pratyayasya para-citta-jñānam // Meditation on the thoughts of another person gives rise to knowledge (jnana) of their mutable being (chitta). Patanjali's Yoga Sutras - 3.19
In the third chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Vibuthi Pada, we are presented with numerous examples of the extraordinary skills a yogi can experience, as a result of an intense and focused practice of the last 3 limbs of Ashtanga Yoga. At this point in their practice the practitioner is able to become completely absorbed in their meditative state, which then opens up access to transcendental experiences. For example, it is said that through focus on different chakras, or on specific aspects of nature such as the moon, the practitioner can unlock a complete understanding of everything from the nature of the cosmos to the ability to read and understand the mind of another being. It’s even stated that a yogi can transport into another beings body, therefore giving the yogi a direct encounter with that other person's mind state and experiences.
Sadly, I’m yet to experience anything as extraordinary as the actual embodiment of another persons being. Is the whole idea far fetched? I don’t know. But whether or not we believe the literal description is less important to me. Perhaps it’s my limited world view but I think the sutras are simply hints that describe what it can feel like to journey inwards. The whole point being to inspire the reader into taking the time to explore and have their own experiences, whilst referring back to the sutras from time to time, as you would with a roadmap to confirm you are moving in the right direction, even if the terrain described looks different now all of these centuries later. With this in mind, I reflect on the variety of ways in which each sutra can be applied to my current experience of life. And so the verse which reads “pratyayasya para-citta-jñānam”, which has been translated as “Meditation on the thoughts of another person gives rise to the ability to understand the minds of others”, is for me less about hoping that one day I’ll be able to read the mind of someone else, and instead more about recognising that these practices are here to help us deepen our ability to feel compassion. Compassion means “to suffer with”. In order to suffer with someone you first need to be able to relate to what the other person must be feeling. You put yourselves in their shoes, you sense what they must be thinking and feeling. Since dedicating most of my energetic focus to practicing & teaching yoga, I’ve noticed that I’ve become a lot more aware of the origin of changes in my emotions. Prior to practicing I would experience a shift in my mood and not be able to really pinpoint where it had come from. Now I recognise this feeling as being one that stems from compassion.
My capacity for compassion, for being a witness to the pain of strangers and not having an urge to look away or ignore it, for recognising that I, and everyone of us, suffers with the pain of “others” (though to a lesser degree), this is what has increased. The best words I can find to describe it is as an energetic awareness, which has always been there but has now become sharper. No longer buried under endless veils of confusion. Having discussed this with friends, who have experienced the same feelings, I have become certain that on those days when I experience a feeling of sadness, for no obvious reason, what I am experiencing is the sadness, pain and shame that permeates our collective consciousness.
“We are all connected” It’s a tired old troupe, but cliches are cliches for a reason. It is unfathomable to me that anyone who’s living in this world, and not secluded in a cave somewhere, can escape encountering some degree of an existential crisis at some point in their lives. Rather than examining the root from which this crisis stems, we are encouraged by what has become mainstream ideology, to feel better through consumerism in its various forms: eat, shop, party, etc and repeat - anything to avoid examining the cause of the void. But this year our access to our usual avenues of consumerism became limited or ground to a complete halt, as worldwide we were forced to stay in our homes. And it was there, whilst we watched and waited for news on when we could get back to normal life, that the most surreal and unsettling declaration on the state of our humanity revealed itself.
Prior to yoga I don’t think I would have had the emotional stability to witness the events that I have this year without feeling overwhelmed to the point of needing some form of consumerism as a distraction. As news of the racially motivated murders of black people in the US spread across the world, what I found most challenging to reconcile was not just the fact that this still happens, because unfortunately no person of colour is completely shocked by these incidents. Instead what I found even more disheartening was how people reacted, particularly those who are practicing yoga. Responses seemed to range from complete avoidance of the topic, to denial that these incidents are race motivated, or the perhaps “well-intentioned”, but ultimately nonsensical, encouragement for us all to essentially just “keep our chins up”.
This period of time sent me into a state of deep reflection, and I did not want to run towards distraction. My practice became more challenging to sustain and yet still even more essential to maintaining my sense of inner well-being. I have always found the practices of yoga to be deeply transformational, healing and inspiring. But what challenged me this year is the realisation of just how toxic many corners of the yoga industry have become. Somewhere down the road the prevailing wisdom seems to have become that emotions are a sign of not being a true yoga practitioner, especially if that emotion is anger, hurt and pain. Because the real yogi knows that emotions just trap us in this world, which is just an illusion and that the suffering we are witnessing is little more than a projection of our own mind. For me this is a grave and dangerous manipulation of yogic philosophy. That manipulation only serves a small set of people and those people tend to be privileged.
The wound that is racism is very real, and the subsequent emotional havoc that it wreaks, is not one that is solely on people of colour to suffer and bear. This wound belongs to everyone. A person who is racialized as white is not immune to the wound. There is ancestral trauma that must be reconciled, regardless of whether you are the victim or perpetrator of oppression and violence. There are privileges borne of power and greed, which are being upheld by comfort and apathy, who can be truly at peace knowing this? This wound affects us all and the realisation of this is one of the many gateway points into the work of aligning ourselves spiritually. This entry is where we can actually move towards embodying the concept of us all being one. The same goes for all systems of oppression. The direct victims are not the only ones who suffer, the detriment is personal to us all, we suffer with - consciously or unconsciously.
As I took the time to reflect, it became clear to me that it is to some extent unavoidable that the industry which has been established around yogic practices, is at times as toxic as the environment from which many of the people within that industry, are born. Myself included. But if we are dedicated practitioners, and some of us also consider ourselves to be teachers of yoga, then the onus is on us to live up to its full teaching and philosophy. The industry of yoga is offering us consumable solutions - it is focused on what we eat, drink and buy. Meanwhile the practice of yoga is showing us how to connect - it is focused on how we think and feel, and ultimately how we act a result of those thoughts and feelings. This is not a practice to escape the world, it is a practice that inevitably takes us deeper into it. A practice of feeling, and of complete, unfiltered, awareness. And so the ask is always the same: that we pay attention. We become aware of our blind spots, we work to heal them within ourselves and within our society.
The events of this year has forced so many of us to pay more attention to where we have been putting our energy and has given us pause to consider whether that place has been one where our energy is best served. What are we consuming? What are watching, reading, talking about with friends, listening to and digesting? And how much of it is valuable, how much of it is excessive, how much of it is in line with our values?
I don’t imagine myself to have the solutions to problems that have 500+ year old roots. But to quote Douglas Brooks “enlightenment is a collective experience”. Which for me means that as a collective we can work towards our evolution. Mainstream ideology may give the impression that we need one figurehead to guide and save us all, or conversely that one person is the sole reason why things have become so unbalanced. This is nonsense - and worse still, it disempowers us. We are a collective. And so I truly believe that the inspiration behind the solutions lie in participation in our society, through actions: reading, writing, discussing & sharing thoughts and ideas on matters that we feel are valuable. And technology is on our side, when engaged with mindfully, helping us to facilitate this process of inner and outer evolution. With this in mind, I welcome any comments and thoughts inspired by these words - whether in person or via email. Let's inspire each other into continuous action.
Thank you for reading.