Raja Yoga: Exit Strategy for Suffering

Karunananda3Everyone wants to be happy, but that happiness we seek is elusive. Our lives are spent seeking happiness through possessions, positions, relationships, attainments, even our addictions. And what do we find? Generally, we get a little happiness mixed with a lot of problems and pain.

A little analysis will show that if we expect permanent happiness through external attainments, we are destined for frustration and failure. This is because everything external is part of nature, and as such, is subject to change. Think of all that has changed in your own life over the past ten years: all the people who have come and gone, changes in your health, your living situation, or simply how you spend your days. In everyone’s life, the pendulum swings between loss and gain, pleasure and pain, praise and blame.

In the midst of all the change, where is the happiness that we are seeking? Raja Yoga provides an answer: Our essential nature is that Supreme Happiness. We are like someone who is looking for his or her glasses while all the time they are perched on top of their head.

Our true nature is happiness. As Sri Gurudev often said, to see one’s true nature is like trying to see your own face. To see your face, you need a mirror. We have a mirror within—the mind. If the mirror of the mind is straight and clean, we see an accurate reflection and experience the Peace and Joy within. However, if the mirror is colored, curved, or twisted, if it’s depressed or agitated, we see a distorted reflection. Even though we are still perfectly fine, we see the reflection and think that’s who we are. This false identification is the cause for all suffering in life. 

We forget our true nature, and then we look for external things to make us feel better, which only perpetuates the problem. First of all, as was already said, we can never find lasting happiness this way because everything external is subject to constant change. And secondly, every time the mind goes outward to experience objects, it gets colored by them. Thus, the mental mirror is continually distorting, and we never get to see the true reflection.

The very act of seeking happiness outside prevents us from experiencing the true happiness within. Instead, if we restrained the mind from going outward and let it rest calmly within, we would experience the happiness we are seeking. This is the essential teaching of Raja Yoga. When we forget our true nature and seek happiness outside ourselves, that is the basic ignorance, and the root of all suffering.

This situation leads us to some ultimate questions: Why don’t we remember our true nature? Why do we identify with the distorted reflection? Why is there suffering? When asked such questions, Sri Gurudev would often say, “You go find that God and ask Him yourself. Then come back and tell me the answer.”

Sri Patanjali gives an explanation in the Yoga Sutras. Raja Yoga can be understood as an exploration into the nature of suffering and how to overcome it. Patanjali speaks of basic defects, or afflictions, of the mind, called klesas. These are the underlying cause of suffering.

Ignorance (avidya) is the first klesa. It’s defined as regarding the impermanent as permanent, the impure as pure, the painful as pleasant, and the non-Self as the Self. We don’t understand who we are. We forget our true nature, and if that weren’t bad enough, we think we are something else. That’s when the next klesa, egoism (asmita), comes in. We identify with what is closest to us, the mind and the body, and we think that’s who we are.

Then we become attached to all that we find pleasurable and averse to all that is painful. This is known as raga and dwesa. We are ever running toward things we think will make us happy and away from things we find painful, leaving little time for simply staying still, poised, balanced, resting in the Supreme Happiness within. The final klesa is clinging to bodily life (abhinivesah). We cling to the body because we think that defines our existence, who we are.

You can picture the klesas like the hard-wiring of the mental computer. We are hard-wired to approach life and to see things in a distorted way. Our sense organs can only function within very limited wavelengths. We can’t even hear sounds, for example, that are audible to a dog or a bat. Imagine how different the world would look if we had microscopic eyes. As a vegetarian, we couldn’t even comfortably drink a glass of water. Then, this input gets interpreted by a mind that is also running interpretive software based on all the conditioning it has received from family, friends, society, schooling, religion, etc. We are trying to understand the Truth, using a limited instrument that is incapable of totally grasping it and distorts what it can grasp.

We are steeped in ignorance. We forget the Peace and Joy that is our true nature, and we seek happiness outside ourselves. The world is just not set up to give us true happiness. In fact, its purpose is to teach us the contrary, that one has to go beyond the limitations of the senses and mind to experience true joy.

One might ask, how is it possible to cease to identify with the body and mind? The story that Sri Gurudev told of Sri Ramana Maharshi shows that it can be done. In his later years, the great sage developed cancer on the arm. He just wanted to ignore it, to let the karma purge itself out. However, his disciples wanted to treat it and called a doctor.

The doctor came and announced that surgery was necessary, so Sri Ramana consented. However, when the surgeon went to administer anesthesia, Sri Ramana refused. The doctor cautioned him, saying that it was going to be a very painful procedure, but Sri Ramana just told him to proceed.

The doctor performed the surgery, and as others watched, so did Sri Ramana. In fact, he spoke to his arm in the following manner: “You must have gotten into a lot of mischief before, because look at all the suffering you are having to endure. Well, face it and purge it out.” How could he do this so calmly? He could do so because he wasn’t identified with the body or the mind. He was fully established in his true nature. The Bhagavad Gita describes Yoga as, “disconnecting your identification with that which experiences pain.” Sri Ramana was established in that state, and we can attain it as well.

Through the teachings of Raja Yoga, we are presented with a skillful way to accomplish this. Imagine, for a moment, how an automobile runs. The movement of the piston gets transferred to the wheel and then the car moves. To stop the car, we apply the brakes to the wheel, the most visible expression of the movement, and then everything gets stopped in the reverse order.

Going back to the klesas, we want to dispel ignorance. So, we start with the most visible expression of ignorance, which is attachment. Raga, dwesa, and abhinivesah are all based on attachment. We are attached to the body, to all that gives us pleasure, and to avoiding all that causes us pain. If we can let go of our attachments, our minds will become peaceful, and we will be able to experience our true nature. 

The essential question, then, is how do we let go of attachment? Patanjali gives us the method in Book 1, Sutra 12, which states, “The mind is brought under control by practice and non-attachment.” It’s very difficult to let go of our desires and attachments, but through practice we gain the strength and clarity to do so.

Sri Gurudev would often say that the practices are like soaps. Hatha Yoga is soap for the physical body; pranayama is soap for the subtle body; and meditation is soap for the mind. Rather than tell someone to stop doing a harmful behavior, he would just tell that person to practice Yoga. If someone came wishing to stop smoking, for example, he would recommend bastrika to clear out the nicotine deposits in the lungs. Once the lungs were clear, the craving would cease, and the smoking habit would just fall away.

Yoga never speaks of suppression. If you suppress a desire, it will only spring back forcefully when you relax your vigilance or are a little weak. Instead, it says to attach and detach. Just start doing the positive, and automatically you’ll stop doing the negative. This approach is the underlying psychology that runs through the Yoga Sutras. It is, in effect, Patanjali’s main exit strategy for overcoming suffering.

About the Author:
Swami Karunanandaji is one of Sri Gurudev’s most senior monastic disciples and one of Integral Yoga’s master teachers. She serves on the Board of Trustees and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board of Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville. She teaches workshops and training programs at Yogaville and around the globe.

Leave a reply