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Yoga-Sutra of Patañjali is one of the most enlightening spiritual
documents of all time. Nearly two thousand years old, this collection of 196
compact observations on the nature of consciousness and liberation remains
unrivaled for its penetrating insight. Though brief, the
to cut to the heart of the human dilemma. With uncommon directness,
Patañjali analyzes how we know what we know and why we suffer. He then
provides a meditative program through which each of us can fulfill the primary
purposes of consciousness: to see things as they are and to achieve freedom
from suffering. Weaving the threads of ancient yogic knowledge into a detailed
map of human possibility, the
as a testament to heroic self-awareness, defining yoga for all time.
today, from a distance of two millennia, we can be sure that Patañjali's
inward quest arose from a deeply ingrained desire to extract happiness and
meaning from the mysteries of life, consciousness, and mortality. Such a desire
has been universal among humans of all cultures since prehistory, and it
resonates in us as strongly today as ever. In fact, yoga now enjoys an
unprecedented and ever growing popularity in East and West. Just as Western
thought and technology have crossed geographical borders and found a home in
India, Indian thought long ago migrated throughout Southeast Asia, China, and
Japan, profoundly enriching the cultures of each region, and has continued to
spread across the globe. Today, the central themes of Indian thought,
especially regarding consciousness, continue to penetrate both Asian and
Western worlds of art, philosophy, and spirituality, providing a much-needed
counterbalance to Western orthodoxies. These patterns of cross-fertilization
reflect a universality that labels like "Indian" and
most of the yoga practiced worldwide today would be unrecognizable to earlier
yogis like Patañjali who attained realization in meditative stillness.
Had he lived some seven centuries later, in the tenth century instead of the
third, his system might well have incorporated movements from the leading form
of yoga now practiced, hatha yoga, which was developed in part to temper the
bodymind and focus its energies for meditation. In Patañjali's era,
though, the yoga posture, or
simply a means of sitting as steadily and effortlessly as possible and was not
an exercise system of any kind. This older, contemplative yoga has come to be
known as raja-yoga—the "royal" or "exalted"
path—distinguishing it from the later hatha yoga. It is also often referred to
as classical yoga for the same reason. The yoga of Patañjali is a
process of stilling and interiorization, in which utter physical and mental
calm is brought to every aspect of human personhood and experience. For him,
but the bodily aspect of this process.
when Patañjali uses the word
means "yoking." Its root,
a direct forerunner of the modern word
practice of yoga is meant to rein in the tendency of consciousness to gravitate
toward external things, to identify with them and try to locate happiness in
them. Steady practice at "yoking" teaches consciousness how to turn
inward toward itself and realize the true nature of its underlying awareness.
Only then, he assures us, can we understand why we are alive, why we suffer,
and how we might become happy and wise.
experience of realization is not altogether unfamiliar to us. Most of us have
had flashes of enlightenment at one time or another, usually when we find
ourselves caught up in an absorbing event. At profound moments of engagement—a
sunrise, birth, wedding, or death—time seems to stand still and awareness
grows spacious and inclusive. For a momentless moment, it feels as if we are
seeing directly into the nature of things.
insight of this kind is a serendipity, more
willed, and usually passes quickly. One of the profound wisdoms of the yoga
tradition, though, is the recognition that the capacity to see into the nature
of things is intrinsic. The yoking practice of yoga arose as human beings
actively sought to harness this faculty. While realization always has a
spontaneous, unwilled quality, systematic practice at stilling the body and
mind through yoga makes it far more likely that we can enter—and eventually
abide in—this kind of deep, absorptive knowing.
Patañjali's perspective, most physical and mental actions arise from a
fundamental misunderstanding of reality and therefore entail suffering.
Everything that exists in creation, he explains, is different from pure
awareness. This includes not only the body and its sense organs but also
consciousness and its contents, such as sensation, thought, emotional feeling,
and memory. Therefore, everything that we might think of as
emotional, conceptual, spiritual, internal, external—is part of nature, or
this view, all of
the innermost part, is material stuff, impermanent, and subject to cause and
effect. Some of the stuff that
is subtle, for example, the recognition of a familiar taste like an apple. Some
of it is gross, such as the teeth that are chewing it. But all of oneself is
awareness, on the other hand, is not stuff of any sort and is therefore free of
cause and effect. It was never created and never ends, existing beyond time.
Even to use the word
assert that "it exists" lends pure awareness a seeming substantiality
it does not possess. Because it is immaterial, it has no location, movement, or
other natural properties; nor does it have anything in common with
consciousness or thought, other than the role of observing them. It is
literally intangible, impersonal, and inconceivable.
Patañjali's view, pure awareness, or
what actually sees creation unfolding, primarily on a screen we call
consciousness. The screen of consciousness is the foundation of human
experience, a part of the phenomenal world it represents, and under ordinary
circumstances it actually feels like the subjective "eye" that is
observing everything. In Patañjali's view, though, no aspect of
creation, including consciousness, can see itself, because it is material
stuff. In the same way that a television cannot view its own programs,
consciousness requires a witnessing awareness. Indeed, just as the television
exists not for its own sake but for the viewer, consciousness is at the
disposal of pure awareness.
according to the
ordinary circumstances pure awareness has no sense of itself at all.
Immaterial, unmoving, nonconceptual, it is completely submerged beneath the
waves of consciousness. Like the rest of nature's stuff, consciousness is
embroiled in an ongoing process of creation, spiraling from form to form,
pattern to pattern. This incessant repatterning of consciousness distorts its
actual relationship to pure awareness. Although pure awareness is unchanging,
its lack of substance or motion renders it invisible to consciousness. After
all, the contents of consciousness—perception, thought, memory—are made of
stuff and arise from material transformations. Because of these attributes,
consciousness is an instrument poorly suited to detect the pure awareness that
is watching it. In other words, consciousness is a thing that is only good at
the rest of creation, the aspect that Patañjali calls consciousness, or
evolving. Its evolutionary goal is to refine itself to the point where it can
become so still, unmoving, and equally absorbed in all phenomena that it
becomes very much like pure awareness itself. In that instant, it can reflect
pure awareness back to itself, making it realize that it is distinct and
separate from nature. In other words, the underlying purpose of creation is to
reveal pure seeing to itself.
the contents of creation that Patañjali can observe—including his body,
senses, and mind—appear volatile. No matter what aspect of nature he selects
as an object of contemplation, he notices before long that the object's
fundamental properties—light, mass, motion—are actually a sequence of
transformations and changing proportions. By calmly and patiently observing the
play of sensation, thought, and feeling as he trains attention on some kind of
object, he has come to the conclusion that this play includes both the things
of the world and his consciousness of them, and never stops.
behaves something like water in the ocean. As its currents stir the water into
waves, the water's surface is set in motion. When this occurs, two essential
properties of water become invisible—it ceases to appear either transparent or
reflective. Instead, its agitations disrupt the surface, fragmenting the
reflected light and rendering the surface opaque. If Patañjali had used
the image of water, he might have pointed to the two ways one again comes to
see its essential transparency and reflection. The first way is to make the
the second is to move from the surface
of water, Patañjali uses the metaphor of consciousness becoming a
transparent jewel that mirrors everything before awareness—the object, or
thing one is looking at; the subject, or sense of "me" watching; and
the sense of relationship between subject and object that we generally take to
be perceiving itself. In the mirror of this reflective state, called
coalescence, awareness recognizes that all things—and the consciousness
representing them—are made of the same stuff.
as one begins to recognize the unity of all things and their separateness from
awareness, one can also see the nature of their transformations more clearly.
While pure awareness is unchanging and exists beyond time, the stuff of
creation is undergoing constant change, instant by instant. Patañjali
recognized that one of the most primary internal forces in a human being is the
inclination toward selfhood. Self-making has the effect of organizing the
shifting contents of consciousness into a seamless pseudo-reality that seems to
unfold over time. This constructed reality consists of oneself as subject and
everything else as the object. From this vantage point, the world and the self
feel like enduring entities, each different from the other, with essential
qualities that are carried forward through time.
self is remarkably successful at maintaining this perspective—under ordinary
conditions, we are simply incapable of seeing ourselves as other than a
singular entity. At any given moment, we live and operate from the conviction
that we are the same person who was born some years ago and has had a
continuous life right up to the present. In fact, not just our own person but
all objects seem to have an essential reality of their own. A clay pot is
imbued with "potness" despite the fact that its identity as a pot is
but a momentary way station between coming from the earth and returning to it.
when consciousness becomes truly motionless, these appearances of permanence
and continuity break down. Just as turbulent water's opacity gives way to
transparency when it calms, the illusory reality represented in consciousness
becomes transparent as body and mind grow deeply still.
perceptual change occurs during this process. One's sense of time becomes
spacious, with consciousness sensing many more individual events than before
and beginning to perceive its own workings in more detail. What had seemed like
a smooth flow—the reality of the phenomenal world—can now be seen as the
flickering of microphenomena arising and vanishing with unimaginable speed and
subtlety. Under ordinary circumstances they had blended together something like
the individual frames in a motion picture, giving the illusion of solidity and
continuity. As this illusion falls apart, the self and the world reveal
themselves to be nothing but a stream of rapidly changing events. Where earlier
they had seemed solid enough to endure through time, now they can be seen as
piecemeal and temporary. In this light, the dramas of consciousness no longer
seem real, nor do they propel one any longer toward thoughts or actions that
will bring more suffering. One recognizes, at last, that the unchanging
awareness that knows this reality is the true center of human existence and
that it is free of suffering.
order to still the movements of consciousness to the point of
realization—seeing reality as it is—we must allow each aspect of ourselves to
clarify. Patañjali's program of clarification involves
"yoking" or sublimating all our energies to the process of awakening.
Each part of this program, although interdependent with every other part,
addresses a different level of personhood. We are encouraged to bring clarity
to our relationships with the beings and objects of the external world, so that
those relationships might cease to generate suffering or impede realization.
Likewise, we are assured that a disciplined inner life is the most direct path
to happiness. Our bodyminds can know their true nature by letting themselves
gravitate toward effortless sitting and breathing. And our attention can be
stabilized, with perception coming to rest in the present moment and clarifying
to the point where the unity of all things is known beyond argument or
every domain of personhood, therefore, we must make an effort to bring about
the yogic transformation. However, in Patañjali's view the commotion of
our ordinary physical and mental life conceals the fact that our thoughts and
actions are almost always tinged with wanting, aversion, egoism, or fear of
extinction. Thus, as we settle into the stilling process, or
come to recognize that these energies of suffering are the sparks quickening
every part of our inner landscape into action. This includes even our efforts
to transcend them through yoga. No matter how deep our sincerity or robust our
desire to awaken, we cannot move very far toward clarity before certain of our
efforts themselves become obstacles on our path.
program of moral and personal discipline can seem impossibly difficult at
first. The challenge lies not in the prescription itself, though, but in
overcoming the well-established mental and physical habits that already produce
suffering in our lives. These habits of perception and behavior cost us dearly,
yet we cannot help but hold them dear, for they
That is, we have all developed seemingly tried-and-true patterns of thinking
and reacting, crystallizing into stories about ourselves and the world, and we
cling to them as our identity and home. Letting all of these constructions
dissolve into the much less orderly or predictable stream of momentary reality
runs completely counter to the organizing imperative of the self. There are
hardly any tools in the self's repertoire, or in our collective society, for
surrendering control to such an extent or for facing reality so squarely.
we dispense with the need to make sense of
to take credit for its unfolding, our usual program of trying to shape the
world into a uniformly pleasant set of experiences begins to seem futile.
Instead, a precious and far-reaching human faculty becomes palpable—the power
to be at home in all experience, in things as they are. The central human
wisdom, Patañjali teaches us, is that a pure awareness resides,
impervious, at the core of each and every kind of sensation, thought, and
feeling, whether we see it
the route to knowing this wisdom fully is yoga.