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Posts Tagged ‘Patañjali’

Still the patterning of consciousness! The Yog...
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The yoga sutras are a lot of fun to read – especially the super-natural ones.  I try not to take them too literally, as you never know what might have been warped in translation, or perhaps included merely to inspire yogis to go the extra mile in their practices.

Occasionally, I come across articles in the science literature that reveal how truly weird and wild the human brain can be – and it strikes me – that maybe the ancient yogis were more in tune with the human mind than we “modern science” folks give them credit for.  Here’s a weird and wild sutra:

III.55 –  tarakam sarvavisayam sarvathavisayam akramam ca iti vivekajam jnanam – The essential characteristic of the yogi’s exalted knowledge is that he grasps instantly, clearly and wholly, the aims of all objects without going into the sequence of time of change.

How can we know things instantly?  and without respect to time (ie. never having had prior experience)?

Admittedly, Patanjali may be referring to things that take place in emotional, subconscious or cosmic realms that I’m not familiar with, so I won’t quibble with the text.  Besides, it sounds like an AWESOME state of mind to attain, and well worth the effort – even if we concede it is knowingly unobtainable.  But is it unobtainable?

Might there be states of mind that make it seem obtainable?  Here’s a fascinating science article that appeared in Science Magazine this past week.  Paradoxical False Memory for Objects After Brain Damage [doi: 10.1126/science.1194780] describing the effects of damage in the perirhinal cortex (in rats) that led the animals to demonstrate a peculiar form of false memory – wherein the animals treated never-before seen objects as being familiar. Hmmm.  An altered form of brain activity where unfamiliar and novel things seem very familiar.  Sounds sort of  like “instantaneous knowing without respect to time” to me.

Given the tremendous similarity in brain circuits and memory systems across all mammals, I wonder if humans (perhaps in deep meditative states or with various forms of hallucinogenic or damaged states) could experience this? Sutra III.55 seems strange, but not, perhaps unobtainable.

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signaling (animated)
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One thing I’ve learned doing yoga is that introspection – like the postures – takes a lot of practice.

Here’s a pointer to a great new science article on the basic brain biology of introspection, or “thinking about thinking”.  The article, Relating Introspective Accuracy to Individual Differences in Brain Structure by Fleming et al., describes experiments where participants had to (a) make a rather difficult perceptual observation and then (b) self-report how confident they were in that judgment.  From the introduction …

Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. In this context, introspective or “metacognitive” sensitivity refers to the ability to discriminate correct from incorrect perceptual decisions, and its accuracy is essential for the appropriate guidance of decision-making and action.

… sounds a lot like the way people describe meditation as being an active or “aware” state where (a) very basic perceptual information (sounds, feelings, vibrations) are (b) seamlessly coupled, labeled or processed with more abstract and/or deeper thoughts.  As Thomas Metzinger suggests in his book, The Ego Tunnel, the ability to become “aware” of early sensory perceptions is an important aspect of understanding the so-called “real world” as opposed to the world that our ego, or conscious mind normally builds for us.  Metzinger points to Paul Churchland‘s ideas on “eliminative materialsm” as emphasizing the importance of (a) early sensory experience and its (b) coupling with introspective abilities.  Churchland’s ideas (from p53 in Metzinger’s book):

“I suggest then, that those of us who prize the flux and content of our subjective phenomenological experience need not view the advance of materialist neuroscience with fear and foreboding.” … “Quite the contrary.  The genuine arrival of a materialist kinematics and dynamics for psychological states and cognitive processes will constitute not a gloom in which our inner life is suppressed or eclipsed, but rather a dawning, in which its marvelous intricacies are finally revealed – most notably, if we apply [it] ourselves, in direct self-conscious introspection.”

Churchland’s notion of a revelation of our true inner lives (via an understanding of sensory processes) – loosely – reminds me of some of the ancient yogic notions of a gap between the “real” world and our everyday “mental” world.  These notions are a core of yoga spirituality.  As covered in-depth by Mircea Eliade in Yoga: Immortality and Freedom:

For Samkhya and Yoga the problem is clearly defined.  Since suffering has its origins in ignorance of “Spirit” – that is,  in confusing “Spirit” with psychomental states – emancipation can be obtained only if the confusion is abolished. (p14)   …   Yoga accepts God, but we shall see that Patanjali does not accord him very much importance.  The revelation is based on knowledge of the ultimate reality – that is, on an “awakening” in which object completely identifies itself with subject.  (The “Self” “”contemplates” itself;  it does not “think” itself, for thought is itself an experience and, as such, belongs to praktri.)(p29)

So it seems that both the ancient yogis and some modern scientists suggest that there is indeed a gap between the way the world really “is” and the way we “think” about it.  To close this gap, it may help to train ourselves to the difference between “contemplating” – which emphasizes basic sensory information (listening, feeling, etc.) – rather than just “thinking” about stuff.  I think this aspect of our mental life may be, in part, what Churchland is emphasizing and also is one of the most basic tenets of vipassana meditation.

Just focus on the basic sensory perceptions … live in this moment!

The brain scientists who performed the research on the relation of (a) basic sensory perceptual processes to (b) judgments of its accuracy used brain imaging to examine correlations in brain structure (gray matter volume and white-matter integrity) with performance on the (a) and (b) tasks and found a number of brain regions in the very front of the brain that were correlated with “introspective ability” (more on the science here).  I wonder if they were thinking of mediation when they wrote:

This raises the tantalizing possibility of being able to “train” metacognitive ability by harnessing underlying neural plasticity in the regions that we identify here.

I suppose a few old ascetic yogis out there might have chuckle at the thought of a western “training program” (just 10 minutes a day, no batteries required etc.) … methinks it takes practice – A LOT of practice!

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Gita Chapter 11:32
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Pointer to a neat lecture on humans’ natural predisposition toward empathy which seems to be rooted deeply in our species’ need for social belonging as well as “grounded in the acknowledgment of death” (related post here).   The virtue of compassion is obviously deeply rooted in Bhagavad Gita and certainly a mental and emotional capacity that should grow and flourish with yoga practice.  Nice to see its biological roots under investigation in mainstream science!

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Yoke
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As I’ve mentioned, I’m a new yoga student – very new – very, very far away from the archetypal, experienced yoga practitioners one often sees in books and videos (ok, maybe not these guys).   I’m inspired, and do realize the journey will be a long one.   However, is the journey a straight path?   Does it have twists and turns?  What IS the endpoint anyway? and how do I know I’m there?

According to Patanjali‘s yoga sutras:

“Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness”  (I.2  yogah cittavritti nirodhah).

This is echoed in David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body (Chapter 9):

Reduced to its simplest terms, yoga (“yoking”) is concerned with impeding movement, with the immobilization with all that is mobile within the body.

Ultimate stillness.  The kind demonstrated by the elderly yogi who was able to voluntarily slow his heart for 8 days (covered here).   So this is where the practice ends – in physical and mental stillness – awareness with stillness. 

More compassionate?  More patient?  Healthier? Perhaps this comes with the stillness?  My gut and experience so far says yes, this is where I want to go.  Not to withdraw from life, my family and friends like a lone yogi on a mountaintop, but to acquire a more peaceful and patient disposition that helps myself and others to better cope with life’s twists and turns.

However, David Gordon White’s The Alchemical Body suggests that the pathway is anything but a straight downhill ride to samadhi.   There are myriad natural bodily desires and mental tendencies that push against this pathway, making it an arduous journey where the student can be bucked sideways while fighting against the tide.  As DGW interprets the ancient texts in Chapter 9:

One first immobilizes the body through the postures; next one immobilizes the breaths through diaphragmatic retention; one then immobilizes the seed through the “seals” [bhandas]; and finally one immobilizes the mind through concentration on the subtle inner reverberations of the phonemes.

What a difficult, even heroic undertaking the immobilization of the body constitutes, yet what fantastic results it yields!  For immobilization leads to reversal, reversal to transformation, and transformation is tantamount to bodily immortality and, precisely, to the [supposed] supernatural ability to transform, reverse, or immobilize whatever one desires in the physical world (siddhi).

Reversal?  Transformation?  Much to explore here in the years to come.

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Shakti
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Some of the most epic and beautiful of the yoga sutras are found in the final book IV.  One of them popped into mind when I came across a recent neuroscience report entitled, “Predicting Persuasion-Induced Behavior Change from the Brain” by Emily Falk and colleagues at the Department of Psychology at the  University of California, Los Angeles.  [DOI:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0063-10.2010].  Here, a research team asks if there are places in the brain that encode future – yes, future actions.  More specifically, they asked 20 volunteers to lay in an MRI scanner and listen/view a series of messages on the benefits and importance of sunscreen.  Then, 1-week later, they inquired about the frequency of sunscreen use.  It turns out that sunscreen use did increase (suggesting the subjects read the messages), but more interestingly, that there were correlations in brain activity (in several regions of the brain) with the degree of increased sunscreen use.  That is, some individuals recorded a bit of brain activity that predicted their future use of sunscreen.

Very neat indeed!  although, there are likely many reasons to remain skeptical.  This is because the brain is a very complex system and, with so much going on inside, its likely anyone could find correlations in activity with any-old “something” and “some area of the brain” if they looked hard enough.  In this article however, the authors had preselected their brain regions of interest – the medial frontal cortex and the precuneus – since another group had shown that activity in these regions were able to predict future actions (on the order of a few seconds).  Thus, the research team was not looking for any willy-nilly correlation, but for a specific type of interaction between the brain and future action (this time on the order of weeks).

The particular ancient sutra that may have some poetic tie-ins here is IV.12 atita anagatam svarupatah asti adhvabhedat dharmanam “the existence of the past and future is as real as that of the present.  As moments roll into movements which have yet to appear as the future, the quality of knowledge in one’s intellect and consciousness is affected.”

Might there be neural traces predicting one future actions?  This research makes it seem possible.  Are these traces accessible to ordinary folks or advanced meditators?  Who knows.  As always, the joy lies in trying to find out and trying to reach ever deeper states of harmony and unity.  One thing I found intriguing was that the research team picked the medial prefrontal cortex and the precuneus because these brain regions,

“are reliably co-activated across a host of “self” processes and the extent to which people perceive persuasive messages to be self-relevant has long been thought to play a part in attitude and behavioral change”.

Certainly, when something feels relevant to “me” and reinforces my own “self” image, I’m more prone to remember and act upon it.  Yoga, for example! I hope I’m encoding signals now that will predict my attendance in class this week!

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Paul Cezanne - Apples, Pears and Grapes
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The painter Paul Cezanne is oft remembered as an extremely focused artist who deeply scrutinized and meditated upon his subjects.  “The day is coming when a single carrot, freshly observed, will set off a revolution.”, he once said, as well as, “With an apple I will astonish Paris.” His work tried not to capture an object as seen by the naked eye, but rather to capture the momentary experience of an object that is perceived by a thinking, feeling individual.  “For an Impressionist to paint from nature is not to paint the subject, but to realize sensations”, seems to capture his effort to use painting to capture his deep inward and outward reflections of everyday life.

In some ways, this reminds me of yoga, when, with much practice, one becomes more adept at paying attention to specific details in time and space and reflecting deeply upon one’s inner reactions to the outer world.  I thought that one of Patanjali’s yoga sutras, “Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.” (I.2) sounded a lot like the master painter patiently working alongside a river who said, “Here, on the river’s verge, I could be busy for months without changing my place, simply leaning a little more to right or left.”

With this in mind, I dug into a few quotes from Paul Cezanne and ran them past some of Patanjali‘s yoga aphorisms.  I think both Patanjali and Cezanne were working very hard at being present and mindful in the moment and trying to unify their outward and inward experiences – one through yoga and one through painting!  Here are a few selected quote pairs with Cezanne on top and Pataljali below:

“Cezanne”

“Patanjali”

“When I judge art, I take my painting and put it next to a God made object like a tree or flower. If it clashes, it is not art.”

“When consciousness dissolves in nature, it loses all marks and becomes pure.” (I.45)

“A puny body weakens the soul.”

“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit” (II.46)

“Right now a moment of time is passing by! We must become that moment.”

“Study of the silent moments between rising and restraining subliminal impressions is the transformation of consciousness towards restraint.” (III.9)

“The artist makes things concrete and gives them individuality.”

“Constructed or created mind springs from the sense of individuality” (IV.4)

“There are two things in the painter, the eye and the mind; each of them should aid the other.”

“Consciousness distinguishes its own awareness and intelligence when it reflects and identifies its source – the changeless seer – and assumes his form.” (IV.22)

“Optics, developing in us through study, teach us to see.”

“An object remains known or unknown according to the conditioning or expectation of the consciousness.” (IV.17)

“If isolation tempers the strong, it is the stumbling-block of the uncertain.”

“Practice and detachment are the means to still the movements of consciousness” (I.12)

“I could paint for a hundred years, a thousand years without stopping and I would still feel as though I knew nothing.”

“When the object of meditation engulfs the meditator, appearing as the subject, self-awareness is lost.  This is samadhi.” (III.3)

“Don’t be an art critic, but paint, there lies salvation”

“Practice is the steadfast effort to still these fluctuations.” (I.13)

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Mood Broadcasting
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Like many folks, I generally feel better ever since I started practicing yoga.  Outwardly, my body is (slowly) growing stronger and more flexible and perhaps (hopefully) soon, I’ll even lose a few pounds.  However, even if I was to convince myself that looked slimmer (skinny mirrors?), the only way to really know if I’ve lost weight, is to stand on a scale and record my weight each day (darn! no fatness lost so far).

That takes care of the body right – but what about the inner, emotional improvements I might be experiencing?  How to measure these?

Here are some mobile- and web-based tools to help one track one’s emotions.  Most of these websites, like Moodstats, Track Your Happiness, MoodJam, MoodMill, Finding Optimism and MoodLog seem to function as online diaries which keep a running tab on aspects of ones moods and emotions.  Perhaps such tools – if used over long durations – would enable one to verify a shift toward a less anxious and more contented inner feeling?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the real proof of “inner” progress would be that I had closed my computer and put away my mobile device and, rather, was outside enjoying the sights and sounds of nature.  Perhaps best to avoid mixing yoga and digital distractions.

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