By Chaitanya Charana Dasa
Like other yoga practices, bhakti-yoga requires that we control our mind. Here are four strategies.
Four strategies to deal with our not-always-helpful thoughts.
To identify with the mind means to accept its desires as our desires and act according to them. To identify the mind means to recognize that the desires popping up inside us are the mind’s desires – “Aha! That’s the mind speaking” – and to evaluate them intelligently before deciding what to do with them.
“Don’t identify with the mind; identify the mind” can be a contemporary English rendition of the key call of Bhagavad-gita 6.5: Elevate yourself with the mind; don’t degrade yourself. When we identify with the mind, we act according to its shortsighted, self-defeating desires, thereby degrading ourselves. When we identify the mind, we check its desires and choose to act only on those desires that are worthy, thereby elevating ourselves.
Redefining External and Internal
Suppose you had a house with a large courtyard, a fence, and a security gate. One day, while you approached your house after being out, you saw from a distance a man in the courtyard. You wouldn’t assume that just because he was inside your premises he belonged there, that he was related to you. You would investigate who he was and then decide how to interact with him.
We need to respond with similar caution whenever a thought pops up inside us. We often think of things outside us as external and thoughts inside us as internal. This external-internal differentiation is based on identifying ourselves as our bodies. However, the fundamental teaching of the Bhagavad-gita (2.13) is that we are souls. The mind is made of matter, although subtle matter. So the mind is external to us, as are its thoughts.
We usually think of the thoughts inside us as being our thoughts, but they are like intruders who have slipped through the security gate and entered the premises. Just as people residing in the house are especially vulnerable to intruders, we too are especially vulnerable to the inimical thoughts that have penetrated our mind. We misidentify with such thoughts and let them grow into desires, intentions, and eventually actions. For example, we may have decided to diet for health. But then a thought to binge might pop up within us. If we think of that thought as our thought and let it grow, we eventually end up bingeing.
Whenever any thought comes up within us, one way to avoid identifying with it is to ask the question “Would I do this if someone else asked me to do it?” For example, if someone else asked us to binge, we would most likely refuse, remembering our resolution to diet.
Overall, how can we identify the mind instead of identifying with the mind? Let’s discuss four strategies: labeling, advising, purifying, and persisting.
When we interact with people repeatedly, we gradually form labels for them: “He’s lazy.” “She’s fussy.” “He’s rash.” “She’s vain.” This labeling tendency is undesirable because people are complex, having both a good side and bad side. But our label often reduces them simplistically to just one of their traits. If we are to develop meaningful and deep relationships with people, we need to overcome this labeling tendency.
Nonetheless, we can use that tendency productively by labeling our own mind. When we find ourselves in an irritable mood, we can say, “Today, my mind is irritable.” Many devotional songs employ this strategy of labeling the mind. The philosopher-saint Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura, in his song “Dushta Mana,” labels the mind as wicked. He reflects on how it misleads, but he also says that it can be led back onto the right path.
The point of labeling is not to condemn others, but to caution ourselves about their natures. People are what they are, and aren’t likely to change overnight. Once we understand their nature, we learn how to best deal with them. For example, some people are grumpy when they wake up in the morning. If we have to live with them, we learn to accept them for what they are and don’t take what they say in the morning too seriously.
Similarly, the mind is going to be the mind – it’s not going to change overnight. By observing ourselves, we can find phases when our mind is, say, grumpy. Instead of letting its grumpiness make us grumpy, we can steel ourselves internally to not take its mood too seriously.
The point of labeling is not to perpetuate the behavior but to contextualize it, that is, to see the behavior as a part of their default nature, not as something done intentionally to irritate us. We don’t want people to be grumpy. We would much prefer that they be jolly; and we can and should try to help improve their mood. But when they just aren’t cordial, the label helps us understand the context and not get too worked up about it.
The same point applies to labeling our own mind. Our life would be so much easier if – to continue the example – the mind were not grumpy. But since the mind is the mind, we can better manage its grumpiness by identifying it as such and preparing ourselves to tolerate its less-than-pleasant phase. Instead of cursing our fate for having a grumpy mind, we can find ways to work amidst or around its grumpiness – for example, by neglecting it.
Neglecting the mind doesn’t mean we don’t try to change it. Change, in fact, is what the next strategy is all about.
There are few things we give as freely as advice. And when it comes to behavior, we often give advice quite expertly. When others come to us and tell us about their problems, we often counsel them to act in ways that we ourselves would do well to remember and apply.
We can use our advising propensity to advise our mind – it needs good advise much more than the world does. Or, put more precisely, our advising the world won’t benefit us as much as our advising our own mind.
Devotional songs use this strategy of advising the mind too. For example, the poet-saint Govinda Dasa in his song “Bhajahu Re Mana” urges his mind to stay fixed in Krishna, for such focus will grant sublime peace.
The mind is fickle, but not incorrigible; it can be reformed. Vital for reforming is reformulating. Reformulation means revising one’s understanding of things in the light of new knowledge. We need to reformulate our mental conceptions in the light of spiritual knowledge.
For example, the mind has its pet conceptions of what worldly things will bring happiness. But such worldly things usually provide just a little happiness in the beginning, followed by a long wake of misery (Gita 18.38). To advise the mind where it can find real happiness, we need to reformulate our understanding of life and its purpose by studying scripture regularly. This will help us understand that real happiness is found in higher spiritual reality: in loving remembrance of Krishna and in purposeful devotional service to Him. We need to not just study scripture, but study it regularly because the mind is remarkably amnesiac; it has an outstanding capacity to forget. It forgets both how worldly pleasures are superficial and short-lived and how devotional fulfillment is substantial and sublime.
When we keep advising the mind regularly, it learns. Though it is a slow learner, it does learn. However, for change based on learning, it needs not just education but also purification. That brings us to the next strategy.
The mind is a creature of habit. It acts according to its habitual patterns, even when we want to break those patterns. A common word to refer to our innate patterns of thinking and acting is inclinations. This is a particularly apt word; its other meaning serves as a good metaphor for the mind’s mode of functioning. Inclination also refers to the tilt of a physical structure, such as a floor. If the floor is inclined towards the south, whatever water falls on it will naturally flow south. If we want the water to flow north, just our intention to make it flow that way will not be enough; that intention has to be coupled with reconstruction. Only when we make the floor inclined the other way will water flow naturally towards the north.
Inclination determines flow – this principle applies to our thoughts too. Our mind’s inclinations naturally direct our thoughts. For example, when people are addicted to alcohol, their minds have become inclined towards alcohol. Even if they resolve to break free from the addiction, they will still find their thoughts naturally going towards alcohol. Just the intention, or even the resolution, to abstain from alcohol won’t change their mind’s inclination. To change that inclination, they need to rejig their mental flooring. Such reshaping is the essence of purification.
In the context of the earlier example of happiness, purification would mean changing our subconscious definitions of happiness. Bhakti-yoga is the most potent process for purifying ourselves because it brings us in contact with God, Krishna, who is all-pure and all-purifying. The more we connect with Krishna in the mood of devotional service, the more we access spiritual happiness that makes worldly pleasures seem pale and stale. And the more we relish higher happiness, the more our mental flooring gets reshaped. When our mind becomes naturally inclined towards Krishna instead of worldly things, our inner struggle ceases. The Gita (6.27) points to this state while outlining how purification brings pacification of the mind and satisfaction of the soul.
Purification takes time. To press on during the interim period, we need to persist in our devotional practices. The Gita (6.34) uses the word cancala (restless) to refer to the mind. Cancala is a describer often used for children – they are by nature restless. For dealing with such restlessness, the Gita (6.26) urges us to refocus the mind whenever it wanders. While refocusing, we need to treat the mind the way a mother treats her child. When she tells, say, her young daughter to study, she knows that the child won’t stay focused. Because of her restless nature, her daughter will start doing something else, so the mother will gently but firmly direct her back to her studies.
Similarly, we need to become like a mature mother to deal with the childlike mind. Instead of getting exasperated when the mind gets distracted, we need to expect its restlessness. Whenever it wanders off from important things to unimportant things, we need to determinedly and untiringly refocus it, as the Gita (6.26) enjoins.
As the child grows up, she understands the importance of studying. Similarly, when we persist in the practice of bhakti-yoga, the mind grows up and understands what is truly important.
Additionally and far more consequentially, our persistence in practicing bhakti-yoga pleases Krishna. He appreciates our intention, even if we can’t always translate it into action. By His omnipotent grace, He progressively empowers us to first rein in the mind and then reform it.
Ultimately, to identify the mind instead of identifying with the mind, we need to identify with Krishna, as His eternal parts. When we become situated and satisfied in serving Krishna, we use the mind to elevate ourselves.
Chaitanya Charana Dasa, a disciple of His Holiness Radhanath Swami, serves full time at ISKCON Chowpatty, Mumbai. He is a BTG associate editor and the author of twenty-two books. To read his other articles or to receive his daily reflection on the Bhagavad-gita, “Gita-Daily,” visit thespiritualscientist.com.