Yoga Sutra 1.12: Practice and Let Go

Windmill

ABHYĀSA VAIRĀGYĀBHYĀ TANNIRODHAH.
These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.

There are two steps to enlightenment, but you have to repeat them an infinite number of times. First, practice being present and aware to develop mental continence. Second, do not be attached to the results of your practice. If you’re meditating and you notice your mind wandering, don’t berate yourself for being unable to focus — that only takes you further from your practice and ultimate goal. Instead, detach from your thoughts and expectations. Let it all go and resume your practice.

Sometimes the simplest concepts in the world are the hardest to carry through, and that’s why it takes years  of practice to get the hang of it. Even if you’ve been meditating for a very long time, you’ll struggle with all kinds of stupid human problems like troubling memories, and emotional attachments. That’s why the yogis say it takes lifetimes to reach total enlightenment, and that’s why I don’t touch the topic of enlightenment with a ten foot pole. It’s best for most of us to forget about becoming a saint or a sage and just focus on our two tasks: practice and let go.

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Yoga Sutra 1.11: Humans Have a Memory Virus

Circuit Board

ANUBHŪTA VISAYĀSAMPRAMOSAH SMRTIH.
When a mental modification of an object previously experienced and not forgotten comes back to consciousness, that is memory.

Memory is the last of the vrittis, and it’s also possibly the trickiest. After all, the things we remember are real to us, even though they only exist in the past. How many times have you been sitting quietly, minding your own business, when some memory pops up in your mind for no clear reason? The memory may make you feel sad, or you might cringe with embarrassment. Maybe it makes you long for some happy time in the past or starts you wandering down a winding path of tangential thoughts. Suddenly, you’re not in the moment at all. You’re in the past. That’s memory.

If your computer randomly pulls up items from its memory regardless of their relevance to the current task, it’s really annoying, right? It crashes your game, slows down your work, and generally frustrates you. Same thing for human memory.

Like all the vrittis, memory has its place. We learn from it — I remember the only time I burned myself on a hot stove, so I don’t have to repeat that lesson! But I can’t keep thinking about that one time I burned myself when I was a little kid every time I try to cook something. If I get too distracted with that thought, I’ll wind up setting something on fire or just never trying to cook again. So, we do better when we moderate this vritti like all the others.

And how do we do that, you may ask? Well, that’s what we’ll start discussing with next week’s sutra! In the mean time, here’s a little bonus practice for you!

Bonus!

This week, practice being in the present. Keep an eye on your thoughts as you go through your days. Whenever a memory comes up or you find yourself lost in thought, pause, let the thought go, and bring your awareness back to the present moment. This sounds pretty simple, but you’ll soon find that the mind really likes to wander more than we usually realize. Make some mental notes or write in your journal about what kind of recurring thoughts you encounter and what happens when you let them go. Next week, we’ll delve more into practice and non-attachment.

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Yoga Sutra 1.9: Be Careful What You Believe

Cruikshank_-_Delusion_a_New_Farce

ŚABDAJNĀNĀNUPĀTĪ VASTU ŚŪNYO VIKALPAH.
An image that arises on hearing mere words without any reality [as its basis] is verbal delusion.

Heaven and hell come to mind. Angels in white robes rest on cloud beds and play harps while fork-tailed devils jeer at the damned in a fiery pit for eternity. And although we have no way of confirming such a tale, many of us conduct our lives as though that were the reality that waits for us after death. So that’s verbal delusion. Someone has told us something based on no reality that we can see, and our minds have run wild with it.

Other instances of this vritti might come up in the middle of an argument. Suppose my husband says something I don’t like. I can grab hold of that statement and launch a whole domestic dispute about his choice of words — we’ll call that Road A — or I can try to figure out what he really meant. That’s Road B, which almost always works out better, but it takes practice to do that and not fly off the handle.

The vrittis are pretty straightforward stuff, once you know what they are, but that doesn’t change the fact that they continue to affect us. We spiritual types talk a big game about being “here and now,” practicing presence and awareness, but that doesn’t mean we never fall victim to our own chaotic minds. Next week, we’ll discuss the last vritti (one that might surprise you) and then we’ll move on to ways to control the vrittis rather than being controlled by them.

Just a reminder … My main source for these translations of the sutras is The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
translated by Sri Swama Satchidananda. If you’re enjoying reading about the sutras from my perspective, I think you’ll find his commentary on them extraordinary.

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Yoga Sutra 1.8: Don’t Let a Misconception Ruin Your Day

A crocodile

VIPARYAYO MITHYĀJNĀNAM ATADRŪPA PRATISTHAM.
Misconception occurs when knowledge of something is not based upon its true form.

We humans have a hard enough time of things when we’ve got our facts straight. Even knowing the truth of a situation doesn’t mean we know how to make peace with it, but even worse (and harder to correct) is when our view of the world is based on misconception.

The other day, I was opening a package of crackers, and I was alarmed because I thought there were bugs inside. I saw these little black specks, and I thought they were the first wave of an infestation. But I opened the package, and as the plastic untwisted itself, I realized the specks were just numbers printed on the package. It was some meaningless bit of manufacturing that had confused me, and the problem I foresaw was totally in my imagination.

Very often, we see something strange or unclear, and we make an assumption about what it is or what it means. If I hadn’t finished unwrapping that package, I would’ve thrown out a perfectly good pack of crackers. It’s not the world’s greatest mistake to be sure, but how often do we repeat it in other areas of life. If someone honks at you in traffic, you think, “What a jerk!”  But maybe they weren’t even honking at you. Maybe they were trying to warn the person who almost merged into them. Not knowing the cause, you go on with your day thinking people are jerks. You arrive at the office ands say, “I’m having a bad morning.” Why? Because of a misunderstanding.

So, we’ve got two options in the case of misconception.

  1. Look closer. Find out that the bugs are actually just ink. 
  2. Let it go. Realize that even if that guy in traffice was honking at you (and you can’t always know for sure), it doesn’t have to ruin your day.

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Yoga Sutras 1.5 & 1.6: The Importance of Vocabulary

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Sutra 1.5:
VRTTAYAH PAÑCATAYYAH KLISTĀ AKLISTĀH.
There are five kinds of mental modifications, which are either painful or painless.

Sutra 1.6
PRAMĀNA VIPARYAYA VIKALPA NIDRĀ SMRTAYAH.
They are right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion, sleep and memory.

Consider this the kindergarten of yoga. In these sutras, Patanjali is giving us some basic vocabulary that’s going to become more useful later. As we gain the vocabulary to discuss our experience, we deepen our comprehension of it and develop the ability to control it to some degree. When we understand where our thoughts come from, we can practice choosing the thoughts we want. By intentionally choosing our thoughts, we begin to change ourselves and our relationship to the world. Sometimes people use terms like “manifesting” for this process, which is convenient shorthand, but not entirely helpful. Terms like that imply some heavy duty magical thinking or denial of reality. Yoga, on the other hand, is very much about being in touch with reality. In fact, it’s about being so much in touch with reality that we become one with it. Again, we return to the concept of union. Most of us are not ready to let go of our uniqueness, our individuality, our exciting and interesting human dramas and pleasures. We focus on maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain in our lives, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s our right as human beings, and it’s part of how we evolve.

However, with these two sutras, Patanjali begins to give us the vocabulary required to more deeply understand our experience. He divides the vrittis (mental modifications) into five categories, all of which may be painful or painless. In other words, those categories are not “good” or “bad” in the moral sense, they simply are. This is why yoga, although historically related to Hinduism, is considered a philosophical system rather than a religion. Yoga philosophy does not assign moral value to actions but rather discusses those actions in terms of their effects on ourselves and our world. In later sutras, Patanjali describes the nature of each of these categories, so we can explore them in more depth then.

There are many translations and commentaries on the Sutras, but my favorite that I’ve read is by Sri Swami Stachidananda, who explains the painful/painless distinction carefully. Some translations say the vrittis can be painful or pleasurable, which Satchidananda specifies that even apparently pleasurable vrittis carry the possibility of loss and pain. All these things are changing, that is what makes them vrittis, so even those that seem to bring happiness or pleasure can and will change. Therefore, attachment to any of the mental modifications, whether happy or sad, creates suffering. The idea that attachment causes suffering is one you will see frequently in yogic philosophy and other schools of Eastern thought.

The next several sutras will explain the nature of each of the vrittis. Learning to recognize the little tricks and games of the mind is the next step toward controling it.

Peace!

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