All human beings experience pleasure and pain, happiness and fear, clinging and aversion. These are all temporary states, fluctuations of the human condition. These temporary states are often the result of unsuccessful attempts to satisfy an innate desire to experience lasting peace and joy. Ultimately, they become limitations, sometimes called hindrances. When we awaken to the stirring of the Soul and an inner call, a quest begins to discover how to free oneself from unnecessary suffering and instead, live from joy and harmony.
At our core, we are all fully realized beings. But, our work is to remember this, gradually removing the cloaks we’ve donned that shield us from that reality. Once we realize that we have the capacity to know who we are, a journey of Self-remembering unfolds. We draw to ourselves the tools, resources, and support that guide us along the way. I think of this as a spiritual journey, a path that unites wisdom and bliss, such as teachings on Yoga, to unite or join together. Yoga offers a practical, albeit not easy, approach to overcoming these limitations. Yoga can be understood to be a simultaneous path of liberation of the individual, mokṣa, and a path of union with all life and the Source of all beings. We are all multi-dimensional. In the course of following inner and outer practices, practitioners discover that what lies within is the source of their true Being — a radiant, peaceful, and joyful energy that is the true Self. Inner liberation comes from peeling away any inner block that stands in opposition to uniting all levels of this multi-dimensional Self. We can therefore think of the path of Yoga as a method (wisdom) which guides a practitioner toward the realization of the true Self (bliss).
Many students of Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras will be familiar with this aphorism:
“yogaḥ citta vṛtti nirodhah.”
I like to translate this aphorism as follows: The path to inner freedom is the result of transcending the fluctuations of thoughts and feelings.
In this sutra, Patanjali points to a path of liberation and union, which can be experienced once the mind is stilled. Here, he is referring to the sensory mind, which obscures both the true nature of all phenomena and the essence of the true Self. The mental modifications are all the forms in which the sensory mind fabricates and obscures. It’s not simply a matter of making the mind quiet, as in, you stop having thoughts. It’s also not merely a matter of being able to observe your thoughts or mental content. One of the skills needed is harnessing the ability to disengage from thoughts once you’re in them; next, disengage from thoughts as they arise, and then keep the mind clear. Disengaging from thoughts is a skill developed from neutrally observing the mind. Witnessing with emotional neutrality opens the door for drawing in the illumination of the wisdom mind. The light of the wisdom mind makes it possible to see and gradually dissolve the mental fabrications.
Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras place āsana (which can mean posture or seat) as the third rung in an eight-stepped ladder, placing this before pranayama (breath exercise) and the four successive stages of meditation. Asana is especially useful for modern bodies – a modern lifestyle that generally tends toward being more sedentary and repetitive in tasks such as sitting at a desk for eight hours. Movement practices such as Hatha Yoga that emphasize both the strength and flexibility of the body provide a good foundation for the static and steady posture that is necessary for meditation. When the body is agitated, it is harder to quiet the mind. Attending to the needs of the body is not only self-care; it is the basis of preparing oneself for meditation practices that require quiet reflection and neutral observation.
An essential component of quieting the mind is the breath. Regulating the breath has the effect of calming and slowing down the mind. In turn, breath and mind become synchronized, which opens the door to the realms of inner peace and inner joy. We don’t ever think about breathing, not consciously anyway. It’s an involuntary body function that we’re able to bring under voluntary control. In virtually all beginner meditation exercises, meditators are instructed to start with the breath. And, all longtime meditators, including the ones that I know, use the breath to begin a meditation session. Therefore, breath practice is not just for beginners but provides constant support that steadies a long-term commitment to regular and ongoing meditation practice.
Like Patanjali, the Bhagavad Gita references liberation of the true Self by controlling the senses. When the mind is caught up, as it were, in its projected experience of reality – liking or disliking something, judging something, an emotion arises. We become attached to something or someone. We cling or try to replicate experiences that we think made us happy. Or we become despondent or opposed to something or someone, pushing away what we think caused us pain. Liking or disliking becomes a repetitive cycle from which, as Patanjali suggests, we are liberated from when we can free ourselves from the habits of mind.
One of the keys Krishna gives to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita for bringing the senses under one’s control is by cultivating non-attachment. Consciousness is then unaffected by the senses. Non- attachment is not an extreme ascetic renunciation of the world; rather, it is a renunciation of all the fabrications of illusion that perpetuate the rebirth of saṃsāra. Equanimity and non-attachment go hand in hand. As a state of mind, equanimity is an experience in which the inner observer is able to maintain a clear, calm presence while remaining undisturbed by the senses. In practice, the skill needed to cultivate this state of mind is where method and insight meet. The method is the form of exercises such as meditation or reflection. Insight opens to higher wisdom and deep intuitive knowing that penetrates and illuminates understanding. As these two meet, it becomes possible to dissolve obscurations, slowly wiping away dust from the mirror.
The more skilled we become at witnessing the contents of our own mind and understanding their roots with higher wisdom, with the right tools, it becomes possible to gradually strip away the obscurations that hide the radiant beauty of the true Self. Bliss and peace reside within. The more we Self-remember, the closer we come to living more fully from this inner bliss and peace.