From restless thoughts, that, like a deadly swarm
Of hornets arm'd, no sooner found alone,
But rush upon me thronging.
The mind is a right slippery little sucker, elusive and complex, and fiendishly difficult to grapple with! Consider the photo below; a large bird’s nest which I found at our clean up Australia day event earlier this year. This nest fascinated me. It’s made of an incredible combination of wire, lots of plastic bits and bobs, and a variety of natural materials. My first reaction on looking at it was “How fantastic! Birds are incorporating and making something useful out of our rubbish”. But it’s not that simple, as when including unforgiving items like wire in the construction, the birds run the very real risk of deadly self-harm through simple accidents, e.g., the wire gets caught around a leg and tightens…
Recently whilst sitting and contemplating the nature of my mind this image popped up. I was struck by how my mind feels a bit like this nest! A messy, crazed combo of organic and hard wired strands of thought and activity, all interwoven into a complex web of ideas, desires, habits... Try and separate out a single piece of mental rubbish and the nest tightens. The more I peck and pull with my clumsy beak, the tighter the weave becomes.
The forceps of our minds are clumsy things and crush the truth a little in the course of taking hold of it. ~ H.G. Wells
And yet, like holding the nest in the photo, I am separate to my mind and part of me can observe the complexity of its workings at arm’s length. I have been bamboozled and challenged for a few years now with questions about how to work with my mind. Meditation and yogic instruction advises that yes, there is much work to be done, but also no work to be done! A paradox! How do you sit and observe with clarity and focus without pulling too tightly? Too much effort produces another layer of constructed and obscuring mental activity. Too little effort and you remain lost in the darkness of unconscious habit.
Your goal is not to battle with the mind, but to witness the mind. ~Swami Muktananda
In the Yoga Sutras, Pantanjali outlines the 8 limbs of yoga, (8 steps towards liberation/enlightenment), which suggest a progressive pathway for the yoga student to follow. The first four limbs, (1 & 2 - the ethical codes of right action towards external world and self. 3 & 4 - the practice of asana and pranayama), prepare the body, mind and breath to be able to sit comfortably and begin observing the mind. Each of the 8 limb steps prepares us for the next step; they become more and more subtle, and deepen and develop our awareness.
The fifth limb is withdrawing the senses, (pratyahara). Pratyahara is the act of consciously letting go of the external world and stimuli to observe what’s happening inside. This process helps us to step back from our habitual modus operandi and objectively witness the workings and reactions of our mind.
The next step is Dharana, developing mental concentration by focusing on one thing. Examples of dharana are chanting ohm, or focussing on the sensations of the breath, or looking into a candle flame. The practice of Dharana flexes and strengthens our mental focus muscles.
Then comes Dhyana, a natural, uninterrupted flow of concentration. This is the point in the process where your concentration muscles are strong enough to allow you to sit with full open awareness without needing to actively hold your attention on a single point of focus.
Muddy water, let stand, becomes clear ~ Lao-tzu
These steps sound simple and straightforward but in reality they take much effort, loving discipline and stamina! Moving beyond striving for achievement and expecting results is challenging. The mind protests loudly, and the act of sitting can be dull and at times excruciating. You may find yourself thinking, “IT’S BORING… IT HURTS…. Where is the promised Nirvana?... ARE WE THERE YET?” Or perhaps, “What is the POINT?” I am learning that this is where appropriate effort comes in; gentle, loving discipline and effort that allows you to be present, relax and do less. Putting down the clumsy, ineffective tools and having the faith that you already have whatever you need. There is no rush, nothing to achieve and no destination. The art is in the doing. The intelligence is in the attention, intention and experience of the inquiry:
What is the nature of my mind? What is my truth?