Facing the Restless Mind – Part 1

By Swami Adiswarananda

Swami Adiswarananda was the head of the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York until 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.

This article was originally published in Living Wisdom: Vedanta in the West, published by Vedanta Press. We are posting it in two installments.

The mind plays a most crucial role in human life. An individual’s real strength lies not in his muscle but in the tranquility of his mind. Tranquillity is vital not only for his or her survival, but also for success and fulfillment in any walk of life. It is the source of his or her power, creativity, and self-confidence. It is as important for a saint or a mystic as it is for a scientist, an artist, an engineer, or a workman. The fourth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita tells us that the mind is our best friend when kept under control, and our worst enemy when we lose control over it. So the saying goes: “He who is the master of his mind is a sage, while he who is a slave to his mind is a fool.”

But what is the mind? There are thinkers who have tried to explain the mind in such terms as a function of the brain, a product of heredity, a product of the environment, a byproduct of the bodily processes, and so forth. These views only describe how the mind acts and reacts, but not why. They fail to explain a person’s moral commitment, aesthetic sensibility, and spiritual aspiration. They leave out the most essential part of an individual—his soul, and reduce him to either a creature of circumstances or a stimulus-response mechanism. Vedanta considers these views to be incomplete and inadequate.

The seers of Vedanta gave a spiritual interpretation of man and his mind. Mind, according to them, is a positive entity that stands between the body and senses on the one hand, and the knowing self on the other. While the knowing self of an individual is the focus of the all-pervading universal Self, the mind serves as the ego-self. The mind is the leader of the sense-organs and pervades the entire body. Though closely connected with the body, the mind is independent of it.

The functions of the mind are four: deliberation, determination, I-consciousness, and memory. The mind is called our second body, or subtle body. The gross body is an extension of the mind. The relation between the subtle body and the gross body is like that between a seed and a plant. Both mind and body are material by nature. The body is made of five gross elements—earth, air, water, ether, and fire, and the mind is made of the subtle forms of the same five elements. Being material by nature, these elements do not possess consciousness of their own. The body derives its consciousness from the mind, and the mind from the knowing self. The mind is not destroyed with the death of the body. The mind is the receptacle of the memories of past lives, and transmigrates from one birth to another. Each person is born with a particular mind that he or she brings from the past, and it is this mind that seeks expression through thoughts and actions in the present life.

Each person perceives the world through the prism of his own mind. His mind is his interpreter, guide, and constant companion. It receives sensory perceptions of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell, interprets them according to its inbuilt conditionings, and then responds through its motor organs. Thus the world of an individual is in his or her mind. His birth and death, suffering and enjoyment, virtue and vice, bondage and liberation, are all experiences of the mind.

The mind has three levels of consciousness: subconscious, conscious, and superconscious. The conscious is that level from which a person makes decisions, choices, and value judgments. Beneath the conscious lies the subconscious, hidden and unperceived, exerting its influence on the conscious. The conscious is like the steering of an automobile, while the subconscious is like the propulsion. Above the conscious there is a third level, the superconscious, where individual consciousness comes in contact with the universal Consciousness. The subconscious is guided by instinct, the conscious by reason, and the superconscious by intuition. I-consciousness, or the ego, operates only on the conscious level. On the subconscious level it is unmanifest, while on the superconscious level it almost vanishes.

The mind is subject to three gunas, or the three modifications of matter: inertia (tamas), passion (rajas), and tranquility (sattva). The preponderance of one over the other two at any time affects the moods of the mind. Tamas overpowers the mind with darkness, and rajas with agitation, while sattva gives the mind stability. In regard to the perception of reality, tamas causes nonperception and rajas distorted perception, while sattva brings clarity of perception. The mind of each individual represents a specific composition of the three gunas, and this composition determines the person’s disposition, character, likes and dislikes. The guna composition becomes altered as one changes his or her way of living.

The mind rises and falls. Vedanta speaks of six subtle centers of consciousness located along the spinal column known as chakras, or lotuses. Their locations are: at the base of the spine, at the level of the organ of generation, at the navel, at the heart, at the throat, and in the space between the eyebrows.

The six centers are like six windows through which the mind perceives the outside universe. When the mind dwells in the three lower centers, it broods only on eating, sleeping, and gross sense enjoyments. When it rises to the fourth, it feels spiritual longing and makes spiritual effort. By rising higher, it eventually goes beyond the six centers and merges in the universal Consciousness.

The basic urge of the individual consciousness is toward unity with the universal Consciousness, and so the natural flow of the mind is cosmocentric. But because of the blocking of the ego, the flow becomes obstructed, falls back upon itself, and breaks into countless waves of negative emotions and urges, such as lust, anger, jealousy, and possessiveness. Unable to be cosmocentric, the mind becomes egocentric.

The mind is known for its proverbial restlessness. The sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita describes the mind by four epithets: “restless,” “turbulent,” “powerful,” and “obstinate.” A restless mind addicted to sense pleasures has been depicted in an ancient proverb as a “mad elephant.” Shankaracharya describes it as a “huge tiger”: “In the forest-tract of sense pleasures there prowls a huge tiger called the mind. Let good people who have a longing for liberation never go there.” Swami Vivekananda has compared the restless mind to a monkey that is not only drunk with the wine of desire, but is also simultaneously stung by the scorpion of jealousy and taken over by the demon of pride.

The restless mind is marked by several signs. It is dull, excited, or scattered, and never concentrated. Impulsive and hypersensitive, it has low frustration tolerance and is often guided by arbitrary whims and passing sentiments. Carried along by the waves of impulses, darkened by imaginations, unstable, fickle, and full of desires, it is constant prey to delusions and fancies. It swings from hyperactivity to depression, from self-pity to self-aggrandizement, from overoptimism to overpessimism. It is secretive and negative, divided and discontented. Harassed by its own anxieties and tensions, it drifts aimlessly and is unable to find rest.

A person with a restless mind does not act but only reacts, does not live life but merely copes with it. Mental restlessness manifests itself on the physical level as emotionally charged speech, restless body movement, sharp mood changes, uneven breath, restless movement of the eyes, and lack of concentration. From the point of view of the gunas, the restless mind is dominated either by inertia or passion, and from the point of view of the centers of consciousness, it dwells mostly in the three lower centers.

The mind is restless because it is weak. It is weak because it is impure, and it is impure because it has become a slave to the body and the senses. The weak mind is at the root of all suffering.

The five causes of suffering, according to Vedanta, are: (1) ignorance, which blocks the perception of the reality of oneness; (2) deluded ego, that projects its own world of fancies and desires; (3) deep attachment, which expresses itself as possessiveness; (4) strong aversion, which seeks the pleasurable and shuns the painful; and (5) clinging to life, which is the inability to change and grow.

Impurities of the mind are the subtle deposits of past indulgent living. They are not simply impure thoughts. Having been repeated over and over again, the impure thoughts have become persistent habits, striking roots into our body chemistry. Habits are always formed little by little. These habits are called samskaras. Samskaras cannot be overcome by mere intellectual reasoning and analysis. Time cannot erase them, change of place or diet cannot uproot them.

Some try to overcome restlessness by pampering the desires of the mind. But pampering eventually becomes suicidal. It is false psychology that says we can overcome our mind by yielding to its desires. Desires, like flames of fire, are insatiable. The more we add fuel to them, the more they burn, until in the end they destroy their very base, the mind. Unrestrained desires and unbridled gratification of libidinal urges only lead to disintegration and destruction.

Others try to overcome restlessness by punishing the mind. They resort to self-torture and mortification. But punishing only represses the urges and desires, driving them underground. Repression heightens the awareness of the desired object, causing fantasy and personality disorders. Still others try to escape restlessness of the mind by a change of environment. But soon they discover that they are being pursued by their restlessness. It is because wherever we go we carry our mind with us. The way to overcome the restless mind, according to the seers of Vedanta, is to face it.

Facing the mind has four aspects: self-acceptance, self-control, self-regulation, and moderation.

Read Part 2

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July 1, 2009
Facing the Restless Mind – Part 2
September 1, 2009
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Facing the Restless Mind – Part 1