Friday, February 24, 2012

A few words about sitting

In my last post, I wanted to stress the following point, but perhaps I missed saying it. I have seen that many devotees eventually come to a point where they lose faith in the mythology or some aspect of the theology of bhakti, or they become disillusioned by the kind of people who profess to follow these teachings, and so on.

In my experience one needs to have a strong baseline of spiritual experience that one can fall back on, a base line that one can return to in order to retrace one's steps until one restores one's mental stability and renews enthusiasm for sadhana, even when efficacious association is not available.

Things like the existence of God, the nature of the self as a spiritual being, the necessity for sadhana, the ultimate goal of prema... all these things seem like flimsy possessions when one is in an undeveloped state of spiritual life, and it seems that they are quite persistent, even in people who are acclaimed as having high levels of realization, or have great amounts of learning.

This, of course, is not true simply of the spiritual life, crises of purpose and meaning are standing in wait for everyone, no matter what their calling. It is called depression. But because the spiritual life makes promises of curing this particular problem by offering an answer to the meaning of life and a method to follow to get direct realization of the Divine Truth, whereby "all things will be known," it is perhaps far more acute for the spiritual aspirant when such crises arise.

Most people build on previous experience and slowly establish secure, unshakable stepping stones to which they can return when progress seems to be stymied in some esoteric region of farfetched philosophy or irrelevant myth or impossible practice.

Bhakti is highly dependent on symbol systems and mythology, as well as a complex theology that opens many doors to debate. Actually, all religious systems depend to some degree on these things, and the task of the scholar of comparative religion is to find the universal common ground that all religions and spiritual paths depend on in order to survive. In the same way that a study of, let's say, human biology, reveals universal traits that are common to Borneo tribes and to Arnold Schwartzenegger and can be applied in medicine, so too things are revealed by the study of religion.

Of course, a large percentage of students of religion are reductionists. They see religion as a byproduct of improper philosophical understanding, of incorrect psychology or as a misunderstanding of group dynamics and other sociological forces. They are not altogether incorrect, and certainly an understanding of these different disciplines helps to clarify the purpose of religion and helps us to give up certain false absolutisms about one's own religion. On the other hand, such analyses also tend to bring out the special features of our own particular path and give a renewed affection for the divine grace that gave us that unique and individual experience that brought us to it.

The Yoga-sutra is a kind of scientific treatise about spiritual life. Swami Veda Bharati likes to say that Patanjali is agnostic about the state of liberation, which he calls kaivalya. It is simply "being situated in one's own nature" (svarūpe'vasthānam), which is pretty much what the Bhagavatam also says, muktir hitvānyathā-rūpaṁ svarūpeṇa|vyavasthitiḥ.

By avoiding specific details about the nature of the Absolute Truth or the jiva in the pure state, it might be said that Patanjali's process is truly a "science" of spirituality, more so than most other texts. I, of course, as a follower of Rupa Goswami, find that there is a lacuna of misunderstanding about myth and the place of empirical experience in Patanjali, but at the same time, in view of what I said above, I also find that Patanjali sets certain parameters of spiritual practice that can be considered "base-line." In other words, by concentrating on certain externals related to mental discipline in the spiritual endeavor, he establishes a process that might be considered universally applicable, regardless of which specific myths or doctrines one happens to hold dear.

Now yesterday I talked about meditation, and briefly mentioned sitting and breathing. But in general I am lazy and don't give details about such things. There is plenty of information on the Internet about almost everything under the sun so anyone who is interested in doing the research can easily find what they are looking for.  I also have the defect of selfishness as well as being lazy and so I usually only talk about things that interest me, so I often avoid speaking of things that are really basic. However, I think it would be useful to consider a few things about sitting and breathing.

First of all, Yoga is about samadhi. Clearly and succinctly, it is about attaining a state of mind that is fully concentrated and free from the lower states of complete distraction, stupefaction, lack of concentration, and is attained through single-pointedness and dedication to the goal.

The Gita's hierarchies of karma-yoga are for those who cannot find the wherewithall or mental strength for meditation and therefore need extensive external props to cultivate a sense of one-pointedness. Even selfish activity when conducted in a spirit of complete dedication gives a certain sense of fulfilment. But generally, as even a beginner on the path realizes, selfish activity has too many unwanted consequences to allow one to achieve stillness of mind, and so at best permits temporary states of fulfilment.

But this does not mean that the Gita's 6th chapter is something that can be ignored as appropriate to another age when people were longer lived and situated in sattva-guna and therefore capable of sitting and meditating. Krishna says,


ārurukṣor muner yogaṁ karma kāraṇam ucyate |
yogārūḍhasya tasyaiva śamaḥ kāraṇam ucyate ||3||
For one just attempting to accede to the path of yoga, external karmas are said to be the cause, i.e., the means. When one has attained to the path of yoga, then quietening the mind and senses is said to be the cause or means. (6.3)

In other words, this is a stage that one must progress through in order to achieve the highest levels of samadhi. The Gita offers many paths, but Krishna did not let Arjuna the warrior, who tried to escape the duty of meditation by claiming it was too difficult, off the hook. He said, "You can do it by continued effort and detachment." (6.35) In other words, performance of prescribed duties -- even one as active as that of a warrior -- needs to be accompanied by meditation. This was understood by the Chinese and Japanese.

To cultivate one-pointedness, one needs more than philosophical conviction or devotional attraction, one needs self-discipline, both physical and mental. This begins with yamas and niyamas, about which I will say nothing here, but suffice it to say that these are, according to Patanjali himself, not even directy yoga, but only preparatory excercises. The next three disciplines, āsana, prāṇāyama and pratyāhāra, are also considered external (bahiraṅga) practices; the internal ones (antaraṅga) are dhyāna, dhāraṇā and samādhi.


Sitting (āsana) should not be mistaken for the complexities of haṭha-yoga. Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with haṭha, but the goal of haṭha itself is meditation. As Svatmarama says in the Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā, kevalaṁ rāja-yogāya haṭha-vidyopadiśyate (1.2) "I only instruct the knowledge of haṭha in order to lead one to rāja-yoga." And in various other places he confirms that. But even if we read the HYP, we will see that the āsanas and mudrās and so on are not nearly as elaborate as have been developed by haṭha-yogīs over the ages.

But to come back to Patanjali, who discusses āsana in three sutras (2.46-48):


sthira-sukham āsanam ||46||
prayatna-śaithilyānanta-samāpattibhyām ||47||
tato dvandvānabhighātaḥ ||48||
The seating posture should be stable and comfortable. Achieved by careful relaxation and by identification with the infinite [or with Ananta Shesha, the upholder of the universe and stability. The benefit is that one is not affected by dualities.

So the usefulness of haṭha is that it makes the body supple and loose and therefore helps one to remain comfortable in the meditative posture for long periods of time. Yogis like to say that one should be capable of sitting for approximately three and a half hours continuously in the posture; this is then called āsana-siddhi. Of course, for most people in the world, West or East, this is an extravagant objective that few could ever hope to achieve.


Yesterday we saw that Bhaktivinoda Thakur said to start from a half-hour, but you have to start somewhere, with some goal, and the first goal has to be to just sit quietly, no matter what is going on in the mind. The body must be trained or the mind will always be victorious, using the body as the vehicle for allowing dualities to enter. This is why Patanjali says that perfection in āsana makes one free from dualities.


Asana is the true beginning of yoga, then. There is no doubt benefit to chanting japa while walking or rocking back and forth, etc. There are no hard and fast rules, we are often told. This may be true, but if one wants to really benefit, then the experience of the yogis should be heeded.

In order to keep one's posture stable and comfortable, one needs to sit straight. Sit properly!! Sitting properly means holding your back, neck and head in a straight line. Unless one does this, breathing properly will be impossible. I will write about breathing later, but for now let it be said that if one bends forward while sitting, the lungs can only fill in the upper portions and thus breath is shallow and incomplete. This is not only unhealthy but extremely detrimental to the purpose of yoga. As to walking and so on while chanting japa: if one thinks that ruminating about various things while uttering sounds with the tongue by rote is helpful for attaining samadhi, one may continue with such practice.


In my opinion, it is better to sit quietly for half an hour and remember a few mantras with good concentration than to japper on for hours in the states of jāḍya, audāsīnya and vikṣepa.


Just a word about YS 2.47 above. YS 1.31 lists five external symptoms of vikṣepa (the distracted state):   duḥkha-daurmanasyāṅgam-ejayatva-śvāsa-praśvāsā vikṣepa-saha-bhuvaḥ -- pain, mental discomfort,  [involuntary] movement or agitation of the limbs, uncontrolled and unsteady inhalation or exhalation (such as sighing, etc.). The yoga system of Patanjali starts from the outside and works in. It should be said here that vikṣepa is really the first level on which sadhana has begun, as the states of kṣipta and mūḍha are too foreign to any meditative state whatsoever. So when one actually starts to practise yoga by sitting in āsana, the symptoms indicated in Sutra 1.31 will appear. 


The most prominent of these, of course, is aṅgam-ejayatva, which is the very opposite of "stable and comfortable" position. It can be overcome by two mental exercises: deliberate relaxation (prayatna-śaithilya), which comes through observation of the body and self-correction and through ananta-samāpatti, which has a double meaning. One is to cultivate a transcendence to the body through identification with the unlimited spiritual Truth, the other is to feel the solidity of the Upholder of the universe, Ananta. Vijnana Bhikshu also suggests that Ananta, who is none other than Patanjali himself, gives grace to the serious practitioner and that this is a further intent of the verse.

At any rate, the point here is that this is a base-line. If you can fix your mind even for a moment on the Truth of your eternal spiritual nature, on your Existence, and dwell on the meaning of Consciousness itself, your experience will be strong enough to give you a reliable resource in faith. And as Vyasa says in his Bhāṣhya to I.20, "Faith is like a mother who constantly protects the yogi." śraddhā cetasaḥ samprasādaḥ | sā hi jananīva kalyāṇī yoginaṁ pāti | tasya hi śraddadhānasya vivekārthino vīryam upajāyate | "Faith means full clarity of mind. Like a beneficent mother, it protects the yogi. Then, the yogi endowed with faith and seeking discriminatory wisdom, develops strength of resolve."

Radhe Shyam.

More here.





4 comments:

Mat said...

You say "Bhakti is highly dependent on..." I'm not sure how to reconcile this statement with explanation in Madhurya Kadambini about bhekt being fully independent.

Jagat said...

Good question, Mat.

"Bhakti is highly dependent on symbol systems and mythology, as well as a complex theology...

So tell me, do you think bhakti is possible without Krishna, Radha, etc.?

Without the story of e.g., the rasa lila?

Is rasa possible without vishaya, ashraya, uddipanas, etc.?

Is bhakti possible without at least a rudimentary knowledge of sambandha, abhidheya, prayojana?

In this context, what would Bhakti being independent mean?

dr.jaya said...

Sant Tulasi das prayed to Lord Shiva and Parvati at the beginning of Sri Rama Carita Manas for Their blessings saying:

bhavAnI-zaGkarau vande
zraddhA- vizvAsa rUpiNau
yAbhyAM vinA na pazyanti siddhAH svAntastham Izvaram

- SRCM 1.2

I reverently bow down to Devi Parvati and Lord Shiva, .. zraddhA vizvAsa rUpiNau .. the Embodiments of faith and divine trust, without Whom even the perfected sadhakas (adepts) are not able to perceive God Who dwells right within themselves.

nishant vashisht said...

Thanks Jagat Ji for your insight

I recently read the yogasutras of patanjali ( by Edwin Bryant ) and i cant tell you how it has helped me in further pursuing the path of devotion.

i wish i cud make everyone read this one book !!

Jai Radhe