The Study and Practice of Yoga
An Exposition of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 13: Defence Mechanisms of the Mind

The term 'indriya nigrah' means sense-control; 'atma nigrah' means self-control. Both these terms are often thought of as having a synonymous meaning and are used as such, but the term 'self' has a larger connotation than 'sense', as we already know. So the term 'self-control' should mean something much more than what is indicated by the term 'sense-control', because the senses are only a few of the functions of the self and not all the functions, while self-control implies a restriction imposed upon every function of the self, meaning thereby the lower self, which has to be regulated by the principle of the higher self. The self that has to be controlled is any self which is lower than the Universal Self. The degrees of self gradually go on increasing in their comprehensiveness as we rise higher and higher, so that it becomes necessary that at every step the immediately succeeding stage, which is more comprehensive, acts as the governing principle of the category of self just below. An analogy would be the syllabi or curricula of education – we do not suddenly jump into the topmost level of studies. There is always a governing principle exercised by systems of education, wherein the immediately succeeding stage determines the needs of the immediately preceding condition. The self, as far as we are concerned at the present moment, can be regarded as that principle of individuality which comprehends all that we regard as 'we', or connected with us.

The control of the self is, therefore, the refining of the individual personality in its manifold aspects, together with anything that may appear to belong to it, including taking into consideration all of its external relationships. Our individual existence is not limited to the physical body. It also includes its physical relationships - such as the family, for example. The members of a family are not visibly or physically attached to any individual in the family, not even to the head of the family, but there is an attachment psychologically; and the self is, therefore, to take note of that aspect of its individual existence. Both the internal structure and the external relationship are to be taken into consideration, because they are inseparable. We cannot say which precedes and which succeeds, or which has to come first and which later. They have to be taken into consideration simultaneously, almost.

Our self – the individual self, for all crude, practical purposes – is the bodily self, the physical self which is hungry and thirsty, and which feels heat and cold, etc. That is the immediately visible gross self. Whether it is really the self or not is a different question, but we take it as the self because we feel a sense of inseparable identity with the body. And, anything that is inside the body is also the self, because the body acts only as an external limit of the operation of the individual self, while it has many constituents inside.

Our physical body is not our total personality. We have many things inside us which we cannot see with our eyes. Internal to the body is the vital principle, called the prana in Sanskrit. The prana is not the breath. The breath is only the external function of an energy principle called prana. It cannot be translated into English. Prana is a very subtle, ethereal principle, subtler even than electricity. It is pranic energy that enables the physical body to function, including the functions of breathing, digesting, and the circulation of blood. Everything is controlled by the movement of the pranic energy. It is also this prana which acts as the motive power behind the action of the senses. If the pranas are withheld, the senses become weak in their action. So, the pranas are something like the electric force generated by the dynamo of the individual within, to project the senses externally towards objects. And the mind, which is the synthesising principle of all sense activities, passes judgement of a tentative character upon the reports brought in by the senses. Finally, there is the supreme judge, which is the intellect.

All of these are inside the body – not in the sense of pebbles in a bottle, but inseparably permeating everything that is in the body, or that is the body. We cannot separate the intellect, the mind, the senses, the prana, the body, etc. One is involved in the other, so it looks like a compound that has been created by these elements. For some purposes they look like different functions, but for other purposes they look as if they are a single force, acting in different ways. So, self-control would mean a judicious control exercised over every function inside, including the physical functions, the function of the prana, the senses, the mind and the intellect. All of these have to be harnessed in a given direction.

According to ancient systems of spiritual practice, self-control is effected by three main methods: the control of the prana, the control of the mind, and concentration of consciousness. These are the three standard methods of atma vinigrah or self-control. This is a triple method prescribed in the Yoga Vasishtha, for instance. It does not mean that each method is mutually exclusive of the other; they are connected with one another. Also, it is not possible here to say which should precede and which should succeed. Are we to control the prana first and the mind afterwards, or the mind first and the prana afterwards, or are we to practise concentration first? We cannot do all of these things in a linear fashion. They all have to be worked at simultaneously in some acceptable degree.

In the Bhagavadgita, we have a hint of the method of self control where, in a very cryptic sloka, Bhagavan Sri Krishna says that the senses are turbulent and cannot be easily controlled unless resort is taken to a higher principle than the senses themselves: indriyāṇi parāṇyāhurindriyebhyaḥ paraṁ manaḥ, manasastu parā buddhiryo buddheḥ paratastu saḥ (B.G. III.42). This is the verse which is relevant to this subject. The senses cannot be controlled because they are driven by a force which is behind them. As long as they are driven, pushed or compelled by a power that is behind them, they will naturally act in the direction of that push. So we have to exert some kind of pressure upon the power that is driving the senses towards objects. Otherwise, it would be like ordering the servants to work in a particular way while their master is saying something else which is contrary to our advice to the servants. We have to approach the master himself so that he may not direct the servants in a wrong manner or say something undesirable to them. So there is a master behind the senses, and unless this master is approached, the senses cannot be controlled. For all immediate purposes, we can regard the mind as the master and the senses as the servants. The senses cannot be controlled if the mind is not properly tackled, because the mind is the force that urges the senses towards objects. But there is a difficulty in controlling even the mind, because the mind orders the senses to move towards objects, on account of a misconception, so unless this misconception is removed we cannot do anything with the mind.

As discussed previously, a sense of reality harasses the mind in respect of the objects of sense, and as long as anything appears as real, it cannot be abrogated or rejected; and we cannot close our eyes to it if it has already been declared to be real. The mind will find difficulty in withdrawing its orders to the senses in respect of their movement towards objects as long as it cognises a worthwhile reality in the objects of sense. Why does the mind see a sense of reality in the objects of sense? It is due to a peculiar situation that has arisen, which is the reason behind why the mind is accepting these perceptions through the senses.

What is this peculiar situation? The situation, precisely, is a misplacement of the values of life by a limitation of consciousness to a location called the individual. Therefore, yo buddheḥ paratastu saḥ – there is something higher than the buddhi (the intellect) and the mind, in which we have to take refuge in order that even the mind may be directed along proper channels. Inasmuch as the mind is the general who orders the senses, if it has been instructed properly and advised well, then naturally it will give instructions to the senses accordingly. It comes finally to this: we have to take refuge in the Self – not in the individual self, but in the higher self, whose principle alone can regenerate the mind and remove the miscalculated attitudes of the mind in respect of things, consequently enabling the mind to properly direct the senses in a desirable direction.

The special term used in the Yoga Vasishtha for this kind of practice of the principle of the Self behind all things is 'brahmabhyasa'. Brahmabhyasa or atmabhyasa is the practice of the presence of God. A Christian mystic called Brother Lawrence used to practise this technique called 'The Practice of the Presence of God'. The technique involved the practise of the presence of God in everything. It is quite clear that the recognition of the presence of God in things will prevent us from going wrong because, in the presence of God, we would not do anything undesirable. So the recognition of the presence of God in all things is the final remedy for the errors of the mind, and subsequently, of course, of the mistaken movements of the senses.

In the texts like the Panchadasi and the Yoga Vasishtha, the brahmabhyasa is described as: taccintanam tatkathanam anyonyam tat prabodhanam, etad eka paratvam ca tad brahmabhyasam vidur budhah. Taccintanam means constantly thinking only of That, day in and day out, and not thinking of anything else. Tatkathanam means that when we speak, we will speak only on that subject, and we will not speak about anything else. Ayonyam tat prabodhanam means that when there is a mutual discussion among people, or we are in conversation with someone, we will converse only on this subject and we will not talk about anything else. Etad eka paratvam ca means that, ultimately, we hang on to That alone for every little thing in this world, just as a child hangs on to its mother for every little thing. If we want a little sugar, we go to the mother. If we want food, we go to the mother. If a monkey is attacking us, we run to the mother. If we are sick, we go to the mother. If we are feeling sleepy, we go to the mother. Whatever it be, we run to the mother. That is the only remedy the child knows when it has any kind of difficulty.

This is the sort of attitude we have to adopt in respect of the Supreme Absolute. We run to it for every little thing, even if it is such a silly thing as a small need of our physical body. We cry only before that, and we do not ask for anything anywhere else. This sort of utter and total dependence on the Supreme Being for everything, at all times and all places, is called brahmabhyasa. This will cut at the root of all misconceptions of the mind. But this is a very difficult practice that is meant for very advanced seekers, and not for beginners.

Hence, the Yoga Vasishtha prescribes other psychological methods of mind-control apart from this utter dependence on the Absolute, which is meant only for very advanced practioners. Psychological techniques of mind-control are of various types. We have to determine the weaknesses of the mind first. The weak spots and the vulnerable areas of the mind have to be detected before we tackle the mind's functions in respect of objects. Everyone has some weaknesses, and if we touch a weak spot, the person automatically becomes different from his usual self. But in the ordinary course, these weaknesses are always covered over by the veneer of social activity and public etiquette, etc. There is no one without some sort of a vulnerable spot, and that spot is the essential point to be tackled – not only in our workaday life, but also in our spiritual life.

Each one knows one's vulnerable spot. If one can carefully investigate into one's own self in a fairly dispassionate manner, this vulnerable spot can be discovered in oneself. There may be a little liking for something, and that little liking is the weak spot; like a small hole in a pot, or rather a small hole in a ship – a little hole is sufficient and through it the whole ocean can enter the ship. Likewise, in the individual we can find a little hole which is always concealed by other external factors. These weaknesses of the mind are its pressing needs, we may say, in another sense – a need which it feels irresistibly, and also feels that it is to be fulfilled by hook or by crook, by any method whatsoever. The all-surpassing weakness of the mind is its dependence on things.

Every person is totally dependent – we are not independent, as we imagine ourselves to be. If we were not dependent, we would not be annoyed or upset, nor would we get angry. We would not be disturbed. These almost daily appearances or phenomena in the mind show that we are hanging on to certain other factors for our existence and action; and when those factors do not appear to be conducive to our way of thinking, we get disturbed. There is no independent person in this world. Everyone is dependent, and to imagine that we are independent is foolish, because if we were independent there would be no botheration for us or worry of any kind, at any time. The dependence of the mind on things is, again, of various kinds, and it arises on account of the make-up of the individual personality itself.

Broadly speaking, there are various phases of the individual – the physical needs and the psychological needs experienced by us daily which make us hang on to things, like slaves. We cannot bear extreme heat; we cannot bear extreme cold; we cannot bear hunger; we cannot bear thirst. These are the immediate creature needs of the individual which makes it totally dependent on external factors. We cannot control these urges by any amount of effort. There are other vital needs of the individual which press it forward towards fulfilment. The vital urges are forceful impulses which drive the mind and the senses towards their objects of fulfilment, and these are, again, the weak spots. If we are in a position to fulfil the needs of the body, the mind and the senses in any measure whatsoever, we become friends. A friend is one who can fulfil our needs; and this is, of course, how we usually define a friend. My needs have to be fulfilled, whatever the needs may be, and when the needs are analysed threadbare, the structure of the mind and the senses are automatically analysed also.

In a medical examination, the diagnosis is the more important part of treatment. Proper diagnosis precedes any prescription of medicine. So, the order for self-control, atma nigrah, may be regarded as a prescription for the illness of the individual, but this prescription can be given only after a thorough diagnosis of the individual's case. Although every individual may be said to be sick in some way or the other, everyone does not suffer from the same kind of sickness uniformly.

So even in self-control there are varieties. It is not the same type of technique that we adopt uniformly and universally, as previously mentioned. Though it is true that everyone is hungry and everyone needs food, universally and uniformly, it does not follow that we all have to be given the same food. The whole world cannot be served the same kind of diet merely because everyone is equally hungry. In the same way, even though self-control is a universal necessity for the purpose of higher spiritual regeneration, the methods of practice may vary in detail according to the conditions of the individual in the stages of evolution, the circumstances in which one lives, and various other such relevant factors. The dependence of the mind on externals is also, therefore, variegated. It is not a uniform type of dependence. Therefore, each one has to investigate into the peculiar type of dependence due to which one is suffering. This requires leisurely thinking. A hurried mind cannot think so deeply on this subject, because it is not easy to detect where we are weak, and upon what things we are hanging for our dependence, for our existence.

Apart from the usual and obvious forms of dependence, such as the need for food, clothing and shelter, there are other types of dependence which are secret, subtler in their nature, and these are more important for the purposes of investigation than the grosser needs, because the grosser needs are well known to everyone. Everyone knows that we will be hungry, and will feel heat and cold, and that we need a shelter for living. But there are other things which may not be known to everybody. We have weaknesses other than the feeling of hunger, thirst, etc., and these are the harassing factors of life. We are worried not so much because of food, clothing and shelter, but due to other things which are the secret wire-pullers of the individual's existence. These other things are not minor factors. They are made to appear as if they are insignificant and secondary on account of a trick played by the mind, because if they are brought to the forefront they will not succeed in their attempts. So, a subtle devise is adopted by the mind to succeed in its attempts.

A political manoeuvre is adopted by the mind by the manufacture of certain mechanisms psychologically, which are usually called by psychologists as defence mechanisms. These defence mechanisms are very peculiar structures – like bulldozers and tanks which we have in armies and public works – which the mind manufactures for its stability, security, sustenance and permanent establishment in the world of diversities. These defence mechanisms are terrible machineries which the mind manufactures and keeps secret, unknown to people, like secret weapons which one may wield, not allowing them to come to the knowledge of other people. If everyone knows what weapons we have got, then they won't be effective, because others also may manufacture the same weapons. So we keep our weapons very secret and use them only when they are necessary, in warfare or on a battlefield. Everyone has these weapons, and they are not made of material objects. They are psychological apparatuses which the mind always keeps ready at hand, whenever there is any kind of threat to the psychological security or individual happiness. The adepts who have made deep study of this subject are the psychoanalysts in the Western world and the teachers of yoga in the East, particularly Sage Patanjali; and certain other texts like the Upanishads have made a study of the subtle devices that the mind employs for the purpose of its individual security and permanent satisfaction.

These mechanisms of the mind are to be studied very well before we try to adopt the method of self-control. Otherwise, we will be pursuing what they call a wild goose chase and we will get nothing out of our efforts. The mind is a terrible trickster, and it cannot be easily tackled by open methods. Frontal attacks will not always succeed, because these mechanisms of the mind are invisible weapons; they are not visible to the eye. The reactions that the mind sets up in respect of persons outside and things around are indications of the presence of these defence mechanisms. Even when these reactions are set up by the mind in respect of externals, the mechanisms are not made visible – we see only reactions, and not the source or the cause of the reactions. They will all be kept hidden so that the nature of a person cannot be known, and even when the person sets up a reaction, that nature is kept secret always. That is another device of the mind. Through all of our outward behaviour and conduct, we cannot be studied properly by a mere look at our faces, because we are very secret inside, looking like something else outside. This deep-rooted secrecy of the mental structure has to be dug out and brought to the surface of consciousness before any successful effort can be made in the direction of self-control.