What it Takes (6)
Swami Ambikananda Saraswati
The Flow of a New Consciousness
"Life is an art. Spiritual life or sadhana is still a
greater art. Every stroke of the brush matters… "1
~ Swami Venkatesananda
We hear much these days about Yoga being 'a science'. The reality is that science, in our time, is the new religion and scientists the new priesthood. If you want to publicly validate something, speak of it as science. However, somewhere in the back of my mind I still hear the roar of that 20th century lion of the Himalayas, Swami Krishnananda, when he said, "The Western yoke on India has left an impact which always insists that whatever modern science says alone is right."2 Dr. Roy Matthew, in his stunning book The True Path, agrees when he says,
“One must keep in mind the spiritual tenet that the absolute reality is beyond and before science and, therefore, science cannot prove or disprove it. Science is a small component of a larger reality, and science validating reality is like a fish proving the existence of the ocean.”3
My guru, Swami Venkatesananda, spoke of Yoga as an art ~ an art of life, the art of transforming our lives.
In order to demonstrate that Yoga is good for our health and wellbeing, we do indeed have to turn to science and their measurements of the effects of Yoga on body and mind. However, the art of Yoga calls us to something else ~ to an altered state of consciousness in which we become the canvas, the painter and the brush. And it is here that we offer ourselves to that elusive flow state of ‘the peak experience’. As we shall see, the Yoga of both the God Beyond Death ~ Yama ~ and the Sage Patañjali called us to that state of consciousness even beyond flow, to Samadhi, the ultimate state of Yoga. (See May blog).
Flow in Sport
Flow is now a well-documented experience and even a cursory internet search will reveal thousands of entries on it. Enjoy! The sports person will invariably describe it as a bliss state:
“Everything else goes away. It almost happens in slow motion, even though you’re doing things at the correct time. Nothing else matters; it’s just an eerie, eerie feeling and nothing can take you out of focus.”4
The Sage Patañjali would have described this state of consciousness as samāpatti: a state in which knower, known and object all merge.
kṣīṇa-vṛtter-abhijātasya-iva maṇer-grahītṛ-grahaṇa-grāhyeṣu tat-stha-tad-añjanatā samāpattiḥ || 1:41 ||
When (through practice) the mind has been restrained, it becomes as clear as a pure crystal, reflecting ‘the knower’ and ‘the known’. This state of mind is known as samāpatti. (41)5
It is a preparatory experience for the ultimate state of consciousness that Yoga beckons us to, samādhi5.
How do we get there?
Fixing the Sails
“… it is necessary to note that the word Samadhi is not used for any specific or definite state of mind. It stands for a very wide range of super-conscious states which lead to and end in Kaivalya.”5
This statement by the respected author, I.K. Taimini reminds us that all these states ~ from samāpatti (or flow) to savitarka to nirvitarka and on to samadhi, are not an end in themselves, but rather states of consciousness we pass through to reach that final destination of experiencing our wholeness, fullness, completeness ~ kaivalya ~ when we are one without a second7.
What any great Yogin would have said is that samādhi is always available and always accessible, we have only to be in the proper state of mind for it ~ and that’s the art. I like to think of it as a sailor taking to sea: it is not enough that there is wind, s/he has to set his or her sails to catch the wind. We have to ‘set’ our lived lives in a way to ‘catch’ that elusive state.
One of the most moving examples I have ever encountered of flow as savitarka samapatti is in the writing of Arthur Koestler. Koestler was a communist activist, who went to Spain to join the Spanish resistance against Franco and fascism. He was arrested, informed that Franco himself had signed his death warrant, and sent to a prison where regular executions took place. The guards, when they were rounding up prisoners for execution by firing squad, would occasionally slide a key into the lock of his cell, as if to indicate they were coming for him, and then slide it out again and move on.
Koestler realised that the stress was becoming unbearable for him and that he had to do something to take himself out of the situation at least for short periods of time. He was not allowed any reading or writing material so the only recourse available was his own mind. For some days he stood each day, looking up through the bars of his cell at the sky, while trying to mentally solve a complex mathematical problem. He knew nothing of ‘flow’ or ‘samadhi’, he was doing this to try and get some relief from the tension of his situation. His focus was intense and one day he found himself in ‘flow’, which he described as:
“... A wordless essence, a fragrance of eternity, a quiver of the arrow in the blue... I must have stood there for some minutes, entranced, with a wordless awareness of ‘this is perfect – perfect. ... Then I remembered I was in prison and might be shot. ‘So what?’ ... Again I was floating in a river of peace, under bridges of silence, a river that came from nowhere and flowed nowhere. Then there was no river and no ‘I’. The ‘I’ had ceased to exist.”8
This is beyond the ‘flow’ state (samāpatti) and into savitarka samāpatti ~ in which we contact a depth that heretofore in ordinary day-to-day consciousness eludes us.
In our day-to-day lives we know something of ourselves as ‘body’ and we know a little of ourselves as ‘psyche’ ~ but maybe we sometimes wonder if there is possibly more to life than eating, drinking, sleeping ~ and then repeating the same the next day?
The samāpatti experience of athletes and the savitarka samapatti experience of someone like Koestler, give us a glimpse of that ‘more’. And it is not a ‘more’ that calls us to yet another purchase ~ it calls us within.
Koestler was not ‘doing’ what we would recognise as Yoga when he fell into that altered state of consciousness ~ but he was certainly engaged in some of what Yoga calls us to: living his life with serious commitment, and engaging in an intense focus for extended periods of time.
For these altered states of consciousness to be experienced, we need to bring not only a rigorous physical training to our practice, we have to become artists. We have to accept that we ourselves are the art of life: the canvas, the painter, and the brush ~ and how we live and all that we engage in, produces the art. Once we have accepted this, the pathway that each of these two great teachers ~ Sage Patañjali and Yama ~ offered as the one to walk towards this change in consciousness, becomes possible.
It does not require that we forsake the life we are living as a parent, worker, friend, relative, etc. Rather, it requires that we live our lives as dedicated artists, carefully applying brush and colour. Or, as Sir David R. Hawkins put it, “Live your life like a prayer…9” As we saw in the previous blogs, not a single brushstroke we make or prayer we whisper from our hearts brings about the state of samadhi ~ but, paradoxically, that is how we set our sails to catch its wind.
Next month we will explore the directions that both the Sage and Yama gave us to walk this pathway, to get to the ocean’s edge, to set sail ~ and then to catch the wind.
1. Serve by Swami Venkatesananda, publ. by Ananda Kutir Yoga Centre, Cape Town.
2. The Yoga System by Swami Krishnananda; publ. by Divine Life Society, Rishikesh, India, 1992.
3. The True Path ~ Western Science and the Quest for Yoga by Roy J. Mattew MD. Publ. by Basic Books, New York, 2001
4. Flow in Sports by Susan A. Jackson and Mihaly Csikszentmihaly; publ. by Human Kinetics, 1999.
5. Patañjali Yog Sutra-s Ch 1, Verse 41.
6. samādhi = absorption; from sam = together +ā = into + dhi put, place. The Science of Yoga by I.K. Taimini, publ. by The Theosphical Publishing House, New Delhi, 1961.
7. You might often see commentators write of ‘savitarka samādhi’ or ‘nirvitarka samādhi’. Patañjali never uses these terms. He speaks of savitarka samāpatti (in which subject and object merge) and nirvitarka samāpatti, which is a stage beyond it. Beyond these, he says, is nirvicara ~ a state he equates with samāpatti. This last state is beyond thought or cognition and it alone can lead to kaivalya = alone, as in ‘one alone’ without a second, the state of consciousness sought by the Yogin.
8. Invisible Writing by Arthur Koestler, publ. by Vintage, London, 2005.
9. Sir David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D., is an internationally renowned spiritual teacher, psychiatrist, physician, researcher, lecturer and developer of the widely-known Map of Consciousness®.
©Swami Ambikananda, June 2022