By Amy Weintraub
We suffer because we are bound too tightly to our dream of reality by afflictions. But thousands of years ago, Patanjali not only offered an understanding of our misery, but prescribed a natural and practical way out
Aug 25, 2017: Those ancient yogis were astonishingly perceptive about human psychology. They understood that our clinging is at the root of our suffering. Whether we are holding on to a person, a dream, or to an image of ourselves that no longer serves us, what classical yoga tells us is that we suffer because we are bound too tightly to our dream of reality by the five afflictions (kleshas). Around 200 C.E., when the great sage Patanjali codified the current wisdom of yoga that had passed from teacher to student for thousands of years, not only did he offer an understanding of our misery, but he prescribed a natural and practical way out. Before we look at the solution he proposed, let?s look a little more closely at the binds that threaten to keep us isolated and alone in our suffering.
Why we suffer
The first and foremost bind is ignorance (avidya). As we live further and further from the truth of our connection to all of nature, we become ignorant of that connection and live as though we are separate and alone, even though modern science tells us this isn?t so, that my molecular structure is no different from yours, or from my cat Smokey?s. This brings us face to face with the next klesha, asmita. Like the other three that follow, asmita or the sense of I-ness, arises out of our ignorance?avidya. Because of our I-ness we identify too much with this body, this mind, these emotions. We conflate our perceptions with pure awareness, not making the distinction Patanjali wants us to make between our temporal consciousness and pure awareness. I think, therefore I am. I perceive, therefore I am. I feel, therefore I am, or I?m a doctor, therefore I am, or I?m a yogi or a Buddhist or a mother or a teacher, therefore I am. These notions reinforce a distortion of reality that we are the center of the universe.
I’ll bet that right now, even as you?re reading this, and certainly as I am writing this, we both feel, though we might not admit it, that ours is the only consciousness in the room. That this dance that we call reality is being played for our delight or distress alone; that all the events of the day are being filtered through our consciousness. Asmita rules.
From the muddy waters of this misidentification, the third and fourth afflictions arise?attraction (raga) and aversion (dvesha). We cling to what we love?our lovers, our children, our accomplishments. And we avoid what we hate?usually pain of any kind. We cling to our self-centered life, fearing change, which is the fifth affliction, abhinivesha. We fear in particular, the ultimate loss of our I-ness, the final change, the dropping of the body in death.
Moulding the template of attachments
Out of the five afflictions, samskara arise. Our actions or karma, which are born out of ignorance, leave a residue, an impression stored in the subtle body. I like to think of a samskara as a karmic knot. Think of the physical body for a moment. We?ve all experienced tightness?headaches, muscle tension?as a result of a feeling we?ve blocked. Something happens in our lives and we aren?t ready or able to process it, to let the emotion move through. Both hatha yoga practitioners and somatic psychologists believe that what we?ve experienced is stored in the body. Even when memory is repressed, the body remembers. The stored impressions from past actions can prevent us from experiencing life without preconceived limits. They set up a pattern of response to life known as the vasana.
When a samskara is triggered by a thought or a feeling in reaction to something we face, we are likely to respond in a predetermined way. Now doesn?t this sound like current brain research? Research in the field of psychobiology has shown us that the blueprint for how we are able to love or to not love, even whom we love, is formed through the experiences we have in our earliest attachments. Our neuronal pathways are set in childhood in the relationships we have with our parents and they pave the way for a conditioned response throughout our lives. For example, I know a man whose mother was a rager, and though he longs for relationship without conflict, he keeps getting involved with women who have violent tempers.
And one of my closest friends is a paediatrician in private practice, who grew up living above a nightclub on a river where illegal activities took place. Sheila?s father, the charismatic owner of the nightclub had close ties to organized crime. No matter what she tells herself she wants in a relationship, if she goes to a party, you can bet that Sheila will hook up with the ?bad boy? in the room. Sheila is operating from the web of samskara, her vasana, and has been unable to break the destructive pattern of her relationships. The vasana we carry around in our consciousness is, in the yogic view, what keeps us returning, rebirth after rebirth, to give us one more shot at clearing our karma.
Dissolving the template
Not a pretty picture is it? So how do we free ourselves from a life lived in unconscious reaction, reactions predetermined by the stored impressions? Patanjali gives us a system for establishing and maintaining positive mental health. But in order for the system to work, it must have a solid foundation of practice (abhyasa) and non-reaction (vairagya). First we must practice (abhyasa), and by this he means meditation, an effortless returning to the point of focus, time after time.
The process on the meditation cushion looks like this: A latent impression/samskara bubbles into a thought or a feeling or a sensation, and we allow it to be there without adding fuel by reacting to it. Instead, we simply observe it without labeling it in any positive or negative way, without rushing towards it in the form of a train of thoughts, or without avoiding it. In this non-reactive response, we are practicing vairagya. In doing so, we are strengthening the witness (drushtah), what Patanjali calls the seer, so that we can respond to life on and off the meditation cushion with equanimity and awareness, in other words, without reaction.
The cultivation of vairagya informs and strengthens our practice and brings balance to our emotional lives. In our non-reaction, we are remaking the pattern of our reactions. When we witness without reacting in our habitual way, we are freeing ourselves of the repetition of that bit of karma. We stop reinforcing that latent impression or patterned response and we therefore do not accumulate another self-limiting samskara. It makes good practical, psychological sense to me.
Prescription for positive mental health
Now let?s look at Patanjali?s prescription for addressing our suffering. The tradition in the sacred texts of Indian philosophy is that the essential teaching is spoken first. And that?s all that the truly gifted student needs to hear. The rest of the text is elaboration elaboration and explication on the ?right view?. So if you are an adept at yoking your individual consciousness to the vast field of pure awareness, then this is all you need to hear. Tapas swadhyaya ishvara-pranidhana kriya yoga. This is the foundational instruction for ?union in action? (kriya yoga). Union in action rests on a sturdy tripod of three important elements: Wilful practice (tapas), self-observation (svadhyaya) and surrender (ishvara-pranidhana). The strength of each element will support the maintenance of positive mentalhealth.
In classical yoga, tapas refers to both wilful practice (also called austerities) and the intense, purifying inner fire that practice produces. Patanjali was referring to the intense and committed practice of meditation. From a modern hatha yoga perspective, tapas is primarily the process of getting rid of something undesirable in our systems?from chronic subliminal muscle contraction, to toxicity in our digestive system, to deep-rooted emotions and behaviours. With each session on your mat, you are building the strength to break through old patterns and past conditioning.
But practice alone will not support union in action and in fact, an intense hatha yoga practice, without self-awareness, the next leg in the tripod, can create a rigid armour of self righteousness. We all know yoga-nazis whose practice is solely physical. And there?s another danger for those who cultivate tapas alone. What about the yogis we have known whose practice is so physical that they have burned away many impurities in their system? The shakti (energy) of these individuals can be very strong. Without self-awareness, they burn with an intensity that is often physical, often charismatic and sometimes harmfully seductive.
In classical yoga, svadhyaya or self-study is referred to the learning by chanting of the texts sacred to yoga. This, it was believed, was the path to deeper self-knowledge. In contemporary life, we tend to think of self-study as a therapy?whether it?s developing the witness on our meditation cushions through mindfulness practice, or on our yoga mats as we observe body sensations, thoughts and feelings without reaction, or borrowing the witness consciousness of a therapist.
I recently had an experience of the classical meaning of the word when I chanted the Devimahatmyam for nine nights with Swami Shivanada Saraswati, a brilliant Sanskrit scholar. Not only did the repetition of the Sanskrit vowels have the expected physiological effect of calming my sympathetic nervous system and creating a state of mental vigilance?at least that?s what research said it did and my subjective experience was of calm and radiant alertness. But in addition, during the chanting I had to cultivate extreme concentration.
I had to stay awake and alert as I read and sang the transliterated text so that my pronunciation was not offensive to everyone in the room. After a few days of this, not only was I feeling bright and energetic and needing less sleep, but as what was non-essential slipped away in the chanting, what was revealed to me was what was unworkable in my life. Svadhyaya. A powerful beam of self-awareness was aimed at something I needed to change. I was able to see clearly that a patterned response that was the amalgam of samskara (vasana) that had accumulated in a difficult childhood was about to be acted out in my life. I saw it, felt it, and was made miserable by the recognition for a while. But then I effected a change for the good. This change was the direct result of svadhyaya?self-study practiced in a traditional way.
With only wilful practice and self-study, we might become somewhat analytical and harsh. We might not have the necessary compassion to accept what we see in ourselves, which of course we must do, if we are going to change. So it?s surrender, the third element of kriyah yoga that softens the heart and strengthens it, too. Ishvara-pranidhana is usually translated as surrender to the Lord, but as defined by Patanjali, ishvara is not a deity in the ordinary sense, but rather the divine in the form of pure awareness. But many modern yogis base their philosophical understanding of yoga, not only on the sutras, but also on an earlier text, the Bhagavad Gita, in which Krishna instructs Arjuna in the ways of yoga. Here, bhakti yoga is included, or the yoga of devotion. For many of us on the path of yoga, we rest our practice on a foundation of devotion. For those who have synthesized these two different philosophical approaches, ishvara-pranidhanani can mean devotion. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, the great sage who first brought the concepts of yoga to the West when he appeared at the 1893 World?s Parliament of Religions in Chicago, ?Personal God is the reading of the impersonal by the human mind.?
There’s another way in which ishvara-pranhidhana can operate in our lives to attenuate suffering. And though this may be a modern interpretation of surrender, I think it?s important to talk about it, because we live in a psychological age of enormous fear and suffering. One of the hardest lessons to learn in life is when to let go?of a relationship, a dream, a fantasy, even a mood like fear. Yet, once we learn that we can?t control people, things, and emotions, when we surrender to reality as it is, we are happier.
The importance of this kind of surrender was brought home to me when I met a beautiful woman in Los Angeles who moderated a panel I was on at a health festival in the fall. Karen is a mother of two young sons, a dancer who teaches movement therapy and she has a daily yoga practice. Less than three months before I met her, her husband, a pilot, was killed in a much publicized airplane crash in Hollywood. Though she was in pain over her loss, Karen was not suffering when I met her. She was radiant and calm as she told me about her journey through grief. ?I practice,? she said, ?and I weep. I don?t let myself lock down.? Karen?s life is incredibly hard right now, financially, raising two boys alone with no extended family nearby, but she lets the grief move through her on her mat. She surrenders to reality exactly as it is, again and again.
We suffer when our fear of pain and our attempts to avoid it close us off from our potential for growth. For it is from the challenges of life, and we all face them, that we are offered the chance to transform those old karmic patterns that keep us small and separated from the knowledge of who we really are. This is precisely what yoga is meant to teach, not only through our understanding of the kleshas, but through our actual practices?the tapas, and through our cultivation of self-awareness?self-study on and off the mat and through our learning, time after time to surrender to reality as it is.
Amy Weintraub, the author of Yoga for Depression, is a senior Kripalu Yoga teacher, mentor and writes frequently for international magazines. She offers LifeForce Yoga for mood disorder trainings for yoga teachers, doctors and mental health professionals. www.yogafordepression.com
Opinions expressed by ThinkNaturalToday contributors are their own. None of the facts and figures mentioned in the story have been created by ThinkNaturalToday. ThinkNaturalToday is not responsible for any factual errors.This article was first published in Joyful Living magazine, sister publication of www.thinknaturaltoday.com