On Understanding — Yoga Sutra 1.17

वितर्कविचारानन्दास्मितारूपानुगमातः संप्रज्ञातः ॥ १७॥

vitarkavicārānandāsmitārūpānugamāt saprajñāta .. 17..

“Red Layers” by Allan Reyes, creative commons license

“Then the object is gradually understood fully. At first it is at a more superficial level. In time, comprehension becomes deeper. And finally it is total. There is pure joy in reaching such a depth of understanding. For then the individual is so much at one with the object that he is oblivious to his surroundings.” –Desikachar


According to the sutras leading up to 1.17, the object, here, is True Self, found through consistent practice and detachment, practice and detachment. What this sutra doesn’t emphasize is the amount of time total comprehension takes—if it is even possible.

People, like onions, have layers (thanks to Shrek for making this analogy popular). To peel back all those layers and know who God created you to be—who God sees you as…  Well, it’s a mystery for the mystics to explain, really.

All I know is this:

For my day job, I teach freshman composition. When students come to me, fresh from high school, they are experts at writing the five-paragraph essay. Experts. These students can make a thesis statement and take a position on anything from a debate as big and mortal as the death penalty to as small as which city bus to take to the theater. These opinions will be backed up by three supporting points and completed with a paragraph to knock out any opposing views by stating why they’re wrong. At the end of the essay, they will restate their original thesis, having moved no further in their understanding of the object.

In my opinion, this kind of thinking looks like this:

Four-sided die

It’s stale. Boring. A tiny little fortress of steel around an idea.

And it’s my job to break that kind of thinking open.

I teach inquiry-based composition. Inquiry, as one of my students pointed out yesterday, means “to investigate.” So I give them impossibly difficult texts not intended for college freshmen, and they have to inquire into what the author means by the phrase “contact zone,” for example. Then they have to connect it to something in their own life and test whether their example confirms, extends, contradicts, the idea. Often my students will end up extending an author’s idea, pulling it into something much more complex than they originally understood.

My students’ ideas of the world are expanded. As they listen to each other and to the texts they read, they learn to push their thinking forward.

For example, if I were commenting on my own blog post here, I would ask myself: “What do you think are in those layers? How is the center who God created you to be? Extend your thinking here, think your metaphor through.”

And, if I were my own student, I might say write something like this in my next draft:

“These layers might be anything: defense mechanisms built up from childhood, perceptions of myself, ways that I consistently mess up, other ways in which I think too highly of myself, stereotypes I hold of the world, of God, of my family. God created us as beings, and I keep hiding my being by doing.

“When I see that I respond by complaining, for instance, I peel off a layer by working on trying not to complain as much. Somewhere along the line, I built up complaining as a response to life, and maybe I don’t need it anymore.”

Tomorrow, if I answer the same question, I might see something else. And the day after that, something else.

By the time I’m done working with the metaphor, a cut-and-dry thesis statement won’t even begin to describe what I think of the onion metaphor for the True Self. My thinking will look like this:

Twenty-sided die

And that sort of thinking can be turned into an academic paper or essay that is much longer, more nuanced, and more generous than the five-paragraph essay. That is called good academic writing, but even more importantly, good thinking.

My job as an instructor of freshman composition only gets the students started on this journey of thinking. My hope is that when they leave my class they have the tools to continue.

To truly understand anything takes time. Lots and lots of time, patience, and just noticing without judgment.

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