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Resetting the Mind

4. Practice on the Mat

‘Practice on the Mat’ is the fourth in the series ‘Resetting the Mind’.

Earlier, we have discussed:

– the dynamics of inner slipping

– what to let go

– abandoning otherness, and

– four good friends on the path.

Today, let us together look into 

– what is practice

– why practice at all

– foundations for practice, and

– getting started in practice.


Today we talk about practice. And in this particular session, I’d like to talk about practice on the mat – which we generally refer to as spiritual practices or sadhana.

In the next session, we’ll talk about practice in life, because in yoga, practice is not for the mat only. Practice encompasses all of life; the mat of yoga encompasses all of life. So why do we practice in a controlled area, like our prayer area, or our room, or our home? Quite simple. When we learned how to drive, we practiced in a parking lot so that we could understand the car, we could understand the principles of driving, and we could get a little practice and comfortable at it. Basically, it was a controlled area where we could learn. But that is not where driving stopped. We didn’t go back every single week after week after week, … year after year after year, … and just drive the parking lot. Driving the parking lot is good but it is not going to go somewhere. We learned there so we could drive efficiently, and go and come on the open roads. It’s a little bit of the same thing. In yoga we practice on the mat so that we can understand ourselves a little bit better. We can develop vigilance, we can develop all these faculties of looking within to keep thought from interfering with action, and then later to keep thought from interfering with self.

For self-mastery, these two things are essential: number one: to keep thought out of action. In the earlier videos we have seen that our problems are not because of life, or things out there. Our problems are because awareness or consciousness of our sense of being seems to be very interested in thought. It faces thought continually instead of facing what’s out there or resting in itself.

Consciousness seems to have an obsession with thought. It seems to face thought, it seems to believe – and when I say ‘consciousness’ I’m talking about our sense of being, … who we are, … we’re conscious beings, we’re aware of things. That sense of awareness is very interested in thought. And the reason for that is quite simple: habit. We have taken this inner world of thought, because that’s where our values, our hopes, our expectations, our likes, our dislikes –  everything that seems to define us – resides. So there seems to be a small little pseudo-government, and the big government is obsessed by the little pseudo-government because it cannot seem to distinguish That is in it and we are real, awareness is real, and thought – or the amalgam of thought, all of this conditioning – exists in this reality, or seems to exist, and so it seems to be real. And this is the crux of our problems. If we can free consciousness from thought, if consciousness can rest within itself, awareness can rest in itself – face everything, do what needs to be done.

My friends, life would be very joyful, we will be healthy, we will be happy, we would not vie with one another. We vie with one another for what reason? We fight with one another for what reason? Well, whatever the reasons may be, we consider the other, first of all, an ‘other’, and different from us fundamentally. And where do differences lie? They lie in the minds of the beholder, and what is the content of that? Thought.

So, mastery over thought becomes essential, and in resetting the mind, our focus is going to be this much and this one: can we live – which is function: eat, sleep, drink, breathe, come, go, all of that – without the interference of thought? Can we separate thought from action completely? Can this awareness directly perceive? … and directly do? And can we function smoothly, harmoniously, without hurting – or hurting others? Without suffering pain?, … and without causing pain? Can we do that?

There is another step in yoga, which is separating thought from consciousness. Most of that happens in meditation, but that is not the focus of this particular series, ‘Resetting the Mind’. And we’re going to try to look into ways of separating thought from action. And since this is not something that can be done just in one stroke – not because it cannot be done, because of how enmeshed and how ‘one’ we have become with thought. We are defined by thought, we have created thought, and now thought creates us – and now it defines us. We’ve made a prison, and that prison is from where we function. And yoga aims at getting to this, and at finding a way, first, to live – free of thought, free of all the turmoil – and therefore, beyond sorrow. So, practice should be geared to this.

What is practice?

And we call this ‘practice’, not because we’re going to do something little by little by little incrementally, and then eventually something’s going to happen – some explosion or some enlightenment or something is going to happen. But we will look at practice the way a scientist looks at practice. When a scientist is bent on a discovery, he or she goes to the lab every single day; and every single day they don’t go there thinking, “Well, I’m going to do my 2 cents today, and then after about ten years or twenty years, hopefully I’ll come upon discovery – no. They’re bent on trying to discovery today – at least an enthusiastic scientist. They go in there thinking, ‘Today is the day.’ But they don’t go back doing the same thing in the same old way because they’ve learned lessons yesterday of what did not work, … or what other discoveries they came upon. Now they come in renewed, refreshed – and – wiser. And as they take up the task on hand, it’s a new person, with a different, sharpened focus. And so, it’s not doing the same thing at all again.

So, practice, my friends, is not a mechanical thing or a routine we set down. Do a routine is good - but a routine in terms of a plan is useful – and we’re going to talk about that next. A routine in terms of a mechanical event or a mechanical action is not only counter-productive, it’s going to dig things even deeper – it’s not going to accomplish anything. The scientist doesn’t go the same way and do the same thing the same way and expect for a different result. Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. My friends, it’s not going to happen – we have to wake up from that. And it’s not just enthusiasm, but it’s a tremendous level of alertness that is needed. A level of attention and alertness for discovery is essential, and the fuel for alertness is interest. Interest lies at the bottom of this; we have to want to find a way to live, a way to act, a way to do what needs to be done that is free of this burden of thought, my friends – completely free of all the turmoil and chaos and chatter of the mind. And yoga says it is possible, … it is possible; and this is why we practice. It’s a new mechanism and there rarely are we going to sit and make a sankalpa or ideation or a resolve that ‘That’s it! I’m going to function the yoga way and thought’s not going to interfere.’ Well, maybe one in very very many might be able to pull that one off, but really not for the most part. We’ve got to get into this where functioning without thought is not something that happens really with effort; it becomes the modus operandi of the natural way of living. So first, it’s going to take effort to find that path. Just like a hidden mountain path that someone gives you a few navigation points on, and you go out there and you find that path and you know that path from then on; however hidden it may be, you become one with that path. We’ve got to find this path till we can walk this path, until walking the path becomes natural to us – and this is the focus of our thing.

Why practice at all?

Once again let me preface that practice is not something incremental. Practice is an all-out attempt, and we practice because our earlier attempt just didn’t cut it. It didn’t cut it to what standard? Not just discovery of this way, but establishment in that. Irreversible establishment so there is no going back: functioning without the interference of thought. Now I’m not saying that we don’t use thought, but using thought, and thought being in the driver’s seat or thought running things, are two different things. Thought interfering are two different things. I can use thought like I can use any other of my faculties. I can ask it for data, I can ask it for things, I can look within and challenge it to come up with things, ask it to do certain things – that’s all fine. But when we get into the action mode, is there any need for thought at all? – because number one, action involves a real situation. And this inner intelligence that is aware of thought is also facing that situation. It’s more pervasive, … it’s more stable, … and it’s not susceptible to the mood swings, and up and down, and high/low, and reactions of thought. Why can that not perceive – and act? – and do what needs to be done? Yoga says it can! - and we know it can! When we drive very often, we get into… we see the car before us as driving nicely, … we go with the flow of traffic and we adjust – the inner intelligence is making all sorts of computations about pulling back, about giving more space, about changing lanes – about all of that stuff. We don’t really have to think about it consciously: that ‘I should be here’. We’re aware of it, … alert. But something else can drive, while we still alert. That something else is very alert. That something else is alert even when we sleep! Look friends, when we sleep, the conscious mind is turned off – in deep sleep. Still, if a cold draft comes in, this inner intelligence will pull the blanket over the feet and sleep will go on uninterrupted. So, this inner intelligence never sleeps; and this is a very stable medium. And we practice so that we can surrender to this – get this in the driver’s seat, and let this live our life. This little conscious mind which is already so overloaded with likes and dislikes and pet peeves and everything else! – and it keeps plodding through life like an old ox cart or a horse-drawn buggy that’s over laden, heavy, and ineffective.

So, this is why we practice. And we practice because the first attempt didn’t cut it – not because of anything else. It’s not an incremental thing that we’re going to do little by little by little by little. Just like the scientist bent on the discovery of something, … just like a businessman; a businessman is always looking out for an opportunity. They don’t go and think, ‘Well, I’ll do this and that and over a period of time something may mature.’ They are ready to make a deal at any point if it’s in their best interest.

So, we should be coming to practice with this wholeheartedness. Without this wholeheartedness, my friends, if we come in with this incremental thing or a routine thing: that ‘I’ll do certain things and it will please somebody – and maybe a spark of some kind of blessing will come’ … my friends, we’re not wholehearted to begin with. How are we going to succeed? Wholeheartedness itself is yoga. Wholeheartedness is every single ray of our being, gathered together, and practice becomes the means to do that. So the very gathering of the rays itself is joining together or bringing together all aspects of our energy, our being, our awareness, the inner intelligence – everything else. That coming together, that joining together, is itself yoga. And if the approach starts off with an incremental, gradual, or a sort of routine type of thing that we’re doing – for a purpose that’s beyond it – we can never be wholehearted to begin with.

See, my friends, if we have a motive that we are going to do this practice for that purpose: to please this person, or that person – celestial being, divine being, God – it doesn’t make a difference. But if there is a purpose ahead of the practice, the practice cannot be wholehearted because the purpose or the end is more important than the practice. And so, the practice will always be half-baked. And as is the effort, so is the result. Matter of fact, result will be quarter-baked, if at all. So we can’t start off on that thing. Practice itself has to be the thing in itself! – the end it itself! – and gathering the rays has to be critical: how we start:  as you sow, so you shall reap. If you sow seeds of petty effort, … little effort, … thwarted effort, … and start off with hopes and expectations that are beyond the effort, the effort is going to be stunted to begin with; and a stunted or limited effort to begin with, or a thwarted effort to begin with, is going to result in stunted effects. So, wholeheartness is not only the foundation of effort and practice, but it is itself the practice – and it is itself the goal in itself: to be wholehearted.

So I mentioned earlier that it requires a tremendous amount of alertness – and the fuel of the word ‘alertness’ is interest. So the interest cannot be on something else: that I’m doing this because of that – because, that which I am doing it for is going to be what we’re interested in, and practice will never get the interest. This, my friends, is why I hear from people all the time: ‘Swamiji, I’d like to practice – or – I’ve been doing meditation for so long, or I’ve been doing something for so long, …  and it just doesn’t work. The mind is turbulent, or this is that, or I just can’t seem to sustain.’ Why? Because there is something ahead of your practice that’s more important than the practice itself. Why isn’t your practice the most important thing, and the thing in itself? What you do – every single thing you do, my friends, … and whether it’s cooking or cleaning or working out – that has to be the thing in itself! If you’re working out, for instance, or jogging, … or watching your diet so you can lose weight, … it’s not going to work. It’s not going to work! If you’re running so you can get fit, it’s going to work only to a certain extent. But how long are you doing to sustain the effort? The effort is going to become burdensome, because you’re going to hit a point called the law of diminishing returns – which is, where the effort seems to be more than the result you seem to be seeing. And at that point, doubt, disinterest, change of heart, and you’ll even see practice, … your own spirituality, … as a burden. The grass on the other side is going to start to appear much greener; and it’s only a matter of time before those pastures start calling you by your first name.

So, my friends, don’t make this mistake! Practice has to be the thing in itself! – and for that (and we’re going to talk about this in the next session) every thing you do in life has to be the thing in itself! When you eat, just eat – enjoy your meal! Don’t be checking your e-mail and playing with your cell-phone, catching up on the news and reading your mail in this multi-tasking crazy world! See, my friends, all of that stuff just doesn’t work. And, the problem with the rat race, … I read a little joke, a little cartoon I’d like to share with you: ‘The only problem with the rat race is: even if you win, you’re still a rat!’ There’s a second part to this, but I’ll come to that next time.

So, remember this: get out of all this stuff out here. Heal your mind! Everything you do, … do one thing at one time – and with practice, do one thing at one time. Approach your practice with love, … with ardor, … with interest: you want to be here! – not because this is going to make you good at that. You don’t want to become an expert at asanas so you can teach somebody; you don’t want to become an expert at singing so you can impress somebody. You don’t want to become an expert at some scripture so you can talk about it. The purpose of yoga – if we call it a purpose at all – is to purify the mind so one’s true nature can be seen. This, my friends, keep in the center of your mind’s eye! – never let this go! – as far as why we do things in the first place.

And, to purify the mind, we have to see the impurities. The very seeing the impurities puts them in an objective status. ‘I realize my subjectivity and I’m already starting to go beyond that.’ This takes alertness. Alertness requires interest, and you cannot have an interest that is beyond the practice. This is all very very rational; yoga is very very rational; and yoga psychology, … you may call it spiritual psychology, … is very sound and very clear. There’s no ambiguity to it at all. So, wholeheartedness is yoga. Interest, … tremendous interest, … will rouse alertness. Alertness will let you see things as they are, and that will allow you to go beyond habit. Because habit is not how things are – habit is what we have become accustomed to – but we take it for things as they are! – and that is the problem that we are trying to go beyond in this!

So much for what is practice – and why practice at all. I want to talk about those few points. I think we’ve gone a little bit long-winded on that, but I try to approach it from many different ways. I wanted to stress interest, wholeheartedness, nothing beyond it. The things that you do – practice is the thing in itself! Practice itself has to be enlightenment! – nothing beyond that. Anything beyond that – that beyond is going to be more interesting, … this is going to get less effort, … and forget about the principle of yoga and why we practice: the removal of impurities so one’s true nature can be seen. One’s true nature is already there – it has to be seen. So the removal of the obstruction or impurities is not like removing something in the ordinary sense. But as I become aware of these impurities, I see my distinctness from them. That itself is realizing one’s true nature, or seeing one’s true nature.

Foundations of practice

So, my friends, let’s go up the next step. You cannot approach your practice haphazardly by whims and fancies: ‘I’ll do this today, … I’ll try that tomorrow, …’ or a sort of fly-by-night operation, my friend. That doesn’t work. It has to be approached properly, efficiently. I would say systematically and people will think ‘system’ is mechanical. System is not mechanical; you can have a system that is completely alert because we are awake! We are alert! We know what we need! ‘System’ is just being organized. Maybe, perhaps, we’ll use that word… you have to approach this organized. You have to know what you’re doing so you can tweak things are you go along. An athlete is very organized and they know how to adjust things as they go along. You’re very organized when you go on a long road trip – or well, you may be, … you should be. There are some people that are not. They have two and three GPSs and all kinds of printouts in the car, … when you’re still back at the gas station asking for directions. Well, nowadays they just don’t do that; they just call up somebody and say, ‘I’m lost.’ – oh, well, they don’t do that either; they just ask: ‘Where exactly is your place?’ Well, you know, those are the interesting things that we have come down to. Do them 4 times, 5 times, 10 times, 2 GPSs, print-outs and everything else. But, we’re back on the phone again: ‘Where exactly is your place? Seems to be hidden from me. I don’t seem to be lost – your place seems to be hidden!’ Very interesting. Anyway, …

Gurudev Swami Sivananda with the TrishulSo, organized – we come to things organized. Organized: in the very roots of the word is ‘organic’ – to be one with things. Organized is not mechanical; organized is to be wholehearted look at things and get organized. So, how do we get organized for practice. Swami Sivananda has what he calls a trisul. A trisul is a trident; it’s got three points to it. Let’s go over these – very useful,… very useful! The first thing is: we mentioned interest is the most important thing. Your heart must be with it. So you must be able to make a resolve and put that in writing: ‘What am I setting out to do?’ The remove of impurities so my true nature can be seen. Well, maybe that is too tall an order because that involves two things: number one, separating thought from action – and thought from consciousness.

So let’s just take the first half, which is what we are setting out to do in resetting the mind. ‘I must be able to live without the interference of thought, … to live naturally – which is, to interact with everything as it is without the add-on or interference of thought, … without the chatter of thought, … I must be able to live in that healthy manner. This is why I go to work, why I do things – every place else is just an environment – whether it be work, family, or at the yoga mat in your practice area. All of these are just different environments, but the principle is very steady, … it’s the same – which is, to discover a way to function, to live, without the interference of thought. To still get along, … to still enjoy things; you can enjoy a meal, … matter of fact, we can only really enjoy things when thought doesn’t interfere.

Let me give you another example, my friends. Say you sat down to eat an apple pie. You go to your friend’s house and his wife has made an apple pie. Very nice (I love apple pie) – and it’s delicious, … good apple pie. Slightly warmed up – and you’re in business. So you’re there, digging into that apple pie, and your friend’s wife asks you, your friend asks you: ‘How is it?’ And you say, ‘It’s excellent!’ – and then a minute later you remember your old grandmother who used to make apple pie, … and you say, ‘It’s excellent! – almost as good as my grandmother’s apple pie.’ Ach! My friends! Why did we have to bring grandma into this? She was good, … it was excellent, … but because that thought interfered, this is not as good, or almost as good, and so I cannot really even enjoy this because that thought interfered. Now, I’m not doing a disservice or unloving grandma by wholeheartedly saying, ‘It’s excellent!’ It is excellent – why can not I just say it? Why do I have to say it’s not good as? My friends, … very simple example; but I’m trying to show you how thought does not allow you to even enjoy a slice of apple pie. You can just imagine how it interferes in relationships and everything else.

So, this is our goal: can we find a way to live – not just find it, but be established in it! – so it becomes natural? And this is not going to happen in one day. First, we need to develop the mechanisms so we can look within and keep thought from interfering, … so we can rouse this alertness or inner intelligence into action and empower it into life. And this is why we do sadhana or spiritual practice, my friends. This is the first reason. The second reason, of course, is to separate thought from consciousness, which I’ve already discussed earlier – but we’re not going to get into that in this series. This series – thought and action, or thought and life, … thought and living.

Okay, my friends, so much for that. I mentioned resolve that is very important; and what I’ve been discussing just now has been this resolve. Make this resolve – write it down. Put it in your prayer area, … write it on the back of a few business cards. (You know, business cards are pretty useful: you can turn them around and use the back to write down important things that you want to remember, so they’re pretty good, pretty useful, … and that person’s phone number or whatever is there; but you can put more important things on the back of a card. Sometimes if you have a two-sided business card, that doesn’t work too well, … but the one-sided ones are pretty good. We have to be a little bit light about this – and keep our interest high.)

Okay, my friends, so the first thing is the resolve. Write it down, … frame it, … put it in your prayer area: ‘this is what is important to me! – and this is how, and the way, … the principle, … that is going to guide my action.’ To be able to separate thought from action, … thought from living – that is my resolve.

Number two, or the second point of Swami Sivananda’s trident or trisul, is: you must have a plan for it: a plan for living. So make up a schedule, a schedule for each day of the week. On one side you can list down all of the things that must be done: ‘This is the time I am going to wake up and this is what I’m going to do, … meditation, … this, that, etc., … time for exercise, time for different things, …’ Sort of like a diary. And then you can have six or seven columns for each day of the week and put down what you’ve accomplished, because you’ve got to be able to see what you are doing while you are doing it, through your day – and hold yourself accountable. So this diary is very important. And if you read the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, you will see that he held the diary as supremely important; and he gave little diary all the credit for taking him from very humble beginnings to where he got to. All athletes keep a diary or a journal or a training log. Doctors have a folder in which they keep your medical records, and things of that kind. Why would you not have it? You even have a journal or something for the maintenance on your car. Well, this is so important, my friends; why wouldn’t you have it? So make one. Later, I’ll post on my website – or you can even search on the internet – Swami Sivananda’s Spiritual Diary. You can modify it a little bit and you can include all the elements of your practice that we are about to discuss now.

That is the second foundation of your practice. The first was resolve; the second is you must have a plan, … you must be organized – organized, not mechanical; organized: organic, one with things; organized is another way of saying wholehearted. You must be into it. And the third is: as you catch towards the end of the day your periods of introspection, things that have been missed – for whatever excuse – there must be some self-accountability. Self-accountability could be anything: going light on dinner, just having a little bit of soup, or maybe a little glass of milk, … skipping that nice, tasty dinner that you had and spending the time instead in study or meditation or japa – or whatever item that you’ve missed. Or you look to it, and you put down over there one of the things in your journal, that this week, or this month, I’m going to work to develop these virtues – say, the opposite of anger, which is love, forgiveness, kindness, … all of that, … or I’m working on getting over… and you realize over the day that you lost it. Well, you try to think about how that happened. First of all, very clearly: how did anger, which is a thought, act in me? - how did I lose alertness and awareness? – so that you can make sure that doesn’t happen again. Now, sit and have some self-accountability – not self-punishment like some childish thing hurting yourself or whatever, but something constructive. Pull out your japa mala or your beads and have a little sitting of japa – 10 to 20 malas of japa, a little extra meditation or chanting, or study, to send a message to your own self: that this is not acceptable, and I must be more alert. And this self-accountability rouses up a little bit more interest and heightens and sharpens the alertness.

So, my friends, you’re not doing it for some secret punishment or payment or some other purpose. You’re sharpening your own self! So these three should be the foundation of your practice:

1.  Resolve; have it in writing, put it in many places, have it in your pocket also. Put in on the wall, … put it in your prayer area.

2.  You have to have a plan of living and accomplishing that accomplishes all this, which includes all this, that’s organized – organized from the word ‘organic’: organic, from the root, ‘to be one’, … to be one in terms of wholehearted, to be interested, deeply interested, because interest is the seed from which attention will sprout as a plant, and it will grow to be a big tree that people will take shade under.

3.   And then, there must be self-accountability. At the end of every day, there must be a period of introspection, and at that period of introspection, … things that have been missed, there must be some method of self-accountability – positive, healthy, constructive method of accountability. It can even be some charity, where you pull open your checkbook or your wallet and you send a little check. “Well, I did this today or did that today. Here’s a check that goes out…” – have some envelopes that are ready, addressed to your favorite charity, stamped and ready to go. Pull out the checkbook, write it out, … $10 or whatever it is, … send it out that very moment, in the mailbox.

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