True Spiritual Living
by Swami Krishnananda

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Chapter 21: Mind Control is Self Control

We were discussing the modifications of the mind, known as the vrittis, and these it is that yoga endeavours to control and master. The modifications of the mind are not objects of either perception or cognition. They cannot be observed as we observe objects of the world, because the mind is not an object and, therefore, its modifications are also not objects which can be seen, sensed or known in the ordinary way. This is the reason why self-control is difficult.

Control or restraint, as we understand it, is the exercise of a power upon something which is external to us. We never know what it is to influence or control our own selves, as such a thing is unthinkable. How can we control our own selves? We are not different from ourselves. It is tautology to speak of oneself controlling oneself, because the act of control requires a distinction between the controller and the controlled. Otherwise, what is control, and what does yoga actually mean by saying that there should be self-control, or control of the modifications of the mind? Here is the difficulty of the practice of yoga. It is terrible, when we think of it. The whole process of yoga is nothing but a series of processes of self-control from the lower stage to the higher. Inasmuch as there are various connotations and meanings of the self, and stages of its manifestation, there are various stages of the process of the control of the self, or the mind. Consequently, there is a need to understand the whole technique in an appropriate manner.

People speak of control of the mind, control of the vrittis, and so on, as if they are going to control servants or subordinates, etc. All this is not such a simple affair as it appears to be. The control of the mind is not at all like controlling one’s servant, or like a boss exerting pressure upon his subordinates. It is a great feat of acrobatics, as it were, a circus feat not possible for the ordinary person, because what yoga means by saying that the modifications of the mind have to be controlled is that an unusual technique has to be adopted in this effort. It is unusual because the modifications, or vrittis, of the mind are not capable of observation. They cannot be observed because the observer has identified himself with the modifications themselves. The one who has to control the mind has become one with the mind.

We are psychic personalities, as they say, which means to say that the mind has assumed the form of our personality. We are the mind, and we make no distinction between ourselves and the mind, though we generally say, “I am thinking. These are my ideas, my thought, my feelings” and so on, as if thought, feeling, etc., are outside us. These are only ways of expression. Our feeling is us only. Our feeling is not outside us, external to us or different from us. Therefore, we cannot do anything with it, because we cannot do anything with our own selves.

Then, what happens? The control of the mind is an act of concentration of the mind. It is not an ordinary act in the sense of a work that we perform in the outside world. Yoga is not a work. For want of a precise linguistic expression, we have to use terms like ‘effort’, ‘endeavour’, ‘activity’, etc., even in regard to the practice of yoga. But these are limitations of language. We cannot convey the exact meaning by speaking in words, because words have a limitation. What is the limitation of language? Language is expressed in sentences, and a sentence is made up of the subjective aspect and the objective aspect. The predicate of a sentence implies an object with which the subject is connected, and the meaning of the subject gets modified by an adjectival influence exerted by the object. In a sentence, the subject and the object get connected by what is called a copula. ‘This is a desk’ is a sentence. ‘This’ is the subject, ‘is’ is the verb or copula, and ‘desk’ is the object, and so is the case with every such sentence. We use this type of expression, this sort of language, in defining even trans-empirical realities, transcendental truths which cannot be bifurcated into the subject and the object and, therefore, all our definitions of Reality fall short of the Ideal. Likewise, the psychological depth of the efforts known as the practice of yoga is beyond the comprehension of ordinary expression in language.

The vrittis, or the modifications of the mind, have to be controlled, says the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The stages of yoga beyond asana and pranayama are very difficult. Though asana itself is a difficult thing, and prayanama is also difficult, what follows is more difficult because the bodily posture known as the asana, whatever the difficulty of it be, is somehow or other involved in the world of objects. The body is an object of sense, and so we can deal with the body in the same way as we deal with objects in the world so that it may not give us a lot of trouble. We may understand the various methods of physical posture, because understanding an object is not as difficult as understanding the subject. The same applies to pranayama. Though pranayama is internal to the body, no doubt, and is more difficult to practise than asana, mudra, bandha, and so on, nevertheless it is something which is palpable in a physical manner, and so we may succeed to a large extent even in the practice of pranayama.

But after that, what happens? After we ground ourselves sufficiently in asana and pranayama, what happens to us? That is very difficult because the further stages are wholly psychological, and are not physical in any sense at all; and because the stages beyond asana and pranayama are purely psychological, it implies that what we have to deal with in these higher stages is the mind itself. As was already pointed out, since the mind has got identified with our own personality, and vice versa, we cannot deal with the mind as we deal with the body or even with the pranas. We cannot do anything with the mind, though something can be done with the body by way of postures, and with the pranas by way of pranayama.

Nothing can be done with the mind, because there is no such thing as ‘doing’ where what is involved is the mind itself. Consciousness, which is our essential nature, animates the modifications of the mind in such a manner that we cannot know which is the modification of the mind, and which is us. By way of analogy, the instance of a heated iron ball is given. When a ball of iron is heated until it becomes red hot, we cannot see the iron; we can only see the fire. When we touch a heated iron ball, it may burn us, and we think the iron ball has burnt us. What has burnt us is the fire, not the iron ball, but we mix up one with the other. The fire has penetrated every particle of iron in that ball and assumed the form of the iron ball or, conversely, we may say the iron ball has assumed the form of fire. We do not know which is the fire and which is the iron ball—even though the iron ball cannot be the fire, and the fire cannot be the iron ball. Similarly, consciousness cannot be the modifications of the mind, and the modifications of the mind cannot be consciousness, because consciousness has no modifications; it is indivisible eternity. Then, what is it that is modified? What do we mean by vrittis, or processes of the mind?

There is a transient process taking place within our personality, and that process gets identified with consciousness. That is what we mean by saying that vrittis are animated by consciousness. Inasmuch as our essential nature is consciousness, we are consciousness; but when we are identified with the vrittis, we become the vrittis, we are the vrittis. Therefore, what we think is ‘me’ thinking, not somebody else thinking. We can imagine the difficulty of the whole circumstance, and where we stand. When the policeman himself has become the thief, how will he detect the thief? He himself is the culprit, and he is also the policeman. The judge has also become the client, which is a very difficult situation indeed. We cannot understand what to do now.

All this is to give an idea of the difficulty of yoga. It is terrific, repelling, most offensive for the ego-ridden individuality. If it had been so simple, the world would be overflowing with yogis; but that is not possible. Sometimes it looks humanly impossible. We have to become superhuman in order to become real students of yoga. An ordinary human being cannot become a student of yoga, because we cannot even understand it. It will not enter our heads because what we have to deal with is ourselves, and that is the problem. But we cannot deal with ourselves in any manner because all our actions are processes, and there is no process involved in this dealing because yoga is not a process, merely because of the fact that what is to be dealt with is ourselves.

Thus, the achievement in yoga becomes a sort of awakening rather than an activity. When we wake up from sleep, we are not performing an action or engaging ourselves in any kind of work. We are not doing anything at all when we wake up from sleep, and yet there is such a tremendous difference because of our achievement of entering a new world altogether when we wake up from sleep. The achievement called ‘waking up from sleep’ is not the result of an action. This is why Acharya Sankara tirelessly hammers upon the idea that liberation is not an action, and it cannot be achieved by any kind of action. The reason behind his extraordinary proclamation is that what is to be achieved is so intimately connected with us that any activity of our personality cannot touch it; and moksha is nothing but an awakening into a wider reality which is already planted in us and is not external to us.

All activity is an externalised movement of consciousness towards an object outside. But here the object is our own self, and therefore, there cannot be such a movement of our consciousness. Here, again, is the reason why ordinary activity is of no use. Not the greatest of virtuous deeds can make us fit to visualise the Cosmic Form, says the Bhagavadgita towards the end of the Eleventh Chapter. Na vedayajñādhyayanair na dānair na ca kriyābhir na tapobhir ugraiḥ, evaṁrūpaḥ śakya ahaṁ nṛloke draṣṭuṁ tvadanyena kurupravīra (Gita 11.48): Whatever be the virtuous deed that we do in this world, that would be unsuited and inadequate for this purpose. Even the most terrific form of ordinary austerity, even the breaking of our heads by the greatest of philanthropic deeds and services in the world—all these put together cannot be adequate for the purpose. This is because all these wonderful deeds in the world that we are speaking of are things of the world, but we are something different from the world. Why are we different from the world? It is because the world is a name that we give to the externalisation of consciousness, but we cannot be so externalised inasmuch as we are indivisible. Indivisibility means universality. All these are words for the novitiate, meaning nothing ultimately, but they convey such a tremendous significance that even a mere thought bestowed upon their true meaning is enough to shake us up from our very roots.

So, the Yoga System tells us that the control of the modifications of the mind is to be effected with great caution. Why do they say all this is so difficult and compare it to a razor’s edge, the path of a sword, the path of fish, the path of birds in the air, and so on? These are only analogies to give an idea of the difficulty of understanding the whole procedure and putting this understanding into practice. Thus, we come to the conclusion that yoga is a process of awakening, rather than an activity in an empirical sense. It is not a work that we perform. And what is this awakening? How is this brought about? The answer is, by control of the mind.

But, we have been talking about the very same thing as being an almost impossibility before us. Now yoga answers this entire question. Most of the higher truths are explained only by analogy, comparison, imagery, and not by logic or scientific analysis. Sometimes stories give a better understanding of a thing than a logical, precise, analytical deduction of it. The Yoga Vasishtha is a scripture which has concluded that analogical stories are a better means of conveying the nature of Reality than logical arguments, because logical arguments are infected with the defect of logic itself. The defect of logic initially requires a dissection of the subject and the predicate, and then it endeavours to join the predicate with the subject by a synthesis. We break the leg of a man so that we may join the parts of the leg together by medical means. Such is the thing that we generally do even in the best of logical deductions. But the nature of Truth is such that it is incapable of being approached in this manner. It requires a purification of the self, which is the means of self-awakening; and this purificatory process is analogous to a gradual rise of the soul from one stage of self-identification to another stage of self-identification.

The whole of life is nothing but an awareness of selfhood. If we properly and deeply think over the matter, we will realise that there is no such thing as an object in this world; there is only a self. Even that which we call an object is a part of our self in the sense that we associate that object with ourselves and make it a part of ourselves, and the moment it becomes a part of ourselves even in a social sense, it becomes a social self and it is not any more an object. The family is a self, though it is constituted of external members. It is because it is a self that we are so much attached to the members thereof. It may not be the real Self, because it is involved in space, time and causality; but in spite of the fact that it is not the true Self because it is not indivisible, it is a self. Otherwise, why are we related to it? Why are we thinking about it? Why are we concerned with it? Why are we attached to it? We have a national self, and because of the existence of such a self, we identify ourselves with a nationality. We identify ourselves with a creed or a cult or even a language group, and we identify ourselves with the human species. We are very much concerned with humanity, much more than we are concerned with anything else in the world. Is it not so? This is also a kind of selfhood. Whatever we are doing is for man only, as if God has created only man and there is nothing else in the world but man—though it is not true. Why are we so worried about mankind and not about animals—lions, tigers, snakes, scorpions—as if they are not existing? This is a peculiar isolation of ourselves by identification with another kind of self altogether, namely, the species.

There is no such thing as a self getting connected with an object, ultimately speaking, because the moment the self gets connected with an object, the object ceases to be an object. It becomes a part of the Self itself. This is why it is said that what we love is the Self only. There is no such thing as love of an object, because the moment we love an object, that object ceases to be an object; it becomes the Self. It is the Self that we are loving even in the so-called object. The great sage Yajnavalkya has proclaimed that no love is possible where the Self is absent. Ātmanas tu kāmāya sarvam priyam bhavati (Brihad. Up. 2.4.5): It is for the sake of the Self that we are loving things. It is not merely for the sake of the Self that we are loving things; we are loving only the Self, and nothing else. And when we extend our selfhood, what we are doing is not the action of love for an object outside, but for only another form of the Self. If we are utterly selfish, we love only the bodily self, only this physical body. If we are more altruistic and civilised, we become a family self, a social self, a political self, an international self, a human self. We may become even a world self. But it is, after all, the Self. There is nothing but that.

The whole point is that there is nothing but the Self anywhere, in one form or another. Whether it is a counterfeit self or the real Self, that is a different question, but it is a self. Counterfeit currency notes may look like genuine currency notes. Though they are counterfeit notes, they are passed for genuine notes; otherwise, they have no value. Likewise, even if we create an artificial self, it is to be valued as the Self; otherwise, it has no sense.

Thus, yoga takes us to the root of the whole matter, and wishes to disillusion us of all our prejudices and old notions of things, so that we may know what it is to control the mind. To control the mind and to control the self are the same thing. Mind control is self-control. Citta nirodhaḥ is ātma vinigrahaḥ; they are identical. Inasmuch as it is difficult to understand what the self is, what the mind is, what its modifications are, yoga practice becomes difficult; and, therefore, with a tenacity of purpose and an incisive understanding, we have to take to the various prescriptions given by the Yoga Shastra in a methodical manner.