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Patanjali, following the Samkhya philosophy, used the terms Purusha and Prakriti to describe our essence – our fundamental structure. In a previous article, I touched on these terms in relation to the Kleshas (the afflictions). Many authors write about this subject in philosophical-theoretical terms (see here for example). There are many yogis and scholars explain them theoretically (see for example books by Iyengar and Bryant). However, for the yoga practitioner, it is important to understand these terms on an experiential level. How can we experience these abstract notions in our practice and daily lives?
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Purusha and Prakriti – the Two Aspects of our Being
Within us, we can recognize and differentiate between two aspects; you can call these aspects ‘spirit’ and ‘matter’. As human beings, we are part of nature, part of the material world, but we can also connect to higher dimensions. We have a mysterious ability to be aware (called Chiti Shakti – “power of consciousness”), we can know the world and know ourselves. We have moments of insight and wisdom in which we see the uniting principle of all creation. You may call it Pure Consciousness or God; Patanjali calls it ‘the Seer’ (Draṣṭu), or Purusha. The other, material facet, is titled Prakriti.
This may still be too abstract. To make it more tangible, we can think about it at an experimental level. I experience and recognize in myself a force that drives me to evolve, to develop, to experience, to live fully. This force may be Prakriti. It is a very potent energy, a manifestation of nature itself; of life, with all its vibrancy and creative energy. It’s an evolutionary process.
On the other hand, I experience moments of silence, of calm presence, and clear awareness, and therefore of wisdom. I can go inside and feel the inner, peaceful space in me. The process of going back from the manifested to the unmanifested, internal, primal core is involution. This may be an experience of Purusha.
In a Savasana done after a good practice session, you may get a glimpse of the inner space of pure consciousness. You are lying down, with your body fully relaxed observing your breath and mental activity. You may notice that the breath becomes very soft and subtle, and there may still be some faint mental activity going on at the surface; but underneath, you can sense the open, wide, empty space of consciousness, you may call it Purusha. Imagine you are lying at the bottom of the ocean, and the wide-depth bottom is still. Even though there are still some waves on the surface that do not disturb the inner quietness.
Both aspects exist and are real and I can observe and study them in my life and in my practice.
In the hustle and bustle of life, I am not always in touch with this calm and clear aspect and most of the time operate by the dictates of the Asmita (the small self). Mostly, I react to situations and people out of self-interest and egoistic motives, or just in a habitual, thoughtless manner – not from a state of clarity and neutrality.
When we say neutrality, it isn’t in the political sense of the word. It’s emotional neutrality – acting without preferences and self-centered considerations and calculations. Without being affected by the gravitations that pull and push us in our life. It’s an attitude that sees everything with evenness, not affected by our likes and dislikes, our desires and aversions – an attitude of calm dispassion.
Developing Intellectual Clarity and Emotional Stability
Iyengar said that yoga should bestow us with intellectual clarity and emotional stability. This can come when we stop acting from the narrow perspective of the ego, stop running after external attractions and excitements (Bhoga), and get in touch with our inner wisdom. With the Seer, or Purusha, the pure consciousness in us.
We all know this, otherwise, it wouldn’t resonate with us. We just forget it in our business of life. The power of the small self is very strong. We are so self-centered. In everything that happens to us in the personal or global realms, in any event in our life or in the world, there is always the background concern “…and what about me? Do I gain or lose from that?”. The ‘I’ is in the center. We are identified with it.
This clouds our perception, we don’t see reality as it is, but see it as reflected and distorted through the lens of the small self, the Asmita, and not from our inner pure consciousness, Purusha. We often misjudge people and situations and hence respond in a non-optimal way. This creates suffering in us and others.
In our practice, we should observe and study these tendencies. The moment we see them, we can understand our pettiness, we can realize how distorted our view is, and then neutrality, evenness of mind, or equanimity, will develop naturally. This brings wisdom and provides us with intellectual clarity and emotional stability. Then we respond better to the challenges of life and act in a more wholesome way that will do good for us and others.
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