Living Patanjali's Yoga: The Vrittis and Our Programming

Swami Vigyanchaitanya Saraswati

Maharshi Patanjali has codified the entire structure of yoga in the famous one line verses known as the Yoga Sutras. It is commonly said that these sutras form the theoretical basis of yoga, especially raja yoga. However, this seems to be a very limited view. These sutras point to one yoga, they point to truths which are to be 'lived', 'breathed' and 'meditated on' in daily life. In these sutras guidelines are given on how one should conduct oneself in daily life in thought, word and deed.

The vrittis – the 'reactive' mode of behaviour

The aim of yoga is defined as chitta vritti nirodha, which literally means stopping the mental modifications. Taking away the technical words, it basically means getting out of our 'biased' and 'reactive' mode of behaviour. Our interactions with the world are based on our previous impressions which form a typical emotional and psychological pattern. When I see a snake, my reaction is that of fright. When I see someone dying, I do not want to face it. During a birth you celebrate and during death you do not want to face it. Is it not desirable for an old body to die? Birth and death are two sides of the same reality. When I see a friend I am happy. When I see an enemy I am very negative. My environment and society reinforce these reactions. These are the habitual reactions in which I have trained myself and I tend to identify myself with these states. Thus my behaviour goes through a set pattern. This is what is known as sarupyam itaratra or identification with the different states I go through. When I am happy and elated, I am fully so – there is no part of me then that is different from that happiness! When I am sad, I am fully so – there is no part of me that stands back and watches!

Thus I get tossed from situation to situation and from reaction to reaction! The situations in life keep on changing but our reactions rarely change. That is why we fail to see the world in a new light every day and it sometimes becomes a very stereotyped and boring place for us! But if the world were not based on our typical reactions, then every day would open a new chapter in our lives. We would be able to live our lives to the full each and every moment.

Identification with our 'reactionary states'

The first two examples are of situations which people would be happy not to identify with. But is it possible not to identify with the so-called happy state? Identification has to stop with all states induced by sensory gratification. Sensory gratification can only be a temporary pleasure. This satisfaction cannot be a permanent one. A fleeting, transient reactionary state becomes our idea of real fulfilment. The Yoga Sutras clearly emphasize that this is ignorance or avidya. This is the root problem. I would like to identify with this happy state and this starts the whole process of identification. Please understand this carefully. Yoga is not saying that your reactions are wrong. Neither is it asking you to change your reactions to something better. Yoga is simply saying, do not identify with your reactions, maintain your balanced state, the state of the seer or the witness. Also simultaneously understand that sensory gratification cannot be the goal. The vrittis cannot be stopped in an off hand way. You have to stop your identification with them. This is the first step in the psychological process of yoga.

In our daily life we get caught up with our programming and lose contact with the core of our being, which has the essential nature of being non-reactive, impartial and not touched by impressions. When we come into conflict with someone, then the next time we meet that person there is definitely a hangover from that conflict. Is it possible to interact as if nothing had happened? Yoga is not telling you to go out and hug that person, but it is definitely telling you to get on with it and treat every day as a new opportunity to carry on with the process of abhyasa or the practice of being established in the state of witnessing.

Is it possible for you get out of your emotional bias in your daily interactions? What is emotional bias? It means that every time you meet a friend you are positive and every time you meet an enemy you are negative. Is it possible for you to maintain focus on the issues at stake rather than going into a biased mode? This is why the Bhagavad Gita says to be even-minded whether you are dealing with your enemies or your friends. How do we create enemies and friends? It is because of our strong identification with our reactions. We will never be a constructive critic with a friend nor will we ever find a good point in favour of an enemy. Thus our world is formed of our impressions, which are based on our reactions.

What was the reason for the conflict? It was because of your strong identification with your point of view. You are emotionally so attached to your logic that you cannot see beyond that. Next time you have an argument with somebody try to sincerely change course in midstream and accept the other side of the argument. This is a practice of debriefing or disidentifying with your habitual reactions.

This process of not identifying with the reactionary element within and discriminating between the transient and the eternal, the reactionary and non-reactionary, between the sensual and non-sensual, leads to awakening of the higher faculty of mind known as viveka, which is defined as the discrimination between purusha, pure consciousness, and prakriti, pure energy. Awakening of this faculty leads us to the higher dimensions of consciousness and energy.

Personality – the bondage of vrittis and kleshas

The world keeps on telling you that you are like this and like that. This reinforces your habitual reactions and keeps you tied down to the world of vrittis. “Whenever I am faced with such nonsense, I lose my temper” – this is the sort of mentality which ties us to the world of vrittis, and they keep on increasing. Yoga is asking you to reduce these vrittis by moving away from your programmed reactions. “Do you know that he is an alcoholic and beats up his wife regularly” – this sort of input immediately creates a strong reaction within you and your interactions with that person will in future be guided and influenced by this reaction. Do not react compulsively. Do not fall a prey to viparyaya, or wrong knowledge based on improper cognition. Introduce a gap between sensory input and your reaction. This is the gap of 'awareness'. This gap is to be filled by abhyasa, which is to be uninterrupted. You have to become established in the process of non-reaction.

These reactions come when you are faced with the external world and receive inputs from the senses. All the above examples are based on external objects which you cognize correctly or incorrectly. However, it is possible to go into a biased mode of thinking and conceptualization, without any external input. This is the region of objectless cognition, when our mind keeps working without any objective support from outside. When you are sitting idle for a moment, the mind starts working in the vritti mode internally. The day's events come up, thoughts come at random and it is always based on our earlier impressions and tendencies. This again reinforces the grooves in our mind. This is why the Gita says that since it is not possible to remain inactive even for one moment, why not be involved with selfless action which will not bind us down to our limited world – the little world of personal desires, ego and ambitions. And one of the best means for stopping the gross internal vrittis is repetition of mantras in the form of japa.

Our impressions form our programming and our personality and permeate every aspect of our being, even our body postures, alignment and gestures. In yogic terms this programming is known as klesha. It is based on our likes, dislikes and our acceptance of the transient world as the only reality. Based on this programming, we react to the external and the internal environment. The vrittis are the reactive mode and the kleshas are the programming. They feed and reinforce each other. It is like a vicious circle. For example, you do not like bitter tasting food. The very name of that item creates a reaction within you. It is possible that sometimes that item is made well and may not be all that bitter but…by that time you have already gone into the reactive mode!