‘The yogin is superior
To ascetics, to the learned,
And to those that practice ritual.
Therefore, Arjuna, be a yogin’ (6.46).
But, if yoga is not about the effort towards a better state, what’s the point? This is a question I’ve been pulled up upon regularly when I start to talk about yoga as the removal of suffering, the progression by negation; a better state by the removal of our trying to get to a better state. This can all seem incredibly pessimistic for those people used to conceiving life as one long upward ascent to increasing happiness. However, this is to consider the word ‘effort’ too literally. We may also add to this our conventional assumptions as to what ‘learning’ and ‘knowledge’ mean too. The problem is we are used to seeing effort as something we do, something we judge, plan, and strive towards through our thinking-processes.
Indeed, the Bhagavad Gita starts with Arjuna’s exclamation of disbelief to Krishna on seeing the civil war in which he is about to become embroiled in as part of the traditional warrior-class of ancient India;
‘do we not know enough, Krishna,
To turn aside from such evil..,?’(1.39)
This statement sets the tone of the whole text, for here, is a prime example of a time when through use of the rational mind we would make effort to amend our course in life. We, as the reader are surprised to find then that Arjuna’s well laid out reasons are, in fact, made in error. Arjuna, although personally quite convinced, does not have in any way an impartial overview of the situation on which to go by when he makes this statement. In contrast, a wonderful picture of the power that emotions have over us is presented just previously to his statement of certainty, unconsciously undermining his later reasoning;
‘my bow falls from my hand,
And my skin feels like its burning.
I cannot stand in position,
And my mind feels like it’s wandering off (1.30).
It is then doubtful then whether the innate prejudice of our emotional states would not heavily cloud our reasoning. For this reason our effort towards knowing life better in this way (through the mind), and our assumed happiness in this is, at least in part calling into jeopardy as the primary guide that we habitually take it to be. Instead, at the end of The Gita, Krishna sums this whole ‘trap’ of the mind up; for, simply because a thought appears right at the time, has a certain amount of ‘immediacy’; or conviction attached to it, it is far from a correct summary of the situation as our perceived ‘knowledge’ of a new situation is governed by the limitations of a more irrational, emotional or energetic state that is already present in us clouding our judgment. Therefore, Krishna says of Arjunas apparently reasonable decision;
‘bound by your karma, Arjuna,
That is born from your own nature,
You will do what in delusion
Is contrary to your wishes; (18.60).
It is then explained in the text that, as opposed to the clarity to see and decide clearly in the present moment (in other words, what we now call free will), we are, instead, involved in a constant cycle of cause and effect which stretches in front and behind of us. This is known as karma, and it doesn’t then allow for us to get a handle as to a ‘correct’ (objective) perspective on the present, for we are biased in our thought on what is past, and not only this, the residue of an emotional reaction to it. Moreover, we cannot know how actions will unfold in the future, anyway; even if we could know what was right in the present, the action may not produce the desired conclusion as to similar outcome in the future. It is this ‘double-bind’ that is the very foundation of Vedic-thought; for, we feel we must act to make progress towards a greater sense of happiness, but any act we might make is only to further tangle us in our own net of confusion, through the categorical ‘determinalism’ that karma suggests.
It is this problem then, essentially, the very modern one about how to know what best to choose, then how to do it; that is the focus of the seminal yoga text of The Bhagavad Gita. For, with the past sediment of feelings and thoughts inside of us; whatever we make the effort to learn through the rational mind, the tide behind this veneer of ‘knowledge’ stays the same. We are undercut by an underlying wrong-knowledge accrued through experiences out of our control, leading us back into the facing the same problems and committing the very same mistakes. How can we possibly break out of this cycle then, if every move we make, thought we think, is not really our own?
However, this is to assume that the sum total of our understanding happens in this most literal and externally demonstrative way to the world; in a type of reasoning we can visibly share and communicate through speech and hence ‘know’ and then act upon as the right information. In contrast to this, The Bhagavad Gita considers the true expression of our being to reside at an infinitely deeper level beyond thought. One which is not about what can be learn, by the mind, but what can be realised by the spirit; an energy that lies behind thought and effort, that is always present, only now temporarily lost or obscured in our attachment to ‘trying’ in life (which is to say, trying to make the outcomes of the material world fit our personal preferences).
This is what we also then do with yoga; we try to win at it; attempt to extract what is assumed to be ‘good’ about it and hence worthy of our pursuit. Yet, yoga is about the exact opposite; the opening of mind to the unknown, a kind of non-effort or attempt at unknowing. Evidently, this is not easy for the modern reader to take onboard, yet we are all aware at times, of a state of emotion latent in us, beyond the power of the mind to describe in words and thoughts when for a moment we stop making effort to just rest with what is. Indeed, it really is this simple; we have primarily made the mistake of confusing happiness with excitement as opposed to happiness as peace.
In the light of this then, the progression we are talking about in yoga, is quite clearly different then to normal ideas of progression and development as to accumulating more information to us, which is how we approach practice when we arrive at this very different world from the material one we are used to. Indeed, it is said that;
‘when the mind is extricated
From the thickets of delusion,
Then you will be disgusted,
With all the teachings you have heard’ (52.2).
The kind of knowledge then that Krishna suggests when he talks of the method ‘towards’ yoga flows in the contrary direction, or is, perhaps, better imagined as cyclical as opposed to linear. It is not into the world to enhance our value by gathering more of it to us, but, back towards us through appropriate action in the world which allows us to see something that is more profound already in our possession behind our normal level of activity residing in reacting to the immediate feedback of the senses;
‘the senses are superior,
So they say, but the mind is higher.
The intellect is still higher still,
And the Self indeed much higher.’ (3.42).
Here, then, a kind of ladder is pictured; but, it really is no progression in the conventional sense; for the happiness we aim at, aspire, and make effort towards in ‘knowledge’; is, in fact, lying behind us, and wholly forgotten then in all our strivings to make more of ourselves. Indeed, this sense of lack only arises in the first place from moving from the peace that we already are. This peace, on the other hand, can never be won in the world outside of us, for this is a world of changing stimulation, moreover a changeable and unpredictable one that cannot be controlled even if we knew it was peace and not excitement we were looking for. Happiness in the yoga sense then, along with its definition of learning then, is the active attempt at being content with doing, trying, and achieving in the world less; as opposed to our general belief in the idea of making effort towards more.
The peace that is gained by simply being able to be with ones’ Self, a type of effort at non-effort, and one that is not known in facts, rather feeling, sois contradictory to rational-thought based on the most literal need of addition as the mind seeks continuous employment. Yet, on all other occasions when we make effort towards knowing ourselves in the outside world, we are simply pressing upon circumstances the false definition of ourselves we have inherited through karma. That is, in wanting to know ourselves and what we are doing in the world so definitely we fall into the error of a personal involvement which brings with it a whole lot of other baggage accompanying our perceptions. We then take ownership for the whole lot, which is the final act of confusion;
‘every action is enacted
By the gunas [energy of the world] born of matter
Those deluded by the ego
Think they perform the action’ (3,27)
This is the obstacle of approaching yoga in our very habitual attitude of learning, making effort and finally getting what we assume we want out of it. For, yoga tells us that we are confused in our thinking, and hence this self doesn’t know the real Self, nor what it wants.
On the other hand, we are stuck, for we must act anyway forced by the very demand of living. So, it seem,s we are caught between a rock and a hard place;
‘neither by refraining from action
Does one transcend activity,
Nor is it by renunciation
That one can approach perfection’ (3.4)
The escape from this then is in a wholly subjective experience the yogi is instructed towards whereby action is made to transcend the ladder aforementioned – through the senses, mind, to intellect, and then to Self. But, this is in a kind of reverse effort in taking the remarkable step that is never normally taken in the world, from the involvement of the mind with intent to get and achieve, to the pure-awareness (‘intellect’ or buddhi), that lies behind restraining any personal intention. For, this is always to be caught in karma, which is to be a puppet to thoughts and emotions more or less placed in our heads through others, the world and our subsequent experience of it. It is then contrary to this, in the light of this space and clarity, with mind now uncluttered and undistracted by the presence of thoughts and aspirations, the only real knowledge can appear as if from behind the clouds of the false one with which we are accustomed. The difference being, that this one is actually ‘true’, being permanent and unchanging (it doesn’t rest, like material knowledge, on something else which can be taken away or invalidated).
The point of debate then as to efficiently conceived effort is a very subtle one, indeed, lest we become simply more delusional in stronger false sense of self built up through yoga. For this reason, The Bhagavad Gita is at pains to emphasise throughout the text its experiential and practically based method achieved in our not trying to do yoga then in its constant encouragement towards devotion and sacrifice;
‘Not through study of the Vedas [sacred scriptures]
Not by austere practices,
Not by gifts or sacrifices..
Only by unwavering devotion…’ (11.53-4).
Of course, the idea of devotion is so often an unwanted one nowadays. Yet, it is also generally misunderstood, either in assuming that we will finally satisfy our personal desires, but equally, in the simple fear of getting hemmed-in again by Church and State as we up until recently were. Even so, it is categorically stated that;
‘pleasures born of sensory contact
Are wombs of pain and suffering.
They start and they stop..
The wise are not contented with them’ (5.22).
To really start yoga then, we must make our peace with this view. Eve so, this is not to exchange our freedom for submission; a sense of devotion to someone else’s rules. Instead, The Bhagavad Gita, quite contrary to this, encourages the yogi solely towards a sense of devotion to their own feeling of Self. It is, in fact, devotion to our subjective experience; albeit, one correctly conceived or understood through yoga practice. Furthermore, this devotion inwardly, finally also spreads outwards in a free and undivisive attitude quite contrary to that which all our knowledge and opinions produces on the self. This quality of expression is well illustrated in the kind of ‘no mind’ state that is more well-known in the teachings of Zen Buddhism;
‘I do not do anything, thus
Thinks the yogi who knows the truth,
Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling,
Eating, walking, sleeping, breathing’ (5.8).
It is actually in the absence of personal thoughts; that we come to know yoga. For, here, is this sense of ease and flow, of love, we all strive after when the separate acts of effort that draw the boundaries of the separate-self are reinquised. Practically speaking, this is done in acting in the way that immediately lies straight ahead of us (again,yoga is utter simplicity); not getting involved from the personal point of view of the mind, which is what is referred to as ‘doing our duty’ according to Krishna. When we break out of the bias then that is innate in the body, corrupting and entrapping the possibility of a ‘fresh’ perception, outside the kind of groundhog-day that karma entails we finally then know the possibility of lasting happiness in ‘the peace that passeth understanding’ as is denoted in the ending of all Upanishads shantih, shantih, shantih. Our answer to knowledge then in yoga is an indescribably radical one; indeed, none other than the knowledge of this one. (That is,as opposed to regular ideas which are always based on the essential division, separateness and lack denoted in two, or what can be described by contrast).
‘the knowledge by which one sees
A single being in all creatures
Undivided and eternal,
Know that knowledge to be sattvic [correct] (18.20`).