Our whole experience of life is based on the stories we tell ourselves about what occurs. These stories begin with our mind’s interpretation of what it perceives. Swami Vivekananda describes this like an oyster making a pearl. A parasite gets inside the shell, and then the oyster reacts to the irritation by producing enamel around it, which is then called a pearl. Actual events that occur are like the parasite; all that we ever know are the pearls created by our own minds. We are not able to perceive the raw incoming data because, immediately, our minds react to it. In the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, these reactions or activities of the mind are described as vrittis. Our known universe consists of these vrittis, the thought-waves of the mind.

Like the ebb and flow of the ocean, with waves breaking upon the shore, the world as we know it is, thus, subject to constant change. The goal of Yoga is to calm the waves of the mind so we can see to its depths and experience the ground of our being—the peace, balance, and stability of our own true nature. Then we will experience true happiness and freedom.

The Thought-waves

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali presents the philosophy of Yoga, and shows himself to be, not only a master of the yogic science, but also a skillful teacher with great insight as to how to lead students, step by step to the goal. In Book 1, first he tells us that, in order to attain the goal of Yoga, we need to totally control the vrittis, the thought-waves of the mind. Immediately after, he describes the vrittis, telling us that there are five kinds. When you consider how many millions of thoughts we have in a given day, the prospect of bringing them all under control must have seemed quite daunting to his students. But, if there are only five kinds, then the task becomes doable. Instead of being overwhelmed and discouraged, we feel empowered and motivated. The five kinds of vrittis are: right knowledge, misconception, verbal delusion (sometimes referred to as imagination or conceptualization), sleep, and memory. They are either painful or painless, depending on whether our intention is selfish or selfless.

The Obstacles

In Book 2, Patanjali examines the underlying dynamic that causes the vrittis. These are the kleshas, the fundamental obstacles, or basic afflictions, of the mind. Primary among them and the field for all the others is ignorance of our true nature, or avidya. We forget our true nature, the divine Spirit within us that is ever peaceful and joyful. Then, we identify with what is closest to us, the mind and the body, and think that’s who we are. This constitutes the next klesha, known as asmita, or egoism. This is problematic because, unlike our true nature, the mind and body are constantly changing. So instead of having a reliable lens with which to navigate through life, it’s as if we have a kaleidoscopic one. We become attached to what we find pleasurable and averse to all that is painful (raga and dvesha). We find ourselves continually buffeted by shifting currents, known as the dualities in life. In the midst of all the ups and downs, we cling to bodily life because we think that defines our existence and because memories of the pain of death remain in the subconscious mind from prior births. This is the final klesha (abhinivesha).

The kleshas are the root cause of “dis-ease” in life. When there is an underlying ailment, there are usually observable symptoms. Likewise, the kleshas give rise to certain “symptoms” in life. These are presented in Book 1 as the common obstacles encountered on the spiritual path. They are described as chittavikshepa, distractions of the mind-stuff. There are nine obstacles: disease, dullness, doubt, carelessness, laziness, sensuality, false perception, failure to reach firm ground, and slipping from the ground gained. Accompaniments to the obstacles include: distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing. So there are two levels of obstacles presented in the Yoga Sutras: the fundamental ones that are more permanent, and the more superficial ones that may or may not be in play at any given time.

Like an expert physician, Patanjali first looks at the symptoms in Book 1. Then, in Book 2, he goes deeper and identifies the underlying cause. After assessing the situation, in Book 2, sutra 16, he boldly proclaims that the situation is curable, “Pain that has not yet come is avoidable.” It is one of the most life-affirming, hope-filled statements in the entire text. If this sounds like a medical analysis, according to tradition, Patanjali is believed to have authored not only the Yoga Sutras, but a medical text as well.

The Meditation Pathway

Just like a good physician recognizes that people with the same illness may require different courses of treatment and prescriptions due to their particular constitution and preferences, Patanjali provides alternative pathways for aspirants seeking spiritual realization. The first pathway is gaining mastery over the mind by directly controlling the thoughts. This is the path of meditation. In Book 1, sutra 2, he gives the goal of Yoga: “The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga.” Then, in Book 1, sutra 12, he tells us how to accomplish this restraint: “These mental modifications are restrained by practice and non-attachment.” Both practice and non-attachment are needed to go deep in meditation. Practice is defined as “effort toward steadiness of mind.” In order to steady the mind, you train it to focus on one point, your chosen object of meditation. Non-attachment is about freedom from craving, letting go of desires that dissipate, distract, or disturb the mind. If you practice without non-attachment, it is like trying to move in opposite directions at the same time; you won’t make it to your goal.

Imagine if you develop an allergic rash. Seeking relief, you go to the doctor. The doctor will likely take a two-sided approach. First, the doctor will prescribe an ointment to calm the rash. But that is not enough: it’s also essential to determine what is causing the problem and stay away from that. Otherwise, you might apply a lot of ointment (like doing practice), but you won’t eliminate the rash unless you also stop exposing yourself to the irritant (non-attachment).

The Devotional Pathway

Shortly after exploring this approach, Patanjali offers another pathway for attaining the goal. In Book 1, sutra 23, he announces: “Or [samadhi is attained] by devotion with total dedication to God.” This seminal sutra, which seems to suddenly appear, is all the more remarkable when one considers that this is a radical departure from the Sankhya metaphysics upon which the Yoga Sutras is based; Sankhya contains no such concept of God. It almost feels like Patanjali is giving us a chance to attain the goal in an easier way, if we have the faith and temperament to do so.

How can we understand the equivalent effectiveness of these two approaches? Our goal is to make the mind calm and clean. When it is calm and clean, it is like a pure lake. We can see to the depths of our being and experience our true Self. We can attain this stillness through meditation, in which we directly cultivate one thought, our object of meditation. When we become perfectly one-pointed, even that thought slips away, and we rest in the peace of our true nature.

We can also attain this state if we totally surrender and accept the divine will in all things, because, then the mind will retain its peace no matter what happens. If we love God with our entire mind, we will have found an indirect method to control our thoughts. The following story illustrates this point.

An actor once met Sri Ramakrishna and asked to be his disciple. After professing his love for the saint, the actor added that he was addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. He also confessed to frequenting houses of prostitution and did not wish to relinquish any of his bad habits. Sri Ramakrishna accepted him as his disciple with one qualification: Every time he was about to engage in one of those habits, he would have to offer it first to him.

The actor departed happy, having gotten his wish. That night, after a performance, he sat down and lit up a cigarette. He raised it to his lips and pronounced: “In the name of Sri Ramakrishna.” He immediately stopped short, thinking to himself, “How can I smoke in his name? He would never do such a thing.” So, he put it out. He proceeded to pour himself a glass of whiskey, and the same thing ensued. He went to a brothel and found himself in a similar predicament. Because he truly loved his Guru and saw the divine in him, he could no longer do those things in his Guru’s name. In this manner, the actor’s weaknesses were readily overcome.

Integrating Both Approaches

Patanjali presents us with alternative pathways to reach our destination: a devotional solution, as well as the meditative approach. In offering these two pathways, perhaps he was subtly suggesting that they be integrated. Even in his discussion of the two levels of obstacles in Books 1 and 2, he frames them between sutras that describe ways to overcome them through devotion or meditation, underscoring the importance of both methods.

There are common elements in both pathways. For example, prayer and worship are forms of meditation. Following the devotional path—living in accordance with God’s will and offering everything to the Divine—entails effort (practice) and lifestyle adjustments (non-attachment). Total surrender doesn’t come that easily either. For most seekers, some effort is involved in maintaining that perspective in life. Swami Satchidananda used to speak of kitten and monkey devotion. The kitten just cries, and the mother cat grasps it by the scruff of the neck and carries it along. The monkey, however, clings to the belly of the mother as she jumps from tree to tree. Both rely on the mother, but the monkey exerts effort as well.

And if we pursue the path of meditation relying solely on self-effort, there’s the risk that along with our spiritual progress, our ego may inflate as well. Sri Gurudev even says, “Ultimately, nobody can achieve eternal peace by doing something with the mind, which is part of nature. That supreme joy can only be acquired when you rise above nature by complete surrender.” In other words, self-effort alone can only take us so far when the mind is trying to control the mind, in order to transcend the mind. But self-effort—along with the humility, receptivity, and gratitude that come from a devotional perspective—will ensure our success.

With the spirit of devotion, the journey will be sweet. With the focus of meditation, it will be efficient. Together, they’re a perfect prescription for overcoming all obstacles and attaining the highest.

About the Author:

Swami Karunananda is a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda. In 1975, she was ordained as a monk into the Holy Order of Sannyas. She has had almost 50 years experience teaching all aspects of Yoga and specializes now in workshops, retreats, and teacher training programs that focus on the science of meditation, the philosophy of Yoga, personal transformation, and Yoga breathing techniques for better health and well-being. She developed, and for 30 years has taught, the Integral Yoga Teacher Training programs in Raja Yoga and in Meditation.

Swami Karunananda served as president of Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville in Virginia and in California, as well as director of the Integral Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and in Santa Barbara. She currently serves on the Board of Trustees, and as the chairperson of the Spiritual Life Board at Satchidananda Ashram–Yogaville, Virginia.

Interested in fostering interfaith understanding and harmony, she is featured in the interfaith documentary entitled, With One Voice. She also compiled and edited the Lotus Prayer Book, a collection of prayers from various faith traditions, and Enlightening Tales as told by Sri Swami Satchidananda. She served as contributing editor for The Breath of Life: Integral Yoga Pranayama, as well as a senior writer for the Integral Yoga Magazine. In her book, Awakening: Aspiration to Realization Through Integral Yoga, she describes the spiritual path and provides guidance for the journey.