The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali – the Map of Enlightenment

From our e-book “Filling our Life with Celebration”

PatanjaliThe Yoga Sutras of Patanjali (“YSP”) lays out the path towards liberation which the practitioner can use as a map as he progresses along the path. It is like learning to play golf. He can try to learn to swing by trial and error but it will take a very long time to master the game. The additional downside is that he may develop an incorrect swing and he would later have to put in additional effort to undo that habit. With a proper ‘manual’, he can cut short the ‘trial and error’ and practice the right swing from the start.

The YSP starts out with the objective of Yoga. This is very important because we must know where we want to go to before we start our journey. We need to know how the various practices will benefit us.  If we have incorrect expectations about our practices, we will soon give up when our expectations are not met.

The YSP states that Yoga is the cessation of identifying with the fluctuations arising within consciousness. In simple terms, it is to cease being thrown around by our senses and the millions of sense-objects, including our own thoughts which bombard our senses every day.

The mind becomes the object which it is aware of just like water conforming to the shape of the container which holds it. Accordingly, the mind mistakes itself for the senses and sense-objects. For example, when we are angry with someone, we think that we are our anger and our entire being becomes overwhelmed by the anger. Our breathing becomes short and shallow, and our entire body tense up. Nothing else is important to us at that moment of anger except the thoughts and emotions that fuel the anger. We become anger itself.

So, the goal of Yoga is to understand that we are not our mind-body complex. We are not our senses and the sense objects. When we do that, we understand what our egos are and we begin to stop identifying with them. We begin to take the perspective of the spectator instead of the spectacle. Gautama Buddha terms this as ‘annata’ or no-self. He explained that our suffering arises from the identification with self and hence, the YSP advocates the cessation of identification with self. The YSP states that when this is achieved, the soul abides in the state of the seer/witness in its own true form. We rest in pure consciousness and see the ‘fluctuations in consciousness’, be it mental/emotional, without being caught up in them.

When we read about the miracles that others have performed, we tend to associate that with spiritual development. However, it is clear from Patanjali’s definition of Yoga that physic or miracle powers are not the goal of Yoga. If we perform our practices and use the achievement of miracle powers as the yardstick, we will soon be disappointed. We must learn to see them as merely the by-products and not the goal itself.

Awareness is very important to achieve this ultimate goal. The YSP states that without awareness, identification with the fluctuations in consciousness will arise. For example, when one has a pain in his body, he starts to identify with his body. He starts complaining in his mind about the pain and the things he cannot do because of it. He feels as if he will have to endure this pain forever. By doing so, he adds mental suffering to the physical suffering by identifying with the pain. Similarly, when one suffers a loss, his sadness seems overwhelming and the emotional pain is fuelled by his thoughts surrounding the loss. Without awareness, the negative thoughts and emotions build on each other and snowball into unbearable proportions.

The Kriya Yoga practices are designed to gradually strengthen our awareness so that over time, we reduce our identifications with the fluctuations in consciousness. The YSP explains that the fluctuations in consciousness can either expand our consciousness or cause it to contract and there are 5 kinds as follows:
a) True Knowledge
b) Misconception
c) Conceptualisation
d) Sleep
e) Memory/recollection

According to the YSP, we can achieve true knowledge through our personal experiences with our senses, inference/reflection and study of sacred works. With awareness, we can learn from our personal experiences. We can observe the effects of craving. After obtaining the objects which we craved for, we can observe if it brought us the joy we expected or did we exaggerate the positive parts of the object. How long did the joy last? Did the joy eventually turn into worries of losing the object? Our personal experiences are our greatest teachers because of their significance to us. It is far more powerful than what we can learn from books and listening to spiritual talks. However, we can only learn from our personal experiences if we have the level of awareness to stay detached and observe ourselves objectively.

Through inference, we can come to conclusions as to what is good/bad for us. We can easily observe how drained we feel after watching television for a few hours. We can also observe how refreshing it feels after meditating for 20 minutes. Through these observations, we can infer that watching television drains us of life force/prana while proper meditation practices can fill us with prana. Without sufficient prana, it would be difficult to maintain a level of awareness that keep up from being overwhelmed by our negative thoughts and emotions.

Misconception is the erroneous understanding of reality for example, we see the sun as rising in morning and falling in the evening and interpret the event as such; but in reality it is not so.

Most of our negative emotions arise from misconception. When we crave for certain things, we have the misconception that they will bring us more joy than they actually do; and we think that the joy will be everlasting. When we are attracted to an individual, we see him/her as flawless only to be disappointed by our own misguided expectations later on.

Conceptualisation is the application of concepts on reality that does not have any real basis. A good example of ‘conceptualisation’ is how we create the concept of different countries by creating imaginary borders and divisions over earth. Based on this concept, we differentiate ourselves and further develop the concept of ‘us’ and ‘them’ or ‘us, the good ones’ and ‘them, the enemies’. Wars are started because of conceptualisation.

Dividing the human race based on spiritual beliefs is also an act of conceptualisation. The war between Hindus and Muslims in India illustrates the dangers on conceptualisation which we as human beings are prone to.

During sleep, our conscious mind becomes inactive and we are unaware of our senses and the sense-objects. During sleep, we temporarily put down the burden of our ego and conscious mind. That is why Paramahansa Yogadanda said that in sleep we are Gods and in the waking state, we are human.

Memory/recollection is the act of not letting go of an object that one has been aware of. Most of us take the definition of ‘memory’ very lightly but by looking at how the Patanjali defines memory, we can see how our memories can be a cause of suffering. Many of us replay negative events over and over again in our minds (unpleasant memories) and this brings us unnecessary mental suffering. We may be sitting in a pleasant garden with beautiful flowers around us with the birds singing melodiously but we cannot enjoy them because of these memories.

Our memories often take us away from our present reality. Now I am sitting at home writing this essay and this is my present reality. However, if I start thinking about my experience in another place, say Australia, I am drawn away from my present reality to another location which is not reality. My home is my present reality and not Australia.

Patanjali goes on to teach that we can hinder the fluctuations in consciousness (such as the habit of recalling unpleasant memories) through practice and detachment. Our practices should be firm and consistent over a long period of time. The ability to control our conscious mind requires concentration which must be consistently practiced over and over again. Patanjali advised us to be patient and not to expect quick results. We need to persevere on our practices over a long period of time and we need to practice consistently. Rudra Shivananda, often associate consistent practice with brushing our teeth. We cannot compensate for not brushing our teeth one day by brushing more vigorously the next day.

Eventually, our practices will bring us to a state of detachment where we are able to overcome our desires. We are able to look at pleasant objects without desire. This does not mean that we are not able to enjoy the object; we still do but there is no need for us to own it and identify it with our ego, for example, we can look at a beautiful flower and smell its fragrance but there is no need for us to pluck it out and take it home with us. With detachment, we will then reach self-realisation. The YSP states that freedom through self-realisation is supreme. This is the ultimate goal of Yoga.

The YSP also provides guidance for our meditation practices. Pantanjali said that meditation that involves our cognition or perception is accompanied by observation, reflection, rejoicing and awareness of self. An example would be the observation of our habitual thoughts. We then reflect on these thoughts to see if they are helping us or bringing us suffering. We can only solve a problem if we are aware that the problem exists. Through this understanding, we gain control over our minds and this gives us a reason to rejoice.

Both Buddha and Patanjali emphasised the need to rejoice in our spiritual practices. Unfortunately many of us place enlightenment as our only goal and fail to see
the incremental improvements in our mental and emotional well-being as significant progress. We then fail to give ourselves a pat in the back when it is really due. Osho said that we cannot make enlightenment as a goal because if we do, our ego gets involved and it becomes a hindrance. The mind cannot fathom what it has never experienced and therefore, the mind only understands enlightenment conceptually, that is, as a powerless word. We will only understand it when it happens, so let us stop thinking too much about it.

Our spiritual practices must be like exercise, we will do it more consistently if we enjoy it. One person will enjoy tennis while another prefers swimming. There is no ‘best’ practice that suits everyone. The most important thing is to observe the effects of our practices. Do things happen more smoothly after our practice? Do insights come to us in the midst of our problems thus turning our problems into positive experiences? Are we getting more stable mentally and emotionally? Do we see our weaknesses more easily? Many of us can’t!

These are signs that our spiritual practices are helping us just like how our exercise routines can increase our stamina progressively. When we see the positive effects of our practices, we should really celebrate. This is important because it gives us the energy to persevere. If we have set very high expectations on ourselves and do not rejoice when there are incremental improvements in the control over our minds, we will eventually feel disappointed and give up. By persevering with our practices, we will develop greater understanding over our habitual thought patterns and hence, develop greater awareness of self.

I once observed an interesting conversation between two friends. One was telling the other about how we are not reality and the ‘I’ do not exist. He was quoting the Hindu scriptures but it was apparent that he was expressing his knowledge which he gained from books but not his personal experience. The other friend just listened patiently until his friend finished and then took him by surprise by asking him, “Do you think you control your thoughts or do they arise outside your control?” The first-mentioned friend was surprised because he was led towards a personal experience of what he has just been talking about. We can observe this by just listening to our thoughts. We can easily see that they arise randomly outside our control. A famous Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah, often asked his disciples, “if you have a stomach ache, can you tell it to go away? If
you can’t how can you say that you control your body? If you do not control your body, how can you say that your body belongs to you?”

The YSP states that the practice of Yogis who have achieve Samadhi are preceded by:
a) Devotion
b) Courage
c) Mindfulness
d) Discernment
e) True insight

Devotion involves surrendering to the Divine. Many of us may have encountered problems whereby we tried our best but still see no resolution. It is at that tipping point that some of us truly let go and surrender to the Divine. We no longer care about the outcome of the problem but just trust in the Divine. We do not care whether we get what we want or not. We trust that the Divine will lead us on the right path. At that point, we get a sense of relief and freedom. We allow the Divine to guide us and many times, when we look back, we are glad that the situation turned out the way it did.

When we surrender to the Divine, we let go of the need to control our lives and we subjugate our ego-wants for our spiritual evolution. By surrendering to the Divine, we learn to rely more on our intuition instead of our intellect and therefore, allow ourselves to be directed by the Divine Will. Malcolm Gladwell’s international bestseller, ‘Blink’, has many examples where decisions made intuitively or through ‘gut-feel’ were proven correct even when those decisions were irrational. In the YSP, surrender to the divine is one of the path towards the manifestation of Ishwara or the supreme spirit within us.

Courage is needed to do what is right instead of what is easy. It is often times easier to tell a lie than the truth but courage gives us the strength to tell the truth irrespective of the repercussions. Courage gives us the strength to stand up for what is right instead of following the crowd. Courage gives us the strength to question popular beliefs that do not make sense to us. Courage gives us the will to read spiritual books that are outside of our religious beliefs and compare them to our current beliefs. Most importantly, courage gives us the strength to acknowledge and let go of our long held beliefs which are proven to be wrong or unhelpful.

The YSP made references to Ishwara as the supreme spirit which is untouched by troubles or desires. Ishwara is omniscient and is the preceptor of even the most ancient teachers. Paramahansa Yogananda described Ishwara as the ‘Cosmic Consciousness’. Ishwara is in us and we are in Ishwara just like the ocean is in the waves and  the waves are in the ocean.

Ishwara is expressed by the sound ‘OM’. Patanjali advised that the chanting of the mantra ‘OM’ should be made with devotion and with the understanding that we are calling out to Ishwara. According to Patanjali, the repetition of this mantra can bring self-awareness and remove the obstacles to self-realisation.

Patanjali warned us of the following obstacles to our practice:

a) Disease – mental or physical illness.

b) Dullness – due to lack of energy to maintain mindfulness.

c) Doubt – questioning the teachings without putting in effort seek the truth.

d) Carelessness – habitual lack of focus for example, if we are not careful with our speech, we may say things that creates animosity among others.

e) Laziness – lack of effort due to dullness or unmet expectations.

f) Self-indulgence – addiction to sense objects such as intoxicants.

g) False perception – not seeing reality as it truly is such as seeing practitioners of other religions as different from us instead as seeing them as a fellow human being.

h) Failure to reach firm ground – giving up due to a lack of patience and perseverance.

i) Instability – the practitioner becomes thrown around by the highs and lows of life and his daily practice suffers due to inconsistent effort placed.

He also provided the following attitudes to purify our minds;
a) Benevolence or goodwill to others
b) Compassion – the desire to help those who are suffering
c) Contentment or self-satisfaction – Developing a habit of Gratitude is an important step towards contentment
d) Delight/rejoicing in the actions of the virtuous
e) Equanimity towards the actions of the non-virtuous

The adoption of these attitudes is important for the well-being of our main chakras. Goodwill to others will counter hatred which negatively affects our heart chakra (Anahata). Compassion counters anger which is adverse to our throat chakra (Visuddhi). Contentment will counter greed which is bad for our navel chakra (Manipura). Rejoicing in the actions of the virtuous and equanimity in the actions of the non-virtuous
counters pride and this benefits our third eye chakra (Ajna).

In summary, how we live our daily lives is equally as important as our practices. For example, hours of intense practice is useless if one continue to indulge in intoxicants. Practices to heal our chakras will reduce our tendencies to adopt negative attitudes but at the same time, we need to have the discipline to inculcate the positive attitudes mentioned by Patanjali.

According to YSP, through our practices, the fluctuations of consciousness (such as mental distractions) will dwindle down as we become like pure crystals that assumes the colours of the objects nearby. The knower becomes the known. The mind becomes the object of contemplation and attains full comprehension of the object of meditation.

In the pristine state of absorption without words and reflection the supreme self shines in undisturbed calmness (paragraph 47 of YSP). In this state the conscious mind is quiet and mental activity is minimal. Awareness becomes truth bearing and there is knowledge which is absolutely free from error (paragraph 48 of YSP).

That is why it is not sufficient to just read spiritual books and listen to spiritual discourses. The knowledge gain merely forms concepts and beliefs in our minds. The knowledge is just the map to the destination and not the destination itself. The truth is within us and we need to experience them for ourselves. The truth has always existed. Masters discovered them, they did not invent them. Similarly, each an every one of us must discover them for ourselves. This insight differs from knowledge, inference or scriptural study because in the pursuit of knowledge the mind is not engaged in the general field of knowledge itself  (paragraph 49 of YSP). It is like reading about the taste of a fruit without actually tasting it. Tasting the fruit is far more superior to reading about the taste of the fruit.

It is unfortunate that many of us evaluate ‘spiritual teachers’ based on their knowledge instead of the insights that they have gained. If they teach things that correspond with what we have read then we accept them as good teachers. Great Masters are able to do more than that. They are able to listen to our life experiences and turn them into spiritual insights that touch our hearts and shift our beliefs. The teachers that shake our beliefs and cause us to question those beliefs are doing us a greater favour than those who comforts us by confirming that our beliefs are correct. We must be cautious that a single word can carry many meanings. Two persons can mention the word ‘love’ but may have completely different interpretations of it. Therefore, we may read a scripture and think that we understood when we have barely scratched its surface.

%d bloggers like this: