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Tending the garden of our thoughts

The original intention of yoga was not concerned with a yoga mat! The goal of yoga 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 current life experience. 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 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.

Understanding a few key sūtra-s helps 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 is sūtra 33 of samādhi pādaḥ (the chapter on concentration). It states: maitrīkaruṇāmuditopekṣāṇāṁ sukhaduḥkha puṇyāpuṇyaviṣayāṇām bhāvanātaś cittaprasādanam. “The mind becomes purified (citta prasādanam) by cultivating an attitude (bhāvanātaḥ) of friendship (maitrī) towards those 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 cultivating them helps us avoid the mental turmoil which results from our negative reactions or responses. Bhāva can be understood as pertaining to our inner mental attitude, which influences our external behaviour. Bhāvana is illustrated beautifully in Ayurveda, where it refers to the soaking of an item in a liquid repeatedly, to produce a concentrated and effective end-product. We can liken the practice of these four bhāvana-s to soaking the mind in a carefully-chosen, purifying thought.

Although external behaviours are important, sūtra I.33 refers to our mental actions. It’s a fine idea to aim at being a nice and kind person, however these four bhāvana-s are not primarily proposed as an ethical or moral guide but as a method to make the mind pure and tranquil. In his explanation on Vyāsa’s commentary to the Yogasūtra, Swāmī Hariharānanda tells us which specific 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.

The challenge we might encounter is, how do we feel friendliness towards a happy person if we dislike that person? Swāmī Hariharānanda suggests that, in such an instance, we recall the feeling experienced when a close friend is happy, and then cultivate that feeling towards others too - particularly when we notice in ourselves a tendency towards jealousy. Likewise, when people we dislike are suffering and we might consequently feel a little smug, e.g., an initial thought arises such as “they got what they deserved!” - in those cases we should deliberately recall the compassion we would feel when a close friend is suffering.

The example used to describe envy is to notice our mental inclination when a person achieves fame or praise for doing good deeds. If that person belongs to a different peer group, we might initially feel a desire to put that person down or criticise their efforts. We are reminded to recall the joy and goodwill we would naturally feel if that person belonged in our close circle. Imagining how it would feel to walk in another's shoes, and repeatedly recalling that feeling, helps us cultivate and embody that bhāvana in respect of all people.

Finally, upekṣā (indifference or non-judgment) is not exactly a bhāvana; it is a restraint. It can be understood in this context as refraining from dwelling on others' bad behaviour. It is not that we shouldn’t take steps to prevent their bad behaviour – if it’s possible to redirect their actions or help them change their thinking we should try. But often, the injustices, crimes and negative actions of others are beyond our control. In this case, our best response is to refrain from holding a mental judgement, because harbouring condemnation or anger only disturbs our own mind whilst having no effect on the other person.

As with anything that we practise over and over again, we become better at it. When we practise these positive bhāvana-s often with commitment and enthusiasm they will become more natural to us, perhaps ultimately becoming our default position. The result is an increasingly serene inner experience, better relationships and improved quality of life. This experience of sattva (a steady and reliable tranquillity, peace and equanimity) encourages and supports us to continue on the path of yoga towards a more permanent peace.