Chatting with Patanjali

Oh Patanjali, what a brilliant teacher you are!  Right up there with Shankaracharya, Nisargadatta, Ramana, Meister Eckhart, and the Zen Patriarchs. I’ve been studying and teaching your Sutras for 30 years. Yet people say to me, “Oh, I’ve read the Yoga Sutras,” and it is obvious that nothing has sunk in …  Would you tell us yourself what you meant?

Thank you, Mataji.  Yes, some think of me as a really cool yogi, and some don’t get me at all. That’s ok, though, I always taught that people had to walk along the path that suited them. I lived a few hundred years after the Buddha, maybe about contemporary with Christ or a little later, and well before Shankaracharya.

Shankaracharya? He was a profound non-dualist.  But, Patanjali, people say that you see things in dualist terms, that there is spirit and also matter.  Is that true?

Hahaha… that’s what people put out, but it is not what it seems.  You see, I came from a long lineage of Samkhya yoga, which does have that view.  But when I got my Great Realisation, I saw that the mind likes concepts and categories, and then mistakes them for what is real. Such beliefs and doctrines are no more than concepts and categories.  I experience Reality far beyond the thinking of the mind – my Sutras make that very clear. Shankararacharya may have found me influential. He too realised that mental projections are meaningless in finding the great Truth.

How do you make it clear, then?  So many people just don’t get it.

Well, in the first place, I point out that ALL I am planning to talk about is Unitary Consciousness. (Atha yogānuśāsanam) Doesn’t that say clearly enough that I am not going to talk about anything else?

Oh!  So you say straight out that the Sutras are not about moral life, or being a good person?

Yes, that’s right.

But what about the Yamas, then?  Aren’t they moral precepts?

That’s a primitive way of looking at them.  I meant all of those eight limbs as methods to dissolve the way the mind grips fast to the things that afflict it – its false idea of reality.  The Yamas are a hint about how life might be lived by someone who has already dissolved it. Otherwise, I hope they are a help for you to see  how your mind is reacting to the things it dreams up.

Wow, that’s neat. Much more profound than we usually think.  Thank-you.  But what about actually showing people the mind stuff in the first place?

Yes.  I wonder if anyone really does read what I said.  My second sutra defines it all. Yoga, that is, union, or unitary consciousness, is experienced when the things that roll around in your mind have come to a stop. (yogaścittavṛttinirodhaḥ).  It is so simple. Stop your thinking if you want to find the experience of Unity that lies beyond the prison of concepts and categories. I’ve noticed over the centuries that people twist that into all sorts of things.  I thought it was the least ambiguous way I could ever have put it.

Hmm… you’re right.  Yoga – union. Some say it means ‘joining’, yet when two things are joined they are in unity. 

And they make a mistake in supposing that a cognate word in Latin must have a meaning identical to its cousin in Sanskrit.

Citta-mind. Vrtti – things rolling over. Nirodhah – bring to a stop. It IS simple.  But why should anyone bother?  We’d have a pretty awful life without a mind.  And you yourself were a brilliant thinker.

Consider this, then, Mataji.  In that state – stillness of mind – the SEER is in its natural state.  I find that easier to explain in Sanskrit, but that will do for English.  And all the rest of the time, you mistake the things  you think for what reality is.  These are my third and  fourth sutras (tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe’vasthānam; vṛttisārūpyamitaratra ).The mind does think. 
That’s ok. 

But when you suppose that what you think is ’how it is’, your mistake the world for what you think it is , and you completely mistake your identity for what you think it is, all through your life.  

That’s where the problem is.  And all minds do it,  until someone points it out to us.

Oh! Oh my gosh, Patanjali, you blow me away!  That’s amazing! I think something… but reality is not the same as what I think?

Of course not, how can it be? Is a thought a fact?

No.  No, it can’t be… I can see that, now.  Gosh, that’s too pervasive to take in!  What I think about the world is one thing, but what the world actually is might be quite another?

Even your scientists have begun telling you that. The science of the real is not too significant in your daily life, though. 

What is really significant is how your thinking gives you your sense of who and what you are, and so your “self ” is reduced to just a set of ideas and thoughts which are often in conflict. 

And your thinking gives you a false-real sense of what other people are like. You think something about them, and then act as though what you think is exactly how they are. You hurt, you cry, you judge, condemn, punish, you lie, you fantasise – the whole melodrama.

What! My emotions are only reactions to perceptions and opinions?  They feel real!

And that is part of the problem.  What is familiar feels real.  But remember, the tooth fairy felt real to you once, too. Your father used to call you Petty, and that felt like who you really were – for a while.

Yes – then I realised I was Janet, but that didn’t last, either. Now I’m Swami Shantananda.  Why do we do it?

It is the natural function of the human mind.  Because it categorises, it sees all there is in a polarised way, and the poles are in the direction of ‘like it / don’t like it’. That’s the main point of my fifth sutra (vṛttayaḥ pañcatayyaḥ kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ) Don’t worry about what pañcatayyaḥ means just yet.  The thing is that every single one of your thoughts, and every single one of your perceptions, is placed into an either/or category, and the categories are flavoured by your preferences.

Patanjali, it is too much… I feel my world-view whizzing past me… can’t keep up with you…

Why not enjoy the ride?

Hang on, hang on… Most people say that kliṣṭākliṣṭāḥ means that good thoughts bring true pleasure and bad thoughts bring you pain.

Do they?  Mustn’t have taken any notice when I said that all thoughts whatsoever are unreal.  What you’ve just said is the exact opposite of what I was getting at – what you’ve said would mean “taking on the form of your thoughts” (Sutra 4),  which is the antithesis of ‘yoga’. I said from the beginning that the work is about letting go of thinking and its artificial forms. The point is that you project categories – sometimes called ‘the pairs of opposites’ – that don’t exist in reality. You mistake the functioning of  your mind for what reality is.

So you’re telling me that how I see the world is at least to some extent an illusion?

Any scientist will also tell you that. What is real is true, what we think and say can only fall short – and distort understanding. Reality, where I have my being, is unstructured by any projections of your mind.

And my sense of ‘who I am’ is illusory, too?

Any neuropsychologist, in your day, will tell you that your idea of your “self” is only a mental construct. It has no reality outside of thoughts.

Oh, no! You mean I’m not who I think I am?

Grow up, get real.

And because my mind makes categories, which it mistakes for reality, I have been acting as though what I like is ‘good’ and what I don’t like is ‘bad’, and then mistaking that for reality, too?


I’ll need some time to digest that.

Only 20 -30 years.

Hmmph.  But Patanjali, I have one or two more questons, if I may ask them?


Well… you seem to espouse emotional coldness.  You seem to be saying that all reactions are only in the mind, and even  my idea of the person beside me is only a thought-construct.  Is there no human warmth in your yoga?

Of course there is. While your mind is full of polarised thinking like self/other, sin/virtue, kind/cruel, and reacts like a ping pong ball to any thought that touches it, there is no true warmth or love, there is only ego-stroking or ego-injury. When we get past that, there is natural responsiveness. It is full of compassion, kindness and, cheerfulness (maitri, karuna, mudita – Sutra 1:33) towards the living breathing presence beside  you.

That’s really nice.  Yes, I do notice that I react to what I like or don’t like.

Noticing that is a good start.

Here is my big question, though: If I am not ‘who I think I am’, am I anything at all?

Yes, the SEER. Didn’t I say so in my third sutra?

Isn’t it my mind that sees?

No.  Your mind and thoughts and reactions,  your whole personal self and its world view, is the seen, not the seer.

What is the SEER, then?

Awareness.  Start with that, and see where it goes. You may find it goes all the way to universal Being.  But notice: awareness is aware of you-thinking, it does not participate in your thoughts and reactions. You-thinking is an object of awareness. That’s easier to experience than to describe.

Urrgh.  My mind is hurting.  One more question, then, if I may?

Go ahead.

It is just that you seem to discard the world and everything in it? In my own practice, I am used to seeing all there is as Shiva, or the universal self.

That’s fine.  Just watch what your mind does.  Universal being can’t be restricted to a  name or a theory, and  there can’t be two of ONE. There are flavours.  Rumi is one of my favourite flavours, too – yet his Beloved is my Seer and your Shiva, and Zen’s Void.  Don’t you see that mental categorising into preferences accounts for all the sense of difference? Choose the flavour that best suits you – but watch what your mind does, too.

Thank you, Patanjali.  You take me to a profound self-inquiry, and I see the effects of  my thinking.

You’re welcome.  It took me a long time to get it, too, and even longer to put it into simple words.

You’re simply stunning.



About Mataji

I have been practising still-mind meditation since 1982, teaching still-mind meditation since 1989, and training teachers since 1999. The greatest life change for me has been a steady easefulness with its ups and downs, and an ability to love the difficult folks as well as the easy ones. The more profound changes aren't so easy to put into words.
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