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.
Facing the mind has four aspects: self-acceptance, self-control, self-regulation, and moderation.
Self-Acceptance. Self-acceptance is the first aspect of facing the mind. This acceptance is not fatalistic and helpless passivity. Neither is it looking for scapegoats. Self-acceptance is acknowledging the fact that the problem of restlessness is our own creation, and we ourselves will have to overcome it. The solution to the problem will always elude our grasp so long as we deny this responsibility.
Lack of self-acceptance is at the root of all despair, self-pity, tension, and cynicism. A humorous story highlights the need for self-acceptance. A man suffering from a severe inferiority complex had been visiting a psychoanalyst for several years, with no result achieved. Finally one day, when the patient arrived for his session, the psychoanalyst told him: “Mr. Jones, I have good news for you. At last I’ve been able to make a breakthrough with your problem. You have no inferiority complex—you are inferior!” Self-acceptance teaches us that obstacles and imperfections are not to be avoided but acknowledged and overcome. A limitation or deficiency, when accepted with a positive attitude of mind, becomes a driving force for self-mastery. Benjamin Franklin said, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”
Self-Control. The second aspect of facing the mind is self-control, which is control of the mind. According to Vedanta, the unruly mind never comes under control unless it is controlled consciously. Such control is never a windfall. It cannot be attained vicariously or miraculously or by mechanical or chemical means. The four paths of yoga outline four ways to achieve control of the mind: persuasion, purification, eradication, and subjugation.
The path of knowledge, or jnana yoga, upholds the way of persuasion. It relies heavily on reason. The virtues it prescribes for practicing control are: (1) discrimination between the realities and the unrealities of life; (2) detachment, which is freedom from the thirst for all sense pleasure; (3) restraining the outgoing propensities of the mind and the senses; (4) withdrawal of the mind; (5) fortitude; (6) self-settledness; (7) faith; and (8) longing for liberation. The intellect, the leader of all the faculties of the mind, is persuaded to reflect seriously on the harmful consequences of sense enjoyments, and then to give up such enjoyments voluntarily.
The path of devotion, or bhakti yoga, advocates the way of purification. The virtues prescribed for practicing control are: (1) purity of food, including whatever the mind draws in through the senses for enjoyment; (2) freedom from desire; (3) practice of devotion, and holy company; (4) truthfulness; (5) doing good to others; (6) straightforwardness; (7) nonviolence; (8) compassion; (9) charity; and (10) not yielding to despondency or excessive merriment. Bhakti yoga relies not so much on controlling the mind as on directing it toward the Divine. It maintains that the mind cannot give up the lower pleasures of life until it has tasted something higher.
The path of selfless action, or karma yoga, follows the way of eradicating the ego. The virtues prescribed for practicing control of the mind are: (1) giving up brooding over the results of action; (2) nonattachment; (3) eradication of the ego; and (4) dedication of the results of action to the Divine. According to karma yoga, all mental restlessness is due to the worldly ego and its attachments, involvements, and actions, and the only way to overcome restlessness is eradication of the ego. But the ego, hardened by repeated selfish actions, cannot be eradicated by any means other than performance of unselfish actions. Karma alone can rescue a person from the bondage of karma.
The path of meditation, or raja yoga, emphasizes the way of subjugation. It relies not so much on reason or devotion or eradication of the ego as on willpower. The virtues that it prescribes for practicing control are: (1) nonviolence; (2) truthfulness; (3) noncovetousness; (4) continence; (5) nonreceiving of undesirable gifts and favors; (6) external and internal cleanliness; (7) contentment; (8) austerity; (9) study of sacred texts; (10) self-surrender to the Divine; (11) control of posture and breath; and (12) withdrawal of the mind. According to raja yoga, reason is too weak to uproot the ingrained tendencies, devotion requires inborn faith in God, and ego eradication is a slow process.
Only strong willpower can bring the wayward mind back to tranquillity. Raja yoga aims at controlling the subconscious with the help of conscious efforts. By control of posture and regulation of breath, along with the practice of the other prescribed virtues, the follower of raja yoga confronts the agitated mind and subdues it.
Self-control is achieved by following any of the four ways or a combination of them. Self-control is neither negative nor inhibitive. It is the technique of dealing with desires. Desires cannot be crushed or repressed. They cannot be fulfilled completely or postponed indefinitely. The only way is to reduce them to a healthy level. Self-control calls for withstanding the intensities of the gross impulses and urges, especially those of lust and greed.
Our body grows in health by bearing with physical intensities; so also our mind gains in strength by bearing with the intensities of its cravings and urges. The mind, like the body, needs exercise for its health and fitness. Unfortunately, we neglect this need of the mind. It is rightly said that the only mental exercise most people get is “jumping at conclusions, running down their friends, sidestepping responsibility, and pushing their luck!”
The logic for self-control is compelling. If a person is all muscle and metabolism, then he can never escape death. If he is nothing more than wild impulses and emotions, he can never get rest; and if he is all desires and dreams, he will ever remain unfulfilled. Vedanta asserts that our real nature is the pure Self and that we are not slaves of the body and mind, but their masters. Life is rebellion against the laws of material nature and not submission to them.
Self-Regulation. The third aspect of facing the mind is self-regulation. Self-regulation involves concentrating the mind on a single object and meditating on that object at a fixed center of consciousness. The object of concentration and meditation is called the Chosen Ideal. The Chosen Ideal may be the knowing self, which is the focus of the all-pervading universal Self, beyond all name, form, and attribute; or it may be the same knowing self with name, form, and attribute superimposed upon it.
No lasting serenity is ever possible without the practice of concentration on a fixed Chosen Ideal. The reason is that concentration cannot develop roots if the Chosen Ideal is changed frequently. Meditation culminates in absorption in the Chosen Ideal, which is the goal of all regulatory practice. In order to reach this absorption, each path of yoga suggests a number of supporting regulatory practices.
Jnana yoga prescribes hearing the great Vedic sayings and reflecting and meditating on their meaning. Bhakti yoga advises prayer, ritualistic worship, japa (repetition of a sacred word), and meditation. The follower of karma yoga adopts the supportive practices of either bhakti yoga or jnana yoga. Raja yoga advocates concentration and meditation.
The goal of concentration and meditation is to cultivate a single thought-wave. A restless mind is like a lake which is constantly being agitated by the winds of desires. As a result of this constant agitation, our true Self at the bottom of the lake cannot be perceived. When a single thought-wave is consciously cultivated by the repeated and uninterrupted practice of meditation, it develops into a huge wave which swallows up all the diverse thought-waves, and makes the mind transparent and calm. The concentrated mind is the mind that has taken this form of one single thought-wave.
Self-control and self-regulation represent respectively dispassion and practice—the two disciplines prescribed in the sixth chapter of the Bhagavad Gita for overcoming restlessness of the mind. The two must be followed simultaneously. Unless one practices control, one cannot succeed in regulation, and unless one regulates the mind, one cannot succeed in controlling it. Control without regulation never becomes lasting. Such egocentric control does not stand the test of stress. On the other hand, regulation without control is dangerous. An uncontrolled mind is impure, and an impure mind, when roused through concentration, becomes destructive. A Sanskrit proverb says: “To feed a cobra with milk without first taking out its poison fangs is only to increase its venom.” Again, control and regulation are to be practiced repeatedly, in thought, word, and deed, for a long time, without break, and with devotion.
The psychology of repeated practice is to neutralize the deep-seated, distracting samskaras by developing counter-samskaras. Impure thought is countered by pure thought, impure imagination by pure imagination, uncontrolled speech by thoughtful speech, bad posture by good posture. A thought when repeated becomes a tendency, a tendency when repeated becomes a habit, and a habit when repeated becomes character. So Swami Vivekananda says: “Never say any man is hopeless, because he only represents a character, a bundle of habits, which can be checked by new and better ones. Character is repeated habits, and repeated habits alone can reform character.”
Moderation. The fourth aspect of facing the mind is moderation. The mind cannot be brought under control all of a sudden. Human nature cannot be hurried. Old habits die hard. They have deep roots and cannot be overcome all at once. A habit is formed bit by bit. So a counter-habit is to be developed bit by bit. If you drive a screw into a wall by a number of turns, you cannot simply pull it out. In order to remove it, you have to give the same number of turns in the opposite direction. The intensity of our effort to develop a counter-habit must be in keeping with the capacity of our minds to endure.
Effort when too weak and casual fails to change the habits, but when too intense and accelerated, can damage the mind itself. So the Bhagavad Gita advises moderation in all matters: “Yoga is not for him who eats too much nor for him who eats too little. It is not for him, O Arjuna, who sleeps too much nor for him who sleeps too little. For him who is temperate in his food and recreation, temperate in his exertion at work, temperate in sleep and waking, yoga puts an end to all sorrows. . . . Renouncing entirely all the desires born of the will, drawing back the senses from every direction by strength of mind, let a man little by little attain tranquillity with the help of the buddhi [discriminating faculty] armed with fortitude.”
No task is more urgent than gaining mastery over the mind by overcoming its restlessness. No sacrifice is too great to achieve this goal. No effort in this venture is ever lost or wasted. Success in self-mastery comes only to those who long for it, practice it, and persevere in their practice. Practice, however, is not talking, discussing, or debating but doing, and the secret of all doing is to do.