On Questions: Yoga Sutras 1.18-19

In college, I saw this Rainer Maria Rilke quote everywhere:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

These words are from Letters to a Young Poet, and I was a young writer, and I had SO MANY QUESTIONS. My college journals are filled with questions, most of them in the form of letters to God. “Dear God, Why?” “Dear God, When?” “Dear God, What do I do now?” “Dear God, What did you mean when you said ____?”

I was not comfortable with my questions. Was not comfortable not knowing. I wanted to know. And I believed that my faith rested on right belief.

In the ten or so years since college, God has answered some of the college questions. And now more questions fill the void of the answered questions. Many of these questions are about faith and belief. And I find that I’m okay with that…  now.

Now, when I have a question, I look at its little question mark and think, “Isn’t that interesting? I wonder why I have THAT question! I wonder when I’ll find the answer…”

The practice of yoga has helped me with the practice of sitting with questions. I’ve learned to approach my body and the poses with curiosity: “Hunh, my hip pops in that pose,” or “Crescent feels very different on my left side than my right,” or “Isn’t that interesting? I can’t balance in Tree very well right now.”

I note the question, and then I go on to the next thing in my day.

Robert Stadler’s question mark installation, Paris
Photo by Dom Dada, creative commons license

Today is one of those days.

Yoga sutras 1.18 & 19 puzzle me.

My two commentaries do not concur on the translation of these sutras.

Desikachar says: “The usual mental disturbances are absent. However, memories of the past continue. There will be some who are born in a state of Yoga. They need not practice or discipline themselves.”

Prabhavananda and Isherwood say: “The other kind of concentration is that in which the consciousness contains no object—only subconscious impressions, which are like burnt seeds. It is attained by constantly checking the thought-waves through the practice of non-attachment. When such concentration is not accompanied by non-attachment, and ignorance therefore remains, the aspirant will reach the state of the disincarnate gods or become merged in the forces of Nature.”

I think Isherwood and Prabhavananda embellish their translation a bit.

Even embellished, it’s as clear as mud. Subconscious impressions are like burnt seeds? What? And why is one a description of the state of yoga – as mentioned in 1.17 – and the other one a description of a different kind of concentration? And 1.19? That last sentence? What is that about? “the state of disincarnate gods”? “merged in the forces of Nature”?

I don’t know what they’re trying to say, and neither quite makes sense after 1.17.

So I go to find another commentary, this one called The Science of Yoga by I.K. Taimni.

Taimni’s translation of 1.17-1.19: “Samprajnata Samadhi is that which is accompanied by reasoning, reflection, bliss and sense of pure being. The remnant impression left in the mind on the dropping of the Pratyaya after previous practice is the other. Of those who are Videhas and Prakrtilayas birth is the cause.”

Okay, so in Taimni’s translation, he uses Sanskrit. Taimni, that’s a bit like trying to define a word by using a variation of the word! Like, “A description is when you describe something.” This translation only confuses me further.

However, in his commentary, Taimni writes that 1.17-18 discuss two types of Samadhi. Taimni also includes a detailed diagram of about nine stages of Samadhi. SO! At least that much is clear. This passage has something to do with enlightenment. And enlightenment is apparently much more complicated than I thought.

Which is probably why it’s called enlightenment.

When my students read a difficult text, I ask them to identify the passages they have trouble understanding. Sometimes I ask them to write about the passages to parse out what it might mean in light of the rest of the essay. Sometimes I ask them to just note that they don’t understand, and then later, on a reread, see if they understand a bit more of it.

Just like Rilke. Embrace the question. Reading is a process. So is understanding.

I don’t know what the sutras are saying here, and that’s okay.

Today I put a big question mark next to these two sutras. I’ll catch them next time around.


Share this!
Facebook Twitter Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *