How would you describe your state of mind? Even with all the particular issues of our modern age, this question isn’t unique to those of us living in the 21st century. Our yogic ancestors have been asking this question for at least a couple thousand years (and probably, much, much longer. Long before the age of writing).
We’ve been studying a section of text from the 1st chapter of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In this section we’re given a list of obstacles—inner obstacles—that keep us lost in a state of distraction and agitation. We’re told that these obstacles (sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability) distract our mind, agitate our bodies, and disturb our breath. In response we’re given a list of ideas for meditation. We’re invited to pause and focus deeply on one thing. In the course of our study we’ve explored the first four ideas: focusing on our attitudes toward others, on our breath, on our senses, and on the Light within.
At the Yoga Church Gathering last week we took time to review the obstacles and this list of practices. In our closing conversation, a community member named Nicole shared something that really struck me. She shared that as she journaled with the list of obstacles she started writing out all the ways that she should be better—all the ways that she could improve and perfect her actions. But then, as we reviewed the practices, she realized that none of her culturally conditioned ideas for self-improvement were being offered. Her list of “shoulds” didn’t look anything like the list of ideas for meditation. It was such a great a-ha moment. The rest of us were all nodding our heads, even laughing a little bit, because she was naming a very familiar experience. Instead of turning to our toolbox of practices, many of us go straight to self-judgment. Nicole’s wise reflection reminded me of words from yoga teacher Donna Farhi, who said:
[Practice] is not about self-improvement or making ourselves better. It is a process of deconstructing all the barriers we may have erected that prevent us from having an authentic connection with ourselves and with the world. This tenet is an extremely important one because the effort to change and improve ourselves is fraught with the risk of subtle self-aggression that only produces more unhappiness. We cannot strive toward something that we already are.
We cannot force ourselves into some conditioned idea of who we think we’re supposed to be. We can’t force away our confusion or our laziness or our overindulgence). When we notice the presence of these obstacles—or any inner obstacle—we’re invited to pause. We’re invited to notice what’s happening within and around us and determine what practice would be most helpful. Do we need to examine our automatic reactions to the people around us? Do we need to bring attention to our breath? Do we need to explore our sensory experience more deeply? Do we need to turn toward the radiant Light of our being?
Or, as we turn our attention toward Yoga Sutra 1.37 this week, do we need to look toward the people who inspire us? This sutra reads:
Or (by focusing on) a mind that is not colored by conditioning and is free from desire (the mind becomes calm and clear).
This teaching invites us to meditate on a mind without attachment. As you hear me say that, what’s your reaction? Have you encountered someone whose mind is without attachment? And a slightly different question: Do you believe that your mind has the potential to be without attachment? These are profound questions. As you put forth effort on the path of yoga—the journey toward inner freedom—these questions matter. Do you believe that inner freedom is possible? Or is the inner obstacle of doubt clouding your vision?
At one point, in my study of this sutra this week, I started to see this teaching as a challenge. If we don’t believe it’s possible for the mind to be without attachment, then we can’t come to this practice because we won’t be able to find a mind without attachment—a vitaragacitta—to meditate on. Which means that inherent in this practice is the assumption that spiritual freedom is possible—the assumption that the mind can free itself from conditioning and selfish desire. This teaching is asking us to cultivate an inner relationship with someone who can inspire us—someone we can look to as a role model as we take the steps on our path toward freedom.
Every spiritual tradition has stories of saints and sages—living embodiments of selflessness. Stories of people who were able to move through the separateness that leads to self interest and selfish desire into the oneness that breeds generosity and abundance. As you hear this teaching, is anyone coming to mind for you? Are there any saints or sages that inspire you? If you don’t feel connected to a religious tradition, this question might feel hard to answer. I wasn’t raised in a particular religion so there’s no particular saint or sage important to my family, but I’ve spent my entire adult life as a spiritual seeker. And as I think about this question—about a mind worthy of meditating on—I think of the 7 paintings I made in response to my study of St. Teresa of Avila’s teachings on the Interior Castle. I think about my curiosity to learn more about St. Brigid, who was co-opted by the Christians, but has roots that run deep into the indigenous traditions of my Celtic ancestors. What could I learn by studying and meditating on her? And of course, I can’t help but think of the sage Patanjali, whose teachings have so deeply changed my life.
Who’s coming to mind for you?
If no one’s arising, don’t worry. One of the gifts of my teaching lineage is practicality and options. In the lineage of viniyoga there are always ways to adapt a practice. If you don’t feel connected to any saints or sages—and you don’t feel drawn to doing some research to find one—my teacher’s teacher, the great TKV Desikachar, offered up two other options for this practice.
When you think about the people in your life, who inspires you? Who models clear seeing for you? Who’s made it to the other side of something similar to what you’re currently struggling through? Who are the wise people you turn to for counsel when you’re suffering? While these questions are geared toward people you actually know, this practice could be about any inspiring figure that you trust. You might know them or not. They might still be alive or not. In this practice, you’re looking for someone you’d happily invite into the space of your awareness. Someone that you feel drawn to hold in your mind during meditation. Someone whose advice could help you reframe your current situation and see your life with more clarity.
The other option is to work with your own experiences of transformation. As you look back through your life, can you remember a time that you made it through something really hard? Can you remember a time when wisdom arose from deep within you—a time when you had such clarity that there was no doubt about your next right action? Can you remember a time that you noticed that some previously sticky sense of attachment had naturally fallen away? Remembering your own past experiences of transformation can strengthen your faith that transformation is possible.
Whether you choose to work with a saint or sage, with a person you know, or with your own past experience, I do need to offer one warning… As we search for a mind without attachment, we have to admit that we’re looking through the lens of our own mind—we’re looking through the lens of our own conditioning. So tread carefully. But don’t let the fact that this practice requires a bit of intentional preparatory work scare you away. This practice is a joyful invitation into inspiration. Look for stories that inspire you. And then look further into the mindset of that inspiring person.
As we meditate on the mind of someone that inspires us—on a mind that’s not colored by conditioning and is free from desire—we’re given a mirror. A mirror that can reveal the potential of our own mind to be free.