October 21, 2011

Yoga Psychology 101: Michael Stone and Yoga-Sutra Translator Chip Hartranft in conversation

Yoga Psychology 101:
Michael Stone and Yoga-Sutra Translator Chip Hartranft in conversation


CHIP HARTRANFT’s work bridges the traditions of yoga and buddhism. A longtime yoga teacher and student mainly in the Krishnamacharya lineage, he has worked with Noëlle Perez-Christiaens, AG Mohan, TKV Desikachar, and many others. He has practiced Buddhist meditation for many years as well, with teachers including Larry Rosenberg, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Michele McDonald, and Mingyur Rinpoche. He also counts Krishnamurti, Shunryu Suzuki, Jean Klein, Nisargadatta, and Vimala Thakar as influential in his development. I met with Chip in his comfortable office at The Arlington Center just outside Boston. Chip is the author of The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali: a new translation with commentary (Shambhala), and is the founding director of The Arlington Center, dedicated to the integration of yoga and dharma practice. Chip has taught a blend of yoga movement & meditation in the Boston area since 1978. He also studies Pāli and teaches buddhist and yoga philosophy at trainings throughout the United States, as well as leading a weeklong retreat, The Yoga Of Awakening, every February at Pura Vida in Costa Rica. Chip sits on the board of the Barre Center For Buddhist Studies, and is currently at work on the forthcoming How The Buddha Taught Meditation: New Light On The Original Teachings. This is an excerpt of an interview that took place on May 10th, 2003

Michael Stone: Before we begin discussing Patañjali’s Yoga-Sūtra, is there anything we need to be warned about, in terms of common misunderstandings that might skew our approach to the text?

Chip Hartranft: The first mistake that people make when approaching the Yoga-Sūtra is assuming that Patañjali is primarily trying to present a metaphysical or ontological system. It is a practical, phenomenological approach, actually, mainly interested in describing a process. It is important not to regard the Yoga Sūtra so much as an explanation of the world in terms of ontology but more as a map to navigate the world of experience. A map can only take you to a place – the point is then to put aside the map and enjoy the view.

The Yoga-Sūtra is a conceptual model of the ineffable, a textbook for a learning process that’s fundamentally non-intellectual. It goes, I think, beyond the seeming metaphysical duality of sāṃkhya philosophy. What’s presented in the Yoga-Sūtra is a way to truth that doesn’t confine the yogi in practical terms to a concept of reality. If it weren’t the case, you’d be enslaved by the limitations of the sāṃkhya philosophy which has, as you know, many shortcomings.

Michael Stone: Because of the sāṃkhya views on the existence of reality and how reality is formed?

Chip Hartranft: Yes. It’s not really defensible.

Michael Stone: In what sense?

Chip Hartranft: In the way that reality is structured in sāṃkhya there are different layers of manifest and undifferentiated reality. It doesn’t really seem to be the way the world is. And also the idea that there are vast numbers of awarenesses, or puruṣas, out there, each with its own person, the jīva. But these elements, and the way that puruṣa is segregated from nature (prakṛti), are of less importance as an ontological statement, a description of the way the world is, than it is as a description of the experiential movement toward clarity in which two simultaneous insights arise: first, that your own knowing ultimately reveals itself to be uncoloured by what is known, and second, that consciousness itself is empty of self. That’s the key. Now what we do with our linguistic mind is we tend to thingify, reify that knowing into some kind of entity and as soon as we do, we have mentally entrapped puruṣa in a box not of it’s own making. Because, as I mentioned in my book, I think that for the yogi experiencing an opening into deep awareness, puruṣa is a way of knowing with no temporality, no geography, no location in space, no mass, it’s not really an entity of any kind, it’s a verb rather than a noun. It can’t be perceived or felt in any way, but its presence becomes known when what we thought was aware, our self, is seen to be a mere succession of displays, empty of awareness in and of themselves.

Michael Stone: Could we say puruṣa is a moment of arising awareness?

Chip Hartranft: It doesn’t even have temporality. In Patañjali’s view it has always been thus. And here’s a key affinity between the Yoga-Sūtra and the teachings of the Buddha. Awareness is empty, alone. There’s no ‘me’ behind it – it has no self-attributes whatsoever. Furthermore, everything that feels like a self – thoughts, feelings, and experiences – is devoid of awareness. Now that’s almost impossible for the mind to comprehend because thinking posits itself as the locus of awareness in the self, and the self is laden with attributes – it’s really nothing but attributes!

So there’s this great dilemma: how do you transmit this from one mind to another? Of course, it isn’t just Patañjali who is making an appeal to the minds of his listeners by presenting this. The Buddha and many others sages past and present find themselves in a similar quandary. The Buddha wasn’t sure for seven weeks after his enlightenment whether he was going to even share this experience, this knowledge. Was it expressible? Would words squeeze it into a little box labeled ‘philosophy’? The Buddha’s emphasis in his teaching career on personal practice and direct experience suggest that this was a concern, as does his famous discourse to the Kālāmas, in which he urged them not to accept teachings just because the words are compelling.

Michael Stone: There is a question that I was left with after reading your book, which is similar to experiences I’ve had in meditation, where I wonder if it’s possible to articulate one’s psychological state, or any experience of any moment? Can you even talk about it?

Chip Hartranft: The talk about it is instrumental in nature – its purpose is to help us locate and map and outline it conceptually, and perhaps to convey something about it to others by sharing the concepts. But the concepts are of a different order than direct knowing, or jñāna. Naturally, in the beginning stages of practice our concepts are more likely to be less accurate or helpful, yet we cling to them all the more tightly. Ironically, as wisdom arises our attachment to views tends to subside. Historically, much of the language that has been chosen to describe pure awareness is negative. Awareness is not this, it’s not that, neti-neti as Yājñavalkya said in the Bṛhad-Āraṇyakā Upaniṣad. That’s a strategy of negation, the via negativa. Describing awareness positively is a risky proposition, because awakening is so subtractive in nature. What the yogi is doing foremost is cultivating nirodha, cessation. What cessation is in actuality has been misunderstood as it’s been conveyed to some extent in Buddhism, and to a huge extent in the tradition of classical yoga interpretation. Cessation is not suppression, but rather a natural process of self-attenuation, a subsiding of the rampant bodymind ‘system-building’ implicit in the term samskāra, that comes about when one consistently applies the yogic will, abhyāsa and vairāgya, which I know we’ll be talking about shortly.

But to get back to the problem of descriptive language, one is again reminded of the Buddha. After his awakening, he continued to contemplate things, for he didn’t see everything on that fateful night under the Bodhi tree. Much of the next weeks his meditations filled out his understanding of the dharma in the largest, most macroscopic sense of the word. Dharma is such an important word, I think, conveying the whole of nature, particularly its process aspect unfolding lawfully as effects arising from prior causes. And dharma is equally important in the microscopic sense, as the irreducible stuff of experience, of phenomena, not as ontological verities in and of themselves. In all, a crucial, mind-opening word in Buddhism and in the Yoga- Sūtra, particularly right at the end when Patañjali unveils this vision of utter clarity when all suffering is falling away and experiences are just showering past awareness like a raincloud in the sky: dharma-megha-samādhi. It’s a very important landmark, I think, in the understanding of human consciousness.

But the teaching, again, is instrumental; it’s merely a hermeneutic, it’s a strategic interpretive device rather than a claim of pure ontology. It’s a way of getting the mind to recognize that knowing is not the same stuff as the display before it, encompassing all mental events. Knowing doesn’t have the attributes of what is known, any more than a mirror is intrinsically colored by the reflection it casts, and that’s a world-shaking discovery. So for Patañjali, liberation is kaivalya which means isolation, separateness. That’s the key thing that he is interested in, not philosophical speculation or metaphysics.

The mind that reads about this or hears about this can’t help but make mischief with it. That’s just going to happen. So you have, for example, philosophers saying that Patañjali represents radical dualism where you have on the one hand a puruṣa that is the end-all and be-all: it’s what we all really are – in the Upaniṣadic phrase, tat tvam asi, ‘I am that’. So we seem to be talking about a Soul.

On the other hand, you have prakṛti, which is all this impermanent stuff coming and going, where all suffering is embedded: matter. These two seemingly opposite poles are compared to each other as entities, like apples and oranges. But what Patañjali is trying to name is simply a fact of the world that becomes visible as we awaken: bare knowing is of a different order than the melodramas of our everyday perception. It appears to be untouched, uncolored by them. It feels omnipresent and enduring, while the perceptual stream is exposed as a succession of brief, impersonal mind-moments, devoid of awareness in and of themselves.

This is what ‘freedom’ , or kaivalya, means to Patañjali, I think. So, one does not ‘attain’ the freedom of kaivalya – according to Patañjali it’s already the true nature of the conventional self to be an unaware set of processes fundamentally separate from awareness, and the yogic path settles consciousness to the point where it can reflect that fact, but not to me, myself, and I – just to knowing itself! So let’s not call it a Soul, a Self, or anything that sounds like ‘the real me’.

One more thing: the yogi doesn’t run away from the world to realize this. The yogi becomes completely integrated in the world and the world’s right there, in every moment. The whole point of dharma-megha-samādhi is that the yogi is becoming free in things as they are. It’s not that the yogi is abandoning the world and it’s certainly not the case that the yogi, upon attaining cessation, is dying and becoming resorbed into the world as some have claimed.

Michael Stone: Enlightenment is engagement.

Chip Hartranft: Yes, that’s right, but without attachment. Attachment hinders engagement. Of course, in everyday life it feels just the opposite – attachment masquerades as engagement even as our projections onto the people and objects of our world conceal their true, knowable natures.

To read more of Michael’s writings, please visit: http://www.centreofgravity.org/other_writings/


Micheal Stone and the Occupy Wall Street Movement

Michael visits Upaya Zen Centre in Santa Fe to give a talk on the spiritual dimension of OCCUPY WALL STRRET and what we can do in our own communities and in our hearts to recognize what’s happening and take action. How many times in your life do you get a chance to watch history unfold like this?

Audio Recording of Michael’s talk on Occupy Wall Street at the Upaya Zen Centre in Santa Fe


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