The Bhagavadgita on the Stability of Mind
The human mind is the most amazing, powerful and complex creation of Nature. It gives us the ability to discern things, know ourselves and the world in which we live, and intelligently act and react to the problems and threats in our environment, so that we can adapt to them or change them to ensure our survival and Wellbeing. With our minds, we can fathom the mysteries of the world and the universe and make informed decisions. We may not always succeed in our effort or make right decisions, but we can always rise to the challenge and face unexpected situations, as many have done in the past on numerous occasions to improve their lives or move forward our civilization.
Mental instability as a Natural imperative
Although our minds are the highest expression of Nature in the mortal world, they are inherently unstable and subject to several modifications and afflictions. Hence, we cannot always rely upon them to find right solutions or think correctly. Many factors contribute to their instability. Unless they are neutralized we do not experience peace. The world itself is both the cause and the effect of the human mind. There is an inseparable connection between the two. It is difficult to say where one ends, and the other begins. We recreate the world in our minds according to our own desires, knowledge and expectations while we superimpose our minds upon the world to make sense of it. In other words, your mind is shaped by your perception of the world, while your perception of the world is in turn shaped by your mind. In both situations the mind experiences modifications or disturbances.
The instability of the human mind or its restlessness is not an aberration or an abnormality but a natural condition of the human personality. Indeed, it is an existential imperative to manage the complexity of our world and the problem of survival. It helps the mind efficiently process vast amounts of perceptual data and remain wakeful to the threats that are present in the environment. According to Hinduism, the instability of the mind is designed by Nature or Prakriti as part of its Maya to keep the beings deluded and distracted so that they remain outwardly focused with the distractions and attractions of the world and become oblivious of their spiritual nature.
Nature accomplishes its designs with the help of the triple Gunas (modes or tendencies) namely Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. Sattva drives beings to seek peace and happiness, Rajas drives them to engage in egoistic actions to seize and control things, while Tamas tends to induce inertia in them to make them slothful and ignorant. The three are responsible for desire-ridden actions in all beings, which lead to their suffering, rebirth and bondage in the mortal world.
Understanding the modifications of the mind and silencing them is the central feature of the Yoga tradition and Hindu spirituality. The ascetic traditions of Hinduism aim to stabilize the mind to experience self-realization. One may also notice that the entire discourse of Lord Krishna was in direct response to the problem of Arjuna’s disturbed state of mind and to prepare him spiritually for the impending war. In the following discussion, we focus upon the problem of the fickle nature of the mind and its resolution according to the Bhagavadgita.
The Bhagavadgita on the causes of mental instability
The Bhagavadgita recognizes suffering as the central problem of human life and traces it directly to the influences to which the mind is subject. It suggests that the movements of our senses among sense-objects are responsible for the disturbances of our minds. Their repeated contact with the sense-objects leads to attraction and aversion, which create desires and attachments, and which in turn influence our thoughts, emotions and actions. When we perform actions under their influence, we become subject to karma, which in turn leads to bondage and suffering. In other words, desires and craving are at the root of the problem. They keep our mind disturbed and distracted. Therefore, if we want to resolve the problem of mental instability and find peace and equanimity, we must first focus upon our desire-ridden actions and cultivate sameness. The Bhagavadgita identifies the following chief causes of the fickleness of the human mind.
1. Dualities of life: As stated before, attraction and aversion to the dualities or opposites of life lead to the conflicting states of happiness or unhappiness, pleasure or pain, and suffering or enjoyment. When we are caught in them, we experience emotional highs and lows and do not experience peace. Of them, the duality of the subject and the object is the most difficult to overcome.
2. Desires and attachment: Because of our limited abilities and egoism, we are subject to numerous desires. Whether they are fulfilled or not, desires have a tendency to keep the mind disturbed as you become caught between positive and negative emotions. Therefore, peace is rarely achieved by seeking things or fulfilling desires.
3. Impurities: The mortal world is an impure world since it is filled with the triple gunas and the influence of Maya. So is the case with our minds and bodies. Because of the impurities such as egoism, desires, ignorance and delusion we cannot truly discern things or make right decisions, whereby we make mistakes and subject ourselves to physical and mental suffering.
4. Karma: The consequences of desire-ridden actions result in karma, which is cumulative and continuous. The unexhausted karma of our past lives becomes carried forward to the current life and influences our thinking and actions. It is chiefly responsible for our inexplicable behavior, predominant desires and habitual thoughts, which keep the mind fickle and disturbed.
The Bhagavadgita on the problem of fickle mind
The Bhagavadgita recognizes the mind as one of the finite realities (tattvas) of Nature and part of the Field (Kshetra). It is the lord of the senses and the sixth sense. However, since it is directly connected to the senses, it remains deluded and disturbed and cannot focus upon anything for long. When the mind is disturbed, one cannot withdraw the senses from the external world or become disengaged from its numerous distractions.
According to the scripture, the mind is fickle by nature, like wind, candle light or water in motion. It is unstable because of the activity of the senses and the desires and attachments which they induce. An unstable mind is verily the cause of delusion, an enemy of the self (6.6), whereas a stable mind is the very seat of Supreme consciousness, the doorway to self-realization and a precondition for the attainment of immortality. A fickle minded person loses his discernment and falls into evil ways. He remains deluded and bound to the cycle of births and deaths.
The importance of stable mind and intelligence
One of the benefits of mental stability is clarity in thinking. When the mind is calm, it thinks clearly and lets the intelligence shine. Intelligence (buddhi) is important to thinking and discernment. It is the highest faculty of the mind. A yogi whose mind is stable and whose intelligence is sharp and focused is described in the Bhagavadgita as sthithaprajna (a person with established intelligence or reason). With it, one can clearly discern things, know the truth from falsehood, reality from delusion and escape from the confusion and delusion of Maya.
The Bhagavadgita declares that a person is said to be stable of mind when he renounces all desires and remains satisfied in the Self by the Self, remaining the same to all the dualities such as heat and cold, pleasure and pain, sorrow and happiness, friend and foe, success and failure, respect and disrespect, himself and others, and so on. He remains undisturbed and unmoved by the vagaries of the world or his own changing conditions.
From our own experience we know that we suffer mainly because of our likes and dislikes and our desire to have or not to have what we like or dislike. When things do not happen according to our expectations or when we find ourselves in adverse situations, we experience negative emotions and suffering. A person of discerning intelligence knows that he cannot control the world (adhibhautika) or the acts of God (adhidaivika) but he can control himself and his inner world (adhyatmika) through self-discipline and experience peace.
Achieving mental stability
The truth is we have little control over the world and things that are external to us. We cannot control the world, but we can control our inner world, thoughts, reactions, attitude, feelings and emotions. We can learn to control our desires and our emotional reactions and responses to the happenings and circumstances in our lives. We can change our perspective and how we interpret our experiences and perceptions. Most importantly, with effort we can cultivate detachment and not respond to any situation at all.
The Bhagavadgita points to the same approach. It suggests that the mind can be controlled through "abhyas" (practice) and vairagya (dispassion), by withdrawing the senses from the sense-objects the way a tortoise withdraws its limbs, overcoming desires through detachment from the sense objects, living in solitude, free from possessiveness, and by fixing our minds constantly upon God. In other words, a change in the orientation and direction of the mind, from the outward obsession with worldly things to the inward focus upon the hidden truth, and from objectivity to subjectivity.
However, they are not the only means to reorient the mind. Through physical and mental purity, devotion, concentration, desireless actions, renunciation of the fruit of actions, living in solitude, accepting life as it unfolds, complete surrender and living life as a sacrifice one can rein the mind and stabilize it in the contemplation of the Self. Moderation in thinking and action is another important practice suggested by it (6.16). The mind becomes stable when one realizes how the gunas delude beings and transcends them (14.23-25).
Methods to restrain the mind
The following are the important methods which are suggested by the scripture to deal with the impurities of the mind and stabilize it in the Self (Atma) through controlled concentration (samyama) which lead to oneness.
- Restraining the mind and the senses through self-discipline
- Overcoming desires by cultivating contentment
- Practicing detachment and dispassion
- Renouncing the desire for the fruit of one’s actions
- Cultivating sattva or purity
- Practicing discernment so that one can overcome delusion
- The pursuit of the knowledge of liberation through learning and study
- Performing selfless actions as an offering to God
- Devotional and contemplative practices which lead to equanimity and self-absorption
- Cultivating sameness to the pairs of opposites
These practices cleanse the mind and intelligence and stabilize them in the Self. A stable mind is the foundation of liberation. Through renunciation and detachment and engaging in selfless actions as an offering to God, one can cross the ocean of mortal life on the raft of devotion with the mind constantly engaged in the contemplation of God or Self.
The practice is arduous, but even a little effort in the right direction has its beneficent effect since there is no loss on the path. If a devotee stumbles and fails to achieve liberation, he may still hope to continue on the path in the next life and begin from where he left. However, it is important not to fall into evil ways or commit grave sins through self-destructive actions. One should remain a friend of the Self and not become its enemy. Lord Krishna says that sinful souls who succumb to demonic qualities will be cast into the darkest hells and sinful wombs, from where their chances of recovery are very slow.
The state of stable mind (sthitha-prajna)
The scripture describes the positive outcomes of the various yogas which lead to mental stability. With mental stability comes undisturbed peace and unending calm. All sorrows cease to bother the person of stable intelligence as he does not crave for anything, nor does he complain about anything. With discretion he makes right choices and guides his life to liberation, without falling into the trap of the senses or the dualities of life.
Cultivating sameness towards the pairs of opposites and overcoming attraction and aversion, he remains satisfied with whatever that happens to him by the will of God (yaddruchcha labha samtushta) and goes through all experiences with the same attitude. With discernment and detachment, he becomes immune to the play of Prakriti, knowing that desire-ridden actions are caused by the gunas and he is not the one who is causing them.
Having restrained his mind and body and having conquered desires and attachments with discerning intelligence, he goes beyond the sense of duality (dwandatitha) and overcomes jealousy, anger, egoism and such other evils. By cultivating higher knowledge through self-purification, selfless actions, devotional services and contemplative practices, he lifts the veil of illusion covering his mind and sees the beauty and splendor of his true Self which is hidden deep within himself. He goes beyond objectivity and mental modifications to become absorbed in the Infinite Consciousness and sees himself in all and all in himself. For that person there is no rebirth and no suffering. He sees the world as his own extension. Upon his death, he travels by the path of the Sun to the highest world of Brahman, from where he never returns.
Mental peace in today’s world
The Bhagavadgita in its current form was composed at least two or three thousand years ago. However, its message is still relevant. Simple common sense tells that we are disturbed by our own desires and expectations. When we become attached to things, we become possessive and develop fear, anxiety at the thought of losing them. Such feelings intensify when we have little on faith in ourselves or in God. With right knowledge and intelligence and by learning to let go of things, we can gain some control over our craving and unstable minds.
The present-day world is predominantly materialistic and distractive. We are now being connected to the world in more ways than ever before. There is hardly any secluded place in the world where you can remain free from worldliness, danger and distractions or live in spiritual isolation. It is difficult to practise yoga and austerities with so much noise around you. The world has now encroached upon every aspect of your life and consciousness. It is difficult to stay free from the thoughts of it.
With advances in our worldly knowledge, nowadays you require a greater mental and spiritual effort to keep yourself free from the distracting and disturbing influences of the contemporary world. Attention Deficit Disorder is a major problem among many children. To be competitive and successful or to secure their livelihood, people need to keep pace with the constantly changing world and adapt themselves to the new trends and challenges it churns out.
More people nowadays suffer from stress and anxiety disorder than ever before. According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, approximately “40 million American adults suffer from anxiety disorders. Only about one-third of those suffering from an anxiety disorder receive treatment, even though the disorders are highly treatable.” According to a study commissioned by it, every year, anxiety disorders cost the U.S. more than $42 billion, which is almost one-third of the country's $148 billion total mental health bill. Mental disorders are not just America's problem. The problem is acute in all the countries, wherever people are. It is probably more acute in the developing or less developed world because of the competition and desperate conditions in which people live. Living in such a world, it is difficult for anyone to experience peace or happiness.
However, one cannot ignore the importance of mental health or the need for peace and equanimity. It becomes even more important in today’s world, where we are overwhelmed with the distracting influences of Rajas and Tamas. It is necessary to make it a lifetime priority to live a healthy life and cultivate peace, awareness and discernment. Irrespective of the circumstances, one should make an effort through spirituality or other means to gain control over their minds and inculcate right mental habits.
Your mind and body are within the sphere of your influence. They are your projections into the world. When you gain control over them, you have better chances of controlling and molding your environment and the circumstances in your life. The Bhagavadgita offers many solutions to achieve it, without incurring sinful karma or neglecting your duties. By knowing them and practising them, you can experience peace and solace even amidst difficulties.
Suggestions for Further Reading
- The Sense Organs And Their Role In Our Suffering And Delusion
- The Yoga of Sorrow, How Change and Suffering Can Effect Our Lives
- Suffering from a Hindu Perspective
- Chitta - The Mind Stuff
- Essays on Mental Peace
- The Buddha on God
- Bring Concentration Into Your Daily Life Right Now and Right Here
- The Samkhya Philosophy and 24 Principles of Creation
- The Bhagavadgita On The Problem Of Sorrow
- The Concept of Atman or Eternal Soul in Hinduism
- The Practice of Atma Yoga Or The Yoga Of Self
- The Problem of Maya Or Illusion and How To Deal With It
- Belief In Atman, The Eternal Soul Or The Inner Self
- Brahman, The Highest God Of Hinduism
- The Bhagavad Gita Original Translations
- The Bhagavadgita, Philosophy and Concepts
- Bhakti yoga or the Yoga of Devotion
- Hinduism And The Evolution of Life And Consciousness
- Why to Study the Bhagavadgita Parts 1 to 4
- The Triple Gunas, Sattva, Rajas and Tamas
- The Practice of Tantra and Tantric Ritual in Hinduism and Buddhism
- The Tradition Of Gurus and Gurukulas in Hinduism
- Origin, Definition and Introduction to Hinduism
- Hinduism, Way of Life, Beliefs and Practices
- A Summary of the Bhagavadgita
- Avatar, the Reincarnation of God Upon Earth
- The Bhagavadgita on Karma, the Law of Actions
- The Mandukya Upanishad
- The Bhagavadgita On The Mind And Its Control
- Symbolic Significance of Numbers in Hinduism
- The Belief of Reincarnation of Soul in Hinduism
- The True Meaning Of Renunciation According To Hinduism
- The Symbolic Significance of Puja Or Worship In Hinduism
- Introduction to the Upanishads of Hinduism
- Origin, Principles, Practice and Types of Yoga
- Hinduism and the Belief in one God