Query on aspects of the Yoga Sutras

This is a discussion on the notion of “vrtti”in the Yoga Sutras, prompted by a query from a student.  The phrase, or paraphrase, for “vrtti” as “ideational choice making tendency of the mind” is from P.Y. Deshpande, The Authentic Yoga Sutra.

DC:  I would like to clarify word usage and interpretation within different translations of the Yoga Sutras. I have a copy of The Authentic Yoga by Deshpande. It is his discussion of the word “choice” and his use of “ideational” that I am interested in clarifying.  Firstly, what is “ideational choice making” and what Sanskrit word does “ideational” relate to?   

SS:  Deshpande translates “citta vrtti” as “ideational choice making tendency of the mind”.  Thus, the translation of “vrtti” is not literal, as the literal meaning of vrtti is “things that turn over”.  But when you take Sutra 2 to Sutra 5 together, you find that Patanjali is pointing out that a unitary state of consciousness arises when the vrttis are stopped, and the action of all vrttis is to give a mistaken idea that reality is somehow amenable to our choices, of what we like and what we don’t like. Sutra 3 and 4 point out that this identification with thoughts is other than reality, and that in the unitary state, the real seer is not mistaken for the false identifications that the mind makes.

So Deshpande’s language selection for “vrtti” – “choice-making tendency” –makes a lot of sense. He gives the reader a quick entry into what the first five sutras are getting at, and the principal problem with mental activity – thinking – which, because of its polarized nature, leads us into a mistaken understanding of reality. The word “ideational” is inherent in the notion of “citta-vrtti” – turning over of things in the mind-stuff. What else can that be other than thinking and conceptualising?

DC:  Next, Deshpande seems to interpret vrtti as “choice making movement” then on page 22 there is a discussion about the freedom to choose and not to choose which I find rather obtuse. At first I couldn’t understand how there could be “not choosing” without this also being a choice. Then I realized he was saying that “not choosing” is “allowing yourself not to have mind movement” as opposed to “trying to prevent thoughts arising or trying to control thought patterns”.  Am I on the right track here?

SS:  Yes. Not-choosing is a choice,but if that is not made,the action of the mind cannot be observed. While the mind is still active and full of choosing, it can make that choice. Afterwards, it has to butt out. So then it is a matter of simply observing. Observe the way the mind works and how it gives you a sense of self, an idea of how the world is. Observing, suprisingly, is not conceptualising. Trying to control or conquer or conceptualise it is just the same old mind behaviour of projecting its preferences on to reality, of supposing that you are external to reality and so can comment on it, or that the mind can take reality and give you an experience of it, when all the mind can really give you is an experience of itself.

Meditation is also very much “not choosing”. You do have to have the discipline of making the choice to sit down and stay quiet. But after that, you do nothing, and the mind is simply observed. In fact it is here that the question arises, “what is consciousness?” because once the possibility is accepted of awareness without conceptualization, the big existential/spiritual questions become more obvious. If you have no thought to describe yourself, then who are you?  While we are locked into vrtti sarupya (identifying thoughts with reality), we are too deluded to see the effect of thoughts on our experience of self at all.

DC:  There is also an article about Iyengar’s interpretation of the sutras (Yoga Journal Dec 2006 ) in which Iyengar seems to be using the word “consciousness” differently from you.

SS:  This is something you just have to get used to in all your reading. Different authors use different words to refer to the same thing. For instance, there are cases, perhaps more often in Christian literature, where “meditation” has been used to mean “quiet thinking and reflection” while the word “contemplation”  implies the quiet non-conceptual awareness that we mean by “meditation”. Often in Buddhist commentaries, the word “mind” is meant to imply the vastness of what we might call “universal consciousness”.  Nisargadatta Maharaj uses the term “consciousness” to mean the thinking mind, whereas I would call that the functioning of the brain.

The task is a bit like understanding a joke – somehow we get the meaning despite the obstruction of the words!  The diversity of terms comes from the struggle of the writers to find a language to communicate about something that was never developed through language –rather it develops from dropping language and constructs.

DC:  Would you mind reading the article and commenting on it?

SS:  I did read it. Iyengar is a great hatha yogi, he single-handedly introduced a path into Yoga to millions in the West.  He doesn’t have to be the greatest exponent of the Yoga Sutras as well.

DC:  Is Iyengar’s interpretation the “circular mind stuff” you refer to in Lesson 3?

SS:  One of the characteristics that make any commentary unreliable is where  there seems to be little understanding that truth cannot be found in conceptualisation (vrttis). While clear thinking can point the way out of the mire, no thought, no commentary can encompass reality. Replacing one conception of Being with another is an example of the mind running around in its own space. In this regard, it is useful to point out that thinking is ineffectual. Consider this while reading or writing about the Sutras.

DC:  I really like your commentary and interpretation of the sutras,I think I would be quite bamboozled without it.

Thanks for your feedback.



About Mataji

I am the spiritual director of the Australian College of Classical Yoga. We teach reality based spirituality.
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