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Yoga Sutras II: 21-29


Sutras II: 21 & 22

The very being of the seen is for the sake of the seer alone. Although it becomes non-existent for one whose purpose has been fulfilled, it does not cease to exist because of being common to others.


         Although Nitya characterizes these snippets as being less important than the rest, between his comments and our class discussion we explored a very valuable aspect of spirituality. During our early development we are focused primarily on the world we perceive, and so there is a tendency to project our normal self-examination outwards. Where we should be assessing and disciplining ourselves, we may instead become caught up in analyzing and complaining about the behavior of others. These two sutras remind us to turn the arrow of our critical analysis toward ourselves.

         Nitya points out us that Patanjali’s intent is to help us disentangle ourselves from psychological bondage, and it would be a mistake to take sutra 21 as a final word on the overall nature of the universe. Sutra 22 demonstrates Patanjali’s awareness of the limited purview of his instruction. He wants us to take care of our own spiritual needs and not be distracted by the chaos through which we move and breathe.

         The Book of Genesis, among other scriptural visions, is often ridiculed for presenting a flawed cosmology. Unfortunately this had led its votaries to try to defend it on the same grounds, thus pitting one illusion against another. Nitya’s first guru, Dr. G.H. Mees explains this conundrum very well in his introduction to The Key to Genesis:


         The first Chapter of Genesis has been generally assumed to present an account or theory of the creation of the material universe and of the evolution of life. For that reason it cannot be a source of wonder that modern man, with his knowledge of material processes in the universe and of biology, has tended to look down upon Genesis as a poor product of an ignorant mentality. No doubt the people who knew the meaning of Genesis in past ages would have shaken their heads if they had come to learn of the modern way which tends to take everything at its face value alone and to interpret spiritual scriptures as if they were textbooks of astronomy, physics or biology. For Genesis does not describe cosmic and biological processes. Its purpose is more profound.

         The aim of religion is to make man happier and to help him find peace and bliss, within himself and in his relation to the world without. It does not make anyone happier to know how the material world is created (assuming that such knowledge is possible at all) and how the physical processes take place and can be controlled. In connection with many aspects of science the world has learned to its cost to what extent control of matter can endanger and destroy peace and happiness. Atomic bombs and clouds are now looming in the sky threatening to shatter man’s peace altogether and to cloud his horizon for evermore.

         Modern man has largely lost interest in “established religion”, because its dogmas, based almost wholly upon a literal interpretation of Scripture, offend his intelligence. He has become convinced that the great astronomers and physicists of these days have something to tell us that is more intelligent than the superstitious and outworn traditions which are contained, according to his belief, in Scripture. And who can blame him, as long as he does not know the deeper meaning hidden in the fundamental teachings of “Genesis”?


         It is really astonishing how much we all get caught up in being our brother’s keeper, instead of addressing our own needs and faults. The famous phrase from Genesis itself has even become an exhortation to make that very mistake, that we should be our brother’s keeper, although that is definitely not the original intent. ‘Keeper’ is another word for ‘jailor’, by the way, and that seems to be the subterranean motivation surfacing ubiquitously these days. Let’s put everyone under lock and key, and that will solve all our problems.

         I often tell the story of a friend who was going on and on to Nitya about some serious troubles in Africa. Nitya listened for awhile and then said, “If that is how you feel, you should start walking there right now.” The friend immediately got the point: what use is obsessing over some faraway malaise, which the world is always filled with, when you have so much to work on right here in front of you? “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone,” and all that. At least our local problems have more substance to them than the distant ones that are made up mainly of partisan news reports and imaginary simplifications.

         Family members often figure into our most pressing problems, because our attachments to them often go so deep they seem to be indistinguishable from us. Jan talked about her disappointment with her brother, with whom she was once very close and now is emotionally estranged. At some point she had to stop trying to repair the relationship and let it go, which helped her to free herself from a painful mindset. The very act of trying to let go caused her to face some of her own issues that were tied up with him, and as she worked through them she felt much lighter about how it had turned out.

         Deb also continues to wrestle with her disappointing relationship with her brother. She was extremely close to him for a very long time, much more than most siblings, so the attachments are all the harder to release. Family ties are probably the most deeply lodged of all, and the solution has often been to cut them off entirely and walk away. Sannyasa in one sense means dying to your blood family, and that has come to be seen as a keynote of spiritual exploration. But yoga is more about using our problems as illumination and inspiration for our ongoing work. Nitya says that specifically here:


Patanjali confines himself to that world of psychological significance, and to the study and evaluation of it in terms of a person's happiness or misery. That is why it is said that the perceptual world of nature is what is given to the individual spirit to experience for its own meaningful search and progression into ultimate fulfillment.


In other words, what we encounter is like a veiled reflection of our own developmental needs, and we strive to decode the mystery with penetrating contemplation of the situations in which we are embroiled. We should welcome life as an ongoing revelation of who we are.

         For this reason, the challenges of life are characterized as blessings in disguise, and without them we would stagnate. They press us to seek for answers and adjust ourselves to their demands. But as Deb said, we’d prefer to do without that kind of blessing. The tamasic parts of our brain would just as soon be spared any challenges. Spirituality is not possible without intentionality. There is a widespread belief that simply ignoring problems is spiritual, but is the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand the epitome of wisdom or simply ludicrous?

         The key point here is that we may not be able to correct anyone else, but if we are brave enough we can allow ourselves to be corrected by our own intelligence. If our problems are detached from reality, our fantasy life may lead us into craziness. Just as work keeps us grounded, the world continually blesses us with innumerable challenges to keep us ever awake and attentive.

         In the light of this insight, Bill quoted poet Gary Davis as saying, “There is nothing to be done. So let’s get started!” I mentioned the parallel Thai adage: “Life is short. So we must move very, very slowly.” Haste makes waste, as does vapid inactivity. Any impatience we feel is generated by our hopes and expectations bouncing off the world around us, distorted by the imperfections of the mirror. But if we can settle into a grounded state within, we will be more effective in everything we do, because the flaws of life will have lost their ability to hold us back.



Sutra II:23

The conjunction of purusha and prakriti is the cause of the apprehension of the essential nature and powers of both.


         Continuing the theme from the previous two sutras, Patanjali tells us that awareness itself is a byproduct of spirit and nature being conjoined. The wording makes it sound like two separate things are brought together to produce “apprehension,” but the Vedantic notion is that one oceanic source is divided into two aspects, which then can interact. It is the interaction itself which produces awareness. As Nitya puts it, this is one of the major mysteries of life—and it actually may be the prime mystery from which all others flow.

         Because we have “taken sides” and identified our self with the purusha half of the divide, we tend to think in various terms of reuniting with the other half. The secret is that the harder we struggle to accomplish that, the more stubbornly the schism remains in place. We are directed to instead turn to the One Beyond, or better yet, the One Within, attaining which the duality naturally ebbs away.

         Deb had found a relevant stretch of That Alone that explains this very well, from verse 56, which she couldn’t locate during the class, but is included here. Actually, the entire commentary is very helpful, and the end is among Nitya’s most poignant and powerful statements anywhere. I recommend rereading it sometime soon.

         The ocean and its waves analogy dealt with in verse 56 is a more unified version of the purusha/prakriti duality. Nitya says:


The factual world should find a place in existence, but the possibility of arriving at an absolute should also be there. If you can combine these two into one total vision it is called samvit. Is samvit cosmic consciousness? Yes. Is samvit matter? Yes. Is samvit pure Absolute? Yes. Is it God? Yes. Is it the devil? Yes. What is it not? ‘Is’ and ‘is not’ are both samvit. It is dynamic, and in that dynamism innumerable possibilities are happening.

  Out of the ocean of samvit. two possibilities emerge that are of general importance. One is the mind that perceives and the other is what is perceived. One is not the cause of the other: both are only consequential factors. It is not that the ocean is more real than the wave. The water and its agitations are both products of a total action situation.


Nitya adds an important corollary a little bit later:


  To deny the wave and the ocean together, if you can, is wisdom. But if you then sit on what you have rejected, saying “I have realized; this is my realization,” you have only made a new slab of ignorance called “my realization.” I don’t know if I am making sense to you. The very moment you realize that this is truth, you have falsified the whole thing. So where is the grace and where is the joy of the Absolute? It is all this. Don’t be afraid: it’s all still here.


What he means is that thoughts asserting “I am this” or “I am that,” no matter how sublime or excellent, identify us as a purusha distinct from prakriti. Therefore we should never take pride in our attitude, or any value it might have contained is instantly erased. If we are enchanted enough with just being alive we won’t have time for pride, or any need for it either.

         Paul reminded us of the classic idea that purusha is immersed in prakriti in order to know itself, or in Western terms, God created humans in order to have something see him in all his glory. Either way, purusha/spirit is the transcendent and prakriti/nature is the immanent. Their conjunction creates the world.

         Another classic analogy uses light and darkness. Purusha is pure light, prakriti total darkness. In either one, nothing is perceivable. Only when light mixes with darkness do distinct features become evident. This recalls the first book of Genesis, where light impregnates the dark womb of the firmament and an entire universe springs forth. There they are called heaven and earth, respectively. Once they are separated, the flow of time begins.

         When prakriti and purusha are conjoined, life is artistic in the broadest sense. Even the most mundane details are delight-filled. I always think of Kurt Vonnegut’s image of the dead waiting in long lines to get back into a body, any body: black, brown, or white; male or female or even animal. Being dead is utterly boring, so they are desperate for a chance to live again, and will take anything they can get.

         Vonnegut wanted us to remember this while we are actually alive, but somehow soon after we are born we are convinced to defer living until after death. So we go back and forth across the divide between here and hereafter, searching for resolution exactly where it isn’t. The longing for a perfect afterlife is actually a devastating blow to our spirit, and an utter waste to boot. We would be much better off to long for our present life, and attain it and enter into it.

         This came to my mind because Scotty had been at a show of his artwork, and he heard a lot of people muttering about how they didn’t have a creative bone in their bodies, couldn’t do any art, etc. etc. He finally got fed up and accosted two people, to let them know that everybody can and should do something artistic. He told them that everybody has so much experience that they all are capable of some form of creativity. Our lives are so rich compared with some other periods of history! Too bad we don’t give them their due. Scotty wondered where we learn that we are powerless and that the important things in life are all done by others. This is a terrible though unintentional effect of a belief in a distant god who runs the world. It permeates society as a pernicious foreboding that we are inadequate and inferior. Scotty wanted, like Patanjali, to intervene on our behalf, to convince us we are perfectly wonderful. All we have to do is pick up the ball and start running.

         If we look at nature as the whole story, we feel cowed by its magnificence. If we imagine our spirit or soul is the only thing that matters, we will devastate the environment. Nitya presents the inner secret here, that neither extreme is where we should be directing our energies:


Essentially, there are two states: being bound to nature or being free of nature. These can also be termed as transcendence and immanence. Both are only of partial value, so far as individuated beings are concerned. The ideal state is when the individual is conversant with both immanence and transcendence….

  All implications of bondage and liberation become evident through the comparison and contrast of the two sets of norms with which we are equipped. One set of norms is given to us to play effectively and pragmatically in the world of empirical facts, the world of relativity or relativistic values. The other set is to reveal the falsehood of relativistic experiences so that we may have a unitive understanding.


What this means is that just because the world is ultimately false in the sense of being an arbitrary construct, it is a beautiful and fascinating place to play out our destiny. How could there ever be a created place that wasn’t arbitrary? So lighten up and break out a smile. But we should definitely use our transcendental perspective to reduce the inherent falsehood to the minimum. Falsehood isn’t monolithic: it starts as only a tiny inclination, but we magnify it beyond all reason, and then we’re really unhappy.

         We got into a discussion of the astonishing complexity and utility of prakriti, and Deb mentioned the new idea of solar roads. You can learn about them here: It certainly appears that nature is endlessly bountiful and adaptable. There is no reason for us to despair because we’ve reached the edge of where our imagination has so far taken us. It is only a failure of imagination. The universe has plenty more options we haven't thought of yet.



Sutra II:24

Its cause is nescience.


         We continue our brief survey of avidya (nescience) prior to arriving at the ever-popular eight limbs of Patanjali’s yoga. Though brief, commensurate with the minimalist sutra, Nitya’s comments make a banquet of food for thought here.

         The word nescience, meaning not knowledge or not science, was consciously chosen by Nataraja Guru to supersede the more common translation of avidya, ignorance. A great deal of what we imagine to be truth is actually our (not very well considered) opinion about details of the world, or prakriti, and thus is very far from truth. Humans readily become aggressive about their opinions, but truth needs no defender. Its inherent validity makes it “a fortress unto itself.” The section on avidya is one more opportunity to really examine our own certitudes with a courageous eye. Patanjali wants us to cleanse our minds of as much junk as possible before we begin practicing the eight limbs.

         Science itself is hampered by all manner of prejudices masquerading as facts, and strenuous measures are taken to purge its experiments of bias, which are well-known to affect the results. Yoga is no different, and yet the quantity of absurd ideas taken for granted by its votaries makes it more resemble a pseudoscience than a science. Wishful thinking is fine, but when strenuous efforts are made to convert fantasies into reality, they cultivate a breeding ground for frustration.

         Patanjali’s take on nescience is somewhat at variance with the Gurukula/Gita idea expounded by Nitya here. Patanjali’s version is absolute: any contact between purusha and prakriti causes ignorance, which can lead to the attitude that prakriti is a kind of pollutant that the purusha should avoid stepping in at all costs. Such a schism is fraught with peril.

         Our take is that the interaction of purusha and prakriti is a happy miracle, and it should be reveled in, enjoyed and appreciated. Ignorance is when the purusha forgets itself and is so mesmerized by the prakriti that it is totally drawn into the drama. It comes to believe that only the play of nature is real, and so it is buffeted by the ups and downs of temporal existence. Reclaiming vidya, then, is by remembering our true nature as the indwelling spirit. Avidya impels us to try to “fix” prakriti for our own or its own salvation, but that leads us into an endless morass of actions and consequences. Once we realize that prakriti is just like that, we may still offer our help and love to those around us, but we can more easily relinquish the urge to fight, to pit one aspect of nature against another.

         It’s worth reprising the Gita’s take on this question, from Chapter III. Krishna says:


4)         By refraining from initiating activities a person does not come to have the attainment of transcending action, nor can one by renunciation alone come to perfection.


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.


6)         He who sits controlling the organs of activity while ruminating mentally over items of sensuous interest—such a lost soul is said to be one of spurious conduct.


7)         He, on the other hand, who keeps the senses under control by means of the mind, then commences unitive activity while still unattached—he excels.


8)         Do engage yourself in action that is necessary; activity is indeed better than non-activity, and even the bodily life of yours would not progress satisfactorily through non-action.


9)         Outside of activity with a sacrificial purpose, this world is bound by action. Even with such a purpose, do engage in work, O Arjuna, freed of all attachments.


         Bill likes to give Patanjali more credit than I do, that when he says “Yoga is the cessation of mental modifications,” he really means “extraneous mental modifications.” Perhaps some scribe accidentally omitted that adjective, but I doubt it. Patanjali’s very reasonable idea is that to know the purusha absolutely we should utterly turn away from prakriti and sit with only our purusha, our soul. (Purusha only became a single unitive spirit later in history.) He can believe this because he sees purusha and prakriti as two separate things. Nondualism has it that they are merely two ways of looking at the same thing, so you don’t draw a thick line between them, but move to their common ground.

         Aldous Huxley, in The Doors of Perception, spends a lot of time on this same question. The book is really a delight to reread for those interested in these matters. Huxley took a mescaline trip, and the book is a review of his insights. In this excerpt, he was entranced by a trio of mismatched flowers:


“Is it agreeable?” somebody asked….

“Neither agreeable nor disagreeable,” I answered. “It just is.”

Istigkeit—wasn’t that the word Meister Eckhart liked to use? “Is-ness.” The Being of Platonic philosophy—except that Plato seems to have made the enormous, the grotesque mistake of separating Being from becoming and identifying it with the mathematical abstraction of the Idea. He could never, poor fellow, have seen a bunch of flowers shining with their own inner light and all but quivering under the pressure of the significance with which they were charged; could never have perceived that what rose and iris and carnation so intensely signified was nothing more, and nothing less, than what they were—a transience that was yet eternal life, a perpetual perishing that was at the same time pure Being, a bundle of minute, unique particulars in which, by some unspeakable and yet self-evident paradox, was to be seen the divine source of all existence.


         Nitya reiterates a key point in his comments, that those who live in balance “see the relativistic imperfections of the given world but at the same time see how beneficial it is to use all the faculties of this body/mind complex and enjoy the vast changes of this world. They want to live in the transcendent and the immanent at once.” There is a veiled implication here that it is very important to accept the shortcomings of prakriti, which is unabashedly the field of dualism. If we are caught up in prakriti, we can become obsessed with rectifying its defects, which can lead to conflict with others who see things differently. Often to promote our side we demonize others, with the result of becoming more and more trapped by the clinging vines of insoluble dilemmas. To reclaim our freedom we should step back and view the apparently dire straits of prakriti with a sense of humor or lightness. This is not easy to do, because prakriti is a master of entrapment. Patanjali says, flatly, “Stay away!” Nitya goes with Narayana Guru: “Sit there in contemplation, enjoying the world but keeping an eye on those vines, because they’re pretty sneaky and catch you precisely when you least expect it.”

         The main point in Nitya’s commentary, though, is that there are two distinct ways to look at life, but they are not mutually exclusive as some believe. We can make plans and take steps to carry out our plans, or we can live in the present, plan free. The Western mania is for implementing plans, which is why eightfold paths and eight limbed yoga are more popular than loosely organized philosophies like the Gurukula’s. Sometimes yoga is taken to mean living without any conscious direction, channeling fate so to speak. But that is a recipe for what Nataraja Guru called being a misfit, where the ego subtly inserts itself into the position of dictator or saboteur. Those whose lives are ruled by plans and laws are another kind of misfit, overly rigid. But there is no reason not to take the best of both sides, where our life is permitted to have shape and meaning, but it is nonetheless flexible enough to be open to new possibilities. If we can remember the purusha and step back from our ferocious attachment to prakriti, it isn’t too hard to do.

         In that regard, visitor Eric has been doing vipassana meditation, and he told us a little about it. It involves ten day retreats with no talking, where you concentrate on every inch of the body from head to toe and then back up. Eric found that it released vast amounts of energy trapped in his body, and unleashed some powerful feelings. After the storms passed, he felt he could sit quietly and watch his mind engage in its furious machinations without getting drawn into them. Eric was taught that the reason for the meditation on the body was to defeat the abstraction of the process by the intellect. In terms of yoga, the mind is the essence of prakriti, while the calm witness is the purusha. It is equally important for the yogi to subvert intellectualization by performing actual activity and not just “mailing it in” mentally.

         Bill reminded us of Suzuki Roshi’s famous statement, that those who sit in Zen do so not to gain anything, but because it is their true nature. Likewise we “practice” yoga not for some future payoff, which is speculative at best, but to become more alive to the present. Restored, we arise from our seats, full of the joy of life, to chop wood and carry water.



Sutra II:25

The absence of the conjunction of prakriti and purusha is through the elimination of nescience; its absence is the liberation of the seer.


         In any study of nescience it is especially valuable to be yanked out of our prevailing egoistic state of certainty, which allows us to open up to new possibilities. Nitya’s commentary filled the bill, helping us to sit together in a state of abject confusion and bafflement. As Charles said to me later, listening to classes in Malayalam for six months while he and Brenda were in India taught him to accept being totally unaware of the purport of what was going on around him. I think for most of us, last night’s class might just as well have been in Malayalam!

         The good news is that the one final sutra on nescience should help clarify the subject again, and then we will begin studying the most straightforward part of Patanjali’s yoga: the eight limbs. The fact that Patanjali is so practically oriented contradicts the escapism implied in sutras like this one. In any case, the sutra is a kind of baptism by fire, where our comfortable conceits are at least singed if not consumed by the flames.

         We have noted before, many times, that Patanjali’s teaching is dualistic. It seems he identifies us wholly with purusha and treats prakriti as nothing more than a condition of bondage. The more unitive approach of the Gurukula is to integrate the two sides, to realize there is only one state, ever. Rejecting the environment is fraught with multiple perils. As Deb said, we will dispense with prakriti when we are dead; in the meantime it is an ever-present part of being alive. Functional MRI studies confirm this: even yogis in meditation and people in deep sleep and even comas have continuing brain waves, only quieter than when they are awake. The mind being part of prakriti, it would have to cease functioning entirely to meet Patanjali’s criteria.

         We should probably give Patanjali more credit, and fault the words he had to employ. He may not be leaning exclusively toward purusha, but toward a numinous state beyond both aspects of manifestation. That is definitely how we should take this, in order to get the most out of it.

         In sutra II:23 we were instructed that the conjunction of prakriti and purusha allows us to apprehend “the essential nature and powers of both.” Here in sutra II:25 we have the opposite: their disjunction. Liberation in these terms means no longer apprehending either purusha or prakriti. Having recently been in just such a disjoined state, I have to say it is very, very far from anything we imagine as a comfortable—or even a spiritual—state. Nonetheless it is our destiny, when this life comes to a close.

         Once again my study at the Yeilding Online Institute (YOI), where we have just revisited Letter Fifteen from the Appendix, dovetails well with this sutra. It’s a most excellent summary of the scope of yoga, well worth another read. The following excerpt throws light on the question we wrestled with last night:


 If you aspire to live the disciplined life of a yogi you should have a clear picture of the alternation of your personal consciousness back and forth between the compulsive behavior of an animal and the detached, repressive withdrawal of a conscientious person. Both of these aspects are symptoms of having no control over your life and remaining as a slave to the forces of circumstance.

  What is expected of a yogi is to become the master of the situation under all circumstances. Between your myth and your physicality there is a neutral zone where your witnessing consciousness is seated. When the witnessing consciousness also assumes the responsibility to will, the volition becomes more and more freed from irrational forces. Instead of leaving the act of restraint to the whims of your neurotic fears, all intentions can be carried out in the floodlight of your fully operating awareness.


“Compulsive behavior” takes place when we are caught up in prakriti, and “repressive withdrawal” is the flight into purusha. The way to escape these mirror-image forms of slavery is to discover the neutral zero in their midst and establish a dynamic, witnessing consciousness there. False spirituality imagines it can escape its own shadow with more and fiercer efforts; Krishna laughs and says, “No. It’s easy. Just go to the middle.”

         The Vedantic view is that purusha and prakriti arise together, as the plus and minus of bhana, awareness. Thus, the harder we try to cling to one side of the situation, the more exaggerated the other side also becomes. To make it go away we have to move back toward it.

         Paul related how thinking about complicated things sometimes brought him to an impasse or a dead end, and he learned a lot about which direction to take from this. At least he learned where not to go. This is a yogic version of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” Curiously, in some spiritual paths “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is taken as a positive recommendation…. We are not on such a path in this class.

         In some respects, prakriti is the presentation of the new, or let’s say the present. Screening it out, then, is a kind of resistance to the unfolding of our natural abilities. Again, Patanjali urges us to burn all our vasanas, while the Gurukula Gurus and the Gita say foster the best and only toast the rest.

         Yet another synchronous discovery is a section of Carl Jung’s The Stages of Life, dealing with the transition from youth to adulthood. The following quote from it fleshes out our discussion, supporting what Nitya calls in Letter Fifteen “becoming the master of the situation under all circumstances.” We can see that Jung is also a dialectician, as well as a global visionary:


We are all familiar with the sources of the problems that arise in the period of youth. For most people it is the demands of life which harshly put an end to the dream of childhood. If the individual is sufficiently well prepared, the transition to a profession or career can take place smoothly. But if he clings to illusions that are contrary to reality, then problems will surely arise. No one can take the step into life without making certain assumptions, and occasionally these assumptions are false—that is, they do not fit the conditions into which one is thrown. Often it is a question of exaggerated expectations, underestimation of difficulties, unjustified optimism, or a negative attitude. One could compile quite a list of the false assumptions that give rise to the first conscious problems.

But it is not always the contradiction between subjective assumptions and external facts that gives rise to problems; it may just as often be inner, psychic difficulties. They may exist even when things run smoothly in the outside world. Very often it is the disturbance of psychic equilibrium caused by the sexual instinct; equally often it is the feeling of inferiority which springs from an unbearable sensitivity. These inner conflicts may exist even when adaptation to the outer world has been achieved without apparent effort. It even seems as if young people who have had a hard struggle for existence are spared inner problems, which those who for some reason or other have no difficulty with adaptation run into problems of sex or conflicts arising from a sense of inferiority. (392)


If we try to extract the common and essential factors from the almost inexhaustible variety of individual problems found in the period of youth, we meet in all cases with one particular feature: a more or less patent clinging to the childhood level of consciousness, a resistance to the fateful forces in and around us which would involve us in the world. Something in us wishes to remain a child, to be unconscious or, at most, conscious only of the ego; to reject everything strange, or else subject it to our will; to do nothing, or else indulge our own craving for pleasure or power. In all this there is something of the inertia of matter; it is a persistence in the previous state whose range of consciousness is smaller, narrower, and more egoistic than that of the dualistic phase. For here the individual is faced with the necessity of recognising and accepting what is different and strange as a part of his own life, as a kind of “also-I.” (392-393)


The essential feature of the dualistic phase is the widening of the horizon of life, and it is this that is so vigorously resisted….

What would happen to him if he simply changed himself into that foreign-seeming “also-I” and allowed the earlier ego to vanish into the past? We might suppose this to be a quite practical course. The very aim of religious education, from the exhortation to put off the old Adam right back to the rebirth rituals of primitive races, is to transform the human being into the new, future man, and to allow the old to die away.

Psychology teaches us that, in a certain sense, there is nothing in the psyche that is old; nothing that can really, finally die away. Even Paul was left with a thorn in the flesh. Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and regresses into the past falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past and the other from the future. In principle both are doing the same thing: they are reinforcing their narrow range of consciousness instead of shattering it in the tension of opposites and building up a state of wider and higher consciousness. (393)



Sutra II: 26

The unbroken discrimination between the Self and the non-Self is the means of eliminating nescience.


         One last session on ignorance presaged our promotion to the grand finale.

         Nitya clarifies an important issue: that we eliminate ignorance by engaging with our life and not running away from it. Being fully involved in our life doesn’t mean losing ourselves in prakriti, much less losing ourselves in escape, but rather retaining our discriminative wisdom so that we can relate to everything with expertise. The idea made for a lively discussion, with some excellent insights into how it can be put into practice.

         Nitya did not drive a car, so he uses the analogy of driving to indicate the heightened awareness a yogi needs to live an expert life. To a non-driver, it seems like you are always on the edge of some fatal disaster, so you must be almost hysterically wide awake to survive on the highways. Real drivers know that most of what you do is semiconscious at best, and those at the wheel, being the normal people they are, have to struggle to stay alert, with the stupor of an automatic pilot never far off. But we have to forgive Nitya’s misapprehension as being perfectly understandable.

         The point Nitya makes is well taken, though. There is a widespread belief that retreating from prakriti is the spiritual high road, but yoga means engaging in it intelligently. Everyone and everything is the Absolute, so our picky attitudes of “this is okay” and “this isn’t” just wrap us every deeper in a self-imposed bondage.

         One of the miracles of life is that the Absolute continually presents itself to us as the world we live in. Yoga does not mean rejecting the invitation, and turning away to find some other, better reality. This is it. There is no greater blessing. But we shouldn’t just be passive reactionaries, either. We are invited to discriminate the real meaning below the surface play, and to engage dynamically with it.

         I well remember from back in my school days, that you were defined by your beliefs, your likes and dislikes. We all felt like we were nothing other than our ideas, and the more sharply held and disdainfully expressed they were, the more real we were. Our beliefs also defined our cliques, who we hung out with. Looking back, it seems like a travesty, the opposite of yoga, where everyone isolates themselves from everyone else and prepares to butt heads, mainly over ideas that are transparently fictional. No wonder we were all so miserable in school!

         Susan was moved by the excerpts from Jung in last week’s notes, and talked about how we cling to childhood, afraid to accept the terrifying prospect becoming actually free and making our own decisions. She was particularly affected by the last bit, which bears repeating:


Whoever protects himself against what is new and strange and regresses into the past falls into the same neurotic condition as the man who identifies himself with the new and runs away from the past. The only difference is that the one has estranged himself from the past and the other from the future. In principle both are doing the same thing: they are reinforcing their narrow range of consciousness instead of shattering it in the tension of opposites and building up a state of wider and higher consciousness.


I suppose this is the psychological subtext of why we clung to all those poses as we struggled with whether to become adults or remain children.

         We talked about how much of society provides ways for us to relinquish our sovereignty and so remain in a perpetual childhood, perpetual witnesses of someone else’s drama. Everything is prepackaged for our “convenience,” not only consumer goods but jobs, attitudes, politics, even art. We can check out as independent thinkers and simply react to the passing show of prakriti, which permits us to remain wrapped in our womblike baby blanket until we can exchange it for a funeral shroud. But Patanjali is begging us to step out into the open air and come to life. Life wasn’t invented so we could simply sleepwalk through it.

         The kind of spiritual program that withdraws from the world is in many cases merely tamas in sattvic clothing, a static and self-ratifying dead end. We need the continual buffeting of life to jolt us awake. Problems are thus seen as blessings and not as anti-spiritual impediments.

         In that regard, Deb recalled something Andy said about his father at his recent gallery talk. His father taught him that an artist often makes mistakes, but when they happen you should work with them. They are a way that serendipity emerges into our plans, and so are a blessing rather than a curse. There aren’t really any “accidents,” they are ways the unconscious joins forces with our conscious intentions, and the amalgam can be very artful.

         One thought I had on reading Nitya’s comments is that they are germane enough as they stand, but there is an additional aspect that those who didn’t sit in on his classes probably wouldn’t pick up on. Almost all of Nitya’s books were dictated as darsanas—wisdom classes—to a live audience of truth seekers. We’d be sitting there on cushions in what was called the prayer hall, wrapped in sweaters and blankets, and Nitya would go into a deep meditation and begin talking. He spoke slowly enough that one or several people could take down his every word, which would later be transcribed and collected into a book.

         Nitya was a master at explaining a verse of text to a roomful of students while subtly weaving in helpful suggestions aimed at certain individuals, who if they were awake enough could take the hint. The subtext here is Nitya teaching people how to act like dignified yogis instead of cooped up wild animals enjoying a temporary holiday from a rigid society.

         John wondered if going to a guru wasn’t a rite of passage for Indian kids, a way to add a spiritual aspect to their grueling academic and moralistic upbringing. That’s true, and you can imagine that spending time in a relaxed atmosphere like the Gurukula’s would be an unbearable relief for many of them. It was especially a time when you could commune with members of the opposite sex without the evil eye boring into you, and for young adults that’s too rare a chance to pass up on. Here we can sense that Nitya was gently redirecting some of that unleashed energy toward yoga study, while not being in any way dictatorial. He was an expert at walking a fine line between guidance and constraint, well knowing that for real change to happen it had to spring from within a person rather than being codified for them by any authority figure. The gist of his veiled explanation is given in the second paragraph:


In relating with other things in the wakeful world, the yogi exercises two complementary aspects of discrimination. On the one hand the yogi recognizes the unity of all things in the Absolute and that he or she is not different from others. What is seen as beneficial to the self is seen as being beneficial to others also. Consequently, the yogi will not deny another's access to what he or she aspires to. Secondly, the yogi will also recognize that, as physical entities, all bodies are distinct and each person is a sovereign principle enshrined in a particular body with likes, dislikes, and preferences that should not be overridden.


How much of our energy is spent in criticizing other people’s preferences, which are so obviously inferior to our own! Nitya always held that such an attitude was pure egoism, as well as a way to avoid confronting our own prejudices, and he stood against it wherever it raised its ugly head.

         It’s a real art form for a preceptor to know how to advocate a radical change in orientation while simultaneously respecting the present condition of everyone. His practice in counseling thousands and thousands of seekers over many years made him a rare paragon who knew just the right pressure to apply. I know he felt that early in his teaching career he maybe pushed too hard for the untrained modern sensibility, and later on he pushed much less. His measuring rod was to respond in commensurate intensity to the legitimate desires of the seeker. Sometimes that can resemble a mental bullfight, with the toreador deftly stepping aside from the charge of the enraged beast while keeping its attention fixed on a diversionary red flag. Anyway, we aren’t going into all that here. I only want to point out that if you read the commentary with that aspect in mind, as practical advice for those present at the time, it adds a whole extra dimension. We can imagine one or two students shifting uncomfortably in their seats, while some others gaze on with fixed smiles, their minds preoccupied with last night’s rendezvous….

         And that’s the point of nescience: it takes our mind off the present and carries it elsewhere, and so we miss what’s right in front of us. We may never appreciate everything that’s happening around us, but we can certainly upgrade from one percent to five or even ten percent, and that will make our lives five or ten times more interesting. All we have to do is discriminate between what matters and what doesn’t, and why.




Sutras II: 27 & 28

Wisdom is the final stage of its sevenfold way.

By the practice of the limbs of Yoga, the impurities are destroyed, and knowledge arises, which leads to discrimination between the Self and the non-Self.


         FINALLY we have wrapped up our study of ignorance and are now fully prepared to enter the eight-limbed path, the familiar part of Patanjali’s Yoga Shastra. Lip served in “yoga” gymnasiums everywhere, the eight steps will be getting a significantly revised reading from the Guru.

         Having concluded a major thrust of the work, we shared our thoughts of what we have learned in the more than two years of the study, which began on October 21, 2008. Interestingly, most everyone felt that they had changed only a little bit, mainly in the direction of reacting less intensely to provocations and having ready recourse to their inner strength. A couple of people expressed it as having increased faith in themselves. This is testimony to the subtlety of the course of study, because those are very powerful transformations, but no one felt like the earth trembled or volcanoes erupted, so they didn’t realize the immensity of what they have accomplished.

         From my perspective, it is easy to see that this group is the most centered and advanced we have ever had since we began holding classes in 1978. Together we have grappled with a quite radical perspective, and it has seeped into our bones without blowing our minds. An interesting journey indeed.

         For the most part, assessing ourselves isn’t something we should do much of. It has the potential to freeze us in place, make what we have learned more static. But it is good to occasionally acknowledge the value of what we’ve gathered, because this is not a “sexy” program—no “beautiful people” stretching in spandex, no levitation, no spirit knockings. It’s very basic in a way, and yet it produces genuine spiritual progress.

         One common theme of what people described was that in problematic situations they were immediately able to access the strength they have developed in the classes. Where before there was often doubt that impelled them into a defensive posture, with consequent upset, they had more confidence, more faith in themselves, and so did not need to prove or defend their position. This allowed them to deal with the situation in a most balanced fashion. As we will see, Patanjali will continue to harp on this as a major achievement of yoga. So although everyone felt but little changed, they have actually been brought farther than they imagine by Patanjali's incremental program of unfoldment.

         I well recall how important it was as a child to defend myself against just and unjust accusations alike, not only to avoid punishment but to uphold my honor. Kids are always called into question when anything goes wrong, and many of us suffered painful retributions at times. So we learned to defend ourselves, and if we were indefensible we could still see the benefit of inventing a plausible denial. It seems we carry that talent into adulthood, and are always ready to prove ourselves before our accusers. Several of the class came from that type of background.

         When I was unjustly accused as a child, I knew very well that I hadn’t stolen the cookies or taught my neighbor to smoke cigarettes or what have you, but no one else could be sure. In those cases I could have faith in myself even when the whole world was against me. Now it is good to see class members reclaiming the same kind of faith in themselves. As Nitya concludes: “When such a clarity is established, the yogi is considered to be stabilized on the irrefutable foundation of Yoga.” From that solid foundation, we don’t need to be either offensive or defensive; we can deal with things as they really are, from a neutral pose. Honestly, if we gain nothing else from the study, this is a superior achievement, and one that is attained only with great effort and trials. Good job, everyone!

         As Moni pointed out, she picked up a few principles from the study, but she put them into practice at work, and that was where the real transformation took place for her. That’s how it works. Ideas that aren’t practiced are little more than smoke. Moni has made huge strides in the past couple of years especially, and most of it has been through rising to the challenges of her work situation. It is yet another paradox that we learn detachment through involvement, and not from severing ties to the world or scrubbing away all its imperfections.

         The key idea here is to remember that “destroying impurities” doesn’t mean polishing the mirror or becoming sattvic. It sounds like it, so we have to know in advance that the three gunas—the essence of prakriti—are the so-called impurities in question. This is not exactly a program of refinement or purification. Patanjali states that practicing the limbs of yoga leads us back to our true nature as a purusha, and the impurities are destroyed as a result. That is not the same as destroying impurities and hoping their absence will reveal our true nature. As Narayana Guru used to say, you cannot wash the lather out of soap, so don’t bother trying. It is the nature of soap to produce lather. If you don’t want lather, just put the soap away on the shelf and leave it alone.


         We began and ended the class with the suggested exercise, of locating consciousness in the vishuddhi (throat chakra) and maintaining a neutral witness there while observing the ingoing and outgoing breath. It makes for a deep and calming meditation. Linda wondered why the fifth chakra was dubbed the purificatory center, and Deb said that it is the place where the Word emanates, and words are the messengers of spiritual transformation. I added that the first four chakras are associated with earth, water, fire and air—material substances—but the fifth is connected to akasha, space. Space is non-material, but it bears a relation to material elements by providing the space for them to exist. As such it is the essence of the material world, and thus a kind of purified version of it.

         It strikes me that limbs are referenced instead of a path to reduce the linear orientation. Limbs radiate from a central focal point, while a path is often conceived as progressing stepwise. A linear progression thus pushes most stages away into a hypothetical future, allowing the ego to postpone reckoning with them and wallow in its present condition.

         The word translated as “limbs” has several shades of meaning, though it primarily means limbs of the body, or “a woman with well-rounded limbs.” There is also a sense of walking and a place for taking a walk, which brings it closer to a path. An implication in rhetoric highlights the secondary nature of limbs, supporting as they do the core of the head and torso. This tells us the eight limbs should be treated not as ends in themselves but as means to the end of samadhi. The most accurate definition for our purposes is simply “division or department.”

         Due to the Christmas holiday, we will initiate the eight limbs beginning next year. The ancient Greeks and others saw the movement of the sun through the year as resembling a golden, celestial swing. The swing has almost reached its southernmost point of its arc, and will begin swinging back one week from today. The ancients viewed this as a momentous occasion to celebrate the potential of the whole cycle. May yours be rich in insights and bountiful in possibilities. Aum.



Sutra II:29

Self-restraints, observances, posture, regulation of vital forces, withdrawal from distraction, holding the focus of the mind, contemplation, and absorption are the eight limbs of Yoga.


         Nitya’s commentary is a fine example of his genius at saying a vast amount in a very few sentences. In a mere two pages he epitomizes each of the eight limbs of Patanjali’s Yoga, including correcting false notions about them. It is as if we are still sitting at the feet of the great master, striving to soak up as much as we can from each pearl of wisdom he utters. Aum.

         Since we will be taking all of these eight categories as a separate class, including each of the five restraints and five observances, we only touched on them last night, but it still led to a lively gathering, much energized by the holiday break. After next week’s class I will be in India for four sessions, during which time Deb has agreed to take notes, and I’ve asked all participants to preserve any special thoughts or questions that come up for them, so that when I return I can reconstruct some of what transpired in this very important segment of the study. This is after all what most people think of as Patanjali’s whole yoga program.

         Of course, Patanjali wasn’t just blowing smoke with the previous 79 sutras of preparation. We have cleared away a lot of garbage so that we can get the maximum benefit from what lies ahead. Each term will now be full of meaning and connections, as we will surely see.

         Another valuable preparatory step was offered by Scotty. He has been thinking that his art was the main activity in his life, and the Gurukula yoga study and his qigong work were other interests that, while enjoyable, were drawing him away from his dharma, so he only made room for them when he wasn’t consumed with painting. Lately he has come to see that, far from being disjunct interests, they are all building blocks of a single artistic flow, which for him has its actualization in painting, but can easily include all those other aspects without conflict. Instead of having to decide between one thing or another, he sees it all as one process, like the growth of a plant with several branches. This is a very important realization, one that will allow a more wholehearted participation in whatever he finds himself engaged in. Yoga study is not meant to be separate in any way from what we do in our lives.

         In a similar vein, Deb opened and closed the class with a visualization she had that the eight limbs were not arranged like a ladder, but really were like limbs. She pictured an egg-shaped core with eight radiating arms arrayed around it. Such an analogy is quite valuable, allowing us to remember that this is not a linear sequence, but all eight stages take place simultaneously. They are somewhat tangential to a central meaning, which is the Absolute, or perhaps our soul or spirit.

         The sequential training everyone receives in their schooling reinforces linear thinking, the idea that one thing follows logically from and is built on previous steps. In one sense realization is the process by which a linear sequence is converted to an operating gestalt. The class explored this idea in specific types of activity. Susan mentioned playing the piano as one example in which all eight limbs take place simultaneously. You have to set aside a chunk of time free of conflicting demands, then as you sit down you assume an optimal posture and breathe regularly, tune out distractions, maintain focus, have a contemplatively insightful relation to the music you are playing, and let yourself go into a kind of transcendental state that doesn’t have to consciously think of any of these separate elements. The result is an excellent performance, even if you are a beginner and you have very far to go yet to become a great musician. Acting with expertise merely allows you to evolve, to grow, at whatever stage you may be. Whenever one or more of these limbs are disrupted, the growth is much less. For instance, if your mind keeps being drawn away by extraneous thoughts, you will make plenty of mistakes. Clearly this applies to whatever endeavor a person chooses to devote themselves to, and not only music or art. So please don’t think of the eight limbs as resembling grades in school, where you have to graduate from one to pass on to the next. All are to be gathered into your core, your soul, to enrich your life at all times.

         I recommend reading Nitya’s entire commentary at regular intervals during this part of the study. Much of what we have been through is very complicated and dense, but here he has sketched out the highlights, which can spare us a lot of unnecessary toil and trouble. For instance, pranayama is epitomized as balancing our energy expenditure with its restoration. There is a universe of specialized breathing exercises and arcane multi-year practices out there called pranayama, but what if the whole point was simply to harmonize our work and rest periods, our food and exercise, stress and relaxation, and so on, in order to feel good? This is something we aim for every day. When we feel harmonized, life is joy, ananda.

         Likewise, asana, posture, has been expanded into a vast enterprise of “yoga” schools and gymnasiums. Recall from Nancy Yeilding’s Introduction:


Instead of the comprehensive, holistic way of life expressed by Patanjali’s Yoga Shastra, Yoga [is] typically packaged—most often as a commercial product—as merely a form of exercise, a series of stretches, postures, and breath control, with an occasional nod toward meditation. All of this can be very beneficial of course, and it certainly must answer a need, as Yoga has not only become very popular, but also big business…. But the theory and practice of Yoga offer much more in the way of invaluable guidance.


The result is millions of people diligently stretching their muscles and dreaming of it leading mysteriously to enlightenment. Well, the dream keeps ‘em paying. But again, what if the point was simply to feel good so that your life is pleasant enough that it doesn’t prevent you from actualizing your abilities? What if you should just exercise and stretch enough that the body doesn’t disrupt your focus? Maybe there are important things we are leaving out of our philosophy. Maybe we are more than our bodies.

         The class loved Nitya’s description of asana as the position a cat takes when it is preparing to pounce on a rat. If the cat were to do a series of stretching exercises first, the rat would easily escape. She just gets ready, and an instant before the rat expects it, she springs. I can hear Nitya alternately chuckling and melodramatically intense as he describes the scene. He is really speaking to our inner selves, exhorting us lazy bums to have a goal as engaging to us as the prospect of a battle for a hearty meal is to the cat. The mental quicksand that surrounds us in a corrupt society saps our strength and blurs our vision, threatening to turn us into zombies content to serve our masters. Yoga is a way to wake back up and reclaim our vital self-consciousness, a way to be filled with zest for life.

         Nitya defines pratyahara and dharana as the process by which we discover what our true interests are and pare away all the junk that impedes their development. Without this simultaneously elementary and exceedingly complex understanding, all the rest is just spinning our wheels, a waste of time. Pretence. This is where the bulk of our energies should be directed, so the rest has meaning. Instead, we often gravitate to something simple and well-defined, like following prescribed rituals. Muscle stretching. But you can do that for a very long time before it will reveal your true nature.

         Knowing who you are and what that means about where you should put your energy, leads naturally to dhyana, contemplation, the deepening of your relationship to your life. And as you release yourself into that life and are able to discard ideational incentives, samadhi, sameness, comes about as the unitive realization of who you are. As Nitya puts it, “Once the mind has attained the tranquility of a non-modulating state, the intellect is no longer deputed to act upon the bid of the ego to examine the external world. Instead it becomes fully established in the blissful state of the Self. That is indicated here as samadhi.”

         Since this is not a linear program, we all have moments of samadhi when our life is harmonized, yet certain of the eight limbs are emphasized at different times. We go in and out of them regularly. They all impact each other and have relative prominence or quiescence, but all are present and even essential all the time.

         I must have said before, but it bears repeating, that we are conditioned by an inheritance of three billion years of survival mentality, in which our whole attention has been absorbed in trying to reproduce before we were eaten. At long last we have evolved a measure of safety so that we can begin to entertain thoughts beyond mere survival and reproduction. Yoga is an invitation to grow our spirit in new ways and discover what else is possible. It is foolhardy to imagine we have anything more than a vague notion of where we are going, but an infinite potential is there for us to begin to colonize, and every contribution enlarges the community’s sphere of knowledge. Each of us will tread a unique path, but since they all intersect at various points we all welcome reports from the front lines of our fellow adventurers. For all of our sakes we wish each of you an intrepid journey!

Scott Teitsworth