In the Light of Wisdom
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 30: Detached Perception

I have been discussing detachment in the observation of an object, and with this detachment true yogic concentration commences. In an observation or a perception, many factors—mental and sensory—are involved. Perception is not a simple process, but we generally take it for granted. In a similar way, psychologists will tell us that even to stand on two legs, hundreds of muscles have to work in unison. It is a surprise for us to know that so much activity needs to take place in the body to be able to stand on two legs. Everything is very complicated. All processes are interconnected, though they all look simple when everything goes as it should. Likewise, the perception of an object involves many factors. First of all, the object has to exist in order that the perception may be possible, as we cannot perceive a non-existing something. The object has to exist in space, and another condition which is implied by this one is that the object also has to exist in time. Not merely this, the object has to be related to something else in order that we may observe it or define it. Every perception is a definition of an object. We demarcate it from others and qualify it with agents by a dissociation of that object from everything else that is not that object. When we behold a cow, we can say that it is a cow merely because there are things other than the cow. If the whole world were filled only with cows, we could not know what a cow is. Every perception involves a segregation of the particular object from other characteristics.

There is an analytical process of dissociation of the perceptible object from other objects, and an apprehension which subsequently follows as to the location of the object as a definite something stationed in a particular form in space and in time. Then there is what we call a determinate perception of an object. We decide that such and such a thing is in front of us. These are logical processes taking place simultaneously in our minds. All these events occur so quickly that they appear to be instantaneous, but they all happen one after another and not at the same time. The quickness is such that we take it for a single instantaneous action of the mind. The object has to exist in space and time, and it has to be related to other things outside itself. Unrelated objects are not seen, and they cannot be conceived by the mind.

This relationship with the object in perception is twofold. The object has to be related to other objects, positively as well as negatively. It is positively related when we want deliberately to associate certain other characteristics with the object, and negatively when we do not want to associate the object with certain other attributes. In a judgement of a perception we immediately associate and dissociate characteristics with the object. We do not want the object to be associated with characteristics which we believe are not it. We also do not wish to dissociate the object from certain characteristics which we think are it.

This is the double mental process in perception taking place in every kind of perception or observation. The existent object is in space and time, and it is related externally to other objects and is also related to us as the perceiver or observer. This is a twofold relation: a relation to other objects positively and negatively, as well as a relation to us as the observer and perceiver immediately concerned with it. These are the initial factors involved in perception. But there are certain other things also involved, namely, that the senses have to operate in the perception of an object. There would be no perception of the object without the functioning of the senses. Our senses have to operate specifically in relation to that particular perceived object. It is therefore not merely the operation of the senses that is necessary, but the operation of the senses in respect of that object. This is another factor involved in perception: senses working in connection with the object in front of us. Even this is not an exhaustive definition of perception. There are many other factors. The senses have to work, but the mind also has to function. If the mind is elsewhere, the senses may be looking, but they will see nothing. Open eyes may not behold even a nearby object if the mind is elsewhere, so the mind also has to operate.

All this is important, but there is something more that is important. Our consciousness must be sane and in a condition of wholeness in its relation to the mind. There should not be an aberration of consciousness. An insane person cannot see things properly, because his brain is out of order, and the consciousness is out of whack. An insane person’s consciousness does not move along the proper channels necessary to see things in a healthy way. Consciousness should be healthily associated with the mental process, and it should not be out of whack. The mental process has to be connected with the sense organs; the senses have to be in relation to the object; the object has to be in space and time and also related to us and the other objects logically in its positive and negative character, and the object should be a real something and not a phantasmagoria. So many things are involved in the mere objective perception of anything.

Now, can we take each item step by step, stage by stage in its isolation, and not jumble them up together? A mind with an understanding of the whole process will not be satisfied with crude levels of analysis. A discerning mind knows every process and every bit of the continuum of perception. In the yoga meditation prescribed in the Sutras of Patanjali, we have to analyse these processes of perception one after another. These are the meditations of Patanjali, I should say. I do not want to use any Sanskrit term of Patanjali lest we become confused, therefore I am using only English equivalents in proper modern terms. The object is the concern in concentration and meditation—we know it very well. We are not concerned with anything else other than the chosen object.

Detached Observation

I want to investigate at this point how to observe the object. Can we take the observational process in its actual form, rather than in a confused context? The teacher Patanjali tells us that in ordinary perception we mix up so many factors, and then we see the object in front of us in a distorted way. We have to cultivate the habit of seeing an object in a detached or dispassionate manner at the outset. “Do not emotionally get ourselves involved in the object,” is the first instruction, because emotional perceptions are not right perceptions. A mother cannot see her child properly, an enemy cannot see his opponent properly, and a businessman cannot see money properly, because they are emotionally connected with the objects which are their concern.

They evaluate things from their own point of view. ‘From their own point of view’—this is very important phrase to remember. Our own point of view should not be active in a dispassionate perception. Our point of view should be from the point of view of the object itself, and that is called ‘dispassionate perception’. This is of course difficult enough to understand and practise because no one knows what it is to observe in this manner, but the habit has to be cultivated slowly by a placement of ourselves in the circumstance of the object of our concentration. Can we detach the object from our emotions? That is the first step in detachment. Can we cease to love or hate? This would be the beginning of our yogic concentration on the object.

The object may have some relation to us, of course, but can we think of it as having no relation to us? A man in the street has no relation to us, but when we see our friend, we see someone with a relation to us. There is a difference between seeing a passenger unconnected with us in a railway compartment, and seeing our own friend sitting beside us in the same compartment. We see the unrelated person and also the related person at the same time, but we know the difference between the two kinds of perception. The one is detached; another is attached. To detach the object from the pervading emotions is the first step in this stage of yoga. The mind pervades the object through the various functions it performs, and the crudest and the most difficult of them is the emotional aspect.

Emotion does not necessarily mean running to the object in excitement. Generally we understand by emotion a kind of upheaval of affection and hatred, but emotion does not necessarily mean that. It is an attitude, and any attitude is an emotion. It need not be an upheaval or a mood of our feelings. It may be a very calm, sober and fixed attitude, but yet it is emotional. The upheaval of affection or hatred is only a very fortified development of it. We are not really talking about that, as we know very well that it should not be there when we try to relate wisely with an object of perception. That there should not be even an attitude is something difficult to understand. The attitude is also an emotional one. Attitude is what is called ‘evaluation’. Judgement, criticism, etc. are the different terms employed for defining the attitude that we have towards an object.

What is our attitude towards the object? Can we behold an object without an attitude towards it? This is detached observation. “It is like this, it is like that,” is our judgement of the object. This judgement itself is an attitude. Our judgement of an object is not right, and it cannot be right at any time. That is why it is said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”, as our judgement is likely to be wrong. Just as we make judgements, so too are we likely to be judged to our own detriment by the other things in the world. That is why it is said, “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” There is no such thing as a correct judgement, ultimately speaking. All judgements are false, because they are one-sided. All judgements are from the point of view of the human mind, human sensations and human attitude which need not correspond to the whole state of perfection. All judgements are defective, so we shouldn’t say, “‘I make a correct judgement of things.” Practically, from the point of view of utility and pragmatism, the judgements may look all right as an empirical judgement, or an empirical veracity or as finally true. But universal validity is something quite different from the empirical validity of things. Factual perception and judgement need not necessarily be universally valid. That which is not universally valid cannot be called right perception.

We are interested here in the ultimate factuality of things and not merely the empirical utility of things. We should not mix up utility and workability with universality. To repeat, in judging an object we develop a personal attitude towards it. Our way of understanding the object is the cause of our judgement of it. Remember that our understanding of it is at the background, but is the understanding correct? Can we say that our way of understanding is the only way of understanding the object? Can there not be other viewpoints also? Patanjali has described these two kinds of judgements in his theory of the kleshas. He calls these kleshas or erroneous judgements ‘afflictions of the mind’. They are afflictions because they are errors. They are wrong ideations which will bias our knowledge of things and will bind us to suffering of various kinds. Evaluational errors and factual errors are the two kinds of kleshas or afflictions about which Patanjali speaks. The evaluational errors are easily detectable, but the factual errors are difficult to judge and understand.

As educated persons we may be in a position to understand that our love or hatred for an object may not be justified. Though we may be inclined to love or hate, our conscience will tell us, “It is not all right, and I am not justified in loving it or hating it.” This loving or hating is an evaluational error of the object. Any cultured person will be in a position to understand that love and hatred are not ultimately justifiable. To say, “A cow is in front of me,” is not an evaluational judgement, because I don’t love it or hate it. I am simply making a general statement that a cow is in front of me. But according to yoga psychology, even this is an incorrect statement. We think it is a cow, but we do not know what is actually in front of us. One may wonder why it would be contended that there is no cow present before us, when everybody agrees that it is a cow. However, everybody’s judgement need not be the correct judgement—everybody could be wrong.

This is something more difficult to understand, and here we are in the arduous process of yogic concentration. The yoga psychology of Patanjali tells us that our judgement that it is a cow is itself not correct, let alone our saying, “This is my cow, and that is somebody else’s cow.” That is something worse. The judgement that there is a cow in front of us is not correct, and this is what we call a ‘painless affliction’, while calling it ‘my cow’ is a painful affliction. “My cow, somebody else’s cow”; if we make such statements, we are in a state of painful affliction, but when we say, “There is a cow,” we are in a state of painless affliction. It is painless, but it is nevertheless an affliction, as it is not correct.

I need not go into the details of the painful affliction, because in light of our yogic inquiry we are all in a position to understand that it is not correct. We can discern why we should not call a cow ‘ours’ or ‘somebody else’s. These are crude ways of thinking. ‘Mine-ness’ and ‘I-ness’ are not good, as we have been told many times, so I need not go into the details of this. However, we cannot understand why it should be wrong to say that this is a cow that is in front of us. Here it is that we begin Patanjali’s way of concentrating on an object. He says that even the factual judgement of the presence of an object in front is not correct, universally speaking, though it may be all right from a particular person’s viewpoint. As I have said, the universal is something different from the particular, but we may wonder what the difference is. The particular is connected with a particular definitive character, while the universal is connected with all particulars. We can understand what the difference is. While the universal is at once related to all the existent particulars in the whole cosmos, the particular taken in its isolation and segregated-ness is not connected with other particulars. A single particular need not necessarily concern itself with other particulars. This is called ‘selfishness’ in ordinary modern language. When the particular asserts itself to the exclusion of the value of other particulars, we call it a selfish way of assessment of values. This is generally what happens in every valued judgement.

But the universal cannot be selfish, because it is at once connected with all the particulars simultaneously. Now I will bring our minds back to what I said earlier. Our definition of an object like a cow is possible because we see a shape and colour in front of us, and then we give a name to it. Colours have taken a shape to which we give a particular name—in this case a ‘cow’. If the colour and the shape are not there, we will not give it that name, and we will not say that a cow is there. We should also not rely too much on our sense of touch to identify the object. Our sense of touch is not in any better position than our sense of perception. Let us keep this subject a little apart for a consideration a little later. For the time being it is enough to understand that if the form had not taken a shape and if there were no colours present, we would not have called it a ‘cow’. To us, a cow is nothing but a form which has taken a shape. Horns, legs, etc. are names that we give to a form that we see, which is nothing but a colour that we perceive. This is how we have to go a little deeper into the perception of an object. The cow, for all practical purposes of judgement, is not a substantial something. It is only a reaction of colour upon the eyes and a shape that seems to be associated with that grouping of forms to which we have given a name. The reason behind the shaping of the form is its location in space. If space were not there, the cow also would not be seen.

It has to also be associated with time, of course. The object has to be in the present, so that it may be perceived. It has to also be in space. Space, time, colour and the relationship of this colour with other colours by a positive and a negative association and dissociation are responsible for our judgement of the existence of an object like a cow. Can we know what a cow is, minus the associations and its spatio-temporal existence? This is where the first stage of meditation commences according to Patanjali. To associate something with relationships, with name and form, and with ideas is the usual way of perception. To conceive the object as it could be in itself—without any such associations with other particulars, without association with a colour or a shape and without association with our idea about it—is to contemplate it as it is in itself. The cow, as the object of perception, though it may not be related to us emotionally, is related to us perceptionally.

This is the distinction between the evaluational and the factual judgement, as I have said already. We are not concerned with the emotional relationship of the mind with the object now. We are concerned with a more difficult affair, namely, the perceptional attitude itself, which is called the ‘painless klesha’ or affliction. It is an affliction because the mind is unnecessarily worrying itself about a situation that has arisen by identifying the situation with a substantial something. This series of relationships is perceived as a substantial object.

The Insubstantiality of Objects

I spoke earlier about Buddha’s analysis of things. There is no such thing as a solid object, said Buddha. The solidity is nothing but the location in space and time of a grouping of certain sensations. This was Buddha’s definition of the substantiality of an object. Curiously, this is also our modern scientists’ definition of an object. To our own wonder, we will realise that scientists today have a similar definition of a physical object as the one Buddha had. According to modern physics, the object is a spatio-temporal location of a grouping of sensations. Whatever the crude senses may tell us, there is actually no such thing as a solid object. The five senses, including the tactile sense, provide the notion of the existence of solidity of an object. If our fingers can be repulsed by contact, we call something solid, otherwise, we won’t know if anything is there or not. That something which is called the object of perception should be capable of a repulsion to our tactile sense. If the repulsion is absent for any reason whatsoever, we cannot know that the object is there. The capacity of the five senses to jointly act upon the mental operation is the reason behind our judgement of the factual existence of an object. All senses connive together to deceive us! It is not one sense that misleads us—all the senses tell us, “Yes, it is there,” and then we have to believe them.

If there are five hundred false witnesses who say the same thing, what will the judge do? He would think they are all correct. Witnesses may be large in number, but they are all telling lies, all of them, without a single exception. We go by lies merely because the majority says they are true. The majority that is the senses give us a similar definition of an object. The eyes see colour, the ears may hear sounds, the fingers feel a sensation, we taste it through the palate, and we smell with the nose. But what are these? They are reactions, but the mind plays havoc in making the judgement of the existence of the object based on these sensations. The whole thing is made worse by the mind’s acquiescence in the report given by the senses. If the judge does not believe in the witnesses—even if they are five hundred in number—well, that is a one thing. But if he says, “Oh, five hundred are saying so, I think it must be correct”, then the whole judgement may go wrong, merely because the majority has led him to believe so. The mind is like an indiscriminate judge, which is convinced merely by the evidence of the senses. Law does not merely mean evidence. There are many other things involved in law, so we should not think that evidence alone is everything.

There was a poor man once who was executed merely because the evidence was against him, but in fact he had committed no crime whatsoever. The fact was discovered later on after he was hanged. The judgement went wrong due to wrong application of the law. Such things happen in practical life, and this happens to us daily with our senses, says yoga. Every day we are wrong. Everything that we see is an erroneous perception, because of a substantiality and factuality being associated by the mind with a grouping of sensations. Minus sensation we cannot know what an object is. We should not think in terms of things ‘out there’. The ‘out there’ is due to the operation of space and time. Sensations, when they are located in space and time, look like something out there in front of us. Space, time and sensations put together are objective perception. What Patanjali wants us to do in meditation is to dissociate the relationships of space, time and sensation from that which really is. Can we imagine what there really is minus spatio-temporal associations and sensations? Our mind will go giddy if we start thinking along these. We will start scratching our heads. This is the first step in meditation—the dissociation of the physical object from all the sensations, and even from space and time.

Patanjali doesn’t want us to dissociate the object from space and time in the beginning—this step is taken a little later on. For the present at least, we dissociate our chosen object from relationships to other objects and think of it as something independent of the sensations we have of it. “Minus the fivefold sensations, what could the physical object be?” is to be our first question in the meditation on the object. In one Sutra in Patanjali’s text all this is described, and I hope we understand what it actually implies. A tremendous detachment cultivated toward the object is required—not merely emotionally, but also perceptionally. I mentioned the detached observation of an object. We might have understood it to mean merely emotional detachment, but I’m going to say now that it is not merely that. It also involves general perception itself.

Apart from our cultivating the habit of beholding the object as free from the notion of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, can we cultivate the habit of beholding the object from its own standpoint? Can we place ourselves in the position of the object? Try to imagine for the time being the point of view of some external object—let’s say a cow for instance. This is not just a question of seeing the cow—we have to imagine what the cow itself sees. Can we imagine the cow thinking itself as an independent something? Why should we be allowed to define the cow? Why should the cow define itself in terms of somebody else? Is it not something by itself? Is it a slave of its relationship with others? Does it exist merely because of a relationship?

Independence from Connections

Nobody would like to be told that he or she exists merely because of his or her relation with others. Am I not something by myself? What is this something that I am? What is this cow, thinking itself to be something independent of associations with others? What is the cow when it is not seen by anybody else? Nobody sees the cow in the whole of creation, but the cow may exist even though nobody sees it. What could be the situation or form when it is not beheld? Suppose the sun does not shine. There would then be no colour, and if nobody could see the cow, there would be no idea about it. When there is no object external to it, there may also not be any relations. Can we imagine the existence of a cow independent of its connection with other particulars? It is difficult to conceive what the circumstance of the object is, but this is how we have to concentrate in the beginning, says Patanjali. This will help us in clearing up the muddled way of thinking. It remains to be seen what actually will be realised by this way of thinking and meditation. But what we will realise now at least, is that we have cultivated the habit of concentration and also the habit of thinking without relating an object to any other thing.

We are not a father or a mother, we are not a brother or a sister, we are not a friend or a foe, and we are not related to any other person in this world in any manner whatsoever. What is our name? When we are asked what our names are, we give some answer, but who gave us this name? Somebody else did. Why do we depend upon somebody else? Why should we be subject to so much slavery? Somebody says that I have this name; therefore I am this name. Is it a good judgement to think so? Simply because somebody wants to call us by a name, we need not necessarily enslave ourselves to this name. Patanjali advises that we should detach ourselves from the name. If we are alone somewhere, why do we want a name? Nobody is there to call on us. We want a name because we want to be called by somebody. We want to be named, singled out and defined. Suppose we don’t need to be connected with any kind of activity in the world and we are absolutely independent persons. Why would we want a name? Hence, this name is an unnecessary botheration of the mind. So deeply has this idea of name gone into our minds that we cannot imagine that we could live without it, but to live without a name could actually be so simple. Name is unconnected with us, and there is no connection of the name with us. We can imagine that we can be without name, provided of course nobody else has any dealings with us. When I can exist alone—absolutely alone, unconnected with any other human being—then it is that I can be without a name.

Without Name and Form

Patanjali tells us it is not merely that we are without a name; we are also without a form! To our surprise, he is telling us that this is what we have to learn in the higher states of meditation. While it is easy enough to understand that we can be without a name, we may find it a little difficult to understand that we are also without form. He says that form is nothing but association. Our relationships with other things by colour and by space-time associations, etc. are ultimately responsible for a notion of the form of an object. Can we dissociate the object—whether it is a cow or our own self, it makes no difference—as if it were free from name and relationship? If this is possible, then we exist as we truly are without name and form. One is without a name because the name has been given by someone else, and one can exist without a name. One is without a form because form is only a bundle of relationships. A network of relations is the formation of the body. It becomes difficult for us to imagine that our body is not a form, because we have been accustomed to think in terms of sensations. We can sense the body; that is what confirms our bodily existence. How could we then say that it is not there? Whatever it may be, in the final analysis, we don’t have a body; we only have only sensations. Instead of saying, “I have a body”, we can better say, “I have only sensations of a body”.

Similarly, we have sensations of other objects. Apart from our having to be without association of a name, now we find the necessity of accepting the fact that there can be existence without a form. Again I would like us to read the analysis of Buddha and modern physicists like Eddington and James Jeans. They said the same thing that Buddha taught. The sensations which are grouped together by a habit of the mind in terms of space and time are responsible for our assertions, “Here is a body and here is an object.” Sensations, space and time, and the habit of the mind—all combined—create the notions of there being an object and there being a body. Habit has made this way of thinking so factual that we cannot imagine that there could be any other way of thinking.

Plato’s description in the seventh chapter of The Republic of the people living in a cave would help us to clarify these ideas. People get accustomed to erroneous ways of thinking—this is what Plato tells us. We mistake shadows for facts, and we get accustomed to the illusion so much that we cannot afterwards see the facts. After a person who has cataracts has an eye operation, he will suddenly see bright daylight. He is surprised. “What am I seeing?” He cannot believe his eyes. He has never seen forms, and now suddenly he sees the world of reality. Likewise, the mind will see a flood of reality opening itself up to its vision, when it frees itself from sensations and the clutches of space and time. We have to start thinking along these lines in meditation.

In our practical lives we may find it difficult to think like this. In the later stages we can do this in our day-to-day practical lives also, but in the earlier stages we need to confine this way of thinking to our meditation room. We must try hard to dissociate objectivity from relations and sensations, and think of the physical object as it is. The two ways of meditation in the initial stages are physical observation of an object with relation, and the physical observation of an object without relation. These are the first two stages of Patanjali’s way of meditation. There are at least seven stages of meditation, but for now I am concerned merely with Patanjali’s psychological process of meditation. It doesn’t mean that this method is suitable to all, but I am trying to give an outline of different methods. If we like this method we can use it, if we don’t like it, we can practise some other technique. This is a purely scientific way of approach and a psychological method of analysis of objects. The method employs the observation of a physical object with associations and the observation of a physical object without associations. This itself will take enough time for us to cultivate. It may take months, or it may take years to cultivate the habit of this kind of detached observation of an object.

If we are successful, we will find that we will never love or hate things. The whole world will look ideal to us. We will not be disturbed or upset by anything after this cultivation of thinking along these lines. Everything will look quite familiar, natural and expected. Nothing will be unexpected in this world. Nothing will take us by surprise when this habit of thinking is cultivated. It is relation-less thinking of a physical object of perception. In the beginning stages, this way of thinking may be cultivated in respect of an external object, and not with our own bodies. We need not attempt the same detached relationship to our bodies in the earlier stages of meditation. We will come to it a little later, because we are so much attached to our own bodies that we will refuse to analyse ourselves like this. It is a little easier to analyse an external object apparently unrelated to us. The first stages of meditation are connected with external concepts and forms, rather than internal ones. From the external we come to the internal. Therefore we should take a physically external object for our analysis and concentration.

What is that object? We can choose any object we like. In Swami Sivanandaji Maharaj’s book Concentration and Meditation, we will find many such suggestions given pertaining to objects for concentration. We can take any simple object—our fountain pen, our pencil, a flower in the garden, a flame of a lamp, the moon shining in the sky, a resplendent star—whatever we like may be our object of concentration. We have to start thinking of these objects in terms of what it could be by itself, independently and unrelated to us. ‘Unrelated’ means not merely emotionally unrelated, but also perceptionally and factually.

When we start thinking like this, it is not merely thinking—it is called meditation. We will have experiences of peculiar types in the initial stages of meditation. We will have super-sensible experiences. In every type of super-sensible experience, we will have a joy and a sense of freedom coming in the wake of this concentration. We will begin to gradually feel that we are getting released from the clutches of sense objects. Botherations, annoyances, etc. will be getting less and less. When we are free from the clutches of things, our annoyances will be less. We are annoyed, disturbed, harassed or emotionally disturbed by the objects when they are thought of as related to other objects and in relation to us in space and time. If we can think of them as unrelated, we will not only be free from psychological harassment from things, but we also gain a control over things. We will gain a kind of power over the objects, and the power may go to such an extent that our thought may affect the object. It may start acting according to our will, but our intention should not be to exercise any kind of control over the object. That would be a kind of emotion again interfering with concentration. The seeker should not go after powers. The powers may come, but we are not to worry about them. The moment we think of them, our emotions are again there, and we will be defeated in the very purpose for which we have started. The control that we are likely to automatically exert over the object of concentration comes spontaneously. We are not to bother with these things and neither should we give them much thought. If we think of things in this way, we will immediately develop love and hatred, and then we will be frustrated in our attempts.

The concentration on the object is therefore for the purpose not only of understanding the real structure of the object, but also to gain a kind of inner intimacy with it. We will feel that the object is under our control, and we feel a sense of freedom from it and therefore a joy attending upon it. Wherever there is freedom, there is joy. We are daily harassed by something or other—knowingly or unknowingly. Even unknowingly we will be harassed, and we don’t know what is happening. The very presence of things external to us is the cause of worry. Psychologists will tell us how things, merely existing, can disturb us. Not merely the objects connected with us—even objects unconnected with us can apparently disturb, merely by their existence around us. This disturbance has to cease through this method of concentration on physical objects.