Jul 4, 2015

Sutras 1.29 - 1.30. «Obstacles to Yoga» and defence mechanisms of psyche

The next two sutras of Patanjali, the lines 1.29 и 1.30, are dedicated to the so-called barriers in yoga: 

ततः प्रत्यक्चेतनाधिगमोऽप्यन्तरायाभावश्च ॥ २९॥
1.29. tataḥ pratyakcetanādhigamo'pyantarāyābhāvaśca 

व्याधिस्त्यानसंशयप्रमादालस्याविरति-भ्रान्तिदर्शनालब्धभूमिकत्वानवस्थितत्वानि चित्तविक्षेपास्तेऽन्तरायाः ॥३०॥
1.30. vyādhi-styāna-saṃśaya-pramāda-ālasya-avirati-bhrānti-darśana-alabdha-bhūmikatva-anavasthitatvāni citta-vikṣepāste'ntarāyāḥ

The traditional translation of these lines is as follows:

30. Disease, mental laziness, doubt, calmness, cessation, false perception, non-attaining concentration, and falling away from the state when obtained, are the obstructing distractions (Vivekananda).
30. Disease, apathy, doubt, inattention, laziness, intemperance, false perception, inability to achieve [any] stage [of concentration], lack of stability [in concentration] – these distractions are the obstructions (Ostrovskaya, Rudoi).
30. These barriers are: diseases, laziness, doubts, inattention, the sleep of reason, mundanity of interests, false perception, improper concentration, drawing back from the attained position, absent-mindedness (Rigin).

Other translations in their deep meaning are similar and like – the interpreters have seen this line to be the list of obstacles to the practice of yoga. However we cannot be satisfied with such translation because things said in such manner seem to be too obvious. Indeed, it is clear that disease or laziness do impede the practice of yoga. So what was the use for the author to write two sutras dedicated to such an obvious idea? Maybe there is something else meant in them?

In order to understand what the line is about let us match the context of the sutra 1.30 with previous sutras. Let us begin from the end, namely, from the word antarāyāḥ (अन्तरायाः), that is actually translated as “obstacle”. Yet this sutra does not assert this to be an obstacle to yoga as a system of practices (in modern sense of this word). On the contrary, upon comparing this sutra with the previous one can come to the conclusion that the author speaks about impediment to attaining samprajñātaḥ (सम्प्रज्ञातः) (see 1.16), that is, comprehension, awareness. Then the term antarāyāḥ (अन्तरायाः) (obstacle) shall resemble the well-known defence mechanisms of psyche that come from the context of modern psychoanalysis.

Let me remind that defence mechanisms of psyche are certain factors that impede self-awareness, in particular, mental processes or elements of reality that could cause destruction of self-image of a person treated by one as habitual. Yet we understand that it is this very going beyond one’s boundaries, the transcendence that comes as a goal of every spiritual practice. And from this position defence mechanisms of psyche are the factors that hinder the spiritual growth of a man.

The theory of defence mechanisms was launched by Freud who had singled out the mechanisms of transference and repression. These studies were later continued by Anna Freud who has in fact build up an explicit concept of this issue. A detailed list of defence mechanisms has been further expanded, with different authors giving some varied titles, but the key principle – the idea of mechanisms that protect the psyche from factors that may damage the established image of self and as a side-effect prevent the analysis – is still preserved. In the scope of modern psychoanalysis they single out ca. 30 defence mechanisms of psyche including: repression, transference, projection, somatization (formation of somatic symptoms), rationalization, identification, role-playing, formation of muscular armoring and others. In order to remind the reader about the core point of major mechanisms I shall give my own description of them taken from my first book “The Psychology of Spiritual Growth” (1995) where - for the first time in the scope of modern yoga - I have raised the question of defence mechanisms of psyche’ influence upon the practice of meditation and yoga.


1. UNDOING – this defence mechanism manifests itself through active emotional unwillingness to study the objects of one’s psyche or in unconscious performance of actions that sabotage the said practices (being late, losing books, oversleeping and so on). A bright illustration of this is inability of a person to hear from his or her Teacher or healer the information that is urgent for his spiritual growth.

2. REPRESSION shows itself as forgetting of traumatic situations, desires that cannot be satisfied, information that impairs one’s self-esteem. It can occur in form of DENIAL – escape from reality into phantasy, firm and illogical denial of something as ‘untruth’.

3. PROJECTION - the key point of this defence mechanism can be explained by the saying "he sees the speck in your brother’s eye but fails to see the beam in his own eye”, i.e. it works in the way that a person starts to unconsciously attribute his problems, features and motives to other people. For instance, a person who considers himself honest yet in the depth of his heart has a desire to misappropriate the things belonging to others can quite genuinely believe the rest of people to be potential thieves and cheats.

4. TRANSFERENCE. The main point of this mechanism lies in transfer of psychic tension from the situation it was caused by onto other situation or object that allows emotional release of this tension. For instance, a man offended by his boss can take it out on his wife or child and he will truly believe that in his scolding the wife or punishing the child he is totally fair and correct. One’s transfer of sympathy or antipathy addressed to parents onto instructor or teacher is a common form of transference.

5. RATIONALIZATION resides in logical explanation and justification of inappropriate behavioral forms, desires or thoughts. For instance, a person with bad points instead of changing himself may explain such features of his by belonging to a certain zodiacal sign.

6. IDENTIFICATION is a mechanism of anxiety release performed through identifying oneself with factors that have caused this anxiety. For instance a child who is afraid of his parents’ aggressive behavior may identify himself with such form and become aggressive as well.

7. INVERSION is the replacement of genuine feelings, thoughts, desires and actions that cannot be fulfilled and implemented by opposite ones. Love, for instance, may turn into hatred, affection – into antipathy and so on. 

8. REGRESSION is the return to more evolutionary primitive forms of behavior. Regression may manifest itself, for instance, in form of occurrence of children’s habits (nails biting, thumb sucking) in adults, manifestation of bestial rage in man, the cessation of obeying the laws that have already been matured in this life by a person walking along the way of spiritual growth.

9. WITHDRAWAL is a defence mechanism that makes one select a form of activity that would not involve one’s problematic situations. For example, a person who is not able to live standard family life may wrap himself up in work so that he could have an excuse for staying away from home. For some students yoga classes may serve as a form of withdrawal from solution of their social problems and so on.

10. COMPENSATION is another side of the mechanism of withdrawal that makes a person having problems in some activities over-fulfil his potential in other activities. Thus a man with difficulties in dealing with women can be hard in climbing the ranks. In the event of spiritual practice the mechanism of compensation may show as one’s desire to do exercises that are easy for performance instead of those that one actually needs to do.

11. FORMATION OF SYMPTOMS is a most interesting mechanism of defence that as if links human mind and physical health. This mechanism functions through somatic manifestation of psychological problems. For example, a person unwilling to do something my indeed and actually fall ill in order to avoid ‘troublesome’ actions. A classic example of this mechanism is the case of a woman who did not want her daughter to leave the house late at night. She had a heart attack every time her daughter tried to go out, and thus the daughter had to stay at home in order to foster the sick mother. This mechanism may occur in the beginning yogis, for instance, in form of acute hunger or sleepiness emerging in the process of one’s trying to meditate or do morning set of exercises.

12. FORMATION OF MUSCULAR ARMORING is manifested in people who since unable to admit having certain emotions start to “pose” as calm and unemotional persons. These people are distinguished by a large number of muscular contractions, constrained movements, their inability to express feelings. This defence mechanism is quite often exploited by novice students as a substitute of self-cultivation. Long-lasting maintenance of muscular armor usually leads to formation of symptoms, i.e. diseases.

13. PLAYING ROLES. It occurs in the same cases as formation of armor and lies in the fact that a person substitutes a set of played roles for genuine expression of one’s feelings and emotions. However the nature of the last as the level of consciousness is totally different”.

Let us compare the description of “obstacles” offered by Patanjali in sutra 1.30 with the list of defence mechanisms. With this end in view let us translate carefully every word of the sutra.

vyādhi (व्याधि) – the word consists of the prefix वि (vi) that we already know; the prefix आ (ā); the root धा (dhā) – ‘to give, put’; and the prefix इ (i) that is often attached to this root (see the word “Samadhi”). The dictionary “yogaartha” meaning of the word is ‘disease’. Yet the etymology given above assumes treating the disease as presence – localization (dhā) of something outside (vi-). This idea completely reflects the shamanistic views of ancient Aryans. Yet it is not this that we are interested in but the fact that a disease may indeed come as manifestation of the defence mechanism referred to as “formation of symptoms”.

styāna (स्त्यान) derives from the root styai (स्त्यै) – ‘to be rigid’, and is formed by means of suffix अन used to form neuter nouns. Thus the verbatim translation shall be “making something become rigid”. In English variant the word ‘ styāna’ is interpreted as “rigidity” thus already bearing reference to corresponding defence mechanism. However even Russian translation suggests that ‘ styāna’ is the state in which a person tries to resist his transformation both mentally as well as by means of muscular armor formation. 

saṃśaya (संशय) is a masculine noun that derives from the root shi (शि) – ‘to sleep’ - and the already-known prefix sam (सम्), and it can be translated as “sleepiness”. Any practitioner (and even non-practitioner) knows about the sleepiness effect that occurs upon one’s attempt to ponder over vital problems. Obviously, this is a defence mechanism as well.

pramāda (प्रमाद) originates from the root «mād» (माद्) – ‘to be intoxicated’, and it means “intoxication”. Intoxication, first of all, is loss of clarity of one’s thoughts, that is why this term can be correlated with the defence mechanism of de-intellectualization which core point lies in the fact that in case of meditating on a subject that is actual from the point of person’s mental growth one’s intellect shall degrade drastically if compared to a situation when a neutral situation is pondered over.

ālasyā (आलस्या) - this is a well-known Sanskrit root that in most cases is translated as “idleness, laziness”. The word itself derives from the root «las» (लस्) – ‘shine’ or ‘play’, a negative prefix «а» (अ) and suffix «ya» (य) – the same as in the word vairāgyā (वैराग्या) that creates an adjective that in this case, though, is used as a neuter noun. The occurrence of acute laziness can also be referred to as defence mechanism. Another interesting fact is that in Sanskrit etymology, as it has been mentioned above, the root ‘las’ means ‘to play’. This is a very spectacular clue for understanding the origin of laziness. Pretty much never laziness arises in situations where one’s activity is associated with Svadhisthana experience. And vice-versa: something done in serious manner, without Svadhisthana and under the burden of forced necessity is often accompanied by the feeling of laziness. Curiously enough, but it also refers to spiritual practice. A practice that is too serious and performed without pleasure shall hardly bear fruit. In this vein I would like to quote Osho who said “Spiritual practice is too serious a thing to treat it seriously”.

avirati (अविरति) – the word has been derived from the root «ram» (रम्) that means ‘to be diverted’ or ‘to rejoice at, be glad or pleased’ with help of the suffix «ti» (ति) that forms an existential noun of feminine gender. The word “rati” itself is often translated as “affection”. This is the name attributed to one of the wives of Kama, the god of love. The prefix «vi» (वि)- in this case intensifies the meaning of the word while additional prefix «а» (अ) changes its meaning into the opposite one. The most appropriate Greek word that delivers proper meaning of the term might be the apathy, that is, atrophy of feelings, loss of concernment, fading of active emotional interest in the practice. People who are active in their practice of yoga or self-analysis in terms of psychology are well aware of this defence mechanism that lies in the fact that a topic or practice that are indeed urgent for this person may all of a sudden turn into “merely uninteresting”, into “this is not what I need now” and “I shall set to it later” and so on.

bhrānti-darśana (भ्रान्तिदर्शन). In this word-combination bhrānti (भ्रान्ति) - is a feminine noun derived from the root bhram (भ्रम्) – ‘to ramble’ - with the help of the already-known suffix ti (ति), and it means “roving, confused”. The word darśana (दर्शन) is obviously translated as opinion or point of view. This word is also used to denote the systems of beliefs – philosophical and those concerning the worldview; for instance, six systems of Brahmanism are the example of darshan. What could have Patanjali meant speaking about “unestablished system of beliefs” and whether it can be correlated with a defence mechanism? First of all let us state that one’s having an unalterable and appropriate worldview comes as an essential element of self-development practice. Patanjali himself highlighted it in the sutra 1.20 having mentioned shraddha as its mandatory constituent. Indian thinkers have even singled out a specific type of karma called exactly like this – darshana-karma – which main concept is that specific life of a person depends much upon his view of life and worldview that in its turn comes as a result of his karma. And it may happen that one’s “lame” worldview may constrain a person in these or that deeds and actions of his. He is simply unable to enjoy the plenitude of life because he just does not know that it is possible. Or he may be limited in his spiritual practice. For instance a person who was born and raised in a Christian (or even post-Christian) family and has acknowledged the worldview of this religion is just not able to set to practicing cultivation of his Svadhisthana since his ideology lacks such values as delight, intensification of emotional experience, flirting, sex games, context and so on. Any manifestations of this chakra energy are considered sinful or there’s simply no sufficient information about them available. Moreover, proper development of Ajna in this situation is hardly possible as well…

But let us get back to the sutra. The “straying thoughts” mentioned by Patanjali may come as a description of practice when a person, being not reinforced in some complex system of beliefs, still tries to “adjust” his views in a way he could circumvent apprehending his problems. For instance, by roaming from one school to another, moving exactly at the moment when a truly serious practice is about to commence.

alabdha-bhumikatva (अलब्धभूमिकत्व) – this defence mechanism deserves a more detailed coverage for they have failed to give it full attention in the scope of psychoanalysis. Moreover, there is a huge divergence in interpretations found in available translation variants. From the point of grammar the translation of this word-combination is not difficult: ‘ alabdha’ is a passive past participle derived from the root ‘labh’ – ‘to receive, obtain’ - and a negative prefix, thus meaning ‘unreceived’. The word “bhumikatva” consists of ‘bhumi’ – ‘land, earth’, sometimes – ‘position’ or ‘place’ and suffix –tva that is used to form nouns denoting features (e.g. ‘sattva’). This suffix is similar to English –ance/ence (substance, essence). But what does this “unreceived bhumikatva» actually mean? In this case we cannot rely upon the commentaries available because they are all totally different – probably because there is no understanding of the line general context. Thus let us act point-blank and translate this using the most obvious variant. This shall be “down-to-earth-ness”. This word is a metaphor yet metaphors tend to be passed from one language to other in their core meaning. I have collected hundreds of Sanskrit metaphors that are identical to Russian and English ones; moreover, the archetype of “having one’s feet on the ground” etc. is almost universal. So let us consider this to be the basic variant and try to understand what it means in the context of defence mechanisms. The concept of A. Freud lacks the defence mechanism of “non-down-to-earth-ness” but I have rather often run across it in my practice as well as seen it in grotesque form in mentally deranged people. The point of it is that in order to avoid working with actual problems one launches into scholastic “reflection”, abstracts himself up to complete detachment from reality, “solves” the problems that don’t actually exist and that nobody is interesting in, like “how many angels can be placed on the needlepoint”. Of course this is not conceptual thinking in the truest sense of this term. In case of correct abstract thinking a thinker can at any time objectify the task, show the real world processes that correlate with his speculations. There are numerous pseudo-esoteric movements that have fallen into the trap of this mechanism and “reflect” on the issue like: which of the alien race is more willing to take the Earth over, whether Anunnaki have been influencing world government and when they started to, and other stuff like this. People meditate for the sake of “peace in the world” yet in parallel they rail at their neighbors… Being engaged in global pseudo-activity is easier that being occupied in slow and painstaking development of self in the scope of actual and objectivized parameters. Though needless… 

anavasthitatva (अनवस्थितत्व) – the translation and understanding of this word are rather simple. An-ava-sthi-ta-tva. Instability. The root ‘sthā’ means ‘to stand’. In the context of defence mechanisms of psyche I would correlate it with the mechanism of “hysterization” when a person unconsciously aggravates a problem to the point when he is no longer able to solve it. Hysterization is often used in domestic conflicts when participants use to drive themselves to a frenzy instead of setting to cold-headed solving of the problems encountered.

It is particularly remarkable that summing up the list of mechanisms Patanjali determines them all to be citta-viksepa (चित्तविक्षेप) – scattering one’s chitta. And it also confirms my view of this line that has been represented above.

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