It’s common knowledge in today’s world that meditation is beneficial. Everyone is doing it, from Oprah to elite athletes, from preschool children to doctorate candidates. The benefits of meditation have been studied by scientists for decades. Spiritual aspirants have been meditating for millennia. Yet despite knowing the value of meditation, many people fail to establish a practice.
A common mistake of novice meditators is to think they must forcefully stop the mind’s thoughts before they can even begin. Beginners don’t realize that a calm mind is the result of meditation—it’s not a prerequisite. Their experience seems to confirm that notion. Trying to stop the mind from thinking makes it even more agitated.
Understanding the Mind
By understanding the mind, we can work with it rather than fight against it. We don’t need to study human psychology to understand the mind. Yogis have been analyzing it for ages. The subject of the mind is so central that many yogic scriptures begin with it:
“Yoga is the control of thought-waves in the mind.” (Patanjali’s Yoga Sūtras I:2)
“Everything in the world is dependent upon the mind, upon one’s mental attitude.” (Yoga Vasishtha I: 11-12)
Simply put, the mind is a collection of mental activities: thoughts, memories, emotions, imaginings, opinions. Eastern philosophers also believe that the impressions of past lives are part of our mental package. Parents can relate to this easily. When they have more than one child, they notice that each child has a different personality. The children share the same parents and upbringing but develop different interests and talents. First as children, and then as adults, they see and react differently to events in their lives.
Sometimes it’s helpful to think of the mind as separate entity, almost as if it’s another person. This “person” always seems to hanging around, talking to us. You know how it is: someone said something to you a few days ago, and although you parted ways, you’re still continuing the conversation in your own mind. These conversations are going on continually; we’re thinking, planning, hoping, and coping.
The Restlessness of the Mind
The mind is fluid, like water. Rarely stagnant or calm, it’s always on the move. Like ocean water, the mind moves when the winds of experience pass over it. From making your bed (aff link) first thing in the morning to turning out the lights at night—every little thing affects it.
Like a river, the mind is always flowing. It prefers an easy route, turning along the way at every opportunity. When a river is strong, it overcomes obstacles by making a way around or over them. A strong mind does, too.
The problem is that, like a rushing river, a restless mind is not at peace. Mental peace is like the calm surface of a lake before the wind picks up to disturb it. Just as we feel peaceful by observing a calm lake’s surface, we experience peace when the mind is still.
Characteristics of a Pure Mind
A pure mind is recognized by the same qualities that describe enlightenment. It’s devoid of negative emotions like fear, anger, and worrying. A pure mind is calm in the midst of life’s storms, whether those storms rage internally or in one’s environment. The strength of a pure mind overcomes selfishness and rests in peace.
When the mind is at peace, we see everything through a happiness filter. We seek and find the silver lining of every cloud. A pure mind sees goodness in others and avoids criticism. It shuns negative thinking because it disrupts the blissful experience of peace.
A pure mind experiences joy spontaneously and for no reason. When I first experienced this I was delighted. Driving in my car, I was struck with the feeling that everything was right in the world. I was smiling, humming cheerfully, and enjoying the moment. I wasn’t thinking, just experiencing happiness for no apparent reason. At the time, I was new to yoga and meditation. But the experience was so profound that I knew I was on the right path.
How to Purify the Mind: Mental Housekeeping
All spiritual practices, such as meditation, purify the mind—they still its restlessness so we can experience inner joy. Sometimes the mind needs a little discipline, like a naughty child. But mostly it benefits from being gently coerced and directed toward activities that nurture lasting happiness. Yogis refer to this process as purification of the mind.
According to my Guru, purification of the mind is like housekeeping. He says, “When you first come to yoga, your mind is like a dusty old house. The windows and floors are dirty, and the house smells bad. You’re unhappy in this house because all that dirt is uncomfortable. You can’t find a good place to sit and rest, and you can’t even enjoy looking out the windows because they’re covered in dirt. So you begin to clean.”
Gurudev explains that, like housekeeping, spiritual practices clean up the mind. Meditation is especially effective because it cleans up impurities that we’re not even aware of. Just as a clean house is more pleasant to live in, so is a pure mind. Bit by bit, as the dust washes away, we discover inner joy.
The techniques for mental housekeeping are the same as for increasing your spiritual bank balance: daily meditation, keeping good company, thinking good thoughts, and doing good deeds.
These practices are guaranteed to clean up the cobwebs in your mind. The effects are cumulative: the more you practice, the more you experience peace, joy, and love in your heart and life.
I’m not asking you to believe every word I’ve written, because I know the proof is in the practice. Commit to meditation for the next ten days for a few minutes every day, at the same time. Then report back on your experience.
Chityānanda has been a disciple of Svāmī Gurupremānanda Sarasvatī since 1975. She teaches meditation and yoga as a spiritual path in Santa Cruz, California.