Monthly Archives: March 2013

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.15

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Renunciation is the practice of detachment from desires

Being detached from one’s desires is seen as a sort of freedom, rather than some sort of hardship. Iyengar says that the only way to achieve this is through willpower.

The goal is indifference, and i suppose that means also indifference to the practice itself. This reminds me of Suzuki in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind stating that meditation practice should be “nothing special”. It is easy to practice when it goes well, when we achieve that asana or our mind is still during meditation. But it is easy to get discouraged when we are stiff or our mind is noisy. Being indifferent doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy things. It’s Ok to enjoy the practice, notice that enjoyment, but do not expect it every time, or make that enjoyment the goal of practice. Similarly, it’s Ok to enjoy spending time with your children, but the enjoyment should not be the goal of that interaction, nor should we expect it every time. I find this quite a liberating concept.

The sutra does not explore from what things we should detach ourselves. I suspect it is detachment from everything that we should aspire to, even the practice itself. This is not easy, but perhaps the first step is to notice when we feel attachment to something. Try this in the course of your day – next time you want a chocolate or your child to be better behaved or to have a ‘good’ meditation session (whatever that is) just step back and think “attachment is here”. Surely the first step to detachment is awareness of attachment.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.14

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Long, uninterrupted, alert practice is the firm foundation for restraining the fluctuations

Iyengar states that it is important to remain humble on this journey, not to have too much ego when things are going well.

As a busy working mother, I often struggle to have any sort of uninterrupted practice; sometimes life just gets in the way. I suppose the thing to do is not to beat ourselves up when we stray from the path, but to dust ourselves off and practice whenever we can. There was a recent news report which said that the average adult in the UK watches 4hrs of TV every single day. Imagine if they all cut that down by even half and devoted it to more spiritual pursuits…

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.12

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1.12 Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness [Iyengar]

These thought patterns are mastered through practice and non-attachment

This sutra is a key one, as it outlines the two things upon which the whole of yogic practice rests: practice and detachment. The thought patterns referred to are from 1.6:

  • correct knowledge / perception
  • incorrect knowledge / perception
  • imagination / fantasy / daydreams
  • sleep
  • memories

So these five fluctuations in our minds can be stilled or quietened through practice and detachment. Iyengar describes these two aspects as being polarised – practice is the positive aspect (what you do), detachment is the negative (what you don’t do), together forming a perfect balance. If we still the mind, we can see and understand things as they really are. As we will go on to see, the yamas are the detachments (e.g. from stealing, from lying, from violence), and the niyamas are the practices (e.g. contentment, cleanliness, self study), along with asana, pranayama and meditation.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.11

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Memory is the unmodified recollection of words and experiences [Iyengar]

Recollection or memory is mental modification caused by the inner reproducing of a previous impression of an object, but without adding any other characteristics from other sources.

Memory is the retained impression of experienced objects.

When I first read this, I thought I’m not sure I agree that memory is “unmodified”, after all aren’t all of our thoughts modified by our past experience, our upbringing, our world view? Aren’t all of our memories similarly filtered through our previous experiences? I’m not sure I believe that there is such a thing as a ‘pure’ memory for something like seeing a dog in the street, one which has not been affected by our past experiences with dogs; I’m not sure we have the capacity to remember without our unconscious mind making associations and connections, that we may not even be aware of.

It is interesting here that BKS Iyengar uses the word “unmodified” and the second interpretation uses “mental modification…without adding any other characteristics from other sources”.  I think that memory can only be modifed by our unconscious mind and previous experiences, whether we mean to add those or not, that’s just the way the human mind works and processes our experiences. If I was once bitten by a dog as a small child, and I now see a dog in the street, my mind might create the dog I now have before me as a scary entity, something to be feared. But if you see the same dog without having had the negative prior experience, you might just think ‘what a cute dog over there’.

I suppose our memory for facts and knowledge could be said to be ‘pure’ memory, in the sense that I can remember that the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066. There are no additions here, my unconscious mind has not added anything from my previous experience, I have simply remembered a  true fact. Perhaps it is this type of memory which Patanjali is referring to here.This type of memory (E.g. for facts) is not so disturbing to our consciousness, when compared with the other memories which produce unconscious associations from our past experience. These ‘memories’ can often be fantasy, in the sense that we have mentally reconstructed the memory. Using the dog example, my mind has recreated the image of the dog using my past negative experience, so that when I think back to seeing a dog in the street in the future, I may remember it inducing fear. This is one of the fluctuations in consciousness that Patanjali talked about in 1.6, and something we need to be aware of.

Modern psychoanalysis (and other psychotherapeutic models) aim to do just that, to make us more aware of the associations our mind produces, so that we may see the present as it really is. And there is something quite Zen about that. Therapy is not the only way to achieve this, but sometimes there are so many layers of previous experience in our unconscious mind, we may not be able to chip through them. Meditation and psychotherapy can work hand in hand to help with this awareness.

Book Club – The Heart of Practice, Understanding Yoga From the Inside

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The Heart of Practice: Understanding Yoga From the Inside by Orit Sen-Gupta

This little book captures my two passions : yoga and Zen Buddhism. The book is divided into chapters on breath, asana, meditating, teaching and dying. The practical chapters resonated with me the most, particuarly the ones on asana, pranayama and sitting. Sen-Gupta’s tone is gentle, her touch light. This is not a manual of instructions, just a book of thoughts by someone who is on The Path, and her views are valuable and considered.

The chapter on death and dying was unexpected and interesting to consider how the ideas in Zen and yoga can apply to end of life situations. Sen-Gupta describes in depth the process of her own father’s death, in an honest and heart-felt way. She also talks about Liat, a new student at one of Sen-Gupta’s yoga classes, who was diagnosed with cancer and how she used yogic practices to pass from life to death. I’d not given much thought to how these Eastern philosophies deal with death and dying, and this was really thought-provoking.

However, there were some things in the book that I stumbled on, such as some slight inconsistencies when Sen-Gupta talks about meditation, such as “practice is the reward”. Zen Master Dogen said that the practice of meditation should be ‘nothing special’, done just for the sake of doing it, rather than for any reward in itself, although I could appreciate the sentiment.

Sen-Gupta does make some sweeping statements, such as “In India most people are religious and express their devotion to God”. I struggled with these, as no citation or supporting evidence is given. There were also some confusing mixing of ideologies which were not clear to me, “When we just sit, everything is kosher”. I appreciate that Sen-Gupta lives in Israel, but no explanation was offered to clarify this.

All in all, this is a helpful book to anyone interested in yoga and zazen, but read with a critical mind.

Yoga Sutras of Patanjali 1.10

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Sleep is the non-deliberate absence of thought-waves or knowledge [Iyengar]

 Dreamless sleep (nidra) is the subtle thought pattern which has as its object an inertia, blankness, absence, or negation of the other thought patterns

Sleep is the vibrational mode which is supported by the absence of objective awareness.

While philosophers love contemplating the idea of dreaming, and how to distinguish it from being awake, the state of dreamless sleep is interesting, and less talked about. It’s true to say that while we are awake, we are aware that we are awake, but when we are in the state of dreamless sleep, we are not aware of this. Interpretations of this sutra, for example by BKS Iyengar, appear to suggest that during dreamless sleep, the mind is focused on the void or emptiness of sleep. I’m not sure that my use of the word ‘focused’ is quite right here, as this implies this is a conscious effort on the part of the mind, which is not what Iyengar is saying.

Iyengar goes on to say in his commentary that the Seeker is trying to achieve this void he has experienced while asleep, during his waking hours, to try to free the mind of sense experience. He says

Simulation of this state of sleep when one is awake and aware is samadhi [profound meditation], wherein the Seer witnesses his own form.

There is something quite Zen about all of this – The Rinzai Zen Buddhist koan the Gateless Gate states that mu (the negative, or void) is the gate to enlightenment. It is interesting how these two philosophies converge on this point. Sunyata is a key concept in Zen, the idea of emptiness. “Form is emptiness and emptiness is form”, as is chanted from the Heart Sutra. This appears to be a paradox – how can form possibly be emptines, and vice versa? There is a great explanation here, but in a nutshell ’emptiness’ does not mean ‘nothingness’ or having no form. These two opposing ideas of form and emptiness need each other to exist – without the notion of form, there can be no idea of emptiness (empty of what?). This is all rather mind-bending, and I do not claim to have got my head around it as of yet, it’s definitely a work in progress…