Where Is My Mind?
Yogis have long sought to understand the cause of human suffering. As in many spiritual traditions, the aim has been to minimize suffering and maximize fulfillment. At the core of most needless suffering, argues this lineage, are habits of the mind, which, when left unexamined and untrained, can leave us in a state of lack, isolation, and anxiety.
The upshot is that each of us can learn which aspects of the mind tend to cause our superfluous pain. Armed with this information, we can stop painful thought habits in their tracks.
The mind, in Patanjalian terms, is comprised of four basic components:
Chitta, the storehouse of memories;
Manas, sensory processing;
Buddhi, discernment; and
Ahamkara, the notion of “I.”
The categories may appear to simplify what goes on in the ol’ noggin, but upon closer examination they’re pretty darn comprehensive. What follows is just a taste and, truthfully, an oversimplification.
So Where Do you Get Stuck?
If you tend to get caught in chitta, you may have a habit of recalling the past and dwelling there a bit more than feels good. Do you play your own embarrassing moments on the screen of your mind? Do you tend to ruminate about past hurts to the detriment of your enjoyment now? A certain amount of this is unavoidable and even necessary, but catch yourself if these habits lead you to any shade of misery.
Or, you may spend your mental resources envisioning and perhaps worrying about future events. This is another way chitta strikes, most often subconsciously. Again, we need a little bit of prior planning to function at our best, but watch out when your time spent in the imagined future eclipses your time spent in the eternal now.
Manas, or the lower mind, is that which keeps us bound to sensory experience. On the positive (and essential) side, it facilitates our interaction with the world around us and puts us in touch with our senses. It processes information coming through the visual and other sensory centers, helping us to understand the environment and our relationship to it.
At its worst, it binds us to passing whims and gruff desires as though the cerebral cortex weren’t a thing. It’s what guides a guilty dog. Akin to the Freudian Id, “Me see x. Me like x,” might be its reductionist essence. To keep manas in its rightful position, we develop the layer of awareness that deciphers incoming stimuli with any eye toward consequences — that’s buddhi.
Buddhi is thought to be the most sattvic (or pure) aspect of mind. It’s our ability to discern and decipher, helping us for instance to understand the difference between a painful option and a desirable one. But when buddhi has led you down a path of suffering, it often looks like “analysis paralysis.” Have you ever caught yourself considering something — anything! a person, a situation, a decision — from a thousand and one angles? What begins as enjoyable consideration becomes a quagmire of speculation, indecision and prolonged over-analysis.
If you’re an over-analyzer, or if judgment and criticism tend to be your oft-tread avenues for emotional affliction, hey, the first step is admitting it! Rather than be ruled by your mind, yoga teaches that you can bring your mind into balance with focused practice (Hello, gaze points, breath work, asana, self study, and meditation).
Finally, ahamkara, or ego, is that which holds us in a perpetual state of “I-ness” and therefore, too easily, isolation and alienation. Although totally necessary for healthy functioning, ahamkara is the self-same aspect of mind that will tell you things like: I am better than he is. Or, I don’t measure up to her because—. Or, I deserve this more than they do because—. I was slighted the other day when—. I feel insulted because—.
Ahamkara’s most clever work is its subtlest. It doesn’t always show up as a pompous, egregious, “me, me, me” sort of state. It’s more likely to operate just underneath conscious awareness, offering little subliminal messages that tear you down or build you up but ultimately keep you from feeling connected to and at one with the life forms who make up your earthly family.
May this model of the mind-field help you to catch yourself in unnecessary suffering, and may your time on the mat shed light on what it feels like to tend to a mindscape in harmony and at peace.
In gratitude & service,