Thursday, July 28, 2011

Contemplative Practice and Disciplining the Mind

"You tell me nothing new; you are not the only one that is troubled with wandering thoughts. Our mind is extremely roving; but, as the will is mistress of all our faculties, she must recall them, and carry them to GOD as their last end."

"When the mind, for want of being sufficiently reduced by recollection at our first engaging in devotion, has contracted certain bad habits of wandering and dissipation, they are difficult to overcome, and commonly draw us, even against our wills, to the things of the earth."

"I believe one remedy for this is to confess our faults, and to humble ourselves before GOD. I do not advise you to use multiplicity of words in prayer: many words and long discourses being often the occasions of wandering. Hold yourself in prayer before GOD, like a dumb or paralytic beggar at a rich man's gate. Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the LORD. If it sometimes wander and withdraw itself from Him, do not much disquiet yourself for that: trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind than to re-collect it: the will must bring it back in tranquility. If you persevere in this manner, GOD will have pity on you."

"One way to re-collect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more in tranquility, is not to let it wander too far at other times: you should keep it strictly in the presence of GOD; and being accustomed to think of Him often, you will find it easy to keep your mind calm in the time of prayer, or at least to recall it from its wanderings."
-- Brother Lawrence --
("The Practice of the Presence of God," VIII Letter)
That the undisciplined mind is restless, and goes where it will, is recognized in all religions. Indeed, disciplining the mind may be the central purpose of religion, as through disciplining the mind we attain to a higher and deeper consciousness in which we attain to the divine. "The mind is indeed restless, Arjuna," says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, "it is indeed hard to train. But by constant practice and by freedom from passions the mind in truth can be trained. When the mind is not in harmony, this divine communion is hard to attain; but the man whose mind is in harmony attains it, if he knows and strives for it."

"(E)very mind, no matter its present nature, can ultimately be disciplined and transformed" observes Swami Prabhavananda in his commentary on Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, "(and) can be, in Patanjali's phrase 'one-pointed' and fit to attain to the state of perfect yoga." However, as he later notes, disciplining the mind requires both practice and effort.
"(T)he thought-waves cannot all be controlled at once," Prabhavananda observes. "First we have to overcome the "painful" thought-waves by raising waves which are "not painful." To our thoughts of anger, desire and delusion we must oppose thoughts of love, generosity and truth. Only much later, when the "painful" thought-waves have been completely stilled, can we proceed to the second stage of discipline; the stilling of the "not painful" waves which we have deliberately created."

"The idea that we should ultimately have to overcome even those thought-waves which are "good," "pure" and "truthful" may at first seem shocking to a student who has been trained in the Western approach to morality," notes Prabhavananda, "but a little reflection will show him that this must be so."

"The external world, even in its most beautiful appearances and noblest manifestations, is still superficial and transient," he notes. "It is not the basic Reality. We must look through it not at it to see the Atman."

"Certainly," he concedes, "it is better to love than to hate, better to share than to hoard, better to tell the truth than to lie. But the thought-waves which motivate the practice of these virtues are nonetheless disturbances in the mind. We all know instances of admirable, earnest men who become so deeply involved in the cares of a great reform movement or social relief project that they cannot think of anything beyond the practical problems of their daily work. Their minds are not calm." 
"The mind of the truly illumined man is calm," Prabhavananda concludes, "not because he is selfishly indifferent to the needs of others, but because he knows the peace of the Atman within all things, even within the appearance of misery, disease, strife and want."
 [Prabhavananda and Isherwood, " How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali," pp. 23-24.]

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