Paying Close Attention to Communication: A Tried & True Way

Whether I’m teaching a yoga class or coaching someone about their eating concerns, what I’m really doing is teaching people to pay attention. This is a simple instruction but it’s not an easy one; it requires us to slow down, and to do some self-reflection too. It’s not generally in-line or easy to do in our fast-paced culture.

But I think it’s needed more than ever.

In the months leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, I believe I saw a higher-than-usual level of what I’ll call snark. In other words, people being “cranky and irritable” with one another, especially on Facebook (which is my primary social media outlet). I’m not judging anyone here; in fact, I’m prone to snark myself, and for much smaller things than the future of our country! Once the results were in, well…even with the “Unfriend” button people were/are getting into it in all kinds of interesting ways.

What a great time to turn to the Yoga Sutras! No, I’m not kidding.

Sutra 1.6 talks about the five vrittis, which are the capacities that our minds have. I think of these as categories of potential. Doesn’t that sound neat?

  • The first one, pramāṇa, is something I think we all want to have: in Frans Moors’ translation, “correct functioning of the mind leading to accurate knowledge”. It basically means that one has accurately assessed a situation, so that they could respond to it.
  • Of course there’s also the opposite, viparyaya, defined as “poor functioning of the mind leading to false knowledge, altered or tainted by ill-founded beliefs or presumptions.” So the assessment has been incorrect, yet one reacted.
  • Then there’s vikalpa–the fun capacity for creation, problem solving, and using language to communicate about intangible concepts and material objects or people that are not currently present. As you may have experienced, such a capacity for imagination can be used for true communication and great fun; alternatively, it can drive one to depression via consistent negative thinking and worst-case scenarios.
  • Next is nidrā, but we’ll skip that one for now because it’s not as relevant to the topic.
  • So that makes the last one smṛti. Smṛti is our memory, our own personal record of all our experiences–conscious or unconscious–because they leave a lasting impression on us. (p. 30-31).

All right, cool.

So how can we get some more of the good stuff, that pramāṇa?

Patanjali, the person(s) attributed with writing the Yoga Sutras, helps us with that in Sutra 1.7. He says there are three ways, and in the order implies a priority:

  1. pratyakṣa: this is defined as “direct perception”. It means we saw, heard, tasted, touched, etc. something–i.e. we directly experienced it ourselves through our senses. An example adapted from Moors’ translation: I open the door for my client, seeing that they are wet and that it’s raining hard outside.
  2. anumāna: when pratyakṣa isn’t possible, we use “well-constructed” logic or deductive reasoning. E.g. my client arrives soaking wet. I have not been in the rain, I may even be in a room that doesn’t offer a view of the outdoors. Yet because the person has arrived soaking wet, it must be the case that it’s raining. (Note the use of vikalpa (imagination) and smṛti (memory) as described above. Note also that it may or may not be correct: e.g. if there was a bucket of water up on a building scaffolding that emptied on the client as they walked to my door!)
  3. āgamā: this is defined as “testimony from a reliable source.” Traditionally these were texts or teachings of a master, but it could be any source of information that’s valid. For example, this morning I checked the weather forecast for Belize. (Which also may or may not be accurate!) Some would say there was a lot of āgamā being relied on during the election. Which web site, news channel, etc. was reliable? How do we know? This is why this one’s #3.

 

Here’s a recent example that these Sutras can help us with.

Caveat: with so many posts and the fact that the group moderator shut this one down, I can’t find it again. So I’ll be writing up the situation from my perspective (which as you probably already surmised), may be a flawed starting point. If you were part of this conversation and I’ve gotten it all wrong, please understand I’m not intending to misrepresent you or paint you or anyone else to be a bad person. We ALL do this ALL THE TIME. My intent is to bring it to our (collective) attention.

In one of the groups I joined since the election, a man posted a statement noting that people

49297398 - woman working in home office hand on keyboard close up.

 

were getting a lot of support from the group, and then asked what specific actions the group was going to take as a result of its existence.

  1. One person responded with links or references to other posts and events that had been created (if you’re on some of these you know it’s VERY hard to keep up with everything!).
  2. Another responded with something akin to “hey, support is important, you just don’t understand…”.

The man responded to response #2, (in my view) trying to clarify that he agreed with the importance of emotional support, AND that he only wanted stay posted about any events or activities the group was advocating or sponsoring. I don’t know whether it was the same few people, but as I scrolled through the thread I watched this aspect of the conversation continue. The last post I saw from the man was that he apologized for being direct, but that was just his way of speaking. The moderator closed this discussion down. Personally, and for the record, I didn’t see the big deal. (But that’s ME. I’m also a direct kind of person. 🙂 )

With that as the stage, let’s break it down a bit:

  • What he originally wrote in the group is pratyakṣa. We could read his post, his words, with our own eyes. Since it has to do with language, it involves some vikalpa and smṛti. This is how we know how to read!
  • Whether they were in response group 1 or 2, those who responded had some anumāna–which also involved vikalpa and smṛti. In other words, they deduced what his meaning was based on their past memory and their imagination.
  • None of those who responded (that I saw) asked anything like, “are you intending to chastise us for talking through our feelings…?” or “are you feeling like if you don’t do something specific you’re not helpful?” or even “did you miss the post about event Y?” In other words, they didn’t notice when they were assigning their own meaning to his words. (E.g. none of these assumptions were not directly readable). We ALL do this ALL the time.
  • To his credit (I think) he still answered those unasked questions in his follow up posts. This is āgamā–the original poster clarifying what he really meant. Of course only he knows what he meant, so he’s the reliable source.

So who had pramāṇa and who had viparyaya? We may never know. The conversation didn’t continue because we clearly didn’t know how to talk to each other, even in a closed group of like-minded people all trying to help.

This is troubling.

I’ve been fortunate to have been playing with these concepts for all of a month–and it’s already saved me from unnecessary suffering. I know that to many of you these are strange, foreign, Sanskrit words, but use the English if it’s easier. The point is, being able to see where there is pratyakṣa, anumāna, and āgamā is, as my teacher puts it: “so useful”.

But like many things, this requires us to slow down and pay closer attention.

Ideally at that point where we’ve made a leap we would recognize it, pause, and ask for clarification. This way we are more likely to have pramāṇa (correct perception) and can respond accordingly. Remember that Patanjali didn’t say pramāṇa is something we agree with or would like. It just means we are very clear about what we’re dealing with.

Now’s not a time to alienate people, especially ones who support you, because of a misunderstanding. So take some time today to notice any anumāna your mind is doing and double-check!


In addition to Frans Moors’ Liberating Isolation, I also referenced YogaStudies.org and used my interpretation of the teachings of Chase Bossart.


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