Between conceptual and non-conceptual knowing – Husserl and Patañjali

Introduction

Authors in the field of phenomenology often make passing glances or occasionally even directly reference certain teachings of the Eastern canon. In ‘The Idea of Phenomenology’ Edmund Husserl says that in his explication of a pure way of knowing based on intuition, we can be »reminded of the speech of the mystics when they describe the intellectual act of seeing that contains no discursive knowledge« (Husserl, 1964, p. 46-47). Eugen Fink claimed that »the various phases of Buddhistic self-discipline were essentially phases of phenomenological reduction« (Cairns, 1976, p. 50). And the Husserlian scholar Karl Schuhmann asserted Husserl viewed Buddhism not as »transcendent—not directed toward some deity who would dwell behind the world… but transcendental, i.e. it looks inward and assigns to subjectivity the constitutive principles of reality« (Schuhmann, 2004, p. 146).

In the more recent past, similarities between the phenomenological method and various meditative practices are also being illuminated, such as the yoga practice of prāṇāyāma (breath control; Morley, 2001), Samatha-Vipassanā meditation (Depraz, 2019), the practice of mindfulness (Bitbol, 2019), and preliminary research exploring the meditative experience of carrying out the phenomenological method of epoché from the first-person perspective (Lipič, 2020).

Following in the footsteps of these texts, this article delves into some similarities and differences between Husserl’s phenomenological method and the yogic system as presented in The Yoga Sūtra of Patañjali (henceforth: YS). First, I will introduce a few basic concepts put forward by Patañjali, focusing specifically on the last three stages of Patañjali’s yogāṅgas: dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (contemplation or meditation), and samādhi (absorption). Then I will sketch out the essential elements of Husserl’s phenomenological method, contrasting them with the concept nirodhaḥ and the stage of yogic meditation, samādhi, as presented in Patañjali’s text. I intend to point to a few convergences, while keeping in mind the two authors’ distinct motives and aims.

One distinguishing factor, which I will not delve into in this text, is the matter of soteriology. Pātañjali’s YS is a traditional Indian text, which means it encompasses both, religious and philosophical thought. While Husserl did have his share of interests in these traditions, even writing a short essay discussing Buddhism (Hanna, 1995), his texts are devoid of religious views. Conversely, in the YS, philosophical thought is intertwined with religious concepts, such as the concept of mokṣa or liberation from the continuous cycle of death and rebirth[1]In Sanskrit: saṃsāra..

Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras

Patañjali, first mentioned in the period between first century BCE and fourth century CE, is the name of the author/compiler of 195 short aphorisms or sūtras[2]The sūtra, which literally means »thread« in Sanskrit, is a very condensed line of argumentation or text consisting of a specific topic and was a very common format of writing among philosophers … Continue reading.

The YS is divided into four books; book one (Samādhi Pāda) describes the theory of yoga and the attainment of samādhi; book two (Sādhana Pāda) treats the practice and discipline of yoga; book three (Vibhūtipāda) deals with the super-natural abilities a practitioner of yoga can develop; and book four (Kaivalya Pāda) deals with »isolation«, meaning liberation from rebirth (the goal of the yogic practice; Iyengar, 2002).

In this text I will be referring to book two when describing the yogic practice and specifically focus on book one and three in the discussion. In what follows, I will sketch out the eight-step yogic system, focusing in particular on the last three stages.

Patañjali (YS, II-29[3]Throughout the text, I refer to the Yoga Sūtras by first listing the book number in Roman numerals,  then the sūtra number in Arabic numerals.) defined yoga as having eight limbs or parts of practice (aṣṭāṅga): yama (abstinences), niyama (observances), asana (yoga postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dhāraṇā (concentration), dhyāna (meditation, contemplation) and samādhi (absorption).

The first five limbs are preparatory and begin the yogic journey on a path of concentration and meditation. They are mainly oriented around specific physical and mental practices. The next two stages in the eight-step yoga practice of Patañjali are the dhāraṇā and the dhyāna. I will look at these two in more detail below and then focus on the final stage, which is the realization of samādhi or »absorption«.

Dhāraṇā

The natural mind is a mind-wandering mind. In everyday life, our mind is constantly in flux, shifting from one object to another, from one thought to another, from one project to next. The purpose of dhāraṇā is to calm this monkey-mind by concentrating (focusing with effort). For Patañjali, it takes the shape of enclosing »the mind’s fixation on a particular point in space« (YS III-1; in Hariharananda, 1983, p. 249). It »consists in holding or fixing the mind on the navel circle, or on the lotus of the heart, or on the effulgent center of the head, or on the tip of the nose or of the tongue, or on such like spots in the body, or on any external object, by means of the modifications of the mind« (ibid.).

The yogi’s practice is to keep the attention fixed on the chosen object for longer periods of time. Should the yogi notice that her attention has shifted from the object of consideration to something else, she quickly and gently brings the attention back to the object she was engaged in. The success or failure of performance of the dhāraṇā is determined by the prevalence of the attention shifting from the chosen object to something else and back again. The less the mind wanders, the better the dhāraṇā.

Dhyāna

Dhyāna is meditation or contemplation, defined by Patañjali as the »continuous flow of similar mental modifications« (YS III-2; in Hariharananda, 1983, p. 251). It is the uninterrupted flow of the mind in relation to the object of meditation. Attention undergoes a transformation in the state of dhyāna, characterized by the yogi’s ability to keep a steady mind and maintain an uninterrupted connection between the mind and the chosen object of meditation.

In Yogic terms »dhyāna has nothing to do with the object meditated upon. It is a particular state of calmness of the mind and can be applied to any object of meditation. If flow of knowledge in dhāraṇā may be compared to succession of similar drops of water, in dhyāna the flow of knowledge is continuous like flow of oil or honey. That is the implication of the word `continuous’. When knowledge is continuous it appears as though a single idea is present in the mind« (ibid.).

It is important to point out, the mind is not completely still. Within the content of the mind being on one particular object, the mind moves from one aspect to another. For example, one could be focusing on the flame of a candle, which would be the chosen object for meditation and the content of the mind of the yogi at the time of performing dhyāna. Yet there would still be shifts that occur within the scope of that content, as the yogi would be directing her attention to various aspects and distinct qualities of the object she is meditating on.

Similarly, to the practice of dhāraṇā, the success of dhyāna is determined by keeping one’s attention completely settled on the object of contemplation. The main difference is that the state of dhāraṇā is characterized by discrete and changing moments of focused attention, while dhyana is a continuous stream of uninterrupted focus.

Samādhi

As the yogi moves from dhāraṇā to dhyāna, her self-awareness becomes weaker and the density of awareness of the object becomes stronger, reaching its peak in samādhi, an intimate acquaintance with the essence of the object, wherein the mind reflects only the object and does not undergo any other changes. This state can be understood as the stopping-point of our formation, of our »making of the world«, based on the intention to do so. It is a complete absorption and union with the object. Patañjali depicts it as follows: »when the object of meditation only shines forth in the mind, as though devoid of the thought of even the self (who is meditating)« (YS III-3; in Hariharananda, 1983, p. 252).

What distinguishes this state from dhāraṇā and dhyāna is that in samādhi, while regarding the object, the yogi has no awareness of herself. In other words, during samādhi, the only thing in awareness is the object itself, without an observer or a regarding of the object.

As Sinari (1965, p. 225) points out, the self-awareness of the yogi drifts away and the object is illuminated in its primordiality: »[Samādhi is] an ontological realization of the most primordial essences of objects, which, in a sense, are not fully describable. It gives us an access to that point of consciousness at which an object reveals itself “in itself”, in its true being, and becomes absolutely transparent to the knowing faculty«.

The objective of samādhi is to perceive and recognize the world through an »absolute subjectivity« that cannot be regarded reflectively. As long as the sense of one’s self persists the mind is experienced as a stream of various states. But when the self-sense is abandoned, what is realized is »the possession of “pure,” “seedless,” “undifferentiated,” “transcendental,” “non-attached” consciousness« (ibid.).

To better understand what is meant, let’s look at an example of this type of experience. In Ataria, Dor-Ziderman and Berkovich-Ohana (2015), S, a long-term mindfulness meditator describes an experience of dissolving into empty space: »I dissolve into the world and where you have the boundaries and the self as foreground and the world as background or as ground, here there isn’t a ground, there isn’t a foreground, in a way the background is everything, although not identical to the world, I’m not separate from background« (ibid., p. 141).

In the experience, the distinct structure of form-background disappears altogether, it feels as though the world is no longer contained, and S feels »totally immersed within it – the background is everything« (ibid.).

S’s report demonstrates the experience of samādhi as a lack of a graspable form one could contrast against the primordial background. The mind’s reflective awareness of itself ceases and a fusion of dualities occurs, so that »there are no longer two things here; there is only one, pure consciousness, which is not an object. At this point the structure of consciousness and that of the object coincide« (Puligandla, 1970, p. 24).

Yet, this is not the end, as a human being continues to be a human being with a body and has to come back to day-to-day living with the experience of »having« a mind, memory, senses etc. Our embodiment calls us back to the humdrum of life with all its fluctuations, even if they have been reduced considerably in the state of samādhi.

Nirodhaḥ and samādhi in dialogue with the phenomenological method

In the past, a few authors have focused on a philosophical comparison of Patañjali’s yoga system and Husserl’s method of phenomenological reduction, elucidating the similarities and differences between the two systems. They argued that Patañjali’s account might even provide a more precise process for performing the phenomenological method of epoché and provide insights into the phenomenological reductions (Puligandla, 1970; Sinari, 1965; Sander, 2015). In what follows, I will present and build upon some of their claims, focusing on a) the act of cessation – nirodhaḥ and epoché and b) samādhi and some essential elements of Husserl’s phenomenological method.

Cessation – nirodhaḥ and epoché

In Ideas I, Husserl (2012) introduces the concept of the natural attitude, defining it as our everyday embeddedness in the world, while assuming that the world exists independent of our conscious awareness. In this attitude we take the world as always already present, prior to any reflection, and engage with it on the basis of our presuppositions, values, judgments, and opinions about it. In order to become aware of and surmount our everyday embeddedness in the natural attitude, we must bracket our presuppositions, values, judgments and opinions about the world. To do this, we have to employ a particular gesture of cessation or suspension – the epoché.

The concept of epoché shows remarkable similarity to the Sanskrit word nirodhaḥ, meaning »cessation«, »restraint« or »suspension«, which is contained within one of the most famous definitional opening sūtras of YS: »yogaś citta-vritti-nirodhaḥ«, translated as »yoga is the suppression of the modifications of the mind« or »yoga is the cessation of fluctuations/patterns of consciousness« (YS I-2; in Hariharananda, 1983, p. 6) and »tadā draṣṭuḥ svarūpe-‘vasthānam«, translated as follows: »then the seer abides in herself« (YS I-3; ibid., p. 11). »The suppression of the fluctuations means keeping the mind fixed on any particular desired object, i.e. acquiring by practice the power of holding the mind undisturbed in the contemplation of any particular object« (ibid, p. 7).

Husserl and the yogic practitioners seem to be in agreement on the point that the knowledge of the »pre-natural« realm cannot be found through day-to-day living and sense-making of our experience. The phenomenological epoché can reach towards the pre-reflective dimensions of our judgments and beliefs based on which we orient and direct ourselves in the world. This reaching towards and becoming acquainted with the pre-reflective »then radically neutralizes the tacit belief in a real external world, which is typical of the “natural” ontological attitude« (Husserl, 1972, p. 171; in Bitbol, 2017).

Patañjali (YS I-49; in Hariharananda, 1983, p. 106) claims a similar point, saying that knowledge acquired by the primordial realm »is different from that derived from testimony or through inference, because it [the knowledge based on inference or testimony] relates to particulars (of objects)«. Furthermore, »a thing which is subtle, hidden from view or situated at a distance, cannot be known by ordinary observation« (Hariharananda, 1983, p. 107).

Both, Husserl and Patañjali, assert that such intuitive knowing of any object can only be accessed by first suspending the natural mode of being in the world, which opens the door to primordiality. In the phenomenological tradition, this new mode of attending is achieved through the phenomenological epoché and in the case of Patañjali’s yoga system by the āṅgas (i.e. the eight limbs of yoga described above). It is important to repeat that before a practitioner can come to know the world as it presents itself to her, she has to go through the last three stages of meditation: dhāraṇā, dhyāna and samādhi.

Thus, released from all types of judgments, beliefs, emotions, theories, desires etc., the practitioner can begin to come into a mode of being, wherein she is fully attentively directed towards any object of consideration and later on, completely absorbed (with)in it (in the state of samādhi).

In this state of absorbed beingness thought is completely stilled and the seer can come to know the world as it presents itself to her. Only in this type of meditative regard, which is a balance between focus and openness, can one begin the journey towards beholding the objects in their primordial essence. We will take a closer look at this process below.

Absorption – samādhi and immediate seeing

As we have seen in the previous section, nirodhaḥ does not mean a complete cessation of the disturbances or »ripples« (Sanskrit: vṛtti) in the content of mental awareness. In the practice of dhyāna there is already an uninterrupted focus of the mind on a single object (YS III-2). While this stillness of the mind is necessary for the realization of samādhi, another form of activity must cease as well, in order for samādhi to be able to occur. This is the emptying of the mind, so that it becomes absent of reflective consciousness, i.e. »forgetting that ‘I am knowing’« (Hariharananda, 1983, p. 96).

Here the point of dissonance with Husserl emerges, as the act of intentional directedness of the practitioner towards the object of contemplation is, for Patañjali, yet another diversion. It »prevents the subject from seeing the essence of the object, and that distraction is the subject’s awareness of herself. This awareness stands between herself and the object, no matter how thinly, and prevents the object from being grasped in its primordiality« (Puligandla, 1970, p. 24).

Both authors maintain that cessation opens us to a more expansive realm of consciousness. Yet while Husserl remains at the phase of bringing our own acts of intentional directedness to our notice, the »so-called “noematic” forms by which the activity of defining and classifying objects is achieved« (Bitbol, 2017, p. 344), Patañjali’s aspirations go a step further by also suspending these acts of intentional directedness. In other words, in the act of intense concentration, the usually more or less independent notions of »I am the knower« or »I am knowing« are wiped out.

While Husserl is indeed interested in the primordial nature of objects and similarly argues that such intuitive knowing can be grasped in the sense of immediate seeing of objects in their primordiality, there is a stark difference in the intuitive knowing of the yogi, which is non-conceptual in nature and as such cannot be confirmed or verified though conceptual schemas and categorizations, and the knowledge established by Husserl, which attempts to explicate the transcendental realm, yet at some point still remains within the world of concepts and categories.

As Puligandla (1970, p. 30) puts it, »he [Husserl] could never bring himself to […] a point where, with the collapse of the noesis and noema into a unity, the doctrine of the intentionality of consciousness itself breaks down; for here, with the onset of transcendental subjectivity, it would no longer be possible to talk about consciousness on the one hand and its intentionality on the other. Except for occasional references in his later writings, Husserl did not push reductions to this point«. Sinari (1965) has called this collapse of the noesis and noema into a unity the zero limit as it goes beyond reflective apprehension, into the pre-reflective domain, which cannot be grasped.

Conclusion

In this text I have shown that Husserl and Patañjali are turned in a similar direction – towards the structures of consciousness and the acts of elucidating them. We find two different, but interconnected types of inquiries. As Miller (1996, p. ix) points out, Patañjali »seeks a new perspective on the nature of knowing«, which could just as easily be applied to Husserl (Sander, 2015).

Yet, while Husserl is focused mainly on attending to the intentional threads with which we regard the world, Patañjali puts forward a direction, which leads to the cessation of these very intentional threads. One point of parting is the fact that the aim of the yogic meditation is an ontological realization. What we are dealing with in the world of the yogi is the world beyond differentiations. The more profound the practice of meditation, the more the feelings of separateness fold in on themselves, becoming more and more undifferentiated, until there is only the experience of unity with the object, complete absorption. It becomes impossible to distinguish between inner and outer, self and other, as well as self and world.

Another point of parting is that reflection is an essential property of Husserl’s phenomenological method. Only as we »come back« to our (bodily) selves from the primordial and enter the dimension of separateness again, can we begin to recognize the experiential realm as discrete and unified.

If we endeavor to venture down the path suggested by Sinari (1965), Puligandla (1970), and Sander (2015), namely that Patañjali’s practice might provide insights for the phenomenological method, it is important to keep in mind the constraints of both practices, their aim, as well as their conceptual and non-conceptual reach. If this is carefully considered, Patañjali’s framework could just as well contribute to a more thorough approach to the exploration of lived experience.

References

Ataria, Y., Dor-Ziderman, Y., & Berkovich-Ohana, A. (2015). How does it feel to lack a sense of boundaries? A case study of a long-term mindfulness meditator. Consciousness and Cognition, 37, 133-147.

Cairns, D. (1976). Conversations with Husserl and Fink. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Bitbol, M. (2017). Beyond Panpsychism: the radicality of phenomenology. In Self, Culture and Consciousness (p. 337-356). Springer, Singapore.

Bitbol, M. (2019). Consciousness, Being and Life: phenomenological approaches to mindfulness. Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 50(2), 127-161.

Depraz, N. (2019). Epoché in Light of Samatha-Vipassana Meditation: Chögyam Trungpa’s Buddhist Teaching Facing Husserl’s Phenomenology. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 26(7-8), 49-69.

Hanna, F. J. (1995). Husserl on the teachings of the Buddha. The Humanistic Psychologist, 23(3), 365-372.

Hariharananda, S. A. (1983). Yoga philosophy of Patañjali: Containing his yoga aphorisms with Vyasa’s commentary in Sanskrit and a translation with annotations including many suggestions for the practice of yoga. SUNY Press.

Husserl, E. (1964). The Idea of Phenomenology. The Hague: Nijhoff.

Iyengar, B. K. S. (2002). Light on the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. HarperCollins UK

Lipič, V. (2020). Being in Brackets: A First-Person Exploration of the Phenomenological Method Epoché. In: Cognitive Science: Proceedings of the 23rd International Multiconference (p. 34-37). IS 2020.

Miller, B. (1996). Yoga: Discipline of Freedom. University of California Press.

Morley, J. (2001). Inspiration and expiration: Yoga practice through Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of the body. Philosophy east and west, 73-82.

Puligandla, R. (1970). Phenomenological reduction and yogic meditation. Philosophy East & West, 20(1), 19-33.

Raveh, D. (2012). Exploring the Yogasūtra: Philosophy and Translation. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Sander, A. (2015). Phenomenological reduction and yogic meditation: commonalities and divergencies. Journal of East-West Thought, 29-60.

Schuhmann, K. (2004). Karl Schuhmann, selected papers on phenomenology (Vol. 255). Springer.

Sinari, R. (1965). The method of phenomenological reduction and yoga. Philosophy East A West, 75(3-4), 217-28.

References

1 In Sanskrit: saṃsāra.
2 The sūtra, which literally means »thread« in Sanskrit, is a very condensed line of argumentation or text consisting of a specific topic and was a very common format of writing among philosophers in ancient and medieval India.
3 Throughout the text, I refer to the Yoga Sūtras by first listing the book number in Roman numerals,  then the sūtra number in Arabic numerals.

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