Ultimate Guide to the Mind
What it is, how it works
This article is about the mind in the yogic sense. The ideas that I discuss here are now slowly trickling into individual scientific branches such as metacognitive psychology. Still, by and large, I am presenting a model of the mind that has not yet been discovered by Western science but is verified time and time again by meditators.
‘Mind’ is difficult to translate into other languages. In German, one translation, depending on the context, could be Verstand, and another could be Geist.
Both translations don’t quite cut it, but they both highlight essential features of the mind. Verstand, in the sense of reason, intellect, and understanding, emphasizes that mind has something to do with cognition, with the acquisition of knowledge, and with the processing of experience.
The word “Geist” (which is cognate with the English word Ghost) means spirit, which of course, has multiple meanings. In the narrow sense, we mean that part of the person that is not physical, and in a broader sense that part of the person that is connected to something higher.
The word Verstand connects to the senses and the word Geist to the soul. And of course, the word spirit is connected with the words spirituality, holy spirit, etcetera. So there are these connotations as well. That is the field of meaning that the word mind exists in.
The word mind is associated with many terms, some of them equally difficult to define, like consciousness, imagination, perception, thinking, judgment, language and memory, and emotion and feeling.
Mind as a local and as a pan-local phenomenon
In the Western scientific approach, ‘mind’ is a local phenomenon. It is the space where I am having experiences, what I am feeling, what I am knowing, what I am thinking.
In the Eastern approach, mind exists, quite like the western approach as a local phenomenon, but also as a universal phenomenon.
Personal minds are part of a universal mind. More on that later.
There is also the question: What is mind made of? And that is quite a critical issue.
What is mind made of
It is something that has been discussed since ancient times. In the western conception, what usually matters is what we can measure. But the problem is, we don’t find the mind.
We can measure brain waves, and through that, we can say something about somebody’s subjective state, but we never arrive directly at the mind.
Historically scientists have tried to explain mind by pointing at the brain as something responsible for producing the mind. The basis of the mind lies in the brain. The brain is firing neurons, constellations of neurons are causing brain states, and in this way, the brain in producing our thoughts and feelings.
Mind as receiver
But another model has also arisen in the Western conception. There the brain is conceived not as a thought production machine, but rather as an antenna. The antenna receives input from the senses and the energetic field around the person.
The Eastern conception, and the concept of mind according to yogic thought, is closer to this notion.
The question that we have still not answered is: What is mind made of? And it’s difficult to answer, but there is an even more fundamental question that precedes it. Is mind made of something at all?
In yogic thought, the mind is made of something – mind stuff. So mind is like physical matter, but it is much more subtle and cannot be measured by ordinary scientific instruments.
This mind-stuff is called Chitta. It is the matter that mind is made of.
The great yogic sage Patanjali famously defines yoga as:
“Yoga Chitta Vritti Nirodha”
Yoga means yoga. Nirodha means: to calm. Vritti means wave. And Chitta means mind stuff.
In other words:
Yoga is stilling the waves of mind-stuff.
We are constantly under the influence of this mind-stuff movement, but it is essential to realize this mind-stuff is not who we are.
In other words, because mind-stuff is stuff, matter, it is external to us. Because our identity does not consist of matter, we are ultimately not material beings.
We can look at mind as a thing
But mind IS existing as matter we can look at it, we can look at our mind. Observing the mind, we can quite easily see that it is, as Patanjali says, fluctuating. It is now telling us this about reality and then telling us that. What mind tells us may have some resemblance to the truth, but is always colored by the shape and the shade of our karmic lens.
We perceive things not as they are, but we see things in the way that we are.
Suppose that you are in a car and it’s raining. You turn on the windscreen wiper. Now instead of looking at the road, you are looking at the windscreen wiper going up and down. The road is behind it, and you can vaguely see it, but your focus is on the windscreen wiper that is just going up and down.
Tempering the fluctuations of the mind
So yoga and especially meditation is instrumental in tempering these fluctuations and starting to see how things really are.
But even when the emotional and cognitive fluctuations of the mind are calmed, we do not exactly end up with a mirror of reality. Because that is not the way, our mind is configured.
Mind as mirror
Sometimes in spiritual teaching, the mind is compared to a mirror. A mirror can be clean or dirty, and in the same way, our mind can represent reality clearly or less so.
The three functional minds
But that is not all there is to it. The mind also relates to reality in certain definite ways, and that is where the idea of functional minds comes from. The functional minds are the so-called:
Last time we spoke about Manomaya Kosha, the mental body as one of the five yogi bodies that cover us.
Now, this mental body has a particular structure, and part of that structure are these so-called functional minds: They are called functional because we use them to function.
Negative mind is the first mind. It’s first because it is the fastest. It’s the mind that is always looking out for danger. The part of our mind that is always looking for limitations in situations. That is not always good because the negative mind may keep us from going into a situation that is, in fact, good for us.
But you must understand that the negative mind is there to protect us from unsafe situations. It is just when the negative mind is unbalanced that it can lead to unnecessarily defensive behavior or even depression.
The positive mind, on the other hand, is the mind that sees the opportunity in every situation. It is the mind that wants to elaborate, expand, and go into any situation. That is only good for a person when it is tempered by the negative mind. Otherwise, you would not necessarily live a long and happy life.
The woman that knew no fear
There was a compelling medical case some years ago about a woman who was somehow unable to feel fear. She would happily handle living snakes and spiders. And all the things that scare other people just amused her.
It turned out that she had a non-functioning amygdala, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation. Functioning of the negative mind seems, therefore, to depend on a healthy amygdala.
It would seem nice to be fearless. But when the researchers asked the woman about the life she was leading, it turned out that she had been held at knifepoint several times and generally seemed to get herself into dangerous situations very often.
For example, one time, the researchers brought her into a pet store and had to stop her from petting a tarantula for the risk of being bitten. When they asked her why she wanted to touch it while on the other hand, she said she did not like spiders, she answered that she was overcome with curiosity.
So negative and positive mind are two forces in our mind that are constantly coming forward in our awareness.
I said there is a third mind, and that is called the neutral mind. Neutral mind is connected with the heart. It is the part of the mind that is closely linked to intuition.
When the negative mind and the positive mind are balanced, they are in a subjected role with regards to the neutral mind.
The negative and positive minds give us mental input about situations. The neutral mind can help us decide what the reality of a situation is and how to act. With the neutral mind, we access an inner knowing that helps us navigate life’s circumstances.
The functional minds work like this
A simple example of the way the three functional minds work is this:
You are driving in your car, and you are coming to an intersection. There is a car approaching the intersection from the right, but it’s still a little far away.
Now the negative mind tells you that it would be a good idea to stop. The positive mind tells you that you can still squeeze in before the other car comes if you push the gas pedal a bit. The neutral mind knows what to do.
Those are the three minds. But there is more to be said about how the mind works from the yogic perspective.
I mentioned before that mind-stuff is called Chitta. But there are a few other terms that are important to understand the mind.
First, it is essential to understand that mind-stuff is everywhere; the entire cosmos is made of mind-stuff. That is called universal mind.
We tend to think that we have individual minds, but this is because our mental stuff has undergone a process of individuation.
Mind as a universal phenomenon
When we see lightbulb on the ceiling, we may point at the light bulb and say: That is where the light is coming from. But when we understand more, we realize that the power for that light is coming from the power station. With the mind, it’s the same. What looks like individual mind is part of a larger whole, but we see it as individualized because something happens when we process mind stuff. That is something that creates the illusion of individual mind.
Imagine that thoughts are constantly passing. Thousands of thoughts and feelings are continually moving.
Now in each of us, there is the tendency to grasp at these thoughts in several ways. We like the thoughts of we dislike them, so we hold on to them in a liking or disliking way, instead of letting them pass. Now those thoughts are being reeled in by our personal mind. Thoughts are no longer floating universal mind-stuff, but it is getting shape as ‘my thoughts.’ This process is called Ahangkar or Ahamkara.
Ahamkara is the process by which I make a thought mine. It is the reason we say: I think … etc.
That is the basis of what we call ego. Ego is nothing other than the tendency to reel in thoughts and consider them as mine: attachment.
Ahamkara has power over us, and its power is illusion. Because do you ever truly own a thought.
Luckily the mind also contains an antidote to the illusion that is attachment. And this is Buddhi mind. Buddhi mind is really another word for the neutral mind. It is the part of the mind that links up with our higher knowledge and allows us to discern between truth and untruth.
Being alive as humans, we are alive through our senses, and this gives our mind direct input.
That is called Manas. And this field of Manas is the field that positive and negative mind operate in.
We get input from our senses, and manas reacts immediately. Think of a baby that wants to eat; it just cries. That is Manas, the very immediate mind stuff that is connected to the senses.
Lower and higher Manas
There is a further subdivision in lower and higher Manas, just to be complete. Lower Manas is this very immediate mind-stuff close to the senses, and higher Manas is the location of our spiritual desires. Sometimes also called the spiritual ego. But you can forget about this. I only include it for completion.
We like, we dislike. That is a very healthy natural process, based on our instinctual selves. But then Ahangkar makes these likes and dislikes into patterns of avoidance or attraction even when those patterns are no longer necessary or appropriate.
Preventing attachments, how?
So we have to prevent this attachment process from happening. That is why there are so many different spiritual practices that address this pattern formation in some way or other.
If this was not yet clear, these patterns are responsible for the so-called Vrittis that I talked about earlier. These fluctuating waves of the mind that prevent us from experiencing reality as it is.
Cycle of desire
It is useful to understand how the process of forming attachments, disturbing emotions, and thoughts takes place, is the so-called Cycle of Desire.
First, we have thought. The thought builds into a desire. Desire translates into Action. Action leads to experience, and the experience is logged into the memory.
Then the cycle can start again. But now we have the memory of what went before that is influencing the next cycle.
Suppose I get this thought. I am hungry. What shall I eat? The memories that are in my mind of the different things that I have eaten in the past will rotate before my mind’s eye. Salad? Lentil soup? Or pizza?
Hmmm, pizza. Ok, pizza it is. Now my image of the pizza is vivid, and the desire for it is strong. So I order pizza, and while I am waiting, the desire for pizza builds enormously. Then it comes, I am happy that it is already cut into pieces and there we go, I eat: Action.
After the Action of eating, we get the ecstasy of the experience of pizza.
Our mind has arrived, we are full, we are satisfied, we are joyful. The mind becomes silent.
It is no longer moving forward to satisfy any desire. It is content.
It stays in this state for a little bit. This feeling of the mind stopping is at least a partial experience of what it is to experience the bliss of the self. It is just apparently coming from the pizza.
Our mind stops the moment we are fulfilled; we turn within and experience our natural state of satisfaction.
However, this is only momentarily. Our craving mind soon takes over again. Was this pizza as good as the last time ordered it? Hmm, it would be awfully nice to have ice cream now…
The experience goes into memory, and new cravings are triggered.
And so we live our lives subject to this subtle chain reaction where desires are manifested and experienced and continuously give rise to new desires. On and on.
The shadow cycle
This is the positive cycle. There is also a negative cycle where the function of fear or aversion replaces the function of desire. The cycle is the same, but what is desired is now disliked. Action consists in avoidance, and Experience amounts to relief.
Breaking the cycle
So how do we break this cycle?
As you can see in the graphic, there are several places where we can break the cycle, and each of these places corresponds with different yogic and psychological approaches.
To start with the point at the top, point A. This the point located in the cycle before a thought arises.
This is an almost impossible practice because it means that you must stop thoughts from even coming into being, and if you can do that long enough, you will be liberated.
It is sometimes mentioned that the great yogi Siri Aurobindo, the founder of integral yoga, became enlightened in this way. He was an inexperienced and naive meditator. He did not even consider that it was challenging to do. His master told him simply: stop any thought from arising, and you will be enlightened in three days. He was also extraordinarily focused and disciplined, and this would be impossible for the modern distracted mind to achieve.
The point C is the point between Desire and Action. This is the willpower method. If you have ever tried to stop smoking or dieting by actively denying your desires developing into actions, then you know how difficult it is to break the cycle at this point.
To go back to the pizza analogy. You have formulated the thought about pizza. You have built up an appetite for pizza. Your entire endocrine system is primed. Your whole system is ready for the pizza. But now you need to deny it. It’s challenging to sustain on a longer-term.
It is a little bit easier to deal with things at point B, and that is the point where most yogic meditation happens, for example, mantra singing. This is the point where a thought is formed, but you are not attaching yourself to it, you are watching it, and eventually, it will pass.
Another point where we can break the cycle is point D. When you break the sequence between the Action and the experience of the Action, it does not mean that you don’t get the experience that the Action causes, but it means that you do not try to control the outcome of your Action.
The type of yoga that is practiced here is selfless service or karma yoga. When you perform selfless service, you do the work out of the desire to be of service, not out of the desire to be rewarded by the work. In other words, you let go of the idea of controlling the outcome of your actions, and you simply do what is needed.
The last point, Point E, is the point that we already spoke about when eating the pizza. This is the moment we have the experience, but we change the way we receive the experience, we change our understanding of it. This point is the point where tantra is practiced.
In tantric yoga, there is mindfulness throughout the process. The thought is followed into desiring, then into Action, and into having the experience. But after the experience, the cycle is broken by realizing the true meaning of the experience. In the ecstasy that you feel when the pizza fulfills you, you know that it is not the pizza that is showering you joy, but the joy comes from the self.
By that realization, you break the chain by gaining another perspective on the chain. All outer things which give us pleasure, are really triggering the joy that we already have in us.
This is not the easiest path to walk, and it is certainly not for everyone. If you can’t make sense of this, by all means, stay at point B, where the majority of the practices to break the cycle are performed, and just repeat the mantra.
So this is an explanation of how the mind works and how we can work on the mind to get liberated from the vicious cycle of desire and fear.
A revolution against human nature
This cycle works in everyone. That’s why Sri Aurobindo has also called yoga a revolution against human nature. It is precisely for this reason. If we let the mind run, it runs us, and we have lost control. Yoga and meditation are ways of reigning in some of that automatic behavior and, in the process, become more free and autonomous.
Now there are a few aspects of the mind that I have not mentioned yet, that I want to say just because they can help work with the mind.
You may have noticed that in the beginning, we have talked about defining the mind, but we have never actually defined it. And this was for the reason that the subject of mind is so complex that if we actually define it, we are limiting ourselves in some way. So to give a definition of the mind, in my view, can only lead to a false understanding, unless we heavily qualify it, explain how it is useful and where it is limited.
One of these definitions is very elegant. It is as follows.
Definition of mind as link between body and soul
The mind can be defined as the link between the soul and the body. The image is that of a bicycle where you are the soul, sitting on the bike, and the bike is the body.
The mind is the bike chain in this image. This definition is very limited, but it highlights a critical point that mind is a tool that allows us to channel the power from the self into the physical world.
That is to underline that we work with the mind so that it is at our disposal, but that we do not let ourselves run by it.
The automatic, moving, contrasting, material mind
If we understand the following four features of the mind, we will be able to work with it in a better way.
1. The mind is automatic
2. It is always moving
3. It works on contrasts
4. The mind is material
Ad. The mind thinks, not you, and it floods you with thoughts that are both wanted and unwanted. You are not these thoughts, and you do not need to attach to them or follow them. You are awareness itself and can simply watch this automatic operation of the mind if you are interested.
Ad 2 There are continually going waves of through the mind. As you become more aware and more neutral, the more you will become aware of the thought field that lies beyond your local experience, you will be able to tune into the wider field of mind more easily.
Ad 3, the mind tends to classify things in pairs of opposites: hot, cold, good, bad, black, white, dull, exciting. The mind automatically classifies and polarizes. It is up to you to loosen this polarization up and acknowledge it is just how the mind works. This brings us out of the instinctual approach of life where we are continually categorizing to protect ourselves. We always have a choice.
And the further point is that the mind is amenable to suggestion. It will believe what you tell it.
I have this experience with 2.5-hour meditations, which is very long and can be very boring. And at some point you are feeling oh I have been meditating for so long, I don’t know if I will get through. Then it can help to tell your mind, you have only been meditating for a few minutes, and you feel fresh. And believe me, you will feel fresh, it’s amazing how that works.
Ad 4. I have talked about this already, the mind is material, but it’s just made of very subtle stuff. What that means is that you can also influence it with other things that are also material. The mind can be influenced not only by thought but also by breath, food, and sound and light.
So that is the mind for you. I hope that this information is useful to you.