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What is Our Essential Nature as Seer?

seer essential natureSutras 3 & 4 of Book One of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

3. Then the Seer [Drashta] is established in his own essential and fundamental nature [Swarupa].

Vyasa immediately comments and paraphrases:

“Then the power-of-consciousness [chit-shakti] rests in its own nature, as in the state of release [moksha]. But when the mind is extraverted [turned outward], though it is so, it is not so.”

That is, even though each of us always rests in his true nature, for it is inviolable, at the same time we do not so rest experientially–just the opposite, we are aware of and identify with just about everything else.

Shankara first says in consideration of this sutra:

“It has been said that yoga is inhibition of the mental processes, by which inhibition the true being of Purusha as the cognizer is realized.”

It is a bit convoluted, but the following words of Shankara are very important:

“Purusha is the cognizer of buddhi in the sense that he is aware of buddhi in its transformations as the forms of the mental processes. The nature of Purusha is simple awareness of them; the one who is aware is not different from the awareness. If the one who is aware were different from the awareness itself, he would be changeable and then would not be a mere witness who has objects shows to him.”

Our essential nature as Knowing

Self-forgetfulness is the root of all our problems, the essence of samsara itself. Consciousness (chaitanya) is our essential nature. When asked what the Self is, Sri Ramakrishna simply answered: “The witness of the mind.” We are the seer of our individual life in the same way that God is the Seer of cosmic life. Therefore Patanjali speaks of the Self as the Seer.

When the chitta remains in a state both free from modifications and from the state in which is is possible for modifications to occur, then the yogi is established in his swarupa–essential form or nature. In that state his swarupa is that which imparts to him perfect knowledge of himself. So it is not just Seeing, it is Knowing.

People are getting flashes or glimpses of their Self throughout their lives, but they are overshadowed and even eclipsed by their usual perceptions of the modifications of the chitta. That is why it is necessary for us to reach that state (sthiti) in which no modifications can take place, but we shall remain firmly in the consciousness of our Reality–just as does God.

4. In other states there is assimilation/identification [of the Seer] with the modifications [of the mind].

Outside the state of being centered fully in the Self, there is vritti sarupyam–such a close identity with the experiences of relative existence that the person seems to be assimilated by them, overshadowed and rendered completely forgetful by them, mistaking them for reality and for his Self-nature.

This is the state of being “lost” from which we must become “saved.” But unlike popular religion (and all religions provide “saviors” of some sort), Yoga explains to us that we must save ourselves–through Yoga. “Therefore, become a yogi” (Bhagavad Gita 6:46).

Fortunately, we do not really change when this false identity occurs. As Shankara points out: “The apparent change is not intrinsic but projected [adhyaropita], like a crystal’s taking on the color of something put near it.”

The “not-self”

Here is another paragraph from Shankara that I think is important both for its accuracy and for the fact of it being said by such an authority as he:

“Therefore knowledge of objective forms, and memory, and its recall, and effort and desire and so on, are all essentially not-self [anatma], because they are objects of knowledge like outer forms, and because they exist-for-another [parartha] as is shown by their dependence on the body-mind aggregate for the manifestation of their forms and other qualities. So because they have dependence, and are impermanent and are accompanied by effort–for these and similar reasons it is certain that they are essentially not-self.”

This is also important because it is identical with the teaching of Buddha on these points, showing that Buddha was a classical Sankhya Yogi and not a “Buddhist” at all.

There is a most important point that must be pointed out here. Patanjali tells us that we must bring the chitta, the mind-substance, into a state of pure clarity in which modifications can no longer be produced. Why does he not tell us to just jettison the mind and be rid of it?

Because, as both Vyasa and Shankara state in their commentaries on this sutra, the purusha has an eternal, a “beginningless relation,” with the mind. We have always had it and always will, so we must correct/perfect it to be freed from samsara. There is no other way–the way of the yogi.

Previously: When a Vritti (Mental Ripple) Cannot Arise
Next: What are the 5 Modifications of the Mind?

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