One of the biggest challenges to maintaining a consistent meditation practice is learning how to manage the mind. The mind can be the doorway to the inner peace of deep meditation, or it can be an obstacle. A restless mind can be a formidable foe to meditation practice. My teacher would say “the mind can be your best friend or your worst enemy”. So what is this thing called ‘mind’ and how do we make it our best friend?
The brain is the seat of the mind, but it is not really the mind. The mind is pure energy. The yogis use the analogy that the brain is like a light bulb and the mind is the light that illuminates the bulb. The nervous system is like the wires that conduct the energy. The mind has many aspects both conscious and subconscious. The vast majority of the mind lies in the realm of the subconscious. It is the subconscious mind that motivates many of our thoughts and actions. One of the main aspects of the path of meditation is the navigation of the subconscious mind. Shedding light on the subconscious mind helps us know ourselves on all levels and to eventually gain knowledge of the Self.
The mind can be described by its four functions – chitta, manas, ahamkara, and buddhi. Chitta is the aspect of mind which is the storehouse for all memories, experiences, and subtle impressions. Chitta is basically the subconscious mind. Manas plays the role as the perceiver. It interprets input from the senses which then get stored in chitta. Manas is sort of the manager of the mind and processes input. Ahamkara is the aspect of mind which deals with self identity, sense of self, or ego. Lastly there is Buddhi. Buddhi is the intellect – the aspect of mind which can discriminate between what is right or wrong. Buddhi is capable of higher thinking.
The proper understanding and management of the four functions of mind is an important step in deepening your practice. Self analysis and contemplation are helpful tools in this process. We live in an “information age” where we place a strong emphasis on gathering information and sensory input; but we often find ourselves not allowing time to really sort through all of the input. Information that is not properly assimilated or verified through experience can clutter the mind and become a distraction. When we sit to meditate we are often disturbed by the various thoughts generated by the information overload and sensory input. The path of meditation requires a certain mental discipline that goes beyond just the times we sit to practice. If we do not discipline our minds throughout the day, we cannot expect the mind to suddenly become still and under our control when we sit to meditate. The state of mind we experience when we sit to meditate is a reflection of our normal state of mind. It becomes magnified because we are focussing on the various thoughts and impulses.
There are many tools to help still the mind during meditation, one being the breath. The Yogis consider the breath as one of the finest points of focus for meditation. The first step is learning the breath diaphragmatically. This allows us to regulate the nervous system which helps slow down the thoughts and calm the emotions. The breath also gives us a point of focus so we can concentrate the mind. Concentration precedes meditation and only a one-pointed mind is capable of reaching the higher states of meditation. The practice of focusing on the breath is called breath awareness, which is different from Pranayama. Pranayama is more of an external practice, whereas breath awareness is purely internal. Through breath awareness one is able to completely still the mind – which doesn’t necessarily mean there are no thoughts in the mind; but it allows the mind to remain undisturbed by any thoughts which may arise.