This is an excerpt of an conversation that Deepak Chopra and I had last year on the inner meanings of Ashtanga Yoga. The full interview will be published in the next issue, out in July of Namarupa Magazine
You can become aware of whatever you want to. Attention and intention, focused awareness and intention—sankalpa—these are the ways that the un-manifest, the infinite, become the manifest, the finite. Mind, body, universe.
Dharana is the sixth step. And then following this the seventh step, dhyana, which means meditation. The last or eighth step is samadhi, which means transcendence. The combination of dharana, which is focused awareness, dhyana, which is meditation, and samadhi, which is transcendence, means union between subject and the object of perception or awareness, this combination is called samyama. And this leads to what are called siddhis.
The great Maharishi Patanjali says that when we practice samyama we develop what are called siddhis. Siddhi is the name of a goddess. And the goddess is the one who unfolds supernormal powers.
There’s another goddess who’s her sister called Riddhi. And Riddhi has influence over the elements and forces of the universe. So if you have siddhis, now you can look into the future, you can look into the past, you can remember other lifetimes, you can cultivate dormant potentials of love, compassion, joy. You can find hidden objects. All kinds of things that are considered as these supernormal powers.
They’re not really supernormal; they’re dormant potentials that exist in all of us, in that part of our being which is non-local. Local is here and now. This, where we are sitting now, is a local place. Non-local is getting to a domain which is outside space, time and causality. It’s where the software of the universe exists. The cosmic mind. Dharana, dhyana, and samadhi are the key to that. And when we have this, we open up these potentials which are called supernormal powers, siddhis and riddhis, but which are actually dormant potentials.
Patanjali warns us that you shouldn’t get attached to these siddhis, because that’s not the goal of yoga. The goal of yoga is union with the divine. But here is the proof. As you get into union with the divine, you notice that you have all these, what today people call psychic powers, which is another terrible word. Because these are normal dormant potentials. Everyone is a psychic that way.
What does Patanjali have to say about?
A bunch of things. First, I just want to backtrack a little. I really like that you brought up Riddhi and Siddhi as these two twin goddesses. Siddhi is also sometimes translated as “perfection”. But Riddhi and Siddhi are actually the two wives of Ganesha.
One of the meanings of Ganesha is that he is the lord of thresholds. And a threshold can be an invisible border between two different spaces. You walk from one room into another and you cross over a threshold. That threshold is kind of invisible because the space in one room is the same as the space in the other, but you enter into a different dimension.
When you go, for example, from the outside world into a temple, you’re entering into a spiritual space. When you walk from the outside world and you get on your yoga mat, you’re entering into another world that you’re creating there.
That crossing over the threshold into a spiritual dimension is one of the things that Ganesha rules, which is why he has a human body and an elephant head, a different dimension. This is my favorite meaning of Ganesha—the lord of thresholds. One of the invisible thresholds of our body is the brain stem. It’s part of the brain, but it doesn’t have a well defined structure like the prefrontal cortex or anything like that; it’s a small, one-inch part of the brain stem called the medulla oblongata, between the spinal cord and midbrain. It’s a crossing-over place between all of the brain activity and the rest of the nervous system.
When we access Ganesha and he grants us access through his blessings, we get the whole brain activity and transcend the nervous system and enter into this larger space. Ganesha rests in the brain stem, in the medulla oblongata, which is reminiscent of his bija mantra which is “gam”, and also is in the guttural region of the throat, ruled by the vagus nerve.
With the perfections, there’s a principle in the philosophy of sankhya called satkaryavada, which means that the effect is contained within the cause. For example, if you grind a sesame seed, you get tahini, depending on where you are, or you could get sesame oil. If you plant an apple seed, you’re going to get an apple tree. You’re never going to plant an apple seed and get tahini, and you’re never going to grind up a sesame seed and get an apple tree. Because contained within the sesame seed is the potential for anything that comes from sesame.
Every single object in the world has latency, something that exists within it already that will manifest and grow when you meditate upon it. If you meditate upon the sun, for example, you’re going to get the knowledge of all of the heavenly bodies that come along with that. If you meditate on the kurma nadi, which falls right at the base of the throat near the vagus nerve, you get steadiness, sthairyam.
All of the different perfections are actually objects or things within the body and the world that we can meditate upon. And when we have sameness with that thing we’re meditating upon, the inherent quality of that thing will manifest in our lives. And it could be anything from absolute, pure, focused awareness to knowing a past life.
Okay, when you look at Ganesh, and a very simple way of looking at Ganesh is to see that every part of his body actually has meaning. You see a big head—he’s introspective, meditative, reflective; big, flapping ears— he’s the best listener in the world. Listens not only with his ears, but with his heart, his mind, his soul.
The trunk of an elephant, it has power, but it also has discernment. So the trunk can uproot a tree, but it can also find a needle in a haystack. The two tusks, one tusk is broken, one is whole. Life comes in opposite pairs. There’s joy, there’s suffering. There’s up and down. There’s good, there’s inertia, and there’s enlightenment, there’s ignorance. And he’s witnessing that.
He has a big belly—he says, “I can digest your problems. Give them to me, and I’ll digest them.” And sometimes you see that around his belly is a snake. He’s reeling in his ego. You see one foot in the ground, one foot usually raised. One is in the absolute, in the transcendent world, and the raised is in this world. He’s in this world and not of it. He’s local and he’s not local.
There’s a rat there, which is to remind us that even the enlightened can succumb to greed and temptation. And the two goddesses, Siddhi and Riddhi, are there. If you represent the state of consciousness that Ganesh symbolizes, then the goddesses are going to support you. And these goddesses will awaken your dormant potentials, the siddhis and the riddhis. Is that a fair description?
Yes. Perfectly beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.10