Cultivating the Opposite Thought (The Most Challenging Inversion in Your Practice)

June 16, 2015    BY Georg Feuerstein

In the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, we find one aphorism that speaks of cultivating the opposite. The Sanskrit term for this is pratipaksha-bhavana. Whenever adverse notions (vikalpa) crowd our mind, Patanjali tells us, we must endeavor to conjure up their opposites. So, instead of thinking harmful thoughts, we ought to cultivate thoughts and feelings of love, kindness, compassion, and so on.

In the second chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, we find one aphorism that speaks of cultivating the opposite.

This idea of cultivating the opposite is in fact a fundamental principle of the yogic enterprise. It can be seen in operation in all eight limbs of Patanjali’s eightfold path and also in many practices he does not specifically mention.

First of all, yoga turns conventional life upside down. It puts the supreme value of liberation, or enlightenment, in place of ordinary values revolving around money, food, sex, and power. Liberation (moksha) is in fact freedom from the compulsion of all lesser pursuits. It is total release from the ego-personality, which constructs itself and its life around everything other than liberation.

Once we truly accept liberation as our guiding ideal, all our other ideals, values, or goals pale into relative insignificance. To put it differently, the desire for liberation (mumukshutva) melts down all our other desires and, using their energy, propels us forward on the spiritual path.

The principle of reversal is obvious in the first limb of Patanjali’s eightfold path, namely the moral disciplines (yama) consisting of non-harming, truthfulness, non-stealing, chastity, and non-grasping (or greedlessness). The purpose of these moral disciplines is to harmonize and economize our interpersonal behavior. Ordinarily, our social relationships are not particularly well organized and often are the source of discord, frustration, and emotional pain. So long as we are not committed to uprooting our false sense of self (ahankara), our interactions with others tend to be governed by self-interest, and this makes our relationships precarious and often quite complicated. Yoga practitioners, however, who hold high the ideal of liberation, are eager to simplify their lives, especially social relationships. This becomes possible by cultivating the five primary moral disciplines.

Instead of harming others in action, speech, and thought, either deliberately or simply through largely unconscious behavior, those who practice yoga endeavor to benefit others. Similarly, instead of succumbing to lies, pretensions, prevarications, distortions, deceptions, and so on, they aspire to truthfulness and integrity in all matters, even if this should prove disadvantageous for them. When understood in a comprehensive way, the moral discipline of non-stealing represents a reversal of our Western pattern of overconsumption, which directly or indirectly affects less privileged segments of our society and other, poorer nations. Chastity, again, runs counter to our Western civilization’s epidemic preoccupation with sex. Greedlessness, which is closely related to the virtue of non-stealing, undermines the widespread behavior of “more is better.”

Instead of harming others in action, speech, and thought, either deliberately or simply through largely unconscious behavior, those who practice yoga endeavor to benefit others.

The second limb of the eightfold path consists of the five disciplines of self-restraint (niyama)—purity, contentment, austerity, study, and dedication to a higher principle—and is similarly based on the principle of reversal. Even if we observe physical hygiene, our mental and verbal behavior often is impure. We think negative thoughts and use foul language. Most people are not content with their lot, always striving for a better position in life and competing against others to get there first. The deliberate practice of contentment reverses common habit patterns. Few have any notion of austerity, which requires great self-control. Instead we like our comfort and complacency. And finally, higher principles play little or no role in our lives, and by and large we orient ourselves according to the lowest common denominator. Our ultimate concern is not the transcendental Reality but some finite substitute, be it our family, job, reputation, money, or car.

Posture (asana), the third limb of the eightfold path, reverses our ordinary tendency to extend our energies via our limbs: to grasp, gesticulate, and fidget with our hands and to walk and run with our legs. As Patanjali notes in his Yoga Sutra, posture must be stable and easeful. This ensures that we can sit still long enough for meditation to unfold. Posture is to the body what concentration is to the mind. It unifies our physical being by making a relatively closed circuit of energy with our folded limbs.

Of all the postures, inversions are a striking external symbol of the yogic process of reversal. According to an esoteric (tantric) explanation of reversal, the ordinary upright position causes wastage of the inner ambrosia. This nectar of immortality is generated at the internal moon in the head and drips down into the internal sun, which is situated at the navel. Inversions are designed to place the internal sun above and the internal moon below, a position that allows the lunar ambrosia to collect without being wasted. At the physiological level, this nectar is our hormone-rich saliva. At the subtle level, it can be experienced as a fine energy that develops the subtle body (sukshma-sharira) and thus contributes to the spiritual quest for perfect inner freedom.

In breath control (pranayama), the fourth limb of the eightfold path, the principle of reversal can be seen in the practice of regulating and expanding the otherwise uneven and narrow flow of life-energy (prana) in the body. The life-force is the link between body and mind, and is therefore of utmost importance in the yogic process. As we harmonize the life-force by regulating the breath (its external aspect), we are able to also harmonize our mind.

Sensory inhibition (pratyahara), the fifth limb, is a classical instance of the principle of reversal. Normally, our senses constantly roam for information in the external environment. The ancient sages likened them to wild horses frolicking in a pasture. In order to make the horses obedient, we must rein them in. Similarly, our senses must be controlled so that the inner work of yoga can succeed. In the yoga scriptures, this practice is often compared to a tortoise withdrawing its limbs into its shell. Sensory inhibition, or sense withdrawal, and control of the mind go hand in hand.

Concentration, the sixth limb, is called dharana in Sanskrit, which literally means “holding.” This practice is intended to hold the mind in place by controlling the mental processes, notably our thoughts. Ordinarily, our mind—pulled by the senses—is very busy with processing information from the outer world. Its movement is naturally centrifugal. Patanjali speaks of the “mind of emergence” (vyutthanachitta), which, powered by the subliminal activators (samskara), is gathering both positive and negative experiences. In yoga, this tendency of being scattered must be overcome by cultivating inward-mindedness (pratyak-chetana) leading to the gradual emptying of the mind. This clearly represents a strong reversal of our habit patterns.

Meditation reverses the typical tendency of our mind to quickly lose interest in things and hunt for new information.

As concentration becomes stronger, meditation (dhyana) occurs. Patanjali explains it as the “single flow” (eka-tanata) of thoughts relating to the same object of meditation. Concentration helps us hold our selected object in place. Through meditation we become ever more familiar with this object until, in the state of ecstasy (samadhi), we merge with it. Meditation reverses the typical tendency of our mind to quickly lose interest in things and hunt for new information. Meditation opens up the inner aspect of our selected object. The difference between concentration and meditation is similar to the difference between looking at a two-dimensional photograph and a lifelike three-dimensional laser projection.

Meditation progressively narrows the space between the meditating subject and the object of meditation. In the state of ecstasy, this space collapses altogether. Subject and object become one. This amounts to a total reversal of the ordinary state of consciousness, which is based on the distinction between consciousness and its contents.

At the highest level of ecstasy, this state of identification becomes still more simplified. Now all conscious activity ceases. The so-called “fluctuations” or “whirls” of the mind (vritti) have been eliminated by means of meditation. But even in the state of samadhi, certain higher forms of conscious activity are likely to occur—insights, intuitions, knowledge. These are known as “wisdom” (prajña). Hence this lower type of ecstasy is known as samprajñata-samadhi, or ecstasy associated with wisdom/insight.

In the condition of asamprajñata-samadhi, or ecstasy transcending even wisdom, there is no further conscious or supraconscious activity in the mind. What remains is the whole network of subliminal activators (samskara), which, given an opportunity, give rise to renewed mental activity. In other words, the unconscious part of the mind is still intact. But as the yogi holds the mind in abeyance in the state of asamprajñata-samadhi, the unconscious is gradually emptied as well. This ecstatic state produces a strong mental tendency that runs counter to all other remaining mental tendencies, and in due course, the unconscious, which harbors all the karmic seeds, is transcended as well.

This high-level process is the peak of the entire yogic program of reversal. With the transcendence of the unconscious, the yogi is liberated from the last shred of the illusion of being a limited body/mind. Upon attaining liberation (or enlightenment), nothing further remains to be done. 

Georg Feuerstein
Georg Feuerstein, Ph.D. (1947-2012), authored over forty-five books, including The Deeper Dimension of Yoga and The Yoga Tradition, and created distance-learning courses on Yoga philosophy and history through Traditional Yoga Studies.