Two years ago, while in Pune, I attended a talk that Guruji gave to a number of doctors and meditators. He ended the talk by saying that we must become seers rather than seekers. He then quoted sutra 11.17, which he translates in Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali as. "The cause of pain is the association of the seer - atma - with the seen - prakrti - and the remedy lies in their dissociation."
His taik and the points he made have stayed with me, and so in this article I will look at three questions: What is a seeker? What is a seer? How do we learn to see and make the transition from seeker to seer in lyengar Yoga?
PRAKRTI, PURUSA AND ATMAN
In order to talk about the seeker and the seer, we need to review two very important Sanskrt terms: prakrti and purusa. Since neither of these terms has a perfect English counterpart, we need to stretch from a literal translation of the terms to an intuitive understanding.
Prakrti describes nature, the world in which we live. It is "the seen." This includes both the world outside of us and the world inside of us. All that we experience through our senses, emotions, mind and intelligence is prakrti. All aspects of our body, emotions and thoughts - what we see, feel and know - is prakrti.
Purusa is the transcendent Self, unbound by the world in which we live. It is a very spiritual essence within us. It is unknown through either our senses or our mind' it is known only through stillness of prakrti.
We should also know the term atman, which denotes the seer. Atman means purusa. It can be understood as the spiritual essence within each and all of us. With these terms in mind, we can begin.
WHAT IS A SEER?
Sutra 11.17 suggests that. our suffering is caused because the purusa or atman is bound to prakrti, and to become free of our suffering we must learn to free the spiritual essence within us from the identification with our experiences in the world around us.
In our daily lives, we do not experience the seer within, from moment to moment. Rather, we are caught up in our circumstances, absorbed in the world around and within us. Every day, moment to moment, we fee! our bodies and emotions, our family and friends, our jobs and accomplishments. We experience these aspects of ourselves directly. From the perspective of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, all of these things are part of nature - prakrti - the world in which we live.
As we live in the world, we are caught up in our needs and desires, and these desires make seekers of us. When we are hungry, we seek food. When we are lonely, we seek solace. More often than not, we are hungry with all kinds of desire. We seek and satisfy, time and time again, in the perpetual motion of desire. Sometimes we get stuck in the hunger-seeking part of the cycle, and we suffer with frustration. At other times, when we are satisfied, we become frustrated because our satisfaction does not last long enough. In this way, we are bound to the material world. Always caught in the cycle of seeking and fulfilment, we are rarely quiet inside.
Some of us may feel a hunger of the soul. We feel that there is something deeper in our lives, so we become seekers. But does seeking work? Or does it simply perpetuate the same pattern of inner restlessness at a subtler level? Sutra 11.17 suggests that as long as we are caught up in the world, even while seeking something higher, we are bound to suffer. To become free of suffering, we must learn to free our consciousness from identification with the world around us, including the process of seeking.
Transcendence, which takes us to the realm of the Self, is not known by seeking. It is known through the path of seeing. Sutra II.20 makes the point very well; it describes the seer as "pure consciousness. He witnesses nature without being reliant on it." In this sutra. there is no mention of fighting nature or conquering it. No looking for consciousness or seeking it. We simply learn to see. So let us look at how Guruji educates us to 'see', to 'know the seer".
USING ASANA TO SEE
In lyengar Yoga, asana is the link throughout our practice. With asana, we learn to 'see.' We explore from the gross to the subtle. We examine our body, our emotions and our mind. We move from the 'known' to the 'unknown' and in the process of practising we unmask our ignorance - avidya - in all its facets.
As we begin our practice of asana, most of us discover we do not know our bodies very well. We stand and move without awareness. We hurt ourselves without realising why. As Guruji has asked, "How do you expect to know God, if you do not know your big toe?" We also realise that our mind is like a wild horse. It follows an instinctive seeking and it runs un-harnessed. We need to transform this mental wildness; asana is the bit and reins by which we harness the mind and focus its strength.
Seeing is an unveiling. As we learn to see clearly, we must understand and recognise avidya within us. In the second chapter, Sadhana Pada, Patanjali states that avidya, "not seeing clearly," is the cause of our suffering. -Asana helps us to discover, experience and begin to overcome the five facets of avidya.
THE FIVE FACETS OF AVIDYA
First, there is simple blindness: not seeing. For example, in our asanas we might not feel the sensations in the inner groins, where we are very tight. Even though there are sensations, we are blind to them. Blind, that is, until we hurt ourselves. Often we hurt ourselves physically, because we cannot feel the subtle effects of our actions until it is too late. There are many examples of simply not seeing. Guruji's genius has been to help us to see and feel throughout the body in all the asanas.
NOT SEEING BUT THINKING THAT WE DO
The second form of avidya is not seeing, complicated by thinking we see. A typical example of this occurs in students as they move into Utthita Trikonasana. Asked to bend at the hip, a student might bend at the waist and/or throw the lower ribs forward. This type of action masks the blindness in the hips. Students are often quite sure that they are making the correct actions simply because they feel the action taking place. Complicated ignorance is doubly dangerous, because we are sure to hurt ourselves by ignorance, by thinking that we know, when we actually do not. A teacher's feedback can help us to cut through these misconceptions about ourselves.
THE IGNORANCE OF ATTACHMENT
The third type of ignorance occurs when our attention is consumed by what we want This shows up in two basic ways. First, our mind can focus on the ideal asana in such a way that it misses the real asana. Again, Utthita Trikonasana provides a good example. Students want to touch the floor with the hand, typically at the expense of spinal and pelvic alignment. They are so absorbed in the image of the asana that they do not realise how twisted their efforts are. As we develop in our asana practice we should have an accurate understanding of our limits and develop ourselves realistically. This does not mean "do not try." It means "work well." The second aspect of the "being caught in desire" form of avidya is that we want to feel good. Many people come to yoga for stress reduction. They want to relax and feel better. While this is certainly an outcome of yoga, to focus on feeling good all the time will limit development and understanding.
Tapas - the transformative discipline is an important action in yoga. By the practice of tapas we challenge and transform ourselves. In a sense, tapas is the opposite of stress reduction. It is "stress focusing." Without tapas we may flow and glow. But will we ever go beyond our attachment to feeling good?
THE IGNORANCE OF AVERSION
The fourth aspect of avidya involves avoiding the things that we do not want to experience. We tend to avoid whatever is uncomfortable. This keeps us in a place of safety in which we are not challenged and cannot grow. To face this type of avidya, we need to learn to experience the unpleasant with dispassion. Forward bends provide a good example. The psychological and emotional resistance to releasing can be tremendous, and it is not always "pain" that we are resisting. It may be the unfamiliar, which we resist, or it may be the unconscious memories locked in the body's tissues that we do not want to face. Whatever the reason, sometimes our body and mind resist and hold rather than release.
IGNORANCE OF HABIT
This brings up the final aspect of avidya: We hold on to what we know. Even if our lives are not working for us, we stay with the familiar. It is built into our habits and our reflexes. If we are used to throwing our lower ribs forward, we will come back to that action time and time again. Even if this action causes us pain, tension or distress, we hold on to it because it is familiar.
So there are two common themes in avidya. The first is that we are not aware. The second is that we have an ulterior motive, often unconscious, that drives us.
MAKING THE TRANSITION FROM SEEKER TO SEER THROUGH ASANA SADHANA.
In Yoga Vrksa [The Tree of Yoga), Guruji describes in overview how we can develop ourselves through asana, how we can learn to "see." In the first stage of asana, we act through the karmendriyas, the organs of action. We learn to position ourselves well. When we act steadily, we can express the beauty and fullness of the asana. Simultaneously, we develop our inner attention. We are constantly receiving a lot of information through the skin, our organ of perception. In our practice of asana, we learn to feel these impulses more accurately. We train ourselves to be present, fully and continually, to see and feel what is going on. Our action and feeling meet. Through the efferent nerves - karmanadis - we act. Through our afferent nerves - jnananadis -we gain knowledge.
As we practise, we refine both our sensitivity and our actions. We learn to recognise our action and movement patterns, and with persistence we become aware of our unconscious reflexes, habits and behavioural patterns. Some of our behavioural patterns are quite predictable. For example, when we feel unpleasant about something, we try to avoid it If we have low back pain, we avoid those actions that might cause pain in the lower back.
If we are stiff in one area, like the hips in Utthita Trikonasana, we over-move in another area round the lower back, or throw the lower ribs forward. With observation, we get to know ourselves. Our unconscious tendencies become conscious.
MEDITATION IN ASANA
As we turn our attention inward, we learn to draw our senses inward - pratyahara - and focus our mind - dharana. The typical image of meditation is that it is done sitting;
but in lyengar Yoga we cultivate meditation directly in the action of the asana. We act, we see, we pause and reflect; and then we act again. In the process, we cultivate the discriminating mind. Guruji says that there should be a space between when we receive the message from the organs of perception and when the message returns to the organs of action.
This he calls "the space of meditation." Pausing between sensing and acting breaks our reflexes and gives us the opportunity to act consciously. We learn to pause and to feel the effects of our action. In the quiet between sensation and action, we learn to see. With the discriminating mind helping us to develop the right actions in an asana, we move from the gross to the subtle. We refine our actions and bring equal balance everywhere. This Guruji describes as dhyana. "When there is equal balance everywhere there is dhyana in the flesh, in the skin, in the mind and in the intellect, so there is oneness throughout."
The practice of asana is so thoroughly practical. We have our bodies, our senses, and our minds, and we bhng them together, moment to moment, seeing the truth about ourselves. There is a constant dynamic between the body, the senses, and the mind. Within that play, we create balance and stillness. The more we practise, with the application of our mental faculty, we develop a sense of witness within us.
We develop a "pure observer" in ourselves mat sees me world, me body and senses accurately and fully. This pure witness is purusa. As the purusa i penetrates prakrti, we begin to penetrate our true Nature. We become the Seer within the asana. If we maintain a watchful awareness, we can learn to act without attachment. This leads to freedom of the Soul. This progression from the gross to the subtle is the beauty of asana and the teaching of Guruji. I hope it inspires you as much as it inspires me.
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