Towards Freedom

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

What makes one a terrorist and what makes one a good person? It is the mind. The mind can be a saint and the mind can be a sinner, and it is that mind which has to be dealt with. As a system of mind management, yoga helps to change and transform the hyper agitated mind and make it more peaceful and content. In the beginning we come to yoga to deal with our mind, to deal with tension, frustration and anxiety, to learn how to relax and let go. Eventually, as our involvement with yoga increases, we come to know the other dimensions and aspects of yoga, but originally the effort is to understand the mind.

There are two paths in life. One path is known as pravritti - towards materialism, towards the senses, and the other path is nivritti - towards freedom, towards harmony. In our personality we have different attributes which pull us towards pravritti and also towards nivritti. The basic character of a human being on the sensorial path, pravritti, manifests as awareness of ambitions and limitations, whereas nivritti, the path of freedom, is characterized by awareness of needs and strengths. Pravritti is ambition and limitation. Nivritti is strength and need.

Instead of being driven by our ambitions, we should be driven by our needs. Instead of highlighting our limitations and weaknesses, we should be highlighting our positive strengths and qualities. With just this much change we can move from pravritti, sensorial bondage, or the state of technological hypnosis, towards freedom and a more natural life.

Although the process is simple, it is also very involved because we have never been trained in how to educate and discipline the mind. We are not able to look at ourselves. We are performers, what is known in Vedantic terminology as bhokta, the enjoyer, karta, the doer; we are not witnesses of the performance. Yoga says you have to be the drashta, the witness of what you do, the witness of what you enjoy, the witness of your actions.

Governing the subtle personality

The first three sutras of Patanjali's yoga darshan define the process of yoga. The first sutra is: Atha yogah anushasanam - "Yoga is to be understood as a form of discipline". The second sutra is: Yogaschitta vritti nirodhah - "Yoga is a system of mind management, of managing the modifications of mind". The third sutra is: Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam - "Once the mind is managed and guided, a person becomes the seer, the observer, and that observer establishes himself or herself in their own true nature". These three sutras are the most relevant ones to understand in today's context.

In our early life, the education we are provided with helps us to become more aggressive and competitive. It gives us the skills, concepts and ideas to act at the outer material level, to know how to attain the things we desire, how to acquire money, how to have an affluent society and how to be part of it, how to excel in our profession or field of expertise. The entire education is directed towards building a better 'outer me', but how to become a better 'inner me' is not part of the education policy.

The spiritual and yogic traditions try to fill this gap. In yoga the concept of discipline is governing the subtle processes of one's personality. Patanjali has used the word 'anushasan', which in English has been translated as discipline, but this translation is not correct. Discipline means establishing certain rules, conditions and norms, defining certain parameters within which one has to function and act. Discipline actually means 'niyama' and the word 'anushasan' means governance. The personality has to be governed just as a country or society has to be governed. In a country you have good and bad people. In a society you have good and bad people. Within you have goodness and badness, and what is within has to be governed in the right manner so that it does not become a barrier or a restrictive factor, but rather helps to create a condition in which one can be optimally creative.

Governing the subtle nature, the subtle personality, is yoga, according to the first sutra. The entrance to the subtle personality is through the mind. The mind is not a biological function; it is not a specific function of the brain. The mind is an energy responsible for action and reaction, for the implementation of ideas. It is composed of many different items - thoughts, desires, ambitions, perceptions, samskaras, karmas, and they all become mature at some time in their life.

Becoming the witness

The mind can be helped along through a process of balanced education. Right now the development of the mind is one-sided, lopsided. Our mind has been trained to see outwards and when the mind sees out, it has no foundations inside, no connection with its source, and it can become disturbed. But if we are able to provide a link with the inner self, then that mind guides the performance of the individual and ensures one is unaffected by the negativity it may receive from the world. There is a saying in India that realized beings live like the lotus in water. The lotus grows in water, but has a natural protection against water, remaining totally unaffected by it.

When the mind is connected with the outer manifest world, it gives birth to different vrittis. Vrittis are the agitations or the spikes in the waves of the mind. If there is a gentle breeze blowing over the surface of the ocean, we hardly see the small ripples playing on the surface. But if there is a storm, then those ripples can become ten or twenty foot waves, with the strength to destroy many things that come in their way. Vrittis are the giant waves created on the surface of the mind when there is external agitation.

After all, what is anger? It is a mental vritti. When we are angry, something has agitated our mind and made us angry. When we are afraid, something has agitated the mind and we are frightened. When we are depressed, something has agitated and shocked the mind, so we are depressed. These are the various vrittis with which we have to deal in the course of our yogic journey.

The purpose of yoga is to ensure that the natural state of the mind remains constant, tranquil, so that only small ripples will be created when we are dealing with the world. Yoga has said that by developing the component of awareness one can find solutions to many of life's problems. Is it possible to remain aware when we are agitated and angry? Is it possible to remain aware of what is happening to us when we are in confusion, suffering, pain and conflict? Right now, no. But one has to aim at developing this awareness even in these situations. When this awareness is developed, it makes one the drashta, the knower, the observer of all that goes on inside. This drashta, the seer, then becomes the controller or guide of actions, of attitudes, of behaviour, and you find your balance in life. One who is able to find their balance is known as a yogi. A yogi is not a person who practises yoga, a yogi is a person who has been able to find inner balance. That happens with awareness, when you become a drashta as a natural culmination of the awareness you have developed.

The individual and the universe

From the yogic perspective, there are three levels that have to be managed: the senses at the physical or gross level; the mind at the mental or subtle level; and the ego, ahamkara, at the causal level. Ahamkara or self-identity is the cause of our individuality. Now, there is no need to become a 'Borg', the half-human, half-mechanical character in 'Star Trek', whose only job is to assimilate different civilizations and cultures. 'Borgs' live in a collective consciousness and their favourite sentence is, "Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated."

If God were part of the collective consciousness, we would all become 'Borgs'. But God is very much an individual, in the sense that God can be realized in all extreme conditions and situations. One can see the existence of God in a grain of sand. One can see the existence of God in the manifest and unmanifest universe. If a mosquito bites your little toe, who feels the pain? Of course the little toe is affected and swollen and itchy, but the centre of pain is somewhere else. Our body is a microcosmos in itself, our body represents the theory of the unified field. All the organs work together and are coordinated with each other. What happens to the little toe affects the whole body, the brain, the mind, and who knows, at deeper levels it may affect the spirit. We don't know that, but we do know that any change in the normal state of any part of the body will affect the entire body.

Similarly, any change in our life is also going to make a difference to the greater body of which we are all a part. When we are happy and content the energy we radiate will make others happy and content, but if we are angry and sad, the energy that we radiate will also make others angry and sad. So one has to experience joy, one has to experience creativity in order to experience divinity. It is that energy which we are raising, awakening and generating which can bring us closer to our spiritual nature and also to the transcendental nature.

We experience the spiritual nature within and we experience the transcendental nature when we connect with other beings at a spiritual level. There is a difference between the spiritual and the transcendental. Spiritual experience is personal experience. When that personal experience becomes global, universal, it is known as transcendental because you have transcended your body and mind, the areas where you were having that experience, and connected with other people. So, spiritual is personal experience and transcendental is universal experience, and both are connected.

From ego to ananda

Ego is the last barrier to move into the spiritual dimensions. In chapter one of the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali classifies the stages of samadhi. The last stage he discusses is asmita samadhi, the samadhi of ego, beyond nirbija. Asmita means self-identity, ahamkara, ego. After asmita samadhi, cessation of ego, is ananda samadhi, or blissful samadhi.

Despite contrary beliefs that yoga or the spiritual traditions take away one's individuality, we need to understand that the concept of individuality is dealt with in yoga in the form of ahamkara, distorted or perverted selfidentity. Self-identity becomes more predominant as you go through the yogic process because you are aware of yourself every step of the way. You are trying to build up a new selfimage, a new self-identity, so you are working at the level of ego. By becoming the drashta, the observer, the seer, you are working with your self-identity and improving it.

If you begin to carve a statue out of a stone, what selfidentity is the stone losing? None. Rather it is developing a new identity that will be witnessed and appreciated by many people. The gross, unnecessary material is being removed from the stone and what is left behind is the material necessary to turn the stone into a statue.

Similarly, in spiritual life there is no loss of self-identity, rather the distorted perceptions are corrected, the aggressive ego expressions are redefined, and the new soft you, the new wisdomful you, the new creative you, becomes the new identity. As long as you maintain the idea that this identity is continually transforming and changing and there is no fixed status, no fixed form, you can overcome asmita or ahamkara. But the moment you fix yourself in a new identity, it will again become distorted.

For this reason, the spiritual masters have maintained that it is necessary to be ready to accept any change. Not because they want anyone to lose their personal identity, but because they wish to take the practitioner beyond the effects of distorted identity. Don't be fixed in one perception but learn to accept and allow the change to happen. The aim is to overcome the asmita, the ego, and become established in a state of bliss, because it is at that level of bliss, ananda, that the spiritual experiences are transformed into transcendental experiences. The process of yoga is moving from basic governance of the human personality to the experience of ananda - from anushasan to swarupe avasthanam.

—Ganga Darshan, December 31, 2001