Escaping Thought in Yoga

The Bias of Language About Ourselves and The World

Western thinking never questions the I that is thinking. Thought then springs from the confused root of this identity based itself on a pre-existing structure of beliefs about itself and the world within which it lives. In contrast, Eastern thought looks not at making sense of thinking, rather, trying to understand the one who is experiencing this.

For example, when Descartes famously said I think, therefore, I am what he was referring to was the unquestionable presence of a stimulus upon his experience. However, he made a number of crucial assumptions that Eastern thought doesn’t allow. Firstly, he was already clear about what was occurring; namely the thinking, secondly, that this process must necessarily lead to the existence of some perceiver, but, finally, and most mistakenly, that the thinker was, inherently a certain way due to the presence of the thoughts it experienced.

In other words, we are more or less back to the start again here, having just re-stated the original question as to just who is doing what, and answered it by the pre-existent terms already attached to language. For, to say we are ‘thinking’ in the first place, is to tacitly state a whole number of conclusions already involved in defining the word. This is obvious, otherwise it could in no way be made sense of in the first place if it didn’t already draw certain boundaries around its concept so as to be understand as, for example, different to drinking hot chocolate.

Therefore, what we end up with is a kind of ‘language game’ (Wittgenstein), where language simply defines its terms as it is used. In this regard, Descartes famous statement makes non-essential conclusions based on the mechanics of a language where thought must be sensical, and also owned by somebody – without a subject and object, an inner and outer world, it is hard to make any statement whatsoever. Yet, this is where yoga-thinking lands us when it questions the solidity of the thinker  as an I. Indeed, just because a certain experience takes place, defined within the terms of its experiencing; under what grounds can we possibly conceive that it justifies validating a definite, solid and independent structure to do this?

Instead, the kind of questioning going on in yoga is quite outside the structure of language and the inherent assumptions it contains. Here, even the yoga sutras themselves are written in short ‘threads’, where the meaning comes through a new relation to words as they are grouped together, as opposed to the structured Western philosophy we find in place since Plato, where sentences were employed and it is then very hard to resist conventional meaning re-asserting itself through the cracks. This is the case with the most famous utterance of yoga; “Yoga Citta vritti nirodha”, which is a composite of a few words without adjoining grammar that would make problematic, as unconsidered, assumptions about the nature of a ‘sentence’ – ie. That there is a subject, object, and verb at the very least.

Yoga does not allow this. In contrast, this statement does not call for any further justifications to be understood – what are called ‘contingencies’, other statements that must be necessarily true in order to understand the one under consideration. Once again, we can refer back to being able to understand in the first place what Descartes is saying, by already knowing what thought as well as the I is. Otherwise, we really only arrive no further forward with this statement, rather, if we don’t admit that these terms are allowed to carry any extra baggage with them, all we can say is there is an experience. We cannot even saying, if it is happening to anyone, what is involves, let alone, If it is really happening. As the Zen masters’ riddle goes; on waking up, he asked his disciples to tell him if he was dreaming of being a butterfly, or, whether he was instead, a butterfly presently dreaming of being a man.

To return back to Patanjali’s definition of yoga at the very beginning of the yoga sutras; when he says ‘yoga citta vritti nirodha’, what he is saying is ‘yoga’, for now we can call this simply the objective for the statement, is simply the end (nirodha) of differentiated experience (citta vritti). This is because, as soon as we recognise an experience as being distinct from another, it necessarily calls into play a whole set of reference points that must be taken in faith – namely, to repeat, that there is an experiencer separate from the experience, to say nothing about the assumptions made when we say that thinking is indeed, different to the experience of drinking hot chocolate.

It may be true that having disqualified understanding thinking as such as an impossible task according to yoga (as it rests upon too many assumptions and biases), yoga  can say little or nothing of our experience in the world.  But, indeed, that is the very point; for the objective in Western thought is to prove and justify certain values through assumptions already present in the language, whereas in yoga, the objective is only the recognition of Self, completely outside any conceived usage of this. Moreover, not only do we not have any vested interest in the objective of yoga other than the recognition of reality, we have no reason to suggest that this is any thing at all outside a ‘sense’ or ‘feeling’ that bear no further definition or comment.

For example, let’s look at Plato’s definition of ‘justice’, or, the right, at the very start of The Republic. Perhaps, this is the very equivalent of Patanjalis’ opening statement of intent – basically, that whatever happens outside the confines of conditioned thinking must be the real or yoga. In contrast, before even arriving at inquiring into what is right, he has already assumed that there are separate individuals capable of perceiving this independently, or, outside of themselves. The very fact that justice or the good is discussed in the first place, only makes sense if it is already admitted to be universally understood through a shared understanding of language. Even, to begin with, to repeat, that there is an I in the first place.

However, he goes on, that ‘the good’ must be inherently so to be considered as such, as well as demonstrably so in its ends. In other words, for something to be right, true, or, as he puts it ‘just’, it must be good in itself and good in its effects. Well, this is quite understandable, as discourse Plato is involved with is on the matter of The Republic, and not, the matter of Self. Which, is to say, that, in the first place, the experience of value in the Western hemisphere, one that demanded reflection and inquiry upon, was that of our relation outside ourselves: as to others, society and our relation to it,  as opposed to a personal experience of interest only to the individual.

So, this is the fundamental deviation in the use of rational thinking; for, in The East, very broadly speaking, the objective was a personal feeling, quite useless to society. Whereas, in The West, thought has always been tied into a social objective, which mobilises inherent prejudices already involved in the language we are using. Here, knowledge is only such if it is useful to society in general, which then serves to justify it as innately so (both good and right), where, in much of the thinking originating in the East, knowledge is quite outside the sphere or interest of any shared language that might define it, making it communicable. In fact, it has no other meaning than the enjoyment of a personal sense of conviction.

Finally then, this qualifies the yoga-method as being the understanding and application of ahimsa, non-harm, as opposed to Western ideas of ‘the right’ which may have served the job of achieving some immediate cohesiveness for those using the same language and its implicit assumptions, yet, as soon as we move outside this geographical bias,  sets one culture against another as the terms of what is to be valued and what is to be feared or pushed away, is so clearly and objectively defined in a social sense.  However, this is always the problem when a certain kind of certainty in rational thought (ie. when it conforms to the rules of its own game) is taken as a signifier of Self, as opposed to a non-definable, un-sharable, of demonstrable experience.

The Yogi, having achieved a personal, inner-sense of stability, peace, or conviction, as to a feeling, does not then need to seek it in a more literal way. Rather, as it were, ‘the proof is in the pudding’. On the other hand, for the one using thought to guarantee this sense of self in the material world outside of them, there is always, instead this need to assert the terms by which we think of ourselves against others in order to prove we exist. If, for example, we are unable to pin-down the definition of goodness, where does that leave us, as to rational thought – it is then, quite meaningless, if thought can mean anything. This is why, we have always felt the need in The West to define ourselves around protecting the terms of our thinking; what is right and wrong, for, if this is not found as such, we are left without any identity whatsoever, having wholly thrown our ‘lot’ in with thought as to provide us with a sense of ourselves. 

Therefore, ahimsa can only really be pursued, once the mind that is identified and understands itself through language has been discredited as a valid source of experience, or one worth pursuing. Put most simply, as long as we have defined the “I” as to be known in a separate experience of itself in contrast to others, we are one step away from the need to protect the boundaries of our very sense of being. On the other hand, ahimsa is achievable when a kind of inner-work has been undertaken with no vested interests whatsoever – to have, in a way, taken absolute responsibility for ones’ own experiencing of oneself and what it might best entail, without relying on the stabilising and normative aspect of prejudice on a social level.

Indeed, it is a risky business to step outside of the received notions the mind carries in language, this is why the yoga-method is there as a framework to guide and protect one in this quest into the unknown. Importantly, however, this is a pragmatic one, it does not fall into the error of our Western methods as it is non-conceptual and non-linguistic. This is only tolerated, when the emphasis is other than a material one that warrants a cohesive enough society to trade with and through. Which, then, comes back to the consideration of ‘time’ and accumulation versus presence, quantity in the visible, versus an unseen quality…

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