The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali and The Cloud of Unknowing: A Preliminary Step in Assessing the Ontological Accuracy of the Mystical Experience (1996)
Proponents of mysticism sometimes offer the alleged uniformity of mystical experiences across time, distance, and culture as evidence of the epistemological value of the insights into reality one supposedly acquires from having such an experience. Obviously, to assess the claim to its fullest extent would require a thorough examination of all representative mystical texts – far beyond the scope of a single paper – and a detailed consideration of several epistemological issues regarding criteria of evidence and parsimony. However, a preliminary step towards full assessment can be made through consideration of two representative mystical texts from as radically different cultural contexts as can be found, and a survey of some of the epistemological issues involved in assessing what kind of evidence, if any, they offer for the ontological accuracy of the mystical experience. This paper will attempt to offer just such a preliminary analysis.
The first text I will consider is a collection of yoga sutras, or, literally, "aphorisms concerning union." There is more than one collection of yoga sutras; however, the aphorisms I will consider in this paper are those collectively ascribed to the authorship of Patanjali (about whom very little is known – including whether or not he was actually a single author!). This collection, henceforth to be referred to simply as "the Yoga-Sutras," may have been written anywhere between 4 B.C.E. and 4 C.E. (Isherwood, 1981, 7), and came directly out of a cultural backdrop of Hinduism. As can perhaps be inferred immediately from the literal meaning of the phrase "yoga sutra," the Yoga-Sutras comprise a representative Eastern mystical text.
The second text I will consider is The Cloud of Unknowing. The Cloud of Unknowing was written by an anonymous late-fourteenth century Englishman who was "a thoroughgoing medieval, steeped in the spirit of his time and imbued with its tradition" (Johnston, 1973, 29), a tradition that included not only orthodox Christianity, but "a great current of medieval spirituality" that generated such mystical luminaries as Meister Eckhart and Thomas à Kempis (Johnston, 1973, 29-30). Elements in The Cloud of Unknowing come directly from earlier mystical works, and surface in later ones, making The Cloud of Unknowing a representative Western mystical text in a long chain (or, more accurately, "a tall tree" since it is not simple to tell the exact genealogical relationships between the Western texts) extending from Dionysius to St. John of the Cross. As such, it is a useful text to use in a comparison with the texts of Eastern mysticism, to see whether significant correlations between East and West exist.
Specifically, this paper will attempt to do three things: (1) compare the metaphysics of mystical union as described in each text, (2) compare the methods advocated for attaining the union as described in each text, (3) consider several hypotheses concerning mysticism and how well they fit with the data gleaned from the comparison.
I. The Metaphysics of the Mystical Union
1. The Metaphysics of the Mystical Union in the Yoga-Sutras: The objective of the Yoga-Sutras is to instruct the reader in the art of yoga, the objective of which is the attaining of a state called nirivikalpa samadhi. This state is described by commentators as "pure, undifferentiated consciousness" which "contains no phenomenal impressions whatever, no seeds of desire and attachment" (Isherwood, 1981, 89). At first, this seems to be quite a strange objective – a state in which the mind contains "no phenomenal impressions whatever," sounds suspiciously like unconsciousness. However, nirivikalpa samadhi is supposed to be quite different from mere unconsciousness; when one is unconscious, so the story goes, one’s consciousness is inactive – everything goes blank when one sustains a concussion, because his consciousness ceases to do anything. But in nirivikalpa samadhi, the consciousness is still present, and still active – the catch is that it is empty of all contents.
One might, of course, wonder what is supposed to be so mystical about nirivikalpa samadhi – if it is, in fact, possible to empty one’s consciousness of all contents, couldn’t this be done in a purely materialistic world? Certainly it could be done, but if the world is materialistic, then emptying the mind is not nirivikalpa samadhi, because true nirivikalpa samadhi is defined in part by distinctly non-naturalistic effects that accompany it. To elucidate, the Yoga-Sutras describe yoga as a means "by which an individual may become united with the Godhead, the Reality which underlies this apparent, ephemeral universe" (Isherwood, 1981, 15). And indeed, the Godhead – also referred to as Brahman – is itself noted to be "pure, undifferentiated consciousness" (Isherwood, 1981, 90). So nirivikalpa samadhi is nothing less than union with the divine basis underlying reality, and yoga is nothing less than the process by which one attains this union. Should a practitioner of yoga be successful, her individual identity will vanish (at least so long as the state of union persists) – "in nirivikalpa samadhi, you are no longer yourself, you are literally one with Brahman, you enter into the real nature of the apparent universe and all its forms and creatures" (Isherwood, 1981, 90). Obviously, such a union could not happen in a materialistic world.
It is difficult to find a good analogy to describe the type of total union described in the Yoga-Sutras, but perhaps the closest picture to the union is the picture of two waves merging – when we add two waves together, thereby combining them into a new wave, they two old initial waves are unified to the point where it does not even make sense to ask where in the new wave each of the initial waves are. Just as the two waves lose their individual identities, so does the distinction between the practitioner of yoga and Brahman cease to exist in nirivikalpa samadhi.
To Patanjali, nirivikalpa samadhi is the highest and happiest state one can aspire to, as it frees one from the otherwise endless cycle of pleasure and pain, acquisition and bereavement, that one goes through when he identifies himself with his own individual consciousness as manifested in the world of Pakriti, or matter (Isherwood, 1981, 125-130). Furthermore, when one becomes unified with Brahman, he is returning to state that can be said to be more real than his prior state, in which he took himself to be a distinct individual. Brahman is, after all, reality in its most fundamental form – everything else, individual consciousness, Pakriti, and whatever, comes from Brahman, and always remains, in its deepest nature, Brahman. As another quasi-geometrical analogy, we can think of Brahman as a line, which buckles into wave form, where high peaks of the wave are Pakriti and individual consciousnesses – nirivikalpa samadhi is like flattening out the peak which constitutes one’s individual mind, and blending Brahman in one form into Brahman in its original form.
2. The Metaphysics of the Mystical Union in The Cloud of Unknowing: The full title of The Cloud of Unknowing is A Book on Contemplation called The Cloud of Unknowing which is about that cloud within one is united to God. This extended title captures the mostimportant subjects the book discusses – contemplation, unknowing, and union with God. The Cloud of Unknowing is designed to instruct its readers on how to attain union with God through single-minded contemplation. "Unknowing," in the text, seems to have a somewhat ironic double-meaning. On the one hand, there is the explicit use of the word in the actual phrase "cloud of unknowing" which is a barrier separating an ineffable God from man’s attempts to understand and participate in Him through direct thought – "a darkness of unknowing that lies between you and your God" (Johnston, 1973, 53). On the other hand, unknowing can be take as the core element of the method of contemplation itself, which is supposed to unify man with God – it is only through forgetting everything, indeed to the point that one becomes unaware of one’s own existence, that one becomes unified with God in the "highest and final manner of living which [is] called Perfect" (Johnston, 1973, 46), the manner of living in which one "turns to God with a burning desire for himself alone and rests in the blind awareness of his naked being" (Johnston, 1973, 59). The author of The Cloud of Unknowing uses the term "cloud of forgetting" (Johnston, 1973, 53) to capture this unawareness of selfhood one reaches through contemplation, perhaps in an attempt to try to maintain a distinction between the two types of unknowing.
The union one attains through proper contemplation is apparently not a total union, in which the individual identity of the seeker is lost – it is more like the marriage of man and woman, in which the two become unified in some sense, while nevertheless retaining their individuality. Yet marriage is not a perfect metaphor for the union The Cloud of Unknowing attempts to guide one to; although the seeker and God retain their separate identities, the seeker, once unified with God, no longer has the ability to realize this – in fact, the seeker becomes completely unaware of his own existence, becoming so enthralled with his contact with the divine that every fiber of his conscious being participates fully in the contemplation of God, leaving no room for awareness of self.
This exact kind of self-negation without destroying oneself – the state in which all that one is conscious of is God, is taken by the author of The Cloud of Unknowing to be the path to ultimate goodness and happiness. In the first place, as Christians tend to do, the author defines the good in terms of accordance with and service to God:
Genuine goodness is a matter of habitually acting and responding appropriately in each situation, as it arises, moved always by the desire to please God. He alone is the source of all goodness and if a person is motivated by anything else besides God, even though God is first, then his virtue is imperfect. (Johnston, 1973, 64)
But there is more of a benefit to the contemplator than just acting in accordance with that which is good and right – he is also freed from the greatest sorrow at all, namely, knowledge of his own existence. The author cannot seem to underscore the intrinsic benefit of this enough – "Every man has plenty of cause for sorrow but he alone understands the deep universal reason for sorrow who understands that he is" (Johnston, 1973, 103). So not only is knowledge of one’s existence the greatest sorrow, it is the universal basis of all sorrow. And it is the basis of sorrow for one reason – because it interferes with man’s ability to know and feel God (Johnston, 1973, 104), which is all the truly spiritual man wishes to do.
3. Comparison: At first glance, there appear to be significant correspondences between the metaphysics of union as described in the two texts. There are three such correspondences: (i) the fact that in both mystical unions, the agent becomes united with the ultimate basis of everything that exists; (ii) the fact that each text takes its respective mystical union to be the highest good and the path to an otherwise unattainable state of pure happiness; and (iii) that the process of union is facilitated by purging the consciousness of self-awareness. However, these correspondences are very broad ones, and looked at more closely, the descriptions in the texts become disparate.
First, consider correspondence (i). It is true that both the Yoga-Sutras and The Cloud of Unknowing consider that with which one becomes unified in the mystical union as the ultimate basis of all that exists. However, the texts disagree on the exact sense of what the "ultimate basis of all that exists" amounts to. The Yoga-Sutras name Brahman as ultimate reality, from which everything derives, and of which everything is ultimately composed, be it matter or spirit. The individual mind, and the body it is housed in, are not merely made by Brahman – they are Brahman, just in a form in which "Brahman" has forgotten what it actually is.
The Cloud of Unknowing, however, has a dualistic flavor to it that the Yoga-Sutras lack. The Cloud of Unknowing seems, all throughout, to stress the otherness of God, the division between him and man. Although man was indeed created by God ex nihilo, and his very existence is sustained from second to second by God, his mind is autonomous, and his nature always remains distinct from God, as "unified" with God as he may become. The Cloud of Unknowing stresses this difference:
when your mind is free of involvement with anything material or spiritual and totally taken up with the being of God himself…at such times you transcend yourself, becoming almost divine, though you remain beneath God. (Johnston, 1973, 134)
though you are truly one with him through grace, you remain less than him by nature. (Johnston, 1973, 135).
So the union, as much of a union as it is, is not one in which all distinctions are lost between the mystic and God, and God thus, through his distinctness and incomparably divine nature, serves as the ground of existence in a very different way than Brahman does – as a genealogical source of distinct islands of mind and matter, as opposed to a being that extends pseudopodia of mind and matter that retain identity with their source.
Now let us consider correspondence (ii). Both the Yoga-Sutras and The Cloud of Unknowing do indeed describe the mystical union as the best and happiest state of affairs. However, this aspect of the mystical union has a different basis in each text. In the Yoga-Sutras, there is very little distinction between goodness and happiness; as far as the Yoga-Sutras are concerned, "sin" is merely that which prevents one from attaining ultimate happiness through union with Brahman (Isherwood, 1981, 104). Happiness itself consists in this union, which liberates one from an otherwise eternal cycle of pleasure and pain – for the "man of spiritual discrimination…even the enjoyment of present pleasure is painful, since we already feel its loss" (Isherwood, 1981, 125). The mystical union, then, is ultimate goodness according to the Yoga-Sutras, because once it is attained there are obviously no barriers to union, and the presence of barriers is simply what "not-goodness" consists of. The mystical union is the ultimate happiness according to the Yoga-Sutras, because one has no thoughts, desires, or memories, at all, and hence can neither be unhappy in desiring that which one does not have, or in fearing to lose that which one does have.
The Cloud of Unknowing, on the other hand, gives no indication of forfeiting a concept of moral evil any more than it does most of the basic tenets of Christianity. For instance, sin can be ameliorated through penance and honest guilt over one’s faults (Johnston, 1973, 64), even though the benefits will be less than one receives through contemplation. The author goes so far as to define genuine goodness as "a matter of habitually acting and responding appropriately in each situation, as it arises, moved always by the desire to please God"(Johnston, 1973, 64), whose will is morally perfect. Contemplation serves as the best means to ensuring that one acts in such a way (Johnston, 1973, 66) – so contemplation is the source of highest goodness because of the way it aligns one’s actions towards others with the will of God, not simply because it helps one to become unified with God. The happiness attained in this union also seems somewhat different from that described in the Yoga-Sutras. The Cloud of Unknowing seems to represent the mystical union as the highest happiness because in the union one experiences directly the incomparable love and power of God, which, although the mystic is unaware of his own existence, nevertheless has an extremely pleasurable effect on him. While this may sound contradictory, I don’t believe it is – arguably, when one experiences sexual orgasm, one focuses on the sensation to the exclusion of everything else, including one’s own existence, yet the experience remains pleasurable, perhaps being mediated through the unconscious, which need not be empty just because one’s consciousness is. In any case, if there is a paradox here, it still seems to be the sense the author of The Cloud of Unknowing tries to convey – the direct experience of God is not an experience barren of pleasurable sensations.
Finally, we will consider correspondence (iii). But it is difficult to consider this in isolation from the full picture of the methodologies the texts advocate for union, so we will defer this correspondence for the next section to answer.
II. The Methodology of the Mystical Union
1. The Methodology of the Mystical Union in the Yoga-Sutras: The methodology advocated in the Yoga-Sutras for attaining union with Brahman is encapsulated briefly in aphorism II, 1:
Austerity, study, and the dedication of the fruits of one’s labor to God: these are the preliminary steps toward yoga. (Isherwood, 1981, 95)
By "austerity," the Yoga-Sutras simply mean self-control and moderation, as opposed to the punishing lifestyle of someone like Henry Suso (Isherwood, 1981, 98). By "study," the Yoga-Sutras refer to two separate acts: the studying of sacred texts, and repetition and contemplation on "OM," the name which expresses God (Isherwood, 1981, 56). The purpose of the repetition is to clear the mind of all extraneous thoughts, and to focus the mind in concentration upon a single thing. Finally, the "dedication of the fruits on one’s labor to God" refers to "work with non-attachment" (Isherwood, 1981, 101) in which everything one does is done to the best of one’s ability, and with no thought of gain. This dedication is an attempt to act in accordance with the "will of God," which, put in Eastern terms, is just to perform those acts which promote union with Brahman.
Ostensibly, the practice of these three things can lead one to a point in which one’s consciousness ceases to have any objects whatsoever, thereby facilitating union with Brahman. How exactly these latter stages are reached is not at all clear from the methods described, which seem only to concentrate the mind rather than abolish all thoughts and desires whatsoever. But it must be by simple continuation of these methods that nirivikalpa samadhi is mysteriously reached, since no further steps are offered in the text.
2. The Methodology of the Mystical Union in The Cloud of Unknowing: The author of The Cloud of Unknowing is very forthright about not knowing exactly what steps must be followed to attain the union – in fact, he believes there are no such steps, as proper contemplation is a gift solely from God that no one can earn (Johnston, 1973, 90). However, throughout most of the text, the author does attempt to offer some aids that he believes will assist the would-be mystic.
As a preliminary step, one must purge oneself of all specific moral sins through confession before the Church (Johnston, 1973, 85). A second preliminary step involves reading, thinking, and praying over God’s word – one will not be able to make any progress without this (Johnston, 1973, 85). Once these steps are completed, more direct contemplative work may begin. To facilitate the process of unification, the author advises three things: first, to attempt to hide one’s desire for God from Him, which will cast it "far from the contagion of capricious emotions which render it less spiritual and more remote from God" (Johnston, 1973, 108), and to pray in the form of single words, preferably "God" if one’s object is to express reverence for God, and "sin" if one wishes to pray for the destruction of evil (Johnston, 1973, 98). These prayers are themselves apparently aspects of contemplation – in praying, one must focus upon the word prayed "and without the intervention of analytical thought allow [oneself] to experience directly the reality it signifies" (Johnston, 1973, 94). Finally, The Cloud of Unknowing advocates moderation in everything except contemplation (Johnston, 1973, 100), but asserts that the lifestyle that functions as "moderate" springs automatically from contemplation, rather than necessarily being a prerequisite (Johnston, 1973, 101).
3. Comparison: As with the metaphysics of the mystical union, the methods the texts advocate for attaining the union exhibit several broad correspondences: (i) both advocate moderate lifestyles, (ii) both advocate study of sacred texts, and (iii) both advocate some form of contemplation upon a single word. However, once again, discrepancies appear when one takes a closer look.
As for correspondence (i), the main difference between the role of a moderate lifestyle in both traditions is that the Yoga-Sutras advocate moderation as a prerequisite to contemplation, while The Cloud of Unknowing claims that moderation results from prior devotion to contemplation. There are no striking fine-grained dissimilarities in correspondence (ii), but neither text spends much time advocating the study of sacred texts, so there is nothing fine-grained to look at here in the first place. As for (iii), this is the most prima facie striking similarity between the two texts. However, while the Yoga-Sutras advocate repetition of the word as a means of clearing the mind, The Cloud of Unknowing advocates utterance of the word once in full contemplation as a means of inducing God to assist the mystic in attaining his union. Nevertheless, it is clear that both texts require contemplation upon the word that is ultimately not supposed to be an analytic contemplation.
III. Assessing the Evidence
We have seen that there are a number of correlations between the two texts; the question now is whether the correlations are significant enough to warrant belief in a real mystical background to the universe. To answer this question, I will consider whether a mystical or naturalistic interpretation provides a better fit with both the data acquired through the comparison performed above.
There are striking discrepancies between the two texts, in metaphysical issues in particular. The metaphysics of The Cloud of Unknowing is starkly dualistic, whereas the Yoga-Sutras presents a very monadic view of reality and of the mystical union. Proponents of mysticism obviously need to explain these discrepancies, and a few explanations have indeed been suggested. One suggestion is that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing actually experienced a monadic union with ultimate reality in the same way Patanjali did, but his upbringing in the context of Christianity prevented him from having the vocabulary and conceptual apparatus necessary to describe the union in anything other than dualistic terms. A second suggestion is that the author came into contact with the same thing as Patanjali did, but filtered it through his own cultural lens into dualistic terms. A third suggestion is that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing experienced an earlier step of the mystical experience than Patanjali did, not quite reaching the monadic union, and therefore not recording it.
I do not consider the first two suggestions particularly interesting – the author of The Cloud of Unknowing clearly had the conceptual and linguistic apparatuses to perceive and describe a monadic union. I believe this is demonstrated by the fact that the author would explicitly qualify his use of the terms "union" and "oneness with God" so as to ensure that his readers understood that it was not a monadic union. Stating that something is not the case generally requires the ability to conceive of an describe (at least as fully as anyone can) the state of affairs which is being denied.
The third suggestion is more interesting, but I think there is a case to be made against it, as well. The methods both texts advocate are, I think, sufficiently similar that if one method leads to a monadic union, the other one should as well. Of course, the mystic may concede this, but add that the author of The Cloud of Unknowing simply did not carry his own method far enough to attain a monadic union. But if this is the case, then we should be able to find a stage of dualistic union in the Yoga-Sutras. There is, in fact, a dualistic God in the Yoga-Sutras that one can devote oneself to and revere – namely Ishwara – but Ishwara, it turns out, is too dualistic to match with the God of The Cloud of Unknowing: one cannot undergo any sort of union at all with a dualistic God in the Hindu tradition – indeed, it is the height of blasphemy, and the greatest egotism, to desire to become unified with Ishwara (Isherwood, 1981, 55). Hence, the stage at which one devotes oneself to Ishwara cannot be the same stage as the one the author of The Cloud of Unknowing attains. In fact, there seems to be no good analogue in the Yoga-Sutras to the dualistic union of The Cloud of Unknowing.
It appears to be difficult to fit the data into a framework of ontological mysticism. But this may not be exceptionally problematic if the data is equally difficult to fit into a naturalistic framework. Proponents of naturalism must explain the correspondences between the texts if they are to preserve the credibility of their worldview. Personally, however, I think this can be done.
Let us recap the correspondences between the texts: (i) each text describes the mystical union as union with the ultimate basis of reality, although each text means something different by "ultimate basis of reality" and something different by "union"; (ii) each text takes the mystical union to be the highest good and the ultimate source of happiness, albeit for different reasons; (iii) each text describes the mystical union as requiring a purging of the consciousness, but to different degrees; (iv) each text connects a moderate lifestyle to contemplation, although they reverse the relation of cause and effect; (v) each text advocates study of holy texts as a step in contemplation; (vi) each text advocates some form of contemplation upon a single word as an aid to accomplishing union, although the exact dynamics involved vary.
My contention is that every one of the factors above could be expected to arise in two religions that are entirely isolated from one another. Thus, I believe Hinduism and Christianity could easily generate two traditions with the correspondences the Yoga-Sutras and The Cloud of Unknowing share, without the benefit of any ontological grounding in what each says, and also without the benefit of any genealogical connection between the two. In brief, (i) any religion could be expected to have a high probability of including belief in a highest entity of some sort, which serves as a first cause and/or sustainer of all that exists; (ii) any religion that has a "Godhead" of some sort in it would be expected to exalt that Godhead above all else, and to consider it the greatest good and the greatest happiness to be as close to that Godhead as possible; (iii) any religion that advances closeness and/or devotion to God as the highest good would be expected to consider "single-minded devotion" (i.e. devotion to the exclusion of all else) to this God as a state in which one becomes as close and devoted to God as one can be; (iv) any religion that advocates single-minded devotion to God would be expected to frown upon any excess that detracts from the attention and devotion one pays to God; (v) any religion could be expected to generate holy texts, and to consider these useful for coming into contact with God; (vi) where meditation is called for, it is not highly unlikely that in addition to meditating upon holy texts, separate traditions would strike upon the power of repetition of one word for relaxing and focusing one’s mind upon that which is important.
Hence, I believe that all of the data is consistent with naturalistic expectations, and is not consistent with mystical expectations without the benefit of special pleading. This is not to say that the naturalistic viewpoint does not involve some special pleading of its own, but on average I would consider the fit of the data to be closer to justifiable naturalistic explanations than to justifiable mystical expectations. In any case, I believe that the data acquired from the comparison attempted in this paper cannot be any better for the mystic than inconclusive.
- Isherwood, Christopher, and Prabhavananda, Swami. 1981. How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali. Southern California: Vedanta Press.
- Johnston, William, ed. 1973. TheCloud of Unknowing. New York: Doubleday.