around them. As Nitya says, “In our own lives we can see that we are fed not with three but three million occasions of such conditionings. The human biocomputer can, in most cases, pull the wrong tag of memory and a vaguely presented complex can be easily complemented with an inappropriate concept.”

         Another touchstone is religious symbolism. The symbol is only wood or metal, but it connects to powerfully held beliefs. Yet if you insist it is not the deity it represents, worshippers might kill you for the sacrilege.

         In marital or other relational squabbles, the two participants will have very different interpretations of a single situation. Usually, the problem itself is only a façade for an underlying schism, and fixing the problem by itself has little or no impact on the real issue. The schism will call forth another incident soon enough.

         We could go on listing examples, but the yogi is expected to take this instruction to heart and do their own work. Every problem is an opportunity to uncover truth, as long as you don’t run away. It is critical to realize that you are part of the problem, and that it isn’t simply someone else’s fault. Such an egotistical notion dissociates us more and more from our solid ground.

         Once your mental activity loses touch with the world around, called here “essential nature,” it begins to wander. While this can be salubrious, it more often produces dissociation leading to derangement and depression. For this reason, traditional gurus were approached first through physical activities like cooking, gathering firewood, and cleaning. Abstract instruction grew out of a solid, actual relationship and was not based on wild fantasies. Present-day studies have shown that work reduces depression to a significant degree. Even having a pet helps keep you grounded, and has been shown to lower stress levels. TV on the other hand, is a perfect dissociation machine. While it is “entertaining” to astral travel through the different channels, what gets lost in the bargain is your connection to your essential Self.

         Nitya lists some classic situations where our pernicious wishful thinking and ego protection devices take precedence over the clear perceptions of less biased observers. He relates a case of a child who refuses to be satisfied no matter what is offered her:


The child's mind is immediately tuned to a contradictory situation. The posture of the child is the same as that taken by opposition parties in parliaments, politicians who counter their rivals, and in the case of super-powers who hold out menacing threats to each other in a cold war situation. Not agreeing with the adversary is a defense tactic for self-existence. A hooded cobra can easily twist its neck to the right or left, to bite and discharge its venom. This natural ability of the defense mechanism to shift from one psychological set to another is not merely an incident of erroneous cognition but a wantonly-held bigoted position used to push away a threatening situation and aggressively support an indefensible stand. (p. 41)


         The class discussed how we like to fight, to take an opposing stand. We feel as if we define ourselves through what we fight over, and the implication is we will be nobody if we don’t clash with an opponent. It brings the walls of our fortress into sharp definition. Only a yogi comes to know that in the ultimate analysis there is nothing in us to defend, nor is there anyone for us to defend ourselves from.

         Charles talked at length about how the mal-perception or misconception is not as innocent as we would like to believe: underneath our prevarication is some toxic emotional state or guna that is energizing the deception.

         The tragedy is that as we drift farther and farther away from our solid ground, we become disoriented. Soon we are saturated in darkness. If the condition is not rectified it can become a permanent state of psychosis or psychic catatonia. At this point yoga can be a life raft, providing us the tools to rescue ourselves.


Sutra I:9

Knowledge arising from words and devoid of objective reality is imaginary cognition (vikalpa).


         Even more dissociated than unreal cognition is imaginary cognition. Where the former bears some relation, however inaccurate, to some aspect of reality or actuality, imaginary cognition does not. Unfortunately that type of “knowledge” covers a vast desert of consciousness, from advertising and political propaganda to religious imagery. Extricating ourselves from the thrall of wishful thinking is a primary task of the seeker of truth.

         With vikalpa all contact between objective reality and our ideation is lost. This covers the extreme end of the spectrum of dissociation. Nitya’s comments remind us of how far afield we may drift once we become unmoored from reality. Our world abounds with examples, and hopefully the class discussed several of them. Since they didn’t pass any on, though, we shall have to think of our own. Doing so is far easier than it should be, because vikalpa abounds on all sides, not to mention within.

I was absent for this class, which is on a very important subject. Later I added the following, in response to a friend who argued that fairy tales were not evil: I think we can skirt around a negative interpretation of what Nitya says. "It is absolutely necessary that people should be spared from the evils of vikalpa," does not mean that all vikalpas are evil, but only that we should steer clear of those that are. Fairy tales have a beautiful and inspirational aspect. I suppose religious exaggeration does too. The difference is that with one we accept its imaginary nature, while with the other we insist on its unquestionable veracity. Thus fairy tales are unlikely to lead us into delusion, but religious and political imagery can and frequently do. So as adults we need to be cognizant of the truth of any proposition in which we fervently believe before we go charging up the hill.


Sutra I:10

Deep sleep is the modification that has the cognition of non-existence for its substratum.


         Patanjali now introduces the psychic equivalent of negative numbers into his survey of states of consciousness. Deb honed right in on this idea with her opening comments. Basically, the negation of the modifications of mind is a subtle form of modification in its own right. Neutrality is something else entirely. The distinction between nothing and the compensation for the absence of something (“I have no apples” vs. “I don’t have five apples”) is one that every elementary school student has to wrestle with. While it looks the same on the surface, in practice there is a world of difference, as every mathematician knows. Deep sleep is precisely this negation in relation to wakeful consciousness. It is distinguished from samadhi in the exact same way negativity differs from nothingness.

         Within the last decade it has become evident that the consolidation of memory occurs during sleep. The more or less raw data of everyday living gets sorted into the symbolic language of the mind by dreams, and then is converted to long term memory in the hypothalamus during deep sleep cycles. This not only provides the basis of our intelligence and sense of who we are, it is essential to our well-being.

         Bill pointed out that if the consolidation phase of deep sleep is regularly disrupted, the coherence of the personality begins to break down. Paul added that sleep apnea does exactly this, causing the sufferer to wake up every time they drop into deep sleep, because that’s when they stop breathing and the subconscious insists on keeping us alive. The result is exhaustion and disorientation. Paul asserted that this showed that all stages of the process of registration and consolidation were essential and natural.

         We are familiar with the horizontal and vertical structural scheme of Vedanta. Perception is the horizontal positive, and conception the horizontal negative, for convenience referred to as waking and dreaming. The seed state of pure potential forms the vertical negative, and the flowering of this potential into full expression is the vertical positive, generally referred to as deep sleep and realization (turiya) respectively. Realization with Patanjali is called samadhi of course. Nitya clothes this structural image in some perhaps unfamiliar terminology here. Prakhya is the registry of an input, whether an object or an idea. Pravritti is the reaction our mind has to the input. The consolidation phase is called sthiti, or stabilization. Left unspoken at this preliminary stage is the realization or spiritual development that ensues from the process. The scheme reveals that the ancient rishis’ observational science was astonishingly accurate, and is only now being confirmed by the extended observations made possible by modern technology.

         Prakhya, pravritti and sthiti closely correspond to our old friends the gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. The popular misconception is that these are good, tolerable, and bad, respectively. Despite the fact that samadhi is the transcendence of the modulations of mind represented by the gunas, and that the Gita specifically directs us to not be affected by them, they are nonetheless normal, healthy features of a whole life. One aspect of spirituality is to break up our attachment to one stage or another of the gunas and allow nature to take its course unimpeded. This freedom allows us to find a place apart from their influence if we are so inclined.

         Brenda introduced surrender as a crucial factor in moving from the horizontal to the vertical. She cited giving birth as a moment when the horizontal factors become irrelevant and one has no choice but to surrender to the vertical requirements of the situation. This brought up some stories of women who wanted to opt out of childbirth at the last minute. Don Berry’s wife Kaj attended many deliveries. One time a woman said, “I’ve had enough! I’m leaving.” She got up off the bed, put on her robe and headed for the door. Just then a new contraction kicked in, and she doubled over. She realized there was no escape, and meekly allowed herself to be led back to the bed. Deb was being stitched up after her Caesarian delivery of Harmony, and asked the doctor how much more time it would take. She answered, “About an hour.” Deb argued that she was leaving, she couldn’t hang around that long. The last thing she heard was the doctor saying, “Increase the valium!” And Nancy famously admitted that in planning for a birth you imagine flowers and soft music and a quiet retreat, but when the time comes you could be in the middle of a railway station teeming with people and you would be content to just lie down on the floor and let it happen.

         Jan, whose father has just died, added that death is similar to giving birth. When it comes to us we are forced to surrender our horizontal proclivities and accept our fate. Luckily, we practice these types of total surrender every night when we allow ourselves to slip into deep sleep. We learn that it’s okay not to hold on “for dear life” to our surface attachments. While our ego may have other plans, a deeper part of us is drawn to meet our destiny, and that is both right and beautiful.

         The image of childbirth is an enlightening one for an aspiring yogi. A universe of preparation, both conscious and unconscious, brings the mother to the perfect moment when everything is in readiness. At that point the only possibility is open up to the flow, and the result is new life, the ultimate creation and the greatest gift of participation in the grand scheme of the universe. Our spiritual birth or rebirth is similar. We relinquish our petty concerns to merge with the Total Concern. And it doesn’t come as a complete surprise, because we practice this every night. As we “drop off” to sleep we could easily feel profound gratitude to the overarching embrace into which we are releasing ourselves.


Part II

         Brenda has added a delightful clarification. In class she also talked about the Braxton Hicks (preliminary) contractions. She writes:


Dear Scott,


    This is regarding the association between deep sleep and the big sleep and the parallel (vertical) relationship to the preliminary contractions to actual labor. They are called Braxton Hicks contractions…. Braxton Hicks contractions are a tightening of the uterine muscles for one to two minutes and are thought to be an aid to the body in its preparation for birth. They are believed to play a part in toning the uterine muscle and promoting blood flow to the placenta. They are also called 'practice contractions' because they prepare you for the real thing.

         This last phrase was my reason for mentioning the relationship between deep sleep and death. Brenda 

Scott Teitsworth