Mouna - a Fast For the Mind

Swami Prabodhananda Saraswati

Have you ever stopped to think about the superabundance of stimulation, ideas and objects which accost our minds every day? We collect beautiful carpets, books and even other people, and then suffer from mental indigestion. Yoga provides an opportunity to unload the mind of all the useless items it has accumulated. Through the practice of yoga we can fast the mind just as we fast the body, and in the process purify our entire being. This is one of the greatest benefits of yoga.

In the physical body there is a continual accumulation of toxins and waste materials formed as by products of digestion, metabolism and infection. When we fast, we relieve the body of the burden of digestion, so that it can devote more energy to the purification process. A general house cleaning ensues, and all of the unused, decaying cells and tissues of the body are broken down and eliminated, along with the poisons.

The same thing happens in the mind. Millions of impressions accumulate at different levels of the mind. These deeply rooted impressions are known as samskaras. They form an unmoveable wall around our own Self. Yogic practices gently chip away at this wall, breaking down the encrusted samskaras so that they can be eliminated and the true Self revealed.

One of the best practices for purifying the mind is mouna, or silence. During mouna, one fasts the mind from its usual heavy diet of continual conversation, interaction and stimulation. In this way mental energy is freed, and can be applied to self-investigation and inner communication. Observance of mouna is also a discipline, a sadhana, which increases self-control and willpower. Control of the tongue is a major step towards control of the mind.

In spiritual life there are many examples of people practising mouna. In the Catholic religion there is a sect called the Trappist Order, which observes complete silence. Mouna has been a well known practice in India from time immemorial; the sadhus who practise it, often for years at a time, are called mounis.

There are varying degrees of mouna. In karna mouna, or control of speech, other forms of communication, such as note writing, gesturing and eye contact, are still permitted. However, when there is total withdrawal from all external communication, this is kastha mouna. Eventually all doubts are cleared from the mind, and the illusory character of the world with all its gunas is realized. This state is known as susupti mouna. The highest form of mouna, when all thoughts are completely annihilated, is called maha mouna.

Mouna is a very flexible technique. You don't need to sit; you don't need a special place to practise it; you don't even need to stop your normal activities. It is an experience that you can try either by yourself or in the presence of others. At first you may wish to try it for one day during a weekend, and then continue on a regular basis, once a week or once a month. You should feel fresh and relaxed at the end of the day. Your relaxed mind will be able to fulfil the tasks of the week with accuracy and speed, in a natural spontaneous way.

Mouna should be approached with a positive attitude and a clear sense of purpose. Only tension and frustration will result if it is done out of force or compulsion. However, if you experience some turmoil arising during the practice, don't worry. It is a natural process of purification taking place on the mental plane.

As the negative samskaras within us are being exhausted, they rise to the surface of the mind, creating momentary disturbances. When this occurs, we should try to maintain some self-awareness and discipline in order to prevent these disturbances from throwing us off balance. However, in the beginning, if we get very angry, nervous or depressed during mouna, it is wise to limit the practice to only half a day.

Mouna is also very useful for transmuting negative expression into divine qualities. Once there was a man in the ashram with a very violent temper. Swamiji told him to practise mouna. After spending a few months in silence, he became a shining personality, emanating love and working very hard. Through the practice of mouna he was able to redirect the energy lost in anger in more positive directions.

The regular practice of mouna changes a person's whole pattern of communication. His speech becomes more direct, concentrated and clear. When he does choose to speak, his brief words carry great power and meaning. He is able to command the total attention of his listeners, and they are able to hear the deeper truths underlying his words.

If you find the practice of mouna agreeable, once a year you can arrange a more extreme rest for the mind and embark on a ten day silent retreat, The benefits of such a longer retreat are truly remarkable. However, during a long retreat, it is important to keep a good balance of physical work, meditation, a little study and relaxation. Of course, the best idea would be to join ashram life for a period of time. In this way you get the opportunity to practise karma yoga and simple living, and all the useless mental baggage overloading your mind will spontaneously fall away.