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


Chapter 38: Impediments in Concentration and Meditation

Major impediments to yoga have been stated to be nine, according to the aphorism of Patanjali. We have been trying to observe the nature of these obstacles, and every one of them seems to have some connection with the other, perhaps one following the other in some mysterious manner. Finally, certain conditions may arise in the mind which may topple down all our effort – namely, perception of illusions which can be easily mistaken for realities. Pressures exerted on the mind, which cannot be avoided in the earlier stages at least, set up certain psychological reactions, and these reactions appear as forms, shapes, colours, sounds and sensations of touch, etc., which cannot be easily discovered in their essentiality. The mind gets mixed up with these conditions, and there can be a subtle erroneous feeling that perhaps one is touching the borderland of Reality. But the visions and these experiences need not necessarily be of that nature. They can be merely kicks given back by mental conditions themselves, and these states are referred to by Patanjali in this sutra as bhrantidarshana (I.30) – perception of illusions.

Everything that we see, and anything that we feel, need not necessarily be true. But everything passes for reality when it gets identified with consciousness. This is the difficulty of the whole matter. Yet, intelligently, one should be able to compare these experiences with the characteristics of Reality, and thereby know whether they are real or not. There should be a very clear philosophical background of perception in order that the intelligence of the seeker may not be duped by these experiences, because when there is even a flash of the vision of Reality, there will be such a transformation brought about in oneself that one can see in one's own personal life a reflection of those features which can be discovered only in Reality.&nbs.

Otherwise, if these experiences are followed by distractions of any kind, moods which are depressing in nature, or if they are capable of exciting the activities of the senses in any manner whatsoever, or if there is any kind of doubt, suspicion, or sorrow in the mind in spite of these experiences, one can safely say that these are not experiences of Reality and are only illusions. But if it is really an experience of Reality, there will be a feeling of strength from within, a power which can make one indefatigable, physically as well as psychologically, and there will be a great sensation of inclusiveness in one's comprehensive vision of things, so that one cannot be irritated, roused to anger or put out of balance of mind easily by any circumstance in life. These are the characteristics of the perception of Reality. If all of these are absent, if we find the same human nature in its crude distractions persisting, notwithstanding all these visions, tactile sensations, etc., then they can be brushed aside as not spiritual.

Then Patanjali goes on to tell us that there can be another obstacle – alabdhabhumikatva, which means to say the incapacity to fix the point of attention. However much we may try, we will not know where to concentrate the mind. There will be either experimentation with various ideas and ideals for the purpose of concentration, not knowing which is good and which is better, or there will be a total inability to fix the mind at all. Due to continued exertion of the mind for a protracted period in the practice of meditation, it may become so tired that it may refuse to act further, just as we sometimes see horses becoming exhausted by pulling carts. Perhaps from not having been fed for some days and from working in the hot sun, they refuse to move further in spite of their being whipped any number of times. They may even topple the cart, or they may move backwards, so that the driver does not know what they will do. It is possible that the mind can also resort to these devices when it is exhausted due to the fatigue of practice.

This is also an important aspect of the practice of meditation. It should not entail any kind of exhaustion of spirit or fatigue of the body or the mind. Whenever we work we are likely to get exhausted, but it is essential to remember that meditation is not a work – it is not an activity which can exhaust us or tire us. Also, there is a possibility of one's getting tired of anything which is extraneous to one's own essential nature. It is not easy to get tired of one's own self, although we can get tired of others. We can get tired of anything that is not essentially a part of our own nature. But meditation is nothing but an attempt to manifest our own nature in greater and greater degrees, rather than engage ourselves in an activity for the purpose of the achievement of an ulterior motive. Meditation is not an action in the ordinary sense of the term and, therefore, it is not supposed to bring about fatigue, either of the body or of the mind. If we feel exhaustion or fatigue after meditation, it can be safely concluded that there has been some kind of mistake in the choice of the ideal of meditation or in the method that has been adopted in meditation.

Somehow or other we have considered spiritual meditation as a kind of work – like factory work, or work in a shop, or some such activity – which it is not, really. We have to remember that in yoga, we are moving closer to Reality which is our own essential nature, and we are not going away from Reality. The externality that is involved in activity gradually gets diminished in spiritual meditation, and the less is the element of externality present in an activity, the less also is the sense of fatigue and exhaustion. The nearer we are to our self, the happier we feel. Inasmuch as meditation, if it is really spiritual, is a tendency to one's own essential nature and not a movement externally in the world of objects, it should, instead of bringing fatigue and exhaustion, create happiness and a sense of energy in one's own self.

The incapacity of the mind to fix its attention on the ideal of meditation may be due to undue pressure exerted upon it by an unclarified understanding of the technique. It can also be due to certain desires present in the mind which have not been fulfilled, and which have not been allowed to come to the surface due to the force of discipline. While discipline is good, it cannot always succeed, because it is a power externally exerted upon something which succeeds for sometime, but cannot succeed for all times. The reason is that anything extraneous is repelled – it cannot be absorbed. The mind, being the subtlest instrument available to us, can feel the pressure more than anything else. Therefore, any kind of frustration of feeling, even very minutely present, can cause a sensation of exhaustion in oneself. It is not easy to understand why we are exhausted, why it is that we are not able to sit for a continued period in meditation. There can be hundreds of excuses for our inability to sit for meditation, but they are only excuses – devices employed by the mind to get out of this difficulty we have put upon it.

The mind's non-cooperation with this enterprise called yoga can specifically be said to be due to a lack of understanding as to what it is, because when there is proper understanding and deep conviction born of this understanding, it is difficult to believe that one will not cooperate. Lack of cooperation is lack of understanding. We do not appreciate the meaning of it, or the value of it, or the worth of it; the mind is of that nature. It does not know why we are practising yoga, or what the purpose of yoga is. Though intellectually, superficially, logically and academically it acquiesces in the pursuit, this has not been driven into its feelings and has not become a part of its real nature. For all these reasons, it may be difficult to gain the point of concentration, which is called the difficulty – alabdha- bhumikatva.

Finally, Patanjali says there can be another problem – anavasthitatva. Even if we gain the point of concentration, we cannot continue to fix our attention upon it for a long time. We have understood where to concentrate. We know where to fix the attention, but we cannot go on with this practice for a long time, perhaps not more than for a few seconds or minutes, because then the mind jumps. This is only a brother of the earlier obstacle of a similar character. All of these obstacles are ultimately due to certain hidden impressions of likes and dislikes which have not been properly detected, and which have been allowed to lie in ambush for a long time. They can set up various types of subtle reactions from inside – all of which can come either in the form of an internal disturbance or an external irreconcilability with nature. These obstacles have been recounted as being the major impediments to the practice of yoga. Vyādhi styāna saṁśaya pramāda ālasya avirati bhrāntidarśana alabdhabhūmikatva anavasthitatvāni cittavikṣepaḥ te antarāyāḥ (I.30) – these are the distractions of the mind; these are the impediments; these are the obstacles of which one has to be very cautious.

These obstacles can be reinforced, confirmed and made difficult to avoid by certain accessories which are known as the associate troubles – duḥkha daurmanasya aṅgamejayatva śvāsapraśvāsāḥ vikṣepa sahabhuvaḥ (I.31). These distractions have their own younger brothers which can join them in their actions and make it difficult for one to face them. These youngsters who create problems in association with these major obstacles are five in number, as mentioned by Patanjali in this particular sutra that I cited.

Dhukha is one obstacle – sorrow in the mind. We have a subtle displeasure which we cannot express before others and, therefore, we have always an unhappy face. Sometimes we know its cause, and sometimes we do not. Somehow or other, for days and even months together, we are unhappy. We neither want to eat, nor can we sleep. We do not want to speak to anybody. We feel as if we are fed up with everything. What is the matter? Nobody knows. We cannot understand what has happened. This is a subtle cold war that is going on inside. It is a war, but it is a cold war – a preparation for a hot war, if necessary. A moodiness sets in, which cause can be known if we are intelligent enough, and one cannot say that a sincere seeker can be unaware of the causes of all these moods. But even if the causes are known, they cannot be easily overcome, because what happens at this stage is that the centres of one's likes and dislikes somehow or other seem to get isolated and cut off from one's nature. This is a very great problem indeed.

At a particular stage in the practice we get severed from the centres of our pleasure; and nothing can be worse than this. This severing of oneself from the centres of pleasure can happen either due to a deliberate withdrawal of oneself effected by physical sequestration, deep concentration, etc., or it may be due to a reaction of the practice of meditation. Whatever be the cause, this effect may follow – that which we liked or loved and regarded as worthwhile in life may leave us; and if the cause of this event is not known, the difficulty or the pain felt is much more. If I attack you, and if you know why I am attacking you, the sorrow that you feel is a little less than when you do not know why I have attacked you. If suddenly I come and attack you and you do not know why, you become more agonised than when you know the reason behind it. Even though you are not pleased with my attitude, at least this feeling of agony is mitigated by the knowledge of the cause thereof. But if the cause is not known, it is still worse. You do not know what is happening or why this sudden attack has taken place. Oftentimes we may be in a state of depression without knowing the cause thereof, and here the danger is obvious because at this point we are kept in a state of suspense, and a state of suspense is not a good condition because it can take any side. A person who is neutral is capable of taking either the right side or the left side, if the chance comes or the time for it comes.

So this peculiar, inert and neutral condition of the mind, where it is deeply sunk in a kind of sorrow for some reason or the other, is a dangerous state where there is a possibility of a strong wind blowing from any direction. When there are dark clouds soaring in the sky, and the sun is completely dimmed and nothing can be seen, we know that it is a preparation for a violent storm, and we do not know from which side the wind will blow, or towards what direction. So this despondency – daurmanasya – a mood of melancholy which follows this sorrow, which is associated with sorrow and is a part of sorrow, can produce any consequence of a devastating nature, and it is here that the subtle potentialities within can take very strong shapes and violent forms.

Duhkha and daurmanasya – sorrow and depression in the mind – can be due to a memory in the mind of having lost everything pleasurable in life. This memory can come after years and years of practice. The memory need not come immediately. After fifteen, twenty years of meditation we may remember, "After all, I have lost all the goods of life. I am a miserable person." This condition can supervene due to the memory of having lost the centres of satisfaction in life. Or there can be a writhing of spirit from within due to the pressure of Reality itself, though our meditation has been correct and in the right direction, and this requires that the external centres of pleasure be isolated from the spiritual ideal that is before it, because the centres of pleasure, whatever they be, are ultimately irreconcilable with the ideal of meditation.

The irreconcilability arises on account of the fact that all objects of pleasure are centres which pull consciousness in a direction which is different from the direction which the spirit is trying to take in the practice of meditation. To use a common term, 'objects of sense', the centres of pleasure in life exert a centrifugal force, while in meditation the force is centripetal. It is a movement towards the centre rather than towards the circumference. But in the pursuit of pleasure – in the cognition of objects of sense and the activity that is directed towards the achievement of these objects – there is a movement of the mind away from the centre externally, like the radii of a circle moving away from the centre towards the circumference. In meditation these rays, which are the radii of the mind, are withdrawn to the centre and conserved with a tremendous effort of understanding. Whatever the circumstance, one has to pass through these stages, and perhaps no one can escape these conditions. One day or the other we will find ourselves in this mood of sorrow and despondency; and most of these difficulties come only in an advanced state and not in the initial stages. A beginner does not know what all this is, because he has not felt any one of these. It is only after a certain stage, perhaps after years of intense practice, that these experiences will come like violent winds blowing over one's head.

Patanjali also mentions that there can be another difficulty, namely, tremor of the body – angamejayatva - which means a sudden reshuffling of the cells of the body and an urgent necessity felt by the pranas within to rearrange themselves on account of pressure exerted by meditation. The pranas move in a particular direction and in a particular manner, usually speaking. Though this is the usual way that they function, it is not the way in which we want them to work, according to the ideal that is before us. This meditation on the ideal may require the pranas to function in a different manner altogether, and if they are thus required, insistently and persistently, every day for a long time, and a rearrangement of the pattern of action is demanded of them, they may feel the pressure thereof to such an extent that they may cause a jerk in the body, a sudden shaking up of the muscular system and a shock felt in the nerves – all of which is only due to the movement of prana.

The prana is connected with the nerves and the muscles very intimately, and inasmuch as the prana is nothing but the external expression of the mind, any rearrangement of the method of thought will tell upon the arrangement of the movement of the pranas, and all of this will also tell upon the muscles, the nerves, etc., so that there can be a complete overhauling of the system. If this is done suddenly and not very slowly or gradually, due to very intense pressure exerted upon the system there can be angamejayatva or tremor of the whole system. We will feel shocks and jerks and tremors, as if we are jumping like a frog. We may not actually physically jump, but there will be a sensation of jumping, as if we have been pushed by somebody from outside, or we have been pulled from the front. All of this is due to the intensification of the activity of the prana in a more harmonious manner than it is accustomed to in its ordinary ways. The movement of the prana is conditioned by desires. As a matter of fact, the pranic activity is usually nothing but the preparation of the system to fulfil its desires. The dynamo, which produces within us the necessary energy for the purpose of fulfilling a desire, is the system known as the vital energy or the prana, and it is always directed towards objects of sense. It pulls the mind in that direction.

So, there is distraction in the movement of the pranas. Any tendency towards objects of sense is a tendency of distraction, and not a tendency to unification. This is the reason why there is svasaprasvasa or inhalation and exhalation through the nostrils. This compulsion to breathe in the manner we do every day, by means of forced inhalation and forced exhalation, is caused by the working of desires in a particular manner. The more is the desire, the greater is the vehemence of the movement of the prana and the quickness of breathing. The lesser is the desire, the slower is the movement of the prana. The desires temporarily get hushed up in deep sleep, and so we find that in sleep we breathe more slowly than in waking life. When we are worked up into a mood of passion, either of desire or of anger, the breathing process gets accelerated because we are required to take up an action which is urgent from the point of view of the need of the system, and so the engine works faster to drive the vehicle with a greater speed. That is why we breathe faster when we are worked up with such an emotion.

The point is that ordinarily the movement of the prana is motivated by desire, and in meditation the desire is sublimated – at least there is an attempt at sublimation, though it is not fully sublimated – and this is immediately felt by the pranas. When the practice of meditation is continued and is repeated every day, naturally the effect upon the prana becomes permanent, and it changes its movement in the direction of unity and harmony rather than diversity and distraction. But in the beginning this effect exerted upon the prana comes to it like a surprise because it has not become used to it, and when it is taken by surprise, it pushes the whole system with a new type of force.

The push exerted by the prana is the cause of tremor of the body and, therefore, it is not a permanent condition, and it will not continue for a long time. It is not that we will feel the jerk or shock always. It may continue for some months or even years, as the case may be. Patanjali regards it as an obstacle because of the fact that it is a passing phase, as it is only a temporary reaction set up by the pranas which has to cease when the condition of meditation becomes sustained and a part of one's real nature – duḥkha daurmanasya aṅgamejayatva śvāsapraśvāsāḥ vikṣepa sahabhuvaḥ (I.31).

Even breathing is an obstacle, says Patanjali. Though we regard breathing as natural, normal and very necessary, he regards it as an obstacle because this inhalation and exhalation process is an indication that the prana is moving towards objects. Though we may be trying our best to control the mind and withdraw it from the objects outside, the very breathing condition itself indicates that the tendency towards objects still persists.

When this tendency comes down, then this heaving of the breath through inhalation and exhalation also becomes slower, so that in deep meditation we will find that we will not even feel the process of breathing at all; it will be so calm, quietened and slowed down that it will become imperceptible, for all practical purpose.