It is assumed in the yoga process that we are trying to escape from our emotions. However, this may be the end result, that we become equanimous, but, it is certainly not a helpful starting point. This is for two reasons; firstly, simply supressing our emotions doesn’t’ help. They still remain to control us on a less-conscious level. Indeed, where once they may have been more honest and straightforward, now having been denied, they often undergo a strange mutation in the pressure needed to keep them so.
Secondly, it appears that we are emotional beings. Perhaps, there may be some yogis who have transcended this plane for something other, but, as long as we are in the world, it is necessary at relating to it in the only way that appears apparently possible to us, which is that of feeling. Indeed, even Descartes, famous for claiming the only provable aspect of our condition was our thinking, finally admitted that, without the accompanying pull thoughts exert upon us, they would be meaningless.
So, we must start from the level of the emotions if we are going to have the interest to do anything at all. The power of a thought can’t, neither ought it, motivate us to make the effort in life, moreover yoga. It is simply not strong enough, neither allows for inspiring the consistent length of interest in one project that our emotions can persuade us in. Instead, thoughts are flickering; inconsistent and quite changeable.
This is why Patanjali indeed states in the first place that our aim is in the cessation of thinking (citta vritti nirodha). In which case, where else are we supposed to exist from if, after thoughts are stopped we still carry on. It may seem then that The Yoga Sutras suggests a road to an emotionless state, but, perhaps, in another light, we are being encouraged to live from a state of pure feeling; an emotional state then, but one that is not defined in the conventional way we mean when we normally say someone is ‘emotional’.
The Bhagavad Gita mentions late on towards the end of Krishnas’ sermon to Arjuna on the battlefield;
‘faith aligns with the true nature
Of every being, Arjuna.
A person is made of his faith.
Whichever faith he has, he is’ (17.3)
This indicates then that there is another level of feeling, that is often confused with emotion and, where being emotional is very much unlikely to be representative of our deeper state, this kind of enduring energy or ‘feeling tone’ is, in fact, more so than our thinking. This often comes as a surprise to us, as indeed, it would have to Arjuna, who is invested in the start of the book in the almost unavoidable confusion of rational thought with our quite normal emotionally reactive state, arguing;
‘do we not know enough, Krishna,
To turn aside from such evil?
To understand how wrong it is,
To destroy friends and family? (1.40).
This would be a fair enough assumption, but, given that his profession is as a warrior where his job is to defend his own people who would otherwise be slaughtered, it is a good example of the general fallibility of thought which thinks in a binary yes/no manner, where life is, more often than not, rather a greyer kind of affair. Moreover, we have just previously been informed that his conclusion has been reached through a heightened, deeply emotional (in the over-whelming sense we normally assume emotion to involve), which, however, has gone wholly unacknowledged in this claim as to the sovereignty of his reason;
‘my bow falls from my hand,
And my skin feels like its’ burning.
I cannot stand in position,
And my mind is wandering off’ (1.30).
Although seemingly incongruous to the higher spiritual aims of The Gita, as to recognising the fallacy of our kind of emotional, hence, biased thinking; the first way that Krishna actually motivates Arjuna is in line with the level in which he is currently operating. Indeed, there is little point in aiming any higher, when from the tone of what Arjuna is saying, he is not in the current place to understand more. This is why, strangely enough, the first encouragement Krishna offers is to spur the warrior on through appealing to his vanity with notions of the kind of acclaim he will win in victory as opposed to the disgrace he will suffer in choosing not to fight;
‘If however, you should refuse
To fight in this rightful battle,
Shunning duty and glory both,
You will incur iniquity.
Everyone will talk about
Your disgrace and shame forever;
Ill repute is far worse than death
For whoever has known honour.’ (2.33-34)
It is the mention of ‘duty’ here that gives the clue as to why this most obviously egoistic kind of argument is being offered in the first place. For, as practitioners of yoga, we must learn to build up slowly, gradually unpicking ourselves from the more superficially acting emotions to rest, at least for a period, in more consistent ones pertaining to some kind of structure to keep them in line. This is the case with the appeal to Arjunas’ social position, for example.
Of course, we all have much invested in an emotional sense in our perceived roles in the world, but, as long as there is a degree of length involved in what is still an emotional impulse, it is still much preserved over the much more temporary emotions; in this instance, the kind of fear that Arjuna has currently fallen prey to.
What is really looked for of an emotion is its degree of stability. This is indeed the key to all spiritual practice; where a steadiness of our energy allows for a deeper clarity in our further inquiry as to life and living. It is not that emotions are ‘bad’ once more, per se, rather that, until we are not operating on the level of a deeper energy, that of ‘faith’ as mentioned in the beginning, our deepest held belief or attitude towards life, we are not represented adequately by our perceptions.
In this way, our emotions are gradually harnessed, the energy they provide can then propel us forward, where our focus is to align these emotions so they gradually provide a consistent level of experiencing at a deeper level of our being.
This is the idea of practice offered in The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali;
‘practice is the continuous struggle
To become firmly established in
The stable state of the true Self’ (1.13)
‘that practice is indeed firmly grounded
When it is pursued incessantly, over a long time, and with the right attitude’(1.14).
It is easy to see how this instruction may be construed as anti-emotions. Yet again, how are we to get up the necessary enthusiasm to struggle with practice in the first place, if, indeed, it is not motivated by a strength of conviction found in feeling that can never be inspired by thought alone. As we have discussed, thoughts are fleeting, often ambiguous and even contradictory.
The end-state Patanjali is talking of is indeed one that even surpasses the individual sense of self;
‘when the storehouse of memories and impressions is completely purified,
Perception is empty of vacillations, and only the objects true essence shines forth,
In thought free perception’ (1.43)
On the other hand, it is better not to simply jump to soon into the attempt at this; for this is the end that the scriptures envisage, not really the far messier and pragmatic instruction on how to gradually pacify and galvanise our emotions so that feeling flows more freely through us. Both, The Yoga Sutras and The Bhagavad Gita are much more down-to-earth in this sense. The Sutras says;
‘By cultivating attitudes of friendliness towards happiness,
Compassion towards suffering, delight towards virtue,
And equanimity towards vice, thoughts become purified’ (1.33)
Indeed, here, thoughts are treated as nothing more than raw emotions. It is a strange idea then, that, in order to get to the kind of ‘one pointedness’ (ekagrata vritti), that yoga-method aims towards, the practitioner is actively encouraged into and not away from what we might define as an emotional state, having not differentiated this from a deeper level of emotional-existence from which we, most honestly live.
It might then appear to the contrary, that yoga is the attempt at not feeling;
‘One content with knowing the Self,
Unmoving, with senses conquered,
Is called a yogin, one to whom
Stones, clods and gold are all the same’ (The Bhagavad Gita, 6.9)
However, this is not to take into consideration again that the ‘knowing’ of The Self referred to, is one not achieved in a factual-sense, as to rationally grasped concepts, but, an absolutely and completely intuitive one. To this end, the seemingly opposing instructions found in the The Bhagavad Gita of ascetic yoga practices, essentially based on denial and extreme focus, can be resolved in the recognition that the culmination is not in the absence of feeling, even though it may be in the dissipation of the conventionally ‘emotional’ self.
There are a multitude of examples in the text that make this perfectly clear, the following then is one of many passages highlighting the fact that ‘the yogi’ still cares, for, it this is such a common misperception of those approaching the texts with an either or (essentially Western approach) regarding mind or emotions;
‘a yogi with inner happiness
That comes from radiance within
Is absorbed into Brahmin..
Their doubts cut through, their selves restrained,
Joyous in all beings’ welfare’ (5. 24-25)
In conclusion then, our emotions, if that’s what we can even recognisably call them now, ought to be made to expand; we are encouraged in a certain way to become more deeply emotional, not less so; interested in a feeling-sense in all peoples concerns not only ours. When The Bhagavad Gita talks, as it does in length, about ‘renunciation’ then, the idea is not to become wholly detached to everything, quite the opposite; more attached yet in a wholly objective, impersonal way;
‘the knowledge whereby one sees
A single being in all creatures,
Undivided and eternal,
Know that knowledge to be sattvic” [correct] (18.20)
Remembering here that, when we are talking about ‘correct knowledge’ we are considering this as to a feeling-sense towards others, not relating to them as ‘concepts’ alone, which is what we currently refer to as the objectifying of others. However, this is, obviously, not an easy or even seemingly imagineable place to end up with feeling, so, to return to our opening statement, we are equally encouraged to start with more or less whatever emotion inspires us towards practice as a valid starting place, in the understanding that, through practice these will be gradually synthesized into one, consistent principle of feeling.
Therefore, there may even be something to be said in the old adage of Pattabhi Jois as to 99% practice, 1% theory when in The Bhagavad Gita we also find the encouragement to just practice. In the absence of our initial ability to initially control our emotions, we must use anything we have;
‘If you prove unable
To keep your mind steady on Me,
Then you can seek to attain Me
Through the constant practice of yoga.’ (12.10)