This article was originally published in America: The National Catholic Review on June 21, 2008. Reprinted here with permission from the author.
Cambridge, MA. A key theme of the Yoga Sutras is the quelling of the distractions of the mind, activities ranging from the ways we know things in ordinary life to our mistakes about the world around us, and to our dreams, that reinvent reality, and our memories, that take us back through time. Patañjali, author of the Sutras, sees as a key -- perhaps the key -- goal of Yoga the purification of these activities of the mind.
This is first of all a matter of simplifying how we attend to reality, removing needless encumbrances and wrong impressions, so that our mental activities no longer distress and distract us. Second, though, Patañjali seeks the mind’s absolute calming, so that it reaches an utter quiet and stillness wherein we let go of even the seemingly fundamental consciousness of ourselves as subjects who know some thing or person as object of knowledge. In the end, it seems, there is left only a simple luminous instant, in which the object of knowledge simply radiates forth its presence -- while the mind, made simple, is now a kind of witness, entirely given over to awareness of the graceful radiance of the hitherto mundane object.
Three sutras, translated a bit loosely here for the sake of clarity, help us to get a sense of Patañjali’s intent: The mind reaches a state of balance without discursive thought when memory is purified, and the object alone shines forth, as if emptied of its own form. (I.43) This balance is achieved through meditative practice: When the object of steady meditation alone shines forth as object, as if devoid of its own form, that is absorption. (III.3) Patañjali returns to this theme in the very last sutra: After the constituents of material reality have flowed back to their original state, no longer serving any purpose for a person, this is utter simplicity; or, this is steadfastness in one’s own form; it is "the power of being-consciousness." (IV.34) In the final installment of this series, Jesuit Yoga IV, I will ponder what kind of person we are, if we end up where Patañjali wants to lead us.
But here I wish to point out a connection between approaching this pure, luminous object of yoga and -- perhaps improbably to many a reader -- approaching the ultimate object of meditation in the [Ignatian] Exercises: Jesus himself. The Second, Third, and Fourth Weeks are dedicated to long, loving contemplation respectively of the life and ministry of Jesus, his passion and death, and his final interactions with his friends after the Resurrection. Not only the purification expected in the First Week, but also the meticulous daily meditations of each day of each subsequent week, can be taken as moving the retreatant ever closer to a simple, intuitive gaze upon Jesus, a gaze freed finally from conscientious but ultimately tedious, irrelevant thoughts about myself, how I am meditating, what Jesus is supposed to mean for me, etc. Each day, the retreatant returns to that day’s meditation over and again, each time seeking out the single living point of contact with God in it, in order to settle there and find God in that moment, be it a Gospel word or action, an image or memory, or simply some view of Jesus in his life and death. It is a process of distillation, to get at the heart of things.
Most potent, in this regard, in light of the Yoga Sutras, is the fifth daily contemplation, "An Application of the Five Senses." Ignatius advises the retreatant, who has spent the day purifying and distilling her meditation down to its purest and most powerful instances, to apply the spiritual senses to this tender object: By the sight of my imagination I will see the persons, by meditating and contemplating in detail all the circumstances around them... By my hearing I will listen to what they are saying or might be saying... I will smell the fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness and charm of the Divinity, of the soul, of its virtues, and of everything there... Using the sense of touch, I will, so to speak, embrace and kiss the places where the persons walk or sit. (Ganss translation) In each instance, Ignatius urges the retreatant to draw some profit, fruit from the contact. In the end, as usual -- though with more potency now -- he indicates that the retreatant should conclude with a colloquy, words addressed to the person/s she has encountered: direct address, now without any thing or any one between me and Jesus.
Thinking about this instruction in light of the Yoga Sutras, it seems to me that Ignatius too is teaching us to become ready for an utterly simple encounter with the object of our attention, by a simple, steady gaze upon the places and persons around Jesus, and finally by encounter with the object that cannot be surpassed. It is no small feat, Ignatius realizes, to get this close to Jesus, "as if" He were present in the place of our meditation. Like Patañjali, Ignatius is calling the practitioner to a deep humility, a suspension of self-concern before the object of one’s love, to a dwelling there. In Patañjali’s terms, this is a basking in the luminosity of the object; in Ignatius’ terms, it is a savoring of the fragrance and infinite sweetness of God fully present in Jesus.
Neither author wants us to settle for less, for our pious ideas, theories about God, edifying ethical stances on how we ought to behave spiritually. Although such things may at some point matter, more important now is the simple, bare encounter. None of this means that the Yoga Sutras and Spiritual Exercises are saying the same thing, echoing the same view of human nature, positing the same theology of our ultimate goal. Differences, perhaps important ones, remain. But Patañjali and Ignatius do share a practical sense about what we should do: use our place, surroundings, minds, ways of living, bodies, all for the sake of simplicity, not complication, until we are so simple that there is, as it were, nothing left but us seeing God and God seeing us.
If so, their concern for intelligent practice leading to unhampered encounter with reality itself is a shared goal that deserves our full attention, for a moment at least undistracted by our worries about the uniqueness, difference, and excellence of one tradition in relation to others. And, more constructively, if these small reflections are indicative, then re-learning the Exercises in light of the Sutras is a positive step we can take, both in study and in actual practice. Why not? Where all this leaves us, when the practice is done, will be the theme of Jesuit Yoga IV. As usual -- comments welcome, based on your own insights and spiritual practices.