III.20 न च तत् सालम्बनं तस्याविषयीभूतत्वात्

na ca tat sālambanaṁ tasyāviṣayī-bhūtatvāt
na ca tat sālambanaṁ tasya aviṣayī-bhūtatvāt

“But one cannot know the cause [of that thought], because [citta] itself is not object-like.”

Yoga teaches us to attend to our physical experience, to the subtle movements in the body of breath, feeling, thought. It can bring an increased awareness of the other, a consciousness of the other’s physical experience, sensitivity to the other in space, body to body. And it can bring greater insight into another’s mind.

But there is a limit to the knowledge we have of another. Na ca tat, “but not that,” says Patañjali. Not what has given rise to another’s thought. Nor what has shaped another’s citta. Mind is not an object. It is aviṣayī-bhūtatva, in the nature of not-object. Mind is ineffable; it escapes observation. Patañjali, as psychologist, cautions us not to presume we have full understanding.

Sūtra III.20 holds up a mirror to our presumptions. In intimate relationships as well as more distant ones, what do I miss? Do I suppose I understand my cranky neighbor? Do I make space for those I work with to express their views, maybe disagree? What kind of authority do I claim as a teacher? Do I set myself up as knowing more than I do?

In my marriage–for more than thirty years–I have repeatedly had to work to not know. That is, I have had to let go of my conclusions–about myself as well as about my husband. The great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests a practice of deep listening for longtime couples; a practice of being present to the other. He chides:

“If you have the impression that you know the other person inside and out, you are wrong. Are you sure that you even know yourself? Every person is a world to explore.” –Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love

Likewise, psychotherapist Esther Perel looks at our expectations of relationships, especially intimate ones. In an interview on NPR, she references twentieth-century social psychologist Erich Fromm:

“[He observed] that we think that love is easy and that finding the right person is what is difficult; that it’s the love object that is complicated, [not] the experience itself, of loving — and of course, he turned it on its head: [he said] that love is a verb, that it’s not a permanent state of enthusiasm, and that it’s an actual practice… and that practice gets repeated all the time.” –Esther Perel,  On Being with Krista Tippett

We can perhaps find our way better into right relationship by letting go of certainty about what we know. This is not to say that we know nothing, nor that we shouldn’t trust the knowledge that we have, especially of dangerous people and situations. It is just to say, like Patañjali, Na ca tat, “but not that.” Remember we do not know the cause.


“One can know how the mind of the other person works, but not why the mind functions that way.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 320

“If we are speaking with someone and we sense something of their psychological complexion or have flashes of insight or images that reinforce this intuition, how can we be sure where they come from? … This aphorism emphasizes the possible danger in interpreting one’s impressions too quickly, so great is the risk of mistakes. Patañjali is extremely wary in this sphere.” –Bernard Bouanchaud, The Essence of Yoga, p. 172

“Perfect empathy does not involve perfect knowledge but rather a surrender to the unknowability of another’s internality. Ideally, this feeling does not alienate, but invites ever deeper levels of dialogue and intimacy.” –Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 175

• Do you respect others’ boundaries? If you are a teacher, health practitioner, or have authority over others, how do you remind yourself of the limits of your knowledge?
• Do you tend to focus on others’ thoughts? Do you resist interpreting what you perceive?
•What do you practice in relationship? What does it mean to you to say that love is a verb?






and, but


neuter pronoun, 1st case singular



neuter noun, 1st case singular

resting on, founded on; the object that gives rise to a thought or feeling, the cause of a thought or feeling (from sa-, “with,” + ā-, a prefix that intensifies meaning, + lamb, “to hang from, to rest on”)


neuter pronoun, 6th case singular

of that, its


noun in compound

not-object, non-objective (from a-, prefix that negates, + viṣ, “to act”)


neuter noun, 5th case singular
due to beingness, due to its nature of being (from bhū, “to be”)


4 thoughts on “III.20 न च तत् सालम्बनं तस्याविषयीभूतत्वात्

  1. Dear Julia,
    I’ve so enjoyed your blog. I look forward to your perspective on Patanjali, it’s like receiving a nourishing thoughtful ‘present.’ My sister, Ani, and I study them together which is delightful.
    This one really reaches deeply about relationships. I really liked the quotes of Esther Perel and especially Thich Nhat Hanh. Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about our perceptions and asks us to question. He’ll say, “Are you sure?” Quoting him fits so well into this particular Sutra. He is a master at understanding the practical challenges of relationships and brings these nitty gritty challenges into his books.
    I ‘ve found it so meaningful that your commentary includes current important political issues as well your honest personal style of speaking from your heart.
    Sending good health to you.

    • Hi Henriet, So good to hear from you! Thank you for sharing that about Thich Nhat Hanh. Love that–are you sure about what you think you know? Happy you and Ani are reading Patanjali with me.

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