III.23 सोपक्रमं निरुपक्रमं च कर्म तत्संयमादपरान्तज्ञानमरिष्टेभ्यो वा

sopakramaṁ nirupakramaṁ ca karma tat-saṁyamād aparānta-jñānam ariṣṭebhyo vā
sopakramaṁ nirupakramaṁ ca karma tad-saṁyamāt apara-anta-jñānam ariṣṭebhyaḥ vā

Karma advances quickly or slowly. From saṁyama on [karma]–and on natural signs–knowledge of death.”

There are two sentences here. The first, sopakramaṁ nirupakramaṁ ca karma, is a statement about karma. Patañjali says that karma can proceed fast or slow, sopakrama, with the krama (from kram, “to step,” meaning here the progression of events), or nirupakrama, against. One meaning of karma (from kṛ, “to do”) is what happens, what we do or what is done to us, and there is a natural progression, a cause-and-effect order to how things unfold. Part of my karma is that I will grow old, my body will age, and I will die. How I live can affect how rapidly or slowly this seems to take place. But it will take place.

Certain times in my life seem to call attention to this natural unfolding more than others. There have been some years that seem so settled, it was as though time had stopped. My children’s early years were like that. Life as it was then seemed like it would always go on as it was doing. I felt I would always live in the house that we lived in then, that the family of grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles would always feel much as it did then. The past ten years have brought so much change for me it seems that things have speeded up. I live in a new house in a new state. There have been family misunderstandings and schisms. A dear friend died. I have aged.

From saṁyama  on the movement of events, Patañjali says, one gains apara-anta-jñānam, knowledge of the final end. Traditional commentators interpret apara-anta in this context as death, particularly one’s own death. They ask, has the work of my lifetime been fulfilled?

It is essential to most religious and spiritual practice to hold one’s own death before one. In yoga, fear of death (abhiniveśa, see II.9) is considered one of the five afflictions that affect everyone. A goal of practice is to “thin” the afflictions, to lessen our fear not through denial but through presence, understanding, coming into reality.

Pay attention to what happens, says Patañjali here, and watch for ariṣṭa, the signs of death. Derived from rṣ, “to pierce,” ariṣṭa is an omen or portent, generally of a misfortune or death.

What are the ariṣṭa around us now? The 653,000 deaths from Covid in the U.S. alone. The wildfires that have been burning in the American West, not in scattered places for a few days or weeks every few years, but over vast landscapes for months and every year. The Amazon rainforest now no longer absorbs more CO2 than it emits, an astounding benchmark of disaster.

The signs of things ending are all around us. How present are we able to be to this reality? What work might we take up to respond?

Terry Tempest Williams speaks of grief and love as she observes what is unfolding in her powerful essay “An Obituary for the Land,” written in September 2020. “No one is reporting,” she writes, “the smells of burnt feathers or leaves and sap, or the cold hard truth of those who find the missing frozen in their last gestures of escape beneath a blanket of ashes, ashes….”  Williams, a bird watcher since she was a child, is especially attuned to the birds who have gone missing, the hundreds of thousands killed off in the mass fires. It is through her attunement that she can name the ending that we face. We have a terminal disease of solipsism, she says:

I was asked to write an obituary for the land – but I realize I am writing an obituary for us, for the life we have lost and can never return to – and within this burning of western lands, our innocence and denial is in flames. The obituary will be short. The time came and these humans died from the old ways of being. Good riddance. It was time. Their cause of death was the terminal disease of solipsism whereby humans put themselves at the center of the universe. It was only about them. And in so doing we have been dead to the world that is alive.
Williams’ obituary, written in grief and love, is for us. For how we have lived. For our ignorance, innocence, and denial. She sees the land itself, the powerful land, as, in a way, beyond us. Her obituary, she says, is not for the land, “because even as you burn, you are throwing down seeds that will sprout and flower, trees will grow, and forests will rise again as living testaments to how one survives change.”
In the Indian cosmology, time is long. There have been ages before our age, a coming and going of societies and peoples. We Americans, in a general way, do not have this long sense. We see our individual time, our individual life, as exceptional. N.K. Jemisin, in her tremendous novel The Fifth Season, says we talk about the world ending, but we really mean our world is ending. Her narrator declares, “The ending of one story is just the beginning of another.” We say the world has ended, but “the planet is just fine.”
Today’s sūtra is about the life-death cycle. It is about witness and presence. It is about the work we are meant to do, in the life we are given now. Terry Tempest Williams says that “it will be our joy,” from this dying that we must do, to begin the work of restoration. It will be our joy to send our love forward to the generations that come after us, “to clear a path toward cooling a warming planet.” She writes:
Let this be a humble tribute, an exaltation, an homage, and an open-hearted eulogy to all we are losing to fire to floods to hurricanes and tornadoes and the invisible virus that has called us all home and brought us to our knees — We are not the only species that lives and loves and breathes on this miraculous planet called Earth—May we remember this—and raise a fist full of ash to all the lives lost that it holds.  –Terry Tempest Williams, “An Obituary for the Land”

—–

“The effects of action may be immediate or slow in coming: observing one’s actions with perfect discipline, or studying omens, yields insight into death.” — Chip Hartranft, The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali, p. 52

“Understanding the narration of events gives insight into how things end.” — Matthew Remski, Threads of Yoga, p. 176

“Life and death are two aspects of creative forces. One cannot stand without the other. Hence the process of life cannot be understood without knowing the process of death, and vice versa….At every moment, tissues, cells, body, and senses are passing through life and death processes.” –Sri Brahmananda Sarasvati, The Textbook of Yoga Psychology, commentary on III.23

Questions:
• How well do you recognize endings–of relationships, belief structures, organizations or institutions, stages in life, life itself?
• How have you been witnessing the reality of climate change?
• How might you begin the work of restoration? What are you interested in restoring?
• What practices are supporting you at this time? Is there a practice of observation that you feel called to? Of action?

sopakramaṁ

neuter adjective, 1st case singular

quickly advancing (from so, “so,” + upa, “by the side of,” + kram, “to step”; literally, “with progression”)

nirupakramaṁ

neuter adjective, 1st case singular

slowly advancing  (from nir, “away from”,  + upa, “by the side of,” + kram, “to step”; literally, “against progression”)

ca

conjunction

and

karma

neuter noun, 1st case singular

action, what is done, cause-and-effect (from kṛ, “to do”); often left untranslated

tad-

pronoun in compound, 7th case understood, “on”

that

saṁyamāt

masculine noun, 5th case singular , “from”

meditation, integration of the senses, regulation of citta, direct observation (from sam + yam, “to check, restrain, regulate”)

apara-anta-

masculine noun in compound, 6th-case understood, “of”

death (from apara-, “having nothing beyond, extreme, western,” + antaḥ, “the end”)

jñānam

neuter noun, 1st case singular

knowledge (from jña, “to know”)

ariṣṭebhyaḥ

neuter noun, 5th case plural

portentous phenomenom, sign of approaching death (from a + ṛṣ, “to pierce”)

indeclinable

or

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