"How do I control my thoughts?" This is a rather profound question. The mind is meant to think thoughts. That’s what it does. But when my thoughts run amuck, swinging from one branch to another like a wild and crazy monkey, I lead a distracted life of reaction. (Learn more about what's meant by "monkey mind" in Your Mind Isn't Actually You: How to Quiet the 'Monkey Chatter.')
Watch Your Thoughts
The ancient yogis learned how to control their thoughts, which was an essential step in attaining enlightenment of the Cosmic Consciousness or Absolute Reality. By controlling their thoughts, they reached higher levels of consciousness and ultimately lived from their Atman, their God consciousness. (Do you Know Your Atman (Self)?)
The yoga tradition offers up tools to help master our minds. If we can become masters of our minds, we can learn how to live with total presence. We can live mindful lives in which we are truly “awake,” rather than asleep. Because when we’re distracted by our thoughts all the time, it’s really hard to be present for our lives. It’s possible to live our whole lives without being present and wake up at the end saying, “Where did the time go? What was THAT all about? Why did I act in such a way?” If we can master our thoughts, we can master our lives. And we can also come to realize our connection to everything and all that is.
If we can control our thoughts, we can rest in that state of calm and quiet consciousness, where we become the witness – the one who witnesses the thoughts, the one who never changes and is always present – our soul essence. In doing this, we become better human beings. We no longer live in negative mind-states, reacting with anger, resentment, frustration, etc. We learn to see our thoughts with clarity. They’re only thoughts. They’re not satya, or "truth" – the truth that is true for everybody. They’re simply our thoughts and our thoughts are constantly changing. They’re not true for others.
How to Master Your Mind
One way to control our thoughts is through the practice of mantra meditation. Mantra is a Sanskrit term that translates as "a tool or vehicle for the mind." It gives the mind something powerful and profound to focus upon, and when it does, the mind stills. It becomes quiet.
As Patanjali said in the Yoga Sutras, “yogas chitta vritti nirodha.” This phrase expresses one of the primary aims of yoga – to quiet and control the mind. It translates to “yoga is the silencing of the fluctuations of the mind.” When we can master the many actions of the mind, we become the witness, the seer, and then we begin to reside in our true nature, our Atman. (Get more in-depth information on this classic phrase in 'Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha.')
Another way to look at this question of “How do I control my thoughts?” is "How do I see them for what they are and just let them be?" Trying to control one’s thoughts can be near impossible for most of us, especially if we are beginners on the path. One day we might be able to master our thoughts, but for now, can we just let them be? Can we realize they come and go, especially if we are present with them, aware of them, and allow them to take their natural trajectory? (More on Quieting the Commentary of Your Mind.)
Mantra can help us dissociate from our thoughts so that we don’t become them. Many of us are so identified with our thoughts that we act like our thoughts. The goal here is to become the witness of them. Then, as a thought arises, we can say, “Oh, hi there. I see you. Do your thing.” And eventually it does. It says, “Hello,” and it says, “Goodbye.”
Buddhists have a practice in which they sit in meditation and simply label thoughts when they arise in the field of awareness. When a thought comes in, they simply label it, “thinking.” When we work like this, watching the thoughts and labeling them as such, we become less identified with them, and less entangled by them.
The physical yoga practice helps us do this. When we move our bodies and elongate the breath, the mind naturally begins to slow down. That’s the beauty of asana. All you have to do is show up for the practice and eventually the calming of the mind takes care of itself.
Pranayama practice also helps us still the thoughts in our mind-fields. By elongating our breaths, we relax the nervous system. We drop out of our ancient reptilian fight or flight mode and into our parasympathetic nervous system, also referred to as the relaxation response. There are so many pranayama techniques given to us by the yoga tradition that it’s useful to experiment with all of them to see which ones really help you still your mind. (Try out a few here in 5 Yogic Breathing Exercises.)
Mind Over Matter
Becoming masters of our minds yields so many benefits. I once heard a story of a Buddhist monk who was in such an awakened state that he never even felt any pain. He was actually experiencing a serious eye operation, with no medications to numb him and he didn’t even react to the incisions the doctor was making. This Buddhist monk had clearly mastered his mind and was living at another level of awareness – one that you and I can hardly fathom. But if it’s possible for one human, it’s possible for another, and that’s why we keep on going. With practice, we can master our minds, and this is one goal totally worth aspiring to. (Read on in Vritti: Calming the Waves of Your Mind.)