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Patanjali and the Forman
From birth to the age of three, our bodies unlock the secrets of motor movement. From the age of two years to ten years, we have the formation of thinking patterns and personality; a worldview begins to form. By the time we reach high school, many of us have formed rigid opinions of the world around us, blinders that limit the scope of the universe. Several psychology texts assert that the best time to expose a child to a musical instrument for instruction is around the age of five or six, and that a person has much greater difficulty learning to play an instrument after the age of twelve or thirteen.
Imagine the mind as being a sponge, and pure thought as the pool of water that it sits in. It can only hold so many ways of thinking, limiting the further intake of new thoughts. Yoga offers a method of wringing out that sponge so as to be free of old, stagnant thought patterns, thus allowing the intake of new thoughts (which must also be squeezed out). The retention of those thoughts is unfavorable. They mix with pure thoughts and taint them. This is what the Yoga Sutra defines as the turnings of thought. The goal of Yoga, as stated in the second aphorism, is the cessation of the turnings of thought (Miller 29). When the mind is objective, like a perpetually dry sponge, one is open to a mystical experience and can see a pure thought for what it is.
Stephen Katz and Robert Forman have two conflicting views on the nature of mystical experience. Katz believes that it springs from our past experiences and learnings while Forman argues that it is transcendental of language and thought, and can strike regardless of whether you believe in it or not. If we examine this debate under the context of Patanjali s Yoga Sutra, we see the inherent truth in Robert Forman s notion that mystical experiences can include a pure consciousness event or an objectless consciousness.
When we look at the practice of yoga, we are told that, its purpose is to cultivate pure contemplation and attenuate the forces of corruption, (Miller 44.) To enter into this contemplative poise, one must be free of his/her own manners of thought, so as to correctly perceive a mystical experience. It is one s goal to achieve this state; the fact of the matter is that we are not in a constant state of pure contemplation. Our background and habitual modes of thought prevent us from reaching this state. The Yoga Sutra is a guide that teaches us how we can attain this state, so it is clear that it does not exemplify Stephan Katz s theory that there are no pure or unmediated mystical experiences. If a mystical experience is a result of one s own views of the world, as Katz suggests, then why does Patanjali s text insist that we have to place ourselves in a state of pure contemplation? Patanjali feels that it is necessary to shed all the subliminal impressions. They gather as we move through life and create the filter that Katz believes all mystical experiences must pass through. It is stated in the Yoga Sutra that subliminal impressions are held together by the interdependence of cause and effect, (Miller 77). Life is but a long series of events causing and affecting other occurrences; our personalities are defined by the way we choose to react to those situations. When Katz claims that, there are no pure experiences, he does not describe the qualities of a mystical experience but rather the natural state of a person who does not practice Yoga. Through the practice of Yoga as outlined in Patanjali s Yoga Sutra, one actually opens his/herself to a pure, unattached experience that he/she can deem mystical.
On the other hand, we have Robert Forman s ideas about the mystical experience, which clearly oppose poor Stephen Katz s rejected misconceptions. Forman states that, the key process in mysticism is not like a construction process but more like one of unconstructing. He couldn t be more correct, and he has all of the Yoga Sutra to support him. In the first step of becoming a yogi, one must renounce all material possessions, one s caste, one s family ties as well as displacing oneself from the standards of society. From the time of our birth, we are shaped and molded. Our parents are agents of society; since they exist and participate in it, they bring back some of its views which are inherently limiting to the individual, to protect us from the other individuals. These limitations are imbedded in the morals and actions taught to us. Timothy Leary, an eminent Harvard professor, echoes this in a speech:
throughout human history, as our species has faced the frightening, terrorizing fact that we do not know who we are, or where we are going in this ocean of chaos. It has been the authorities the political, the religious, the educational authorities who attempted to comfort us by giving us order, rules, regulations, informing and forming in our minds their view of reality. To think for yourself, you must question authority and learn how to put yourself in a state of vulnerable open-mindedness (Tool).
The only way we can unshackle our minds is if we deconstruct the societal conditioning that we ve been subjected to. The thoughts we have do not come from a state of pure contemplation. We have to question the thoughts that come to us naturally because those natural thoughts are tainted, filtered through our learned experiences. The key to reaching a state of contemplative calm is by removing those filters and unlearning what we already think we know.
The Yoga Sutra does not just admit to the possibility that Forman s idea of objectless consciousness exists; it goes so far as to make it a necessary state through which we achieve liberation. In order for the turnings of thought to cease, we have to erase all traces of these conditioned thought patterns. They are tangled in with our memory, reasoning, and even intuition as what the text refers to as subliminal impressions. They must be eliminated. Only then will a state of seedless contemplation ensue (Miller 43). Contemplation that neither springs from or bears seeds corresponds to what Forman calls objectless consciousness , and is what meditation is all about. In fact, it is the final, end result of proper meditation. The text directs us to control our breath, control our posture, and focus on a single, suitable object. The object of meditation will eventually disappear and we will be left with a contemplative state with no seeds. In this state, we can discern the true nature of an object, without the improper subliminal impressions that distort our perceptions.
The debate that Stephen Katz and Robert Forman present to us on the nature of mystical experience is a valid one, and not as one-sided as this analysis makes it out to be. But when we filter this debate through subliminal impressions, pure/seedless contemplation, meditation and other key elements of Patanjali s Yoga Sutra, we see that Forman s arguments are more valid and have the needed textual support. If, however, we were to view these arguments without this filter, we d see that they are equally match points with a significant amount of clash, and objectively, there is no way to distinguish which is more legitimate.
Miller, Barbara Stoler. Trans. Yoga, Discipline of Freedom: the Yoga
Sutra Attributed to Patanjali. New York: Bantam, 1995.
Tool. Salival. Sample of Timothy Leary taken from Third Eye. Volcano
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