Piedmont Yoga Studio News December 2011: Breathe Repeat Submission "What is Consciousness?" | iHanuman


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Piedmont Yoga Studio News December 2011: Breathe Repeat Submission "What is Consciousness?"

I recently was out on Long Island in New York state to participate in a teacher training. Two of the students in that training are starting a website titled Breath Repeat (www.breatherepeat.com) and asked me to contribute. Here's what I had to say.
What is consciousness? We obviously can't answer a question about which many books have been written in a few hundred words. Nonetheless, yoga students should know a little something about the subject, since it's the focus of the earliest and still one of the most widely studied yoga manuals, the Yoga Sutra, attributed to Patanjali. This text famously defines yoga (in chapter 1, sutra 2) as the "restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness" (translation by Georg Feuerstein), which in Sanskrit reads "chitta vritti nirodhah." Let's see what we can briefly discover about consciousness by digging into the etymology of that word and its approximate Sanskrit equivalent, chitta.
The dictionary traces the roots of the word to the Latin scire, which not surprisingly means "to know." It further notes that scire probably originally meant "to separate one thing from another," and so is likely related to scindere, "to cut, divide." We can say then that according to its antecedents, consciousness is that which "divides to know" or, flipped around, "knows by dividing"; in other words, in order for consciousness to exist, there must be a "cut" in the otherwise uncut fabric of the world, so that, on the one hand, there's someone who sees, and on the other, something that's seen. The latter supplies what might be called the "content" of consciousness, not only the multiplicity of impressions of people and things constantly impinging on our senses from "without," but the welter of thoughts and other "fluctuations" (vritti) occasioned by these impressions welling up from "within."
Now chitta is the Sanskrit word translated here as consciousness (I'm Romanizing it with a "ch" to help non-Sanskritists with the reading; properly speaking though it should be rendered as "citta" without the "h," since the Sanskrit symbol "c" is pronounced as the "ch" in "church"). Like many words in the yoga lexicon chitta has a range of meanings. The Sanskrit-English dictionary tells us it can mean variously "attending, observing" or "thinking, reflecting, imagining," which suggests, as I mentioned, that consciousness can not only be directed in general, but directed to do specific jobs; indeed, in this respect chitta also means "intention, aim." Finally chitta has the qualities of "intelligence, reason."
Chitta, like consciousness, has roots as well, in the little word chit (properly spelled cit). Don't be fooled by chit's diminutive size, its definition continues for 16 dictionary lines, four times the length of its heftier relative. Initially as we read chit's definition, we're lulled into thinking it means much the same as chitta: "to perceive, fix the mind upon, attend to, observe, take notice of"; "to aim at, intend, design"; "to understand, comprehend, know"; and so on. But just as we slog to the end of the entry, we suddenly come upon something brand new; in addition to the foregoing, chit also means "pure Thought" (dictionary capitalization).
Pure Thought? Didn't we establish that consciousness is something like a "container," that one thing it "contains" is thought, and lots of it? Well, it turns out that, at least in theory, container and contained aren't bound together, and we can separate the latter from the former, leaving us with the aforementioned pure thought, or what I would prefer to call, quoting the twentieth century American sage, Franklin Merrill-Wolff, "consciousness-without-an-object." What is CWAO like? Don't ask me, though even if I knew I couldn't put it into words. Our language-all language for that matter-is a product of duality or the "cut" in our world, and that duality is all it has the words to express; beyond that, the cat gets its tongue.
Of course the big question here, as it always is when talking about yoga, is: why, why do we want to empty our container at all? This brings us back to classical yoga. Here we're taught that most every one of us mistakenly identifies with the content of our consciousness, with chitta, while in fact our true self is nothing other than unadulterated chit. This is, in Patanjali's estimation, the most grievous error we can make, the root source of unremitting existential pain and suffering. The only way to achieve final peace is a complete and lasting separation from the content and re-orientation of our identity with the container. Why is this so, you wonder, and how do I proceed? You'll have to read the Yoga Sutra and figure it out for yourself. Good luck!

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