In Ajanta, India, there exists a valley filled with cave temples carved straight out of the stone walls. In the first two caves along the pathway, stories of the Buddha’s lives (from the Jataka Tales), painstakingly painted by the light of candles reflected in mirrors through the windows and doors, stretch in full-color across the walls. Further along in the valley, one of the temples depicts a giant Buddha seated serenely underneath a webbing of delicate arches and columns vaulting overhead. And in the final cave, a 70-foot long “sleeping Buddha” stretches out across the side wall.
And, somewhere in the middle, is a cave which was never finished. It was never finished because the artisans, who literally had to remove the innards of a mountain wall to create a temple that fit their “vision” encountered a giant crack in the floor of this cave. It couldn’t be fixed because the process of creating these temples was not additive, but subtractive. In order to express the beauty of what they saw with their inner eye, they had to remove, literally, mountains of stone. Each corbel, each arch, each figure, had to be “revealed” by chipping away the stone that covered it.
Yoga is like that too.
In Yoga Sūtra 4.3, Patañjali refers to a farmer clearing away earthen dams to allow the water to flow through his fields. The analogy is to the process of clearing away the clutter in our minds, as well as habits that no longer serve us, to be able to allow our true spirit to shine through.
Yoga is a process of removal rather than addition. It doesn’t matter how many texts you study, how many mantras you can recite, or how many mālā beads you own. Those things are not going to get you there. Rather, it is a process of removing the impediments, or “cleaning the mirror,” to be able to catch a glimpse of a clearer vision of who we really are.
This process is about reaching a more sattvic, or pure state, in which the entanglements of the world do not skew our perceptions as much. It is human nature to create stories to understand ourselves and how we fit into the world. And, it is also human nature to search for support for those stories. And every time we remember them, we tend to entrench ourselves more deeply into them. We even tend to slightly alter them, without realizing it, each time we summon up a memory, to provide more supporting evidence for the novel that is our life.
But, sometimes, those stories can create problems for us. Sometimes, our initial perception was not accurate. And, what, really, is accurate anyways? My view on any situation is going to be a little different from everybody else’s, even if we shared the same experience. This is because our perception of any experience is shaped by our past experiences and our past stories. And these are different for everybody.
The earnest practice of yoga allows us to begin to shed our attachments to these perceptions to begin to expose the inner beauty of our true essences. It also allows us to be able to exist in the world with less conflict and strife because we don’t feel so compelled to hold on to these stories and perceptions any more. We are able to rise above our own small worlds, and begin to see a “bigger” picture. And like the ancient artists of Ajanta, we begin to reveal our inner beauty. We are able to abide in a more peaceful state, and are able to also catch glimpses of this same beauty, purity and inner peacefulness in those with whom we share this world.