The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 39: Concentrating the Mind on One Reality

After mentioning the possible obstructions to yoga, there is a consideration, again, as to how one can face these obstacles, because there is no use merely suffering them and not knowing what to do when they come. The nine obstacles and the five accessories to these obstacles have been enumerated and explained. There is a very simple and direct instruction by Patanjali which may go over the heads of people if it is stated plainly, because his prescription is in terms of the ultimate nature of things, which he regards as the solution for all problems. Before I tell you what seems to be in the mind of Patanjali in regard to the solution of these problems or the removal of these obstacles, it is better to recapitulate the causes behind these obstacles. We have studied them fairly well in our earlier sessions, but it is better to recollect them for the purpose of deeper understanding and concentration.

The obstacles do not come either from inside or outside, exclusively speaking. They come from a peculiar combination of both factors. As a matter of fact, whatever be the difficulty, including physical illness, no difficulty is exclusive in the sense of being external or internal. It is caused by internal factors as well as external ones. So is the case with every problem, every difficulty, every question, and every issue. Our life is neither purely subjective nor purely objective; we are hanging in the middle, and this condition is the cause of all the problems. If we had been wholly inside, that would have perhaps been better, but that is impracticable.

The world that is outside us will not allow us to be wholly inside. Nor is it true that we can be wholly outside, because there are forces within us which compel us to pay attention to them. So we cannot be a hundred percent extrovert, nor can we be a hundred percent introvert. We have a percentage of both elements in us, and so there is a relativity of action and reaction between internal conditions and external conditions. This relative condition is the condition of the world as a whole, including the condition of every person and every thing in this world. This is why it is often said that this is a relative world. There is nothing absolute here – everything is conditional. Everything is determined by something else, so that nothing can stand on its own status, on its own legs.

The difficulties arise on account of an improper adjustment of the internal with the external, or the external with the internal. If there is a proper adjustment, perhaps we would be able to manoeuvre a course, strike a via media between these two devils – or we may call them the devil and the deep sea – the external and the internal. But it is not always easy to determine the correct golden mean between the internal forces and the external conditions of the world.

We cannot wholly understand the structure of things outside, nor can we fully understand our own selves. So there is always a miscalculation, in almost every moment of time, in the manner of adjustment of oneself with the world outside. Neither can the world adjust itself with us, nor can we adjust ourselves with the world. When the world cannot understand us fully, nor can we understand the world fully, where comes the question of harmony? It is impossible and, therefore, some sort of a friction is inevitable; and it is a perpetual friction, not felt only occasionally or rarely. To go back to what was discussed much earlier, the original cause of this irreconcilability felt between the internal and the external is the gulf that has been created between them – the individual's isolation from the Cosmic, about which we have adequately studied previously.

The segmentation of the individual from the Universal compels the individual to go back to its source, as that is the natural state of affairs and the natural condition of things. This obligation on the part of every individual in respect of the Universal is the cause of cognitions, perceptions, attachments, loves, hatreds, etc. All of these also bring about a sort of friction due to a lack of sufficient understanding of the prevailing condition of the external atmosphere, in relation to the relevant or the corresponding internal condition of the individual concerned.

Neither is the world in a permanent condition always, nor is an individual in a permanent condition at all times. People outside and things in the world go on changing in the process of time, and so it becomes necessary for us to adjust ourselves to things in the world – to every condition of the world, and every state of people or things outside. Also, we ourselves go on changing in the process of evolution - we are not today what we were yesterday. So, there is a continuous necessity to reshuffle and remodel our relationships with the world outside – all of which is, indeed, a great hardship, a struggle and a torture, we may say, on the part of the individual experiencer. And so, life is a struggle; it is a perpetual hardship, an exertion, and we cannot be at peace for a moment in this world.

This compulsion felt by the individual to relate itself to the universal outside, including the world and society, simultaneously brings about a need to understand the conditions under which this relationship is possible. But this understanding is outside the purview of individual knowledge. No object in this world is wholly individual - it has a cosmic element in it. That is why we cannot understand anyone wholly. To understand even a grain of sand fully, thoroughly, to the core, we may have to understand the whole world and the whole universe, because the essentials of the whole universe will be found to be present in a grain of sand. So even to thoroughly understand such a minute particle as an atom, we may have to be omniscient, which is impossible. Therefore the question of thoroughly understanding anything in this world does not arise – it is impracticable. Therefore suffering cannot be avoided as long as we live in this world, until we become omniscient.

Therefore, these obstacles arise on account of a fundamental difficulty in which we find ourselves - namely, the inability to understand the world, the incapacity to relate ourselves properly to things and persons outside – in short, an absence of the knowledge of the essential structure of all things. The remedy, then, is to go to the cause, as it is in every case, in every question. Patanjali's prescription is, "Fix your attention on the Ultimate Reality, which will set right everything." Ekatattva abhyasah is the only recipe – tatpratiṣedhārtham ekatattva abhyāsaḥ (I.32). Meditation, in a word, is the answer.

We cannot succeed in life without an element of meditation in our minds. Whenever we put our minds into an action, we are supposed to be meditating, though in a very, very little percentage. We cannot do anything without the mind being in it. Can we think of any action bereft of the mind element? That would be a thoughtless action, and it cannot lead to success. Ordinarily, what happens is that although we put our minds into a work or an action, we are not fully interested in that action. It is very difficult to imagine any kind of work in this world in which we are wholly interested, one hundred percent. We cannot be wholly interested even in our own children; that is not possible. We have only a percentage of interest, because our interest is conditioned by other factors.

How can we have unconditioned interest in anything? This is really the meaning of meditation. When we have an unconditioned interest in something, our whole mind is present there. This is the secret of spiritual practice, ultimately – the essence of yoga and the meaning of meditation. In ordinary enterprises the whole mind is not present, obviously, for reasons well known to us, but to the extent that the mind is present in the action, perhaps to that extent alone we may succeed in the action. Minus meditation there is no success in any field of life, because putting the mind into a work or an action is another way of putting oneself, one's soul, into it. The mind is only a symbol or an insignia of the soul in us, because where the mind is, there the consciousness also is. As we have studied, phala-vyapti follows vritti-vyapti, and phala-vyapti is nothing but the attending of the consciousness simultaneously with the action of the mind in respect of any action or object; and consciousness is one's own soul.

So, virtually, to put the mind into a work is to put oneself into the work, one's soul into the work, one's being into the work, to find oneself in the work – we become the work. This is really the essence of karma yoga also. We ourselves become the work, and then we have to be successful; and we will not be tired of the work, because we cannot be tired of ourselves. But if the element of self is absent, if the soul is not sufficiently present in the work, the work can become tiring, fatiguing, exhausting. That percentage of action, or work, or function which is bereft of the soul-element can become tiring and annoying. But that percentage of action or function in which the soul-element is present cannot be tiring, though we may go on doing it for a hundred years.

Take breathing, for example. We are not tired of breathing. We do not say, "For how many days do I have to breathe? I am fed up with this; I will stop it today." Nobody says that. It has become a part of our nature; it is we ourselves functioning and, therefore, we cannot be tired. That which is an essential part of us cannot be an object of exhaustion. When the mind, which is the acting principle of the soul, connects itself with an object or engages itself in an action, it thereby determines the extent or the percentage of success possible. If we have to obviate all of the problems and difficulties of life, we have to go to the topmost type of meditation, which will put its finger on the vital spots of every problem and not merely gaze at them, stare at them or look at them from outside. But this is a simple remedy, which is almost impracticable for ordinary people.

This ekatattva abhyasah, or the resort of the mind to one reality, is practically impossible, because the mind is not used to, or accustomed to, permanently engaging itself in any one given thing. It is variety that feeds the mind; anything single is monotonous. If variety is presented, we may not feel even the passing of time, but if a single item is presented before us, even a few minutes may look like ages, whatever be that thing in this world. The variety of the world keeps the mind engaged in a pleasant mood, and it is this variety that causes the distraction of the mind. Variety also means, at the same time, the cutting off of the individual from the object of its engagement, and we have already noted that this severance of the subject from its object is the source of all troubles. So to ask for variety is to ask for trouble, while our intention is to obviate or get rid of the troubles.

The idea of one reality will not enter the mind ordinarily, because we have never seen such a thing in this world, and what has never been seen cannot be understood or appreciated. But a judicious analysis, philosophically conducted with a disciplined attitude, can take us to the realms of very abstract principles, which ultimately rule the destinies of mankind and the world as a whole. The higher principles of mathematics, for example, cannot enter the minds of people, but we cannot say that they are unrealities. They are more real than gross arithmetical calculations. A child will not be able to understand the principles of abstract mathematics, because these abstractions apparently have no connection with the things of the world. The very complicated algebraic calculations of an advanced physicist or a mathematician will look like a crazy presentation in Greek and Latin for a person who is untutored in the subject. But we know how real these calculations are, and how they have contributed to the transformation of the whole world today by means of the industrial revolution and technological advance. All of this has become possible only by the calculations of these abstract thinkers who are not very much concerned with the concrete objects of the world, while the ordinary person thinks that the reality of the world is nothing but these objects that are concretely presented to the senses. The abstractions of physicists and mathematicians ultimately determine the fate of even concrete objects. But to understand these principles we have to undergo a very severe discipline of thought, which a student of these subjects knows very well.

Mostly, it is impossible to conceive of universals in the mind, because universals do not exist in this world; everything is a particular. But a person who has read a little of logic will know what a universal is. The general principles present unanimously and uniformly in a group of particulars – this principle is called the universal. As logicians will tell us, horses are the particulars; horse-ness is the universal. Horse-ness is different from horse. But to the mind that has never been accustomed to thinking in this fashion, this sort of statement looks crazy and meaningless. What do we mean by 'horse-ness' or 'table-ness'? It is stupidity to talk like this. But it is not stupidity to a logician. These are the universal elements behind particular concrete objects that he is trying to describe. Likewise, apart from these logical universals which are only notional, we may say, there are other types of universals, which may look notional from a purely academic point of view but are realities more significant than concrete objects, as is the case with mathematical equations, as mentioned, which are far removed from the world of particulars and concrete things and yet which determine the course of higher advancement in the world - whether in technology, or science, or social living.

The concept of the universal is not easily appreciated by the mind, because from birth to death the mind is accustomed only to the thought of objects, which are particulars. We have never been taught what a universal is and what its importance is in one's life. Because the universal cannot be seen with the eyes, one does not bother about it. But it is behind the particulars, and the particulars are included in it; and therefore to concentrate on it, to bestow some thought to it, would not be a waste of time. On the other hand, it would be a great advantage because, instead of wasting time in thinking of different particulars successively, one after the other, we would group them together in a single aggregate which we may call the universal, and the thought of the universal, or the concentration of the mind on the universal, the engagement of the mind in the universal, would be equivalent to thinking of all the particulars, including the universal itself.

But there will be a difficulty felt even by a trained mind in entertaining the notion of the universal, because of a doubt that perhaps the universal is only an idea disconnected from the objects which are concrete and, therefore, it is difficult to believe, ordinarily, that an abstract universal can be a total of concrete objects. How can concrete objects put together cause, or bring about, or be equivalent to, an abstract universal? The abstract, according to us, is something which is unreal. I can think of something in my mind, though it may not be there. This is what is called an abstract thought which has no relevance to concrete objects. So there can be a suspicion in the mind that, after all, this logical universal that we are speaking of, or any sort of universal for the matter of that, may perhaps be a sort of building castles in the air – a kind of idea that is arising in the mind without any corresponding reality in the outside world.

This is the reason behind the rise of various schools of philosophy, both in the East and the West, which have different thoughts on the subject. As I mentioned sometime back, this has led to opposite schools of thought – such as realism and idealism, materialism and subjectivism, and so on and so forth – because of an exclusive emphasis that they laid on one side of the matter, without taking into consideration the other side. The materialists ignore the subject, and the idealists ignore the object; but it is necessary to take both elements into consideration in understanding the determining factor behind the presentation of the subject as well as the object.

The notion of the universal, though it is difficult to entertain in the mind ordinarily, can be made a part of our thought by a little deep thinking of a subtle nature, which is, of course, the beginning of philosophy in a real sense of the term. The knowledge of an object which the subject has, implies the presence of something which is transcendent both to the subject and to the object. This something which is transcendent may be said to be the universal, for the purpose of the subject which we are discussing. It is not true that there can be a consciousness of an object, or knowledge of an object, merely by an interaction of the subject and the object in an external manner through space and time, unless there is a third element which is inclusive of the principles of the subject as well as the object. On a deeper analysis it will be found that the subject is not merely the body of the subject. This is a thing which is known to most of us, so I will not go into the details of it. We are not the body, and we are not even the mind; there is something in us which is different from both.

As students of the Mandukya Upanishad and the Vedanta philosophy know very well, in the state of deep sleep we exist in a state or condition which is free from the shackles of body and mind. What is that state in which we exist in deep sleep, where we are oblivious of body, mind, social relations, etc.? That state is one of pure awareness – of pure consciousness. We cannot associate any attribute to this consciousness in the state of deep sleep, because nothing is present there; no attribute, no adjective – nothing is connected with it. The whole world is absent in sleep; but consciousness is present, on account of whose presence, they say, we are able to remember the fact of having slept earlier.

So we have to conclude that our essential being is consciousness, and not a body, or a mind, or even a social relation. This consciousness is the real subject which knows the objects outside. The analysis of the process of perception, with which we are well acquainted, proves that the very possibility of consciousness coming in contact with objects requires the presence of the very same consciousness even as a link between itself and the object, without which the awareness of the object itself would be impossible. There is a necessity for the presence of a conscious link between the subject and the object, without which it is impossible to explain the phenomenon of knowledge of anything whatsoever. It is not space, time, and sunlight, etc., that are the causes of perception of objects, as they are all inert elements without knowledge or understanding.

There has to be an implied presence of consciousness between the subject and the object so that knowledge of the object may be possible – the subject is consciousness, as we have just noted, and the process of knowledge is also consciousness. Finally, we have to find out what the object is made of. Is it a body, material in nature, bereft of consciousness? That also cannot be, because if the object is wholly material in the sense of complete removal from the principle of consciousness, if it is not conscious, it would be difficult to explain how consciousness comes in contact with that object and becomes aware of the presence of that object. Characters which are wholly dissimilar cannot meet each other. If matter and consciousness are to come in contact with each other, and consciousness is to be aware of the presence of matter, such a thing would be impossible, inconceivable, unless matter – the object itself – is potentially conscious or has the element of consciousness in it. Therefore, the principle of consciousness in the subject, in the object, and also in the process of knowing the object has to be accepted, so that everything is consciousness only and there is nothing else but that. This principle of consciousness is the universal, which transcends the concept of ordinary subjectivity and objectivity and the process of ordinary perception. This principle cannot be known by opening the eyes and looking at things; it can be known only by a critical analysis of the situation of knowledge itself.

The universal is something very difficult to understand, and Patanjali says we have no alternative. The Ultimate Reality has to be concentrated upon in order that there can be a freedom from the tension created by the irreconcilability between the subject and the object. The concentration on the principle of the universal, which is consciousness, in the phenomenon of knowledge of an object, will obviate the difficulty of reconciling the subject with the object. The question will not arise at all, because there is no subject and no object when we understand that what we call the subject and the object are only temporal, phenomenal manifestations of another transcendental being in which these two contradictory elements are not present at all.

Then it is that we are able to understand the meaning of the famous verse from the Bhagavadgita: brahmārpaṇaṁ brahma havir brahmāgnau brahmaṇā hutam, brahmaiva tena gantavyaṁ brahmakarmasamādhinā (B.G. IV.24). The actor, the action, and the end towards which the action is directed – the seer, the seen, and the process of seeing – all become, ultimately, various processes in a wider sea of reality, on which concentration is prescribed when Patanjali says: tatpratiṣedhārtham ekatattva abhyāsaḥ (I.32) .

But this concept of the universal cannot be brought to the mind at once; it has to be done gradually. It is for this purpose that we prescribe tratak, the concentration or gazing at a given object – candlelight, or an ishta devata, or a concept of a personal god, or anything that is attractive or pleasant, for the matter of that. The intention behind all these is the concentration of the mind on one thing to the exclusion of other things, because any endeavour to focus the attention of the mind wholly on a given principle or object breaks the structure of the mind. The complex structure of the mind gets dismembered and, ultimately, what is the purpose of yoga but the dismemberment of this composite structure called the mind, which is obstructing the revelation of the atman within like a thick cloud covering the sun?

So ekatattva abhyasah, the concentration of the mind on one reality, is the prescription given by Patanjali for getting rid of these obstacles that present may themselves in the practice of yoga; and the methods of concentration on the One Reality, in its various degrees, have to be considered.