“The thought patterns from these [afflictions] are released by meditation.”
In an essay on “The Yoga of Learning Sanskrit,” Vyaas Houston describes his experience as a teacher of Sanskrit–in specific, how, over the years, he observed blocks that students would encounter. Sanskrit is a difficult language, but not impossible, and the learning can be experiential and joyful. By chanting, repetition, and sheer sensing of the rhythms of the sounds, learning happens. What caused his students problems, Vyaas saw, wasn’t complexity per se, but a lapse of attention, a preoccupation with the thoughts that arose at challenge. And such thoughts generally revolved around “getting it right/getting it wrong.”
He reflects on his own primary and secondary school education:
Grades became the primary source of validation in our life from an early age. Our very survival seemed to depend upon grades. And no matter what they were, they invited comparison. No matter how high the grade, it could always be seen as less than that of another, or less than what it could have been. …The result was a fragmented experience of learning in which the subject matter to be learned was punctuated by continuous rapid-fire lapses of attention activated by the predominance of a success/failure model for living. –Vyaas Houston, from Devavāṇī, the Language of the Gods, pp. 18-19
Our conventional educational system perpetuates a winners and losers mentality, a fight for more power and control, a tendency to feel shamed and worthless when goals are not met. This “success/failure model for living,” in yogic terms, would be considered an example of avidya. It is a false idea of the purpose of life. It gives rise to painful and obstructing vṛtti (thought patterns). And these can stay with us for a lifetime, even if we have intellectually rejected them.
Vyaas’s teaching became increasingly informed by his practice of yoga, and he goes on to describe how learning Sanskrit can itself be a yoga, one that operates powerfully to free the citta (consciousness) and unleash its possibilities.
In sūtra I.4, Patañjali tells us that without yoga, we will tend to identify with our thought patterns. For those of us raised with a success/failure model, this may well take the form of an inner drama of identifying with being good/bad; powerful/powerless; in control/a victim; strong/weak; smart/stupid; a winner/a loser. This drama distracts us from the matter at hand. It disconnects us from what is actually happening. It limits the potential of citta.
With yoga, we bring our awareness to our mental patterns and to our tendencies. Indeed, yoga is meditation (dhyāna). And meditation happens by means of abhyāsa and vairāgya. (See sūtras I.12-16.)
With abhyāsa, we set a point of focus. In the learning of Sanskrit, for example, that might be the chant of noun endings. In an āsana class, that might be the placement of the feet on the floor. We take our mind to that point, and when our mind wanders into an old pattern, we notice, and go back to the point of focus (vairāgya). The moment of being off-point, Vyaas used to say, is an opportunity to return to point. The yoga method of learning is a happy one. There are not winners and losers.
By yoga, we come into possession of ourselves. Bit by bit, slowly by slowly, we relinquish the patterns of self-assessment, self-proving, self-reproving, and move toward a mode that is about discovery, direct perception, and full participation in learning and life.
Of the self that is owned, peaceful
the inner self is steady–in
cold and heat, pleasure and pain,
even in honor and dishonor.
—The Bhagavad Gītā, VI.7
“The idea of the Witness and the Participant, at the same time, and not one after another, is to be found in the Bhagavad Gītā as also in the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. This is presented in the form of Abhyāsa and Vairāgya—the former denotes participation while the latter signifies being a witness. To observe one’s act of participation, to witness mind in action—it is this which is placed before the aspirant as a technique of Yoga or Meditation.” —Rohit Mehta, The Science of Meditation, pp. 169-70
“Meditation is to be aware of every thought and of every feeling, never to say it is right or wrong but just to watch it and move with it. In that watching you begin to understand the whole movement of thought and feeling. And out of this awareness comes silence. … So Meditation can take place when you are sitting in a bus or walking in the woods full of light and shadows, or listening to the singing of birds or looking at the face of your wife or child.” —Krishnamurti, as quoted in The Science of Meditation, by Rohit Mehta, pp. 175-76
“Ordinarily we answer the call of aversion by fleeing from painful perceptions. This psychosomatic tendency manifests itself both internally in the individual and in our modern culture, which teems with commercial and political messages subtly promoting the view that life can and should be uninterruptedly pleasant. Turning to the perception itself, though, and letting awareness stabilize in it, is the essence of nonreaction, or vairāgya, and transforms our experience of both the perception and the perceived object. As we observe them, we come to see that their contents and qualities are in flux.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, p. 24
•Has yoga brought you greater awareness of your thoughts? What might yoga sitting on a bus mean for you?
•Has yoga taught you more about how you learn? Has it affected your ability to learn?
•When you experience painful thought patterns, do you tend to reflect on them directly or do you tend to try to forget about them? What role does your practice play?
•How do abhyāsa and vairāgya operate in your practice? In your life?
neuter noun in compound
meditation, attention (from dhyai, “to think of, contemplate, imagine”)
|feminine adjective, 1st case plural
to be forsaken, avoided, left (from hā, “to abandon”)
3rd person pronoun in compound (5th case plural understood)
feminine noun, 1st case plural
patterning of the mind, manner of thinking (from vṛt, “to abide, to move, to turn, to condition”)