Pratipaksa Bhavanam – A Practice for the New Year

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The following sutras introduce us to pratipaksa bhavanam–a practice to help us repattern the habits of our mind and stop the harassment of negative thoughts. Pratipaksa means ‘the opposite’ and bhavanam means ‘cultivation.’ Pratipaksa bhavanam is the practice of cultivating the opposite. If our thoughts are violent, we can cultivate thoughts of non-violence. We can contemplate the consequences of allowing violent thoughts to stay unchecked. We can remember and focus on the fact that violence only leads to suffering and ignorance. Through the continual practice of pratipaksa bhavanam we can limit the probability that our negative thoughts will automatically turn into negative action. And hopefully, over time, we can lesson the harassment of negative thoughts in the first place.

Yoga Sutra II.33:
Upon being harassed by negative thoughts, one should cultivate counteracting thoughts.

This sutra begins with: “Upon being harassed.” This is comforting. Patanjali could have written: “If you’re harassed” which would have left us all feeling as if we’re the only yoga practitioner that can’t stop the negative cycle of our thinking as we try to sit in meditation or simply shop for groceries. We all suffer from negativity. It seems to be part of the unenlightened human condition. Patanjali generously makes this clear.

In the context of the sutras, negative thoughts are anything that run against the yamas and niyamas. In other words they are thoughts that revolve around things like violence, lying, stealing, sexual indulgence or abuse, unnecessary accumulation, filth, discontent, laziness, denial of Self and self-absorption. It’s a tough list to read, but we all have thoughts of this nature in some form or another to some degree every day. We don’t have to simply accept this fate of negativity, however. As practitioners of yoga we can look at it, notice it, be honest about it and work to change it. We have the power to cultivate something different. This is hopeful!

Yoga Sutra II.34:
Negative thoughts are violence, etc. They may be [personally] performed, performed on one’s behalf by another, or authorized by oneself; they may be triggered by greed, anger, or delusion; and they may be slight, moderate, or extreme in intensity. One should cultivate counteracting thoughts, namely, that the end results [of negative thoughts] are ongoing suffering and ignorance.

This sutra has two parts. The first section leaves no room for excuse making or justification. It doesn’t matter whether we are direct or indirect participants. We must take responsibility for our negative thoughts and actions. It’s easy to see and understand that we are directly responsible for our own thoughts, but we often indirectly participate in the violence (lying, stealing, etc.) of our world in a multitude of ways. This sutra is saying that we are responsible for that too and we had better figure out how to deal with it if we truly want to become established in the yamas and niyamas–an important part of bringing our mind into the state of yoga.

The second section reminds us that deciding not to deal with it will only result in ongoing suffering and ignorance, which of course points directly to the heart of yoga. We practice in order to alleviate our suffering and free ourselves from ignorance.

I find pratipaksa bhavanam to be an incredibly useful tool. It’s something I’ve come back to regularly over the last few years. Through my study of it here, I’ve started to understand its place in the sutras. I’ve always thought of it on its own, but I was able to connect more deeply with its contextual placement. The sutras explaining the yamas describe someone already established in them. Just before we are given these beautiful descriptions of who we can be, however, we are told how to practice when we are not yet there. Patanjali tells us how the mind works, but through the practice of yoga, he explains, we can change our minds. We can change our habits and patterns. We can establish ourselves in nonviolence, truth telling, etc. I can’t force myself to be non-violent, but I can work to cultivate the opposite of violence in my thinking. Pratipaksa bhavanam is a powerful, practical concept.

Personal Practice:

One of the ways I work with this concept is through a journaling practice. If I’m experiencing a particularly charged emotion I will write down 2 or 3 sentences about it. I don’t hold anything back. I allow myself to fully express whatever is happening in my mind. Then I sit for a moment and take a few deep breaths. I reread my sentences and then I sit in silence, pondering the question of what it would feel like to no longer hold these thoughts and feelings so tightly. When I feel ready, I rewrite the sentences from a different, less charged perspective. This isn’t a magic cure for difficult situations, but it certainly helps to diffuse things and allows me to move forward with more intention.

Update:

I recently wrote a 2nd post on this subject. You can read it here!

3 Responses to Pratipaksa Bhavanam – A Practice for the New Year

    • It’s a useful one. And an important one to remember in terms of its placement in the sutras. We are given a list of the limbs, then the list of the yamas, then told about the great vow, then given the list of niyamas, then pratipaksa bhavanam and then come the several sutras that detail all the limbs. Pratipaksa Bhavanam is right there in the beginning. It provides a tangible, practical way to get our attitude (bhava is a sanskrit word referring to our sense of feeling) in the right space to begin our practice, and in the larger context, to live our lives.

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