Finding Patañjali

Illustration:  sy tat

Illustration: sy tat

Today I finished an in-depth and note-taking reading of Edwin Bryant’s compilation of The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. Starting in mid-February, it seems appropriate that I am turning the last page just as the sun is beginning to creep through the cloudy weather we’ve been having; I think I needed to read it while nature was whispering my name instead of calling it. As anyone who has read the sutras (hopefully with a commentator’s guidance) knows, it is dense. Filled with everything from social commentary, philosophy, and metaphysics to practical advice concerning posture, it is a profound testament to Vedic thought. When approached with an openness towards the commonly held “truths” of the day, it is humbling to realize the optimism with which Patañjali approaches the human condition.

He trusts in our ability to overcome suffering. Against all odds, and oftentimes people, he believes that we are all on the road to enlightenment. Even if it takes us a thousand lifetimes to do it, eventually we all reach the mountaintop. He’s rooting for you every step of the way and that is some profoundly positive-thinking. What would it be like to look at everyone and everything around you with such hope? I can't say that I know.

Modern life being what it is, it can be terribly easy to feel like things get worse every day. The news, no longer something that you digest in metered doses, is now a torrent of information. Because of this, it is possible to be exposed to nothing but despair…the absolute worst events and the deepest human depravity that exists...every moment of every day. It makes sense in a twisted way; why would “everything is fine here!” make the newsreel? Exposure to positive outcomes doesn’t spark debate. A women in North Dakota is decidedly not interested in the good grades of an underprivileged youth in New York. It’s human nature. We all have things to do, worries of our own, and sometimes bullets to dodge. We are on watch, deeply invested in threats towards our existence, real or imagined. A world, made smaller and more “efficient” for the perceived safety of ultimate control, is now held hostage by that same desire, an instinct as old as life began.

I’m not sure we are ready for the tools we now possess.

And yet, the data sometimes says otherwise. World hunger is the lowest it’s ever been. Our jobs, even the outstandingly dangerous ones, are safer than any time in history. Globally, violence has diminished to a rate unknown by any other generation to walk the earth. It all looks good on paper, as long as that paper contains facts and figures instead of faces and stories.

Patañjali, like the countless other good-intentioned souls on this earth, wants every one of us to be free of suffering. Despite his work, created to guide its readers towards a detachment from desire, it is painfully obvious that he himself wasn’t there yet. Isn't his desire to impart enlightenment, beautiful though it is, still a desire? So where does that leave us? If the path toward Purusa’s independence requires the cessation of all desire, where does that leave everything else? Where does that leave empathy? Where does that leave our responsibility to this planet?

The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali is an amazing text. Its words have inspired countless people towards acts of compassion, grace, and humility. It has a value that can not be overstated. But once again, I find myself with more questions than before. What is the value in completely dismissing sensory pleasures? What does that mean for everyone else? I don’t have the answers to these questions swirling inside my heart. I admit that I'm not likely to have them in the foreseeable future. I find comfort in that. Being human is a balancing act, but balancing acts can be enriching. Sometimes they are even exciting and joyous. There is no operating procedure for this messy thing called existence, but maybe that’s its beauty…a world filled with light, splattered with every color under the sun.

*I really enjoyed Edwin Bryant’s new translation and commentary of The Yoga Secrets of Patañjali, and I found it to be both thorough and approachable. You can find it and any other books I mention on Goodreads. I encourage you to purchase books from independent bookstores if at all possible. Your local library is another fantastic resource and I hope you give them your support.