The Nature of the Mind

From the teachings of Swami Sivananda Saraswati

Everything in the material universe about us had its origin first in thought, from which it took form. Every castle, every statue, every painting, every mechanism – everything had its birth first in the mind of the one who formed it before it received material expression or embodiment. When an artist begins to draw a picture on the canvas, he does so out of the material preconceived by the mind. After all, the world is merely an idea or a thought. When the mind ceases to think, the world vanishes and there is indescribable bliss. When the mind begins to think, immediately the world reappears and there is suffering.

The universe is rendered visible by the mind. But it is a pity that nobody except a seer has seen the mind. The mind is not a gross thing, visible and tangible. Its existence is not seen anywhere. Its magnitude cannot be measured. It does not require a space in which to exist. When you seriously and unceasingly think over the nature of the mind, it is nothing. When you begin to analyse the mind, it dwindles to airy nothing. It is a bundle of thoughts and the thought ‘I’ is the root of all thoughts. The first thought that arose in your mind was aham, ‘I’. This ‘I’ is a false idea – a nonentity. When the root of all thoughts vanishes into nothing, where is the mind?

Mind and matter are two aspects, as subject and object, of the one and the same all pervading Brahman, who is neither and yet includes both. Mind precedes matter. This is Vedantic theory. To say that matter precedes mind is scientific theory. Mind is subtle matter. Just as the physical body is comprised of solid, liquid and gaseous matter, so also the mind is made up of subtle matter of various grades of density with different rates of vibration.

The individual mind

The mind is nothing but a collection of samskaras, mental impressions. It is nothing but a bundle of habits. It is nothing but a collection of desires arising from contact with different objects. It is also a collection of feelings aroused by worldly botherations, and a collection of ideas gathered from different objects. These desires, ideas and feelings constantly change. Some of the old desires and feelings are constantly departing from their storehouse, the mind, and new ones are replacing them. This constant change does not in any way interfere with the harmony of mental operations. Only some of the desires, ideas and feelings depart. Those that remain work in healthy co-operation and concord with the new arrivals.

When you are born, the mind is not a blank sheet of white paper. It is a storehouse of samskaras, predispositions and predilections. A child is born with samskaras, past experiences transmuted into mental and moral tendencies and powers. By experiences, pleasant and painful, a person gathers materials and builds them into mental and moral faculties. The mind evolves through the impressions received from the universe through the senses. It will take many bodies until it gathers the complete experience of the world.

A merchant closing the year’s ledger and opening a new one does not enter all the old items but only the balances. In the same way the spirit hands over to the new brain his judgments on the experiences of a life that is closed, the conclusions to which he has come, the decisions at which he has arrived. This is the stock handed on to the new life, the mental furniture for the new dwelling – a real memory.

The mental body varies greatly in different people. It is comprised of coarse or finer matter according to the needs of the more or less unfolded consciousness connected with it. In the educated it is active and well defined, in the undeveloped it is cloudy and ill-defined. There are zones or slices in the mental body just as there are various compartments in the brain for particular types of thought. Everyone has a mental world of their own. Each person differs entirely from another in mode of thinking, temperament, taste, mentality physical characteristics, etc. Physically also one person differs from another, although there might be a slight resemblance. There are various types of mind and the sadhana and path of yoga vary according to the mind, temperament and capacity.

Purifying the mind

We have the power within us to open up or to close ourselves to the divine inflow exactly as we choose. This we have through the power of the mind, through the operation of thought. Sattwic minds and rajasic minds move in diametrically opposite directions. The sattwic mind unifies. The instinctive mind separates and divides. It will mislead you. If you are rajasic, you are far from God. You have shut yourself off from God. If you are sattwic, you open yourself to the divine inflow. Purify the mind and hear the voice of conscience, the sattwic mind. You will have to develop the sattwic part of the mind by transcending the lower, impure instinctive mind. If the lower mind is done away with by the higher mind, only then will you have eternal happiness and peace. Only then will you attain moksha, supreme knowledge and perennial bliss.

The mind is rendered pure through true, virtuous and pure actions and constant satsang (association with the wise). Satya, speaking the truth, and daya, pure compassion, are great purifiers of the mind. If you want to drink water from a tap, you will have to bend your body. In the same way, a lower mind will have to bend and become humble before a developed mind if it longs to imbibe its virtues. The thought itself must be calm and unruffled. Only then can you draw inspiration. In such states only benign conditions can be thrown from the higher into the lower mind. In such calm mental states, you can hold communion with God. Angry and depressed moods all disturb the mind and act as stumbling blocks to God realisation.

Real peace of mind does not come from outside. It is produced in the same mind when it is controlled and its thoughts are checked. Prakriti never creates a vacuum in the mind. If one anxiety or worry is over, another immediately manifests. The mind can never become vacant. It has infinite preoccupations. Carefully mark the ways of the mind. It tempts, exaggerates, magnifies, infatuates, unnecessarily alarms through vain imagination, fear, worries and forebodings. It tries its level best to distract you from concentration. It took me many years to understand thoroughly the subtle workings of the mind.

Management of the vrittis

Vritti means a whirlpool. It is a wave of thought that arises in the mind. Vrittis are modifications of the mind. They are the effect of avidya, ignorance The mind gains great strength when the vrittis are destroyed. It is not easy to destroy the vrittis or thought waves because they are innumerable. They should be taken up one by one and dealt with separately. Some vrittis are very strong and demand strong efforts for their destruction. Most of the vrittis are very weak and melt away like clouds. Strong thoughts remain and frequently recur daily in the morning as soon as you rise from your bed.

With the help of the subconscious mind you can change your nature by cultivating healthy virtuous qualities that otherwise remain dormant in every human heart. If you want to overcome fear, mentally deny that you have fear and concentrate your attention upon the opposite quality, the ideal of courage. When courage is developed, fear vanishes by itself.

Positive always overpowers negative. This is an infallible law of nature. You can acquire a liking for distasteful tasks and duties by cultivating a desire and taste for them. You can establish new habits, new ideals, new ideas and characteristics in the subconscious mind by changing the old ones. Think you are strong, strong you become. Think you are weak, weak you become. Think you are a fool, a fool you become. Steady persevering thought sets up a definite habit of the mind and that habit manifests itself as a quality in the character. The thread of thought is woven into mental and moral qualities and these qualities in their totality form what we call character. You can build your character as surely as a mason can build a wall.

Purification is the first part of yoga. When purification is over, the natural tendency of the mind is to go towards liberation. If a mirror is dirty, you cannot see your face clearly. Similarly, if the mind-mirror is dirty and full of impurities you cannot see God clearly, you cannot see the Self clearly. The light of Brahman cannot shine efficiently. Clean it up with daily effort through spiritual sadhana, meditation, selfless service and devotion. You will realise God.