Have you ever thought to explore psychology through Yoga? It is a vast science of the subtle bodies and the soul, leading us to explore where consciousness stems from, and what causes changes in the field of consciousness. In this series of articles, DAAJI explains the fundamental basis of yogic psychology, with its foundation in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. He enlightens us on Patanjali’s codification of the human mind and the various mental imbalances, and he also gives us solutions to create mental well-being through yogic practices. In this first article of the series, he explores the first two of the mental deviations described by Patanjali.
Part 1 – Pramana and Viparyaya
Patanjali is famous today for giving us Ashtanga Yoga, the eight limbs that define the path of Yoga, and these are beautifully expounded in chapters 2 and 3 of his Yoga Sutras. But his Yoga Sutras contain so much more that is of great benefit to the world, and this is especially true in the field of psychology.
Today many people are plagued by mental disturbance, anxiety and distress, as a result of our complex societies, urban lifestyles, breakdown of relationships, and unnatural way of living that is out of sync with the daily circadian rhythms that are hardwired in our physiology. Circadian rhythms determine our optimal sleep and feeding patterns. Even the metabolism of our cellular energy follows the rhythm of the circadian clock. If we don’t follow natural rhythms, our cellular energy levels decline as the mitochondrial network is impaired. Lifestyles with irregular daily rhythms have been linked with various chronic health conditions, such as sleep disorders, obesity, diabetes, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder. Basically, we are swimming against the current, upstream, when we choose a lifestyle that is out of sync with natural cycles.
Yoga offers much to help us find balance. For this we turn to chapter 1 of the Yoga Sutras, where Patanjali starts by explaining what Yoga is:
1.1 Atha yoga anushasanam
Now, after prior preparation,
comes the discipline of Yoga.
1.2 Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah
Yoga is the cessation of
all the modifications of the mind
in the field of consciousness.
First of all, what does Patanjali mean by prior preparation? Generally we enter the path of Yoga only when we are totally frustrated with our minds as they are. We reach a point when we have had some major failures in life, when someone says, “Do Yoga so that you may regain your health,” and when we are tired of being addicted to two things – the hopes and expectations we have for the future and the entanglements that bind us to our past. We no longer want to be slaves of the complexities of our vast subconscious mind and to the weight of the past that fills it.
This very human need to divest the burdens of the mind is also the base of many forms of self-improvement, including western psychology, which also tries to free us from the clutches of our past patterns. This instinct to free the mind and heart of burdens has been at the foundation of religions, philosophies, ethics, psychological disciplines, and also creative art forms like dance, music and painting.
And actually, for those of you who are still interested in developing and improving your mental skills and knowledge, perhaps more preparation is needed before you come to the path of Yoga. Why? Because Yoga is really for those adventurous souls who are ready to embark on a journey beyond the mind to the spiritual center of being. Along the way, the mind and heart are purified, ennobled and become supreme, and this is one of the amazing benefits that Yoga brings, but that is not its purpose.
Patanjali tells us that when we are ready for Yoga, discipline is required, and what is discipline? Discipline means to be a disciple, and for that the most important pre-requisite is an attitude of willingness and openness to learn, to be a student, to accept that ‘I don’t know’, ‘I am ignorant’. It requires craving to know the truth, receptivity, humility and a sense of wonder. A disciple remains a restless seeker, seeking to understand the mysteries of the Universe. Without this attitude of discipleship, there is no discipline of Yoga.
This is one of the reasons why all the great sages and saints have praised humility, insignificance and innocence. Without these noble qualities, there is no discipline of Yoga, whereas with these qualities our consciousness is flexible and remains open. Like little children, we return to purity, without all the mental deviations or modifications of the mind.
And what are these modifications of the mind? Patanjali’s descriptions and scientific codification of our mental processes are broader in nature than modern behavioral sciences and psychology, for one very important reason: because Patanjali starts with the baseline of the balanced mental state, the original condition. There is no need for interpretation or analysis of this mental state, as it can be perceived by direct experience, scientifically, as the state of no vibration or energy. It is the pure state of no-vibration that lies at the center of our existence, beyond consciousness. This pure state is Patanjali’s definition of Yoga, the ultimate state of stillness we aspire to experience. It was our starting point and can be our end point.
Patanjali then goes on to codify the various reasons why modifications and related vibrations arise in our field of consciousness; anything that takes us away from that state of mental balance and stillness.
These mental deviations exist in all of us. While the details may vary from one individual to another, the types of variations are part of the human condition. We can call them psychological deviations because they pull us away from the state of stillness at our spiritual center, the soul. The process of refining and transcending these deviations is what Yoga is all about, as we gradually elevate the mind and eventually go beyond mind.
In this series of articles, we will explore all of the mental modifications that Patanjali describes, and some of the practices that help us transcend them. Yoga is actually the pure science of the inner being, and Patanjali was a scientist of the highest caliber. Unlike most spiritual teachers, he was not mystical. Instead his legacy is based on practical experience. His description of the mental deviations in the Yoga Sutras is really the first written codified treatise on psychology, and as such deserves its due recognition.
Patanjali starts by exploring the five vrittis, the types of thought patterns or tendencies. These are the energy patterns we create in the field of our consciousness or chit. ‘Whirlpool’ is a literal translation of the word vritti, so the vrittis are the whirlpools, waves and ripples that form in the field of our consciousness as a result of outside causes. They determine whether our mind is still and calm, or its level of turbulence and ups and downs. These vrittis define how we perceive the universe.
If you imagine the field of consciousness as being like an ocean, the waves and currents are the vrittis. The more turbulent the ocean, the harder it is to see the ocean floor, which can be equated with the inner Self or soul. The field of consciousness always wants to return to its original state of stillness, but the interplay of senses and tendencies draw us out into experience and emotional reactions, bringing either mental turbulence or equilibrium. So the first step in Yoga is to turn the attention inwards and return to stillness. This is also what brings peace and, ultimately, happiness, which is the quality of the soul. Without this stillness, lasting peace and happiness are not possible.
So Patanjali goes on to explain that:
1.3 Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam
At that time [of meditation],
the Witness abides in itself,
resting in its own essence, its true nature.
1.4 Vritti sarupyam itaratra
At other times, we instead identify
with the modifications of the mind,
taking on the identity of those thought patterns.
So when the waves of the vrittis settle and we are calm, as happens during meditation, we see our true nature, whereas at other times we identify with the modifications, e.g. sorrow or fear or excitement. For example, if you are angry with your boss, because he has accused you unjustly of doing something wrong, will your consciousness be calm and still? Will you be able to think clearly during the day and make wise decisions? And what happens when a child is scared of the teacher in the classroom at school? Can they learn effectively and grasp concepts well? No, it is not possible, because fear blocks the electrical impulses from passing through to the cognitive centers in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, making learning very difficult. The thinking process of the child cannot function freely.
With the yogic practices of Heartfulness, however, we have the possibility to remove the emotional reactive states from our system and stay resting in the inner Essence throughout the day, even when we are not meditating. We do this by cultivating the techniques of Cleaning and Constant Remembrance, so that our consciousness can remain centered even while we go about normal daily activities and interact with others.
Patanjali describes the vrittis as being either colored (klishta) or uncolored (aklishta); in other words, impure versus pure, leading to bondage versus leading to freedom, and leading to turbulence versus leading to stillness. So the mind can either become a source of bondage or a source of freedom, depending on how we cultivate and train it. Yoga is really only concerned with this one thing: how do we use the mind? Mastery of the mind, cessation of the turbulence in the mind, is Yoga.
Here is Patanjali’s description of the five vrittis:
1.6 Pramana viparyaya vikalpa nidra smritayah
The five varieties of thought patterns are:
right knowledge (pramana),
wrong knowledge (viparyaya),
fantasy or imagination (vikalpa),
deep sleep (nidra), and
Let’s first explore the first two of these vrittis, pramana and viparyaya.
RIGHT KNOWLEDGE, WRONG KNOWLEDGE & PSYCHOLOGICAL WELL-BEING
The definitions ‘right knowledge’ and ‘wrong knowledge’ do not really do justice to the words pramana and viparyaya, but there is no equivalent in English. To elaborate these definitions, Patanjali gives us examples.
1.7 Pratyaksha anumana agamah pramanani
There are three ways of gaining right knowledge:
by direct perception,
by deduction and inference,
and by the words of those awakened ones who have knowledge.
So right knowledge, pramana, emerges from purity and stillness and leads to freedom. The first form of pramana is through direct perception – the absolute knowing that comes in an illuminated mind by awakening the faculty of superconsciousness through spiritual practice. The capacities of the mind are like rays of light; when they are concentrated they illuminate, resulting in direct perception, whereas in most people that faculty of direct perception remains unused, even though it is lying dormant, waiting to be switched on. This knowing through higher wisdom and revelation comes in the state of inner balance, or Samadhi, as a result of meditation. In Heartfulness Meditation, this is aided very naturally by Pranahuti or Yogic Transmission, which helps us to experience that balanced state.
That is why we have the practice of Cleaning in Heartfulness,
to remove all these impressions that
accumulate in our system from past experiences,
and also the ones we are creating in the present.
Otherwise we are always perceiving ourselves and the world
through a distorted consciousness, and as a result
we remain prey to illusion or viparyaya.
The second form of pramana is through observation and the proof found through the scientific method. This form of pramana is not as pure and direct as direct perception, but it is still very valid. As explained by Swami Vivekananda, “In acquiring knowledge we make use of generalizations, and generalization is based upon observation. We first observe facts, then generalize, and then draw conclusions or principles.”
And the third form of pramana is through absorbing the teachings of enlightened beings – those who have the capacity of direct perception – and making this knowledge our very own through experience. It saves us time, like passing through a forest on a well-worn path rather than forging our own path. Hence we search for enlightened teachers, read books by them, read the great scriptures of the past and, finally, based on the heart’s signals, we conclude for ourselves.
1.8 Viparyayah mithya jnanam
atad rupa pratistham
Wrong knowledge or illusion
is false understanding that results
from perceiving things as other
than they really are.
The concept of wrong knowledge needs very little explanation; there are so many scientific studies that show how our perception is distorted by drugs and alcohol, by stress, fear, anger, prejudice and other strong emotions, and also by addictions to things like food or sex.
What happens when we are stressed? We go into ‘fight or flight response’ mode. The stress hormones are active, the sympathetic nervous system is primed, and blood shifts to our limbs and to the back part of the brain, in order to heighten survival mode. We need to attack or defend. It is an automatic physiological response. All our energy is directed towards survival, and so the mind cannot be contemplative.
Anything that blurs the clarity and purity of the chakras in the region of the heart will lead us towards wrong knowledge because consciousness is distorted; for example, when the heart is burdened by the impressions from the past, known as samskaras in Yoga. It is like putting lenses of colored glass in front of a candle flame – when one lens is placed in front of the flame, it clouds the image of the flame to some extent, but as we add more and more lenses of different colors, eventually we don’t see the flame at all. The lenses are a good analogy for the layers of impressions we accumulate through life’s experiences, each one covering more of the light of the atman or soul. In fact our ability to perceive with clarity is directly proportional to the purity of our field of consciousness.
That is why we have the practice of Cleaning in Heartfulness, to remove all these impressions that accumulate in our system from past experiences, and also the ones we are creating in the present. Otherwise we are always perceiving ourselves and the world through a distorted consciousness, and as a result we remain prey to illusion or viparyaya.
When we start to experience the discipline of Yoga,
through glimpses of inner stillness,
we are able to journey towards our own Center of being
and experience pramana directly.
As we further develop this ability,
our heart becomes our guiding compass,
and we learn to listen to the heart with
ever increasing confidence and joy.
Then life takes on a different dimension,
as psychologically we experience true well-being.
In summary, the comparison of these first two vrittis, pramana and viparyaya, highlights the importance of maintaining a pure field of consciousness. With this comes clarity and discernment, known as Viveka in Yoga. It is the opening of the first of the four Sadhanas of Yoga, Sadhana Chatusthaya. We become capable of receiving knowledge through direct superconscious perception, through unbiased observation, and through the wise teachings of enlightened beings. That is the way of pramana.
In today’s world, however, most of us are doing just the opposite – we are carrying such a heavy burden of impressions in the subconscious mind that we struggle to follow the way of right knowledge. Instead there is distortion of knowledge, illusion, and that creates an unstable base. Take the example of a mighty elephant. He is conditioned little by little; first he is tied to a tree with a rope, and each time he is tied he feels helpless and stands in one place. Eventually he becomes so conditioned that he no longer believes in his own ability to act, and this mighty elephant can then be tied to a mere plastic chair in the circus, when he could tear the whole tent down if he wished to do so. With this sort of conditioning, we lose the right perspective, unable to witness our own strength.
It is very difficult to be happy, peaceful and make wise decisions when the foundation of perception is shaky. So many of us become frustrated and confused because no matter how hard we try to do the right thing, often things go wrong.
The first step in this journey is to acknowledge our current state, to accept that we are not yet centered in stillness, and that our perception is colored by the tendencies or vrittis that we have created in our field of consciousness, leading to viparyaya. When we start to experience the discipline of Yoga, through glimpses of inner stillness, we are able to journey towards our own Center of being and experience pramana directly. As we further develop this ability, our heart becomes our guiding compass, and we learn to listen to the heart with ever-increasing confidence and joy. Then life takes on a different dimension, as psychologically we experience true well-being.
Article by KAMLESH PATEL (DAAJI)