Humans prefer linearity. It’s just part of how our minds work so long as they are tied to brains and bodies: first A happens, then B follows, and so on in progression all the way to Z. Rationally, we know that things are rarely that simple, but even so we fall into the trap of interpreting everything by the logic of the line. At this point, even the physical sciences are picking up more and more on the fact that not even time itself acts as a simple straight line. Certainly we can look back upon our lives and build a narrative out of events, just as historians do with the broader strokes and larger scale of societies, but as-lived events can seem disorderly or at least hard to follow.
Knowing this is as important in sadhana as anywhere else. At least, it can save a lot of frustration and heartache to remain aware of it. For this reason, Yoga is often described as taking a helical path: it can feel linear while on it because you can only see so far ahead and behind; it can feel circular because you keep seeing the same scenery repeatedly from a very similar angle; but, in truth, every move is taking up upward or downward even if it is too subtle to notice until you’ve gone a few layers in a single direction.
In terms of lived experience, this means simply that we will not always act at the level of our potential. I may achieve a deep samadhi today during meditation today, but the next three days may seem quiet flat. Or, I may be quite easygoing, patient, kind, and compassionate for weeks only to have a bad day of getting into a pointless argument. In either case, I may feel that I have backslid. And, in fact, I often do feel that way.
But the fact is that, for whatever reasons, we will often find the balance of our minds shifting considerably from one day to the next. Whether we trace it to astrological considerations, or purely internal causes, the mind roils and seethes. Until a Yogi has reached the goal, the mind is still in flux, not yet fully resting in its own nature.
In technical jargon, Nature is herself characterized by three irreducible, intertwined qualities named sattva, rajas, and tamas — clarity, activity, and darkness. As such, everything in Nature, which includes the mind, is composed of these qualities and manifests them to varying degrees. The mind, being the subtlest manifestation of Nature, shows forth these qualities quite purely and is easily overwhelmed by one or another of them. The practice of Yoga is sometimes defined as the process of increasing sattva’s hold on the mind so that it predominates and suppresses rajas and tamas. Rajas and tamas cannot be gotten rid of, however, as they are as fundamental as sattva, but the nature of the mind is primarily sattva, the nature of life is rajas, and that of matter is tamas — so, as the mind is cleaned up of impurities and allowed to rest more and more in its own inherent nature, sattva naturally comes to the fore and calm clarity reigns.
Day to day life, however, has a tendency to draw the other qualities to the surface. When, for instance, activity is demanded of us, rajas naturally arises. And when survival instincts such as fight-or-flight responses are called up, as with trauma, depression, and anxiety, tamas takes over. These patterns, of whatever qualitative nature, collectively make up the subconscious of the individual. Patanjali makes clear in his Yoga Sutras — and Vyasa even moreso in his commentary — that it is the job of the Yogi to root out and replace rajasic and tamasic patterns with sattvic ones, and that this is itself a full-time occupation which does not arrive at completion overnight. The advice of Sri Ramana Maharshi and other teachers, then, is not to feel overwhelmed by guilt and regret over those times when our lower responses come out to play, but to make the most of those times when we are at our best. Over time, this demonstrably will reduce our more harmful patterns and those times of sattvic lucidity will become more common and will last longer.
As ever, guilt, shame, regret, and anger have their healthy prupose, but that purpose is momentary. They show us that something has gone wrong, that our situation is a bad one. Holding on to those responses after they’ve delivered their message does nobody any good. We are so accustomed, however, to not just giving them a loud voice in our lives but to actually identifying ourselves with them. This can only change through increased awareness and allowing ourselves to truly rest in that awareness.