Cultivate Your Attitude

This article is part of my series The Fabric of the Universe, a fictional, artistic interpretation of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. The first article is titled “Here and Now We Begin.”
Please note: The translations of the Sanskrit verses are not literal.

Book I:Verse 33

To achieve a pleasing design, change your attitude.


“In order to weave a stable design, you must have steady hands,” says the teacher. “But even more important is a steady mind. Let us complete an exercise together.”

The students prop their looms up and await his instruction.

“Set your looms aside at present.”

The students look around at one another. The old woman is confused. The boy is surprised. The young man is annoyed. Each questions how an exercise without their looms will help them with their weaving, already having forgotten that, at first, they did not see the relevance of weaving at all.

“Sit up straight, with a tall spine,” the teacher commands. “Plant your feet firmly on the ground, and rest the backs of your hands on your thighs. Close your eyes.”

The students obey.

“Now, I want you to call to mind an occasion when you saw someone who was very happy. Try, in particular, to recall an example of this happening when you were not feeling happy yourself. Perhaps you were going through a difficult time in your life or had just received some bad news or had an altercation with someone or were ill.”

The teacher pauses for several minutes to allow the past to come forth into the present. He watches the students’ faces. The old woman’s forehead creases deeply. The corners of the boy’s mouth turn down. The young man’s nostrils flare.

“Bring that scene into focus on the screen of your mind. Look closely at that person’s face. Notice the eyes, the mouth. Are they smiling? Laughing? Does the person see you or address you? Remember.”

Again, the teacher waits and watches. The students breathe heavily, loudly, although they are unaware of this. When he speaks again, their bodies jerk.

“Now see yourself. Where are you located in relation to this person? How are you standing? Look at your own face. What do you see there?”

The students’ expressions morph as if formed from soft clay.

“Bring your awareness deep into your body. What types of sensations do you detect? Where?”

The students breathe fast and hard and their bodies begin to rock.

“How does this person’s happiness make you feel?”

The young man jumps up and his seat clatters to the floor behind him, but before he can utter a word, the teacher commands, “Stop!”

The students freeze exactly as they are and are unable through their own force to move at all.

After a minute, the teacher waves his hand and says, “Now pick up your looms and weave. Do not speak.”

With difficulty, the students turn their attention back to their looms, pick up their wefts, and begin to weave. The teacher takes his seat, closes his eyes, and sits motionless for a long time. At first, he hears the students weave with much haste and noise, then less. When he senses they have stopped, he rises.

“Again, sit with your eyes closed. Imagine the same scene. Go through the same steps as before to bring the other person into clear focus, but stop there and wait.” He pauses. “Now, turn your vision to yourself. Notice again your expression, the sensations in your body, but then stop. I will ask you the same final question as before, and I want you to change the answer. Not just in your mind, but in your heart. Regardless of your reaction last time, this time you must work to cultivate feelings of friendship and fellowship with this person.”

All three students open their eyes and stare at the teacher, though they do not see. Their resistance surrounds them like armor. He raises his hand, and as he lowers it, their eyes close.

“Now, answer within yourself: How does this person’s happiness make you feel? Do not open your eyes again until you can honestly say you embody a sense of camaraderie.”

The teacher sits and waits. Before long, the boy opens his eyes, then the old woman. They wait, patient and quiet and still. The longer the young man takes, the more deeply the other students are moved by his effort and his struggle, written clearly in the distortions of his face as he battles his own demons. They both feel a ball of compassion arise from within, expand, and spill out toward the young man. It emanates from the center of their chests in gentle waves of pale green and pink that swirl all around him. Night falls, and they all sit together in darkness until dawn, when the young man opens his eyes and smiles with the sun.

“Well done,” the teacher says to all of them. “Now, please return to your looms and weave again.”

The students rise with joy this time, and set themselves to their task with enthusiasm. They chatter and laugh and take time to look at one another’s tapestries, complimenting this stitch or that color. When they feel complete, they stop and rest.

“There is just one more exercise to complete today. It will be the most difficult. Be strong and persist. Close your eyes. Now, dig deep, and bring to mind someone wicked, someone who has acted with egregious intent or caused great suffering, to you personally or to someone you know or to the world at large.” He hears their hearts beat loudly and smells their fear, tastes it even. “When you don’t think you can bear the feeling another second, go to your loom and weave.”

It does not take long before all three are threading furiously. Soon, the teacher says, “Keep weaving as I speak. Start to wonder how this person may have become the way they are. Remember that no one is born evil or stained. We all come from the same place when we are born, and we will all return to it when we die, and we are always perfect in that place. It is not possible to be otherwise. Contemplate this, and weave until your attitude toward this person diffuses into nothing. It is not necessary to go beyond this. Simply empty out what is already there.”

The sun sets long before they are finished, and when the last one steps away, they are all spent.

“You have worked hard these long days and learned much. Look at your own tapestry carefully now, and then at those of one another.”

They stand and circulate slowly from one loom to the next, and it is soon obvious to all them which parts of each design were woven in turmoil and which in peace. When they are done, the teacher asks if there are any questions.

“Yes,” the boy says. “I am curious. There does not seem to be a difference between the sections created in the various disturbed states. The strands woven in disgust or envy look the same as those drawn in fear or anger: gnarled, bent, disorganized. And the same is true for those sections that follow. The areas created in friendliness or indifference are the same in their essence: well spaced, even, precise. How is this possible?”

The old woman and the young man nod in agreement.

“Very good,” says the teacher. “You are beginning to see clearly. The answer is: there is no difference.”

The students look back at him with blank faces, so he continues.

“Anger, fear, envy, disgust, aversion, judgment… You may experience these feelings differently in your physical body—a clenching of the stomach versus a tearing in the chest, for example—but they all have the same effect on your mind. In its natural state, the mind is like a calm lake. When you experience an emotion, this creates a ripple and the lake is then disturbed. The mind does not differentiate between emotions; it simply becomes disturbed. And when you manage to regain control over the emotion, to rein it in until it dissipates, the mind simply returns to its natural, peaceful state, which is always the same.”

The teacher pauses until this sinks in. “In order to weave a beautiful tapestry, you must have a beautiful mind. This is the key. Do not lose it.”