“From saṁyama on change and its three aspects, knowledge of the past and future.”
“All is pain,” says Patañjali in Chapter Two. The discerning know this. The pain is not accidental or incidental–it is the pain inherent to transformation (pariṇāma). Change brings pain. (See II.15.)
The yogic path brings us to greater awareness of change and enlists us to be in dynamic relation to it. In yoga practice, we work to transform citta, our own minds, to strive for a neuroplasticity, if you will, an awakening of the senses, a freshening of our perceptions. We aim for greater participation and presence in our lives. We seek to be fully embodied. This is a way of partnering with change. We will not stop change, not any more than we will stop aging, but we might enter into co-creation with it.
In today’s sūtra, Patañjali shifts from his consideration of change and moves into an expansive description of the powers (vibhūti) of yoga practice. Some commentators, as I have mentioned, are concerned that practitioners do not mistake the attainments of yoga to be the end goal; some grapple uneasily with the mystical, over-the-top quality of the claims. My own experience of the chapter, to sum it up, is delight. Patañjali here draws us into the natural world, helps us consider the marvels of this life, helps us know our own possibilities more profoundly.
At the beginning of Chapter Three, Patañjali defines saṁyama to be a threefold process: dhāraṇā, binding the awareness to a place, dhyāna, extending and returning attention to that place, samādhi, the emptying out of self as a fuller, truer perception dawns–it is as though the object alone “shines out.” This is saṁyama. The best translation for it is probably “meditation.” (See III.1-4.)
The pattern of the rest of Chapter Three goes like this: From saṁyama on a given deśa (place to hold the awareness), comes an attainment or understanding. In sūtra III.16, Patañjali says, “From saṁyama on change and its three aspects, comes knowledge of the past and future.” (The three aspects–or axes–of change, to review, are form, circumstance, time. You can think of them as the vertical, horizontal, and sagittal dimensions of change. See III.13.)
The more I contemplate–the more I return to consider–the roots of myself, the circumstances of the society around me, and the workings of time, the more of the past, and the potential for the future, I understand. Hearing the information of others, opening to perspectives beyond mine, are crucial.
The Covid epidemic has revealed inequity in this country in stark and terrible ways. Corporations receive bailouts, the rich the best medical care, while the poor, including “essential workers,” many of whom are people of color, must fend for themselves. All this has heightened my desire to know and understand the unfoldings around me. But the first big break from what I knew and what I thought I knew, came in 2016, when we elected an ignorant, racist, misogynist, con-artist of a man to be President of the United States. It was a nightmare, and it felt like a break with reality. At that time, I heard an interview with Ta-Nehesi Coates. He was asked, Do you find the election depressing? He said he was not depressed, because he was not surprised, and he suggested that those who were depressed–that would be me–need to ask themselves: What story about this country have you been telling yourself?
I have become intent on learning the full story, the true story, of what this country is. I have turned to black, indigenous, and women writers, filmmakers, podcasters, to get the story I didn’t get from my formal, white education. I described, in my last entry, Adrienne Rich’s search for the origins of herself. She writes here about the loss of one’s idea of country:
What if I told you your home
is this continent of the homeless
of children sold taken by force
driven from their mothers’ land
killed by their mothers to save from capture
–this continent of changed names and mixed-up blood
of languages tabooed
underground railroads trails of tears
What if I tell you your home
is this planet of warworn children
women and children standing in line or milling
endlessly calling each others’ names
What if I tell you, you are not different
it’s the family albums that lie
–will any of this comfort you
and how should this comfort you
–Adrienne Rich, In the Wake of Home
Once we have laid aside nostalgia about our nation, about “home,” the ideas of what it was supposed to mean or be, where do we go? Standing in reality is its own comfort, a good starting place for partnering with existence.*
The late anthropologist and social visionary David Graeber (he coined the term “the 99 percent” during the Occupy Wall Street protests), urged us to intervene in our own future, to build a society that prioritizes care and creativity, not whatever activity produces a profit. Interviewed for the volume Everything Must Change!: The World after COVID-19, he declared,
“There has been a 30- to 40-year war against human political imagination. In the 1930s through to the 1960s, it was just assumed that we were living in a somewhat terrifying, but nonetheless exhilarating, new age where almost anything was possible. Creations such as the United Nations or the space program were epical feats of statesmanship. This is inconceivable now. We are given this line that there are economic machines beyond our control that are propelling us toward a better future and we just have to trust in them; we certainly can’t intervene in history…. If there was ever a stupid time to give up on trying to imagine a better future, this is it…. Care and freedom, instead of production and consumption, should be the bases of our economy.”–https://lithub.com/do-global-financial-crises-inevitably-reinforce-capitalism/
As the world adapts to and recovers from Covid-19, we are poised to undertake great change. Governments around the world will be forced to make substantial investments to rebuild their economies? What will we invest in? How will we build our future?
Perhaps, to understand the actions we must take, we must come to know how homeless we truly are, how knit together our fates.
“The seeming stability of experience is an illusion, as are the enduring qualities of objects. In fact, the universe is unfolding, expanding, advancing through time–not just as stars, planets, and gas clouds hurtling outward from their explosive beginnings, but also in our molecules, fibers, bodies, families, communities, and species. The universe’s unfolding can even be sensed in our consciousness, whose flux is displayed before awareness moment by moment.” –Chip Hartranft, The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 50
“As we have already seen, the culminating point of the threefold transformation is an awareness of silence in the midst of noise. This is the awareness of the Transcendent in the Immanent, or of the timeless in the sequence of time…. The timeless moment is the Infinite Rest even as the flow of time is Infinite Motion. Motion becomes meaningful only in the context of rest. It is the timeless moment which gives significance to time. The new mind born in the moment of communion knows the secret of the time process because it comprehends the mystery of the timeless moment.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, pp. 308
“Saṁyama is a way of obtaining knowledge through experience: direct perception of the highest order. There are no intermediary words, biases, blind spots, faults of logic, no history, no agendas–just the mind confronting an object head-on, penetrating it to its core.” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on III.16
• Can direct perception cut through bias or preconception? What is an example of that in your own experience? What did the process demand of you?
•What is your relationship to change?
• Have the events of the past year overthrown any previously held ideas for you?
• Are you active in your political imagination? Can you envision a society with different priorities?
masculine noun in compound
transformation, change (from pari-, “around,” + nam, “to bend”)
|adjective in compound
three (from tri, “three”)
masculine noun, 5th case singular
meditation, integration of the senses, regulation of citta, direct observation (from sam + yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)
neuter noun in compound
gone by, the past (from ati-, “beyond,” + i, “to go”)
neuter noun in compound
not yet come, the future (from an-, “not,” + ā-, prefix that suggests reverse action, + gam, “to go”; āgam = “to come”)
|neuter noun, 1st case singular
knowledge (from jña, “to know”)
*Much thanks to adrienne marie brown for ongoing lessons on shaping change. See her book Emergent Strategies.