When I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English. We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes. She also served as a babysitter from time to time.
The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children. They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture. One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen. I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert. I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space. I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.
I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary. It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable. It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening. I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.
This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa, in the Sütras of Pantanjali. Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill. Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.
As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe. I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment. This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.
The aphorisms composed by the Hindu siddha guru Pantanjali, who flourished in India during the second century B.C.E., are among the oldest and most revered scriptures of yoga teachings. Yoga was originally a practice of meditation designed to awaken higher consciousness about the universe. In the Sutras, Pantajali explains that the purpose of yoga is to “disarm the causes of suffering and to achieve integration” of the self with the universe (Yoga-Sutras of Pantanjali, translated by Chip Hartranft, Sutra 1-9). Ignorance of one’s true nature is the source of suffering (dukha), he says. This ignorance (avidya—lit. “not seeing”) is an inability to understand that there is no such thing as a separate, individual self.
The concept of an isolated self, or ego, is a construction, produced by experiences and reinforced by cultural conditioning. In other words, the “I” is the sum of conditioned responses to experiences—good and bad—that reiterate the false impression that there is any other way to be. One imagines that one’s self is always either an active agent or passive victim, the hurter or the stricken. Resistant to change, the “I” dwells in the inertia or tamas, stuck in a polarized sense of a self that exists only through the experience of opposition, of “me” vs. “them”, “self” and “other,” as well as in false notions of the self as divided into similarly opposed arenas of “goodness” and “evil,” “acceptable” and “unacceptable.”
To move past this dukha, suffering, born of avidya, ignorance, we need to engage in action, Kriya. But energetic effort is only useful if it is expended in the right direction, towards sadhana, realization. Thus, for example, action taken in response to anger or guilt or self-righteousness will not take us where we want to go. It leads into more suffering, not away from it.
In 2.12-16 Pantanjali considers the causes of suffering (samskara), which can either affect us immediately or lie dormant for a while. A dormant or latent cause of suffering can be activated by a weaker, more trivial experience of unpleasantness, which allows the older “root” to erupt and overwhelm the mind and body. Yoga helps us to break down this conditioned experience.
Moving through the postures (asanas) day after day, week after week, we experience the impermanence of all emotions, abilities, and states of being. Some days I am strong. Some days I am weak. Most days the practice of yoga itself allows me to tune in to what I am experiencing. When my mind and body, reason and emotions, are integrated, I recognize that my “self” or sense of an “I” is not fixed or even definable. Rather the “I” is a pattern of consciousness that shifts and moves continuously, always in response to one thing or another.
The regular tuning into the body and the mind through practice allows me to distance myself from my habitual understanding of myself as a “self” existing in opposition to an ‘it” or an “other.” Thus I recognize that we are all connected beings. My experience of aversion, or opposition, to others itself is a fleeting body/mind energy, a pattern, an acquired habit of interpreting reality, and not necessarily a necessary way to be.
You can look carefully at suffering itself to see if it can be corrected or not. If it can be corrected, put all your effort into correcting it. If there’s nothing to be done about it, why be unhappy? The unhappiness only adds more suffering to the suffering.
Like the Buddha, who lived approximately 400 years before him, Pantanjali recognized that suffering is unavoidable. Like the Buddha, he also believed that “suffering that has not yet arisen can be prevented.” What does this mean? Hardship, pain, dukkha, is unavoidable, but we often add to our own suffering by shooting what the Buddha called the “second arrow.”
The Buddha once asked a student, “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful?” The student replied, “It is.” The Buddha then asked, “If the person is struck by a second arrow, is that even more painful?” The student replied again, “It is.” The Buddha then explained, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.
The first arrow is the suffering itself, however it came about. We experience a loss, someone is cruel or rude to us, we experience an injustice or a trauma. We cannot control that, but we can control how we react to the first arrow. If beat ourselves up about how we feel, if we blame ourselves for being weak, or indulgently feel very sorry for ourselves, we shoot the second arrow at ourselves.
We don’t have to do this. Why do we do it? Because we are conditioned to think of the self, the “I” as a fixed and determined entity. If we simply accept the suffering, acknowledge that it is there without imagining that this particular experience of suffering somehow defines who the “I” is, we can prevent extra suffering.
The conscious, patient, focused practice of breathing and moving through asanas allows us temporarily to step aside from our punishing habits, the products of ignorance, avidya, and to glimpse what it feels like to refuse to send the second arrow.
I don’t agree with Pantanjali that the goal of yoga is to allow purusha to see itself (2.20), or to realize some absolute truth about existence. My practice of yoga does not carry me further towards salvation or to the understanding that the “phenomenal world exists to reveal” (2.21) “fundamental qualities of nature” (2.19), which exist somehow somewhere else, in some abstract realm of purusha, perfect, “pure awareness” (Hartranft, 27).
No. For me, yoga is both a means and an end, a dynamic method of awakening whereby we understand anguish (dukha), let go of its origins or causes, realize that dukha ends, and cultivate the path, the method of awakening itself.
As Stephen Batchelor, a former Zen and Buddhist monk who now leads a secular Buddhist group in England, writes,
The Buddha was not a mystic. His awakening was not a shattering insight into a transcendent Truth that revealed to him the mysteries of God. He did not claim to have had an experience that granted him the privileged, esoteric knowledge of how the universe ticks.” Buddha did not found a religion. He taught a practice for actively awakening, an ongoing, conscious effort to free ourselves from habitual impulses and irrational, false illusions.
This is how I understand yoga. Yoga is an ongoing, conscious effort to awaken, not to any particular truth, but rather to free ourselves from the need for fixed truth.
My intention is not to proselytize or preach, but rather to guide people to find sthira and sukha, strength and ease, to “come home” (as Tara Brach likes to say) to whatever is actually going on in the body and mind by moving, breathing, stretching, and resting in various positions, asanas that stimulate awakening.