Since the early yogis first withdrew their senses to find higher consciousness; since Buddha first practiced renunciation; since the early Christians retreated into monastaries; and since New Age spiritualism started talking about ascension, the arrow of our attention has been pointing upward, toward transcendence and detachment—saying that the realities of everyday life were not real—that only spirit was. Even the chakras have most often been seen as a ladder for liberation, a means toward an end: to transcend mundane reality.
And what has all this upward spiritual pursuit gotten us? Do we have better command of the reality around us? Are we more effective in our lives? Have we been able to prevent genocide, ecocide, pesticide, herbicide, and collective suicide? Are we becoming an enlightened civilization? I would argue that higher consciousness contributes to solving these causes, but it takes something more than that to actually create a new world.
I have a good friend who was afraid of horses; he was so afraid of horses that he panicked anytime he saw one, even from a distance. He didn’t know why he had this extreme reaction to horses. Instead of turning away from the source of his anxiety, he turned towards it, determined to uncover the reason for his suffering. As he investigated, he began to recall a very early memory. One of his earliest memories was of a young boy, his age, getting kicked in the head by a horse and dying. He remembered being at the funeral and remembered the tiny child-sized coffin.
How does this approach actually work in real life? With friendliness at the forefront of our interactions with all beings, there is no place for envy in our minds and happiness arises. When we empathize with others, compassion arises and kindness overwhelms. Our benevolence lessens the suffering of others and the desire to inflict harm goes away. Being joyful leaves no space for jealousy of others’ talents, merits and good character. If we are not jealous, then how could we begrudge others for their successes?
The yogic theory of saṃskāras, or subliminal impressions of past painful or pleasurable experiences, is one of India's most fascinating contributions to our understanding of human psychology. Briefly, when we experience aversion to a painful experience, or attachment to a pleasurable one, then an impression of that experience is laid down in our psyche, which is said to be a 'seed' of experience which will sprout again.
We are just passing the halfway mark of the first book of the Yoga Sutras. What a journey it has been so far! The definition of yoga is presented – that when the vrittis, the activities of the mind, are controlled we stand in, purusha, our true nature – but there are five kinds of thoughts that can trouble the mind and keep us in our thoughts instead. Through practice and detachment, the super consciousness state of samadhi arises and we stand in our highest Self.
“Is there therapy in the Vedas?” I was a bit taken aback by this inquiry from a young and dedicated yoga practitioner. He had been struggling for years with psychological problems. Although he had embraced a traditional path of yogic transformation, he found the help he needed in a more modern self-help process based on contemporary psychology. As I thought about his inquiry, however, the answer seemed obvious. Rich in a tradition of intact family and community support, those born in traditional India did not need to rely on specialists to sort out mental afflictions caused mostly by social dysfunction. Classical Indian philosophy, especially its traditions of yoga, does, however, have detailed information on the nature of the mind.
Ishvara is defined as a purusha vishesha, a special Self. This special Self is untouched by the kleshas, the obstacles to yoga which are defined and discussed in the Sadhana Pada, the second book of the Yoga Sutras. Ishvara is unaffected by karma, actions and the fruits of actions and layers of samskaras, orlatent impressions. In Ishvara is the seed of unsurpassed, unequalled, immeasurable omniscience. Ishvara is also the teacher of all of the ancient teachers, since Ishvara is not limited by time. The mantra pranava, or AUM, is both the sound symbol of Ishvara and the means for realization of Ishvara. With repetition of AUM, the meaning of Ishvara is understood.
Samadhi, then, is not unattainable or elusive to the everyday seeker. In fact, the moment we sit down to meditate we are in vitarka, absorbed in gross thought. The process of samadhi is active and is designed to clear the perception that what we experience with our senses is real, i.e., the external physical material world. What is real, then, is internal, our spiritual being. This notion forms the basis for future sutras, most importantly the concept of avidya, the unenlightened state in which spiritual ignorance prevails.
Asamprajnata samadhi is called anya, which means “other,” because the term asamprajnatais not used in the Yoga Sutras. Asamprajnata is preceded by control over the vrittis so that only latent impressions of thought, samskaras, remain. The mind appears to be without seed, without object or subject of support. This is the highest state of knowing, a kind of super conscious experience that lies so far beyond waking, dreaming, and deep sleep, that words fail to describe it fully. The activities of the mind are completely controlled, the highest form of detachment, desirelessness, is attained, knowledge of the true Self arises, and freedom emerges.
Vairagya is a state of mind when desire is gone. It is translated variously as dispassion, non-attachment, absence of attachment, and detachment. Vairagya happens in stages, over time, through effortful abhyasa. Patanjali distinguishes between attachments that are seen and those that are described in scripture. Drishta, that which is seen, are worldly endeavors like food, sex, and power. Anushravika, that which is described in scripture, is what is promised in the heavens or the celestial realm.
The real work of vairagyais the withdrawal of the senses completely from external objects and any traces of attachment that remain in the mind. It is an unchanging state of utter desirelessness, utter freedom, where the mind is completely under control. It is the personal and internal experience of supreme mastery. Nothing, no person or object, will create any activities that are uncontrolled in the field of the mind.
We know from yoga philosophy that a world of separate objects is little more than a turn of phrase, there can therefore be no object called enlightenment. Objects with labels and ideas attached to them are not a feature of Being but a function of language. So yoga is about a shift in foundation, and that shift can be as easy or as difficult as the stories we've constructed around it say that it is.
Transcending this world and samsara is the driving desire for these stories. And even when, in certain narratives, the world is not discussed as a place to be left behind completely, there is nevertheless often an abiding disgust in the shadows of humanity and an almost puritanical compulsion to root them out and leave no shadow unlit (as if darkness were not a part of light).