Gathering Knowledge & Creating Mental Clarity, Vrittis Part 2
Despite hours of daily yoga and my mostly consistent meditation practice, my mind is annoyingly loud. It’s like that seagull scene from the movie Finding Nemo. It shouts, “mine, mine, mine, mine, me, me, mine, me, mine…” while I run frantically away from the noise.
I know your mind is like that too, because you’re human. Being human means being pulled out of your inner stability by a mind that is frantic and busy.
But the promise of a yoga practice is to quiet those raucous seagulls.
This is the second installment in a series of articles about understanding the movements and fluctuations of your mind so you may learn how to calm it when it’s overactive. (Read part 1 of this article here)
Understanding The Senses & Emotion
In yoga, the agitated mental chatter is called vritti. But there’s more to it than just a “monkey mind” running amock. Some of the spinning movement of the vrittis is a natural flow of consciousness.
Every waking hour of every day, consciousness pours through you as the light by which you see and understand the world. It is reflected back by the mirror of your life’s experiences: all the objects you see, hear, smell, taste and sense. Yoga, and understanding the vrittis, helps you clean the mirror to get a better view of your true self.
The mass of information you’re bombarded with every day passes to the witness within you by way of your mind. (For an in depth look at the concept of mind, intelligence and personal experience, please read this article.)
For most, this, in itself, is overwhelming. Most people cannot maintain the presence of being that is required to allow the intensity to wash through them.
Instead, they tend to resist what’s happening, want to change or cling to what happened in the past, project what they fear will happen in the future or seek only what feels comfortable and avoid what is challenging. (These are key causes of stress and tension, but we’ll save that for another post…)
Emotion is the body’s response to this inner resistance to the present moment. The mind and nervous system store emotion, memories and experiences from the past, and can project into the future with worry and fear. These thoughts and emotions may color your vision and your interpretation of reality.
Vrittis: the Natural Flow of Consciousness
Consciousness moves through you, regardless. As it does, there are several key pathways through which it flows to gather information, and reflect back to you the opportunity to better know yourself.
These movements, too, are vrittis. Understanding them helps you recognize your own patterns and places where you might be causing more mental noise and agitation, building on the story of past or future, rather than on the clear truth of the now.
These vrittis may be painful and troubling (klishta) or totally un-disturbing (aklishta). They may agitate your mind, throwing you even further out of alignment, or they may be helpful, creating the conditions for peace and quiet.
The great sage Patanjali, in yoga sutras 1.5-1.11, explains the flow of consciousness as five main types of vrittis. They are:
- Pramana – knowledge
- Viparyaya – misunderstanding
- Vikalpa – imagination
- Nidra – deep sleep
- Smriti – memory
In this post, we’ll take an in-depth look at the first vritti, pramana. In our next post on this topic, we’ll continue the conversation on the others.
Pramana – Knowledge
The yoga sutras list three main ways in which you acquire knowledge:
- Experience (pratyaksha): using your five senses to acquire knowledge directly from your environment
- Inference (anumana): applying logic and reason to figure things out for yourself
- Insight From The Wise (agamah): trusting in the knowledge and experience of someone else, or in sacred texts
What determines whether knowledge is valid? Haven’t you had an experience where you thought something was completely true, until you found out it totally wasn’t?!
Ever been driving down a hot, two-lane highway and seen the heat dance in a mirage that looked so much like water you thought there was a lake in the distance? You may have believed you saw water, however, the water didn’t exist. While the perception and that experience were real, the information gleaned from it wasn’t.
You can be deceived by your senses.
Your mind takes in information, but it is colored through the storehouse of your experiences and emotions. Operating from the reference of those experiences alone, you run the risk of peering out at the world through a dirty and warped window.
While the experiences themselves may inform your current choices, it is all too common to be trapped in grief or sadness from the past or have fear or anxiety about the future.
Pratyaksha is about the challenging work of using your senses in the present moment rather than calling on the past or projecting into the future. This is the essence of mindfulness, and the art of observing the truth with clarity, through the presence of your being.
This is where the practices of yoga and meditation give the opportunity to slow down and notice habitual thoughts and patterns.
In his in-depth book Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, BKS Iyengar says, “The quality of intelligence is inherent but dormant, so our first step must be to awaken it. The practice of asana brings intelligence to the surface of the cellular body through stretching and to the physiological body by maintaining the pose. Once awakened, intelligence can reveal its dynamic aspect, its ability to discriminate.”
Just as your senses can be clouded by your experience, so can you be deceived by the logic you use to infer knowledge.
In The Secret Power of Yoga: A Woman’s Guide to the Heart and Spirit of the Yoga Sutras, author Nischala Joy Devi writes, “Seeing a cow give milk, we may then infer that all cows give milk. We confidently believe that if we can find a cow, we’ll find milk. Only with careful scrutiny can we observe the difference between a cow and a bull.”
Once intelligence is awakened, you begin to practice discernment, discrimination and scrutiny. In this fine tuning, you dig deeper and ask probing questions to go beneath what only appears to be reality. Anumana implies digging beneath the surface using a refined level of intelligence and an open-minded, investigative inquiry.
As a seeker, that inquiry will inevitably lead you to look to those who’ve walked the path before you. In this way you gain insight from the wise —teachers, sacred texts, spiritual leaders and even the wisdom of your own heart.
With agamah, though, it’s crucial to look to your deepest self to learn if something is true for you, rather than taking it at face value. What may be truth for another, might be harmfully un-true for you.