Liberation : What are we really seeking?
We live in strange times. Forty million westerners practice the ancient Indian art of yoga, a practice dedicated to world transcendence and Self-realisation. These contemporary yogins, the vast majority of them focused exclusively on the physical practice, have generated a billion dollar industry in yoga goods and services, including designer yoga clothes and equipment, yoga cruises with the stars, exotic yoga holidays, yoga DVDs and magazines, and so on. Just leaf through any yoga magazine and the variety of glossy colour advertisements for oh so many products will astonish you (as well as the price tags!). It doesn’t take much insight to realise that most of the promises inherent in these products concern the enhancement of the body. This is not transformation of the body into an adamantine vehicle fit for realisation. This is about beauty and fitness and inner calm—an antidote to the stress-producing factors of modern life, a worthwhile purpose in itself, surely. But is it accurate to call all this ‘yoga’, and leave it at that?
For the ultimate purpose of all yoga is liberation. Though the various metaphysical traditions may understand that liberation differently, all agree that our fundamental nature is not the body/mind we think we are. Our fundamental nature is Consciousness. We are sublime Awareness: not physical, not localized. We are eternal, immortal absolute Being. We are the transcendental ground: without beginning or end, without birth or death, beyond time and space. In fact, ‘we’ (as commonly understood) are ‘not’. Yoga is a spiritual discipline that can awaken us to that reality. Liberation in yoga refers to this ultimate realization of our true identity (and the true identity of everything). It implies a necessary deconstructing of the body/mind organism or ego. Subject and object distinctions dissolve so that even the statement ‘I experience liberation’ is rendered meaningless. With liberation or enlightenment the subject-verb-object polarity dissolves into the Ultimate Singularity of undifferentiated Being. There is only the purity of the Absolute. Pure Awareness beyond the particulars of any form, no matter how subtle.
Yoga understands the physical body as an instrument, and through hatha yoga, an instrument for realizing liberation. Divine consciousness works through all the countless body/mind instruments in the cosmos, both human and non-human, both subtle and gross, playing them according to the programming inherent in their nature. In human beings, that programming results from both genetic make-up and past conditioning. Each body is unique, and each is constantly changing, for each is a manifestation of prakriti or nature. As divine energy manifest, prakriti is never still. She is Shakti. She is Shiva dancing: spinning out endless configurations of energy which appear as separate life forms. The classical Vedanta metaphor of the crystal explains this well. Pure consciousness corresponds to pure white light shining upon a crystal. The rainbow of colour corresponds to the myriad life forms of manifestation. The unique programming of every form refracts the light according to its own particular structure, so that each form appears as a slightly different hue. Yet just as all colours are ultimately the One Light, so are all life forms ultimately Pure Consciousness. Yoga practice concerns the ‘polishing’ or purifying of the instrument which is the body so that it no longer distorts the light of pure consciousness but radiates with it alone. It aims towards transcendence of the particular programming, in other words, liberation from identification with the body/mind organism.
Although today most practitioners concentrate upon perfecting the physical postures, most probably understand, or at least have heard, that yoga is about liberation. Many have experienced greater freedom and openness in their lives as a result of their yoga practice. Yet few have come close to aligning that practice with yoga’s ultimate goal, never mind realising it. So what is going on? Is yoga not efficacious? Are yogins falling away from the path? Are they stuck in their practice? Has yoga been hijacked by other forces? Has it been subverted from its traditional purpose? It is very difficult to address these questions. The what and why of each person’s practice is a personal affair. I trust that many practitioners hidden away in the nooks and crannies of the West are practising genuine yoga for genuine spiritual purposes. But it is no secret to anyone that yoga has become big business, whether categorised as fitness and beauty or personal development and stress-release, it makes no difference. Even its ultimate sublime purpose has been subtly distorted so that talk of ‘liberation’ can be bandied about, it can even be advertised and sold, yet that ‘liberation’ talk means something quite different from the traditional understanding of classical non-dualistic Vedanta or Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, never mind the precise and radical conception that Patanjali proposed in the Yoga Sutras.
Contemporary western notions of liberation differ fundamentally from traditional yogic conceptions. And it is these notions that colour the attitude and behaviour of contemporary westerners (and more than a few Indians who received a similar western/secular education!), making it quite difficult for us to grasp what yoga is really about. Much of this understanding is unconscious. It belongs to the general cultural assumption about the ‘way things are’: beliefs so fundamental that questioning them would occur to no one. This is a vital point. Phenomenology refers to these shared personal assumptions as the ‘natural attitude’. They are the collective body of norms that any group holds in common. Buddhism and yoga philosophy explain how conditioning creates mindset. Natural attitude is the conditioning that any social group holds in common. It refers to the ‘core beliefs’ of a community, the beliefs that no one challenges because they are assumed as fact. ‘The earth is flat’ used to be one. ‘A human being is an individual body/mind’ is one that reigns supreme today.
In his essay, Riposte, E.B. White gives a humorous example of ‘natural attitude’. In an attempt to ‘explain America’, an Englishman suggests that Americans prefer white eggs to brown because their whiteness implies purity and hygiene. E.B. White proposes a simpler explanation: the White Leghorn, the hen preferred by poultry men throughout most of America, who happens to lay a white egg. White writes: ‘When a housewife, in New York or Florida, comes home from market with a dozen eggs and opens her package, she finds twelve pure white eggs. This, to her, is not only what an egg should be, it is what an egg is. An egg is a white object. If this same housewife . . . . were to encounter a brown egg from the store, the egg would look somehow incorrect, wrong. . . .’ So much for an Englishman’s theories. ‘An egg is a white object’ is the culturally conditioned experience. It is not a matter of preference. Eggs of a different colour do not exist.
In the West, the materiality of the human body and its separation from everything else in the cosmos is just that sort of shared cultural assumption. A human being is an individual body and mind. Even though recent scientific enquiry has challenged this belief, revealing that everything is interconnected in a vast web of intersecting and interdependent energy fields, popular understanding has not caught up. Common belief understands the individual as autonomous, material, separate and distinct. To most people, liberation means freedom for the individual, whereas traditional yoga understands it as freedom from the individual.
Political systems in the West purport to protect and defend individual liberty above everything else. As long as their citizens comply with the legal norms and constraints of society, they are “free” to do whatever they like. “Liberty” is the rallying call against everything that appears to threaten the lifestyle of the West. “Freedom” and the “free world” are terms that appear so often in political speeches that it would hardly occur to anyone to stop and consider what actually is being said. What actually do we mean by “freedom” in the West?
Commonly, freedom means doing what you like, going where you want to go, buying what you want to buy. It means indulging the whims and fancies of desire. Popular film stars and singers epitomise the modern notion of freedom, as money gives them the power to indulge their wildest personal desires. Popular culture, fuelled by the media, follows their behaviour with an attitude of adulation, envy and voyeurism. Oh if only we could be so rich to be so free . . . Images of this kind of ‘liberty’ are rife in the popular media of film, TV and advertising (even yoga advertising!). Glamorous bodies in designer clothes ride their convertible sports cars along spectacular sea cliffs, long hair glistening golden in the wind. The not so hidden purpose: to sell product. The subliminal message: you too will be this free, this beautiful, this rich (if you drink this soda or use this shampoo or snack on this ‘health bar’).
Whereas yoga understands the conditioned desires of the body/mind organism as belonging to the realm of delusion (maya), contemporary western society mindlessly celebrates them. Whereas yoga calls desire ‘affliction’, carefully defining its origin and expression as the five afflictions (kleshas) which keep consciousness bound to the wheel of samsara, the material world of change and form; contemporary western society understands the acting out of these afflictions, particularly attachment and aversion, as the foundation of liberty. However, the popular ‘do your own thing’ ethos of contemporary society is not a recent aberration. It developed quite logically out of a fundamental western understanding of reality that is quite different from the eastern understanding out of which the yoga tradition grew.
In the Biblical tradition, a seminal influence in the shaping of western beliefs, ‘God’ and ‘man’ are usually understood as ontologically distinct. Though it is possible to interpret certain scriptural passages otherwise, and though certain Christian mystics like St. Teresa of Avila and Meister Eckhart had profound mystical experiences in which they ‘merged’ with the divine, western religion retains an essentially dualistic worldview. The creator remains separate from the creation. God creates ex nihlio, out of nothing; unlike Shiva, who dances--creating out of his own body. God, naturally, is omniscient and omnipotent, yet man too is endowed with an inherent, existential freedom. This teaching and the story of the Garden of Eden upon which it is based are key.
To clarify the point, I’ll simplify what is in fact a complex and curious story. When God creates man, he gives him autonomy, exemplified by the different trees in the garden from which man can or cannot choose to eat. Man’s action follows upon his freely exercised choice. Because he has this free will, forever afterwards, man can choose to follow God’s commandments during life and receive the reward after death of eternal life in heaven with God (not as God!). If he uses his free will to go against God, to sin, he remains eternally separate from God, the state which is called hell. Two parts of this story stand out as seminal in their shaping of western core beliefs. First of all, ‘God’ (or the ultimate reality, the divine essence, the sublime presence, the absolute) is totally distinct from ‘man’ (or the manifestation, nature, the myriad configurations of energy). Secondly, man has free will. He is free to choose his destiny, for good or for ill. Whatever the outcome, he is responsible, he gets what he deserves. He is guilty and he is punished. Or he is meritorious and he is rewarded.
The story has its own logical consistencies. Salvation teaching requires absolute free will. How else can God test man? How else can he decide who to reward or punish? If God were pure consciousness and man a mere instrument being played according to his inherent programming (which ultimately God created) how could God punish him and still call himself ‘just’? How could God condemn man for doing something which he ultimately could not control or change? Though theology certainly has subtler interpretations than this crude outline suggests, still, the basic assumptions upon which this story operates have shaped the western mind, even for those with no religious upbringing or beliefs. It is our cultural legacy.
Yet this kind of ontological free will does not belong to the yoga tradition. According to yoga metaphysics, the law of karma governs behaviour. Man acts according to his conditioning (his genetic makeup and the accumulation of past actions, both from this life and other incarnations). Every action and reaction is connected to every other through a vast web which knits together all of manifestation. And the reality which subsumes it all is the Divine Reality. The individual is an instrument. Yes, man ‘chooses’, but actually, it is the divine choosing through him: the Ultimate Singularity or Pure Awareness which acts through all the individual forms of manifestation according to their inherent programming. Even though certain yoga philosophies subscribe to a dualistic worldview, notably Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, both absolute, existential free will and a total ontological division between the divine and the human are foreign to the yoga tradition.
Yet in the West, these two core beliefs endured through centuries of change and transformation. When the supremacy of the church began to wane in the 18th century and ‘enlightenment’ thinkers introduced more secular philosophies, individual free will and the separation of man from the cosmos became even more firmly engrained in the culture. Descartes’ famous declaration, ‘I think, therefore, I am’ bases existence itself upon the thinking mind. That which yoga sees as delusion or the play of the gunas, as an obstacle to overcome or the ‘dirt’ upon the mirror, distorting the light of pure consciousness, Descartes sees as the very source of ultimate knowledge. In this view, each ‘I’ or body/mind organism is an ultimately separate and solid entity, the very foundation of existence.
During this same period, science began to dissect the nature of physical matter, and the ‘machine’ model of creation evolved. Material, measurable phenomenon became the only reality, and God faded into the realm of speculation and superstition. As spirituality became a kind of fringe pursuit, the mainstream of society forged ahead according to the positivist vision of science and materialism. Concurrently, the concept of ‘liberation’ as a central good and fundamental right for individuals emerged as a social ideal. ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,’ said Rousseau in the Social Contract. That cry, as well as others of a similar theme, inspired the French and American revolutions, as well as many revolts against tyranny in various other places. Yet the liberation these revolutionaries envisaged always remained true to western core beliefs: freedom for the individual to pursue the inclinations and desires of the body/mind organism without any restraint except that which is necessary to protect the common good. The American Declaration of Independence summed it up: “We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
It is no secret what this mentality has led to in the present day. ‘Free’ individuals everywhere: alienated from each other, alienated from nature, alienated from any understanding of reality except the most material. Each ‘free’ individual struggles to secure the greatest possible liberty and greatest possible happiness for himself, remaining totally enslaved to the conditioned desires of his body/mind organism. Meanwhile, advertising and consumerism serve to create endlessly new desires, adding fresh fuel to the fire. Today, the breakdown of society, as well as the breakdown of the entire biosphere, are genuine risks—the fallout from a relentlessly materialistic, separatist worldview. The violence of modern society, both within itself and towards the environment, has taken on monstrous proportions. It is the acting out of western conceptions of ‘liberation’, where mutually-exclusive life forms battle it out, exercising free will according to a profoundly myopic vision.
Despite the stunning discoveries of quantum physics, which affirm yogic insights into the nature of Ultimate Reality, despite the intellectual phenomenon known as postmodernism—where all ‘truths’ are understood as relative and provisional, where no one can claim to know anything and all certitude crumbles into ambiguity, contemporary society still operates according to basic western core beliefs about material reality. In many ways--in terms of practical daily living to be sure--we in the West still live in a Cartesian universe. Liberation means freedom for the individual: freedom to say and do whatever we like, to buy whatever washing powder we desire, to choose whatever ‘brand’ of yoga most appeals to our ‘lifestyle’ and notion of leisure pursuits.
The profound irony in all this is the concept of liberation which runs throughout the yoga tradition. No matter which style of practice may be on offer, all genuine schools of yoga teach a form of radical liberation. Patanjali’s version in the Yoga Sutras is probably the most radical, the most diametrically opposed to the popular western view. So it might just be a supreme cosmic joke that so many people today are practising yoga, invoking Patanjali and ostensibly ascribing to a path which deliberately leads towards the annihilation of everything that most people most treasure. For the practice of yoga aims to bring about a total deconstruction of ordinary ego consciousness.
According to Yoga, ordinary consciousness is the filter which muddies the light of Pure Consciousness–the ‘dirt’ on the mirror. Liberation in yoga means total transcendence of this ego consciousness. Patanjali calls liberation Kaivalya, which translates as ‘aloneness of seeing’. It is a state of sheer Presence and pure Awareness where the yogin abides as the Transcendental Self, beyond any form, no matter how subtle. This is the goal of yoga which Patanjali teaches in the Yoga Sutras.
Involution is one way to envisage the yogin’s path to kaivalya. Patanjali’s metaphysic views reality as a hierarchy. At the apex is purusha, the Self or pure Transcendental Reality. Mirroring purusha and next in line away from this formless essence is prakriti, the world ground or transcendental core of material existence. Prakriti, which is made of the three gunas, is unmanifest when the gunas are in a balanced state. In an unbalanced state, the movement of the gunas makes manifest all the forms of material existence, which follow in a descending chain of being from the most subtle to the most gross. This is how the cosmos evolved out of potentiality into manifestation. Yoga practice inverses this order of cosmic evolution. Through involution, the primary constituents of matter, the gunas-- in a kind of reverse of the process of creation--return to a state of perfect balance. Finally, the yogin lets go of identification with prakriti altogether in order to realise the ultimate purusha nature.
In Kaivalya, the yogin abides as the Purusha alone. How can this be? What is left of the yogin in this state? Patanjali says that when consciousness attains a sattva equal to that of the Self, liberation occurs. (YS 3.55) Consciousness that is this refined no longer resembles ordinary consciousness. Yet the liberation Patanjali ultimately describes is even more radical. The eight limbs of classical yoga, particularly the inner limbs of dharana, dhyana and samadhi, serve to bring the yogin towards the state of awareness where sattva dominates and ordinary ego distinctions of subject and object dissolve. This is the discipline of yoga, an involution of the process of evolution intended to liberate the yogin from all forms of manifestation. It is through dhyana (meditation) that the vrittis (thought patterns) of ordinary consciousness quieten. Yet even samadhi, the final limb, does not in itself equal liberation. The yogin still remains bound to the realm of prakriti, albeit at a very refined level.
Meditation is a process, beginning with the focusing of the mind upon a single object and culminating in the ego suspension of samadhi. The three inner limbs of ashtanga yoga form a continuum known as samyama, a flow which actually has no divisions, as one leads seamlessly into the next. Dharana (concentration) begins with Ekagrata, which means one-pointedness. Here awareness focuses upon a single object of attention—a mantra, an image, any focal point which stills the ordinary ‘monkey mind’. Ekagrata requires effort, the mental effort of drawing the mind back to the object whenever it wanders into distraction. It has the quality of a point: narrow, precise and inwards. Dharana becomes dhyana when the point stretches into a line. Ekatanata means single flow. When ekatanata happens, concentration has become sustained: the point of ekagrata extends to a line. Concentration upon the chosen object becomes so focused, so absolute, that effort ceases. Meditation happens. The focal point expands into time and space, filling the mind, filling all of reality, in a sense, so that as long as the experience lasts, the mind remains absorbed, utterly serene. This experience is flowing, vast, all-encompassing, total. When the inner space of meditation is so deep that boundaries between inner and outer dissolve and the ego-self merges, so to speak, into the object of meditation, then the lower levels of samadhi are reached.
But the experience of samadhi, where ego identity dissolves and the yogin merges with the object of meditation, is still not total liberation according to Patanjali. Even in this sublime state of ecstasy, some mental activity can remain. Though the meandering thoughts of ordinary, sense-based consciousness (vrittis) are subdued in meditation, these are not the only type of mental activity (pratyaya). Mental activity of an entirely different nature still occurs at the four lower levels of samadhi, called samprajnata-samadhi or cognitive ecstasy. These higher mental operations or insights are known as prajnas, and are not related to the senses. They are pure thoughts or instantaneous recognitions or moments of certainty. These flashes of awareness occur spontaneously as a result of the unmediated experience of the object of contemplation.
Patanjali identifies four forms of this conscious activity belonging to the ecstatic mode: cognition, reflection, joy and I-am-ness. Cognition refers to those pure thoughts occurring when the object of contemplation pertains to the realm of Nature. Reflection refers to those pure thoughts occurring when the object is drawn from the deep structure of Nature (subtle realms). Joy and I-am-ness belong to all forms of samprajnata samadhi. Joy refers to the profound feeling-state of samadhi and I-am-ness to the fact that ego-identity in the form of samskaras or deep memory is still intact.
Though they are still not total liberation, these lower levels of samadhi are profoundly illuminating. Known as the adhyatma-prasada or the ‘clarity of inner being’, here the awareness of the yogin is no longer separate from the object of attention. It is as if the object itself has become luminous or self-aware, revealing the essence of its deep nature in a most direc