Verse 23: Natural Ethics

Verse 23 elaborates on Discerning Intelligence (Buddhi/Mahat) and feels like it is finding grounding in the pragmatic reality of being a human being (and I constantly remind myself that the metaphysics described in Samkhya applies to all life). The verse describes 8 qualities of intelligence.

The verse points to a notion of morality or ethics: virtue and vice. Discerning intelligence, can, according to this verse, go either way. Good & bad, right & wrong, these do not manifest through Spirit (which is indifferent) or Primordial Nature (which will be shown to be random). They are attributed to Mahat – Discerning Intelligence.

The discernment between virtue and vice seems to tease out a sense of agency (that was negated in verse 19). However, the verse ties this morality to the qualities of nature: to the mixing and combining of the Gunas. When Mahat is dominated by Tamas it leans towards vice. When Mahat is dominated by Sattva it leans towards virtue. So where is the agency?

For the past decade, I’ve been living with a Mulberry tree. Some years it fills with fruits, and in some years it is empty. This is often decided in early spring. If a late frost comes and takes away the early buds then there will be no fruit. If there is no late frost it will likely be a fruitful year. The tree may be evolving over the years, possibly adapting to the changing climate conditions. But, unlike me, the buds and the tree are unable to make or seek shelter from the cold and the wind.

This is the direction of my thoughts when I think about the agency of a human being. I was taught (and a part of me still likes to think) that I can exert control over my thinking and behavior. That it is I that chooses between vice and virtue. I am becoming increasingly convinced that is a delusion (with far-reaching implications into western psychology and everything self-help). What if ethics are, as the verse seems to suggest, more about the conditions and context in which I exist? It seems sensible to me that if I am in a Sattvic context (steady, light, illuminated) virtue is more likely to arise. If I am in a Tamasic context (heavy, obstructed, delusional), vice is more likely to arise.

If this is true then “trying to behave ethically” may be a misdirected effort. A more correct effort may be affecting the qualities of my life to create conditions that increase the likelihood of ethical behavior. Practically this means to affect the dance of the Gunas. Everything I engage with is a guna-mixture that is reacting with and affecting the Guna-mixture that I am experiencing. Ethics, according to Samkhya, seems to be a consequence of reduced Tamas and increased Sattva. How do I do that? The quality of the air that I breathe, the quality of the food I eat, the work that I engage with every day, the relationships I partake in, the conversations I engage in, the music I listen to, the books I read, the words I write … everything I encounter in life is an opportunity to affect the dance of the Gunas – in myself, in the world that surrounds me and in others!

Since I have completed a reading of the text I can now recognize and appreciate a key that is hidden in plain sight in this verse (hint: one of the eight qualities of Discerning Intelligence has a quality that is different from all the others). I look forward to acknowledging it when I publish the verses in which I came to recognize it.

Verse 22: Intelligence

Verse 22 introduces the principle of Intelligence but doesn’t say much about it (that will come in the next verse). There are however a few subtle things going on in this verse:

  1. There is an explicit discernment formed here between consciousness and intelligence. Consciusness has been attributed to a passive witnessing Spirit. Intelligence is here attributed to Nature itself. This is an important distinction that took me time to appreciate and will also be elaborated in the next verse.
  2. The notion of “Special Objects” has been hinted in in the earlier exploration of causality, but I have not really addressed it. Special Objects are objects that have unique qualities – they are the source objects of these qualities. A clay pot is not a special object because in essence it is the same as clay. Milk is not a special objects because it is not essentially different from a cow. Spirit is a special object because it has unique qualities such as unitary (non-divisible), isolated (does not mix or combine with anything else) and conscious. Nature is a special object because it is a composite (made up of the three Gunas). Intelligence is the 3rd (of 25) special object and its qualities will be discussed in later verses.
  3. The numerical overview of Samkhya in this verse points to other special objects which will be described in later verses. The commentaries attempt to offer clarification by naming the special objects that will come. However, I, in the spirit of the generative process have avoided mentioning these in my summary which only contains what is actually mentioned in the verse.
  4. The verse has a numerical quality that will show up numerous times in the text. One meaning of Samkhya is “enumeration,” in this case of the 25 special objects (Tattvas) which make up Samkhya.
  5. The numbers also shed light on the structure of the chain of causality:
    • The conjunction of Spirit and Nature causes one special object.
    • That causes one other special object.
    • That causes 16 other special objects.
    • 5 of those 16 cause 5 other special objects.
    • There are in total only 7 special objects that cause other special objects.
    • There is one special object that causes 16 other special objects.
    • The other 6 special objects that cause other special objects only cause one other special object each.
    • It is a tight spiritual evolutionary tree.

This verse places Intelligence on the Samkhya map, the next verse begins the journey into what Intelligence is.

Verse 21: Hide & Seek?

Verse 21 feels to me like an anti-climax. According to the verse, this existence I am pondering is a dance between the mutual needs of Spirit and Nature. Spirit sees and Nature wants to be seen. When they are together Spirit loses itself in the experience afforded by Nature. My experience of being is an outcome of this game in which Spirit and Nature are seeking some kind of mutual satisfaction.

That’s it? Spirit (through Nature) is playing some kind of hide & seek? Spirit hides from itself in Nature and then goes looking for itself? Yes and no. Yes, this seems to be what the text is implying. No, because my ranting version of it assigns Spirit agency that it does not have. This is not something that Spirit (or Nature) “does,” this is something that “happens.”

“Delusional I” is a bit offended and frustrated: why couldn’t Spirit just stay still, an isolated witness? All this effort, all this agitation, all this suffering just so Spirit can find its way back to …. itself? Seems kind of pointless to “delusional me”!

However, like it or not, It seems the game is set and I am a player. So, maybe the next thing to do is understand what is the game (is it even winnable?), what are the other game pieces and what moves are possible?

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot

Verse 20: The Good China

The feeling I had when I encountered this verse for the first time was ambivalence laced with objection. I imagine that when I was younger my response would have been inverted: fierce objection laced with a fine layer of dismissive ambivalence. The experience of living in this body for almost five decades ( and especially the last decade of living closer to the ground), has tempered me.

So let’s address the elephant in the room: verse 20 seems to say that conscious choice is an illusion. All those times in my life where I felt like I was a good person for doing the right thing: illusions. All those times in my life where I felt shame for doing the wrong thing: illusions.

I am thinking of the magic trick of yanking out the table cloth from a dinner table set with my grandmother’s “Good China” laid out on it. In my imagination the trick doesn’t work, everything gets pulled off the table, falls, and shatters on the ground. This is what I imagine verse 20 can feel like. The “Good China” shattering on the ground is the collection of often unspoken yet foundational cultural notions of self & identity I was born into.

As I contemplate writing about a verse that has this potential to shatter entrenched western notions of self and identity I am reminded that Yoga, at least in the lineage I belong to, was originally taught in one-on-one settings where a continuous and intimate relationship enabled a teacher to tailor a learning path for a student. Delving into the particulars of this verse feels out of alignment with that.

I feel growing admiration towards the text as a whole and am increasingly reticent to discuss any of these verses (and the ideas they point to) as isolated parts, out of sequence, separated from the text as a whole. I believe that texts like Samkhya, though packaged in pocket-sized books, are not meant to be directly read and linearly ingested. The text itself is not a body of knowledge. It is a place-holder, a seed around which knowledge can crystallize. The knowledge is held in a kind of morphic field of all the teachers and students who have together engaged and explored the text and brought it into their lives. The actual knowledge crystallizes over lifetimes of intimate exploration.

If Samkhya is approached this way, there is no need to pull out the cloth and shatter the “Good China.” Like “Good China” that is saved for special occasions, the old ideas of self and identity end up stored in difficult-to-reach cabinets. Their value comes into question and maybe they are eventually forgotten. My favorite meals sit comfortably in a single simple clay bowl.

I am now curious how this reticence will affect future journal entries.

Verse 19: No Agency

Verse 19 is the only verse dedicated solely to Spirit and even it is framed by what has come before. If Nature is that which is of the three Gunas (see verse 12), Spirit is the opposite: that which is without the three Gunas (and therefore lacks all the qualities endowed by the three Gunas).

This verse plants a potent thought-seed. I have nourished this seed and it has grown into a resilient and stubborn climbing plant. This plant is finding the cracks in the concrete pillars of my western thinking and is working its way in. It is honing in on the metal rebar embedded in the concrete that holds it together: my notion of agency – that I decide, choose and act. This verse asserts that spirit has no agency.

If I come to recognize and identify with Spirit – the Seer that resides within me – that which is at the root of my sense of being, of consciousness itself – that which perceives – then, according to this verse, I also have to come to terms with its complete lack of agency. Spirit, according to this verse, cannot do anything. Spirit knows no preference. Spirit does not care about good or bad, love or hate, kindness or violence, morality or vice, beautiful or ugly. Spirit merely witnesses it all. For Spirit, everything is an experience.

What then is the origin of all these seemingly differentiated experiences – good, bad, love, hate, kindness, violence, morality, beauty? What is this feeling that “I have” of “myself making choices”? If it isn’t Spirit what is it?

Verse 20 will elaborate … but if you are already uncomfortable with this denial of agency, you are probably not going to like what is coming next. This raises an interesting question: how do you meet ideas which hold profound potential but rub you the wrong way?

Verse 18: One to Many

As I was reviewing verse 18 in preparation for sharing it, the question that stood out in my mind was: why does it matter (if there is one spirit or many)? The commentaries and explanations felt like a stubborn mechanistic argument.

The verse presents as a question about Spirit. I believe this is a bias inherent to SPIRITual inquiry. This bias was especially apparent to me in the question and answer that emerged (and I kept) for the verse. If the question of one or many Spirits (Purusa) is taken out of the context of Nature (Prakrti) then it becomes somewhat theoretical and academic. However, if the question of Spirit is kept alive and in contact with Nature, the question seems to dis-solve:

  1. Yes there is one Knower (Jna) – an unmanifest Spirit concept.
  2. However, Spirit can only manifest coupled with Nature.
  3. The objects of Nature are unique combinations of the three Gunas – unique mediums.
  4. Therfore, when Spirit does manifest through these unique mediums it takes on the qualities of these mediums and so manifests as a plurality.

What, then, is the question?

I feel that this bias towards grasping Spirit runs deep in modern-day spiritual inquiries (maybe it has been there for a long time!?). There isn’t much to say about Spirit. In fact, as far as I can tell, there is only one verse (the next verse) in the entire text dedicated solely to Spirit. There are some verses dedicated to Nature (eg: the discussion of the three Gunas). Most of the verses (yet to come) are about the conjunction of Spirit & Nature. I feel that this bias towards an understanding of Spirit is like the tip of an iceberg, and that hidden-from view is a much larger bias against (or away from) Nature.

At the time of this writing, verse 62 is almost 2 years away. It stands out in my mind as an exemplar of the impacts of the SPIRITual bias. If you feel inclined to do so, I invite you to bookmark this line of thinking and come back to it when verse 62 presents itself.

Verse 17: Lack of Spirit

I felt anxious when I approached painting verse 17. The verse frames Spirit and I had no idea how to approach painting it. Fortunately, the generative process for painting had matured by then and I was able to lean on it. I was surprised both by how fluent the process unfolded (especially given the anxiety I felt at the beginning) and by the resulting painting.

The verse itself is so concise (so few words) and yet requires such extensive commentary to unpack it. It was challenging for me to grasp the verse. It became clearer when I revisited it now, before publishing it, and after completing the study of the text. It required the most editing before publishing and the summary for this verse is one of the longest in the text.

In retrospect, I can clearly see how both the mechanistic content and quality of the verse informed the painting. I’ve read the summary many times by now and I am intrigued by the gap I experience between an inhibited sense of understanding and a deep resonant experience it evokes. It seems to point (that which) with rigorous clarity at Spirit and yet seems to say very little about what it is. There is something striking about the firm mechanistic quality of the verse and the delicacy of the subject matter.

When the painting started to come together I was surprised by what had happened. The generative process clearly assimilated the “that which is made of parts” aspect of the verse. As a result, the painting that emerged seems to be of an “absence of Spirit.” This outcome amused me. It was as if the process responded to my anxiety about painting Spirit by saying “then don’t!”

I encountered the painting again, now, as I prepared to share it and it felt to me like a timely statement. Though the term “Intelligence” has not yet been framed in the text (it will be in verse 22) I do wish to break the generative quality (here in the journal entry) and call upon it prematurely. Looking at this painting in the present moment I see Intelligence that is lacking in Spirit.

Spirit is not something to look at. Spirit is that which looks. Or in the words of my teacher:

“What I am looking for is where I am looking from”

Verse 16: Change

The historical dating of Samkhya is a speculative endeavor. For me, it is sufficient to acknowledge that it has been around for at least a thousand years, likely closer to two thousand years. I am also guessing that, as with most human knowledge, it matured gradually and therefore has roots that go back even further. Placing Samkhya in this context evokes in me a feeling of awe.

Human knowledge and philosophy went in many directions and expressed themselves in many ways. There was brutality, superficial mysticism, and intellectual over-reach. In some ways, these mentalities and their underlying assumptions are still active and informing us to this day.

Placing Samkhya amidst these parallel explorations amplifies my appreciation for it. Samkhya, as described in verse 16, suggested (way back then!) a subtle reality upon which rests the manifest world we experience. This underlying reality is described as an ever-changing relationship between three qualities (the three Gunas: buoyancy, action, and obscurity). I am not sure I can evoke in words the sense of profoundness I experience when reflecting on this succinct and provocative notion: relationships between qualities as the underlying nature of everything that is. Contemplating it, I feel like my default mechanistic material thinking is dissolving. I feel like the reality I thought I knew is fading into a ghost and a ghost reality is becoming real!

I have been wondering about parallels between the Gunas and modern scientific theories. I spent (over the years, and recently while studying Samkhya) some time looking superficially into subjects like Quantum Mechanics & String Theory & Fundamental Physics and couldn’t really wrap my head around them. Yet, I sense a kinship between these relatively young thinkings and the ancient Guna hypothesis described in verse 16.

Verse 16 states that everything that is manifest is an ever-changing combining and mixing of the three Gunas. Everything! Every physical substance, every living entity, every thought, every feeling … it is all a dance of Gunas! There are no dogmatic divisions such as mind and matter.

E v e r y t h i n g is a dance of relationships of these three fundamental qualities.

A precious gem is hidden here in plain view: change (Parinama). Any change I experience in life, a change in the weather or a change in my emotions, all of it, according to Samkhya, is a change in this dance of the Gunas. When the wind blows strong, Rajas has risen to dominance. When my body feels heavy and my find feels sluggish, Tamas has risen to dominance. When my heart feels steady and light, Sattva has risen to dominance. The mixing and combining of the Gunas is what changes. It is an ever-changing flux. The mixing and combining of the Gunas is change itself!

Which begs the question: is there something that does not change? That will be answered in the next verse … because the distinction between that which is eternally unchanging and that which is eternally changing goes to the heart of this exploration.

Verse 15: No Big Bang

Verse 15 was challenging for me to digest. It offers a rigorous logical analysis demonstrating why there must be an Unmanifest. For me, this verse has both an “elephant in the room” and a “mouse in the room” that need to be addressed.

I want to first get the “mouse” out of the way. The commentaries around the argument for “finiteness of special objects” raise two aspects. On the one hand, there is a methodical argument against infinite regression. I have tried to both grasp and convey this in the summary though it continues to feel to me both intuitively clear and intellectually slippery. Some of the “slipperiness” is addressed in the commentary by pointing to the finite-ness of the 25 principles of Samkhya which have not been presented yet. I have avoided including this in the verse summary because that would violate my assumption that the text is a generative sequence. So the summary remains true to the conciseness of the text, but it may leave something to be desired in the logic of the argument.

This brings me to the “Elephant in the room” – causality! I consider myself a rigorous thinker. However, I consider myself to be at best a moderate logician, so I may be missing something here (and it may have to do with the “mouse”). After all the time spent with this verse, I continue to feel there is an unspoken and unreasoned assumption lurking in it.

There is an argument being made here that since causality is empirical in the Manifest it must also be true in the relationship between the Manifest and Unmanifest. In the verse, causality is an inference bridge that leads from the Manifest to the Unmanifest. But I am left wondering why that is? Why can’t the Manifest be bound to causality while the Unmanifest is free from it? Why can’t the underlying nature of the world be, for example, random, wild, and inexplicable?

I don’t have a good answer to this question. But chewing on it has made me wonder about the approach taken here in Samkhya compared to modern theoretical science. I remembered this quote:

As Terence McKenna observed, “Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest.’ The one free miracle is the appearance of all the mass and energy in the universe and all the laws that govern it in a single instant from nothing.”

Rupert Sheldrake

It seems to me that the near-metaphysical branches of modern science are filled with hypothetical ideas which are not empirical. These ideas seem to be born from theories (that point to things that may or may not exist) and mathematical equations that need to be balanced. Scientists then seem to go looking for empirical evidence to test their theories and equations. Maybe I am presenting a bias here, but there seems to me to be a difference between investigating a phenomenon that is perceived compared to chasing a hypothetical phenomenon. There is, in my mind, a discernment to be made between seeking to understand experience vs. seeking experience to confirm an understanding. The latter feels to me like a volatile overreach and, ironically, like a leap of faith!

Samkhya also seems to be making a leap of faith in its attempt to point to an underlying Unmanifest that causes the Manifest. It is also trying to understand empirical experience. However, it avoids the trap of seeking experience to confirm this understanding by placing the Unmanifest safely beyond the reach of experience and comprehension. Samkhya seems to be asking: what if things are as they seem to be? If causality seems to be such a dominant aspect of my lived experience why not assume that it also pertains to the underlying nature of the world? Why would causality cease to be valid when it comes to the Unmanifest? To my mind, this grants Samkhya a quality of internal integrity.

Samkhya doesn’t seem to have or need a “Big Bang” kind of miracle to get everything started. The next verses will offer a view of a simultaneously causal and random Guna world … without a Big Bang.

Mystical Extra Credit: What if our inquisitive relationship with the universe is not just a relationship of discovery but also a relationship of creation? What if there aren’t fixed laws of nature, but evolving habits in nature? What if, through our intense scientific inquiry, we are not “discovering fixed laws” but “forming habits”? What if by choosing what we seek to understand we are not just perceiving nature but affecting it? What if by “looking for” mechanistic subatomic particles we are “generating” them? How would that affect the questions we ask and the way we ask them?

Verse 14: Sensible & Reasonable

Reflecting on verse 14 has made me think back to the assertion of right cognition in verse 4. I am attracted to a notion of right (and wrong) cognition. I find comfort in right cognition. When I feel confused I have come to assume it is because I am in wrong cognition and need to find my way back to right cognition. I find that I don’t have direct agency over my own quality of cognition. If I am, for example, in wrong cognition I can’t just think my way back to right cognition.

Wrong cognition has a particularly sticky trap when it is applied to cognition itself: when wrong cognition pervades me I can think that I am in right cognition. I find I need to be constantly vigilant to avoid falling into traps of wrong cognition. Right cognition is never a given, there is always a potential for wrong cognition to emerge.

Right cognition itself seems to be a constantly unfolding dynamic. It was once sensible and reasonable that the earth was flat. Then we looked more closely (with better sense-ability) and it became apparent that the earth was round. It was once sensible and reasonable that the universe rotated around the Earth. Then we looked more closely (with even better sense-ability) and it became apparent that the Earth rotates around the sun. There seems to be a reason-seeking foundation around which a dynamic sense-ability develops. This makes me wonder about the dynamics that led ancient observers to Samkhya itself!

Verse 14 seems to me like a celebration of that reasonable foundation. In previous verses, a tower of sense and reason has been built, and now comes an invitation to consider the foundations upon which this tower stands. This requires rigorous attention because I am now being asked to point my attention towards something that lies beyond my senses:

  1. Right cognition has been established.
  2. Inference has been established as a means of right cognition.
  3. Causality has been established through inference.
  4. A Manifest, Unmanifest and Knower have been established through causality.
  5. The lived-experience of the three Gunas in the Manifest has been established within the Manifest.
  6. The Unmanifest as the cause of the Manifest has been hinted at (and will be further elaborated in the next verse).

And now, all that reasoning seems to converge. Finally, because the Unmanifest causes the Manifest and is itself uncaused (there is no other cause that precedes it), it too must be endowed with the qualities of the Gunas, which makes them truly fundamental qualities.