What to do with all the monkeys jumping around inside our heads?
"The goal of each soul is freedom, mastery, freedom from slavery of matter and thought, mastery of external and internal nature."
This is a phrase from Swami Vivekananda, one of the most respected spiritual masters of modern times. He was practically the first Indian yogi to appear before Western scrutiny. At the first Parliament of World Religions in 1893 in Chicago, he impressed many with his simplicity and clarity. Just by saying the obvious, "Sisters and brothers of America! " he received a two-minute standing ovation from the seven thousand present. At one point, he sweetly called attention to the prison of our respective beliefs. He told the story of a frog who believed that the well where he lived was the only world he really wanted to know about and he refused to believe that there could be others.
"That has been the difficulty all the while. I am a Hindu. I am sitting in my own little well and thinking that the whole world is my little well. The Christian sits in his little well and thinks the whole world is his well. The Mohammedan sits in his little well and thinks that is the whole world. "
We comfortably forget that beliefs and practices are mostly external to our deeper selves. As we go further into the experience of the inner state, we move away from words, symbols, rituals and even religious differences. In spite of our diverse cultures and traditions, we are very similar at our spiritual cores. It's as if the mind is stuck in its most superficial state where it has absolutely no chance of controlling itself.
In his classic book, Raja Yoga, he compares the mind with the antics of monkeys. Not just any monkey, but one drunk on the wine of desire, poisoned by the scorpion of jealousy and possessed by the demon of pride. Even if his metaphor is strong, we can all relate to it. It's really a no-brainer to understand that, just observing the monkey’s capering, may calm it down, but cannot change it.
Looking for a parallel to this lack of control in Western spirituality, I came across one in Thomas à Kempis' inspiring classic, The Imitation of Christ from the 15th Century.
“Whensoever a man desireth aught above measure, immediately he becometh restless. The proud and the avaricious man is never at rest; while the poor and lowly of heart abide in the multitude of peace.”
In spite of the archaic English, anyone from any tradition can relate to this explanation of the reasons for mental restlessness. We need to know how the mind functions in order to control it.
From over forty years' experience as a student and teacher of Raja Yoga meditation, I still feel like a novice when I see the multitude of things I still need to learn especially about my inner world. I can honestly say that the problem is not the mind itself but what happens in it. At a superficial level meditation can be, as some current "experts" tell us, thinking about nothing in an attempt to produce clarity. That´s OK, but I still have to understand what is creating the "flotsam and jetsam" in the mind and deal with that.
At a basic level, the mind is just like a beach where the waves of mental activity are breaking. There is a sea of past experiences and future possibilities which swirls this way and that, in an apparently random fashion, as we try to deal with what is landing on the beach. If I am just a passive witness to the play of the waves, I can become numbed to its restless state. I forget that I am the master sitting on the beach and not just as a helpless observer. I am not the beach of the mind. I have a mind. I am the creator of my sea of experiences and everything that comes from it. I have an intellect through which I can consciously decide what I want to think and what to do with it once I have created it.
Perhaps the greatest impediment to the control of this inner world is the word control itself. The immediate image of mind control is someone make arduous efforts to restrict, regulate or apply a brake to the stuff that the sea is throwing up.
In my own practice, I have seen that spiritual power and the quality of mental activity are related. It's as if there is an inner dimmer switch. As I increase my spiritual power through meditation there is enough light to see things clearly. Negativity fades into the background and a sense of control becomes natural. As I turn the switch down, the shadows come back and bring with them restlessness.
An easy example to understand is the relationship between expectation and fulfillment. As my sense of inner fulfillment goes up, there is nothing that I desire or expect from others or situations. As it goes down all sorts of desires spring up to help compensate for inner emptiness.
So the whole question of mental mastery is related to how much spiritual power I can generate and accumulate. With my inner battery full I can face anything. If not, situations will almost always be more powerful than my capacity to deal with them, bringing with them an endless string of useless and negative thoughts.
How then to charge the battery? I will take up this topic in the next post.