The systematic practice of raja yoga, the “royal” path, consists of three components: tapas (austerity, or going against the grain of our conditioning), svadyaya (self-study, or self-inquiry to understand the conditioning and overcome it), and ishvara pranidhana (the unshakeable faith in the ever-guiding and protecting power of a primordial inner guru, teacher, or guide).
Vichara, or self-inquiry, is a Sanskrit term that is loosely translated as "discernment." It is a systematic process that offers us a methodology for making the unconscious, conscious – a key tool offered by Vedanta which enables us to attain the ultimate goal of stilling the fluctuations of the mind and connecting with the Infinite, Pure Consciousness. As in Jungian psychology, which seeks to bring subconscious process and symbolic content to conscious awareness, a vichara process in yoga helps us to become more intimately aware of these subconscious patterns and tendencies so they can lose their power to seduce and entrap us.
Ultimately, vichara is the ability to maintain a continuous awareness on the higher Self, the Paramatman or Ishvara, the untainted Purusha, or Supreme Soul. But in the initial stages, it helps bring us in touch with the higher aspects of our mind, the Buddhi, or wise, intuitive intellect – differentiating it from the lower functions of the mind, known as manas, the survival instincts, citta, the storehouse of all our memories, and ahamkara, the I-sense or ego identity. It is this Buddhi wise mind that gets us closer to that which is beyond the mind: Purusha, the Soul.
The Yoga Vasishtha, one of the foremost Vedantic texts, is profusely illustrated with examples of vichara, recommending self-inquiry as the highest and most direct path to Self-Realization. So how do you do it? Here are some simple questions to ask yourself when you find yourself distressed or confused:
What situation or thought precipitated your thought or feeling?
What is the predominant emotion or feeling? (sadness, anger, fear…)
How did it manifest behaviorally? (yelling, withdrawing, judgment…)
What is the seed/root desire you need to uncover? We all live with these desires and they “color” our thoughts. They can be caused by , or past impressions; , the tendencies they engender; and , the false beliefs that only live in our imagination and aren’t inherently real, separating us thus from . Through disentanglement from the thought forms, pure consciousness can begin to emerge.
Is the desire coming from our:
Higher Self, Soul, Purusha? How our Soul wants to express its purpose in this lifetime?
Or our lower self: manas, chitta, ahamkara, or Buddhi?
Can you trace it back the desire to when it took root in your life? While not necessary, this question can illuminate the origin of the unfulfilled desire to an event in early life that is still driving us.
Does it require adjustment (change something) or contentment (live with it) or both?
How do you get rid of the desire that initiated the distress? Meditation uses fire of self-knowledge (jatavedas agni) to dissolve it. It increases our witness consciousness so we can dis-identify with the lower mind. Vyasa, in his commentary of the Yoga Sutras, recommends contemplating the Self/Purusha that is intransient so our awareness of it burns so brightly that it burns away avidya, the sense that the impermanent is real. We can then surrender to the divine, ishvara pranidhana, which connects us to something greater, thus allowing us to let go of outcomes (vairagya).
Yoga Sutra 3.56 sattva purusayoh suddhi samye kaivalyam iti states that “with the attainment of equality between the purest aspect of sattvic buddhi and the pure consciousness of purusha, there comes absolute liberation, and that is the end.”
Yoga Sutra 4.25 vishesa darshinah atma bhava bhavana vinivrittih completes the process, stating that “for one who has experienced this distinction between seer and this subtlest mind (cleared of all the colorings), the false identities and even the curiosity about the nature of one's own self come to an end.”
Complete liberation and the end of the search: This is the ultimate gift of vichara. May you be curious to begin the inquiry.