As Yoga teachers, we tend to believe in the benefits of meditation–either from our own experience or from our faith in the words of the great Yogis. Yet when the time comes to sit still on our pillow, we may find that the mind is not very enthusiastic about the practice. It could be actively resisting or just preferring to get to the other things on our ever-increasing to-do list. As someone who has made meditation a priority in my life, I’ve watched these tendencies closely, always looking for ways to bring more wholeheartedness and sincerity to my practice. Over time I recognized three fundamental issues into which my soul needed to look squarely in the eye to bring my entire Being into my meditation practice.
The first issue is to recognize the misery that arises from a lack of self-awareness.
What do I mean by ”lack of self-awareness?” The Yoga Sutras state: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga (chitta vritti nirodhah). Then the Seer (Self) abides in His own nature. At other times As Yoga teachers, we tend to believe in the benefits of meditation–either from our own experience or from our faith in the words of the great Yogis. Yet when the time comes to sit still on our pillow, we may find that the mind is not very enthusiastic about the practice. It could be actively resisting or just preferring to get to the other things on our ever-increasing to-do list. As someone who has made meditation a priority in my life, I’ve watched these tendencies closely, always looking for ways to bring more wholeheartedness and sincerity to my practice. Over time I recognized three fundamental issues into which my soul needed to look squarely in the eye to bring my entire Being into my meditation practice. The first issue is to recognize the misery that arises from a lack of self-awareness. What do I mean by ”lack of self-awareness?” The Yoga Sutras state: The restraint of the modifications of the mind-stuff is Yoga (chitta vritti nirodhah). Then the Seer (Self) abides in His own nature. At other times the Self appears to assume the forms of the mental modifications (Book I Sutras 2-4).
In other words, when we are not in a state of Yoga, we experience both thoughts (vrittis) and our identification with them. What does it mean to identify with our vrittis? We become the thought–our identity is locked into the mental or emotional pattern–leaving no one home to watch what is taking place. When there is no observer, our thoughts are unconscious—below the radar of our awareness. When we wake up a little more, we may become aware of a vritti, but because our identity has become so linked to it, because we are so close to it, we have no perspective to determine its validity. So, we tend to assume that whatever we’re thinking is true and accurate. This identification with the mind and the resulting lack of self-awareness creates most of our problems in life. Why is that? Because we’re almost always thinking! Almost our entire life is spent immersed in vrittis—600 thoughts a minute or 10 per second, according Dr. Amrita McLanahan. Though most of these 600 thoughts are unconscious, they are in complete control of determining our experience of life. Our past conditioning—our samskaras—determines how we see the world and how we react to our perception. We project our reality and then respond in pre-programmed, repetitive tape loops. This makes it hard for us to see the lessons we need to learn to grow and evolve, so we find ourselves in the same types of dilemmas again and again, like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. Our lack of awareness makes it so we can’t see:
a) How we are attracting these challenges,
b) How it is our attitude toward the challenge that is the cause of our pain and the reason we continue to inflict pain on others,
c) That the purpose of the challenge is to support us to free ourselves from these repetitive grooves and thus become alive and awake human beings. The end result is that we end up blaming others for our unhappiness, feeling victimized, and stagnating at our current level of awareness.
The second issue is to recognize the misery that arises from the awakening of self-awareness.
The helpful side of the lack of awareness is that we don’t really see our situation and how painful it is. You probably know so-called non-spiritual people who seem to be getting on better than some Yogis. This bliss of ignorance begins to get disturbed once the soul gravitates toward Yoga in general and meditation in particular. These tools are going to shake us out of our slumber—out of our complacency—out of our comfort zone.
The Buddhists are particularly up-front about the fact that a dimension of waking up is perceiving that there is misery inherent in life. Buddha didn’t see this as a negative or pessimistic perspective. It was simply self-evident to him that to reach the end of suffering, or nirvana, we first have to accept the fact that there is suffering. Buddha recommended that we not turn away from the fact that we and everyone we hold dear is living in a body that is going to get old and die–or even die young. Buddha wanted us to be able to hold this in our consciousness in a way that would help us to keep our eyes open from moment to moment, rather than immobilize ourselves.
So, it is a common experience, and a good sign, if after the initial honeymoon stage of discovering Yoga, you find yourself not feeling so good. This is what happened to me. My friends and family took one look at me and said, “This Yoga is not for you, man.” Yoga transformed me from a happy-go-lucky kid to a contracted, anxious, uptight fanatic. I was beginning the process of waking up, and it wasn’t pretty!
The third issue is to recognize the misery that arises from unskillfully trying to increase self-awareness.
What do I mean by “unskillfully trying to increase self-awareness?” Mostly, pushing too hard to achieve chitta vritti nirodhah (the restraint of the modification of the mind-stuff). I spent a few decades thinking that forcing the mind to be still was a reasonable goal, especially for a gung-ho seeker like myself. Vrittis are disturbing the peace of my mind and stealing my identity. Patanjali defines Yoga as stopping them, right? If I’m having a difficult time accomplishing this, then I need to grit my teeth harder and jump back into the battle. However, I couldn’t help but notice that I was tending to come out of my meditations more tense, frustrated, or depressed than when I started. I began to question if this was how it was supposed to be. I figured that I either needed to find another approach, or I just wasn’t cut out for the spiritual life.
Since you are reading this article written by me, you probably surmised that I didn’t give up on the spiritual life. I explored the above issues more consciously, and it became clear to me that I needed to find a way to meditate that was more enjoyable. I intended to be sitting on my meditation pillow three times a day and I wanted to develop an approach and attitude that would get me there happily. Not only didn’t I want to foster the adversarial relationship I had developed with my mind and its thoughts, I wanted my meditation to help me develop an open, healthy relationship with the mind. Over time, I gradually came to see that if I was going to enjoy the process–or game–of meditation, then it needed to be challenging, but doable. For me, “Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” wasn’t really a fun game to play because I couldn’t do it. I found that, rather than moving right into playing the “Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” game, I did better playing the “Becoming Aware of the Vrittis in the Chitta” game. In this game, we shift the focus from trying to stop the mind from doing anything to becoming conscious of what the mind is doing. This also is no cakewalk, but I find it very interesting, engaging, and—most of the time—a fun challenge.
How I play the “Becoming Aware of the Vrittis in the Chitta” game
I call this stage of my meditation “Preparing for Dharana” (concentration) and it goes like this:
1) Begin observing the breath.
2) Don’t try to not think. Rather, encourage the mind to let out any of its concerns or nonsensical ramblings that are percolating beneath the surface.
3) When you become aware that a thought has surfaced, thank the mind by saying, “Good.” Why do I recommend saying “Good?” I say “Good” because the mind followed my direction to let the subconscious become conscious, and it is good that I was able to recognize that thinking is taking place. It is actually very good if I can recognize what the mind was thinking about–identifying the content requires more awareness. And it’s excellent if I am able to follow the progression of thoughts backward to be aware of what vritti started this train of thought.
4) Next ask: “Anything else on your mind?” (And mean it.)
5) Then gently return to observing the breath. You may have a few moments when you are simply witnessing consciously and the mind is not moving. Both the conscious witnessing and the lack of thoughts will probably last only a few moments. See if you can learn to savor those few moments, while at the same time not harboring any negative reaction to vrittis. (You don’t want to say “Good” when thoughts arise, but really prefer that they didn’t. Notice if you kind of wish the mind would shut up and see if you can drop that preference.)
How I have benefited by starting my meditations in this way
1) Thoughts are weakened. When we become aware of what the mind is doing, we have begun the process of breaking our identification with the vrittis. This weakens their power, and leads to chitta vritti nirodhah.
2) It is a less violent approach. “Chitta Vritti Nirodhah” tends to be a harsh way to play the meditation game. Stopping thoughts by becoming aware of them is like turning off a fan by unplugging it rather than stopping it by sticking your hand in the blades.
3) It does not encourage guerilla warfare. If a thought is greeted with a negative reaction, it is like any of us, it skulks away. But unhappily going away doesn’t mean disappearing. It sees that the conscious mind is a hostile environment, so it goes back down to the subconscious where it is safe and has more power over us. You’ll have a fuzzy meditation where you sense your mind wasn’t still but you have no idea what it was thinking about.
So, if you have been finding yourself less than eager to sit for meditation, you may want to try out this approach for a few minutes before asking the mind to be still or focused on one thing. You may discover for yourself what the mystic poet Rumi talks about in his poem The Guest House.
The Guest House
This being human is a guesthouse
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture.
Still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out for some new delight.
Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-1273)
(by Swami Asokananda, from the February, 2005 IYTA Newsletter)