On Psychic Grooves, Balance and Free Will

Sri Dharma Mittra of Dharma Yoga Center, New York, NY in Niralamba Sirsasana (hands-free head stand pose), an expression of perfect balance.

Balance is ultimately a matter of Self-control, a refinement of how we exert our free will through careful consideration of proportion and scale in our behavior and action. Most people live in a well-worn habitual mode of action, using that mode as their regular vehicle as they move through life. Think of all the times you hear people say self-defining things like “I’m so stupid. I’m a pot-stirrer. I’m just lazy. I’m a bull in a china shop. I’m this or I’m that…” and you will understand what this means. In yoga we call these self-defining, habitual modes of thinking and being samskaras. These samskaras can be regarded as psychic grooves, much like the grooves on a vinyl record.  No matter how many times a record is played, we experience the same song over and over again, maybe with a few scratches here and there as the record gets older. As we move through our days, each of us is playing our own record, and our psychic grooves cause us to respond to the world in a habitual way.  We tend to think the same thoughts repetitively, feel the same feelings, and react to circumstances, no matter how novel, in ways based on pre-established memory and presupposition.  We seek recollection of previous experience for ways to comprehend what we have before us, whether the response proves to be balanced or not.

Samskaras are the result of years of conditioning and in cases of particularly unmovable patterns, likely previous karmas that we carry into this life which create preconceived notions that we rely upon to navigate the world. We often find ourselves stuck in repetitive thoughts regardless of our intentions, and recurring memories affect how we proceed with our relationships, often hindering us from seeking better ways of doing things. These are samskaras in action making it difficult to separate what we believe we know from what is there to be known. We all live in our samskaras, and while they are fundamental to consciousness and it is impossible to exist without them, our goal is to change our limiting grooves, realizing where we may go wrong as a result of acting through habit or misconception.  This is why so much attention is paid in spiritual development practices on learning how to disconnect from patterns that may not be to our benefit to follow. Consider yourself as a vehicle with the tires on one side stuck in a rut. Sitting in the vehicle, you find yourself unbalanced, and it is your goal to remove yourself from that rut and set yourself back on a balanced path. This takes a concentrated effort, but is not impossible by any means.

What we spend most of our time thinking about eventually overtakes our personas, and we come to embody our habitual thoughts – a self-fulfilling prophecy is enacted.  This is the principle behind what is commonly known as “The Law of Attraction,” which, while a deceptively simple idea, is usually only half-considered.  One believes that to focus on prosperity and wealth will attract such benefits in our lives, and yet, the psychic hygiene required to maintain positive focus typically falls away through ennui, lack of sufficient evidence of efficacy, or simple distraction, and people resume their immersion in negativity once again.  Habitual thinking leads to habitual behavior, and if the habits are inherently negative and Self-denying, life force, happiness and personal effectiveness are curtailed. To manifest positivity, we must live our lives positively, on a continual basis.  Positivity is not something that we schedule as a point of focus for 15 minutes here or there throughout the day after which we resume bad habits.  A positive, productive and prosperous life is built on establishing a positive overall outlook, and that outlook must be maintained with passion and commitment.   This is a matter of free will and choice.

“Do not grieve over your present state and do not worry. If you refuse to worry, you will remain calm and you will surely find a way of reaching your goal. Remember that every time you worry, you put on a mental brake; and in struggling against that resistance, you place strain on your heart and mind. You wouldn’t try to drive off in your car with the brake on, because you know it would severely damage the mechanism. Worry is the brake on the wheels of your efforts; it brings you to a dead stop. Nothing is impossible, unless you think it is. Worry can convince you that it is impossible to do what you want to do. Worrying wastes time and energy. Use your mind instead to try to make some positive effort.”

Paramahansa Yogananda, The Divine Romance

What about people who have been traumatized, who have suffered terrible violence, are immersed in depression, anxiety, limited circumstances or otherwise compromised?  Do these people have a choice to be positive, or are their negative experiences going to define their lives? Unfortunately, it is true that societal forces have resulted in the destruction of capacities to live good lives for huge swaths of the human population. Ultimately though, the choice with what to do with one’s life, and how to best live that life, is up to the individual.  One only has to reflect on survivors of trauma, of horrors such as war, cultural genocide, Holocaust, slavery, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse and look to the inspiration of stories told by those who overcame their traumas to understand the potential of the human spirit.  We see that positive mental outlook and choice are the forces behind successfully overcoming traumatic pasts.  The human spirit can be unbelievably strong, and it is possible to summon that strength to overcome anything, even when it does not seem immediately possible. Don’t ever let anyone or any circumstance lead you to believe you cannot overcome what you want to overcome. This power is available to every single member of humankind. Have faith in your abilities to find balance and live the life you want to live

Currently we find the world gripped in great tension, with large-scale exertions of individual and collective power, extreme expressions of violent tribalism, and delusive ideological bludgeoning causing mass confusion and uncertainty. Sadly, for many people, this all proves to be too onerous, and we have a burgeoning population of those who suffer, unable to find their way free of the burdens that they bear. But we must remember this: nobody needs to give us permission to choose to live a balanced, positive life. It is within the power of each individual to take the steps forward to find harmony for themselves. When we become imbalanced, we easily succumb to negative states of mind which spiral outward, affecting everything around us, but even one step on the path to balance leads to a sense of inner encouragement, and a person can see their accomplishment and build new foundations. The grooves that we travel in life do not have to be negative, and we do not need to remain stuck in them. We have the power to make new tracks, create new songs, and to seek out positive, creative ways of being. Only in focusing on maintaining balance in our own Self will we find any semblance of balance in the world around us. The more people choose to maintain balance in themselves, the more balanced we will all become, something which is sorely needed in this world today.

“The material and the spiritual are but two parts of one universe and one truth. By overstressing one part or the other, we fail to achieve the balance necessary for harmonious development. Life is expressed in a threefold way: through thoughts, desires and actions. Rightly guide all three forms of expression and they will lead you to a higher state of consciousness. In your activities you are the creator, the preserver, the transformer; your will is the director. Practice the art of living in this world without losing your inner peace of mind. Follow the path of balance to reach the inner wondrous garden of Self-realization.”

Paramahansa Yogananda was a Kriya Yogi and founder of Self-Realization Fellowship

The Divine Light Invocation by Swami Sivananda Radha

Swami Sivananda Radha Saraswati, 1911-1995

Swami Sivananda Radha (born in Germany in 1911 as Sylvia Demitz) was a student of Swami Sivananda Saraswati, and her dedication to promoting the well-being of people everywhere led her to create Yasodhara Ashram in Kootenay Bay, British Columbia, a spiritual center which still thrives to this day. Her establishment of a woman-focused lineage, The Saraswati Order, resulted in the ashram largely run by woman, with special attention to women’s issues and the understanding of the Divine Feminine. Swami Radha’s approach was to bring Westerners the teachings of yoga in a manner that was relatable and which cut away much of the complicated philosophy, terminology and practice that Indian yogis adhered to, allowing greater apprehension and benefit for a wider group of seekers.

Her chosen name “Radha” is in praise of Radha, the goddess of love, the main consort and devotee of Krishna. Radha existence was dedicated to love, compassion and undying devotion to the Divine, and she is never separated from her lover, their bonds of love are so strong. The virtues of the Divine Feminine , devotion to tenderness, nurturing, love and compassion are sorely lacking in our world today and it is a blessing that such teachings are available at Swami Radha’s ashram.

Radha (Bani Thani) , attributed to Nihâl Chand, Kishangarh, 1750. Wikipedia.

One of the most beloved of Swami Radha’s teachings was The Divine Light Invocation. It is simple, easily remembered and highly beneficial, particularly in times of darkness, doubt, fear or anxiety. Some people like to incorporate this into their Hatha yoga practice, but it is equally powerful for those who wish to recite the words at any time of need. You needn’t be a yoga practitioner to benefit from this healing invocation.

I am created by Divine Light

I am sustained by Divine Light

I am protected by Divine Light

I am surrounded by Divine Light

I am ever growing into Divine Light.

For more of Swami Radha’s teachings, I suggest the following books, both written by her, and which allow for greater understanding of her approach. She is an inspiration to women’s seekership everywhere, an advocate of wholesome, healthy living and the will to thrive.

Radha: Diary of a Woman’s Search

Hatha Yoga: The Hidden Language

Also visit the website of Yasodhara Ashram for more information about the opportunities for spiritual development, study and retreat.

Yasodhara Ashram’s Temple of Light, Kootenay Bay, British Columbia.

Yoga: Three Bodies, Three Gunas

Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, encompassing both the creation and destruction of the world. His rhythm and fire burn away the dross that conceals true reality. Chola Dynasty Bronze, Tamil Nadu, India. 950-1000 CE.

Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, defined a precise methodology for psychological self-development that if followed astutely, would lead the seeker to a state of release, or moksha, freedom from the constraints of this world. This path, known as Raja Yoga, is an eight-fold approach, and involves the following elements: yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, and samadhi, loosely translated as personal self-cultivation, various observance of lifestyle rules, achieving stability in bodily posture, breath control, sense withdrawal, concentration and withdrawal of the mind, diffusion of personal Ego, and finally merger of self with Self, and complete release from the strictures of earthly entrapment.

Yoga ideology defines our earthly existence as being composed of three levels of experience.  While most people understand their consciousness and identity in terms of the physical body, in actuality, we have not one, but three bodies, or layers to our individual existence, once we take birth.  These three layers are what define our reality. These three bodies are considered as the physical, subtle and causal bodies, or the sthula sharira, the sukshma sharira and the karana sharira.  We are an interconnection of energetic functioning, and these three bodies operate in tandem, as well as separately from one another.  While we have a conscious understanding of our physical body, a conscious apprehension of our subtle and causal bodies is often more difficult to gain, until we begin to look at existence in a broader perspective.

Working in tandem with the three bodies of human existence are three basic levels of energetic frequency or vibration, which animate everything we see in existence.  It is understood that this phenomenal world is activated and informed by these three energy frequencies, which can be defined as sattwa, rajas, and tamas.  Sattwa is a peaceful, fine and even energy.  It is the creative force, and it unifies and connects.  It is the beauty of a flower, the evenness of our breathing, and the sense of calm, steady energy that is health and well-being.  Rajas is energetic, volatile, active and moving.  It is like fire and lightening, digestion and aggression, it is the energy that pushes things and impels us to create change and activity in our lives.  Tamas is receding, collapsing, stagnation, dormancy, and passing away. It is the period of decay and lassitude, it is like the mud in the pond that sits and stews, slow and dull. 

Everything that we see, experience, touch, feel or know is comprised of these three energies of sattwa, rajas and tamas, and it is very rare to find anything that expresses only one of these qualities exclusively.  Prakriti, or creation, expresses herself uniformly and always using the combination of these three qualities.  Sattwa can be found in times of harmony, rajas in times of sustaining an action, and tamas in the period of loss, confusion or inertia that follows the extinction of an active phase.  Sattwa and tamas will often appear to be very similar, as stillness and calmness is inherent in both qualities, but upon deeper investigation, we see that the quality of the calmness or stillness has a very different tone.  The stillness of sattwa has clarity and lightness, whereas the stillness of tamas is dull and inert, almost lifeless and heavy. 

The three qualities express themselves in time as creation, preservation and destruction.  These qualities also correspond to the primal energetic deities of Brahma, Vishnu and Siva – again, respectively, creation, preservation and destruction, expressed through Prakriti, life force.  The cycle of connectivity that combines and entwines these three energies can be called the cycle of change, or time, as Prakriti or creation implies change and time both.  Neither can be considered in existence without the other.

The Five Types of Yoga

The Sage Patanjali. While his true identity and origins are subject to speculation, it is thought that if he lived, he did so between 2nd century and 4th century CE. Image: Patanjali Yogpeeth, Haridwar, India. Wikipedia.

Both the Seer and the seen – meaning the Person and things – are both Brahman; thus, in the knowledge of that, full realization and understanding is born. 

-Patanjali Yoga Sutras 4:22

Yoga, literally translated means “to yoke” or “to join”, and as a system of psychological development, its practices were defined sometime in the first to second century BC by Patanjali, considered as a naga incarnation of Vishnu.  Whether or not Patanjali was an actual being is subject to speculation, but the Yoga Sutras that he set to writing lay out for the student a very specific system of self-cultivation, which, if followed and if the individual is capable, is meant to draw the human through the fields of illusory thought processes and inaccurate perception to merger with the source of ultimate peace and restfulness, endless energetic support, and bliss. 

Yoga is not a philosophical system per se, rather it is a practical means of applying an existing philosophical approach, in this case, Samkhya philosophy.  The study of Samkhya philosophy does not presuppose the need for the student to have a teacher whereas yoga does; rather, it offers a means of understanding the world that can be arrived at through self-analysis and objective consideration of the world, concepts of God and the individual’s place in the scheme of things.  This type of approach emphasizes clear knowledge, or Jnana, and the premise is that by rightly understanding what is to be understood, one can arrive at a place of peace or release from the suffering caused by existence in the phenomenal realm. 

Yoga, rather than strictly approaching this phenomenal world in terms of philosophy, instead offers the individual a methodology, and specific means of cultivating the body, mind, and spirit in order to live a more harmonious life.  Yoga offers tools that can enhance the individual’s capacity for positive self-creation, and accessing one’s true nature, which is synonymous with the ultimate reality that lies beyond this physical world, and which must be discovered through a process of self-application.  Yoga, from the literal meaning of the word “to yoke”, implies a process of doing.  There is an active process that is implied in the journey from the self to the Self, and while a process is implied, it can be regarded as a negative process, for what needs to be done is to actually stop the “doing of things” that hold us back from true awareness or understanding of our actual nature.  As well as presupposing an action, also implicit in the word yoga is the concept of duality, for in joining or uniting, there is the individual self and that with which the self unites.  The source of the act of union is thus, the Higher Self, the Source of all creation, ultimate transcendent reality, or God.  Yoga is therefore the act of reaching or attaining that place of merger, and attaining a permanent identification with the ultimate state of eternal, unchanging presence. 

Patanjali also defines yoga as “citta vritti nirodha”, or the process by which we stop the fluctuations in the subconscious mind which operate on our consciousness through the creation of incorrect ego identification, deluded perception based on sensory data and mental processes based on sensory data, and also the perceptions that arise due to the sullied condition of the build up within the subconscious mind.   Patanjali outlines several obstacles to realizing Yoga, and these are:  ignorance, egoism, attachment, hatred and clinging to life. Any or all of these obstacles will block our capacity for Yoga by their action on the mind, as they set up conditions that cause intense difficulties for achieving any real knowledge or realization.   By following the steps outlined in the Yoga Sutras, one can overcome the effects of these obstacles that mainly exist in the subconscious mind.  By clearing the subconscious mind, we thereby clear the path to a crystalline state of consciousness that is no longer affected by incorrect thoughts, emotions and misapplication of data processing.  For peace to emerge, the process of arising from the subconscious mind must be ceased or blocked (nirodha).  When this process of yoga occurs, the ego is stilled and the pseudo reality that is generally considered our only reality is surpassed.   The personal self resumes identification with the ultimate, impersonal reality.  Patanjali does not claim that there is any merger with this Ultimate Source.  Rather, the peace arises through the very cessation of attachment and identification with the constant fluctuations of personality.  This supposes the acquisition of a skill set that takes us to a greater place of self-control, energetic capacity, expanded awareness and personal capability. 

There are five main types of yoga:  Raja, Bhakti, Jnana, Karma and Hatha Yoga.  Each of these five varieties is presented in order to accommodate the many different types of characters that will be expressed in the seekers. 

Raja Yoga is a complete yoga path, (the royal road) and is the path outlined by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras.   Through understanding and development of the eight-fold route (ashtanga) outlined in the Yoga Sutras, the seeker can ultimately, through right practice, and through focussing on all-round self-control and firm establishment in meditation, come to a place of right and final knowledge of Reality, and thereby, find release. This path is multi-level and involves a mix of approaches – intellectual, physical, emotional and subtle.  All other Yogas eventually lead to Raja Yoga.   Within the realm of Raja Yoga, one finds many different elements, such as the study of Hatha Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Laya Yoga, Mantra Yoga, and Kriya Yoga.  All of these practices work together to bring the seeker to a point of full involvement, and prepare for the final shift to a new level of consciousness. 

Bhakti Yoga is the yoga of devotion, and it involves the establishment of the relationship between the Lord and the devotee.  Through intense and complete devotion on the qualities of a personalized divinity, and concentration or meditation on the qualities of this God or Goddess, the devotee comes to a place of merger with the divinity, as when devotion is total, all that is understood or experienced is an expression of the God.  This is the sweetest form of yoga, as it is based in pure Love.

Jnana Yoga is the cultivation of clear knowledge, or ultimate knowledge.  Study of the Vedas, Upanishads and associated materials activate the higher mental functioning, and it is through the cultivation of the mind, the ultimate source of both suffering and release from suffering, that the student or seeker finds Reality. Jnana Yoga relies on the process of listening (sravana), reasoning (mananam), and suspension of personal experience (nididyasana).   By learning from the experience of others, studying the works of those who have gone before, the student comes to an understanding the workings of the mind, through trial and error, and extended experience and observation of the stages of mind function.  Once the mind and its ways are fully understood, the nature of Reality can be apprehended, and Jnana or true knowledge is gained.   This is not simply an intellectual process, but entails shifting away from the strict knowledge to gain an experiential understanding or awareness of the materials contemplated.  Thus knowledge no longer becomes the point of the Yoga, but the means to the end.

Karma Yoga is the yoga of action.  The Bhagavad Gita is the classic text of Karma Yoga, and through its study we can understand the condition of Yoga that can be found in undivided, attentive and dedicated action.  We are asked to immerse ourselves fully in our activity without regard for the potential outcome of these actions, acting strictly for the sake of the action, integrating and rising about self involvement and utilizing the Self as a tool or means of divine expression.  We are removed from the process of self-identification and Ego delusion by merger with the action, with the flow of events and with simple attention to the action itself becoming the point of Yoga. 

Hatha Yoga is cultivation of mastery over the bodily form, which when practiced with dedication, can lead us to the realization of ultimate Reality.  Through learning mastery over various asanas, or postures, the physical body is cultivated to a point where the flow of prana or universal energy becomes unimpeded or natural, and the connection between the physical, subtle and causal body becomes harmonized and strengthened.  Hatha Yoga is generally considered a precursor to greater immersion in other forms of yoga, such as Raja Yoga or Jnana Yoga, for it becomes clear to the student that cultivation of the physical, while valuable, is only one stage in a much greater realm of experience available to the seeker.