Yoga Sutra 4: It’s the end of the exhale and I feel fine

A series of talks by Michael Stone about chapter 3 of The Yoga Sutra a text written by mysterious author(s) often named Patanjali in the second century. Notes by MH include reveries and imaginings. Centre of Gravity Fall 2011.

The sitting instruction today is to pay attention to the end of the exhale. Breath after breath. So what happened?

“I just checked out and planned for my wedding.”
“I thought I was looking something – where is the end?”
“I didn’t pay attention to the feeling of letting go so much, so it was relieving.”
“I forgot about myself and could hear sounds all around me, like the people in the hallway.”
“I found it hard not to do pranayama and force the breath so I could really feel it.”

Yogis can be sensation addicts. We want to feel something, it can be hard to switch from this mode to stillness.

Yoga Sutra chapter 3, lines 4,5,6,7
Chip Hartranft’s Patanjali:
Concentration, absorption and integration regarding a single object compose the perfect discipline of consciousness.
Once the perfect discipline is mastered, wisdom dawns.
Perfect discipline is mastered in stages.
These three components – concentration, absorption and integration-are more interiorized than the preceding five.

Matthew Remski and Scott Petrie’s Patanjali:
These three (focus, contemplation, integration) work together.
They give flashes of brilliance and understanding.
They unfold in stages.
They are more internal than the first five practices.

Here Patanjali is getting into some dry meditation instruction. Think of it as an atlas for meditators. This is where people usually quit reading The Yoga Sutra, while commentaries are divided between meditators and academics. To sit or not to sit, that is the question. Why become the dharma when you can watch it on TV? Often during the ups and downs of daily practice it’s easy to get lost, many of us are just trying to bring a bit of attention to the breath. And this is where Patanjali really shines. She says that the last three limbs of ashtanga yoga comprise the perfect discipline (samyama) of consciousness. Sam means community or to bring together. Yama means restraint. Samyama is the activation/integration/coming together of restraint. Concentration, meditative absorption and integration comprise the coming together of the restraints. You actually practice all three together.

Many think that if they practice mindfulness they’ll wind up in samadhi, but Patanjali suggests that there are three kinds of concentration practice. This is long grain brown rice teaching – as plain as it gets.

There is a difference between mindfulness and samadhi. Mindfulness means coming back to an object again and again. Is the practice working? You can assess it according to whether you return or not. This is the sixth limb of ashtanga yoga (concentration or dharana). The difference between this concentrated state and samadhi is the absence of hindrances. Illness, dullness, doubt, carelessness/negligence, laziness, cravings, distractions, instablility. These get in the way of what’s coming up in awareness. Though most people won’t explore this unless they’re on retreat. In a householder practice, we can slip off the roof by having doubt, or not taking care of ourselves, or falling asleep during sits. But in samadhi practice we don’t slip off, the roof is curved in the other direction, it holds us in concentration. The mindfulness is strong enough so that even when distractions arise, it pulls you back. During retreat you might feel held in concentration rather than trying to glue yourself to it.

The Buddha says that one way to get concentrated is to practice mindfulness while you’re walking, brushing your teeth, about to go to bed, speaking to a neighbour or washing the dishes. Whatever you’re doing with the body is a yoga posture. This allows continuity of practice.

While observing the end of the exhale, you can recognize the process of change, impermanence, you start to see the momentariness of breath. It comes and goes, it arises and passes away. This is the nature of sensation, everything arises and passes. Similarly suffering arrives when we try to stick to something, when we try to hold onto something and make it permanent.

The Buddha recommended the breath as an excellent teacher of impermanence, careful observation leads to an intuitive rather than a conceptual understanding. How can you experience letting go at the end of the exhale? And then see that each breath is different than the one before? When you can feel and know this in the body, you begin to realize the futility of clinging.

Shunryu Suzuki says: Don’t be bothered by your thoughts, let them come and go.

Moods colour the mental sphere, how to avoid identifying with your always changing moods? Moods can be related to being hungry, or low blood sugar or the processes of digestion. Eckhart Tolle says that when you’re hungry it’s a good time to connect to your pain body. If you can avoid attaching to a mood, then the body becomes more spacious, and sensations can pass through awareness more easily.

There is a Tibetan practice that asks you to follow your thought to the very end. At first I thought this meant: keep thinking! But a few months later I realized I had to watch a single thought until it passed away. Then you see it’s not as real as you think it is.

The Other Side
Suffering is related to having a concept about experience. It’s hard to feel pain and not have a concept about it. Can you feel the ache of dukkha or longing without an idea? The concept is an extra layer of aversion. How to pass on the extra layer, to stay here without the conceptual overlay? How to open to experience without any kind of language being applied so that the door can open from the other side? When we’re not caught in one thought after another, the I-maker or storyteller begins freaking out because it gets seen and faces the possibility of unemployment. How does this show up? Thoughts rush in.

One part of us is opening to difficult experience, while another part wants us to feel good. The ego’s role is: how to turn whatever shows up in awareness into something that feels good. But the first noble truth: to fully know suffering, involves suffering. One teacher said: suffering is trying to get out of your suffering.

There’s nothing you can really rely on. Everything you think is fixed is actually fluid. We’re loyal to our suffering when we’re not aware of how we cling. This happens when we touch the place in our lives that is not governable. That is outside our control.

When I split with Roxanne I had all these memories – some were good and some were bad. It’s not supposed to be like that, they should be all bad. In other words, she wouldn’t stick to you so much if she were just one thing. The other level of emptiness is that nothing lasts long enough to be real, to ground a self. If you have a feeling and want to explore it without concepts it won’t last long. The job of a psychotherapist (ok, they do some other things) is to hold you in your experience, to catch you when you try to escape.

Better than Good
We start getting concentrated, having a flow, it feels really good, you’re not clinging. When nothing’s sticking anymore, then pleasure and lightness arrives. I call it the adolescent stage because the feeling is, “I’m done – this is the heart of everything.” Then we go from sticking to external matters (my bank account, my bike) to sticking to inner things. A new sense of self constellates out of joy. In discerning what’s the path, what’s not the path, you have (?) to be able to let go of that pleasure because the pursuit of freedom is more important than feeling good. One needs to be mindful regardless of what’s arriving. Then you can trust some deeper spaciousness, or as Jane Hirschfield says, “making the unwanted wanted.” Basic sanity is this goodness in all of us, healing our hearts.

More art than law
Sometimes when I’m meditating I think, “There is a pain in my chest, I have to go downtown, do I have enough toilet paper?” This is all part of the field of governing. When we’re concentrating on the breath we’re trying to move underneath the mind as a muscle that wants to grip experiences. You don’t need to be creative with the technique and improvise, let the form hold you enough so that you can drop underneath the part of you that has preferences. The technique I like to use is to stay with the feeling of the breath, it’s hard to have an analysis or story going or a lot of control if you’re deep in the feeling of each breath. When you’re meditating you can just go one breath at a time, and you’ll notice how each breath is really different, and your body starts to breathe without you. You don’t even need to be the breather. And that’s ahimsa, to trust that is to trust in the ultimate level of non-violence. When you’re faced with resistance in your meditation practice and you try to get rid of it, that’s killing, that’s violence. When you’re faced with pain if you meet it in a way that you want to get rid of it, that’s harming. How do you face laziness and pain tenderly and respectfully? When you can face what’s showing up with tenderness and spaciousness then ahimsa comes alive in formal meditation, and everything that shows up is an affirmation of life, rather than something that’s happens to me. Ahimsa means the affirmation of life, bringing the impulse to kill out into the light of awareness. Mindfully observing your breath, you see that spacious life can’t support killing, so the precept of non-killing is not really about restraining killing but liberating the part of our mind that is trying to control everything and that is causing us delusion. I hope there’s a trust in non-violence that is not ideological, though that’s fine too, but that the sitting practice can keep your mind and body open. It’s more art than law.

I like to think of the thousands of people who have taken up the sitting posture of meditation so that they can know their life. That can be another helpful way of working with resistance. Patanjali says that we need stages to get into samadhi. At the end of the exhale you can feel a letting go at an intuitive level, that is exactly same as feeling the impermanence of thoughts. This shows you the futility of holding onto anything or what you lean on to create a sense of self. Then you touch that gap between thoughts, and that gap is your basic goodness. This is the practice of nonviolence.

Less is More
In concentration practice, as concepts go away insight deepens. The less you think the more you know. You can’t figure your way into non-attachment. The goal for Patanjali is purusa, or: to be a person. When we are not being ourselves it means we are trying to change the way things are. Being a person requires a deep letting go and that’s what we need for community to flourish. It’s so easy not to be a person.

The Buddha is just settling down and his disciples are gathered round, he is about to begin speaking. One begins to address him, “Oh venerable sir…” The Buddha says, “Don’t look at me, when you look at me you should see the dharma. Whatever you’re seeing is the dharma.” All teachings try to re-orient our views. Philosophy in Sanskrit comes from the word darshan (that has the word drishti (to see) in it – how do we see? We need to see clearly but not with our eyes. Not with the eyes we’re used to seeing with.

John Coltrane: When the music starts happening, I try to get out of the way.