“FOR THE EMBODIED YOGI, HOWEVER, THIS STATE OF STILLNESS IS CONDITIONED UPON BEING IN SAMADHI, HAVING FAITH, VIGOR AND THE ABILITY TO RETAIN THE TRUTH IN ACTIVE MEMORY.”
Even without knowledge of the Sanskrit language, just from witnessing the struggles to translate and interpret this sutra that occur in the 40 different translations that I am reviewing to create this series of posts, I can say that this sutra is frustratingly terse and seems to be almost carelessly worded. The reason I say that is, for one, Patanjali is using the word “smrti” here to indicate one of the qualities necessary to achieve a stilling of the mind and he earlier listed “smrti” as a type of thought pattern that must be stilled in yoga. Secondly, Patanjali uses the word “Samadhi” in this sutra in an off-hand, even careless way. Later on Patanjali will talk extensively about what the word, “Samadhi,” means to him but in this sutra it is included in a list of qualities necessary to experience stillness of the mind. Even if samadhi is such a necessary quality, his readers cannot know at this point what exactly he is referring to. And he doesn’t define it immediately in the next sutra either (he waits until sutra 41 to give more information on what “Samadhi” is).
In other ways, this sutra is frustrating because it seems like it could be a very important one for aspiring yogis (if the wording was not so vague) and the reason for that is his use of the word, “shraddha.” “Shraddha” means faith and it does not occur very often in Patanjali’s yoga sutras. It does get used extensively by Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita so it is considered important within the larger yoga tradition. Many translators go out on a limb, interpreting what type of faith Patanjali refers to in this sutra. Those translators and commentators say that the “faith” of this sutra is the raja yogi’s faith, as opposed to the bhakti yogi’s faith, and this makes sense to me. The raja yogi’s faith is the conviction that the yogic instructions on how to still the mind and realize the Truth WILL WORK as they promise to, if one dedicates oneself to them with enough intensity and accuracy. This is different from a bhakti yogi’s faith in the Supreme Being and His/Her ability to save or rescue him or her from his or her own ignorance.
Many translators have concluded that Patanjali is listing qualities that develop into each other, successively, to reach the ultimate stilling of the mind. If this is so, then faith (shraddha) leads to mounting energy (virya) applied to sadhana, which leads to the ability to keep the yogic instructions in mind (smrti), which leads to concentration in meditation (Samadhi), which leads to the eruption of wisdom (prajna). This makes sense but one is still left wishing Patanjali could have been a little more direct and precise with his use of words here particularly with “smrti.” In the earlier sutra it is understood as the memory of our life events but in this sutra it seems to mean keeping the yogic principles always in mind. One specific sutra making clear this distinction would have been helpful in my opinion.
[There is an argument that I have read (and believe has validity) that Patanjali wrote his Sutras in a way that was purposefully vague and cryptic (in places) so that a student would require the guidance of a competent master to follow them. This would prevent or discourage ill-prepared or ill-suited students from launching into yoga on their own. They would be stopped by the vagueness of at least some of the sutras. Another argument is that this first Pada is meant for the most advanced students. If any part of it seems vague then you know that you have to keep practising.]
“THE INNER DIALOGUE BEGINS WHEN THE OUT OF BODY SOUL ABSORBS ITSELF INTO NATURE [BY TAKING BIRTH].”
Due to the confusion over how to translate the previous two sutras, combined with the terse nature of this sutra there is a wide range of opinion as to what this sutra refers to. I would list them here if that was useful but I am afraid that they are mostly confusing and artificially contrived (out of a sense of frustration in the translators, I would guess). Sutras are connected to each other and so, if you miss-translate one it will be doubly hard to correctly translate the next in the series and triply hard to work out the meaning of the third.
This sutra is meant to warn and humble meditators, I believe. First of all, it deflates the ego of a meditator who has reached a state of stillness of mind that is free of consciousness of body, emotions and thought by telling such a person that this state is natural to dead people and souls prior to coming into a body. The meditation doesn’t sound so wonderful after you compare it in this way. This is not meant to dissuade people from putting in the effort to reach this state. Certainly, such a state of stillness requires a Herculean effort and willpower but it doesn’t mean liberation or enlightenment. Secondly, Patanjali is warning meditators not to get attached to the peacefulness of this state and go no further with yoga. The qualities that they must continue to develop in order to progress further towards the goal of Truth are listed in the next sutra.
At this point we can understand a little better what Patanjali meant when he wrote “Yogas chitta vrtti nirodhah” in sutra 2. Although he is connecting yoga to the process of stilling the mind he is referring to a stillness of mind that is quite profound, maybe even indescribable. The stillness of mind that Patanjali is referring to is free even of the sense of existing as a separate object, free of the idea of “experiencing,” itself.
The absence of an inner dialogue that he refers to in this sutra is quite an accomplishment for spiritual seekers but, possibly, is still far from the stillness that is our goal. It is still quite attached to “my own experience.” In order to get beyond that, we have to focus in more than one way. We have to look even deeper into the very nature of existing, of being “alive,” of being a separate individual being, of Seeing and the Seer.
“AS STILLNESS OF THE MIND DEEPENS WITH CONTINUED PRACTICE, KNOWLEDGE OF THE GROSS AND SUBTLE ASPECTS OF REALITY FALL AWAY, LEAVING ONLY THE RESIDUE (“SAMSKARA”) OF KNOWING, ITSELF.”
This sutra is a development upon sutra 17. Because many or even most translators have assumed (incorrectly, I believe) that Patanjali is talking about “Samadhi” in sutra 17, this sutra 18 is also commonly connected to the word, “Samadhi.” However, as I discussed in my note to the previous sutra (and following translators like Tola and Dragonetti’s lead) this sutra is more likely intended to describe the process of stilling the mind or “nirodha” since Patanjali has yet to introduce the Sanskrt word, “Samadhi,” into his Sutra.
This sutra therefore describes the next stage in stilling the mind which we could also call meditation. In the prior sutra he described a stage of meditation in which the meditator becomes more and more finely attuned to the details of his body, emotions and thoughts. With this increasing awareness comes joy due to the levels of relaxation that are naturally produced. Now, in the stage described by sutra 18, the awareness of his or her body, emotions and thoughts falls away, leaving only the process of knowing itself. This process of knowing itself is indicated by the Sanskrt word, “samskaras,” which are residual impressions of being someone “special,” somewhere “special,” at some “special” time (now). These “samskaras” come out of the idea that “I,” someone “special,” exists and they make up the ultimate glue that binds us to the wheel of “samsara.” This wheel guarantees that not only are we reborn again and again but also that we must “pay” for our previous actions (our “karma”). So in future sutras Patanjali will talk further about how to soften and remove even this glue through yoga.
Patanjali’s description of the stages of meditation are parallel to the Buddha’s description of the stages of “jnana,” as I mentioned in the notes to the last sutra. And just as the Buddha warns that these stages are not the highest achievement for a yogi, Patanjali also says that the state of stillness described in sutra 18 is not the ultimate “nirodha” that we are seeking, but it is real close. The main problem is that the ego is still there (which is an accumulation of “samskaras”), allowing us to develop pride in the tremendously profound depths that our meditation has taken us.
[Featured Photo by Saraswati Sulis Cutler]
“THE INITIAL STAGES OF THE PROCESS OF STILLING THE MIND ARE CALLED “WITH KNOWLEDGE” (SAMPRAJNA) BECAUSE AN AWARENESS OF THE GROSS AND SUBTLE ASPECTS OF OBJECTS IS RETAINED. THIS IS ACCOMPANIED WITH FEELINGS OF JOY AND IS GROUNDED IN THE IDEA OF EXISTING.”
The Sanskrt of this sutra is rather terse and has created a number of diverse interpretations of its meaning. Fortunately a few translators have done an in depth analysis to sort out some of this confusion. Tola and Dragonetti have convincingly concluded that the many translators who assume that Patanjali is referring to “Samadhi” in this sutra are wrong. This is because Patanjali does not use the word “Samadhi” in this sutra and only introduces this word in sutra 20. Furthermore, Patanjali is talking about the cessation of the mental fluctuations (“nirodha”) in the previous 15 sutras and without clearly changing the subject, it is most likely he is still referring to this in sutra 17. Hartranft supports this conclusion as well in his translation.
My version of this sutra departs a bit from both Tola and Dragonetti and Hartranft because I recognize a close connection between this sutra and the teachings of the Buddha. Essentially, this sutra and the next are exact parallels of the Buddha’s descriptions of the “jnanas.” The four “jnanas” in Buddhism serve as a guide for meditators to gauge how deep they are going into meditation and what to expect next or further on. According to the Buddha’s description of the “jnanas” the early stages are described just as Patanjali describes in this sutra 17. These early stages are characterized by an intense awareness of the gross characteristics of reality. To that gross awareness, an intense awareness of the subtle aspects are added (emotions and then thoughts). Meanwhile, both of these growing types of awareness are accompanied with joy, which is generated from the natural relaxation that results. Underlying these stages of meditation is the retained sense that the meditator exists and is meditating.
Unlike Patanjali, the Buddha doesn’t specifically mention that the meditators in the early “jnanas” are retaining a sense of their own existence but he does imply that in later stages this idea drops away. So there is a direct correlation between the characteristics in the stages of development in meditation (which Patanjali has only referred to as a stilling of the mind, “nirodha”) described by the Buddha and by Patanjali. Which one influenced the other is irrelevant and cannot be conclusively determined, I believe. The important point is to accept that such similarity supports both teachings and helps to break down barriers between the two religions and in this case, helps us to understand an otherwise cryptic sutra.
“VAIRAGYA REACHES ITS SUPREME ULTIMATE FULFILLMENT WHEN THE TRUTH OF ONENESS IS REVEALED (PURUSA-KHYATI) AND A FREEDOM FROM ATTACHMENT TO THE GUNAS RESULTS.”
I have used the word “Oneness” to translate the Sanskrt word “purusa” but there are a host of other equal possibilities. Other translators have chosen to use the word “God,” “the Seer,” “the True Self,” “the unbounded self,” “Pure Consciousness,” “the Ultimate,” “the Atman,” “the absolute I AM,” “the soul,” “Brahman,” “the Supreme Personality of Godhead,” among others. I like the word “Oneness” because it captures an all-inclusive quality along with the idea of “Singularity.” When “Oneness” is realized then separateness is an illusion. The ego disappears and there is only one “I AM” and it is the creator and destroyer of everything and, at the same time, it is the essence of everything. As VishnuDevananda describes “purusa,” “It is unmanifest and without qualities. It is that all-pervading Supreme Being that exists in the soul of every person.”
In order to understand what freedom from attachment to the gunas means we need to understand that the gunas refer to the constituent elements of all of existence. The three gunas are said to be the fundamental elements that combine in different ways and intensities to create what we consider to be life itself. The gunas, however, do not just cover material reality like the four elements do within conventional western science. The gunas also make up our emotions and our thoughts. Therefore, everything that we consider to constitute “my” experience of this moment, right now, is a product of the interplay of the gunas.
To go beyond the gunas means that you no longer hold to the idea that you (the “you” that you can observe, including your own thoughts and emotions) exist as a concrete “special” entity. To go beyond the gunas means that you perceive directly that everything they create, through their interplay, is devoid of a “special” individual self. I use the word “special” to differentiate an individual self (which does not exist beyond the interplay of the gunas) from the True Self. The True Self is not “special” because it does not differ from one object to the next; in other words, the True Self that is within me is not different from the True Self that is in you, the reader. The “special” self (or the “small” self) is the self that we commonly think exists as “me” and “mine” that makes me special or different from you or anything else. The “special” self makes “me” special when compared to other “non-me” things.
To go beyond the gunas means that you no longer see any inherent specialness in one thing over any other, even when comparing your own body to a brick. Everything is equally Divine. Another way of describing that state of realization is to say that there is no longer any attachment to “existing” itself, since “existing” is always directly connected to “my” “special” body and mind that we are currently inhabiting. As Sri Rama says, seeing things as all equally special is “the end of the pursuit of yoga abhyasa.”
Satyananda Saraswati says that when one attains this “para“ (supreme) vairagya then “there is no return to the life of cravings and passions. . . . There is no desire for pleasure, enjoyment, knowledge or even sleep.” Even the desire to be a yogi or to be renounced or to be wise or to be strong pass away when one goes beyond the gunas because everything becomes the same or equal and none of it has the “specialness” that the ego formerly gave to one thing over another in life. This is not a denial of morality or ethics. The opposite in fact. Without the ego, everything is loved and cared for as if it was “myself.” Mukunda Stiles describes this type of dispassion as arising when “everything and everyone is experienced as one’s own True Self.” Whether you see everything as equally special or you see nothing as particularly special at all, the same supreme dispassion and open-handedness arises. The “purusakhyati,” knowledge of the Supreme Self, causes the “guna-vaitrsnyam” or supreme detachment.
Some translator/commentators, notably Shyam Ranganathan, insist that Patanjali does not necessarily mean the Supreme when he uses the word, “purusa.” He argues that “purusa” for Patanjali is our true nature which we see clearly through the reflection of Nature. That true nature is inherently “Good” in the greatest sense of the word but it is not necessarily the same as the Supreme which Patanjali later on denotes using the word “Isvar.” Philosophically he raises an important point here. Does Patanjali posit a separate Soul that is pure and is the essence of our Being? This would give us genuine “doership” or activity in the world, according to Ranganathan’s comments. Or does Patanjali side with Shankacarya and the Advaita non-dualists in affirming that our True Self is just a witness and otherwise wholly disconnected with the nature of our bodies/mental processes and surroundings (in other words, “not the doer”)? Or does Patanjali lie in the Buddhist camp affirming that all sense of “me” or “mine” including a soul is an illusion blocking our knowledge of Oneness? We will continue to look into these questions as the Sutras unfold.
[Post Photo Credit: Oil Painting by Kilaya Ciriello, “Path of the Patriarch” Panel 4, 1994]
“VAIRAGYA IS A STATE OF MASTERY OVER ANY DESIRES FOR THINGS SEEN OR HEARD.”
Most translations agree that Patanjali’s definintion of vairagya, or renunciation, declares that it is a state of mind and not a physical state of seclusion or exclusion. In other words, it is more important that the mind doesn’t harbor preferences or criticisms of what is happening or may happen then that the body doesn’t come in contact with objects that cause pleasure or that the body does avoid contact with objects that cause pain. Vairagya is not a recipe for avoiding pleasure and purposefully embracing uncomfortable conditions. It is not the same as austerity or “tapas.” It is, rather, a description of a mind that is indifferent to what is experienced right now, whether pleasurable or painful, and to what may be experienced in the future. As VishnuDevananda says, “One can own nothing and yet be full of desires.” And as Sri Rama says, “If the mental [aspect of vairagya] is not developed, living secluded in an ashram or on the high Himalayas is fruitless.”
Another important element in Patanjali’s definition of vairagya is that it includes dispassion for objects heard or read about through religion; that is, heavenly states. In other words, vairagya, as Patanjali describes it, is disinterest in even going to “heaven.” Heaven, of course, includes the paradiscial conditions that many of us have heard described but it also includes characteristics connected with becoming an angel or a demi-god. These characteristics may include the ability to fly, jump through time, emanate light from one’s eyes, be beautiful or beatific, be wise, able to see into the future, heal sicknesses or otherwise be super-powerful in some way.
The vairagya that Patanjali describes in this sutra 15 is not the highest however because sutra 16 will tell us about an even higher state of vairagya. But what attachments are left after the mastery of vairagya described by sutra 15 is reached? The only attachment remaining is an identification with existence itself when the vairagya of sutra 15 is reached. In other words, with this vairagya as described so far, you may have no likes or dislikes whatsoever for anything you are experiencing, might experience or will experience but you are still attached to the idea of experiencing. In other words the idea that you ARE experiencing something still remains and you are content or attached to that idea. In the next sutra Patanjali describes a further renunciation of even that idea.
[Post photo credit: Artwork by Kilaya]
“THIS PRACTICE (ABHYASA) MUST, HOWEVER, BE MAINTAINED WITH VIGOR AND SINCERITY OVER A PROLONGED PERIOD OF TIME WITHOUT INTERRUPTION SO THAT IT BECOMES SOLID AND ESTABLISHED.”
We may be able to verify what Patanjali is saying here in this sutra through our own personal experience with forming new habits. If we want to create a new habit, particularly one that replaces another already established habit, we need to practice this new behavior with vigor and sincerity over a prolonged period of time without interruption before it becomes established. If we don’t pursue this new behavior with vigor and sincerity or we give it up for periods of time it will not take over as our new habit; in other words, the new behavior will not take root as our default behavior, completely replacing the other behavior. When we do establish a new habit, however, we no longer have to force ourselves to do it. The new behavior becomes a part of our natural routine. The new behavior becomes like brushing our teeth, taking a shower or washing our hands before a meal. It becomes automatic. It becomes something that we would feel strange skipping. It becomes something that we would not want to miss.
Patanjali tells us that our sadhana has to become established as a habit in this way. It must be practiced with sincerity and vigor, relentlessly over a long enough time until it becomes natural. We must develop an attachment to our sadhana, feeling like we can’t live without it, or feeling like any given day would be incomplete, unsatisfactory without it. Only then, Patanjali says, will sadhana become truly effective. Only then will our sadhana deliver on its promised spiritual treasure.
Some translations of this sutra imply that Patanjali is simply making an observation about the nature of habits; in other words, he is simply saying that habits don’t form without prolonged, uninterrupted dedication to them. These translations miss out on the important part of this sutra however, the part where Patanjali warns us that our sadhana practice (abhyasa) must become a habit for it to be truly effective. Patanjali is not simply stating the obvious, that habits are difficult to establish, he is specifically saying that our practice must become a habit if we are to see rewards from it. This part of Patanjali’s message comes from the Sanskrit word “tu” at the beginning of the sutra. This word is like “but” or “however” and it means that the previous sutra 13 is not complete without the information of this sutra 14. So in sutra 13 Patanjali told us that repeated practice is a necessary element in success with yoga and in this sutra 14 he adds that this practice must become an established habit before such success is seen.
VishnuDevananda says as much: “If there are interruptions in the practice of stilling the mind or if the effort is not continued over many many years, the results will only be temporary, and all progress will fade. Practice must be constant. It must also be done with an attitude of earnestness. Only when there is true desire to reach the Goal is success assured.”
If we consider this further we realize that Patanjali is saying that spiritual practice must be maintained until we are content with it and it alone. I mean that when a habit is established we are attached to it and it feeds us contentment daily. We are no longer looking to reach a point where this habit would end. So, Patanjali implies in this sutra that we must practice so hard and so continuously that we reach a place where we no longer want to stop our practice because we have reached liberation.
If liberation is a place where spiritual practice is no longer necessary, Patanjali is saying that in order to reach there we have to become so accustomed and content with the process of getting there (our sadhana) that we no longer want liberation because we don’t want to end our sadhana. Only when we don’t want to end our sadhana has it delivered us to the doorstep of liberation. This means that our sadhana or practice, itself, must give us something that is in itself essential to develop on the spiritual yogic path: contentment.
In that way, we can see that abhyasa directly contributes to the development of its complement, vairagya (renunciation). This is because the easiest way to develop renunciation or detachment is to be inherently content. When we are content with ourselves (due to our established habit of abhyasa or sadhana) then we don’t care what happens or does not happen outside of ourselves. Our sadhana feeds us enough to overcome any difficulties or disappointments in the external world. Our happiness with our sadhana gives us renunciation of everything else.
This is good news for the spiritual seeker because abhyasa is within our control while vairagya is much more difficult to develop. Now we know that if we focus on abhyasa in the way that Patanjali describes, the more difficult to acquire renunciation (vairagya) will come on its own. All we have to do is establish our sadhana as a habit through a prolonged and vigorous application of it and the other essential element of yoga, vairagya, will come naturally. This is truly great news for the aspiring yogi.
“ABHYASA IS AN UNRELENTING DETERMINATION EXPRESSED IN MAXIMUM EFFORT IN ORDER TO REACH STABILITY IN A STATE FREE OF MENTAL FLUCTUATIONS.”
Patanjali further describes the first part of his two part formula (abhyasa and vairagya) here. Essentially he tells us in this sutra that, in order to reach the state free of the vrttis (mental fluctuations), we must apply ourselves without thoughts of defeat, failure or ever giving up, over whatever period of time the task requires. We must try and try again, over and over, slowly uprooting the tree of mental agitation. It is a big tree, so we must be prepared for a long and strenuous battle. Further on in his sutra, Patanjali will give us his recommended techniques, strategies and practices for this battle. But for now, he is warning us that a sustained and serious effort is required.
It is the nature of the ego to want shortcuts in life and unfortunately, it is the nature of the ego to offer those shortcuts to others. Patanjali is telling us, however, that the very idea of shortcuts prevents us from developing one of the two essential qualities that we need in order to reach the goal: unrelenting persistence of effort. To believe in shortcuts undermines our ability to maintain a prolonged struggle, our ability to weather innumerable momentary defeats and failures. Patanjali tells us that it is more important that we persist than we are successful. In fact, as he will tell us in his definition of vairagya, success is actually something we have to renounce on the yogic path but sustained effort cannot be given up until we reach the goal.
Satyananda Saraswathi says “Abhyasa means continued practice, you can not leave it at all. It becomes a part of your personality, a part of your individual nature.” He uses the word “sadhana” and connects it with abhyasa. Sadhana is the word commonly used to indicate a particular set of exercises meant for spiritual progression. So abhyasa is an executed dedication to some type of sadhana. The important difference between Patanjali’s and others’ use of abhyasa and sadhana is that it is here connected with stilling the mind. The yoga that Patanjali describes cannot be separated from stilling the mind and in this verse he tells us that we can only achieve this with repeated, prolonged effort.
In the Bhagavad Gita Krishna teaches essentially the same thing about the necessity of repeated effort. In Chapter 6, Sutra 35:
“The Blessed Lord said:
No doubt, you are right, O mighty Arjuna, that the mind is hard to control, wavering and restless, but by repeated effort and dispassion it can be done.”
“IN ORDER FOR MENTAL FLUCTUATIONS TO DISAPPEAR, A DILIGENT PERSISTENT PRACTICE (ABHYASA) COMBINED WITH A DETACHED ATTITUDE (VAIRAGYA) MUST BE DEVELOPED AND SUSTAINED.”
This sutra, like many of Patanjali’s sutras of the first chapter, are simple and yet, contain very profound and powerful knowledge. Earlier Patanjali told us that a permanent state of peace and happiness is possible when the five types of mental activities are ended. Now, in this sutra, he tells us how we can get free of those mental activities. He says that we must make a strong commitment to yoga that results in a habitual practice (abhyasa) and we must let go of our desires (vairagya). Patanjali tells us that if we want to be successful in yoga and become permanently liberated we must drop any impulse to give up or get discouraged and at the same time we must become indifferent to the results of all of our actions. These two elements work together to steer us steadily and safely to the goal.
Neither abhyasa nor vairagya have one set of equivalent phrases in English because they are complex spiritual ideas. By reviewing the variety of translations you may get a sense of this (the authors quoted are in parentheses):
For abyasa: “repeated and persistent practice” (satyananda saraswati), “tireless endeavor” (Sri Rama), “practice or repetition” (VishnuDevananda), “consistent earnest practice” (Stiles), “effort [made] for stability” (Tola & Dragonetti), “continuous practice of the will” (Condron), “persistent inner practice of Self-abidance, abiding in the “I AM” beyond body and mind” (Brahmananda Saraswati).
For vairagya: “a mental condition of non-attachment or detachment which is freedom from attraction and repulsion. . . . vairagya is freedom from likes and dislikes.” (satyananda saraswati), “elimination of emotional reactions to individuals and situations” (VishnuDevananda), “dispassion” (Arya), “indifference (asceticism)” (KN Saraswathy), “neutrality and unconcern, apathy and lack of interest” (KN Saraswathy), “nonreaction” (Hartranft), “objectivity of undivided attention” (Condron), “non attachment through discrimination” (Brahmananda Saraswati)
Some other notable comments further explaining abhyasa and vairagya:
“When a person loses all interest in material life then he is established in ‘vairagya’ (disinterestedness, detachment). It is not negative but the positive side of faith. Perserverance (abhyasa) and disinterestedness (vairagya) operate simultaneously. Together they help the mind gain greater mastery over itself to ultimately reach liberation (kaivalya). We should gain clarity of our goal and make a total commitment towards it.” (Sadhakas)
“We come across many spiritual aspirants who try to concentrate their minds without first practising abhyasa and vairagya, without first conquering raga (likes) and dwesha (dislikes). It is futile to make the mind silent without first removing the disturbing factors, namely (likes) and (dislikes), which make the mind unsteady. Patanjali tells us that abyasa and vairagya are the means one should first master so that meditation will follow easily.” (Satyananda Saraswati)
“Non-attachment (vairagya) does not mean there should not be love or compassion but rather that emotional thought waves are ignored. The vrttis (mental fluctuations) may arise but they are observed in a disinterested fashion, then put aside.” (VishnuDevananda)
“If one has disinterest in the world (vairagya) but no practice of meditation, the mind’s agitations will be pacified but the mind will enter into sleep (laya). The yoga of samadhi will not be fulfilled. Only with gradual practice (abhyasa), meditation may be elevated to greater heights.” (Nambiar)
“The moment that the idea dawns that desire is the basis for all of our material activities, desire is killed. . . . Both vairagyam and abhyasa (repeated practice) may seem simple words, but they stand for a great tremendous effort of the human will and variety of practices.” (KN Saraswathy)
“Strength must be developed to obtain detachment and freedom from desires.” (Iyengar)
“Practice (abhyasa) is the positive aspect of yoga. Detachment or renunciation (vairagya) is the negative. The two balance each other like day and night, inhalation and exhalation. Practice is the path of evolution; detachment and renunciation is the path of involution. Practice is involved in all the eight limbs of yoga. Evolutionary practice is the onward march to the discovery of the Self, involving yama, niyama, asana and pranayama [the 1st 4 of the 8 limbs of yoga, to be outlined later by Patanjali]. The involutionary path involves pratyahara, dharana, dhyana and samadhi [the last 4 limbs of Patanjali’s 8 limbed yoga]. This inward journey detaches the consciousness from external objects.” (Iyengar)
“WHEN THOUGHTS CREATED THROUGH AN EXPERIENCE RETURN TO MIND AFTER THE EXPERIENCE HAS ENDED THAT IS MEMORY (SMRTI).”
With “smrti” we don’t need to have any real experiences right now in order to have changing thoughts right now. We can simply dredge up thoughts of things that happened in the past. This involves our choice. Most commentators agree that we must actively re-call a thought of an experience we had in the past in order to qualify for “smrti.” In other words, “smrti” doesn’t include latent, stored but inactive memories. We could have had a myriad of different experiences in life but unless they are re-called into active memory they are not part of our mind set right now. So, with Yoga, we don’t need to forget anything that has happened but we do stop actively remembering our past. Patanjali states that a Yogic mind, or a mind that is anchored in stability and is free of fluctuation is not actively re-calling any experiences of the past. This mind is simply in the present moment with no baggage from the past. The memories might be there, latent in our mind, but we don’t re-call them.
Although “smrti” involves a calling to mind or, as some commentators say, a “retentive power,” it is not a re-experiencing of something we already experienced. It is simply a thought, not an experience that generates thoughts. We could choose to have another thought in reference to a memory but we don’t have to, in order to be saturated with “smrti.” Actively remembering, itself, is called a fluctuation of the mind by Patanjali.
I disagree with some commentators (Nambiar) who claim that, with “smrti,” you can remember a fantasy; in other words, you can have a “smrti” of a “vikalpa.” No, “smrti” is a remembering of an experience with some object. If you remember another thought or a fantasy, you are actively having THAT type of thought (whether correct, incorrect, fantasy or void). You cannot have a memory of another thought without that thought itself taking over in the present moment.
Similarly, I would disagree with commentators (Satyananda Saraswati) that connect “smrti” with dreams, the subconscious and even the unconscious mind. If you think about a dream you are having a “vikalpa,” you are thinking about something that cannot be verified. It is not a memory as such. Did you experience any actual objects in that dream? If you say “No” or “maybe” then the thought is clearly a “vikalpa.” If you say “yes,” I would ask whether you can verify that.
To summarize “smrti” as “past knowledge” (as Satyananda Saraswati has done) is also somewhat incorrect as well. It is not knowledge of the past but an active reviewing or re-calling of some experience. If we remember that we knew some type of knowledge in the past then it is a “pramana” thought (assuming we actually did know this in the past). If we remember the knowledge itself, if we recall something that we learned in the past, it is also either “pramana” or “viparyaya” depending on whether the knowledge itself is correct. We might see a snake and then leave the room. Later we return to the room see something and remember that we had seen a snake. It could have been a real snake the first time and just a rope the second time, indicating a “pramana” followed by a “viparyaya.” A “smrti” however, would be a re-calling of the experience of seeing a snake but if we apply that memory to something new then that involves some other type of thought.
Sri Rama connects “smrti” to all of samskara and then states, in his commentary, that for this reason memory cannot ever be destroyed. I don’t see from what part of the Yoga Sutras this comes from and it seems irrelevant to the point that Patanjali is making here: we can have all the memories from a million lives available for recall but if we don’t actively recall any of them we are not disturbing our mind with this type of fluctuating thought or “vrtti.”