By Michael Stone

As a yogi, mainly in the Krishnamacharya lineage, and as a practitioner of Buddhist meditation for many years, Chip Hartranft’s work bridges the traditions of Yoga and Buddhism. His deep contemplation and study of the Yoga Sutras is evident in this interview, conducted by Canadian psychotherapist, Yoga teacher and author Michael Stone, as they discuss the nature of Patanjali’s teachings about kaivalya—spiritual liberation or enlightenment.

Michael Stone (MS): What is spiritual liberation according to Patanjali?

Chip Hartranft (CH): For Patañjali, liberation is kaivalya, which means isolation, separateness. That’s the key thing that he is interested in, not philosophical speculation or metaphysics. Remember, the Yoga S?tras is primarily about how a human being comes to know this freedom directly, how he or she comes to abide in it, and Patañjali says that right at the outset, and in the middle and at the end. Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. So, one does not attain the freedom of kaivalya—according to Patañjali it’s already the true nature of the conventional self to be an unaware set of processes, fundamentally separate from awareness. And the yogic path settles consciousness to the point where it can reflect that fact, but not to me, myself and I—just to knowing itself!

What Patañjali is trying to name is simply a fact of the world that becomes visible as we awaken: Bare knowing is of a different order than the melodramas of our everyday perception. It appears to be untouched, uncolored by them. It feels omnipresent and enduring, while the perceptual stream is exposed as a succession of brief, impersonal mind-moments, devoid of awareness in and of themselves.

When that happens, according to Patañjali, awareness can just abide in itself and see the way things really are. The world is still there—it looks different but it’s the same world. As to whether it’s an illusion or not, Patañjali is very careful to say that the world’s real. He says, when the world comes in through your consciousness, it’s taking a very different path than the one that comes in through my consciousness—so, two people never see the same thing. But the world’s real. The yogi doesn’t run away from the world to realize this. The yogi becomes completely integrated in the world, and the world’s right there, in every moment. The whole point of dharma-megha-sam?dhi and cessation is that the yogi is becoming free in things as they are. (Yoga is the path to cessation, as Patanjali defines it in the second sutra—in a sense,everything else in the Yoga Sutras is just commentary.) It’s not that the yogi is abandoning the world, and it’s certainly not the case that the yogi, upon attaining cessation, is dying and becoming reabsorbed into the world as some have claimed.

MS: The way you describe detachment is very physical, embodied, not some kind of otherworldly detachment.

CH: Kaivalya is often translated as liberational freedom, as if it was an achievement of the person, but I don’t think that Patañjali means it that way at all. And he certainly doesn’t mean that the yogi goes off and dies at awakening, as some have suggested! The Yoga Sutras describes a path through a world that is lived-in, offering the yamas and niyamas, for example, to maintain the conventional person’s orientation toward the true purpose of living as he or she navigates through the world of people and objects.

The Yoga Sutras is very much about being present with and seeing through whatever is arising at any given moment, and we’re a dynamic body at each and every moment of our lives. Furthermore, we’re always in the world. In his eight-limbed approach Patañjali address all the strata of being that we can experience, whether in relation to the external world of people and objects (yamas) or to personal qualities (niyama) or to the realm of the body in and of itself (?sana) or at the level of its energies (pranayama), right on down to the integration of life’s most basic constituents (samadhi). Gross or subtle, whatever you’re doing in this moment is either skillful or unskillful, either an expression of vidya or avidya.

As for kaivalya, the other words that are linked to it in the sublime final statement at the end of the Yoga S?tras—words like ??nya (empty) and citi-?akti (power of awareness)—are used to describe the emptiness of knowing. You cannot “thingify” knowing. The mind, the self, is what wants to become enlightened. Why? Because the mind supposes that when it is enlightened it will have power over itself, over objects or perhaps over other people. Our deepest hope is to have power over what seems like the real cause of suffering, which is not getting what we want. That’s why the self wants to become enlightened—the yogic meaning of enlightened self-interest! But it isn’t the self that becomes enlightened, and enlightenment does not gratify “me…”

Read the rest of this article in the Spring 2010 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.