Tending our thoughts
The original intention of yoga was not centred around a yoga mat! The goal is to be permanently free of suffering. Whether we see that as achievable or not, the good news is that any step we take towards this goal will improve our experience of life. However, we must be sure our steps are based in correct knowledge and understanding, together with reflection and feedback.
The frameworks of Patañjali’s Yogasūtra are predominantly concerned with the mind: how it works; its different levels and modes; and, its role in the journey towards this peaceful freedom. In life, we may be able to escape or avoid an external situation, but we can’t escape the effects of our own thinking. So, we must carefully tend the garden of our own thoughts.
Learning a few key sūtra-s is a great way to help us progress, as they can be a tool for reflection as well as for practice. One important sūtra concerned with emotional well-being through positive psychology practices is sūtra 33 of Samādhi pādaḥ (the chapter on concentration). It states: maitrīkaruṇāmuditopekṣāṇāṁ sukhaduḥkha puṇyāpuṇyaviṣayāṇām bhāvanātaścittaprasādanam. “The mind becomes purified (citta prasādanam) by cultivation of the attitude of (bhāvanātaḥ) friendship (maitrī) towards those (viṣayāṇām) who are happy (sukha), compassion (karuṇā) towards those who are suffering (duḥkha), goodwill (muditā) towards those who are virtuous (puṇya), and indifference (upekṣā) towards those who are non-virtuous (apuṇya).”
The practice of these four bhāvana-s is a prerequisite to mental steadiness, as these practices help us avoid the mental turmoil resulting from our negative responses. Bhāva refers to our inner mental attitude, which influences our external behaviour, and so the right bhāvana is crucial. Bhāvana is demonstrated beautifully in Ayurveda, where it refers to the soaking of an item in a liquid, over and over again, to produce a concentrated, effective product. We can liken the practice of these four bhāvana-s to soaking the mind in a carefully-chosen, positive thought.
Although external behaviours are important, this sūtra is about our mental actions. Although it’s a good idea to aim at being a generally nicer person, these four bhāvana-s are not proposed as an ethical or moral guide, but as a method to make the mind tranquil. In his expansion on Vyāsa’s original commentary to the Yogasūtra, Swāmī Hariharānanda explains which specific negative tendencies of the mind will be lessened by practising these four bhāvana-s: friendliness will counter jealousy; compassion will oppose harshness; goodwill/joy will reduce envy; and equanimity/indifference will minimise condemnation.
But how can we be friendly towards someone who is happy, if we dislike, or disagree with, that person? Swāmī Hariharānanda suggests that we recall how we would feel if a close friend experienced happiness, and then cultivate that feeling towards others who are happy, particularly when we notice a tendency towards jealousy. Likewise, when people we dislike suffer and we feel a little smug – that initial thought “they got what they deserved!” - recall the compassion we would feel towards a close friend who is suffering.
The example used to describe envy, is to notice our mental inclination when a person achieves fame for doing good deeds. We might initially feel a desire to put that person down, especially if they are of a different persuasion to us. We are reminded to recall the joy and goodwill we would naturally feel if that person was in our close circle. This practice of recall helps us embody the bhāvana that is to be cultivated towards others.
Finally, upekṣā (indifference or non-judgment) is not exactly a bhāvana; it is a restraint. It means to refrain from dwelling on the bad behaviour of others. It is not that we shouldn’t take steps to prevent their bad behaviour – if it’s possible we should try. But often, the injustices we hear about are beyond our control. At these times, our best response is to refrain from passing a mental judgement, because harbouring condemnation is a disturbance to our own mind.
As with anything that we practise over and over again, we become much better at it. When we practise these bhāvana-s often enough with commitment and enthusiasm, they will more naturally become our default position. The result is a more serene inner experience, better relationships and an improved quality of life. Without this experience of sattva (a steady and reliable tranquility or equanimity), there will be no inclination to continue along the path towards permanent peace.