The Way to God through Psychophysical Exercises (Hinduism)

Reference: Hinduism
Reference: The World’s Religions by Huston Smith

[NOTE: In color are Vinaire’s comments.]

The normal pattern will be for individuals to cast their religion in either a philosophical (jnana) or a devotional (bhakti) mold, adapt their work (karma) to the one that is chosen, and meditate to whatever extent is practicable. 

Because of the dazzling heights to which it leads, raja yoga has been known in India as “the royal (raj) road to reintegration.” Designed for people who are of scientific bent, it is the way to God through psychophysical experiments.

Raja Yoga is designed for people who are of scientific bent.

The West has honored empiricism in the laboratory but has often distrusted it in spiritual matters, on grounds that it deifies personal experience by making it the final test of truth. India has not had such misgivings. Arguing that affairs of the spirit can be approached as empirically as can outer nature, she encourages people who possess the requisite inclination and willpower to seek God in laboratory fashion. The approach calls for a strong suspicion that our true selves are more than we now realize and a passion to plumb their full extent. For those who possess these qualifications, raja yoga outlines a series of steps that are to be followed as rigorously as the steps in a physics experiment. If these do not produce the expected consequences, the hypothesis has been disproved, at least for this experimenter. The claim, however, is that the experiences that unfold will confirm the hypothesis in question. 

The approach calls for a strong suspicion that our true selves are more than we now realize and a passion to plumb their full extent. 

Unlike most experiments in the natural sciences, those of raja yoga are on one’s self, not external nature. Even where science does turn to self-experiment—as in medicine, where ethics prescribes that dangerous experiments may be performed only on oneself—the Indic emphasis is different. The yogi experiments not on his body (though we shall find the body definitely involved) but on his mind. The experiments take the form of practicing prescribed mental exercises and observing their subjective effects. 

The experiments take the form of practicing prescribed mental exercises and observing their subjective effects.

No dogmas need be accepted, but experiments require hypotheses they are designed to confirm or negate. The hypothesis that underlies raja yoga is the Hindu doctrine of the human self; and though it has been described several times already, it needs to be restated as the background against which the steps of raja yoga proceed. 

No dogmas need be accepted, but the hypothesis that underlies raja yoga is the Hindu doctrine of the human self.

The theory postulates that the human self is a layered entity. We need not go into the detailed Hindu analyses of these layers; the accounts are technical, and future science may show them to be more metaphorical than literally accurate. For our purposes it is enough to summarize the hypothesis by reducing the principal layers to four. First and most obviously, we have bodies. Next comes the conscious layer of our minds. Underlying these two is a third region, the realm of the individual subconscious. This has been built up through our individual histories. Most of our past experiences have been lost to our conscious memory, but those experiences continue to shape our lives in ways that contemporary psychoanalysis tries to understand. With these three parts of the self, the West is in full agreement. What is distinctive in the Hindu hypothesis is its postulation of a fourth component. Underlying the other three, less perceived by the conscious mind than even its private subconscious (though related to it fully as much), stands Being Itself, infinite, unthwarted, eternal. “I am smaller than the minutest atom, likewise greater than the greatest. I am the whole, the diversified-multicolored-lovely-strange universe. I am the Ancient One. I am Man, the Lord. I am the Being-of-Gold. I am the very state of divine beatitude.”

The human self consists of four principal layers: The body, the mind, the subconscious, and the eternal component.

Hinduism agrees with psychoanalysis that if only we could dredge up portions of our individual unconscious—the third layer of our being—we would experience a remarkable expansion of our powers, a vivid freshening of life. But if we could uncover something forgotten not only by ourselves but by humanity as a whole, something that provides clues not simply to our individual personalities and quirks but to all life and all existence, what then? Would this not be momentous? 

If we could dredge up portions of our subconscious we would experience a remarkable expansion, but touching the eternal component would be momentous.

The call, clearly, is to retreat from the world’s inconsequential panorama to the deep-lying causal zones of the psyche where the real problems and answers lie. Beyond this, however, raja yoga’s response cannot be described, quite, as an answer to any articulated call. Rather, it is a determined refusal to allow the pitter-patter of daily existence to distract from the unknown demands of some waiting urgency within: a kind of total strike against the terms of routine, prosaic existence. The successful yogi succeeds in carrying life’s problem to this plane of new magnitude and there resolving it. The insights of such people will pertain not so much to passing personal and social predicaments as to the unquenchable source by which all peoples and societies are renewed, for their inspiration will be drawn from direct contact with this primary spring. In body they will remain individuals. In spirit each will have become unspecific, universal, perfected. 

Such people are able to resolve all anomalies and become one (continuous, consistent and harmonious) with the universal reality.

The purpose of raja yoga is to demonstrate the validity of this fourfold estimate of the human self by leading the inquirer to direct personal experience of “the beyond that is within.” Its method is willed introversion, one of the classic implements of creative genius in any line of endeavor, here carried to its logical term. Its intent is to drive the psychic energy of the self to its deepest part to activate the lost continent of the true self. Risks are of course involved; if the venture is bungled, at best considerable time will have been lost, and at worst consciousness can disintegrate into psychosis. Rightly done, however, under a director who knows the terrain, the yogi will be able to integrate the insights and experiences that come into view and will emerge with heightened self-knowledge and greater self-control. 

The method is not really introversion. It is the broadest extroversion possible as one’s awareness projects outwards from the eternal component of beingness.

With the hypothesis raja yoga proposes to test before us, we are prepared to indicate the eight steps of the experiment itself. 

1 and 2. The first two concern the moral preliminaries with which all four yogas begin. Anyone who sits down to this task of self-discovery discovers that distractions lie in wait. Two of the most obvious are bodily cravings and mental inquietude. Just as concentration is about to begin in earnest, the yogi may experience an urge for a cigarette or drink of water. Or resentments, envies, and pangs of conscience obtrude. The first two steps of raja yoga seek to clear the field of such static and to lock the door against further intrusions. The first involves the practice of five abstentions: from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality, and greed. The second involves the practice of five observances: cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the divine. Together they constitute the five finger exercises of the human spirit in anticipation of more intricate studies to come. Chinese and Japanese officers who used to practice variations of raja yoga in Buddhist monasteries with no religious interest whatsoever—simply to increase their mental clarity and vitality—discovered that even in their case a certain amount of moral comportment was a necessary condition for success. 

The first step of raja yoga involves the practice of five abstentions: from injury, lying, stealing, sensuality, and greed. The second involves the practice of five observances: cleanliness, contentment, self-control, studiousness, and contemplation of the divine. 

3. Raja yoga works with the body even while being ultimately concerned with the mind. More precisely, it works through the body to the mind. Beyond general health, its chief object here is to keep the body from distracting the mind while it concentrates. This is no small object, for an untrained body cannot go for long without itching or fidgeting. Each sensation is a bid for attention that distracts from the project at hand. The object of this third step is to exclude such distractions—to get Brother Ass, as Saint Francis called his body, properly tethered and out of the way. What is attempted is a bodily state midway between discomfort, which rouses and disturbs, and at the opposite pole a relaxation so complete that it sinks into drowsiness. The Hindu discoveries for achieving this balance are called asanas, a word usually translated “postures” but which carries connotations of balance and ease. The physical and psychological benefits of at least some of these postures are now widely recognized. That the Hindu texts describe eighty-four postures indicates extensive experimentation in the area, but only about five are considered important for meditation. 

Raja yoga works through the body to the mind. The object of this third step is to get the body properly tethered and out of the way. 

Of these, the one that has proved most important is the world-renowned lotus position in which the yogi sits—ideally on a tiger skin, symbolizing energy, overlaid with a deerskin, symbolizing calm—with legs crossed in such a way that each foot rests sole up on its opposing thigh. The spine, with allowance for its natural curvature, is erect. Hands are placed, palms up, in the lap, one atop the other with thumbs touching lightly. The eyes may be closed or allowed to gaze unfocused on the ground or floor. People who undertake this position after their bodies have reached maturity find it painful, for it imposes strains on the tendons which require months of conditioning to be accommodated. When the position has been mastered, however, it is surprisingly comfortable and seems to place the mind in a state that conduces to meditation. Given that standing induces fatigue, chairs invite slumping, and reclining encourages sleep, there may be no other position in which the body can remain for as long a stretch both still and alert. 

The posture that has proved most ideal for long periods of meditation is the world-renowned lotus position.

4. Yogic postures protect the meditator from disruptions from the body in its static aspects, but there remain bodily activities, such as breathing. The yogi must breathe, but untrained breathing can shatter the mind’s repose. Newcomers to meditation are surprised by the extent to which unbridled breathing can intrude upon the task. Bronchial irritations and congestions trigger coughs and clearings of the throat. Each time the breath sinks too low, a deep sigh erupts to shatter the spell. Nor are such obvious irregularities the sole offenders; through concentrated silence, a “normal” breath can rip like a crosscut, sending the hush shivering, flying. The purpose of raja yoga’s fourth step is to prevent such disruptions through the mastery of respiration. The exercises prescribed toward this end are numerous and varied. Some, like learning to breathe in through one nostril and out through the other, sound bizarre, but studies suggest that they may help to balance the brain’s two hemispheres. On the whole the exercises work toward slowing the breath, evening it, and reducing the amount of air required. A typical exercise calls for breathing so gently across goose down touching the nostrils that an observer cannot tell if air is moving in or out. Breath suspension is particularly important, for the body is most still when it is not breathing. When, for example, the yogi is doing a cycle of sixteen counts inhaling, sixty-four holding, and thirty-two exhaling, there is a stretch during which animation is reduced to the point that the mind seems disembodied. These are cherished moments for the task at hand. “The light of a lamp,” says the Bhagavad-Gita, “does not flicker in a windless place.” 

The purpose of raja yoga’s fourth step is to prevent disruptions due to irregular and uneven breathing. 

5. Composed, body at ease, its breathing regular, the yogi sits absorbed in contemplation. Suddenly, a door creaks, a sliver of moonlight shimmers on the ground ahead, a mosquito whines, and he is back in the world.

Restless the mind is,
So strongly shaken
In the grip of the senses.
Truly I think
The wind is no wilder. (Bhagavad-Gita, VI:34)

The senses turn outward. As bridges to the physical world they are invaluable, but the yogi is seeking something else. On the track of more interesting prey—the interior universe in which (according to reports) is to be found the final secret of life’s mystery—the yogi wants no sense bombardments. Fascinating in its own way, the outer world has nothing to contribute to the present task. For the yogi is tracking the underpinning of life’s facade. Behind its physical front, where we experience the play of life and death, the yogi seeks a deeper life that knows no death. Is there, beneath our surface accounting of objects and things, a dimension of awareness that is different not just in degree but in kind? The yogi is testing a hypothesis: that the deepest truth is opened only to those who turn their attention inward, and in this experiment the physical senses can be nothing but busybodies. “The senses turn outward,” observe the Upanishads. “People, therefore, look toward what is outside and see not the inward being. Rare are the wise who shut their eyes to outward things and behold the glory of the Atman within.” Five hundred years later the Bhagavad-Gita repeats that refrain:

Only that yogi
Whose joy is inward,
Inward his peace,
And his vision inward
Shall come to Brahman
And know Nirvana.

It is against the background of three millennia of this postulate that Mahatma Gandhi proposed to our extroverted century: “Turn the spotlight inward.” 

The interior world is simply a world of deeper abstraction and broader viewpoint. It is really not the senses but a fixation on shallower and narrower viewpoints that poses distractions. Such fixations are represented by the sense perceptions of the world. One is after a deeper assimilation of these sense perceptions and not an avoidance of them. For example, the yogi is seeking the understanding of the concept of breakfast rather than dreaming about the varieties of breakfasts one can have.

The final, transitional step in the process of effecting this turn from the external to the internal world is to close the doors of perception, for only so can the clatter of the world’s boiler factory be effectively shut out. That this can be done, and without bodily mutilation, is a common experience. A man calls his wife to remind her that they should leave for a social engagement. Five minutes later she insists that she did not hear him; he insists that she must have heard him, for he was in the adjoining room and spoke distinctly. Who is right? It is a matter of definition. If hearing means that sound waves of sufficient amplitude beat on healthy eardrums, she heard; if it means that they were noticed, she did not. There is nothing esoteric about such occurrences; their explanation is simply concentration—the woman was at her computer and deeply engrossed. Similarly, there is no catch in this fifth step in raja yoga. It seeks to carry the yogi beyond the point the wife had reached, first, by turning concentration from a chance occurrence into a power that is controlled; and second, by raising the talent to a point where drumbeats in the same room can escape notice. The technique, though, is identical. Concentration on one thing excludes other things. 

In the beginning, the continual stream of incoming sensations from the external world is a distraction, because the yogi wants to focus on the assimilation of already existing sensations accumulated from the past. Once the accumulated sensations, or their impression from the past, are fully assimilated, one can be there, comfortably, with the continual stream of incoming sensations. He can assimilate them as soon as they enter the mind.

6. At last the yogi is alone with his mind. The five steps enumerated thus far all point to this eventuality; one by one the intrusions of cravings, a troubled conscience, body, breath, and the senses have been stopped. But the battle is not yet won; at close quarters it is just beginning. For the mind’s fiercest antagonist is itself. Alone with itself it still shows not the slightest inclination to settle down or obey. Memories, anticipations, daydreams, chains of reverie held together by the flimsiest, most unexpected links imaginable close in from all sides, causing the mind to ripple like a lake beneath a breeze, alive with ever-changing, self-shattering reflections. Left to itself the mind never stays still, smooth as a mirror, crystal clear, reflecting the Sun of all life in perfect replica. For such a condition to prevail, it is not enough that entering rivulets be dammed; this the five preceding steps effectively accomplished. There remain lake-bottom springs to be stopped and fantasies to be curbed. Obviously, much remains to be done. 

In this step, the yogi is engaged in the assimilation of past impressions. Memories, anticipations, daydreams, chains of reverie held together by the flimsiest, most unexpected links imaginable close in from all sides. As the yogi simply observes the activity of the mind without interfering with it, the past impressions start to associate, assimilate and disappear into the calm background of deeper understanding.

Or switch the metaphor to one less serene. The motions of the average mind, say the Hindus, are about as orderly as those of a crazed monkey cavorting about its cage. Nay, more; like the prancings of a drunk, crazed monkey. Even so we have not conveyed its restlessness; the mind is like a drunken, crazed monkey that has St. Vitus’ Dance. To do justice to our theme, however, we must go a final step. The mind is like a drunken crazed monkey with St. Vitus’ Dance who has just been stung by a wasp. 

Past traumas can bring up ghosts of past sufferings before they disappear. The yogi remains calm and simply lets it all happen, because he knows that it is part of assimilation.

Few who have seriously tried to meditate will find this metaphor extreme. The trouble with the advice to “leave your mind alone” is the unimpressive spectacle that remains. I tell my hand to rise and it obeys. I tell my mind to be still and it mocks my command. How long can the average mind think about one thing—one thing only, without slipping first into thinking about thinking about that thing and taking off from there on a senseless chain of irrelevancies? About three and a half seconds, psychologists tell us. Like a ping-pong ball, the mind will alight where its owner directs it, but only to take off immediately on a jittery flight of staccato bounces that are completely out of hand.

At this step, the yogi has taken off all the suppression that he had put on past confusions. So, these confusions are bound to come up. As the yogi “leaves the mind alone,” these confusions find no resistance and slowly disappear into the vast background of understanding.

What if the mind could be turned from a ping-pong ball into a lump of dough, which when thrown sticks to a wall until deliberately removed? Would not its power increase if it could be thus held in focus? Would not its strength be compounded, like the strength of a light bulb when ringed by reflectors? A normal mind can be held to a reasonable extent by the world’s objects. A psychotic mind cannot; it slips at once into uncontrollable fantasy. What if a third condition of mind could be developed, as much above the normal mind as the psychotic mind is below it, a condition in which the mind could be induced to focus protractedly on an object to fathom it deeply? This is the aim of concentration, the sixth step of raja yoga. An elephant’s trunk that sways to and fro as the elephant walks and reaches out for objects on either side will settle down if it is given an iron ball to hold. The purpose of concentration is comparable: to teach the restless mind to hold unswervingly to the object it is directed to. “When all the senses are stilled, when the mind is at rest, when the intellect wavers not—that, say the wise, is the highest state.”

The purpose of concentration at this step is to observe whatever comes up without interfering. 

The method proposed for reaching this state is not exotic, only arduous. One begins by relaxing the mind to allow thoughts that need release to exorcize themselves from the subconscious. Then one selects something to concentrate on—the glowing tip of a joss stick, the tip of one’s nose, an imaged sea of infinite light, the object does not much matter—and practices keeping the mind on the object until success increases. 

The object of concentration, such as the tip of one’s nose, is there, only as an anchor for the attention. One may just as simply put attention on one’s breathing as an anchor. Once anchored the attention does not get easily involved with the activity of the mind. Getting involved would be interfering with the mind.

7. The last two steps are stages in which this process of concentration progressively deepens. In the preceding step the mind was brought to the point where it would flow steadily toward its object, but it did not lose consciousness of itself as an object distinct from the one it was focusing on. In this seventh step, in which concentration deepens into meditation, the union between the two is tightened to the point where separateness vanishes: “The subject and the object are completely merged so that the self-consciousness of the individual subject has disappeared altogether.” In this moment the duality of knower and known is resolved into a perfect unity. In the words of Schelling, “the perceiving self merges in the self-perceived. At that moment we annihilate time and the duration of time; we are no longer in time, but time, or rather eternity itself, is in us.” 

As the assimilation proceeds one comes to realize that oneself is really that vast background of understanding and that these impressions are merely unsettled disturbances. One thus enter into a deeper phase of meditation to settle all disturbances.

8. There remains the final, climactic state for which the Sanskrit word samadhi should be retained. Etymologically sam parallels the Greek prefix syn, as in synthesis, synopsis, and syndrome. It means “together with.” Adhi in Sanskrit is usually translated Lord, paralleling the Hebrew word for Lord in the Old Testament, Adon or Adonai. Samadhi, then, names the state in which the human mind is completely absorbed in God. In the seventh step—that of meditation—concentration had deepened to the point where the self dropped out of sight entirely, all attention being riveted on the object being known. The distinctive feature of samadhi is that all of the object’s forms fall away. For forms are limiting boundaries; to be one form others must be excluded, and what is to be known in raja yoga’s final stage is without limits. The mind continues to think—if that is the right word—but of no thing. This does not mean that it is thinking of nothing, that it is a total blank. It has perfected the paradox of seeing the invisible. It is filled with that which is “separated from all qualities, neither this nor that, without form, without a name.”

We have come a long way from Lord Kelvin’s assertion that he could not imagine anything of which he could not construct a mechanical model. By that mode in which the knower is united with what is known, the knower has been brought to the knowledge of total being and, for a spell, been dissolved into it. That which the experiment was designed to test has been determined. The yogi has attained to the insight “That, verily, That thou art.” 

Samadhi is the state where all disturbances have been settled and one is now absorbed in oneself as that vast background of understanding.

We have presented the four yogas as alternatives but, to conclude with a point that was made at the start, Hinduism does not consider them as exclusive of one another. No individual is solely reflective, emotional, active, or experimental, and different life situations call for different resources to be brought into play. Most people will, on the whole, find travel on one road more satisfactory than on others and will consequently tend to keep close to it; but Hinduism encourages people to test all four and combine them as best suits their needs. The major division is between jnana and bhakti, the reflective and the emotional types. We have seen that work can be adapted to either of these modes, and some meditation is valuable in any case. The normal pattern, therefore, will be for individuals to cast their religion in either a philosophical or a devotional mold, adapt their work to the one that is chosen, and meditate to whatever extent is practicable. We read in the Bhagavad-Gita that some “realize the Atman through contemplation. Some realize the Atman philosophically. Others realize it by following the yoga of right action. Others worship God as their teachers have taught them. If these faithfully practice what they have learned, they will pass beyond death’s power.”

The normal pattern will be for individuals to cast their religion in either a philosophical (jnana) or a devotional (bhakti) mold, adapt their work (karma) to the one that is chosen, and meditate to whatever extent is practicable. 

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Comments

  • John  On October 7, 2022 at 12:02 PM

    Great post. Reminds me a lot of my own experience. The best spirituality is also logical!

    • vinaire  On October 7, 2022 at 3:27 PM

      The sense of logic is natural, and that is why you may call it spiritual. The basis of logic is the ONENESS of reality. In other words, the reality is continuous, consistent and harmonious.

      The sense of logic comes from the desire to evolve. We evolve by postulating and making projections; and then verifying the conclusions for continuity, consistency and harmony. This is logic. The last part is important because if we do not verify for continuity, consistency and harmony, the logic can be flawed.

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