by Fran Tolhurst
I seem to have spent a lot of time in my life trying to understand why people do what they do when often what they do is so de-structive to others and in-evitably to themselves. No one has ever won a war even though many people have consented to them. No one ever seems to win anything with violence and we mostly lose even more than we thought we had to lose.
But even knowing that, I confess I have felt enraged enough at times in my life to wish harm upon another, and on other occasions shown complete disregard for someone without always knowing why. But that is not how I want to be; it is not how I want to live out the years of my life nor do I want that for others.
When I first began to read the Yogasutra I was sur-prised as its meaning started to unfold. It sets out a philosophy, a prac-tice and a psychology that is concerned with under-standing the nature of thought, how it evolves, how it transforms and how it can be transformed. Un-derstanding the nature of thought in this way has been the beginning of a different life for me. The ideas of the yogasutra do in some ways shed light on why I, as a particular individual might think or act as I do even though the reasons may be very complex, but much more importantly than that, the philosophy teaches me what thought does; that is, the power that thought has on my life.
Vyasa2 proposes that the mind, like a stream, flows in two directions: search-ing inwards towards the soul and stretching out-wards to the world.3 Yoga philosophy sees human consciousness as being affected by two enduring states. Purusa, which may also be called pure aware-ness, or the pure or true self, implying an inherent goodness, is the ever pre-sent, irreducible state of stillness and reflectiveness of the human spirit. It re-mains unaffected by the natural world (prakrti) which is dynamic and whose impact is tangible and material yet unstable and transient. However, because of the appeal and dynamic nature of our world, we are often com-pletely caught up in it, and our minds mistake our en-gagement and relationship to it as the entirety of who we are. The stronger our identification is with prakrti, the more it ob-scures that centre of still-ness and clarity, and the more we are affected by the fluctuations of the world.
One of the primary con-cerns of yoga is to teach us about the nature of the mind; that it is in constant motion with thoughts, emotions and reactions to the sensory input it expe-riences which has been generated by prakrti. For Patanjali4, it is our identifi-cation with prakrti which is our most fundamental misunderstanding. As our world, by its nature is tur-bulent, unpredictable and in a constant state of flux, our identification with it can only lead to suffering. Yoga teaches us that re-gardless of what we think or feel at any given mo-ment, this is not lasting, just as the phenomena of the world are short-lived. Further, the stories we choose to build around some of these momentary fragments to entertain or comfort ourselves, or to confirm and redefine who we or others are, usually lead to suffering. How-ever, the practice of yoga is not only about recog-nising that our thoughts are fleeting, and not get-ting caught up or dis-tracted by them, it also teaches us how to bring the mind to stillness, “to withdraw the mind from all external activities, draw it inward and keep it con-tained within.”5 How we understand what that withdrawal means though can often become quite confused amidst the cir-cumstances of life.
During the years I lived in Afghanistan, working as part of an education team much of my time was spent travelling out into the rural areas. More often than not, after days or weeks of travelling I came back home ill. The jour-neys were long and un-comfortable – the roads rough and the weather unpredictable. Once you were in the villages, peo-ple and places had to be organised often with so few resources, and so many small things would go wrong. I lived with such a sense of urgency, often rising at four in the morning. It’s easy to lose yourself in those places; you can lose the feeling of your body during the days. But, it is with you. Sometimes the discomfort of hunger and thirst, the heat or the cold gets to you a lot, but you stay quiet. Everyone else is just as uncomfortable as you are. So you shut out those thoughts for yourself, you lose the idea of protecting yourself and close down on fearful thoughts – but you stay quite alert, quite present in your surroundings be-cause of the daily risks you take until you lie down at night. Only then, for a moment before you fall asleep, do you re-member who you are and why you’re here, and in your mind, you thank someone that you are safe, warm and comforta-ble. Only then do you al-low yourself to dream. And you can go on like this for months, then years. You become mind-less.
But becoming numb to ourselves and our needs is a kind of carelessness. Even if it is driven by a desire to alleviate the suffering we see, we are not being honest in any sense. Not only do we put ourselves at risk of per-manent physical and emo-tional damage, we often put others at risk too as we begin to expect them to bear the same load as we carry ourselves, and expect them to take the same physical risks that we take, and deny them-selves the same things that we deny ourselves. While the desire to bring a resolution or alleviation to suffering no matter the motive can seem very honourable, the results that we so desire are usu-ally elusive or only tem-porary. Consequently, we may become increasingly cynical, confused or ob-sessed with our goals.
The practice of yoga aims to diminish these kinds of harmful patterns and in their place establish a sustainable way to live even in the face of turmoil and hardship and danger which enables us to maintain equilibrium and coherence in our lives. The teachings of the Yoga Su-tra are not suggesting that this can be achieved by ‘becoming mindless’, by simply trying to shut out the turnings of thought that might be harmful or distracting. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, “A peaceful mind does not mean a mind empty of thoughts, sensations and emotions. A peaceful mind is not an absent one.”6 Rather, these first verses introduce us to a key theme of the sutra which is about understanding that thought and our ways of thinking can profoundly affect who we are and how we are in this world. v
1 Translation by Barbara Stoler-Miller 1998, Yoga Discipline of Freedom The Yoga Sutra at-tributed to Patanjali.
2 Vyasa was the first and most acknowledged commentator of the Yogasutra. His writing dates back to 5th century CE.
3 Vyasa commentary on the yogasutra discussed in Bryant, EF 2009, The yoga sutras of Patanjali, North Point Press, New York, p47-48.
4 The seminal teachings of yoga found in the Yogasutra are at-tributed to Patanjali believed to have been written in the 2nd century CE.
5 Krishnamacharya cited in Mo-han 2010, Krishnamacharya: His Life and Teachings, Shambhala Publications, Mas-sachusetts, p140.
6 Thich Nhat Hanh 1988, The Sun in my Heart, Reflections on Mindfulness, Concentration and Insight, Parallex Press, California, p7.