Nirodha

By Ron Kurtz

Yoga is the containment [nirodha] of the modifications of the mind.
—Patanjali (Yoga Sutras)

The third noble truth is Nirodha. This word means to confine. ‘Rodha’ originally meant an earth bank. ‘Ni’ means down.  The image is of being down behind a sheltering bank of earth or of putting a bank around something so as to both confine and protect it. Here again we are talking about the art of containing a fire.                        
—David Brazier, The Feeling Buddha

In Patanjali’s second sutra, the one I’ve quoted above, nirohda is often translated as inhibition rather than containment. Some of the words the Thesaurus coughs up when the prompt is inhibition are: coercion, force, compulsion, pressure, restraint, repression. The sense of all of that is too severe. The word contain, on the other hand, gets us: hold, accommodate, receive, embody, carry. That’s much more the sense of Patanjali’s nirodha. The basic idea is protection. Inhibition sounds much more like oppression. How many times has oppression been proffered as protection. Nevertheless, containment involves at least some inhibition. A gentler kind perhaps.

Back in the 60’s, my friend Philo Farnsworth, III once took me to visit his famous father. (He was famous for the invention which made television possible and was included in a set of stamps of famous inventors, along with Marconi and Edison and a few others.) Philo’s father and I talked (he talked, I listened) about a lot of things. One of them was cancer. Although his field was physics, he thought a lot about cancer and he had a theory about it. His idea was that cells became cancer cells at some given rate due to random fluctuations and mutations. This was normal and unavoidable. The body, just as naturally, had mechanisms for finding these cells and destroying them. This goes on continuously, like an lawnmowers continuously keeping the grass cut. Problems come, he thought, when the lawnmower slows down or the grass grows too fast. It was just a rough idea at the time. For him, it was fun to think about.

Of the four noble truths spoken by Buddha, the first says that some affliction is unavoidable and the second, that we will have reactions to affliction when it happens. The third, nirodha, is that, for freedom’s sake and peace, when these reactions occur, practice containment. (The fourth truth is about how you do that.) For me, the message is this: affliction is a part of life, you cannot escape it without escaping life. Cancer, Farnsworth was saying, is a part of life. You can’t kill something like that without killing life itself. He was saying that the natural thing is to contain it. Life is full of things we need to contain. Balance is another good word. Like keeping our body temperature from going too far this way or that, by doing something to balance the inevitable changes in the weather.

I bring this example up because there’s something real and basic about it. It’s a reflection of our models of life and living in this world. Our fundamental stance, our way of being in the world, is tied to these simple ideas. The usual approach to cancer, drugs, surgery and radiation, in it’s imagery of destruction and war, in its goal of the total destruction of all cancer is just one expression of the denial of affliction, and therefore misses the truth of containment.

Buddhism and Yoga are spiritual disciplines, practices with the aim of having life altering experiences such as seeing God in everyone and everything, experiences of peace, love and understanding. Buddha said that upon awakening, he understood everything. These experiences, he told us, come about through containing the passions that arise in reaction to the inevitable pain and loss that afflict all sentient beings. Its okay to love, to feel joy, just train yourself to be ready, to hold yourself together, to contain yourself when the inevitable changes come. Train yourself!

For Buddha, the middle way was the right path;  drawing back from extremes; balanced between fire and ice; a moderate temperature and a moderate life. The passions, it would seem, require containment. Well, look at all the horrors that flow from the uncontained. Hate, for instance, or greed. Are these reactions to affliction? I think so. How else do such things quicken, but through pain? After years of practice, after long hours of watching and containing the passions and the images, memories and thoughts that feed the fire, after that comes understanding, freedom and peace.

As a psychotherapist, one of my tasks is to help people learn how to contain without repression, how to express without extremes. I help people bring painful thoughts and memories into awareness and these often evoke very strong emotions. I help people hold onto these emotions long enough to understand them, without letting the emotions completely hijack their minds and bodies. Healing starts with honesty and acceptance and the process needs patience and strength. The wound itself tells us what is needed. So, we give it time to speak and more importantly, we listen.

For me, containment is the heart of the healing relationship. Clients learn to handle their suffering without running from it or being overwhelmed by it. Through that they gain understanding and the freedom to change. For the client who is repressed, some way to express that offers relief. For the client who is out of control, a way to calm down. The method, like the eight-fold way, is a path to peace. It starts with whatever is real right now and passes safely through whatever comes to release and understanding. Helping with that is more than just skill, more than expertise and objectivity. It is that yes, but something more…. I would call it friendship…. as a friend might hold us, when a great hurt sweeps through our hearts and minds….  holds us as we pour out our pain and gather the strength to go on. Banked earth, a fire contained and kept safe from the wind.


With permission, excerpts from writings of Ron Kurtz
© 2007 Ron Kurtz Trainings, Inc.