Yoga includes the science of all the bodies, that is, the physical body, the subtle bodies and the soul. In other words, it covers the whole field of psychology. Through Yoga we explore consciousness, and what causes change in the field of consciousness. In this series of articles, DAAJI explains the fundamentals 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 deviations that take us away from balance. He also gives us solutions to create mental well-being through yogic practices. In this second article of the series, he explores the third mental deviation described by Patanjali: vikalpa or imagination.
Part 2 – Vikalpa
We continue with the vrittis. Just to summarize, the vrittis are the five types of thought patterns or tendencies, the basic energy patterns we create in the field of our consciousness or chit. ‘Whirlpool’ is a literal translation of the word vritti, and the vrittis are the whirlpools, waves and ripples that form. These vrittis describe how we perceive and interact with the world around us.
The original state of the field of consciousness is stillness, and the soul is happy when we regain that balanced state. In contrast, the interplay of senses, thoughts, feelings and tendencies draw us into the world of outer experience and activity, creating various energetic patterns in the field of consciousness. The soul is also happy with this movement, provided there is purity and lightness, and constant fluidity between underlying stillness and activity in the field. So in Yoga we do two things:
1. Turn the attention inwards to stillness, and
2. Refine the focus and type of outward activity so that our thoughts and activities are conducive to evolution, happiness and balance.
We cannot stay in total stillness all the time or we would be dead, and Yoga is also all about skill in action. So how to bring stillness into activity? I have written about this in an earlier article on ‘The Stillness Paradox’.
This combination of stillness and activity brings peace and happiness, which is the quality of the soul. When the waves of the vrittis settle and we are calm, as happens during meditation, we see our true nature, and then we can externalize this reality in all our activities.
Patanjali describes the vrittis as being either colored (klishta) or uncolored (aklishta); in other words, impure versus pure. They either lead to turbulence or to focused evolution and stillness. The mind is either a source of bondage or a source of freedom, depending on how we cultivate and train it. Yoga is concerned with only this: how do we use the mind? Mastery of the mind, cessation of the turbulence in the mind, is Yoga.
Patanjali describes 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
The third vritti, vikalpa, means ‘imagination’ or ‘fantasy’. What is imagination? It is a very important mental faculty with which we form and create new ideas, images and concepts that cannot always be verified by pramana.
1.9: Shabda jnana anupati vastu shunyah vikalpah
Fantasy or imagination is a thought pattern
that has verbal expression and knowledge,
but for which there is no such object or reality in existence.
But vikalpa is not the general term used for all types of imagination. There are four Sanskrit words that can loosely be translated as imagination: vikalpa, kalpana, pratibha and bhavana. Vikalpa is, in a sense, the lowest form of imagination. It describes the apparently random fantasies that continuously surface in the mind like mental static. Vikalpas are those imaginary stories, thoughts and images that play out in the mind: for example, a fantasy that plays out during a daydream in class at school, or seeing a shadow in the dark and fearing it is a ghost. Most of the ongoing chitchat in your mind belongs to the category of vikalpa: “What will happen if I …?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” etc. Such chitchat is composed of illusory beliefs and mental constructs. We pre-empt reality with our fantasies and expectations.
There is a wonderful story about vikalpa. One night, a young man decided he wanted to cross the river on the outskirts of his town to visit his beloved. There was a storm and the river was dangerous, but he was determined to cross to see her. So he looked around for a boat to carry him and eventually saw a log floating by. He grabbed onto it, and let the log carry him downstream across the river. When he arrived at the home of his beloved, all the lights were off, but he saw a rope hanging down from her balcony. So he climbed the rope and came to her.
She was delighted but surprised to see him, asking, “How were you able to visit me on such a terrible night?”
First of all he thanked her: “Because you left the rope hanging for me, I was able to climb up to your balcony.”
“But I left no rope hanging,” she said.
When they went to the balcony to look, they were shocked to discover it was a snake hanging down.
The next day, after the storm had passed, he returned home. On reaching the river, he discovered that he had held on to a human corpse to cross the river, not a log. Love had blinded him to the reality of what he was doing and given him the courage to reach his beloved no matter what.
Love can give us one perception of distorted reality, but what happens to a lover who falls out of love because of a series of events? Do they still perceive their beloved in the same way? No. We are preconditioned by our own expectations, and when disillusionment sets in, everything can change.
The other three forms of imagination have a higher, nobler purpose. Kalpana is intentional mental creation. For example, the prayerful sankalpa that all people are becoming peace loving is an example of kalpana. We are creating something through the power of thought, something that does not yet exist in the physical dimension. Kalpana helps us to aspire towards any goal or vision, and reminds us to work to achieve that goal. Pratibha is the spontaneous visionary insight that comes from expanding consciousness into higher realms of superconsciousness, and bhavana is the ability to call something into existence as a result of yogic contemplation and visioning.
In fact, to imagine is one of the distinguishing human qualities,
representing new possibilities, allowing us to create a vision for the future.
Through imagination we can be creative and embrace other perspectives,
because the mind follows imagination.
It is a very powerful projective capacity of the human mind
that leads to transformation and evolution.
In fact, to imagine is one of the distinguishing human qualities, representing new possibilities, allowing us to create a vision for the future. Through imagination we can be creative and embrace other perspectives, because the mind follows imagination. It is a very powerful projective capacity of the human mind that leads to transformation and evolution. It is the basis of aspiration and vision, one of the most important aspects of human consciousness. In its highest form it is visionary and inspiring.
This visionary quality of imagination has been described by philosophers of all cultures since Plato, and encapsulated by Einstein in his statement, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” Yet it is far from the ordinary imaginary noise in our field of consciousness that we know as vikalpa.
And yet it is the same human functions that lead to both magnificent visions and delusional fantasy. What allows us to imagine something that does not yet exist? The four mental functions of chit, manas, buddhi and ahankar may allow us to think of new concepts, project our existing experience into new dimensions, and use our willpower to bring about change, but these four subtle bodies cannot create something new out of nothing without the atman, the combination of thinking (man) and movement (ath) that is the soul, the causal body itself. It is this divine aspect of our being that is able to create. So it is the combination of the subtle bodies and the soul that gives us our faculties of imagination and creativity. There is much that could be said about the soul here, but we will come back to that in another article.
In fact, the concept of imagination raises many questions, including:
Can we create something completely new that has never existed before, or do we ‘catch’ something that already exists in the ether that cannot yet be verified by the senses? Perhaps it exists in higher dimensions already. I will leave you to ponder over these questions about imagination in general, but let’s now turn our attention to the lowest type of imagination, vikalpa. Why do these random imaginary thoughts come into our minds, and where do they come from?
Vikalpas are the background fantasies in our field of consciousness.
They are like constant noise in the system.
They exist because there are accumulated complexities
and impurities in our consciousness,
which are also known as samskaras or impressions.
Vikalpas are the background fantasies in our field of consciousness. They are like constant noise in the system. They exist because there are accumulated complexities and impurities in our consciousness, which are also known as samskaras or impressions. In an attempt to purify consciousness, the mind tries to throw them out, and so they surface as thoughts. The more complex the impressions, the more complex the vikalpas. They may bubble up from our subconscious, in the same way that dreams do when we are sleeping. In fact the great psychotherapist, Carl Jung, developed ‘active imagination’ as a meditation technique so that the contents of the subconscious mind could surface as images, narratives or separate entities. He used this technique to serve as a bridge between the conscious and the unconscious, and worked with dreams as well as imagination and fantasy. Jung’s aim was to bring about harmony and integration from fragmented and dissociated parts of the human mind.
Jung thought that ‘active imagination’, a way of bringing vikalpa into awareness, springs from the desires and fantasies of the unconscious mind, which ultimately wants to become conscious. His experience showed him that once such fantasies surface, they become weaker and less frequent. This technique was one of several that would define Jung’s distinctive contribution to the practice of psychotherapy. This technique not only has the potential to allow communication between the conscious and unconscious aspects of an individual’s personal psyche, but also between the personal and collective unconscious.
Anything that blurs the clarity and purity of the chakras in the region of the heart can lead to distorted consciousness, and thus to vikalpa, whether that distortion has come from the subconscious within or from the atmosphere around. Vikalpa may, for example, be the result of the accumulated thoughts and feelings of others in a certain place. In either case, it is made up of fragments of rubbish that the mind is trying to throw out in order to purify the 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. Cleaning is a much more direct practice than ‘active imagination’, as it bypasses the need for thoughts and emotions to surface into the conscious mind. Cleaning removes the root cause of thoughts and emotions in the subconscious, by directly removing the underlying impressions that have formed. There is no need to analyze, to understand or to experience the effects of the impressions. They are simply removed, like dirt is removed from the body when taking a bath. With Cleaning, gradually the background noise of vikalpa reduces, until eventually the field of consciousness is clear and pure. Otherwise we are always perceiving ourselves and the world through a distorted consciousness, and we remain at the mercy of vikalpa.
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.
But before we arrive at purity of consciousness, how can we make the best possible use of the fragmentary fantasies that arise in our thoughts, these vikalpas? As Jung observed, they show us our subconscious desires and tendencies. By simply witnessing them arise and leave, without judgment, we become aware of so many aspects of our psyche, and how to refine our personalities and tendencies. We can use this awareness to work on ourselves and change our character. This is part of the yogic practice of swadhyaya or self-study, which is one of the five Niyamas, the second limb of Ashtanga Yoga.
This is easily done by letting the mind drift, watching it, see what it thinks, and being simply a witness. “Mind is not soul or spirit. It is only matter in a finer form, and we own it and can learn to manipulate it through the nerve energies,” in the words of Swami Vivekananda. This is the first step of Pratyahara, the fifth limb of Ashtanga Yoga.
Consider the following:
1. You sit to meditate first thing in the morning, and your mind is flooded with fantasies of a sensual nature. What can you do? As soon as you become aware of the distraction, stop meditating and clean point B1, the satellite point of the heart chakra, for 5 minutes, so as to regulate and calm the tendency. Then you will be able to meditate without being distracted by sensuality.
2. You sit with your family after dinner in the evening, enjoying their company, but very soon your imagination starts to run all over the place thinking of ways to get back at a colleague who blamed you for something you didn’t do, leading to his promotion and your sidelining. What can you do? As soon as you become aware of the distraction, meditate on point A2, the satellite point of the heart chakra, for 5 minutes, so as to regulate and calm the tendency. Then you will be able to find a productive solution to the problem, accept what has happened, and let go of the resentment.
When consciousness is not pure, our perception remains colored and the faculty of imagination is easily diverted into these complex and unproductive fantasies of vikalpa. Imagine, for one moment, that we have a pure consciousness, and we are able instead to project a vision for humanity into this purity, without any distortions. Perhaps we pray that everything is absorbed in Godly remembrance, or that everyone is in osmosis with the Source, or that we are all developing correct thinking and right understanding. How the soul will then shine forth and its faculty of creation and imagination be potentized! We would then be eligible for Samuel Coleridge’s statement that “Imagination is the condition for cognitive participation in a sacramental universe.”
1, 2 Ram Chandra, 2014. Efficacy of Raja Yoga in the Light of Sahaj Marg. Shri Ram Chandra Mission, India.
“Imagination is the condition for cognitive
in a sacramental universe.”
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