Managing the Mind through Yoga

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati. Jorge Tadeo University, Bogotá, Colombia, May 2005

Yoga was once an ancient universal world culture. In Colombia, at San Agustin, there are statues dating back many thousands of years depicting the traditional yogic postures that we practise today. Symbols carved in the images explain the theory and philosophy of yoga, which relates to the development of the human being, the expansion of human consciousness and the liberation of energies and potentials. How to achieve this awakening or experience was the original quest of humanity.

We take birth in this body, but what is our experience of life? How do we understand life and how can we improve the quality of our life? People have defined the experiences of life as consciousness and energy interacting with the world of objects and senses. People have tried to define consciousness, people have tried to define mind, people have tried to define how the senses, desires and ideas influence our personality.

The life we experience is an expression of our mind; we live according to the mandates of our mind. The philosophies we live and accept today are ideas embedded in our mind. If you are happy with your life, you have a happier mind. If you are suffering, it reflects the predominant nature of the mind at that time. The pain and pleasure or ignorance and wisdom that we experience are all expressions of the human mind. According to the theories and principles of yoga, the mind has to be managed so that it becomes more creative, dynamic, vibrant and awakened.

The classical description of yoga is as a method of mind management. Many people have defined yoga as union between the individual consciousness and the higher consciousness. Many people have experienced yoga in the form of physical exercises, which give an experience of completeness and well-being. Many people have practised meditation and discovered that they are able to manage their mental problems, phobias, complexes and inhibitions in a better way and come to a better understanding of their nature.

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, which are the authoritative classical text on yoga, define yoga in three specific statements. Five thousand years ago, the rishi Patanjali was asked, “What is yoga?” He answered, “Yoga is nothing but self-discipline.” He was then asked, “What is the final outcome of this discipline?” He said, “Through yogic discipline, it is possible to manage the different conditions of the mind which limit our capacities.” And the result? “Then you realize your true nature.”

Awareness of strengths and weaknesses

Human beings have different predominant natures which alter the normal behavioural patterns of the mind. From the yogic perspective, the personality is governed by certain inherent qualities and strengths. The strengths are recognized as clarity of mind, willpower, awareness, concentration and understanding, and also as the application of wisdom, positivity and optimism. Strength of mind is discrimination, knowing the difference between right and wrong. Positive and creative behaviour and attitudes reflect the natural strength of the personality and mind.

The other aspect is the weaknesses, which control our mind more than the strengths. These weaknesses are fear, insecurity, inhibitions, clouded thinking, inappropriate behaviour, misunderstandings, self-centredness and ignorance. Normally, we are under the influence of the weaknesses and we lose contact with our inner strengths. Fears, insecurities and complexes manifest more often than optimistic and creative qualities.

Our behaviour is influenced by these weaknesses. The weaker the person, the more selfish they are. The stronger they are, the more selfless they are. If you are insecure, you try to create a different self-image as a strong and optimistic person. The more you try to hold on to that identity to ensure that it is not disturbed by outside influences, the more self-centred and selfish you become. But if you are positive, optimistic, dynamic and creative, you have nothing to worry about. You are not the centre of your world, but only a participant in the greater picture of life. Then you become more selfless as you are not holding on to a self-image.

Selflessness means that you are better able to understand and appreciate the suffering, needs and aspirations of other people in order to help them achieve wholeness. Nature is selfless. Trees do not eat their own fruit and rivers do not drink their own water, it is for those who are hungry or thirsty. Even animals do not live with the same self-centred awareness as human beings.

Managing the ambitions and needs

Ambition is another important component. What are our ambitions and our needs? Is the role of ambition only to fulfil our needs and to give a sense of satisfaction and happiness? There are practical and impractical ambitions. Practical ambitions are based on our needs and the drive to achieve them. Impractical ambitions are based on our drive to become more powerful – a power game within ourselves. There are also needs alongside ambitions, but we are not able to distinguish between need and ambition. On the one side, we have strengths and weaknesses and on the other side, ambitions and needs. On the one side, the weakness becomes predominant and we are not aware of our strengths. We become confused, do not know what to do or how to manage situations. On the other side, ambitions become predominant and we ignore many of our needs.

If you look at yourself objectively, you will find that your fears and insecurities represent your weaknesses, and your desire to become something in life represents your ambition. If you look around in society, you will find that the hospitals, doctors, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts all deal with those areas of life where we have lost control. A good psychiatrist or a psychoanalyst will help us to connect with our strength to overcome difficulties, which indicates we have lost contact with the inherent inner strengths, positivity and optimism. We have also lost awareness of our needs, and we are simply chasing a mirage in search of happiness – what the world calls the ‘rat race’.

We have to live with this mind and use it to improve the quality of our life. The discussion here is not how to manage our thoughts, emotions, desires or expectations, but rather how to manage the strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs which influence the nature of our personality, and govern the different expressions and manifestations of the mind. If one of these four patterns is strong, then our behaviour, thought patterns, emotions, will and expectations will be influenced.

Meditation – a state of mind, not a practice

This is where yoga comes in with a very clear-cut system of meditation. In yoga, meditation, or dhyana, is the seventh step, not the first. Just as you start primary school in first class and gradually advance from class to class, yoga has to be treated in the same manner. You have to start in first class, not jump into seventh class and bypass the other steps. However, many people are so keen to practise meditation that they want to jump into the seventh class. They practise a concentration or meditation technique, and while their practice is satisfactory, they are still caught up in the same conflicting mental patterns as before.

From the yogic perspective, meditation cannot be taught or practised. It is only a state of experience and a state of mind. When you go to sleep at night, you are not aware of yourself or that you are sleeping. There is total disassociation between you, time, space and object. When you get up, you are again aware of yourself, your personality, your environment and your world. Just as sleep or waking is a state of mind, in the same way, meditation is a state of mind. So meditation cannot be practised. We have to retrain and re-educate our personality and mind. The process of developing the meditative state begins with awareness and moves into the area of concentration.

Relaxation

In yoga the sequence to realize the different natures of the mind is pratyahara, followed by dharana, or concentration. Pratyahara is the beginning of an internalized understanding of our nature. Pratyahara practices begin with relaxation. Normally, we are in a state of psychological tension, imperceptible to the conscious mind. The conscious mind, the mind interacting with the world, is only aware of those areas which are predominantly in the scope of its awareness. Right now, there are different people, sounds and movements in this room, but you are focused on the lecture, and therefore not aware of other peripheral experiences. If you record a sound track, you then use a computer to filter out the background noise and modify the quality of the sound, so it is clear.

Similarly, in pratyahara, in the first stage of relaxation, you become aware of yourself and filter out the background stuff that has clouded your perception. Then you are able to release the psychological and unconscious tensions that have affected your creativity. People who have practised relaxation and awareness suddenly become different in their attitudes, thinking process and approach to life. With relaxation, we start by developing awareness and move to an understanding of different situations. This is the first practice that needs to be perfected before going on to the second class, which is concentration.

Concentration

Concentration, or dharana, means focusing the mental processes and energies. It also means total identification. There is the story of a teacher who decided to test his students’ ability in archery. He placed a clay bird on the branch of a tree. Then he called his students, one by one, and asked them what they could see. The student would naturally say, “I can see you. I can see the world. I can see the tree, the branch, the leaves, the fruits, the flowers, the sky and the clouds.” However, one student when asked what he could see, replied, “I see nothing but the eye of the bird which I have to hit.” He passed the test. Put yourself in the same position. If you see everything, it represents a dissipated state of mind which is not able to focus on its target. The student who saw only the eye of the bird logically must see everything, just like his classmates, but his concentration was centred on only one thing. That is the state of concentration.

Swami Satyananda says that if you come to this state of concentration, you will experience absolute peace even in the middle of the market; otherwise you will never attain peace even in a remote corner of the mountains. There is no peace in the Himalayas and there is no noise in the world. Wherever you are, peace is within you, in the expression of your mind. Classical yoga deals with relaxation and concentration in the form of pratyahara and dharana. This re-education of the mind which is performed in a meditative state can occur spontaneously, without effort, in the course of time. Meditation allows one to become oneself once again.

Life is an expression of the mind

The purpose of meditation is to attain the state of balance where you are able to manage the modifications of your mind which manifest as over-enthusiasm or under-enthusiasm, over-confidence or under-confidence. To do so, you have to follow the sequence defined in yoga, and not jump to seventh class. If you follow the sequence of self-observation and self-awareness properly, you will be able to understand your involvement and interaction in the world of sense objects.

If you are able to connect with your strengths and transcend your weaknesses, and understand the difference between your ambitions and needs, then you will be able to improve the quality of your mind and thus of your life. This is the classical, traditional teaching of yoga handed down from generation to generation via enlightened beings or masters. Life is an expression of the mind. If we can convert the quality of our mind to positivity, creativity and optimism, then the entire experience of life also changes. Yoga gives that spark of inspiration. Use the spark of yoga to illuminate your mind, to brighten your life and be creative, happy and joyous.