Yoga Sutra 1.3: The Unchanging Self

Saatchi mirror peace by *ben9-3

Last week, I wrote about sutra 1.2, which describes the nature and goal of yoga practice: stilling the mind. But what use is it to control the mind? Why not let life be a wild roller coaster ride? What happens when we quiet the mind? Sutra 1.3 offers us the answer:

Then the Seer [Self] abides in His own nature.

When the mind is quiet, we can access a state of pure awareness, which is our true and unchanging self. When the mind goes unchecked, we often identify with it incorrectly. We feel angry, so we say, “I”m angry,” as though that’s who we are. If we make a mistake and we feel stupid, we say, “I’m stupid,” even though we’re not. We identify with an emotion, thought or other temporary experience. If we’re having a good day, we say “I’m happy, and everything is wonderful,” and later, when we’re feeling down we wonder how such joy could simply vanish. Sometimes in the midst of a joyful moment, we remember that our joy is fleeting and we feel preemptively sad. Being at the whim of our emotions all the time is exhausting and confusing, but when we practice quieting the mind, then the Seer [Self] abides in His own nature. 

There’s nothing wrong with feeling joy and pain — this is what makes up the human experience — but to identify ourselves with passing emotions and desires is incorrect and generally unhelpful. When we stop confusing our identity with passing states of mind, we gain the ability to embody this true Self. Happiness, sadness, illness, health, need and abundance are all changeable states of being. If you are physically beautiful, isn’t it possible that one day you could stop being beautiful? If that happened, you would still be yourself. You would still be a person. You would still have awareness, thoughts, feelings. Say you have an illness (even a chronic illness that can’t be cured), if your illness goes away, do you lose part of yourself? Perhaps it changes the circumstances of your life, but it doesn’t change your essential, unchanging nature — your Self.

Let go of attachment to changeable things. Emotions and thoughts come and go. Belongings come and go. Jobs can change. Physical appearance can change. It’s wonderful to enjoy these things for what they are when possible and also to change them when necessary, but practice resting in the true Self. Cultivate the perspective of the Seer, and those changeable things will become less crucial.

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Dreams of an Optional Existence

We (my many selves) were in a movie that started like a dream. A swirl of paint like a Van Gogh happening in reverse, slipping from the surreal drunken starry state to the real — the this-is-a-crisis moment of reality.

There is a sense of “this can’t be happening” in real life that doesn’t exist in dreams. You know it’s a dream by your willingness to accept as reality things that cannot be.

We were under a tank like a Chinese dragon. From the inside, it was just a metal bunker, and we were hanging on to valves and chains and keeping it from floating away.

Outside, things were sliding in and out of existence at will, without warning, randomly. Until one of them wanted in. This ghost of some other self — probably one of mine — was trying to lift the tank. It was heavy and hard for us to control, but she seemed to lift it lightly like the lid to a cake dish to reveal us. With gravity on our side, we pulled down against her, and then, in a flash of light that seemed to come more from within than without, we were exposed, and she was no where to be seen.

In fear, I turned to our guide, a soft-bodied, middle-aged woman with short cropped hair and an air of expertise about hiding and escaping. It was clear she had been doing these things for many years. The funny thing, though, is that no matter how expert you are at hiding and escaping, it doesn’t reduce the fear. Fear was all over her face. We were exposed, and she couldn’t reverse it.

These little bundles flew out when we were exposed. Bits of ourselves that got knocked off by the force of the light and the wind. We scurried around to grab hold of them. Everyone found their pieces except me. The guide gave me a dreadful look. Without gathering up those pieces, I was more vulnerable than the others.

Around the camp fire, on barren rocky ground, everyone but me clung to their little bundles, which on closer inspection looked like hacky sacks and stress balls. Meaningless objects. It was implied that without my little bundle, I would be the first one picked off by these sneaky spirits, the first to fall into some alternate dimension of questionable existence. I told the others in my crew, “Don’t tell me that. I don’t wanna watch this movie if I know I’m doomed from the start.”

But now, in waking life, I wonder: what would happen if I allowed myself to be carried off by these trickster spirits? What would I see if I stepped into their dimension?

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