Perception of life

When I first thought about writing this article, I thought I might prove myself to be crazy so I held off on it. In hindsight, I now think a tinge of craziness is not such a bad thing after all. In fact, it is almost necessary or life would be quite boring!

When I was walking through the dense and lush Daintree Rainforest and spending time with the pristine waterfalls and creeks of North Queensland last year, I learnt a great deal about undisturbed nature. This nature was so profoundly alive. It became obvious to me that this was a connected ecosystem thriving together as one community. In its silence, the rainforest had its own unique music produced by the innumerable habitants making themselves known. In my silence, I observed how trees grew, how insects made homes in trees and beneath the ground, and how interconnected and perfect that environment was mainly because it remained free of human intervention. Even the paths within the rainforest were made due to people walking through them, not by being concreted.

Just as it is for humans, nutrition is the primary need of all living entities. When I say ‘living entities’ here, I mean all life in its entirety, including but not limited to life with and without the power of cognition including plants, trees, animals, insects and all living creatures on, above and below the ground, as well as those that reside in water. The growth of all living entities depends on and is driven by their respective sources of nutrition. For humans, as we breathe, sleep, drink and eat, so we grow. For plants and trees, sunlight and nutrients from the soil is their primary source of nutrition. Consequently, the shape, size and crown (upper width) of trees will depend on its ability to secure sufficient sunlight in the first instance.

Notice how trees grow when you go for your next nature walk. Every tree grows towards sunlight, and for this reason, trees which are lone standing with access to ample direct sunlight and without shade around them have stems that naturally grow straight up towards the sky, unobstructed. This usually happens when trees are planted in a planned manner, like next to the roadside. In circumstances where a tree’s growth happens naturally in a rainforest, or amongst other bigger trees, it is probable that its growth will be slow if it does not receive sunlight directly. As the natural inclination of trees is to grow towards sunlight, this means that it will grow towards a certain direction, at angles, or will also change the direction of growth at a certain point. This is the reason we see some crooked trees. Whether there are bigger trees around makes an enormous difference to the growth direction a tree will take. You will notice that trees with the thickest stems in a rainforest or reserve have grown straight, because they are old and quite likely did not have much shade of other bigger trees to obstruct their growth. 

So, what happens to plants and shrubs at the forest bed that start growing, but happen to be shaded by bigger trees. Indeed, their growth can be slow but sure, if not eaten by other herbivores of course. There is a significant body of research undertaken which found that such shrubs obtain the necessary minerals and nutrients they need from the moisture in the soil, and through the roots of their parent trees or trees that have similar root structures to theirs. Indeed, beneath dense forest floors exists an interconnected ecosystem, a network that is responsive to the needs of its other inhabitants. Having personally observed such a mass ecosystem thrive is why I say nature is so profoundly alive. The question is only whether we are live to it.

Why have I rambled on about trees so much, you would ask! Strolling within the dense rainforests of North Queensland, I realised that in our busy daily routines, we forget that we humans are not the only life forms on this planet. Make no mistake, we aren’t the most important ones either. We are however, the most influential ones because only humans are gifted with the power of cognition, that is, our inherent ability to think, experience, reason, synthesise, critically evaluate, make value judgements and informed decisions. 

All other living entities go about doing what they do for survival. Only humans can look beyond survival and work to thrive as individuals, as a society, community or nation. Our day-to-day decisions inherently carry consequences for all other life forms. The uniqueness of human beings that sets us apart from all other living entities is our power of cognition. As the most influential living entities on the plant, it is our duty to exert our influence and decision making to be of some positive use to others. This is only possible however, if we understand, in an elemental way the surrounding we live in. 

When in the rainforest, I realised I was able to keenly learn and understand nature for only one reason: my own mind was calm and at peace. I was fully present, there in that moment. I was not thinking about anything else; there was just me, and nature. This state of mind allowed for immense receptivity when listening to and understanding the surroundings. By contrast, our fast-paced, busy city life keeps our mind constantly engaged all the time, diminishing the mind’s ability to rest or to consciously invoke a thoughtless state. When our minds are constantly stimulated with thoughts and to-do lists, it also becomes impossible to successfully do any form of meditation or mindfulness practices. Indeed, when the internal noise of the mind is brought to a minimum, a whole new dimension of perspective opens!

Our perception of life is conditioned by the life we have lived so far. The secret to opening up to new perspectives, is not to learn new things, but rather, to unlearn the conditioning we have. You see, a conditioned mind is a subjective mind; it is seeing the world with preconceived thoughts, beliefs and values. When the mind is consciously brought into a thoughtless state, it can be nothing but objective because it does not draw on the past, but rather, it is very consciously in the present moment. This is what Patanjali very eloquently summaries as the practice of yoga in the first three Yoga Sutras:

Atha yoga anushasanam: 

Now begins the practice of yoga. Yoga is not something one does on a yoga mat or at a designated time. Yoga is to live with full presence in each moment, with full awareness and consciousness of our actions. Should one do this, life in its entirety is Yoga.

Yogas citta vritti nirodhah

It is recognised as an inherent tendency of the mind (citta) to wonder. The Bhagavad Gita has described the nature of the mind using the word ‘chanchal’ meaning ‘never still’. This roaming tendency of the mind is known as ‘citta vritti’. Therefore, in this sutra, Patanjali is saying that the practice of Yoga harnesses/ controls/ removes the roaming tendencies of the mind. What happens when citta vrittis cease is described in the third sutra.

Tada drashtuh swarupe avasthanum:

This sutra translates to: then (tada), through the seeing power of the seer (drashtuh), the seer sees its true self (swarupe avasthanum). Here, the seeing power of the seer does not refer to the power of sight. It refers to the innate power of intuitive cognition; the ability to see everything in its most elemental form. This state of being can easily be experienced when the mind reaches a state of thoughtlessness. In that state, only intuition prevails; for only when we see our true self do we become capable of seeing others, and everything around us in its own essential nature. 

On the occasion of International Day of Yoga today, I thought it necessary to revisit these key principles of the Patanjali Yoga Sutras and the importance of ‘conscious presence’. The system of yoga is engineered to provide mastery of the mind by using the body as an instrument. The intensive commercialisation of the modern-day practice of yoga (asanas) often puts immense focus on aesthetics and does not do justice to its ultimate objectives.

Through mindful living, by being established in the state of Yoga, we can be gifted with the innate intuitive ability to perceive everything and everyone just as is; without expectations, without judgements. We begin to value every facet of creation, just the way it is and become immensely conscious of all living entities that are on their own journeys on this beautiful planet alongside us!

More appropriate, every moment is a moment of Yoga. By the time you have finished reading this article, you would have taken over 300 breaths (approximately). That’s over 300 opportunities to be mindful, aware, and fully present, established in Yoga….