The goal of yoga as a spiritual pursuit, according to Patanjali’s second sutra is:
Pronounciation: YO-gahsh chit-ta vruht-tee neeROda-hah
Translation: Yoga is control of citta-vrittis (literally “mind-stuff”), or thoughts, feelings, sensations, which we experience through our minds. In other words, yoga is where you control your attention rather than letting your thoughts, feelings, and sensations hijack your attention and control you. Think about this in terms of your own experience. How many times in the last day has your attention been pulled away from something you were trying to focus on? How many times were you swayed by a sense of dissatisfaction or want? How many times were you swayed by like and dislike without even realizing it? Imagine the potential energy of your mind, focused and at peace.
I have never been able to eliminate thoughts, feelings, or sensations by trying to eliminate them directly. An example of this is the old “don’t think about an elephant” trick. If you are asked to not think about an elephant, you might find yourself thinking about a whole herd of elephants, elephant cartoons, pink elephants, white elephants, elephants in rooms, etc. Go ahead. Don’t think about an elephant for the next 30 seconds.
Vrttis, like elephants, are powerful forces. They exert maximum control when they are unrecognized and operating just under your level of awareness. Think of vrttis as programming that makes up an operating system. Some of the programming comes from your genetics, like urges related to bodily survival and reproduction of genes, or a propensity for anxiety. Some of the programming comes from your culture and upbringing. Some come from recent events. They control you through desire, which distracts you and either drags your attention towards something that you like (something you find attractive or pleasurable) or causes you to recoil from something that you don’t like (something that you find disgusting or painful). They also control you through mood. Once brought to light and interrogated, though, you can recognize when they influence you too much and you have a chance at overcoming them. The keys to controlling your citta-vrttis are:
- Know what vrttis are present.
- Acknowledge that the vrttis are there and bringing them to your conscious awareness.
- Understand the underlying origins of the vrttis through self-inquiry.
- Consciously choose your path forward with full knowledge of the vrttis.
This practice is mindfulness. It is challenging because we have so many things that influence us running in the background. Overcoming all of that requires diligence and practice. In order to not be controlled by the urges of attachment and aversion, we have to know in real time when they are exerting influence. We have to understand our biases and how they are influencing our decision making. Once you become aware of them and how they form, you can cultivate new ways of thinking to overcome your existing habits.
How we use language is a window into how we think. It is also, however, a tool we can use to change the way we think. By changing the words we use to describe vrttis, we can train our minds to become aware of what is factual vs. what is subjective. Take the words “good” and “bad” and all of their relatives (great/terrible, righteous/evil, wonderful/awful, better/worse, best/worst, tempting/disgusting, etc.) When we say that something is good or bad, our minds are expressing, through desire and preference, a summary of a lot of stuff in our brains, like memories, sensations, mood at the time, thought patterns, physical state, etc. It’s a mental shortcut. When we do that, though, we are incorrectly ascribing attributes to an object. An object is not inherently good or bad. What is good to you might be bad for another. As the old saying goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” It is relative to your own preference. If you like strawberries, you might say to someone “These strawberries are good!” Someone who doesn’t like strawberries might respond, “Yuck! Strawberries are terrible!” In reality, neither are truthful and factual statements. A strawberry has many characteristics: color, aroma, tartness, sweetness, temperature, size, etc. Goodness and badness don’t belong to the strawberry. Goodness and badness are both completely subjective.
The problem with the mental shortcut is twofold. 1) It leads to misunderstanding of the object and wrong conclusions. When it comes to something like strawberries, the harm is minimal, but when an object like a person, a complex situation, an idea, or policy that affects many, misunderstanding and jumping to a conclusion can be quite harmful. 2) It masks what is happening in our minds and causes us to overlook an opportunity to control our own behavior. To achieve liberation from being swayed by attachment and aversion and think clearly, it is necessary to dive deeper.
The shift in thinking from “this is good” to “I like this.” is subtle, but powerful. In the former, you are drawing a conclusion (making a judgement) that is factually untrue. In the latter, you are acknowledging a vrtti that is true to your experience. The latter is also a springboard into understanding what is causing that vrtti. When you say “I like this.” you can ask “What do I like about this?” and explore the next layer. This introspection and self-inquiry not only offers insights into your own thinking, but it also has the power to change how you think about things and what vrttis form in your mind. It is important to answer yourself with truthful, factual statements. If you answer yourself with judgements or conclusions, keep digging until you arrive at a fact.
The food was good.
I liked the food. (What did I like about the food?)
I liked the food because there were several small portions of different dishes. The dishes had a variety of flavors, textures, and temperatures.
I liked the food because my friend worked hard at preparing the food and I was happy to see her.
I liked the food because one of the dishes reminded me of something my mother used to make and brought back happy memories.
I liked the food because I didn’t get too full but had plenty to eat.
Things can get difficult when you encounter vrttis that don’t align with either your perception of yourself or how you might want to be perceived by others…
I want this car. (Why do I want this car?)
I want this car because it is really expensive and I want people to think that I have a lot of money. (Why do I want people to think that I have a lot of money?)
I want people to think that I have a lot of money so that they will respect me and so that women will want me. (What is it about having the respect of others and the adoration of women that is so important?)
The answer to the last question is a topic for another article. Suffice it to say, the answer ultimately is that we tend to mistake things that are external as being part of our self. In reality, physical objects and our bodies are not part of our selves. Even our vrttis — the thoughts, emotions, and sensations we experience in our minds — are external to self. Self is that which is aware of all of those things.
A couple of years ago, I started diligently expunging the good/bad family of descriptors from my speech and writing. It was hard at first. I noticed that I was saying them a lot. Whenever I caught myself thinking that way, I paused and replaced “That is good/bad.” with “I like/don’t like that.” Practicing modifying my speech habits was not unlike meditation practice. In meditation, when I would notice my attention wandering from my breathing, I would gently bring my attention back to my breathing. It is an exercise in patience. Over time, it changed my patterns of thinking. I found myself becoming less judgmental and more patient. I became more even keeled and inquisitive because I was constantly taking an extra second or two to dive under the surface to understand what was going on. I have become more aware of my thoughts, emotions, and sensations and more skilled at recognizing when I am being pulled by attachment or aversion in real time, which allows me to account for those biases in decision making. All of those things brought more peace to my life and allowed me to improve my relationships with people around me and in some cases, understand why it was time to move on from others. I found more energy in life in this peaceful state. All of those benefits started simply by changing the words I used to describe situations and objects and a good dose of diligence. Such is the power of words.
Here is how you can try it yourself:
- Whenever you catch yourself saying “That’s good/bad.” or using any of good and bad’s relatives, stop, go back, and replace it with your feeling, for example, “I like/dislike it.” Don’t be hard on yourself. If you catch yourself being hard on yourself, forgive yourself.
- Experiment with inquiring deeper into your like/dislike. If you find yourself responding to your inquiries with judgements, replace them with truthful, factual statements. If you find yourself responding with assumptions, note them as such and determine how your can check the assumption and replace it with a factual statement.
- Write stuff down. Writing can help create some space and allow you to be more honest and objective with yourself.
- Establish a meditation practice. The physical benefits of meditation and controlled breathing make self-inquiry easier. It also allows you to become accustomed to exploring your mind
If you are looking for a deeper understanding of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, refer to Swami Tadatmananda’s free online lectures from Arsha Bodha Center. Also, consider “Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali” by Swami Hariharananda Aranya (SUNY Press), which contains Vyasa’s commentary both in Sanskrit and in translation with annotations.
Note: I wrote this post for indyyogi.com, where it originally appeared. Thanks to Ryan Baggett for editing.