Understanding the Fluctuations of the Mind

In his Yoga-sutras, Patanjali defines yoga as the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. Curiously, yoga philosophy thinks of the mind as a form of matter. It’s subtler than what we normally think of as ‘matter’ in that it’s a metaphysical aspect of the physical world.

One way to understand the mind is to visualize it as if it were made of invisible clay. Just as you can mold the shape of clay, we can mold the shape of the mind. By purposeful action, such as spiritually oriented rituals and practices, we can create impressions on the mind that are conducive for the elevation of consciousness and, ultimately, to stilling the movements of the mind.

This assumes that we’re taking a pro-active position in order to influence the movements of our minds. However, this is not always the case. In fact, most of the time we are reactive rather than pro-active: the mind’s propositions are our marching orders.

It turns out that the mind has a mind of its own. Left to its own devices, the mind will re-shape itself by thrusting thoughts, feelings, and desires into the forefront of our consciousness and then withdrawing them back to the subconscious in favor of different thoughts, feelings, and desires.

This on-going sequence of processions into the conscious mind and recessions into the subconscious mind are the fluctuations of the mind that Patanjali speaks of. Since this perpetual rotation of assorted thoughts to and fro happens of its own accord, without our active participation, we should ask why we have these thoughts and inquire as to where they come from.

How attachments and aversions are born

The explanation of yoga philosophy is that the shape of the mind’s fluctuations is determined by impressions on the mind. Here’s what happens:

1. We have a sensory experience: we see, hear, taste, smell, and/or feel something.

2. That experience sinks instantly down beneath the plane of our physical senses into the metaphysical depths of our subconscious mind, where it creates an impression, just as pressing your thumb into a lump of clay would create the shape of your thumb in the clay.

3. Each unique experience leaves its own unique impression. Each unique impression stores the memory of that unique experience. Each unique memory stores the thoughts, feelings, and desires that are associated with the experience.

4. When the mind moves a memory of something we like from our subconscious mind to our conscious mind, our senses pick up on it and communicate an urge to repeat the pleasurable experience.

5. Motivated by the urging of our senses, we seek out whatever our senses desire in the hope of re-creating the pleasurable experience.

6. We try to fill the impression that provoked our desire with the same experience that created the impression in the first place. While the desire may feel fulfilled for some time, the long-term result is that we deepen the impression rather than satisfy the desire that the impression provoked. Thus, sooner or later, the desire returns with an even greater urgency than before.

7. When we continually strive to satisfy such desires, the impression increases to the point where we develop an attachment to the sense object that formed the impression. Hence, attachments are born, which, when unchecked, can develop into habits or even addictions.

8. When the impression is a negative one, in which the senses seek to avoid the repetition of an unpleasant experience, the same process results in aversions. Hence, aversions are born of negative impressions.

The Mission of the Mind

One of the most remarkable aspects of yoga psychology is something I mentioned earlier: the idea that the mind has a mind of its own. Take a moment to try to control your mind. You’ll see right away that it’s easier to control the wind. Although it can be done with sufficient practice, the easiest way to experience how the mind has its own agenda is to try to impose your agenda on it and then watch how much resistance it puts up.

We become yogis; our minds don’t.

So what’s the mind’s agenda? Its first priority is to protect the ego or, more accurately, our false ego: the illusory misidentification of the self with the attachments and aversions that reside in the mind. Yoga and meditation is, for intents and purposes, an assault on our illusory misidentification with our attachments and aversions. Your mind’s rejection of your meditation practice is a survival mechanism because when your false ego goes, your mind goes with it.
Hence, we find this verse in the Bhagavad-gita:

For one who has conquered the mind, the mind is the best of friends. But for one whose consciousness remains estranged from their true self, the mind, out of enmity, will be a tenacious enemy.

Sometimes the subconscious mind will send memories to the conscious mind on its own. Sometimes the senses will summon a memory to the fore. And sometimes something in our environment will stir an impression in the mind. Events from past lives leave impressions that carry over into our present lives, as evidenced by the predispositions of a child. Similarly, events in our childhood leave impressions that we carry forward with us into adulthood.

There is one such impression that almost everyone of my generation still carries.

Reflections on a dark impression

In the mid-1980’s I embarked on, or perhaps fell into, a career in what was then a new and esoteric field: computer graphics systems. Successive opportunities quickly led to a position with a manufacturers representative, a firm than managed the sale of various manufacturer’s products through a distribution channel. My job was to demonstrate how the technology worked and train paying customers how to use it.

The computer graphics industry, like most others, has periodic trade shows and doing product demos at them was part of my job. The first one to come up for me that year was in Dallas, Texas.

The owner of the company, a man 30 years my senior, was a generous employer running a successful business who believed that business trips were opportunities to live large. So, we all flew first class, checked into a swanky downtown hotel, and gathered in the lobby to go out to a fancy dinner on the company’s dime.

An eerie familiarity

The restaurant was up in the Reunion Tower, a Dallas landmark that looks like a giant golf ball sitting on a very tall tee. It featured a revolving floor that facilitated a view of the entire city and beyond. I sat right next to the spacious window with my back facing the direction the floor was moving in, the city slowly revealing itself to me from behind my right shoulder.

Fine dining meant slim pickings for vegetarians so it didn’t take long for me to figure out what I could order. I put the menu down and stared out the window. Off in the distance, the Texas sky reclined on a vast horizon. Right below us, the cluttered downtown slowly gave way to a clearing; a park cut into onion-shaped puzzle pieces by a convergence of curving roads.

An uncomfortable feeling crept under my skin. I’d never been to Dallas before but as I looked out onto the plaza below there was something eerily familiar about it. Something about the place made me… uncomfortable.

As the plaza scrolled from right to left, an imposing cube of brick, conspicuous in its isolation, entered the stage from the corner of my eye. I turned my head to focus on the building that seemed to look menacingly down on the plaza, a monolithic sentinel casting an invisible shadow.

It’s squat symmetry, distinctive arches, and angle to the plaza sparked instant recognition: the Book Depository Building. My ears pulled back, my eyes widened, my breath froze, my belly tightened, the corners of my mouth clenched, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck being to rise.

A grim realization

“Creepy, isn’t it?” My employer, sitting across from me, had apparently witnessed the evolution of my grim realization. “Yeah.” That was really all I could say about it.

I watched a lot of TV when I was seven years old. There were only three networks, three local channels, and a public television station to choose from. For a few days in late November of my seventh year there was only one thing on: coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. School was cancelled. I watched it all; from the downcast newscasters struggling to retain their composure to the solemn procession down Constitution Avenue.

To this day, the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen on TV was watching Lee Harvey Oswald being escorted out of a Dallas police station: murder on live television.

Places hold on to the impression of the things that happen there just as our minds retain impressions of experience. In Sanskrit those impressions are called samskaras. The size and shape of the samskaras we accumulate determine the shape of our minds. The character of the impressions from our past form the natural impulses we feel in the present and the impressions we accumulate today will determine the impulses we feel tomorrow.

On a summer evening in 1986, the invisible shadow over Dealey Plaza leapt 500 hundred feet into the air and threw an icy chill onto a slumbering impression that a dark day 23 years past had imprinted on my young mind.

It was creepy.

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What do you think?

What events in your life have made the deepest impression on your mind? Are there things about the character of your consciousness that can only be explained as having come from an impression from a previous life? Share your thoughts on how you think impressions on our minds shape our thoughts and feelings.

Hari-kirtana

I’m a yoga teacher based in Washington, D.C. and the author of In Search of the Highest Truth: Adventures in Yoga Philosophy. I lead Yoga Teacher Training courses, workshops, and yoga classes. I also serve yoga practitioners as a private instructor and assist yoga teachers in their professional development.

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