Most of us don't spend much time thinking about the material nature of human consciousness, but in classical yoga, consciousness is at the heart of the practice. According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, the so-called contents of our consciousness—perceptions, thoughts, emotions, memories, fantasies, even dreams—have a kind of material existence (though naturally, the matter is a lot subtler than that of a tree or a rock). Furthermore, these contents are in constant fluctuation. The word Patanjali uses in sutra 1.2 to aptly describe this movement is vritti (pronounced VRIT-tee), which means "to revolve" or "to whirl about."
While we can't physically touch the vrittis, or fluctuations of mind, we can easily experience them. Close your eyes and, for a few minutes, direct your awareness away from the outer world. If you're a contemplative person, you've probably done this many times before. It's possible to consciously step away from the contents of your mind and observe them more or less "objectively," at least briefly.
Of course, even trained meditators get swept up in the tumultuous vritti parade again and again. That's because, says Patanjali, we don't simply have these fluctuations, we unconsciously identify ourselves with them—so closely that we become them and define ourselves through them. This is our big mistake. Because the contents of our consciousness are circumscribed in both time and space, we also believe ourselves to be ephemeral, finite creatures cut off from all other creatures around us and from the world at large. This nagging inkling of impermanence, temporality, and alienation is a source of great existential sorrow, which taints everything we do. In fact, the contents of our minds are simply passing fancies, mere ripples on the surface of the infinite ocean of our consciousness. Our thoughts and feelings are no more us than the waves are the ocean.
This raises a big question then, maybe the biggest: Who are we really? Ask yourself: In the little self-observation exercise above, who was observing the contents? According to Patanjali, it's the true self, called the Seer (drashtri), who is eternal, illimitable, unchanging, and perpetually joyful (1.3). The Seer is a light source, as it were, that shines on our world—including the contents of our mind, or "consciousness"—but is in no way affected by or attached to whatever happens in those worlds. It isn't hard to contact the Seer anytime you like. But maintaining this contact for more than a couple of minutes is a huge challenge, especially when going about your worldly business outside a formal meditation session.
But that's exactly what Patanjali instructs us to do: permanently shift our identity orientation away from the contents and onto the Seer. Yoga, as Patanjali famously defines it, is the "restriction of the fluctuations of consciousness." The practice begins by sitting and calming the fluctuations of the body, breath, and senses, and then the more elusive whirlings of consciousness.
In the stillness we create, we're able to recognize the fallacy and unhealthiness of our limited and self-limiting identity, and allow it to spontaneously fall away. What remains, Patanjali concludes, is the self or the Seer, abiding forever in its true essence.
Richard Rosen, who teaches in Oakland and Berkeley, California, has been writing for Yoga Journal since the 1970s.