In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali warns us there will be roadblocks on the path to enlightenment. He then gives us a way to gauge whether these roadblocks are present on our own path. Patanjali alerts us to the symptoms of mental distraction in sutra 1.31. In a translation by Reverend Jaganath Carrera, the verse reads: Accompaniments to the mental distractions include distress, despair, trembling of the body, and disturbed breathing.
The symptoms of mental distraction are rampant in the modern world. In the West, we may recognize these symptoms as anxiety and depression. Millions of us take prescription medication or self-medicate to calm our trembling bodies or numb us from a sense of hopelessness about the meaning and purpose of our lives. We seek counseling or coaching to get us back on track to “health.” Unfortunately, we’re often led down the wrong path. Coaches help us improve our self-esteem or believe in our ability to make money, for example. While these aren’t bad things, we’re rarely coached to give up attachments and seek union with the Divine. But that is the goal of yoga.
Symptoms of Mental Distraction: A Yogi’s View
Patanjali knew the symptoms of mental distraction occur not because we can’t focus on getting what we want out of life but because we want the wrong things. When anxiety and depression take over our lives, how many of us suspect a spiritual cause? It’s much easier to focus on improving our relationships, understanding our childhood wounds, or increasing our self-esteem.
But growth in those areas is rarely enough. We may get a better job, make more friends, find a mate, start a family, get fit, lose weight—you name it. Still there is emptiness. The symptoms of depression and anxiety return. So, we switch medications or therapists, or we find better friends or change careers. It’s great for a while…until the new solution stops working.
Patanjali had a different solution to the symptoms of mental distraction. His solutions was, of course, the yogic path. In the next sutra (1.32), Patanjali tells us that the way to overcome the roadblocks to enlightenment and the symptoms that accompany them is concentration on a single subject. In other words, we need a practice that allows us to focus our minds.
Meditation for Anxiety
If you’re with me so far, you may already understand why meditation can help alleviate the suffering caused by anxiety or depression. But it’s not enough to alleviate the symptoms, because they will return. Meditation is part of the whole yogic path. Staying on the path is the surest way to keep mental distractions and their physical symptoms at bay.
Granted no solution is permanent while we remain in human form, but we need to stay focused on the goal. The goal is not a better place in this world. The goal is samadhi—union with God—a state of being beyond this world (even while we’re in it).
This doesn’t mean we can’t live and enjoy a human life. As Reverend Carrera says, “The moral is not: don’t have pets, a business, or a spouse; it’s: always keep your eye on your goal.”
We can do that with yoga!