One of the classic texts of the Yoga tradition, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, is the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Within these teachings, Patanjali lays down a quintessential definition of “yoga” that has become a bedrock of modern Yoga practice. In Verse 2, the Sutras read:
YOGAS CITTA VRTTI NIRODHAH
Which can translated in various ways:
“Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuation of consciousness”
“Yoga is the restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff.”
“Yoga is the stopping of the turnings of the mind.”
Well, what on earth are the “fluctuations of consciousness,” “modifications of the mind-stuff,” or “turnings of the mind”? And why should we be concerned with them coming to an end?
The turnings of the mind are our habitual mental chatter, the interior monologue running through our brains almost every moment of every day. It is the voice that constantly proclaims its like, its dislikes, its judgments, and its comparisons. It is what carries on our inner autobiography; our feelings of being a good or a bad person, beautiful or ugly, a success or failure, worthy of love or deserving of contempt. It is what worries and obsesses about the future, as well as lives in pride or shame over the past.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this mental chatter. But it tends to create a problem when we habitually identity ourselves with this stream of thought.
Ask yourself this question: where do you most strongly experience your sense of “I”? If you were to say “I exist”, where do you most feel that coming from? Your big toe? Your arteries? Or perhaps your spleen? No, most people (at least in our culture) would answer that “I” is most strongly located somewhere behind the eyes and between the ears. Located ourselves primarily in the head, we connect our identity with the stream of thoughts passing through the mind. This forms our most basic sense of who we are.
From the time of some of our earliest records of human history, human beings have sought through various contemplative practices to bring this mental stream to a stop. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, ascetic practices, drumming, dancing, and singing can all become paths towards turning down the volume of our inner chatter so that something else, something deeper, might be heard. Why? Is it a form of intellectual suicide? Does it mean becoming a mindless bump on a log? No, not at all. By such an attempt, human beings have sought a way to peace, profound happiness, and liberation from suffering.
They realized that the reflective nature of our thoughts – our ability to think about our thinking, and even think about our thinking about our thinking – leaves us in perpetual anxiety about our lives and actually creates an illusory barrier between ourselves and the world around us.
When we give all our attention to this constantly critiquing voice in the head, we subtly disconnect ourselves from what is happening right in front of us. If you are in the midst of an experience and are busy the entire time judging and commenting to yourself on everything – the warmth or coldness of the room, the quality of the company around you, other things you could be doing at this moment – then you aren’t really living in that present moment. You are “stuck up in the head,” too self-conscious to fully be engaged with the experience you are having. It is a little like constantly checking your phone for missed calls or texts while on a first date – it shows you aren’t really interested.
There are days when, feeling a little blue or tired, I can walk through the entire day in a sort of “blah” feeling, wrapped up in whatever crummy feelings I’m going through. If someone were to ask me later how my day went or what I did or saw, I might draw a blank on the contents of the day. I was so wrapped up in my mental “stuff” that I didn’t really notice the beautiful park I drove by on my way to work, or the smell of the rain during the afternoon, or the way my cat stretched himself as I opened the door coming home. This mental chatter keeps us from, in the words of Ram Dass, “being here now.”
Awakening to life therefore involves turning down the volume on this inner noise and instead listening more deeply to what is really going on.
For instance, if you are in a conversation with someone and you’re the one doing all the talking, you aren’t really connecting at all with the other person. You aren’t really having a conversation; you are having a monologue in someone else’s presence. It also means that you probably won’t learn or grow much from that conversation, because you’re just repeating what you already know. But when you become silent and listen, allowing the other person to speak, you expose yourself to new perspective and points of view. You grow, you evolve, you expand.
Well, life is the same way. We could think of our every day lives as a conversation with the world. If we are the ones doing all the talking, by means of our constant internal judgments, comparison, and commentary, then we aren’t really listening to what life may be trying to tell us. Even in prayer, when we are supposed to be seeking answers from God, most people in our culture pray by talking the whole time. Thus it has been said that whereas prayer is talking to God, meditation is listening to God.
So, let us try a meditation of deep listening. You may want to read this first and then go and experiment.
Find a comfortable seat, whether in a chair or sitting in meditation on the floor. Close your eyes and place your hands comfortably in the lap or on the knees.
Bring all of your attention to your sense of hearing. Imagine that you are one giant ear and your only purpose is to hear. Listen to the sounds around you. Maybe you hear a bird chirping outside, or cars driving some distance away, or the sound of faint music in the background.
Whatever it is, just listen, with no judgment, commentary, or interpretation. As Alan Watts once said, “The sound of the rain needs no translation.”
When thoughts begin to arise in the mind, treat them as just another thing to listen to. There is just a deep listening.
What you may begin to notice is that within the quietness of mind, the most ordinary sounds of every day life take on a staggering quality of beauty. The sound of the wind becomes a music just as beautiful as those played by orchestras. The flowing sounds of ocean waves become poems for the ear.
If you listen deeply enough, you may notice that in the midst of such beautiful sound, there is no sound of one listening. That is because there is no real separation between the knower and the known, the experience and the one having the experience. This lack of separation, which was only an illusion in the first place, is the experience of “yoga,” which literally means “yoke” or “union.”
Yoga is a practice of deep listening, turning down the volume of our mental noise, so that we may hear the wisdom of the Universe more clearly.
~ Matthew Foley