vṛtti – state of material consciousness, mental modifications; sārūpyam – likeness of form, similarity, resemblance; itaratra – on the other hand, elsewhere, at other times;
At other times [when one is not in the state of yoga/samādhi], one is falsely identifying with the material covering of the self – the gross physical body and the mind – and is caught up in the mind’s fluctuations.
Analyzing the words in this sūtra;: ‘vṛtti‘- which we are familiar with, means the state of material consciousness, or the sum total of all the mind’s activities and mental modifications. The next word sārūpyam is from the same root as the word stated in the previous sūtra – svarūpe, meaning one’s own form or essential nature. From that same root, we have sarupyam, which refers to a likeness, similarity, or resemblance in form. And itaratra – means, on the other hand, elsewhere or at other times.
Patañjali has begun this pāda by defining yoga as being the state of samādhi – the suspension of all material consciousness and experiencing one’s true consciousness; one’s real spiritual state or condition. This particular verse raises the question, ” if what has been previously mentioned is the ultimate state of pure consciousness, then what are the other states or conditions that the living being can exist in?” And so he now describes in this verse, that material existence means to become absorbed in the mental fluctuations of material consciousness or vrtti. This material consciousness is not the natural state of the ātmā, or the self, and it is a profoundly deep-seated condition that the living being becomes utterly absorbed in, existing in a state of illusion.
A good example which I often use to try and help people understand is, if one enters a movie house, and they are watching something that is described as a ‘good movie,’ there is a complete absorption in that experience. People may feel symptoms of exhilaration or happiness or profound sadness, and even start crying. Or they can become shocked or startled by something to the point where they react physically or scream. What we are seeing are physiological and psychological responses arising from the experience of being so absorbed.
I have even read of a situation where a person who was in a movie house died of a heart attack during a particularly stressful scene. If you think about the situation, just in terms of the physical being, here is somebody sitting in a chair and there’s nothing actually happening to them, but because they’ve become so utterly absorbed in what has been projected on the screen – absorbed in these images and sounds that are now entering the eyes and the ears -they are practically living the experience or feeling it to be a reality, resulting in these responses in the body and the mind.
We can take this same example a little bit further, tying it to something that we discussed in one of the earlier sūtras regarding how sensory perception occurs. In reality, the movie is just a fast-moving set of static images. This is what a movie is – single frames being projected at such a rapid rate that there appears to be movement. Light coming from the projector is bouncing off a screen, entering my eyeball, stimulating the optic or the light-sensitive cells at the back of the eyeball, and being transformed into electrical impulses that are then transmitted to the visual cortex of the brain. Something similar is also happening with hearing.
So, on reflection, this really raises the question of: Who is the one seeing? Who is the actual seer, and where are they located? And how is it that they’re seeing these things that have now become projected upon the screen of the mind? How is it that the living being has become so enamored and entangled by these images and sounds, that the body is undergoing change; exhibiting symptoms and signs of stress or pleasure, or sometimes sexual excitement, or any one of a myriad of physiological responses? Then there are psychological responses that are also occurring, creating states of fear, or joy, or anxiety – any one of a vast number of reactions. And the living being has become utterly lost in this experience.
This is very much akin to what is going on in life itself, except we are not seeing a two-dimensional image projected off a screen and becoming absorbed in it. We’re involved very much in a three-dimensional world, which is even more overwhelming or overpowering. The purpose of self-realization is to reconnect with our true inner being – our spiritual being, and to live in that consciousness so that we become free from all of the inebriety, the pain, and difficulty that’s associated with ‘the movie’ of material existence.
At this point, we should consider the use of the words ‘material’ and ‘spiritual’. Many people use the word ‘spiritual’ to actually refer to material things. For instance, if a person says that they’re really into all the glory and beauty of material nature, and they are really attached and absorbed and love those experiences, believing that they are very spiritual. But that’s not a reality. Being absorbed in the material energy does not make you ‘spiritual’ or necessarily spiritually inclined.
We’ll get into this subject a little bit further on in the book when we are dealing with the appropriate śloka’s. But for now, I will introduce a Vedic understanding of how the material energy can exist in, or be moved by, certain states or modes. There are invisible but very powerful forces that permeate the entire material energy, in all of its manifestations. This energy is referred to as the tri-guṇa or the ‘three qualities’ or as the three modes of nature. These three qualities are ‘goodness’ (sattvá-guna), ‘passion’ (raja-guna), or ‘ignorance’ (tamo-guna). The attraction to the peace and beauty of nature is an attraction to the influence of the mode of goodness. While the effect of the mode of goodness is peacefulness, happiness, and calmness, and is more subtle than the modes of passion and ignorance, nonetheless it is still absorption in the material energy; it is still part of material nature, and therefore not truly spiritual.
True spirituality must be founded upon an understanding that I am a spiritual being; I’m a spiritual entity – I’m not material. The body and mind which I am currently using and occupying, are not me, and the search for my true spiritual identity is really what the pursuit of yoga is all about. So, in many ways, this yoga process that’s been described here by Patañjali, and all the different paths of yoga, seek to do something akin to stopping the movie, in the previously used analogy. Imagine if you’re sitting in a movie house and you’re deeply absorbed and involved in a film that you see as being a really good movie, then suddenly the projector is shut down. Everyone becomes disappointed – “What’s going on!” It’s like you’ve been snapped out of a dream state, and you get rather upset because you really liked this journey – you liked this involvement, this entanglement, this total absorption, and this fantasy that’s been created, known as a movie.
So, terminating the film midway can be compared in many ways to what the process of spiritual enlightenment is really about. It means to become free from that dream state – that inebriety of material consciousness and experience – and to become absorbed in that which is actually spiritual, to be absorbed in my eternal spiritual nature. Another, and maybe more appropriate comparison, could be to the awakening from a nightmare.
Material existence is understood to be inherently painful. This becomes more apparent if we don’t just take one snippet of our so-called life, where we’re on a high and everything seems to be going well, but we look at the full movie. For example, if I have one of those canisters of film they used to use in the old projectors, and I roll out the film, then take scissors and snip out a certain number of frames. By holding that ten or twenty fames up and examining what’s going on in those frames, I cannot know what the plot or the story is; all the events that had already occurred, and how everything ends. But we have a tendency to do that with what we call our life – where we look at the high moments, holding them up as something to continuously revisit and meditate upon, and we aspire to have more of those things, as we go forward in life. But from the yogi’s perspective, the life of a person caught up in material consciousness and material existence is actually a life that cannot end particularly well.
All one has to do is visit an old-age home or spend time with someone coming to the end of their journey in a particular body, to see how it all ends and what it is they have to deal with; what they’re confronted with in that condition of extreme old age or disease and approaching death. Therefore, the yogis felt that material life was rather more like a nightmare than just a dream state. It is as if somebody is having a nightmare, and they are thrashing about, crying out, and sweating or possibly manifesting symptoms of great anxiety, and when they are awakened from that condition, immediately, there is a feeling of relief and the recognition that it was simply a passing dream. This example is sometimes used in different Vedic texts to describe the process of self-realization; of waking up from this dream state of material existence, which is simply a product of the endless fluctuations of the mind.
Our perception of this world is of a static and permanent reality, which it is not. It is something that is continuously changing. And self-realization is this journey to really rediscover who I actually am and to then exist in my eternal spiritual nature.