Sutra Sundays with Reverend Jaganath Carrera
The Most Important Word in the Yoga Sutras
This week, we look at what is perhaps the single most important word to understand when studying and practicing Yoga: nirodha. It is most often translated as restraint, cessation, or control. All of these definitions are accurate, but they might be misunderstood. They tend to lead us to regard nirodha as a call to use sheer force of will to stop the mind from flitting from thought to thought, from sensation to image to memory. Although this is technically possible, few seekers can attain utter clarity and stillness of mind through forceful repeated use of will power. The mind's habits are deeply rooted and resist these attempts at control. As an example, just think of how hard it is to change unwanted habits. Use of will power alone often sets us up for repeated failures. It is very difficult to keep up a practice under those conditions.
Patanjali's presentation of nirodha is much broader. We find it presented as a holistic principle of practice. Nirodha is about integrating Yogic practices, such as asana and meditation, with morals, ethics, and introspection, and alongside selfless service, study, and devotion. This is full spectrum nirodha. It encourages steadiness and stillness of mind to evolve in a natural, unforced way.
Look carefully. Nirodha is not focused so much on stillness of mind as the goal, but instead presents stillness of mind as one way to attain the highest goal of Yoga. What we see as restraint or cessation refers to ending the misperception that we are only a finite mind encased in a mortal body. We habitually identify ourselves as a body/mind complex, not as infinite consciousness, or the Self: our eternal, abiding nature, the Seer, or Spirit. That is our essence.
This principle is presented in the second sutra of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras:
1.2. Yoga ends the misperception that the Seer/Self is the same as the mind's usual tangle of whirling excursions of thought (vrittis).
A bit further on in sutras 1.12 through 1.16, we are introduced to the foundational teachings for developing nirodha: practice and nonattachment.
Practice is defined as regular, repeated efforts to break free from misperceiving the mind as the limited ego. For practice to bring benefits, it needs to be carefully nurtured for a long time, and engaged in faithfully, with inner reflection, and fervor. Before we explore some of the fundamental practices of Yoga, we need to turn our attention to practice's life partner: nonattachment.
We can define nonattachment as self-mastery and freedom from craving. It arises naturally as the love for the attainment of liberation from ignorance and the suffering it brings becomes stronger than the desire for sense satisfaction and self-centered thoughts of status and acknowledgment. Any desires or cravings we have for objects seen, heard, or described in sacred tradition, pale in comparison to deeply satisfying inner discoveries made by the Yogi. Sense pleasures can still be enjoyed, but they cease to be the center of life, the reason for living. The peace and joy of our True Self is infinitely enduring, greater, and more fully satisfying.
It is tempting to limit nonattachment to doing good for others. We might also believe that spiritual attainment is our reward for selfless actions. There are problems with both theories. While selfless activity is praiseworthy and should be done, it misses the deeper point of nonattachment. The same is true for anticipating rewards for selfless acts. The reward is in the doing, not from the action. The actions that arise from a selfless, dedicated mind, while benefitting others, are really about reducing and eventually eliminating our self-centered motives.
Selfish attachments create conditions for a divisive mindset, anchored in the ego's need to be part of a group identity that regards itself as more genuine, acceptable, or superior in some way. This can lead to regarding other groups as inferior, or even as threats. We see this attitude at play in regards to race, gender, social status, appearance, nationality, faith tradition, and more.
Nirodha is Holistic
As a process, nirodha is multi-leveled and multifaceted. For most seekers, it usually begins with performing asanas, deep relaxation, and breathing techniques. These practices bring great benefit, but a more comprehensive approach is needed in order to attain a deep steadiness of mind, the ability to accept change peacefully, and unshakable faith and devotion. The Yoga Sutras includes a number of practices and resolves that address this need. We will present the fundamentals over the coming weeks, with some repetition to spark inspiration.
Nirodha as a Tuning Point
We can also understand nirodha as a turning point in life. It occurs when we stand at a crossroad where two paths present themselves to us as options. We can choose to go on with our lives as we have been with Yoga playing a compartmentalized role. Practices such as asana, pranayama, and deep relaxation are reliable sources for improved health, relaxation, and pleasure. Choosing this path is not a bad idea. But we need look at the other choice before deciding. The second path recognizes the futility of expecting or demanding objects and sense pleasures to give what they cannot. This second path recognizes the inevitability of change and its power to rob us of pleasure. In our heart of hearts, what we really crave is a lasting and transcendent peace, joy, and love that can carry us over the seas of life when they get rough. We crave an experience that offers us faith, meaning, and deep satisfaction.
Nirodha really begins to blossom the moment we cease relying on the fleeting, unstable comfort of possessions and positions as paths to peace and joy. It is then that we look within and take the path toward the Light. This second path may the one less traveled, but it has its benefits, and they are incredible. This path promises a reduction and finally an end to suffering. It is a fresh, vibrant way of life that is grounded in timeless wisdom and that encourages us to engage in life in a way that is truly fulfilling and productive. Nirodha is the second path we have been talking about. It helps us become better spouses, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, friends, employees, employers, and citizens. Anything and everything we do can prosper when nourished by Yoga.
The Katha Upanishad, the first text to mention the word Yoga in a spiritual sense, presents this crossroad in this way:
There is that which we call desirable and which is pleasant, and there is that which is bright with wisdom and conducive to one's welfare and true prosperity . . . The wise analyze both and choose that which is conducive to their welfare.
We can put this in the form of a question, one which asks us to take an honest look at our beliefs: Who owns my heart: the world with its emphasis on material success, status, and acknowledgement, or the experience of the Highest Truth - what we call God?
May you all enjoy the path to liberation.
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 Tangle is a perfect word to describe the state of our mental affairs. Tangle = a confused mass of something twisted together; a confused or complicated state. See also sutra 2.24, where the confusion of the Seer and seen is identified as being caused by ignorance.
 Awareness, acceptance of life's realities, devotion to the sacred, acquisition of reliable knowledge, and following universal moral precepts.
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It is our heartfelt wish that the upcoming weeks bring an increase in your wellbeing, peace of mind, and joy.
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OM Shanti Shanti Shanti
May the entire creation be filled with peace and joy; love and light.