Ripples & Waves
I have loved white water my whole life. I learned to kayak when I was eleven. One of my favorite things about navigating on white water is learning to read the river. By taking into account the speed of the water and the pattern of ripples or standing waves on the surface of the water you can get a good read on what the riverbed must look like, where the water runs deep, and where boulders and rocks rise up towards the surface that can cause problems for a boat. Likewise, geologists look at fossilized ripples to learn about the water that shaped them. The movement of water shapes the riverbed. The riverbed in turn, shapes the movement of the water.
When I first started to study raja yoga I found that many authors used water as a metaphor for consciousness. Patanjali, in his classic Yoga Sutras, defines yoga as the "total cessation of all modifications of chitta". Chitta is the Sanskrit word for consciousness. Imagine a deep glacial lake that is perfectly still. When you look across the surface of such a lake it is a perfect mirror, reflecting mountains and sky without distortion. When you look into the water you can see the bottom, seemingly close enough to touch. Thus it is with your mind. When you look out on the universe through a still mind you see it as it is and when you look within, you see yourself as you are. This is the state of mind called yoga.
If someone then throws a pebble into the middle of the lake, ripples spread out in beautiful concentric rings. The reflections on the surface and the view of the bottom of the lake are distorted, but still quite beautiful in their radial symmetry. But then, invariably someone throws in more pebbles and from each pebble new sets of rings expand, interacting in complex and eventually chaotic interference patterns and the surface and the depths of the lake are lost to us. Given enough time, with no further disturbances, the surface of the lake eventually once more settles into stillness.
So to, the natural state of our mind is stillness. However, each thought, like a pebble dropped into water, sets up waves that distort our consciousness and obscure our view of the external world and of ourselves. In Sanskrit, these thought waves are called vrittis.
Waves passing through water create ripples in the riverbed. Ripples on the riverbed in turn create waves in water flowing over them. The waves in the water quickly dissipate, but the ripples in the riverbed live on, much to the delight of the geologist.Likewise, thoughts pass through our consciousness and vanish quickly, but in their passing create ripples that they leave on the 'floor' of consciousness, called samskaras.
Unlike vrittis or thought waves, which are transitory and in the absence of continued disturbance soon vanish, the samskaras linger on. They are slow to build up, and equally slow to dissolve. When in the west we say someone "pushed our buttons" we are referring to samskaras - patterns that have taken root deep beneath the surface of our attention and interact with our present moment experiences to produce inappropriate responses.
When we meditate, creating new patterns of consciousness, over sufficient time, our samskaras, deep beneath the surface, will also be transformed. This is the importance of continued and consistent practice in yoga. You can meditate for a few days or weeks, and while meditating you might experience deep or profound states of stillness... but just because the mind is temporarily calm, does not mean that the samskaras are gone. This is why, when you go back to work, a coworker can still push your 'buttons'.
In utter and absolute stillness, the mind knows that it is ONE with all. In Buddhism they say there is only one Sin and that is ignorance. Ignorance is the forgetting that all is one. From this ignorance arises all suffering. A mind that has forgotten its own natural state of stillness distorts everything that it sees, as if looking into an infinite regress of shattered carnival mirrors in the fun-house.
Through meditation we calm the vrittis. With continued practice we eventually erase the stubborn samskaras as well. Such a mind achieves a state of yoga. Such a person no longer has 'buttons' and is free from past and future, to live in the present moment.