Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real? – Albus Dumbledore
Yoga means “to yoke” or “to unite”. By its very nature, yoga is what we call a non-dualistic practice. Non-dualism in a nutshell (a very large nutshell, mind you) means that one transcends the idea that there is an “I” or a “me” and a “you” or an “other”. Non-duality is the belief, experience, and consciousness that all is One.
This begs the question… if all is One, why does our day-to-day experience reflect such diversity? You sure seem to be sitting there reading this blog post! I sure seem to be sitting at my computer typing it. If none of this really exists, why does it seem so real?
The three P’s: Patanjali, Prakriti, and the Purusha.
We would not be the first yogis to ask this. In fact, yogis have been pondering this question for as long as we have record of yoga being practiced. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali discusses this very dilemma in terms of Prakriti and Purusha, or the Seen and the Seer. According to the Sutras:
The cause of that avoidable pain is the union of the Seer (Purusha) and seen (Prakriti). The seen is of the nature of the gunas: illumination, activity, and inertia; and consists of the elements and sense organs, whose purpose is to provide both experiences and liberation to the Purusha. (Pada 2:17-18.)
Vocabulary word time! Let’s break this down a bit. The Purusha is the Seer. Look around the space you are in. Go ahead. I’ll wait. What did you see? If you are inside, you may have seen a desk, chair, table. If you’re outside, perhaps you saw birds, trees, the sky. Look down and maybe you see your body. Now that you have looked all around you at everything you can see, including your body, who is it that did all that seeing? It can’t be your body because you can see your body. Something else is seeing your surroundings through you. That something else is what Patanjali very creatively refers to as the Seer.
Prakriti: everything… and nothing.
Prakriti is, well, everything else. Prakriti is nature. It is the physical world and everything in it, including your body. Prakriti is made up of the gunas. The gunas are rajas, tamas, and sattva. Rajas is the energy of initiation. It is very active and likes to move. However, it does not sustain. Tamas is inertia. It maintains. It is dense and does not move. If rajas is the spark that starts the fire, tamas is the wood that keeps it burning.
Sattva is the third guna. It is the light and warmth of the fire. It is likened to balance, peacefulness, and illumination. Things that contribute to a sense of ease and well-being are sattvic. Nature -or, Prakriti- is composed of the three gunas. One is not necessarily better than the others. They are all needed in varying degrees and we can express them positively or negatively.
Prakriti exists so that the Purusha might know Itself. In yoga, this is liberation. Prakriti is an illusion (maya). It is a bit like going to the movies. If you walk to the front of a movie theatre and touch the screen it becomes apparent that what you are seeing is not really there. The Purusha is like you as you are watching the movie. Prakriti may inform, educate, and even entertain you, but it is not ultimate reality. When watching a movie, all that is really real is the one who is watching.
Plays, movies, musicals…. People learn so much through theatrical mediums. They teach us about our humanity. Some say that if Prakriti is ultimately an illusion, it must not matter very much. Actually, Prakriti matters very much indeed! While art, music, and theatre teach us to be human, Prakrati teaches us our divinity.
Earth school: the nature of nature.
Prakriti is the contrast that allows the Purusha to realize Its true nature. The fact that it is ultimately an illusion does not diminish its importance for the Seer. The key to navigating Prakriti is to recognize it as a learning device. We do not ignore Prakriti. After all, if I fall from the top of a very large tree, the essence of my true and higher Self may go unscathed, but, gosh, the illusory body it is currently being housed in will sure be banged up! In the world of form, gravity is a thing. However, I do not have to identify with Prakriti. I can see it, feel it, experience it, and participate in Prakriti and maintain my awareness that it is not ultimately real. Or, at least, I can try.
After all, that is why we do these practices. Yoga, meditation, deep contemplation, study of sacred texts… All of these things can elevate our consciousness. As we release our attachment to Prakriti, we become more effective at navigating it. This allows us to think more clearly, make better decisions, take right action (not just any action), and from that place, be at peace.