In the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra, we’re given a list of nine obstacles that get in our way. These obstacles are the inner blocks that keep us from moving in the direction of inner freedom. We all experience them. But we don’t have to be stuck in them.

In order to work through the obstacles, we’re given seven ideas for practice. The first idea is found in Yoga Sutra 1.33, which is about our inner life. This teaching is about our automatic patterns of reaction. It’s about cultivating inner attitudes of goodwill, compassion, joy, and equanimity. It’s about cultivating the qualities of the heart that lead us in the direction of inner freedom. 

Four Qualities of the Heart
(yoga sutra 1.33)

REFLECTION QUESTIONS

  • How often does your body feel restless? Your breath disturbed? Your mind agitated?

  • How would you describe the state of your mind (that’s most common for you)?

  • How would you describe your automatic patterns of reaction to the people in your life?

  • When you encounter someone who’s happy, do you respond with envy or hostility? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of friendliness and goodwill?

  • When you encounter someone who’s suffering, do you respond with a heartless sense of meanness and judgement? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of compassion and sympathy?

  • When you encounter someone who’s virtuous and engaged in good deeds, do you respond with critical negativity? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of joy and delight?

  • When you encounter someone who’s un-virtuous and engaged in self-serving deeds, do you respond with self-righteousness? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of forbearance without judgement? 

SERMON TRANSCRIPT

Yoga Sutra 1.33 offers an important and well loved teaching: 

“The mind becomes calm and clear by cultivating attitudes of friendliness and goodwill towards those who are happy; compassion and sympathy towards those who are suffering; joy and delight towards those who are virtuous and engaged in good deeds; and forbearance without judgement towards those who are un-virtuous and engaged in self-serving deeds.” 

Before we dive into this teaching, let’s remember its context. It’s found in the 1st chapter of the Yoga Sutra, which is all about samadhi, the state of yoga, the state of mental absorption, of union. Pandit Rajmani Tigunait describes samadhi as: “A perfectly still, pristine state of mind…a state in which we are fully established in our essential nature.”

While I’m happy to report that after years of practice, my mental state is much clearer and calmer than it used to be and I’m much better at transforming my automatic reactions into intentional responses, I still don’t live in a perpetual state of yoga. And since you’re listening to this sermon, I’m going to guess that you don’t live in a perpetual state of yoga either. So let’s remember that while yoga is a state of mind, yes, it’s also the practices that help us reach that state. Let’s remember that practice is a path. It’s a journey. Let’s remember that as we move in the direction of clarity and inner freedom—as we move toward the sacred remembering of our essential nature—we’re going to come up against obstacles, we’re going to hit internal blocks that get in our way.

Yoga Sutra 1.30 names nine such obstacles. We’re told that sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability distract, disperse, and scatter the mind. Yoga Sutra 1.31 tells us that these distractions, these obstacles, make the body restless, the breathing coarse, and the mind agitated. They result in suffering. Yoga Sutra 1.32, however tells us that we can prevent or eliminate these distractions, these obstacles, by focusing the mind on one Truth or Principle—one single reality.

The Sanskrit here is eka tattva abhyasah, the practice of one single reality. Remember, the state of yoga is a state of being fully established in our essential nature. It’s a state of union. Practicing eka tattva, focusing on one single reality, is mind training. It’s training the mind to stay completely in the practice of remembering and reconnecting with God and True Self. Yoga Sutra 1.32 offers an antidote to the mental obstacles we face—the practice of focusing on one true principle.

Which brings us back to Yoga Sutra 1.33: “The mind becomes calm and clear.” Hear these words and think about everything we’ve just been talking about regarding our state of mind…

“The mind becomes calm and clear by cultivating attitudes of friendliness and goodwill towards those who are happy; compassion and sympathy towards those who are suffering; joy and delight towards those who are virtuous and engaged in good deeds; and forbearance without judgement towards those who are un-virtuous and engaged in self-serving deeds.”

This teaching is describing our mental and emotional reactions to different people. It tells us that if we want a mind that’s calm and clear, we have to cultivate certain kinds of mental and emotional attitudes. This is a wildly pragmatic teaching. If you want your mind to be calm and clear, you can’t spend your day consumed by jealously, meanness, negativity, and judgement.

The mind becomes calm and clear by cultivating attitudes of friendliness and goodwill towards those who are happy; 

The mind becomes calm and clear by cultivating attitudes of compassion and sympathy towards those who are suffering; 

The mind becomes calm and clear by cultivating attitudes of joy and delight towards those who are virtuous and engaged in good deeds; 

The mind becomes calm and clear by cultivating attitudes of forbearance without judgement towards those who are un-virtuous and engaged in self-serving deeds.”

Let’s be clear. This teaching isn’t asking us to condone or condemn anyone else’s behavior. It isn’t asking us to turn a blind eye to bad behavior and injustice. It’s asking us to turn inward and look honestly at our reactions to the people in our life. 

This teaching isn’t about other people. It’s about our own inner life. It’s about transforming our automatic patterns of reaction.

Like so many yoga teachings, this sutra is about cultivating an internal sense of equanimity. Things are happening to us and to the people around us every second of the day. This practice is about learning to respond to all these things from a place of inner ease. Because let’s face it, if we’re moving through the world in a constant state of reaction—bouncing between jealously, heartlessness, negativity, and judgement, we’re not living in the state of yoga. We’re living in the state of an agitated mind, a restless body, and disturbed breath.

This all makes sense right? On the surface it seems fairly obvious. But it’s some of the hardest work to do because we filter everything through the lens of our own experience and desires. When someone tells us they received a promotion that will mean more fulfilling and prosperous work for them, we think about our own work. When someone tells us they were just diagnosed with a painful disease, we think about our own health. When someone tells us about the charity work they’re involved in, we wonder if we should be doing something like that or we get annoyed by how great this person thinks they are. When we hear of someone doing something awful, we want more information to fuel our own curiosity, self-satisfaction, or righteous anger. 

Now, I may not have perfectly captured your personal reactions to these types of people and situations, but I have no doubt that you know what I’m talking about. When we interact with other people, we compare what’s happening to them with what’s happening to us. We compare their choices with our choices. We may not express any of this out loud. And we might not even immediately realize we’re doing it. But we do it. And the mental and emotional reactions that arise within us are creating our mindset. If we’re jealous, anxious, angry, or annoyed, we’re not in the possession of a calm and clear mind. My teacher’s teacher, the late TKV Desikachar, said that if we’re reacting, then by definition, we’re not clear.

Remember, the teaching of Yoga Sutra 1.33 isn’t about other people. It’s about your own inner life. It’s about your own automatic patterns of reaction. In this sutra we’re given four couplets and asked to observe our attitudes.

When you encounter someone who’s happy, do you respond with envy or hostility? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of friendliness and goodwill?

When you encounter someone who’s suffering, do you respond with a heartless sense of meanness and judgement? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of compassion and sympathy?

When you encounter someone who’s virtuous and engaged in good deeds, do you respond with critical negativity? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of joy and delight?

When you encounter someone who’s un-virtuous and engaged in self-serving deeds, do you respond with self-righteousness? If so, can you recognize your reaction and cultivate the opposite? Can you cultivate attitudes of forbearance without judgement? 

In my experience of teaching this sutra, people have serious questions about the last couplet. They say: “I can’t just stand by in the face of people doing bad things!”

To which I respond, of course you can’t! And you shouldn’t. And that’s not what this teaching is asking you to do. This teaching isn’t asking us to condone or condemn anyone else’s behavior. It isn’t asking us to turn a blind eye to bad behavior and injustice. It’s asking us to turn inward and look honestly at our reactions to the people in our life. Working to cultivate a state of equanimity is the practice of remaining undisturbed and non-judgmental as we pause and look deeper at what’s really going on. This is the only way we’re going to be able to respond to people and situations with care and intention. If we’re in a state of reaction, we’re not clear. And one thing our troubled world doesn’t need, is more careless reactions.

This teaching is about cultivating inner attitudes of goodwill, compassion, joy, and neutrality. It’s about cultivating the qualities of the heart that lead us in the direction of inner freedom. 

None of this is easy. It requires that we remain present with and honest about what’s real. Feigning some pious sense of goodwill and equanimity is not only un-useful, it can be harmful. Suppression never works. Feelings have a way of making it to the surface. And then they show up in our actions and behaviors. If we’re serious about moving in the direction of clarity and inner freedom, then let us commit to this practice.

In fact, let’s start right now…

  • I invite you to think about your life. What’s going on in your relationships? Think about your job. Or your family. Or what happens in your mind as you scroll through social media or watch the news or walk through the aisles of the grocery store… 
  • Where do you feel an inner attitude of jealousy or meanness? Where do you feel critical or judgmental?
  • Can you honor what’s real? Can you allow yourself to feel what you’re feeling?
  • And then, without trying to push the feelings away, can you direct your attention into the sensations of the body and the breath? Is the body restless? Is the breath disturbed?
  • Can you remember the stability of the earth? 
  • And the spaciousness of the sky? 
  • Can you pause and let your attention rest in the heart? 
  • And in the quiet of your own heart, can you remember the truth of your being. You are Pure Awareness. Unbounded Consciousness. Inner Freedom. 
  • Take an easy breath and ask yourself: As I move through the river of change, who am I becoming?
  • What kind of attitude do I want to cultivate?

As we close, let’s remember that practice is a path. It’s an ongoing journey of deciding, over and over again, to pause, to be with what’s real, to remember the qualities of the heart that we want to cultivate, and to move forward with intention.