This month in my public classes, I’ve been talking about two fundamental concepts of Yoga. Much of the Yoga Sutras discuss the ‘how’ of your practice – and that’s often what we focus on – but it also describes the Yogic lens of what we’re dealing with in the world, and why we’re trying to follow the 8 Limbs along a path. Purusha and Prakriti are part of this what and why.
Let’s start with some basics: Purusha is Self (pure awareness), and Prakriti is Nature. Prakriti seems pretty straightforward – it’s anything subject to cause and effect, time, or change. Basically, it’s everything we experience with our five senses (from seeing giant mountains to smelling cookies baking), as well as our bodies, emotions, and even thoughts. The part we often grapple with is that Patanjali’s Yoga postulates that even what we call “I”, or consider to be our selves, is actually part of Prakriti. It’s subject to laws of Nature – namely, change. Things evolve and, eventually, dissolve, over and over again.
Purusha, on the other hand, exists beyond time. It is outside of cause and effect, has no location or physical properties, and is ultimately indescribable and inconceivable. (Which, as you might imagine, makes it difficult to talk about.) This pure awareness exists to witness Prakriti; however, it is so different from Prakriti that our consciousness can’t conceive of what it is – so we mix up the Self that’s inconceivable and eternal for the self we understand (made up of Nature).
Speaking metaphorically, consider Purusha as if it were the sky. When we contemplate the sky, we are very quickly distracted by the stuff that the sky contains. We look at cloud formations, airplanes, or even the stars at night. While looking, we forget that these things aren’t part of the sky – they exist within it. Sure, as we get more acquainted with the Nature of clouds and stars, we can recognize to a degree that they’re not part of the sky…but they’re the parts we most often concern ourselves with.
Even when we try to wrap our minds around the enormousness of the sky above, we get caught in traps comparing it to what we know. For example, the sky has no inherent color – we see blue due to light moving through the atmosphere, and black because…well, even that’s unclear, but basically because there’s an absence of color. Even ‘sky’ is an inadequate name, because that only exists in relation to the Earth; once you leave, it’s called ‘space,’ and it’s truly vast.
Purusha is like the sky – infinite, without inherent properties, and visible only in comparison to our perspective – while Prakriti is the stuff we mistake for the sky – clouds, stars, and even color. The more we practice contemplating the sky, or Purusha, the clearer we start to see the backdrop to all the stuff (Prakriti). In some ways, they define each other by being opposites. But, even as we approach a clear perspective, we never truly understand the nature of the ‘sky’ itself. The Purusha, as the container for all the stuff we see, cannot be aware of itself, either. It just is.
So if the witness to our consciousness is a pure awareness that is as difficult to understand as the sky…why bother? What benefit does it have to our lives to be aware of the concepts? Well, Patanjali asserts that most suffering arises from not remembering that we are a Purusha, and mistaking all our thoughts/emotions/physical sensations to be who we are. Since all of those things are constantly changing, it’s no wonder we have crises around our identity. Furthermore, we resist change when it moves us from something desirable to something less desirable – having forgotten that everything evolves and dissolves.
In my view, taking on the perspective of Purusha and Prakriti offers a freedom to handle life. If you allow yourself to go with the flow of Prakriti, truly embracing the concept that everything is always changing, upsets aren’t quite as dramatic. Joyful moments are savored for the fleeting experience they prove to be. And if you practice stilling the mind (which isn’t you, anyway) to the point of reflecting Purusha…there’s a great peace available as you find your Self shining through from the perspective of eternity.