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The Great System of Yoga Propounded by Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 13: Understanding the Mind and its Relationship to Meditation

The relationship between mind and matter has some relevance to the subject of meditation. Whatever is an object of consciousness stands in the position of matter, as ‘matter' is defined as ‘anything external to consciousness'. Thus, the relationship between the meditator and the object that is meditated upon is similar to the relationship between consciousness and matter; or rather, they are just the same. What is the way in which the object is related to matter? How is the seer related to the seen, how am I related to you, or how is a subject concerned with the object? These are various forms of the same question.

An understanding of this principle which determines the relationship between the seer and the seen, or between consciousness and its object, is very necessary to avoid difficulties in the practice of meditation. Every problem, doubt or vacillation that may introduce itself as an obstacle in one's attempt at spiritual meditation – all these are various forms of the inability to grasp the relationship between oneself and another.

We feel that we are in a state of anxiety and tension whenever we have something in front of us. Even when we speak to a person, we are not normal. We assume a type of attitude which has to fit into the nature of the object which is in front of us, whether it is a human being, a tiger, etc. The necessity to fit oneself to the context of the object in front of us tells upon the whole system and brings about a strain of some sort or the other. To be in the presence of another is a strain to the mind because we cannot be perfectly normal when we are in the presence of another person. We have to put on an appearance, because two persons cannot think identically. If two people think absolutely identical thoughts, then the two will merge into one person. This does not happen, which shows that two persons cannot be a hundred percent equal in their psychological makeup or their way of thinking. Hence, in the presence of another there is a necessity to tune oneself psychically to the structure or the pattern of the psyche of another person. This effort is a strain on the mind. Now, this strain is felt everywhere, wherever there is an object in front of us, whether it is an organic substance like a human being, or an inorganic object of some sort.

The object of meditation is the principle that is encountered in the context of consciousness, and a great philosophy of meditation seems to be at the background, which usually goes by the name of Sankhya or Vedanta. The Sankhya has a philosophy of its own and has an explanation of the relationship between mind and matter, the seer and the seen, purusha and prakriti. Sankhya tells us that everything is prakriti. The whole universe is an evolution of the supreme matrix called prakriti, mula prakriti, which is constituted of three gunas: sattva, rajas and tamas. The way in which the gunas are related to prakriti is also very interesting. There is no relationship of an extraneous type. It is not the relation of A to B. It is an inherent immanence of the gunas in what goes by the name of prakriti. The very substance of prakriti is the gunas. Often analogies are brought forward to explain the relationship between the gunas and prakriti. One of the analogies is the relation between threads and cloth. There is no external relationship between the threads and the cloth which they constitute. You cannot say that the threads are A and the cloth is B. That sort of explanation would not be complete or perfect because the one is implied in the other. The usual notion of prakriti implies an inherence of the gunas in the substance called prakriti in such a manner that the one is the same as the other. We are also told that the gunas are like strands in a rope. The three strands constituting the rope are the rope. The rope is not different from the strands, and vice versa.

This prakriti, which is the mysterious substance of all things in the universe in its various strands known as sattva, rajas and tamas, reveals various properties, which become the objects of the individual's consciousness. I am just giving an outline of the cosmology of the Sankhya. The objective world, constituted of the five elements earth, water, fire, air and ether, is the union of a permutation and combination of the tamasic aspect of prakriti, and the mind which cognises the external objects constituted of the five elements is also a rarefied form of prakriti itself. There is an elaboration of this theme in the Vedanta cosmology. The tamasic principle, which is one of the aspects of prakriti, becomes the five elements known as earth, water, fire, air and ether: prithvi, jala, teja, vayu and akasha.

The mind also is prakriti, in a different sense. It is not tamasic. It has the sattva element in it, though it is also mixed with a little rajas and tamas. The predominance of sattva in the mind is responsible for the transparent character of the mind, or perhaps it is translucent, on account of which it is able to reflect a percentage of the consciousness of the purusha, known in Vedanta parlance as the Atman. If the Atman or the purusha were not to be reflected in the mind in some measure, there would be no intelligence in us. We would not be aware of anything. We would be like stones or bricks. We are able to think, in the sense of being aware of something outside us or inside us. The fact that we are aware distinguishes us from the inorganic material universe. This awareness that is present in us is due to the reflection of the purusha, or the Atman, in the mind. And what is the mind? It is prakriti itself, but in its sattvic aspect. The Vedanta cosmology tells us that the quintessential essence of the sattvic tanmatrasshabda, sparsha, rupa, rasa, gandha – go to make up the psychic organ, the antahkaranamano, buddhi, ahamkara, chitta – or whatever you call the mind in ordinary language.

When we become conscious of an object outside, we bring about a relationship between the mind and matter. What we call matter in general may be said to be what is known as the fivefold elements: earth, water, fire, air, ether. This is matter, and whatever is formed of these is also matter. The mind is conscious of this world, which is constituted of the five elements, but the mind by itself cannot be conscious because it is prakriti. This is a great theory of the Vedanta, and also of the Sankhya. The mind cannot itself be conscious because it is prakriti. Prakriti is jada; it has no awareness of itself. Like the clean glass which can reflect the rays of the sun, the mind is able to reflect the consciousness of the purusha to the extent permitted by its own finitude. The whole of the purusha is not reflected in the mind, just as the whole of sunlight is not reflected through a small aperture of a screen, for instance. A slit of a window permits the passage of a ray of sunlight, but the whole of it is not there.

Not merely that, there is something else which takes place when this reflection is allowed by the mind. There is a finitude of the reflection of this consciousness on account of the limitation of the mind itself. It is somehow or other tied down to the location of the body it inhabits, and so there is a tremendous limitation set by the way in which the reflection is allowed by the mind. But apart from the fact that there is a limitation, there is also a kind of distortion taking place on account of the various constituents of the mind itself. The mind is made up of samskaras, impressions of past experiences, vasanas, unlimited desires and propensities or impulsions towards various types of phenomenal experience. These turbid properties which infect the mind do not permit a clear reflection of consciousness even in a finite manner, so even a little bit of the reflection is not a clear reflection. It is disturbed by the vacillating roots of the mind, the desires that are present as manifest or unmanifest. There is, therefore, an avaccheda and abhasa, as they say – a limitation, as well as a reflection in the mind in a type of distortion – so that the kind of perception we have is highly defective. We do not see the world as it is. Even the five elements are not presented in the proper form. They are conditioned very much by the way in which the mind is formed.

Now, when we analyse the way in which the mind becomes aware of the objects outside, we are faced with two factors in front of us: the consciousness element and the mind element. The consciousness element is responsible for awareness, and the mind element is responsible for the limitation involved in perception. The form of perception is conditioned by the nature of the mind. The awareness aspect is due to the purusha or the Atman, or the consciousness that is there. The way in which the mind envelops the objects, conditions them, and gives them a particular shape is known as vritti vyapti in Vedanta psychology. The consciousness attends upon this psychic operation and makes this function of the psyche a living one, so that we make the mistake of imagining that the mind is conscious of the object. The consciousness of the Atman, or the purusha, and the limited form of the mind which is made up of the unfulfilled desires, vasanas, impressions, etc., go to form the essence of the individuality of a person. Hence, the world is not seen as it is in itself, just as when we put on coloured glasses we do not see things properly in their own spirit; if the glasses are broken or distorted or concave or convex, the matter is still worse. Some such thing has taken place, and it is this mind that we are employing in meditation.

When we conceive an object of meditation, we conceive it through the mind. We have no other alternative. There is no apparatus, no other faculty, no other endowment. The mind is the subject, for all practical purposes, which engages itself in the task of meditation, even if it is meditation on God Himself. Meditation of the spiritual type is the concentration of the mind on a concept of the Ultimate Reality that is entertained within itself. The mind has some notion of what it regards as the Ultimate Reality of things. Philosophers have gone into great detail in their analysis of the competency of the mind in forming such a notion itself. Can the mind form an adequate notion or idea of the Ultimate Reality of things? This is a tremendous subject which has engaged the attention of great thinkers of the past, and varied are the conclusions arrived at by various thinkers. Is it possible for the mind to conceive of Reality at all? If so, to what extent can it conceive Reality? If it cannot, if the attempt is a total failure, how does it become possible for the mind to have an aspiration for something beyond itself, or anything transcendent to itself?

We have a double personality in our psychic structure. On one side we are heavily conditioned by factors beyond our control. On the other hand there is an urge within us which speaks in a language overstepping the limits of ordinary thinking. There is a practical impossibility of the mind to conceive the nature of Reality due to the simple fact that it is involved in space, time, and the concept of causality. It cannot go beyond these limitations. Just as a person who looks at things through spectacles can see anything and everything only insofar as this perception is conditioned by the structure of the spectacles, so is the case with any kind of psychic perception or conception. It is not possible for anyone in the world to have direct contact with Reality by means of thought or reason because thought is involved in the phenomenal processes. There is a screen, an iron curtain, as it were, hanging between the mind and Reality. The spectacles with which we see the world, unfortunately for us, are of a different nature from the ordinary spectacles that we put on when seeing things of the world. We can remove the ordinary spectacles and throw them aside, but these peculiar philosophic spectacles, or psychic spectacles, that we put on are inseparable from our own being. Our very existence is involved in these spectacles, and they are involved in us. To remove these spectacles would be to peel one's own skin, and no one can be prepared to do that, as it is an impossibility.

So to get out of the conditioning factors in which the mind is involved is a practical impossibility for any phenomenal being. There is, therefore, no such thing as thinking Reality or thinking God. It is not possible because the moment you think God, you cast God in the mould of your own perceptions. Our perceptions are conditioned by space, time, causality, and many other things, and when a jaundiced eye sees God, it sees only a yellow God, etc. There is no chance of the mind conceiving Reality. If that is the case, the mind cannot meditate on God.

Then what is it that we are speaking of? We meditate on God. Everybody seems to be thinking of God, but on a careful philosophical analysis we come to the conclusion that the mind cannot think of God because it can think only as much as it is permitted by the very structure in which it is involved, or of which it is made. I cannot jump beyond my own mind, so there is an impasse in front of us. It appears, as it were, that we are landed in utter agnosticism or even scepticism in regard to the concept of God. We are totally mistaken, perhaps, in our very idea of God. But the other side of it is: How does the idea of God arise in the mind when it is totally impossible for the mind to think of God? The mind seems to be like a double-edged sword. It cuts both ways. It has a tremendous impracticability and impossibility of thinking God when we make this epistemological analysis; but on the other hand, there is something speaking from within us, saying that it is not so bad as that. There is some mystery in us which tells us that it is not an impossibility.

The mind is rooted basically, at its very foundation, in something which is not conditioned by space, time and causality. We have something in us which is transcendent and beyond space, time and cause. We are involved in it, and yet we are above it. Our Puranas tell us that we occupy all the seven worlds at one stroke: Bhuloka, Bhuvarloka, Svarloka, Maharloka, Janaloka, Tapoloka, Satyaloka. These seven worlds are not above us. They are inside us, and we are in them. What the tantrics or the hatha yogis call the chakras – muladhara, etc. – are only the microcosmic descriptions of these cosmological or cosmic layers, the realms of being mentioned just now. They are all inside us. We are simultaneously both down on the earth, and in the topmost heaven. All layers of Reality are within us. When only one aspect is emphasised we appear be conditioned by space, time, etc., but there is something in us which is not so conditioned. If the unconditioned were not to be in us, we could not be even aware that we are conditioned. We cannot make this analysis that the mind is limited unless the mind has some power within it by which it can know that there is something beyond the limitation. A totally limited being cannot be aware of unlimitedness. It is, therefore, not illogical to conclude that phenomenality precludes knowing the Ultimate Reality. This is the dilemma in which we are usually placed. We are bound, no doubt, by the conditions of the world, but the very fact that we are aware of this state of bondage itself is a great virtue, and it is a blessing upon us. How do we become aware that we are bound? A person who is bound and is completely soaked to the very marrow in bondage cannot know that he is bound. So there is something in us which is not bound, and therefore we are not merely phenomenal beings, though in all outward appearances it appears that we are phenomenal.

In the art of meditation, what it is that gets engaged in the attempt at meditation is difficult to understand. It is a great technique which has to be analysed threadbare, to the root, to the bottom. Is it the mind that concentrates on God? If it is the mind, what is your notion of the mind? What do you mean by ‘the mind'? If the mind is only an expression of prakriti – it is one of the manifestations of mula prakriti, constituted of the three gunas – then naturally, the laws of prakriti will operate upon the mind. Inasmuch as prakriti is an object of consciousness, the mind will also stand in the position of an object to the Reality that is within us, and it is the object that confronts the object.

There is some interesting reference in the Bhagavadgita to this phenomenon of an element of objectivity being present in us even when we are aware of the so-called object outside. Guna guneshu vartante (B.G. 3.28). The objects of the world are constituted of the gunas, and the mind also is constituted of the gunas, so the attraction of the mind in respect of objects is due to the feeling of similarity between the mind and the objects, as in ‘Birds of the same feather flock together'. The mind is pulled towards the objects, and the objects influence the mind. This mutual attraction and influence between the mind and the objects outside is because of the similarity of the basic structure between the mind and the objects. Both are constituted of prakriti; therefore, from the ultimate standpoint, the mind is an object. It is not a subject.

Thus, when the object that is meditated upon, and the subject that meditates, are both analysed to their basic essence, an altogether new thing is revealed. We are not to employ merely the objective aspect of the mind in meditation. Then the God that we contemplate upon will also stand as an object outside us, and He will be separated from us by space and time. There will be no contact between us and the object. The whole system of Patanjali, especially in its study of the various stages of samadhi, drives home into our minds one important truth, that every stage of samadhi is a transcendence of space and time, though in the beginning the movement is through space and time itself. In the earlier stages of profound meditation bordering upon the lowest kind of samadhi, space and time are not obliterated, and they are there hanging on the mind. You put forth tremendous effort in feeling the presence of the object as inseparable from yourself. If I look at you and think of you, and pressurise the mind to contemplate in such a manner as to identify itself with the form of your personality, it naturally does it through space and time. Therefore, there is effort. Effort is impossible of avoidance as long as we think of objects in space and time. All effort involving strain is due to the interference of space and time in the relationship of subject and object.