A few months ago, I shared some of the teachings of the Yoga Sutras of Pantajali with a group of trainees for a power yoga teacher training that was led by my buddy Phil in Ottawa.
In the last half hour of my talk, Phil asked “can you say a bit about the activities of the mind?” I sat in front of 26-ish people, aware that I was experiencing a mind block, gave a vague answer (something about how our mind has different qualities – like a restless monkey or heaviness of having two feet stuck in the mud), and hoped/ tried my best to access the true answer to his question while I pretended to make sense of what I was saying. As I kept talking, I just couldn’t access the knowledge I had about the activities of the mind… even though I had studied and understood this very deeply in moments past. So, I brushed over the topic and moved on to other questions from other students. I figured if it came to mind, I would return to Phil’s question. Funny how the ego wants to make sure we “look good” in the eyes of others 🙂 Only the knowledge didn’t come back to me until after I left the studio and was walking to my car. I played it well! But to me, it was a mistake: nerves and distraction had prevented me from sharing what the teachings actually say and their essence in understanding the practice of yoga. The funny thing about the experience is this: Now I know the 5 activities of the mind better than any other teaching in the Yoga Sutras because of that experience of having made a mistake. I re-read the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras when I got home that night. I have ran through that moment over and over in my head many times since. This blog post is partly a way of sharing the correct teaching with those who attended the training (if they even remember that part of the talk which most likely don’t), and partly a way of honouring the power of making mistakes. Since it was my mistake, I am likely the only one who was in that room that evening who even retained this moment in my memory. Each person in that room likely retained a separate moment that reflected a mistake that he or she made. And that’s the beauty of acknowledging, reflecting on, and correcting our errors.
And here is the answer to Phil’s question (as translated by T.K.V. Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga).
Sutra 1.5: This Sutra answers the question of What is the mind? There are 5 activities of the mind. Each of them can be beneficial and each can cause problems.
Pantajali goes on to explain in the following sutras what each of these activities are:
1. Comprehension: The mind has the ability to comprehend an object based on direct observation and when direct observation doesn’t provide all the information for comprehension, one may make inferences through use of logic or rely on reference to reliable authorities such as texts or reliable individuals for more complete comprehension.
2. Misapprehension: The mind most frequently faultily observes reality or misinterprets what is seen. Misapprehension occurs when the mind thinks it has comprehended the actual nature of an object and is often the result of past impressions or conditioning. This may remain in lieu of correct comprehension until more favourable conditions reveal what is the true reality of that object of observation. For example, when we are convinced we have understood what happened in a situation, yet we are only seeing it through our individual perspective and don’t have complete information of a whole picture. In other words, we don’t actually comprehend the information we received.
3. Imagination: this is is fairly simply. the mind taps into the world of imagination in the absence of direct perception of an object. This mental activity may tap into memories to help retrieve images, or words, or the mind simply makes use of connotations, implications, feelings, dreams, and more to help guide us toward comprehension.
4. Deep sleep: this occurs when heaviness of the mind is present and no other activities are occurring. This is a regular and needed activity of the mind, but there is a time for it. heaviness can overcome the mind as a result of boredom or tiredness and this is when it can cause problems vs. being beneficial.
5. Memory: this activity of the mind is essentially the retention of conscious experiences. we can’t retain each moment of our lives, but we retain the ones in which we either learned something or experienced something new, or the moments in which a shift in perspective (for better or worse) occurred because the experience captured our attention. In the very same way that I retained the moment in which I gave a faulty answer to a question I knew that i knew the answer to.
As Pantajali then goes on to further explain how we achieve a state of yoga, what the obstacles to mental clarity are, and sets the stage for the following chapters, he returns to the 5 activities of the mind before the end of the first chapter and he describes how these activities of the mind play into the practice and discipline of yoga over time.
In essence, when we are first learning to develop mental clarity/ correct comprehension (when we are learning to essentially work toward more frequent and consistent correct comprehension of all that is around us and our own true self), the other 4 activities of the mind will come into play. For example, if I sit and meditate on my breath with the intention of fully and completely comprehending all that is related to the breath as it is in this moment in reality, the mind will wonder and play into its other activities: I may experience shortness of breath and begin to have anxiety due to a “misapprehension” that perhaps I am not safe in that moment or I may have to read about or study anatomy to verify what I think I know; I may start to day dream as my imagination about the breath leads to other imagery of objects or perhaps I use imagery/ visualization of my lungs to help for more complete comprehension; Boredom or sleepiness may overcome me and take me away from comprehension or perhaps the deep sleep i had previously better prepared me for correct comprehension of my breath; and finally memories will pop up as i attempt to stay concentrated on my breath and some memories may serve more correct comprehension while other memories will take my concentration away if I follow the mental activity called “memory”.
In the beginning, as one learns yoga, all mental activities (expect deep sleep) are involved in comprehension of an object of inquiry… whether you are trying to sustain focus on your breath, on the words of another, on the sensations in your body, or on the information received through your senses.
Overtime, with practice, patience, discipline, a positive eager attitude, and a self conviction that it is possible to develop a state of yoga (correct understanding and sustained attention toward an object), the mind becomes more and more free from distractions and one becomes totally immersed in the object. As stated in Desikachar’s translation of Sutra 1.41 “The mind then, like a flawless diamond, reflects only the features of the object and nothing else”.
And to conclude, Sutra 1.44, is translated as “When the direction of the mind toward the object is sustained, the ideas and memories of the past gradually recede. The mind becomes crystal clear and one with the object. At this moment there is no feeling of oneself. This is pure perception.”
And that is what we call being in a state of yoga.
Through my mistake, I now better understand the activities of my own mind and my practice toward correct understanding.