Making Your Mind Stop Moving (its not what you think)

One of the most rewarding, and sometimes neurosis-inducing, aspects of teaching is having your thought process on display. After a hearty pint of micro-brewed IPA, I enjoy spouting off on pretty much any subject and I do so with a full and happy heart. But once I am at the front of a classroom, well…time to slow down and be more careful. As a teacher more is demanded than just the ability to bullshit (although that can be useful as well.)

For example:

We are just about to explore the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali in Religious Studies 390 (a third year course on yoga traditions.) Now if you approach me on the street and say

“Hey Colin…you know the second line in the first chapter of the Yoga Sutras? The one that says ‘yogas chitta vrtti nirodhah?’ What do you think that means?”

First I would suggest that you at least buy me dinner before trying to get into the yoga philosophy sack with you. Then I would probably that is means “yoga is making thoughts stop moving,” because that is the standard translation. I believe Iyengars’ translation was “stilling the fluctuations of the mind.” Either of those would be fine.

But as I prepare for a lecture on the sutras, these translations, and the thought process that illuminates them, are on display. And I am not sure I like what I see.

There are so many questions. What exactly is this “mind” thing? For how long does it have to stop thinking? Can it start thinking again afterwards, or is it like that heart that beats continually until it stops forever? Are all thoughts fluctuations? Are there some thoughts that, as long as they are not moving, will not prevent us from experiencing yoga?

I cannot simply translate that sutra and move on. If the “mind” is that part of us that retains our sense of identity, I think my family would prefer I stop practicing yoga immediately in the event that my ego dissolves and I become as pure and clear as empty space – instead of a son, a husband, and a dad. According to this definition of yoga I would want some kind of guarantee that I would get my ego back when I’m done. Like a coat check for our sense of self.

I just hope nobody was digging through my coat pockets while I was dancing.

So I am going to have to keep on grinding this afternoon and see if I can come up with something better. In the meantime, I came across this poem from Swami Shankarananda that really got my wheels turning:

To catch the mind and keep it still,

Is no small problems for my porous will;

As many times as I shut it down,

Unceasing thoughts on me rebound

In youth I tried through alcohol,

To ease my stress and cool my gall;

In later years I turned to grass,

The effects were good but did not last.

At last with failing hopes I turned,

To Eastern paths, and my soul yearned

To scale the mystic heights of bliss.

Alas no easy message this

And now with age and turmoil weary,

All that’s left me is this query:

Will heart break or mind implode,

Before my vrttis do nirode.

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