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SOCRATES, The Original Western Guru Blog Post #3: EVERYTHING IS CHANGING, MOVING (Impermanent)


One of the cornerstones of all spiritual thought is the recognition of the fleeting nature of material existence. Eastern spirituality is known for its argument against attaching oneself too strongly to material existence because existence is constantly changing. This attention to “IMPERMANENCE” is a central teaching of the Buddha among other Eastern gurus. Impermanence is one of the principle focuses of the Buddhist Vipassana style meditation, the idea being that detachment to all types of “possessions” comes automatically as the impermanence or changing nature of all things is seen during meditation. This type of detachment frees us from suffering and opens us up to transcendental experiences and knowledge, so Eastern spirituality has repeatedly taught. I will add quotes from Eastern spiritual scriptures to support this later on. For now, I want to show how Socrates’ ideas are similar.

Before I list and explain quotes of Socrates however, I want to warn the reader that the connection between Socrates ideas and the similar ideas from Eastern scriptures is far from obvious. Socrates taught the idea of impermanence in his own way and the terms he used might not be immediately understandable to a person familiar with the corresponding Eastern ideas. In other words, I am not making a claim that the words Socrates used to describe impermanence are identical to the ones used in Eastern texts even after they have both been translated into English. If the similarity between the two were obvious it would have already been noticed by the perhaps tens of thousands of western academic scholars who have dedicated their lives to Plato’s writings and Socrates philosophy. No, the words are different but once a thorough analysis is performed one sees that the essence and practical import are the same in both. That is the conclusion that I want to share. Unfortunately, in order to see this connection a reader has to come to Socrates’ teachings with “new” eyes so to speak. Thinking that we already understand the import of Plato’s writings and Socrates’ teachings will surely make the task of seeing the connection with Eastern writings an impossible one. Even a reader with “fresh eyes,” so to speak, will not see the connection between Socrates and the Eastern writings unless a considerable amount of intellectual effort into the task of seeing the connection is made.
Not to sound negative, but I don’t expect many readers to follow me in these arguments because the readers who are oriented to this type of heavy intellectual analysis are most likely already prejudiced by the accepted (“academic”) understandings of Socrates and the potential readers who are not already prejudiced in this way are not likely to willingly put in the strenuous contemplation that both my arguments and Socrates’ arguments themselves require in order to understand fully. Nevertheless, the connection is valid and the argument for that connection is worth sharing.

The following quotes from Plato illustrate Socrates’ version of impermanence. Socrates explains that we perceive the phenomenal world through the use of sets of qualitative opposing ideas (hot/cold, etc.) but we don’t actually gain any real knowledge of those objects in that way. Socrates teaches that our world of objects is constantly changing and we know those objects in the present moment and only relative to the ideas we ascribe to them. Thus we really only know the mental ideals that we use and not anything absolute about the objects we connect them with. Objects change, only the ideas about them are not subject to change.

“For since things are being swept along, wisdom is the power to grasp, comprehend, and follow them. . . .if [an object] never stays the same, how can it BE something? Everything changes, moves, except the ideals.” –FROM Plato’s Cratylus.

In this quote Socrates undermines the conventional assumption that objects have fixed cores that allow them to clearly and solidly exist as the specific objects that we have named them as. For example, an apple on our desk surely exists because we can name it as an apple (using its prescribed characteristics) but Socrates shows that as the apple changes (gets chopped or cooked) we need to add other qualifying ideas to follow its changing nature. Furthermore, Socrates says, if we have to change the names or the ideas of names for an object in order to follow the changing of that object, can that object be said to have ever existed as anything we can fixedly name? If objects of our world are not so fixed then how can we claim to own them or even really know them? We know only the ideas or sets of opposite conditions that we use to describe objects and not the objects in themselves. This type of philosophical contemplation leads to attitude of detachment from material existence that Socrates repeats again and again throughout Plato’s dialogues and mirrors that emphasis within Eastern spiritual writings.

“We must understand this account as applying in the same way to hard and hot and everything else: nothing, as we were saying before, is in itself any of these. All of them, of all kinds whatsoever, are what things become through association with one another, as the result of motion. For even in the case of the active and passive motions it is impossible, as they say, for thought, taking them singly, to pin them down to being anything. There is no passive till it meets the active, no active except in conjunction with the passive; and what, in conjunction with one thing, is active, reveals itself as passive when it falls in with something else. And so, wherever you turn, there is nothing, as we said at the outset, which in itself is just one thing; all things become relatively to something. The verb ‘to be’ must be totally abolished.” — FROM Plato’s Theaetetus.

 “One cannot understand them [objects] as fixedly being or fixedly not being or as both or as neither.” — FROM Plato’s Republic Chapter 5.

Socrates teaches that philosophers are just like Eastern spiritualists in that they are searching for what is stable, what is dependable, what is Eternal in life. That quest is initiated as a search for truth and nothing more. Both Eastern spirituality and the dialogues of Socrates are obsessed with truth and that obsession has led them both to examine the very nature of “being” or existence. And the foundation of that inquiry is the realization that in our everyday lives we treat the objects of our world as “existing” or as “being” in a fixed stable way and that habit is not justified by the careful observations and analyses of “philosophers” or “spiritualists.” One of the central teachings of the Buddha’s discourses or sutras was that to hold any “extreme view” about the nature of any object is a sign of complete ignorance. In other words, the Buddha also taught that we cannot go around thinking that we know the “reality” of the objects that we perceive in the world. For the Buddha, suffering comes from the very belief that we can know about the world and its objects. Without this belief, all of our evil and unwholesome habits come to an end:
“Monks, as to the source through which perceptions and notions born of mental proliferation beset a man: if nothing is found there to delight in, welcome and hold to, this is the end of the underlying tendency to lust, of the underlying tendency to aversion, of the underlying tendency to [having fixed opinions or] views, of the underlying tendency to doubt, of the underlying tendency to conceit, of the underlying tendency to desire for being, of the underlying tendency to ignorance; this is the end of resorting to rods and weapons, of quarrels, brawls, disputes, recrimination, malicious words, and false speech; here these evil unwholesome states cease without remainder.” FROM the Madhupindika Sutta (MN 18) emphasis mine.

In other words, the Buddha taught that the changing nature of everything means that there is nothing within anything to “delight in, welcome and hold to.” When we no longer feel confident that anything “IS” and we admit that “the verb ‘to be’ must be totally abolished,” just as Socrates teaches, then our evil tendencies end along with the suffering that they cause.

Of course, this teaching has led to criticism of both teachers. Some criticize the Buddha’s teachings as being nihilist and anti-life, even pro-death. IN THE SAME WAY, Socrates can be wrongly criticized. But the truth is that both teachers were leading others away from valuing life for the wrong reasons. Both teachers were attempting to turn our attention from things that change and are unstable towards what is unchanging and eternal.

“Philosophic natures always love the sort of learning that makes clear to them some feature of the being that always is and does not wander around between coming to be and decaying.” FROM Plato’s Republic ch. 7.


Book 1, Sutra 50: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



I have retained the Sanskrt word, “samskara,” here because of its complexity. “Samskaras” are commonly translated as “subliminal activators or residual impressions.” Simply stated, they are the latent tendencies that support our habits, which are themselves created by past actions. This gets even more complicated because “samskaras” are also inherited from past lives. So we are born with certain “samskaras” and we are constantly creating new ones in our lives. The old ones surface to create impulses to act in certain habitual ways. Those old ones then get exhausted but identical new ones are created by our re-enactment of past habits.

“Samskaras” imprison us within the wheel of rebirth. In other words, the latent tendencies and impulses that we die with lead to being born again. Although Patanjali has not told us that yoga is concerned with ending the cycle of rebirth we can logically connect “samskaras” to “vrttis” or disturbances of the mind. Later in book 4, sutras 8 & 9, Patanjali will talk more about “samskaras” and connect them to “vasanas.” Either way, it is certain that within Patanjali’s system “samskaras” must come to an end in order to reach the highest level of samadhi, as he will describe in the final sutra 51.

The wisdom born of samadhi causes these latent and unconscious tendencies and orientations to dissipate. Under the influence of this wisdom, we see only the underlying purpose or meaning to life and its objects. Seeing only the central purpose of life, the yogi is therefore not paying attention to anything else and so becomes naturally detached, “vairagyam.”

As Patanjali says in sutra 12, it is “vairagyabhyam” which causes the ending of mental disturbances, “citta vrtti nirodhah.” So the “prajna” of samadhi therefore generates an ever increasing “vairagya.” This is why the realization of “nirvicara samapatti,” the state of meditation in which this greater wisdom (which the Buddha calls “prajnaparamita”) arises, is the end of any effort that the yogi has to put forth. After that wisdom arises it has a life of its own, naturally terminating existing “samskaras” with its own “samskara.” And in the next sutra, Patanjali will tell us that this final “samskara” of the wisdom itself ends on its own naturally, completely freeing the mind of the yogi. Then the yogi has reached “nirbijah samadhi” which Patanjali will describe in the next, the final, sutra of book 1.




Book 1, Sutra 49: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali is telling us why the wisdom, “prajna,” produced by samadhi is so special and different from other types of more conventional wisdom. The specialness of the samadhi wisdom is derived from the very profound purpose underlying the objects that becomes clear to the yogi. That special purpose is called “artha” and Patanjali tells us about this “artha” (and its importance) in not less than 17 sutras.

In sutra 43 Patanjali describes the process of this special “artha” arising in the consciousness of the yogi and the monumental effect that it produces: “When memory is purified and there is a realization of emptiness then meaning alone stands forth without sense impressions. This is called nirvitarka samapatti.”

“Meaning” is interchangeable with “purpose” and both give us the definition of “artha.” We are all looking for the fundamental meaning of life which is the same as our purpose for existing and when we find it, true wisdom dawns, as Patanjali tells us in this sutra 49. Wisdom is “True” in the highest sense because it is about THE purpose, “arthatvat,” Patanjali tells us here. That purpose, in fact, is the “other” or hidden object, “visaya,” behind all objects. And that purpose is also the inner most core or seed, “sabijah,” that is the only thing remaining as an anchor to the yogi established in this stage of samadhi. As we shall see in the final sutra, 51, of this chapter, there is one higher stage, “nirbijah,” or without seed, for the yogi to reach. Even the underlying purpose of life, the “artha,” has to be relinquished for the mind to be completely freed of all disturbance.





Book 1, Sutra 48: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



The word that Patanjali uses is “rtambhara,” or “truth bearing.” This truth is of a special Absolute nature. Satyananda Saraswati explains, “Sat is subtler than energy; ‘sat’ means existence. It has two aspects called ‘ritam’ and ‘satyam.’ ‘Satyam’ is the relative aspect and ‘ritam’ is the absolute or cosmic aspect. . . . ‘Ritam’ is the ultimate truth beyond matter and energy.”

Only one earlier sutra (20) includes the word, “prajna.” But it is the very important sutra number 20 that lists the ingredients necessary to reach the goal of yoga. There, “prajna” is listed along with “samadhi,” energy and purified memory. So “prajna,” although important, is not the end goal of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra.



Book 1, Sutra 47: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



With this sutra we have come full circle and reached the promise that Patanjali made in sutra 3:

“tada drastuh svarupe ‘vashtanam.”

In that sutra Patanjali promised that through “yoga, the seer [gets] established in his or her own essential nature.” As I noted in the commentary to that sutra, the key word in that sutra is “svarupe,” roughly meaning “one’s own form.” In this sutra Patanjali uses the Sanskrt word, “adhyatma,” which is roughly translated as “higher,” “original,” or “first self.” It could also be translated literally as “study of the self or the soul.” Although Patanjali uses the word, “atma,” frequently, this sutra is the only one that contains, “adhyatma.”

“Know Thyself” is, of course, the age-old truth engraved by the Oracle at Delphi, ancient Greece. But this dictum is repeated in many other places as well. “Adhyatma” is, in fact, used by Krishna in a number of his key teachings within the Bhagavad Gita. In sloka 8:3 from that text Krishna defines “adhyatma” specifically. There are many different existing translations of that line but in the compilation that I made of that text, entitled “The Bhagavad Gita In Focus,” ( I list that sloka in this way:

“The principle behind awareness (adhyatma) is the essence of being ‘I’ (svabhavo).”

Krishna also uses “adhyatma” in another critical line within the Bhagavad Gita, 13:12. In that sloka Krishna identifies stable knowledge of the “adhyatma” as part of what true knowledge is. I list that sloka as saying:

“constancy of Self-knowledge (“adhyatma”)/ and an appreciation of Absolute Truth as the highest form of wealth;/ this is knowledge and anything to the contrary is ignorance.”

So, with these past 47 sutras, Patanjali has delineated a path to reaching and realizing that Self-knowledge: the highest stage of meditation beyond both sense impressions and their related thoughts (nirvicara samapatti).


Book 1, Sutra 39: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali listed the obstacles that can create distraction in the mind of the yogic practitioner in sutras 30-31. In sutra 32 he recommended that we apply a single antidote to any obstacle that might arise. Sutras 33-39 list examples of such antidote practices.

Is Patanjali telling us in this sutra to meditate on whatever we like (whatever “pleases us and brings calmness to the mind” according to Brahmananda Saraswati) and it will work to calm our minds? Or are there certain objects and principles that will work (“are suitable”) and ones that aren’t?

“It is immaterial what one takes for [the object of meditation]. . . . whatever [thing] is agreeable. An aspirant should choose for himself that object on which he can concentrate his mind” according to Satyananda Saraswati.

But Iyengar says that the object of meditation must be “an object conducive to meditation; not one which is externally pleasing but auspicious and spiritually uplifting. Practicing this simple method of one-pointed attention, the sadhaka gradually develops the art of contemplation.” Sadhakas also finds a middle ground: “An object which appeals to one and helps in concentration may be selected.” Swami Satchidanananda also says “anything that one chooses that is elevating” is okay.

Technically speaking the Sanskrt of this sutra, “Yathabhimata dhyanad va,” does not contain any restrictions. Literally it could be read as “concentrate on whatever you like.” I expect that we will come back to this sutra in future sections of Patanjali’s Sutra where concentration on various objects is explained further.





Book 1, Sutra 38: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali listed the obstacles that can create distraction in the mind of the yogic practitioner in sutras 30-31. In sutra 32 he recommended that we apply a single antidote to any obstacle that might arise. Sutras 33-39 list examples of such antidote practices.

Translators and commentators differ on exactly what Patanjali is referring to here. He doesn’t give us a lot of instructions on how to use this tool to steady the mind. The assumption must be that a competent teacher would provide the details.

Brahmananda Saraswati suggests that this is “self-analysis through dream analysis and analysis of deep sleep.” Vishnudevananda says “Many times the Truth is revealed by the superconscious during sleep. . . . if that knowledge is meditated on consciously, great progress can be made upon the path.” Satyananda Saraswati says “The mind can be controlled by developing the method of conscious dreaming and conscious sleeping. . . . There is a method of seeing dreams consciously, but it is dangerous and only a few can practice it. . . . It is meant only for people who are psychic.”

Nambiar combines this sutra with the last one: “Meditate on the dream experience of a holy personality or a divine symbol to stabilize the mind.” Shearer says that it’s about “witnessing the processing of dreaming or dreamless sleep.”





Book 1, Sutra 37: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali listed the obstacles that can create distraction in the mind of the yogic practitioner in sutras 30-31. In sutra 32 he recommended that we apply a single antidote to any obstacle that might arise. Sutras 33-39 list examples of such antidote practices.

There are other Hindu scriptures that extol the benefits of being around a realized soul. The Buddha taught that there is no greater blessing in the world than to have elevated or enlightened friends. But this sutra is interesting in that it is suggesting a mental focus rather than a physical proximity to a “saint” or holy person.

The benefits of mentally focusing on a saint and physically being near one can be hard to explain. They seem to be magical and/or mystical. Many people within the worldwide yoga community have experienced such blessings. The good news that Patanjali is sharing here, however, is that we don’t need to find such a person and get close to them. We can simply focus our minds on one of them in order to receive a stilling/calming effect.

What does it mean to focus our mind on a saint? I suggest it could be described as a meditative obsession. In other words, one might need to read about the life of such a person, hear recordings of such a person and maybe even get a picture of such a person to look at. Of course, meeting such a person directly would also be helpful. These might be tools for building an intense mental fixation or focus on the saint. Patanjali says that such a focus can bring us instantaneous benefits when faced with an obstacle that threatens to distract us from yoga. When we feel lust or depression coming on we can instantly think of “our” saint, picturing him or her in our mind, and receive a flood of cooling, calming energy pouring over us.





Book 1, Sutra 36: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



Patanjali listed the obstacles that can create distraction in the mind of the yogic practitioner in sutras 30-31. In sutra 32 he recommended that we apply a single antidote to any obstacle that might arise. Sutras 33-39 list examples of such antidote practices. This sutra recommends an absorbtion into what is called “sattva” in Ayurveda (the traditional system of medicine within India). It is pure light and pure joy, without any specific form or thought attached.

Just as Patanjali recommended “faking it till you make it” in regards to devotion towards God in sutra 28, here he recommends overcoming depression by faking a pure inner joy. And the technique involved is simply picturing a limitless source of soothing, happy light.

I don’t agree with some of the translators’ tendencies to identify technical terms and then ascribe complex characteristics to them. This sutra is case in point. Instead of admitting that this sutra is simple, some translators take the Sanskrt, “Vishokha Jyotismati” and say “this is a technical term.” They then add details like “envisioning the lotus chakra of the heart center” or “at the third eye center” (BrahmanandaSaraswati). These additional details may be helpful for some but confounding for others. Strictly speaking, they are not in Patanjali’s sutra. With this sutra, simpler is better. Just concentrate (by faking it if necessary) on an infinite light within that is purely happy. Don’t add additional thoughts or details but do let them fade away in the presence of such beautiful light, if they do arise.

Iyengar writes “The effort of stilling and silencing the mind brings forth the sorrowless effulgent light of the soul.” This is the opposite of what Patanjali is writing here. It is not our efforts to still the mind that produce the sorrowless light but the reverse. Patanjali is enumerating techniques that can produce stillness in the mind. Stillness of the mind is the goal and not the vision of infinite joyous light.





Book 1, Sutra 19: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra



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 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. 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 emerging out of the primordial energetic matrix. 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 very advanced stage of stillness that he refers to in this sutra is quite an accomplishment 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. In order to reach Truth or liberation we have to do more than just meditate. We have to meditate with vigorous faith in the truth of Oneness.