Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Self, the senses, and the mind

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

In the introduction to his famous Light on Yoga, Sri B. K. S. Iyengar quotes a passage from the sacred Vedic Upanishad Katha Upanishad, or Kathopanishad, regarding what Sri Iyengar calls the well co-ordinated functioning of "body, senses, mind, reason and Self" (30).

The passage he quotes from that Upanishad comes from the third chapter of Part I, beginning in the third verse -- you can read the entire Kathopanishad online here in an English translation, and find the passage in question beginning on page nine of fifteen in that file (the page itself bears the page number "7" at the bottom of the image of the page). There, we read:
3 Know the atman to be the master of the chariot; the body, chariot; the intellect, the charioteer; and the mind, the reins.
4 The senses, they say, are the horses; the objects, the roads. The wise call the atman -- united with the body, the sense and the mind -- the enjoyer.
5 If the buddhi, being related to a mind that is always distracted, loses its discriminations, then the senses become uncontrolled, like the vicious horses of a charioteer.
6 But if the buddhi, being related to a mind that is always restrained, possesses discrimination, then the senses come under control, like the good horses of a charioteer.
In the translation found in Light on Yoga (also given below for comparison), the first mention of Atman is capitalized, and next to Atman in parenthesis the text gives as a "gloss" or synonym the capitalized word: "Self."

Clearly, in this passage, there is a clear distinction being made between "body, sense, and mind" and "the atman -- the enjoyer" (or the Self) which is somehow separate not just from body and senses (which is fairly easy to understand) but also from "mind" -- which is a lot less intuitive.

We don't have much difficulty making a distinction between our "Self" and our body or our senses. However, we are usually accustomed to thinking about "ourselves" as being identical or co-equal with our mind. For example, someone might say they appreciate a man or a woman not for his or her physical beauty or for his or her body, but rather for his or her mind -- meaning, we usually think, who they really are, who they are inside

Why is this passage apparently making a distinction between our mind and the Self? Is this passage from the Vedas teaching us that our true Self is somehow distinct from our mind as well as from our body and our senses?

The distinction is even more evident in the English version of the same passage given in the introduction to Light on Yoga:
Know the Atman (Self) as the Lord in a chariot, reason as the charioteer and mind as the reins. The senses, they say, are the horses, and their objects of desire are the pastures. The Self, when united with the senses and the mind, the wise call the Enjoyer (Bhoktr). The undiscriminating can never rein in his mind; his senses are like the vicious horses of a charioteer. The discriminating ever controls his mind; his senses are like disciplined horses. 30.
How can we understand that we are not the same as our mind? Or, to put it another way, if we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as co-existent with our "mind," then what definition of "mind" are the above ancient scriptures using, since they obviously are not using the word "mind" to mean our True Self?

Obviously, what they are calling "mind" is something from which the Self stands apart -- like a charioteer. The mind is compared to the reins, which the Self uses to control the horses, which themselves are connected to the senses. The mind somehow makes all the difference between being carried away by the power of the senses, and guiding the senses "like disciplined horses."

Recently, I saw a video of a talk given by clinical psychologist and author Dr. Darrah Westrup at the mindbodygreen "Revitalize 2015" conference, in which she discusses another metaphor that (to me) sheds a lot of light on this distinction between the Self and the mind which we see operating in the ancient Vedic scriptures.

Dr. Westrup's talk can be found as the last talk in the segment from "Friday Morning Session One" and it begins at approximately 1:03:00 on that video segment (embedded below):

In the beginning of her interview, which has been titled "Why Stress is a Healthy Part of a Meaningful Life," Dr. Westrup makes a very interesting comment in response to a question about "dealing with stress."

At about the 1:05:30 mark in the video, when asked about the source of stress and suffering, she identifies a culprit we might not have expected, when she says: "It turns out that our ability to develop and use language is a key player in this."

Interviewer and mindbodygreen CEO Jason Wachob then asks, "Like, just poor communication?"

But that's not what she is pointing towards at all: Dr. Westrup clarifies, "No -- just language itself."

It turns out, she says, that while language has tremendous benefits, it is also directly related to what the Kathopanishad calls "mind," and it can and does threaten to "run away with us" like the "vicious horses" described in the metaphor above.

With language, we are able to analyze, criticize, evaluate, and project. We can speculate about the future, and we can brood about the past. In fact, long before the invention of "computers" and "virtual space," we could create our own "virtual worlds" with language, in which we can test out ideas or think about future and past events and analyze them from every angle in a "virtual space," in much the same way that a modern aircraft design team might "construct" a jet airplane inside of a virtual "computer-modeled" space, in order to test out its strengths and weaknesses before the actual airplane is ever built in the physical world.

This ability to analyze actions and events from every different angle inside of the "virtual reality" of language, Dr. Westrup says, is an incredibly powerful and potentially beneficial ability and this aspect of language itself must be appreciated in order to understand how it can also lead us astray.

With our internalization of language itself, Dr. Westrup says, which she calls a sort of "verbal virtual reality," we create the virtual-world concepts of "future" and "past," neither of which actually exists in the present. And, while this ability is something we cannot actually get rid of (nor would we want to, she says), it is also the cause of stress and suffering. She says:
All those concepts -- all those concepts -- I'm inadequate, I'm too fat, I should've, if only -- those are all language-based. As far as we know, only humans have the ability to create constructs like that with words -- and then we carry them around -- and it causes a huge amount of suffering. We get ideas about what we should and shouldn't be experiencing; what is and isn't OK.
Again, Dr. Westrup never says that this ability to create such verbal mental constructs is not a good ability: it is vital and necessary to our lives in a myriad of different ways.

Some examples I might offer would be that through language, we can ask ourselves (about the future), "Should I go to that event this weekend, or should I work on the other project that I've been meaning to finish?"

We can ask ourselves (about the past), "Did I turn off the stove burner in the house when I left an hour ago?"

These can be helpful and useful and appropriate things to run through our minds -- as long as they don't get out of control.

But, as Dr. Westrup explains beginning at about the 1:08:00 mark, that is exactly what tends to happen, and why this incredible ability to create "verbal virtual reality" can become a problem, if not understood. And it is here that she offers a metaphor which may shed light on the passage from the Kathopanishad quoted earlier, and the distinction between Self and mind.

In response to a question from interviewer Jason Wachob about how we can "deal with stressful situations," Dr. Westrup says:
In my book, Advanced ACT, I talk about this metaphor called "the over-eager assistant." So this is the idea of that assistant that's really, really trying to help -- so we all probably may have encountered an assistant like this -- always in there, full of ideas, full of suggestions, commentary -- and, you know, a lot of times just not that helpful. And I think of my mind like that: my mind is on overdrive right now, for instance. She's -- my assistant -- is handing me commentary, writing little post-it notes, weighing in, telling me how I'm doing, grading, all of that, OK? And struggling with that assistant is not going to do -- it's not going to make her go away. I can't get her to stop -- she's not going anywhere. But what I can do is understand that she's doing her job. My mind in a stressful moment is doing what our minds are supposed to be doing, means well. And so understanding that, kind of allowing that to be there, it's kind of like, "Yeah, I know you mean well," but that allows me to be in this moment, vital and engaged here -- I'm not trying to get that to go away."
In this metaphor -- of the mind as the over-eager office assistant -- we can suddenly begin (I believe) to understand what the ancient Vedic scriptures mean when they describe Self as being separate not only from the body and the senses, but also from the mind as well (in her book on page 213, she also notes that she attributes this metaphor to a fellow ACT practitioner, Jeremy Goldberg).

In this metaphor, she explains, what she is referring to as "mind" is not the same as "who we are" but rather mind is there to serve us, and it does the best it can, but in many situations the observations or suggestions that come from this eager assistant are "just not that helpful."

We might think of a character from the long-running television comedy The Office, in which the character who may in fact resemble the above description of "mind" might be Michael Scott himself: usually well-meaning, but often not that helpful, and in many cases making the situation worse with his constant desire to give suggestions, commentary, and analysis -- even when his "help" is not needed.

You may prefer to think of another character from film or literature (or from The Office) who better exemplifies to you this concept of the "over-eager assistant," but Michael Scott may in fact be the perfect example, because Dr. Westrup has identified mind with the facility of language, and with the ability to create "verbal virtual reality" through language itself -- something that actually characterizes Michael Scott in The Office to an extraordinary degree.

And yet, as well-meaning as Michael Scott is, and as funny he can be, we really don't want to let him "run the office" completely unchecked -- and that is why Dr. Westrup explains that we have to cultivate the ability to sort of "stand apart from" the constant chatter of the mind, and analyze what it is doing and saying and suggesting, without letting it take things in whatever direction it wants to take them.

Towards the end of her discussion, in response to a question about what we should not do when we find ourselves in a stressful situation, Dr. Westrup suggests that one should not:
Really buy everything your mind tells you about it, which is, "This is not OK," "I can't tolerate this," "This means my life isn't working," "I'm never going to figure it out." Notice I'm not telling you not to have those thoughts -- good luck! But rather, when they show up, that doesn't mean that they're True with a capital T.
And this brings us back to the distinction that the passage from the Upanishad cited above is trying to articulate, between the True Self or Atman and the body, senses, and mind. It stands to reason that if mind is somehow related to the construct of language, and that its greatest strength (and greatest weakness) is its ability to create "virtual worlds" or "virtual realities" in which it can analyze, critique, judge, describe, compare, and contrast, then the higher Self, the True Self, the Atman must somehow exist beyond all of that.

It stands to reason, in other words, that the True Self is not constructed of language, or of modifiers and descriptors and adjectives and judgements and labels.

And this is exactly how Sri B. K. S. Iyengar -- and the sacred Vedas and other texts in the same tradition -- describe the transcendence of the mind and the achievement of samadhi. At the end of the introductory section, Sri Iyengar writes that in this state:
The mind cannot find words to describe the state and the tongue fails to utter them. Comparing the experience of samadhi with other experiences, the sages say: 'Neti! Neti!' -- 'It is not this! It is not this!' The state can only be expressed by profound silence. The yogi has departed from the material world and is merged in the Eternal. There is then no duality between the knower and the known for they are merged like camphor and the flame. 52.
Note the important observation that the state of samadhi is characterized by the complete absence of description, of modification by language: it can only be said that it is "Neti! Neti!" -- it is not whatever one wants to compare it to or describe it as.

It should be apparent that this is identical to the famous opening lines of the Tao Te Ching (at least as traditionally arranged for the past 1000 years) in which it is said of the Tao or the Way that
The ways that can be walked are not the eternal Way;
The names that can be named are not the eternal name. 
Translation by Victor H. Mair, p59.

The actual Tao is beyond description -- as soon as it is "named," we know that we are not actually dealing with "the eternal name." The very concept of "the Eternal" (which is mentioned in the Sri Iyengar quotation immediately above as well) means in a state which is still pure possibility, all possibility, containing all options, and thus not manifested in one form or another, and thus not able to be "pinned down" or labeled.

We might note that the divine name in the Biblical scriptures implies the same rejection of modification or description, the same Eternal potentiality and Eternal present (past and future being constructs of language, as we have just seen). For more on this subject, see the previous post entitled "PTAH, JAH, TAO, and BUDDHA," as well as some of the discussion of the Dream of Solomon in 1 Kings chapter 3 towards the end of the video entitled "The Blessing Mother, The Cursing Mother, The Dream, and The King."

To evoke the same ineffable concept, Sri Iyengar quotes the Song of Sankaracharya, the Atma Shatkam or Song of the Soul (Sankaracharya, pictured above, is also known as Adi Shankara and his song is also known as Nirvanashatkam):
I cannot be heard nor cast into words, nor by smell nor sight ever caught [. . .]
I have no speech [. . .]
Neither knowable, knowledge, nor knower am I, formless is my form,
I dwell within the senses but they are not my home;
Ever serenely balanced, I am neither free nor bound --
Consciousness and joy am I, and Bliss is where I am found. 53.

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

Note that in the image above showing a shrine to Adi Shankara, the statue of Shankaracharya in its alcove is flanked on either side by twin female deities, each of whom is carrying a torch in her inside hand, pointed downwards.* This quite clearly links to the concepts discussed in the previous post entitled Isis and Nephthys: March Equinox 2015, as well as to equinox-and-torch symbology discussed here. Thus Adi Shankara and his message can be clearly linked to the central "Djed-column raised up" which is also depicted in between the equinoxes (and which is associated with the vertical column connecting winter and summer solstices), and all that it represents.

* Later note: Special additional thanks to correspondent Ramakrishnan T., who points out that these figures are known as Dwarapalakas, are found throughout India, are almost exclusively male, and are carrying a mace and not a torch! However, what is very interesting to me is that, while he is certainly correct, these figures do sometimes appear to have characteristics that are slightly androgynous, but even more interesting is that they often have their legs crossed in a very distinctive manner reminiscent of the equinoctial figures (who are also male) discussed in the link included in the above paragraph at the word here. And, there is also no doubt that the mace seen in the Dwarapalaka symbology is similar in form to the torch found in the symbology further west, raising interesting questions about possible common origin or cultural diffusion on this particular symbol.

Thank you to Dr. Darrah Westrup and Jason Wachob for sharing their helpful discussion of this extremely important subject!