Neither foolish acceptance nor rigid rejection of mind's demands will help in controlling the mind
In our daily life, we are often misled by the mind. Under its spell, we do things that we regret later. When its schemes get us into trouble repeatedly, we may start hating it, as if it were an incorrigible enemy. We need to treat the mind as a horse to be trained, not as an enemy to be hated.
Unscriptural and Unworkable
Admittedly, the problem of hating the mind is far less common than the problem of believing it naively. But just as dualities characterize almost everything in the material world – heat-cold, pleasure-pain, honor-dishonor – so too can they characterize our attitude towards our mind. We can oscillate from attachment that manifests as unhealthy trust in the mind to aversion that manifests as unhealthy loathing of the mind. However, such loathing is unscriptural and unworkable.
Unscriptural: Scripture does often call the mind an enemy. But it also calls it a friend, with both addresses sometimes occurring in the same verse, as in the Bhagavad-gita (6.5). Acknowledging that the mind can be our friend as well as our enemy, the verse urges us to elevate, not degrade, ourselves with it. Evidently, this verse doesn’t convict the mind as an enemy; instead, it asks us to deal with it carefully, by staying aware of its binary potential for amiability and hostility. And this is the overall scriptural attitude towards the mind – handle with caution.
Unworkable: Hatred for the mind is unworkable because we need the mind. Whatever we do, we do it with the mind and through the mind – the mind is the central and indispensable link between us souls and our physical bodies. No matter how much we hate the mind, we can’t get rid of it.
Suppose a woodcutter hates his axe for whatever reason, maybe because it is blunt. But if he has no other axe and has no chance of getting one, his hatred of that axe does nothing except waste his time and thought. After all his hand-wringing, fist-shaking and foot-stamping, he will have to pick up that very axe and use it. Similarly, no matter how much we hate the mind, eventually we have to work with it – we can never get another mind. Our hatred of it does nothing except waste our time and thought.
Not hating the mind doesn’t at all imply that we naively embrace it, for that will open us to becoming disastrously deluded by it; it implies only that we can’t adopt with the mind any of the standard strategies adopted with a hated enemy: incarceration, expulsion or execution. We have to live and work lifelong with the mind. So, we certainly need to be on our guard while dealing with it.
Watchful, not Hateful
The best attitude for dealing with the mind can be phrased as watchful-not-hateful. We can see such an attitude at work in the breaking of a horse. In this usage, breaking refers not to physically breaking the bones of a horse, but to emotionally breaking it, that is, breaking its obstinacy so that it learns to obey its human masters. An unbroken horse, be it a wild horse recently captured or a young horse unacquainted with human beings, is hardly ever ready to be ridden. If someone somehow manages to climb on it, it often tries to toss off, even trample, its rider.
The uncontrolled mind is like an unbroken horse. The Gita (6.34) states that the mind is restless (cancala), turbulent (pramathi), powerful (balavad) and obstinate (datham) – a fearsome combination indeed. The mind is not at all ready to assist us in executing our plans. To the contrary, it resists our plans, akin to a horse that refuses to be ridden. Worse still, it sometimes impels us to act out its shortsighted schemes for instant gratification, schemes that often trample the values we hold sacred.
To break a wild horse, expert horse trainers adopt a patient and persistent regimen of reward and punishment. Put simply, this regimen centers on giving the horse food and affection when it acts cooperatively, and giving it starvation and discipline when it acts recalcitrantly. When subject to such a regimen, the horse slowly but surely comes around till it becomes an aide of the rider.
For dealing with the mind, the Gita (6.35) recommends that we adopt a similar regimen of practice and detachment. Practice centers on fostering good thoughts in the mind and detachment centers on distancing ourselves from its spells of bad thoughts. The practice for training the mind can be said to have two aspects – practice in fixing it on positive things and practice in dragging it back whenever it wanders off to negative things. And detachment too can be said to have two aspects: not getting attached to the mind’s schemes when it proposes them; and not being attached to the expectation of an immediate change in the mind, but being willing to work with its present capacity while striving for gradual improvements in that capacity.
A Power Greater than the Mind’s
Often horse-shoppers buy a horse that has already been broken or pay some horse expert to break it for them. Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury with regards to our mind. No one else can train it for us. No doubt, we need the guidance of an expert spiritual master – without it, we would have little, if any, hope of success in training the mind. But even with the spiritual master’s guidance, the onus for training it is on us.
Thankfully though, we have, by the spiritual master’s mercy, access to a power far greater than that of the mind – the supreme power of God, Krishna . The Gita (6.47) declares that the topmost yogis fix their mind on Krishna . Some easy ways to fix our mind on him are chanting his holy names, studying his message, worshiping his Deity, praying to him and sharing his message with others. By thus engaging sincerely in his devotional service, we attract his mercy. That mercy gives us the intelligence and the willpower necessary for training the mind and thereby leading a principled, purposeful life. No wonder the Gita repeatedly (2.61, 7.14, 8.7, 9.34, 10.9, 18.58, 18.65) urges us to fix our mind on Krishna .
An untrained horse can endanger its rider, but the same horse when trained can rescue the rider from danger. During wartime, well-trained horses have been known to carry wounded riders to safety. Similarly, the untrained mind is a danger for us, but when trained it can protect us from danger. If by training it in bhakti-yoga we can make our mind attached to Krishna , as the Gita (7.1) urges, then whenever we encounter dangerous temptations, our mind will prompt us to flee from there, and seek shelter and pleasure in Krishna . Thus, we will realize the Gita’s assertion (6.6) that the mind can be our friend.
Even now, we can glimpse the mind’s potential for friendship. When we work according to our material abilities, our mind often gives us good ideas for tapping those abilities more effectively and thus improving our performance. And whatever aspects of devotional service we feel attracted to, the mind often prompts us to do those activities more and better. By fanning such constructive tendencies of the mind, we can mold it into our friend. And by recollecting these occasional occasions, we can avoid slipping into hatred of the mind when it reverts to its presently default mode of distracting us.
Thus, by being aware of both the mind’s present hostility and its potential for amicability, we can train it with the balanced attitude of being watchful-not-hateful.
Caitanya Carana Dasa is the associate-editor of Back to Godhead (US and Indian editions). To read his daily Bhagavad-gita reflections, please subscribe to Gitadaily on his website, the spiritualscientist.com.