Patanjali in a lab coat

That modern science is somehow “catching up” with Eastern philosophy (logos uniting with mythos, as it were) is an old idea.

At least 25 years old, if you date it to Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, a good book then which could be even better if written now.

In my mind, this convergence redounds to, rather than detracts from, both science and Eastern philosophy. (It does, however, make the “Western”, ie monotheistic, religions look ever more outdated.)

I will state the premise thus:

The millennia-old traditions of India and China express in metaphorical language concepts that we are today corroborating in scientific language.


  • By “Indian” traditions I mean Vedantic philosophy and all its offshoots, from Yoga and Ayurveda to Buddhism.
  • By “Chinese” tradition, I mean Taoism and Chinese medicine.

(Zen, for example is thus included, for it is basically the Japanese form of the Chinese version of the Indian tradition of Buddhism.)

This premise yields a rich genre of research and inquiry. Here are three examples:

  1. one from within our bodies,
  2. one from the workings of our minds, and
  3. one from the entire cosmos.

1) In search of qi

A dear friend of mine is a successful Western doctor who is now also certified in Chinese medicine. In our conversations, we spend lots of our time “translating” Eastern concepts such as qi (prana in Sanskrit) into “Western” medical vocabulary.

Usually the medical vocabulary is less beautiful and less elegant but also less threatening to people in the Western mainstream, and hence useful. Qi, for example, is simply the (measurable) bioelectric energy in our bodies.

Once translated, seemingly occult claims by Eastern medicine offer themselves much more readily to scientific experimentation. The needles in acupuncture, for instance, are nothing but tiny antennas, which can receive, re-transmit and amplify electro-magnetic vibrations — in other words, qi. We should be able to measure this.

Ditto for the chakras. I’ve written before about how the chakras correspond to Western psychological concepts such as those of Abe Maslow. But in essence, they are simply the swirls of bioelectric energy you get in the ganglia along our spine where many nerves (ie, many little antennas) converge. Again, we should be able to measure and observe them.

2) The monkey mind of misery

You might recall that I awarded the prize of “greatest thinker” in world history to Patanjali, a contemporary of the Buddha in India and the author of the Yoga Sutras. His insight was that happiness, balance and unity (= yoga, loosely) are products of only one thing:

A still mind.

The rest of the Yoga Sutras are, in effect, an analysis of how things go wrong when our minds wander, and a manual of how to return the mind to stillness. (That’s all Yoga is, really.)

Buddhism and Zen aim to do the exact same thing. Our slightly modish concept of “flow” is also the exact same thing. Total absorption into any one thing = stillness of mind.

The opposite of a still mind is often depicted as a monkey mind in Eastern tradition. It makes us miserable.

Now two boffins at Harvard — Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert — have developed an ingenious experiment using (what else?) an iPhone app.

(Thank you to Mr Crotchety for forwarding their article in Science Magazine.)

The app, at random moments, asks people questions such as:

  • How are you feeling right now?
  • What are you doing right now?
  • Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?
  • If yes, something pleasant, neutral; or unpleasant?

The huge sample of data shows, as Killingsworth and Gilbert put it, that

A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

Specifically, our minds (ie, the minds beings sampled) wandered about half the time (46.9%). And it did not matter what people were doing at the time! If they were doing pleasant things, their minds wandered just as much, and not necessarily to pleasant thoughts.

Furthermore, people were less happy whenever their minds wandered, even when they were thinking pleasant thoughts. (Obviously, unpleasant thoughts made them even more miserable than pleasant thoughts, but the point is that any mind-wandering discomforted them.)

And Patanjali said all that in the second sentence. 😉

(However, there is a fascinating twist — a benefit of mind-wandering — that touches on a subject dear to my heart: creativity. I’ll save that for a separate post.)

3) The cosmic parade of ants

In Indian tradition, there was not just one Big Bang. There have been infinitely many. That’s because the universe is born, expands, collapses and is reborn in an eternal cycle.

In metaphorical language,

  • each creation (or Big Bang) is the work of Brahma,
  • each expansion that of Vishnu, and
  • each collapse that of Shiva.

But these three are all part of the same underlying reality (Brahman). Metaphorically, Brahman is inhaling and exhaling, and each breath is its own spacetime, as Einstein might put it.

Because this is hard to grasp, even gods need reminding of it. Hence, for instance, the story of Indra and the Parade of Ants.


Indra was haughty and summoned a great architect to build a splendid palace. He kept adding requirements so that the architect was never done. Brahma (ie, also Vishnu and Shiva) decided to teach Indra a little lesson and appeared to him as a boy.

Boy: Will you ever complete this palace? After all no Indra has ever completed it before.

Indra: What do you mean, “no Indra”? There were other Indras?

Boy: Oh yes. When twenty-eight Indras have come and gone, only one day and night of Brahma has passed.

And just then, an endless parade of ants filed in and through the palace. Each one, said the boy, was once an Indra.

Our science currently tells us that our universe started (in earth time) 14 billion years ago. But now I read that Roger Penrose, a famous British mathematician, and V. G. Gurzadyan, a physicist, have found patterns in the microwave radiation generated by the Big Bang which suggest that

our universe may “be but one aeon in a (perhaps unending) succession of such aeons.” What we think of as our “universe” may simply be one link in a chain of universes, each beginning with a big bang and ending in a way that sends detectable gravitational waves into the next universe.

Greatest thinker ever: Patanjali


And so: the winner. The Hannibal Blog‘s search for what makes great thinkers great, and what does not, took ten posts. My nominee is Patanjali.


Those of you who have been checking in regularly might have had your suspicions that something yogically-themed would come up again. But do not make the mistake of thinking that Patanjali is “only” about Yoga! Yes, he wrote (or so we think) the Yoga Sutras, which is, along with the Bhagavad Gita and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, one of the three great texts of Yoga. But what he said–with masterly economy, in 196 aphorisms that form a single logical thread (sutra)–qualifies not only as the earliest but also as the greatest thinking yet on the human mind.

Mind matter

And that says it all: This is about the mind, or psyche in Greek. So he was, with the Buddha (who might possibly have been a contemporary), one of the first psychologists. That said, the ancient Indians put our psychologists to shame.

We Westerners have one word for mind (not counting breath or spirit, which the ancients conflated), just as we have one word (give or take) for snow. The Yogis had hundreds of words for mind, just as the Eskimos have many words for snow. That is because they observed it with so much more nuance. For example, the Bhagavad Gita is about a war between the five Pandava brothers against their cousins, the one hundred Kaurava brothers. The five Pandavas represent the five positive minds, including Arjuna, who represents buddhi, or clear intelligence. The one hundred Kauravas represent all the negative minds (fear, anger, envy,….)

Stillness and …

Let’s cut to the chase. The first sutra simply says Now we start this exposition on Yoga. But in the second sutra Patanjali essentially says it all. (Talk about simplicity!) It is famous, so here is the Sanskrit:

Yogah cittavrtti nirodhah

This is the E=MC² of the mind. It means (using Iyengar’s translation):

Yoga is the cessation of movements in the consciousness.

There is a lot of important precision in that slightly clunky-sounding phrase, but we would be oversimplifying only slightly by reducing it to my phrase:

Yoga is a still mind

A reader who grasps all the ramifications could stop reading there. Most of us do not. So Patanjali elaborates…

… Motion

The trouble is that the mind is almost never still. It moves, pulled by thoughts as wild as bucking broncos. And this is what confuses and torments us. Patanjali’s greatest (and most overlooked) contribution is his analysis of these naughty ones that we call thoughts or emotions.

You know them all: anger, fear, envy, greed, lust, anxiety and so on. They show up and take your mind captive. You think they are you, and you suffer and make others suffer.

Patanjali proves that they are not you. You can, with the techniques that he describes, let them go. A naughty one shows up in your mind stage left, you say, ‘Oh Hi, Mr Anger’ and label him, then allow him to exit again stage right. And you keep doing that.

Over time, you make a discovery. Who is saying Hi and doing the labeling and letting go? It can’t be Mr Anger. So anger is not me, it’s just some schmuck passing through. See you!

I am therefore something else. Patanjali calls this I the seer. As the seer sees more clearly, the mind comes to rest.

And for all those who are still with him at that point, he sketches out how to unite (=Yoga) with this seer in order to feel whole and free. Non-trivial, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

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