Today we’re studying Yoga Sutra 1.39, which is one of my favorites. I love it because it surprises me. If offers us a wildly open invitation. In all the ancient texts I’ve studied, I don’t remember ever coming across another verse like this one. But before we explore it, let’s remember the teachings that precede it. Let’s return to the beginning of this study, which brings us to one of life’s inescapable truths.
The only constant in life is change. We can’t stop the flow of change. What we can do is influence the direction of change in our lives. Which begs the question: As you move through the river of change, what direction are you moving in?
Are you moving in the direction of oneness and inner freedom (which can feel like ease and clarity)? Are you moving in the direction of stuckness and inner suffering (which can feel like attachment and fear)? The only honest answer for most of us here is probably it depends! Because everything is always changing, including our thoughts, our feelings, and our behavior. Over the course of any given day or hour or minute we can move back and forth between clarity and confusion, between grasping and releasing, between ease and fear.
In our practice of yoga we’re always working to move toward clarity and away from confusion. Toward releasing and away from grasping. Toward ease and away from fear. But it isn’t easy. And the path isn’t without its complications.
In the first chapter of the Yoga Sutra, our ancient teacher named 9 blocks that get in the way. Nine obstacles that keep us from reaching the state of yoga—the state of inner freedom.
Before I remind you of this list of obstacles, I invite you to bring to mind a current goal you’re working toward. Notice what comes up. What direction are you trying to move in?
As you reflect on this, I invite you to examine what feels hard about it. Are there any obstacles showing up in your body or mind that’s making it difficult to move in the direction you want to go?
With these questions in mind, listen again to our ancient teacher’s list of obstacles. Notice if any of them feel relevant to your situation:
The obstacles listed here are things we’re all familiar with. We could sit in a circle and share stories of our own experiences of sickness, apathy, doubt, carelessness, laziness, indulgence, confusion, groundlessness, and instability. These are things we know. And we know the symptoms of these obstacles. We know the feeling of a mind that’s disheartened, depressed, in pain. We know the feeling of a body that’s filled with agitation, that can’t find stillness. We know the feeling of irregular and disturbed breathing. We know the feeling of constriction in the heart. And we know the yearning for inner freedom.
In Yoga Sutra 1.32, our ancient teacher tells us that if we want to prevent or eliminate the obstacles and their symptoms, the recommended practice is sustained focus on one truth. 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. Yoga Sutra 1.32 offers an antidote to the mental obstacles we face—the practice of meditating on one true principle.
And in sutras 1.33-39 Patanjali gives us a list of ideas. As we work to move beyond obstacles and focus our mind—as we work toward inner freedom—this ancient sage invited us to meditate on our attitudes toward other people, on the sacred space between breaths, on the power of our senses, on the inherently illuminating Light within, on the inspiring people who model freedom, and the deep wisdom of dreams and dreamless sleep.
I find such compassion for the diversity of this list. Patanjali understood that we are all different creatures and that we’re at different stages and in different situations. He provided us with several ideas for how to bring our mind into a single focus, into a focus that will allow us to move through our obstacles toward the clearness of mind that leads to inner freedom.
The list of ideas to meditate on begins with one of the most important teachings that yoga has to offer. It’s a teaching about cultivating certain attitudes. Sutra 1.33 tells us:
“A clear and tranquil mind results from cultivating friendliness towards those who are happy, compassion towards those who suffer, joy towards the virtuous, and impartiality towards wrong-doers.”
Now, let’s remember the full picture here. Patanjali has just laid out the obstacles that stand in the way of our inner freedom and told us that meditation is the antidote. So we might assume that he’d start laying out details about meditative practice here—about proper sitting positions and tricks for focusing the mind. But what he tells us is that we should be friendly, compassionate, joyful, and impartial when dealing with people who are happy, people who are suffering, and people doing virtuous and non-virtuous things in the world. This might seem odd in a conversation about meditation, but the more I study yoga, the more I see the genius of what he’s doing.
Because, have you ever tried to focus your mind in one direction? You sit there for 20 minutes but when the meditation bell goes off, you realize that your mind has been consumed with jealously, judgement, anxiety, or anger the whole time! How can we begin to clear our minds if we’re stuck in everyday animosities?
Like so many yoga teachings, Yoga Sutra 1.33 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. 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 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.
Before we move on, let’s remember that the teaching of Yoga Sutra 1.33 isn’t about the actions of other people. It’s about your own automatic patterns of reaction. It’s an invitation into a pretty intense meditation practice.
And it’s only the first item in a long list offered by Patanjali to help us focus the mind in order to eliminate the obstacles. Before we get to the final suggestion—the teaching of Yoga Sutra 1.39—let’s quickly revisit the other ideas.
Yoga Sutra 1.34 tells us that we can create a calm and clear state of mind by focusing on the exhale and the space of stillness after the exhale. You might remember from our study of this sutra that the tradition of yoga tells us that there’s magic in the stillness between breaths. It’s a portal leading toward the deep inner stillness—the deep inner silence—of our Being. It’s a space where the vitalizing force of prana builds. As we become more and more comfortable in this space of stillness between breaths, we’re told that the veil blocking our true knowledge is weakened. It’s powerful stuff.
Yoga Sutra 1.35 invites us into the power of our senses. This teaching asks us to focus on the relationship between our sense organs and their natural objects, which is a fancy way of saying to focus on the relationship between the nose and scent or the tongue and taste. If we can pay attention to the workings of our senses—to the way our eyes are drawn to light and form or our ears are drawn to sound—and the knowledge that arises from what we see and hear, we will begin to notice patterns of reaction. What’s the relationship between your sensory experiences and the state of your mind?
Yoga Sutra 1.36, another one of my favorites, tells us that the inherently illuminating Light within us all is eternally free from sorrow. Free from attachment and misidentification. And that through practice, as we connect with the living symbol of this Light, we can feel deeper and deeper into the radiant nature of our Being. We can feel deeper and deeper into the unbounded nature of our consciousness. I don’t know about you, but that definitely sounds like moving toward inner freedom.
But let’s be real, sometimes the possibility of inner freedom feels far away. Yoga Sutra 1.37 invites us to look for inspiration. It invites us to turn our meditative focus toward the mind of someone who models inner freedom—someone who offers an example that we can follow. This practice can encourage us. It can reveal the potential of our own mind to be free.
And in Yoga Sutra 1.38, we’re reminded that we’ve actually experienced this freedom before. In fact, we experience it every night in the mysterious portal of deep, dreamless sleep. We just don’t remember it! Yoga Sutra 1.38 invites us to meditate on the knowledge that arises from dreams and deep sleep. This sutra is asking us to attune to the subtler states of our consciousness. There’s much to learn from the experience of deep sleep—the experience of shedding our identifications and attachments—the experience of resting in Pure Awareness. We can catch glimpses of this Pure Awareness in the transition from sleeping to waking. But this transition is easy to miss. With intentional practice, we can increase our capacity to recognize and rest in this space—to recognize and rest in the presence of awareness itself.
I don’t know about you, but this list of practices fills me with awe. As we work to move beyond obstacles and focus our mind—as we work toward inner freedom—the ancient sage Patanjali tells us to meditate on our attitudes toward other people, on the sacred space between breaths, on the power of our senses, on the inherently illuminating Light within, on the inspiring people who model freedom, and the deep wisdom of dreams and dreamless sleep. What would happen if you took this list seriously and set out to investigate everything on it? I think it would be amazing!
And remember, we haven’t even come to the end of the list yet!
As I said, Yoga Sutra 1.39 offers us a wildly open invitation. It reads:
“Or by meditating on a well-considered object of one’s choice, one attains steadiness of mind.”
Which, of course, leaves you with a huge question: What do you want to focus on?
Think about your daily life. How often do you feel distracted? How often do you feel like your focus is being pulled in over a 100 different directions?
Through the practice of meditation we train our mind to stay in one place—to stay focused on one truth, on one single reality. Through the consistent practice of meditation, we merge with the object we’re focused on. This is really important. Hear me say that again: Through the consistent practice of meditation, we merge with the object we’re focused on. In other words, it really, really matters what you choose to meditate on.
Yoga Sutra 1.39 invites us to meditate on anything we want. I love this teaching. But I approach it with respect. Life is always changing and we have control over very little. As we move through the course of our day, there’s a lot of competition for our attention. What we decide to focus on matters.
What direction do you want to move in? What do you want to remember? What truth do you want to write on your heart? Meditation is a powerful tool and it will lead you in the direction of transformation. Yoga Sutra 1.39 invites us to listen inward—it invites us to pay attention to the voice of our Inner Teacher and to follow the yearnings of our heart.
Obstacles arise in life. They are unavoidable aspects of being human. But we’re not stuck in them and we’re certainly not stuck in the suffering they cause. Through the practice of yoga, we can train and focus the mind. We can uncover the clarity and wisdom that is always and already present deep within us. We can move in the direction of Inner Freedom.