I’m fascinated by how self-realisation relates to mental illness. Common ailments, such as depression, can’t be exempt from liberation traditions because they’re psychological constructs. Pathways that contextualise these ailments in structures ripe with potential for enlightenment, or nirvana, are of particular interest. Yoga is the choice for this exploration, because it’s grounded in self-realisation, mystical union, and the cessation of suffering, not… happiness.
That’s a direct challenge to dominating ideologies such as materialism and scientism. It challenges the notion of ailments as permanent or fixed. It turns our ambition of what’s possible upside down, suggesting that suffering is a pathway to awakening. Mental illness absorbed by this understanding is something to take incredibly seriously, because it suggests common recovery goals significantly downplay human potential.
The words I’m using — enlightenment, nirvana, liberation — are emotionally loaded. You’re forgiven for making yoga exotic, only accessible to a minority of sages, wishful thinking, a fabrication, placed in the bucket with other impossible things. But I’d like you to give it a chance. Or if you’re giving it a chance and feel disillusioned by a path not delivering its promise, to find the zeal to continue.
Yoga’s payoff is too monumental to overlook. I’ve grappled with mental illness for most of my adult life. I’ve felt left behind and excluded from spiritual circles, and left behind and excluded from “normal.” But after a decade of practice, I’ve marvelled at the life-changing fruits of yoga, and have some insight to how the path aligns, and how it falls short.
The desire for self-realisation is a potent elixir for awakening, as long as you don’t fixate on becoming self-realised as a way to escape present discomfort. Practices, such as meditation, aren’t magic solutions. Oneness doesn’t negate individuality, individual needs or bespoke approaches. There is a need for spiritual equity, for yoga to meet each unique individual at ground zero, to start from where you’re at — now.
The Philosophy of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras
Patanajali’s Yoga Sutras offer instruction for union with God, and the subsequent joy, contentment, and freedom of self-realisation. Thought to be written in the second century BCE, the sutras have roots in Samkhya philosophy and the Bhagavad Gita, both branches of Hinduism, and inspiration from Buddhism. If ever there was a practice that has been misconstrued, it’s yoga.
Physical postures (asanas) are a small percentage of the philosophy (one of eight limbs of yoga), although that percentage does look the best on Instagram. In Hinduism, the main paths of self-realisation are Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga, and Jnana Yoga: selfless service; devotion; controlling the mind; and knowledge. This exploration focuses on Raja Yoga, and the process of concentration.
Self-realisation is categorised into the direct path and the progressive path. The Yoga Sutras are progressive because they use spiritual practice to still the mind, to purify by removing the root of samskaras. Realisation is the result of discipline and dedication. Conversely, the direct path points, well, directly to the nature of being. Realisation is always a moment away:
“Why wait any longer? Why not simply awaken now? Why continue to play all these religious games, going through eons of so-called incarnations, trying to become free and liberated? Why not smile at yourself and say ‘I am that, I have always been that. All is well. There are no mistakes. I am in my right place.’ Why not accept this? Do not try to change the world or other people. Do not even try to change yourself, for it is most difficult to do. All you have to do is realise you are not the mind.”Robert Adams
Well? Why don’t you smile and say: I am that? This instruction is the “snap out of it” of spirituality. It’s not that straightforward for most, especially those who struggle with poor mental health. Such teachings are a half-truth. Realisation is possible in an instant. But attempting to follow Adams’ instruction with an unruly mind, and neglecting the half-truth of progress and preparation, will end in more confusion. Progressive paths emphasise obstacles blocking realisation and how to remove them, to clear up confusion along the way.
Purification of Mind
The Yoga Sutras are embedded in the nondual understanding that the Self (Atman) is indistinguishable from universal consciousness (Brahman). In Enlightenment, Maharishi Sadashiva Isham (MSI) translates the second sutra, yogas citta vrtti nirodhah, as “yoga is consciousness with its movements still.” Calming the mind’s incessant movement (vrittis) and cultivating stillness is the marriage of Atman and Brahman.
Our language is embedded with this intuitive understanding; we might say “my thoughts are racing” or “my head is spinning,” both metaphors for vrittis. Stilling these movements is the path of purification. Purity has negative connotations, but in Patanjali’s model, it is a state of consciousness, not a moral judgement. Impurities cloud our true nature by throwing us off centre.
Samskaras are integral to the purification process. They’re imprints that perpetuate suffering and create unconscious mechanisms. They include beliefs, patterns of thought, ideologies, memories, emotions, and physical sensations (usually, a complex network of all those attributes). They can be positive or negative, but regardless, liberation requires insight to these unconscious mechanisms, to break the cycle of cause and effect.
MSI is direct in his perspective of psychotherapy, claiming asayairs, deep imprints that fuel unconscious behaviour, are only overcome through stilling the mind, and that approaching them with the waking state consciousness is a “waste of time.” It’s true some forms of therapy circle around themselves and become self-indulgent, trapped in analysing content without removing imprints at their core. However, there are bridges between yoga and psychological work.
Carl Jung synthesised huge pools of knowledge, infusing psychology with religious qualities. The foundation of his philosophy was based on archetypes, which derives from the Greek archē, “beginning”, and typos, “imprint.” Podcast guest Leanne Whitney’s eloquent comparison, Consciousness in Patanjali and Jung, notes the close relationship between Patanjali’s description of vrittis and samskaras, and Jung’s idea of complexes:
“Jung and Patantjali both emphasize the activity or fluctuations of mind in relation to psychic imprints. Jung represented imprints as archetypes, primordial forms, that have a collective nature. In contrast, Patanjali represented imprints through samskaras, which are individual in nature in the sense they are linked to karma, the laws of cause and effect.”
Allowing the psyche’s intelligence to do its own work is a cornerstone in Jungian philosophy, and Jung’s notion of the unconscious, and ways to interpret its language, access psychic depth unparalleled by Western psychology. Dreamwork, for example, accesses material beyond waking state consciousness. The dual pathway Whitney outlines, purifying the mind (Patanjali) and engaging with and integrating content (Jung), is a synthesis of self-realisation and self-understanding, two parts of a whole.
Meditation and Subtle Thought Forms
I’m biased towards meditation, because concentration (Raja Yoga) was the catalyst for my biggest breakthroughs. I vouch for the remarkable difference between stilling the mind and approaching issues from the waking state. Without concentration, other paths of yoga are more challenging, which is why Raja, meaning royal, is seen as the “highest form.” Samadhi, a state of absorption, bliss, and union with the divine, is the result of concentration in meditation.
In the words of S. N. Goenka, the founder of one of the world’s biggest schools of meditation, the vipassana technique “will reveal the real meaning of each and every word of the yoga sutras to the practitioner.” Vipassana is the application of the philosophy, not intellectual entertainment. Rooted in Buddha’s teachings, vipassana is the practice of concentrating on subtler and subtler realms of experience.
“The meditator starts investigation from a superficial level at which gross, solidified truths appear,” Goenka writes. “But as one observes the apparent truth objectively, one starts penetrating from gross to subtler truths, and finally witnesses ultimate truth. This ultimate truth can be experienced only by exploring reality within oneself.” He adds:
“The meditator realises that the mind and mental contents are inextricably linked to the body. The mind is constantly in contact with the physical structure; whatever arises within has the base not of mind alone but also of body. This physical aspect of mental events is easily apparent when strong emotions or agitation arise, but it exists as part of every mental phenomenon. Even the slightest passing of thought manifests not in the mind alone but in the combined field of mind and matter; that is, it is accompanied by a sensation within the body.”
Labelling has a degree of usefulness, but can create self-fulfilling prophecies that obscure reality. When viewed as gross experiences, ailments such as depression or anxiety shine a light on samskaras and kick-start the journey of transformation. Cause and effect is magnified and becomes a vehicle of awareness. The label dissolves, revealing the subjective experience; sensations, associated thoughts, emotions, visualisations.
Meditation is sometimes misunderstood as trying to transcend sensation, or thoughts, in a way that becomes disembodied. Sure, meditation can be used as an escape. But when done correctly, meditations such as vipassana are embodiment practices; they’re ancient forms of somatic experiencing. Awareness is strengthened away from the hyper-stimulus and distraction of daily living, and, through mindfulness, transferred to the world.
Trauma, Samskaras, and Stillness
As Goenka notes, samskaras apply to the body and the mind, as the body is an extension of consciousness. Notice how, when a memory surfaces, it creates a symphony of sensation in the body? There’s an abundance of evidence for meditation improving physical health, and the link between suppressed emotions or trauma and psychosomatic ailments.
Rupert Spira, another leading nonduality teacher, describes trauma with a useful metaphor:
“[Trauma] is like the etchings in the sand that are not readily washed away by the tide. The drawings are etched deeply into the sand, and the waves have to pass over them many times before the etching disappears. So, meditation, and particularly yoga meditations, are the bathing of these etched traumas in the body-mind with the warm water of awareness.”
Spira explains how the finite mind exists within the collective mind, where traumas can be inherited ancestorially, culturally, and beyond. Eckhart Tolle might call this the pain body, others conditioned responses. Asayairs are a possible translation in the Yoga Sutras. This aligns with approaches such as Holotropic Breathwork, and perspectives held by trauma experts, such as Peter Levine and Gabor Maté.
Healing requires presence, acceptance, and equanimity; all qualities of meditation. But because meditation surfaces samskaras, it can be hazardous, especially for people with mental illness or trauma. Bathing in the warm water of awareness is appetising, suppressed contents spraying abruptly into consciousness like a burst sewage pipe, not so much. It’s overwhelming, even debilitating, and comes with a sense of urgency, as samskaras you’d rather flush away hit the spinning fan of mind.
Awareness of etchings in the sand of the psyche can be a wake-up call that the postcard is picturesque, but the terrain turbulent. In complex trauma, those etchings are labyrinths with gravitational force. Waves alone aren’t always enough; understanding the etching’s structure, formulation, and how they trigger associated thoughts and behaviour is needed. Therapy can support this process — if the therapist has spiritual insight.
The warm water of awareness isn’t always pronounced when difficult samskaras surface, but there are glimpses. Equanimity in the face of spraying sewage is disciplined work. That is momentary freedom, even if not transferred to the world, even if not maintained. In this state, attained deep in meditation, usual patterns of thinking become dormant (sesa), including the structures that make up identity. Labels such as trauma, depression, anxiety, also take respite:
“Diving into the ascendant coats one with bliss, intelligence, creativity and energy. This naturally changes the dominance of impressions — it reorders them, lessens the significance of painful ones and increases the significance of joyful ones. This inspires the individual to repeat the experience of Ascending.”MSI, Enlightenment
This isn’t a doctrine to believe or disbelieve. MSI points to yoga as a practice, to anchor into joyful moments of experiencing yourself free from all definitions, labels, oppressive thinking patterns. Witness how a still mind isn’t a void, but an abundant field with nourishing, self-healing qualities, union with the cosmic heart, when concentration transmutes thought to devotion. Although this dimension is always-present, strengthening its connection, cleaning up impurities, and making that space the primary quality of experience, is a moment-to-moment process.
Spiritual Equity and Freedom
“Patanjali’s practices remove, or aim to remove, the obstacles or objects that block the light of knowledge and pure consciousness. Cleaning the instrument is a matter of clearing out the objects of perception. Following Patanjali’s path, we use duality to transcend duality. We have to start where we are. Patanjali emphasised the importance of starting exactly where we are by opening his work with atha, now.”Leanne Whitney, consciousness in patanjali and jung
The practice is for everyone. The starting point isn’t the same for everyone. This is a crucial understanding to integrate mental illness and self-realisation. Spiritual equity is needed to respect each person’s unique path. Someone with ADHD is going to find it harder to concentrate in meditation. Someone experiencing depression will likely find cultivating joy more difficult. Someone with anxiety may struggle being present or engaging in community-based activities. Someone who experiences disassociation is unlikely to benefit from being told reality is a dream.
There’s light within the dark. Perhaps someone with ADHD understands the value of concentration, someone with depression the mind’s ability to influence mood, someone with anxiety how thoughts create fear, someone with dissociation how perception shapes reality. Afflictions can be catalysts for freedom, precisely because they illuminate the nature of suffering.
Whilst seeking freedom is a paradox, when directed towards union, yearning for freedom is necessary and encouraged by the scriptures. Advaita has a word, mumukshutva, to convey the burning desire for self-realisation. This desire carries you through the highs and lows, motivates you to develop the discipline to overcome the obstacles to self-realisation.
Yoga has given me the gift of freedom, beyond what I dreamed was possible. Let go of concepts of nirvana and everlasting peace, and open the door to liberation in the mundane. Nowhere is this more noticeable than recovering from mental illness, when things that used to restrict you no longer do. Start where you are. Beware of mini-prisons; the insecurities, self-consciousness, reactivity, and cultivate mumukshutva to overcome.
Celebrate liberation-along-the-way, simple acts like entering a crowded space without anxiety. Don’t try to meet other people’s criteria of freedom; walking in a crowded space without anxiety isn’t liberation to someone who’s never experienced anxiety in a crowded space. Define freedom for you, based on current restrictions. Start from ground zero. Start from now.
Deep grooves, imprinted over a lifetime, aren’t easily escaped. Waves will wash repeatedly, etchings will be slowly understood and embraced, before you wave goodbye to confines, awed by the softness of sand once mistaken for cement, waves of an ocean once mistaken for fiction, once mistaken as separate from you.