Self-Control: Forcible or Gradual?

By Swami Adiswarananda

This article, originally published in the Vedanta Centre U.K.’s Vedanta magazine, was taken from a lecture given by Swami Adiswarananda at the Ramakrishna Vedanta Centre, Bourne End on October 23, 1998. 

Swami Adiswarananda was the head of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York until his he passed away in 2007. The author of a number of books on Vedanta, Swami Adiswarananda was known for his quick wit and keen intelligence.

The subject we are going to discuss is self-control—should it be gradual or forcible? Firstly, self-control means control and mastery over the mind, senses and the body. A person who has control is a sage. One who has not is a slave. One who has control has peace, happiness, tranquillity and also self-knowledge. Thoughts, delusions and illusions harass one who lacks it.

Of the supporting texts of Vedanta on this subject, one is the Bhagavad Gita. In one chapter it says, “One who has no self-control has no peace; one who has no peace has no happiness, and one who has no contact with the true Self has no self-control.” Happiness is not dependent on having things or not having things. It is an interval between the cessation of one desire and the start of another—a gap, a moment of desirelessness.

Again, the Mahabharata raises this question in the chapter on the enchanted bull. Yaksha, a voice without a form asks Yudhisthira a number of questions. One of them is, “Who is happy?” In answer, the king says, “One who is free from debts and obligations.” Then “one who stays home” which means one who has contact with her true Self. We are not home. All the time we are moving around, loafing around. The third is “one who eats a scanty meal at the end of the day,” meaning one who has mastery over the palate.

The third text, the Bhagavatam, says “The deluded person is troubled by two urges: the palate and the sex instinct. Of these, the palate is most important. One who has conquered the palate has also overcome the grosser instinct.”

So, three supporting texts have been cited on the necessity of self-control or self-mastery, which is essentially control over the mind. We know the mind is our second body and the interpreter. The mind is our constant companion; we cannot get rid of this fellow. Even in dreams, he goes with you. He is your friend and your foe. When regenerate, it is a friend; when angry, it is your worst enemy. And, all you can trust about the mind is that you cannot trust it.

Self-knowledge is the means, then. We perceive the world through the prism of the mind, so the world is in the mind. “Mind is the cause of bondage and mind is the cause of liberation.” We are born in the mind, we live in the mind, and we die in the mind. But the mind is not in our control.

An average person, it is said, is born crying, lives complaining and dies disappointed. The mind is restless. One is all the time looking for novelty, for change. We get  bored with things very easily. We are unable to see things in the proper perspective. We cannot think properly. Thinking give you a clear perception.

George Bernard Shaw once remarked, with his usual caustic wit, “Thinking is rare. The average individual perhaps thinks once or twice a year. I have made a distinguished career by thinking as often as once a week.”

We do not think because the mind does not give us opportunity to do so. Not only is our mind restless, but our body is too. We know that everything is constantly vibrating, but when the mind is restless the vibrations are visible. They affect the whole body.

The mind experiences three states: waking, dream and deep sleep. The mind is a migratory creature. It creates illusions, dreams, and fancies. It creates variety, diversity. It limits the illimitable, divides the indivisible, and wants to attain the impossible. It likes imitation, not truth. The three states are like actors on a stage, always coming and going. Even when the play is over, the stage is illumined. That is the light of the Atman.

Again, the mind also has three modifications: sattva, rajas and tamas—tranquillity, restlessness and inertia—rotating all the time. These are the three qualities of mind. Everybody experiences them. One who can control them is called a free soul, a knower of the Self. The gunas are present in each person. We need them. When you return from a day’s work you badly need inertia, tamas. In the morning, you need rajas, activity. The third quality, sattva or tranquillity, is what you need when you go to meditate or pray. You invoke it.

You probably know the six centres of consciousness. The mind is constantly rising and falling from one to another. When you enter the prayer room, you try to raise the mind to the fourth centre, the heart. The body is like a six-storey house where the master of the house lives in the basement. Living in the dark, dingy basement, he has developed a taste for it. The mind has a remarkable capacity for developing a taste for anything. If you keep a person in a place with a strong smell, after some time that person will grow so accustomed to it that he would be offended by sweeter fragrances. The average mind remains pinned down to the three lower centres—the bottom of the spine, the region of the organ of generation, and the navel. At this level the whole world of sight, sound, taste, touch and smell are only sending information about the palate and sense pleasure. Nothing else. However, the same mind, when it rises to the fourth level, appears homogenous and unified. It gives spiritual impulses and gradually it rises higher and higher. The universe of names and forms and diversities and dichotomies gradually dissolves into a unified mass.

When the mind falls, what should one do? Three responses are possible: give in, give up or fight. Giving in does not solve the question. If we are depressed, giving in only perpetuates the problem. If we give up, where can we go? We cannot jump out of our minds. We do not have the capacity to give up, and if we force ourselves to give up it will only create a heightened awareness of the object coveted. If we fight, whom do we fight? Ourselves, and this is extremely tiring.

Some people say we should not control our impulses, that self-expression is best. This is the Freudian, Adlerian approach. They say that any form of control is unhealthy, unnatural. It makes a person false. One should have expression. Any control creates neurosis. That means you eat whatever you like, do whatever you feel like doing, think whatever you like to think. Control creates inhibition and inhibition can lead to exhibition.

Others say that the human being has become what it is today by exercising control. In the animal stage of development, both mind and soul are lost in the body. In the human stage the mind begins to assert control over the body—that’s why it is human. In the spiritual stage, the soul is trying to free itself of the mind. Through prayer, austerity, penance and pilgrimage you are trying to extricate yourself from the bondage of the mind. Instinct used by the sub-human makes raw impulse. Reason is advanced by controlling the raw impulse and purifying it, and intuition appears after you have overcome reason by purifying it. So therefore control is necessary.

In any walk of life you need control. When you drive you need speed control. When you talk you need control. In every field this is true. When you stand up you need control. So there is nothing wrong with control. It is a natural instinct to exercise control. But why control? Both Vedanta and Yoga say: giving in does not work; giving up creates neurosis. Reason tells us: face the mind, the restless mind. The mind is material. It does not have its own consciousness. It is activated by the consciousness borrowed from the Self, the only conscious entity whose presence or absence makes us either living or dead. The body is an extension of the mind. The mental body is just like the physical body. The face is the index of the mind, it is very true. Physical features may indicate the texture of the mind. In The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna you may read that each person is born with a blueprint of his or her own mind and each incarnation is to give expression to some urgent desires for that.

The mind has a big shopping list. It is always turbulent like the ocean, constantly breaking into waves. All the time it is moving and changing. It never becomes controlled unless you control it. Many people think that it will become controlled when we get old. However, when you are young you can keep the mind down by exercising your nerves and muscles. When you get old, you are done for. You are tormented. All the desires are there but they have not been trained. The cobras are there but their fangs have not been taken out. It is an illusion, an untruth that with age turbulence goes away.

Both Vedanta and Yoga think that the stuff of the mind is a Sanskrit word called samskara. Samskara is thought potency. This works in the following way: when you think a thought repeatedly, it first affects the intellect, then the emotion, then the biochemistry. Then it goes deep down to the glands and hormones. It therefore alters the biochemistry and remains lying deep down there. Running away cannot obliterate these samskaras. Distance cannot annihilate them, old age cannot reduce them, and reason cannot uproot them. Reason requires pure mind, which is very rare. Analysis does not help, nor does expression.

To bring peace and tranquillity to the mind the samskaras must be neutralised by counter-samskaras. That is the famous thesis of Patanjali—pratipaksha bhavana. Counter-samskaras must be created against each samskara. Samskaras are like marks on stone, they last forever, but they can be neutralised. This is where the practice of self-mastery comes from. You must fight bad habits with good new habits. You can combat a thought with a thought. Speech must be controlled by speech. It is an all out response. Bad habits cannot be neutralised by good thought. They cannot go away all of a sudden. If you drive a screw into the wall with thirty turns, you cannot pull it out without breaking the wall. You must unscrew it thirty turns.

This is also the teaching of the Bhagavad Gita. A samskara is formed by three organs: by talking about it, by thinking about it and by acting according to it. The three acting together make samskaras. That which you think only can be driven away by counter-thought, but when the three are joined, it affects the glands and hormones. You must be aware that when certain thoughts arise, the whole system becomes inflamed. When such thoughts have an immediate effect, it means we have practised them for a long long time in this or previous lives. We do not need a prophet to tell us.

We have to uproot them by developing counter samskaras. How is this done? The Yoga system gives one method and Vedanta gives another. Yoga says you should be forcible. Life is short, samskaras are deep, mind is perverted, and reason is weak. You are trying to make a tiger non-violent by feeding him a vegetarian diet. Forget about it. The logic of the Yoga system maintains that the mind is material. Its impure conditioning is mechanical and reason is too weak to overcome its perversion. It is also difficult to know the nature, depth and extent of the impurities. All we know is that the mind is restless and turbulent. It is being expressed by unevenness of breath, changes in our biochemistry and restless movement of our body. The mind is never controlled unless you control it. Hence control must be forcible. Take the bull by the horns. Vedanta says, “Feed the bull with green grass. Then you will ride the bull.” Life is short. When the bull will become pacified, we don’t know. We will be dead by then. So take the bull by the horns.

The Yoga system prescribes the eightfold practice which you know—yama/niyama. The first five are external and the last three internal. It asks for the rise of the whole mind to overcome the obstacles and with unwavering determination. Educating the mind to give up its old ways is a slow process. Auspicious desires are not always forthcoming. The journey to the goal is never completed unless we hasten our steps.

The Yoga system relies more on practical aspects and is distinguished from the aspect of dispassion. Patanjali refers to dispassion (vairagya) as a complementary means for control of the mind, not primary. It seeks to develop reason through training the exercise of willpower. It seeks to arouse then modify our sub-conscious indirectly through the help of regulation of breath, posture and diet.

Modern psychology explains how the conscious mind is modified and controlled by the sub-conscious. But the Yoga system further shows us how we can modify the sub-conscious by conscious effort; how repeated exercise of the will at the conscious level can influence the sub-conscious depths and modify them permanently. By controlling and disciplining the manifested effects of impurities, it goes to the root of all impurities to overcome them. The Yoga system says, “I am only aware of the effects of these impurities in the restlessness of my mind and body, but I do not know the cause. However, I do not need to speculate because by controlling the effect I can overcome the cause”.

Our consciousness is in deep slumber at the base of the spine. It must rise to the upper centres. For that reason the blockage in the canal of consciousness, sushumna, has to be cleared. The yoga system prefers the dredging of the canal rather than dissolving the blockage, whereas Vedanta prefers to dissolve. Posture, diet and pranayama are the means to dredge. Conversion of energy to ojas provides the sustained strength to dredge. To dredge you have to have strength, for that needs energy. Spiritual energy is refined, giving you determination. The manifestation of yoga powers generates confidence in the mind.

We  have a tendency in Vedanta to decry the occult as obstacles, but the Yoga system says no. Some power is necessary to encourage us. If you are a yogi, you must have something—otherwise, what are you doing? So these powers give you faith and confidence. Reason can never uproot miseries and dispel ignorance. To accomplish the task the whole person—physical, vital, mental—must rise against the permanent tendencies of the mind that block the way.

The Yoga system is suited to those in whom reason has not yet established a natural supremacy. That is Patanjali’s view. Vedanta says that things are easier said than done. Vedanta maintains that an impure mind cannot be made pure by working the reverse way. It says one should go to the root. The Yoga system tries to overcome the subtle by controlling the gross which is manifest. Vedanta says no, don’t try to hurry. Vedanta relies more on the practice of dispassion and believes that the primary urge in all of us is the need to reach the Divine. It says we should overcome the gross by controlling the subtle, for the subtle exerts more power over the gross. It is therefore the easier and shorter way.

Vedanta says one cannot generate spiritual longing through diet, posture or pranayama. It makes the process mechanical. Can you make a person spiritual by giving him a diet and special exercises? Withdrawal of the mind is not possible unless the mind co-operates in the process. Forcible control can rouse the mind untimely, before spiritual longing has come and before spiritual motivation for making the journey has become sufficiently strong. This is an important point.

The mind is like a giant, sleeping. You rouse it by pranayama, which is forcible, but the motivation to proceed has not developed. It lacks the longing for Truth and love of God. What will you do with such a mind that has been roused? It will rise up against you and destroy you. So don’t rouse the mind. Swami Vivekananda said, “A mind that has been roused a little is very dangerous. Once it is roused, you have to keep it going. If not, it will finish you.” Through prayer, austerity and reason you build platforms so when reactions come you will not fall deep into the lower pit but will be held by the platforms.

So we must not try to hasten to rouse the mind by forcing it for it may prove self-destructive. True spiritual practice is prayer, contemplation and worship. As the mind begins to move upwards, we build platforms. Vedanta believes in gradual control so that the mind does not rebel. Its process is the way of least resistance. Vedanta prescribes the practice of silence, not restraint of speech. Solitude is interior, not external—the real posture in which the mind flows towards Brahman spontaneously. Absorption in Brahman is real meditation. It is achieved by directing the mind towards Brahman, not fixing the mind on the tip of the nose.

Absorption of the mind in the Atman, knowing that It alone abides, is called withdrawal. Steadiness in dwelling on the thought of Brahman is called concentration. All obstacles are overcome only by dissolving the mind in the ocean of the Infinite Self. By thinking of the object of the mind, the mind gets identified with it. By thinking of a void, it really becomes blank, and by thinking of Brahman it attains to perfection.

So we must know that to change habits, we must proceed slowly. There is no use in imitation or taking up gimmicks. We tend to think we should be doing everything quickly because we live in an age where patience is rare. The “gimmick” in Vedanta is humble prayer, aligning oneself to be the receptacle of divine consciousness, not mere lip service. Through prayer, worship and holy company we can maintain a balance in our lives that will prepare us for real spiritual life.

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Self-Control: Forcible or Gradual?