Simple, straightforward, and beguilingly easy as seems the knowledge presented in the "Yoga Aphorisms" of Patanjali — in their American version at least, — it is in solemn fact a pathway of intensest difficulty, indeed almost impracticability, for all but the exceptional few of Western students. Ages of deeply devotional habit, metaphysical training, and passive abandonment to such speculative reflection as Western minds are prone to deem the very antithesis of practicality, have given to the men of the Orient a capacity for such pursuits that we are hardly able to comprehend and certainly cannot emulate. To them, that capacity is an inheritance; for us, it must be a slow and painful acquisition. Our very understanding of the significance of the words employed in conveying that knowledge must be remodelled. "Concentration" does not at all mean, to us, what it does to the Hindu philosophers.
A wise man here and there among us — though knowing nothing of Yoga — has comprehended the advantage of "hindering the modifications of the thinking principle" as an essential to the successful pursuit of knowledge or application of mental energy in scientific or professional labors. Hence the study of mathematics and the game of chess have been highly recommended as means to that end in disciplining the minds of the young. But the purpose entertained, in such artificial development of the power of concentration of mind, has not gone beyond controlling application of the entire mental force to a particular subject — generally upon the material plane, — and those most proficient in this art have had no conception of the possibility of development, through it, of such psychic and spiritual powers as are contemplated by Patanjali, and would, in all probability, view as extremely undesirable, and perhaps as suggestive of mental alienation, the state which that great philosopher designates as "meditation without a seed." The pressure and thrill of vigorous activity in the physical and mental life surrounding us, and of which we are necessarily a part, tends to cultivate in us a habit of diffuseness of thought, or at best an abnormally vivid perceptivity and a capacity for synchronous pursuit of entirely disconnected and different trains of thought, the very opposite of the "one pointedness" sought in the practice of Yoga. At the same time, if to the observation and comprehension of the mental and psychic results of such "concentration" as has been unconsciously accomplished by our thinkers, as much intelligent effort had been applied as has been bestowed upon the study of the infusoria or calculation of the laws of chance governing recurrence of "hands" at cards, we should generally have recognized, long ere this, how very diaphanous are those barriers to the unseen world through which some of us have been involuntarily stumbling, and perhaps would have sought light for a purposeful direction of our steps thitherward, such as Yoga affords. Ever since Luther, looking up from his deep pondering, saw the devil in his room and hurled an inkstand at him, opinions have been divided as to his action upon that occasion. The credulous devout have said, "he really saw the devil." It is true that beyond that point there has been a still further difference, good Protestants saying "the arch-enemy was properly repulsed," and good Catholics averring "it was a most ungracious reception of his friend," — but the actuality of the devil is denied by neither. Materialistic sceptics, however, who are in the majority, respond "Nonsense! A plague on both your houses! The man was bilious. The "bilious" theory is by far the most popular in these later days of "light and knowledge." Physicians, as a rule, upon that theory treat cases akin to Luther's coming within the range of their practice and — if possessed of a fair degree of skill — are sufficiently successful to feel confirmed in the hypothesis. In so doing they are like one who, being annoyed by the persistent ticking of a clock, stops it, — by plugging up his ears. He ceases to hear, but the clock goes on ticking all the same. So they accomplish their end of putting a stop to the psychic impressions, at least while the patient is under treatment, and do not trouble themselves with reflection upon the possibility that they have simply interfered with the conditions through which demonstrations of super-sensual realities were practicable.
A case recently brought to my knowledge is happily illustrative of the psychic effects of unconsciously-applied "concentration", and as such I deem it worthy of mention. A gentleman who is a highly accomplished mathematician and accustomed to such intent application in mathematical operations, in conjunction with astronomical studies, that he at such times quite loses consciousness of his surroundings, became annoyed and finally alarmed by finding that from time to time, when he was so applying himself, pictures of persons, events, and landscapes — not reproductions from memory — forced themselves upon his consciousness and seemed to be vividly apparent to his corporeal sight. He also observed that, in what seemed to him an astounding way, he at times had clear perceptions of the contents of letters before he opened them, and knowledge — subsequently proved accurate — of the personalities of their writers, who were wholly strangers to him. He had sense enough to know that he was not bilious, and the alarming alternative presenting itself to him, by way of explanation, was that his mind was becoming affected. The thought of the astral light did not occur to him, but if it had he would probably have contemptuously dismissed it as a mere fantasy unworthy of serious consideration; for he is a very positive, hard-headed, big fellow, with not much respect for things that are not susceptible of mathematical demonstration. He carried his trouble to his doctor. Most physicians, upon hearing a statement of his case, would have said: "You need rest and tonics: Take vigorous open-air exercise, abundance of highly nourishing food, and regular doses of iron: Let up altogether on mathematics, and pretty much on all mental effort of an engrossing nature, for a time: try to become as far as you possibly can a perfectly healthy animal, and you will be all right." That treatment would probably have speedily banished the pictures and the psychometric impressions, and he would always afterward, when the remembrance of the affection recurred to him, have congratulated himself upon his narrow escape from "losing his mind." But, as it happened, he went to a physician possessed of the unprofessional and iconoclastic habit of thinking; one who ventured to believe there were things affecting man that had not been taught in his school. And that man, having heard him, replied complacently: "Yes; I guess you are all right. Your mind is in no danger from that cause. I have kept the fact to myself, as a majority of people are asses and would probably think me crazy if it were known — which might interfere with my practice, — but I have had plenty of such experiences myself and happen to know a good deal about them." That physician, by years of "concentration" upon his favorite studies, had achieved the same results as had been attained by the mathematician, and was fortunately capable of recognizing the cause and the true character of the consequent state of being.
While there are undoubtedly many such cases, they are in the aggregate but an infinitely small minority in society, and can only be looked upon as mere indications of the possibilities attainable by even unconsciously-applied and consequently ill-directed "concentration;" and it may not be too pessimistic a view to take of the situation, to believe that few men entering upon this practice — however purposefully and intelligently directed — are justified in expecting much more than such indications, mere out-croppings of the inexhaustible mine to be developed hereafter. For the vast majority of us, particularly such as have reached middle age and established mental habits that are, to say the least, not conducive to rigidly restricted abstract meditation on the radiations of the unthinkable and the like, there is little hope that we will achieve any appreciable success in real "concentration", on the Yoga basis, during our present incarnations. Happily, however, we know that we are not limited to our present earth-lives, and that every step of progress we take in this corporeal existence will be so much positive gain in our next. However long it may take us to reach the goal, our opportunities will not cease until it is attained, and, if our endeavor is earnest, each successive stage on the way will be easier and the advance proportionately greater than in that preceding. And the prize to be won is worth continuous effort through a long series of personal existences, being nothing less than enfranchisement of the Ego; liberation from "the wheel of life."
This reflection is a reminder of another difficulty confronting the Western student of Yoga. Although Patanjali does not so explicitly and emphatically as Sankaracharya or the Bhagavad-Gita enjoin renunciation of desire for the legitimate fruits of good works, yet that is here also expressed with sufficient clearness to be understood as a necessary requirement. But the Western mind, which is nothing if not practical according to its lights, says; "What is the use in doing anything if there is no object in view? and, if the object in view is desirable, how is it possible to intelligently work for its attainment without desiring it?" Comprehension of the sublimely paramount requirement of conformity to duty for its own sake, and unquestioning acceptance of the truth that all desire is hindrance, must necessarily be stumbling blocks for most of us in a long time to come, but, like many another hard lesson, must be learned. That renunciation is one of the most important elements of Yoga, one that by its inherency of pure devotion elevates the soul beyond the psychic to the spiritual plane of consciousness.
"Hindering the modifications of the thinking principle," though far short of that Dispassion which is "indifference regarding all else than soul," will confer much greater power than the average man possesses — both in mental labors and such glimpses of another plane as have already been spoken of as attained by the mathematician and the physician, — and that is comparatively easy. One does not need to be very good, or even to have good ends in view, but only a strong will and capacity for sustained effort, to reach that point. Indeed, there are those who, by reason of their peculiar organization, without any particular will or much endeavor, may readily attain the astral plane through self-hypnotization, but their ability is by no means desirable. That plane abounds in real dangers for the untrained and unguided explorer, and can afford little real gratification to one in such a state, since his consciousness is only upon that plane and lacks the permanency of retention as knowledge attainable by the concentrated mind of the Yogin, which does not lose its continuity of consciousness upon any plane that he is able to reach.
It is to be hoped that no member of the Theosophical Society is cultivating strabismus by concentrated contemplation of the tip of his nose, in the vain hope of speedily attaining the superhuman powers spoken of in the third book of Patanjali; or fancying that the adumbrations of his own conceits in the luculent depths of some crystal ball are true visions on the planes of super-sensuous existence. Let us "make haste slowly" If in our present lives we learn to walk firmly in the first four "good levels" of the "eight-fold path," we will do much; all, indeed, that we can reasonably expect. So far as we may, without illusive hopes and self-deceivings, let us follow the guidance of Patanjali, but with the ever-present remembrance that we are, in our present incarnation, only planting seed that Karma will develop into blossom and fruit in more propitious existences hereafter.
The PathTHEOSOPHICAL UNIVERSITY PRESS ONLINE