Patterns of Consciousness

DeborahForsbloomDuring my 200-hour Teacher Training, I began to see more and more that being Present suffused every part of yoga.   When I needed a topic for a paper on Yoga Philosophy, I decided to see what Patanjali had to say about being Present.   Stephen Cope’s The Wisdom of Yoga became my guide to the sutras of Patanjali.  This is part of that query.

For 3000 years, renunciates in India have been trying to discover what causes human suffering and how humans can live a happy life.  Through trial and error, they decided that the answer to suffering was Liberation, which meant “freedom from all sources of conditioning that bind us to small ways of thinking and being.  Liberation means being entirely awake and fully alive.”[1]  I am calling this being Present.

In the second century C. E., a sage whom we think was called Patanjali wrote Yoga Sutras.  These are short passages which, taken together, propose a path for finding liberation or the ability to be Present.  We will look at the first three sutras for this writing (as translated by Chip Hartranft in The Wisdom of Yoga):

  1. Now, the teaching of yoga. [The first word embodies the direction of the path.]
  2. Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.
  3. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.

When we try to meditate, we become aware of our Monkey Minds by watching our thoughts and breath.  That which watches is The Witness or Pure Awareness.     Through daily living, the Witness or Pure Awareness becomes obscured by patterns of consciousness.  We may deal with 60,000 stimuli every day.  These stimuli, the yogis said, come through the six sense doors: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and thoughts.  Thoughts include memories, feelings, and thoughts as we define them.  The yogis recognized a pattern which modern psychology affirms:

  1. A sensory input first causes an appraisal or evaluation – positive, negative, neutral
  2. This appraisal then causes an impulse – craving, aversion, or neutrality
  3. The impulse leads to an action – go get it or work against it or do nothing

If pure consciousness abides, steps 2 and 3 are eliminated.

The mind needs ways of dealing with so many stimuli, so it forms habits and perceptions to fall back on instead of dealing with each stimulus as if it were new.  As these habits become ingrained and linked to other patterns, a gauze of past impulse/actions blinds the Witness from knowing Pure Awareness.  The system that they developed to eliminate patterns of consciousness was summarized by Patanjali as the Eight-Limbed Path.  This path was intended for renunciates whose entire lives were given to its practice.    Most of us are not willing to renounce the world, but we can cultivate Presence and presence through asanas, meditation, breath practices, and control of our thoughts (one of the yogis’ senses).

Scientific research is showing that negative thoughts tend to be in the right frontal lobe, and positive thoughts are in the left frontal lobe.  The one you use more has more connections and will become your default.  If we focus on being grateful, for example, we form a pattern of consciousness, but it is what is called an aklishta, a positive pattern which can cancel out negative ones (klishtas).  If we keep our minds on gratitude and abundance, that is what we will experience.  If we cultivate gratitude, we will be lessening suffering and increasing happiness.  That was, after all, the goal of the original yogis and is completely doable by modern people who live in the world.

Deborah teaches chair yoga at Grant Fitness and Level 1 yoga at Bexley Recreation and St. Alban’s Episcopal Church.  She is starting her second year in the 300-Hour Therapeutic Teacher Training.  She also enjoys singing in the Columbus Symphony Chorus.

               As I express my gratitude, I become more deeply

        aware of it.  And the greater my awareness, the greater

        my need to express it.  What happens here is a spiraling

                ascent, a process of growth in every expanding

                                circles around a steady center.

-- Brother David Steindl-Rast

[1] ibid,  xv.