April 24-May 3, 2021
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, II.36: “When truthfulness (satya) is achieved, the words of the yogin acquire the power of making them fruitful.” (Swami Hariharananda Aranya’s translation)
Rama Jyoti Vernon commentary on that sutra: “Gossip, criticism, and negative judgments can harm others and are considered asatya (non-truthfulness). …Gossip often springs out of our negative thoughts and feelings about ourselves. Our criticism of others is a creative outlet for our own feelings of inadequacies.” (p.184-185 of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: Gateway to Enlightenment, Book Two. Rama Jyoti is possibly the most influential person in U.S. yoga that you’ve never heard of.)
We are reading Rama Jyoti’s version of this popular Yoga text in my Path of Yoga group. While discussing the above commentary last week, one woman said that it would be interesting to try for a week not having any critical thoughts about others. She later mentioned that it would be interesting and even harder to not have any critical thoughts about herself. The rest of the group thought these were great ideas, and so we all agreed to commit to a week of not thinking any critical thoughts about others or about ourself, and if we found ourselves (inevitably) thinking critical thoughts, to practice our pratipaksha bhavana, our shifting the thought by either purposely thinking the opposite thought or by reflecting on and experiencing the pain we are currently experiencing or will experience as a result of indulging that thought. (See Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, II.33 and 34, if you have any version of that text to look up.)
(Please note, from a comment from an insightful student with training in English, the term “critical” is used in this blog to mean “fault-finding, usually habitual fault-finding.” Critical thinking is, of course, a necessary and useful tool. Being hyper-critical, though we may sometimes believe it is a useful tool is generally only hurtful, to ourselves and others, as we well know.)
In class the last couple weeks, even before that idea came up, the intention that I’ve been proposing for the practice is to view whatever is happening through the “lens” of “this (whatever this is in the moment) is exactly how it’s supposed to be.” “This is exactly how it’s supposed to be right now,” not “there’s something wrong with me or this moment,” or that “some other way is how it’s actually supposed to be,” which for many of us are subconscious intentions or beliefs that we invest too much of our energy in. This intention nicely parallels this practice of non-criticism that our group is aspiring to. I imagine others out in the blog/newsletter world would like to join in this exploration. Having now completed that initial week and having not mastered it but found it very informative, interesting and helpful, we in the group are choosing to keep going with it.
I’ll also offer that if people out there are interested, I’ll schedule a time that interested folks and I can meet as a group (on Zoom at least) to share and discuss our experiences with this practice. (Just respond or contact me by email or let me know when you are in-person in practice.)
If this is your first time hearing this concept, I’ll give a little background. The Yoga Sutras are a perennial summary of the larger Path of Yoga, and this part is involved in the moral foundations needed to progress on a Yogic Path, or even just to live a moderately happy and sane life. Patanjali has earlier said what the moral foundations are, with ahimsa, a Sanskrit word worth committing to memory and meaning “non-harming,” being first, and satya, truth/truthfulness, being second (of ten). (Many consider that the order is important, and arguably all of the principles after ahimsa arise naturally out of ahimsa.) Then he tells what happens when a person is fully established in each of the moral foundations. When one is established in truthfulness, one becomes incapable of telling untruth, and the Universe will “arrange itself” so that whatever that one says will BE or become truthful. It’s a bit of a mind bend, but I’ve experienced others in my life who seem to have that power. At the very least, it provides a major “carrot” for the effort required to live in truth. We know that words have power, and this sutra also shows just HOW MUCH power they CAN have, that our word can actually make things happen “automatically!”
The commentaries, including Rama’s, take the idea much farther and deeper and in different directions than what our initial thoughts about truthfulness might be—just tell the truth, right? Well, yes, but at its deepest level, satya means that our actions are in accord with our words, and our words are in accord with our thoughts. Just a little self-reflection will reveal that we don’t always do or not do what we say we will do or not do, and probably even more, we don’t and wouldn’t speak every thought that came through our mind for fear of bringing pain to ourself or others! Up till the point when we are established in non-harming, even in thought, I personally think that it’s good, even important, to have a filter between our thoughts and our words.
In this section, Rama challenges our simplistic thinking in another direction, in regard to gossip, criticism and negative judgments of others. She points out the obvious: that they can cause pain so are counter to the positive progression of the Yogic Path. She also reminds us that these thoughts are generally coming out of our negative view(s) of ourself; they are simply being projected outside in order to be building of and non-damaging of OUR ego. “Our criticism of others is a creative outlet for our own feelings of inadequacies,” she writes, and I would add, “and a way to distract ourselves from the pain that we are currently experiencing as a result of our perceived or imagined inadequacies.” In this hard-hitting and challenging sentence, she puts a mirror up for us to see ourself, but in it, she is also indirectly showing us the way out of non-truth and its accompanying pain: FEEL our own painful feelings, or in this case, inadequacies. In doing so, WE become the master of our experience and are no longer pushed into hurtful actions by the pain inside that we would rather avoid.
OK, so maybe we’re clear that we indulge critical thoughts about others more than we would like, and probably also about ourself WAY more than could ever be helpful. Perhaps you, too, would like to join in this exploration, or at least this “first attempt,” at not suppressing the criticism but actually digging to its roots and at least beginning to effect a shift in our own consciousness. If we don’t have to live with the constantly critical voice aimed at ourself, we know that we will experience more peace of mind; the same is true of the critical voice that seems to be aimed “outside.”
We also need to be vigilant that we don’t get trapped in being critical about being critical! If we do, that’s just the same ego B.S. tricking us to keep going the way it likes. Somehow, we have to navigate the negative without suppressing it, which also will just serve to strengthen it while burying it deeper “underground,” in the unconscious. We also need to stop just indulging and being driven by the negative. There’s a “middle way:” to see it when it’s happening, to actually FEEL what is happening in the moment, especially any pain that’s present, and if we feel called, to purposely bring to consciousness and practice the opposite of the negative thought.
For a year or two many years ago, I had taken on the practice that when I caught myself thinking any critical thought directed toward another, I would stop what I was doing and find what I was criticizing in that person IN MYSELF; I would also give it name, the only one I remember was “Tex,” which amused me at the time and still does, but most were just quality-descriptive “names.” It was a powerful and meaningful practice, and it got to be very easy to find what I was criticizing in the “other” in myself as I was able to meet myself with non-judgment about having the critical thought in the first place, and the pained/paining place that it emanated from knew it was safe to reveal itself.
Another more recent example happened the other night, as I caught myself thinking (again) some critical thought, this time in regard to a particular person (don’t worry, it wasn’t you). I noticed the thought and just let it be there, didn’t indulge it, didn’t give it more energy or agreement, and FELT what was happening, and I realized that I was in pain and that it had nothing to do with the other person, just that emotional pain was present inside. As I was honest about it (remember, this is all about satya, truthfulness) and owned it, then it naturally began to shift and become lighter and move toward a more positive release. This has happened several times in the more than a week of this exploration, which has been largely about acknowledging pain that was present already and being with it rather than projecting it on “others.” If I hadn’t been able to sit with all of it, certainly it would just get more and more “calcified” or “poisonous” and have negative effects in the bodymind for potentially years to come.
Anyway, if you are inclined, think about if any of this resonates or seems like it might be worthy of some of your focus and energy for a short time, and feel free to join in. If it doesn’t work for you, no problem, nothing really lost, and you can resume your criticism and judgment of yourself and others at any time (sort of sarcasm except that it’s actually too true). Best case scenario, we free ourself of the pain that the judging, critical mind adds onto the natural pain that Life inevitably gives. May it be so.