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Opposing Vitarka: The Importance of Mastering Thoughts

Vitarka, why we should master it

This is a selection from The Yoga Sutras for Awakening, a commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. We hope to publish this book in the coming year.

Yoga Sutras 2:33. When the mind is disturbed by improper thoughts [vitarka] constant pondering [bhavanam] over the opposites [pratipaksha] (is the remedy).

Not only is the common interpretation of this incorrect, so is this translation. Vitarka simply means thought in the sense of all kinds of intellectual occupation. There is no connotation of either positive or negative thought, but rather intrusive or distracting thoughts–which effect is negative, but good thoughts are harmful if they arise at the wrong time.

Pratipaksha means that which opposes–not that which is opposite in character. And bhavanam means filling the mind with something. Therefore it should be rendered:

“When there is disturbance or oppression by thought, the mind should be filled with (or fixed on) that which opposes it.”

Correcting a misunderstanding

It is a complete misunderstanding to think this verse means that we should bring to mind things of a kind that are seemingly opposite to the character of the thoughts that are cluttering our minds. I say “seemingly” because the dualities–dwandwas, the “pairs of opposites” such as pleasure and pain, hot and cold, light and darkness, gain and loss, victory and defeat, love and hatred–are not two, but one, like the two sides of a coin. So thinking of one to counteract the other–such as thinking of generosity to combat selfishness–is worthless, for each are inherent in the other.

The same is true even of “good” and “evil.” A lot of people positive-think themselves into negative situations. Many people make themselves sicker by affirming they are healthy, because only a sick person makes such an affirmation–and you can’t trick the subconscious. Many people pretend to have a superiority complex to cover up their actual inferiority complex.

Patanjali is not telling us to think of opposites, for that is a vitarka too, but rather he wants us to occupy the mind with that which opposes thoughts. This is very different from the childish and simplistic interpretations of nearly all commenters–interpretations which reveal that they know little of the mind and less of yoga.

What opposes vitarka?

All right, what opposes thought? Direct, intuitive experience-insight produced by the practice of yoga and which by its very nature banishes intrusive thought and brings anubhava: “perception; direct personal experience; spiritual experience; intuitive consciousness and knowledge.” This is a far cry from the mind-gaming many people think Patanjali is recommending. That is why Jesus asked: “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” (Matthew 6:27).

Nagendranath BhaduriIn the seventh chapter of Autobiography of a Yogi, Yogananda relates this about Nagendranath Bhaduri, “the levitating saint” and the matter of anubhava:

“The saint and I entered the meditative state. After an hour, his gentle voice roused me.

“‘You go often into the silence, but have you developed anubhava?’ He was reminding me to love God more than meditation. ‘Do not mistake the technique for the Goal.’

“…I continued my after-school pilgrimages to the saint’s door. With silent zeal he aided me to attain anubhava.”

When the mind is filled with buzzing thoughts, yoga is the remedy, and when the mind gets distracted by thoughts when meditating, more meditation is the cure.

Yoga Sutras 2:34. As improper thoughts, emotions (and actions) such as those of violence etc., whether they are done (indulged in), caused to be done or abetted, whether caused by greed, anger or delusion, whether present in mild, medium or intense degree, result in endless pain and ignorance; so there is the necessity of pondering over the opposites.

I prefer:

“Thoughts [vitarka] of violence [himsa], whether to be done by ones’ self or by others, or approved, rising from greed [lobha], anger [krodha], or delusion [moha], either of mild, medium, or intense degree, result in never-ending pain [dukha] and ignorance [ajnana]; thus the mind should be filled with (or fixed on) that which opposes it.”

Since ahimsa is the first-mentioned yama, Patanjali uses it as an example, but he is intending for this sutra to apply to all the yamas and niyamas. The important aspect here is that the vitarka, the very thought, of negative deeds–or the rising of negative emotions–must be immediately counteracted by bringing into the mind that which opposes and dispels them.

Patanjali also points out that whether contemplating action by ourself, by others, or merely hoped for (“I wish I could…,” “somebody ought to…”) and approved in the abstract, still it must be squashed instantly. Further, whatever the source, they are to be evicted right away.

Nor can degree determine how we react. We cannot say it was only a mild thought or feeling and therefore of no consequence. Mighty oaks from little acorns grow. Even a hint of violation of yama and niyama must alert us and we must swing into action.

The best solution

Even better, through our yoga practice we should habitually be in the state of mind (bhava) which will prevent their arising. Preventative medicine is always to be preferred.

There is no end to the pain and darkening of mind that infractions of yama and niyama produce. The only way to end the pain and ignorance is to end the causes. Again, we should seek to live in such a level of consciousness that these negative things cannot arise in the mind. But until then, the artillery must be kept at hand for instant use.

More from The Yoga Sutras for Awakening:

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