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Patanjali, Yoga And The Workings Of The Mind

Patanjali, Yoga and the Workings of the Mind

A quote commonly espoused in the New age movement is “You become what you think”. While this is true at one level, Patanjali through his philosophy attemtpts to reveal to us that “We are not what we think” and I would add “as long as thoughts are not the ingredient that creates our identity”. Patanjali defines Yoga as “the process by which one begins to control the modifications of the mind”. Before trying to ascertain what these modifications of the mind are, it is important to understand Patanjali’s view of the mind. The mind is seen as a powerful tool, almost like a projector that is used by and can help the soul manifest its desires. The inherent nature of this mind is tranquil. When it rests in this state, the mind is a tool used by the soul to carry out its work in the world of time and space. However, when the mind is disturbed and thus out of control in a sense, it becomes the driver in the individual’s life, wreaking havoc and causing great misery. Most individuals are constantly subject to a ceaseless stream of thought over which they have limited control over. Thinking at random, not knowing what thought will arrive next. Based on our external surroundings and circumstance, thoughts arise repititively. What we experience and, what we perceive through our five senses becomes the source of our thought. We become hostages to our external circumstances, not solely because of the limitations our circumstance places upon us, but because of our inability to control the thought creations and thought reactions to these circumstances. Some would say we can free ourselves from this hostage situation by not thinking. However, thinking is one of the bedrocks of our existence and we would be unable to carry out our duties, responsibilities, and passions without it. The solution lies in not being identified with our own thoughts. More often than not, because we are thinking something, we easily and quickly identify it as “my thoughts”. On the other hand, many spiritual teachings espouse that we dis-identify with thought. It does not belong to us, it simply passes through us. How many examples of suffering and violence exist around us where people are willing to enter into conflict simply because someone attacked or shunned a thought (belief) they identified strongly with. Now that we understand where Patanjali is coming from, let us explore the five stages of the mind.

  1. Ksipta (Disturbed): At this stage the mind is completely out of the individual’s control. The mind will think, speak and act in ways that manifest unpleasant, detrimental circumstances for the individual. This stage is akin to that of an individual who might be willing to commit suicide, murder somebody, steal, cheat, cause harm, etc. These actions have certain repercussions that will in turn cause the individual to suffer. Not many people want to willingly suffer. In the Ksipta state the mind manifests situations that are detrimental to the individual’s well-being. In this sense, the mind is out of control as it is destroying rather than assissting life.

  2. Moodha (Stupefied): At this stage the mind is disconnected from the individual and the soul. There is a lack of passion, purpose and meaning in the individual’s life. States of depression, sloth, and addiction would fit well here. The mind desires above all else to escape its current state of life. In this stage, nothing seems worthwhile, which brings on feelings of helplessness. The perception that no thought, action or circumstance can bring fulfillment might prevail. Or conversely, there might be an excessive “running behind’ some transient pleasure with the hope that it will bring satisfaction and joy.

  3. Viksipta (Restless): This is the stage where an individual can begin to actively control and thus gain benefit from having a mind. However, this stage is characterized by distractions and a broad spectrum of objects vying for our limited attention. This stage can find an individual attuned to their purpose but lacking the focus to manifest that purpose. The individual oscillates between days of focused attention upon their work, passions, and self growth, and days of complete distraction. The mind sneaks up on the individual, pulling their attention towards shallow tasks and daydreaming. This stage seems to be a bigger hurdle today, where social media and the Internet add to the scattering of awareness. Here the individual can be driven; in touch with what they need to do to grow, and thrive. But still unable to wrest the time from numerous small distractions that add up dangerously.

  4. Ekagrata (One-pointed): At this stage the mind becomes a very powerful force. Awareness is no longer fractured. The mind is no longer spreading itself thin; rupturing itself by running in different directions. Lost pieces of the mind come together in unison to focus upon a single object. Whatever the mind wishes to manifest, it can. The individual will still have to work hard and put it in the effort, but now everything is within reach. What the individual desires, the mind manifests. In this stage, distraction is not something the mind has to vigilantly watch against. Distraction itself becomes non-existent. When the mind is focused upon a task or object, it goes so deep that nothing else can occupy space. In Ekagrata, the way the individual thinks, changes. Thoughts are less jumpy, one can effortlessly stay with a train of thought until it has reached its conclusion. For example, one can create a plan for the coming year in a matter of minutes without a single un-required thought vying for attention in between. One is truly present, grounded in the Now.

  5. Nirodhah (Well-Controlled): At this stage the mind has regained its inherent tranquil nature. Thoughts arise only when needed. When at rest the mind is devoid of thought, unlike the previous stages where the mind is constantly searching for the next thought to think. On a holiday at the beach, the mind can spend hours in complete silence, thinking only when required. The individual no longer experiences reality through thought. When reality is experienced outside of thought, it gives rise to impalpable bliss. We no longer think “That is such a beautiful sunset”, but we feel the sunset in a way that can only be felt when thought is not directing our awareness. In Nirdohah, we think the bare minimum of thought to accomplish our tasks perfectly. No future projections, and past remembrances clutter our attention. This state is also considered to be effortless. In a sense that the previous state of Ekagrata still required focus upon an object to calm the ripples of the mind. For instance, in meditation, one could remain with the breath for hours, but the object (breath) is still required to focus upon. In Nirodha, thoughts cease effortlessly and the mind is devoid of a ripple, without needing to focus upon an object. Focus implies effort. At this level of maturity the mind cannot possibly be anywhere but Here, Now.