Five Whirlpools: Yoga Sutra 1.6

Pramana viparyaya vikalpa nidra smrtayah*


Sutra 1.6 lists off what was introduced in 1.5: the five vritti (modifications of the mind-stuff or mental disturbances of consciousness) fit into five categories.

I want to come back to the word vritti from the last sutra. It translates literally as “whirlpool”. Again and again in the literature, the mind is compared to a lake reflecting reality. The smoother the surface is, the more pure the reflection. By analogy, the vritti ruffle the surface with eddies, making it harder to understand ourselves and our place in the universe at any given moment in our brief lives.

So, how does the mind work? What are these (oft intersecting) ripples?

Pramana = right knowledge (direct perception, evidence of the senses)

Viparyaya = misperception

Vikalpa = imagination or fantasy

Nidra= sleep

Smrtayah = memory

So you can see by this list, vritti  are neither “good” nor “bad”. We’re not seeking to utterly banish them. We don’t get impatient at ripples on a pool. We don’t go out there and purge the lake of fish and ducks or curse the breeze so we can enjoy a more glassy surface. What we do though, is appreciate when the conditions do allow for a smooth mirror.

1. We start off with pramana or the correct and direct perception, via the senses, of the world. We might be tempted to label that a “good” thing, but then that would depend on what is being perceived. What if you see a double fudge dessert? (Mmm, good) Only you cannot have it (boo!). Or you find a worm in it (ew, bad). Maybe you are correctly witnessing violence,  say a person kicking a dog, that would be “bad”, right? But if the police come and arrest the kicker, it’s now a “good” thing? How about if the dog bites back? Are you moved to intervene? If not, does guilt or fear enter the mind? What if you rescue the dog and end up with a life-long companion? The ripples of correct knowledge can become tsunamis. The perception itself is neutral. Our reaction can either exacerbate or calm the initial impression of the sense. If emotions get involved, right knowledge can roll into a tidal wave.

2. Next is viparyaya, “misperception” or “wrong knowledge”. Our five sense are fallible. And here, neither bad not good. We tend to think of mistakes as “bad”, but as we read in Sutra 1.5, “bad” and “good” are not useful in classifying vritti. They are either painful or painless. If I think the food I’m eating is dairy-free, my guts will let me know sooner or later, in a painful manner. Conversely, if I think I hear larks during my walk and it soothes me, it doesn’t matter if I’m actually hearing someone’s radio.

3. Then we have vikalpa: imagination or fantasy. We tend to regard imagination as a positive. However, anyone with a young child might understand how the imagination doesn’t always produce “painless” thoughts–like when it’s 4AM and all the shadows twist into acid-drooling zombie alpacas. The imagination of vikalpa is not all monsters and fairy creatures. Vikalpa can also work with viparyaya (#2) to create jealousy, as we might perceive a peer as having it all and imagine her life as glorious perfection (FYI: glorious perfection is always a viparyaya–don’t fall for it.) or paranoid fantasies.

4. Nidra is sleep. Sleep? We need sleep. We’re not going to rid ourselves of the need to sleep. There’s no point. It’s a physical need, it’s part of our experience as material beings. Nothing would seem more neutral than sleep–at least until we don’t get enough or get too much.

5. It doesn’t take much effort to recognize how Smrtayah, or “memory”, can produce painful or painless thoughts (or both simultaneously). Memories of a bad break-up may bring so much pain that they interfere with the potential for new love. Or that same memory might make one more deeply appreciate one’s current relationships.

These various “whirlpools” behave like ripples on water in that they are not mutually exclusive. They can and do intersect, intensifying or nullifying some of the effects on the mind. Dreams, for example, distill sleep and whirl it together with memory and fantasy.

The sutras start with a focus on the ripples of the mind so that we can recognize them for what they are. We are not our thoughts, at least not entirely. We have thoughts. They are wonderful, intense, fickle, dismissive, but they are not the whole of who we are. If we learn the quality and behavior of the ripples, the better we can navigate them and find our way to the harbor of our genuine selves.

The next several sutras go into more detail with each type of vritti.


*This article is part of a series of commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, a classical text compiling yogic wisdom. Claims date the writing anywhere from 5000 BCE to 300 CE. It is often regarded as a core text of yogic philosophy.



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