Each morning, my three-year-old son and I squeeze some citrus fruits for our morning drinks. He has an orange and usually a couple of satsumas as well. I have a lemon and a lime. I cut them in half and we smell the different fruits. For the orange, he says “Yum!”. For the lemon and lime, he says “Yuk!”. Then we put them down and look at the segmented patterns in each, how they all have lots of pockets of juice built around the pith inside. I like doing this, because it shows him that things can be the same, but different. I think that’s a great way for little ones to realise that people can also be treated with the same respect, even though they’re different.
Yoga has a lot to say about the expression: “Same, but different”, and I like to reflect on that. Let’s consider the idea of reincarnation: rebirth after death. The Dalai Lama has written an incredible piece on this, saying it can take place “under the sway of karma and destructive emotions… [or]…through the power of compassion and prayer”, making it effectively a choice. Either way, it’s a nice idea, because if it is true then there’s no need to seek eternal life; being reborn after death means you already have eternal life.
If you could look back on lots of past lives – like looking at old photos from previous holidays over the years – what would you say? The places you visited were different, but it’s you on holiday in all the pictures. Likewise, all the lives would seem individually different, but they’re also examples of a repeating process so they’re also essentially the same. Living and dying, and all the events in between, are of the same essence, and that’s the translation of the word samsara. Doing “living” – and that includes a pause for dying – is kind of the same each time, although the places and events are different.
Patanjali (1.15, 1.16) talks about vairagya. It’s a take on events, that allows you to fully feel the highs and lows and keep them in perspective. You don’t want to miss out on the thrill of living and you don’t want to get caught up in the past either, whether it was good or bad. There’s lot more to say about that, but a great place to start is the swamij website where you can get a useful intro to lots of Yoga concepts and ideas.
So, all that living (which repeats, because it includes dying) is largely the same when taken as a whole. If I appreciate this concept, then am I enlightened? Have I achieved Yoga?
It’s a good question. Vairagya gives me a perspective somewhere between the desire to live and the fear of dying. If I can live and make my decisions from there, then I certainly display sattva. But all this living and dying – all this change basically – requires a lot of energy. The energy spoken of in Yoga is called prana. The question comes down to this: is there anything outside the endless cycle of energy? Or you could ask, is there any other option apart from endless living and dying? Perhaps to be Yoga is to integrate your repeating, reincarnating self with this other element.
There are lots of ways to evolve that thought, and they get pretty philosophical and a bit tricky to wrap your head around! In a nutshell, there are two main ideas.
The reincarnated “soul” realises that its real life is as a “spirit”
This is a simplification, but essentially the part of you that keeps coming back (purusha) notices that there’s no need to keep doing repeated excursions into the physical world (prakriti). It’s possible to stop, and live entirely in the splendid isolation of the higher realm. For some, this is Yoga.
The reincarnated “soul” joins a universal “soul” – no need for further lives
Whatever element within you that keeps coming back is just a reflection of a great, universal life. It’s kind of forgotten itself, and got distracted by living an individual life. Once it realises what’s going on, it reassumes itself as everything. For some Yogis, you and me are one and the resulting “I” is everything.
The reincarnated “soul” realises that it is nothing
You’ve reached a stage where you notice that you keep doing energy (as life and death). Logically, the only thing that’s not energy is complete blankness, the desperate void of nothing. In this case, Yoga is realising that there really is nothing there when you look at yourself, your world, or anything else. But there can only be nothing when there is also something (like there could only be life when there is death). So, whilst you are nothing, you are also everything. These two are inseparable, and are not two. This Yoga will really cook your noodle! If my understanding is correct, then this is the direction that Buddhist thought takes: form is emptiness, and emptiness is form.
And there’s more…
There is still a fourth concept. This reflects more of today’s atheist ideology. It’s possible that the reincarnating soul is just another pulse of energy. It reverberates, like an echo. Whilst it’s echoing, it sounds like it’s going to go on. But it fades over time, as all echoes do. If this is true, then there is no individual or universal “soul”, there is just the play of energy which will eventually fade to silence along with the rest of the universe. This idea deflates me so I hope it’s not true! There’s a great youtube video that documents how our current understanding of physics sees the universe basically fizzling out over many trillions of years.
All that from a few oranges and lemons. Yoga really makes you think, huh?