My mind and I . . . !
A common thread among many questions I receive from my friends, relatives, and Vedānta students is the mind. Here are some typical questions: How do I deal with grief? How can I stop my wandering mind? How come I am unable to meditate? Why do I get bothered so much despite my dedicated years of study of Vedanta? Though the questions appear to be varied and many, the underlying issue is simple: “How can I get a handle on my mind?”
I remember one Vedānta teacher’s comment about body and mind: “Problems with the body? Never mind! Problems with the mind? Doesn’t matter!” By this play of words he drove home one of the underpinnings of both Yoga and Vedānta philosophies: Both mind and body are matter. The mind is subtle matter; and the body, including the brain, is gross matter. I, the indweller of the body, am the wielder of the mind. Ironically, most of us feel that we ARE our minds. My emotions become me. Thus I say, “I am angry, I am sad, I am agitated, I am happy, I am peaceful,” and so on. The wielder of the mind is mistaken to be the mind. It is like the tail wagging the dog. Instead of wielding the mind, I get dragged by my mind wherever it goes.
Accepting this common and natural identification of ‘I’ with ‘my mind,’ let us explore what we can do to deal with the mind. But note that this, too, has to be done only with the mind!
In the Bhagavadgīta, a small section in the epic Mahābhārata written by Vyāsa, it is said “Mind indeed is the cause for bondage and freedom” (Bhagavadgīta 6-5). In this epic, Arjuna, the great warrior and the commander of an army, is stricken with grief at the prospect of having to lead his army in a fratricidal war. To help him deal with his mind in this state of confusion and despair, he asks his charioteer Kṛṣṇa for guidance, entreating him to be his teacher. Kṛṣṇa talks about freedom and the cause of the grief and sense of limitation Arjuna feels.
In this blog post I will not get into the central topic of Kṛṣṇa’s teaching, which is that the appreciation of the truth of one’s being is real freedom. Instead I will focus on what the bulk of Bhagavadgīta covers: the techniques we can use to accomplish a semblance of mastery of the mind. Patañjali’s Yogasūtra is also dedicated to this subject, defining yoga as mastery of the mind (Yogasūtra 1-2). Yogasūtra is the most extensive work on mastering the mind, a how-to manual for accomplishing this goal. A pure and steady mind is necessary to discover that we are not bound or limited, but always free and limitless.
Mind is difficult to control
During the course of the dialog in the Gītā, Kṛṣṇa describes the mind of a yogin to be as steady as a flame in a draft-free place (Bhagavadgīta 6-19)! Our inability to master the mind is eloquently stated by Arjuna: “Kṛṣṇa, mind indeed is agitation. I think mind is very difficult to control like (controlling) the wind (Bhagavadgīta 6-34).” Kṛṣṇa’s response to Arjuna’s plight is equally applicable to all of us today. He replies, “Undoubtedly mind is difficult to master, but it can be controlled by abhyāsa (practice) and vairāgya (dispassion) (Bhagavadgīta 6-35).” Haṭhayoga practitioners who delve into Patañjali’s Yogasūtras can relate to this prescription of practice and dispassion as the means to gain mastery of the mind (Yogasūtra 1-12). Following the footsteps of these two masters, Patañjali and Vyāsa, I will touch upon these twin handles of practice and dispassion to tame the mind. First let us review different practices.
Taming the mind – Part I. Abhyāsa (Practice)
The practice needed to tame the mind is meditation, a word that conjures up all kinds of images and misconceptions. Simply put, meditation is setting the mind at ease. This has nothing to do with religion, Eastern or Western, esoteric or exoteric. A mind at ease is a mind ready to learn. Only with a mind at ease can I be efficient and effective, a prerequisite for success in any type of endeavor. Meditation is a technique to consciously disengage ‘me’ from ‘my mind’, using the mind. This sounds paradoxical, but the reality is that we have only the mind we are blessed with, so we better start with what we have!
Attaching any belief system to meditation can give it a religious connotation that may not appeal to those who don’t subscribe to that religion. People familiar with Eastern religions are aware of many meditative practices associated with those religions, but such practices are present in almost all religions. Many of these techniques, stripped of their religious connotation, can be used to set the mind at ease.
Before I begin to describe some of the many meditative techniques, let me answer the most common question about meditation: How long must I practice? Real mastery in any field involves time and consistent effort. It is true in dealing with the mind as well. A spasmodic or sporadic foray into meditation will not be effective, irrespective of what kind of meditation you engage in. Consistently spending a few minutes a day will yield the results you are looking for.
I. Meditative techniques using the body
Mind being subtle, we can use a grosser, that is, more tangible thing like the body to gain mastery over it. Pūjā, daily worship of the Lord at an altar in the house, helps by focusing the mind on something that is far higher and holier than my body and mind. Taking a shower, picking flowers, doing the worship, and eating only after this daily activity is done have a two-fold benefit: gaining disciplined control over inherent tendencies, impulses, or moods that come in the way of this sacred task; and focusing the mind during this time of worship. Overcoming impulses makes the mind less capable of taking you for a ride with every little fancy.
A little digression here. When I was in fifth grade in a small town public school in India, there was an annual inspection by a District Educational Officer. He would go to classes, observe teaching, visit the administrative office, inspect documents, and write a report. It was big deal for the headmaster of the school. I knew that the officer who visited our school was a Muslim, because he was wearing a muslim cap. In one class, right in the middle of the visit, the officer spread a small carpet on the floor, kneeled in the direction of Mecca, and started his namāz, prayer! This to me is an example of constant devotion to a Higher Being, even in the midst of whatever else the person is called upon to do. The goal of any such religious observance centered on the body is to help one master the mind.
If you do not have an altar of worship at home, going to a temple daily is another activity that achieves the same result. In other religions, the common practice of routinely visiting a church, synagogue, or mosque has the same effect on the mind. Regular observance of fasts–fasting on ekādaśī (the eleventh lunar day after a full or new moon) for Hindus, Lent for Christians, Ramadān for Muslims, Yom Kippur for Jews–are also instances of use of the body as a means for mastering impulses while focussing the mind on something higher..
If you do not have a belief system to fall back on, yogāsana practice accomplishes the same objective. Anyone who is a long time yogāsana practitioner can attest to the efficacy of this secular activity. By a focus on postures, the mind becomes steady and free of distraction; and being regular in the practice helps master the mind’s impulses.
II. Meditative techniques using music and sound
A subtler physical activity to help gain control of the mind is to use chant, song, dance, listening to devotional songs, repetition of a thousand names of the Lord, and so on. Devout Muslims repeat the names of Allah, Catholics say the rosary, Buddhists chant to prepare for meditation. Chanting the Vedas or even listening to others chant produces an effect on the mind, even when the listener doesn’t know the meaning of the words. When I came to the United States in 1970, I heard for the first time Gregorian Chant in New York City. My mind was drawn to it, and I felt as though I were listening to Vedic chanting.
III. Meditative techniques using breathing
Use of breathing is another way to tame the mind. By this I do not mean different kinds of prāṇāyāma, but simply being aware of your breathing, being a witness to the autonomic process of breathing. This technique of observing the breath is one of the well-known meditative practices in Buddhism. It appears simple in that it does not need a correct posture or a teacher to train you in different types of prānāyāma, and it can be done even when you have a few free minutes. In reality, however, the practice is quite subtle; and before you realize it, the mind has wandered away, taking you with it!
IV. Meditative techniques using mantras
Mantra is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘that which protects one by just thinking of it.’ Thus, this is purely a mental process with no movement of the body, a silent, mental repetition of a meaningful sentence or just a few syllables that have no given meaning. Transcendental meditation (TM) uses mantras consisting of just syllables, called bīja–mantras. Bīja means seed. Just as by looking at a seed one cannot easily visualize the tree or the plant it will become, so too through learning the meaning of these mantras we will not know the deities to which they are dedicated or be able to assess their subtle effects on the mind. The most well-known single syllable mantra is Om. It is traditional belief that chanting Om leads one towards renunciation of worldly pursuits. Yogasūtra states that the name of the Lord is Om. Māndūkyopanisad elaborates on this syllable. This is usually the first syllable of most of the mantras centered on different names of the Lord.
It is generally believed that a mantra is not effective unless the person using it has been initiated into its use by a qualified teacher. However, if a person is interested in gaining a degree of mastery of the mind and has no means or desire to search for a person to provide this initiation, s/he can simply pick a mantra and repeat it mentally.
Here are some well known mantras and the name of the Lord to whom each is is dedicated: Om gam gaṇapataye namaḥ (Gaṇeśa, remover of obstacles), Om namaśśivāya (Śiva, destroyer of ignorance), Om namo nārāyaṇāya (Viṣṇu, the protector), Om namo bhagavate vāsudevāya (Kṛṣṇa, an incarnation of Viṣṇu).
A question that naturally comes up is “What if I am not a Hindu, or I am atheist? Can I benefit from a mantra, whether it is composed of just syllables or has the Lord’s name associated with it?” The short answer is “Yes, you can and you will.” The reason is simple. You are not asking for any special benefit from this or that deity you do not care for or believe in. Nor do you care for the esoteric benefits of the mantra. You just use it as a tool to slowly gain control of your mind. You just want to be in charge of your mind.
V. Meditative technique of observing the mind
This method is the essence of vipassana, the mindfulness meditation practice well known in Buddhism. Vipassana is a Pali word; the Sanskrit equivalent is vipaścanam, meaning seeing clearly. The method is delightfully simple to describe, but in practice it is not that easy! You become the observer of your mind, its meandering thoughts, memories, conclusions, judgments and emotions, including boredom and frustration. You just remain a silent observer of whatever comes up in the mind without reaction. This very process results in developing a separation between you and the mind, the instrument you wield.
Taming the mind – Part II. Vairāgya (Dispassion)
Will any of these practices make me a better human being? The simple answer is probably not! These practices only make you adept in using the mind, a mind that is more focussed. Technically you have antahkarananaiscalyam, steadiness of mind; but you do not become automatically a more ethical, forgiving, loving and compassionate person, a better human being. These meditative practices only give you a superior tool, your mind; but you are the one who wields the tool. How you use the tool is dependent on your impulses and your unique set of likes and dislikes. And these can overpower you, causing you to lose control of your mind.
This is illustrated in many Indian epics and mythologies. In the epic Rāmāyaṇa, Rāvaṇa is described as a great devotee of Lord Śiva. He had superior steadiness of mind, but still his behavior was terrible. He abducted Rāma’s wife, refused to listen to the wholesome advice of his brothers and his wife, fought a war with Rāma, and was killed. In the process he lost one of his brothers, his son, and a part his capital was in flames. There are many mythological stories of great devotees of God and sages with great powers coming to grief due to unchanged behavior. The only way for one to become a better human being is to discover a value for positive qualities and work on changing habituated negative thought and action patterns. The tool for this task is the mind, and a steady mind can be more easily directed to changing oneself to be a better human being. The attitude that works synergistically with steadiness of mind and is equally necessary is vairāgya, dispassion.
Dispassion does not mean turning away from life, suppressing or denying our desires. Dispassion is the ability to reduce our clinging and passionate attachment to certain concepts, things and beings. Typically the triggers for these attachments are external: they can be objects or people. The actions we take because of these attachments can be due to insecurity, fear, a need for control or recognition, and so on. Dispassion is based on a mature understanding of the triggers of these impulse-driven actions and the emotional attachments behind them. During moments of calmness and quietude, we can examine the reactions of the mind and see, just observe. This process of non-judgmental introspection is a sure way to gain control over the sort of impulsive, desire-driven actions that invariably cause us grief and mental anguish.
The world around us is not going to change to accommodate you and me and satisfy all our quirks! The best method to achieve peace despite what happens around us is through this dual process of meditative practice and developing dispassion. Following it, you can develop a mind that is both pure and steady, a mind that is managed by you, instead of the other way around.