“[From saṁyama] on friendliness, etc.–strengths.”
Three words long (two if you count the compound maitrī-ādiṣu as one), sūtra III.24 weaves back to the magnificent I.33, which B.K.S. Iyengar credits with teaching him to balance the head and the heart, and which Swami Satchidananda declares to be the one sūtra, if a person were to choose just one, to learn and practice.
Maitri is friendliness, the first of the four great virtues (in Buddhism, known as the “stations of Brahma”) that Patañjali presents in I.33. Ādiṣu means beginning with or etcetera, and thus the phrase maitrī-ādiṣu (“the group beginning with friendliness”) refers to all four of the virtues. We readers are expected to know them. A summary of I.33:
To overcome obstacles and gain clarity and calmness of the consciousness:
- Bring friendliness (maitrī) to good or happy things.
- Have compassion (karuṇā) when experiencing or encountering pain.
- Be joyful (mudita) in the face of virtue.
- Stay present (upekṣā) to wrongdoing.
Patañjali says in today’s sūtra that by aiming toward the qualities of maitrī-karuṇā-muditā-upekṣā–by practicing saṁyama on these qualities, we will grow in strength (balāni is plural for balam, strength). What an interesting promise! We will not just be clearer, calmer, we will be stronger.
A few weeks ago, a neighbor said to me, “We are all so tired.” We are tired from a year and more of Covid, from isolation, from the growing signs of climate disaster. Speaking for myself, I am tired and alarmed, my nervous system jangled, from the signs of rising fascism, racism, and far-right extremism, and the continued inefficacy of our government to respond to the needs of the day.
I am grateful to today’s sūtra for reminding me that the clear and calmed nervous system brings strength. And, that the way to the rest and restoration I long for is not shutting off or shutting down (well, actually, some of that may be necessary), but in caring–in feeling. Feeling the disappointment, the loss, the joy, the connection, the camaraderie. Feeling it.
The writer Kathleen Norris has reflected on depression–as she has experienced it–and on a related but, she says, distinct affliction that she identifies as “acedia”:
At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care. The person afflicted by acedia refuses to care or is incapable of doing so. When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine: you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.
I certainly relate to experiencing bouts of “not giving a damn.” I do seek to numb out (at times). It might even be good for me to tune out, not listen to the news, more than I do. Yet ultimately, caring demands that I pay attention. This is not comfortable. Kathleen Norris continues,
That it hurts to care is borne out in etymology, for care derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cry out,” as in a lament. Caring is not passive, but an assertion that no matter how strained and messy our relationships can be, it is worth something to be present, with others, doing our small part.
To practice good management of myself, I do need to shift, purposefully, my attention. Turn off the news, be in the garden, care for the physical things around me, enjoy, be present to, the many good things of the day. At the house where I now live, we have chickens. I tell myself, Julia, go be with the chickens. Go be friendly to them. Go be with their goodness.
Acedia, says Kathleen Norris, would have us “suppress or deny” the daily routines of care as “meaningless repetition or too much bother.” It is in these very repetitions, she declares, that we begin to care again. (See Kathleen Norris, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, page 3.)
Karuṇā, compassion, cognate to the English word care, comes from a common and important Sanskrit root–kṛ, which means “to do.” Karuṇā seems related more to the passive sense of the verb, “to be done to.” In the end, compassion is allowing ourselves to be affected by something. An imprint is made. To feel is to suffer, to some extent. It is also to exult, to delight, to love.
Kathleen Norris writes in her book about a lifetime of handling her own care or “absence of care.” Practice assists her in that. Going through the ritual or the motions of daily care proves to be a lifeline for her. In so many ways, I.33 seems to point toward this. When we experience the slipping away of attention, when we are so tired, when we are so disappointed or so without hope that there is no longer care, then the practice of the ritual of care is key. The twelve-step programs teach an acronym HALT. Ask yourself, Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired? If I am hungry, I must feed myself. If I am angry, I must bring loving attention to the event or circumstance that I have reacted to. If I am lonely, I need to reach out to people. If I am tired, I need to rest (perhaps shut down).
A primary teaching in the Bhagavad Gītā is detachment from the fruits of action; the yogi is to work toward developing equanimity–sameness–in the face of hot and cold, good and bad, honor and dishonor. I have often wondered at this. What is is to be the same in relation to all things? But what if the “sameness” to be practiced is care? Can I bring maitrī-ādiṣu, friendliness and all the rest, to the harsh circumstances of life? Can I care?
samaḥ śatrau ca mitre ca
[whoever is] the same toward an enemy and a friend
as well toward respect and disrespect
in cold-heat, pleasure-pain
the same, is one who is attachment-freed
—Bhagavad Gītā, XII.18
“This sūtra offers a wonderful way to better our own life and the lives of others. By performing saṁyama on a desirable quality, such as friendliness, we can attain its benefits. Spiritual history is filled with stories of sages and saints whose mere presence mysteriously changed the lives of others. Often, without intent or effort, they transmitted these virtuous qualities, just as the sun, without intent, automatically radiates warmth and light.” –The Reverend Jaganath Carrera, Inside the Yoga Sūtras, commentary on III.24
“Character is not storing in one’s behaviour-patterns attribute after attribute of what the mind describes as virtue. It cannot be built up. It arrives when the effort and the maker of the effort ease, so that there comes a vision of the innocent and the incorruptible virtue. The new mind permeated by the influence of this vision is truly virtuous. And so Patañjali says that as one communes with virtue there arises an inner strength which is not the product of the earth but a gift of heaven. This gift is available to all in the discontinuous interval of the timeless moment, in the non-dual experience of communion.” –Rohit Mehta, Yoga, the Art of Integration, p. 327
• What are ways to practice maitrī-karuṇā-muditā-upekṣā? What are examples from your life when you do that?
• Have you become more sensitive to the needs of your body?
• Have you experienced acedia (absence of care)?
• How do you grieve? Do you make time for grieving?
feminine noun in compound
friendliness, compassion, love, connection, community (from mith, “to unite”)
neuter noun, 7th case plural, “in, on”
beginning with, et cetera
neuter noun, 1st case plural