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 (It does, however, make the “Western”, ie monotheistic, religions look ever more outdated.)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.

Letting go, in small ways and big


One way to catch monkeys–or so I once saw in a documentary–is apparently to dig a hole in the ground just big enough for a relaxed monkey hand to go in and just small enough for a monkey fist not to come out.

Then you put some goodies in the hole and wait. The monkey then catches itself. It sticks its hand in, grabs the goodies, makes a fist and refuses to let go, even as it sees the hunters casually sauntering up to take it in.

Primates, in short, have a problem with letting go, and that’s how this relates to The Hannibal Blog‘s current thread on stuff. I rarely, these days, find anyone prepared to argue that clutter/stuff is a good thing. Nor, however, do I know a lot of people who have actually done anything about it. It may be that I hang out primarily with primates.

It’s our (ie, primates’) loss, because this not letting go is what makes us so miserable. That’s true in the context of physical stuff piling up, but also of mental clutter.

The Dalai Lama, at the end of this conversation, says that

True happiness doesn’t mean trying to acquire things, so much as
letting go of things.

Not coincidentally, therefore, a primary meditation technique consists of trying to let thoughts go. You sit still and observe dispassionately what pops into your mind. You don’t try to suppress bad, mean, nasty, stupid thoughts, because that would only make them come more–eg, you would feel guilty and angry about not ceasing to feel guilty and angry.

Instead, you “label” the thoughts (‘Aha, anger again.’) and then let them pass out, replaced by whatever comes next.

It’s quite surprising how much crap shows up this way. Even more surprising is that after a while of doing that, the parade of thoughts slows down. Eventually, it might even come to complete stillness, which is how Patanjali defines yoga (union). At that point, you have indeed let go.

So: stuff, clutter, things, illusions, attachments: it’s all there to be let go. Unfortunately we have evolved to hold on to it. Hence passion, literature, civilization, stories … and misery.

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The original “gadfly”: Socrates’ negativity


Socrates saw himself as “a gadfly to a horse”, where the horse was Athens–a “sluggish horse” in need of a bit of “stinging”. This the origin of our cliché. As we keep discovering in this thread on Socrates, the old man is still with us all the time, whether we are aware of it or not.

Socrates also liked to compare himself to a midwife. (Perhaps that metaphor came to him because his mother was a midwife.) What he meant by it was that, through his dialectical questioning and conversation, he “birthed” the thoughts that his conversation partners were already pregnant with. Put differently: He felt that he brought something out of people: he led (Latin ducare) something out (ex), ie educated.

But how did others see him?

Cicero, a few centuries later, said that Socrates practiced a “purely negative dialectic which refrains from pronouncing any positive judgment.”

Hippias, one of the sophists (teachers) Socrates interrogated, said that “You mock at others, questioning and examining everybody, and never willing to render an account yourself or to state an opinion about anything.”

Meno, another conversation “partner”, tells Socrates that “You are extremely like the flat torpedo sea-fish; for it benumbs anyone who approaches and touches it… For in truth I feel my soul and my tongue quite benumbed.”

In short, it is hard to avoid concluding that Socrates left everybody feeling bad. If you were lucky, he merely belittled or embarrassed you; if you were unlucky, he exposed and humiliated you. He never made anybody feel confident or good. In our lingo, he left everybody 😦 and nobody 🙂 .

What if Socrates had talked to Patanjali?

This is quite worth thinking about.

You recall that Patanjali was my nomination for the title of “the world’s greatest thinker ever“. He was the original sage of Ashtanga Yoga. Which is to say: Whereas the Bhagavad Gita outlines Ashtanga Yoga (which it calls “Raja Yoga”: “regal union” or “kingly discipline”) in a narrative form, Patanjali was the first to analyze the “how to”, step by step.

As it happens, he had a lot to say about something that Socrates valued: truth, or Satya in Sanskrit. It is one of the Yamas, or ethical principles, that yogis must adhere to if they want to embark on the journey that leads to enlightenment. Don’t lie, in Commandment language, to others or yourself.

But Patanjali is more subtle than Socrates. Another of the Yamas is Ahimsa, non-violence: Don’t hurt people (others or yourself), physically or psychologically.

The subtlety lies in understanding that Satya and Ahimsa, truth and gentleness, often conflict. It may be true that you are ugly, but do I need to tell you that and hurt you? In Socrates’ case, it may have been true that his interlocutors were, if not ignorant, at least far less wise than they pretended. But did he need to humiliate them publicly?

There was widespread consensus that his negativity helped the cause of truth only insofar as it tore down certain falsehoods. That’s a step forward! But Socrates did not then build on the rubble with a positive truth.

Patanjali might ask Socrates: What, sir, were you trying to accomplish by humiliating your opponents in your dialectic? Did you not forget your own distinction between eristic dialogue, in which the parties try to win, and proper dialectic, which brings people closer together in the common search for truth?

Sometimes, in life and world history, one must be violent in the name of truth. Other times truth is not worth violence. There must be a higher purpose, a positive goal. Otherwise a gadfly is just another gnat that bites to feed on the blood of others.

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Patanjali’s Yoga Tweets

You know already that I consider Patanjali the greatest thinker ever, and that I have amused myself by pondering the resemblance between his medium, sutras, and the one you’re reading right now, blogging.

Now I come across this witty refinement of the idea. Patanjali, it turns out, was … a Tweeter!

I may yet have to eat my words about Twitter.

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Forgetting to breathe

So here I have been, waxing philosophical about Patanjali, the great sage of Yoga, and his fundamental insights about the human mind.

Well, I’ve been a hypocrite. Because, as I have been noticing all this week, I am barely remembering to breathe. And breathing properly is the way to calm and clear the mind, as Patanjali taught us. So my mind, you can infer, is anything but calm and clear. I am too worried (about something that I may or may not share anon).

A few years ago, I took videos such as this one seriously, and actually did pranayama (breath exercises).

But paying attention to breathing is amazingly hard work. So, because I’m lazy, I gave up.

Then life pitches you a few tough ones, and off you go, breathing like a dog: shallow, top-of-the-lungs, in-out. You become a wreck.

It’s a pity that breathing, or the concentration that it requires, is such hard work. Otherwise, I might actually learn the lessons by Patanjali that I like to tout. Ironic.

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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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More on the liber in Liberal

Anxious Soren

Anxious Soren

Now that I’ve reclaimed the word Liberal from the barbarian hordes in American television and politics, I thought I should expand the topic so that we are all equally confused again.

Liberal, we agreed, comes from the Latin liber, meaning free. It is a philosophy of freedom. Nuff said.

Actually, no. There are so many ways of thinking about freedom that it quickly makes your head spin.

Political, national and personal

In this course, Rufus Fears, a professor I quite like, distinguishes between political, national and personal freedom. You can have personal freedom without political and national freedom (colonial America, Hong Kong within China) and national freedom without political and personal freedom (post-colonial Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew, in my opinion).

Negative and positive

Another way of thinking about it is negative versus positive freedoms. Negative freedom is about being left alone by somebody powerful, probably the government: no confiscations, intrusions, invasions of privacy, etc. Positive freedom is the opposite: an intervention by somebody, probably the government, to improve your life. Among Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “four freedoms”, the third one is a positive freedom:

  1. Freedom of speech
  2. Freedom of religion
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

Existential and spiritual

Then there are the likes of Gautama Siddhartha, aka the Buddha, and Soren Kierkegaard, pictured above. They took thinking about freedom to a whole new level. The Buddha (and his contemporary, Patanjali) showed us that oppression comes from our own mind–its fears, craving, anger, and desire in general–so that freedom is about making the mind still. It is internal to every individual.

Kierkegaard and the Existentialists who followed him would agree with that but draw a different conclusion. Because we are free, we are free to screw everything up and we know it. This makes us anxious. So freedom leads to Angst (whereas the Buddha’s freedom comes after Angst has finally become quiet).

The problem of choice

Then there is the entirely new and modern problem of too much choice. Thanks to Richard, I found a TED video by Barry Schwartz, a psychologist, in which he dispels the myth that more choice equals, or leads to, freedom. Instead, it increasingly paralyzes and enslaves us.

When you are stumped

  • in your supermarket aisle by the 175 salad dressings before you;
  • in your electronics store  by the 6.5 million permutations of stereo systems on offer;
  • or with your 401(k) paperwork by the 2,000 mutual funds available,

then you are not really free. You just give up. You will regret whatever you do choose, because the other options might have been better. And you will blame yourself because now it’s your fault that life is not perfect. I think of this as Kierkegaard 2.o.

In summary, I have hereby once again proven how much fun and excitement there is to be had by hanging around… real Liberals. 😉