“And when He sees me in all and sees all in me,
Then I never leave Him and He never leaves me.
And He, who in this Oneness of Love
Loves me in whatever he sees,
Wherever He may live,
In truth, He lives in me.”
-The Bhagavad Gita
In a recent dialogue with a friend I asked, “Who teaches the yoga of letting go?” It seems that for many years, lifetimes perhaps, we work arduously to understand who we are. We go through various incarnations in a single lifetime: child, student, parent, yogi, lover. Each time we become attached to one modality, we are inevitably forced to release such a singular way of being. It remains, however, that in order to understand who we are, we must first explore who we are not. In the end it’s possible that we are all these things, and our attention must widen to accept all modalities: good and bad, light and dark.
Some of us have explored the extreme poles of who we thought we were. And now, again, we must let go of the identification with the minutia of our conceptual selves. Patanjali asserts that, thankfully, we aren’t expected to let go into the vast expanses of nothingness. We are to let go to something greater – to Isvara, or Lord. It is love and devotion to our higher possibilities that helps us surrender. How do we surrender ourselves in the service of something higher?
The yoga sutras are filled with dichotomies: purusha/prakriti, The Seer/the seen, attachment/aversion, atman/Brahman. F. Scott Fitzgerald said that the mark of true intelligence is the ability to entertain two opposing thoughts at the same time. Perhaps this is similar to what Patanjali is describing. His prescription for overcoming our fractured nature is through the practice of devotion to our potential with the aim of developing a symbiotic relationship between the opposing forces of our own being.
As modern yoga practitioners, we intently look at ourselves, our motivations, behaviors, and actions. In many ways, our practice can be very self-centered. Yoga sutras 1.23-1.26 start to pull us out of our self-centeredness and ask us to give up the selves we have worked so hard to know and understand for something greater. In the case of Patanjali, the teaching is to surrender to God. Since we often work with these ideas within the framework of relationships, the concept of surrender to another entity fits perfectly. Both Sufi and Christian mystics refer to this relationship as the one between the Lover and the Beloved. Yoga philosophy looks at this as a relationship between the Atman and Brahman, or the The Seer and the seen. The larger question here is how do we let go of the identification and attachment to the selves we have worked so hard to become? Can we stand outside of the play of opposites, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggests, and entertain two dichotomous thoughts, or even selves, simultaneously? What would this look like and how would it be achieved?
The simplest way to find this is through a daily sitting practice, where we start to look at and observe thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Some waves are quite captivating and carry us away, sometimes without our even knowing it. Each time, we bring ourselves back to the body, grounding ourselves in ever-elusive present moment. Patanjali gives us several practices (1.23-1.39) through which we can begin understand the relationship between the higher and lower and the Seer and the seen:
Devotion to the Lord – Sutra 1.23 states that Samadhi is attainable “through devotion to the Lord.” In my research on addiction and Buddhism, I found that most addicts on the 12-step path to recovery generally had the most difficulty surmounting the first 3 steps that unsurprisingly all have to do with the concept of faith and devotion: (1) relinquishing control, (2) admission of the existence of a higher power, and (3) surrender to God. Most of us are at some level addicted to our thoughts, feelings, and ways of being. We see that difficulty surrendering is not just a problem for the alcoholic as it is for all of us. This raises the larger question of how are we to surrender when we lack faith, and do not believe in anything other than ourselves when we see that the collective and individual selves we have constructed are inherently flawed or subject to change? Most of what we consider to be “right” or “correct” thinking are merely collections of past impressions and experiences that reflect the views and values of our parents, culture, dogma, and, more recently, mass media. If we look at the state of the economy, environment, and the individual it’s difficult to believe that popularly held beliefs about what an ideal modern life entails is indeed “right” or “correct.” What can we trust in ourselves? Yoga practice can bring us to the realization that there is a nascent self that can be trusted, that is in touch with our higher nature, yet that is elusive and easily lost.
Devotion to God, or Isvara, is important even for those who consider themselves to be non-religious or secular people. One of the higher functions of religion is that it provides people with, not faith per se, but something or someone to have faith in. We see that as we embark on a path of self-inquiry, we are constantly putting ourselves into question. Some may say “I have faith in myself.” Yet, through self-examination, we start to see that the concept of self is rather slippery in nature. Which self do we have faith in if the self is constantly changing? Religion and spirituality, on the other hand, provide us with a constant-Self, a higher-Self, or an eternal divine in which to place our faith in. What Jesus, Isvara, and Krishna all have in common is that they are entities who are like us, but not like us in that they have attained perfection. Jesus was a divinely human, as was Krishna, and Isvara is an aspect of the self, but not the self.
Cultivation of the positive – If one cannot or will not surrender to a higher power, Patanjali uses other people as a focus for our attention. We have practiced this before, when we thought of those in our lives we had conflicted relationships with. Sutra 1.33 states that “By cultivating an attitude of friendship towards those who are happy, compassion toward those in distress, joy toward those who are virtuous, and equanimity toward those who are non-virtuous, lucidity arises in the mind.”
Focus on the body – if even this isn’t possible for the practitioners, Patanjali says that attention should be placed in the body. Sutra 1.34-1.35 say that, “Stability is gained by exhaling and retaining the breath,” and “focus on a sense object arises, and this causes steadiness of the mind.”
The above exercises are really very similar to the previous month’s discussion on the different exercises we used when we found ourselves at different points in our practice. Again, when agitated, there a gross awareness of the self must be established. Once the physical body and identity are formed, we look deeper into our thoughts and our emotions in an effort to cultivate higher thoughts and feelings.
“Every hunting, hungering lover is half of a knucklebone, wooer of a meaning that is inseparable from its absence. The moment when we understand these things—when we see what we are projected on a screen of what we could be—is invariably the moment of wrench and arrest. We love that moment, and we hate it. We have to keep going back to it, after all, if we wish to maintain contact with the possible…Only a god’s word has no beginning or end. Only a god’s desire can reach without lack.” –Ann Carson, Eros the Bittersweet
Even Plato comments in his Symposium on the condition of the human being and on the search for who we really are. He says, “Each one of us is but the symbolon, half of a knucklebone, of a human being—sliced in half like a flatfish, two instead of one—and each pursues the a never ending search for the other half of himself.” All eras, cultures and religions share this common thread. Our practices are attempts to not only know who we are, but to also begin to find unity and peace between the fragments of ourselves.