Q: I sometimes find myself intending to do one thing but doing the opposite instead. Even worse, I often can’t decide between two courses of action. I don’t know what my problem is, but it’s making me miserable.
A: Your problem is that you have an unsteady, clouded mind. All day long you are entertaining various trains of thoughts to no particular purpose. You do things without knowing why you are doing them and take part in conversations without paying much attention to the purpose behind them. You let your mind float in the lake of thoughts without anchoring it to anything. This is called purposeless living and being. The things you think you intend to do are not supported by a clear, firm decision. That’s why you find yourself suddenly dropping them and sometimes even doing the opposite thing.
To pull yourself out of this miserable situation, you need to learn the art of making your mind steady, one-pointed, and clear.
To pull yourself out of this miserable situation, you need to learn the art of making your mind steady, one-pointed, and clear. The first step is to clarify what you are actually trying to do with your life. What do you want to achieve? How do you wish to fit in this world? How do you want the people who are near and dear to you to fit into your life? What do you expect from them? How realistic are your expectations? What do you wish to give others, and how realistic is this wish? The answers to these questions will help you replace the hodgepodge collection of tasks that you have undertaken with tasks that are in line with your priorities. Your false expectations will fall away, and what will be left is a clear understanding of your duties and obligations. Then you will be able to do exactly what you intend to do. Contrary thoughts will no longer distract you.
Q: I see your point. I understand that knowing the purpose of my life and clarifying my expectations of both myself and others will help me become more organized and focused. But I don’t see how it will change the quality of my mind. My mind constantly entertains useless thoughts, plans, and projects. It picks up one thought, drops it in midstream, and picks up another. When it’s not jumping from one thing to the next, it is listless. Meditation feels like a chore. I’d like to get rid of this low-grade mind, but I don’t know how.
A: Your negative attitude toward your mind is a serious problem. First you say that your mind is your biggest enemy; then you beg that same mind to help you solve your problems. Before you blame your mind for dropping one object and then picking up several others, try to understand why your mind is behaving this way. The mind is invested with the power to help you find happiness. In fact, finding happiness is its job. In an attempt to do this it runs from one object to another, contacting one pleasurable experience after another. But it quickly sees that its object will not bring real satisfaction, and drops it for another. Without knowing what is motivating it’s behavior, you blame the mind and call it fickle. But once you set a clear goal for yourself and convince yourself that this goal is meaningful and worth pursuing, you will see how untiringly the mind moves toward that goal.
For centuries, religious teachers have been telling us that the mind stands between us and our happiness. Convinced by their proclamations, we continually assault our minds in the name of spirituality. The result is that we have been exhausting our energy in an attempt to defeat our minds. This is foolish—the mind’s defeat is our defeat. If you think the mind is your enemy, you are working against yourself.
Our materialistic approach to life has convinced us that we need a tangible, physical formula in order to deal with the mind. That is why, in an attempt to gain control over our mental world, we look for a pill or a psychiatric intervention of some sort. We carry this attitude into our spiritual life. We look for a technique, an herb, a gem, a yantra, a mandala, or a ritual to fix our problems, not realizing that we have turned the mind into a problem-manufacturing plant. That’s got to be stopped. Unless we change our attitude toward life itself, we cannot have control over our minds or over their fluctuations.
Unless we change our attitude toward life itself, we cannot have control over our minds or over their fluctuations.
Only an overall change in our attitude—cultivating a meaningful philosophy of life and cultivating a healthy lifestyle—will create the environment for bringing a change in how our minds work. If you try to change that first, hoping it will eliminate the causes of your distraction, disturbance, and confusion, you are doomed to disappointment. The process of transformation must begin in your inner world and your outer world simultaneously.
At the same time that you are learning and preparing to practice the time-tested techniques for making your mind one-pointed, you must clean up your act in the external world. That is why the scriptures place a greater emphasis on life-changing formulas of ethics and clean living than they do on technique-oriented psychological and spiritual formulas. For example, the meditative techniques that are designed to help your mind become one-pointed are helpful, but the practice of these techniques requires the mind to stay focused on one object. The mind, however, sees no reason to stay focused on your object of meditation. You force it to stay focused anyway, and so the mind meditates mechanically, which takes a heavy toll on the mind. That is why students often feel that meditation is just another chore.
If you have not transformed your worldview, and if you have not discovered non-material beauty and joy in the world, then your mind is bound to suffer from inner starvation. Famished, it will seek one object after another, one sense pleasure after another, thinking one thing is important today and dropping it for something else tomorrow. This is the reason for the mind’s listlessness. The mind is listless not because it wants to be but because you have given it no other choice.
Q: If I understand you correctly, you are saying that instead of attempting to restrain my mind, I should provide it with a healthy environment so that it can find what it is looking for with the least amount of distraction and disturbance. How can I create that environment?
A: Start with food. The greatest damage to the ecology of the body and mind is caused by the food we eat. In today’s world our food is loaded with sugar, salt, fat, and preservatives. We grab our meals from fast-food restaurants and consume them on the run. People rarely cook their meals at home; even when they do, the ingredients they use are canned or frozen or no longer vital and fresh. This may comply with FDA regulations, but it does not comply with the age-old requirements of the body, mind, and soul. If you doubt that poor-quality food has a negative effect on your body and mind, think back to the last time you attended a party and spent the evening eating hard-to-digest food long after the dinner hour. Remember how terrible you felt the next morning—how hard it was to get up and how sluggish you felt. Food that makes you feel like a zombie is not conducive to a focused mind—and most of the food in the mainstream American diet has zombie-creating effects. That is why adopting a healthy diet and eating at regular intervals is a crucial first step in working with your mind.
The next step in cultivating a one-pointed and peaceful mind is to make sure that you sleep well. Sleep is nature’s gift—it enables us to rest, relax, and renew ourselves on a daily basis. According to the ancient masters, sleeping too much and sleeping too little both disturb the normal functions of body and mind. Six hours of sleep a day is normal for a healthy person. If you cannot sleep deeply for six hours at a time, either your mind is suffering or you have some sort of chemical imbalance. Any conditions that disturb your sleep need to be addressed and corrected.
Finally, you need to establish a routine that supports the health of both body and mind. Form the habit of going to bed on time and waking up on time. When you do this, it is relatively easy to regulate your other activities. It is best to get up at least two hours before you need to leave for work and attend to the basic needs of your body and mind: cleanse your body inside and out, do some stretching and relaxation exercises, and have a nourishing breakfast. Routinely fulfilling these minimum requirements will go a long way toward creating an environment in which the mind can function with the least amount of distraction.
By the same token, bring your day to a close in a regular, peaceful manner. You can do this by taking thirty minutes for yourself before you go to bed. Wash your face, hands, and feet, then lie down and relax for fifteen minutes. Next spend five minutes doing a simple breath awareness practice and another five minutes meditating. If you have had formal training in systematic meditation, then follow that practice. Otherwise, meditate on the gentle, even flow of your breath while keeping your awareness at the space between your eyebrows. Then go to bed.
Q: Is it really that easy? I’m already doing most of what you advise, yet my mind still jumps all over the place. Focusing my mind and meditating on one object for more than a few minutes is a struggle.
A: The best method for expanding the mind’s capacity to focus on one object for a prolonged period of time is to practice a set of breathing exercises before meditation. Yoga manuals prescribe a number of breathing techniques for this purpose, but I will advise you to work with one in particular—nadi shodhanam, or channel purification. This practice purifies the pranic pathways, nourishing and detoxifying both body and mind, and provides a smooth transition from withdrawing your mind from worldly concerns to focusing on one object.
The mind is your best friend. Once it experiences the joy of the inward journey, it will have less reason to run here and there. The practice of nadi shodhanam is the gentlest way of opening the door to the inner journey.
As for your meditation practice itself, it is important to give the mind an object that is so peaceful and joyful that it will have no reason to search further. Different traditions and different teachers offer different advice on what this object should be. The tradition I belong to holds that a mantra is the most effective object of meditation. How you receive your mantra and the exact method of meditating on it is a subject for another day.