Staying Centered | 4 Lessons from Patañjali

By Evelyn Einhäuser

The way of interaction among people has changed in the last 50 years. While the generation of our grandparents hardly left their towns and usually interacted with a manageable amount of people, we meet new people every day, be it through travelling, the Internet or our globalized work fields. We connect with colleagues over Facebook/Google Plus and might befriend hundreds or even thousands of people over social media platforms. Communication has become more indirect and chatting more prominent than face-to-face talk. Qualities like empathy or care can be expressed in a chat window. We can put a like-button to show appreciation. If we see something we dislike or don’t feel like engaging with another person, we can simply disconnect.

Our modern era is airy and Vata dominant. It is fast, superficial, quickly changing and able to spread ideas in a millisecond. If we give in to the speed, we can get increasingly agitated and overwhelmed. Cellphones, Internet and television increase Vata in the system. Nervousness, anxiety, worry and restlessness are indicators of a Vata aggravated society. Therefore we might question more often how to react to communication so that we can keep calm.

The Yogasutras give advice how to interact with other people so that we ourselves can retain our peace of mind. The greatness of the yoga sutras is that however the world might change, their truth will always be valid, be it in the past, present or future. One of the qualities of the sutras is that they are universally relevant (visvatomukham). This means the teachings are valid even today, and will be relevant in the future as well.

In this context, a significant Sutra for reflection is:

Maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhka punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah citta prasadanam (Yogasutra 1.33).

Patanjali’s strategy is twofold: he suggests that we need to establish four specific attitudes and apply each of them in the right context. He presents the concept of “sat-patra-viniyoga”. It means that you don’t use all of these attitudes at the same time, but that each of these four are utilized only in the appropriate context.

The first attitude is “maitri”, friendliness. The context in which Patanjali recommends to be friendly is sukha visaya, when someone is happy. So he states that when someone else is happy, we should rejoice with them. We should express or develop a genuine happiness for someone else’s joy.

The second attitude that should be cultivated is “karuṇa”, empathy or compassion. Adi Sankara defines “karuna” as “karuna krpah” in the text Sankaravivarana, which translates to “a loving kindness.’ This attitude should be shown towards those that are in duhka, a state of darkness or suffering. It implies heartful care toward someone else and the wish to help lighten their suffering.

This attitude has become more rare, as the concept of holding and caring is a Kapha based emotion. With the element of Vata increasing in society, all the emotions related to its counterpart Kapha, decrease or need more effort from us. We have become more self-focused and less caring for someone else’s pain. Accompanying and holding someone else through crisis needs stamina and patience, which also need effort.

The third attitude is appreciation, “mudita”. According to Patanjali, we are meant to show appreciation towards someone who does “punya”, noble or good things. Often times we take good things for granted and focus only on that which is lacking. We need to find that appreciation again, for others and for the good in ourselves, so that a focus on the positive gets cultivated.

The fourth attitude is probably the most difficult for us, as our external minds, asmita and buddhi, are used to immediately identify and judge what is happening around us. The fourth attitude according to Patanjali is “upeksa”. It translates as “non-judgementalism” or “discernment”. One of the etymological definitions of the word upeksa is “iksa madhyastham”. It means to stay in the middle or neutral and in your own center.

Our own center has no judgment because judgment lives on preconceptions. Only the asmita, the ego, has judgment. The context in which we are advised to practice discernment is towards “apunya visaya”,  someone engaging in seemingly ignoble deeds. It does not mean that we have to accept such an act. But the sutras recommend not to get involved too much, to stay neutral and not to end up judging the whole person or putting them into a box. After all we don’t know the causes that might have led someone to act in this manner. Our knowledge of someone else is not all-inclusive and complete.

According to Patanjali these four attitudes need to be cultivated and used in interactions if we are striving for a calm mind  (“cittaprasadanam”).

Many other yoga masters also stress the importance of these attitudes to reach Samadhi and purify our mind. Vyasa states in the Vyasabhasya that when we start to have these four attitudes the quality of rajas and tamas in our mind becomes inexistent and the quality of sattva starts to dominate, making the mind sweet. 

T. Krishnamacharya compares these attitudes to a fire that lights up our mind, purifying and refining the imperfections, so that the potential of the mind can shine.

And Sankara says that through these attitudes the mind will become focused and able to reach Samadhi.

In our Vata based modern society we have to put more effort to re-develop these qualities in a sincere manner so that we can connect with people and our Self again. The challenge is to constantly contemplate which context is given and which of the attitudes are needed. Due to the increasing amount of interactions the modern world asks us to reflect even more often. And it might take us more effort to act accordingly, because attitudes like compassion and discernment might be more difficult to cultivate in an atmosphere that promotes quick judgment and superficiality.  

But if we can bring up the effort then no matter how the society and its communication shifts and shapes in the future, our minds will remain at peace.