It seems appropriate to do a follow-up to the 8 part series on Experience that addresses the issue: okay, so what now? What is one supposed to do? If all of life is just chasing after mirages, and the so-called “escape hatch” involves some bizarre process of having consciousness rest within itself, what is one supposed to do in the meantime?
Experience: Table of Contents
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To address this concern we start by realizing that knowledge of yoga, of real yoga, not this silly Westernized hatha yoga stuff, puts one at a decision branch point. When the yogic view of our experience is explained there are two general reactions: (1) either you reject it, for whatever reasons, or (2) you accept it, for whatever reasons. Your reaction naturally puts you into one of two camps: the Rejecters and Accepters.
Many people are inclined to reject the yogic assessment of life. They find it hard to believe that all the things they love and like, things that are dear to their heart, are mirages, or that there is anything wrong with the way things are. Never mind the fact that your death is imminent. For most people, this doesn’t matter. They ignore the inevitability of death and cling to whatever it is that life has given them, right up to the very end. They are not going to trade the few drops of honey life has given them for some nebulous possibility of “absolute infinity”, for some completely unimaginable state that Plato described in his Allegory of the Cave.
Mainly this is the reaction of those confined to the surface mind. However, it can also happen to those people who have seen below the surface mind, but who may be ensnarled in some illusion of the Intermediate Zone.
This is a perfectly legitimate reaction. It means that one is not ready to embark on the grand adventure of yoga. One is still bound to the attachments of life and is not ready to let go yet. The state is similar to an unripe fruit: a green banana or green orange. The unripe orange will not fall off the tree. It won’t fall off until it is ripened sufficiently, then it automatically falls off.
Further, from the Hindu point of view, death of the physical body is not the end anyway. The person dies, exists for a while on the inner planes doing whatever, and then reincarnates again based on their samskaras. This is saṃsāra, the wheel of birth, death and rebirth. This is the merry-go-round. You—you soul—simply recycles on the wheel until you are ready to move on.
This is a great beauty of the situation we find ourselves in, or you could say, the beauty of God’s wisdom: Since it is all mirages, it doesn’t matter if we do or do not chase them. No fundamental harm is done in either case. Unlike the evolution viewpoint that ultimately reduces to randomness, and hence meaninglessness (or some nebulous, emotion-laden view of “creativity”), the yogic view is more like religious views that see God’s plan in all events and occurrences. Every soul has their moment in the scheme of things when the time comes to let go of the mirages and make the move to deeper realities.
Yoga is very clear about this: if it is not your time to fall off the tree, we don’t want you. Go back to your illusions until you are serious about dispelling them.
For those who accept the yogic assessment of life, who are ready to embark on getting off the merry-go-round, it becomes a serious issue what to do in the meantime. Just because we realize that we are in this dumb condition of chasing mirages doesn’t mean it’s going to just magically stop once we realize what is going on.
The whole process of wanting to get off the merry-go-round of samsara is kind of like a car skidding to a stop. Just because you have applied the brake doesn’t mean the car instantly stops. It doesn’t. A moving car has momentum, and that momentum must be used up before the car stops. It is the same with samsara. Over many lives, you’ve built up a type of karmic momentum. All of this “energy” needs to be used up before you can exit the merry-go-round. Again, this “energy” comes in the form of the samskaras, the tendencies to desire and want specific things.
If you read the Yoga Sutras, probably close to half of it is dedicated to explaining about the samskaras (including the Kleshas) and what exercises you need to do to exhaust them. It is all very involved. I am thinking about writing a multi-part essay on the topic of samskaras and karmas because these ideas are still not adequately understood in the West.
But the main point is, the momentum of the samskaras just keeps on going, whether you are aware of your condition in the mirages or not. So the issue becomes one of intentionally starting to exhaust your existing samskaras.
There are two general ways people come to realize the truth of the yogic position: (1) intellectually, or (2) experientially via some degree of mystical experience. These may occur in the same person, or it may be that just one or the other has occurred.
The intellectual way is the weakest because it is only a pattern of thoughts that serves as a bulwark against the momentum of the samskaras. At any moment, new ideas could come in and disrupt the apple cart and toss one right back into the realm of mirages. In addition, unless the intellectual understanding is grounded in deep insight, one’s emotions and sentimentality can also disrupt the intellectual understanding. If such emotional disruption occurs, it means the intellectual understanding was indeed very weak from the start. There must be constant reinforcement of the intellectual understanding to sustain this path.
If one gets a glimpse into the pure conscious condition (drisimatrah), this is stronger because one has actually experienced, to a greater or lesser degree, what is at stake. This can be less subject to doubt than mere intellectual arguments and strengthen the mind towards yogic practices. On the other hand, one must not get caught in Intermediate Zone illusions. The mystical path is plagued by the ambiguity of knowing if it was a real experience or not. One can determine the value of the mystical experience by whether it triggers in you only a minor, a medium, or a strong desire to tread the path of yoga.
In either case, one must realize that just knowing that the path of yoga exists is no guarantee one will enter this path, let alone stay on it. The end of Experience describes the beginning of yoga, and like any nascent situation (newly planted seed, newly implanted embryo), there are many ways for the whole process to naturally abort. [For those who do not know, in humans, over 2/3rds of acts of conception end up aborting, just naturally].
There are no rosy pictures of yoga. Once one chooses this path, the first step is to stick to it, which is difficult. There is nothing fun per se about the ensuing stages. The process of deconstructing one’s own ego (asmita), of peeling back layer after layer of illusion, is arduous. One only sticks with it because at some level or another, one knows there is no alternative, because one really is serious about getting off the wheel of illusions.
In the Meantime
So, for the Accepters, what to do in the meantime? Swami J has a most helpful discussion of the options open to newcomers to the path of yoga. There is no simple answer, no “one size fits all” approach. Everyone is different and will respond and act according to their innate capabilities.
I will close out here giving my own personal approach on the matter, which has become increasingly clear as I learn more about what the Yoga Sutras teaches. An important insight from Chapter 18 of Krishnananda’s Study and Practice of Yoga is:
“Self-control is the introduction of some element of the nature of Truth into the perceptions of the mind, and would be the first step of control of the modifications of the mind-stuff. We cannot control the mind by the force of will. Every stage in the practice of yoga is really a positive step in the sense that there is a healthy growth into new stages of Reality, rather than merely a withdrawal from unreality.” [Emphasis mine]
He elaborates this idea in great detail, which I only summarize here. The idea that one must meditate is the center of yogic practice. But it is also an advanced stage of yoga. There are preliminaries that must be in place for meditation to be successful. You would not expect a kindergarten student to do sixth grade work, nor a sixth grader to do college work. It is much the same with yoga.
Krishnananda points out something very important about yogah chitta vritti nirodhah. It is not just stopping the flow of thoughts by sheer will power. It is the replacing of perceptions of illusion with perceptions of truth. It is by coming to understand the truth of our condition that the mind, eventually, and of its own accord, will slow to a silence. Nothing is forced. Everything occurs naturally and gradually. This is a key insight.
At the earliest stages, one must not give in to the temptation to try to force the mind into any condition. Krishnananda spends many pages talking about how tricky the mind is. It is like a wild beast that must be tamed, not by force, but by truth.
This comes back to the 8 steps of practice of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: yama, niyama, asanas, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi. The first steps are yama and niyama.
Because there is so much focus on meditation, which begins at asanas, and because Western civilization has a mass case of Attention Deficit Disorder and wants instant results, people jump right into the meditation aspect and ignore the first two stages of yama and niyama.
But this will not work. Yama and niyama are the foundation of vairagya, the dispassionate attitude required for success in yoga. What I am getting to can be said quite simply: for a newbie in yoga, one can spend the rest of this life just practicing yama and niyama, and it would be very productive.
There is another important word in yoga that has not yet made it into the Experience essay that is intimately linked to vairagya, and that is viveka. Viveka means “discrimination” as in the ability to discriminate true from false. Let us consider Taimni’s words from the Science of Yoga:
“Real Vairagya is not characterized by a violent struggle with our desires. It comes naturally and in its most effective form by the exercise of our discriminative faculty which is called Viveka. Glamour plays a very great part in producing Raga or attachment and even ordinary intellectual analysis combined with reason and commonsense, can free us from many unreasonable habits and attachments. But the real weapon to be used in acquiring true Vairagya is the more penetrating light of Buddhi which expresses itself as Viveka. As our bodies are purified and our mind becomes free from the cruder desires this light shines with increasing brightness and destroys our attachments by exposing the illusions which underlie them. In fact Viveka and Vairagya may be considered as two aspects of the same process of dissipation of illusion through the exercise of discrimination on the one hand and renunciation on the other.”
Again we see the emphasis on a natural dissipation, not a forced suppression, of the movements of the mind.
So, what to do in the meantime? If one can accept the logic of yoga (and of course other traditions like Buddhism) that strips the veneer of rosiness and glamor from life, then what to do in the meantime is strengthen one’s mind.This strengthening comes in the form of ignoring the glamours and illusions, of seeing through them and naturally losing interest in them. At the same time, one studies and learns how things work. How the mind works, with all its tricks and glamours; how the mind itself is like a fun house of mirrors. One comes to focus more and more, not on things of this world, but on spiritual truths, the scriptures of the world. Whichever ones appeal to us the most, whether Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, etc.; they all say effectively the same thing.
One begins to slowly divert their desires away from the illusory mirages of the external world, and towards God, consciousness, infinity, whatever you want to call it. In yoga, this is called “bhakti” or a devotional attitude. But there is nothing goofy or emotional about it. It arises from a serious and sober understanding of things.
A rearrangement of the mind is required. To this point, we have all been in the state of paranga cetana, with our consciousness directed outwardly and thereby caught in the glamours of Maya, the glamours of the ever-becoming. Yoga, real yoga, is a slow and steady process of withdrawal.
The Maya will never go away. It is eternal. It, however, will slowly take on another meaning as its place in the eternal scheme of things slowly gets appreciated in a new way, and as one slowly, ever so slowly, tames their mind, and trains vairagya and viveka to see dispassionately the true order of things (Sanatana Dharma). Then, one is ready to sit and learn the asanas and breathing exercises, and other practices that lead to samadhi, and a new stage in the adventure can begin.
So, in the meantime, just chill. Learn. Relax.