Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Mastering the mind (3) - the uncontrolled monkey

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. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mastering the mind (2) - Meditation and Mindfulness

Today there is an explosion of interest in meditation. A 2012 study in the US, published by the National Health Institute, found that 8% of the population practiced some form of meditation that year. Among them, mindfulness was the one growing the most.
As a student and teacher of meditation for over 40 years, I can only feel happy that many people are having contact with this very ancient practice. Given the chaos in our world and lives, there is a repressed demand for it. At the same time, I'm a little wary of the marketing that surrounds meditation.

In the question of mindfulness-type meditation, there is a multitude of books flooding the market. It appears as a panacea for many areas of society. Titles like "Mindful Something" abound. Just replace Something with Work, Eating, Exercise, Leadership, Child, Teenager, Parenting and we have the promise of a wonderfully aware world. 
Doing all these things in a more 'mindful' way obviously brings benefit. Unfortunately, like so many of the therapies that appear from time to time, none of them can be the answer to everything. The way mindfulness is presented, makes it look like something newly invented. As if the practice of meditation had not existed for thousands of years! We know that meditation in different ways has been available for millennia to solve the problems of life.

To complete the insertion of mindfulness into the Western mainstream, even the word meditation has been dropped by many, so that it is no longer associated with any spiritual or religious practice, according to its Buddhist roots.

Exponents of mindfulness say that their goal is not to control the mind. According to popular belief and the reasons described in the previous blog* about our "flaccid mental and emotional muscles", they say that it is not possible. Instead of controlling thoughts, the idea is to just observe them. In this way we calm down the mind's activity, learn to deal with anxiety, and so on.

This is all true. Just taking meaningful breaks in our frantic lives and concentrating on the regular in and out of our breathing, as we observe the movement of the mind, body, and world around us is a definite way to slow down and feel calm.

Trying to do it in the face of a major crisis is another story. For example, in the face of:

  • News related to someone's terminal illness (or your own)
  • A natural or human calamity
  • Death of a loved one
  • Being robbed of all your money and documents
  • Going through a divorce
  • Losing a job
  • Getting involved in a serious traffic accident

The ability to stabilize the mind in a second in such situations requires long practice and a more complete understanding of the reasons behind things and especially the inner working of the being, through the mind and intellect. Deeply rooted personality traits cannot be transformed just by calming down. It requires what the ancients referred to as tapasya - an intense state of concentrated understanding and connection with the self and the divine that can burn the seeds of weaknesses. 
In other words, it is possible to change basic aspects to our character, but, as they say in India, it´s not as easy as going to your aunty's house

What many may not know, is that mindfulness is related to the practice of Sati, one of seven steps to enlightenment in Buddhism. In 1881, Thomas William Rhys Davids, a British magistrate in what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), had to adjudicate many Buddhist ecclesiastical conflicts. On analyzing sacred texts in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism, he suggested for the first time the word “mindfulness” as a synonym for “attention” and as an approximate translation of the Buddhist concept of sati.
Sati, and its Sanskrit counterpart, smṛti, basically mean awareness, or ¨that which we remember" or even more simply, “remembrance”. It can also mean consciousness, depending on the context. One of the first steps in ancient Vedic traditions of meditation, was to stabilize the smriti through various techniques. Since Buddha came along hundreds of years after Vedic meditation had taken root, he and his followers may have been familiar with these traditions, as can be seen in many of the similarities, especially concerning sati.

By isolating sati from the other six steps to enlightenment, and by Westernizing it, like so many other spiritual paths, we may have lost its essence. With so much trivialization, courses and "experts" on mindfulness seeking new ways to earn money, we may be only fooling ourselves that feeling good will actually solve our deeper issues. And our minds continue just as uncontrolled as ever. 

After all, one of the central tenets of Buddhism is that we do not escape suffering. We must understand and come to terms with it. This requires quite a bit more work than just developing a state of attention. The other six steps were in fact, essential to complete this journey. 

In the next blog I will share about one of the greatest meditation masters of modern times, Swami Vivekananda, who takes the whole question of controlling our minds from a different angle. We will see how hours and smriti were exactly the same thing. Stay tuned.

*Previous blog.