Helpful or not

Helpful or not?

“ Thought divides,

the ‘me’ and the ‘not me’,

‘we’ and ‘they’,

my country and your country,

my ideas and your ideas,

my religion and your religion,

and so on.

The very movement of thought 

is divisive because

thought is the response

of memory and experience,

which is the past.”

~Jiddu Krishnamurti

**If you haven’t read yesterday’s post or aren’t familiar with the pancha vrttis I encourage you to start THERE**) 

Now that we know the 5 categories of mental activity according to Patanjali let’s look at the next part of the 5th sutra…

  • vrttayah: the vrttis/activities 
  • pancattayah: five fold
  • klistah: harmful
  • aklistah: helpful

“The activities of the mind are of 5 categories. They are either harmful of helpful” 

This is an important sutra. Up until this sutra a new practitioner may immediately consider that because the aim of yoga is absolute peace, which requires a stoppage of the mental activities, that the only way to reach liberation is through spontaneous transcendence! It may seem we should just be able to decide to stop thinking and all will be well (good luck with that!). But here Patanjali suggests that we should look further. Yoga is a practice as well as a state of being so with what framework are we applying our yogic efforts? That framework is influenced by the mind. The citta akasha (mental space) and all the projections therin make up our current experienced reality is also the source of all the tools we initially must use to go beyond it. So the citta vrttis CAN be helpful supports for deeper inquiry and meditation even if they are often not helpful (perpetuating dukha/pain). Again the words helpful and harmful are referring exclusively to yoga. This is not to say some activities of the mind aren’t helpful for worldly aims- but if your aim is peace of mind we must address what helps that journey.

Before we look to the vrttis let’s look to the 5 stages of the mind (the 5 cittas) as laid out in Vyasa’s commentary.

The 5 cittas

of these 5 stages of mind only 2 are helpful in the yogic sense. The nature of our citta will determine how the vrttis interact towards yoga or bhoga:

The unhelpful (klistah): 2 of the 5 classificaitons of mind are not yet fit to take up meditation they are:

  1. ksipta: broken. highly agitated, unable to settle

Krishnamacharya’s son, T.K.V Desikachar likened the ksipta state of mind to that of a monkey jumping around. Unable to settle or focus… “if you threw a diamond at it it wouldn’t know what it was.” For these minds the realm of the gunas is particularly frazzled. The word broken is often used to describe this mind. This does not mean that the mind is irreperable, only that it will require some assistance from the realm of healing (ayurveda /medical science) to regain a sense of health and wellness before it can take up the path of yoga samadhi. Asking someone in this frame of mind to sit down and focus will lead nowhere.

  1. mudha: infatuated, covered

mudha means covered. Here the mind is shrouded and dull. This dullness is due to the continued outward pull of the senses. If the mind is goverened by tamas then the senses will continuously be pointed outside. Pushed and pulled by raga and dvesha the mudha mind is not fit for meditation. Instead the task again is to regain a sense of health and wellness so the mind’s capacity to go inward is connected; reduce the effect of tamo guna in varying ways (diet, sleep schedule, what you consume beyond food etc). Swami Rama said “today’s human being is scattered in the external world.” This is mudha.

The in between: 1 classification is a turning point. On it’s own this is not a yogic stage but with proper practice and guidance can be an invitation towards elevated awareness:

  1. viksipta: waivering. sometimes focused, sometimes infatuated

the viksipta mind is the in-between. This is where most of us are and simultaneously the reason we have come to yoga sadhana. Much of the time we are still enraptured by the external pull of the senses BUT there are those moments and whispers of clarity that make us realize there is something more. We can focus long enough to sit, to pay attention to our body moving in space with long smooth breathing, we may be able to stay with a mantra for a period of time. Most importantly we have the realtime capacity to come back to something again and again (dharana). The senses are not only drawn outward but the capacity is there to absorb teachings and begin to apply them. Feeling that jolt from presence to infatuation is enough for most of us to take up yoga and stop feeding the cycle of avidya and resulting pain. In this frame we accept “atha yoganusasanam”

The helpful (aklistah): the final 2 classifications are ultimately the only stages of mind that are helpful to the yogi. They are:

  1. ekagrah: single-pointed

The first stage that is consistently helpful when working with the mind in yoga is ekagrah or ekagrata. This means single pointed focus. of the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga only 6 are practices we can actively do (atleast initially). The other 2 are a result of being established in the first 6. Dharana is that last “active” practice. In dharana we continuously bring the mind back to an object. That object may be the breath, a mantra, isvara etc. When the mind is viksipta we must actively bring it back from the realm of distraction to attention. Evenutally this practice of coming back again and again leads to the 7th limb- dhyana. In dhyana the mind remains single pointed for much longer. Ekagrah is not spontaneous…it first requires us to guide the distracted mind to stay. When the mind can stay then it can really take up meditation and absorption (samadhi).

  1. nirodhah: stopped

Finally we arrive at nirodhah. Nirodhah as already defined by Patanjali in the 2nd adn 3rd sutra as a stoppage of the mind which is absolute peace is what we seek to cultivate in our yoga sadhana. Just like a garden we cannot make the plant grow. We can till the soil, plant the seeds, water the field, protect against frost and do our very best to prepare. The plant grows if the preparation is good not because we scream at it to sprout. And so it is with nirodhah. We use our yogic efforts to bring the mind to focus, contemplate and absorb into the object of our contemplation. Eventually the mind stops when we remain steadfast in our sadhana without attachment to the fruits of our labor. In upanishadic thought this is the full integration of the body/mind/heart.

The 5 Vrittis:

Now understanding the frame of mind we are cultivating in yoga sadhana and those that are not yet prepared to take up meditation how do these relate to the activities in our mind. 

Remembering that in our typical day to day life the mind is firing in multiple lanes and not pointed we must first develop ekagrah towards nirodhah or atleast a practice of dharana in viksipta to observe and adapt what is helpful or not. This gives us the ability to stay with something and assess it from all angles. Only then can the mind be a friend in our journey. Otherwise we are waivering. 

In this state of ekagrah when the mind is clear we can identify more clearly what activities of the mind keep us on the path to our selves (aklistah) and those that don’t (klistah).

Let’s look to some scenarios:

Correct analysis /Pramana: By and large we aim to point our mind towards correct knowledge. As mentioned yesterday it is important to develop pratyaksa pramana (correct analysis via direct experience) in order to be able to navigate the murky ocean of mental projection. Ideally this is an aklistah (helpful) vrtti as long as the pramana is met with abhyasa (consistency in practice) and vairagya (dispassion towards the boons/attainments/results of said practice). However, if our analysis is based in a frenetic, dull or wavering mind then getting to direct experience will be impossible. Our buddhi will be too tamasic to “see properly” and so what feels like pramana is actually disguised viparyaya (incorrect analysis masquerading as certainty). The yogi in a state of ekagra only can fully move beyond inference into experience. The sattvic buddhi in a state of ekagrah is able to turn it’s analytical capacity towards the Atman/Purusha….nirodhah being the definitive yogic experience.

Incorrect analysis / Viparyaya: By and large this vrtti is not helpful. However, in the state of ekagrah we can more clearly observe where we are placing mistaken perceptions and conclusions into our mental sphere. This is a helpful process. In that intense focus and absorption don’t just analyze what you perceive correctly but also ask the questions- what have I considered to be true that just isn’t?

Imagination/ Vikalpah: Imagination can often get us into trouble. Day dreaming only about things we want or don’t want is a lower state of mind (mudha) and accumulates punya/apunya karma. This is not helpful. However for bhakti yogis imagination is an aklistah vrtti. Imagining the divine in form helps the mind connect to the qualities of the divine. This is helpful as an intermediary practice as the bhakti ultimately aims to go beyond the form to the formless. This requires ekagrata and nirodhah mental framwork respectively. We can also look to pratipaksa bhavanam and the practice of considering an alternate approach to reactivity. This practice too initially requires a bit of imagination as we are carving out a new path that has not been previously realistic for us (again, helpful on the journey).

Sleep/ Nidra: Sleep is necessary. It is helpful for a sound body and mind (Interestingly though, with sustained yoga sadhana, especially pranayama and antaranga, many find the need for sleep to be less and less. Deep states of meditation and long practices of pranayama have quite the effect!). By and large while important for health sleep is a tamasic state not a yogic one. Many people prefer to do their sadhana at night because when the mind is sleepy it can provide a sense of relaxation that fits the mental mold we’ve all been told is the aim of yoga. However, don’t get sleepiness and peacefulness contorted. If you get sleepy in your practice consider what is contributing to this elevation of tamo guna. Maybe you need to get more rest. Maybe it is imperative to reassess yama and niyama as they help to reduce external tamas and rajas. i.e. Maybe your digestive system needs easier more sattvic foods etc etc. It is unhelpful to confuse the feeling of non-existence that comes in that dreamless state with the actual state of nirodhah. What is helpful is to take care of your body/mind complex so that you can practice with clarity. 

Memory/ Smrtih: Memory is necessary to remember our practice. There are a myriad of techniques and conditions that we will learn are helpful for our development. Utilizing memory we continue our studies and sadhana with consistency so of course memory can be helpful. However, if we stay attached to our memories as reflections of what should always be present that is not helpful. A ksipta citta for example may not be able to distinguish past memories from present moment experiences. Even in the context of yoga sadhana our practice shifts and adjusts towards the antaranga sadhana as we age and become more single pointed. If we are attached to the asana as a defining characteristic of who we are, specifically the way our asana looked or felt in younger years, then that memory creates pain and is an obstacle. So developing single pointedness and the ability to observe without attachement is helpful. The most helpful approach to memory is to use our single pointed buddhi to analyze and eventually release attachment to unhelpful memories (of course still honoring vairagya to the end that we don’t get too attached to our analysis ? ).

In conclusion, the activities of the mind will be helpful or harmful depending upon which stage of mind we are in. If our mind acts in the frenetic stage of ksipta, the shrouded stage of mudha or even the wavering stage of viksipta citta then meditation is not possible. However in ekagra the mind can act but in focus. It is more clear and less reactive. So the basic idea here is to elevate the minds capacity for clear and unattached analysis as a practice. In that state of ekagrah we can see what citta vrttis should be temporarily sustained to maintain our devotion, our daily duties and ultimately meditation and absorption. The rest we can slowly shed.

Rather than just trying to spontaneously combust all the activities of our mind we instead use the mind to go beyond the mind. A helpful process rather than a supernatural fete.

Use the mind to go beyond the mind. A helpful process.

See you tomorrow,



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