Now, the teachings of yoga [are presented]. Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind. When that is accomplished, the seer abides in its own true nature.
These are the first three aphorisms in the Yoga Sutra-s of Patanjali. The goal of yoga practice is clear: to still the ever changing states of our mind. Once we have accomplished this goal, we will be able to rest in our own true nature (the tradition calls this nature Pure Awareness).
Otherwise, at other times, [the seer] is absorbed in the changing states [of the mind]. There are five kinds of changing states of the mind, and they are either detrimental or nondetrimental [to the practice of yoga]. [These…are] right knowledge, error, imagination, sleep, and memory.
When resting in our true nature we see clearly and no longer misidentify with the ever changing states of mind. Most of us, however, aren’t quite there yet. Instead we live in identification with these states. We believe that we are our perceptions of things—whether correct or incorrect—our memories of the past, our imaginations about the future, and the emptiness of our deep sleep. We take these transient, ever changing states to be who we truly are. We take them to be “me.”
Try this exercise:
- Set a timer for one minute.
- Close your eyes and notice your breath. Allow it to become calm and quiet.
- Pay attention to each thought as it arises and fades.
- See if you can notice the mind changing from one thought to the next.
- When the timer goes off, try to remember every thought and the transitions between them.
When you’re finished, take a moment to consider the temporary nature of thoughts. How many did you have in one minute? In our culture, the mind is important. Even though it’s changing moment to moment we identify ourselves with it; we believe we are our mind.
The practice of Yoga asks us to deeply examine these assumptions and beliefs.
As we do this work, it’s important to remember that the changing nature of our mind can be both detrimental or nondetrimental. An easy way to understand this is to remember a time when you were really angry compared to a time when you felt completely content. With these two examples you can see how different states of mind lead us in different directions. According to the tradition, the detrimental states of mind are the products of the klesha-s or the impediments:
The causes of suffering are not seeing things as they are, the sense of “I,” attachment, aversion and clinging to life. Not seeing things as they are is the field where the other causes of suffering germinate, whether dormant, activated, intercepted, or weakened. Lacking this wisdom, one mistakes that which is impermanent, impure, distressing, or empty of self for permanence, purity, happiness, and self. The sense of “I” ascribes selfhood to pure awareness by identifying it with the senses. Attachment is a residue of pleasant experience. Aversion is a residue of suffering. Clinging to life is instinctive and self-perpetuating, even for the wise. (Sutra-s 2:3-9)
As we work toward the state of yoga, we are impeded by a fundamental misunderstanding. We take ourselves to be the changing states of the mind, rather than Pure Awareness. This misunderstanding breeds ego, attachment, aversion and fear. The more we buy into the misunderstanding the more we feel the need to protect our small “s” self, and the more we become enslaved to the ever changing whirlwind of our emotions, thoughts and feelings.
One of the fruits of yoga practice is gaining the ability to remain in a state of equanimity no matter what’s happening. This doesn’t mean we turn into milk toast. It means that we act with intention in response to our lives rather than live at the whim of our automatic, habitual reactions. When we are seeing clearly from a state of calm presence we understand that even though a certain state of mind is present—anger, happiness, fear, gratitude—we know we can deal with it, no matter how intense it feels, without merging our identity with it. And we remember that it will eventually change. We don’t have to be a slave to our conditioned patterning.
One of the most useful tools I have learned through my practice of yoga is how to move through the changes that happen moment to moment every day without getting attached. Yoga has taught me that my emotions and thoughts are real, but that they are always changing. I have learned to watch the constant push and pull of likes and dislikes, cravings and rejections that happen in my human (psycho/emotional/reactionary) being. I have learned to notice when I begin to hold my small “s” self as a permanent reality and find myself trapped in ego and fear trying to protect it. Yoga has taught me to notice when I need to step back and breathe and remember who I truly am. It’s taught me to notice when I have to find a more neutral way of reacting to whatever is shrinking my understanding and binding me up in ignorance.
Our life is a journey from birth to death. Every moment in between these two realities is filled with change. While we can’t stop change from happening, we can use the practice of yoga to affect the direction of change in our lives. We can’t stop the momentum toward death. It’s coming. But we can affect how we live until it does. This is a gift!
But it’s a gift we don’t always want to accept. We hate change. Except at the beginning of every year when many of us create resolutions. We intentionally go after change. I would love to ask what resolutions you made for 2014, but the better question might be: Now that we’ve reached the end of January, how are you keeping them?
I’m not asking whether or not you’ve failed to keep up a specific resolution or not. I’m asking you to explore your habits, will, and intention.
Habit is a powerful thing. The sanskrit term samskara refers to “latent impressions of mental as well as physical actions.” Every time we think something or do something we lay down an impression. The more we think and do things the bigger the impressions we create. The yogi’s knew this a long, long time ago. Today we call it neuroplasticity. Neuroscience is telling us that the impressions we create aren’t metaphors, they’re real. The shape of our brain actually changes.
Think about the ruts created in well used roads. Overtime grooves are created in the concrete and eventually it becomes difficult to drive in anything but the grooves. When we do or think something over and over and over again, we create ruts—in the form of habits and patterns—that become hard to get out of. Whatever you resolved to change this year, it’s important to first look at the groove you’re in. Even though you probably didn’t mean to, you invested a lot of time creating it. Think about that. Getting out of whatever rut you’re in is going to take intentional energy and effort.
The practices of yoga—such as asana, pranayama, and dhyanam (meditation)—help us create the energy and space in our bodies, minds and spirits to do the difficult work of waking up to our misidentification and the ego, attachments, aversions and fear that stem from it. As you work toward whatever resolutions you’ve made for yourself this year, look to your practice for help. Use your practice as a way to examine the habits and patterns currently holding strong in your thoughts, emotions and actions. Use your practice to discern which habits need transformation. Let your practice be the fire that leads to actual, sustainable change in your life.
I wish you a wonderful New Year. I hope this is a year of deepening practice for you.
If you’re unsure how to use your practice in this way, please don’t hesitate to ask for help. I am happy to work with you or to help you find another teacher. Yoga is so much more than exercise. Let your practice come alive!
The translation of Yoga Sutra 1:1-6 is from Edwin F. Bryant.
The translation of Yoga Sutra 2:3-9 is from Chip Hartranft.
I took all of the pictures, except the last one, during a Quiet Day I recently took at a local retreat center called Stillpoint at Beckside. The last picture was taken of me by my husband on a recent hike.