Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras begin with this statement: “Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.” On first reading, you might think this remark is absurd. Isn’t it more likely that our thoughts control us? They arise without ceasing. Life’s challenges and frustrations run through our minds constantly—as if we could control them with more thinking. So how could we possibly curb all that noisy mental chatter?
Fortunately, there’s a cure for mental noise. That cure begins with a special kind of awareness. Yogis call it witness-consciousness. It means watching the thoughts that pass through our minds. And we do this without becoming involved with them. It’s a passive, not active, observation.
This might be a new concept for you—simply watching the mind, not acting on its thoughts. But, in a way, we all have some experience with this technique. Have you ever done any people-watching? It’s a favorite activity when we arrive early to see a movie or listen to a music concert. You get settled in and then watch as others file in. You notice what they’re wearing, where they sit, on what snack they’re munching. You might be close enough to hear their conversations. But in all this witnessing, you don’t join in. You don’t move closer, ask to share their treats, or join their discussion. You just watch.
This activity (or non-activity, if you prefer) is the beginning of controlling your own mind. Too much thinking makes the mind restless. However, witnessing your mind makes it calmer. In time and with practice, you’ll realize that a calm mind is both controlled and strong. It serves you much better than a mind filled with should-have-said conversations, problem solving, or planning.
Witness-consciousness is a powerful spiritual tool. All meditators know the frustration of beginning their practice—only to become acutely aware of the appearance of unrelated memories, ideas, and conversations. During meditation, you might often need to remind yourself to witness without judgment. I assure you that it gets easier with practice. Soon you’ll be able to observe your mind in all situations.
The following exercise is so simple that you can do it when you go to bed each evening. When you turn out the lights and close your eyes, turn on your awareness. Become the witness of your mind. If it helps, imagine that your thoughts are like strangers in a movie theater. They walk in, mind their own business, and you lose interest in them. Be no more involved in the thoughts that pass through your mind than you would be with strangers in a movie theater. Just watch. As an added benefit, you’re likely to fall asleep more easily.
Remember, this is the secret: Witness the mind without involvement. Don’t encourage the thoughts and don’t discourage them. For success in meditation and on the spiritual path, this practice is essential. And everyone can do it.
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Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.
Thanks for this article. All of them are very good, but this one is my favorite so far. You offer a way to calm the mind and experience the Self. Wow! That’s better than Mexican food or a lotto win. I want to fill my inner house with positivity. Thank you.
Thank you, Modesto. I agree — an experience of the infinite Self is better than great food or lots of money. Food can cause indigestion, and too much money can create problems we don’t need. But Self-awareness fills us with bliss, no unpleasant side effects! Namaste.
Muktananda said: There is little difference between the wakeful and dream state neither of which has much worth.
Rufus, the teacher of Epictetus said that everyone born has an inclination to goodness and that we should protect it.
Wow, everything a passing fancy, the wakeful state, the dream state, how wonderful to have the natural clarity of a realized being, natural.
Jnaneshwar said: Across the ocean of samsara lies my abode in Turiya.
There’s work to be done with someone as capable as Swami Gurupremananda. Swami Chityananda coined a phrase that burns in your soul if you think about it. I wish I had the exact words: “Then begins the great journey.”
Thank you for contributing, Tony. That’s a lot to digest. At any rate, I can see that you’re keeping good company, and I’m happy for you about that! Namaste.
I like this article — simple, straightforward, clear. One viewpoint that helps me is to know that thoughts get extinguished simply by being ignored, much like bad behavior of a child.
Thank you, Richard. I like your example of the child’s bad behavior. Until people practice witnessing their thoughts, they don’t realize how easy it is to “extinguish” them. In fact, so much easier to extinguish in this way than to control! Namaste.
Dear Swami, Your instructions are clear and encouraging. The part about non-judging — and being able to simply notice that, too, as a pedestrian or member of an audience is a great visual aid. Thanks.
Thank you for the feedback, Elizabeth. It’s always helpful to know when something helps make the point clear. Namaste.