vastu-sāmye citta-bhedāt tayor vibhaktaḥ panthāḥ
Each individual person perceives the same object in a different way, according to their own state of mind and projections. Everything is empty from its own side and appears according to howyou see it. (PYS IV.15)
What is real? Is there an absolute truth? To each and everyone of us, there appears a narrative that runs through the course of our existence. It is our truth. But is it an absolute? Is our experience of the world the real Truth, with a capital T? Can we even be absolutely sure that when two people describe a green plant, they are truly perceiving the same colour?
This sutra tells us that our perception of the world is subjective. Whilst we may all see the same object (or prakriti, nature) our experience of it may be quite different. In a yoga class it may be an asana that appears incredibly hard to one student, and particularly easy to another. A person may be loved in countless ways by their partner, but be an enemy to their next door neighbour. In this perception of the world, our ‘truth’ is tainted by, this sutra tells us, our state of mind, our past experiences, and the way that these might colour our past, present or future impressions.
If we look to science (Journal of Experimental Psychology: General), the brain almost seems hardwired into this pattern! We think we see our surroundings, but our eyes can in fact only perceive sharply an area as small as a thumbnail on the end of an outstretched arm. The majority of us do not move around with this tunnel vision, and this is because... amazingly, “our nervous system uses past visual experiences to predict how blurred objects would look in sharp detail”!
As we start to understand that we see through the lens of past experience, karmas, opinions, we develop the knowledge that our reality is often a story we create for ourselves. In the yoga class, the asana is not inherently challenging or simple, our partner is not inherently delightful or unpleasant. These objects are “empty from (their) own side”, they do not carry these qualities. As seers, we project our past, our judgements (good or bad) onto them.
So how do we trust the world around us? By understanding that whilst our consciousness may fluctuate and change, that the object does in fact not change. Whilst our experience of the truth may be flawed by the interaction of the gunas (sattva, rajas, tamas), we know that if the object itself does not change, then there is a Truth with a capital T! Through the practice of yoga, we begin to shift our role as an opinionated victim of the fluctuations of the mind, to a simple but empowered witness. In this lack of prejudice, we become detached from the Ego, and experience the unchanging, the Truth with a capital T, enlightenment (or maybe truth with capital E!). In this freedom from tainted vision, we experience a shared, higher reality, in which we can become an active player of our daily life.
The play of the gunas is strong, and in the practice, there are many pitfalls, but simply with the understanding of this sutra, there is a cognition of our flawed, filtered vision. We start to shift our awareness to a shared, higher reality, and create a sphere in which we become an active participant. Through the assimilation of this sutra, we grasp the panorama of view points into our world, and gain the ability to be more compassionate beings: we may see four sides to an argument without having to take conflictual standpoint, we change our diet as we discern the perspective of fish beings, cows, etc.
Yogis are Truth seekers. Not so they can prove their righteousness, but to lead a compassionate and enlightened life in which the fluctuations of the mind quieten down to reveal Purusha: that shared unchangeable.