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The Study and Practice of Yoga

An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali


Chapter 8: The Principle of Self-Affirmation

The next step is what we may call 'taking stock of our situation' before we actually embark upon the great adventure of whole-souled meditation. What do we mean by 'taking stock'? Every businessman knows it. We just try to find out what things are there. How much is there on the credit side, or how much on the debit side? How much we owe others, and how much others owe us will be revealed from a stock-taking process. It is said that the true inner structure of a person never gets revealed in ordinary life as long as the mind is pulled in different directions. We know very well that if our right hand is pulled by someone and our left hand is pulled by someone else, and if everyone starts pulling us from all directions, we cannot assess our true state of affairs on account of our diversion of attention in the direction of the pulls exerted upon our personality. Our psychological personality receives the impact of these pulls every day in our life so that we are never ourselves, even for a few minutes of the day. We are always artificial personalities, a fact which will not come to the daylight of understanding because we have never been anything other than that. This artificial personality of ours may become so strong and impetuous that it may persist even in sleep, so that we are artificial even in sleep. The true nature will not get revealed because of the heavy impact of this artificial set-up of our life.

The moment we wake up in the morning, we generally tune ourselves to external conditions rather than be ourself and to go deep into our own needs – our weaknesses and our strengths. We are placed in this world under such conditions, fortunately or unfortunately, that we have not a moment's rest from the pressure exerted upon us by conditions outside – external circumstances. We are always something in terms of something else; we are nothing by our own self. This is very unfortunate and is going to be a great obstacle before us. We are either a brother or a sister, a father or a mother, a friend or an enemy, an officer or a subordinate, this or that. All this is a false personality, because in our own selves we are neither brothers nor sisters, neither fathers nor mothers, neither bosses nor subordinates or servants, or any such thing; all these are only foisted relationships. But these are the things that make our life, and we are only that, and nothing but that. How happy a person feels when he has the opportunity to go on brooding, thinking and contemplating the social status that he holds. He would not like to think that he is a puny animal, bereft of these relationships, when he is divested of all these contacts.

The status that one occupies in human society is not the true nature of that person. The status need not necessarily be a social imposition – it can be a psychological circumstance also, and it can even be biological. All these keep us in a state of subconscious tension. If very deeply studied, psychoanalytically, we will find that every human being is a patient – not psychologically healthy, at least from a very profound point of view – a patient in the sense that there is something external grown as an accretion upon one's true nature which has covered up and smothered one's own freedom of existence. All these various types of fungii that have grown around us in the form of the biological, psychological and social relationships, keep us in a fool's paradise – a fool's paradise in the sense that we live in a world which is totally false, and which is not true or compatible with our real nature.

The practice of yoga is very cautious about all these internal structural devices, which have been manufactured by nature to keep the individual under subjugation by brainwashing him from birth until death and never allowing him to think of what these devices are. If we want to subordinate a person and keep that person under subjection always, we have to brainwash that person every day by telling him something contrary to what he is, repeating it every day – every moment in every thought, every speech and every action – so that there is a false personality grown around that person and he becomes our servant. This has happened to everyone, and this trick seems to be played by the vast diversified nature itself, so that everyone is a servant of nature rather than a master. This is the source of sorrow.

Human suffering is due to a kind of subjection exerted on it by forces about which one cannot have any knowledge, truly speaking; also, one would not be allowed to have any kind of knowledge of it. This is what we call an iron curtain hanging in front of us so that we will not know what is ahead of us, or behind us, or even by the side of us. Let anyone find a little time to brood over this subject and weep silently if the truth comes out. They say that when a person is drowning and has lost everything that can be regarded as worthwhile in life, or when a person's life is in danger – death is yawning before him and is imminent – in such conditions, the mind reveals its true nature. It is said that when there is asphyxiation caused by drowning, all the memories of the past, sometimes even of past lives, will be unrolled before the mind for a flash of a moment due to the horror of impending death and the nervous pressure felt at that moment. Similar experiences are known to have happened in situations when a person has lost everything.

These are things which cannot be learned theoretically by the study of books, because very few people have lost everything; we always have something with us. But to experience that moment of reckoning, we must lose everything, even our last strip of cloth; no one should want to even look at our face, as if we are the worst perhaps in the whole of creation. Such should be the condition to come upon us – nothing to eat, no food of any kind, no place to lie down, no raiment on the body, everything is horrible – at that moment the true nature of a person comes out. Otherwise, whatever self-analysis we will do, it will be an analysis of the false personality. Psychological analysis or yogic investigation conducted by a false mind will produce only false results and, therefore, a very superior type of CID (Central Intelligence Division) agent, who is not involved in the case on hand, is necessary to investigate into the mind – someone quite different from and outside the purview of the operation of the involved mind. Such a mind is called the higher mind, which is in us. It is this higher mind that has to do what is called the stock-taking of one's own condition.

When a person seriously takes to the practice of yoga, a thorough analysis or stock-taking may have to be done, taking into consideration one's experiences during the past many years, of whose nature a little may be still present in one's current state of affairs. Memories of the past sometimes evoke present experiences, and we must also take note of those experiences and factors which can evoke memories of the past. According to Patanjali, memory is one of the obstacles in yoga. Many people think that memory is a very good thing, and even complain that they have no memory. Well, that is all right for the workaday world, but from another angle of vision memory is regarded as an obstacle because we are repeatedly made to think of something that has happened in the past, so that it goes on annoying us constantly even though that event has passed and has no connection with our present life. Both pleasures of the past and pains of the past can evoke conditions which may force us to repeat those experiences, positively or negatively.

We have to wipe out memories of the past, especially when they have no connection with the type of life which we are going to live in the future. Whatever experiences we have passed through that are unrelated and irrelevant to our future aim should be brushed aside and cast out by exorcising them like devils, and then not allowing them to enter into the ken of the mind by emphasising in our understanding that:"They mean nothing to me. They are only something like the experiences I had in my dream. Why should I think of them now? They have no meaning, though they had a meaning at that time.

But more difficult than the work of wiping out past memories is the adjustment of oneself with present conditions. We shall not think now about what is ahead of us in the future. The present condition is a reality more vehement than the past memories because we see it with our eyes, and nothing can be worse than that. These things which we see with our eyes every day and with which we have some sort of connection or the other, at least remotely, have some say in the matter of our own personal lives. They have to be harnessed for the purpose of the practice of yoga, harnessed in the sense that they should be made contributory in some way or the other to the aim before us.

It is also necessary here to make a distinction between the necessary and the unnecessary aspects of life, or the essentials and the non-essentials, we may say. We have umpteen kinds of perceptions and relationships in life. I see a tree in front of me, I see the Ganga flowing, I see the sun rising – these are all perceptions. But I need not worry too much about these perceptions since they are indeterminate to a large extent, and except for the fact that they are cognitions and perceptions of certain facts outside, they do not mean much in my personal emotional life or volitional undertakings. In two important sutras, Patanjali draws a distinction between 'indeterminate perceptions' and 'determinate perceptions'. The determinate ones are those which have a direct connection with our daily life – we cannot avoid them, and they control us to a large extent. The indeterminate ones are like the tree in front, for example. It is merely a perception and a knowledge of something that is there, but it is not going to harass us or control us in any visible or palpable manner.

These perceptions – or we may call them cognitions – of the determinate and indeterminate character are designated in the language of Patanjali as vrittis. Sometimes they are equated with what they call kleshas. A klesha is a peculiar term used in yoga psychology meaning a kind of affliction. Unless we enter into the philosophical background of yoga, it will be difficult to appreciate why a perception is called an affliction. We shall look into the details of this subject as we proceed further – why every perception is a kind of affliction upon us, why it is a pain and not something desirable.

The determinate perceptions or the directly involved factors in our life are: love and hatred, self-assertion, and fear of death, including of course, or equivalent to, love of life. We are terribly fond of our own personal life, and we dread death. The physical individuality is to be protected at any cost – by hook or by crook, by the struggle for existence, or as our biologists say, by the application of the law of the survival of the fittest. By struggle, by competition, by any method, we wish to survive. If it is a question of one's survival, one would not mind even the destruction of others, because it is a question of 'my life'.

This is the argument of the central principle of individuality called the ego, or the asmita or ahamkara. The protection of this ego is the main function of our psychophysical individuality. Its existence and its operation have two sides or aspects of emphasis – a like for certain things, and a dislike for certain other things. We may be wondering why it is that we like certain things and dislike certain things. Is there any reason behind it? The reason is not easily available, though it is available if we go a little deeper. A like, a want, a love or an affection is that pattern of the movement of our consciousness towards an external object, whose characteristics are observed by the mind for the time being to be the counterpart, the correlative of the present condition of one's individuality – so much so that when the condition of our personality changes, our like or love will also change. We cannot go on loving the same thing for eternity, nor can we hate a thing for eternity.

Loves and hatreds change when our condition changes, so that likes and dislikes, loves and hatreds are the reactions set up in respect of certain external objects by the changing pattern of our own personality or individuality. If it is summer, I like to drink water; if it is winter, I like to drink hot tea. My liking for hot tea or for cold water has some connection with what is taking place inside me in my biological and psychological personality. When there is drying up of the system due to heat, there is a need for water – I would like to drink cold water. But when it is freezing cold due to the wintry atmosphere, I would like to have hot tea. So our like of hot tea and dislike of cold water in winter is caused by a peculiar condition of our body – coupled with the condition of the mind, of course. In summer we would not like to drink hot tea. We would like a soda or cold water, etc., and dislike anything that is hot; we would not like to have hot coffee or hot tea in such climate. "Oh, it is so hot. I will take cold water." We dislike during summer that very thing which we liked in winter. What has happened to us? Why did we like it that day and today we dislike it? It is not because there is something wrong with tea or something wrong with water. They are the same things; nothing has happened to them. But something has happened to us. So today I like that which I disliked the other day, and today I dislike that which I liked the other day. What is the reason? The reason is us only. What has happened to us? Something has happened to us. If one can very carefully go into the deepest recesses of one's nature, one would know why loves and hatreds arise in one's mind. We project upon others, by a peculiar process called a defense-mechanism in psychoanalysis, the counterpart of our own nature. That which will not fit into our present condition is not liked by us. By 'present condition' I mean physical, biological, psychological, social – everything. Anything that will fit into our present physical, biological, psychological and social condition is liked or loved by us. Anything that is outside the need of this condition is disliked; it becomes an obstacle. "I don't like it," we say. Why don't we like it? We do not know. "I don't like it; that is all." But if we are good physicians of the mind we will know why it is that we like it, and why it is that we do not like it.

Asmita or egoism, which is the principle of the affirmation of a particular condition of individuality, is the reason for a particular love or hatred under given conditions. This affirmation of individuality is a peculiar thing, which cannot be understood by the intellect, by ordinary logic. Whatever be the condition with which consciousness identifies itself, that is affirmed by the ego, so that the ego does not have a set pattern – it goes on changing itself. "Today I assert myself as a collector; tomorrow I assert myself as a minister." Though the principle of assertion is the same, the way of its function is different. The principle, and not merely the function, has to be tackled. It is not important to know what kind of food we want. We may want chapatti, or rice, or dal, or bread, or jam, or butter; that is not important. What is important is why we are feeling hungry – that is the principle behind eating. What we eat is a minor detail, but it is why we eat that is important.

Likewise, what type of assertion we are making is a different matter – it is a detail. But why we are making this assertion at all is the subject for analysis in yoga. Why is it that today we identify ourself as a sannyasi – "I am a mandaleshwar" – and we go on asserting that we are mandaleshwars; we are officers; we are such and such; we are this and that. This principle of affirmation is a peculiar twist in consciousness that has got identified with a changing condition. Every condition changes. We cannot have a permanent condition in life, so the affirmation of the ego also goes on changing. How do we know what we were in the previous birth? We had a different type of affirmation at that time. Who was our father in a previous birth? Who was our mother? And what has happened to that father and that mother? We have completely forgotten them. We now have another father and mother. In the next birth, what will happen to us? We will have some other father and mother. How many fathers? How many mothers? How many sisters? How many brothers? How many friends? How many enemies? So, who is our friend and who is our enemy? Who is our father and who is our mother.

The ego does not want all these questions to be raised; it cannot answer these questions. It is a terrific sword that we brandish before it, to put these questions to it. It will become mad if such questions are put. It doesn't want to listen to all these things; it will affirm a particular condition only. Immediately there is a ramification with two tentacles – on one side there is love and on the other side there is hatred. They are automatic manifestations of the principle of individuality. The moment we assert ourselves in a particular condition, love and hatred must be there, because love is an automatic projection of the mind in respect of the counterpart of our present condition, which also explains hatred.

Patanjali mentions that these are terrible obstacles in our spiritual progress. We are caught up and we do not know how we are caught up. First of all there is the self-affirmative principle which reinforces itself, like hard concrete, by repeated hammering upon loves and hatreds throughout the day and night; and the love of this individual life and the consequent fear of the death that may come upon it are natural consequences of this ego-ridden individuality. Therefore, we can say the whole problem of life is the ego of man. This has to be tackled with caution.