Yoga and Lent IV: To See As Wisdom Sees


Cambridge, MA. The next section of the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras is the famous account of the eight-limbs (asta anga) of yoga, a famed list that is most often used to structure any account of yoga. Contrasted with some of the more subtle points I had to deal with in my previous entries in this series (one, two, three) this is a list that seems rather more easily useful in Lent, particularly if we think of Lent as a time when we are to do things that inculcate focus and discipline.


Patanjali introduces the list with a great promise: “When, due to practicing the limbs of yoga, there is the destruction of impurity, then there dawns the splendor of knowledge, unto discriminative discernment.” (II.28) From the practice of the eight limbs, arise the ending of all obscuration, the dawning of knowledge, and a final wisdom rooted in discrimination, that is, in seeing things just as they are. It seems fairly easy to affirm such goals as a Christian in Lent, as long as we stay on a general level: impurity is to be removed, knowledge illumines our situation so that nothing is obscured or shadowed, and this eventuates in a totally truthful encounter with reality, just as it is. There is nothing to this that a Christian need balk at, even if one might be concerned at first lest the final state seem to be merely self-produced.

So what are the limbs? Here is a pared-down list, omitting for now the many explanatory verses that accompany the basic enumeration (as always, in an approximate translation, largely of my own though indebted to many good translator):

The eight limbs are: restraint, observance, sitting, control of breath, withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and the unitive state. (II.29)

The restraints are non-intention to harm, truthfulness, non-stealing, sexual restraint, and non-grasping. (30)

The observances are purity, contentment, austerity, one’s own study, and dedication to the master. (32)

Sitting is steady and with contentment. (46)

When that is in place, a cutting off of the motions of in-breath and out-breath is control of breath. (49)

When there is no longer a close connection of the mind to its own contents, then there is withdrawal of the senses, as if in imitation of that mind’s own-form. (54)

Concentration is the fixing of the mind to a place. Meditation is the practice of extending a single idea there. When it shines forth simply as the object, as if devoid of its own-form, there is the unitive state. (III.1-3)

I will return to the list in future weeks between now and the end of Lent, but for now, I offer three comments.

First, this is an extraordinarily comprehensive set of considerations. An entire moral life is encompassed by the restraints and observances, whereas posture and control of breath take up in a very simple fashion two of the things we all do, all the time: sit, and breathe. Withdrawing the senses, a rather obscure practice if we depend on the verse defining it (54), has to do with inverting the mind, turning it away from the endless array of external things it focuses on, to dwell simply in itself. All of this moral, physical, and mental work — or non-work — clears the way for the threefold meditative practice, concentrating (on the self, perhaps the light within), holding one’s attention there for longer and longer periods of time, until one is in a sense nothing but that holding of attention, a single, long, unwavering glance.

Second, this impressive movement is of a piece, the mundane and the lofty interconnected. This is why the somewhat awkward word “limb” is preferable to “steps,” since the latter gives the impression that the “lower” practices are finished and done with, as one moves on to the more important practices of meditation. But just as the limbs of the body or the movements integral to a dance or a ritual must occur all in coordination, not merely one at a time, Patanjali is suggesting that all eight practices belong together, all the way from the start to the finish. Not-doing evil is not a one-time achievement, just as one does not get beyond learning to sit at rest or breathe mindfully. Meditation and the unitive state require, beginning to end, the moral and physical and intellectual grounding that the limbs together provide.

Third, the remarkable end point, the unitive state to which the eight limbs cooperate seems to be a very simple abiding within oneself, staying there: alive and not caught up in the busy-ness of mind and body. That all ends in a very simple gaze, like a flame that does not waver, a stream of oil never interrupted. If you are tempted to worry about this, as if it is too quiet or empty for a Christian — quietism in our busy Church! — think for a moment of what Paul promises in I Corinthians 15.28: When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all: in the end, as it were, nothing but God. Or recall what Meister Eckhart wrote in one of his sermons: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God's eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.” The fruits of Lent can be simple too, if we manage to weave all our practices, of mind and body and heart, into a single, steady whole and learn just to wait, there.

I realize that for some readers much of the preceding may seem rather abstract and not very helpful for Lent, too heady to be useful. True, yoga is a doing, not a blog-writing. But all of this really is about how we do and learn not to do, especially in Lent. As we near the middle of this holy season, we do well to consider the eight limbs — or six or three or twelve — of our own Lenten observance: what are all the things we as individuals and Church are doing in Lent, and how does it all cohere, for some final, simpler goal that cannot be surpassed? Think, in the end, of what Paul indicates in Galatians 2.19-20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” What if Lent ends there, and there is no longer anything else? At least some yogis would be content, an eye on the world.

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