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Yoga in Four Words

Yogash Chitta Vritti Nirodhah–How to deal with the Vrittis

A Selection from Yoga: Science of the Absolute–A Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Yoga Sutras 1:2. Yoga is the inhibition of the modifications of the mind. Yogash chitta-vritti-nirodhah.

This is almost sure to be misinterpreted in English translations and commentaries, though I cannot say why, unless it is that the writers are not really yogis and therefore unable to grasp the meaning since they have no experience of what Patanjali is describing. Sorry if that sounds smug and arrogant, but I have had nearly half a century in which to observe these things.

Chitta is the subtle energy that is the substance of the mind, and therefore the mind itself. Vritti is thought-wave; mental modification; mental whirlpool; a ripple in the chitta. Nirodha is restraint; restriction; suppression; dissolving. Some say that chitta-vritti-nirodha means cessation of the modifications of the mind, some that it means control of the vrittis or thoughts, some that it is prevention of vrittis, some that it is the suppression, destruction or erasing of vrittis, some that it is the lessening or inhibition or restricting of vrittis, some that it is the silencing of the mind.

Certainly nirodha embraces all of these, but only as aspects or stages toward the ultimate nirodha. These stages deal with the vrittis themselves, and sometimes with an interaction with them to affect them in some way. In all of these the vrittis have already arisen, so they are simply ways of dealing with them. These stages are only police-actions, cleanup operations, and are not at all the answer.

The answer is for the chitta to be in such a state that vrittis cannot arise. Then alone will there be no problems to deal with. There is no lasting value in producing a state where the arising of the vrittis is only prevented, because if there is a lapse they will start up all over again and we will be right back where we started. I have seen this a lot over the years, and in time it leads to frustration and surrender to the condition.

A permanent remedy

The nirodha Patanjali is presenting to us is a permanent condition of the chitta in which it has been so transformed or transmuted that the arising of vrittis is impossible. It just cannot happen. Sri Ramana Maharshi spoke of this as a state in which the mind has become the Self. Until then, he said, all other attempts are like catching a thief, making him a policeman, and ordering him to go catch the thief–himself. It cannot work. It is the difference between birth-control and sterility. Nirodha is the latter.

When we realize this, our whole perspective on yoga will change, and so will our valuation of our practice. It will be very different from that of the yoga dabblers. I knew one dabbler who could stop thoughts readily, and thought he was a yoga adept, but he came to a terrible end after a ruinous life.

First of all, vrittis are not just thoughts, they are also impressions and impulses. Thoughts are actually the least of the modifications of the chitta. But most important, vrittis are responses of the chitta, called forth by external or internal stimuli. These are the major problems, though the real, fundamental problem is the capacity of the mind to respond in modifications of any kind. We can see from this that to think nirodha is just a matter of no-thought is missing the point entirely. Yoga is the radical transformation of the very nature of the mind–and therefore of its functions. It is not just taming or training it. That leads nowhere but right back to the beginning. Is it any wonder, then, that most yoga is ultimately valueless, and its practicers unchanged?

Shankara and disciplesHaving said this, I must point out, as does Shankara, that there is a state known as nirodha samadhi in which the mind enters into the perfectly non-responsive condition, but this is a temporary state which, when practiced enough, will become permanent, unbroken. Shankara declares that “moksha [liberation] is not something different from nirodha samadhi. There is some distinction insofar as after nirodha samadhi there is recurrence of active mental processes [pravritti], whereas moksha is a final cessation [nivritti] of them. But in that samadhi as such, there is no distinction from moksha. So the sutra [1:3] has said, ‘Then the seer is established in his own nature,’ and it will also be said [4:34] that being established in its own nature is moksha: ‘or it is the establishment of the power-of-consciousness in its own nature.’ So it is incontestable that the sutra means to say that moksha is only by seedless [nirbija] samadhi.”

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