Notes by Hannah Marciniak, edited by Ram
RAM: To come to truly understand what we have learned, we must revisit what we have already studied. To that end, we’ll start today by discussing Sūtra 1.2, which we explored in our last meeting. Remember that during the learning process you will have doubts. It like putting in a fence post: you begin by making room for the post, but you must adjust the post numerous times to get it solidly planted. Asking a question is like readjusting the post—there are no stupid questions. What questions or thoughts have come up for you regarding this sutra since our last discussion?
I find this to be a very concise reminder, but am discovering that it’s much easier said than done.
I have observed that the first chapter makes you think you want to stop—to cease these fluctuations of the mind—and then you find it does not.
I was struck by the idea of thought waves—such an interesting and large topic.
I was reminded of the best experiences in yoga with this sūtra and appreciate that the sūtras are so experiential.
I’ve been thinking of that momentary pause between thoughts as the beginning of happiness.
I keep coming back to how difficult this truly is: vṛtti is a nonjudgmental word, truly just any mental state, and how can you arrive at a goal without being attached to any mental state? I’m beginning to feel that just the practice of achieving this goal is inherently worthwhile in itself, that this alone enriches life.
What resonates from this sūtra is the stillness, the ability to observe regardless of the challenges you’re facing.
RAM: Sūtras are extremely concise. There is so much packed in that they need to be elaborated. Patañjali uses the first 3-4 sūtras in the first chapter to convey the essence of what the subsequent sūtras in his work go on to explore further. Thus, time spent up front to internalize the first sūtras is time well spent.
Citta (the mind) is a manifestation of prakṛti (matter) and puruṣa (the Observer / Awareness / Consciousness). Prakṛti and puruṣa are the underpinnings of the Sāṅkhya yoga philosophy. Puruṣa is the core of our Being, and prakṛti (as mind and body) forms the layers through which we receive, filter, and store our perceptions of the world, which don’t touch the core of our Being.
The śāstra (teaching) cannot be understood simply through intellectual effort. It must go through you, and it happens through your whole wakeful life. The śāstra is not confined to the āsana practice, but appears in every moment of your wakeful time.
Prakṛti is composed of three core aspects or qualities, which are called guṇas:
1. Sattva – characterized by clarity, cognition, dominant quality of the mind
2. Rajas – activity
3. Tamas – inactivity, associated with the gross body
While we tend to assign value judgments to the qualities, they’re neither bad nor good. Indeed, all three are necessary. For example, the physical body is considered to be predominantly tamas. During deep sleep, the mind is also predominantly tamas. The world as we see it, including ourselves, is a combination of all the three aspects of prakṛti.
STUDENT: The distinction between sūkṣma (subtle) and sthūla (gross)—are they the same as mental vs. physical?
RAM: Yes and no. The subtle body is mental, yes, but it comprises much more than just the thinking mind, for it informs the physiological, neurological, and mental activities that drive everything. In Eastern philosophies, it is the subtle body that seeks another body to inhabit when the soul departs. Ultimately, the mind is involved. Take “seeing”: “I see” and the ability to see are properties of the subtle body, while the eyes, the organ of seeing, are part of the gross body.
Cultivating the singular focus of mind is the pathway to samādhi; āsana is simply a training ground for this ability. Because the mind-intellect complex, which a manifestation of prakṛti, has a stranglehold on us, we introduce the concept of duality, of the observer and observed, as a method for regaining objectivity, as one approach to restraining thought patterns. (Remember that there are many pathways of approaching samādhi.)
Mind also is composed of the three aspects sattva, rajas, and tamas. When the three guṇas are balanced, we are naturally drawn to doing the right thing. If tamas is dominant, we tend to act out of a perception that the end justifies the means. When rajas is dominant, we are driven to be highly active, primarily egocentric activities. When sattva is dominant, we are ready for meditation, for cultivation of the single-pointed mind. We can, in such a mine realize “I am not the mind.” A sattva dominant state is that in which one is able to learn. It is sometimes called ‘the learning mind’.
Patañjali’s use of the word yoga hints at the duality of matter and consciousness, but the idea of an observer-observed binary is simply a stepping stone. What happens when cittavṛttinirodha is complete? What does it mean with regard to the question “Who am I”? This is the topic of the third aphorism.
STUDENT: In Western philosophical traditions, the idea of ontological exploration—or what exists and what doesn’t—is core. And it’s binary: something is either in or out. Is this ontological lens incompatible with the guṇas? It seems like they are more like qualities, or colors, of thought. Is modern scientific perspective incompatible with this perspective?
RAM: It may be a different lens, but I have found science to be a great help in understanding Vedanta—in a way, it drew me and kept me in Vedanta study. While science starts from the perspective of the fundamental duality of matter and energy, modern scientific inquiry increasingly reveals the blurring of this duality. Take the finding that the observed is modified by the very process of observation.
Nonduality is a substratum on which we say things exist. When we achieve samādhi, duality disappears. This is the oneness, aloneness—abstract ideas which deny any type of duality—and is expressed as kaivalya, the ability to see through the phenomenal world of duality. Recognition of duality is a tool that helps lead us to an understanding of oneness—or, better, of no-otherness. The dual world is just a perception. We don’t want to be the mind. That is, more often than not we do not see the separation between the mind and ourselves. This identification is what is behind the common expressions “I am sad, I am unhappy, I am happy.” We know that these are emotions that the mind undergoes, but they are cognized by me, the I.
Another important thing to note: the more centered you are, the more useful you will be to society. Your peace will spread. If you rehabilitate your mind, you cannot help but impact the world positively.