Self-inquiry, Discernment, Self-study and Satsang

pic for blog 7-22In our first article, we looked at the key principles of Yoga, including a brief exploration of how each of the major branches was designed to cultivate & support those ideals.  We then began in our last entry a deeper exploration of the branches, starting Hatha Yoga or the physical path.  In this article, we’ll continue our exploration with the Cognitive Branch, or Jnana Yoga.

Recapping the Goals & Principles of Yoga

Again, to begin with a recap, you’ll recall the Yogis observed that, underneath the distinct, ever-changing elements of our individual selves (prakriti), including our bodies, thoughts & feelings, we have a deeper, unchanging Self or “witness.”  The Yogis referred to this as purusha or atman – our “true Self” – which is always whole, always peaceful & always present.  The Yogis then went on to observe by actively learning to connect with that timeless presence while also learning to see the transient parts of ourselves for the conditional things they are, we can ultimately learn to ride the waves of life with equanimity, ease & joy.

From here, the Yogis went on to observe each of these goals can be pursued through four aspects we humans have in common – that is, our bodies, our minds, our social self & our sense of spirit.  This observation in turn leads to the four branches of Yoga, of which the cognitive branch, or Jnana Yoga, is one.

The Path of Wisdom & Its Components

As mentioned before, the word jnana literally means “knowledge” or “cognition” and is used to refer to the mental or reflective branch of Yoga.  Unsurprisingly, the cornerstone of the Jnana tradition is meditation, but there are several other elements that are classically a part and with which we’ll begin our discusion, namely vichara or “self-inquiry,” viveka or “discernment,” svadhyaya, meaning both “self-study” & study of scripture, relationship with a guru or personal teacher, and satsang or spending time in the company of fellow truth-seekers.  Let’s take a look at each of these, including how they fit into the goals of Yoga mentioned above.

Vichara or “Self-Inquiry”

Again, starting with our key principles, the Yogis realized one of the most effective ways to return to our inherent state of peace & joy – particularly for those of us of a more reflective nature – is simply cultivating the habit of observing the pure consciousness or “witness” always present beneath the drama of our lives, a practice they referred to as vichara or “self-inquiry.”  Again, the Yogis noted that pure Self is always present, but as humans we tend to be so distracted by the ups and downs of the transient parts of ourselves that we fail to notice that unchanging essence.  But of course, the Yogis also realized we wouldn’t even be aware of those ups & downs if it weren’t for a position of steadiness from which we are observing those variations.  By actively cultivating awareness of this state, we can learn to look beyond our dramas and maintain our peace – even when “parts” of us are going through challenges or tribulations.

Students of eastern thought will notice this is similar to the Zen technique of reflecting on the koan: “Show me your original face.”  Students would ask themselves: “Who am I really?  Obviously, I am not this face – it used to look different & will again.  I am not my name – my name could be different & I would still be me.  I am not my job or my education or ancestry – all that has changed and will again and I am still me and still will be.  Who then am I really…?”  The Jnana version of this is known as “neti, neti” – “not this, not that” – a practice which helps us step beyond the bondage of ego while also building our compassion for others.  By learning to look beyond the conditional, ephemeral aspects of our selves – our bodies, possessions, or “talents” – we can not only know our own true nature and the peace that brings but also see the common heart of all around us.  Ultimately, this means even an “inward-looking” practice like vichara can build our sense of connection and better equip us for supporting those around us in experiencing that inner joy as well….

Viveka or “Discernment”

This leads to the second element of Jnana, which is viveka or discernment, in this case between our true selves & our egoic selves.  Obviously, this is basically the mirror version of vichara: where vichara involves focusing on the witness beneath our transient experiences, in viveka we’re purposefully noting the mutable quality of our life experiences, whether in circumstance, body, emotion, or thought.  Again, by seeing and staying aware of the fleeting nature of these as well as the circumstances which shape them, we become more aware of the fundamental difference between these parts of us and our true Self which in turn dramatically reduces our tendency to identify with or attach to them.

With regular practice of viveka, even powerful beliefs or things we hold as “facts” then become softened.  We start to ask: “Wasn’t there a time I didn’t believe this?  And if so, isn’t it possible in the future I’ll again change my opinion?”  From here, ideally we realize even those who see things differently do so – just like us – as a result of their conditioned beliefs.  This observation helps us soften our attachment to even powerful convictions –  by no means dampening our dedication or ability to act with zeal, but relaxing our heads & hearts so we can act without attachment, fear, or judgement.  The great 20th century Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi used to refer to this as “Big Mind” – the part of us that is capable of rising above the pettiness of “small mind” or ego to see a bigger, kinder view both of ourselves and those around us.

Svadhyaya: Scriptural- & Self-Study

The third component of Jnana  – svadhyaya – has two distinct but interconnected meanings.  The root dhyaya means “reflection” or “concentration,” while sva means “one’s own unique nature.”  In the more literal sense, svadhyaya thus means studying our tendencies & patterns so we can be more self-aware – as a result getting better at embracing our special talents while also becoming more mindful of our blind-spots & limitations.  Of course, this can be challenging – especially when we begin looking at some of our deeper patterns or those where we carry pain.  For this reason, the Yogis realized it can be helpful to balance self-study with learning from those who have walked the path before us.  Obviously, since we’re all unique, no one can tell us exactly what to expect, but because we do have certain elements in common, the Yogis realized we can learn from the experiences of others, both directly and through writing.

This in turn gives our second understanding of svadhayaya, which is “scriptural study.”  The Yogis defined scriptural study as contemplation of any work that helps us grow and provides a touch-stone for evaluating our personal insights, regardless of whether its origins are Yogic, Buddhist, Christian, Native American, or just “folklore.”  Simply put, in the Yogic view, if it speaks to you and helps you discern between assumption and awareness, that makes it holy and worth studying.  Because personalities and life-issues vary so strongly from person to person, the Yogic tradition includes literally thousands of scriptural works, but of these two are recognized as most universally capturing the heart of Yoga: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Bhagavad-Gita.  For this reason, we’ll explore both in greater detail in future entries….

The Guru-Disciple Relationship

A second aspect of learning from others is the guru-disciple relationship.  As you may know, the word guru literally means “one who dispels darkness” – a reference to the fact a guru does not teach so much as help us remember what we already know.  In fact, there is a related term in Yoga which is equally important and that is sat-guru.  Sat-guru literally means “true teacher” and it refers to the innate wisdom that resides in all of us.  The Yogis believed all true teachings in fact already exist inside of us, and that all a teacher does is help confirm or wake us to the truth we already know.  For that reason, in our tradition we feel an actual guru isn’t necessary –  if we happen to be drawn to the idea & feel a connection with a teacher, it can absolutely be helpful, but it is completely possible to achieve enlightenment simply by looking within.  In fact, Yoga is filled with individuals who did exactly that.  Related to this, my teacher frequently reminded us there is no difference between sitting at a teacher’s feet, reading a book, watching a video, or even learning on the internet … wherever you find true wisdom, it is always sufficient & perfect, whatever the form.

Satsang: Seeking the Company of the Likeminded

One last aspect of learning from others is the concept of satsang or spending time with fellow truth-seekers.  We all know the company we keep has a powerful impact on how we think about ourselves and our lives.  For example, when we spend time with people who are health-conscious, we naturally gravitate toward healthier choices, likewise, when we’re surrounded by those who are critical or who gossip, it’s easy to unconsciously fall into the same patterns – even when alone.  The Yogis realized there is great power in this – in fact, the sage Vivekananda once observed enlightenment can be as simple as four steps: if we choose to spend time with people who are engaging in good habits, our negative habits naturally decline and our positive habits increase, which leads us effortlessly to enlightenment.  Whether a church, a yoga studio, a group dedicated to meditation or studying books, or just friends who gather to support one another, when we choose to spend time with others reinforcing common values, we are bringing the power of satsang into our lives.


Finally, as mentioned before, the single most powerful technique in the jnana toolbox is meditation.  As discussed in our exploration of hatha, the pivotal role of meditation in the Yoga tradition can be summarized quite simply: the Yogis believed it is impossible to live a happy life without mindfulness, and in turn it is impossible to live a mindful life without actively cultivating awareness – which of course is what meditation is.  It’s worth noting that, just as many followers of the hatha branch have a tendency to overlook meditation’s importance, the same is true with jnana. Because many who are drawn to jnana already have strong minds, it’s easy for them to assume they don’t “need” meditation.  But the Yogis remind us exactly the opposite is true: the stronger our minds are, the more likely we are to fall into our particular areas of strength while turning a blind eye to areas where we’re less aware or less “skilled.”

Even more importantly, the more we identify with our minds, the easier it is to unconsciously “dig in” around our beliefs.  To see an example, take a moment to ask yourself: have you ever “won” an argument, only to look back later and realize you don’t fully agree with the rationale you used to win the debate?  In fact, this is very common – often we are so attached to defending a position that we lose the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture.  The Yogis realized one of the most powerful tools for overcoming this pattern is regular meditation.  Essentially, through mindfulness practice, we get better at seeing the patterns and assumption of the mind – that is, our time spent watching our minds on our cushions makes us more attentive to our thoughts in daily life, so when we start to fall into assumptions or attachments, we get better at seeing it and shifting our mindset before it becomes “entrenched.”  Again, because of its pivotal role, in the near future we’ll devote an entire article to a more detailed examination of meditation, including the principles and practice behind it….

Concluding Thoughts & Finding Our Own Balance

Again, taken together, these varied tools – just like the tools of hatha and the other branches – allow us to deepen our awareness of our tendency to misidentify with the transient aspects of ourselves while building mindfulness of our true Self.  As noted with the hatha branch, the Yogis emphasized each of the pieces of jnana interconnect and ultimately lead to one another, so the various elements can be applied as fits us.  For example, some might explore the scriptures with zeal, yearning to understand more Yoga philosophy and in turn studying with others, while others of us might place greater emphasis on self-study and the time in solitude that can facilitate that.  Again, by finding the pieces and ratios that suit us, we’re able to able to move forward more efficiently and with greater joy and dedication in our personal growth.

So those are the basics of the Jnana path.  Next article, we’ll look in more detail at Karma Yoga, or the Branch of Selfless Service.  Until then, wishing you the best in your own personal relationship to “Living Yoga….”

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