The first Vital Principle

by | Jun 19, 2021

1. The first Vital Principle: The meditative state of mind or the ‘not-doing’ of meditation

The first of the Eight Vital Principles is the meditative state of mind or the not-doing of meditation. It is the state of mind of inner silence, the matrix on which everything else rests, as well as the glue that holds everything else together. It is not a state of mind that comes at the end of all the other practices as a ‘reward’, but it is the departure point for whatever comes afterwards. Without the meditative state of mind the other principles lose their deeper meaning.

The meditative state of mind is not the same as meditation.

Meditation is something that you ‘do’, and involves being in a certain place for a certain amount of time and usually in a certain posture. It is an ‘activity’.

The meditative state of mind is not bound to location, activity, posture or time. It is not something that you do, but something that you are.

There are many schools that teach meditation as a technique for achieving something. In these techniques there is concentration, exclusion, practice and the passage of time, with a goal at the end. The meditative state of mind is not a technique. It is a state of being. There is nothing to be gained.

In Patanjali’s yoga sutras the first three sutras are:

  1. ‘Atha yoganushasanam’, which means ‘now we will talk about yoga’.
  2. ‘Yogas citta vritti nirodhah’.
  3. ‘Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam’, which means ‘then the Seer stands alone’.

We need to remember that Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, so we need to dig in to find the Latin-European words.

Taking the second sutra, we find some interesting words. Vritti is a word that comes back over and over in the asanas: pari-vritta trikonasana, pari-vritta sirsasana, and so forth. Where do we find this in the Latin-European language? In Italian we have the word ‘ruota’, which means ‘wheel’. In English we have the word ‘vortex’, in German ‘rad’, meaning ‘wheel’. So ‘vritta’ is a wheel, something round that rotates. ‘Ni’ is always a negation, and then we have again ‘rodhah’, back to the vortex, the ‘rodeo’, the rotation.

Thus we can read the second sutra: “Yoga is when the rotations (vritti) of the mind (citta) stop rotating (nirodhah).

Then comes the real McCoy: ‘Tada drashtuh svarupe avasthanam ’: Then the Seer stands in its own form, alone.:

  • tada = then, at that time
  • drashtuh = the seer ( from the root drsh, which means to see. It is interesting to note that Patanjali is not trying to define who is the Seer, or the nature of that Seer. This is left to be answered by direct experience.)
  • svarupe = in its own form; (sva = own; rupa = form)
  • avasthanam = resting, standing. The root stha means to stand

Later on he states that when this happens, when the mind is still and only observing, it is like a quiet lake reflecting only that which is there. He does not say that this is done at a certain time in a certain place and in a certain posture. It simply is, everywhere and at all times. That is the meditative state of mind. It is, what Patanjali calls the Seer.

We always look at things, at the world and ourselves, ‘re-cognizing’ the world and ourselves. We are the observer, and the world is the observed, and in-between stands the act of observation.

And if we take away the observer and the observed? What remains?.

Only the act of observation, without the observer and without the observed.

This is the meditative state of mind.

Let us say I look at a tree. There are two ways of looking. One is looking, and the other one is seeing. They are two entirely different things.

By looking at the tree I ‘harm’ the tree.


Because I ‘know’ what it is, I ‘re-cognize’ it. I have seen millions of trees in the past, I know one when I see one.

By ‘re-cognizing’ the tree, which means ‘again knowing’ the tree (from Latin: ‘recognoscere’ recall to mind, know again (re- “again” + cognoscere “to get to know), in reality I do not see the actual tree in front of me, as I am busy dipping into my memory of all the trees I have seen in the past, of naming it a tree, of ‘liking’ it or ‘not liking’ it.

So the poor tree is left by itself, in all its glory, without an observer, while I am naming it and comparing it to other trees I have seen in the past, ‘re-cognizing’ it.

We do the same to people, to everything. We never see things as they are at this moment. We only see the memory of those things, the accumulated ideas that we have about those things, the likes or dislikes. In other words, we see everything through the screen of words.

Panta Rhei’ in ancient Greek means ‘everything flows’. The term is known as part of the philosophy of Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher of the late 6th century BC. He said “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” We and everything else are in Constant Motion (panta rhei) , constant change, or rather, everything is constantly created from moment to moment.

With this Heraclitus means that we can never have the same experience twice, as everything is subject to continuous and relentless mutation, changing, flowing, flowing on and on and on…..

What has it to do with the tree? The tree in front of me I have never seen in my life before. Impossible. The tree, from millisecond to millisecond changes, a leaf turns this way, a branch moves, nothing is staying the way it is: pantha rhei, but by thinking about it, naming it, seeing my memory, I do not see the tree as it is now, as it is unfolding….I only see the past, never what is in the actual moment NOW. Let us say my mind is full of vrittis, of words and descriptions..

That is what we call lookingLooking is ‘killing’ the tree with our memories, our ideas, our likes and dislikes..

Another way is seeing. In seeing the mind has never seen the object in front of it before. It is the eye free of memory, of judgment and of language.

So seeing is when you look at something and do not recognize it, do not compare it to something you have seen in the past. Which does not mean that your mind is a blank. On the contrary, it is extremely alive, aware, paying total attention to what is in front, but without spoiling it, without comparing it with something else, without corrupting it

This is called the meditative state of mind or total attention.

How do we apply this in our yoga practice.

In the meditative state of mind or total attention the mind is completely occupied with the movement of the moment. As the Zen Buddhist says: ‘When you eat, eat, when you sleep, sleep’. There are no thoughts or distractions.

It is the mind that does something for the first time, even though it has done it a thousand times before in the past.

What does this mean?.

Every movement that you do is the first time you are doing it, every asana you do is the first time you are ever doing it. There is no referring to other times in the past that you did this movement, this asana, there is no ’re-cognizing’. ‘Re-cognizing’ means to again know, so it refers to the past, when you ‘knew’ this movement.

Instead in the meditative state of mind you do the movement, the asana, as if it is the first time you are doing it, and therefore the mind is free, fresh, innocent, curious.

With the mind in this way, innocent and free, the physical exercise, the asana, becomes a meditation in action.

Only in this state of mind can learning take place.

In a video in the section ‘video’ of this web site I have explained that learning is not an accumulation of ‘knowledge’, but a ‘catastrophic’ breaking with the past, in which everything you do and see is completely new, never seen or done before. It is that break between the past and the future where the new can happen, where learning takes pace, after which you are no longer the same.