In my last blog, I described our consciousness as being illusive and disruptive. According to Yoga philosophy, our consciousness is constructed in three layers: mind (manas), intellect (buddhi) and ego (ahamkara) all of which distort our reality and modify the way we see things and experience life. Our consciousness is relying on our senses of perception, our previous experiences and our emotional attachments to define our perspective on things. As a result of all these components, unfortunately, the way we see things and the truth is not in exact correlation.
Patanjali –one of the first philosophers to write about Yoga– claims that these modifications that the consciousness creates may appear in five different ways. One of these manifests as illusion (viparyayah). Illusion means: distorted or wrong perception. Illusion is partial knowledge or knowledge that is not proven by fact. It is contrary to correct knowledge (pramana). It is a matter of perspective. (Other examples of modifications of the consciousness can be: sleep, dream and imagination)
According to Patanjali, our attachments to previous experiences of pain and pleasure and the judgements we automatically create when identifying objects and situations around us prevent us from seeing things as a whole. Our vision is often a matter of perspective, it is partial or illusive. One fable that presents the idea of illusion well is the story of The Six Men and the Elephant. This is a traditional Yogi story about perspective which is retold in English by John Godfrey Saxe in his 1872 poem:
It was six men of Indostan, to learning much inclined,
who went to see the elephant (Though all of them were blind),
that each by observation, might satisfy his mind.
The first approached the elephant, and, happening to fall,
against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
‘God bless me! but the elephant, is nothing but a wall!’
The second feeling of the tusk, cried: ‘Ho! what have we here,
so very round and smooth and sharp? To me tis mighty clear,
this wonder of an elephant, is very like a spear!’
The third approached the animal, and, happening to take,
the squirming trunk within his hands, ‘I see,’ quoth he,
the elephant is very like a snake!’
The fourth reached out his eager hand, and felt about the knee:
‘What most this wondrous beast is like, is mighty plain,’ quoth he;
‘Tis clear enough the elephant is very like a tree.’
The fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, Said; ‘E’en the blindest man
can tell what this resembles most; Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an elephant, is very like a fan!’
The sixth no sooner had begun, about the beast to grope,
than, seizing on the swinging tail, that fell within his scope,
‘I see,’ quothe he, ‘the elephant is very like a rope!’
And so these men of Indostan, disputed loud and long,
each in his own opinion, exceeding stiff and strong,
This story is a demonstration of how our own consciousness limits our perspective. Residing in illusion, the blind men are unable to see the full shape of the elephant, only parts of it. In illusion, details are missing and what seems to be real may be only a small part of the truth.
Through the practice of Yoga we are able to step aside from our ever-changing, moody consciousness and let go of our own often distracting patterns of thought. Through transcending the consciousness we can break free from the restricted vision we are so attached to and finally see a more whole picture, the truth. The practice encourages us to see details using the technique of mindful observation, slowly we learn to see more and thus our knowledge, becomes more established and less illusive.
When the blind men will transcend their blindness, they will see the full shape of the elephant for a fact and not as an illusion. However, what we know for a fact is also not completely true, according to Ptanjali. Correct or factual knowledge (pramana) is yet another modification created by one of the limbs of consciousness: the intellect (buddhi). To establish facts our intellect looks back at our previous experiences and various sources of authority that effected our process of thought. Those might define what we think we know for a fact. The intellect may rely on something we remember studying in school or something we previously double checked by Googling. But it is all still relative.
When awakened, the intellect can grasp a lot of details. It may see things quite clearly, the way they are in the world of matter. This kind of factual knowledge may be considered as truth but for us Yogis, there might be space for even more universal, divine understanding of reality. It is the truth of enlightenment and union that offers complete clarity. This truth is within a different category, it is beyond the world of matter and duality.
Our practice develops our intellect and assists in its awakening. It is very detailed and requires deep observation. The practitioner must be able to stay focused on several instructions at once to hold a Yoga posture correctly, he also often has to balance between opposing ideas or resistant movements. The more we practice the more details we can be mindful of at the same time. Our intellects skill of judging facts grows and it awakens. So, basically, Yoga makes us smarter! But it is also capable of doing more than that.
As I said before, awakened intellect might see a sharper picture but it still doesn’t see the whole truth. Truth only happens when we stop our consciousness, intellect included, from thinking and over thinking. When we transcend the need to always see and think something, we reside in union. The stories our consciousness tells us, all only exist within the world of matter, duality, where we are separating ourselves from the objects around us. In separation, our consciousness is cluttered with separated experiences, relationships, people and objects to whom we can get attached or develop an opinion about. It is believed that outside our consciousness there is a world where none of this exists, it is a space where duality seizes and union manifests. This is the ultimate destination of our practice – a space of peace, where thinking is no longer required, where ‘I’ as a subject and other objects no longer require identification. When the blind men will arrive to this spiritually awakened state, the elephant won’t exist in any shape or form, it will be one with its viewers.
To transcend our intellect, however, we first need to awaken it. In that way, our practice is very grounded and down to earth. It is an intellectual process of learning. I personally like this philosophical approach because it denies the popular culture, too-hippie-for-me illusion that Yoga is about relaxing. I often encounter this misconception that spirituality is all about peace and love and taking things easily, accepting everything the way it is. Reading Patanjali reminds us that the practice requires a lot of intelligence. Hard work, active body and focused mind are all required to achieve this task of transcendence. Samadhi (spiritual awakening), is a rare place to be in and there are no easy ways to get there. The practice is a life-long process of seeking fulfilment and getting to know ourselves better. The practice is hard but it is filled with the joy of self-realisation. I hope you are, like me, enjoying this colourful journey.
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali / B.K.S Iyengar