7 Ways to Purify the Mind

The Purified MindA Commentary on important verses of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras

Sutra 1:33. The mind becomes clarified by cultivating attitudes of friendliness [maitri], compassion [karuna], gladness [mudita] and indifference [upekshanam] respectively towards happiness [sukha], misery [dukha], virtue [punya] and vice [apunya].

Maitri is friendliness; friendship; love. Karuna is mercy; compassion; kindness. Mudita is complacency; joy; happiness, and implies optimism and cheerfulness. Upeksha[nam] is indifference; equanimity resulting from disinterestedness.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of Western New Thought or New Age philosophy is the idea that the mind is improved by an inturned “me” kind of cultivation of what the individual wants to see in his mind. But Patanjali tells us that what is needed is a range of positive reactions to others. Further, a positive attitude is to be maintained toward situations as well as people. Of course, these same attitudes should be cultivated toward ourselves.

Both Vyasa and Shankara insist that indifference must be cultivated toward those they call “habitually unvirtuous”–not an ignoring of them as people, but not being affected by their negativity. That does not mean we should accept their wrongdoing as all right, but that we should not allow ourselves to have any emotional reaction to their deeds and habitual character. This also implies that we should not be pestering them and meddling in their lives, trying to “save” or reform them. We should be ready to help them in any way we can, especially by kindness and good will, but basically we must go our way and let them go their way. Sitting around fuming over the foolishness and evil of others will only create an affinity between us and them and eventually make us like them. As Jesus said: “Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead” (Matthew 8:22). This includes letting the world-involved stew and bubble about the world. As the Sanatkumars said at the beginning of this creation cycle: What have we to do with all this–we who are intent on knowing the Self?”

(Also known as the Four Kumaras, the Sanatkumars were those advanced souls–Sanaka, Sanandana, Sanatkumara and Sanatsujata–who at the beginning of this creation cycle refused to engage in worldly life despite the command of Brahma. They were then taught by Lord Shiva, in the form of Dakshinamurti, the mysteries of Brahmajnana and attained liberation.)

Sutra 1:34. Or by the expiration and retention of breath.

This is one of the verses that is so simple we are almost sure to miss its meaning–the way Gandalf mistakes “Say ‘Friend’ and Enter” for “Speak, Friend, and Enter.”

The first step is to remember that these Sutras begin with a definition of Yoga that involves the chitta and the waves of the chitta. Just as the breeze disturbs the surface of water, in the same way the chitta is disturbed by various things, the simplest of which is breath–and that is why pranayama occupies such an important place in yoga practice. Specifically, the chitta is ruffled by inhalation. Slow inhalation produces the least effect and rapid inhalation produces the most, but there is no form of inhalation that does not produce any effect on the chitta. One the other hand, exhalation does not make waves in the chitta, nor does the suspension of breath–either holding it in or holding it out. Patanjali tells us this to give a complete picture. At this point he is not advocating any particular practice, just giving us information which will help us later on in understanding the nature and effects of pranayama.

Nevertheless, Jnaneshwara’s comment is certainly relevant: “The mind is also calmed by regulating the breath, particularly attending to exhalation and the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice.”

Sutra 1:35. Coming into activity of (higher) senses also becomes helpful in establishing steadiness of the mind.

Translators are divided in their understanding of this verse. Some consider it to mean that concentrating on any type of sense impression–usually in the form of the memory of such impression, such as visualization–will steady the mind. Other think it means that the arising of the subtle inner senses–especially in meditation–is an aid to steadying the mind. That is why Jnaneshwar says: “The inner concentration on the process of sensory experiencing, done in a way that leads towards higher subtle sense perception: this also leads to stability and tranquility of the mind.”

Vyasa and Shankara consider this second view to be the meaning of the sutra. Vyasa says that the yogi must experience inward realities before he can possess full faith in the words of scriptures and teachers: “Therefore some one definite thing has to be directly experienced in confirmation” at least. Shankara says: “For the yogi who is practicing yoga which is to give face-to-face experience, the perception is the first direct awareness, and it give him confidence, creating enthusiasm for the practice of yoga. It is like the appearance of smoke when wood is being rubbed together to create fire. Such a perception fills him with joy because the confidence it creates, and brings his mind to steadiness.”

Sutra 1:36. Also (through) serene [vishoka] or luminous [jyotishmati] (states experienced within).

Vishoka means “blissful; serene; free of grief, suffering or sorrow.” Jyotishmati means “effulgence; full of light.” Inner experience of a higher level usually consists of these two kinds–sometimes both together. Naturally the mind will become steady when it experiences vishoka states, and the same with jyotishmati experience. Certainly they can be two different kind of states, but most translators, as well as Vyasa and Shankara, consider that Patanjali is speaking of a single experience, which Vyasa and Shankara call “buddhi-sattwa”–experience of the buddhi in its most subtle level in which the buddhi and the Self are virtually indistinguishable. Actually, they state firmly that the experience of buddhi-sattwa is the experience of I-am (asmita/aham), experience of the Self through the buddhi.

Sutra 1:37. Also the mind fixed on those who are free from attachment [vitaraga] (acquires steadiness).

Vitaraga means “free from attachment (raga); one who has abandoned desire/attachment.” Such a person is obviously enlightened. However there is a marked disagreement between translators regarding this verse. Some consider that Patanjali is recommending that the aspirant fix his mind on the abstract ideal of a mind, a mental state, that is free from attachment and yearning-desire. Vyasa and Shankara hold this interpretation, Shankara stating that there must be no external object whatsoever in true meditation. In fact, in his commentary on Sutra 38, Shankara says: “The mind can be caught by the bridle of an object even merely remembered” in meditation. So they definitely do not consider that there should be meditation on an enlightened, liberated being. In fact, Shankara’s statement shows that fixing the mind on any master, avatar, or god–either in form or abstractly–will prevent authentic meditation. This demonstrates that the custom of adopting and meditating on an Ishta Devata is totally incorrect and not in the real tradition of Sanatana Dharma–as is about eighty percent of contemporary “Hinduism”–even if advocated by present-day “gurus.” By their sentimental superstition such teachers are deceiving and hindering their followers. That is the truth.

The other view, which is therefore not correct, is that the yogi should fill his mind with recollection of a person or deity in meditation, either by visualizing a form or simply “thinking about” them.

This is not to say that there is no benefit in admiring–even loving–a liberated person or divine form, and keeping their depictions in the home (even in the meditation place) and reading about them and even singing their praises. This is good for the mind and heart outside meditation, but not in meditation itself–that is a different mode of mind (mentation) altogether, and the distinction must be known and scrupulously maintained. This is the true path of yoga, which is contradicted and even contravened by most popular religion.

Sutra 1:38. Also (the mind) depending upon the knowledge derived from dreams [swapna] or dreamless sleep [nidra] (will acquire steadiness).

This sutra is all about the insight the person gains by analyzing the dream and deep sleep states.

By pondering the dream state he comes to understand that all experiences of objects are really internal–even in the waking state. (Note that I say the experiences are internal, not the objects.) He also sees that the mind is capable of creating an entire world. One of my most significant experiences within the first few days after beginning the practice of meditation, was a vivid dream in which I was walking along a street with some people and looking at the trees, sky, clouds, buildings, etc. “Look at all this,” I remarked to the dream companions, “it is being created by my mind, yet it is so tangible that if challenged I could not prove it is not a waking experience of the concrete world!” I never forgot the wonder I felt at that time. At other times in dream I have paused and said to myself: “All this is coming out of my mind–how amazing!”

So the yogi comes to realize some very important things: perception is not always objectively real, all perception is internal whether waking or dreaming, and he has the same creative power as God, even if in a limited degree. Also, if he uses the ability to control his dreams, he comes to realize that control of his waking life is possible, that the waking world is also a dream substance–it is God’s dream within which he is dreaming.

In time he comes to realize that he needs to awaken into spirit consciousness, leaving the dreams of relative existence behind. I also well remember how when I was only three or four years old I would stop and ask myself when awake: “Am I really awake, or am I dreaming? Will I dream years and years are passing, only to wake up and find out only a short time has really passed? Could I dream a whole life, only to wake up to find out I am still a little child?” For I had also observed that I could dream a very lengthy dream and find on awakening that only a few minutes had passed. So I knew the sense of time was also illusive and elusive.

The dreamless state opens up even deeper understanding. There is no sensory experience whatever, yet when we awake we are quite aware that we have been asleep and that time has passed. This tells us that in our essential nature we are a witnessing consciousness, that our existence does not depend upon the senses and their objects. We come to understand that we are a conscious spirit. When asked to define the Self, Sri Ramakrishna said very simply: “The witness of the mind.”

All this great wisdom can come just from analyzing the dream and dreamless states. Like Sherlock Holmes said, we must not only see, we must observe–and understand.

Sutra 1:39. Or by meditation as desired.

Most translators interpret this as meaning a person can meditate in whatever manner they desire, or upon whatever object they choose. But if the first were true, then Buddha would not have insisted upon RIGHT meditation. The mode of practice cannot be at whim. And Shankara against insists that objects should never be dwelt on in meditation. Rather, both he and Vyasa say that previous thought of things that are abhimata–“desired; favorite; attractive; agreeable, appealing”–trains the mind to be steady, actually teaching it how to be still and intent. So that ability is to be transferred to the Self in meditation.

Of course the sutra may merely mean that the mind is steadied by meditation when the yogi loves the practice itself. Just sitting for meditation appeals to him, so it is easy.

Sutra 1:40. His mastery extends from the finest atom to the greatest infinity.

This is not as big a leap as it seems, for it does not mean that after the preceding steps the yogi is master of the cosmos, from smallest to largest. Rather, it is speaking of the range of the yogi’s awareness/concentration. The adept yogi can attune his awareness to perceive the smallest or most subtle objects and also direct his awareness to encompass that which is not only the largest, but also That Which is Infinite. In other words, there is no limitation to his awareness–under the direction of his will.

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