The Yogic View of Consciousness 28: Good Yoga, Bad Yoga


YVC 28 cvr-2I continue to court controversy, this time by discussing how some yoga is good and some is bad. It’s not my idea but is one of the ways people have interpreted some of the aphorisms of the Yoga Sutras.

Contents for The Yogic View of Consciousness:

Intro Ch 1 Ch 2 Ch 3 Ch 4 Ch 5 Ch 6 Ch7 Ch 8
Ch 9 Ch 10 Ch 11 Ch 12 Ch 13 Ch 14 Ch 15 Ch 16 Ch 17
Ch 18 Ch 19 Ch 20 Ch 21 Ch 22 Ch 23 Ch 24 Ch 25 Ch 26
Ch 27 Ch 28 Ch 29 Ch 30 Ch 31 Ch 32 Ch 33


As we move through a 1st-person discussion of yoga, the last couple chapters looked at altered states of consciousness. We see that altered states give rise to perceptions that, like normal perception, seem to be outside the observer. They too are thus forms of paranga cetana. However, compared to normal perception, the inner visions are exotic and fantastical, colorful, overwhelming, mind-stretching, and imagination-stretching.

But like anything, the experiences eventually become familiar. How many cosmic realms (or alternatively, brain-generated hallucinations) can one observe before they all look the same in their glorious, glowing bejeweled complexity? How many fractal landscapes must one pass through before one sees that there is no fixed pattern but only incessant change? How many abstract insights are required before one comes to understand what is really going on?

Chasing for meaning in the mindscapes of the inner realms is like chasing for the end of the rainbow. You will not find it. Instead, you will always only see yourself projecting meaning into the visions, like seeing faces in clouds. This is of course true for everyday life, just less obviously so (no one would consider quantum mechanics to be obvious). We can discern various relative patterns in everyday life and we can also do so in the inner realms. The patterns may even relate in very fundamental ways. Even this is not such a big deal. Mathematics, biology, and yes, even religion, teaches us we should expect it. As to absolute truths, there is only one, and it holds for the inner realms as well as everyday life:

Everything changes.

The inner realms do not reveal the Absolute. They are just a different perspective on the Relative. Like any relative reality, they can be used for good or bad, can be constructive or destructive. It is destructive if one fails to recognize how they are seeing only themselves reflected in the ever-changing patterns. Used constructively, the inner visions can help free our mind to move more naturally with the Movement. But we can get to this understanding without inner experiences too. What matters is not how we get there, since all roads lead to Rome anyway, but that we come to realize the Movement.

The Movement

The Movement is just what it says: the incessant churning and transformation that sits at the heart of all perception. The Movement is the essence, the ultimate nature, of paranga cetana, of outwardly-directed consciousness. It is the culmination of Idealism, the ultimate insight about the mind itself: an ever-changing kaleidoscope. It implies all things, but these are elusive phantasmagoria that transform as the Movement slips and slides over, under, within, and through itself. Everything transforms incessantly into something else.­

morphing-1The mind is Proteus. Protean is its very nature.

Sometime we can anticipate, even understand in some restricted fashion, how the changes will go. Most of the time we cannot.

Way back in Chapter 4, van der Leeuw called it The Rhythm of Creation. He was talking about the Movement. It is the one characteristic of relative existence:

“There is nothing, there never was anything, there never can be anything but the eternal Rhythm of Creation, unchanging, containing all things. It is the Absolute, It is at the same time all relativity all that we think of as past, present, or future.”

Some may be tempted to think there is more to it than this. To draw analogy to a phase gone through in physics, there may be “hidden variables” behind the Movement. I used the following Allan Watts quote in Experience, and will repeat it here:

“Life seems to resolve itself down to a tiny germ or nipple of sensitivity. I call it the Eenie-Weenie—a squiggling little nucleus that is trying to make love to itself and can never quite get there. The whole fabulous complexity of vegetable and animal life, as of human civilization, is just a colossal elaboration of the Eenie-Weenie trying to make the Eenie-Weenie….As I pursue my own tail, it runs away from me.”

Eenie Weenie-1

Eenie Weenies building Eenie Weenie things. Left to right: Cave painting, something like particle accelerator tracts, slime molds, crystallized aspirin. If you’ve had the experiences, the images will be obvious.

Watts captures a certain perspective on the Movement, the eternal Rhythm of Creation. One can go no deeper. From this movement stuff simply emerges. It comes into being. Or more precisely, it comes into becoming. What emerges finds itself on the see‑saw of transformation, the roller coaster of life and mind, what Hindus call the gunas: incessant transformation. In the terms used earlier in the book, Allan Watts describes a particularly raw view of the bindu, the source from which Manifestation springs into becoming. It springs from an unmanifest something-or-another that is inaccessible to relative consciousness. We see the stuff out of which the cave wall is made. It is the Movement, and stuff just arises from it.

Which gets us to the key issue: Watts’ is watching all this as if from the outside. He is paranga cetana. When he tries to understand who is seeing this he realizes:

“There seems to be something phony about every attempt to define myself, to be totally honest. The trouble is that I can’t see the back, much less the inside, of my head. I can’t be honest because I don’t fully know what I am. Consciousness peers out from a center which it cannot see—and that is the root of the matter.”

Above, van der Leeuw called it “The Absolute”.  It is no contradiction that I refer to it as the Relative. This is how the Absolute appears to the mind in paranga cetana. The Absolute always appears as the Relative to a relative mind. It cannot be otherwise. In paranga cetana the Ultimate Answer comes down to this: an incessant movement seeming to eternally generate raw creation, observed by a consciousness ignorant of its source of being. Let’s again quote Hermann Weyl who also glimpsed this in his own way:

“Thus the ultimate answer lies beyond all knowledge, in God alone; flowing down from him, consciousness, ignorant of its own origin, seizes upon itself in analytic self-penetration, suspended between subject and object, between meaning and being.”

Watts got the insight from psychedelic drugs. Weyl got it by being a super sensitive soul. All roads lead to Rome. As I said before, we might consider this condition a state of perfect tragedy: a naked expression of our primordial ignorance. Hindus call it The Great Mother, Maya, who ensconces us in her womb of avidya.

Once we understand this situation, yoga takes on its full significance. Yoga teaches the method of samadhi. Samadhi is the technology that can take us beyond an unknowable observer observing a mysterious, unexplainable movement.

Grades of Yogis
While drafting this chapter, I got a question on the PlaneTalk blog from one Mangesh Gawankar. He asked me about two aphorisms in the Yoga Sutras that I had not planned on discussing. This is how the Movement works. The Universe brought to my attention that indeed Patanjali addressed the issue I seek to explain in this chapter. These are aphorisms 1.19 and 1.20:

aphorism 1-19aphorism 1-20Mangesh, in effect, asked what these two aphorisms mean. Some Google searching showed that aphorism 1.19 is one of the more cryptic and controversial aphorisms. Various translations of 1.19 from the Yoga Sutra Study web site illustrate the divergence of meanings:

[HA]: While In The Case Of The Videhas Or The Discarnates And Of The Prakrtilayas Or Those Subsisting IN Their Elements Constituents, It Is Caused By Nescience Which Results In Objective Existence.

[IT]: Of those who are Videhas and Prakrtilayas birth is the cause.

[VH]: In the case of those who are out of body, or absorbed in prakrti-unmanifest primary matter, it (the other nirodhah is preceded by) the pratyaya-immediate thought (directed towards) becoming.

[BM]: For gods and men unencumbered by physical bodies, but still enmeshed in material nature, the cessation of thought is limited by the reliance on the phenomenal world.

[SS]: Those who merely leave their bodies and attain the state of celestial deities, or those who get merged in nature, have rebirth.

[SP]: When such concentration is not accompanied by non attachment, and ignorance therefore remains, the aspirant will reach the state of the disincarnate gods or become merged in the forces of Nature.

[SV]: (This Samadhi, when not followed by extreme non-attachment) becomes the cause of the re-manifestation of the gods and of those that become merged in nature.

Although the translations encompass a wide variety of meanings, an overall theme is present. Aphorism 1.19 refers to one who’s experience and thought is absorbed in Prakriti. Prakriti: the Relative, the Many.

In the overall flow of the Yoga Sutras, aphorisms 1.1 through 1.20 give a broad overview of yoga. In this overview, Patanjali appears to cap it off by distinguishing two different types of yogis. Taimni’s commentary spins the two types of yogis thus:

“This Sutra [1.19] and the next [1.20] are meant to differentiate between two kinds of Yogis. The first kind of Yogis referred to in I-19 are called Videhas and Prakrtilayas and their trance is not the result of the regular self-discipline outlined in the Yoga-Sutras. It depends upon their ‘birth’, that is, they possess the capacity to pass into trance naturally without any effort as a result of their peculiar physical and mental constitution. In the case of the second kind of Yogis their Samadhi is the result of regular practice of Yoga which requires certain high traits of character like faith, energy, etc. mentioned in I-20.”

A commentary from the Wisdom Library agrees with Taimni’s interpretation:

“Concentration without non-attachment cannot bring liberation. However hard we may struggle, we can only be rewarded in accordance with our desires. If we really want liberation, and work hard enough for it, we shall get it. But if we really want power and pleasure we can get them instead—not only in this world and in this human form, but in other worlds and other forms here after. Concentration upon any of the gross elements or the sense-organs is said to bring us to the condition of disincarnate gods; concentration upon the mind or the ego is said to make us one with the forces of Nature, and rulers of parts of the universe.”

Additional in-depth discussion of 1.19 and 1.20 can be found here which broadly lands in the same ballpark as the above quotes.

Please recall Chapter 25 discussed aphorism 4.1 that tells the several ways to induce siddhis, including birth, drugs, mantras, austerities, and finally samadhi itself. Aphorisms 1.19 and 4.1 are not identical, but they overlap insofar as Patanjali is talking about alternative ways to achieve the same effect. For 4.1 the effect is siddhis, and for 1.19 the effect is samadhi itself.  In 1.19 and 1.20 Patanjali seems to be distinguishing between what we might call “good” (1.20) and “bad” (1.19) samadhi.

I concluded Chapter 25 by presenting a “frame of reference” for understanding altered states of consciousness. To repeat the main point:

“Van der Leeuw describes what happens when one knows how to perform samadhi. Watts describes what happens when one does not know how to do samadhi. Both represent bare naked consciousness, but Watts represents naked consciousness in the state of paranga cetana. Van der Leeuw describes the bare naked essence of pratyak cetana.”

I hope that the previous Chapters 26 and 27 added some meat to this contention. We reviewed the modern understanding of altered states of consciousness from three different perspectives: 1st-person, brain view, and physics views. We concluded these are merely forms of paranga cetana too. These altered states fall under what Patanjali describes in aphorism 4.1 as those attributed to “birth, drugs, mantras, and austerities”. I am asserting that these are the “bad” samadhi that Patanjali describes in aphorism 1.19. It is bad because one who has these experiences is still absorbed in Prakriti, the gunas, in a state of paranga cetana.

“Bad” samadhi is perfectly encapsulated by Watts’ and Weyl’s quotes above: “I don’t fully know what I am”, and “consciousness, ignorant of its own origin”. This state is “bad” because it bottoms out with a 1st person observation of the Movement, observed by a bare naked consciousness incapable of knowing its own source.  Call it “tragedy”, call it “bad”. However qualified, it falls far short of the mark of Kaivalya.

The “good” samadhi is described in the Yoga Sutras to allow us, ultimately, to “turn around” in dharma mega samadhi and be the Source, to achieve Kaivalya. van der Leeuw quotes Plotinus’ description of the result:

“In this intelligible World everything is transparent. No shadow limits vision. All the essences see each other and interpenetrate each other in the most intimate depth of their nature. Light everywhere meets light. Every being contains within itself the entire Intelligible World, and also beholds it everywhere, every thing there is all, and all is each thing; infinite splendour radiates around…”

To which van der Leeuw adds:

“…there is all that which in our world-image produces the rich variety of outer forms and yet it all is within ourselves; and when we desire to know we are that which we know…”

This is a state very different than that described by Watts and Weyl. This is the result of the “good” samadhi that Patanjali describes in aphorism 1.20.

What do we know of this “good” samadhi that results from the meticulous and painstaking practice of the methods Patanjali gives in the Yoga Sutras?

Please tune in to Chapter 29 for this discussion.

4 thoughts on “The Yogic View of Consciousness 28: Good Yoga, Bad Yoga

  1. kashyap vasavada

    Hi Don: Very interesting article. Only point I would differ with is: If you believe in reincarnation, ease of samadhi for someone compared with others could be that he/she spent a good bit of effort in previous life. That would give him/her good start. It would be like, if you want to go to the top of the empire state building, some one has to start from the first floor and someone may be able to start from 80th floor! In fact, some people say that widely different abilities in children might be a strong proof about reincarnation! So “birth” may not be bad samadhi!
    Best wishes

  2. Hi Kashyap! Nice to hear from you! Thanks for the comments.

    First, yes, you are absolutely correct. Maybe I wasn’t so clear about it. In part it’s because I don’t want to rely on reincarnation too much in my arguments because the typical Western person simply won’t take it seriously.

    But yes, someone who put in work in past lives will be born with the propensities, if not the actual abilities in this life. But even then, at whatever stage they come into this life, they need to continue the development along the lines of Patanjali’s methods. There is of course every good chance they may not. In that case, the skills they are born with may devolve into forms of psychism, which means being caught in the inner realms without the correct orientation. This is really, I think, the way to interpret aphorisms 1.19 and 1.20.

    I’ve tried to slant it to the experience of Western people who don’t believe in reincarnation, and whose experiences with altered states generally are forms of psychism, whether via the psychedelic drugs, or trance states like lucid dreaming, etc.

    Hopefully that explains why I didn’t emphasize it like you did, which I agree, is simply a cleaner way to look at it.

    Best wishes!

    • Hi David

      Thanks for the comment! That’s great you found a link to Swami Krishnananda. He is one of my favorite authors and I cite him frequently here on the blog. One of the best 20th century writers on yoga out there. I didn’t know he wrote on Bergson and will read when I have time. I know Bergson is a favorite of some of the Consciousness Studies crowd who often cite him. I’ve only looked into his thinking superficially. Will be interested to see Krishnananda’s take on him. Again, thanks, David!

      Best wishes,


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