May 9, 2011

Seize the Day, but Don’t Seize Up

By Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie

(A continuation of the yoga 2.0 8 Limbs series.)

The yoga of Patanjali offers a powerful key to unlock our socially constructed identities, so that we may be more available to the present. The key is aparigraha. This article will examine the fifth yama through several lenses: its meaning to reincarnation and social identity, the alternative that Patanjali offer’s to the Gita’s lessons on dharma, and how the etymology of the word itself suggests that with this concept, Patanjali is addressing a new era of human consciousness dawning in his day, characterized by individual agency and the capacity to choose how to live. We’ll start with a close reading of the term and its key descriptive verse. Then with the help of cultural anthropology and evolutionary theory, we’ll look at how aparigraha belongs to a wave of human evolution that we are still riding.

Aparigraha is the last of the yamas  (an active attitude a practitioner would evoke to improve her relationships to others). The term has been translated variously as “non-acceptance” (Hariharananda Aranya), “non-possessiveness” (I.K. Taimni), “non-greed” (Swami Satchidananda), “non-receiving” (Swami Vivekananda) and “freedom from wanting” (Chip Hartranft), and “refrainment from covetousness” (Edwin Bryant). As is common, the Sanskrit blends the colours of all of these, and so none are complete on their own. “Non-grasping” is actually etymologically (and homologically) closest –– so we’ll use this translation to work with.

What would we be better off not grasping? The answer might be most easily approached through the stated result of the discipline.

Patanjali records in 2.39 (aparigraha-sthairye janma-kathanta-sambodhai) that when non-grasping is consistent, the practitioner gains insight into the patterning of her life. (This is harmonic with 3.18, in which meditation on present habits gives insight into past lives.) The key word here is janma, which means “birth”, and through much of Indian literature implies the alleged karmic stew that has produced one’s present identity. “Janma prakriti” in Ayurveda refers to birth constitution, derived from a blend of genetic origins, natal circumstance, and the qualities brought to the cradle by the jiva – the transmigrating person. “Jataka” astrology is an investigation of the flow of karmic influences that the transmigrating person brings to the moment of birth. Studying these influences methodically is said to allow detachment from their personal magnetism, enabling a more observatory connection to underlying patterns. It’s just like the fact that a study of meter and diction in Shakespeare can withdraw focus from identification with King Lear to give insight into the emotional grammar he shares with the Fool.

The verse suggests that the investigation into why you are who you are is made easier to the extent that you view your identity as the temporary product of causes and conditions. Loosening your narrative grip on who you appear to be now can give the freedom to recognize that it could have been, or might yet be, otherwise. Or: recognizing that you are a storyteller can bring the details and flow of your story into tighter focus. It’s the difference between being a character in a novel and being a novelist: a matter of scope and perspective. Non-grasping is a distancing technique that pulls the ego structure out of the battlefield, and onto the plateau. Aparigraha invokes less action, and more observation.

Encoded here is the famed yogic critique of the caste system. All ascetic traditions invoke a rejection of the personal identity that is dictated by social structure. (They then proceed to reject the subtler identity that is dictated by self-narrative – but that’s another topic.) Remembering that, as a yama, non-grasping is meant to improve the practitioner’s relationships with others, the meaning of 2.39 opens up a little bit more: non-grasping allows the practitioner to see the fluidity of personal identity, and that the bindings of caste and culture are provisional. It’s a short step between this sentiment and the declaration that class distinctions are arbitrary and immoral: an argument taken up by most progressive philosophies since. The political implication of 2.39 is this: dis-identify yourself from your circumstance, and you can better see its nature, how it came to be, and that it can change. This will definitely improve your relationships by reducing social assumptions, barriers, and the conflicts these bring.

But this yogic appeal to freedom in social identity chafes against other yogic perspectives. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna is careful to explain to Arjuna that caste does not come from birth status but from svabhava (self-nature). Unfortunately, this has often served as a circular apologetic for caste. I.e.: it’s not the stratification of wealth that creates servants – they create themselves through their servile nature, and so on. Regardless, the crux of Krishna’s argument to Arjuna is that he is a warrior through and through, and that because of his self-nature he cannot escape the destiny of his training and role within society. Moreover, it is implied that the sensible unfolding of the divine plan is enhanced by Arjuna fulfilling his caste responsibility.

Some scholars believe that the Gita, which is clearly a later insertion into the Mahabharata, is actually in part an orthodox polemic. Arjuna, like the Buddhists who seem to threaten the social hierarchy by abandoning jobs and families in the fog of existential malaise, has frozen in the middle of the battlefield, dumbfounded by the absurdity of his situation, and is contemplating complete withdrawal from his identity and responsibility. Krishna’s admonishment to stand and fight, and his mockery of Arjuna’s lack of manliness, is a stern rejection of this impulse to doubt.

Krishna is suggesting that it is full acceptance of one’s temporal identity and full acquiescence to its demands that best liberates self-perception and encourages integration. From an evolutionary perspective, his point is attractive. After all, it is the bird who is fully committed to being a bird and pursues all bird-like tasks with gusto who will most change the category of birdness, by passing down the most efficient traits and behaviours that his complete involvement has discovered. The bird is able to do this naturally because it lacks that most confounding of human gifts: self-consciousness – the ability to abstract oneself from activity to the extent that the activity’s meaning can be called into question.

In brief, Krishna’s message suggests: “Stop thinking so much, be who you are meant to be to the fullest, and this commitment will transform you. Use grasping to move towards non-grasping.”

Patanjali suggests something quite different: “Think a little more deeply, so that you can deconstruct who you are down to the granular level. Then you’ll be better equipped to choose how to be. Abandon grasping, especially upon your identity, because it was never honest, and it never really worked for you.”


But Patanjali isn’t simply trying to liberate his students from caste. He’s also heralding a new vision of human consciousness that might have been impossible only a few centuries before his time. To understand this, we’ll have to take a closer look at the word aparigraha itself.

“Grasping” may well be the English cognate of graha.  But graha also carries with it, out of the ancient past, the much stronger meanings of “seizure”, or “possession”. It is the word used in East Indian Astrology for each planet – the graha is the “seizer” of one’s latent patterning. Examples: the sun will seize one’s propensities for leadership; Mars will seize one’s propensities for aggression; Venus will seize one’s propensities for the enjoyment of sensual delight. It’s not up to you when they choose to seize you, and it’s virtually impossible to resist their seizure. In Ayurveda, graha is the root of the word for small intestine (grahani), a fierce pitta organ that wrestles maximal nutrition from the food it is given, while incinerating pathogens with its acidic fire. When the small intestine is inflamed by excess heat, pitta is said to overflow and course through the entire body, urging the tissues and emotions into an upward spiral of rage and inflammation. In the same way, provoked vata in the body-mind will overload the nerves with superfluous thought and movement, leading, potentially, to actual seizures! In both Jyotisha and Ayurveda, the seizer is inexorable, running on its own power, oblivious to the personal will or sense of “I”. The planets and doshas possess us.

Or at least they did, in the time prior to abstract introspection.

For both of these meanings hearken back to a period in human consciousness in which Patanjali’s advice to cognitively withdraw oneself from circumstance and stimulus might well have been impossible. For at least 10 thousand years before the Axial age, in which Patanjali is an active player, we existed as a species with but a negligible sense of internality, of personhood, of subjective agency. In short, we existed without the consciousness we both rue and enjoy today, a central feature of which is our capacity to distinguish ourselves from our environment, our authority figures, our social roles, our thoughts, and even our bodily sensations. The pre-Axial age person would never have quoted the Upanishadic “I am not my body; I am not my mind” when undergoing physical pain or mental stress, because the notion of “I” (which strains to transcend both body and mind) would have been meaningless to him. This is why we can’t find the modern “I” (who plots, decides, prevaricates, and meditates) in our earliest literature: the Vedic hymns, Homer’s Iliad, etc. What we find instead are authorless accounts of gods and winds and rains and biological humours that possess humans and nature, either for their sport, or to unfold some impersonal and grandiose plan. Each part of the body was the seat of a god, who directed its actions with no input from the body’s owner.

This type of pre-modern consciousness has been called by Julian Jaynes “the bicameral mind”. Fully exploring his controversial hypothesis would take a proper book, so we’ll limit our comments here and encourage you to read his work directly.

Suffice it to say, Patanjali stands at a crucial threshold in the evolution of human consciousness. He writes with the full awareness that the gods and humours have mercilessly (but functionally) possessed the human body and mind for as long as cultural memory holds. But along with other ascetics, he is discovering something new: internal contemplation, internal agency, the capacity to be alone and self-possessed enough that you could study in detail the subconscious generation of your experience. You don’t have to act because a god is seizing you. You can now watch yourself be seized by an old pattern, and you can now choose not to seize up in response.

In this light, the Gita is an interesting bridging-text between two ages of consciousness. On the one hand, Krishna is rationally encouraging Arjuna to know himself through the yoga of meditation. On the other hand, he is literally possessing the warrior with his presence, stopping time in the middle of the battlefield, holding Arjuna enthralled with his speech, and then his cosmic form. We watch a human be seized by a god, who tells him, paradoxically, to be free.

Patanjali is not telling a story, but if he was, it wouldn’t contain a scene like this. He’s writing in an era in which the direct and physical seizure of humans by gods is a distant memory which lingers only in vestiges of non-agency. 2.39 affirms the new paradigm: “Give up the old ways in which you feel possessed by a planet or some wind inside your gut, or by a society that insists on telling you who you are. Refuse to be seized by anything outside of you. Close the door on the age of non-agency. Make a decision to hold things lightly, as you would wish to be held. Stop believing in a world of seizing gods, so that you can begin to look at where you’re seizing yourself by the throat.”

In Patanjali, we have moved from the Vedic era of possession to an early-modern era of self-possession, in which neither the gods nor social structures should be driving self-definition. It is from this vantage point that Scott and I take this stab at a new translation of 2.39. In it, we try to draw attention to the verse’s socio-political nature as a yama, while diffusing the metaphysics of reincarnation into what may be more relevant to us all presently: connectivity.

2.39: Self-possession allows you to define yourself on your own terms, while revealing your interdependence with all things.

(This verse is excerpted from threads of yoga: a remix, which we’ll be launching at Yoga Festival Toronto, on August 20th of this year.)


We can seize around an identity.  Or we can be seized by a social role, or by a god, or by the stars, or by an errant wind. Patanjali affirms that we can leave behind both seizing and the act of being seized, to choose connection, to choose presence.


Matthew Remski is an author, yoga and ayurvedic therapist and educator, and co-founder of Yoga Community Toronto. With Scott Petrie he is co-creator of yoga 2.0, a project in writing (one book done, eight more in the sushumna-chute) and the embodiment of all things post-dogmatic.

yoga 2.0: shamanic echoes, is now available for kindle and other e-readers.

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