Yoga, Mind, and Sitting Practice
What is mind? How do the yogis describe mind and mind activity? What about the Buddhists? How do modern neuroscientists talk about mind? How can we use these models and ideas in our own sitting/meditation practice?
yogah citta vrtti nirodhah
In this seminal sutra, I-2, Patanjali offers his famous definition of yoga, citta vrtti nirodhah. What is the yoga Patanjali is describing ? What is citta? What is vrtti, and what is nirodhah? Often translated as the cessation of the modifications of the mind, this juicy sutra reveals the depth of Patanjali’s understanding of neuroscience, even though he lived two thousand years before a formal neuroscience came into being. For yoga students, this is an enigmatic sutra as the word nirodha is challenging, but one that can be directly explored through the body/mind, especially in a seated practice. The thinking brain will struggle mightily to understand what the body/mind already intimately knows, but that is the fun of practice. What follows here are a series of maps of the inner experience available to you when you take the time to look within. Don’t spend much time thinking about the maps, but use them as guides.
Patanjali uses the Samkhya school of Indian philosophy for much of his background information so it will be helpful to see how the Samkhya looks at this sutra, and mind in general. We will use the Sanskrit terms, as there are often no English equivalents, and it is helpful when studying the sutras to know at least the key words and concepts. Samkhya, describes mind, known as citta, as involving three distinct but interwoven processes, manas, ahamkara and buddhi.
The first process, known as manas (YS 1-35, II – 53, III-48), organizes sensory information, records and stores memory and allows for ‘auto-pilot’ actions. It is the bookkeeper, filer and office manager of the citta. You can recognize manas in action in any repetitive activity you perform, from driving the same route to work or school every day, to typing or walking up and down the stairs. A routine is learned, filed, and used as needed, allowing attention to be utilized in other ways; or not!
The ahamkara, literally the “I” maker, builds a self sense out of experiences and includes likes and dislikes, tendencies, habits and memories. It creates, modifies and sustains the energies that express our ‘personality’. Although there is no direct mention of the ahamkara in Patanjali, it is implied in sutra I-4, vrtti sarupyam itaratra. Here Patanjali describes confusing the transient movements of mind, in other words, the functioning of the mind, with the immutable Purusha, the True Self, in Samkhya. The ahamkara, sometimes called the ego in Western psychology, is an absolutely necessary aspect of a healthy mind as it helps organize our relationships with the world around us. This ‘personality/self’ is not the true nature of ‘I”, but it can easily convince itself otherwise and this does lead to problems of ‘self esteem’ and other such personality disorders. We will develop this very important idea of “Self” in more detail later.
The buddhi is the intelligence that is ‘awake’ The Buddha is the one whose buddhi has awakened. This awakening is cultivated in “mindfulness practice” and refers to awareness of what is arising in the present moment, analysis, and on going choice of action. This is in contrast with the manas, where decisions are made sub-consciously from habit and routine. In integration, buddhi and manas can work together skillfully, with the sub-routines operating in the background while modifications are made moment to moment. Reading is an example. As you read these words, you have previously learned a language with vocabulary and grammar and this foundation allows the intelligence to contemplate the meaning, looking for nuances and implications from the writer.
The word vrtti means mind activity and describes the energetic nature of mind. Mind is not a noun, it is a verb. Mind is dynamic activity. According to Patanjali, this mind activity can manifest in three possible qualities: too much, too little, and just right, like the in the‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ story. The Sanskrit term guna refers to energy in general, but here we will use it to examine these three qualities of mental energy.
The first guna is rajas or the adjective form, rajasic, and refers to action or movement; inertia of motion is the name offered by Sir Isaac Newton for this fundamental dimension of creation. When the mind is said to be rajasic, i.e., too much rajas, these energies will be in the form of chaos or aggressiveness, and the mind field is disruptive and unstable. The second guna, tamas, or tamasic, refers to the opposite of movement, inertia of rest, or the resistance to change and movement. When out of balance the stability of tamas degenerates into stagnation where the mind activity is felt as sluggish or stupefied. When the basic nature of the mental energies is Sattva or sattvic, mind activity is harmonious, with a perfect, dynamic balance between rajas and tamas, movement and stability. This dynamic balance of energies is an excellent way to describe mental health and is one of the goals of Patanjali, yoga, and the mental health profession. The primary goal of yoga is awakening to the True Nature of the Self, (not mind activities, even healthy ones!) and we will discuss this in another section.
Nirodhah is the last and most intriguing of the terms in sutra I-2. Usually translated as ‘cessation’ , as in ‘yoga is the cessation of mind activity’, there is actually a lot more nuance to Patanjali’s use of the term. Vyaasa, accorded by tradition to be an equivalent in understanding to Patanjali, has written a commentary often included with Patanjalis Sutras. He observes that Patanjali does not include the word ‘all’, as in all mind activity’, and goes on the describe that “Samadhi” the primary yogic concentration meditation and major topic of the sutras, involves some mental activity. Other beneficial practices such as the parikarmas introduced in I-33, also use mind activity for healing and growth. In the Vibhuti Pada, Patanjali introduces the notion of nirodha vrttis, of ‘thought seeds’ that lead to the mind ‘turning itself off’. How can the mind ‘turn itself off?
In neuroscience there is the principle of inhibition, where one set of neurons, in one part of the brain, fire specifically to inhibit the firing of others in another part of the brain. This process is learned in life, and meditation practice, in a process known as impulse control. An urge arises, and if we are paying attention, work at it, aka practice, we can override the impulse to immediately act. We try to teach this to children as early as possible as part of their developing ‘Emotional Intelligence’. Without this, addictive behavior can manifest. What we learn to do is to inhibit thoughts that lead to suffering for ourselves and others. So we can see nirodha is meaning to inhibit unhealthy mental activity. The energies of these unhealthy patterns can then be utilized to build strength, integration, and well being. As we will see later, this is also an example if neural integration, a key component to mental health.
Buddhists Perspectives on Mind
In Buddhism, there are three primary disciplines of the mind, known as mindfulness, concentration, and insight. We have discussed mindfulness practice previously, but to briefly summarize, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness. The practice is to be fully present to what is arising now, in this moment, where ever you may happen to be. This includes what is going on around you, as well as the activities in your own inner world. It is a general, open, accepting recognition of the fullness of the moment. Concentration is the complement. Concentration involves the limiting of the field of attention to a very specific object, area, or activity. This use of mind is a normal everyday occurrence, familiar to all. Paying attention is an important way to stay safe. In Yoga and Buddhism, this process is refined tremendously in the practice of ‘Samadhi’, staying the same’. The Yoga Sutras are primarily about the various levels and variations on samadhi practice.
We learn very quickly that this is not so easy. When we begin meditation practice it becomes obvious that the mind has ‘a mind of its own.’ That is to say, our capacity to pay attention is often not under our control. The first meditation practice is often to just watch the breathing. But this is often boring to the mind after a while and the mind hungers for something else to attend to. So we practice by reminding our selves, when we notice the mind has wandered from the breath, to come back, to begin again to pay attention. In Sanskrit this process in known as dharana, the sixth limb of Astanga Yoga as defined in the Yoga Sutras. Bring the attention back when it wanders. To use the gunas, a rajasic mind cannot sit still. It is like a monkey jumoping about from one thought or sensation to another. A tamasic mind cannot pay attention because it is dull or sleepy. The sattvic mind can stay. It is stable and steady. Dhyana describes a steady mind that still is tempted by rajas and tamas. A certain will power is exerted to overcome the tendencies to lose focus. Eventually, the stable mind becomes string enough to be able to relax, without willfulness. this is samadhi. In the neuroscience section we will look at what happens in the brain to build this stability.
The third practice, Insight, or Vipassana, is the leap to spiritual realization or awakening, and the practices to bring about and stabilize this awakening. The world of form is impermanent. All thoughts, ideas, bodies, any aspect of creation eventually will dissipate and disappear. What remains Pure Awareness, Buddha Nature, unchanging, unaffected, luminous and clear. There are direct path teachings in Buddhism such as Zen and Dzog-chen where the whole focus is on this realization. Other approaches offer practices in calming the mind and developing compassionate action as well. In the Yoga Sutras, the ‘Insight’ is mentioned immediately, sutra I-3. Tada, drashtuh svarupe avasthanam. Then the Seer, the unchanging Awareness, rests in itself, unattracted to any of the forms that come and go in the world of impermanence.
Dan Siegel, on the Nature of Mind.
We know the mind is impermanent, but there is much to learn about its functioning. When modern science looks at the mind, we see that systems theory and complexity theory are perfect in describing its nature. A complex system is self organizing, capable of chaotic behavior, and open to inputs from the outside. Think of the weather as an everyday macro-phase example of a complex system. The human mind is another.
Dan Siegel, pediatric psychiatrist, world renowned lecturer on mental health, and author of ‘The Developing Mind” and many other mind-based books, loves acronyms. He uses the word FACES to highlight the qualities demonstrated in an healthy complex system, like a healthy human mind. It is Flexible, Adaptable, Coherent, Energized and Stable
A flexible system allows moment to moment adjustments as the inputs from the world are in constant flux. It is not stuck in only one pattern of behavior. An adaptable system is capable of learning new patterns and possibilities of behavior. Coherent systems integrate multiple sub-systems to create more complex patterns. Energized systems have the ability to absorb energy form the surroundings and use the energy for its own purposes. A stable system has a core organizing principle that is not disrupted by any of the other multiple changes passing through the system. Mental health, as described by Patanjali, or modern science exhibits these qualities, balancing stability and flexibility. Just about every neuro-psychological disorder can be shown to be a result of the breakdown of stability, or the loss of flexibility. As somanautic yogis, we know that Patanjali will revisit this point again when he introduces asana as sthira and sukham in sutra II-46. Healthy embodiment, at every level of the organism is stable and flexible.
In ‘The Developing Mind‘, Dan Siegel, offers a simple and profound definition of mind for the yogis. Dan says the mind is “an embodied and relational process that organizes the flow of energy and information.” “Embodied” recognizes the there is no mind-body split, although this split is often implied in modern psychological language. “Relational’ recognizes that we are embedded in relationships and mind does not exist in isolation, although the mind can often convince itself that this is so. The body is energy. Information is a highly complex form of energy and the self-organizing aspects of mind uses information to bring further levels of integration to maintain health and well being. Yoga taps into this process and develops and refines it further and further.
One of the most important types of mind activity is integration, described by Dan as ” the collaborative, linking functions that coordinate various levels of processes within the mind and between people.” (DM pg 301) It can also be described as the linking of differentiated systems to create something larger than the sum of the parts. Hand – eye coordination is an example of integration. The visual system and the kinesthetic system work together to allow a complex motor skill such as hitting or catching a baseball. These are sattvic mind states.
Reading is another example of integration. The retina registers light and dark patterns, the pattern recognition portion of the brain interprets the information into words, and the meaning making aspect draws conclusions, makes connections, inferences, etc. Now, If you can read Thai, you will understand that การให้ทานความรู้เป็นทานอันประเสริฐสุด says ‘Passing on knowledge is the greatest gift.” If you do not read the Thai script not, the the little black symbols do not convey any information.
The term samadhi, the primary practice of used in the Yoga Sutras, describes a state of relaxed focused attention directed onto the process of attention. Conscious attention is integrating, whether as mindful attending to the present, focal attention known as samadhi, or insight where attention rests in itself. These involve using a sustained sattvic flow of energy/information to develop and strengthen deeper and deeper states of integration. Yoga studies the process of attention and integration and refines this over and over again.
In “Mindsight” Dan Siegel defines nine domains of integration.
The first and most basic is:
Integration of Consciousness, which essentially is the definition of yoga. This refers to building skills to stabilize attention and then working with the global awareness of all aspects of our lives to help bring them into a state of harmony. Perceptions, bodily sensations, emotions, actions, relationships and our own thoughts are examined. The “Hub of Awareness” meditation is the key practice.
Next come the three ‘spatial’ domains, highly relevant to the somanauts/yoga students.
Horizontal Integration helps to link right and left brain activities. The right develops early on and involves spatial awareness, imagination, non-verbal communication, holistic thinking and more. The left brain develops later and is responsible for logic, linearity, literal thinking, written and spoken language and more. Read ” A Stroke of Insight” by Jill Bolt Taylor for a fascinating unfolding of some right brain/left brain skills and perspectives. If the linking between these hemispheres is blocked, the richness and complexity of life can be lost. Yoga poses and other forms of mindful movement help integrate right and left sides of the brain.
Vertical Integration refers to the vertical nature of the nervous system with nerves form the lower body ascending up through the spinal cord into the brain stem, the limbic structures and the cortex. People who ‘live in their heads’ are lacking in vertical integration. Hatha yoga brings the awareness and intelligence of the cells, organs, muscles and bones into conscious awareness and is thus a major practice of vertical integration.
Depth or Dorsal/Ventral Integration refers to the third and most challenging of the spatial directions, front to back. Most of us have very little perception of depth in the body. Head/tail and right/left are relatively easy, but we are pretty shallow from front to back. This becomes important as we dive into embryology and discover the tubular nature of structures. Without dorsal/ventral integration, we have no middle, no center. we are two dimensional. Breathing begins the process of discovering the inside that differentiates front from back. When e find the ‘expansion fields, we can take that feeling anywhere.
The next three involve temporal domains, where aspects past, present and future are integrated.
Memory Integration involves linking two basic types of memory. Implicit memory begins at conception if not before and encodes all the experiences the cell, embryo, fetus, and baby encounters. These memories shape our behavior and relationships from way in the background. Explicit memory includes autobiographical memory, the sense that ‘I remember’ and often doesn’t arise until the second year of life. In a healthy individual the implicit encodings and our ‘remembering work together to help us stay in the present moment with awareness and sensitivity. Trauma can impair memory integration. PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder blocks the implicit experience of the trauma to become part of explicit memory. Thus a war veteran can hear a firecracker explode and instantaneously be thrown into the war zone, which is experienced as happening now.
Narrative Integration is bringing coherence to the telling of our own story. Interestingly, the narrative function resides in the left hemisphere and the autobiographical memory in the left. The more we can use story to make sense of our experiences and our actions, especially those of our childhood, and bring coherence to our life stories, the better parents we will be. Peter Levine’s work in trauma recovery uses the narrative function as part of the healing process.
Temporal Integration brings in the capacity of the pre-frontal cortex to anticipate the future and even the deaths of ourselves and loved ones. This can induce more than a fair amount of anxiety so mindfulness practice can bring some ease and relaxation around ‘not knowing’ and help us be more comfortable with uncertainty. Emptiness meditation also brings insight into the nature of birth and death.
The final two domains of integration are broad and far reaching.
State integration allows us to acknowledge the different ‘mind states’ we naturally go through during the course of a day. A ‘mind state’, says Dan Siegel in “The Developing Mind”, is “the total pattern of activations in the brain at a particular moment in time.” We can all recognize the difference between the states of deep sleep, dream sleep and waking. And during waking, we can be alert, agitated, meditative, relaxed etc. Each of these involves a pattern of brain activity which can often be demonstrated through the electrical patterns known as brain waves. Sometimes we can generate conflicting states or ones we find to be ‘unpleasant’. Rather than rejecting or trying to deny their existence, we see their presence and look more mindfully at their expressions, giving permission to have these states. Spiritual bypassing is an attempt to ignore, deny or avoid states that do not meet our ‘spiritual standards’. This is a very unhealthy approach. Compassion and spacious understanding are healing.
Interpersonal Integration recognizes that we are all ‘inter-being’ to use Thich Nhat Hahn’s term. We all are dependent upon others for comfort, survival, recognition, fun and more. Our brains have evolved to align with other brains, our minds with other minds, to create mind states of two and more beings entwined and attuned. This helps us stay grounded in the world. We learn to come together and separate. Sometimes those separations are smooth, sometimes they are ruptures, leaving psychic wounds. Learning how to repair these ruptures is crucial to all relationships.
In the next lesson, we will take a closer look at the neuro-anatomy underlying the mental movements and processes.
Now, We Practice
We will begin with Dan Siegels’ ‘Wheel of Awareness meditation, to get a feel for the territory of mind, mind activity, and mind states. In the ‘Wheel of Awareness, meditation exploration, we use the wheel as a visual metaphor of the mind. Around the rim of the wheel are located the various information streams that feed the brain. These include the five outer senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch: the two inner senses of kinesthesia which feeds information from the muscles, bones and joints about location and movement: and proprioception, where we feel the motility or inner movements from the organs and fluids, driven by breathing, the heart beat, peristalsis and the cranio-sacral rhythms: our emotional energies percolating up from the cells and organs: the cognitive (word based) energies including the ‘monkey mind’; and a felt sense of ‘other minds’ that arise in all of our relationships. These sources stream energy and information from the metaphorical rim, to the hub, along the ‘spokes’ and we use the hub to locate/represent ‘pure awareness’. (Warning! All metaphors are limited. Useful but limited. Awareness is not confined by space or time.)
From the ‘hub’ of awareness, we direct our attention out the various ‘spokes’ to observe what is arising. We may notice the the process of ‘attention’ has a mind of its own and may jump from one spoke to another. Our discipline, (abhyasa), is to help stabilize attention, by bringing it to a specific spoke (dharana), keeping it there with some mindful effort (dhyana), and eventually having this become effortless (samadhi). Also we can cultivate a flexible attention that we can use efficiently as we take in the world without being ‘distracted’ by random sensations or thoughts.
In the ‘wheel of awareness’, we go back and forth, from the ‘hub of awareness’ to the various modalities out on the rim. What is most helpful is to really rest in the hub in between trips to the rim. Here awareness rests in itself. Awareness, not needing any information/objects of attention to sustain it, is still, open, unbounded by space and time, and aware. Patanjali calls this drashtuh svarupe’ the seer resting it its own inherent nature, and uses this to describe the result of yoga. (PYS, I-3). Eckhart Tolle use the term ‘Now’. Atman, Brahman, Presence, Primordial Being are some other ‘pointing’ words. You can also use your open heart as the silent center.
By resting in awareness, we learn to not be so reactive to what arises, so we begin to tease apart the many layers of reactivity that comprise the ‘vrttis’ Patanjali describes in the Samadhi Pada. We see the ephemeral nature of thoughts, beliefs, ideas, sensations and slowly disentangle our ‘self-sense’ from this transient world.
In a somatic based practice like hatha yoga, the information streams coming from the kinesthetic and proprioceptive streams are cultivated, studied and refined. We learn to feel our way through the body and allow the wisdom of the body to reveal itself moment to moment. Most yoga students begin with the mind telling the body what to do because they have never been taught how to feel, how to listen to the body. As teachers we need to help the students develop the confidence to trust what they feel and to not be afraid of sensations that are less than pleasant. Those sensations are our teachers.
It is also important to be able to observe the functioning of the mind. Remember, in our wheel metaphor, the pure awareness of the hub is not mind activity, or as Patanjali describes, citta vrttis. We can watch and study the movement and layers of mental activity, if we can slow down and be patient. Yogis have been mapping mental states for thousands of years so their experience if incredibly beneficial.