Five States of the Mind: Yoga Sutras 1.5-1.11

m.c. escher: the king of mind-boggling drawings

Last night I saw each hour of the clock between midnight and 5 a.m. Random noises woke me. Sudden panic at things left undone kept me awake. As soon as I fell into a heavy sleep, a thunderstorm came crashing through. When I got up this morning, I was cranky and angry at my mind for not shutting down in the middle of the night.

My mind gets into lots of states: cranky, insomniac, reasoning, observing, being, studying (the same as observing, but different?), dreaming, sleeping, whirling…

The yoga sutras say that there are only five states of the mind. According to Desikachar and yoga sutras 1.5 & 1.6: “There are five activities of the mind. Each of them can be beneficial and each can cause problems. The five activities are comprehension, misapprehension, imagination, deep sleep, and memory.”

So Patanjali is saying that these five activities, or states, can be either good or bad, or painful or not painful (according to Prabhavananda and Isherwood). That these states exist. Painful states of mind are when we attach to things that trap us in ego (like anxiety-induced insomnia). Not painful states of mind release us from ego (like compassion for others).

In the following sutras, these five states are defined, so I will include them here from Desikachar’s translation:

1.7 Comprehension is based on direct observation of the object, inference, and reference to reliable authorities.

1.8 Misapprehension is that comprehension that is taken to be correct until more favorable conditions reveal the actual nature of the object.

1.9 Imagination is the comprehension of an object based only on words and expressions, even though the object is absent.

1.10 Deep sleep is when the mind is overcome with heaviness and no other activities are present.

1.11 Memory is the mental retention of a conscious experience.

So, if I were to take the states of my mind that I listed earlier, I could catalogue them in these five categories:

Comprehension: reasoning, observing, studying
Misapprehension: cranky, insomniac, whirling, reasoning (depends on the nature of the reasoning)
Imagination: studying, insomniac
Deep sleep: sleeping
Memory: dreaming

I’m sure there are more. And I recognize that cranky is a feeling more than a state of mind, but feelings can certainly alter states of mind. I believe “feeling-altered states of mind” would fall under the Misapprehension category. Indeed, Desikachar says that most of our minds act in the misapprehension category most of the time.

Bummer. But it’s true. My mind is generally a mess.

“The classic example [about misapprehension] given in yoga literature is that of a piece of rope which is mistaken for a snake,” write Prabhavananda and Isherwood. “In this case, wrong knowledge will cause us to fear the rope and avoid it or try to kill it.”

I suppose this is similar to waking up in the middle of the night with a thought about something left undone, and hoping it’s not too late to do it. Things always seem more urgent at 2 a.m. than they do at 8 a.m. with clearer thinking.

“The aim of Yoga practice,” writes Desikachar, “is to recognize and control the causes of misapprehension.” He says that yoga alters our comprehension, allowing us to comprehend something “closer to the true nature of the object.”

In thinking about the role of God and Christ in all of this, I know that this process of finding comprehension is part of loving and trusting God. In Christian circles, however, I have gone about this process differently.

In my evangelical upbringing, when I woke up in the middle of the night worried about something, or found myself in a state of misapprehension in the middle of the day, I was told to “take every thought captive” and give it to Christ (2 Cor 10:5). That I should, like Paul writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

I wanted to do these things. I wanted to not worry, and to filter my thoughts through the sieve of Philippians. When I tried to do these things, I attempted replacing the worry with something true, noble, or lovely–like Jesus, new spring tulips, or summer vacation. But this technique generally didn’t work. I needed to empty myself of the misapprehension in order to experience comprehension.

With yoga and meditation, I find a tool for letting go of the misapprehension and the cranky and the insomnia–maybe not always in the middle of the night, but always eventually. Yoga is a tool of grace for rediscovering that which is noble and lovely and true. Breathing through the anxiety and crankiness, I realize that those 2 a.m. worries are not as well-founded as I thought.


And just as a note: both of the commentaries I read about the state of sleep say that the nothingness of dreamless sleep is not to be mistaken for the state of yoga. Just sayin’. Yoga occurs while being awake. Sleep is not savasana.

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2 thoughts on “Five States of the Mind: Yoga Sutras 1.5-1.11

  1. Since I don’t know much about yoga, I’ll simply observe that this entry seemed to be one of the most accessible and interesting one of the sutras thus far.

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