Raja Yoga, the Royal Road, could as well be called the Hero’s Journey, for who but a hero can take the mind firmly in one hand and with the other, wipe it crystal clear? That is the task Patanjali gives us in his Yoga Sutras, and he explains, step by step, how it can be done.
The first chapter, Samadhi Pada, details what yoga is all about—the stilling of the changing modifications or states of the mind – and how to understand it so that such stilling is possible. In other words, we need to know the plans of a structure before we take up hammer and nail to construct it; we need to know the nature of the mind, how it works, in order to be able to be the master of it. If we can do so, Patanjali promises, we will dwell in our essential nature, who we actually are, instead of being puppets of changing ideas and emotions.
He then lists the very basic kinds of changing states of mind, some positive, others negative. He discusses valid knowledge, misperception, conceptualization, sleep, and memory as the basic fluctuations of the mind. And then he posits that the habit of witnessing the mind and detaching it from whatever comes across it are the primary practices toward both understanding and control.
He takes us from the first true concentration, in which thought, reflection, joy, and a sense of oneself gather together in one stream of thought, to the highest state in which all impressions and fluctuations are dissolved, and we enter that nature which carries with it no impulse for continuity.
The first state, samprajnata, has been seen by some as comparable to savikalpa samadhi, but there is a distinct difference. The concept of samprajnata gives a clear picture of concentration where the mind is finally brought to one point, but it ends there. In savikalpa samadhi that one-pointedness is held for an extended time. An example is the master archer gathering his attention on the bullseye for a perfect shot: he sees the black spot, subtly reflects on his position and aim, takes pleasure from the effort, and knows that he himself is involved in the action. The gathering together is samprajnana. Continuing the same intensity of concentration when there is a distinction between subject and object is savikalpa samadhi.
Thus far Patanjali has discussed the method of stilling the mind by the sole practice of witness and dispassion. It can be likened to a practice of neti neti of the mind. If that is not possible for an individual, if the individual’s orientation towards the highest ideal needs a more positive approach, he offers the same outcome of management of mental fluctuations through dedication to pure awareness, the divine self or spiritual ground, which he calls Purusha.
In order to attach individual awareness to Purusha, he recommends repetition of a word, pranava, that symbolizes to the individual pure awareness, the divine self, or the spiritual ground. We are most used to the word Om, but whatever word inspires a concept of the highest divinity is what Patanjali advises—for instance Allah, Christ, whatever one’s symbol of the highest might be. To that pranava the aspirant must become one-pointedly devoted. Devotion, or dedication, can be to a concept with form, or one formless, but underlying consciousness, the ground of existence, must be associated with it.
Patanjali then mentions disturbances that can come to the mind and distract it from its purpose: disease, doubt, carelessness, discontent, lethargy, and a long list of others. The latter part of the first chapter is given over to descriptions of various stages and types of absorption.
This would seem to be the end of the study, but actually thus far Patanjali has only mentioned the basic ground of yoga. Chapter Two discusses the spiritual disciplines or practices necessary to achieve the end state of transcendence. They have been termed kriya-yoga and consist of discipline, self-study, and orientation toward pure awareness. They are used for the purpose of reducing the effects of ignorance, which is the regarding of the noneternal as eternal. This ignorance is the sense of a separate self, attraction and aversion, and clinging to what is.
The effects of ignorance are to be overcome by reversing the natural flow of energies outward and redirecting them to their source, a process of involution. One’s tendencies, he asserts, have been created by past thoughts and actions, and they will continue to bear fruit until they are rooted out through an unbroken practice of discrimination and deep meditation. They consist of the three gunas— light (sattva), activity (rajas), and inertia (tamas), the fundamental qualities of nature.
To reiterate practices appropriate to eliminating this underlying ignorance of actuality, Patanjali lists: restraint, observances (purity, contentment, austerity, self-study, and dedication to pure awareness), postures, control of breath, withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and samadhi (the eight limbs of yoga). And then he discusses the positive effects of the positive practice of abstaining from harming others, falsehood, theft, incontinence, and greed.
With the perfection of these practices, the inner light is revealed and the mind is, now and not until now, fit for concentration. It is now that consciousness has been interiorized from external objects – at which time the senses internalize also, and thus arises mastery over them.
In the Third Chapter, Vibhuti Pada, Patanjali discusses further development of concentration and meditation in technical terms, such as samadhi being the state when the purpose alone shines forth, and samyama as the state when concentration, meditation and absorption are together on one subject. These – concentration, meditation and absorption – are called the inner limbs of yoga, the prior ones the outer limbs (restraint, observances, postures, control of breath, and withdrawal), but even they are external to that which bears no seeds (for later fructification). The evolution toward total stillness occurs as the outgoing samskaras are stopped when they collide with the restraining samskaras.
At this point in practice, there is a calm flow – the state called samadhi. The thought-wave in the mind that has just passed is the same as the thought-wave in the mind that is present, without any gap in between. From this time on, psychic powers can arise: the knowledge of past and future, the language of other beings, the reading of others’ minds, insight into death, knowledge of things at a distance, the motions of the stars, the ability to still hunger and thirst, visions, the ability to die at will, to be as small as an atom, out-of-body experience, and so on. They are considered stumbling blocks on the path, because a person can be locked in thrall to any of them and be unable to continue the journey to absolute freedom.
Finally, it is when one perceives the distinction between pure awareness and the subtlest level of mind that the seed of bondage is destroyed and samskaras, which incline one to be born again, are wiped out. It is then that all desires are destroyed. Only then comes absolute independence, Kaivalya:
So what is left to discuss? Chapter Four, Kaivalya Pada, aims to elucidate basic cosmologic evolution. It takes a bird’s eye view, observing that each individual mind evolves through a natural process, what Plotinus referred to as “the flight of the alone to the Alone.” It is a trajectory of each separate self, none being a part of or cognized by another. And he asserts that the action and reaction of subconscious samskaras have been for a purpose—for the sake of the transcendent Purusha, pure awareness, that it may shine forth. It is pure awareness which has given the individual mind light to act, and it is actions that ultimately unveil the cloud of ignorance covering it. This is not done by attacking ignorance piece by piece, but by seeing, through action, the distinction between the mind, or self, and the effulgent Reality, pure awareness. For Christian Vedantists it can be likened to rolling back the stone that sealed Jesus’ sepulcher – and finding no one there, for Jesus had become the Christ, one with the Father, Brahman.
The sequence of transformation of gunas has ended; they have fulfilled their purpose. Time succession and its correlates are ended and the gunas return to their original state of harmony. The Purusha remains forevermore established in its essential nature. This is Kaivalya— independence, freedom without end.
Editor’s Note: The author drew from ten translations of the Yoga Sutras in compiling this article, as well as 193 hours of recorded classes by Swami Sridharananda on the Yoga Sutras and Swami Sarvagatananda’s two-volume Meditation as Spiritual Culmination. • • •
EDITH DICKINSON TIPPLE lives in Santa Barbara, CA and has been a member of the Vedanta Society of Southern California since 1963. She is Editor of What the Disciples Said About It, Realizing God and A Challenge to Modern Minds and is a contributor to Prabuddha Bharata, Vedanta Kesari, Samvit, and American Vedantist. EDITHTIPPLE@GMAIL.COM