By Devadatta Kali (David Nelson)
This two-part article is a lecture given at the Ramakrishna Monastery in Trabuco on June 4, 2006, and the Vedanta Temple in Hollywood on August 13, 2006.
After the Shvetashvataropanishad, descriptions of yogic practice continued to evolve, and finally Patanjali gathered together all that was known from the experience of the seers and yogins before him and systematized it as the eight-limbed yoga (ashtanga yoga). His Yogasutra is the classic manual on the technology of spiritual science, and the core of its teaching is the series of eight steps that Patanjali lays out for us to follow.
As long as we are involved in ordinary, day-to-day living, we think we have many goals. Each day brings new things to be done, new challenges to be overcome, new ideas. We set our goals, and with enough persistence and expertise, and sometimes with enough good luck, we accomplish what we set out to do. Still, our accomplishments serve us only to a point. As new goals continue to arise, we find ourselves again striving for something else. Eventually the failure to find lasting fulfillment may call us to a different plan of action. Beyond any worldly achievement, the ultimate goal is Self-knowledge, and that is revealed in the blissful state of yoga.
Patanjali defines yoga as “the cessation of the thought-waves in the mind.” The practice of yoga is a journey of exploration into our own consciousness, and that journey necessarily begins where we are—on the outside, involved with all the matters of mundane existence. It is here that we expend most of our energy—physical, mental, and emotional. We relate to the exterior world and interact with it. And so, the question of our behavior is the place where the spiritual journey begins. Because we are human beings, we sometimes make mistakes. We are not always right with the world. Recognizing this, Patanjali lays before us five beginning steps, which form the first limb of yoga.
He calls this first limb yama, meaning “restraint.” We have to get hold of ourselves and rein in our impulses through the practice of five ethical precepts, which have to do with living in relation to everyone and everything around us.
The five ethical principles are: non-injury to others (ahimsa), truthfulness (satya), non-stealing (asteya), chastity (brahmacharya), and abstention from grasping (aparigraha). These universal precepts are called “the great vow” (mahavrata). Their purpose is to rid us of the negative tendencies and behaviors that create disharmony with the surrounding universe. How can we have tranquility within our own hearts and minds if we are in conflict with what is around us? Each of the five disciplines of yama has enormous practical value, and each is to be practiced in thought, word, and deed. When observed in word and deed, the principles of yama promote harmony and cause all sense of discord and strife to evaporate. When cultivated in thought, these principles bring inner peace.
First, by practicing non-injury (ahimsa) we become gentle and loving. We know we must not raise a hand against another living being, because we can see the injury that results. If we must refrain from physical violence, we must refrain also from verbal attacks, because to speak harshly also causes harm. Restraint of speech is essential, because even a careless slip of the tongue can lead to dire consequences. But restraining the hand and tongue is not enough. We must also train ourselves not even to entertain thoughts of ill will toward another, because those too are subtle acts of violence. And even supposing that such thoughts bring no visible harm to someone else, what do they do to us?
Second, by observing complete truthfulness (satya), we are freed from the complications of deceit and cleansed of hypocrisy. In other words, complete moral integrity arises and becomes a part of who we are when we observe truthfulness in our thoughts, speech, and actions.
Third comes non-stealing (asteya). Patanjali is talking about more than shoplifting or robbery or embezzlement. In the broadest sense non-stealing means not even hankering after anything that belongs to someone else. Giving in to mental cravings only reinforces our own sense of lack and incompleteness. If we do that, we deny the divine fullness (purnatva) that we are seeking within ourselves.
Fourth comes chastity (brahmacharya). This is generally taken to mean sexual abstinence, but not everyone on the spiritual path is a monk or a nun. More broadly, we might consider brahmacharya to mean a healthy attitude toward the body. There is no reason to be uncomfortable with our bodies, because it is Brahman who has assumed all forms in order to experience the creation. The body is the vehicle for the divine Self that shines in every heart. In a still broader sense brahmacharya means freedom from the idea of sex. Brahmacharya is not repression, but rather the redirection of mental energy toward the goal of Self-realization. Because sexual desire is one of the strongest of all human impulses and one that occupies the ordinary mind a great deal of the time, its absence frees the mind to pursue the spiritual goal wholeheartedly.
Fifth comes abstention from grasping (aparigraha). This concept has no simple English definition, but what it asks us to do overall results in simplicity of living. Non-grasping means not taking hold of anything unnecessarily, of leaving alone whatever would lead to attachment or involvement. This basic idea plays out in any number of ways.
For example, let’s take possessions. We need certain material things to sustain our lives, and there is nothing wrong with that. The problem is not what we need but what we want. Besides that, if our having more of something than we need deprives someone else of having enough, then our sense of grasping becomes immoral.
The question is, why do we want more than we need? Usually because it makes us feel good to have a superabundance of anything. We may feel more secure or more important than someone who has less, or having more may fulfill some deeper psychological need. In any case we are mistakenly looking for happiness and fulfillment in all the wrong places. As the sage Sanatkumara cautions Narada in the Chandogyopanishad, “In the finite there is no happiness; in the Infinite alone is there true happiness.”
Aparigraha also means the nonacceptance of gifts. In our materialistic society, this may appear troublesome. What exactly does it mean? Are we to refuse the generosity and kindness of others? Of course not! A gift given out of love or a selfless act should be accepted, because acceptance creates an atmosphere of love and harmony, and everyone benefits.
But consider this: has someone every given you a gift or done you a favor with the intention of influencing you or getting something in return? If you accept such a gift, should you not first consider the consequences? Do you intend to make good on what is expected of you? Can you do so in good conscience? If accepting a gift or even a compliment makes you beholden to the giver, that creates a bondage. If you become obligated to do something and then fail to do it, you have acted less than honestly. What does that do to you? The lesson here is always to remain on guard and not to take hold in thought, word, or deed of anything that could create a sense of bondage, obligation, compromise, or mental unrest.
When applied to our thoughts, the principle of aparigraha becomes the practice of nonattachment, of not grasping with the mind. When we attain emotional and intellectual dispassion in regard to everything going on around us, we achieve a state of tranquility that is conducive to spiritual growth. But we must not mistake nonattachment for aloofness or indifference. Indeed, aloofness and indifference arise from selfishness—from the idea of not caring about the well-being of others. We must be strongly committed to our ideals—but in the proper spirit. As the lotus leaf easily sheds the drops of water that fall on it, we must simply not let the world’s turmoil seep into our own hearts and minds. At the same time, we must never fail to do our best.
Looking back at these five principles of yama, we see that they are designed to guide us in relating harmoniously to other people, to other living creatures, to our own body, to material objects, and overall to everything around us.
Next, Patanjali instructs us to cultivate positive inner qualities. His second limb of yoga is called niyama, which means “observance.” Here also he gives us five ways to establish the proper habits and attitudes concerning ourselves. They are: physical and mental purity (shaucha), contentment (santosha), self-discipline (tapas), study (svadhyaya), and devotion to the chosen ideal (ishvarapranidhana). Like the disciplines of yama, those of niyama have enormous practical value.
First, we must maintain personal purity of body and mind (shaucha). If we regard the body as the dwelling-place of the atman, it is only logical to treat it with respect. Cleanliness and proper nutrition promote health, well-being, and self-esteem. Mental “nutrition” is also essential. In yogic teaching, food refers not just to what is consumed through the mouth but also to everything that is taken in through the five senses. We must watch carefully what we ingest through the eyes and ears, for that will color our attitudes. As we think, so we become. Because what we think depends in large part on what we are exposed to, as spiritual aspirants we must be highly discerning in our choice of interests and entertainment. We ought to seek the company of the holy, and we need to practice discernment when among the worldly-minded. At the same time we must not fall into the trap of judging others, because when the mind is engaged with another’s faults, those faults become our own.
The second principle of niyama is contentment (santosha). We must not allow cravings for possessions, prestige, power, or pleasure to disrupt our inner calm and drive us on to profitless action. Look around and see how many people waste so much time and energy in foolish pursuits. True contentment means acceptance and gratitude; put another way, it means letting go of restlessness and dissatisfaction. When we can do this, we focus our attention on the moment and become free of regrets over the past or worries about the future.
Third comes tapas. This word is often translated as “austerity,” but we should not take this in the negative sense of self-denial or mortification; it is important to maintain a healthy respect for body and mind as the vehicles of divine consciousness. Spiritual practice is not supposed to be grim! Rather, austerity should be interpreted in the positive light of self-mastery.
Austerity also means simplicity in thought, speech, and action. Again, look around and see how most people’s lives are unnecessarily complicated. So much of their strife is of their own making. It does not have to be that way. If we keep the company of the holy, we will notice their simplicity and clarity of thought. That is a sure sign of closeness to the divine reality, because God or the Self is the ultimate simplicity.
There is yet another meaning to tapas. The word literally means “heat,” and in that sense, tapas generates enthusiasm and the determination to follow through.
Fourth, in order to invigorate this enthusiasm, Patanjali recommends study (svadhyaya). If we want to acquire any skill, whether that skill is playing the piano or driving a car or operating a computer, we have to practice. Learning something new can be intimidating, and at first what we hope to accomplish may seem well beyond our abilities. But we learn one step at a time, and before long we are enjoying the confidence that comes with progress. Spiritual learning is no different. By study Patanjali means reading sacred texts, reflecting on holy teachings, and mentally repeating a mantra. Such practices focus the mind and give rise to devotion.
Devotion (ishvarapranidhana) is the fifth principle of niyama, and it means pure love for God. Even as true love for another person places the greater good of the beloved first and foremost, devotion to God leads to utter selflessness. Even as the passionate love for another person draws the mind constantly to the thought of the beloved, so does bhakti lead to constant recollectedness of the divine ideal that most appeals to us. Moreover, Sri Ramakrishna emphasized that bhakti is the easiest and most natural path for this present age, and one by which we cannot fail.
So far we have considered the two preliminary steps of yoga, the “dos and don’ts” that Pataïjali calls yama and niyama. Next we begin to sit for meditation. The third limb of yoga is äsana, which refers to proper posture. We are to settle into a comfortable position with the spine held straight, and to do this in a quiet place, free of distractions. You will recall that Shvetashvatara gave similar instructions. The immediate purpose of asana is to forget the physical body altogether while the mind remains alert. But also, proper posture, with the spine, chest, neck, and head held erect, is essential when the spiritual energy within the body becomes aroused.
The fourth limb of yoga is called pranayama, or “control of the breath.” As we already know, this practice carries potential dangers. So, we need to take a commonsense approach. Have you ever noticed that with vigorous activity or emotional excitement, your breathing becomes heavy and irregular? It is a simple case of cause and effect. Agitation of any sort—physical, mental, or emotional—disrupts the natural rhythm of the prana, which means the breath and all the other metabolic rhythms. So, while preparing to meditate, all we need to do is to sit quietly and let the breath gently flow in and out. As it grows calmer and calmer, so should the mind.
The first four limbs of yoga have taken us increasingly inward by gradually removing our connections to the outer world. Yama dealt with proper action; niyama dealt with proper attitudes; asana instructed us to forget the body and its surroundings; and pranayama dealt with the calming of the vital forces.
Now, entering the fifth stage of yoga, called pratyahara, we are ready to make a break with the outer world and focus on the interior, subtler aspects of our being. We close the eyes to help us withdraw the mind from the objects of perception. Such withdrawal is difficult, because the senses naturally flow outward; they were created to experience the world around us. But now we want to reverse that outward flow of awareness and turn the light of consciousness back upon itself.
The sixth limb of Patanjali’s yoga is called dharana, which means holding the attention on the object of meditation. The object can be a divine form, such as any aspect of God or Goddess. It can be a mantra, a sacred name charged with the power of the divine presence. It can be an inner light or a divine quality that has the power to inspire. Whatever it may be, the point is not to let the attention wander. It will, of course, as we know from experience, but there is no reason to despair. Every time we notice that the mind has wandered off—again!—we are simply to bring it back to the object of meditation. We will have to do this countless times, but little by little our power of concentration will strengthen and eventually prevail.
When the mind is held unwavering, dharana becomes dhyana, the seventh limb of yoga. Until now, everything we have called meditation was only an attempt at meditation. Dhyana means “meditation.” In this profoundly concentrated state, our thought becomes like a stream of oil, flowing unbroken from one vessel to another, connecting us to what we meditate upon.
When this flow of consciousness results in complete absorption, the meditating mind and the object of meditation become one. We call this ultimate stage samadhi.
To understand this we must keep in mind that everything we experience in our ordinary lives is projected by the power of our own consciousness. The energies of consciousness are refracted into a vast array of manifestations— different wave forms that are perceptible as light, color, sound, and the physical forms of matter. In reality, they are nothing but the energy of consciousness, chitshakti. In manifesting the world, the supreme Self thinks, “I am one; let me become many.” Infinite consciousness first splits into subject-consciousness and object-consciousness, and from that initial seed of duality, the manifold creation systematically emerges through a series of cosmic principles. Through yoga, we endeavor to harness the power of that consciousness and ride it back to our true being. Through the eight limbs of yoga, step by step we dissolve the outer world into its successive causes.
At the stage of dharana, when we have succeeded in holding the mind to the inner object of contemplation in the heart, the duality of subject-consciousness and object-consciousness still remains. There are still the knower and the known, related by the process of knowing. When dharana deepens into dhyana, the knower and the known become more intimately connected, the one flowing into the other as oil flows in an unbroken stream. When dhyana deepens into samadhi, the soul and God, the lover and beloved, come face to face. This samadhi is called savikalpa, because a trace of difference still remains. But in the joy of recognition, it becomes impossible to maintain the separation any longer. In the ultimate samadhi, called nirvikalpa, the identification of soul and God is complete. There is only the bliss of indescribable oneness, the supreme knowledge that “I am Brahman” (aham brahmasmi).
In conclusion, yoga is a journey out of the pains and pleasures of mundane existence, an exploration of our own awareness undertaken in hushed quietude to seek the truth of our being, a journey to self-luminous bliss and absolute freedom. From our unenlightened standpoint, we think of the journey as a quest with a goal to be attained. But from the standpoint of realization, there never was anything to be attained; we only recognize what has been our true identity all along—and with that Self-knowledge we experience the shining perfection of infinity, for we are that.