The Comedy of Closure
In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he states in Sutra 1.2 that the definition of yoga is to cease the fluctuations of the mind “yoga citta vritti nirodhaha.” There are essays, books and entire curriculums that dig into this sutra. But what I want to point out is the irony of my initial conflict with the aphorism. As a longtime spiritual seeker, and a fledgling yoga teacher, when I first read this sutra, I felt dumbfounded. I want to use my mind, I thought, not still it! I want to open it, not close it! And this was only the second sutra of 196.
Let me back up a bit. When I was a freshman in college, as a compliment, or perhaps a complication, to my bible studies at Saint Mary’s College, I took classes at the Berkeley Psychic Institute. I have always been able to tap into what Jung calls the collective unconscious, what the Catholics call the Holy Spirit. I am clearly no Koundinya, the court scholar who predicted the birth and rise of Siddhartha as an enlightened one. But I am sensitive, and at times I get messages from the beyond. It took me a while to admit this to people. Who am I to understand or see anything beyond what I take in through my 5 senses? I thought maybe these visions and messages were just my imagination. Except that I would so often dream something, and then it would happen. Frequently I could predict what people thought, and how they felt, before they told me. So I took meditation classes at the Berkeley Psychic Institute to learn how to tap into that beyond.
I am still trying to navigate the murky archetypal communication I receive. For years, Savasana has been a pose where glimmers of intuition pop up like bubbles in sparkling water. I see things, hear things, know things in my body, or rather in my spirit, that I can’t justify. It’s not a stilling of my mind, but an opening of my soul.
So when I read that the main point of yoga was to cease the fluctuations of the mind, I was perplexed. How can the point be to shut out the very thing I was trying to understand? I asked Jenny Hayo, my Buddhist Meditation and Yoga teacher in Seattle, and she clarified some things. One key takeaway is that yoga is far more than an asana practice. It is about movement, but also about stasis. Jenny pointed out that some meditations require concentration, for which you must remove yourself from the world. Others, like her 5 senses meditation, necessitate being hyperaware of all that you sense. No matter what, there is a removal in place. There is a cutting off of distractions.
For any given day, any given person, there are different approaches to yoga and to meditation. Sometimes the intention is truly to shut out all thoughts and feelings and enter a void. Some days the intention is to loosen the grip of the quotidian so that we can function better in it. Some days the intention is to energize. Some days the intention is to seek insight and/or heal trauma. And if I’m honest, for me, some days the intention is to get to the end of the practice without judging myself for the wild mind I can’t tame.
The point is not to shut out the insight, to close the door on divine wisdom that may fall in your lap. At least not entirely. The point is to allow insight or not, without getting attached. The point is to create a sense of peace, of safety, from which you may direct your path. And for me, the point is often to use that stillness to listen to the truths beyond (or within).
I am all too often a disobedient yogi. My mind runs. Things run into it from beyond, and it tries to run into the beyond. But here’s the thing, I know that my practice is exactly that, a practice. My awareness and acceptance of this fact, and this quandary, is a sign of my regular meditation practice.
Later in the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali goes on to name the kinds of fluctuations as evaluation, misperception, conceptualization, sleep and memory. The kind of mental, or spiritual, movement that I seek requires these to all be still. I am a seeker of wisdom, of truth, and there are many paths to it. But what this sutra opened for me was an awareness of how much my mind does need to be still in order to be open. In the same way that regulating my breath changes my emotional landscape, learning to witness, and release the clinging thoughts (Patanjali’s vairagya of detachment) in my mind has allowed greater frequency of my psychic flashes. And to be honest, the same stilling of the mind has allowed me to make better choices in the day-to-day. There is a sweet comedy in this fact, that to open up and receive, you must in fact shut a few doors.