June 16, 2011

Patanjali’s Key Dualism: The Seer & The Seen

Part 2: Sadhanapadah

What Am I Doing & Why?

This is a continuation of the exploration – Part 1: Samadhipadah is here, and the Introduction to this enterprise is here. Please feel free to join in the discussion!

Basically I am doing a reading of Desikachar’s version of The Yoga Sutra from The Heart of Yoga and offering my own thoughts, questions and commentary along the way.

This particular chapter focuses on the process of practice and the journey towards clarity of perception. There is more here about asana, the 8 fold path of yoga, yamas and niyamas etc… Overall I think it is a great systematic description of a set of ideas about how to live one’s life as an awareness exercise and process of self-reflection. At the same time the key idea that illustrates an important distinction between dualist and non-dual conceptions of reality is revealed here.

This is Patanjali’s clear assertion that The Seer and The Seen, or God and Nature, or Purusha and Prakriti are two distinct aspects of reality. The core belief here is that the practice of yoga – in particular what we can identify as concentration-based meditation, is for the purpose of overcoming attachment to the phenomenal world of appearances (or what is Seen) and to become identified with The Seer – and thereby to know God.

This key central dualism is historically rooted in Samkhya philosophy and differs in a very pronounced way both from the provisional non-dualism of Advaita Vedanta and the more radical non-dualism of Tantra. Dualism is central to most religious thought and usually takes the form of God and the world being separate, and/or there being two separate principles/entities playing out the drama of good vs evil – like God and Satan.

What’s The Dualism/Non-Dualism Distinction All About?

Dvaita means two or dual, and Advaita means not-two or non-dual. Whether or not a spiritual philosophy is dualist or non-dual makes a huge difference in terms of how it formulates our relationship to the world, the meaning of life, the nature of reality, why we are engaging in certain practices, what we are seeking to realize.

Just think of the (dualist) Christian idea of a soul that either goes to Heaven or Hell upon death based on one’s relationship to an invisible transcendent God. Think of the (more non-dual) pagan idea, which the Christians sought to suppress, of God(s) as existing in the natural world and of festivals that celebrated nature, the body, sexuality etc.. Consider the lack of a God in Buddhism, and the emphasis instead on one’s inner psychospiritual development.

In Western philosophy, dualism generally refers to Mind/Body dualism which we are most familiar with as the belief that there is an immaterial soul (or mind) distinct from and able to be independent of the body at death. Very few modern philosophers, biologists or other scientists find Mind/Body dualism convincing, and instead see the mind (or Consciousness)  as being entirely dependent upon the mortal physical body.

The Relationship of Consciousness and Matter

This is where it can all get a little tricky, so here’s a simple key:

Samkhya (dualist) – Consciousness (Purusha) and Matter  (Prakriti) are two distinct things, there is no God.

Patanjali’s Classical Yoga (dualist) – Consciousness and Matter are two distinct things, there is a God – by becoming identified with Purusha (Consciousness)            and disentangling oneself from the phenomenal/material world, or Prakriti – including the body and mind, one can come to know God.

Advaita Vedanta (provisional non-dualist) – God is the all-pervading, ever-present nature of all things, Purusha and Prakriti are one – but we live in a world of illusion or Maya, in which we are unable to see this until we awaken.

Tantra – (non- dual) Everything that exists is a manifestation of the one Reality that is pure consciousness and bliss. Prakriti evolves through all the forms of the material world without ever losing it’s nature as pure consciousness (Purusha).

In Samkhya, the dualism (which Patanjali follows) is between Purusha (the Self/Seer/Soul/Consciousness) and Prakriti (the World/Matter/Nature). This is also an expression of a duality between the physical body and a proposed non-physical soul, and so falls into what in Western philosophy is called Mind/Body dualism, although Samkhya (and Patanjali’s Sutra) go one step further in proclaiming that Purusha is indeed distinct even from the mind. We seek to become dis-identified with Prakriti and identified with Purusha.  An interesting difference between Samkhya and Patanjali is that the former denies the existence of God, whereas Patanjali (as we shall see) says that purpose of Yoga is to come to an awareness of God.

Advaita Vedanta differs from this dualism in it’s assertion that there is only God (or Purusha) – that everything, including the world and the Self are in essence one with God, but that the world of appearances casts a veil of illusion, or Maya, over the ever-present, all-pervading Divine. So unlike the radical dualism that says God and The World are two completely different things – this position says it’s all God, but until we pierce the veil of illusion we cannot see this. The fault therefore is within us – not in the world of phenomena.

Tantra, on the other hand, sees Prakriti as evolving through the forms of the world while maintaining it’s pure nature as consciousness itself. Not only is it all God, a la Adveita Vedanta, but even the illusion is God – everything is indeed a perfect expression of the Divine. Tantra is a radical non-dualism in that it challenges conventional notions of sacred and profane and seeks to affirm everything that is – hence the breaking of taboos and embrace of sexuality for which it is mostly well known in the West.

These three (or four, if we include Patanjali’s Samkhya + God formulation) different belief systems about the relationship of Consciousness to Matter are at the heart of Indian philosophy.

As a sidenote: Perhaps we recognize, too, the ways in which popular New Age beliefs contain (amongst many other eclectic ideas) a blend of these differing positions: everything is perfect, but I have to purify myself by eating only raw foods, sacred sexuality is a path to an enlightened awakening in which I realize that there has never been a separate self, and that negative emotions and death are ultimately  illusory, there is a hundredth monkey moment coming soon in which everyone becomes conscious of our divine nature etc..

My purpose in exploring this text  is to consider it’s actual content and to propose that teachers can be trained with reference to Patanjali within his particular context, while also including other perspectives from his and our own time.

Philosophy vs. Scripture

Approached as  philosophy, we can reflect upon The Yoga Sutra’s dualistic basis, consider the contrasting perspectives that exist, and then make arguments for why we do or do not agree with it. If, however, we approach Patanjali as the ultimate authority on what yoga is and why we practice – well then we cannot question this foundational assertion.

For me, the path of philosophical inquiry makes more sense. I also think that we cannot ignore the progress of science with regard to these questions, and must consider these ancient formulations of reality as pre-scientific religious ideas that may or may not make sense to us in our current time – and indeed may or may not have much bearing on our contemporary experience of yoga and meditation.

Personally, I am developing the philosophy module of my own teacher training in a way that looks at Patanjali alongside the Vijnana Bhairava Tantra (or Radiance Sutras), and integrates  Transpersonal and Somatic Psychology, Buddhist (vipassana) meditation, and Neuroscience into a more contemporary East/West Tantra-influenced non-dual perspective that includes the mystic poetry of (especially)  Kabir, Rumi and Whitman.

To The Text..

I find in Patanjali that there is some rich, and indeed impressive overlap with my contemporary integration project – consider for example, this verse:

2.8 Unreasonable dislikes are usually the result of painful experiences in the past connected with particular objects and situations.

This is a nice tie-in to considering our emotional triggers as part of what can be made conscious in yoga and meditation and considering this through the lens of psychology as well as neuroscience (the autonomic nervous system, implicit and explicit memory, and even body-based psychologies like somatic experiencing).

2.7 Excessive attachment is based on the assumption that it will contribute to everlasting happiness.

2.9 Insecurity is the inborn feeling of anxiety for what is to come. It affects both the ignorant and the wise.

These surrounding verses above also provide for both interesting reflections from psychology and comparative reading with Buddhist ideas of grasping and aversion. At issue here is the nature of suffering, what causes it, and how to be free of it. Getting clear about the key differences between different schools of thought on these questions is a great orientation in critical thinking.

Patanjali goes on to describe quite pragmatically a kind of protocol for considering the effects of one’s actions and their causes, of asking ourselves if we are perceiving situations correctly.

Beyond the mere pragmatic intention to be as objective as possible in our personal relations – for Patanjali there is an even deeper metaphysical  crux of the matter, namely the confusion of the perceiver (Purusha) with the perceived (Prakriti) – and it is here that we get into some of the subtle metaphysics of this particular belief system.

2.20 That which perceives is not subject to any variations. But, it always perceives through the mind.

This is important! We are being told that there is somethingthat which perceives” which “is not subject to any variations.”

This something is unchanging, ever-present, invariable. Yet it always perceives through the mind.

So for Patanajali “that which perceives” and “the mind” are two distinct things.

Recognizing one’s identity with “that which perceives” is for him the purpose of yoga – and this is distinct from mind, body, the world, nature – indeed, all phenomena.

This is a HUGE philosophical statement, and should not just be taken as a given. What is he saying? Do we agree with him?

Discussion here of mind/body dualism, notions of an essential self or soul independent of the body, brain (and in this case the mind) seems quite important here. In light of contemporary knowledge and perspectives on consciousness what do we make of this idea, and how do we apply it?

One Possible Take

For me this comes down in some ways to a fascinating distinction between experience and interpretation: I think Patanjali is describing a very real and powerful experience that is worth exploring and cultivating – that of developing a witnessing awareness in meditation that can take one’s own thoughts, beliefs and even egoic identity as objects of perception.


On the other hand, the interpretation, or metaphysical assertion he draws from his meditation experience – namely that there is an unchanging, (perhaps) eternal, transcendent perceiver that is distinct from the mind or body – may be culture-bound, a product of the times, and (perhaps ironically given his central emphasis on correct perception) the result of his own misapprehension. At the very least this is an interesting point of discussion, if only to illuminate clearly the particular belief that is being asserted – ad indeed that it is a belief.

How we interpret shifts in our mental states may be very different today, based on the ever-growing data from neuroscience and our reduced tendency to assume that powerful subjective, interior experiences are evidence of a priori beliefs about the universe, God or a soul.

Verse 2.21 now gets even more interesting:

All that can be perceived has but one purpose: to be perceived.

Desikachar offers the following commentary:

In this way they serve the perceiver, but have no individuality of their own. Their purpose comes from their perception by a perceiver. In the same way food on the table is there for the guest, not for its own sake.

We are perhaps hearing the idea here that the external world exists for the (divine?) purpose of being perceived and understood by the (proposed) unchanging perceiver within us, so that we may awaken to a kind of ultimate truth about the nature of reality. This unchanging perceiver should not go un-noticed as it is a core metaphysical assertion – and this verse appears to be suggesting that the external world exists to be perceived by the perceiver.

This can be discussed with regard to the perennial themes in both Eastern and Western philosophy about the relationships between subjective consciousness and objective reality!

What comes next?

2.22 The existence of objects of perception and their appearance is independent of the needs of the individual perceiver. They exist without individual reference, to cater for the different needs of different individuals.

So we are not going so far as to propose a solipsistic or thought-created-reality model. Patanjali seems to be saying that there is indeed an outside world of objects that exist in and of themselves regardless of the needs/perception of the individual.


2.23 All that is perceived, whatever it is and whatever its effect may be on a particular individual, has but one ultimate purpose. That is to clarify the distinction between the external that is the seen and the internal that sees.

Strong statement: The ultimate purpose of everything that we can perceive regardless of its effects on us, is to clarify the distinction between that which is seen and that which sees.

Let’s be clear, we are in the heart of a metaphysical worldview here that sees the purpose of life as something very specific and the world around us as being in service of that purpose. As students I think it is important to consider this idea in contrast to other ideas about our relationship to the world, the purpose of life, etc., as well as to think through what is being said here and its possible implications. I think it is necessary to situate these statements within their particular worldview and recognize that as with all religious texts that worldview is usually stated as an absolute truth about the world, the purpose of life, what it is to be human etc..

We, however, are situated in a different time, culture and worldview and so are looking through the lens of Patanjali almost as anthropologists.

Do we think the ultimate purpose of all that is perceived is that it exists to clarify the distinction between the seer and the seen? Can we apply this statement to some real world examples? What do we think Patanjali really means?

Next comes the section on how to clarify this distinction via the 8 limbs of yoga and their details. I think this is essential for reading and discussion.

We come now to one of the essential ideas of the text, summed up by the one line:

2.42 The result of contentment is total happiness.

Here is the stated great ideal of spiritual lifetotal happiness is attainable through becoming attuned to your inner self and to a kind of higher spiritual truth. The happiness of the external world is fleeting, but finding contentment within oneself is abiding.

Here’s a place where I think some interesting discussion can occur: I think questioning what the ideal of “total happiness” refers to is an important exercise, especially as it relates to concepts of enlightenment and the shadow that often accompanies this idea – namely of judging and or disowning the pain and sadness that is part of human life and can in fact be addressed via our practice in compassionate ways that are inclusive and healing.

Too often I think students in the initial stages of spirituality settle on an oversimplified ideal about how to be spiritual or what enlightenment looks like and think it is merely an idea to be believed and aspired to – without recognizing the process that we all have to go through as we grow, develop, heal and integrate.

I have seen this again and again lead to both a rigid judging of self and other and a kind of punishing self-blame for not being happy – because after all it is just the fault of my wrong thinking or laziness etc., when a more compassionate understanding of suffering might be more effective.

Granted, Patanjali is describing a process here, but personally, I would shy away from black-and-white statements about things like “total happiness” and those from book one about being free from error or in touch with an ultimate truth.

In theory these assertions sound interesting, but in practice what do they really mean, and do we see the danger of buying into them literally?

Is it necessary to believe in the final possibility of either “total happiness” or “error-free knowledge” in order to be on board with the gradual process of improving one’s health, clarity, happiness and awareness through the practice of yoga?

I suppose my thrust here is to use Patanjali as one doorway into discussing these kinds of ideas and the differing perspectives: East, West, classical, tantric, psychological, spiritual, philosophical – to get students thinking about the big questions that human beings have always pondered and on which the Yoga Sutra is but one specific perspective.

2.45 Reverence to God promotes the ability to completely understand any object of choice.

Two questions – do we have to believe in God (and which definition of “God” are we using) to be Yogis, and is this statement actually correct if we think it through for a moment?

The next few verses discuss underlying principles of asana and pranayama for the first time and are interesting and uncontroversial in that regard.

More to come on Book 3 as my Patanjali adventure continues!

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