In the Light of Wisdom
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 9: The Ignorance of the Mind

If a powerful wind blows over a lake and there is a cyclone and tempest, there cannot be any proper reflection of light on the surface of the water, and it becomes worse when the water is muddy. Muddy water shaken up violently cannot adequately reflect the true position of an object, even if the object were very near the surface of the water. If the sun is shining in the sky, and yet the winds are strong and the waters are disturbed, the reflection of the sun cannot be seen properly. Through the power of the light of the sun an observer would note that there is something shining, though one could not easily see what it is that is shining.

Likewise is the process of perception. It involves only a faint hint as to the presence of some light existing somewhere, without which perception would be impossible, but at the same time we cannot see this light which we conclude must be there. A little brightness which seems to be visible on the surface of the water makes us feel that there should be something bright which is reflected in these waters. Yet, we cannot actually see it because of the disturbance on the surface of the water.

In the process of perception, recollection and inference we may come to know that there should be a light, a consciousness and an intelligence behind the process of perception, inference, etc. That we are aware of the world outside is enough proof that there is such a thing called awareness. But we are more conscious of the world than of this awareness, in spite of our concluding that without awareness there could be no cognisance of the world. Awareness is first and the world appears afterwards, but the winds on the surface of perception are so strong and the surface seems to be so turbid that we are able to see only the shaky surface and not the light that is shining through the surface.

We can see our bodies and we can see the objects outside, though it goes without saying that we can neither know ourselves nor others without there being an intelligence relating ourselves to the objects. That which is the very presupposition of all perception and knowledge is hidden beneath the processes of perception. That which is hidden as the being is never an object of our consciousness. Consciousness is so swallowed up in the objects that we appear to be lodged in a physical world of physical objects and located within a physical body. The subjective awareness has practically died in our lives, and we live in bodies more than in intelligence or consciousness. Something seems to be happening which disturbs our being conscious of that which underlies the process of perception.

I mentioned earlier a word called ‘vritti’ in connection with an awareness of perception. A vritti is a mood of the mind, a modification of the mind, a way in which the mind tries to connect itself with an object—a movement of the mind towards an object. A vritti therefore is a transformation, a change and disturbance on the surface of consciousness. A vritti has the capacity to mould itself into the form of an object in perception, and it becomes so identified with the form that we cannot know which is the mind and which is the object.

Identification of the Mind

This identification becomes intense both in extreme love and extreme hatred. In both cases the mind gets identified with the object beyond a certain limit, so that the mind loses itself in the object. The mind and the object become one for all practical purposes and we love a thing as our own selves, or we hate the opposite thing to the utmost. In both these extremes the mind lodges itself positively or negatively in the object with such an intensity that one cannot make a distinction between the mind and the object. In scriptures and yoga texts some analogies are given to explain how this identification takes place between the mind and the object. The example usually given is that when an iron ball is heated red-hot in a fire, the ball of iron is not longer visible at all—we see only a ball of fire. The ball of iron has become a ball of fire through the heat integrated into it, and if we touch the ball we would get burned. It is not the iron ball that burns; it is the fire in it that burns. The identification between the ball and the fire is such that we cannot distinguish the one from the other. For the time being there is no appearance of iron there at all, as it seems to be only fire. Yet we know that there is iron in it, and it is not merely fire. So is the mind’s activity in love and hatred.

Intense love and hatred are such identifications where one cannot know whether there is an object separate from the mind and vice versa. It is just impossible to be without that object in the case of love or be with that object in the case of hatred. The mind can take such extreme shapes in rare occasions and identify itself positively or negatively with an object in this manner. The mind does not always go to extremes like this—the extreme steps of the mind are very rare because it is difficult to conceive of absolute love or absolute hatred. We have only ordinary love or ordinary hatred generally speaking, and in this process there is only a slight contact between the object and the mind, just as there is only a slight heating of the iron ball if the fire is weak.

The movement of the mind is like a wind that blows on the surface of the true consciousness within us. It is the vritti again. For all practical purposes we may say the mind’s function is the same as a vritti of the mind. Yoga is concerned with vrittis very much, and sometimes yoga is defined as the control of the modifications of the vrittis of the mind. We will learn slowly as to why these modifications have to be controlled.

As I mentioned in the analogy, the winds disturb the water so much that the shaky surface will not allow a true reflection of the light. By an analytical process we have realised that our true nature is one of being and awareness, without which even perception of an object would be impossible. But it seems to be an irony that in spite of our logical deduction that we ought to be Being-Consciousness alone, it is the only thing which we cannot be conscious of. When we are conscious of many other things in the world which we do not seem to really be us, how is it that we cannot know our own selves and get lost in other things which do not reflect our true being?

This is the mystery of the mind. The mind not only prevents the awareness of our own self but also drags the consciousness out to the objects to which it is attracted. In Sanskrit these two processes are called avarana and vikshepa. Avarana means a covering or a veil over consciousness such that we cannot know that the consciousness is there. Due to this veil, we become incapable of knowing our true nature. This is the screening of the consciousness by the potentialities of the vrittis of the mind. These potentialities become thick and dark, and they are often referred to as the unconscious level of our personality.

This unconscious mind is nothing but the unmanifested vrittis which weigh heavily upon us like dark clouds covering the sun. It is not merely that these clouds cover the sun of light within us—a tempest is also created side by side. When there are thick clouds covering the sun, the wind also starts blowing. There is confusion all over—wind, cold, and everything. The darkness created by the thickness of the layer of the vrittis prevents our being conscious of our true nature. Together with this, there is a violent passion for perception of what is not our own true nature, a positive viciousness of the mind that drags it away from itself to other objects. People who are silently sitting for months and months need not necessarily be good people; this may be a preparation for a storm. When the weather is gloomy, dusty, cloudy, and when no breeze blows, we may be sure that a tempest or a storm is going to break out. The torpidity of the mind is a preparation for violence of the mind.

Avarana becomes vikshepa. Avarana is covering and vikshepa is distraction of the mind towards an object. Perception is one kind of vikshepa. The very fact that the mind is eager to see things outside or hear sounds is indicative of its vikshepa or distractedness. All this is because primarily there is no awareness of its true nature. Avarana is the cause, and vikshepa is the effect. We forget ourselves first, and then we become aware of others. We cannot be aware of others unless we first forget ourselves. These two cause and effect processes take place almost simultaneously in us. We do not know when it is that we forget ourselves. We do not know when it is that we become aware of other things. To forget the Self and to become aware of the world is one and the same thing—it is a simultaneous act. Avarana and vikshepa take place then almost at the same time.

We cannot easily handle this inner layer of the potentiality of the vrittis because of getting too involved in the process of perception and various other kinds of distraction. Nevertheless, we have to gradually disentangle the mind from its impetuous identifications with its objects. Yoga is nothing but awareness of the true nature of the Self. Worldly existence or samsara, the cycle of transmigratory life, is another name for this identification of consciousness with the functions of the vrittis in relation to objects. The wind has to stop—only then can the surface of the waters be calm. As long as the winds blow, the waters will be shaking and getting split up in different directions.

The Tempestuousness of the Mind

Prior to the identification of the Self with itself, prior to the Self-establishment of consciousness, our purpose is to get a glimpse of it, a hint as to its very existence, and visualise at least its reflection through the vrittis. We have to find it first of all and locate its whereabouts; only then can we think of getting attuned with it. Where is this Self or consciousness? We do not know where it is, so how can we search for it? To know its whereabouts, we must at least have some hint as to its existence. For example, we can know the existence of an object in its originality by locating its reflection in water. When we see something reflected, we know very well that there is something which is reflected. The first thing then is to visualise the reflection properly and then to go to the original.

The vrittis of the mind are unceasingly active and prevent the establishment of consciousness in itself, continuously throughout one’s life, so that we can never at any moment be aware of our true nature. The vrittis are like a perpetual wind that blows without cessation, and they move in different directions, taking different shapes and intensities. The vrittis do not move towards objects like a uniform wind that blows. The vrittis blow like winds no doubt, but the winds take different directions of movement. One time they come from the right, another time from the left, and sometimes they start blowing from all directions. Sometimes they will move circularly, sometimes linearly, and so on. Many times they carry dust with them and many other things which blind our eyes, so that we can see nothing.

This is the tempestuousness of the working of the mind. The mind’s movement, which is a vritti, can be ordinary or special. When it is ordinary we call it distraction, which is the incapacity to concentrate, the absence of memory and so on. When it is intense we call it a passion—something that is uncontrolled. A vritti gone out of control is called a passion, whereas a vritti which is mild, of which we are aware, is a distraction or a vacillation. “I am very distracted,” we sometimes say, which means that we are aware that we are disturbed. But when we are in a state of passion, we will not say, “I am in a state of passion,” because we get lost in it so much that we cannot be different from the vritti which has taken that form. Mild aberrations can be known, but intense aberrations cannot be known.

The mind has various intensities of self-identification with objects -sometimes it is slightly distracted, but sometimes it seems to be at a standstill without functions at all. Its condition of ‘standstill-ness’ is also a kind of vritti. It is a potential preparation for movement in a particular direction. Sometimes it stands confounded without knowing what to do. In these three conditions of the vritti the consciousness that is our true nature gets blurred completely, and whether we are in a state of confusion or in a state of preparedness for an action, or in a state of action, it makes no difference in the sense that we are not aware of ourselves at that time. Yoga is not possible when we are just in a state of preparation for action, or involved in a state of action, or in a confused state. When self-consciousness has been completely extinguished by the blowing of the ‘winds’ of the vrittis, any attempt at yoga is impossible.

We may be wondering how to still this violence of the mind. We will realise later on that in yoga we do not achieve anything special which is not already in us; we will merely become aware of what is already in us. Yoga is not a gaining of something that we do not have. It is only becoming aware of what we really have, or strictly speaking, what we really are. That we seem to be involved in what we are not is the mystery of the mind. As we analysed the mental situation previously, we came to know that our being, which is inseparable from consciousness, extends itself to infinitude because this consciousness is indivisible. We cannot cut our divine consciousness into parts. It seems to be extending itself out into a state of infinitude and eternity. Such a consciousness, which is implied in both the object and the subject, the adhibhuta and the adhyatma, is what we are not able to recollect, remember and be conscious of.

To recollect it, to remember it and to be conscious of it is our yoga, and the nearer we approach it through our minds, the more powerful we become, and also the happier we are. The more distant we are from the true nature of our being, the weaker we feel and the more disturbed we are in our lives. This is in terms of the theology of God-realisation—we may call it by any name we like. The powers of yoga are nothing but the vibrations of the Self which the mind receives when it approximates more and more in nearness to the Self. The powers that truly sustain and support us do not come from outside, for we only become more powerful when we go nearer to our own inner selves. The further we are psychologically from ourselves, the weaker we are physically and mentally. The nearer we are psychologically to our own true nature, the stronger we are and also the happier we are. This is the secret of yoga.

What makes us be distant from ourselves, and what makes us aware of our true nature? It looks very strange indeed that we can be away from our own self, or that we can be identified with ourselves. How is it possible? What does it mean to be identified with one’s own self, and what does it mean to be away from one’s own self? Does it make any sense? How can you be away from yourself? No one can be in actual fact, but we can psychologically be away from ourselves. Truly we cannot be away from ourselves, but we can imagine ourselves to be something else other than what we are. This happens to us in dreams, for example. We cannot be away from ourselves truly, but yet we think ourselves to be something else in a dream. A king may think that he is a beggar. Sleeping in a bed in a room, a person may imagine that he has travelled thousands of miles. One who has gone to bed with a heavy meal may dream that he is intensely hungry or starved.

How all these things that are contrary to the facts are possible is explained by the phenomenon of the mind itself. The mind can construct situations which are contrary to reality and which create an imaginary problem. This imaginary problem, when continued for a long time, becomes a kind of truth. Often a lie which is uttered many times takes the form of truth. We go on telling a lie a thousand times, and then people imagine that it is a fact. Likewise is this work of the mind. It constructs an imaginary circumstance or environment around itself as it does in the analogy of the dream. The mind goes on doing it again and again for days, months and years together. It is a matter of lies and more lies, and we get habituated to this way of thinking and think it is the only thing possible and that there is nothing else.

The only thing that seems to exist for us is this world of objects. All the things that people talk of in terms of religion, philosophy and yoga seem like stories told to us which convey no proper significance, because we have become so accustomed to the erroneous ways of thinking for years and years together that this erroneous thinking has covered us like a thick cloud. To be away from oneself therefore is only thinking that one is different from what one really is. In a drama we may put on the garb of someone else, we may speak like another person and play that role completely. If we go on playing the same role day and night for years, perhaps we may become only that. It is like a king playing the role of a beggar in a drama for so long that he forgets his kingship and becomes a real beggar. Thought processes can solidify themselves as it were, and thoughts can become veritable objects.

The Hypnosis into Which We Have Sunk

This is what has happened to us. Our bodies are nothing but a solidification of our thoughts—not one day’s thought or two days’ thought—but for years and years we have been thinking wrongly, and it has materialised itself in the form of this body. What we have thought has been responsible for the formation of this body and our relationships with things outside. This is the entanglement and the hypnosis into which we have sunk. The work of yoga is the disentanglement and the de-hypnotisation of ourselves. For this the mind has to be weaned from its usual processes of thought.

We ought to undergo a thoroughgoing psychological analysis of our own self before any attempt at yoga can be done. If we are shrewd enough, we can do this ourselves; otherwise we will have to seek the help of a master. A good guide is very essential in yoga, because we cannot analyse our own minds. We never think that we are wrong, and under these circumstances a competent master or guru is essential. He only can know what is wrong with us. The processes of the mind, which are the vrittis, take a concrete shape in the form of perception and identification with the objects and make self-awareness impossible, and we are constantly in a state of anxiety, restlessness and unhappiness and even go to the extend of constantly being born and dying through the physical body. All this is the effect of the mind’s identification with things—first psychologically, then physically.

Yoga is therefore a subdual of the mind, in the sense that self-consciousness in its true sense of universality would be impossible as long as the mind functions in its usual ways. The vrittis are the great obstacle in yoga. We cannot be aware of our true being as long as the vrittis function objectively or externally. When we are absorbed in a thought of another, how can we be aware of ourselves? To come to the dream analogy again, we are so much absorbed in a wrong perception of a so-called object in dream that we cannot know that there is such a thing called waking. As long as we are in the dream, which is the absorption of the mind in an imaginary set of objects, we cannot even be told that there is such a thing as the waking state.

Such is the identification of the mind with imaginary objects. Whatever be the worth or intensity of the teachings of yoga, the mind is unable to understand or grasp it because it is so much involved with the objects. No one can tell us that there is waking as long as we are in dream. So also it is that nobody can tell us that there is such a thing called the Absolute or the Universal Self, or the possibility of waking from this world, because we are so involved in the world—as we are involved in dream perceptions.

The involvement is simple enough to understand if we compare our experiences with the dream world. We are able to see the dream world as if it were an external reality merely because of the intensity of the false identification of the mind. The intensity of the aberration of the mind from itself in dream is such that thoughts appear as objects in a dream. We can see a mountain, and we can see a stone or an object against which we can hit our heads. In a dream we can fall from a cliff. Even though all these are thought constructions, the elimination of the self from the mind can be so intense that it can convert itself into an external object.

Scriptures tell us that God became the world in this manner, and consciousness assumed the form of variety in this way. To return from the variety to the unity is yoga. This can be done only by a careful study of the processes of the mind by which it has assumed the variety, and then by finding ways and means of turning the mind back to the unity. In the beginning therefore the purpose of a student of yoga would be to kill the passions of the mind, and then to investigate its ordinary weaknesses in the form of the general vrittis of perception. There is no use thinking of concentration of the mind or doing yoga when any kind of passion, whatever it be, takes possession of us.

There is a particular as well as a general modification of the mind. The particular is the impetuous modification which I called a passion, and the general is the ordinary perception of things, which is what we call consciousness of an object. Both these are obstacles and both must be overcome on the path of yoga. The overcoming or the subdual of the passions of the mind is the moral preparation that we are called upon to make in the practice of yoga, and the control of the general vrittis of the mind is the actual meditation itself. Meditation is a higher process, and it cannot be attempted as long as the lower passions are taking hold of us.

It is very difficult to know that we have certain passions, though we are always in the state of one passion or the other. It is nothing but a name that we give to the intensity of a desire whose form the mind may take at any time. Passions may be of the senses or of the ego. Both these are equally passions, and once we are under their grip we cannot concentrate the mind on anything else. We have five senses, and any one of these may be in a state of passion and virulent opposition to the state of concentration. Each sense has to be countered properly, because each sense is a mischief-maker. Like a judge who carefully and dispassionately examines witnesses individually in a court, we ought to take each sense organ individually in its isolated structure as it identifies with objects.

What is each sense doing at any given moment? We may have to watch it for days together, and then we will know how it operates. When we prevent a sense from functioning for days together, which is called tapas, we can know what a sense organ desires. When we fast for some days, we will know what foods we really want. We become strongly filled with appetite, and even small things look delicious after a three-day fast. Likewise, we can fast the senses for a few days and know what they are really after. It is difficult to know them in their usual performances, just as the real nature of a person cannot so easily be understood when in society and the person’s nature comes out when he is isolated from other people and watched carefully.

We cannot know ourselves when we are in the thick of society’s activities. This is why many people take to seclusion and isolation, because in that circumstance we can know what we really are, what it is that we have been after all this time, and also what our weaknesses are. If we live alone for two or three months in some isolated place, to some extent we can know what our minds are because we are cut off from the usual enjoyments of the world, and the desires can take proper shape when we are alone.

Ethics and Morality

A careful isolated analysis of the sense powers and our ambitions is a proper preparation, ethically and morally. We should not think that morality is a kind of imposition that is inflicted on us by society, though many people are sometimes under this impression. One may think, “What is this stupid thing called ethics and morality? Is it a kind of torture inflicted on us by society? Why should we not be free to do what we want to do?” It is not just a social imposition on us. Morality inflicted on us from outside will not stand long. That is why there are rebellions.

It must be a spontaneous morality of the yogin which he wants to observe for its own sake—merely because morality is in consonance with reality, and immorality is in dissonance with reality. Whenever we are in conformity with Truth, we are supposed to be moral, and we should not think that society is inflicting this upon us. Why should they inflict upon us a punishment to be in consonance with Reality? People who think in such childish ways think that all laws are impositions from outside. Laws may look like impositions from outside in the beginning, but later on they become spontaneous necessities felt by each one for oneself. The rule of law does not originate from outer society. It first originates from ourselves, and then it is extended to what we call “society”. If we are not prepared to be consistent with the demands of the nature of Truth, we are not going to realise Truth.

The first prerequisite in yoga therefore is to be consistent in one’s behaviour with the demands of the nature of Truth. Our conduct should reflect the nature of Reality. This is morality. If our conduct is dissonant with the nature of Truth, it means that we do not want it and are only talking about it unnecessarily. Our heart does not long for it, and our behaviour shows that this is so. Ethics and morality in yoga are a conscious endeavour to reflect the nature of Truth in one’s own behaviour in life.

So it is that the understanding at which we have arrived by the analysis that we have made up to this time should be reflected in our lives outside. “I seek it not only in a process of intellectual analysis; I seek it also in my practical life.” This should be the attitude of a student of yoga, because truth is not an object merely of intellect or emotion. Truth is that which is the sum and substance of life in its totality—external as well as internal. Hence passion of any kind is inconsistent with the nature of Truth. Vehemence or violence of any kind whatsoever is an activity of the mind which denies the very existence of Truth.

We have certain basic desires from which other desires originate, and which may assume large proportions at times. These few are generally called creature comforts, a few which are the longings of the ego, a few which are biological needs, and a few which reflect our longing for higher 1ife. The creature comforts are the need for food, clothing and shelter. These are needs but they can also become luxuries, in which case they become obstacles. We need a strip of cloth to cover ourselves against nature’s onslaughts, and we need a little diet for the upkeep of the body. These are what we call “creature comforts” or the needs of the body. Though these needs are very few, they can assume the proportions of luxuries later on, and we mistake luxuries for needs.

A yoga student therefore should be cautious as to distinguish between luxury and necessity. Luxuries become obstacles because we will be thinking of them. We should not possess those things, the loss of which will disturb our minds. Is there anything we have, the loss of which will annoy us, worry us and upset our minds? Then it is better that we don’t possess it. Keep only that, without which we cannot get on in life, and these things will be provided to us. Don’t go for more. Bodily and vital needs must be properly distinguished from luxuries and comforts which are not necessary.

In addition to the bodily and vital needs, there are longings of the ego like name, fame, power and authority. These are obstacles to yoga. These are reactions of the ego to the outer environment, and these have to be properly analysed with great caution. These are not necessities. They are mere pamperings of the ego because we can exist without them, although we may not be able to exist without the creature comforts. The egoistic reactions or the ambitions as we call them are obstacles in yoga, and these have to be overcome. The biological necessities of sleep and sex are two other factors which need careful attention in yoga. They may look simple, but they assume difficult forms sometimes. One cannot completely close one’s eyes to these phenomena, because these become difficult to handle when they are wholly ignored. Anything that we totally ignore becomes a difficult situation for us. Neither can we completely identify ourselves with the desire, nor should we ignore it completely. We ought to tackle it properly with shrewdness and caution. There are desires which take different shapes when they are fulfilled and other shapes when not fulfilled. There are desires which we can fulfil harmlessly and desires which will bind us if we will try to fulfil them. Harmful desires and harmless ones have to be distinguished.

Therefore the bodily, the vital, sensory and egotistical needs have to be carefully detailed and made objects of study, and we have to be sure that we are not caught up with any kind of passion in our lives for or against anything. Sometimes, as I have said already, we seem to be incapable of living without something, and sometimes we seem to be incapable of tolerating something. These are two extremes of the mind. We feel that we cannot bear certain things and that there are certain other things that we can’t live without. We have to be very subtly conscious of both these extreme dimensions. We should not allow the mind to take vehement forms of either love or hatred. We see that once a desire becomes vehement it becomes difficult to handle. A lion’s cub can be handled when it is small, but when it becomes big it becomes dangerous. We cannot go near it because it will attack us. The preferences of the mind operate in a similar way. In the beginning there is a preference, then it becomes a need, and then it becomes a passion. Hence, it is better to nip it in the bud when it is a mere preference. If one must have a preference, it should not be allowed to assume large proportions.

When we are calm and quiet, not engaged too much in any object or event of the world, we have to make this analysis within ourselves. The preparation of yoga is ethical and moral in the beginning, and the actual practise comes afterwards. There are stages of the practice of yoga. We have been up to this time busy with the philosophical analysis. I mentioned that there are at least three stages of yoga: the philosophical, the psychological and the practical. Up to this time we have been carefully noting down the details of the philosophical foundations of yoga, and we have been touching to some extent upon the borderland of psychological analysis. We have not yet come to the practical aspects of yoga, which we have to see a little later on. But we are now considering the prerequisites of this actual psychological analysis and practice. The ethical and moral preparations are most important, and they are essential to the practice.