On balancing the mind with yoga

I prepared these notes for  a seminar I taught for Edinburgh and Lothians Yoga Association in November 2014.  The whole of Yoga is of course about balancing the mind, with many different pathways, so I gave myself an impossible task!

Here are some extracts from the background material:

What is the mind?

How does the brain,  that 3lb mass of tissue inside our skulls, relate to the mind?  This problem has exercised philosophers (including spiritual masters of many traditions) for thousands of years. 

Cogito, ergo sum:  I am thinking, therefore I exist.  (Descartes, 1637)

Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. (David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 1738).

Psychologists and other scientists have joined the search in the last 150 years or so.  In modern western thinking, the mind is defined more or less as consciousness - as our capacity to be aware of the world and our experiences, to think, and to feel.  It can also mean a person's ability to think and reason; the intellect, or a person's attention.  BUT – over 100 years ago Sigmund Freud established that consciousness is only a small part -  the tip of the iceberg of mental processes.  Consciousness and mind are not synonymous.

In modern cognitive science the mind is identified as the reflection of the activity of the brain and nervous system, which is seen as a fantastic unimaginably complex (100 billion cells, each with tens of connections) information processing system linking us to our environment, both external and internal.  Neurotransmitters convey electrical impulses from neurone to neurone.  This is an active and ever-changing field of research.  One suggestion is that, if the brain were a book, the mind is the information contained within it.

Yoga philosophy sees the mind very differently. 

The Mandukya Upanishad – a Vedantic text dated around 1st century CE (though this is disputed by some scholars and it may have been earlier) – explores 4 levels of consciousness:

  • the waking state
  • dreaming (this includes not only night time dreaming but also daytime musings and reverie)
  • deep dreamless sleep
  • the fourth state, turiya or superconsciousness: enlightenment.

These four levels are symbolized in the Sanskrit word OM, where each of the curves represents one of the states of consciousness. 

The Buddha taught (for example in the Dhammapada) that

All things have the nature of mind.  Mind is the chief and takes the lead.  If the mind is clear, whatever you do or say will bring happiness that will follow you like your shadow.

All things have the nature of mind.  Mind is the chief and takes the lead.  If the mind is polluted, whatever you do or say leads to suffering that will follow you, as a cart trails a horse.

So no, Dr. Aaron T Beck didn't invent cognitive therapy!

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

Yoga is the settling of the mind into silence.

Chapter 1, v.2

and another favourite quote - Chapter 1,  v.33

The mind becomes clear and serene when the qualities of the heart are cultivated .

One that resonates with me is from The Bhagavad Gita:

 “O Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, and violent.  Trying to control the mind is like trying to control the wind.”

   "It is true that the mind is restless and difficult to control.  But it can be conquered, O Mahabaho, through regular practice and detachment.”

BG chapter 6, verses 34-35

Isn't it great to think that we can train the mind; we're not its slave!  Incidentally this resonates well with what we now know about neuroplasticity – that we can change the brain neuronal pathways by repeated practice.  These verses tell us that any practices we adopt in order to train the mind must be carried out with abhyasa: regular, systematic practice, even (or perhaps especially) when we don’t feel like it; and vairagya: detachment from our own opinions, actions and ego. 

More to follow.........................