From Where Does the Eternal Spring Forth?

I.1. Now the teaching of Yoga. I.2. Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the consciousness . I.3. Then the Seer abides in his own form. I.4. At other times: in the form of the fluctuations. -- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Above are the opening four sutras of the Yoga Sutras, the foundational yogic text that was either written, or compiled, by Patanjali. Scholars deem that Patanjali lived in 200 BCE…or perhaps in the 100 CE or 200 CE. In short, unequivocal evidence about the historical character of Patanjali does not exist.

A central question among scholars concerning Patanjali is that of whether he was a yogi-a person dedicated to the practice of yoga who described yogic practice and its results from an insider's point of view; or a pundit-a learned man, philosopher, or anthropologist who observed the yoga practitioner and described the practice of yoga and the states of consciousness of the yogi from an external vantage point.

This debate expresses the polarizing notion that the pundit and the practitioner cannot inhabit the same body. In my mind, this dichotomous viewpoint stands in opposition to the essence of yoga, as a practice and a way of life, as well as to the state of consciousness to which the yogic practitioner aspires. At first glance, indeed a dichotomy seems to exist between empirical observation describing the real world from an objective external vantage point versus a practice whose essence is the turning of the senses inward (pratiyahara), in effect disassociating the senses from their dependence on worldly objects. For the outside observer, the yogi may seem to abandon reality. Yet this is not abandonment: As it happens, the senses that turn inward encounter new types of objects-emotions, thoughts, complex systems of reactions, tiny spontaneous movements of the subtle body (sugshma sharira, the energetic aspect of the body), and other fluctuations heretofore unrecognized by the senses, when they were outward facing and not yet honed.

Empirical research and observation, usually based on an investigation of relatively gross external objects, carries relevance and meaning also with regard to subtle inner objects. When the senses encounter and begin to register these subtle objects, they gradually sharpen and their ability to sense even the subtlest nuance grows. The mistaken conception regarding the yogi's state of consciousness when his or her senses are turned inward stems from an insistence on only seeing as truth or reality that which the senses in their grossest state are able to absorb. Yet there is a reality that the yogi is examining when he or she abides in other states of consciousness: this pure examination grants the practitioner's senses the ability to register subtleties that may seem as fleeting and transparent as air.

This is a process of getting closer to the root of things-a root that is as tangible as day-to-day reality, yet found perhaps in a different material state, like ice versus water. It is important to emphasize that distilling the senses and heightening their sensitivity is not the goal of yoga-it is simply part of the process that readies the ground for transformation, knowledge, and freedom.

As long as the senses are employed solely on the gross level, there is no simple way to resolve the apparent clash between internal and external, between tangible and subtle. This feeling of polarity is powerful, persisting even as we understand that what is termed the truth is not always an expression of a scientific observation of the world, and that knowledge may derive from insight based on experience that is difficult to describe in words. The sutras approach this difficulty, promising a state of "protection from pairs of opposites," II.48, as one of the fruits of yoga.

From this sutra it is possible to understand that the processes of the natural world possess the nature of a pendulum swinging between what we experience as opposites that do not sit comfortably side-by-side. This shapes the way in which we think and grasp reality: good versus evil, right versus wrong, wisdom versus ignorance… Can these qualities not inhabit the same body? Can the yogi not be a pundit or the pundit a yogi?

For the yogic practitioner the human body is a laboratory, and practice is a careful, precise investigation, through trial and error, of the elements of our existence: flesh, breath, mind, emotions, impulses, memories, and the connections between them. This investigation is accompanied by questions that arise and may be answered within the practice.

Practice in this way, over time, polishes and distills the senses so that they may absorb finer and finer objects: a tiny, unseen vibration in the belly…a murmur of the breath in the back of the throat…a pulsing of the feet on the ground… As the body's subtle, breathing, vital processes are revealed over time, the practitioner's image of his or her body is no longer simply flesh, bones, blood. What the practitioner sees and feels becomes fuller and more complex.

The synthesis of the picture of the subtle and physical body within the senses and the awareness of the practitioner, can greatly affect his or her life. Firstly, as the body changes according to these processes, the yogi moves through the world differently. Secondly, the borders of the gross physical body are broken down. The practitioner observes and recognizes invisible energetic phenomena as part of his or her body. The yogi's ability to sense tiny changes grows, and at that point an understanding may arise that consciousness, knowing, thoughts, and emotions are bodily phenomena. At this moment the body is no longer perceived as a mass that devours, is sated, and excretes; suffers or indulges; deteriorates and in the end dies; but as an expression of the eternal, within the short time period bridging between birth and death.

But from where does the eternal appear? Can the subtle processes of investigation through trial and error actually grasp the eternal? Is the eternal an object for the senses? I choose the word eternal because it moves my heart. But it is possible to use other words: Atman, Brahman, Purusha, infinite light. How can the body approach the eternal? The eternal casts its shadow in the world and this shadow is recognized within the body. As the states of consciousness become wider, brighter, and more accessible to the yogi, the shadow is seen more clearly, even though it remains as elusive as our own shadow as we walk along a sundrenched street.

Patanjali names the various higher states of consciousness samadhi. Samadhi is not described as a specific, final state of consciousness. There are a few types of samadhi, the beginning stages of which are described as retaining the contours of the body, thoughts, and concepts, culminating with nirbija samadhi - samadhi without karmic seed.

For the yogi, establishing samadhic states of consciousness is not a final goal but a launching pad to convey consciousness toward kaivalya: ultimate freedom. It is the place toward which the yogi aspires and moves, and toward which the practice is directed. "Then consciousness moves toward discernment and is conveyed toward kaivalya," IV.26.

The sutras of Patanjali put forth various ways and possibilities to move closer toward or to obtain samadhic states. The text displays no preference of one way over another, and does not direct the practitioner to exclusively choose a certain way.

The text presents us with a roadmap of the different routes forged by others before us: deep practice of concentration, contentment, values, equanimity, dispassion, faith, and devotion, and more…and more. All of these ways have been proven by past yogis, and Patanjali illuminates these ways for the young, novice practitioner, much like the adage echoes in the ear of the pilgrim: The path is wiser than he who walks it.

Yet Patanjali includes another sutra following the sutras that espouse the experience of former teachers: "Or by meditating in the way that you choose," I.39. This is a key sutra through which we must behold the entire text. The path leading one to samadhi must be the meditative path that one desires. Thus, while standing on the shoulders of tradition and of the life experience of past yogis, the text frees the practitioner to walk his individual path toward the eternal. The shadow of the eternal is clearly recognized in the great, illuminating samadhic space. This is not a shadow of darkness or foreboding, but the opposite. After all, only what is lighted creates shadow.

At the same time, the yogic practitioner moves toward the everlasting eternal by using tools that are inherently deteriorating, imperfect, misleading, and sometimes confusing-the body, gross and subtle, tangible and transparent. I believe that truth is found exactly at the point where seemingly irreconcilable opposites live side by side, where none of them cancel out the nature of the other as illusory. Just as, "The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them," (Isaiah 11:6 King James Version), the deteriorating body can indeed be a pipeline to the eternal.

And that is why it is clear to me that the yogi must also be a pundit.

The qualities of investigation and empirical observation are principle elements of practice. Without correctly employing the facets that think, verbalize, and analyze, there can be no significant progress. At the same time, we must practice turning a curious, investigative eye toward what lies beyond the measureable. As practice sensitizes and polishes the senses, at the same the examined objects become more and more transparent. Yogic investigation begins to touch upon what seems intangible to the outside observer.

Certain scholars describe samadhi as a state of mind that is completely detached, not cognitive, and therefore does not lend itself to be explained, described, or analyzed by the yogi himself. To these scholars I say: It is not for no reason that Patanjali describes various states of samadhi: those where cognitive activity still takes place or leaves contours of ancient karma, as opposed to samadhi without seed that has no activity. This may be Patanjali's way to point carefully toward an eternal that is not final, but rather one that pulses and transforms. An eternal that adapts itself to the eyes of the Seer who tries to see it, or beyond it. A day-to-day eternal, glowing and exciting, but also simple-simply eternal.

I now return to the opening sutras to offer my interpretation:

When the activities of the consciousness called vrittis are restricted or lessened, the Seer (drstr) abides in its own form. In other instances, that is, when the unceasing activities of the consciousness are not restrained or quieted, the Seer abides in the form of the vrittis. Yoga is the tool to restrain and quiet the vrittis, and also the name of this state in which the vrittis and the Seer abide in its own form. The vrittis are our infinite internal activities: thoughts, emotions, fantasies, memories, dreams. [From the root vrt: fluctuations, whirling.]

But what is the Seer?

The Seer is identified in the text with purusha. At the foundation of the sutras of Patanjali stands a concept that prakritti and purusha are detached from the dualistic school of thought of samkyha. At the beginning there were purusha and prakriti: purusha is the eternal Seer, never born and never dying; prakriti is experience, nature. In its original state prakriti was a balanced mass of energy (moola prakriti). But something disturbed this balance. And this disturbance of balance is tied in an inexplicable way to the connection between purusha and prakriti. When the balance is disturbed prakriti breaks apart, with the act of breaking up being the act of creation. The entire world is composed of shards of prakriti, gunas spinning in three material states: tamas, whose quality is earthy, brown, and heavy; rajas, whose quality is red, hot, and in constant motion like fire; and satva, translucent, airy, and pure. The dance of these three gunas in their infinite combinations is experience: Creation is revealed inside us in its array of colors and possibilities.

In every shard of prakriti a tiny, eternal, perfect purusha, a Seer, is concealed. That is the principle of the multiplying of the purusha, which is explicated in the ancient text, the Samkhya Karika. It is a wonderful picture describing the eternal as secretly concealed in whirling particles that make up what is called reality or life.

The Seer is unchanging and the eternal does not end, even when it takes the form of the vrittis. The Seer is untouched by the pairs of opposites. It is we who are in need of quieting the vrittis, so that the great ocean of samadhi will arise inside us, and we will be able to turn our gaze toward the comforting shade of the eternal.

I.1. Now the teaching of Yoga. I.2. Yoga is the restraint of the fluctuations of the consciousness I.3. Then the Seer abides in his own form I.4. At other times: in the form of the fluctuations

-- Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


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