“When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.”
This is the third line in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and it’s both comforting and puzzling.
When I practice yoga, I practice to learn more about my essential nature — not just my essential nature but the essential nature of being human.
So, some of the questions that I bring to the mat include “What does it mean to be human?” and “What does it mean to be this particular person in this particular body at this particular time in this particular place in time?”
And I find it comforting — and one of the reasons why I continue my practice — when my asana practice reveals the answers to these questions.
But there’s a difference between discovering our “essential nature” and reaching a state of “unbounded consciousness.”
That’s the puzzling part of the statement.
I’m not even sure what “unbounded consciousness” means.
When I think about our “essential nature,” I think of qualities of the heart — qualities like kindness and generosity and confidence and faith—which form the essence of being a human being.
And I’m always grateful for a practice that helps me notice when these qualities are present in my heart and when they are absent.
But when I think about “unbounded consciousness,” I come up blank. It’s such an abstract thought, so amorphous, so open-ended. And yet the open-endedness of the statement implies freedom.
Only here’s the next question: what does freedom have to do with our essential nature?
Perhaps part of the answer is that “unbounded consciousness” also implies that life has certain constraints, certain boundaries, certain limits or limitations, and that yoga can help us discover how to free ourselves of such constraints and limits.
There’s an interesting link inherent in the statement between the constraints of the body and the freedom of the mind.
Indeed, the statement suggests our essential nature is unbounded, pure consciousness. Pure thought.
What might keep us from being in touch with our essential nature? An unsettled mind.
After practicing yoga for more than a decade, though, I have to admit that my mind is rarely settled. I’ve noticed a handful of times when my thoughts have quieted into silence. But, for the most part, the space inside my brain is pretty noisy and unsettled.
If I do experience something that might be called “silence” or “settling,” it’s the “sleep” that I experience unexpectedly in Savasana at the end of class.
But is “sleep” what’s meant by “unbounded consciousness?”
I have the sense that “unbounded consciousness” implies something more … a consciousness that may resemble sleep, perhaps, but which lets us notice our thoughts while we lie quietly in a meditative state.
Perhaps it’s that state during or after our asana practice when we can feel ourselves connected to the divine source of energy that is constantly creating and re-creating the universe. Or perhaps it’s during those moments of life when we feel at one with our self and those in our life and everyone who we’ve ever come in contact with.
Whatever “unbounded consciousness” may mean, it isn’t easy to settle one’s mind or get in touch with our “essential nature.”
What yoga offers us is a path past the whirl and bustle of our lives. It’s a path that leads to a different world, a world where we can settle into the mysterious essence of who we are.
Practice Journal: What exactly does “essential nature” mean? And how does settling our mind lead us to it? And how is that nature linked to a state of “unbounded consciousness”? These are the questions that I’ll be asking the next time that I step on my mat. What about you—what questions will you ask the next time you practice yoga? Write: 10 min.
Note: “When the mind has settled, we are established in our essential nature, which is unbounded consciousness.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY (1982).