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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Intelligence: Good servant, bad master

Intelligent? Me?

My favorite quote from B.K.S. Iyengar. (For the Yogis among you, I practice Pattabhi Jois‘ style, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Intellectuals tend to be arrogant. Intelligence, like money, is a good servant but a bad master. When practicing pranayama, the yogi [makes] himself humble and without pride in his intellectual attainments.”

Page 85 in this book.

I’m crushed: Only 3 out of 5

As you know by now, I’m a humor snob. So I’m gutted to discover, after taking the New Yorker‘s test for advanced readers, that I only scored three out of five. Being a Yoga snob as well, the last one threw me off. But even with that allowance, I’d only be four out of five. And so my Friday morning begins with a crisis.

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How I write

I meant that title tongue-in-cheek, and quite literally. Here is how I write: On my tatami mat in front of my laptop, sitting either in Lotus (Padmasana in Sanskrit) ….

… or in Hero Pose (Virasana in Sanskrit). Which is to say, with my butt between my heels, as below. (For the etymologists among you, the vira, or hero, in the pose’s name is the root, via Latin, of our virtue, virility, triumvirate, et cetera.)

Having said that, when I first get into my “office” in the morning, and I’m still stiff and cold, I usually warm up a bit first. So, for a while I might sit in half-Lotus, with one leg on top of the other. Or I might kneel, Japanese-style. Or sit in cobbler’s pose.

But… why? Why would I do such a thing? Can I not afford a chair?

I can. I just decided a few years ago to “ditch my chair,” for the reasons I described in this Yoga Journal article. Call me eccentric. It’s allowed.

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It’s a stretch to write a book…

… especially when your children are on your back, and a full-time job, and …..

How does Tom Standage make it look so easy?

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