Tending the Garden of our Thoughts
The original purpose of yoga was not to perfect our performance on a yoga mat. The ultimate goal of yoga is to be permanently free of suffering.
Whether we see that as achievable or not, the great news is that any steps we take towards this higher goal will improve our well-being… as long as those steps are based in correct knowledge and understanding. We also need to reflect on the results of those steps, and wisely respond to feedback.
The frameworks of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra are predominantly concerned with the mind: how it works; its different levels and modes; and, its role in the journey towards freedom. In life, we may be able to escape or avoid an external situation, but we can’t escape the effects of our own thinking. So, we must carefully tend the garden of our own thoughts.
Understanding a few key sūtra-s is useful, as they can be a tool for reflection as well as for practice. One insightful sūtra concerned with emotional well-being through positive psychology is sūtra 33 of samādhi pādaḥ (the chapter on concentration). It states: maitrīkaruṇāmuditopekṣāṇāṁ sukhaduḥkha puṇyāpuṇyaviṣayāṇām bhāvanātaś cittaprasādanam. “The mind becomes purified (citta prasādanam) by cultivating an attitude (bhāvanātaḥ) of friendship (maitrī) towards those who are happy (sukha), compassion (karuṇā) towards those who are suffering (duḥkha), goodwill (muditā) towards those who are virtuous (puṇya), and indifference/equanimity (upekṣā) towards those who are non-virtuous (apuṇya).”
The practice of these four bhāvana-s (attitudes or feelings) is a prerequisite to mental strength and stability, as cultivating these helps us avoid the mental turmoil which results from our own negative reactions and responses. Bhāva can be understood as referring to our inner mental attitude, which determines our external behaviour. The subtlety is that we are not just trying to change our behaviour, but the thoughts underlying the behaviour. Bhāvana is illustrated beautifully in Ayurveda, where it refers to the soaking of an item in a liquid repeatedly, to produce a concentrated and effective end-product. We can liken the cultivation of these four bhāvana-s to soaking the mind in carefully-chosen, purifying thoughts.
Although external behaviours are important, sūtra I.33 refers to our mental actions, because all actions/behaviours begin as a thought. It’s an excellent idea to aim at being a nice and kind person, however these four bhāvana-s are not primarily proposed for ethical, moral or social reasons, but as a method to make one’s own mind pure and tranquil. When this transformation goes deeper than just our external actions and behaviours, it benefits us and it benefits others. In his explanation on Vyāsa’s commentary to the Yogasūtra, Swāmī Hariharānanda Āraṇya tells us which specific tendencies of the mind will be diminished by practising these four bhāvana-s: friendliness will counter jealousy; compassion will oppose harshness; goodwill/joy will reduce envy; and equanimity/indifference will minimise condemnation and judgement.
We might question: – how on earth do we feel friendly towards a happy person if we dislike that person? Swāmī Hariharānanda Āraṇya suggests to recall the feeling experienced when a close friend is happy, and then cultivate that feeling towards others too – particularly when we suspect a tinge of jealousy in ourselves. Likewise, when people we dislike are suffering and we might tend to feel a little smug (i.e., our first thought is “they got what they deserved!”), then we should deliberately recall the compassion we would feel if it were a close friend who is suffering.
The example used to describe envy is to notice our mental inclination when a person achieves fame or praise for doing good deeds. If that person belongs to a different peer group, we might initially feel a desire to put that person down or criticise their efforts. We are reminded to recall the joy and goodwill we would naturally feel if that person was part of our own circle. Imagining how it would feel to walk in another’s shoes, and repeatedly recalling that feeling, helps us cultivate and embody that bhāvana in respect of all people.
Finally, upekṣā (indifference or non-judgment) is not exactly a bhāvana; it is a restraint. It can be understood in this context as refraining from constantly criticising the bad behaviour of others. It is not necessarily that we shouldn’t take steps to prevent their bad behaviour. That is, if it’s possible to redirect their actions or help them change their thinking we should try. But usually, the injustices, crimes and bad behaviour of others is beyond our control. In that case, our best response is to refrain from holding a mental judgement, because harbouring condemnation or anger will have no effect on that person, but it will disturb our own peace of mind and current well-being.
As with anything that we practise over and over again, we become better at it. If we practise these positive bhāvana-s regularly with commitment and enthusiasm they will become more natural to us, perhaps ultimately becoming our default position. The result is an increasingly serene inner experience, which in turn enables better relationships, understanding and communication, and ultimately improved quality of life. This experience of steadiness and reliable tranquillity, of peace and equanimity (called sattva in Sanskrit) supports and encourages us to continue on the yoga pathway towards a more enduring experience of peace and well-being.
Article originally published at Svastha Gold Coast