Kula Grad Series: Patanjali's Yoga Sutras & Samvega

By: Alexandra Hasdorf

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That's the name yogis gave to the complex state of a kind of disillusionment with mundane life that leads to a wholehearted longing for a deeper investigation into the inner workings of the mind and the self. 

Patanjali uses the term samveganam in the Yoga-Sutra 1.21: "For those who seek liberation wholeheartedly, realization is near." In Sanskrit: tivra-samveganam asannah. Chip Hartranft translates the word samveganam to "with vehemence".

atanjali uses the word to indicate a vehement determination to find a way out of suffering (dukkha) which we can do through the practice of yoga (YS 1.22).

hat samvega brings with it is a hunger for internal quiet and slowing down (nirodha) - as a reaction to the exhaustion from living a "mundane" life but also to see more clearly to understand our true nature; to still the patterning of consciousness (YS 1.2).

The contemporary Buddhist monk Thanissaro Bhikku describes how samvega involves “at least three clusters of feelings at once”: 

The oppressive sense of shock, dismay and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as it’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to    find a way out of the meaningless cycle.
The ancient wisdom of the Yoga-Sutras remains just as relevant today as when it was written about two thousand years ago. The developmental stage of samvega is common in human life, and my assumption is that everyone will experience it to some degree at a point in their lifetime. But as Stephen Cope also suggests in The Wisdom of Yoga, it seems that we in the Western world have a tendency to trivialize it as “midlife crisis” or depression despite the deep complexities of samvega.

This leads me to think that what brought my path to the Yoga Forest for the intensive 200h YTT was from a clearly experienced state of samvega. A deep sense of needing to stop “business as usual”, an urge to explore the gifts of the “inner world” and an intuition telling me that there’s another way of living in this world; more aligned with our true nature.

I wonder if the continually increasing interest in spirituality we’re currently able to observe on a global level rises from a collective state of samvega. A collective understanding and need to find another way to live, be and learn in this world. A realization that objects of longing gradually reveal themselves to offer no true satisfaction. A longing to reorganize our relationships with the world of people and nature. 

I believe that a part of the “business as usual” our state of samvega is calling us to stop is what Max Weber (German philosopher) called disenchantment. A word he used for the cultural rationalization and devaluation of mysticism apparent in modern society. Here scientific understanding is more highly valued than belief, and processes are oriented toward rational goals. This way of thinking in our society is attached to a kind of utilitarianism where most of what we’re doing has become a means to something else and hasn’t any longer any value in itself.

If we look at the etymology of the word “practice”, we’ll see that it comes from “doing”. In English we have the saying that “practice makes perfect”. It indicates that there’s a constant sense of moving forward hoping to eventually receive some kind of satisfying reward if we just work hard and long enough. The “doing” becomes the means to receive a reward. 

his mindset stands in sharp contrast to the teachings of Patanjali and the Eastern mindset in general where practice is about being in the moment of the doing itself without considering the measurable utility of it.  

Even the American magazine Yoga Journal finds it necessary to use utilitarian arguments to why we should still the patterning of consciousness. Stephanie Brown, PhD, writes:

“In our society today, doing nothing is often associated with being lazy or wasting time,” says Brown, yet there are big benefits to spending chunks of time being unproductive. Need convincing? Do nothing and you’ll: 1. Get over the “tough stuff” faster (…) 2. Inspire more empathy (…) 3. Boost your creativity.”

Suddenly Patanjali’s sutra 1.2 becomes subject to a rational utility logic and a means to boost our creativity.

I think our challenge lies in the paradox of recognizing the meaningfulness in what from a utilitarian viewpoint might seem “useless”. Because this recognition will in fact be useful in a deeper, existential way.

“Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness” – not because science tells us it prolongs our lifetime or boosts our creativity. But because “then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.”

About Alex:

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Alexandra, 22 years old, living and studying in Denmark at a creative business school. Currently working with a project around meaningfulness where I'm exploring how we experience and make meaning, whether more people are searching for meaningfulness today, and investigating the challenges and opportunities in today's society regarding this quest.