the bridge is out
time is the raging river
between us and the life we think we want
which doesn’t exist
we invent a future in which we are better than ourselves,
but what’s possible is in front of us now.
BHAVAPRATYAYO VIDEHA PRAKRTILAYĀNĀM.
Those who merely leave their physical bodies and attain the state of celestial deities, or those who attain the state of celestial deities, or those who get merged in Nature, have rebirth.
At this point in the sutras, it’s easy to get discouraged. We’ve been talking about these high levels of spiritual progress, and we start thinking, “I’ll never get there. I can’t even sit for five minutes without making a to-do list in my head.” So, with sutra 1.19 Patanjali gives us a bit of encouragement.
Here we meet the concept of rebirth, which you don’t necessarily have to take literally, although I think it makes the most sense if you do. Basically, nothing you do is lost. If you do good works, that energy goes somewhere, helps someone, makes the world a better place. If you spend your money, you no longer have the money, but it goes somewhere and has an effect in the world. All of your actions are this way, and that’s why we have karma.
Likewise, if you spend your life meditating and doing yoga, you might die before you reach your enlightenment (sorry to be a downer, but it happens), but that doesn’t mean your efforts are lost. Patanjali says people who leave this world after making even a little progress will come back to continue their journey. They will pick up where they left off and continue to grow. Even if you think reincarnation is a bunch of mumbo jumbo — and it might be, but it makes as much sense as anything else in the world, so I’m willing to roll with it — then you can still see that the goodness you put into the world does not go to waste.
Some translations focus on the fact that some people due to their karma are born with what appears to be an advantage or a leg up on enlightenment. Don’t worry about them. The runner with the most advantageous placement in a race may still be the slowest. Don’t spend any energy comparing yourself to others, and do not assume that because someone started out ahead of you that they will always be ahead. Pursue your yoga and no one else’s, and your effort will never be wasted.
TATRA STHITAU YATNO’BHYĀSAH.
Of these two, effort toward steadiness of mind is practice.
Effort toward steadiness of mind. In other words, meditation.
Meditation can take many forms, such as the seated practice most people think of or more physical practices. Asana itself can be a moving meditation when we tune in to the body and the breath and make our focus single-pointed. Meditation can be done in the form of walking, singing, chanting, and even eating. Anything you do can be a form of meditation if you are practicing with your entire awareness.
Bonus: Here’s a simple meditation practice you can work with to get started.
Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor. Sit up straight but without too much effort or strain. Close your eyes, and pay attention to your breath. Begin counting your breath — each complete round of breath is one count. Inhale, exhale: one. Inhale, exhale: two… and so on.
Attempt to focus strictly on your breath and the counting until you reach ten. If your mind wanders to other topics, start over. If you’re being honest, chances are good that you’ll have to start over several times. Remember: Thinking about how great you’re doing counts as thinking. Start over.
This exercise is simple, yet challenging and serves to show you just how much our minds tend to wander! Practice it a few times this week, and next week we’ll answer the question on everyone’s mind: When do we get to be enlightened?
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.
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!
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.