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Patanjali's definition of yoga

Classic Scriptures

(2009)

Yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind. (Yoga Sutras: I, 2)


Jan: Patanjali’s famous definition of yoga is “yogas chitta vritti nirodhah”, which means “yoga is the removal of the fluctuations of the mind”. Chitta is mind, vrittis are thought impulses, nirodah is removal.

Question: But those fluctuations are never removed, thought impulses are there even for the enlightened one. If there are no impulses it’s just a great impersonal samādhi with no awareness of anything.

Jan: Yes, Patanjali’s definition has been misunderstood as describing the state of enlightenment as a state where there are no thoughts at all and you are blank. But what Patanjali is describing is the method, not the goal.

Later Patanjali describes the things that spoil one’s meditation. In other words, what the fluctuations are.

The distractions are: Ignorance, I-ness, desire, aversion and attachment. (Yoga Sutras, II, 3)


It is obvious that the first distraction is ignorance, but interesting that the second distraction is I-ness (asmitā, the sense of being someone, ego). Patanjali later defines I-ness like this:

I-ness is the merging, as it were, of the power of knowing with the instruments thereof. (Yoga Sutras, II, 6)


The instruments of knowing are not only the senses, but also the mind and the cognitive faculties. “Merging” of the two is a metaphor, Patanjali writes “as it were”. What happens is that the identification mechanism becomes active and parts of the psyche/mind-complex identify with the parts that are perceiving or cognizing. This gives rise to the sense of being an individual, in other words, I-ness.

Q: What could you say about “attention” Jan? I have noticed there is not only “I Am”, there is also attention which is also a thought. All that attention is “falling” upon is what is being experienced. But I wonder if attention is also a part of the mind. It must be!


Jan: “I Am” and “attention” are a pair; actually there are three that arise: I Am (or Me), attention and other. You can’t have one without the other two. But all three are saturated with pure, unmanifest awareness which is the Self. Once in the Self, “I Am “, “attention” and “other” remain, but the awareness that permeates them has become Self-aware.

Later "I am, attention and other" become seen as Spanda, which is the technical term for vibrating, manifesting Shakti.


Q: How does this relate to Patanjali’s statement that one should get rid of fluctuations of the mind?

Jan: All three are distractions, but fortunately all three can be used as an entry point to the Self: “Me” can become “I am” which can be an entry to the Self. “Attention” can become one-pointed meditation. “Other” can be reduced to a mantra or some other object of meditation.
When you are in “I am”, you have stepped out of the mind-fluctuations. You are also out of the fluctuations when your meditation is one-pointed, like when your whole attention is on a mantra. Once you are out of the fluctuations they tend to fade out. What happens next? Patanjali says that after one has removed the fluctuations of the mind…

Then one abides in the Self (Yoga Sutras I, 3)


Q: So attention is in itself a quality of the mind? Just like objects of attention are?

Jan: Attention is a function of the mind and therefore part of the mind just like objects of attention are. That is why attention in itself is not enough. Just as one-pointed meditation in itself is not enough, nor is “I am” enough. What is essential is that a pure awareness permeates all three and that it can become Self-aware and watch itself. But what I find more beautiful is that all three can become experienced as Shakti, as a vibration of the Self. This vibration is technically called Spanda.

Q: So awareness watching awareness is Shakti reflecting on itself?

Jan: Not quite. Well, ultimately, yes it is, but you should understand that in the progress of deeper and deeper realization, there is at first no sense of Shakti in awareness watching awareness, there is just pure being. Only much later does one realize pure being is Shakti and that everything is Shakti.

Q: What’s the relationship between attention and the fluctuations of the mind?

Jan: Patanjali’s next sutra makes this clear…

Otherwise one merges with the fluctuations. (Yoga Sutras, I, 4)


The meaning is that when you are no longer in pure awareness, simultaneously your attention is occupied with fluctuations and you become identified with this and “I am” sets in. The fluctuations are of course “other”, but as soon as you have “attention” and “other”, “I am” pops up and you identify either with the fluctuations of the mind or with the attention beholding the fluctuations.

Q. How is this actually experienced?

Jan: You meditate and your mind is full of thoughts, gradually your involvement with the thoughts subsides and suddenly you are in pure awareness. Once you are in pure awareness it does not matter if there are thoughts in the mind or not, because you are entirely out of them. Some samādhis have thoughts, some don’t, but in both you are not involved with either of the three: “I am”, “attention” or “other”. If you stay in that state of samādhi one of two things may happen:
1) Fluctuations of the mind go away.
2) Fluctuations of the mind go berserk.
In either case it is your job to remain uninvolved with the fluctuations. You should stay in pure awareness and remain self-aware pure awareness. If you can remain there, everything is fine, if you can not, however, then Patanjali’s fourth sutra becomes true and you get so caught up in the fluctuations that you lose the sense of pure self-aware awareness. Once awareness is no longer aware of itself, attention sets in in relation to fluctuations of the mind (other), and you get either caught up in the fluctuations as an observing ego (I am), or you get identified with the fluctuations and actually believe you in that moment are some thought or feeling (also I am).

Patanjali later writes about misery. He first explains that to the wise man life is misery (II, 15), then he states the following:

That misery, which has not yet come, can and should be warded off. (II, 16).


What is interesting is that the cause of misery and the means to ward off misery are the same as the cause of ignorance and the means to ward off ignorance.

The cause of that which is to be warded off is the identification of the seer and the seen. (II, 17)

Remember that verse II, 6 said “I-ness is the merging, as it were, of the power of knowing with the instruments thereof”, so we now have that ignorance is misery and that it can be warded of by ceasing to identify with impulses and actions as well as with fluctuations in the mind. What happens if you can dissolve this false identification?

The warding off is to break the identifications and thus disperse ignorance. This is the kaivalya of the seer. (II, 25)


“Kaivalya” literally means “aloneness”; it is a metaphor for pure being, for residing in the Self. It also refers to the Self as pure awareness and the Selfs ability to be aware of fluctuations of the mind without becoming identified with them. This is what is called witnessing. Later Patanjali describes the situation where kaivalya arrises:

Kaivalya (is attained) when the principle of sattva is as pure as the Self. (III, 56)


Sattva is one of the the basic forces of nature, known as gunas. Sattva is characterized as being “stainless, lucid and healthy” (Bhagavad Gitā, XIV, 6). The same verse of Bhagavad Gitā continues: “Sattva binds by attachment to happiness and attachment to knowledge”. What is meant in Patanjali’s sutra is that the mind should not only be sattvic, but that it should be as pure as the Self and permeated with the Self. Simply making the mind sattvic is not enough.

This all leads to a deeper understanding of Patanajali’s initial definition of yoga as “removal of the fluctuations of the mind”. We have now learned that yoga is to ward off identifications between the pure awareness of the Self and the objects of this awareness. We have also learned that yoga is to purify the mind so it becomes sattvic and then purify the sattvic mind by permeating it with the Self. We can thus understand that the removal of the fluctuations of the mind is not accomplished by will and subtle force. It is ultimately accomplished by removing identifications and by dissolving the mind into the Self, but in order to accomplish this dissolution, the mind must first be sattvic. What, then, is a sattvic mind? It is a mind longing for wisdom, and is happy, lucid and healthy. But also it is a mind without fluctuations; thus we come full circle back to Patanjali’s initial definition of yoga as removal of the fluctuations of the mind. We therefore arrive at:

Yoga is merging in the Self, removal of identifications and removal of fluctuations of the mind.

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