The Yoga Sutras of the great sage Patanjali are a treasure chest of helpful wisdom whenever life throws up its inevitable challenges. Meeting and resolving problems is what we, as humans, do – and we never actually get rid of all our problems (how dull would that be after about a day?), we just exchange and, hopefully, upgrade them.
It might feel hard to reconcile with the problems we face, but the bald fact is that we live in the most peaceful and healthy time in human history. Still, there are challenges ahead as always, and one of the Sutras feels particularly useful right now, as we navigate this path – as relevant now as when it was committed to text thousands of years ago.
1.33 – Maitri karuna mudita upeksanam sukha duhkha punya apunya visayanam bhavanatah cittaprasadanam.
Which translates as: ‘Through cultivation of friendliness; compassion; joy; and indifference to pleasure and pain, virtue and vice respectively; the consciousness becomes favourably disposed, serene and benevolent’.
This is a teaching that we also meet in Buddhism, called the Brahmavihara, or the Four Attitudes (it appears that Patanjali and the Buddha lived at around the same time, and there has been some speculation amongst scholars that they may even have known each other. I love that idea!).
In both schools of philosophy, we are encouraged by this teaching to cultivate attitudes (bhavana) of unconditional friendliness (maitri) towards the joyful; compassion (karuna) for those who are suffering; joyful celebration (mudita) of the good in others; and to remain impartial (upeksanam – without prejudice) to the faults and imperfections of others.
As practice is an inside job, these are also extraordinarily useful attitudes to cultivate towards ourselves, and to all circumstances and situations in which we find ourselves. Can we can be unconditionally friendly and compassionate, realising that we have no idea what is behind another person’s behaviour and that everyone is dealing with struggles we know nothing about? Can we can give attention and energy to the smallest joyful things in life, so they colour our experience with their glow? Can we can resist getting hooked in the delicious nectar of self-righteousness that comes with judging others, and laugh at ourselves because maybe we’ve acted imperfectly once or twice in our lives too? These are the kind of ninja mental training skills that we can work with, to bring us closer together rather than sleepwalking towards ever more fighting and disconnection.
And if we can stay in a place of mental and emotional equanimity in the faces of both the pleasing and the unwelcome – well, that’s a superpower for the modern age if ever there was one.
Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti described the secret to his inner peace thus: ‘You see, I don’t mind what happens’. Which is not to say that we sit back, do nothing and become total nihilists, but rather that we train with radically accepting every situation EXACTLY as it is, because only then, once we’ve stopped struggling and resisting reality, can we actually effect change.
These bhavana or attitudes serve us well in challenging times – I like to think of them as a kind of mental asana or yoga posture. Not easy, but it’s a practice – we train our minds just as we train our bodies. Can we work with trying on the mental pose for just a single minute, and get stronger and more adept at it over time?