— Swami Narasimhananda —
The mind is the key to everything. Without the mind, we cannot accomplish anything. All our sense organs need the mind to complete the process of gathering information or knowledge from the outside world. The human mind is indeed a fine instrument. But, this is only the positive side. When one tries to use the mind effectively to carry out the tasks necessary to evolve in human life, there comes an obstacle that is as powerful as the instrument with which the task is being done: the mind. So, in a masterly stroke of creation, we have been given a faculty that is both the instrument and the impediment. To handle this is an exponential form of handling nuclear energy; if channelised properly, one can do wonders, and if mishandled, disasters can ensue.
Humankind has devised and continues to devise various ways to train and manage the mind. Most of these methods look for symptoms of illness of the mind and venture to correct or cure them. This is a symptomatic approach much like many branches of medicine. The problem with this approach is that the mind itself is considered to be healthy in its natural state and the need for changing its ways arises only when things have become unmanageable or when there is some sign of malady of the mind. However, it does not seem wise to take for granted the natural state of the mind. Many spiritual and philosophical traditions have found the answer to the problem of the mind, that the mind itself is the problem. Instead of waiting for it to display signs of illness, it is wise to make the mind incapable of displaying anything! It is because the mind displays imaginary projections onto the reality that is Brahman, that we suffer constantly; sometimes we call this outwardly as suffering, sometimes we fool ourselves to think that it is happiness. This suffering is what leads a human being to pursue religion, to find a way out of all suffering. This, one does by the help of the mind, without realising that the mind is the root of all suffering. The key to understanding why the mind is the cause of all suffering is to first understand that the mind is the one that gives us false images of certainty and perfection in a mirage of the world, where there can never be either of those.
The practice of yoga is a universal spiritual
practice free from any need for beliefs.
While René Descartes famously said, ‘I think, therefore I am’, the reality appears to be quite different: ‘I think, therefore I am not what I think myself to be.’ Among the many great sages, who realised this truth, was Maharishi Patanjali, who wrote the great treatise on yoga philosophy, the Yoga Sutra. The cause of all problems, according to him, are thoughts that cause disturbances or waves in the mind. But, the mind derives its existence from thoughts. Therefore, the eradication of thoughts means the eradication of mind. When we remove the projector that is the mind, we can see the white screen that is the true reality, Brahman. No more projections, no more variegated hues of the vain dreams of happiness and suffering, no more hopes and aspirations leading to dejections and frustrations. This is what yoga does.
To follow the spiritual path of yoga, one need not necessarily believe in the tenets of yoga philosophy. It is needless to mention that it is imperative to have a trained mind for one’s spiritual life. And so, irrespective of the particular spiritual path a person is following, it is necessary to control the mind, for attaining excellence in that path. So, whether you are a bhakta or a jnani, whether you follow the path of selfless work or that of psychic control, you have to necessarily have an excellent control of the mind; and naturally one has to follow ashtanga yoga to attain that control. Thus, the practice of yoga is a universal spiritual practice. One does not need to believe in any philosophy or godhead to practise this path. It is the perfect technology of mind management.
The apparent conflict between spiritual practices and scriptural or philosophical study has been discussed for centuries, probably from the beginning of human pursuits into one’s spiritual nature. The need for studies becomes clear when the need for testing one’s progress in ashtanga yoga is felt. Much like the highway signs that tell us about the status of our travel, or in the present-day context, much like the mobile map applications that guide us through our journeys, studies of philosophical and scriptural treatises enable us to understand our spiritual progress and to benchmark it with what have been detailed as goalposts for the spiritual aspirant. In the present-day context, however, it does not suffice to study traditional philosophical and scriptural texts, as human advances in technology have made it possible to study the human mind in a very detailed and minute manner. To those who ask the almost cliché question of what use do such studies bring, the answer is that they help the spiritual aspirant to sift the essential from the non-essential.
For instance, there is a great aspiration among the spiritual aspirants to attain glamorous supranormal powers. This is where the study of science, particularly the study of neurology, helps. Neuroscientists have proved by experiments that the physical expression of bliss, as told by numerous sages, can be produced by passing a very small and regulated amount of electrical current in a particular part of the brain. However, this physical bliss, though deceptively akin to the experience of the God-realised souls, does not bring any transformation in the person’s psyche, making one as ignorant of one’s true reality as before this ‘bliss’. This knowledge itself gives clarity and takes one’s mind off the preoccupation with the physical expressions of spiritual realisations. The same is true with the phenomenon of astral projection or out-of-body travel. Neuroscientists have proven that patients having some lesions in particular parts of the brain experience such out-of-body movements, which
have been later empirically verified to be true. So, what many people still think to be something very spiritual or yogic, turns out to be none of these, because they are only grounded in the physical body.
Modern psychology coupled with Indian psychology, particularly as explained by Patanjali, helps one to better understand the workings of the mind. This is necessary for us to maintain our focus on the realisation of our true nature and not be carried away with glorious accounts of siddhis or supranormal powers, which Sri Ramakrishna saw, in a vision, to be the excreta of a disdainful person, something to be abhorred. That is quite contrary, in fact diametrically opposite, to the spontaneous bliss of thoughtlessness or mindlessness, which is characterised as never-ending bliss in a state that cannot be perceived by the mind, and that cannot be expressed by words.