A Meditator’s Map to the Mind

By developing a yogic understanding of your mental terrain, you can begin the journey to your highest Self.

June 3, 2013    BY Rolf Sovik

The mind indeed is the cause of one’s bondage
and one’s liberation.
—Amritabindu Upanishad (verse 2)

Yogic scriptures describe the mind as an inner instrument. It stockpiles our memories, manifests our hopes and desires, and manages our daily activities. Yet despite the central role it plays in our lives, we rarely think about the mind itself. Few of us could even easily define what we mean by “the mind.”

For meditators, a working knowledge of our mental terrain is like a map. It allows us to see where we are going in meditation and shows us how to get there.

For meditators, a working knowledge of our mental terrain is like a map. It allows us to see where we are going in meditation and shows us how to get there. Fortunately, yoga philosophy provides a map of the mind that complements the practice of meditation. It opens the door to a new way of seeing human affairs and helps us solve the puzzle of who we are. Let’s have a look, with a view to what this map reveals about the mind in meditation.

The Landscape of the Mind

To gather experience, the mind must be connected to a body. It is through the channels of the senses and the sense organs (the eyes, ears, hands, feet, etc.) that the mind receives impressions from outside, and acts on the outer world. Mind and body are thus a subtly integrated team.

Even though the mind’s functions are seamless, yogis nonetheless identify four distinct realms of activity. The first is the everyday conscious mind, manas. Next is the subtle and quiet witness of experience, buddhi. Third is the sense of individuality or self-identity, ahamkara. Finally, the mind serves as the reservoir for storing habits and latent impressions (samskaras), deposited in the unconscious mind, chitta.

The Everyday Mind

The everyday mind, manas, is often called the “lower” mind or the “mundane” mind. Manas serves as the screen of consciousness, blending sense impressions of the outer world with experiences already stored in the mind. Through the operations of manas, we see that a feathery creature has a rust-colored belly, hear it begin singing early in the morning, and remember its name: robin.

Manas is also sometimes called the “indecisive” mind because it is a good collector and displayer of information but a poor decision maker. It can choose a vacation destination, select the best available dates for travel, plan the route, and calculate the costs of the entire trip. But it will be unable to decide whether or not to go. It cannot come to a conclusion. For that, we will need to employ buddhi, the part of the mind that helps us determine the value of our actions.

Take a few moments to identify the functioning of manas within yourself. Read these brief instructions, then pause and take in your immediate environment.

  • See the world presented to you on the screen of your awareness.
  • Hear the sounds of your surroundings as they reach you through your ears.
  • Notice how sensations of touch, taste, and smell are also completely integrated into your consciousness on this multidimensional screen of awareness.
  • Notice how quickly you identify the objects around you (by naming them or simply recognizing them), thus constructing a coherent environment.

It is important to be aware that the mental screen not only registers impressions from outside, it colors them as well. Memories of past encounters with the world, and images of future ones, shape the present. You shy away from buzzing bees, but cuddle up to fluffy kittens. The image of sailing seems inviting, but “don’t forget the sunscreen!” your manas tells you. Both desires and memories are constantly shaping the content of our thoughts.

The Silent Witness

Given the many activities of manas, the everyday mind, we might imagine it to be the mind’s chief operating officer. It is the scene of constant hustle and bustle, passing without interruption through periods of waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. But its activity is a mask of sorts, one that conceals a deeper dimension of life. Meditators learn to see behind this mask of frenetic activity, and discover a natural tranquility of mind that is far more compelling.

Indeed, the activities of manas are often described as a kind of sleep. They focus on sensory experience, on the fulfillment of instinctual urges, and on the pursuit of everyday pleasures. Yet they sleep to the deeper experiences of life. Thus, a voice calls to us from within, saying, “Wake up! Return to yourself!” That is the aim of meditation and the goal of the spiritual journey. But how is it accomplished?

For meditators, the first step is to give the lower mind a stable focus. Usually that focus is the breath or a mantra. This is the beginning of the process of resting your attention. As you do this, the busy senses—including the sense of imagination—follow along. They are quieted and relaxed. Thus, by giving the mind a focal point, you calm the activities of manas.

As manas quiets and calms, you begin to wake up. You develop an awareness of yourself as a silent witness—a center of consciousness from which other mental activities can be quietly observed. You become aware of your own awareness.

The function of mind capable of this kind of awakening is the buddhi. The term comes from the Sanskrit verb budh, meaning “to wake up.” Interestingly, this is just what happens in meditation. A quiet shift in consciousness occurs, calming the emotional distractedness of the manas and awakening a calmer, steadier mind.

The verb from which buddhi is derived has other meanings as well, each related to the nature of the mind in meditation. It means, for example, “to return to consciousness,” that is, to restore awareness of one’s deeper self, as well as “to attend,” to gather awareness rather than to let the mind be distracted.

A simple experiment will help you sense this. Close your eyes and feel the flow of your breathing, following these basic instructions:

  • Stay with the breath for a few minutes until you find you can relax the effort you are making, resting your mind on the pleasant sensations of exhaling and inhaling.
  • Begin to notice in a very simple way that you are not the breather. You are awareness, witnessing the sensations of the breath.
  • You will not sense buddhi by anything it does, but by its quiet presence. You, as buddhi, are silent, restful awareness.
  • Continue resting your mind by watching the breath. When manas is calmed, and attention rested in this way, it is possible to go beyond the lower mind, to see its activities, and yet to know yourself as the inner witness of these activities.

The journey does not end here. During meditation, distractions arise that alert us to the many layers of experience stored in chitta, the unconscious mind. Buddhi examines these impressions—both in the form of thoughts and feelings, and later as the habits and behaviors of everyday life. In this process, buddhi observes and registers a thought (“Vacation!”), forms an understanding of its significance (“It’s been years!”), and makes a decision. That decision will either be foolish if it is based on attachment (“I’m going no matter what!”) or wise if it is based on an assessment of real needs (“It will provide a much-needed rest”). Buddhi is the decision maker, and as it awakens, it learns to make decisions wisely.

But while an awakening of the buddhi can help us in daily life, the goal of meditation is not simply to make us better decision makers or to enable us to gather more life experience. The awakening of the buddhi helps us turn back into ourselves. It shows us how to recapture awareness of the inner Self, the source of our conscious awareness.

This is a process that unfolds slowly and gradually, but it is not uncharted territory. Start by quieting yourself, learn to observe the passing activities of your lower mind, and awaken your buddhi, the inner witness. In the next issue we’ll talk more about how to address the unconscious mind (chitta) and manage self-identity (ahamkara) in meditation. But for now, begin to recognize the terrain of your mind when you sit to meditate. There is no landscape on earth more beautiful or more compelling.

Rolf Sovik
President and Spiritual Director of the Himalayan Institute and a clinical psychologist in private practice, Rolf Sovik has studied yoga in the United States, India, and Nepal. He holds degrees in philosophy, music, Eastern studies, and clinical psychology. Former Co-Director of the Himalayan Institute of Buffalo, NY he began his practice of yoga in 1972, and was initiated as a pandit in the Himalayan tradition in 1987. He is the author of Moving Inward, co-author of the award-winning Yoga:... Read more>>