I used to wonder why we were supposed to "calm the waves of the mind" in yoga. I used to think to myself, “Isn’t the mind supposed to think? Isn’t that it’s very nature?” What I didn’t realize is that one of the most advanced practices of yoga is learning how to control the mind, so that it doesn’t control you.

Once I started making a sincere effort to pay attention to my thoughts and then choose to place my attention on the ones that made my life better, rather than the ones that made my life an internal nightmare, I realized just how powerful the mind is. I also realized a profound sense of freedom when I learned how to calm the waves of my mind--from those that constitute a tidal wave, to those that create a more placid sea.

Patanjali's Take on the Mind

In "The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali," he says that the mind, also known as citta (or consciousness), is comprised of three parts. The first is manas, which is the part of the mind that records what it takes in from the external world. The second aspect of the mind is called buddhi. It is the part of the mind that takes the impressions of the external world and puts them into categories. It takes in impressions from the external world through the five senses and then makes note of these impressions. It classifies and analyzes everything. Buddhi deems things as good or bad and reacts to them accordingly. Then there’s what is called ahamkara. This is the aspect of the mind that is the ego. It’s the part that makes claim of these impressions as its own and puts them into a little storage box called “individual knowledge.”

To understand this more clearly, let’s consider an example. Let’s say you are in the African jungle amongst all the animals of the jungle kingdom. A big, living object is fast approaching. Manas makes record of the sighting. The buddhi part of the mind says, “Oh my goodness, that’s a lion and it’s on the prowl for food.” Ahamkara says, “Yes! I am the one who is seeing this lion. I am the one who is scared. And this scary lion wants to eat ME! I’m sure of it!”

Yoga's Thoughts on the Matter

In our Western society, we see the mind as being full of intelligence and knowledge. We see the mind as a source of wisdom. We see it as being conscious. Now, yoga, on the other hand, teaches us that the mind is not intelligent in the deepest sense of the word. The mind has a sort of knowledge that is borrowed. It’s borrowed from its experiences, its ego, its perceptions.

(Learning How to See the Ego for What it Is may be helpful to you.)

It has a knowledge, or perception, which is referred to in yoga as vritti. Vritti is like a thought wave. It is objective. It’s attached to the ego because every perception ignites the ego. When something in the external world is recorded by manas--the part of the mind that records things--a vritti (thought wave) occurs in the mind. Then the ego becomes identified with this particular thought wave and labels it “good" and "I am happy,” or “bad" and "I am not happy.”

Atman the Liberator

As you might be able to see, it’s this identification with vritti that causes us quite a lot of suffering. It makes us want to cling to the pleasures and avoid the pain. Luckily, we have what’s called the Atman. This is the part of us that’s unchanging. This is the witness, the seer, which is the divinity that resides within each and every one of us. The Atman holds true intelligence and wisdom. It sees things as they are. It sees the ultimate reality of things.

This eternal Atman isn’t identified with vritti. It is the one that witnesses them and remains outside of them. The Atman is, therefore, free from the suffering of the mind and the ego. That said, one of the primary goals of the practice of yoga is to be free from this suffering, to disengage from these thought waves. It’s to know one’s true nature: not the one that identifies itself with the ego or the mind’s vritti.

For example, if a beautiful lake is fraught by waves, the lake’s water is full of mud and muck and you can’t see to the bottom. This lake is like our minds and the bottom of the lake is our true nature: our Atman. This is the reason we meditate in yoga. It’s the reason we practice asana. It’s the reason we practice pranayama. We want to still the mind in order to get to our Atman.

(Learn more about how vritti affects your meditation practice in Meditation: How to Find the Starting Point.)

Unlearning, Not Unthinking

It’s not that we want to make the mind go totally blank. What we want to do is a kind of unlearning. We want to unlearn this conditioning of being identified with the thoughts. Now, this is a difficult thing to do, but it’s possible through the many practices of yoga. We can transform ourselves entirely when we learn to do this. We can attain true Self-realization. We can live from our Atman. And when we do this, we become free. We become enlightened.

It is written in Yoga Sutra 1.2, "yogas-chitta-vritti-nirodha." Yoga is the restriction of the fluctuations of the mind, or of consciousness. Citta is the mind. Vritti are the thought waves and they are prone to misconceptions. One might say that the daily experience is one that’s full of misconceptions and we’re all trapped by them even if we don’t realize it. If we can learn how to free ourselves from these misconceptions through the continual practice of yoga, we will eventually become truly, truly free.

(For more information on this subject, continue reading in Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodha.)

Smooth Sailing

And isn’t that the primary aim of yoga? To become free from suffering? After many, many years of a dedicated yoga practice, this is what I’ve come to believe it is. And it’s given me such power over my life. Now I know that whatever life brings, I will be just fine. I have an internal strength that’s beyond measure. And this strength gives me both a sense of self-confidence and self-ease that makes my world all the more fun to live in!