Have you ever been furious about something, during a heated argument, and told by your interlocutor that you just need to relax? Or, when feeling really down and miserable about something, been told to just cheer up?
I don’t know about you but usually, for me, those types of interactions make my blood boil and have the exact opposite effect!
When you read many translations of sutra 2:33, you might think that this “just relax” or “just cheer up” approach is exactly what Patanjali was recommending… For instance, Edwin Bryant, who always stays as close as possible to a literal translation of the Sanskrit in his commentary, states 2:33 as “Upon being harassed by negative thoughts one should cultivate counteracting thoughts.”
This is where it is critical to remember that the sutras were meant as a concise and practical set of instructions to be unpacked with the help of a competent teacher… And thankfully, many such teachers have and continue to share their wisdom through commentaries on the Yoga Sutras, and, the laboratory that is our own day to day life provides plenty of equally potent teachings from an endless variety of sources if we are willing and able to pay attention…
Last month, in this column, we touched on the Yamas and Niyamas which Patanjali offers as social behaviors and personal observances designed to help us progress on the path of yoga. In sutra 2:33 he is warning us about the fact that life will invariably present us with loads of situations where our thoughts and emotions will run counter to the principles of the Yamas and Niyamas and in sutra 2:34 he further states that since emotions and thoughts tend to get momentum, they can easily lead to actions that also run counter to the Yamas and Niyamas… and that these actions result in endless pain and suffering…
So to think that simply countering hatred and aversion with compassion and detachment or anger with kindness is all there is to it would be a serious underestimation of how well Patanjali understood human nature… blindly forcing positive thoughts on top of negative ones with a sledgehammer is more likely to have negative consequences; repressing the negative thoughts and letting them accumulate and fester deep inside causes undue stress on the body and mind and risks resulting in a devastating explosion at a later point in time… another possible consequence is the constant chastising of our self for having negative thoughts as we try to force positive ones in, thus negatively impacting self-esteem and confidence…
So, what are we to do when harassed by thoughts that run counter to the principles of the Yamas and Niyamas? How do we slow and eventually stop their momentum?
Let’s first take a good look at what that momentum process looks like with the help of Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (PRT) who illustrates it with an example in his commentary “The Practice of the Yoga Sutras”:
“Before we commit a violent act, a torrent of violent thoughts runs through our mind. For example, the thought arises that a business partner has been diverting money from the firm’s accounts. Almost immediately this thought is accompanied by other thoughts: “I trusted this person for years – I thought he was my friend. I have done a great deal for him. I never imagined he would steal from me.” This train of thought coalesces
in a dichotomy: “I am good; he is bad. I am right; he is wrong.” From this arises the desire to punish, laced with the desire for vengeance. We are no longer interested in justice – eliminating the culprit is now our goal. At this point, violence begins to manifest in our speech and actions.”
This is where and why we need to develop the ability to generate what PRT defines as a “stream of structured and organized non-violent thoughts” … because we need a more active approach to non-violence than, for instance, the conventional method of simply presenting the left cheek upon being slapped on the right one, which does nothing to free us from the pain nor to purify our mind… We need “a system of practice that can extinguish the fire of violence…” he recommends… a “step by step method of training our mind to churn out positive thoughts voluntarily” he continues… and to complete the example, he illustrates the methodical contemplation that might take place in one’s mind this way: “To continue the example cited above, we have to remind ourselves that life is too precious to be consumed by friends and foes, loss and gain. “I have already lost what was lawfully mine. Now I’m allowing myself to lose my inner peace and happiness. This is a much greater loss than losing a portion of my material wealth. Furthermore, such occurrences are commonplace. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. In worldly matters I will do what needs to be done, but never at the cost of losing the pristine nature of my mind. I must adhere to the higher virtues of my heart.” This and similar contemplations cool the heat of violence and help us conserve our mental energy for higher pursuits.”
BKS Iyengar (author of “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali”), for his part, puts emphasis on the student of yoga recognizing the fact that he is in a violent or angry state and instead of trying to jump immediately to cultivating the opposite state, “he should go deep into the cause of his anger and violence” , insisting that this process must be done with calmness and patience; analyzing and investigating the ideas and actions his mind is caught up in, as well as the opposite ones with presence and awareness… and it is through repeated practice and experimentation that we can learn to balance our thoughts… realigning them with the principles of the Yamas and Niyamas…
He also considers the Yamas and their opposites as currents we can experience and be exposed to; contrasting the negative and positive side of each one as violence and non-violence, truth and falsehood, non-coveting and stealing, moderation and excess, detachment and greed. And he considers the Niyamas as the skills and attitudes we can and must cultivate to manage, understand and balance our thoughts, emotions and actions in the face of these various currents…
He explains the process of paksa – pratipaksha which is at the core of sutra 2:33 by focusing on what happens during proper asana practice, whereby the student carefully observes the position and tension in each muscle, making minute adjustments to balance effort and ease and perform a healthy asana… this process is used and applied in all aspects of yoga and it is why yoga works, he affirms… “why asana is not gymnastics, why pranayama is not deep breathing, why Dhyana (meditation) is not self-induced trance, why Yama is not just morality.”
In the “Heart of Yoga”, TKV Desikachar presents 2:33 and 2:34 in his conversational style as follows:
How can we examine and reexamine our attitudes to others?
When these attitudes are questioned, self-reflection on the possible consequences of alternative attitudes may help.
This means we must find a way to examine intellectually the consequences of the different attitudes possible at a given time or in given circumstances: To look before we leap!
Patanjali explains this further:
For example, a sudden desire to act harshly, or encourage or approve of harsh actions can be contained by reflecting on the harmful consequences. Often such actions are the results of lower instincts such as anger, possessiveness, or unsound judgment. Whether these actions are minor or major, reflection in a suitable atmosphere can contain our desires to act in this way.
Often some of our attitudes toward people, situation, and ideas are not very clear, then a hasty step may land us in situations we do not want to be in. In such circumstances any opportunity to have second thoughts is worth considering. Prevention is better than cure. “
As I was putting some of my thoughts down on these two sutras for this column, reflecting on how our emotions can trigger thoughts and vice versa, I came across a past article in Mindful magazine which provides interesting insight into how meditation can help us develop the skills necessary to practice this process of paksa – pratipaksha …
In this article entitled “Rewiring your emotions”, Sharon Begley explores neuroplasticity (“the ability of the adult brain to change its structure or function in an enduring way”) and more specifically how mindfulness meditation (the practice in which you observe your thoughts and feelings with objectivity, kindness and curiosity) can improve neuropathways that can help us better regulate our emotions.
Discussing the research of neuroscientist Richard Davidson, she quotes him as saying that “Meditation gives you the wherewithal to pause, observe how easily the mind can exaggerate the severity of a setback, and resist getting drawn back into the abyss.”
This type of meditation works in this way because it strengthens and improves the link between the areas of the brain responsible for thoughts and the ones responsible for emotions… You see, emotions are managed in the brain’s “older” limbic system (which includes the amygdalae; the two almond shaped structures responsible for feelings of anxiety and fear and which is therefore much more difficult if not impossible to control voluntarily) whereas thoughts are managed in the more “recently” evolved left Prefrontal Cortex (PFC). And lucky for us, the thinking circuits of our brains are “much more accessible to our conscious volition” explains Dr. Davidson who happens to be one of the human beings I admire most for his amazing scientific contributions enhancing our understanding of the benefits of meditation…
He and his team at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison have discovered that resilience (the ability to regain emotional balance after a setback rather than wallowing in anxiety, anger, depression, or another negative emotion) is linked to stronger connections between the left PFC and the amygdalae, and their experiments seem to indicate that meditation is an effective way to strengthen these connections thus improving our ability to self-regulate and counter the negative currents with positive ones…
Don’t you just love it when modern science confirms ancient wisdom? If you like this type of discussion, please join us when we resume the Lilananda Yoga Sutras Study Group and tackle the second chapter entitled “Sadhana Pada” starting March 4. We will meet virtually on Sunday nights at 7PM using the Zoom video conferencing software which allows you to join the discussion on a computer, tablet, smartphone or regular phone line.
IMPORTANT: Everyone is welcome to join, whether or not you participated in the first book session last fall. Watch the Lilananda site and space for registration details.
With much love and gratitude,