Svadyaya: Study of the self (Mind)
Adyaya means study and sva means self.
Svadyaya can be considered as both the understanding of the Self by asking the question “who am I” and also cultivating the skill of self-observation. This self observation encompasses both the body and the mind. We are encouraged to observe our physical, emotional and mental patterns as a means to help us transcend them and find peace and harmony with reality, with what is. Here we focus on the study of the mind.
A lot has been said in yoga about controlling the mind and not following one’s thoughts, quieting and taming the mind, but somehow this has proven to be very difficult for many.
Seekers have found themselves frustrated and angry at their inability to cultivate these skills. How can we tame what we do not know? To tame a horse without using violence, the horse whisperer would have to know the horse, understand its body language, its behavioural patterns etc and only then should s/he attempt to tame it. The same applies to the mind. We can only attempt to discipline the mind once we study it and learn how it functions, what its goals are, how it reaches them and what it uses.
We can become aware of our mind’s patterns by watching our mental activities in order to see what causes them, why and when. For example, we can start by looking at the nature of our thoughts at different times of the day. Where is the mind focusing in the morning? Is the mind taking you to positive or negative places? Where does it take you when you’re socializing or when you’re practicing yoga? When you succeed or when you fail? What stories does it tend to create? What do these stories make you feel? Are there any stories that are having a negative impact on your life? You would be surprised to see that although the events of your days are different, the underlying tones of the story you make of these events remain the same. This is because the mind is prey to addiction. If it is used to finding goodness in all events, it will continue doing so day after day and, if it’s used to finding the downside to all events it will continue to do so. In fact it is said that more than 90% of our thoughts are not different from the ones we had yesterday.
My self study so far has shown me that the mind is not only a prey of habits, it likes to be busy 100% of the time. It is like a restless child constantly on the move with no inclination to stop. It expands on every thought that comes in and creates a thread which becomes part of what we call “my story”. This is how the story starts: A thought such as “I feel so lonely” comes in, out of nowhere, apparently from an outside stimuli. The mind being totally innocent, functioning precisely how it’s meant to, starts elaborating on this thought and goes on to prove its validity.
For example, the thread begins with “I feel so lonely” and carries on as “there is no one around”, “nobody cares”, “they’re all busy with their own lives”, “no one’s picks up the phone to ask how I am”, “I made wrong choices all my life”, “I deserve to feel like this” and so on and so on to the point that it will prove that “feeling lonely” is not only legitimate, it is inevitable and is in fact the only option. The mind’s goal is to prove us right and gather facts and information from all our experiences to sustain our beliefs and validate our story regardless of how much suffering this causes us.
When I first had a glimpse of how the mind worked there was a feeling of disbelief and almost shock at the possibility that the mind had played me all my life. At the same time, I felt deep inside a sense of release, as if a crack was being created in the prison walls of my mind. I noticed that no matter what happens in the outside world, my inner dialogue, my interpretation of the event stayed the same. I noticed this very clearly one day when the outside events were in total opposition, but my inner interpretation of these completely opposing events remained the same! I felt I had caught the mind red handed. I saw that it had a hidden agenda. Its job was to take my deep seated beliefs and prove their validity over and over again regardless of what was happening in reality.
These beliefs are like a veil obstructing reality as it is. Because we impose on reality what we believe, we are unable to see “what is”.
Psychologists, Buddhist, Zen, Yoga masters and mystics who know the power of the mind and its significance in our human existence all share the same goal: “the full awakening of the total personality to reality”.
When the mind opens and embraces reality 100% as it is, the heart also opens and finds peace. If we drop the beliefs, the veil drops too but, the question is, how do we drop the beliefs?
We use the mind to let go of the mind. We use the mind, the strong tool in our repertoire to drop the beliefs in the same way it validated them. We use the mind to enquire into the mind. The mind’s job is to prove us right, so we can ask the mind if it can find evidence for the opposite of what we hold as belief. If it can, the initial belief will automatically be dropped along with the story that maintained it. We can do that with all the beliefs that seem to obstruct us from reality and hence peace. How do we identify these beliefs? They are the ones that cause us suffering.
This practice can prove to be difficult at first. If it has validated your story of how lonely you are, it can find the evidence that sustains this story in a blink of an eye. When you start asking it to find evidence that you are not lonely, it might take it a while to find one. You might even find yourself irritated by your enquiry and decide that it isn’t for you. In my case, this was because a part of me was being threatened by enquiry; the part of me that would have to die if it was revealed as a fake. Who would I be without that story?
The person you’ve lived with all your life – ‘yourself’ is identified as ‘lonely'; what would you identify with if you saw that you were not lonely? In this, there is a sense of not knowing, unfamiliarity and fear. So dropping a harmful, weakening belief requires patience, persistence and willingness, the same patience needed to treat an addiction. No matter how many times it fails, there are no failures as long as one persists.
The more we study the mind the less we take its contents as facts. The less beliefs we hold, the emptier we are. The emptier we are, the less the mind has a hold on us and the easier it is for thoughts to come in and go without getting stuck and creating havoc in the interim.
I once read a story which demonstrated very clearly the power of an untamed mind and showed how just one thought or belief can take over one’s entire being and consume its life force.
The story was of a seeker who went to a meditation retreat in a Buddhist temple. He knew that he was going to practice awareness in a dark room for 5 days and that food would be brought to him twice daily by the resident monks. When he arrived he was greeted by the monks and was led to the dark room and left with instructions to remain mindful and watch everything that arises including thoughts, emotions and all sensations without judgment. The first couple of days he was excited and exuberated, happy to have made the decision to do this retreat and learn about himself. After the initial excitement he started feeling irritated at the monk who would come and leave him his food. He was getting annoyed by the fact that he had spent so much money to just sit in a dark room and eat twice a day! How stupid could he have been? Over the next few days his anger grew at them for doing nothing for the money he had paid and at himself for being so gullible. He was fuming and couldn’t sit still. Walking up and down the room he was cursing everything and everyone. When the 5 days were over, a monk came and led him out to a room where the master was waiting to hear his experience. He listened patiently, without taking offence and then asked: “nothing happened outside of you. You were there on your own, so what happened that took you away from feeling excited and happy and made you miserable and angry?” It is said that the seeker became enlightened after that.
Between HEAVEN and HELL lies only ONE THOUGHT