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


Chapter 27: Problems are a State of Mind

A very significant term is used by Patanjali in his definition of renunciation, namely, vasikara-samjna (I.15): Consciousness of mastery is called renunciation. It is very pertinent to note that he uses the term 'consciousness' where it is a question of detachment, self-abnegation or renunciation. So, renunciation means a state of consciousness – this is what is very important to note. It is not a physical distance obtaining between the subject and its object, but a consciousness which arises within the subject in respect of the object. That particular degree of consciousness of freedom from objectivity, which is a requisite for the practice of yoga, in the language of Patanjali is called vasikara-samjna. This particular stage of vairagya or renunciation that Patanjali speaks about – vasikara-samjna – is the highest kind of vairagya. Patanjali does not speak of the lower types of vairagya in his aphorisms, perhaps because he thinks that they are insufficient for the purposes of yoga.

However, we may make note of these earlier stages. It is not that we suddenly rise to this level of vasikara-samjna, which means to say, a consciousness of having gained complete mastery over the object of one's cognition and perception. This consciousness of freedom and mastery does not arise suddenly – it arises very gradually, by systematic effort. The necessity for renunciation in life arises on account of the difficulties that we experience in life. Whenever there are pressing problems, harassing and annoying situations in life, we try to get rid of them by certain methods. This is vairagya – a sense that arises within us which tells us we should be free from those conditions which cause these annoyances, difficulties, problems, etc.

The effort of the mind to find the cause of the problem is the first stage of vairagya. This is called yatamana-samjna – the consciousness of effort on the part of oneself to detect the causes of one's difficulties. Everyone has some difficulty, but what is the reason behind this difficulty? The problems of life are like effects produced by certain causes, and the remedying of these results or effects automatically implies the recognition of the nature of the cause or causes thereof, so that, as we know very well, when the cause is properly dealt with, the effect automatically gets controlled. What are the problems of life, and how do they come about? Though it is true that the details of the problems of life vary from individual to individual – they are not identical in every respect – yet, the major factors contributing to the problems of life are similar in every case. The minor details may differ, but the major aspects do not differ. So the mind tries to determine what these factors are. Instead of merely suffering the agonies of life, one finds it would be profitable to study the causes of these difficulties, and do one's best to remove them.

This stage of conscious exertion in the direction of attaining freedom from the causes of trouble is the first stage of vairagya known as yatamana-samjna. When effort is put forth in this direction for a protracted period, we start sifting the various pros and cons of the conditions that we undergo in life, and get at the root of things. Though a revolution may be set up by thousands of people, the leaders may be only a few in number. So when we try to find out the background of a revolutionary activity taking place somewhere, we are first confronted with the thousands of people causing the trouble, but we then find that the ringleaders are very few; and they must be tackled first. Likewise, though the problems are many and multifarious, no doubt, the leading causes of these problems are not as many as they appear on the surface.

So the next stage in vairagya is the consciousness attained wherein one properly distinguishes between the essentials and the non-essentials among the supposed causes of the troubles. This stage, which is the second stage, is called vyatireka-samjna. The causes of the problems may be many, but there may be many non-essentials which we may, for the time being, ignore or set aside, inasmuch as they will be dealt with spontaneously when the essentials are dealt with. As in the case of medical treatment, for instance, the essential causes have to be brought to the surface. Vyatireka means distinction, differentiating, discriminating, isolating and sifting. The consciousness which distinguishes between the essential causes of trouble and the many other non-essential contributory factors, and knows where the problem really lies, is vyatireka-samjna. The word 'samjna' is always used, and we must remember this word carefully. Every stage of renunciation, even the first stage, is a state of mind. Renunciation is not an activity; it is not something that we have done. It is a state of consciousness – an awareness – because, after all, our freedom as well as our bondage is in our consciousness, and not in things or objects.

After properly investigating into the causes of problems in life, one would perhaps come to the conclusion that all troubles arise on account of a peculiar reaction set up by the individual in respect of its environment. My problems are created by me, insofar as they can be said to be generated by my reactions in regard to the atmosphere outside. I set up a set of vibrations around myself which recoil upon me in accordance with their relations with the atmosphere around. The results that follow, the consequences which are automatically implied in this reaction of the individual in respect of the atmosphere outside, have a subjective character as well as an objective character. They are subjective in the sense that they proceed from the individual concerned, but they are objective in the sense that they have some connection with other people, so that our attitudes can create joy or sorrow for other people. And the joys or sorrows that we create for others by our attitudes can react upon us, and bring us joy or sorrow. So now we understand where things stand – the joys or sorrows, which are the generators of reaction in the individual, project themselves upon the external atmosphere of other people, causing joys and sorrows to them, and, in return, come back to the individual like a boomerang, causing further joys and sorrows, having passed through the prism of the social set-up outside.

This is a very complex subject which is really the cause of all our troubles. When I am either happy or not happy, I set up a reaction from within myself. I have a particular attitude towards persons and things when I am happy, or when I am not happy. And, my attitude in either state of mind is expressed through my speech, action and general conduct, all of which have some effect upon other people. My behaviour in respect of other people, my way of speaking, and my action in respect of outer society have something to do with other people, and will be felt by others in a particular manner. The peculiar feelings generated in others by my reactions produce certain effects in their minds in the form of joy or sorrow, and these joys and sorrows felt by other people as the result of my attitude towards them do not exist isolated in the minds of these people, but themselves are vibrations which have some connection with me, who is the cause of these original attitudes. So they come back upon me, and in a diluted form, or sometimes in a more reinforced form, act upon me secondarily, causing in my mind further joys and sorrows of a different, complex character, having passed through the minds of other people. When I receive these reactions of other people's minds, either in the form of joy or sorrow, what happens? I do not keep quiet. I have a further reaction in respect of those people whom I regard as causes of my secondary joys and sorrows, forgetting all the while that I have been originally the cause of this reaction that has been set up by them. So once again I set up a secondary reaction in respect of other people, and this process goes on until a thick layer of confusion is created, not only in the minds of individuals, but in the social atmosphere, generally.

It amounts to saying that our difficulties are psychological in their nature, which have an effect upon physical conditions, etc. We cannot say which individual is the cause of the problems of life, because there is a relativity of action and reaction among individuals psychologically so that, in a sense, everyone is responsible for everything, we may say, and the causes of the problems of life are not to be found in this person or that person. It is a mutual reaction set up among individuals, and these reactions are caused by actions of sense and mind. We now discover in this vyatireka-samjna, or the second stage of vairagya, that our problems are caused by the senses and the mind. It may be my senses and the mind, or your senses and the mind, or anyone's senses and the mind – it makes no difference. The senses and the mind are finally responsible for our experiences, whether in the form of joy or in the form of sorrow.

We then concentrate our attention upon the discipline of the senses and the mind. But we discover a little later that this is not the whole truth. As mentioned earlier, the leaders of a particular movement may not be as many in number as the total individuals involved in the movement. So we go on pinpointing, further and further, the chief leader of the group. The leaders may be a dozen or half a dozen, but the chief among them is only one. Now we find out who is the chief cause of trouble. We said that it is the senses and the mind, which means to say there are many. But later on it will be found that the chief ringleader is the mind only, and not even the senses. Ekendriya-samjna – ultimately there is only one sense troubling us, and it is not the eyes and the ears and the nose, etc., which are, of course, secondary causes of problems; the chief source of the problem is the mind only.

So we come to the third stage of consciousness in the development of vairagya, known as ekendriya-samjna. This is a consciousness that ultimately there is only one sense, and not many senses. We speak of many senses, but they are only various avenues of action of the single sense, which is called the mind. So the mind has to be tackled, and if that is properly dealt with, everything else is dealt with in parallel.

Now comes the last stage of vairagya, which is mentioned by Patanjali in this sutra. Vasikara-samjna, is that stage where we are not merely aware of the presence of the chief source of the trouble, but we have gained control over this source of trouble. This is called vasikara or mastery – an attainment of complete control over the primary cause of our difficulties. Having now come to the interesting conclusion that the chief source of our troubles is the mind, we are naturally led to taking steps in the direction of controlling the mind. But we must know the ways in which the mind causes trouble.

Unless the methods employed by the mind in creating problems are properly analysed and discovered, any kind of control over the mind will be difficult. The mind causes troubles, no doubt, but how does it cause the trouble? What is the way it adopts? The chief forte of the mind in all these matters is that it creates a misplacement of values. It suddenly changes the very way of thinking and understanding. Our judgement of things is the final deciding factor in all of our attitudes to things in general. Whatever we do in life is based on a judgement of values. According to my opinion of things, I act.

The chief function of the mind, then, is to create a particular opinion about things; this is what the mind does. If it succeeds in creating a set opinion about things, then, without much effort, everything of course will follow as a consequence. We are made to feel that something is desirable, or that something is not desirable, and we have wonderful reasons for passing this judgement. When the judgement is passed, we know what follows – we take action. The judgement of the mind is called the 'desireful' attitude of the mind in respect of the object concerned. Here, the word 'desire' is used in a very technical sense. It is, broadly speaking, a general attitude of the mind. Any attitude of the mind towards an object is, technically speaking, a 'desireful' attitude of the mind. This attitude of the mind arises on account of ignorance present in the mind. There is, at the outset, a lack of the knowledge of the true nature of things. Then, a prejudiced attitude is developed by the mind in respect of a set of objects in front of it, as a consequence of which there is erroneous action in which it engages itself towards the fulfilment of that 'desireful' attitude in respect of the object.

This threefold knot is called avidya-kama-karma, in philosophical parlance. Avidya, kama and karma go together. Avidya is ignorance, nescience, lack of knowledge – a total absence of insight into the true nature of things, on account of which there is a misconceived attitude developed by the mind in respect of things, as a consequence of which there is, again, wrong action. So there is, first of all, wrong understanding, then wrong attitude, then wrong action. These three together create the problems of life. Avidya, kama and karma is a single knot – granthi – and this knot is the knot of life. This is what they call the Gordian knot – very difficult to untie. All these three aspects function simultaneously. We cannot say that there is a succession of one aspect following another. The absence of correct understanding, the presence of a wrong attitude, and the projection of an erroneous action all take place almost at the same moment. This is the central pivot of all difficulties in life.

The mind cannot be controlled. We cannot master the mind or exert any kind of control over it unless its pros and cons are properly known. Why has such a state of affairs arisen at all? To affect a permanent control over the various functions of the mind, Patanjali suggests that a frontal attack in this matter would be undesirable. We cannot attack an enemy head-on, because the enemy is also intelligent. There should be an intelligent manoeuvre consistent with the conditions prevailing, and inasmuch as the mind has already been convinced about its attitude towards things, notwithstanding the fact that this conviction has arisen on account of erroneous understanding, it is difficult to wrench the mind from this conviction, directly, by an immediate frontal hit. It has to be done gradually by a movement from the lowest effect to its precedent causes. The lowest effect is, of course, attachment; the mind clings to an object or to a group of objects, and that should be our stand. We should not take any other stand. We should not go to the causes in the beginning itself; the mind will not be able to listen to these arguments due to its having clung to an object and, therefore, that is the end of the matter.

So the first step in the effort to control the mind would be to take one's stand on the condition in which the mind finds itself at any given moment – namely, an obsession in regard to an object, be it positive or negative. A distaste for this object towards which the mind has developed a particular attitude is the intention of the development of the spirit of renunciation or vairagyavasikara-samjna. Dṛṣṭa anuśravika viṣaya vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkārasaṁjña vairāgyaṁ (I.15), says the sutra. The consciousness of mastery over the objects of sense means the generation of an inner distaste for all things that are seen, as well as heard. Just as the word 'consciousness' is very important, the word 'distaste' is also very important; the taste for things should be absent.

Vairagya, then, is not an abandonment of an object, but freedom from the consciousness of subjection to the object, and the absence of taste for the object. This is what is implied in this famous aphorism, dṛṣṭa anuśravika viṣaya vitṛṣṇasya vaśīkārasaṁjña vairāgyaṁ. As noted in many earlier discussions, this effort is not an easy affair, as if it is a hobby. It is a matter of life and death for us, because this is what is going to decide our future. We are going to decide our fate, ultimately, by conducting ourselves either this way, or that way.

The system of yoga, which requires of us a control of the modifications of the mind, is actually dealing with cosmic affairs, though it starts with a discussion of the structure of the mind in the individual. Naturally we have to take a stand on something, as it would be difficult to conceive of the cosmos at one stroke. We stand in one place and then have a vision of the atmosphere around. When we stand at a particular spot and try to know where the difficulty arises, we are likely to make a mistake in thinking the problem lies in another person. "Now I have understood the whole thing – he is the cause of the trouble.

There is a humorous story. It seems there were two mountaineers who were climbing mountain after mountain, and somehow they got lost along the way. Perhaps it was somewhere in the Himalayan regions where there are peaks after peaks, mountains after mountains, on and on as though layered, one behind the other. They stood on the peak of one mountain and wondered aloud where they were. "Which mountain are we standing on now?" Then one climber suggested, "Bring the map. Let us read the map and find out where we are standing." One of them looked at the map. Then looking up, he pointed to another mountain nearby and said, "Oh, now I know where we are standing. Look at that mountain. Do you see it? We are standing right there." He looked at the map and said, "That is the mountain on which we are standing." How can he possibly be standing on that mountain? Well, this is a joke, but it is a very serious joke.

We go on with psychological analysis, delving deeply into the problem, and find out the cause: 'that man' is the cause, the whole problem is created by 'that man', as we point to somebody outside. We commit exactly the same mistake as the mountaineers did and say that it was 'that man' who is the cause of the whole problem, as we point to someone outside. The problem is not in 'that man', my dear friends. This is another mistake, which is called projection in psychological language. We have projected our condition upon somebody else, which is another defect of the mind, another trick of the mind, another mischievous activity of the mind by which it prevents our understanding its techniques. In the control of the modifications of the mind – yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhaḥ (I.2) – we have to isolate the mind from the conditions causing the problem, stage by stage, like peeling an onion, removing one peel after another peel. Finally we will find that there is nothing inside – peel after peel with no substance inside. Like the onion which has no inner substance and is only peel, so, too, when everything is removed from the layers after layers of complexities, we will find there is nothing. Just as with layers of clouds, we go on removing one layer after another layer of cloud, and finally there is nothing. It is all an unsubstantial thing which looked like a tremendously substantial solidity.

The problems of life look like tremendous, solid hindrances in our movements in any direction, but they are solid psychological complexes and not solidities like stone or rock, though they may appear to be as solid. If we touch a high voltage live wire and are shocked, our hand jerks and we may feel as if a tremendous weight is pressing on it. But where is the weight? There is nothing. There is no weight, but at the moment of the shock a sensation of weight is created by a kick that is given by the surge of electric energy to the nerves.

Likewise, the so-called hard and insoluble problems of life are like the weight felt by the hand when it receives an electric shock. Really, the weight is not there. It is a reaction of the nerves in respect of a particular pressure exerted upon them. So, likewise, problems are nothing but a state of mind, a state of consciousness, we may say, which has arisen on account of certain pressures that have been generated by various conditions, all of which have to be investigated carefully.