The Seer and the Seen: How Yoga Liberates Us From Illusion

the seer and the seen

In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali makes a few statements about  the seer and the seen that are confusing at first glance. The seer is us and the seen is our perception of reality. Sutra 2.21 tells us, The seen exists only for the seer.

Patanjali seems to be suggesting that the only reason there are things to see is so we can see them. And if that’s not odd enough (it may even seem pointless), the next sutra points out that liberation eliminates the seen altogether!

Are the seer and the seen the same thing, then? Or is the seen just an illusion? Who is the seer without anything to see? If all this makes your head spin, you’re not alone! It’s hard to grapple with these kinds of questions without a sense of humor at times.

But a closer look can help us make sense of what Patanjali is getting at when he instructs us on the seer and the seen. When we identify too closely with our perceptions, we live in ignorance. When we eliminate perception—that is, when we are liberated—we are freed.

Is The Union of the Seer and the Seen Desirable?

Sutra 2.23 says, The union of owner (Purusha) and owned (Prakriti) cause the recognition of the nature and powers of them both.

This sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? But in the next sutra, we discover, The cause of this union is ignorance.

This may be one of the more confusing sections of The Yoga Sutras. Union with creation will help us understand both it and ourselves, which at first may appear to be a good thing. However, Patanjali suggests this should not be our goal. Instead, he says we need to be liberated from our perception of creation entirely!

How to Liberate the Seer

It will probably come as no surprise that yoga is the method Patanjali prescribes for liberating the seer from the seen. In sutra 2.26, he tells us briefly how to eliminate the ignorance that keeps us enmeshed with perception: Uninterrupted discriminative discernment is the method for its removal.

Discriminative discernment is called viveka in yoga circles. It is the ability to pierce through illusion and understand what is true. That is, it enables us to understand who we truly are and in so doing, liberates us from ego. That is the goal of yoga.

Once we have refined our understanding of reality, aspects of our human nature drop away. We don’t need them anymore. We recognize our true Self and become one with the divine.

One’s wisdom in the final stage is sevenfold, Patanjali tells us in sutra 2.27.

The Practice of Yoga

To reach the final stage—the wisdom Patanjali mentions in sutra 2.27—we must practice the eight limbs of yoga. It is in sutra 2.28 that we first learn of the limbs that form the framework for our practice.

The eight limbs of yoga are:

  1. the yamas – ethical principles for relating to the world
  2. the niyamas – self-discipline
  3. asana – the physical postures
  4. pranayama – breathing exercises
  5. pratyahara – withdrawal of the sense
  6. dharana – one-pointed attention
  7. dhyana – meditation
  8. samadhi – union with the divine

Next, Patanjali will teach us how to dive more deeply into the practice.

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Maria Kuzmiak

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