In the first chapter of the Yogasūtras (sūtra I.30), Patañjali presents a list of 9 life difficulties. The list is extremely interesting and includes different sorts of challenges. For example, there are things that happen to us, like illness (vyādhi), mental fatigue (styāna) and lack of energy (ālasya). There are mistakes we make like haste (pramāda) and overindulgence (avirati). Our confusions, like doubt (samśaya) and misperceptions about our self (bhrāntidarśana), are also listed as life difficulties. So too are the moments where we don’t attain what we had hoped to (alabdhabhūmikatva) or notice that our capacities have slipped (anavasthitatva), as happens to everyone who ages.
LIfe Difficulties Are Unavoidable
Obviously, all of these are common events in life – indeed we should say that they are unavoidable events. Patañjali does not promise that we can avoid these difficulties by practicing Yoga. Rather, he says “citta-vikṣepāḥ te antarāyāḥ” which means “for one whose mind is agitated, these are obstacles.” If we are out of balance, or our state is ‘off’, or our emotions are controlling us, etc., then when negative events happen, they will become obstacles for us. The problems will arrest our movement, and they will cause us to get stuck.
The implication is that if we can remain balanced, if we can remain in a state of Yoga, then we’ll be able to respond. We may not like the event, or how it is affecting us or our lives, but it won’t derail us. It won’t cause us to get stuck. We’ll be able to adapt and adjust. Indeed adaptive intelligence, called yukti in Sanskrit, is one of the five synonyms given for the word Yoga in the amarakośa (7th Century CE Sanskrit Thesaurus).
Problems Are Not the Problem
The key point is that the reason problems cause us to get stuck is not the actual problem itself! Rather, it is the state of our system that turns the difficulty into an obstacle. As practitioners, the importance of this idea is impossible to overemphasize. Problems are not the problem! The quality of the mind that perceives and responds to the difficulty is the problem.
If we are out of balance, then it is very likely that we will view the difficulty, as well as respond to it, from our patterning. That is, whatever happens, will be filtered by our mind and interpreted based on our previous experiences. So too will our responses. We’ll react as we always have, repeating what we learned to do in previous situations. We’ll be stuck in the same cycle that we’ve experienced our whole life. Of course, the names, places, and details of the events will change, but the structure of the situation and its results will be the same. We’ll have that same old lonely feeling again, or wonder why we never get a break, or why ‘this’ always happens to us. It’s because we’re stuck. For a wonderful exploration of this idea, check out the movie Groundhog Day.
The Way Out Is Equanimity
Thankfully, there is a way out! The path out of the trap of our patterns begins with bringing our system towards balance. When our body and emotions are balanced, the mind will be stable and the attention directable. This stability of mind allows our perception (of whatever event is happening) to be stable. Within that stability, the opportunity opens to differentiate what is actually happening from what our patterns have projected onto it. We’ll be able to see the difference between the event and our story about what that event means. When this gap opens, when we can see how those two things are different, it also opens the possibility of choosing to respond in a different way than we usually do. It opens the possibility of responding not from our patterns but from our authenticity.
The key to this difference is maintaining balance and equanimity*. If we can maintain equanimity, no matter the surroundings or environment, then our minds will remain stable and we’ll be a lot less likely to get stuck.
*Remember that the Bhagavad Gītā defines Yoga as equanimity in II.48, now you know why.