Posted by: Bruce Black | September 1, 2015

“Five types of mental activity…”

“There are five types of mental activity. They may or may not cause suffering.” — from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

When I first read these two sentences, which form the fifth line of The Yoga Sutras, I was surprised since it’s the first time that I’ve heard the word “suffering” mentioned in relationship to yoga.

The other surprise, as I continued reading (lines 6 – 12), came from Patanjali’s assumption that there are five types of mental activity: understanding; misunderstanding; imagination; sleep; and memory.

And I can’t help wondering why Patanjali divides mental activity into these five categories rather than into, say, any other categories.

Perhaps if we look at his definitions of each category, we’ll have a better understanding of what Patanjali means to say.

“Understanding is correct knowledge,” suggests Patanjali (in line 7), “based on direct perception, inference, or the reliable testimony of others.”

“Misunderstanding is the delusion,” he suggests (in line 8), “that stems from a false impression of reality.”

“Imagination,” as Patanjali defines it (in line 9), “is thought based on an image conjured up by words, and is without substance.”

“Sleep is the mental activity,” writes Patanjali (in line 10), “that has at its content the sense of nothingness.”

And, memory, we learn (in line 11), “is the returning to the mind of past experience.”

In summing up these mental states (in line 12), Patanjali tells us “These five types of mental activity are settled through the practice of yoga and the freedom it bestows.”

What these categories of mental activity illustrate, I suspect, is how our thoughts—our ways of thinking—can take us out of the present moment, distorting our view of the moment so that we might miss it.

Each category of mental activity, then, becomes Patanjali’s way of offering us a window into a deeper understanding of our relationship to the present. Yoga is the key to a settled mind and to freedom (from misunderstanding).

Understanding refers, I think, to understanding the present moment…and who we are in this moment. In order to understand ourselves and the world fully, we need to use our mental abilities, as well as inferences from what we see, hear, taste, feel, etc., and sometimes we need to rely on the reliable testimony of others about the world to gain a clearer picture of where we are and who we are in this moment.

Misunderstanding is a crucial mistake that we can make that distorts our understanding of the world and this moment. Hence, misunderstanding leads to delusion, as Patanjali warns, because we end up basing our decisions, our understanding of the present moment, on a false picture of reality.

Using our imagination to help us understand the world is almost as dangerous as misunderstanding the world, according to Patanjali, because imagination is based not on reality itself but on words or images that represent reality. This discrepancy between words and reality can lead us away from, rather than toward, a clearer picture of the moment.

Sleep is not helpful either in terms of understanding; it’s a kind of neutral zone, a nothingness in which our senses and thoughts are removed from reality.

And memory is returning the mind to past experience which means, according to Patanjali, that we are not seeing or experiencing the present, only the past, and, hence, missing out on this moment right now.

In the end, I find these categories helpful. With them, Patanjali shows us how our thoughts can take us out of the present or draw us deeper into the fullness of this moment.

And isn’t the fullness of each moment where our yoga practice can take us if we slow down and notice our mental activity in each pose?

Practice Journal: How does understanding a pose help deepen your experience of it? And how does misunderstanding a pose lead to distortion and delusion (and possible physical injury)? Have you ever relied on your imagination to escape a pose? Have you ever lost yourself in a memory to avoid a painful position? Write: 10 min.

(“Five types of mental activity…” and lines 6 – 12, from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated and introduced by Alistair Shearer, Bell Tower, NY. 1982).


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