Yoga-practice: Twin Goals

In my article on yogābhyāsa the emphasis was on working with the mind to accomplish the twin-goals of steadiness of mind (cittanaiścalya) and purity of mind (cittaśuddhi). If the goal were to achieve material success, there is no need for the latter. Anyone dedicated to the goal of being the most accomplished in a field of choice is able to develop steadiness of mind without resorting to any spiritual practice.

On the other hand, purity of mind is a must for one who is interested in liberation-while-living (jīvanmukti), or hoping to be liberated after death (videhamukti) or in Heaven after death (svarga).  Thus, yoga-practice is a necessary adjunct to seekers of freedom or Heaven, irrespective of their chosen path.

The question: Is a steady and pure mind possible to achieve? For us living in a society with family, demands and aspirations, this goal of gaining a relative degree of mental equanimity and purity seems to be far fetched. From observing myself as well as others, I find that reaching this goal is not a quantum jump. It is more like a slow climb. If one goes on this path it helps the seeker towards the next aspect of practice. I remember two sayings from two different countries: “Even a ten thousand mile journey starts with the first step” and, “Even granite gets ground by crawling of ants”. This is what I have been doing and, the granite of the mind is getting ground!

Though this relatively pure and distraction-free mind one has by dedicated yoga-practice, it is only the necessary condition for freedom (or heaven) but is not sufficient.  A relatively calm and pure mind is the stepping stone leading to knowledge-practice (jnanabhyasa).  This is the focus of this article.

Yoga-practice and Knowledge-practice

Connection

The relationship between these two paths of yoga-practice and knowledge-practice, is traditionally considered to be one of cause and effect (hetu-hetumad-bhāva-sambabdha). That is, yoga-practice leads to knowledge-practice. One may think that once knowledge-practice starts, yoga-practice can be stopped! I would add that these two, yoga-practice and knowledge-practice form a positive feedback loop not just synergy. That is, yoga-practice helps knowledge-practice to continue with greater dedication to gain clarity. And, pursuing knowledge-practice results in a more consistent yoga-practice .

What is knowledge-practice, Jñānābhyāsa?

I mentioned in yogābhyāsa that the term yoga-practice, yogābhyāsa has a different connotation than practice of yoga. Likewise, the term knowledge-practice, Jñānābhyāsa also has a different connotation than the practice of knowledge even though the Sanskrit compound Jñābhyāsa can be resolved to mean both. 

By “practice of knowledge” I mean the application of any skill that one develops through a clear and error-free knowledge of his chosen field / profession through “knowledge-practice”. Thus “knowledge-practice’ is precondition for ‘practice of knowledge”. Note that both “practice-of-knowledge” and knowledge-practice take plenty of time and dedication, not unlike the process of gaining steadiness in yoga-practice. It is important to stress that knowledge-practice for secular ends does not necessitate purity of mind, that is freedom from habitual cravings and aversions which manifest in impeccable ethical behavior.

Knowledge-practice of the spiritual kind needs mental purity as well. In this I include something believed to be achievable after death, that is, it cannot be a perceptual cognition (pratyakṣa) here while living.  This is technically called parokṣa. This includes the belief in Heaven propounded by all religions and the concept of liberation after death (videhamukti) discussed in some liberation philosophies. This bring us to look at the three liberation philosophies I focus on. But my emphasis is not on a posthumous reward of liberation after death, which is not different from reaching Eternal Heaven after death. Rather it is living while liberated (jīvanmukti).

This, indeed is what the three liberation philosophies Advaita-vedānta, Sāṅkhya-yoga and Buddhism emphasize despite major philosophical (metaphysical and epistemological) differences among them. Ironically, in my experience I find that most scholars of these three systems seem to be more interested in discussing the differences than the unifying goal behind these seemingly disparate systems.

Yoga and knowledge-practices: Similarities

Yoga-practice and knowledge-practice are similar in only two ways.  The first is to gain steadiness in practice. This is best expressed by sage Patañjali in his Yogasūtras: “To be on a stable ground (steadiness), one has to practice for a long time without interruptions and with dedication (Yogasūtra, Samādhipāda 1:14).”  The second similarity is repetition which applies to just one aspect of knowledge-practice.  Repetition is necessary to master the chanting of scriptures or to focus on the teaching. These two similarities are centered on a belief system chosen by an adult, or learned from birth and upbringing. For example, in Vedic chanting, even to gain mastery for correct pronunciation with proper accents, takes more than a decade! It is true of Vedic chanting but is also necessary for the life-long study of the Bible, Quran or Torah.

Yoga and knowledge-practices: Differences

The goal of yoga is to gain something that one does not have (aprāptasya prāptiḥ). Thus, yoga-practice is a volitional action. In the most general way, any human activity used to gain or achieve something is yoga. One has a choice regarding actions:  do it, abandon it altogether or do it differently (kartum śakyam, akartum śakyam, anyathāvā kartum śkayam). The choice is left to the person (puruṣa), so it is called puruṣatantra. For example, a goal of yoga-practice—to gain steadiness of mind—can be achieved by any number of ways:  āsana practice, breathing exercises, distance-running, weight lifting or other activities. This choice applies even to the mental act of meditation since there is a choice to meditate, or to not meditate, or to use different techniques of meditation such as watching the breath (prāṇavīkṣaṇam), witnessing thoughts (sākṣībhāva), or repeating a sacred name (nāma-japa).  

On the other hand, types of cognition are not volitional since they are not subject to one’s choice!  For example, choicelessness is illustrated as following: if the eyes are open and if the mind is engaged when looking at a flower, one cannot choose not to see. One can choose to ignore or close one’s eyes but both are volitional actions. That is, knowledge, which is a cognition-centered “activity” is not really an activity since it is not left to human will / choice, but is dependent only the object, (vastu) – be it a flower or sound or taste or listening to some talk on “Schrodinger’s cat”. Tradition calls this vastutantra. Thus, gaining knowledge, which is really the removal of ignorance, the very foundation of any secular or spiritual knowledge, is not an action. 

One may object to this reasoning by citing the effort required to gain knowledge of the world, namely the sciences or knowledge of oneself. The response is simple. The volitional effort is only to create the conditions necessary to focus the mind.  This falls in the realm of practice that is discussed in detail in yogakṣema.

Foundational Paradigms of Liberation Philosophies

At this point it is necessary to relook at the foundational paradigm of all liberation philosophies to understand the critical need for knowledge-practice for a seeker of liberation. Irrespective of diversity among the three systems – Buddhism, Sānkhya-yoga and Vedānta – the foundational paradigm is the same, namely one is “already free by nature” and the sense of weariness one feels is due to ignorance of this simple fact. This sense of weariness is expressed as “sorrow” in one system, while the other two systems express this as “removal of three-fold afflictions”. This means that the only way to remove ignorance is not by action but by gaining knowledge centered on your self. This can be accomplished only by knowledge-practice.

The state of ignorance is common to all human beings. My teacher used to drive home this point. We are all born totally ignorant of oneself, of the world and of the Creator. World-centered ignorance becomes less as we study. Ignorance of the Creator becomes less as we study religion.  But for the ignorance of the nature of oneself, or the truth of world, all beings and God, there is nothing in secular or religious literature to help remove this ignorance. This is where liberation philosophies matter to any human being really interested in liberation.

Thus, the popular idea of “realization” variously called freedom, mokṣa, nibbāna, nirvāna, satori, nirvikalpasamâdhi, asṁprajñātasmâdhi, etc., is one of removal of ignorance centered on oneself (and the world). This is why “achieving liberation” is technically called “gaining of what is already gained” (prāptasya prāpti). This is because no one can “gain” what one already is! The example by my teacher, Swami Dayananda, explains the impossibility of gaining what you already have by any action including yoga-practice. He would say, “Even God cannot bless you with a head on your shoulders. He can give you one more head if you do the activity of prayer, but cannot give you the one you already have!” It is, thus, clear that this “gain” is outside the scope of yogakṣemabased activities.

Need for Knowledge-practice for “Liberation”

A natural objection can be “If knowledge takes place spontaneously, as it were, without my will, why do I not I “realize” after a reading of Dhammapāda or Sāṅkhyakārikā or Māṇḍūkya-upaniṣad?” The answer is simple:  the powers of belief, habit and perceptual cognition are all constantly contradicting the teaching that you are already free. So, one tends to dismiss these philosophies as mere intellectual exercises or “theoretical knowledge” or wishful thinking. This is not useful! This is where one has to note that irrespective of the type of knowledge (of things or of oneself), one has to know when learning is complete. Knowledge one acquires has to be free from error and doubt.

Thus, to “realize” this existing fact is to be able to “see” this fact despite agitations of the mind:  in short, not to “take the mind to be me”.  Total identification of me with my mind is called bondage, and complete disassociation of this ignorance-born identification is called freedom / realization / direct experience or any other name such as nibbāna.  The path from identification to dis-identification is, indeed, called knowledge-practice. The mind, coupled with taking perceptual experience as real is what is meant by the statement: “Mind, indeed, is the cause for bondage and freedom.” (mana eva manuṣyāṇām kāraṇam bandha-mokṣayoḥ)

A few readers well-versed in Vedānta may wonder what I really mean by jñānâbhyāsa, knowledge-practice. By this term I include the triple steps of listening, analysis, and not losing sight of what one has learned – śravaṇa-manananididhyāsanam.  Regarding why one does not spontaneously feel ‘“liberated” despite the study of liberation philosophical teaching, my Vedānta teacher, Swami Chinmayanda used to say, “It is not enough to go through the Upaniṣads, the Upaniṣads have to go through you!”  The same idea is expressed by Śaṅkarācārya by the expression avagataprajñah, meaning one who has understood the content of the teaching and not a śrutaprajñaḥ, one who had just listened to the teaching..

Conclusion

Yoga-practice (yogābhyāsa) and knowledge-practice (jñānābhyāsa) have different ends. Yoga-practice is a deliberate action with a goal to be achieved and is subject to choice. The goal can be reached in a number of ways or one could choose to abandon the goal. Yoga is defined as gaining of what is to be gained (aprāptasya prāpti). Thus, in yoga-practice one tries to achieve the twin goals of a relatively steady mind and to be relatively free from cravings and aversions.The role of Yoga-practice, yogābhyāsa, is to prepare a steady mind (cittanaiścalya) with minimal buffeting by cravings and aversions, known as purity of mind (cittaśuddhi). Secular pursuits need only a steady mind and not a pure mind to be successful. Knowledge-practice has the goal of not losing sight of the existing fact that one is free and never bound. This is not possible if there is still the underlying ignorance and ignorance-born identification with the mind. Still, there is a connection between the two practices, in that one helps the other towards “reaching the goal” of spiritual practice.

I thank Alice and Chris for editing this blog post.

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