Love or Confusion

Most people who’ve spent a significant amount of time hanging around the yoga-sphere have heard at least one yoga teacher put forward the proposition that, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, when one attains stillness of the mind then not only is the true nature of the self revealed but one simultaneously merges into an Absolute Oneness of Being beyond all form, qualities, names, and relativity, constituting an ever-present reality of pure consciousness, exquisite peace, complete knowledge, immeasurable happiness, and unconditional love.

Wow, that sounds great, but… uh, love for who?

“Others” you say? What others? In a state of Absolute Oneness, there are no ‘others’, no multiplicity of beings, no us and them, no you and I, no we or me; we’re all One.

And if we’re all One then the experience of love can’t happen because the experience of love requires a lover and a beloved. Love is the energy that connects one to another, the electrical charge of union that enlivens the heart of those engaged in exchanges of love.

And love is the ultimate source of happiness so if there’s no experience of love then you can kiss happiness goodbye, too.

Someone who adheres to the philosophy of Absolute Oneness may reply by saying that we “become love itself”. Well, that doesn’t make any sense to me, either. For starters, it still leaves the question “love for who?” And a feeling is categorically different from a person who feels. A person may have love, be defined by love, and be the personification of love, but they’d still be a person possessing love, not love itself.

Besides, I’d rather have love than be love because if I have love I can offer it to someone else whereas if I am love I can’t do anything. People activate love; without people, nothing happens. And people naturally desire to be active and engaged with other people. If I found myself in that lonely state of ‘being love’ I’d probably be fixed in meditation on a song by the Jefferson Airplane.

Perhaps we “see ourselves in others, understanding that they are actually us in a different form”. If that’s the case then it’s not the other that we love, it’s our self. I don’t think love would be the right word for offering feelings of attraction and affection to our own reflection, but narcissism might be.

A common response to this critique is; “well, language is inadequate; yoga can’t really be described in words and that’s why Patanjali’s definition of yoga is paradoxical; he doesn’t really tell us what yoga is because it can’t be explained, just experienced.”

Really? It seems pretty straightforward to me: Patanjali clearly states that yoga is the cessation of the agitations of the mind for the sake of seeing the true self reflected in the calm mind, giving the seer the realization that the mind is external to the self and may be relinquished in the state of self-realization. Simply put, the mind is an illusory imposition on the self; the true self does not depend on the mind for its existence. What’s so paradoxical about that?

Taking an indirect approach to understanding any wisdom text is a sure way to obscure its self-evident meaning. The sutras only take on the appearance of paradox when we insist on reading things into the text that the text itself does not emphasize; nowhere in the Yoga Sutras does Patanjali explicitly say that we ever merge into the Oneness of anything; abiding in one’s own true nature is not the same thing as ceasing to be an individual being. He does, however, explicitly state that there are two categories of beings: Ishwara – a being beyond the reach of the obstacles to yoga – and everyone else.

As yogis we’re all about relationships – with our friends, family, lovers, teachers, pets, the world – until we bang into the ultimate relationship: our relationship with a Supreme Being. We often have such an aversion to that relationship that we’d rather disappear into a void then risk engaging in it. Or we’re so determined to believe that we are ultimately the Supreme Being (somehow, someway, despite all evidence to the contrary) that we’ll embrace a wide variety of word juggleries and logical fallacies in order to hold onto it. I think this has more to do with psychological needs than with sound philosophy.

The assumption that merging into the Oneness of Being is the ultimate goal of classical yoga is so pervasive that few people really question it and most yoga teachers who teach from a traditional spiritual perspective offer the idea to their students as if it were a self-evident fact. But it’s not a fact at all; it’s an opinion. In fact, it’s actually an opinion that most schools of classical Indian philosophy disagree with.

So one may reasonably ask, “where does this idea come from and why is it so readily accepted without much critical inquiry?” Or, to put it another way, “is this love, baby, or is it, uh…. just confusion?


  1. Posted April 11, 2011 at 11:20 AM | Permalink | Reply

    If love is a verb, does it HAVE to have an object? Is it more like “to eat” or “to run” … running is just something you DO. It doesn’t have to have an object, or be to someWHERE. You can just run. I agree with your assertions if such a supposition is made that love must have an object.

    However, to be more metaphysical, it’s also possible to assume that love is a vibration, or even, maybe, un-matter (why not?). With that assumption (love as a vibration), to be absorbed in it is to see oneself as just another expression of the universal vibration. If that is ‘being god’ then yes, that’s exactly what it is.

    • Posted April 11, 2011 at 2:45 PM | Permalink | Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Pam. I think love does have to have an object and a subject in order for love to be experienced. To eat: what is being eaten and by whom? To run: who is running and where are they running to? In order for an abstract concept to have meaning there must be an application of the concept and that requires someone – a person – who is applying it. You can run just for the sake of running but the experience of running doesn’t actualize until a person runs. Eating doesn’t happen in a vacuum; a person eats something and experiences eating.

      If we were capable of being both the sum total of all universal vibrations and the source of those vibrations (vibrations are an effect of a cause: someone or something that is vibrating) then we might be God. To be absorbed in the vibration of love to the extent that we are able to be an expression of love is, I believe, akin to being like a ray of sunshine that expresses the essence of the sun. In this sense the ray of sunshine and the sun are one: a qualitative oneness. But a ray is not its own source (the sun) or all the rays emanating from that source. So there is a quantitative difference along with the qualitative oneness that has to be taken into account when we consider whether or not it’s really possible for us to be God, as a verb or otherwise.

      And here (with thanks to Swami BV Tripurari for his illumination of this point) is where the real paradoxes show up: we can, and should, become love itself insofar as we can become as full an expression of love as our capacity for love allows. The first paradox: the full and complete expression of love, which is to say the sum total of all love in absolute purity, is both God and not God simultaneously; a distinction must remain in order for the experience of love to manifest. The second paradox: even though this love is full and complete, it perpetually increases and expands; no matter how much is added to that complete love, it always was an always will be complete.

      Check out this essay and comments by Steven Rosen for some more thoughts on this topic:

  2. Maretta Jeuland
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 4:37 PM | Permalink | Reply

    I like this but can’t seem to sign up with Word Press.

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