YSP1.5 vrittayah pancatayah klishta aklishta
There are five activities of the mind. Each of them can be beneficial and each can cause problems.
It’s an interesting week to be writing on the function of the mind – especially since mine has been hither and yon for most of the week. Yesterday was the story of a dozen attempts to sit and write this column but the mind was uncooperative in that endeavour. I was in the past, I was in the future, I was caught in cycles of despair and agitation.
The morning started all right. I woke up early and sat down with coffee in hand for my daily check on the events of the greater world. I stumbled up two nationally reported incidents in the US of young men (one 18, one 13) who committed suicide after having being tormented for being gay. The stories (here and then here) are sickening, heart-breaking.
There’s no need to be smug about this being some strictly American phenomenon. Thirty years ago, I was a freshman at a Canadian university. One of the guys I hung out with was a bright, talented, funny, sensitive, warm, enthusiastic young man. His name was Kevin and I really liked him. He was quick to smile and quicker with a joke. He played with words like a carnival busker spinning plates. I admired him greatly and he was my friend. Later in our sophomore year, he killed himself because he couldn’t deal with the ‘shame’ of being a gay man. I was devastated then and from my reactions yesterday, I’m still haunted by his death. My mind kept coming back to the echoing thought: Have we learned nothing in the last 30 years?
Today I feel a little better. I’m not so caught in the raw turbulence of yesterday’s emotions. Today, I’ve got a little more distance over what I read and what it brought forth in me. I’m able to be a little more analytical about my process.
In the next few weeks in this column, I will be examining what Patanjali had to say about the functioning of the mind and this week’s aphorism is that there are five classifications of mental function which can either lead us away from suffering or can lead us deeper into our suffering. Yesterday, I was caught in the clenches of two of them: imagination and memory. I could imagine the sense of humiliation and shame that a person might encounter that would push them to the despair of suicide. I could imagine the pain of parents and family members of hearing the news of their child’s death. Of all the jobs a police officer is called up to do, the worst has to be notifying parents of their child’s death. Every time I’ve been called upon to use my expertise in searching police data banks for information on where to locate a next of kin, my heart and stomach always tightens a bit. It always brings home the impermanence that Life offers and how our sense of happiness in the world can be stripped from us, literally in a heart-beat.
Yesterday, my mind kept moving from one moment of carnage to another, a veritable roll-call of human suffering and misery. I remembered the calls I took from parents who had just discovered their child’s body. I could hear the strangled panic in a woman’s voice as she explained to me that her son had just found his room-mate hanging in the closet and no, she couldn’t remember the address. And it went on and on and on. Flash, flash, flash of memory and emotion.
Imagination and memory, both powerful functions of my mind, kept me in a place of great unhappiness and misery. Yoga teachers frequently employ the metaphor of a river when they are discussing these sections of the Sutras. The mind is likened to a river that flows constantly and cannot be stopped. The only real control we have is how we steer our raft on it. We can move towards the bank marked suffering or towards the bank marked liberation. Yesterday, I was clearly navigating the realms of suffering.
One of the things I love about yoga as a philosophy is that it is grounded in reality. There is nothing in yoga philosophy that encourages me repress my emotions or pretend that the hurt and suffering are some kind of illusion. The death of the two young men in the US is real. Kevin is really dead, has been for over half my life and nothing will change those facts.
What yoga does for me is help me recognize what it is that I’m adding to that reality. I felt sorrow and I felt anger but I intensified the suffering of both through the use of my mind. My mind kept returning to the ‘scene of the crime’ and as I poured more imagination and more memory into the mix, my suffering increased. In fact, yoga allows me to slow down the nature of my thoughts and to recognize some of the processes at work.
The news of recent deaths of the two young Americans is peripheral to my life. I’m aware of how I could hijack the news of their tragedies to cover up the bucket of unresolved emotions I still have around Kevin’s suicide in particular and the overall category of ‘suicide’ in general. I don’t know these young men and it would be wrong of me to co-opt the grief their loved ones feel today to avoid dealing with unresolved feelings in me that are three decades old.
Today I listened to a ‘dharma talk’ given by Martine Bachelor. She discussed meditation upon the breath as a profound and always accessible entry point for us to cultivate what she called ‘creative awareness’. Meditation, that single pointed concentration of the mind, is a means for me to build awareness of the present moment. It helps me distinguish between what is and what is the product of my own fears and projections. It is a means for understanding my experiences. This experiential inquiry allows me to work from a certain sense of clarity. Instead of getting caught up in the whirling cauldron of memory, thought, expectation, imagination and sensation, I’m able to separate the elements of yesterday’s anguish. Once broken down, I find them easier to manage. The process has also made me aware of issues that have been buried in the subconscious mind for decades. I didn’t realize how many things I’d repressed around Kevin’s death at the time but now that I’m aware of them, I can chose to deal with them in a more organized manner.
The river of mind continues to flow. My choice at this point is: which bank will I direct myself towards? I can use my mind to increase my suffering or I can use my mind to alleviate my suffering. That I now have a choice is the gift of yoga.
Thanks for reading and Namaste,
A general note: I write this blog to help me integrate the philosophical teachings of Yoga into my daily life. I’m not an expert on Sanskrit, Yoga or Life in general. My teacher Kathryn Downton provided an important part of my education in these matters but I read voraciously on these topics. I’ll credit her for the parts that I get right and I’ll own the parts I mess up. I try to acknowledge my sources where I can but frankly, I haven’t kept good notes over the years. These discussions are my perspective and not an intellectual treatise on the nature of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. This is exploration and not explanation.