“Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.”
These words form the fourth statement in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and I find them disturbing.
I find it odd to suggest that the activity of the mind—the act of thinking—hides our essential nature from view.
Isn’t thinking what gives us the chance to make choices, to decide how we want to live our life, to determine our destiny? Don’t our thoughts help us form the words with which we need to communicate and function in the world?
How could we care for ourselves, bathe, cook, clean, write, read, or do anything else, without the intelligence—the activity of the mind—to figure out what needs to be done, and to do it?
Even on our mats, we need to think, don’t we?
Are our bodies in proper alignment? Am I pushing too hard or not hard enough? Am I standing too close to my neighbor? Will the wall interfere with my Half-Moon pose?
In this light, thinking appears to be the very thing that illuminates our essential nature and lets us see our humanity more clearly.How, then, can Patanjali suggest that, no, thinking does just the opposite, and, according to the sutra, overshadows our essential nature?
Well, perhaps he is pointing out that there are different kinds of thought, different ways of thinking?
And perhaps he is suggesting that certain ways of thinking—thoughts that are filled with fear or anger or despair—may, in fact, cloud one’s vision and keep one from viewing one’s essential nature?
Or perhaps it’s simply the act of thinking itself, the act of being in our head rather than in our body, that is suggested here as an act that takes us out of the moment.
If we are thinking about the moment, we cannot be in the moment. Our thoughts about the moment take us instantly outside the moment.
In this way, the activity of the mind can overshadow the essential nature of life. Fear, anger, distrust, confusion, all these things can pull us away from the moment.
Think about it: if you are fearful of stepping into headstand, you will have trouble seeing the pose and yourself attempting to do the pose. Instead you will see the cloud (your fear) rather than the pose.
If you are anxious about balancing in Tree Pose, you may find anxiety acts the same as fear and transforms how you perceive the world and your pose, as well as how you see yourself in the world and in your pose.
In this way, thinking about something—whether positive or negative thoughts—does have the power to distort, to overshadow the experience.
We can experience life, but what we end up experiencing are our thoughts about life rather than life itself.
To experience life itself, according to Panjali, we need to settle into stillness.
We need to learn how to let go of anxiety, fear, guilt, worries, distress.
This is how yoga helps us experience life in its fullness. Our asana practice of movement in our body lets us move past our thoughts to the unspoken, inarticulate essence of our nature.
Practice Journal: How does your yoga practice help you cast aside the shadows usually hiding your essential nature from view? How does it help you reduce the activity of the mind so it’s not distracting you?
Note: “Our essential nature is usually overshadowed by the activity of the mind.” from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY, 1982.