Controlling the Activities of the Mind

– by Linda Munro from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

What is Yoga? — “Yogaścitta vtti nirodhaḥ.”“Yoga is the control of the activities of the mind.”  (YS 1.2 translation by Georg Feuerstein)
This is the definition given by Patanjali at the beginning of his Yoga Sutras.  At first glance this seems straight forward enough but to have more than a vague appreciation of the meaning, we need to have a clear understanding of the terms citta and vritti.

The citta is, as Swami Vivekananda describes it, “the instrument through which you catch the external world.”  It can also be translated as consciousness which encompasses the functions of the mind (manas), intellect (buddhi) and ego (ahamkāra).  The citta itself is not intelligent; the intelligence behind the intelligence is what gives the mind the appearance of being intelligent.  The true Self is the light behind the citta.

Vritti literally means ‘whirlpool’; they are the whirls of the consciousness.  All the mental activities of the mind are called vrittis.

There is a lovely metaphor that is commonly used in India to illustrate the terms citta, vritti and Self:

That is of a lake.  If the top of the lake is covered by ripples or the water is muddy one will not be able to see the bottom of the lake.  However, if the water is still and clear, we can easily see the bottom.  The bottom represents our true Self, the lake the citta and the ripples and mud the vrittis.  The mind can be in three states: Rajasic, which is active and restless; Tamasic, which is dull, foggy and lazy.  Be careful not to mistake this state for the following one since a dull mind can appear to be calm when it is just lethargic; Sattvic, calm, clear and serene.  To achieve this state of mind is extremely difficult!  To have an active mind is easy; it loves to be embroiled in activity.  To have a dull mind is also easy, as in zoning out and watching TV or sleeping.  But to have a clear, calm, serene mind takes real strength and power!

Pertinent Sutras:
1.3 “Then [there is] the appearance of the Seer in [its] essence.”
1.4 “At other times, [there is apparent] conformity [of the Seer] with the [mental] activities.”

All translations by Georg Feuerstein with words in round brackets added by me ( ) to add clarity to my essay.

So why is it that most of us don’t dedicate enough time and effort into creating a calm, clear mind as we do to fill the mind with facts, figures, entertainment or plain zoning out?  It’s strange.  I see myself doing the same thing; shortening my mediation because I have ‘other things to do’; avoiding the yogic studies by spending time on Face Book; watching a movie instead of self reflection and contemplation.  I know in the end that bringing my senses inside and calming my mind to connect with my inner true Self brings so much peace to my life but it is plain hard!
Our entire experience of the outer world is based on our mental attitude.  We identify ourselves with the processes of the mind: our thoughts…anger, guilt, jealousy, pride, knowledge, etc.  Yoga is a mental discipline which will make our experience of the external world more pleasant as our internal world becomes more stable and at peace.  I love this quote by Swami Satchidananda that sums it up so beautifully:

“By changing your mind you change everything.  If only we could understand this point, we would see that there is nothing wrong outside; it is all in the mind.  By correcting our vision we correct things outside.  If we can cure our jaundiced eye, nothing will look yellow.  But without correcting the jaundice, however much we scrub the outside things, we are not going to make them white or blue or green; they will always be yellow.  That’s why yoga is based on self-reformation, self-control and self-adjustment.”

So there is obviously good reason to commit ourselves to yoga just to change our perception of the world and how we live in it!  Also notice that Swami Satchidananda says ‘self’-reformation rather than reforming others, ‘self’-control not controlling others and ‘self’-adjusting rather than adjusting those around us.  This attitude puts the power into our own two hands. And then our perspective of the world will change and we will see that everything is just perfect as it is.  You will do your work, follow your heart and do your very best in the world but with a sense of peace, compassion and reserved judgment.  Think about it, how can we help others if we can’t help ourselves?!

Pertinent Sutra:
1.5 “The [mental] activities are fivefold; [they are either] afflicted or non-afflicted.”

Back to Patanjali – he explains that there are 5 categories of vrittis and each of these can either be afflicted (klishta) or non-afflicted (aklishta).  Among the Yoga Sutra commentators there are different points of view as to the meaning of klishta and aklishta.  Some say they are painful or non-painful vrittis; which I see as the simplest and most straight forward way to regard them.  Each mental activity can be said to either bring us pain or not.  For example remembering a happy occasion with someone you love can be non-painful whereas remembering a time when that person did something you didn’t like can be painful, even though both memories are in the past they still can cause pain or not.

However, Vyasa, the author of the oldest existent commentary on the Sutras said that klishta is connected with the kleshas (causes of affliction: ignorance, I-am-ness, attraction, aversion and clinging to life).  Klishta vrittis would then be all thoughts, feelings, patterns in the mind which are associated to the kleshas—for most of us this would mean practically everything since before we know the Self all our mental activity is covered by avidya (spiritual ignorance).  It’s not stated by Vyasa but I presume then that aklishta vrittis are those not afflicted by the kleshas.  However this does not make sense because how can the activities of the mind not be afflicted by the kleshas unless one is enlightened? Those can only be the highest insights and knowledge coming during samadhi.  Furthermore, these activities during samadhi cannot have anything to do with correct-knowledge ascertained from the senses, error, imagination, sleep or memory.

Pertinent Sutra:
2.3 “The five causes-of-affliction are [spiritual] ignorance (avidya), I-am-ness (asmita), attraction (raga), aversion (dvesha) [and] clinging to life (abhinivesha).”

Consequently, I find for most of us it is more useful when observing our thoughts to understand them in which cause pain and which do not while always realizing that the veil of avidya is still around us perhaps making us believe that our thoughts are not causing us pain when in fact they are or will in time.  We have to become careful observers of our thoughts.

Now we have a better understanding of the two broad categories of vrittis, Patanjali states that there are five types of which each can either be klishta or aklishta.  The five are: correct-knowledge (pramāna), error (viparyaya), conceptualization (vikalpa), sleep (nidra) and memory (smriti).  Let’s examine them one by one.

Pertinent Sutras:
1.6 “[The fivefold mental activity is]: correct-knowledge, error, conceptualization, sleep and memory.”
Pramāna, viparyaya, vikalpa, nidra, smriti.
1.7 “Correct-knowledge is [generated by] sense perception, inference and testimony.”
Pratyaksha, anumāna, āgamā, pramānāni

Pramāna – Correct Knowledge

How do we know if what we have obtained is correct knowledge?  Patanjali gives three ways of determining whether something is correct knowledge.  One is direct perception (pratyaksha) when we understand something ourselves through our senses.  We see a dandelion and know what it looks like from our own sight.  Another is inference (anumāna); we smell the familiar smell of our favorite cookies when we come home and infer that someone has baked them for us.  The third is testimony (agama) that comes from a reliable source; traditionally it means scriptural testimony, although I also like to think of it in daily life as a reminder to use discernment when obtaining any information.  In other words don’t believe everything you hear or read!  This is even more significant now-a-days with so much availability of information through the internet.  Anyone can write anything and claim to be an authority on the subject.

Viparyaya – Error

The next vritti is error or misconception.  We perceive something to be something other than it really is.  A common example used by Yoga Sutra commentators is that of a coiled up rope being mistaken for a snake.  It frightens you but when the lights are turned on you see that you had nothing to fear.  Or the deepest example is that we appear to be this body and mind because this is what we ‘see’ but in fact we are more than that, we are the true Self.

Another example which most of us can remind ourselves of often is when we judge a situation based on the limited part of the story we see.  Like when we see a friend being ‘so called’ mistreated by another yet if we knew the other person’s view point it may put the situation into perspective.  Unfortunately all too often we get all involved in the judgment and criticism, somehow deep inside enjoying the drama, to allow ourselves to stand back, remaining discriminative and non-judging of either party.  There is a whole entertainment industry built around the enjoyment of seeing others at their lowest or in pain.  I attribute this to the suffering of many people and somehow seeing others suffer allows them to feel better that they are not suffering alone.  It’s a shame they don’t put their time and energy into knowing that we are all ONE and then they wouldn’t feel the need to connect to other humans from such an unsatisfactory place.  They could feel connected on a spiritual level which brings true inner peace and happiness.

Pertinent Sutra:
1.8 “Error is false knowledge, [which is] not based on the [actual] appearance of that [which is known].”

Or in a broader sense and going back to the discussion about saving yourself before saving the world.  When one feels intensely the pain of another we want to try to remove that pain for the person.  I’ve felt this for others all my life and then when I had children it multiplied dramatically.  As a mother your instincts are to protect your child, on the other hand if we don’t allow the child to experience some suffering then when they become adults they will not have developed the techniques to cope with the suffering that is inevitable in life.  Many of the yoga masters use the image of a film to portray the workings of karma in the external world.  We will see something horrible happening and don’t understand why this is happening to that person or oneself but we are only seeing a small portion of the ‘film’, perhaps if we could see the entire film from start to finish we may understand why the ‘bad’ stuff happens. 

Pertinent Sutra:
1.9 “Conceptualization is devoid of [actual] reality, following verbal knowledge.”

Vikalpa – Conceptualization

The next vritti is conceptualization following verbal knowledge.  I see this as also relating to my example of judging someone without the whole picture, like gossip.  You hear something and then in your mind you imagine the rest without any relevant information.  It’s useful when we start to engage in gossip to remind ourselves that that person is an image of the Divine just like ourselves and deserves compassion just as everyone does.

Or, another common situation is when having a conversation with someone; a person starts their sentence with a few words and straight away, before we let them finish we’re already imagining what they are talking about.  If we don’t listen fully we may think we know what they mean but in fact, it is our own mind conceptualizing the meaning based on a few words.  Swami Vivekananda advised: “When you are going to be angry or miserable, reason it out, how it is that some news that has come to you is throwing your mind into vrittis.”  And I ‘imagine’ J that if Ramana Maharishi were presented with this question he would advise us to find out where the source of our conceptualizing is. 
The positive side of imagination is evident in the worldly progress of mankind.  We have accomplished so much using the mind in this manner, from science to art to music to stories, it is incredible.  I believe that when one is in tune with their higher nature, this is when we are able to create and use our minds to let the source of all creativity flow through us.  We mustn’t take ownership of this creativity, it is the Divine working through us.

Pertinent Sutras:
1.10 “Sleep is a [mental] activity [that is] based on the recognition of the absence [of any other content of consciousness].”

Nidra – Sleep

The next mental activity can be puzzling because it is sleep.  Normally we think of our mind being turned off during sleep except when dreaming.  However, it is rationalized that even during deep sleep that there is some kind of consciousness because when we wake up we are conscious as to whether we slept well or not.  We recognize that we were asleep; some mental activity has to be there in order to have that recognition.

Pertinent Sutra:
1.11 “Memory is the ‘non-stealing’ of an experienced object.”
Smriti – Memory

The last class of vritti Patanjali describes is memory.  This is a function of the mind that we all can relate to.  At times the memory doesn’t seem to work when you are searching for the right word or trying to remember the time of an appointment you forgot to write in your agenda.  And at other times, a memory keeps going in circles repeating itself over and over in your mind when you are trying to sleep or meditate or when being self-conscious about something (not the capital Self but the little ego self).  A calm, controlled mind will remember what is needed and not dwell on what is not useful.

Another side note when pondering the mental function of memory is ‘remembering our true Self’.  In fact this type of remembering comes from the Self and beyond the mind nevertheless it is an interesting ‘thought’  !

So now we have a better grasp of the vrittis, this should be helpful in analyzing our thoughts and becoming more aware of the nature of our mind.  I’ve found it comforting to study the nature of the mind because it helps me realize that I’m not suffering alone, I’m not crazy…the mind is what it is and no one is alone in the experiences of the mind. 
Pertinent Sutra: There are many lineages which have given tools to suit every personality to help us control the activity of the mind (such as different styles of meditation, yoga asana, mantra, pranayama, prayer, self-analyses and mindfulness).  One thing that can be said to be in common amongst all these tools is the need for practice (abhyasa) and non-attachment (vairagya).  If only there were a magic pill to do all the work for us.  The pharmacutical industry has done wonders for modern medicine although the down side to all the advancements is that the work has been taken away from the individual.  There are many people who believe that the doctor and the medicine will take care of them.  It is astonishing what you can find pills for; everything from losing weight to making us happy.  We are thankful for all the healing but at the same time in many cases it would be more useful for the doctors and pharmacutical industry to advise people to live healthy lives and work on themselves; physically, mentally and spiritually.  Patanjali advises practice and non-attachment which are two simple terms that have a ton of weight behind them. 
Pertinent Sutra:
1.12 “Control of these [five kinds of mental] activity [is accomplished] through practice and dispassion.’
Abhyasa & Vairagya

Practice is personal, going into the details of practices is beyond the scope of this short essay.  However whichever practice one is doing, it definitely needs to be practiced to have the effects.  And practiced regularly and for a long time.  Unfortunately we are living in a quick fix society therefore many people think that if they start something that claims to have the benefits yoga claims to have, they expect the effects to happen immediately and when they don’t see the effects they give up or go try something else.  It is a many life-times practice! 
Non-attachment is not yearning for the results of one’s practice and all the beautiful gifts of the world.  We appreciate what is given when it is given and if the gift goes away we still appreciate what we had without sorrow that it is now gone.  It’s important not to cling or be dependent on anything in the material world as it is the nature of nature to change and move.  Even with the death of a loved one should practice non-attachment.  This has and is one of the hardest aspects for me to welcome into my yogic life.  One way I’ve contemplated it is imagining how I would want those I love to react if I was to pass on.  It wrenches my heart to think of my children being left without a mother however I would want them to mourn for their own emotional health and then hold the dear memories and my love in their hearts forever as they live their lives free of the sorrow.  This way it could be positive in their lives not a negative.   That is an extreme example but there are little examples of our clinging through out our lives and in our yoga practices.  Like when you have a great asana practice and finally achieve an asana that you’ve been working on for months; then the next day it seems you are back to square one.  At these times it is helpful to remind yourself that yoga isn’t about going somewhere but being somewhere (in the present now).

If one follows these two stipulations sincerely and naturally the mind will become calm and serene, this will change everything around the practitioner.  I’m not implying there will never be disease or illness and the need for a doctor or a prescription or ups and downs on the path of life and yoga but the mind will see things without the jaundiced eye and be better equipped to remain balanced.

Bibliography and Inspiration:
Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Swami Satyananada Saraswati
Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by BKS Iyengar
Raja Yoga: Being Lectures by the Swami Vivekananda
The Yoga-Sutra: A Nondualist Interpretation by Georg Feuerstein
The Yoga-Sutra from a Woman’s Perspective by Brenda Feuerstein
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda