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


Chapter 12: Sublimation – A Way to Reshuffle Thought

We have been discussing a very important principle in the practice of yoga – namely, self-restraint. I would like to touch upon another aspect of it which is an essential in the practice. Self-restraint or self-control is not a pressure of will exerted upon oneself, but a spontaneous growth inwardly experienced on account of transcendence and not by way of rejection. The term 'vairagya' also has some relevance to the meaning of the term 'self-control'. Vairagya is renunciation, self-abandonment, relinquishment, etc. which is mostly interpreted as an abandonment of certain things in the world.

But vairagya is not an abandonment of things in the world. It is an abandonment of false values, the wrong interpretation of things, and a misconstruing of one's relationship with everything around oneself. It is this erroneous notion about things around oneself that is the reason for attachments, aversions, likes, dislikes, and what not. So also is the principle of self-control. A rejection of an existent value is impossible. This is very important to remember. Anything that is real cannot be rejected. If we think that the world is real, we cannot abandon it - the question of abandoning it does not arise. Anything which has already been declared to be real cannot be abandoned. How can we abandon real things? So, also, if self-control or self-restraint implies a withdrawal of consciousness from those things or values which are real and external to oneself, then it is impossible, because the consciousness or the mind which is expected to withdraw itself from externals will insist that abandonment of real values is impracticable and unadvisable.

Here we have not merely an effort of the will, but an educative process of the understanding. Understanding plays a very serious role in every walk of life. When the understanding is clear, the will can be applied in its implementation. But, the will is not to be applied bereft of understanding. Otherwise, that which the understanding has not accepted as correct will react upon us – it will have a deleterious effect upon the entire system. That which the understanding or the reason cannot accept, our whole personality will not accept, and that which we cannot accept cannot become part of our nature; and thus, a new difficulty will be created.

So, in the process of practice of yoga, whose essential ingredient is self-control or self-restraint, what is expected is a gradual blossoming of the flower of consciousness into a deeper insight into the nature of things, tending towards a wider experience, rather than a forceful suppression of really perceived values or a crushing of desires for things which are expected to bring about real satisfaction to the individual personality. This is a very important aspect which many seekers may miss due to their enthusiasm.

In our system, the culture of Bharatvarsha, four aims of existence are always emphasised – dharma, artha, kama and moksha. None of them can be ignored. There are people who are fired up with an enthusiasm for moksha, and under this impulse of a love for moksha or salvation of the soul, an immature mind may apply the wrong technique of forcing the will to abandon the real values of life, namely dharma, artha and kama, under the impression that they are obstacles to the salvation of the soul or the liberation of the spirit. Most people commit this mistake, and so they achieve neither anything in this world nor anything in the other world – they live a miserable life. They have not been properly instructed, and so have taken a wrong direction altogether.

The culture of yoga does not tell us to reject, abandon, or to cut off anything if it is real, because the whole question is an assessment of values, and reality is, of course, the background of every value. What is achieved in spiritual education is a rise of consciousness from a lower degree of reality to a higher degree of reality, and in no degree is there a rejection of reality. It is only a growth from a lower level to a higher one. So when we go to the higher degree of reality, we are not rejecting the lower degree of reality, but rather we have overcome it. We have transcended it, just as when a student goes to a higher class in an educational career, that higher class transcends the lower degrees of kindergarten, first standard, second standard and third standard, but it does not reject them. Rejection is not what is implied; rather it is an absorption of values into a higher inclusive condition of understanding, insight and education.

Yoga is a process of education. The principles of dharma, artha and kama are preparatory processes for the readiness of the soul to catch the spirit of salvation. How can we get salvation from bondage if bondage is really there? A real bondage cannot be escaped; if bondage is real, we have to remain in it forever. We already take for granted that bondage is real, which is why we want to run away from it; but running away from real bondage is impossible. There is no escapism in yoga – that is impossible. There is always a conditioning of the mind to the states of understanding. Again it must be emphasised that where we have not understood a principle, we will not be able to master it.

The principles of dharma, artha and kama are temporal values. They may not be eternal values, but many religions of the world commit the blunder of imagining that the eternal is different from the temporal. All religions, we may say, have an idea that God is outside the world and, therefore, temporal values have no connection with religious values. This misinterpretation of religion, and wrong emphasis laid on the so-called spiritual values of an otherworldly character, have led to a conflict between the social values of life and the religious and spiritual values of life.

We are not to bring about a conflict in life, because spirituality is not in favour of any kind of conflict, whether it is inside or outside. So when we are exerting to control ourselves and to educate ourselves in a higher sense, either in society or in our personal lives, we are not creating any kind of split of consciousness, either social or personal. Rather, we are rising to a higher integrated condition where we have grown into a larger personality, so that in no step that we have taken have we lost anything, nor have we created tension anywhere. All stages of spiritual practice are freedoms attained from tension of every kind. A spiritual genius, even a spiritual seeker, does not create tension anywhere, either externally in society or in one's own self. Whenever we feel tension, we must understand that we have committed a mistake in our practice. What is the mistake.

The mistake is in believing that something is real, and yet not wanting it on account of a traditional attitude towards it that has been religiously introduced. The tradition of religion tells us that something is wrong, though we do not believe it. This is the difficulty. "My feelings say that something is okay, but religion says it is not okay. So I have a split between myself and the religious values." The religious novitiate then becomes a neurotic, an unhappy person, because in the cloister and the monastery he has a world of his own which is in conflict with the world outside. He has been told by religion that the world outside is wrong and the world inside the monastery is right, but he does not believe it. Oh, this is a horror – that we cannot believe it and yet we are told to accept it. This is a kind of tyranny. Religion can become a tyrant; it can become a kind of dictator's order. But religion is far from dictatorship – this is an important point to remember. Religion is not a dictator. Spirituality is not a tyrant. It is not asking us to do something because it says so. It is again to be emphasised that it is a process of inward adjustment to higher values by way of a positive education.

In the practice of yoga, in the understanding of vairagya, in self-control which is yoga, one should not be too enthusiastic. Over-enthusiasm is bad because it is mostly emotional, coupled with a kind of will-force but bereft of understanding, which creates a conflict psychologically and, consequently, even socially. It is better that a student takes note of all his desires. "Have I a desire?" It is no use saying, "I have no desire." If we have really no desires it is okay – very good, and so much the better – but we should be sure that we have no desires.

Swami Rama Tirtha used to make a list of his desires. He used to go into a forest with a note-book or a diary and write, "How many desires have I got? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten." Every day he would check, "How many have I finished? Or are they all still there?" To the extent of the diminution of desires, we are free in this world; and to the extent of the presence of these desires, we are bound in this world. Our bondage or freedom can be judged from the number of desires that are unfulfilled or fulfilled. If we have fulfilled all the desires and have no desires left, then we are free. But if we have not fulfilled our desires, if they are still there harassing us from inside, we are bound souls.

Before we take to a positive practice in the direction of yoga, a careful calculation of the number of desires, their nature, etc., is necessary. If there are desires, what is to be done with them? Are we to fulfil them, or are we not to fulfil them? The traditional religions tell us 'don't fulfil desires'. Parents tell us 'don't fulfil desires', and so on. This is all right, as far as it goes, because generally a desire is regarded as a kind of diversion of consciousness from its own centre to an object outside. So, theoretically speaking, this instruction is all right – we must control our desires and not give them a long rope. But how will we control our desires? What is the method? There is no use in merely saying 'control desires'. This is very good and this instruction can be given, but how do we control a desire? What is the technique that we adopt? Here, book-knowledge is of no use. Even our intellect will not help us much because it will waver – sometimes to this side and sometimes to that side.

First of all, we must determine the intensity of the desire before we try to deal with it. The desire may be very mild, or it may be very intense. If it is mild, we may take one course of action towards it. If it is very intense, another course may have to be taken. Like a fever – suppose it is only a very mild fever, 98.8°, for which we need not go to the doctor for medication, and we need not lie down in bed; it is very mild. We can fast one day – take a purgative and fast – and perhaps it will be all right. But it is not all right if the fever is 105°; then we have to do something immediately because it has risen beyond a certain limit.

Likewise is a desire. What is the percentage of the intensity of the desire? Is it irresistible and impossible to control? Has it almost taken charge of us? If so, what are we to do? When the desire is very intense, what are we to do? There is only one way - we go to the Guru. "My desire is very intense. What am I to do at this time?" The Guru will tell us what step to take. If the desire is very mild, then of course we can find the solution by ourselves. Suppose we have a desire to eat a banana. We eat the banana, and the matter is closed; it is not a very serious matter. We want to have a cup of tea. We have a cup of tea and are done with it. But suppose we want to become the President of India. This is a very serious desire. We cannot fulfil it in two or three days, and we may have to take another birth to fulfil it. We have to think very seriously about such desires. "Oh, I have such a desire. I want to become Rashtrapati, and it is an irresistible desire." But the means are such that it is not practicable, and so we will have to take another birth.

In the Yoga Vasishtha, it is said that there was a Brahmin couple, poor people, who were sitting on the roadside when they saw a king's procession passing. The royal man was sitting elegantly on an elephant. And the poor couple, seeing the happiness of the king, thought, "How happy this king is, and we are wretchedly sitting here." That was the desire in the mind of the couple. This desire was not fulfilled, as the Brahmin could not become a king in that birth. He was reborn as a king in the next birth and the desire was fulfilled. He was born as a prince in a royal family and he became an emperor.

If we have such desires which cannot be fulfilled in this life on account of prevailing conditions, we will take another birth. But we do not want another birth – that is another point. Do we want to go on increasing the number of births because we have got intense desires? Here comes the need for a Guru. If we have such terrible desires that are, reasonably speaking, impossible to fulfil, and yet they cannot simply be ignored from the point of view of spiritual practice, a Guru's direct guidance is absolutely necessary. The point is that desires cannot be completely neglected. We cannot simply turn a deaf ear, or close our eyes to their cries. They have to be very rationally dealt with and sublimated.

There are three ways of dealing with a desire. Psychologically, the terms used in this connection are 'suppression', 'substitution' and 'sublimation'. We can suppress a desire. Suppose we have got a desire just now, and we cannot fulfil it because we are in an audience and cannot fulfil the desire right here; we will suppress it. We will push it inside because society does not permit it. We cannot simply start fulfilling any desire in an audience or in a parliament – it has no meaning. So we suppress it and push it inside, but this is no solution. We have pushed it inside, so it is sitting within us like a coiled-up snake, and it will show its hood when the audience is over.

Another way of dealing with a desire is substitution – instead of giving it one thing, we give it another thing. If we have a craving to smoke a cigar, we drink a strong cup of coffee instead; some milder substance is given. Or if a child is crying and throwing a tantrum, demanding a knife that we are holding, for good reason we will not give the knife to the child, so we will substitute another thing such as a sweetmeat or a toy for the knife, saying, "My dear child, this is not a good thing. I will give you something better." Instead of a knife, we give a toy. We substitute one thing for the other thing that was asked for. This is a better way, of course, than suppression, though it is not a complete solution. Merely because we have diverted the course of the river from one direction to another, it does not mean that the intensity of its flow has ceased.

The third way to handle desire, which is the only effective course, is sublimation. Sublimation is the only technique to be adopted. Sublimation means boiling, melting and transforming the desire into a new substance altogether. The desire is no longer a desire; it has become something else. The shape of the desire has changed, and it has now become something quite different from what it was. This is the most difficult of all the techniques of self-control. The emotions are the motive power behind our thoughts, will and actions. Whatever we do is generally driven from behind by an emotion, like a dynamo, and this emotion is connected with desire. The desire is inseparable from an emotion. An emotion need not necessarily be a kind of upheaval of feeling. That upheaval is felt only when the desire is very intense. Otherwise, it is like a mild ripple on the surface of a lake. When it becomes very intense it is like a strong wave on the ocean, throwing everything hither and thither – nevertheless, it is an emotion.

What is emotion? Now we come to another subject in psychology. An emotion is a wave in consciousness. As I mentioned, when it is mild, it is like a small ripple. When it is very strong, it is like a very turbulent wave of the Atlantic which can wash away things - even elephants can be drowned if the wave comes rising up with great power. A wave in consciousness is an emotion. And what is this wave? It is a tendency towards the achievement of an objective. This wave is a frequency, and a frequency of consciousness is the intensity of consciousness. This frequency or intensity of consciousness, which rises as a wave called an emotion, is directed towards an end, just as the waves in an ocean dash against the shore or against another wave. There is a push of the body of water in the ocean in a particular direction; that push is the cause of the wave, whatever be the reason behind the push. Some pressure is felt from inside, due to the wind or some other factor, so the wave is directed in some way. Likewise, the consciousness rises in a tempestuous mood like a wave, and that is an uncontrollable emotion. This tempest can do anything if it is uncontrolled.

The point is that the difficulty in controlling an emotion arises on account of the vehemence with which it moves towards an object. The emotion is a tendency towards an object. The object may be physical, or it could even be psychological. Suppose we want to raise our social status. This is a psychological object that is in front of us, towards which we are working. Let us say that we want to become a chairman, or a minister, or some such thing. This object that is in front of us is psychological, not physical, because chairmanship is not a physical object, though it is as powerful an object as anything else; that is the end towards which the consciousness drives itself. It can also be a physical object towards which the consciousness rushes. Why does it rush towards an object, whether it be physical or psychological? It wants to fulfil a purpose.

Consciousness does not move in a direction without a purpose; and if the purpose is meaningful, at least from its own point of view, nobody can resist it. It sees a meaning in the way in which it moves towards the object, and when the meaning is there, then naturally nobody can control it. "I see significance in it. There is a purpose behind it and there is a reason – a very good reason for my action in that direction," says consciousness. So the question of controlling the movement of consciousness does not arise. If the movement is meaningless, we may control it; but if it is meaningful, how can we control it? So, the resisting of the vehemence of consciousness in the direction of an object is possible only if the meaning that it reads into the object is sublimated.

As long as we see a meaning in a thing, there is no doubt about it, and nobody else can influence us. No law, no order will work against a meaning that is seen by a person with open eyes. If I tell you that it is midnight, you will not believe it. "Why are you saying it is midnight? You can see it is daylight." We have faith that it is daytime on account of our clear perception of daylight. We are seeing it directly, and why is someone saying it is something else? So when consciousness sees a peculiar and definite meaning or significance in an object in front of it which it regards as valuable, worthwhile and necessary for its happiness, then no law or order will operate against it. It breaks all laws, be they social, personal, or moral – any law, whatever it is – because it is the law of reality, and the law of reality is more powerful than any other law that is made by man. Why is it called the law of reality? It is called the law of reality because it is seen physically as an indubitable something about which there is no doubt in the mind, and we cannot frame a law contrary to what we see physically and palpably as something real.

We now come to a very crucial point. All of this amounts to saying that we cannot easily practise self-control. It is not so cheap an affair; it is a terrible job. It is terrible, no doubt, but there is a way out. The way out is to reshuffle the ways in which we think under given conditions. Emotions rise up under certain conditions, and under certain other conditions they may not be so forceful. The meaning that the emotion reads into its object is to be transformed. Are we correct in reading this meaning in the object? This is a philosophical question that we have to ask ourselves. Is it correct that because we see a meaning in something we can regard it as real? This is a simple question, for which there is a simple answer. But, another question can be raised – are we sure that our perception is correct?.

Perceptions need not always be correct, though perceptions may insist that as long as they are there, the object is real. As long as the perceptions are there, their objects certainly will look real. Otherwise, it would not be a perception. But is the perception correct? This is the question. Here we raise a very fundamental question which is philosophical, and even deeper than philosophical. When the emotion, the consciousness, directs itself towards an object for the achievement of its purpose, is it being motivated by a correct perception of values, or is it blundering in its attitude towards things due to certain other factors? Perhaps it is mistaken. Yet it will not accept the mistake as long as it sees things by an identification of itself with the object in front of it.

Here, we feel that the withdrawal of consciousness from its object would be something like tearing off our own skin from our body. How can we tear off our own skin? It would be terrible, but this is what is happening when we practise self-control. We are tearing off our flesh, and it is so painful. But the pain is lessened if the consciousness is properly educated and made to reasonably accept the background of its attitudes and the incorrectness of its perceptions, for reasons which are superior to the one that it is adopting at the present moment.