In verses 12-16 of the yoga sutras, Patanjali describes two ways to control the fluctuations of thoughts in the mind and thereby end suffering. One is through abhyasa which is constant practice or repetition of a mental or physical exercise. Not to be confused with sadhana, abhyasa refers to any process, practice, or focused effort. Sadhana is the spiritual practice or method used, the techniques employed in a fashion of abhyasa. The other way to control the mind is vairagya which is non-attachment to situations, people, and things. Non-attachment eliminates the emotional reactions to changes in circumstances relating to these things. When there is a regular repetitive practice of anything the mind realizes it can relax into the practice. When the mind is thus relaxed it is easier to train it to not become attached to outcomes. These two mental modifications can work together to calm the mind. Control of the thoughts does not mean that they will be eliminated, rather the mind is harnessed and one can choose which circumstances to act on instead of always reacting. Each moment gives us a new opportunity to choose our responses. Ultimately the choice is to either follow love or fear. A fluctuating mind is anxious and fearful. When we use the above practices to calm the mind it can relax into love, knowing that the true Self is really united with Source and not separate, as our thoughts which come from the ego lead us to believe. Even though we may still experience waves of fear or anger, we become better at recognizing them an unreal and instead choosing love. Thus the ultimate goal of calming the mind is achieving enlightenment, transcending the mind and entering a state of bliss.
Abhyasa implies a long-term and consistent practice. Whether the technique is meditation, mantra chanting, asana practice, volunteer work, study of scriptures, or devotional worship does not matter. A combination of these may also be used as long as the consistency is in place. All the many paths lead to the same goal. In psychology there are several therapeutic techniques which use this same ancient wisdom. Cognitive behavioral therapy involves recognizing the triangular association of thoughts, emotions, and actions. By changing any of these you affect the other two. Dialectical behavioral therapy counts mindfulness training as part of its practice. Deep breathing and breath retention is taught in therapy to relieve anxiety. Modern scientists have come to the same conclusions that were revealed to the yogis of the past. It is said that a bad habit cannot be broken, only replaced. By replacing negative thoughts, actions, or feelings with positive ones practiced through abhyasa, you can lead the mind in a positive direction. I have experienced this personally when I was going through therapy. My yoga practice was instrumental in my healing and continues to be my anchor when I feel myself getting out of balance. I can tell when I do not practice consistently my mind begins to go to negative places. When I am more disciplined about practicing meditation, asana, and pranayama I can more easily observe and respond to my thoughts and feelings instead of being influenced by them and reacting without thinking. I am better in tune with Source and can find wisdom and lessons even in difficult situations. I have also found that even a short daily practice is better than practicing for a longer period of time but inconsistently. And I know that when my mind is particularly anxious it is better for me to practice a led or guided meditation or asana because then I can surrender to the instructor. For me it has also become important not to berate myself when I don’t practice. That only leads to more frustration. I can only choose my actions in the present moment, and dwelling on failings in the past doesn’t serve anyone.
The other aspects that are important to abhyasa are that the practice must be continued over a long period of time and with sincere devotion. Yoga is measured in years, decades, and lifetimes. In the anime series “Full Metal Alchemist,” a character says, “The more steps we take forward the longer we see the road is ahead.” The road to enlightenment is long but this should not be discouraging. Rather it shows us that we do not have to race to the finish or win a contest, as there is really no end but enlightenment. The practice is there for us forever and we continually learn and grow from it. Devotion means that your practice is dear to you, it is a passion. Sometimes it is hard to get motivated but in general you enjoy what you do and it makes you feel better. In chapter 9 verse 26 of the Bhagavad Gita Krishna tells Arjuna, “The reverent presentation to Me of a leaf, a flower, a fruit, or water, given with pure intention, is a devotional offering acceptable in My sight.” Any offering given with sincere devotion is accepted by Source. Scrubbing toilets can lead to enlightenment just as well as meditating alone on a mountain, perhaps even better. It is the intention, and not necessarily the action, which matters.
Which leads into the second mental practice to calm the mind, non-attachment. You do not have to renounce the world and dedicate your entire life to one thing. In the Bible Jesus says in John 17: 15-16, “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.” Again, it is not necessary to go to a cave or mountain to attain enlightenment. The better path may be to stay among other beings and try to elevate your own and thereby their consciousness, to try to alleviate suffering as much as possible. You can own material possessions as long as you are not owned by them. As the Thai meditation master Achaan Chaa said, “When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.” As long as you know that the glass is already broken, you can maintain non-attachment to it so that when it does break you do not experience suffering. Rather you are grateful and appreciate the value you got from it when you had it. Non-attachment applies to aversions as well as attachments, likes and dislikes must both be eliminated. Light and dark are the same from the highest perspective. The yin-yang symbol shows us that there is a little bit of darkness in light and a little bit of light in darkness. We try to move from rajasic or tamasic to satvic, but in the end even satvic qualities are overcome and there is nothing but bliss. Going through life everyone has established attachments or aversions to certain things. We have desires and expectations, and when they are not met then we suffer. In the beginning of the practice our goal is to let go of these attachments. As we advance then we learn to also prevent our minds from making the attachments in the first place. We stop taking on attachments. We try to stop judging or forming opinions. We are not triggered by our likes and dislikes, tempted by our cravings. I used to think I was a non-judgmental person. The more I learn and study and practice the more I realize I make so many judgments, good and bad. You never really know what is going on in another person’s life, and to assume anything is counterproductive to cultivating non-attachment. Even if the assumption is of a positive nature, there is still judgment in it. Instead of trying to figure out someone on an intellectual level, it is more important to connect with the Source within them.
I will close with a translation of the word “namaste” which I always say to close my yoga classes. “I honor the place in you in which the entire universe dwells. I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light, and of peace. When you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are one.” Truly living this idea can create a connection at the level of Truth and Source instead of at the false level of the cosmic dream and all its attachments and anxieties. When we cultivate abhyasa, consistent devoted practice, and vairagya, non-attachment, then we are free to dwell in the heart, not the head.