Courtesy & copyright Prabuddha Bharata
The Message of Self-control
Self-control is the control of the mind and its desires, urges, emotions and delusions. It is controlling the outgoing tendencies of the mind and the senses and bringing them back to our Self within. Self-control is the key to success in any field of life and it is an indispensable necessity for Self-realization, the goal of spiritual quest. Self-control is the message of the sages and saints. It is the exhortation of the scriptures and traditions, the foundation of all yogas and the very essence of all spiritual austerities and disciplines. In his Vivekachudamani Sri Shankaracharya says:
The mental sheath is the (sacrificial) fire, which, fed with the fuel of numerous desires by the five sense organs, which serve as priests, and set ablaze by the sense-objects, which act as the stream of oblations, brings about this phenomenal universe.
This is no ignorance (avidya) outside the mind. The mind alone is avidya, the cause of the bondage of transmigration. When that is destroyed, all else is destroyed, and when it is manifested, everything else is manifested.
An unruly mind is our worst enemy. It is the root cause of al turmoil and mental darkness. Bringing the mind under control is the only way to inner peace and tranquility. Control of this mind is the highest yoga and the most vital aspect of yoga practice. All spiritual practices such as prayer, meditation, japa and pilgrimage lead to control of the mind. Sri Krishna says in his last message:
Charity, the performance of one’s duty the observance of vows, general and particular, the hearing of the scriptures, meritorious acts and all other works-all these culminate in the control of the mind. The control of the mind is the highest Yoga.
Say, of what use are charity and the rest to one whose mind is controlled and pacified? Of what use, again, are this charity and the rest to one whose mind is restless or lapsing into dullness?
The View against Self-control
There is a view upheld by a school of thought that any form of self-control is repressive, inhibitive and reactive. It creates neurosis, depression and fantasies that make a person experience so-called spiritual emotions and ecstasies. According to this view, a person’s desire to renounce the world and worldly pleasures is often caused by the repression of his sense urges. This view holds that self-control obstructs spontaneity, brings personality disorders and forces a person to lead a false life. Cravings for sense enjoyment are natural and normal; when they are repressed, they go underground and create heightened desire for the objects craved, making such objects appear more real and alluring than they actually are. Self-control nurtures pessimism and is a practice of gradual suicide. Self-expression, not self-control, stands for freedom, authenticity and spontaneity.
The view of Yoga and Vedanta
To the seers of Yoga and Vedanta so called ‘self-expression’ is unhealthy and reckless. It is a philosophy of living that only brings dissipation, degradation and disintegration. Those who run wild in the forest of sense pleasures are eventually eaten up by the tiger that lives in that forest. As Sri Shankaracharya so appropriately says, ‘In the forest tract of sense pleasures there prowls a huge tiger called the mind. Let good people who have a longing for liberation never go there.
Advocates of self-expression ask for giving free rein to all out thoughts, urges and desires with no restraint whatsoever. According to them, a human individual is driven by five basic urges: self-preservation, self-expression or power, sex, gregariousness and the knowledge of the world around him. They are of the opinion that the sex urge is the master urge and that all other urges are overt or covert expressions of that master urge. The sex urge, they say, is the desire for reproduction and is the most natural urge of life. It is this urge that is behind all hormonal and glandular urges. When repressed, it creates an unhealthy mental condition for a person and gives him no rest or peace.
The seers and sages of Yoga and Vedanta maintain that the human individual is not a libido-driven creature and his brain is not an appendage of his genital organ. The core of his being is the divine Self, and his basic urges are three: immortality, unbounded joy and unrestricted awareness. Of these three, the master urge is unbounded joy. Life must have joy in some form or other for its nourishment. The Upanishads tell us that Self-knowledge brings the most intense and pure joy ever imaginable. Sense enjoyment and sense gratification are the most polluted and perverted forms of the pure joy of Self-knowledge. One who has not yet tasted this highest joy cannot think of any other joy except the pleasures of the senses, and so he lives on those pleasures that are like nectar at first but like poison in the end.
In fulfillment of this urge for unbounded joy, a human individual looks for a new body, a new place, new possessions, new thrills of sense enjoyment and a new environment; but nowhere in the universe, or in any sense enjoyment does he find fulfillment. Finally he realizes that appeasing the mind is not the way to peace and happiness, because sense desires are insatiable and sense enjoyments deplete the vigor of the mind. He then begins to control his thoughts and sense desires in search of his true Self, which is immortal, all pervading and the one source of all joy. Success in this quest is possible only through self-control. Emphasizing the need of self-control. Sri Ramakrishna says: Why is it that people do not see God? It is because of the barrier of “woman and gold” [lust and greed]. The obstacle to yoga is “woman and gold”. Yoga is possible when the mind becomes pure. The seat of the mind is between the eyebrows; but its look is fixed on the navel and the organs of generation and evacuation, that is to say, on “woman and gold”. But through spiritual discipline the same mind looks upward.”
The Bhagavad Gita says, ‘He who is able to withstand the force of lust and anger even before he quit the body-he is a yogi, he is a happy man. Those who are free from lust and anger, who have subdued their minds and realized the Self-those sannyasis, both here and hereafter, attain freedom in Brahman.
The Upanishad says: The goal which all the Vedas declare, which all austerities aim at, and which men desire when they lead the life of continence, I will tell you briefly it is Om. This syllable Om is indeed Brahman. This syllable is the Highest. Whosoever knows this syllable obtains all that he desires.
In his poem ‘Song of the Sannyasin’ Swami Vivekananda writes:
Truth never comes where
lust and fame and greed
Of gain reside. No man who thinks of woman
As his wife can ever perfect be;
Nor he who owns the least of things, nor he
Whom anger chains, can ever pass
thro’ Maya’s gates.
So, give these up, Sannyasin bold! Say
-Om Tat Sat, Om!
Practice of self-control is most purifying because self-control transforms the quality of our mind. By controlling his crude and raw impulses and emotions, a human individual develops reason and by controlling reason, he develops intuition, which is the purified form of reason. Self-control is the mark of a pure mind. It is this purity of mind that distinguishes a saint from a worldly person. While a worldly person is guided by instincts of self-love and self-preservation, a saint finds his connection with the entire universe and is guided by the spirit of self-sacrifice for the good of others. Self-control is asserting our higher Self over our lower self. Life is a rebellion against the laws of nature. Submission to them would leave us at the mercy of the whims of our mind. Such submission is natural for an animal, but not for a human being.
The seers of Yoga and Vedanta speak of sublimation of urges and desires, not of their repression. Sublimation is spiritualizing all our urges and desires by channeling them towards the attainment of Self-knowledge, in which all desires and urges find their supreme fulfillment. Self-knowledge is not just cessation of suffering and attainment of peace but intense bliss. When a person advances toward this Knowledge, he begins to taste the bliss of the Self and finds sense enjoyments increasingly tasteless and insipid.
True self-expression is the expression of our higher Self, and this calls for both freedom and control. In order to express our true self in every phase of our life, we must recover it first by exercising self-control. A slave of passion cannot express anything-he only follows the dictates of his urges and impulses. He does not enjoy sense pleasures, but is addicted to them. Self-expression is always preceded by self-conquest. True self-expression is never a riotous living of license and whimsicality driven by endless sense desires. Those who uphold the view of so-called ‘self-expression’ equate promiscuity with affection and infatuation with love, and look upon violence, greed and questionable morals as natural. Such living is the surest way to doom and destruction. In the words of Swami Vivekananda, those who uphold this view advocate living, with the morals of a tomcat:
He [Swami Vivekananda] held purity to be for the householder as well as for the monk, and laid great stress on that point. The other day, a young Hindu came to see me, he said. He has been living in this country for about two years, and suffering from ill health for some time. In the course of our talk, he said that the theory of chastity must be all-wrong because the doctors in this country had advised him against it. They told him that it was against the law of nature. I told him to go back to India, where he belonged, and to listen to the teachings of his ancestors, who had practiced chastity for thousands of years. Then turning a face puckered into an expression of unutterable disgust, he thundered: You doctors in this country, who hold that chastity is against the law of nature, don’t know what you are talking about. You don’t know the meaning of the word purity. You are beasts! Beasts! I say, with the morals of a tomcat, if that is the best you have to say on that subject!’ Here he glanced defiantly over the audience, challenging opposition by his very glance. No voice was raised though there were several physicians present.
Two Views on Self-control
While both Yoga and Vedanta regard self-control as the key to success in a spiritual quest, the two schools of thought have differing views on the subject.
The Yoga view: The Yoga methodology of self-control is based on the philosophy and psychology of Patanjali’s Yoga way. The Yoga way says that all our pain and suffering are due to loss of contact with our true Self, our true identity. Because of this loss, the Self becomes entangled in the world of matter and is subject to the laws of the material world that is plagued by the pairs of opposites, such as pain and pleasure, birth and death. The goal of the Yoga way is to establish contact with our true Self. Only this contact can put an end to all the maladies of life. But this contact is not possible without controlling the mind. The first aphorism of Patanjali states, Yoga is suppression of the thoughts of the mind. Suppression is different from repression. Suppression is positive; it is suppression of the mind’s lower urges for the sake of the greater goal of Self-realization. In contrast, not having any such goal, repression proves to be negative and reactive. According to the Yoga system, there is no yoga without self-control and such self-control must be forcible.
The logic of the Yoga way says that the mind is material and its conditionings of impurities are mechanical. It is most difficult to know the nature, depth and extent of these impurities. All we know is that the mind is restless and that restlessness is manifesting itself in our restless body movement, unevenness of breath and changes in biochemistry. This restlessness is more than disturbing thought. Thoughts when repeated become ingrained and turn into deep-seated habits and tendencies. These do not go a way by themselves. Passage of time and change of environment are of no help. Old age cannot lessen their fury and distance cannot obliterate them. Habits and tendencies are to be overcome by cultivating counter-thoughts and habits of tranquillity, and for that purpose we must hasten our steps. The reason for hastening is clear. Life is short and full of distractions; much of it is spent in sleep and daydreams. Hence control of the mind must be effortful and forcible, and to that end the Yoga system prescribes an eightfold practice:
(1) Yama: Five restraints: non-killing, truthfulness, non-stealing, continence and non-receiving of gifts.
(2) Niyama: Five observances: internal and external purification, contentment, mortification, study and worship of God. (Intenal purification is obtained through having friendship for all, being merciful towards those that are miserable, being happy with those that are happy, and being indifferent to the wicked.)
(3) Asana: Posture that is firm and pleasant.
(4) Pranayama: Control of the motion of exhalation and inhalation. (Controlling the breath is the easiest way of getting control of prana or the cosmic energy.)
(5) Pratyahara: Drawing in of the organs. (Preventing the organs from taking the forms of external objects, and making them remain one with the mind stuff.)
(6) Dharana: Concentration, or holding the mind to some particular object.
(7) Dhyana: Meditation, or an unbroken flow of knowledge about that object.
(8) Samadhi: Complete absorption in meditation. (The state of meditation when the form is given up and only the internal sensations, or the meaning, is perceived.)
The first five are external practices, the last three internal ones.
The Yoga system asks a seeker to make relentless conscious efforts to overcome his mind, and to have unwavering determination and will power to reach the goal of Self-realization. Reason it says is too weak to overcome the perverted mind. Devotion to God is most often passive; true prayer and worship call for strong faith in God, which many are not endowed with. Educating the mind to give up its old ways is a slow process. Auspicious desires are not always forthcoming. The goal is never attained unless we make an all-out effort for it. The Yoga system reminds us that the ocean of the mind is always turbulent. If you want to take a dip in such an ocean, you cannot wait for the weather to improve and the ocean to become calm. You must plunge right into the ocean by learning how to handle the waves.
The Yoga system relies mainly on rigorous and willful self-control, as distinguished from persuading the mind to give up its old ways by cultivating dispassion. Patanjali refers to dispassion as a complementary means for controlling the mind. The main focus of the Yoga system is on the training and exercise of will power for the development of reason and discrimination. The Yoga system seeks to modify our subconscious mind indirectly with the help of regulation of breath, posture and diet. Modern psychology explains how our conscious thoughts and actions are heavily influenced by the deep-seated desires and urges of our subconscious mind. But the Yoga system further shows us how we can modify our subconscious mind by the efforts of our conscious mind, how repeated exercises of the will on the conscious level can influence the subconscious depths and modify them permanently. By controlling the manifested effects of impurities the Yoga system seeks to eliminate the source of the impurities and regain contact with the true Self.
The Yoga system says that to achieve the goal of Self-realization the seeker must have full awakening of his mind, which is in deep slumber at the base of his spine. His mind must be made to rise to the upper centres of consciousness, and for that purpose the block age of impurities in the sushumna canal, through which it has to travel upward, must be cleared. The Yoga system prefers dredging of the canal rather than dissolving the block age, which is the Vedanta method. Posture, diet and pranayama (breath control) are the means to dredge. Conversion of physical energy into ojas (spiritual energy) through the practices of continence, concentration and meditation provides the seeker with the sustained strength to dredge. The manifestation of yoga powers on the way generates confidence in the mind of the seeker regarding the infallibility of yoga, and thus encourages him in his task of attaining the goal. The Yoga system is for those in whom reason has not yet established its natural supremacy.
The Vedanta view: The second view is that of Vedanta. The goal of life, according to Vedanta, is Self-knowledge. Self-knowledge guarantees all fulfillment, whether material, mental or spiritual; but Self-knowledge is never possible without self-control. Self-control endows a seeker with a steel-frame foundation of mind, on which the structure of spirituality is raised. Self-control is essentially the control of the libidinal urges for sense gratification, the withstanding of the impacts of lust and greed. Through self-control a seeker converts his raw libidinal energy into spiritual energy. Without self-control prayer, meditation and the desire for Self-knowledge are empty dreams. Conversely, self-control is impossible and often dangerous without the desire for Self-knowledge. But the Vedanta system advises gradual control of mind, rather than its forcible control.
Vedanta maintains that the impure mind cannot be made pure by posture, diet and breath control. Thoughts and urges cannot be overcome by such physical means. Vedanta seeks to control the gross, that is the body and bodily habits and urges, by controlling the subtle, which is thought. Vedanta seeks to educate and discipline the intellect (the discriminating faculty of mind) in order to overcome the mind and the body, instead of disciplining the mind and the body for the purpose of educating the intellect. Vedanta relies mainly on the practice of dispassion and believes that the master urge in all of us is the need to move towards the Divine and experience unbounded joy. Spiritual longing, it says, cannot be generated by mechanical means. Withdrawal of the mind is not possible unless the mind cooperates in the process. Forcible control can rouse the mind untimely before spiritual longing has matured and spiritual motivation has become sufficiently strong. A roused mind with out much longing for the goal can be self-destructive. Through spiritual practices of prayer meditation and worship, we build supporting spiritual platforms as the mind begins to move upward. These platforms keep the mind from falling headlong into the lower centres of consciousness. Vedanta believes in gradual control so that the mind does not rebel and react violently. Its process is the way of least resistance. May be it is slow, but it is sure and tested.
Regarding control of the mind, Jivan-mukti-viveka, a Vedanta scripture, says:
Study of the knowledge of the supreme Self, association with the good, total renunciation of desire, control of vital energy-these are, as is well known, the perfect means to conquer the mind.
Those who apply hathayoga to control the mind while such effective means are available, resemble them who, abandoning the lamp, apply magic ointment to their eyes to dispel darkness.
The deluded who attempt to control the mind by force, they, as it were, bind the large, frantic elephant by lotus-fibres. (Laghu YogaVasistha, 28.128-31)
Control is of two kinds: violent control and gradual control. The first of them is done by blockading the knowledge-organs such as the eye, ear, etc and the action-organs such as the larynx hands, etc at their respective seats by force. A deluded man, by this instance wrongly thinks that in his manner he shall control the mind also. But the mind cannot be controlled in that way, since it’s centre-the lotus-like heart is impossible to control. Therefore gradual control is justified.
The means to gradual control are the study of the knowledge of the Self and others. The science of the Self gives rise to the conviction of the unreality of all knowable things and for the Knower as the self-evident Reality. Having been convinced thus, the mind finds [that] knowable things that are within its purview are useless, and realizes that the Knower, although a useful thing (Reality), is beyond its grasp and dissolves of its own, like fire without fuel.
Vedanta interprets the practices of Yoga differently. Yama (self-control) of Vedanta is restraint of all the senses by thinking all this is Brahman (the Supreme Self). The continuous flow of this one kind of thought is called yama Giving by knowing it as Brahman is true renunciation. Practice of silence is not a restraint of speech, but dwelling on Brahman. Solitude is interior, not dwelling on Brahman. Solitude is interior, not external. Real posture is that in which the mind flows towards Brahman spontaneously. The blessed vision is directing the mind to the Knowledge of Brahman, not fixing the mind on the tip of the nose. Rechaka of pranayama is breathing out the thought that is not Brahman; puraka is breathing in the thought of Brahman; and steadiness of thought thereafter is called kumbhaka. Those who do not know this only torture their nose.
Absorption of the mind in Brahman, knowing that It alone abides, is called true withdrawal. Steadiness in dwelling on Brahman is concentration. Constant awareness of the fact that’ my true Self is verily Brahman’ is called meditation. All obstacles on the way are overcome only by dissolving the mind in the ocean of infinite Brahman. By thinking of an object the mind gets identified with it; by thinking of void it becomes blank. But by thinking of Brahman it attains to perfection. Those who give up this supremely purifying thought of Brahman and put their minds on sense objects live in vain. Those who try to control the mind through posture, breath, diet and other physical means are like those who hope to empty the ocean drop by drop with a blade of kusha grass.
The goal of Self-knowledge in Vedanta is not just release from the world of matter, but realization of the fact that all beings and things that are visible and perceptible are nothing but Brahman. To attain Self-knowledge, what is needed is to remove ignorance, the root cause, and not to fight against the habits, tendencies and desires, all of which are numerous branches shooting forth from that root. Vedanta asks the aspirant to go to the very root of the matter and remove ignorance.
Self-control in Practice
What is the preferred way to achieve self-control? The arguments in support of forcible control of the Yoga system and those in support of gradual control of the Vedanta system are equally strong. The two ways are equally time-honored and proven. However, spiritual seeker are not all of the same caliber and temperament. The way that is beneficial to one may not be beneficial to another. The fitness to pursue one way or the other depends upon the competence of the individual seeker.