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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Be Happy or it's Hard to Practice

I’m picking up on something we discussed in the teacher training this past weekend:  the “theme” sutra was I.33 (see below).  Patanjali’s context is this:  three sutras before, he names the range of obstacles or disturbances to practice, and their concommitants (YS I.30-31), which to avoid for once my natural tendency to digress, I won’t go into here.  But you should look at them because this sutra here can be read as part of Patanjali’s explanation of how to resolve those obstacles.  Well, read the whole pada really; it’s all of a piece, and all relevant. 

To eliminate the disturbances, Patanjali says we should practice fixing the mind on one object. 

I.32:  tat-pratiṣedhārtham eka-tattvābhyāsaḥ
[Bryant]  Practice [of fixing the mind] on one object [should be performed] in order to eliminate these disturbances.
[Iyengar] Adherence to single-minded effort prevents these impediments.

Vyasa states that the disturbances in I.30 are to be counteracted by the practice and dispassion mentioned in I.12-I.16.  He considers this sutra to be Patanjali’s final statement in this pada on practice. 
The ‘one object’ is sometimes understood by commentators (see Vachaspati Misra, Iyengar and probably Bryant too) to be God, though other commentators (see Aranya, Vijnana-bhiksu, Bhojaraja) point out that Patanjali does not himself indicate anything other than exactly what he says in the sutra itself.  And throughout the entire Sutra (look particularly at the third pada), Patanjali gives us many different focal points for concentration and practice, all aimed at overcoming delusion and limitation, or developing capacity, or yielding lucidity and deep wisdom and understanding of existence.

Iyengar points out that for most of us the notion of surrender to God is not comprehensible, let alone attainable.  Throughout most of our practice, we ordinary people remain caught up in the delusions and disturbances of our myriad likes and dislikes, joys and sorrows, advances and setbacks.  I would add here that regardless of the God issue, for most of us this act of concentration on anything is not easily attainable.  We often spend our time on and off the mat or the cushion caught up in some form of negativity.  We relive a problem, we have imaginary yet vivid conversations with those we feel are our antagonists, or in other ways burrowing deeper into our fear, dislike, or delusion. Only when the tendency to dwell in these negativities and distractions is eliminated, is the mind clear, calm and capable of prolonged concentration on one object. 

So then comes a series of sutras (I.33-I.39 ) on the topic of how to cultivate that steadiness of mind and consciousness that allows this single-pointed focus.  The first sutra of this section is our subject:

I.33 maitrī-karuṇā-muditopekṣāṇāṁ sukha-dhḥkha-puṇyāpuṇya-viṣayāṇāṁ bhāvanātaś citta-prasādanam
[Bryant] By cultivating an attitude of friendship toward those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are nonvirtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.
[Iyengar]Through cultivation of friendliness, compassion, joy, and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively, the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent. 

The general idea from all the commentators, Vyasa and onward, is that the sutra is telling us to be happy when we see others’ happiness; to be compassionate when we see others suffering; to be joyous at others’ virtues; and to be detached or benevolently indifferent toward those who are not virtuous.  In other words, no negativities allowed.

Here is Bryant explaining additional points made by both Hariharananda and Vacaspati Misra: “ By being a well-wisher toward those who are happy, as well as those who are virtuous, the contamination of envy is removed.  By compassion toward those who are miserable, that is, by wishing to remove someone’s miseries as if they were one’s own, the contamination of the desire to inflict harm on others is removed.  By equanimity toward the impious, the contamination of intolerance is removed.  By this removing these traits of envy, desire to inflict harm, and intolerance, which are characteristics of rajas and tamas, the sattva natural to the mind can manifest. “

I think Patanjali is telling us that we cannot progress beyond the superficialities of yoga until we take a deep look at, and clean up the roots of our emotional interaction with the world around us.  Every mind state Patanjali and the commentators bring up—happiness, compassion, joy, benevolent detachment; and the “contaminations” they dispel: envy, anger, and intolerance—are all what we Westerners would think of as emotional states.  They exist not at the intellectual level (buddhi in yogic terms), but at the more instinctive and visceral level, the level of feeling (manas).  They are whole body-mind states, certainly recognizable to ourselves, and also to any who look at us. 

Once again, note the primary placement of this sutra in the list of ways of cultivating sattvic lucidity and the calmness necessary for concentration.  As we know, when something comes up first in Patanjali’s lists of things, it usually means that first item is a sort of primary or baseline thing that needs to be attended to first before what follows can be practiced or understood properly.  The message is that in order for the mind to be lucid and level enough to concentrate, it must be emotionally balanced.
Proof of this is to be found in an examination of the sutras that come next:

I.34  pracchardana-vidhāraṇābhyāṁ vā prāṇasya
[Iyengar] Or, by maintaining the pensive state felt at the time of soft and steady exhalation and during passive retention after exhalation.
[Bryant] Or [stability of mind is gained] by exhaling and retaining the breath.

If you did your reading on sutras I. 30-31, you have already noted that the direct concommitants of the obstacles or distractions to practice are (I.31] suffering, dejection, trembling and unsteadiness of body and breath.  In other words, that “pensive” state that comes from a steady breathing pattern is likely to be rather elusive if one is suffering in a negative emotional state.

Likewise, the rest of this short series of sutras are all about ways of cultivating “steadiness of mind and consciousness,”  contemplation of a “sorrowless” light or the sages who are “free from desires and attachments” (in other words, free from negative emotional states).  They are all aimed at arriving at a calm, steady and negativity-free mind state.

Many of us practice without understanding the primary necessity for emotional stability, because nowhere does Patanjali speak of it using that term.  But this does not mean it wasn’t important to him.  It’s only that he didn’t use the word we use for that part of our selves.  And why that is is for another post, another time.  


  1. Good post, I happen to be on the list of Ors in my own sutra study. I guess I see them as more approachable ways to overcome the hinderances to practice, like when the surrender to God sutras listed before the hinderances don't work for us or when these disturbances still arise in the midst of our ongoing practice. We might actually be pretty far on the path before we realize that it is important to "don't worry, be happy."

  2. Well, clearly, I think this post falls into the 42 category! It is so timely for me! Yes, it's amazing when one begins to be aware (ideally moment after moment) of where the mind is focused and how easily it adheres to negativity, judgement, etc. It is continuous work to cling only to higher vibratory thoughts and to learn to control the mind--to use the mind as a tool and not identify as it...To observe, observe, observe and not attach. I seek to cultivate calmness of mind--to have it, sustain it (super tricky part)and do my work through happiness, not suffering. I think the suffering vs. finding one's way through happiness is a key point to stress to the Western or particularly American mind because culturally the collective mindset has been steeped in Puritanical thought--it's easy to see this in an examination of any election--which teaches suffer and then you'll reap the reward on another plane. As you've written, the sages of old teach the opposite: It is here and It is now. Be Happy. Ahhh, I'm only beginning to remember this and seek it--what an exciting journey!

    Thank you for writing this, and I appreciate all the source references which lead me to more reading, more learning, ahhhh, expansion ;-)