What would you ask of Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Muhammad, or Moses if they offered to grant you anything you wanted? Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the spiritual head of the Himalayan Institute, posed this question at a recent gathering of Institute residents and guests. The answers ranged from world peace to healing the environment, letting go of the past, love, and everything in between. Somehow none of these answers seemed to hit the spot; politically correct and well-intended, yes, but practical? Truthful? Personal?
As the lecture moved on, the fog of wishful thinking began to clear, and I realized that these sages all emphasize the transformation of the individual as the basis for addressing social problems, and that their message is universal and timeless—applicable regardless of particular cultural problems or individual differences. As such, their message involves abiding virtues like wisdom, compassion, fearlessness, and inner strength; qualities that describe a mind with the power to discern and manifest right action in any situation. Perhaps a more appropriate boon to request from the sages would be the one useful, necessary instrument needed by all of us, the one thing that would empower us to achieve whatever else we desire: a clear, calm, tranquil, and one-pointed mind.
With mastery of the mind, everything else falls into place.
With mastery of the mind, everything else falls into place—courage, wisdom, compassion, discrimination, skillfulness in action, and self-knowledge. However, mastering our mind is certainly easier said than done! The undertow of our deeply ingrained samskaras (mental patterns), combined with the conscious stream of thought that is constantly occupying our mind, overpowers us. We seem to have met our match in our mind! So what strategy can we employ to attenuate the roaming tendencies of the mind? How can we focus our fragmented attention? What have the sages taught?
The Yoga Sutra defines yoga as the mastery over the roaming tendencies of the mind. Other yoga texts, like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, suggest that when prana is controlled, the mind is controlled (and vice versa). This idea is so important and useful that it appears in one form or another in several Upanishads and Sanskrit texts on yoga practice. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika instructs us: “When prana moves, chitta (the mind) moves, and when prana is without movement, chitta is without movement Thus the yogi should restrain vayu (prana) and attain steadiness.” And later in the text we learn: “Mind and prana are mingled like milk and water If one acts, the other acts. When the mind is stilled, prana is stilled; where prana is quiet, there the mind is quiet.”
Some yoga traditions emphasize restraining the fluctuations of the mind with meditation techniques; some highlight observances and restraints on behavior and intentions—the moral aspects of spiritual life—and some, like hatha yoga, emphasize controlling prana with the physical practices of yoga along with various restraints and observances (yamas and niyamas).
Working with prana is the best starting place to bring the mind under control.
For most of us, working with prana is the best starting place to bring the mind under control. Along with the yamas and niyamas, the yogic cleansing practices, asanas, and pranayama all balance and stabilize the flow of prana. Then the remaining four limbs of the eight limbs of yoga unfold naturally: an inward focus (pratyahara), mental concentration (dharana), and finally meditation (dhyana, which ultimately matures into samadhi). The repeated practice of these steps results in a mind that is clear, calm, tranquil, controlled, and capable of being one-pointed. And that mastery of mind can lead us to know what to do and how to succeed, whether it’s finding freedom from painful thoughts and memories, writing poetry, or working for social justice or environmental protection. In short, our deepest desires will surface and manifest their fruits with the mastery of the one-pointed, clear, calm, and tranquil mind.
So the sages, ever advocates of “light your own lamp,” in granting our request for a one-pointed, perfectly controlled mind, might grant that wish by pointing to yoga wisdom and practice as they have given us in the Yoga Sutra and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika.