By Swami Bhajanananda
Swami Bhajanananda was the editor of Prabuddha Bharata from 1979 through 1986, and has contributed many articles to various Vedanta journals. Swami Bhajanananda is an Assistant-Secretary and Trustee of the Ramakrishna Order. This article was published in the September, 1980 Prabuddha Bharata.
When you sit for meditation and close your eyes, almost the first thing you notice is that your awareness is not continuous. It does not consist of a single, homogenous stream but flows as different, sometimes disconnected, streams of thought. Psychologists call this phenomenon “dissociation.” By dissociation is meant not the appearance of various pictures in the mind, but the emotional sectioning of the mind and the identification of the self with each division.
Dissociation of awareness is the human response to the diverse challenges of life. An average person has to play a number of roles in day-to-day life: as a child, parent, spouse, worker, boss, taxpayer, citizen, artist, thinker, etc. In a normal person all these diverse activities are held together by the common bond of self-awareness. There is in us a unifying center known as the self which gives identity to our existence, continuity to our experience, and wholeness to our personality. In the Upanisads the self is often compared to the hub of life to which the spokes of life-activities are attached.1
However, under certain abnormal conditions produced by stress and emotional conflicts, dissociation becomes so strong that the self is unable to integrate the contradictory streams of thought. The person in whom this happens develops a divided personality and lives in mutually incompatible worlds. When this process is carried to an extreme, it may result in neurosis or something worse. It was as an explanation of neurosis that the phenomenon of dissociation was first discovered by the French psychologist Pierre Janet in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, as already mentioned, mild forms of dissociation occur almost every minute in a normal person and are a big problem in meditative life. Spiritual aspirants must understand the nature and cause of dissociation.
The immediate cause of dissociation is the presence of obstructions in the mind which prevent the free and uniform flow of awareness. What are these obstructions? Western psychologists call them by various names: instincts, drives, impulses, complexes. In Indian psychology these are called samskaras and are regarded as latent impressions produced by earlier experiences, including those of previous births. These “impressions” are not like dots on a paper. They are rather like fields of mental forces. Just as a river is divided into different branches by big rocks or sandbars, so the stream of thoughts is divided into different branches by samskaras.
Investigation into the way compulsive emotional drives operated led Freud to two important discoveries. One is that the mind is not fully conscious and a major part of it consists of the “unconscious.” The other discovery is that most people are unaware of the operation of their own emotional drives because these are excluded from the conscious mind and are kept in check in the unconscious by a process which Freud called “repression.” When a person controls his or her emotions and impulses consciously, it is called suppression. But when the control is effected unconsciously, the process becomes repression.
These basic ideas of Freud were known to the ancient Indian sages. They regarded the whole mind as intrinsically unconscious and the Purusa or Atman as the only source of consciousness. Only that part of the mind which is illumined by the light of the Purusa was regarded as the conscious mind (manas), the remaining part of the mind with a preponderance of tamas being regarded as the unconscious (citta) which was understood to be the storehouse of samskaras. A higher part of the mind with a greater degree of sattva was further marked off as the buddhi, the source of spiritual intuition and true will, and the empirical (vyavaharika) self of human beings.
Samskaras or latent impressions are of two kinds: those which give rise to desires, emotional impulses, instinctual drives etc., and those which give rise to concepts, ideas, etc. In most of our normal thinking, ideas and concepts are found linked to desires or emotional impulses.
An idea or concept normally consists of one or more images and corresponding words, respectively known as rupa and nama in Indian psychology. In abstract thinking (such as philosophical speculation, mathematical calculation, etc.) the mind deals almost exclusively with words, symbols and images.2 But in ordinary thinking, words and images are invariably linked to desires, impulses or drives. In Vedanta, impulses, desires, etc. are known as vasana or bhoga-vasana; (Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras refers to them as klesas, a term obviously borrowed from Buddhist sources.)
Normally we cannot think of persons or things without simultaneously feeling some emotion or desire. Every emotion is linked to a large number of ideas. Love for a person brings to the mind many pictures and words about him or her. Similarly, anger produces many pictures and words in the mind.
How does this linking between ideas and desires or impulses take place in the mind? It takes place through a process of willing known as samkalpa or intention. From our childhood we associate persons and things with different desires or emotions. This association is generally made at first through conscious willing or samkalpa. Later on it becomes unconscious and automatic.
Every day we make so many samkalpas or intentions, such as, “I will do this,” “I will eat that,” “Let me think of him,” and so on. Once a samkalpa is made, several ideas and emotions rush into the mind. When we sit for meditation we may make the samkalpa, “I will think of God alone; I will not think of anything else.” But owing to the action of past samskaras, so many ideas and desires or impulses rise in the mind and cause distractions during meditation. This is generally referred to as “wandering of the mind.”
Patanjali uses the term vritti mostly to mean a cognitive modification of the mind such as an idea or a concept. He defines yoga as the control of vrittis (yogascittavrtti nirodhah 1. 2). But before control of the vrittis becomes possible, they should be freed from the hold of impulses and drives.
By themselves, images and words are harmless. It is the impulses connected to them that create all the trouble. Take, for instance, the case of a person addicted to smoking. Every time the memory of the pleasure of the experience or even a cigarette comes to mind, the smoker feels an urge to smoke. But if through medical advice and fear of cancer he or she succeeds in controlling that impulse, that person can think about smoking or cigarettes without feeling the urge to smoke. Or suppose person B is rude to person A. Later on A finds that whenever the memory of B arises, the impulse of anger also arises in his or her mind. But suppose A pardons B. Then when the picture of B arises, it no longer creates anger in A’s mind.
It is the hooking of instinctual impulses to memories that is the root cause of all our emotional problems. This linking is of the nature of an invasion. Like surface-to-air missiles, impulses from the unconscious invade the memories which appear in the conscious mind. When this happens we act without thinking about past experiences or future consequences. Says the Yoga Vasistha, “Vasana is the sudden seizing of an object without thinking about the past or future owing to deep-rooted habit.”3
The first struggle in meditative life is to break the connection between memories and impulses. This is what purification of the mind really means. In a purified mind instinctive impulses do not operate. Memories in the form of pictures and ideas appear but they are not tied down to impulses. Like white clouds which do not rain but disappear in the blue sky, these memories disappear after remaining in the field of consciousness for a short while.
The purification of the mind really means the purification of samskaras which, as we have seen, means breaking the connection between impulses and ideas. How can one do this?
One method is to weaken the power of the impulses through abstinence, avoidance, withdrawal and other forms of tapas or austerity. Another method is to increase the number of good samskaras through virtuous karma. Something like what physical chemists call the Law of Mass Action operates in mental life also. When dharma samskaras (good impressions) increase, they keep in check adharma samskaras (bad impressions). These two methods–tapas and virtuous karma–are unavoidable disciplines during the early stages of meditative life.
Patanjali speaks of a third method, which may be practiced along with the other two. This is to change the connection between impulses and mental images. Images exert a great influence in the mind. If bad impulses, when they arise in the mind, are connected to the image of a holy man or holy woman, they immediately get controlled. Similarly, bad images cease to appear bad when connected to good emotions. This process of changing the connections between mental images and impulses is called pratipaksa-bhavanam.4 This is to be done through proper self-analysis, but this becomes effective only when the new connections are tested in action.
A fourth and higher method is to detach the will. The connection between images and impluses is consciously made by exercising the will. This connection is supported by the will. If the will is detached, the samskaras break apart. However, detachment is not easy. It becomes possible only when supported by other disciplines. A story is told about the great French impressionist painter Matisse. A visitor to his studio pointed to some unholy pictures hanging on the wall and asked Matisse: “Don’t you think these have a demoralizing effect on people?” The artist calmly replied, “My dear man, it is not a woman, it is only a picture.” An artist sees only a picture in a woman, whereas an ordinary man sees a woman in a picture–this is the difference between the two. This does not of course mean that all artists are holy sages. But in them the creative urge becomes so strong that it produces a certain degree of detachment–aesthetic detachment as it is called. However, owing to a lack of systematic moral discipline, most artists are not able to sustain this detachment for long.
All impulses can be reduced to three types of instinctual reactions: “towards,” “against” and “away from”–raga, dvesa and bhaya, as Indian psychologists call them. The terms dharma (virtue) and adharma (vice) can be applied only to these implulses and the actions that result from them. Memories, that is the various images and ideas that rise in the mind, are neutral. By themselves they are neither good nor bad; it is their association with impulses that makes them good or bad. When we speak of purification of the mind, what we really mean is freeing the memory from the hold of impulses, or smrti parisuddhi, purification of the memory, as Patanjali calls it.
When bad memories appear, one should not get upset but should calmly proceed to free them from bad impulses through self-analysis. Further, one should understand that mental images appear living only because they are charged with consciousness through association with the self. When the self is disconnected from the mental images by detaching the will, they get deflated and disappear.
Normally the action of samskaras can be noticed only when they sprout into vrittis. Memories and impulses are all different forms of vrittis. Says Swami Vivekananda: “These feelings have to be controlled in the germ, the root, in their fine forms, before even we have become conscious that they are acting on us. With the vast majority of mankind, the fine states of these passions are not even known–the states in which they emerge from the subconscious. When a bubble is rising from the bottom of the lake, we do not see it, nor even when it is nearly come to the surface; it is only when it bursts and makes a ripple that we know it is there.”5 By the practice of purification and meditation, the spiritual aspirant comes to have greater insight into the subtle workings of the mind and the way samskaras sprout and operate.
How do samskaras sprout into vrittis? What activates the samskaras? Just as the recording in a magnetic tape is activated by the electric current in the tape recorder, the samskaras are activated by the cosmic energy flowing through the mind. Regarding the nature of this cosmic energy Indian sages hold different views. According to the Samkhya Yoga school it is rajas, the mobile element of the three gunas, that manifests itself as all movements in the cosmos. The Gita says, “This lust, this anger, arises because of rajas.”6 Commenting on this line, Vedanta Desika says, “Watered with rajas the seeds of subtle impressions left by the experience of objects of senses sprout into desire and anger.”7
In the Vedas and the Tantras the cosmic energy is called prana. By prana is meant not the air we breathe, points out Swami Vivekananda, but “the sum total of all forces in the universe, mental and physical, resolved back into their original state.”8 The Yoga Vasistha says, “The tree of the mind has two seeds: one is the latent impression, the other is prana. When one of these is weakened, both get quickly controlled.”9
According to yogis, the movement of prana in the psycho-physical system depends upon the activity of two main channels known as ida and pingala. Pranayama is an exercise for controlling these channels. When the activity of these channels is controlled, the mind becomes calm. However, it should be noted that pranayama only stops the sprouting of the samskaras but does not destroy them. When the effect of pranayama wears off, the samskaras sprout again.
Prana activates the samskaras of both ideas and impulses. Ideas produced by samskaras affect only the surface of the mind like ripples, whereas the impulses and desires produced by samskaras affect the whole mind and split it into different streams. Patanjali makes it clear that meditation can control only the gross vrittis that appear on the surface of the mind.10 The deep division in the mind caused by emotional conflicts are to be overcome by controlling the samskaras of desires.
In order to control the activity of samskaras we must know how they operate. All samskaras do not exist in the same state. According to Patanjali a samskara may exist in any one of five states.11
The first state is called prasupta (dormant) in which the samskaras remain undeveloped. A child is born with hundreds of samskaras, but most of these remain dormant during childhood. As the child grows older, more and more samskaras become active. According to Patanjali, in each birth only those samskaras become active for which favorable conditions exist in that particular birth.12 The rest of the samskaras remain dormant. This shows that environment is also important in the operation of samskaras. Good and favorable conditions at home and in society awaken the best samskaras in people.
In the second state called udara (expanded) the samskaras are freely expressed. When conditions are favorable our latent tendencies get free expression, provided they are approved by society. Many of our normal, simple desires belong to this category.
When certain desires become strong but are disapproved by society, they are repressed, that is, kept in check in the unconscious. This repressed condition of the samskara is called vicchinna. In this state the samskaras are in a turbulent condition but are prevented from sprouting by the powerful influence of other samskaras. Repression is one of the important discoveries of Freud, but he could not correctly explain how it takes place. According to Yoga psychology, a strong samskara can repress a weak samskara. For instance, fear samskara may repress lust or greed samskara. Since this process goes on in the depths of the unconscious, the person does not become aware of it.
Repression caused by conflicts raging in the depths of the unconscious drain a lot of mental energy and weaken the mind which becomes unfit for meditation. Through careful self-analysis and constant mental alertness, spiritual aspirants should get rid of repressions by finding out the hidden conflicts and their causes.
The fourth state in which samskaras exist is called tanu (attenuated). If desires and impulses are consciously and intelligently controlled, the concerned samskaras lose their impetuosity and become weak. Without intruding into the conscious mind they then remain in seed form in the known depths of the unconscious, always within the reach of the conscious mind. This conversion of samskaras into the tanu state is the result of long practice of disciplines and purification.
In the repressed (vicchinna) state, samskaras remain powerful and active and are beyond the reach of the conscious mind. But in the attenuated (tanu) state, the samskaras lose their power and are always under conscious control. In the yogi most of the desires and impulses have been reduced to the tanu state. As a result the mind of the yogi remains calm and he or she enjoys sama sukham, the joy of self-control.
Repression is unhealthy and leads to mental disorders. But yogic suppression conserves psychic energy and enables the aspirant to rise to higher levels of consciousness, though during the early stages it may entail a certain amount of struggle.
The change of samskaras into the tanu state does not mean their destruction. Just as seeds sprout when the ground is watered, so also the attenuated samskaras will become active if they are stimulated. However, if the seeds are roasted in fire, they will not sprout again. In the same way, if the samskaras are subjected to the light of higher consciousness, they will be reduced to a deactivated condition known as dagdha-bija (“burnt seed”). Such samskaras cannot sprout again even when the mind is brought into contact with sense objects. Through repeated spiritual experience the yogi burns up desires and impulses and reduces them all to the dagdha-bija state. There is no other way to destroy samskaras completely.
Breaking the connection between images and impulses represents only the first stage in the purification of mind. In the second stage, the samskaras of impulses and drives are reduced to the attenuated (tanu) state. In the third stage, the samskaras are reduced to the burnt or deactivated (dagdha-bija) state.
In a fully illumined soul, all the samskaras of impulses and desires have been irreversibly deactivated, and so he or she is free from desires and impulses. But the ideas and concepts produced by samskaras will remain. Sri Ramakrishna used to say that just as a burnt rope may retain the shape of a rope but cannot bind anyone, so a fully illumined soul has only a semblance of desires.
We began with a discussion on the phenomenon of dissociation of awareness and how it is caused by samskaras. There is yet another type of dissociation of consciousness which is more radical and at the same time a natural one. It is the division of consciousness into the three states: jagrat (waking), svapna (dreaming) and susupti (deep sleep). This dissociation is not caused by samskaras. It is a spontaneous process connected to the rhythms of life, the exact cause of which is one of the great mysteries of life.
Waking, dreaming and deep sleep represent three entirely different states, each with its own notions of time, space and the self. The dream state is not a continuation of the waking state any more than the deep-sleep state is a continuation of the dream state. Between the two states a rupture in the continuity of consciousness takes place. Consciousness seems to undergo cycles of projection and withdrawal. What is common to all three states is the awareness of “I.” This shows that the self has different dimensions and, corresponding to these, there are different levels or layers in the human personality structure.
In ancient India the three states provoked deep interest and were the subject of much study and investigation. Spiritual aspirants must have a deep understanding of the three states, for these have a direct bearing on meditative life. True spiritual experience is regarded as a state different from the above three states. It is a state which reveals the real nature of the self and its relation to the Supreme Spirit. The light of this experience burns up worldly desires. As in the case of other experiences, spiritual experience too leaves its impressions or samskaras in the mind which act as a check on worldly samskaras. The residual impressions left in the mind by spiritual experiences are called prajna samskaras. Even after the spiritual experience has ceased, the prajna samskara helps to maintain higher knowledge.
1. Cf. Prasna Upanisad, 6.6.
2. It may be mentioned here that Patanjali has used the term vritti chiefly to mean cognitive knowledge in the form of ideas and concepts.
3. Laghu Yoga Vasistham, 28.48.
4. Yoga Sutra, 2.33.
5. Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda (Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1977), 1.241-42.
6. Bhagavad Gita, 3. 37.
7. Tatparyacandrika on ibid.
8. Complete Works, 1. 148.
9. Laghu Yoga Vasistham, 28, 34.
10. Yoga Sutra, 2.10, 11.
11. Ibid., 2.4, and Vyasa’s commentary on it.
12. Yoga Sutra, 4.8, 9.